Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Old 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


Keeping contracts

rainbow 2 resizedWe live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.

This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.

Context

Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.

The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:

  • Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
  • Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.

We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.

Promised protection

After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolised by the rainbow. It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.

When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts.

How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.

What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?

So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.

Promised nation and land

When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.

Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).

How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.

So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8).  They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).

How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).

Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.

What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?

So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.

Promised relationship

The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).

How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.

After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.

If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.

Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.

Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.

So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.

Promised dynasty

When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.

A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.

Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.

The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?

So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.

Promised revival

We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).

He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).

The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.

This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.

Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).

The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).

The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).

With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.

The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.

The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?

So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.

Lessons for us

What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?

We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.

The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:

  • Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
  • Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
  • Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)

The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).

They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.

We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?

Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?

Conclusion

We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.

So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.

Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.

Written, February 2014


Snakes and Ladders

snakes & ladders boardgame

Sin is our greatest problem

oblivious 6Our world can be a dangerous place. But sometimes we are unaware and oblivious of the dangers. Using a smart phone can be dangerous if we are not aware of what’s happening around us. After a woman died recently in Sydney when she was run over by a bus, police issued a warning about people using their phones when walking.

Not only are there physical dangers, but there are spiritual dangers. Are we aware of the spiritual dangers we face? Like ignoring the God who made the universe by living as though there is no God? Or are we oblivious of these like someone using a phone when crossing a street? Today in a survey of the first 11 chapters of the Bible we will see that sin against God is our greatest problem, and the source of all our problems.

Context

This passage was compiled and written by Moses 700–2,500 years after the events occurred. Some of this information was passed down from his ancestors and some was revealed to him directly by God. Note that most of this time is covered by two generations – the lifetimes of Adam and Noah cover about 1,900 years. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).

Snakes and ladders1The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt where people worshiped many pagan gods (Polytheism). In order to understand their situation and their world, they needed to know about the earlier history of the world. This helps us understand our world as well.

Genesis covers the origins of the universe, the earth, humanity, marriage, sin, languages, the nations, and the Israelites as God’s chosen people. The first eleven chapters summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises.

A crisis in the first generation

Chapters 1-2 describe the creation of the universe, the earth, the plants and animals, and Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. God spoke and it happened over a period of six days. They were given one restriction: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17).

The first crisis occurs when Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to disobey God (Gen. 3:1-5). What will they do: follow God or Satan? This is a unique situation, because they lived in a perfect world and didn’t have a sinful nature. It was an external temptation. After they chose to disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This first sin affected the whole creation including child birth, relationships between husband and wife, work and agriculture. Life was now a struggle with conflict, suffering, disease, decay, spiritual death and physical death. They went from a life in paradise to a life of problems. Their problems were a consequence of their sin. Sin was their greatest problem and the source of all their problems.

The Bible teaches that we have all inherited this sinful tendency – “everyone has sinned, we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT). Everyone is guilty; we are all self-centred, and so we were all affected.

However, in the list of God’s punishments there is a promise. He said to Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and hers; he (Eve’s offspring) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15NIV). So there is a hint of good news amidst the bad news. A suggestion of an end to the conflict between people and Satan, when Satan is crushed.

snakes & ladders boardgameIt’s a bit like the old game of “Snakes and Ladders” (“Chutes and Ladders in the US”) where you roll a dice to get a number and move that many spaces along the board. When you land on the head of a snake you slide backwards, and when you land on the bottom of a ladder you jump ahead. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin hindered their life and moved them away from God, like the snakes hinder a player of snakes and ladders. The sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, and spiritual death. But the promise of victory over Satan is like a ladder to help them and move them towards God.

Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed Satan the snake (Gen. 3:12-13). Like Adam and Eve, we often blame our problems on others or our circumstances. Do we realise that our sin is our greatest problem? Do we ignore God by living as though He doesn’t exist?

A crisis in the second generation

Cain and Able were Adam and Eve’s first two sons. Cain becomes jealous of Abel. The second crisis occurs when this develops into hatred and he is tempted to kill Abel. What will he do; follow God or his anger? His parents would have told him what happened after they disobeyed God. But he murders Abel and is banished to be a nomad and “went out from the Lord’s presence” (Gen. 4:1-16). Cain’s problems were a consequence of his sin. This incident would have devastated Adam and Eve. The first boy to grow from infancy to maturity was a murderer! Their greatest problem as a family was caused by Cain’s sin.

But once again, it’s not all bad news. Because Cain was worried about his safety, “the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen. 4:15). This is a promise of God’s protection. We can see a pattern developing here. God punishes sin, but provides some relief in the form of a promise.

Also, it is an example of the conflict between Satan’s offspring and Eve’s godly offspring (Gen. 3:15). In this case Cain was Satan’s agent who killed Abel, who is commended for his faith in God (Heb. 11:4; 1 Jn. 3:12). But God replaced Abel with Seth and the godly line of descendants was re-established (Gen. 4:25-26).

So in the history of humanity, Cain is like a snake in the game of snakes and ladders and Seth is like a ladder. Cain’s descendants moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there, while Seth’s descendants moved towards God and followed Him. Who are we like; Cain or Seth (Jude 11)? Cain ignored God, but Seth followed God.

According to the Bible, The fool says …, “There is no God”. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). If we live as though there is no God, then we become god. We claim to know everything everywhere – otherwise God could exist somewhere, but we could be ignorant of Him. The Bible says this is foolish and leads to sinful behavior.

A crisis in the 10th generation

During the 1,600 years after the first crisis, the earth’s population grew, being comprised of cities and societies. We have seen the crises and problems in the early history of our earth for individuals and for a family. Now we will look at society as a whole.

Wickedness increased with time. It became a part of their normal way of life. They were oblivious to its danger. In the days of Noah, society was characterized by violence and corruption (Gen. 6:1-7). “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). It is a crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way. They reject the message of Noah, the “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pt. 2:5). He warned people to turn to God or face God’s judgment. So they had a choice to make.

God’s judgement on their sin was to destroy the original creation with a global flood. The death of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.

But once again, it’s not all bad news. Noah’s godly family was protected on the ark (Gen. 7:1 – 8:19) and given a promise that the earth would never be destroyed again by a flood (Gen. 8:21 – 9:17). Here we see that God punishes sin, but some are rescued.

Noah’s family is like a ladder in the game of snakes and ladders. They followed God. The rest of the people are like a snake. They moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there. Who are we like; Noah’s family or the rest? The rest ignored God, but Noah’s family followed God. Their choice determined their destiny.

A crisis in the 15th generation

In God’s covenant with Noah, He commanded the people to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). They obeyed the first part but not the second. They increased in number and built the city of Babel, but resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). They proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements. This is another crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way.

God’s judgement on their sin was to cause the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Now because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. This would have been a tough time. They lost technology and homes that were in the city, becoming nomads and settling in new areas. Some probably lived in caves at this time. The scattering of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.

Once again we see that God punishes sin, but where is the promise? It’s like a game of snakes and ladders without the ladders. The promise is given to Abraham in the next section of the book of Genesis.

Are we alert or oblivious?

What can we learn from these four crises in early history involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel?

At each crisis the people had a choice, but the choice wasn’t unlimited. Because we are finite, we are only free to make decisions within God’s limits and boundaries. God is the only one without boundaries – He is infinite. He gave us a free will and choice, but within certain boundaries. God sets the standard for human behaviour. It is a sin to cross those boundaries.

At each crisis the people had a choice to follow God or Satan. And their choice determined what their life was like afterwards. Likewise, our choices have physical and spiritual consequences. They determine our destiny in many ways.

Snakes and ladders2But in each crisis people acted as though God wasn’t there; they ignored the possibility that they would be punished for disobeying God. They were unaware and oblivious of this danger. It’s like they were asleep or unconscious or there’s a malfunction of the brain and nervous system. My nephew is in a hospital brain injury unit. He can see and hear and is starting to speak a little, but he can’t respond with the rest of his body. If there is danger, he can’t react to it. For our safety, let’s be alert and aware of spiritual dangers instead of being oblivious. The dangerous sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death in hell. It’s the snake to hell that Satan promotes. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation. Here death is the door to hell.

God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). It’s like an alarm to remind us when something is wrong. It worked for Adam and Eve when they felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. Then they confessed their sin. Is your conscience working or broken?

Our greatest danger is spiritual death, which leads to eternal punishment in hell. This is the consequence of our sin if we don’t accept God’s promise of eternal life with Him in heaven (Jn. 3:16). That life is possible because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve when He died on the cross. It is ours if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God. Have you done that?

Snakes and ladders3This salvation is like the promises that we found in the passage. It is an example of God’s grace and mercy and like the ladders in snakes and ladders, which move us closer to God. The salvation sequence is: Conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, followed by confession, and repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, spiritual life, physical death, and eternal life in heaven. It’s the ladder to heaven that Jesus Christ provides. It’s the choice of those alert to temptation. Here death is the door to heaven.

According to the Bible, there are no other chances to follow God after we die. We only live once, and die once. We only have one life to follow Jesus and then the opportunity will end. There is no reincarnation. Also, the way of salvation is not through good works, or superior knowledge, or acts of worship or devotion. We can’t get to heaven by being good. It’s not through what we do, but accepting what Jesus has already done for us.

But sin has consequences for Christians as well. We can also be oblivious and live as though God isn’t there. This destroys our fellowship with God. It can be restored if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). This pattern is like snakes and ladders, with sin being a snake that moves us away from God and restoration a ladder that moves us towards God. The sequence is: Temptation, followed by sin, loss of fellowship with God, conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, confession, repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, and the restoration of fellowship with God. It’s the snake and ladder of daily Christian living. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation, but whose conscience alarms later.

Snakes and ladders4Of course it is better if our conscience alarms at the stage of temptation than that at the stage of conviction. So temptation is a critical stage. A healthy alert conscience short circuits the cycle and saves a lot of anguish.

Christians still experience the conflict between Satan and humanity (Gen. 3:15). When we pray it’s good to include spiritual concerns like temptation, sin, conviction, confession, repentance, and salvation, not just physical concerns.

Because we are all sinful, there will be crises in our life. There will be choices to make. In this respect, life is different to the game of snakes and ladders: it’s about choice, not chance. When facing a crisis, we need to realise that sin is our greatest problem. The first step in dealing with a problem or an addiction is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Then we can deal with the sin and get right with God.

Some say Genesis chapters 1-11 is just a story to illustrate that God made the world. It really took billions of years, not six days. It’s not real history. It’s a different genre. Adam and Eve didn’t exist, there was no global flood. The genealogies aren’t true. It’s an ancient myth. But such a viewpoint undermines the whole Bible. This part of Genesis is quoted extensively by both Jesus and Paul. Adam and Noah are both mentioned 8 times in the New Testament. They were real people.

Conclusion

So let’s remember these lessons from the early chapters of Genesis. Let’s be alert and aware of our sinfulness and not oblivious like someone using a smart phone when crossing a street. We ignore it at our peril because God punishes sinners. But it’s not all bad news, the good news is that God promised to help sinners like us and the rest of the Bible describes how He did it.

Let’s be like Noah’s family and make good choices and follow the God who made the universe, instead of living like He isn’t there. Realizing that sin is our greatest problem and Jesus is God’s solution.

Written, February 2104


Why do some Bibles use the word “ditches” in 2 Kings 3:16 and others the word “pools”?

Valley filled with water

Valley filled with waterWhen the armies of three nations ran out of water they sought the help of Elisha the prophet (2 Ki. 3:9-27). Elisha received a message from God saying that He would use a miracle to provide water for themselves and their animals. This happened on the following morning and God also used the appearance of the water to defeat their enemy. So God did more than they requested (Eph. 3:20).

The first part of God’s message as given in verse 16 has been translated in two ways:

  • “Make this valley full of ditches” (NKJV). This emphasises that the armies were to dig the ditches (or pits) and then the Lord would provide the water.
  • “I will fill this valley with pools of water” (NIV). This emphasises that God would provide the water.

See link for a comparison between different translations and a translation note from the New English Translation (NET). Here we see that both alternatives occur in more than one translation. The difference depends on whether the command is assumed to be literal or hyperbolic (a figure of speech). It has also been said that in this context “ditches” (or pits) and “pools” are nearly synonymous.

Possible applications to the two alternative translations are:

  • Pray, listen to God and do all you can to accomplish His purposes, while trusting God to act.
  • Pray and then wait and trust God to act.

Written, February 2013


Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1

shackles

Welfare for the poor

shacklesI have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.

According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.

“Slavery” in the Bible

Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.

NKJV ESV NIV NLT HCSB
65 125 180 245 310

Israelite slavery

The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.

Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).

Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).

The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.

Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.

What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.

So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.

Canaanite slavery

When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.

The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.

The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery.  A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).

How other nations treated slaves

Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!

When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).

When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.

Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.

How Israelites were to treat slaves

So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?

Debt slavery

If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.

“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).

Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).

Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).

Voluntary slavery

“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).

In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.

Captive slavery

Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).

The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).

Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.

Rights and privileges

In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!

The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).

Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).

What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).

Forced marriages?

What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.

When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).

An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.

Liberation from slavery

Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!

God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).

Summary

God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.

The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.

So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.

Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.

So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.

Also see – Does the New Testament condone slavery?
Slavery and freedom

Written, February 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

NIV 2 400px

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

niv Bible 400px

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

Niv study Bible 400px

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


Why all the killing in the Old Testament?

Canaanite Baal

Promise and judgment

Recently I was asked this question about the Bible: I was wondering, what about the parts of the Bible that say that God ordained for the Israelites to slaughter so many people. Yes, I understand that was God’s judgment on a wicked people, but that doesn’t explain slaughtering innocent children, and in some cases of wiping out a people. It seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners. I agree that wholesale slaughter of nations seems incompatible with a God of love and mercy. It’s an argument that is often brought against the Old Testament.

God’s people

The context of the Israelite invasion of Canaan begins with Abram who was in the 20th generation of life on earth. Abram was given many promises including that his descendants would be a great nation, the Jews who were God’s special people on earth. They were to be different and separate to the other nations: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Dt. 7:6NIV). The Israelites were given special laws to follow, including “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:2-3).

In the 10th generation, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:25), which was an act of divine judgment. As the Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, we will see that Israel as God’s representatives on earth was to be involved with the judgment of the sins of the Canaanites.

God’s promise

When Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land” forever (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 1 Chron. 16:15-18). God confirmed this promise in a covenant: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Gen 15:7). The promise was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses (Gen. 50:24-25; Ex. 6:8). This was an unconditional promise (Ps. 105:8-11). It was like a grant given by a king to a loyal subject.

What land would they receive? “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites,  Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:18-21). They were to be given the land of Canaan that was occupied by these nations.

When would this happen? “Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (Egypt). But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). So under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would leave Egypt and travel to occupy Canaan. Note that the timing of being given the land was when the sin of the Amorites was fully developed. This is explained in Deuteronomy, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (Dt. 9:4).

Sins of the Canaanites

The Bible describes the wickedness of the Canaanite nations: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Dt. 18:9-12).

Their sexual immorality is described in Leviticus 18 as detestable. The Israelites were told “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). They were also warned against child sacrifice to the god Molek (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) and against religious prostitution (1 Ki. 14:24; Dt. 23:17).

So the Canaanites were characterised by extreme wickedness, like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have been likened to a cancer in society. In such situations, God gives a warning of His judgment. In the days of Abraham they had the witness of Melchizedek the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) (Gen. 14:19-20) and the judgment of Sodom and Gormorrah (Gen. 19:1-29).

Before Jericho was destroyed, Rahab told the spies, “I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:8-11). They knew about God’s promise – the land grant – made over 400 years before and were fearful because of the exodus 40 years beforehand when the God of the Israelites defeated the Egyptians, who were the most powerful nation at that time. This fear had been predicted (Ex. 15:14-17). They also knew about the Israelites recent military victories. Most people would flee when their country was invaded by a stronger army (Jer. 4:29; 6:1). The Amorite and Canaanite kings were also afraid because they knew that God had dried up the Jordan river so the Israelites could cross over (Josh. 5:1). As the Israelite invasion would be gradual (“little by little”), the Canaanites had plenty of time to escape (Ex. 23:30; Dt. 7:22). So they knew what was coming and they could either repent of their ways or escape by migrating out of the land of Canaan.

God’s judgment

God had promised that the Israelites would occupy the land of Canaan. When we look at how this is described in the Bible we see two kinds of words: the Canaanite nations were both “driven out” and “destroyed”. What does this mean? We see that the Canaanites had a choice, either migrate before the Israelites arrive or be executed. It was an eviction, not a genocide. This meant that the wicked Canaanite culture and nation was to be destroyed, but most of the people could be assimilated into the surrounding nations. Also, it was to protect the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanite idolatry and wickedness.

For example, God said, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you” and “I will wipe them out” (Ex. 23:23, 31). The people were to be banished or killed and their idols destroyed. To avoid idolatry, there were to be no treaties and intermingling: “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against Me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Ex. 23:32-33). More detail is given in Deuteronomy and Numbers: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them” (Dt. 7:2-3); “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:52-53); “in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Dt. 20:16-18).

So the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land (Lev. 18:24-25) and those who refused to leave were to be executed as judgment of their wickedness and to minimise the chance of the Israelites catching their wicked ways. It was an expulsion, not an extermination. As some always escaped and migrated elsewhere, there were no instances of “wiping out a people”.

Later when the Israelites followed the idolatry of the Canaanites, they were also evicted from Canaan and deported to Babylon (Lev. 18:28)!

Was this fair? Was it consistent with the ways of God?

God’s revelation to those who have not heard the gospel

According to Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).

This passage describes people like the Canaanites. They could see the works of God in the created world. A creation requires a creator, it can’t create itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident or just by the physical laws of this world. The immensity and magnificence of the created world requires a creator with power and knowledge that greatly exceeds those of humanity. This should be obvious. There is no excuse for not realising that a powerful being has made the universe.

However, people rejected and suppressed this truth and foolishly worshipped idols (Rom. 1:21-32). Their gods were created things instead of the One who created everything. This led to sexual immorality and other sinful behaviour. That’s why the Canaanites were under God’s wrath and judgment. God was fair, He had revealed Himself in His creation and then He waited 400 years while the Israelites were in Egypt. God was patient in judgment (2 Pt. 3:9). He allowed evil to run its course and allowed plenty of time for repentance. Instead of turning to God, the Canaanites turned to increased sinfulness. Physical death was one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:19). In this instance, people died prematurely during the Israelite invasion. This means of death discontinued after the Israelites were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. After their captivity, God’s people were not required to kill so they could occupy the promised land.

In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said he would not destroy these cities if there were ten righteous people there (Gen 18:32). As He enabled Lot’s family to escape this destruction and Rahab’s family to be protected at Jericho (Josh. 6:25), we can infer that all the Canaanites who died had rejected God’s revelation and decided to stay and oppose the Israelites.

What about the children?

We have seen that the Canaanite inhabitants, including children, were either driven out or killed to prevent intermarriage and idolatry (Dt. 7:3-4; 20:16-18). Otherwise, the children who were killed would have probably followed the ways of their parents who were the leaders and those deeply involved in the Canaanite culture.

Also, with respect to idolatry, God said He punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). Here we see that children suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions, which is also the case today. For example, if parents are involved in crime or drugs or are alcoholics, it affects the lives of their children. As they lived in extended households, more generations of the Israelites and Canaanites were victims of their family circumstances than would be the case today. For example, Achan’s family were stoned because of his disobedience – the plunder was put under the family tent (Josh. 7:20-25). Household members share in the fate or fortune of the parents, like collateral damage in a war. The fate of the Canaanite children depended on whether their parents migrated out of Canaan or stayed there. On the other hand, Rahab’s family were saved because they were in her house when Jericho was destroyed – they shared in Rahab’s fortune. We should blame the parents and not God for the “slaughtering of innocent children”.

The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death.

Three Bible verses teach that young children are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.

Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.

Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).

At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognise His works of creation and choose to accept, honour and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.

Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.

Lessons for us

What can we learn from this (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11)?

Clearly, Israel’s God was greater than the false Canaanite gods, showing that there is only one true God (Isa. 43:10-12).

God kept His promise to the Israelites. It was a unique time when God established His kingdom across Canaan for a period of about 800 years, which was a foretaste of His future promised kingdom over all the earth for 1000 years. Also, God has given Christians many spiritual promises in the New Testament which He will also fulfil.

God punished the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites. This reminds us that sin has consequences. It results in physical and spiritual death. The only remedy is that eternal life is available for those who accept Christ’s gift of salvation.

God warned the Canaanites of the coming invasion and gave them plenty of time to escape. Today, the gospel message goes out and God is patiently waiting for people to turn to him (2 Pt. 3:9).

Household members, including children, shared the fortunes of their parents. We need to realise that our actions can have consequences for others.

Canaan was Israel’s promised inheritance, which was gained by their faith and obedience and lost by their disobedience. After being rescued (redeemed) from Egypt, because of their backsliding, most of the Israelites died before they reached Canaan. They succumbed to the temptations and trials of this sinful world. Canaan symbolises our present spiritual inheritance. God has given us many spiritual promises in the Bible.  By claiming these and living lives in obedience to Scripture, we will be rewarded in heaven at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Let’s resist the temptations and claim God’s promises like the Israelites who claimed Canaan. It’s not easy, but God has supplied our weapons including; the truth in the Bible, our righteousness, the gospel, our faith in God, God’s salvation, the Bible and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20).

God’s main aim was to destroy the Canaanite religion, not the Canaanite people. This was to protect Israel from idolatry and the sins that were associated with idolatry. Likewise, we are told to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:1-14). When we are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that we can endure it. Christians are to be separate from all forms of sin, wickedness and idolatry such as are practiced by unbelievers. We are to flee from these like the Jewish exiles fled from idolatrous Babylon (2 Cor. 6:17).

So this unique period in history reminds us that God keeps His promises and judges sin.

Written, October 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


Year of the dragon

Dragon statue

Chinese New Year is the main holiday of the year for more than one quarter of the world’s population. Our daughter and her family and Chinese in-laws spent the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong where the streets were decorated colorfully. Chinese holiday traditions include parades, feasts, fireworks, lanterns and giving children money in red envelopes. This is the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, which began on 23 January 2012 and will end on 9 February 2013. A surge in births is expected in China during this year as it is regarded as the zodiac sign which will give their offspring the most success and happiness in life.

Chinese calendar

Each year is associated with one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep or Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. So the year of the dragon follows the year of the rabbit and is followed by the year of the snake. The names are repeated every 12 years. Rather than remembering their current age, the Chinese tend to remember the animal of their birth-year. For example, I was born in the year of the Ox.

Nowadays the Chinese calendar is mainly used for traditional festivals that occur on new moons or full moons. As the months are lunar months, it has the feature that the phases of the moon, and astronomical and tidal phenomena associated with them, such as spring and neap tides, fall on approximately the same day in each month.

Today it is considered that the Chinese dragon is a legendary and mythical creature. But what about when the Chinese zodiac was developed thousands of years ago? Clearly the other 11 creatures in the zodiac were not mythical. Why would one be mythical? That would be inconsistent. Was it a creature that was known in ancient times? Could it be extinct?

Dragons in the Bible

Dragons are mentioned in the King James Bible (KJB), which was published about 400 years ago. The KJB is the all-time bestselling book in the English language. In the Old Testament, on 23 occasions the name “dragon(s)” was given to animals that lived on the land and in the sea.

Are these creatures real or mythical? During a drought wild donkeys were said to pant like dragons (Jer. 14:6). The “dragon well” was located near the southern walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:13). Also, Jerusalem and Babylon were to be reduced to a heap of ruins and a “den of dragons” (Jer. 9:11; 51:37). Pharaoh king of Egypt was like a “great dragon” lying in the Nile River and Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon would devour Judah like a dragon swallows people (Ezek. 29:3; Jer. 51:34). It seems as though the original translators of the KJB understood that a “dragon” was a real creature, not one that was legendary or mythical.

It is interesting to note that in more recent editions of the KJB, the word “dragon” has been changed to “jackal” or “serpent” or “sea-monster”, which are clearly real animals.

Dragons and dinosaurs

In the KJB, “dragons” are associated with Leviathan (Ps 74:13-14; Isa. 27:1). Leviathan in turn is associated with Behemoth and their descriptions seem to match those of certain dinosaurs (Job 40:15-24; 41:1-34). Another creature, Rahab, is like Leviathan (Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa. 30:7; 51:9). These creatures were also used as metaphors for powerful nations such as Egypt and Babylonia (Jer. 51:34; Ezek. 29:3).

Therefore, it appears the “dragons” that were understood to be real animals were probably types of dinosaur which are now extinct. The translators of the KJB didn’t know about dinosaurs as this word was coined 230 years later in 1841. So the word “dragon” is an old word for “dinosaur”. The changes to the text of the KJB occurred after the theory of evolution popularised the idea that the dinosaurs died out millions of years before human beings populated the earth. This shows how one’s worldview can be used to reject evidence and to modify history. Unfortunately this aspect of the secular theory of evolution has influenced all Bible translations.

It is interesting that dragon stories occur in many cultures, particularly the Chinese and Japanese. The pictures we see of dragons are often composite drawings that combine the features of different kinds of dinosaurs. They would also be embellished.

Dragons and dinosaurs are massive examples of God’s creation. When Job was reminded of the greatest dragons and dinosaurs he responded, “My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” He had seen God’s great power and this caused him to turn and go in the opposite direction and follow God (Job 42:5-6NIV). God also wants us to respond to His power and might.

Written, February 2012

Also see: Dinosaurs in the Bible?


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


In the beginning. Part 4: Living in a dying world

Repentance is the key to restoration

In the previous article in this series we saw that life for the first human beings, Adam and Eve, changed from joy and innocence to fear and guilt. This was caused by the sin of disobedience which resulted in a fallen universe and death for animals and people. Today we see how Genesis 3:8-24 shows us how to live in a world that’s dying.

Repentance and Restoration

The Bible starts with God seeking people whereas other religions begin with people seeking God. God asked Adam and Eve a series of questions. Firstly, “Where are you?” (v.9NIV); because Adam and Eve needed to realise that they were away from God. The fellowship they had with God was broken.

Secondly, “Who told you that you were naked?” (v.11). Where did this knowledge come from? This was a rhetorical question because no one told them that they were naked. The feeling of shame, guilt and fear had come from their human conscience. Adam and Eve needed to realise that it came from within them.

Finally, “What is this you have done?” (v.13). After blaming someone else they both confessed their sin, saying “I ate” of the forbidden fruit. Here God is bringing them to confession and repentance. He helps them see what they have done and acknowledge their sin. When they reached this point God stopped asking questions. If Adam and Eve had not been honest in answering God’s questions, then God would not have been able to help them as He did.

The same applies to us when we stray away from God’s intentions for us. We need to ask ourselves: “Where am I?”; “How do I know?”; “What have I done?”. We need to know where we are in life if God is to help us. We need to acknowledge that we are not where we should be because of our inner sinful human nature. We need to take responsibility for it. God wants to bring us to repentance where we acknowledge specifically what is wrong. He wants us to face the facts before He can restore us.

Jesus confirmed that we are defiled by the evil desires within our minds—it comes from within us (Mt. 15:19-20). This is our inner sinful human nature as shown in this instance by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

The Bible tells us what to do after we are convicted of our sin: “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). Repentance is needed to start the Christian life. There is a need to confess one’s sins to God and realise that Jesus has taken the penalty for these sins. This rescues us from the eternal punishment of those who have rejected God. Repentance is also needed to live the Christian life. In order to live in fellowship with God and with each other, we must confess our sins on a daily basis. After we confess our sins God forgives us.

So the sequence of events from temptation to restoration is: temptation can lead to sin; sin leads to separation from God (spiritual death); conviction by a guilty conscience (Rom. 2:14-15) can then lead to confession; this leads to repentance and forgiveness; and the outcome is restoration back into fellowship with God (see Graphic). This is the process for restoring the sinner, which we see repeated throughout the bible (Gal. 6:1,2).

Three examples are:

  • King David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11-12). He sinned and then tried to hide the sin and made it worse by having Bathsheba’s husband killed. After being convicted by Nathan’s parable, he confessed his sin and repented (Ps. 51). Then he was restored and David and Bathsheba reared Solomon.
  • Israel’s idolatry. The minor prophets Hosea, Joel and Amos accused the Israelites of being unfaithful to God and named their sins. They called for repentance and stressed that restoration only comes after repentance.
  • The prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32) The son took his inheritance and wasted it in a distant country. He finished up destitute and eating the pigs food. Later he came to his senses and returned home and confessed to his father. Then he was restored to his family.

We can short-circuit this process by stopping temptation leading to sin. But when we do sin we need to follow God’s process for restoration and reconciliation. This means allowing our conscience to convict us and then specifically confessing and repenting of our sin. This is how to keep in touch with God and live in a sinful world.

The Blessings of a Fallen World

After Adam and Eve repented, God judged Satan and placed a curse on him. Then God reminded them of what life would be like for them in a sinful and dying world. For Eve it was pain in childbirth and the leadership of her husband. For Adam it was his toil in work and ultimate death. The death penalty was a blessing as well as a curse. It stopped Adam and his descendants from living in a state of sin, with its consequences, forever. It meant that the separation from fellowship with God need not be eternal. As death was the penalty for sin, it also enabled Jesus Christ to pay that penalty (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:12-28).

We suffer because we live in a fallen world. Life is tough. But God has turned the hardships of life into a source of blessing. All these things in our fallen world remind us of our need to rely on God and not ourselves. They counteract our pride and independence. Instead we are very limited and dependent on God. Any of us can be struck down by disease or death. What a humbling thought. Mankind constantly seeks miracle cures for diseases, but as soon as some disease is cured it seems as though another one arises. We need to realise that we are mortals created by God to be on this earth for 70 to 80 years or so. They remind us who we are; people who rely on God and His creation for our life support. They remind us where we are; in a sinful world. They bring us down to earth. Suffering, illness and death affect all in society. Those with power and wealth cannot escape them.

For believers, the “struggle against sin” and the hardships of life are said to be for our good, as they can bring “a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:4, 11). So the suffering experienced in our fallen world should lead to spiritual growth. The sinful world is God’s training ground; God’s gymnasium for us. It gives us a tough workout. The symbol used in Hebrews is of a father training his son. God is at work using the struggles of life to mould our character. He wants us to be what He made us to be. He wants us to rely on Him.

Paul wrote, “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). The context of this verse is “our present sufferings” and “our weakness” and a creation that groans in pain (Rom. 8:18, 22, 26). So if you walk in the Spirit, God will cause adversity to work for your good. Likewise, Peter wrote, “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pt. 5:10). Don’t be discouraged, God is working behind the scenes to restore and strengthen us. The suffering is only for a little while compared with the eternal glory to come. By persevering in the suffering and struggles of the fallen world we can experience God’s blessings of spiritual growth and maturity.

New Name and New Clothes

Next God provides Eve with a new name and both of them with new clothes. What is the reason for this? It seems to be part of their new way of life in a fallen world. “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living” (v.20). Here we see that the name of the first woman changed from “Woman” to “Eve”. “Woman” means “taken out of man” and “Eve” means “life” (Gen. 2:23). From the beginning, Adam would have known that Eve was to be an ancestor of mankind (Gen. 1:28). In that sense she was the mother of all humanity. But Eve had also repented of her sin and her fellowship with God was restored. She was also at enmity with Satan and believed God’s promise (v.13,15). In that sense she was the mother of the redeemed. It is interesting that biblical characters change their name when there is a change within them. For example Abram and Sarai changed their names to Abraham and Sarah when God promised that they would be the father and mother of many nations and that they would have a son called Isaac (Gen. 15:3-5, 15-16, 19). Because Eve now trusted God, her destiny had changed from eternal death to eternal life (Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 3:14). Through her new name “life” she may be recognised as the mother of all those who would find life through Jesus Christ.

When Adam and Eve felt guilty and afraid after they disobeyed God, they made some clothes out of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7,10). These were “coverings for themselves”. Then God endorsed clothing for mankind when He “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (v.21). This would have been more comfortable and more effective clothing than fig leaves. Skin comes from animals and to obtain enough for a garment implies the death of the animal. Maybe God was the first one to kill an animal on earth. Maybe this was the first animal sacrifice. This verse is the main reason we should not be nudists. Why do we wear clothes? God gave clothes because of sin. God showed that clothing is necessary for people living in a sinful world. As Adam and Eve saw things differently after the fall into sin there was a need to wear clothes as a covering for the body (Ex. 22:27; 28:42).

Banished from the Garden

Then “the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’” (v. 22). The tree of life in the garden in Eden seems to have had the power to convey immortality. In the book of Revelation it symbolises eternal life in heaven (Rev. 22;2, 14,19). All true Christians will “eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). If Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of life they would have lived forever in bodies subject to guilt, shame, fear, sickness and degeneration. It would mean that humanity would never die physically but would go on in their sinful ways forever. But God had a better plan for the eternal part of their life.

“So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After He drove the man out, He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (v.23-24). The cherubim that God used to keep Adam and Eve away from the tree of life were angels that usually stand close to God’s throne. They were represented symbolically on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18-22) and temple (2 Chron. 3:7) and seen by the prophet Ezekiel in a vision of the restored Jerusalem (Ez. 41:18-20). Ezekiel described four “living creatures” or cherubim each with four faces and four wings (Ez. 1:5-24; 10:2-22).

Afterthey sinned, Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden in order to “guard the way to the tree of life”, so they would find the right way, not the wrong one. There is no longer a physical way to the tree of life. There is nothing we can do physically to get eternal life. We can go to church each Sunday and do all the things that a Christian does, but if it just a physical thing God will remain outside our lives. The way to the tree of eternal life is now via the unseen part of our lives. We come to God in the realm of our soul and spirit. Jesus is now the tree of life—He is the way to heaven because He is the source of truth and the source of life (Jn. 14:6). Jesus is the only way to eternal life. He paid the penalty for sin so we can go to heaven.

Restored to the beginning

Many of the events we have seen in Genesis 1-3 are matched by events described in Revelation 20-21 (see Table). This is because, through Jesus, God plans to restore the relationships that were affected by sin; “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Here we see that believers are already reconciled to God; we are part of “a new creation” described by the right hand column of the table (2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 1:21). Eventually all of creation except for Satan, demons and unbelievers will be restored to its original perfect condition (Col. 1:20). However, the latter will come under His rule on judgment day (Phil. 2:10-11). But we can look forward to a paradise that is like the original garden in Eden.

Table: Comparisons between Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22.

Topic Genesis 1-3 Revelation 20-22
Heavens and earth Created (2:1,4) Destroyed by fire (20:11; 2 Pt. 3:10).Renewed (21:1).
Day and night Created (1:3-5) No night (21:25; 22:5)
Sun & moon Created (1:14-18) Not needed (21:23)
Marriage & wife Of first Adam (2:24-25) Of last Adam (19:7; 21:9)
Satan Enters (3:1) Thrown into the lake of fire (20:10)
Sin Origin (3:6) Removed (21:27).
Pain etc Origin (3:16-19) Removed (21:4)
Curse on creation Imposed (3:17-19) Removed (22:3).
Death Origin (3:19; 5:5) Second death— the lake of fire (20:14; 21:8)Removed (21:4)
Access to tree of life Denied (3:24) Restored (22:2,19)

Foundation of the Bible

Genesis 1-3 is the foundation to understanding the key message of the Bible. It gives the foundation of the gospel and of many Biblical truths and principles. The original sin of Adam and Eve resulted in death and a sinful fallen world. This is the reason why Jesus Christ was born. The good news is that Christ’s death and resurrection paid the penalty for the sin of those who accept His gift of salvation and eternal life.

Genesis 1-3 reveals: God is the Creator; the universe was created in six days; humanity is made in the image of God; humanity rules over the rest of creation; Satan is the tempter; sin leads to a guilty conscience; the original sin affected the rest of creation. It also describes the origin of: sin, conflict, pain, thorns and thistles, toil, work, marriage, death, and clothes.

Finally, let’s remember what Jesus said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13). He spans time from the beginning to the end. He who created it all in the beginning, and who redeems, will also finish it at the end.

Written, July 2004

See the first article in this series:
- In the beginning. Part 1: The first week (Genesis 1)


In the beginning. Part 3: The first sin

Written, July 2004

Temptation and its consequences

The first human beings, Adam and Eve lived as husband and wife in the garden in Eden. They were innocent and felt no shame. There was no sin and nothing to be ashamed about. God told them, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17NIV). In this article we look at the next episode in the early history of mankind in Genesis 3:1-19.

The tempter

Here we see a new character introduced, which is “nachash” in Hebrew (v.1). Is this a mythical creature, or an animal called a snake or someone that was like a snake? The words associated with “nachash” in Genesis 3 are “wild animals” and “livestock”, which refer to animals (v.3,14); and “you will crawl on your belly” and “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”, which could refer to snakes as we know them today (v.14,15).

“Nachash” occurs in six other verses written by Moses. The descendants of Dan are likened to a snake in a metaphor (Gen. 49:17). A staff became a snake when Moses and Aaron visited Pharaoh, and Moses made a bronze snake to heal the Israelites who had been bitten by venomous snakes (Ex. 4:3; 7:15; Num. 21:6, 7,9). So, Moses used the word in both a literal way and a symbolic way and he seems to make the meaning clear in each instance.

Paul treats it as a real historical event and not an allegory: “Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning” (2 Cor. 11:3). The only other occasion he used the Greek word for serpent “ophis”, was when he said the Israelites “were killed by snakes” (1 Cor. 10:9). Therefore, the meaning for the Israelites to whom Genesis was written was an animal called a snake. But this was a talking animal! Now that is unusual, but according to the Bible, God caused Balaam’s donkey to speak and Peter accepted this as truth (Num. 22:28-30; 2 Pt. 2:16). So, some amazing things have happened in the past!

John helps us to understand what is going on when he described Satan metaphorically as a serpent (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). In fact, snakes have become the universal symbol of Satan. So Satan appeared in the garden in Eden as an animal that talks. We don’t know what he looked like, but Eve was not afraid to have a conversation with him. This animal was more cunning than any other creature God had made (v.1). It was Satan in disguise, as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). God allowed Satan into the garden and allowed him to tempt Eve because God made mankind with a free will to make moral choices. This was a part of being made in the image of God.

The temptation

The tempter asked Eve a question, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (v.1). He was trying to get her to doubt God’s word and distrust God’s love by thinking that such a command was not fair. She answered, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” (v.2-3). Then the tempter said, “You will not surely die” (v.4). This is a lie; it is opposite to what God told Adam (Gen. 2:17). But he is cunning because it relates to a future event which she couldn’t verify herself. Of course, she could have checked with Adam or God, but she was deceived when the tempter backed up the lie with a distorted truth, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v.5). He mixed truth and error. Their eyes would be opened, but it would be to sin and shame. Also, they would know good and evil, but it would be through the harsh experiences of life lived apart from dependence upon God. The tempter implied that they would have great knowledge be able to see things like God does and do whatever they wanted to. He also questioned God’s motives for the command not to eat the forbidden fruit. With this in her mind, Eve looked at the tree and “saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (v.6). Here we see that she was mixing up what God had told them and what the tempter had told her (Gen. 2:6; 3:5). She was seeking knowledge and wisdom outside the boundaries that had been established by God. Satan had infiltrated her mind.

The sin

As she looked at the fruit of the tree she must have thought. It’s good for food and I’m hungry. It’s beautiful and pleasing to the eye, a pleasure to experience, so it must be good (Heb. 11:25). It’s desirable for gaining wisdom. Then “she took some and ate it” (v.6). The thoughts sown in her mind by the tempter resulted in an action; she ate some of the forbidden fruit. She acted independently of her husband and God. She should have consulted with them before acting on such an important matter. Where was Adam at this time? If Adam was with her during her temptation, he should have spoken up and taken his leadership role. It’s always more difficult to resist temptation when we are alone. But evil can triumph if another is silent.

Then “She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (v.6). It seems as though Adam ate the forbidden fruit when he was given it by his wife; he was not deceived by the tempter—“Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14). We don’t know what she told him, but the fact that he “was with her” implies that he knew what had happened. He deliberately disobeyed God’s command and acted independently of God. This is the origin of sin. We are all sinners because we are descendants of Adam.

Now we see a radical change in their world. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (v.7). But they had always been naked (Gen. 2:25). Something happened inside them. They felt naked, guilty and ashamed, so they fashioned some clothes out of fig leaves. This was the beginning of self-consciousness and clothing.

God’s questions

God visited the garden to talk with Adam and Eve (v.8). What a privilege for them to converse with the great Creator! But now they were so guilty and ashamed that they hid from God among the trees of the garden. Fancy trying to hide from the one who made themselves and the trees! It was impossible. This was not a game of hide and seek, it was a garden where joy and fellowship with God had changed into shame and fear and hiding from God. This is the first description of the human conscience.

Now we see how God addresses the situation, He takes the initiative. First He asked Adam, “Where are you?” (v.9). As God would have known their location, this was a rhetorical question. They had moved away from their position of close communion with God. God was asking the head of the human family to consider his new position. Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (v.10). He was now afraid of God. God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (v.11). So, God traces the source of their guilt and fear to their disobedience. Then Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (v.12). This is called blame someone else, or pass the buck! He blames God and Eve. But he did acknowledge that he had eaten the forbidden fruit. Then God asked Eve “What is this you have done?” (v.13). She said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate”. This is called ditto – blame someone else, or pass the buck once again! Here we see that when called to account by God, sinners excuse themselves. In this case they both ultimately blamed God, who allowed them to be tempted. But, like Adam, Eve did acknowledge having eaten the forbidden fruit.

God’s response

Now that Adam and Eve have failed the test and acknowledged this to God, what will God do? After all, He had promised that they would surely die, although the tempter had denied this. Now we see some changes in His creation that was originally said to be “very good”. He addressed each of the characters in turn and described what life will be like for them.

God said to the tempter, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (v.14-15). God said that the tempter was the ultimate cause of the fall into sin. This curse can be taken at two levels. Firstly, the snake, which is symbolic of Satan, will crawl on the ground. That is the animal as we know it today. The implication is that previously it didn’t crawl on the ground. Eve would have hated this animal because of how Satan had used it to deceive her. This would have been the beginning of conflict between snakes and people. People often fear snakes and seek to kill them by crushing, while snakes generally attack the lower parts of the body. So, this was the beginning of conflict and hatred on earth.

Secondly, Satan and people who follow him will be the enemies of those who follow God. I believe that Eve followed God so she would have hated how Satan had deceived her. Here we have the first promise of the Messiah and a description of the battle between God and Satan. Christ’s victory over Satan is evident in “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. The suffering and death He endured is like Satan striking at His heel. But Christ’s death and resurrection is said to crush Satan’s head, which indicates a decisive victory. Now the genealogies in the bible usually trace descent through men, not through women. The “he” in v.15 was a man who was the offspring of the woman. Jesus Christ was the offspring of Eve in special way; He had a virgin birth. This first prophecy would have only been known in general terms by the Israelites it was written for. But for us today, it sums up the gospel message of the Bible.

Then God said to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (v.16). He brings consequences in two areas of her life. Firstly she will experience pain in childbirth. It may also imply that bringing up her children would be painful at times. So, this was the beginning of pain on earth. Secondly, the relationship between husbands and wives seems to be clarified. It states that the husband is to “rule” over the wife. The Hebrew word is “masal”, which means to have dominion. The same word is used to describe mankind ruling over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:26,28). It means that the husband is to lead the wife and the family in a benevolent way. This is a responsibility that husbands should take seriously.

Then God said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (v.17-19). Here we see that Adam neglected his leadership role. He listened to his wife when he should not have taken notice. Only take notice when she gives good advice, but not otherwise! God made Adam accountable and spelled out what he had done which led to two consequences. Firstly, God cursed the ground. Adam’s work changed; now it would take painful toil and sweat to make a living. Nature changed and cultivation would be more difficult with the introduction of weeds such as thorns and thistles. This is the beginning of the “bondage to decay” and “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” in “the whole creation” (Rom. 8:21,22). It is a fallen universe. Secondly, mankind would die. This is the beginning of death for the animals and people of the earth.

How temptation can lead to sin and death

Like Adam and Eve, we are always tempted to go beyond the limits that God has placed upon us. James described the strategy that Satan uses when he tempts mankind: “… each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:14-15). Sin brings death, including the eternal spiritual death of being separated from God. (Rom. 5:12, 14; 6:23).

God does not tempt us to sin. He will test us (Gen. 2:16-17; 22:1, Deut 8:2), but it is Satan who tempts us (Mt. 4:1; 1 Cor. 7:5, 1 Th. 3:5). In fact Paul called Satan “the tempter” (1 Th. 3:5). Of course he disguises himself and makes the temptation seem to be something good rather than something bad. It begins with our feelings (evil desire). Then James uses the illustration of conception and birth. The pattern is: a temptation (an evil desire based on our feelings) is planted like a seed in the mind, it grows and develops like a baby and leads to the birth of sin, which in turn leads to death. So the evil desire influences the mind and leads to an action which results in death. When the emotions are aroused first, we rationalize instead of thinking rationally. We don’t think properly, for example thinking of an immediate need but not a long term consequence. This is what happened in the garden in Eden and what happens to us as well. We all face temptation and battle the desire to yield to it. Then when we fail once again, we feel guilty.

How to handle temptation

Where is the battle lost? At the beginning, when the temptation is planted in the mind. Eve was defeated after Satan’s first question when she accepted the possibility that God could not be trusted. But God provides a way out for believers, “… He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

After 40 days of fasting in the desert, Jesus was tempted by Satan who tried to get Him to use His supernatural powers for selfish reasons (Lk. 4:1-13). Satan said: “tell this stone to become bread” – get food for yourself; If you worship me, all the kingdoms of the world will be yours – become a king without going to the cross; and, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple – attract public attention. On each occasion Jesus answered with Scripture. He said: we should rely on God for spiritual nourishment; God is the one we should worship; and do not test God. To do this we must know the bible, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to mind when we need it. God “has given us 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).

Fortunately God is greater than Satan and “is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18; 1 Jn. 4:4). We should occupy our mind with good things and call on God to help in times of temptation. (Prov. 18:10; Phil. 4:8).

Lessons for us

The fall into sin is the ultimate explanation for our struggles in life. This pattern of the temptation and the fall into sin occurs daily both individually and collectively. It is the ultimate explanation for the tensions, sickness, suffering, sorrow, heartache, misery, tragedy, fear, guilt, and death. Here is the reason for addictive behaviour, for the passion for power and the lure of wealth and the enticement of immorality. It is the key to understanding humanity and ourselves.

The fall into sin has made us sinners. We are victims of emotional urges. That is a part of human nature. Only God can open our eyes and help us distinguish between right and wrong (Rom. 6:23). We are either slaves to sin or slaves to God. If we stay sinners then death is the outcome, eternal separation from God. But if we accept God’s gift of Jesus Christ, then we have eternal life. So our destiny is either eternal life or eternal death.

In Eve’s case the tempter was a being outside herself as she was sinless and she began with no urge to do wrong. Since the fall into sin, the tempter is within our human nature and we always face the urge to do wrong.  We carry a tempter within us wherever we go, he has access to us continually.

Like Adam and Eve, we have real choices in life. God gives us limits and boundaries as well. Are we willing to accept them? We often try and relieve our guilt by blaming someone or something by saying, “It wasn’t my fault; I’m a victim of circumstance”. We don’t like taking responsibility for our behaviour. As the ideal environment of the garden did not prevent the entrance of sin, we shouldn’t blame the surroundings or our situation on our problems. Instead, we need to take responsibility for our responses and behavior.

So, let’s be aware of Satan’s ways of temptation so he does not outwit us (2 Cor. 2:11). Follow Jesus and use the resources God has given us, such as the Bible.

See the next article in this series:
In the beginning. Part 4: Living in a dying world


Old Testament Shepherds

God used 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. In a previous article we saw that Jesus Christ is the good shepherd, the best example of a leader. Now we will look at how this imagery is applied to leaders during Old Testament times.

In biblical times, the imagery of a shepherd and his flock provided a picture of the way God cared for His people, and also served as a model for human leaders who were to rule over people as a shepherd tended his flock.

The shepherd is the dominant leadership metaphor in the Old Testament. The role of the shepherd was a cornerstone of the Hebrew economy as sheep provided key staples of wool, meat and other commodities. God’s choice of the shepherd as a leadership metaphor made sense for a nomadic society dependent on sheep, goats and cattle.

In Old Testament times God chose a nation of people, the Israelites, to follow and obey Him. The picture that’s used is of God being their shepherd; “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock” (Ps. 80:1NIV). He would lead them and care for them and they were to follow where He led.

Leaders

As the nation grew, God appointed leaders to stand in His place, shepherds to act on His behalf. Moses was called “the shepherd of His flock” (Is. 63:11). He led the Israelites out of Egypt across the desert to Canaan. God was always near and He was represented by the pillar of smoke during the day and the pillar of fire at night. When Joshua was chosen to succeed him, Moses said  “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd(Num 27:16-17). So Joshua was their next leader, their next shepherd.

God told David, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler” (2 Sam.5:2) and God “chose David His servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep He brought him to be the shepherd of His people Jacob, of Israel His inheritance” (Ps 78:70-71). So David changed from shepherding sheep to shepherding people.

When evil king Ahab asked the prophet Micaiah whether he should attack the Syrians, Micaiah predicted that Ahab would be killed and his army dispersed: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace’” (1 Ki. 22:17). Other leaders and rulers in these times, such as Cyrus king of Persia, were also called shepherds (Is. 44: 28).

So the nation of Israel was shepherded by Moses and Aaron, Joshua, the judges, and then the kings. Their prophets and priests were also referred to as shepherds. Jeremiah called himself a shepherd (Jer.17:16). We will see that like all human leaders, they failed. And the people also failed to accept the leadership of their leaders. Let’s look at four examples; three are bad shepherds and one is a good shepherd.

Evil shepherds (Jer. 23:1-4)

This passage follows two chapters where Jeremiah gives prophecies against the last four kings of Judah before they were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. The prophecies involve God’s judgement of the evil kings. It is followed by prophecies against false prophets who were giving the people false hopes of peace, while Jeremiah was telling them that God was using Babylon as a form of divine punishment for their sins (Jer. 23:16-17). In fact, the prophets and priests at that time were godless (Jer. 23:11). There are three characters in this passage: God, the shepherds who were the rulers (prophets, priests and kings), and the sheep who were God’s people the Jews of Judah.

God declared “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” (v.1) and “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done” (v.2). The rulers were condemned to a terrible judgement for destroying the people instead of caring for them and for dispersing the people, instead of leading and guiding them.

Then God said, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing” (v.3-4). As punishment for their sinful ways under the evil shepherds, the people were captured by the Babylonians. But God promised to step in and rescue some of them and bring them back from exile and establish new leaders who cared for them so they thrived, protected them so they were not afraid, and led them so they did not wander away. So, the evil shepherds destroyed the nation and the nation was captured by the Babylonians.

Selfish shepherds (Ezek 34:1-10)

This message was given to the Jews in exile in Babylon. Before the passage, Ezekiel explained that the fall of Jerusalem was because of the sins of the people who lived there. Afterwards, he says that God will care for the Jews. There are three characters once again in this passage: God, the shepherds and the sheep. The shepherds were the leaders, their prophets, priests and kings. After Josiah all the kings of Judah were corrupt. These are the subject of Ezekiel’s criticism in this passage.

God declared, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally” (v.2-4). They were selfish and greedy; they fed themselves, but not the flock. Although the leaders were entitled to food and clothing, they didn’t care for the people. They neglected the flock of people: they didn’t help the needy, the strays or the lost. They didn’t provide for them. They were dictators who ruled harshly acting as though they had no concept of serving the people like a shepherd cared for his flock of sheep.

The consequence for the people was, “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (v.5-6). Lack of guidance caused the people to be dispersed in the nations around Israel, lost and vulnerable. The leaders didn’t protect them but left them to the mercy of their enemies (wild animals are the enemies of sheep). “No shepherd”means no true shepherd. The term “like sheep without a shepherdoccurssix times in the bible (Num. 27:17; 1 Ki. 22:17; 2 Chron. 18:16; Is. 13:14; Mt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34). When there is no true shepherd to give guidance and direction, people wander from the path they should be taking in life and there is tragedy. In Israel’s case they were invaded, killed and taken captive in foreign lands. They were refugees fleeing a place of destruction. As pagan gods were worshipped on “mountain” and “hill”, these words could indicate that the people also left God for idolatry.

Because the leaders were selfish (v.7-8), God stated that, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (v.9-10).God promises to step in and judge the leaders and rescue and protect the people. Here we see that the leaders are accountable to God. In this case they lost their positions and their livelihood.

God then promised to seek the scattered flock and bring them back to Israel (v.12-14). This included “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (v.16). So, the selfish shepherds looked after themselves, but neglected the needs of the flock. Instead they fleeced the people.

Rich shepherds (Zech. 11:4-9)

This is written to the Jews back in their land after the captivity. The context is God’s care of the Jews. Before the passage He promises to restore them (10:6) and afterwards they reject the Messiah and are given a worthless shepherd instead (v.15-17). Here we see an incident that happened repeatedly in the Old Testament. It is presented as a drama, where Zechariah acts as God the good shepherd, who is contrasted with the rich shepherds. The other character is the Jews as sheep.

The country of Israel was devastated when they rejected the good shepherd (v.1-3). Then God declared, “Pasture the flock marked for slaughter. Their buyers slaughter them and go unpunished. Those who sell them say, ‘Praise the LORD, I am rich!’ Their own shepherds do not spare them” (v.4-5). Zechariah is to lead the people who are marked for judgement for their rejection of God. Of course, after they rejected the Messiah, the Jews were punished when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 70. Here we see people sold into slavery. The leaders got rich by exploiting the people. They even thanked God for their riches!

Zechariah responded “So I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock … In one month I got rid of the three shepherds. The flock detested me, and I grew weary of them and said, ‘I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish …’” (v.7-9). Zechariah led the people like a good shepherd. Although he removed three of the bad leaders, he was rejected by the people. This illustrated how the Messiah was to be rejected in about 500 years time.

Because they rejected the good shepherd, they are given the foolish shepherd instead. He is described: “For I am going to raise up a shepherd over the land who will not care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy, but will eat the meat of the choice sheep, tearing off their hoofs. ‘Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” (v.16-17a). He is a greedy and corrupt leader who doesn’t care for the needy or nourish the flock. He abandons the sheep like the hired hand of Jn.10:12. He is like the antichrist who will exploit the people (2 Th. 2:1-12). So, the rich shepherds benefited while they exploited the flock.

A good shepherd

Now we have a better example. If Israel would repent of their wickedness, God promised to give them “shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:14-15). Although this passage anticipates the Millennium when Jerusalem will be the capital of the world, David was a man after God’s own heart; he had a godly heart (1 Sam. 13:14). He led Israel with integrity and skill (Ps 78:72). When David faced trouble he prayed; he was humble; he acknowledged God’s help; he praised God; and this caused others to trust God (Ps. 40: 1-3, 12).

After David was prompted by Satan to count his military in an act of pride and reliance on human power, God’s judgement was that 70,000 of the people died in a plague. “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2 Sam. 24:17). David took full blame for his act and acknowledged his responsibility for the well-being of the people. The bible records David’s faults as well as his faith. He sought God’s will, was concerned for the well-being of God’s people and repented of his sin; although he failed in his personal and family life.

David knew God very well; he could say “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). Similarly, Jesus Christ said, “I know the Father” (Jn. 10:15). Their relationship with God was what made the difference. They didn’t have their ear to the ground, but heavenward. David is included in the list of those who demonstrated great faith in Old Testament times; he “administered justice” as king of Israel (Heb. 11:32-34).

Sheep

We will now look at the imagery of the “sheep”. Firstly, as sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. God established human government after the flood as capital punishment presupposes a governmental authority (Gen. 9:6). In Old Testament times God exercised His authority through the authority he gave to the king, priest and prophet. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25). There was no king in Israel in the times of the judges (who were military leaders) and people departed from the laws and practices given by Moses. So, lack of godly leadership leads to sin and idolatry. Of course, people can also reject godly leadership (Zech 11:8).

Secondly, the sheep can also be selfish: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (Ezek. 34:18-19). They didn’t care about anyone else. As they grazed, they trampled down the good grass for others. As they drank from clear water, they muddied it for others.

Thirdly, the bible also teaches that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). Our sin is like a sheep straying from the path and the pasture. This happens to all of us. Have you confessed your sin to receive the eternal life that is offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? Then you too can know God as your shepherd.

Pasture

Besides shepherds and sheep there is the image of the “pasture”. Pasture is food for the sheep. David wrote, “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture” (Ps. 37:3). The land of Canaan was their pasture. It was their homeland where they received sustenance and could be fruitful for God.

However, they spoilt it and were driven from it. “Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard and trample down my field; they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland” and “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture”(Jer. 12:10; 23:3). So, the land of Israel was devastated by the Babylonians and God promised to bring some back after the captivity in Babylon.

Sheep feed on their pasture. “My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray and caused them to roam on the mountains. They wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place. Whoever found them devoured them; their enemies said, ‘We are not guilty, for they sinned against the LORD, their true pasture, the LORD, the hope of their fathers’” (Jer 50:6-7). Here we see that God was to be their true pasture. They should have been occupied on Him. Elsewhere the Bible teaches that obeying God’s word is as important as eating food “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3).

Lessons for us

We have looked at the illustration of shepherds and sheep in the Old Testament. Some leaders were good and others were evil, selfish and rich. In most areas of life we are either a shepherd or a sheep—we either leader others or have a leader above us.

As sheep need a shepherd, people need leaders. We have been reminded of the danger of sheep being without a shepherd. Such a lack of true leadership is like: a person without God as a Father; a nation without a government; a child without a parent; a worker without a supervisor or employer; a church without elders; or any activity without a coordinator.

What have we learnt for leaders?

Good leadership begins with God as our shepherd. David learnt this; in Ps 23 he said this brings contentment, security, guidance and intimacy. All leaders should follow the example of the Good Shepherd, the “Son of David” (Mt. 9:27), as they shepherd their flock: care for people, not just yourself; nourish the people; be benevolent, not a harsh dictator (Eph. 6:4,9); strengthen the weak and depressed; heal the sick and injured; search for the lost; restore the strays; use knowledge and understanding; have integrity and skill; be fair and impartial; be humble; confess and repent of sin; pray; acknowledge God’s help and praise Him. If you live like this others will come to trust God as well.

Beware of bad examples of leadership: thief/wolf – exploits; hired hand – flees when there is trouble; stranger – lacks relationships with others; harsh dictator – ignores the weak; silent – avoids conflict; power-hungry – seeks recognition; professional – seeks the benefits.

What is our responsibility to leaders?

Our attitude towards leaders should be similar to our attitude to the Lord who is the Good Shepherd: respect leadership, don’t detest it (Eph. 6:2); if you have a choice, follow good leaders, not selfish ones; don’t be selfish; make obedience to God’s word a top priority; submit to all forms and levels of human government (Rom. 13:1-7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pt. 2:13-14); pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2); employees should “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men” (Eph. 6:7; Col. 3:23-24).

Written, November 2005

Also see:
- New Testament shepherds
- The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd is always near


What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?

A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.

The Bible

God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.

The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.

The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.

In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.

The Text

The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!

If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:

  • “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
  • “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
  • “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).

So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.

The Context

When was it written?

The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.

As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.

Why was it written?

In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).

The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).

They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.

The Meaning for the Jews

What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).

So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.

Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope

How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws.  Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).

The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).

So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).

What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?

The Meaning for Christians

Text

As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.

Context

We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.

The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.

The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).

So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.

The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).

Lessons For Us

What to know

There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).

What to do

When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?

These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.

Written, August 2009

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


How to live a life that pleases God

Abraham: Trusting God’s Promises

God has given Christians many promises that can help them face the circumstances they encounter each day. Let’s look at why these promises are important in living a life that pleases God.

God’s Promises To Abraham

Abraham lived in the Middle East about 4,000 years ago. He was an ancestor of both the Jews and Arabs, which is why they still struggle over control of the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron where Abraham is buried. During the 40 years between leaving Haran and coming to Mt. Moriah, Abraham was given four great promises: a promised son (Isaac), a promised people (Jews), a promised land (Canaan), and a promised blessing for all people, (Jews wrote the Scriptures; Jesus Christ was Jewish).

There were two problems with the promises he was given at Ur (Gen. 12:1-4). First, all the promises depended on them having a child, and his wife Sarai was unable to have children (Gen. 11:30). The fact that they had no hope of having any children was devastating, when families usually had many children. Second, the promises required that Abraham leave his country and family, and go where God directed (Acts 7:2-3; Heb. 11:8-9). This 1,100 mile trip from Ur to Haran and then to Israel, was extremely long when the only means of transport was walking and using animals.

Ur was the capital of the second Sumerian state. The Sumerians practiced polytheism, and a form of astrology which associated the planets and stars with their many gods. After Ur was destroyed, Babylon replaced it as the dominant city in the Middle East.

The next 40 years of Abraham’s life are summarized in the figure below in terms of whether he was trusting God’s promises or doubting them. The graph goes up when he trusted the promises and down when he doubted them. These episodes of Abraham’s life are summarized according to whether he trusted or doubted God’s promises.

Trust: At the beginning of Abraham’s journey of faith he obeyed the Lord and left Ur and travelled to Haran on the way to Canaan (Gen. 11:31).

Doubt: But Abraham and his family stopped and settled in Haran, about half-way to Canaan. He did not trust God as he had not yet left his family.

Trust: After God intervened and his father died, Abraham, now 75, traveled to Canaan, the Promised Land (Gen. 12:4-8; Acts 7:4). He was not afraid even though the land was occupied by the Canaanites. After God renewed His promise, Abraham built an altar and worshiped. When his faith was strong, he built a new altar each time he moved to a new locality.

Doubt: Later, when he visited Egypt, Abraham doubted God and forgot His promises which couldn’t be fulfilled unless he was alive to father a child (Gen. 12:10-20). He feared that Pharaoh would kill him to take his beautiful wife for his harem. Rather than seek God’s protection, Abraham took matters into his own hands and deceived Pharaoh. But God intervened and Abraham and his household were cast out of Egypt.

Trust: After this, Abraham worshiped the Lord again and the promises were renewed (Gen. 13:4,14-18). The Lord told him to explore the Promised Land and this gave him a vision of God’s provision.

Doubt: Abraham, still childless, thought his servant Eliezer would be his heir as this was the law at the time (Gen. 15:1-3). He had forgotten God’s promise of numerous descendants; he was living by sight not faith.

Trust: After God promised him a son and repeated the other promises, Abraham “believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God accepted Abraham because he believed His promises: he trusted God. God then confirmed the promises unconditionally.

Doubt: Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. It was 11 years since Abraham heard the promise of many descendants and a great nation. They lacked faith and took matters into their own hands again.

Trust: Thirteen years later the promises were repeated by God (Gen. 17:1-16). As a sign of the promises they were instructed to circumcise every male in their household. Abraham’s faith was renewed and he worshiped because of these reminders of unconditional agreement.

Doubt: When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Trust: God responded to Abraham’s request and said that Ishmael would be blessed and have many descendants, and on that day Abraham circumcised all the males in his household (Gen. 17:18-27). This obedience indicates that his faith was strong.

Doubt: Later, Abraham doubted God again because he thought he would be killed by King Abimelech, because of his wife’s beauty (Gen. 20:1-18). This was a repeat of his failure in Egypt 20 years earlier. It shows how prone we are to sin. Once again, Abraham was living by sight, not faith. Fortunately God intervened again to rescue Abraham and Sarah.

Trust: The miraculous conception and birth of Isaac to parents aged 100 and 90 was a pinnacle in the life of Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 17:17; 21:1-7). This happened “at the very time God had promised.” Abraham circumcised Isaac, and Sarah acknowledged God’s miracle. This was the only promise fulfilled in their lifetime; it strengthened their trust in Him.

After 40 years, Abraham’s faith was tested when God ordered him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:1-14; Heb. 11:17-19). Isaac was the promised son through whom the other promises were to be fulfilled! But Abraham obeyed God even though it looked like the death of Isaac. He had learned his lesson to trust without doubting. He believed God could bring Isaac back to life to fulfill His promises. He passed the test, being confident in God, while God stopped it before harm could come to Isaac. Surely, Isaac remembered this close encounter all of his life! God then encouraged Abraham’s faith by repeating His promises (Gen. 22:15-18).

God’s Promises Are Important

A promise is a commitment to do/not do something. The receiver has the right to expect fulfillment. God’s promises are trustworthy; He “does not lie” and “has the power to do what He has promised” (Tit. 1:2; Rom. 4:21).

The Bible contains many promises. The first, “He will crush your head” alludes to the destruction of Satan; the last, “I am coming soon” refers to Christ’s return (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 22:20). The main theme of the Bible is a promise of salvation for all who trust in the effectiveness of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is accepted by faith.

Christians are also called to “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We can’t see the Lord, but we trust and obey Him daily. This is an act of faith. In fact, we need God’s saving power daily, and He has given us the pattern – He has given many promises. We should exercise faith and trust in His promises, offering thanks for His provision and goodness.

God’s promises are an important part of living by faith. Trusting God is trusting that His promises will come true. They are the objects of our faith and they help us to look ahead rather than behind (Heb. 11:10).

God’s promises also help us live a life that pleases Him. “He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them we may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pet. 1:4). God’s promises allow us to participate in the divine nature, and escape the corruption of the world.

Lessons From Abraham

Abraham’s example is mentioned in Galatians, Hebrews and Romans, which also says that “everything … was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The example of Abraham’s faith journey was written for all who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:23-24). Because of their faith, Christians are viewed as “children of Abraham.” Like Isaac, we are “children of promise” and heirs (Rom, 4:16; Gal. 3:7, 29; 4:28).

Faith is a gift from God (Rom. 12:3). For 25 years Abraham’s faith wavered, but he learned trust, becoming known as “the father” of all the faithful (Rom. 4:16). We see in the graph that although his faith went up and down, it increased with time. He made many mistakes and had many doubts before he trusted God consistently. Because of human weakness we will also have times of doubt; but our faith should grow as his did.

Abraham learned to trust God over a long period of time. Isaac was born 25 years after the promise given at Ur. He was 40 when he married Rebecca; they had twins 20 years later. Abraham waited 85 years after the promise before he had a grandchild! In fact, when he died at 175, he had one son aged 75 years and two grandchildren aged 15 years – a slow beginning to the promises of numerous descendants and a great nation!

Like Abraham, we too are called to leave idolatry and walk by faith on our journey to the Promised Land. He trusted God when he was reminded of God’s promises, when he obeyed God, and when God did great things in his life. Likewise, our faith is strengthened as we are reminded of God’s promises, obey God and see the great things He’s doing through His Spirit.

The evidence of faith: Abraham is a great example of faith in action. “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac? … His faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend” (Jas. 2:21-23).

The attitude of faith: The key was that Abraham believed and trusted God (Rom. 4:3-5). He trusted that God could perform a miracle, regardless of circumstances (Rom. 4:18-21). Personal faith and trust are essential for a life that pleases God, but it must have a reliable foundation. Abraham’s faith depended on God, the only reliable foundation for our faith.

Barriers to trusting God: Abraham had doubts when he was fearful, impatient, and took more notice of others than of God’s promises.

Circumstances: The Guinness Book of Records states that the oldest mother gave birth at age 57. When Isaac was to be conceived, Abraham faced the fact that 90 year-old Sarah was too old to have children, but he didn’t let the circumstances destroy his faith (Rom. 4:19).

• Possibilities: It’s hard to believe a promise when it seems too good to be true. But things impossible to us are possible to God. “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Rom. 4:18).

Impatience: “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). He waited 25 years for a son and 85 for a grandson!

Benefits to trusting God: The following blessings were a result of Abraham’s trust in God’s promises: his faith was strengthened – Abraham became convinced of God’s power (Rom. 4:20-21); God was exalted – Abraham gave God the glory (Rom. 4:20); the promises came true – Abraham had a son and his descendants grew great in number (Acts 7:17).

Relying On God’s Promises

God’s promises are a vital ingredient in a life that pleases God. We should always remember, from Abraham’s example, that God keeps His promises. Don’t let the barriers of impatience and circumstances suppress our hope in God’s promises. Use the eyes of faith, not just those of sight.

Know God’s promises: Abraham’s faith increased when he was reminded of God’s promises. We have them in the Bible. Some apply to the present and others to the future. We need to know them, claim them and rejoice in them. Then we will progress on the journey of faith.

Focus on God’s promises: Ishmael mocked Isaac and was banished (Gen. 21:8-14). Likewise, we should banish anything that stops our focusing on God’s promises and using the faith He has put in our hearts (Gal. 4:21-31).

Claim God’s promises: We display trust in God’s promises by reminding others of them and claiming them in prayer. Live in view of God’s promise of a heavenly future and add the eternal dimension to life (Heb. 11:16).

Thank God for His promises: Abraham worshiped God long before Isaac was born, and he never saw the fulfillment of the other three promises. Likewise, we should thank God for His “great and precious promises.”

Published, November 2002


Dinosaurs in the Bible?

Dinosaurs capture the imag­ination of both young and old. They are big, fast, powerful, and sometimes deadly. These mysteries of the ancient world have entertained us all the way from the old Flint-stones cartoon series (currently being revived as a movie), to Bar­ney, the current children’s TV favorite, to Jurassic Park, the block buster movie of a few years ago. But don’t let the current dinosaur-mania, and the idea of evolution that seems to undergird it, either undermine your faith in the God of the Bible or brainwash your children.

What are dinosaurs?

The word “dinosaur’ was coined in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen, who studied the bones of the Igua­nadon and the Megalosaurus. He named this new order of animal the “dinosaur” which means “ter­rible, huge lizard.” The bones studied were fossils of creatures that lived in the past. A fossil is formed when minerals replace parts of the body and turn it into rock. Dinosaurs were amazing creatures. When did they live? What happened to them?

Any facts that we have con­cerning dinosaurs are gathered from fossil remains found in sedimentary rocks. When we consider fossils, we are dealing with evi­dence of past events, much like stu­dents of ancient history or forensic science do. We seek likely explana­tions of the past, which can be tested, but not proven conclusively. We need a witness, just like in a court case. And we have one, God, who was there in the beginning! He is the witness who knows everything, is reliable and has given us the Bible. In the book of Job, He asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” (Job 38:4 NIV).

Dinosaurs in Genesis

The King James Version of the Bible was translated in 1611, over 200 years before the word “dinosaur” was coined. For this reason, it does not occur specifically in the Bible, and the influence of evolution probably stopped translators from using it in more modern transla­tions today. There are five events recorded in the Bible that have affected every person on the plan­et: the Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the tower of Babel, and the life of Jesus Christ. Three of these shed light on the subject of dinosaurs.

The Creation: Dinosaurs were created on the sixth day with all the other land animals. Adam was also created then, so they lived together. This wasn’t a problem, as they were all plant eaters. Adam and Eve “ruled” over them and Adam named them. God saw that it was “very good” – the Garden of Eden was paradise on earth for both man and dinosaurs! (Gen. 1:25-30; 2:19,20).

The Fall: Adam and Eve’s rebel­lion against God resulted in a dif­ferent world. After their sin, several things came in: suffering, conflict, decay and death. Romans 5:12 says, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Death affected all creation. Romans 8:21-22 says that all creation is wait­ing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay … We know that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of child­birth up to the present time.”

The Flood: The earth was full of violence: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness had become.” He was grieved, and decided to “wipe … from the face of the earth – men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 6:6-7). This state­ment includes dinosaurs, as does Genesis 6:19-21: “Bring into the ark … two of every kind … of ani­mal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground … to be kept alive.”

Then Genesis 7:11 says that “all springs of the great deep burst forth and the floodgates of heaven were opened.” This would have led to erosion and the transport of sediments. It was a worldwide flood, not just a regional one. The ark was needed to save Noah’s family and the animals that were in the ark with him. Except for those in the ark, God destroyed the whole world as punishment for man’s sin and the evil that resulted from it. The flood was a catastrophe involving tremendous amounts of water and upheavals of the earth.

What would we expect to find after the flood? Billions of dead things buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth. And what do we find? Billions of dead things, buried in rock layers, laid down by water, all over the earth! Sedimentary rock – such as sandstone (from sand), shale (from mud and clay), and con­glomerate (a mixture of both) – covers three quarters of the earth. Fossils required a quick burial –resulting from something such as a catastrophic flood – in mud or

sand that turned into rock. These fossil graveyards are everywhere. They provide us with fossil fuels such as oil – which supplies our world’s entire petro-chemical industry, and coal – a fossil fuel used Worldwide for heat, the pro­duction of electricity and many industrial uses.

Dinosaurs in Job

Except for Genesis 1-11, Job is the oldest book in the Bible. Its main character probably lived about 2,000 BC – after the flood, but before large cities were built again. The book shows that Job’s faith was very strong, despite the suffering he went through. In Chapters 38-42, Job is made to realize the vastness of God’s power as revealed in His creation of the physical and biological world. This realization made Job feel insignificant enough to say, “I know that you can do anything, and that no one can stop you” (Job 42:2). We don’t control the uni­verse – God does. The climax of God’s response to Job is a descrip­tion of the two largest creatures He had created – the behemoth and the leviathan.

The behemoth (Job 40:15-24) was the greatest of land animals. It ate plants; it was strong, powerful, unbothered by raging rivers, and beyond being captured. The leviathan (Job 41), another gigantic beast, lived in the water. It was a creature without fear; it terrified the mighty; it couldn’t be subdued; and the mere sight of it was over­powering. It had fearsome teeth, a flaming mouth and smoking nos­trils. The leviathan is referred to as a dragon in the King James Version and a sea monster in the New Inter­national Version (Isa. 27:1).

Some say these creatures are mythical. But if they are, also referred to in the same passage are a lion, horse, ostrich and eagle, which are not mythical. Some say they are just other words for present day animals such as the hippopota­mus, the elephant and the crocodile. If that’s the case, did the Jews have special words for the first two, but not the third? Or are they the now extinct Bra­chiosaurus and the Plesiosaurus dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs surely would have shown God’s power in creation! But then, any creature with life is amazing and demonstrates God’s creative power — even the smallest of things, such as the DNA mole­cule which carries the genetic code. The dinosaur probably became extinct after the flood, because of the much harsher, drier climate and the ice age; because of less vegetation; and possibly because of the impact of humans who continue to cause other ani­mals to become extinct.

Dinosaurs in evolution

Evolutionary ideas about dino­saurs began at the beginning of the last century with Hutton (1795) and Lyell (1830), who taught that “the present is the key to the past.” They attempted to explain the past by present processes alone. So fossils were interpreted in terms of geologic ages, which are based on theoreti­cal “index fossils” and an “evolu­tionary tree.” They say that dinosaurs lived from 200-70 mil­lion years ago inthe Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Ages. The so-called evolutionary tree pre­sents the idea that all life has evolved by natural processes of development alone over millions of years – from molecules to man.

This idea of an evolutionary tree is held by most scientists. It is presented as a fact, not as a theory, which it is, since it can’t be proven. It is taught in schools, uni­versities, museums and the media. Thus everyone is indoctri­nated. But the Bible says they are wrong. And 2 Peter-3:3-7 says the exact opposite of what evolution­ists teach: “In the last days scoffers will come … But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word … the earth was formed … By water also the world … was deluged and destroyed … The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire.”

The scoffers don’t believe that God created the world. They see no need for a Creator God, so there is no authority (Jud. 21:25). They say there are no moral absolutes, no sin, and, therefore, no need for a Savior! They do not believe that God destroyed the whole world by water. They do not believe that God will judge the world by fire. With no author­ity and no sin, there is no judg­ment or accountability – past, pre­sent or future.

Evolution attacks the very foun­dation of the Christian faith. It says that suffering and death existed from the beginning, before Adam and Eve ever sinned. But God is not the source of suffering and death, and He would never refer to a creation based on evolutionary theories as “good.” God’s purpose was the creation and redemption (or rescue) of mankind, not mil­lions of years of evolution! 1 Timo­thy 6:20-21 says such “opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” cause some to “have wandered from the faith.” Don’t let this happen to you!

You decide

Dinosaurs were massive examples of God’s creation, but now they are dead and gone from the face of the earth, and we see them only as fossils. As such, they are merely symbols of God’s judgment of sin. The real examples of God’s judg­ment on the sin and wickedness of mankind are: the destruction caused by the global flood (be reminded of this every time you see sedimentary rock layers); the burning sulfur rained on Sodom and Gomorrah as God’s judgment on evil (verified by fossil remains); the coming tribulation period; and the coming final judgment and destruction by fire (both prophe­sied in the Bible).

Romans 6:23 is God’s provision for us: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eter­nal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Don’t let dinosaurmania and the idea of evolution either under­mine your faith inthe God of the Bible or brainwash your children. Remember that Jurassic Park is just a fictitious, money-making movie with a comment on genetic engi­neering. The Bible tells the real story about the creation, existence and extinction of dinosaurs.

Published, December 1995

Also see: Year of the dragon


Psalm 103 – Even Greater Praise!

Although the Psalms were written about 3,000 years ago, we still benefit from meditating on them today. In Psalm 103 “praise the LORD” appears six times in its 22 verses. And David gives us five reasons to praise Him (Ps. 103:2-5 NIV).

  1. Praise the LORD – who forgives all our sins.
  2. Praise the LORD – who heals all our diseases.
  3. Praise the LORD – who redeems our life from the pit.
  4. Praise the LORD – who crowns us with love and compassion.
  5. Praise the LORD – who satisfies our desires with good things.

The result of being forgiven, healed, redeemed, crowned and satisfied is that our strength is “renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:5). The eagle is a symbol of strength.

The prophet Isaiah described it this way: “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).

What a great promise for those who trust in the Lord! Each day God empowers believers to live for Him: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).

God’s love for His people, like the expanse of the universe, is so vast that it cannot be measured: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:11). Furthermore, it lasts forever, “from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps. 103:17).

This love is demonstrated by the fact that our sins have been forgiven and totally removed, never to be seen again: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our sins from us” (Ps. 103:12).

Micah expressed a similar thought, writing that the God of pardon, forgiveness, mercy and compassion “will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:18-19).

As our lifetime is brief compared to God’s everlasting love (Ps. 103:15-17), let’s remember again and again the good things God has done for us. Don’t take them for granted and don’t forget them (Ps. 103:2).

Remembering will lead us to praise and thank Him, and this is the right response for a forever forgiven people. That’s why David praised the Lord, and why we can join “His angels” and “all His heavenly hosts” in praising the Lord (Ps. 103:20-21).

David didn’t know how God would take our sins away through Jesus. But we do! And shouldn’t this lead us to even greater praise and thanksgiving?

Published, September 2009


Encouragement For Difficult Times

After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?

God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.

The Scriptures
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.

Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.

After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).

The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.

Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).

Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.

Christ’s Return
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).

Our Faith
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).

Daily Encouragement
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.

Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).

When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.

Published, April 2008


I have heard that the Garden of Eden was located in Iraq. Is this true? How do we know?

Genesis presents a summary of the early history of our world. Its writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is not a myth or an allegory or a metaphorical story. In the more detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 we learn that they lived in the Garden of Eden.

The only clues in the Bible of the geographical location of the Garden of Eden are that it was “in the east” (Gen. 2:8 TNIV), and that the river in the garden separated into four rivers named: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris (Hiddekel) and Euphrates (Gen. 2:8-14). Also, the first three of these rivers flowed through regions named Havilah, Cush and Ashur, respectively.

Garden of Eden

As Moses probably compiled the book of Genesis from ancient documents and oral accounts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we don’t know the reference point used for the statement “in the east.” Some think that Israel/Palestine is the reference point. Also, as we don’t know today of a river that separates into the four rivers named above, the topography of the earth was probably different in those days. The Bible suggests that the continents were once together (Gen. 1:9-10). However, today the continents are separated by oceans, and sedimentary layers with fossil sea shells have been found at the top of many Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest.

Although the Bible doesn’t describe when the continents moved apart, it is likely that the earth’s landscape was changed significantly by the catastrophic global flood survived only by Noah’s family. “Every creature that has the breath of life in it” perished in this disaster and everything that existed before the flood was “deluged and destroyed” (Gen. 7:17; 8:21; 2 Pet. 3:5–6). Not only did it rain for 40 days, but “all the springs (fountains) of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of heaven were opened” (Gen. 7:11-12). The springs (or fountains) of the great deep may have been oceanic or subterranean water. This immense flood is the most likely source of the thickest layers of sedimentary rock on earth.

The abating flood waters may have been associated with the uplift of mountains and the sinking of valleys (Ps. 104:6-8). When the mountains rose, the flood waters eroded the land and flowed into the seas (Job 38:8-11). As there are many volcanic rocks interspersed between fossil layers, there may have also been volcanic eruptions at this time. For example, Mt. Ararat in Turkey is a volcanic cone near the junction of the Eurasian, African and Arabian crustal plates. Catastrophic plate collisions may have pushed up creating mountains at this time. If this is so, then God used the tectonic forces associated with the flood and its aftermath to alter the earth’s topography. It was a new start for our planet. (See the parallels between Gen. 1:28-30 and 9:1-5).

After the flood, Noah’s family moved to the Shinar plain (Sumeria/ Babylonia) where we find rivers today called Tigris and Euphrates. Because they flow above flood-deposited layers of rock containing billions of fossils, these are not the same rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden. They were probably named after the original pre-flood rivers, just as settlers from the British Isles to America and Australasia gave familiar names to many places in their “new world.”

As the Garden of Eden was destroyed in the flood and covered by thick sediment and maybe even water, there is no such place today, and its location on the globe can’t be established with certainty. So, although it may have been located in Iraq, or somewhere nearby, in the days of Adam and Eve, we don’t know where Eden is today.

Published, February 2011


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