Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Spiritual

God’s greatest warning for us

Titanic 6 400px

The danger of unbelief

Titanic 6 400pxIn 1912 the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs and kept sailing through the night at near full speed. When they saw an iceberg it was too late to avoid the impact and the ship sank within three hours. This shows it is dangerous to ignore warnings.

In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning to us is the danger of not believing the gospel message. This excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). They were spiritually weak and being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs.

Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests and Christ’s sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices.

Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do. It says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race. As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us.

Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. We will look at each of these in turn. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), this warning applies to us today.

1. Warning against drifting away (Heb. 2:1-4)

“We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1NIV).
This command is a warning against drifting away from the message of the gospel. Don’t be like a boat drifting past its destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current and it’s drifting towards danger.

They had heard the gospel message. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while our minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief.

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3a)
This explains why drifting away is so dangerous. The message spoken through angels was the law given on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Israelites were commanded to keep these laws and there was punishment for disobedience (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28).

The writer says that the gospel is greater than the law. He assumes that a greater message demands a greater punishment for those who rebel against it. If disregard for the law brought punishment, then disregard for the gospel will bring even greater punishment.
If we ignore the gospel message, we can’t escape God’s punishment (1 Th. 5:3; Heb. 12:25).

Costa concordia 5 400pxWhen the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs it hit an iceberg and sank within three hours. Likewise, in 2012 when the Costa Concordia sailed too close to an island near Italy it hit rocks and capsized. In these cases, ignoring warnings and dangerous behaviour resulted in shipwreck. The Bible says ignoring the gospel (by unbelief) also leads to disaster.

“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:3b-4).
Here we see that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by reliable witnesses. While the law was given by God through angels to Moses and then to the people, the gospel was spoken directly by the Lord Jesus. It was confirmed to the writer’s generation by the apostles who were eyewitnesses who heard the original message (Lk. 1:2; Acts 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Pt. 1:16).
The testimony of the apostles and their delegates was supported by miracles, such as the healing of the sick (Acts 3:7-12, 16; 5:12-16; 9:32-41; 14:3, 8-10; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). This is because at that time Jews wanted to see a miracle before they would believe that a message was from God (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:21-22). The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles and their delegates miraculous abilities, such as the ability to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).

These witnesses demonstrate that God’s great salvation is true, reliable, dependable and trustworthy.

2. Warning against unbelief (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3)

The book of Hebrews was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. The writer says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). So some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. This passage is a warning to them (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3). On the other hand, perseverance in the Christian faith is evidence of a true believer (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Mt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). True faith endures and is shown by ongoing hope in God. God gives believers the strength to persevere (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:21). But the “faith” of those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14) doesn’t endure.

This danger is illustrated by the Israelites. Although God miraculously helped them escape from slavery in Egypt and travel to Canaan; because they rebelled they died in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Num. 14:21-35; Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11).
It says, “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).
Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had seen many miracles including the 10 plagues in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, eaten manna and quail provided by God, drank water provided by God, defeated the Amalekites, saw God’s glory and received the law at Mt Sinai and heard God’s promises. But they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb believed and obeyed God and entered Canaan. So the warning is to beware of unbelief. Don’t be like the Israelites!

The main message is given three times “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts (in unbelief)” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15, 4:7). It says, don’t do what they did! The remedy is to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). To persevere in the faith we need to “encourage one another daily” in our families, churches and communities.

The message given by God’s voice was the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 3:15; 4:1-2). The Israelites heard good news about the Promised Land, but it was of no value to them because instead of having faith and belief, they disobeyed and didn’t believe. Here’s the warning. God has also given us a message of good news in the gospel of salvation – forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is of no value to us if we ignore it and reject it. As unbelief excluded the Israelites from Canaan, it also excludes us from heaven (also called God’s “rest” and a “Sabbath-rest”, Heb. 4:1-11). It’s only entered through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3).
“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (by faith), so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).
Unbelief is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven.

3. Warning against falling away (Heb. 6:4-8)

“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away (committed apostasy), to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).
An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but turns against the Lord and abandons the Christian faith and opposes Christianity. They are traitors like Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Lord after being one of His disciples for three years. Apostates are unbelievers without salvation, in contrast to believers who have salvation (Heb. 6:9).

An apostate isn’t someone who hears the gospel and does nothing about it. Such an unbeliever may have another opportunity to become a believer. Also they aren’t a backslider who stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11; 2 Ti. 4:9-10). Backsliders are Christians who are unfaithful and unfruitful.

Apostates had “once been enlightened”, which means they heard the gospel message. Like Judas Iscariot they knew the way of salvation, but hadn’t accepted it. They had “tasted the heavenly gift” of Jesus Christ, but hadn’t accepted Him by faith as Savior. They had “shared in the Holy Spirit” even though they weren’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16:8). They had “tasted the goodness of the word of God”, which means that they responded to the gospel message, but didn’t repent. In this respect, they were like the seed that fell on rocky ground and had no root and died when trouble or persecution came (Mt. 13:20-21). They had also experienced “the powers of the coming age”, which means they had seen the miracles associated with the preaching of the gospel by the apostles and their delegates (Heb. 2:4). But although they had experienced some of the benefits and privileges of Christianity, after they had “fallen away” (committed apostasy), it’s impossible for them to repent. They deliberately turn against and renounce Christianity and ridicule Christ, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”.

The warning is repeated in a parable, which is consistent with the parable of the sower.
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.
But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:7-8).
The first land is an illustration of believers, while the second land is an illustration of apostates. The first is fruitful, but in the second the seed sprouts but because it has no root, some of it dies and the thorns and thistles take over and choke out the rest. The lesson is that God blesses the fruitful believer and punishes the apostate.

Apostates are not only traitors, they are also like terrorists. Terrorists wreck havoc with bombs and guns to undermine their enemies. Apostates are spiritual terrorists who undermine Christianity. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.

Next there is another warning for these spiritual terrorists.

4. Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth (Heb. 10:26-31)

This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ (Heb. 10:26-31). It says that God is angry about sin.
God will judge and punish sinners. This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Hebrews constantly warns about this danger. It is mentioned three times in this passage.
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb. 10:29).
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).

In this warning, apostasy is called deliberate sinning after knowing the truth, being part of God’s people and sanctified and is associated with deserting the church (Heb. 10:25-26, 29-30). Because the apostate has rejected Christ, and there is no other sacrifice for sins, they will be punished for their sins. They are called “enemies of God” meaning that they actively oppose Christianity (Heb. 10:26-27).

Note that God’s judgment occurs when there is no sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s loving sacrifice enables us to escape His judgment.

Once again a comparison is made with the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28-29). Under the law a person who was proven to be an idolater was put to death (Dt. 17:2-7). The apostate will be punished more severely than this because they have:
Trampled the Son of God underfoot.
After professing to be a follower of Jesus, they now deny any need for Christ as Savior and reject Him as their Leader.
Treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them.
They think the death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant is useless and unholy. Through their association with Christian people, they had been sanctified (set apart), just as an unbelieving husband is sanctified by his believing wife (1 Cor. 7:14). But that does not mean that they were saved because it is a different sanctification to that of believers (Heb. 10:14).
Insulted the Spirit of grace.
Although the Holy Spirit had convicted them of sin, and pointed them to Christ as Savior, they despised Him and the salvation He offered and “deliberately keep on sinning”.

The rejection of Jesus as Son of God is a serious sin (Heb. 10:30-31). The Bible says that God will judge such people:
“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” for judgment.
The apostate (spiritual terrorist) will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).

Next they are warned once again.

5. Warning against turning away (Heb. 12:25-29)

After contrasting the old covenant (where God and humanity were separated because of sin) and the new covenant (where God and humanity are reconciled by Jesus Christ), the writer warns
“See to it that you do not refuse Him (God) who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25). God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Ex. 23:20-33). When they refused to obey Him during the exodus towards Canaan, they didn’t escape God’s punishment and so they perished. But Jesus is both from and in heaven and His revelation is greater than that at Mount Sinai. Consequently, if we fail to heed His invitation and warning by turning away from Him in unbelief, then we can’t escape a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. After all, “God is a consuming fire” of judgment to all sin and all who refuse to listen to Him (Heb. 10:27; 12:29).

What are the lessons for us today?

Unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. That’s why there are five warnings against them in the book of Hebrews.

Unbelief (ignoring God’s gift of salvation) is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven. Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. They experienced great miracles, but still didn’t trust in God. Likewise, no matter what our spiritual experiences may be, including miracles, it doesn’t guarantee our salvation. Have we confessed and repented of our sin and trusted in Christ as our Savior and Leader? Are we warning unbelievers of the danger of unbelief? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift of salvation and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?

Sin deceives and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways?

Are we encouraging one another in the Christian faith (Heb. 3:13)? Reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture. Helping each other to not be deceived by the attractiveness of sin. Encouraging people’s faith and discouraging their unbelief. Are we doing this daily? In our families? In our church family? In our small groups?

Apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith; betraying Christ; spiritual terrorism) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and it happens today (1 Tim. 4:1).

If the sin of apostasy doesn’t apply to believers, to whom then does it apply? It could apply to someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ and seems to go on brightly for a while, but then something happens in their life. Perhaps they experience persecution or tragedy, or fall into immorality, or are convinced by the arguments of atheistic commentators or academics. With full knowledge of the truth, they deliberately turn away from it, completely renouncing Christianity. As the Bible says it is impossible to bring apostates to repentance, are we encouraging those at risk of apostasy?

Conclusion

God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.

We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist) is doomed to punishment in hell.

The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.

Written, March 2015


Something to live for

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Something to live for 2 400pxAfter his children were taken away and his partner died, Peter told me “I’ve got nothing to live for at the moment”. He was struggling with severe grief and loss and faced defending himself in Court as he sought access to his children. Peter couldn’t sleep at night and was losing weight because he wasn’t eating much. He felt guilty and was battling wanting to die. He also said “You’ve got to find something to live for”.

Stephen Hawking said that his engagement to Jane Wilde “gave me something to live for”. His biographers said that this was a major turning point in his life, which enabled him to break out of his depression and made him determined to live despite his disability. But their relationship ended after 21 years of marriage.

Although it’s good to have reasons to live for (like our children and partners), the Bible says that the two main purposes of life are to know the true God and to serve Him. We are here to have a close relationship with the God who created the universe and this is only possible through trusting in Jesus Christ and what He has done for us.

While our relationships with family and friends can be great reasons to live, they can also break down. As God is the only One who is always reliable, let’s live for Him.

For more on this topic see:
What’s the purpose of life?
What are we here for?
Why Jesus was sent

Written, March 2015


Gargoyles and dragons

gargoyle 400px

gargoyle 400pxMany gargoyles peer down from medieval churches, cathedrals, houses and town halls in Western Europe. They are usually animals, or people, or hybrid animals/people carved in stone. The animals may be real animals or fantastic beasts. Dogs and lions were the most frequent animals used, while dragons were the most frequent fantasy creatures depicted. The dragons usually had a pair of membranous wings, some legs, a long reptilian tail, a long snout with visible teeth, and a fierce expression.

Before the use of downpipes, waterspouts (which projected out from an upper part of a building or a roof gutter) preserved stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from buildings. They prevented rainwater from running down the walls and affecting the foundations. Gargoyles are decorative waterspouts, being carved stone figures with water spouts through their mouths. The figure was often an elongated animal because the length of the gargoyle determines how far water is thrown from the wall. They were usually carved in the form of a grotesque face, figure or frightening creature with wide-opened mouths to enable the water flow.

By the way, the word “gargoyle” shares a common root with the word “gargle”; which comes from “gargouille”, a French word for “throat”.

History of gargoyles

Gargoyles can be traced back thousands of years in Egypt, Italy and Greece. Lion-shaped gargoyles were used by the ancient Egyptians and on Greek temples. During the Roman Empire, lead pipes were added to gargoyles to channel water without eroding the stone. And gargoyle water spouts were found at the ruins of Pompeii.

gargoyle 3 Notre DameThere are gargoyles on medieval (Middle aged) church buildings in Western Europe like the Gothic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Most were carved out of limestone or marble between the 10th and 15th centuries during the Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture and decorative arts. Although once lead drainpipes were introduced in the 16th century there was no longer any practical need for gargoyles, they continued to be used for decorative purposes.

A dragon legend

There is a French legend about St. Romanus delivering the village of Rouen from a monster called Gargouille in about 600 AD. The fierce dragon which had a long, reptilian neck, a slender snout, batlike wings and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth, lived in a cave near the river Seine. The dragon caused much fear and destruction with its fiery breath, spouting water and the devouring of ships and men.

There are multiple versions of the story, but when la Gargouille was burned, its head and neck were so well tempered by the heat of its fiery breath that they would not burn. These were then mounted on the walls of the church (or city wall) to scare off evil spirits and used for protection.

Although this legend may be embellished and have changed over time, it’s interesting that dragon stories occur in many cultures, particularly the Chinese and Japanese.

gargoyle 2 400pxIs there a link between dragon gargoyles and dinosaurs?

Dragons and dinosaurs

The word “dragon” was used 23 times in the King James Bible (KJB), which was published in 1611, about 400 years ago. 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 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 probably an old word for a type of dinosaur.

dragon gargoyle 400pxCould some of the gargoyle dragons have been carved from the dragons that were known in the 1600s?

Ancient images and dinosaurs

There is also a theory that gargoyles were inspired by early findings of dinosaur fossils such as proceratops. Adrienne Mayor (“The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times”) saw a similarity between some Greek and Roman images and dinosaurs. To explain this she hypothesised that these were based on fossil bones discovered in these times.

She said that, “The earliest depictions of griffins looked really gnarly and brutish. It looked as if the artist were trying to portray something real rather than mythological. And then … I realized that they looked like modern reconstructions of dinosaurs in a museum”.

However, as she believed that all the dinosaurs died out millions of years ago, she failed to consider the possibility that the griffins could be based on seeing the actual creatures, not just the bones. After all, it takes modern scientists considerable research to reconstruct the appearance of an unknown animal from its bones.

Looking back

As the story of the gargoyles relates to ancient times, some of it has probably been lost from our history. But they remind us of a time when buildings were more decorative and ornate. Some speculate about the symbolism of gargoyles, but I think they show the skill and creativity of the medieval stone masons.

Written, February 2015


God’s greatest warning

Jihadi John 312px

Jihadi John 312px5 warnings in Hebrews

“Jihadi John” is the English man associated with the Islamic State beheadings released on video over the past 18 months. Those beheaded were journalists and aid workers who had been kidnapped and held as hostages and Syrian soldiers who had been captured. He is a traitor who is the subject of a manhunt by the FBI, MI5 and Scotland Yard. There is a $US10 million bounty for information that leads to his capture. They say he will be hunted down like Osama Bin-Laden.

In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning is the danger of not believing the gospel message. This excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.

Context

Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (Heb. 12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.

Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes, whoever they may be, including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, the leaders of nations and religions. It finishes with showing how Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices, greater than any good works we might think help us get to heaven.

Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do in view of the fact that Jesus is greater than all our heroes and that His sacrifice is greater than any of ours. It says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race. As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. The reasons we can keep following Jesus through adversity include: the examples of the heroes of the Bible, particularly Jesus; our past experience; God’s promises; and the fact that adversity develops our character. So because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and His promised coming again, we can keep following Him even when we are tempted to give up.

Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. We will look at each of these in turn. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.

Warning against drifting away

“We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1NIV).
This command is a warning against drifting away from the message of the gospel. The Greek word pararreó (Strongs #3901) means “to drift away from”. This is its only occurrence in the Bible where it refers to going spiritually adrift. The image is of a boat drifting past a destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current. Instead it’s drifting towards danger.

The message they had heard was the gospel. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while their minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief or drifting into apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith)—the sin for which there is no repentance.

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3a)
This explains why drifting away is so dangerous. The message spoken through angels was the law given on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Israelites were commanded to keep these laws. For example, when a person was proven to be an idolater, they were put to death (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28). Also, because the Jews rebelled and disobeyed God’s laws, they were punished and lost their favoured status and the gospel was preached to the Gentiles instead.

The writer says that the gospel is greater than the law. He assumes that a greater message demands a greater punishment for those who rebel against it. If disregard for the law brought punishment, then disregard for the gospel will bring even greater punishment. If we ignore the gospel message, we can’t escape God’s punishment (1 Th. 5:3; Heb. 12:25). We will not inherit eternal life, but perish in hell.

“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:3b-4).
Here we see that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by reliable witnesses. While the law was given by God through angels to Moses and then to the people, the gospel was spoken directly by the Lord Jesus. It was confirmed to the writer’s generation by the eyewitnesses who heard the message (Lk. 1:2). The apostles were the main eyewitnesses (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Pt. 1:16). The testimony of the apostles and their delegates was supported by miracles, such as the healing of the sick (Acts 3:7-12, 16; 5:12-16; 9:32-41; 14:3, 8-10; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). This is because at that time Jews wanted to see a miracle before they would believe that a message was from God (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:21-22). The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles and their delegates miraculous abilities, such as the ability to communicate in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).

These witnesses demonstrate the truth of God’s great salvation. This shows why it is unreasonable to ignore this great salvation.

Warning against unbelief

The book of Hebrews was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. The writer says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). So some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. This passage is a warning to them (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3). On the other hand, perseverance in the Christian faith is evidence of a true believer (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Mt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). True faith endures and is shown by ongoing hope in God. God gives believers the strength to persevere (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:21). But the kind of faith that doesn’t endure is associated with those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14).

This danger is illustrated by the Israelites. Although God miraculously helped them escape from slavery in Egypt and travel to Canaan, because they rebelled they died in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Num. 14:21-35; Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11). “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had heard God’s promise but they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb believed and obeyed God and entered Canaan. So the warning is to beware of unbelief. Don’t be like the Israelites!

The main message is given three times “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15, 4:7). It says, don’t do what they did! The remedy is to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). To persevere in the faith we need to “encourage one another daily” in our families, churches and communities.

Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. The psalmist applied this message to the people of his day, saying “Today, if only you would hear His (God’s) voice” (Ps. 95:7; Heb. 4:7). The writer of Hebrews applies the message to unbeliever in the first century (Heb. 4:1-3). And we can apply it to unbelievers today.

So what is the message given by God’s voice? It is the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 4:1-2). The Israelites heard good news about the Promised Land, but it was of no value to them because instead of having faith and belief, they disobeyed and didn’t believe. Here’s the warning. God has also given us a message of good news in the gospel of salvation – forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is of no value to us if we ignore it and reject it. As unbelief excluded the Israelites from Canaan, it also excludes us from heaven (also called God’s “rest” and a “Sabbath-rest”, Heb. 4:1-11). It’s only entered through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3). “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (by faith), so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). Unbelief is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven.

Unbelief never goes undetected because the Bible “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” and “nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12-13).

Warning against falling away

“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away (committed apostasy), to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).

An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but turns against the Lord and abandons the Christian faith and speaks against Christianity. They become an enemy of Christ (1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 2 Pt. 2:20-22; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). They are traitors like Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Lord after being one of His disciples for three years. Apostates are unbelievers without salvation, in contrast believers who have salvation (Heb. 6:9).

An apostate isn’t someone who hears the gospel and does nothing about it. Such an unbeliever may have another opportunity to become a believer. Also they aren’t a backslider who stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11; 2 Ti. 4:9-10). Backsliders are Christians who are unfaithful and unfruitful.

Apostates had “once been enlightened”, which means they had heard the gospel message. Like Judas Iscariot they knew the way of salvation, but hadn’t accepted it. They had “tasted the heavenly gift” of Jesus Christ, but hadn’t accepted Him by faith as Savior. They had “shared in the Holy Spirit” even though they weren’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16:8). They had “tasted the goodness of the word of God”, which means that they responded to the gospel message, but didn’t repent. In this respect, they were like the seed that fell on rocky ground and had no root and died when trouble or persecution came (Mt. 13:20-21). They had also experienced “the powers of the coming age”, which means they had seen the miracles associated with the preaching of the gospel by apostles and their delegates (Heb. 2:4). But although they had experienced some of the benefits and privileges of Christianity, after they had “fallen away” (committed apostasy), it’s impossible for them to repent. They deliberately turn against and renounce Christianity and ridicule Christ, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”. They are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18). They are like the false teachers who John said “went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 Jn. 2:19).

The warning is repeated in a parable, which is consistent with the parable of the sower.
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:7-8).
The first land is an illustration of believers, while the second land is an illustration of apostates. The first is fruitful, but in the second the seed sprouts but because it has no root, some of it dies and the thorns and thistles take over and choke out the rest. The lesson is that God blesses the fruitful believer and punishes the apostate.

Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth

This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ and deserting the church (Heb. 10:26-31). It says that God is angry about sin. God will judge and punish sinners. This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Hebrews constantly warns about this danger. It is mentioned three times in this passage.

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb. 10:29).
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).

In this warning, apostasy is called deliberate sinning after knowing the truth, being part of God’s people and sanctified and is associated with deserting the church (Heb. 10:25-26, 29-30). Because the apostate has rejected Christ, and there is no other sacrifice for sins, they will be punished for their sins. They are called “enemies of God” meaning that they actively oppose Christianity (Heb. 10:26-27).

Note that God’s judgment occurs when there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful expectation of judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s love in providing the sacrifice enables us to escape His judgment.

Once again a comparison is made with the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28-29). Under the law a person who was proven to be an idolater was put to death (Dt. 17:2-7). The apostate will be punished more severely than this because they have:
Trampled the Son of God underfoot. After professing to be a follower of Jesus, they now deny any need for Christ as Savior and reject Him as Lord.
Treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them. They think the death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant is useless and unholy. Through their association with Christian people, they had been sanctified (set apart), just as an unbelieving husband is sanctified by his believing wife (1 Cor. 7:14). But that does not mean that they were saved because it is a different sanctification to that of believers (Heb. 10:14).
Insulted the Spirit of grace. Although the Holy Spirit had convicted them of sin, and pointed them to Christ as Savior, they despised Him and the salvation He offered and “deliberately keep on sinning”.

The rejection of Jesus as Son of God is a serious sin (Heb. 10:30-31). The Bible says that God will judge such people: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” for judgment. The apostate will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).

Warning against turning away

After contrasting the old covenant (where God and humanity were separated because of sin) and the new covenant (where God and humanity are reconciled by Jesus Christ), the writer warns “See to it that you do not refuse Him (God) who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25). God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai. When they refused to obey Him during the exodus towards Canaan, they didn’t escape God’s punishment and so they perished. But Jesus is both from and in heaven and His revelation is greater than that at Mount Sinai. Consequently, if we fail to heed His invitation and warning by turning away from Him in unbelief, then we can’t escape a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. After all, “God is a consuming fire” of judgment to all sin and all who refuse to listen to Him (Heb. 10:27; 12:29).

What are the lessons for us today?

Unbelief and apostasy (treason) are dangerous. That’s why there are five warnings against them in the book of Hebrews.

Unbelief (ignoring God’s gift of salvation) is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven. Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Are we warning unbelievers? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?

Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways, which are popular and followed by the majority?

Are we encouraging one another daily in the Christian faith (Heb. 3:13)? Reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture. Helping each other to not be deceived by the apparent attractiveness of sin. Encouraging people’s faith and discouraging their unbelief. Are we doing this daily? In our families? In our church family? In our small groups?

Apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith; betraying Christ) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and is prevalent today (1 Tim. 4:1). If the sin of apostasy doesn’t apply to believers, to whom then does it apply? It could apply to someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ and seems to go on brightly for a while, but then something happens in their life. Perhaps they experience persecution or tragedy, or fall into immorality, or are convinced by the arguments of atheistic commentators or academics. With full knowledge of the truth, they deliberately turn away from it, completely renouncing Christianity. As the Bible says it is impossible to bring apostates to repentance, are we encouraging those at risk of apostasy?

Conclusion

God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor (an apostate) by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.

We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.

The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.

Written, February 2015


Three types of fear

Fear diagram Feb 2015 400px

Fear diagram Feb 2015 400pxWhat do we fear? Terrorist attacks? The rise of radical Islamism? Danger? Crime? Failure? Rejection? Change? Loss? The future? The unknown? Uncertainty? Being alone? Unemployment? The rising cost of living? Economic recession? Climate change? Immigration? Pain? Death? Dentists? Public speaking? Heights? Snakes?

Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation, but constant fear is debilitating. This can lead to anxiety, which is prevalent today.

The fear (reverence and respect) of God is a feeling of awe and praise of a small creature before their immense Creator. This type of fear is unusual today.

Let’s look at what the Bible says about these types of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us love godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.

Method

There are at least 10 Greek words that are used in the New Testament to describe “fear”. The two most common ones are:
phobeo (Strongs #5399) is a verb which means either to fear and be afraid, or to reverence.
phobos (Strongs #5401) is a noun which means either fear, or reverence and respect for authority.

In this study we looked at the 81 occurrences of all the 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church; Acts to Revelation inclusive (see the references in the next four sections). These occurrences were grouped according to whether they were about fear or about reverence/respect. We begin by looking at the fears of unbelievers.

Fears of unbelievers

Sometimes the first-century Jewish and Roman authorities were afraid. The captain of the temple guard and his officers didn’t use force to recapture the apostles because they feared that the people, who highly regarded the apostles, would stone them (Acts 5:26). The magistrates were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens because they had been beaten publicly without a trial (Acts 16:38). Likewise, the Roman commander in Jerusalem was afraid when he found out that Paul was a Roman citizen because he had put him in chains (Acts 22:29). Later because he was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by the crowd, the commander had Paul taken to the barracks (Acts 23:10).

When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near Crete and the ship was driven towards Malta for 14 days. During the storm, the sailors were afraid the ship would run aground, and near Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29).

People are afraid when they face punishment. When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we will be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear (Rom. 8:15). When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself. After Paul reassured him that all the prisoners were still there, the jailor was convicted of his sinfulness and he fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked what to do to be saved from going to hell (Acts 16:29).

Unbelievers will be afraid when they face God at the Great White Throne to be judged because their names are not in the book of life. The degree of their punishment will be according to the evil deeds they have done. When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but abandons the Christian faith. The Bible says they will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). Unbelievers (whose destiny is hell, not heaven) are described as being cowards because, unlike the overcomer, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).

People of the earth will be afraid after God’s future judgments. When two of God’s witnesses are resurrected after being martyred, those who see them will be afraid (Rev. 11:11, 13). After the two witnesses ascend to heaven, there will be a severe earthquake and the survivors will be afraid. When Babylon falls, the kings of the earth and the merchants will be afraid (Rev. 18:10, 15).

Finally, people are afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).

These are mainly examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. They may be called protective fear where people respond to protect themselves. This is a healthy kind of fear. In the case of chronic fear, people are too anxious and doubtful to respond appropriately. This is an unhealthy kind of fear, which keeps us from doing things we should do. It is an anxiety which can lead to depression and mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).

Next we look at the fears of those who trusted in God.

Fears of believers

People are afraid when they see a demonstration of God’s power. Moses trembled with fear at the burning bush and was greatly afraid at the sight at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:32; Heb. 12:21). Cornelius was afraid when an angel spoke to him (Acts 10:4). And people were afraid when they heard how Ananias and Sapphira died (Acts 5:5, 11).

Christians should fear sin and its consequences. We should be afraid that some people haven’t yet accepted God’s plan of salvation and so they aren’t going to heaven (Heb. 4:1). If an elder sins in such a way as to harm the testimony of the church they are to be rebuked publicly so the others may fear falling into sin (1 Tim. 5:20). When responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23).

Paul was afraid about the effectiveness of his preaching and teaching ministry. He was humble when he visited Corinth as he came in weakness with great fear and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul was afraid that the Corinthians may be deceived by false teachers and that if he visits them, they will be disorderly (2 Cor. 11:3; 12:20). At Macedonia, he was harassed by internal fears because he was hoping that Titus would give him news about the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:5-7). This was alleviated when Titus told him about the Corinthians’ sorrow and their longing to see Paul. Also, Paul was afraid he had wasted his efforts in Galatia because they were following Jewish practices (Gal 4:11).

Sometimes the apostles were told to not be afraid. At Antioch, Peter separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of bullies in the circumcision group (Gal 2:12). But he stopped this after he was rebuked by Paul. When he was on the island of Patmos, John fell at His feet when he saw Christ, but was told to not be afraid (Rev 1:17). After Paul was converted he escaped Damascus (as the Jews planned to kill him) and went to Jerusalem. When he tried to join the disciples, they were afraid of him because they didn’t believe that he was a disciple (Acts 9:26-27). But they accepted Paul after Barnabas told them about Paul’s conversion and preaching.

These are mainly examples of fearing God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, and that one’s preaching and teaching may not be effective. These are healthy fears as they are associated with godly living.

Courage is the opposite of fear; it’s the ability to face danger without fear. Next we look when those who trusted in God demonstrated courage instead of fear.

Not afraid

Moses’ parents weren’t afraid of the kings edict to drown every Hebrew boy that is born and Moses didn’t fear Pharaoh’s anger (Heb. 11:23, 27). The Psalmist wasn’t afraid when he was in trouble because the Lord was with him (Heb. 13:6).

The early Christians were to be courageous when they faced persecution. They were not to fear threats or be frightened when persecuted and not retaliate, but endure it patiently and be kind to their persecutors (1 Pt. 3:14). The church in Smyrna was told not to be afraid of persecution and to be faithful even to the point of death (Rev 2:10). All this is possible because the Holy Spirit makes believers courageous and not timid; “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid (fearful), but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7NIV).

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him to not be afraid because “I am with you” and no one would harm him and there were many people in Corinth who would follow the Lord (Acts 18:9). During the storm, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). Also, Paul told the Romans, if you do what’s right, then there is no need to fear those who are in authority (Rom 13:3).

As marriage thrives in a climate of love, honor and respect, there is no place for fear in a healthy marriage. Peter said wives shouldn’t be terrified of their husbands (except for cases of domestic violence, which isn’t acceptable) (1 Pt. 3:6).

Christians don’t fear death because it brings them closer their Savior. In fact, Jesus frees believers from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).

Christians don’t fear God’s judgment because Jesus has paid the penalty. John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ’s death on our behalf is the “perfect love” that “drives out fear” of God’s judgment.

These are examples of courage and not fearing authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, your husband, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.

The second meaning of “fear” in Scripture is to indicate reverence and respect for authority.

Reverence

Godly men who lived in Old Testament times had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. For example, after being warned by God of the coming judgment, in holy fear (reverence and respect) Moses built an ark to save his family (Heb. 11:7).

People were filled with awe at the miracles done by the apostles when the church was formed at Jerusalem (Acts 2:43). Although they were mainly Jews, it soon became evident that there were Gentiles who also had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. Cornelius and his family were devout and God-fearing (Acts 10:2, 22). They believed in one God and the moral and ethical teachings of the Jews. Likewise, there were Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch who reverenced and respected the Lord (Acts 13:16, 26). When Peter realized that God accepted Gentiles, he said God accepts those who respect Him and do what is right (Acts 10:35). When someone lives up to the revelation they have received about the Lord, He makes sure that they hear the gospel and so has the opportunity to be saved.

Gentiles shouldn’t be proud that there are more of them in God’s family today than Jews, but they should respect God (Rom 11:20).

After the people in Ephesus realized that Paul’s miracles were greater than the false exorcists, they were also filled with a deep sense of awe and the Lord’s name was honored (Acts 19:17).

Believers are commanded to give respect and honor to those owed respect and honor (Rom 13:7). This includes revering and respecting God and worshiping Him with reverence and awe (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Pt 2:17; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God (Rom 3:18). There is a reward for those who revere God (Rev. 11:18). When believers respected the Lord, the early church grew (Acts 9:31). So although they didn’t fear persecution, they revered Christ as Lord (1 Pt. 3:14, 15).

Paul respected the Lord as He is the one to whom Christians are accountable when they are rewarded at the judgement seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). Similarly, we should fear displeasing the Lord. Jesus is another example for us; He prayed with reverent submission (Heb. 5:7).

The Corinthians respected the Lord and they received Titus “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (2 Cor. 7:11, 15). Paul urged the Philippians to work on deliverance from their contentions “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (Phil. 2:12-13).

In the gospel of the coming kingdom, people are told to respect God and worship Him, not a man (Rev 14:7). At that time, God’s judgments on the earth will show that He is a God of holiness (Rev. 15:4). They will cause all nations to revere, glorify, and worship Him.

Slaves, children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). As already mentioned, respect is part of a healthy marriage. While the husband is to love his wife, the wife is to respect her husband (Eph. 5:33). Wives should also be morally pure, which springs from reverence toward the Lord (of course this principle applies to husbands as well) (1 Pt. 3:2).

Slaves should respect and obey their masters (no only when they are watching or to earn their favour) with sincerity and with reverence to the Lord (Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Pt. 2:18). Similarly, as God’s slaves/servants, our attitude towards Him should be one of reverence and respect (Rev. 19:5).

These are examples of reverence and respect for God, who warns of coming judgment, who enabled the apostles and their delegates to do miracles, and who we wish to please as our Lord. They may be called respectful fear, which is a healthy fear associated with godly living. This reverence leads to slaves, children, and wives submitting to their masters, parents and husbands.

Lessons for us

From these Scriptures we see that if we obey the law, there is no need to fear punishment from authorities. But do we fear danger or death? If we have no external resources to help us, it is natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize that Christ is with us (Acts 18:9-10; Heb. 13:6). Prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Pt. 5:7). Then we can practice protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.

As Christians, do we fear God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, displeasing the Lord, or that our service and ministry may not be effective? These are healthy fears that help us live godly lives.

The apostles were courageous when they faced the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8; 2 Tim. 1:7). After Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, he was told by the Lord to have courage because he would also stand before Caesar in Rome (Acts 23:11). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties, including false teachers (1 Cor. 16:13). Do we have courage instead of fear when we face authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, or God’s judgment? This courage comes from the Holy Spirit who empowers believers for godly living.

Do we go against the tide in a world where one’s rights are given priority over one’s responsibilities? Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Then we can practice respectful fear. Do we respect His message for us in the Bible? Do we respect our employer, parents, spouse and our church elders?

Less respect of God leads to more trust in humanity, which leads to more anxiety and chronic fear. It also leads to less respect for authority in families, schools, and society. When parents don’t respect God, children don’t respect parents. When teachers don’t respect God, students don’t respect teachers. When our leaders don’t respect God, people don’t respect the police, the judiciary or the government.

Conclusion

Let’s bring all our fears to the Lord in prayer so we can exercise protective fear when we are aware of danger and not lapse into chronic fear based on assumed dangers. And most important of all, let’s be aware of God and Christ so we can practice respectful fear until it is part of our character.

Through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us live godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.

Written, February 2015


When David said he was sinful at birth & from conception in Psalm 51:5, what did he mean?

birth 2 400px

birth 2 400px“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5NIV).

This verse is part of David’s prayer of confession for his sins (adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah). The prayer demonstrates the parallelism and figurative language of Hebrew poetry. Some of the figures of speech are related to how he wanted his sin to be removed: “blot out”, “wash away” and “cleanse” (v. 1-2); “wash” with hyssop so he is “whiter than snow” (v.7); “hear joy and gladness” (the effect is substituted for the cause), and “let the bones (body) you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

In verse 5 he makes the parallel statements, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. This is an example of hyperbole, where the writer exaggerates to make a point. Hyperbole is used commonly in the Bible to grab our attention and cause us to stop and think about what is being said. In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “I’ve been sinful all my life” or “I’ve always been a sinner”. As such it is figurative and not literal.

David begins to use hyperbole in this prayer when he says, “my sin is always before me” (v.3). Was it on his mind 24 hours a day? No it wasn’t, but it filled his mind. He continues to use hyperbole in the next verse, “against you (God), you only, have I sinned” (v.4). What about his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah? He leaves them out because these sins were less important that his sin against God. The pattern of hyperbole continues in the next verse, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v.5). Had David sinned from the time of his conception? No he hadn’t, but he feels so guilty it’s as if he’s been sinning all his life.

David also has similar thoughts in Psalm 58 where he asked God to punish unjust rulers. He uses hyperbole to describe them:
“Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies” (Ps. 58:3).
This a clearly figurative language because babies don’t spread lies from birth (they can’t communicate using words). In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “they’ve been sinful all their lives”. Had they gone astray from birth? Of course not. Had they spread lies from birth? Of course not. As such it is figurative and not literal.

There are other figures of speech in the next verse where the unjust leader’s speech is described as “venom”, which is probably a metaphor for slander (v.4). This metaphor is extended to them being like a deaf snake, which implies they are deaf to the voice of God.

It would be wrong to use this Hebrew poetry in Psalms 51 and 58 to develop a theology of when sin starts in a child’s life. That topic isn’t being addressed in these verses.

Does this mean that babies are innocent? No and yes! On one hand they already have a sinful nature which is a characteristic of humanity (Rom. 3:10, 23; Eph. 2:1-3), but on the other hand, they are not yet accountable for their sin (Dt, 1:39; Is. 7:14-14; Jon. 4:11). Sinful behavior comes naturally. No one has to teach a child to lie or be selfish. No one is sinless (1 Jn. 1:7).

So when interpreting a passage in the Bible, we need to be careful to note its genre (is it prose or poetry?) and the occurrence of figures of speech.

Written, February 2015

Also see: If an infant dies, do they go to heaven?


When God has plans “to prosper you” & “to give you a hope and a future” in Jeremiah 29:11, what does He mean? Does this promise apply to us today?

God's plan for you 400px

God's plan for you 400px“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11NIV).

This verse is part of Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. They were prisoners of war (POWs) following a Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. The death and deportment of the Jews and the eventual devastation of Jerusalem was God’s judgement of the sins of Judah. The letter was probably written about 597BC.

The exiles were in a hopeless situation. But God had plans for them. What were these plans? They are described in the adjacent verses (v. 10, 14).
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).
“I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile” (Jer. 29:14).

God’s plan is that they spend 70 years as POWs in Babylon. After this they will be released and able to return to Jerusalem and their homeland. God gave them hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.

This plan was fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11), which enabled a remnant of Jews to return to their homeland under Zerubbabel (538BC), Ezra (458BC) and Nehemiah (444BC). So this promise given in 597BC has already been fulfilled.

Application

This promise gave the POWs something to look forward to during their long exile. It also taught them that their situation wasn’t helpless or hopeless because God promised ultimate deliverance and restoration from their exile. Their way to optimism was to remember this plan for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.

What about us today as Christians? As the promise given to the Jewish exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 has already been fulfilled, it doesn’t apply to us today. But the principle behind the promise can apply to us today. The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we expect to go through suffering along the way.

God’s plan for believers is for them to be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). But does He have individual plans for us today? Paul says that Christians “are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Good works should be the fruit of our salvation. They are the evidence of our new life (Jas. 2:14-26). What kind of good works should we do? Those which God has “prepared in advance for us to do”. That sounds like an individual plan to me. So God does have a plan of good works for each of our lives.

Finding God’s plan for us

To find out the good works God has planned for us to do individually, we should:
– confess and repent of sin in our lives (1 Jn. 1:9);
– put God first in our life;
– study the Bible and obey it;
– ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5);
– seize opportunities of service as they arise; and
– listen to the advice of godly Christians.

We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.

So if you want a verse to support the fact that God has a plan for our lives, it would be better to use Paul’s example (Eph. 2:10) than Jeremiah’s (Jer. 29:11).
(End)


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