Observations on life; particularly spiritual


Strength for the weary

God’s message for Jews in captivity
WW2 Japanese POWs 3 400px

In World War 2, 22,000 Australian servicemen were taken captive as prisoners of war (POW) by the Japanese. They went through brutal and horrific experiences, including beatings, starvation, transportation on cramped ships, and long jungle marches in south-east Asia. Many worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. 8,000 (36%) of them died in captivity.

In this post on Isaiah 40 we see that Isaiah told the Jews that their descendants would be POWs. These captives would be discouraged and weary. But if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength.


Strength for weak 400pxIsaiah prophesied for 60 years from 740BC to 680BC. During this period Judah was threatened by the Assyrians. In 722BC Assyria conquered the northern kingdom (Israel) and they were taken into captivity. So the southern kingdom of Judah feared the Assyrians.

The book of Isaiah was written to the people of Judah in about 700BC. The oldest copy of Isaiah is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated about 200BC. Isaiah has two main sections. Chapters 1-39 describe the Assyrian threat, which was God’s judgement for their idolatry. Chapters 40-55 describe how in 100 years time they will be defeated by the Babylonians and taken captive as prisoners for 70 years and then delivered and restored as a nation.

In chapters 36-37, we read that God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. In chapter 39, King Hezekiah recovers from a serious illness and representatives of the king of Babylon come with a gift. Hezekiah shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Then Isaiah predicts that this wealth and some of the people will be captured and taken to Babylon. This happened about 100 years later.

In Isaiah 41, Isaiah ridicules the Babylonian idols that the captives were tempted to follow and he predicts that God will raise up Cyrus, king of Persia who will allow the captives to return to Judea. This happened 170 years after the prediction was made. So chapter 40 is framed before and after by accounts of the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It is addressed to those in exile. As a promise of deliverance from captivity, it aims to encourage and strengthen them when they are discouraged, tired and weak.

Note that Isaiah 40 has a poetic structure and that prophecies like this can have multiple fulfilments. We will look at what it meant to those in captivity and how it can apply to us today.

God’s promise (v.1-11)

In this section God promises to deliver His people from captivity. Verse 2 mentions the Jews “hard service has been completed” and their “sin has been paid for”. This refers to their slavery in Babylon. They would have been discouraged and weary because the exile lasted for 70 years. But now they had been fully punished for their sins (received double). They needed comfort and encouragement and that is the theme of this chapter (v.1). “Comfort, comfort” means great comfort. The message of deliverance would give them encouragement, comfort and hope.

In verses 3-5 they are told to “prepare the way for the Lord” by building a highway in the desert so “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” in their deliverance from exile in Babylon. This highway is a figure of speech for repentance and dealing with the sinful things in life that needed to be straightened out. The promise is that the Lord is returning to Jerusalem when the Jews return to Judea. Nations will be amazed when this happens and realize that the Jews have a great God. It’s unusual for a conquered nation to be resurrected like that.

Then there is a contrast between the temporary and the permanent (v.6-8). It says people are like grass and flowers. They wither and fall, but God’s word endures forever. When it was written they were afraid of the Assyrians. But the Assyrian threat will pass. When they were in exile they were ruled by the Babylonians. But the Babylonian rule will pass. This is repeated in v.23-24, where he says that rulers of this world are temporary and will soon vanish. For them it meant that the power of Assyria and Babylonia would soon vanish. On the other hand, God’s word is permanent (Mt. 24:35). Also, because humans fail, their only hope comes from the eternal word of God.

Next they hear the good news of deliverance from Babylon (v.9-11). It’s like another exodus. This is a prediction of what was to happen about 170 years later. God “comes with power” in the form of the Persians who conquer the Babylonians (v.10). The reward of those who were faithful to the Lord is that they could return to their homeland. God is a ruler that cares for them like a shepherd cares for his sheep.
“He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young” (v.11)

So even though God’s people are in a bad place in captivity in a foreign land, God promises to care for them and bring them safely back to their homeland. That’s the comfort and encouragement mentioned in v.1. This Hebrew word (Strongs #5162) is used elsewhere in Isaiah to describe their deliverance from exile (Is. 49:13; 51:12; 52:9).

Peter Greste 400pxIn June 2014 the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news that defamed Egypt. Two other journalists were also imprisoned. They were framed as terrorists and spies. But all denied the charges against them and said their trial was a sham and that they were simply reporting the news. When they were about to begin a hunger strike, there was great joy in February 2015 when Peter was released after spending 400 days in an Egyptian jail. Deliverance is good news!

The Bible says that the glory of the Lord (v.5) is also revealed at Christ’s first and second advent (Lk. 2:9; Rev. 1:7). John the Baptist applied v.3 (“prepare the way for the Lord”) to himself when he told the people to prepare for the Messiah by repenting of their sins (Mt. 3:1-8; Mk. 1:2-8; Lk. 3:2-17; Jn. 1:23). Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Have we confessed and repented of our sins?

Do we have a sense of the temporary and the permanent? The troubles of this life are temporary, while the promises of heaven are permanent. Do we live as though God’s word endures forever? Peter uses this passage to say that the new spiritual life is eternal (1 Pt. 1:23-25).

Are we in a bad place? If we trust in God, He will care for us and bring us safely to be with Him in heaven.

But how do the captives know that God can do what He promised?

God’s greatness (v.12-26)

Next they are given three examples of God’s greatness. This section has many rhetorical questions to persuade the people to trust in the Lord.

First, He is a great creator (v. 12). He made and controls the oceans, the stars and planets, the earth’s surface including the dust, the mountains and hills. Isaiah uses personification saying that God measures the oceans in the hollow of His hand and measures the universe with the breadth of His hand. And God weighs the mountains and hills.

God made the earth and the stars (v.21-26). This should be obvious to the Jews because they have the account of creation in Genesis. So God rebukes them,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” (v.21).
He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? He reminded them of something they already knew.

Who created all the stars (v.26)? It must be someone who existed before the stars. It must be God Himself. Who controls them? He guides the stars in their paths across the sky. He knows each by name and “because of His great power and mighty strength” none of them go missing!

God creates and sustains without outside help (v. 13-14). He is the ultimate cause; no one instructed or taught Him, and no one else can understand what He does (Rom. 11:33-34; 1 Cor. 2:16). He has incredible wisdom.

The second example of God’s greatness is that the other nations are insignificant compared to God (v.15-17). And all the forests of Lebanon aren’t sufficient fuel and all its animals inadequate for a worthy burnt offering to Him.

The third example is that God is greater than any man-made idol (v.18-20). He says they are useless. The rich make them out of gold and silver, while the poor use wood. He uses satire and sarcasm. Saying they are made by craftsmen, who need to make sure they don’t topple over. An idol can’t even stand up by itself! Instead, God is incomparable. There is no one like Him.

In those days people believed that when one nation was conquered by another, the gods of the conqueror were stronger than the gods of the vanquished. Some of the Jews in exile may have thought the gods of Babylon were stronger than their God. So God asks them, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (v.25). The answer is no-one.

At that time the pagan nations worshipped the sun, moon and stars (Is. 47:13). The Jews also began to worship these as gods (2 Ki. 17:16; 21: 3, 5; Jer. 19:13). But here they are being told that their God is greater than these gods, because He made them!

The Sun is a star, and life on Earth depends on this powerful source of energy. It’s the greatest power in our solar system. Every second, the sun radiates a million times more energy than the entire United States consumes in a year. Quasars are among the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe. They can emit enormous amounts of energy, up to a thousand times the total output of the hundreds of billions of stars in our entire galaxy. But God is even more powerful!

Do we marvel at the wonders of the physical world? Do we believe that God is the ultimate cause? The greatest creator and sustainer?

Do we know what our idols are? What’s our perception of them? What influence do they have? Do they rule our lives?

But the captives think that God has forgotten them while they are in exile in Babylon (v.27). They are discouraged and wonder if God still cares for them. So they complain.

God strengthens the weary (v.27-31)

So God rebukes them once again,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.” (v.28).
Once again He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? This is said to those who don’t trust God. It’s Hebrew poetry where two lines are often grouped together to express one thought.

They needed to know that …
“The LORD is the everlasting God”.
He’s different to the man-made idols you see in Babylon. They are temporary; but He is permanent. He existed before everything else existed. He is a unique God.

“(He’s) the Creator of the ends of the earth”. He created all the earth. He won’t forsake what He has made.

“He will not grow tired or weary”. He’s not like us. He doesn’t get tired and weary. He hadn’t forgotten them. No problems are hidden from God, or too much for Him to handle.

“His understanding no one can fathom”. No one can understand like God (Rom. 11:33). He’s in a totally different realm to us. His ways are right, even though we don’t know or understand them.

Next he promises new strength for those who trusted God. Because of God’s attributes, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (v.29). Those who trust in Him are strengthened when they are weary and empowered when they are weak as was the case for the captives. Because He cares for the stars, He also cares for His people.

“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but 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.” (v.30-31).

“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall”. As human beings we all get tired and weary. We run out of energy. We all can stumble and fall. There are times when we can’t go on. Our human resources are used up. We need rest. We need sleep.

“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”. The Hebrew word translated “hope”, is translated “wait” or “trust” in other translations. That’s the key word for God’s promises in Isaiah 40. It means an eager and confident expectation. These Jews in Babylon were ready to start the journey when the time came. They were waiting to be released, but they didn’t know exactly when it would be. God gives spiritual strength to those who trust in Him. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They are given the strength and power required for the day and the task.

“They will soar on wings like eagles”. It takes lots of energy to fly. In fact we can’t do it without using the power of the wind or an engine. God can help us get through a challenging day or task.

“They will run and not grow weary”.
Running takes less energy than flying, but more energy than walking. God can help us get through a busy day or task.

“They will walk and not be faint”. Walking takes less energy than running. God can help us get through a normal day or task.

What did this mean to the Jewish exiles in Babylon? They would have been tired of living in a foreign country under foreign rulers. But it was a long journey back to their homeland. Ezra took four months to travel the 1,400 km (880 miles) (Ezra 7:8-9). That’s about 12km per day. It’s walking pace. They would have thought, how can the weary and weak travel this far? The weary and weak would have included the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. Was it worth travelling so far from a civilised country where they had learnt a new language and a new way of life to a city in ruins? This would encourage them to look forward to returning to their homeland. And whether they travelled fast or slow, God would empower them on the journey.

We have seen how the Jews were encouraged spiritually when they were tired and weak. What about us? Do we live as though we have an “everlasting God” who always cares for us and doesn’t get tired or weary? And who doesn’t forget.

If we trust in God, He will care for us and help when we are in need. Do we seek His supernatural power and strength when we are weary and weak? Jesus told His followers to “always pray and not give up” (Lk. 18:1).

Paul said that because of the hope of our resurrection to be with the Lord, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Although we may be tired and weak and our health may fail, the Holy Spirit renews us inwardly each day.

The writer of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3).

Did you know that God encourages us so we can encourage others? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

More good news

I mentioned that prophecies like this can have multiple applications and fulfilments.

What was the impact on the Jews when they first heard it in 700BC? The Biblical principle is the same – if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength. But the application is different. They were still in Jerusalem before the captivity. Their response could be to repent of their idolatrous ways in order to try to prevent the exile. But they could be confident that as God’s people, even if they went into captivity God would bring them back to their homeland.

The idea of deliverance from captivity is used in the New Testament where the Greek word for “good news” or “gospel” is used to describe deliverance from being slaves to sin (Acts 13:32; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Here good news (v.9) is applied to the salvation that Christ brings to those who trust him.

So although we live in a different era to Isaiah, we are also promised deliverance from suffering. In our case it’s the suffering due to sin and heaven is the promise. As the Jews looked forward to returning to Jerusalem (or Zion) where God was present in the temple, we can look forward to being with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Do we look forward to our deliverance?

Although there is a similarity, there is also a difference. They took the full punishment for their sins in Babylon (v.2), but Jesus took the full punishment for our sins at His crucifixion.

So the principle for us is that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.


Isaiah 40 finishes with,
“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”

We have seen from Isaiah’s prophecy that when the Jews were in captivity, God promises deliverance. It’s good news from an everlasting all-powerful God that encourages and strengthens those that are tired, weak and weary. And they look forward eagerly to their deliverance.

Today God also promises His people deliverance from the sufferings of this sinful world when they get to heaven. In the meantime, with God’s spiritual strength, we can face whatever lies ahead of us.

Let’s remember that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.

Written, August 2015

Why was Judah the most prominent tribe of Israel?

Consequences 401pxAfter he was out drinking with some mates one night, Jonothan Beninka tried to walk home along a railway track. But he fell and knocked himself out and finished up in hospital after being hit by a train. He lost an arm, a leg and some fingers. Every day he feels like crying because of the impact of his injuries on the relationship he has with his family. He can’t pick up his children like most dads. One decision changed his whole life forever.

When we look at the lives of the sons of Jacob in the Bible, we see that our choices have consequences. In particular, sinful behavior has negative consequences.

Judah’s prominence

The nation of Israel was named after Jacob whose name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). Jacob had 12 sons and in those days the position of leadership of the family clan was usually passed on to the eldest son. And the eldest son’s birthright was a double portion of the inheritance (Dt. 21:17).

But we see from the Bible that the tribe of Judah (4th son) became prominent instead of the tribe of Reuben (1st son) – king David was a descendant of Judah (10th generation, 1 Chron. 2:1-15), Jerusalem the capital of Israel was located in their territory and they were the last tribe to be conquered and taken into captivity. This was unusual because Judah was the fourth oldest son of Jacob and not the firstborn.

Of Judah’s descendants, the most prominent in the Old Testament is king David and the most prominent in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah (Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5-6), the “son of David” (Mt. 1:1; 22:42; Lk. 1:32, 69; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16).

After the Babylonian exile, the Israelites were called “Jews”. This name is derived from the word “Judah” and was used because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah (the rest had assimilated into other nations). Also, the Jewish religion was known as “Judaism”. So Judah’s prominence is reflected by these words.

Jacob’s last words

When he was on his death bed Jacob gave a farewell message to each of his sons (Gen. 49:1-28). Beginning at the eldest and progressing to the youngest, he predicted what was in store for their descendants.

Although he is the firstborn, Reuben is told he is unstable and will not excel because he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, 49:4). In those days it was customary for new kings to assume the harem of their predecessors (2 Sa. 3:7; 12:8; 16:21; 1Ki. 2:22). So this was an arrogant and premature claim to the rights of the firstborn. Because of his sin of incest, Reuben lost the rights of the firstborn. His right to extra land was given to Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1-2) and his leadership right was given to Judah.

If the eldest son lost the rights of the firstborn, we would expect these rights to be transferred to the second-born son. Simeon was Israel’s second son. Israel tells Simeon and Levi (his third son) that their descendants would be scattered and dispersed within the nation of Israel. This was fulfilled when the Levites weren’t given an allocation of land like the other tribes and Simeon’s allocation was surrounded by Judah’s – the tribe of Simeon was assimilated into the tribe of Judah. (Josh. 14:4; 19:1-9). The reason given is that they were angry, cruel and violent (Gen. 49:5-7). For example, after their sister Dinah was raped by Shechem (Gen. 34:1-7), Simeon and Levi killed all the men of the city and plundered their women, children, and possessions (Gen. 34:25-30). Also, this increased the threat of the Canaanites attacking Jacob’s family.

Jacob’s greatest and longest blessings are given to Judah and Joseph (Gen. 49:8-12; 22-26). Judah is promised leadership over the other tribes, which was fulfilled by king David. Jesus Christ was also a descendant of Judah (Mt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33). Judah would be praised for victories over their enemies. Their supremacy is symbolized by the lion’s supremacy in the animal kingdom. Some of Judah’s descendants are also promised peace and prosperity (Gen. 49:11-12).

So, there are two main reasons why Judah was the most prominent tribe of Israel. First, Reuben forfeited his rights by his incest and Simeon and Levi forfeited their rights by their cruelty and violence. They were disqualified for misconduct. Judah was the next in the order of birth and that is why he received the blessing. Second, it was prophesized by Jacob before he died.

But the brother’s treatment of Joseph also offers some insight into this topic.

Treatment of Joseph

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. After Joseph dreamt that his family would bow down to him, his brothers were filled with jealousy and hatred toward him (Gen. 37:4-5, 8, 11). When Joseph was sent by his father to visit his brothers, they plotted to kill him. Judah’s leadership potential is shown when they agree to his suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him (Gen. 37:26-27). Joseph is taken to Egypt where he rises to a prominent position before there is to be a famine. During the famine, his brothers travel to Egypt seeking food.

When Joseph commanded his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, Reuben told his father that he would put both of his sons to death if he didn’t bring Benjamin back (Gen 42:37). On the other hand, Judah said that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety and be personally responsible for him (Gen. 43:8-9). If he didn’t bring Benjamin back, then he would bear the blame all his life. Here we see that Judah was willing to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety, whereas Reuben offered his sons to take the consequences instead.

When the brothers returned to the city because Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, the Bible says that “Judah and his brothers” went into Joseph’s house (Gen. 44:14NIV). And then Judah responded on behalf of the brothers when Joseph said “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 44:15-34). So Judah takes a leadership role amongst his brothers. He also offered to stay at Joseph’s in Egypt instead of Benjamin so that Benjamin could return to his father (Gen. 44:33-34). This is in accordance with his previous offer to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

When Jacob’s family moved to Egypt during the famine, “Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen” (Gen. 46:28). So Jacob recognized Judah’s leadership role in his family.

So we see that before Jacob made his predictions, Judah took a leadership role in his family and took personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. His conduct qualified him for this role.

Lessons for us

The choices made by Reuben disqualified him from receiving the rights of the firstborn. These rights weren’t transferred to Simeon or Levi because of the choices they made. But the rights were transferred to Judah because of how he chose to behave. So, our choices have consequences.

Reuben, Simeon and Levi experienced negative consequences because of their sinful behavior. So sinful behavior has negative consequences.

What has changed since then? We aren’t Israelites living under the law, but Christians living under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Our eldest sons don’t inherit leadership of the family or a double portion of our wealth. Instead, humility is important and we receive spiritual rewards after death at the Judgment Seat of Christ. So, our choices do have consequences – in this life and after death.

Sin separates us from the God who empowers us. It weakens us. So our sinful behavior does have negative consequences. It can also have some lasting consequences as Jonothan Beninka found out. But when we confess and repent of our sin, our relationship with the Lord is restored (1 Jn. 1:9).

Written, July 2015

Fast and slow

fox & dog 390px“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. It has been used to practice writing and typing and to display the characters of computer fonts. The hare and the tortoise is a story where the slow tortoise wins a race with a fast hare. This sentence and this story both contrast something that is fast with something that is slow. James also contrasts the fast and the slow when he writes in the Bible,
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas. 1:19-20NIV).

The context of this passage is that the book of James describes how the Christian life is to be lived. After addressing external trials and internal temptations, he turns to obeying God’s word.

Are we “quick to listen” to what God tells us in the Bible? Are we ready to listen to godly advice? This is the first step to accepting God’s word and obeying it (Jas. 1:21-22).

Are we “slow to speak”? Do we keep a tight rein on the words we say (Jas. 1:26). Or do our words give us away? Are we hypocrites who both praise God and denigrate other people (Jas. 3:9-12)?

Are we “slow to become angry”? Do we lose our temper?

Are we “quick to listen” to other people or are we long-winded (Job 16:3)? If we listen attentively to what people say, then we will come to know what life is like for them. Who speaks the most during our conversations? Is it more about us or more about them? If it’s us then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s be ready to listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. It we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.

As Jesus said a tree is recognized by its fruit (Mt. 7:20), the state of our spiritual life is evident from our attitudes and behavior. Do we show the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23)?

So there’s a time to be fast and a time to be slow. As followers of Christ, let’s be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”.

Written, July 2015

Good news and bad news

good & bad news 400pxEvery day we experience good news and bad news. Life is a mixture of both. But the news media often gives us more bad news than good news. Did you know that the Bible contains both good news and bad news?

The main message in the New Testament is called the “gospel”, which means “good news”. It’s good news about bad news. To understand it we need to understand the bad news first.

In the beginning of time, God made everything. It was very good. Everything was as God intended and people were in harmony with God. It was good news at the start.

But it didn’t stay that way very long because the first people rebelled against God. Their rebellion affected all God’s creation causing suffering, problems, disease and death. Things were no longer as God intended and people weren’t in harmony with God. That’s bad news. It’s our greatest problem.

So we live in a world that has been influenced by both good and bad news.

Jesus came to bring good news once again. To right the wrongs and solve the problems. But He does this in two stages and we live between them, between His first visit to earth and His second visit. He is the central theme of the gospel (or good news). The verses of Scripture that mention “Jesus” or “Christ” and “gospel” or “good news” are about Christ’s death, resurrection, glory (His second visit), His promise (of eternal life), the peace He brings, the fact that He can replace death with life and immortality, and His judgment of our lives.

That’s the message of the Bible. It’s the whole gospel. It’s not a human idea, but it’s God’s idea (Gal. 1:11).

The Bible says that the gospel is “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16NIV). This power comes from God when people repent by turning towards God. God has already done His part, but we can only experience it if we do our part. It’s of no value to those who don’t accept it (Heb. 4:2).

So, let’s remember the whole gospel story. Why it’s good news about bad news. This is important because many people don’t know about the early history of our earth and humanity given in the Bible.

Written, July 2015

Why didn’t Jesus respect His family at Capernaum?

Recently I was asked this question by a person who said, “In our (Chinese) culture we always respect our family”.

The town of Capernaum on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee was the headquarters for Christ’s ministry in Galilee (Mt. 4:13; Mk. 2:1). Once when Jesus was teaching a crowd of people in a house in Capernaum, He was so busy that He didn’t have a chance to eat. (Mk. 3:20). The event described below is recorded in three gospels (Mt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 8:19-21).

mk 3-35 400px“Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call Him. A crowd was sitting around Him, and they told Him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’
‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ He asked.
Then He looked at those seated in a circle around Him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:31-35NIV).

Why didn’t Jesus obey the request from His family? To answer this question we need find the purpose behind it.

The news about what Jesus was doing “spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mk. 1:28). After it reached His family at Nazareth they became concerned and travelled about 50 km (30 miles) to reach him at Capernaum. His mother and brothers were outside the house where He was teaching but they weren’t able to get near Him because of the crowd (Lk. 8:19). So they sent a message saying they wanted to speak with Him. The reason for their visit is given as “When His family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’” (Mk. 3:21). The Greek word translated “out of His mind” is exeste (Strongs #1839). In the other verse of the Bible that uses the word in this sense (2 Cor. 5:13), it means the opposite of a “right mind” (NIV, ESV) or of a “sound mind” (HCSB, NET). When they heard about the crowds that gathered around Jesus, they thought He was insane. As the brothers didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God (Jn. 7:5), they may have thought He was a religious fanatic, or deluded or had a mental illness.

The fact that Joseph is not named possibly indicates his death. This means that at this time Jesus, as the eldest son, was the head of the household and expected to care for His widowed mother. Instead of this He was away from the household and crowds followed Him everywhere.

In that culture someone who was insane or out of their mind would bring shame and disgrace on their family. So they probably believed that the leader of their family was bringing shame and disgrace on them. Therefore, the family wanted to “take charge of Him” (NIV), or “to seize Him” (ESV), or “to restrain Him” (HCSB, NET). So they wanted to take Him away from society so that crowds couldn’t follow Him.

But Christ’s mission was “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). He was sent to earth by God to save the people of the world from the penalty of their sinfulness (Jn. 3:17; 1 Tim. 1:5). This was done by preaching and dying. He came to preach by calling sinners to repent (Mk. 1:38; 2:17). He also came to die sacrificially for the sins of mankind (Rom. 5:8).

So the purpose of His family’s visit was to stop Jesus preaching by taking Him back to the family home. They were seeking to stop Jesus’ ministry. As this was against God’s will, Jesus didn’t comply with their request. Instead He used this situation to teach a spiritual truth.

Instead of heeding the family’s request, Jesus changes the topic from the small biological family to the large spiritual family. He says that whoever obeys God is part of His spiritual family and that this spiritual family is more important than our human family. When there is a conflict between the two families we are to obey God. Like Jesus, we should respect God’s will more than we respect our family.

This doesn’t mean we are not to provide for our family. After all, Paul wrote “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). And when He was being executed, Jesus introduced John to His mother Mary as a surrogate son to take care of her (Jn. 19:26-27).

Fortunately at a later time the family had a change of heart as Mary the mother of Jesus and His brothers were amongst the believers after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:12-14).

Have we changed by turning around to follow Jesus? When there is a conflict between something in our life and God’s will for us, which do we give priority to? Do we put God’s interests above those of our family? Do we love Jesus more than our family (Lk. 14:26)? Are our relationships with fellow-Christians stronger than with unbelieving relatives? Do we also care for and not neglect our family?

Written, June 2015

Go(o)d fear and bad fear

IMG_3871 cropped 448pxTourists often fear dangerous animals in Australia, such as venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles, sharks, killer jellyfish, and the blue ring octopus. On a recent hike we were surprised by a black snake. Most of us were afraid, but someone wanted to pick it up!

Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation. This is protective fear. It’s why I told them not to go near the snake. It’s foolish to ignore real danger.

But constant fear is debilitating and can lead to anxiety that immobilizes and paralyzes us. This is chronic fear.

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

Let’s look at what the Bible says about these three kinds of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful, can avoid the bad fear and practise the good fear of reverence and respect for God and Christ as our Lord.


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.
This article is based on verses with any of these 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church from Acts to Revelation. We begin by looking at protective fear.

Protective fear

When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near the island of 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 the island of Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29). This is a fear of danger, when our body reacts with a boost of adrenaline and we prepare to fight against or flee from the danger.

People are also afraid when they face punishment. When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself because he would be punished (Acts 16:29). When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we can be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the Jewish law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear, as sons shouldn’t fear their father (Rom. 8:15).

The Bible says that 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. Apostates who abandon the Christian faith will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, the Roman governor Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). This is a real fear because there is no protection for those who ignore Jesus Christ.

People are also afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).

These are examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. Protective fear can be an alarm that arouses us to protect ourselves.

Sin is another danger we should fear. 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). And when responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23). As Christians, do we fear sin and its consequences, which is a healthy fear that helps us live godly lives?

In First Aid when there is an accident or emergency we are told to follow DRABC. The first response is D for Danger. We protect ourselves, the casualty and other people from danger. After we have done this we can help the casualty. It’s risky to ignore this step, but it is also risky to not proceed on to the following steps. Likewise for us it’s good to have safety in mind by responding to reasonable fears.

If we obey the law of the land, 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’s natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize two things. First, God and Christ are with us in the form of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 13:6). Paul was told, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you” (Acts 18:9-10NIV). God is always with us. Second, prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7). “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7). God always cares for us. Prayer draws us near to God. That’s how to deal with protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.

But if fear persists it becomes anxiety.

Chronic 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’s bad fear, which is based on one’s perceptions and assumptions. Such anxiety can lead to depression and possible mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).

In this case fear stops us from developing our spiritual gifts, from loving and serving God and loving and serving one another. Instead of being focused on God and others, we become self-focused. We worry about our needs instead of trusting God to take care of them.

Christians have a great foundation for overcoming fear and anxiety. All of our sins have been paid for. God isn’t angry towards us, and He will never punish us because His Son took our punishment. God has forgiven our sins, His Holy Spirit lives in us, and we will spend eternity with Him.

It is reported that about 40% of Australian police business involves domestic violence. During my last shift of telephone counselling, I spoke with three women who were constantly living in fear. They felt isolated and controlled by their partners. They were anxious not knowing when the next episode would occur. But they were seeking help.

If we are fearful and anxious do we seek help? Anxiety has various physiological, emotional and spiritual causes. As childhood experiences can have a big impact on personality development, are parents aware of their children’s needs? They need to be loved and wanted. To belong. And to feel worthwhile. Addressing these needs in childhood can help avert adult anxiety.

Overcoming anxiety - Jun 2015 448pxThe process for overcoming anxiety is the same as for addressing any sin in the life of a Christian. The steps are:
• Identify what we are worried about.
• Identify our sin – what we doubt about God’s care for us.
• Confess and repent of our doubt.
• Remind ourselves of the truth about God and His promises in the Bible.
• Thank God in prayer for His care of us.
• Then we can have peace because we are trusting in God’s promises once again.

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


The apostles were courageous when they faced the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties (1 Cor. 16:13). 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. 1:7).

When Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey, he preached to the Jews. But when they opposed him and became abusive, he moved and preached to the Gentiles. But Paul would have been discouraged and may have worried he would have to leave the city as had been the case in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea (Acts 16:39-40; 17:5-10, 13-14). One night the Lord told him “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). As Paul knew that God was with him, he kept teaching them the word of God for 18 months.

During the storm mentioned earlier, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). So God encourages us to be courageous.

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 already 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 trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.

A young father was having a difficult time convincing his son to go to bed. “I don’t want to go to bed. I’m afraid of the dark!” the five-year-old exclaimed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” his father said reassuringly. “I sleep in the dark and I’m not afraid.” “Sure,” the youngster replied, “you’ve got Mom lookin’ out for you!”. He wasn’t alone. And that’s true for Christians as well – they have God the Holy Spirit with them.

Are you alone or have you turned away from sin and towards Christ as your Savior? That’s the only way to receive the Holy Spirit who can help us have courage instead of fear. In Revelation, unbelievers are described as being cowards because, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).

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.

When facing our fears, do we act in the strength of the Holy Spirit? Are we motivated by love for God and love for one another? Are we self-controlled?

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

Respectful fear

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; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Pt.2:17). They were not to fear persecution, but revere 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.

Slaves (employees), children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). 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). Slaves (employees) should respect and obey their masters 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 we wish to please as our Lord. Such respectful fear is healthy because it is associated with godly living. It’s good fear.

This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God – “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:18).

After a cop shot and killed a teenager in Ferguson, Missouri last year, potential US presidential candidate Ben Carson claimed that young males living in inner cities need to be taught how to respond better to authority. He said that a major problem that faces many who grow up without fathers or other authority figures in their homes, is that they don’t learn the right way to respond when confronted by law enforcement. They never really learn how to relate to authority in the proper way. If you take a group of young men and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, having easy access to drugs and alcohol, they are very likely to end up as victims of violence and imprisonment. When it comes to God, are we like the teenagers?

A child’s view of God is usually similar to their view of their father. So Dad’s, be awesome, not angry or absent. If they can’t respect you, they will struggle to respect God. Pray for the children of single parent and step-parent families and homosexual marriages. What will their father image be like?

Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Do we fear displeasing Him?
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 means 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.

Fear diagram Feb 2015 400pxConclusion

While we are all products of our past to some extent, we don’t need to be fearful and anxious. God is always with us. He always cares for us. We can turn to God, and we can also have the help of friends, family members, or Christian counsellors.

Let’s confess and repent of our anxiety and 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. 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. Above all, let’s reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.

Written, June 2015

How to choose the best introduction to Christianity

Christianity exploredThe Christian faith is based on teachings in the Christian Bible, which are mainly about Jesus Christ. After all, the Greek noun Christianos translated “Christian” (Strongs #5546) means a follower of Christ (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt. 4:16). The steps to become a follower of Christ include: a preacher is sent by God, they proclaim the good news given in the Bible, a person hears this message, and they believe it (Rom. 10:14-15). Sometimes it is helpful to use experienced preachers to help proclaim the good news to others.

Over the past decade, several courses have been used to help introduce people to Christianity. The following such courses are reviewed below: “Simply Christianity” (2003), “Alpha” (2005), “LifeWorks” (2005), “Christianity Explained” (2006), “Christianity Explored” (2013), and “Introducing God” (2014). Each of these courses has several sessions which are intended to be done on a periodic basis. Some of the courses have extra sessions, which aren’t included in this review. So the review is based on the core sessions. “Towards Belief” (2013), a course which addresses the belief blockers of our time, was also viewed but isn’t discussed below.

All these courses have been developed and delivered by those with the gift of evangelism and with theological training. They are skilled and experienced presenters with appropriate demeanour, body language, and attire. The messages are encouraging and challenging with the major application being that unbelievers would trust in Christ as their Savior. In each session they keep to the subject and have a clear outline, key points, introduction and conclusion. They use appropriate illustrations and visual aids, which are generally better in more recent videos (see “Video age” below). The Scripture passages used are relevant to the message and they are interpreted and applied as in mainstream Christianity, except for in one Alpha message (see “Doctrinal aspects” below).

How can we choose which of these courses is best for us to use? To help make this decision, we will look at several categories.

Course length

Because people are often busy, it can be difficult for them to persist through a long course. Also, the time period available may be limited by other factors such as a person’s availability.

Simply Christianity is the shortest course with 5 sessions, but it requires more preparation as it doesn’t have a video version of these sessions. Of those with videos, Christianity Explained is shortest with 6 sessions, while Christianity Explored and Introducing God have 7-8 sessions. On the other hand, Alpha is the longest course with 11 core sessions.

Message length

The longer a message, the more difficult it is to maintain the audience’s interest and their recall of the content. If one’s attention span is limited, this can be an important factor.

Christianity Explored has the shortest video messages (about 15 minutes). Most of the other courses are about 30 minutes (Christianity Explained, Introducing God, and LifeWorks). On the other hand, Alpha is the longest at about 45 minutes. It is noted that a shorter version of the Alpha messages is also available (about 25 minutes).

Video age

Because of changes in technology and culture, videos tend to represent the year they were made. Generally, recent videos use more appealing graphics and visual aids. Their illustrations are also more current and less historic.

The most modern videos are Introducing God and Christianity Explored (2013-2014). A modern video will also be available for LifeWorks by December 2015. On the other hand, Alpha and Christianity Explained are older videos (2005-2006). alpha course 400px


Spoken English can be difficult to understand for those with English as a second language. For example, Chinese students who visit Australia need to do English language courses in order to improve their understanding of the English language and so be able to complete their course of study.

Christianity Explained is probably the easiest course to understand because it uses the Good News Bible, which has simple language. The level of English in the other courses is similar as they use the NIV, ESV and HCSB translations of the Bible. Also, the Alpha course includes some English church terms such as “vicar” and “church warden”, which would need to be explained.

Pre-evangelistic or post-evangelistic

Today some people don’t know much about the Christian God or the terminology used in the Bible. This means that such knowledge shouldn’t be presumed.

The course with the largest proportion of time spent on pre-evangelism is Lifeworks, which is at least 50% pre-evangelistic. On the other hand, the course that assumes the most knowledge of the Bible and church life is Alpha. Alpha also provides the most post-evangelistic content (at least 60%).

Expositional or not

As the Christian message involves the death and resurrection of Jesus, some courses are based on biographies of His life. Christianity Explained and Christianity Explored are based on the book of Mark, which is the shortest biography of Jesus. Simply Christianity is based on the book of Luke. These courses are expositional, while the other courses draw on passages across the Bible.

Doctrinal aspects

All of these courses cover the basics of the Christian faith; including the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the good news of salvation through faith in Christ.

However, Alpha deviates from mainstream Christianity in its session on “Does God heal today” where there is questionable exegesis with regard to “Words of knowledge”. It claims that Matthew 28:19 is a command for Christians to heal the sick, and endorses the Pentecostal preacher John Wimber. Also, the extra Alpha sessions on the Holy Spirit assume that the coming of the Holy Spirit to first Jewish, Samaritan and Gentile Christians, and when John the Baptist’s disciples and Paul became Christians, described in Acts 2, 8, 9, 10, 19, are all normative for today. But each of these describes the Holy Spirit coming in a different sequence of events. As today the good news is going out to all nations (Acts 15:10), the pattern for us is that the Holy Spirit indwells someone as soon as they believe in the message (Acts. 10:44). So these sessions on Healing and the Holy Spirit should be omitted if you don’t want to include Pentecostal teaching in your course. introducing god

Discussion questions

Most of the sessions in these courses are designed to be a presentation followed by a discussion. Discussion questions are provided by Christianity Explored, Introducing God, and LifeWorks. The discussion questions are in the Workbook for Christianity Explored, in the video for Introducing God, and in the Group leader’s toolkit for LifeWorks. Discussion questions for the Alpha Course are available on the internet. In the other courses, the discussion questions need to come from either the audience or those facilitating the discussion.

Without video

Sometimes it may not be convenient to use a video, although this is less likely with the advent of tablet computers and smart phones. Also, you may wish to present to message yourself so it can be tailored to the audience. Someone told me they would prefer that the audience read the Bible instead of watching videos.

LifeWorks provides the most information for the presenter, including speaker’s notes and PowerPoint slides. On the other hand, for the other courses this information would need to be derived from the message summary in the Workbook and from the video messages. All the courses have Workbooks or Notes which contain a summary of the messages. The Workbook for Simply Christianity also has “Extra information” for each session.

So, what’s the best course for introducing people to Christianity?

Best of all

Which course is best for you will depend on the relative importance of each of the categories considered above. Like various translations of the Bible, they all tell us what God wants us to know about Jesus Christ and what we should do about this. They are merely tools to help people understand the most important message in the Bible.

If you want to use minimal preparation and contemporary style, the options are Christianity Explored (with shorter messages), Introducing God, and LifeWorks (after December 2015; with a longer course).

Although no course is perfect, they all clearly present the good news of salvation for sinners through Jesus Christ. Let’s all communicate this message, whether we use a course or not.

Written, May 2015


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