When the disciples asked why they couldn’t drive a demon out of a boy who had seizures, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20NIV). The reason was also given as “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk. 9:29).
They lacked faith and prayer. Because of unbelief, they didn’t pray about it. The mountain is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced. They should have exercised their faith in God by praying about the problem. The prayer would be answered if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. Miracles can happen when we pray under these circumstances.
On the Monday before his crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He them taught his disciples how to deal with the problems of fruitlessness and obstacles and difficulties. Once again the mountain illustrates the obstacles and difficulties. This is described in two gospels:
Mark 11:22-24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Mt 21:21-22 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
They were to exercise their faith in God by praying about the problem. God promised to answer if they believe and don’t doubt. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for answered prayer. Such confidence needs to rely on a promise from God or an assurance that the request is according to God’s will. The ultimate source of such confidence is the words of Scripture or the witness of the Holy Spirit. So the prayer needs to be in accordance with the conditions given in the Bible.
We can approach God confidently in prayer because He promises to answer prayers that are “according to His will”. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). That’s how Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39, 42) and how He told His disciples to pray (Jn. 14:13-14). And of course, God’s will is given most clearly in the Bible.
Other conditions for answered prayer include: forgiving others (Mk. 11:25), confessing and repenting of sin (Ps. 66:18), obeying God’s commands (1 Jn. 3:22), right motives (Jas. 4:3), and persevering in prayer (Lk. 17:1-8). They also apply to other passages which may seem to imply that we can get whatever we ask for (Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10; Jn. 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; 1 Jn. 3:22).
God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them are not unconditional. They also rely on the Bible’s conditions for answered prayer being satisfied. So, how are you praying?
Written, September 2013
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that rape was condoned in the Bible, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.
Instances in the Bible
Rape is mentioned several times in the Bible. Dinah the daughter of Jacob was raped by Shechem the Hivite (Gen. 34:1-31NIV). Her brothers were shocked and furious at this “outrageous thing … that should not be done” (v.7). When Shechem’s father went to Jacob to arrange their marriage, he was told that the bride price would be that their men become circumcised like the Israelites. After they agreed and were in pain due to the circumcision, two of Dinah’s brothers attacked the city of Shechem and killed all the men because Dinah had been treated “like a prostitute”. However, the word “God” is not mentioned in this chapter of the Bible.
When an Israelite traveller stopped overnight at Gibeah in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, “the wicked men of the city surrounded the house” and demanded to have homosexual sex with the visitor (Jud. 19:1-30). Instead they were given the Israelite’s concubine and “they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go” and she was found dead outside the door of the house. When the Israelites heard about this “lewd and outrageous act” and “awful thing”, they demanded that the perpetuators be handed over to be put to death (Jud. 20:1-48). After this was refused, most of the Benjamite warriors were killed in a war. The Bible’s description of this period is that “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jud. 19:1; 21:23). It demonstrates the moral depravity that resulted when God’s people turned away from following Him.
King David’s son Amnon lusted after his beautiful half-sister Tamar – they had different mothers (2 Sam. 13:1-39). When he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister”, she said “No, my brother! Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you” (v.11-13) “But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her” (v.14). “When king David heard all this, he was furious” (v.21). Two years later, Tamar’s brother Absalom took revenge by arranging for Amnon to be killed “because he had disgraced his sister Tamar” (v.22).
The passage of how the Benjamites obtained wives from Jabesh Gilead and Shiloh has been alleged to involve rape, but Judges 21:10-25 concerns marriage, not rape. As noted above, this was time of moral depravity. Likewise, the marriage of captive women from outside Canaan was marriage, not rape (Dt. 21:10-14). The taking of female prisoners of war has also been alleged to be rape, but in this instance they probably became slaves and there is no indication of rape or sex slavery, although they may have subsequently married an Israelite (Num. 31:18).
The Bible also records instances of the rape of female prisoners of war by ungodly men such as: when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC (Lam. 5:11), when the Medes conquered Babylon in 539 BC (Isa. 13:16-17) and in a coming day when the nations attack Jerusalem before Christ returns to earth (Zech. 14:2).
Sexual immorality, including rape, was one of the sins of the Jews in Jerusalem (Ezek. 22:11). Because of these, they were conquered by the Babylonians and dispersed among the nations.
In all these cases, the Bible reports rape as an example of ungodly behavior.
What about Abram and Hagar?
Was Hagar was raped by Abram (Gen. 16:1-4)? When Abram’s husband, Sari, was unable to have children she thought “perhaps I can build a family through” Hagar, who was her slave. After Abram agreed, Sari gave Hagar to him “to be his wife”. This seems to be a euphemism for sexual intercourse because afterwards Hagar is still referred to as Sari’s slave and not Abram’s wife. Then Abram slept with Hagar and she became pregnant. As this was Sari’s idea and there is no indication that Hagar opposed it, there is no evidence of rape. Instead it seems to be an accepted practice in society at that time. This interpretation is supported by four instances in the life of Jacob (Gen. 30:1-13). On two occasions when Rachel was unable to have children she asked him to sleep with her servant Bilhah. This resulted in the births of Dan and Naphtali. Similarly, on two occasions when Leah was unable to have children she also asked him to sleep with her servant Zilpah. This resulted in the births of Gad and Asher. Later Bilhah is called Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). As secondary wives, concubines were associated with polygamy. While these cases seem to have been culturally acceptable at the time, they are contrary to God’s plan for marriage, which is monogamy (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-9).
According to the law that God gave to the Israelites, the crime of rape of a “young woman who was pledged to be married” was to be punished by death (Dt. 22:25-27). This penalty is the same as someone (male or female) guilty of adultery (Dt. 22:20-22). So rape was considered to be a serious crime.
However, if the young woman was not pledged to be married, the man was to marry her if her father agreed (Ex. 22:16-17; Dt. 22:28-29). In this case the penalty was to support her for the rest of her life. In those days a woman depended on her father or husband for her welfare. If the woman was no longer a virgin and was not pledged to be married, she would have been deemed undesirable for marriage and so would be subject to poverty after the death of her father. So this law moderated the penalty in order to provide for the welfare of the woman and her children. Taken in isolation, this could be used to assert that the Bible condoned rape. However, the rapist risked the revenge of the victim’s family as was the case with Shechem and Dinah (Gen. 34:1-31). Also, the rest of the Bible clearly condemns rape.
Sexual immorality, such as rape, is a serious sin (1 Cor. 6:9-19) and a characteristic of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-21). It is a sign of those who are under God’s judgement (v.9-11) and Christians are told to flee from it (v.18).
The Bible reports sinful behavior such as rape. Like history books and the news media, the Bible doesn’t necessarily approve all it reports. Also, much of the Bible is descriptive and not prescriptive. Clearly, the bible condemns rape as a serious sin. To claim otherwise is to misinterpret the text and context of these Scriptures.
Written, May 2013
Elevated status for Christian slaves
Some people use the mention of slavery in the Bible to criticise God and the Bible. Let’s look at what the New Testament (NT) says about slavery. The Greek word “doulos” (Strongs #1401) is usually translated as “slave” or “servant”. Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire, but it was not racist, as many races were involved. The slaves were usually prisoners of war or poor people. Slavery rescued captives from death and the poor from starvation at a time when there was no government welfare or charities. In the NT, slaves are told to obey their masters and a runaway slave is told to return to their master; so it appears to condone slavery.
You may think: what’s this topic got to do with us? Slavery is not prevalent today. We will see that the slavery described in the NT was like employment. As we look at what the NT says about slaves and their masters, we can apply these principles to us as an employee working for a client, team leader, supervisor or employer, or if we lead other workers.
Philemon and Onesimus
Philemon was a slave owner in Colossae which is now in Turkey (Philemon 8-21). As the church met in his home, he may have been an elder in the local church. One of his slaves, Onesimus had apparently stolen from him and run away. But Onesimus had met Paul in Rome and become a Christian and was now willing to return to his master and be reconciled. He was willing to resume his obligation to his master. Paul wrote this letter to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, no longer as a slave but as a fellow Christian (v.16). What can we learn from this short letter?
First, Paul does not issue an order to Philemon, although he was confident of his obedience (v.21). Instead he presents reasons for forgiving and accepting his runaway slave and then makes an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus had become a believer in Rome – like Philemon he was now Paul’s spiritual son and that changed everything. He had a change of character, from an escaped thief to a Christian who helped Paul. From being “useless” to being “useful” (v.11). This is a word-play because the name Onesimus means “useful”. Paul even suggests that the reason Onesimus ran away was so that he could be converted and then return as a fellow Christian. Then Paul makes his appeal, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v.17). He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back into his household so that they could be reconciled. Although Paul did not order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery he seems to infer it by saying he knows Philemon “will do even more than I ask” (v.21). This was the legal way to liberation from slavery; whereas escaping was illegal.
Equal before God
According to the Bible, whether someone was a slave or a master it made no difference in their standing before God. Both were sinners bound for hell and both could be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22-23). All sinners are guilty before God and so are condemned to judgement. The Bible says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13NIV). Everyone includes both slaves and masters and whatever category you can think of. So salvation is equally available to all. It’s not like one’s social standing on earth; no one has any special privileges in this respect.
What about after they become a Christian by trusting in Christ for paying the penalty for their sin? The Bible says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). A Christian slave has the same position before God and the same inheritance as a Christian master. Social standing makes no difference in terms of salvation and its blessings. In this way, social distinctions disappear in God’s spiritual family; they are irrelevant. Such differences are replaced by equality and unity. All Christians have equal standing before God (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). Our unity in the family of believers transcends all other distinctions, including the social distinction, between slaves and masters. So slaves and masters and workers and team leaders have equal standing before God.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon he said that a Christian slave such as Onesimus was a “dear brother” who should be accepted as though he was the apostle Paul (Phile. 16-17)! What a change of status for a runaway slave! He now shared a common faith with his master. The principle here is “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Rom. 15:7). Because God had accepted Onesimus into His spiritual kingdom and Onesimus was serving God, then Philemon should accept him as a fellow believer. So Christianity elevated slaves to be equal with others in the family of God. By the way, this verse comes after Paul deals with matters of secondary importance in Romans 14 and Paul taught that whether a person was a master or a slave was less important than whether they were a Christian or not.
So our relationships with other believers should cut across the social barriers in our society. If God has accepted someone into His kingdom, we should accept them as fellow believers regardless of their social status. As a church we should accept any believer that seeks to follow God, regardless of their place in society. So a local church can be comprised of people with not only a diversity of nationality and culture, but also a diversity of position in society.
Also Christian slaves and their masters will be rewarded equally by God. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:7-8). So when they are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ for the good things done for the Lord when they served others, there is no discrimination between slave and master, they are treated the same. There is no favoritism with God.
Christian slaves and workers
Let’s look at what the Bible says to slaves such as Onesimus and apply this to our working life. When a slave became a Christian they were to be content with their situation and not rebel and demand their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Instead they were to live the Christian life in their situation. But if they had an opportunity to be freed, they should take advantage of it.
“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (1 Ti. 6:1-2). Slaves must respect their masters because otherwise they may dishonor Christ’s name and Christianity.
“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Ti. 2:9-10). Christian slaves were to be loyal and trustworthy because their behavior could either help or hinder the gospel message.
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pt. 2:18). Christian slaves are told to respect and obey even hash masters. By enduring suffering, they were following Christ’s example. He suffered unjustly for the wrongs of others. As a worker are we willing to submit to a harsh client or boss? This is difficult in our day when we readily claim our rights, but forbearance is part of the fruit of the Spirit.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:5-8). Slaves were to obey and serve their masters as it they were Christ. Do we give our client or boss good value? Do we work cheerfully and willingly? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we do, then we will be rewarded for this when we get to heaven. Once again how we work affects our testimony for Christ.
There are similar instructions in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). As Christians, all our work should be for the Lord. Even the most menial tasks are included in “whatever you do”. Do we serve and work as though we have two bosses: one on earth and one in heaven?
So slaves were to be content with their situation and respect their master submitting to their leadership and obeying them. What about us? Are we content with our work situation? Do we respect our team leader, submitting to their leadership and obeying them? Are we loyal and trustworthy?
Christian masters and team leaders
Let’s look at what the Bible says to slave owners such as Philemon and apply this to team leaders.
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). They were to pay a proper wage and not exploit their workers because God was watching. Christian masters and team leaders should treat their workers with justice and fairness. The worker deserves their wages and it is the team leader’s responsibility to ensure they receive what is due to them. The worker may also deserve recognition and acknowledgement for a job done well.
“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Eph 6:9). They are not to be a bully who uses abusive or threatening language because they have a Master in heaven to whom they are accountable. Just because you may have more status on earth doesn’t mean you get preference in heaven.
As masters had positional power over slaves, so team leaders have positional power over their team. In the previous passages we saw that such power should not be abused. To put it in perspective, team leaders must report to higher powers. If not on earth, then certainly in heaven. Christian masters and team leaders are reminded of their Master in heaven.
If you are a team leader, are you devoted to the welfare of your workers (1 Ti. 6:2)? Do you treat them fairly or do you exploit them? Are you a bully? How we lead and manage others affects our testimony for Christ.
In his letter to Philemon, Paul wrote, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v.18). Paul was willing to pay for whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. He said “I will pay it back” (v.19). It seems as though Onesimus had stolen things from Philemon before he escaped and went to Rome. Now he was ready to make restitution so they could be reconciled, but Paul was going to make the repayment. Even though Onesimus was guilty of theft and was obliged to make the repayment, Paul said no, I’ll do it. Paul substituted for Onesimus. Because Paul stepped in, Onesimus could be reconciled with Philemon.
In this case, Paul is like Jesus Christ and we are like Onesimus because Jesus substituted for us. We are all guilty of going our own way and rebelling against God, which is called sin. The Bible says that because we have sinned we are eternally separated from God. But Jesus took the initiative and paid the death penalty for us so we can be reconciled with God. Because Jesus stepped into our world, we can be reconciled with God. Have you taken up His offer like Onesimus did with Paul?
So does the NT condone slavery? No, it mentions slavery because slavery was prevalent when it was written. The Bible records practices in society at the time, such as slavery, which it does not necessarily approve. For example, slaves were mentioned in some of Christ’s parables because they were common at that time. However, the NT does say that kidnapping slaves is as sinful as murder because it is stealing (1 Ti. 1:9-10).
The NT regulates slavery so that the slave of a Christian master was treated as well as an employee. There was to be no abuse or exploitation but justice and fairness. When the teachings of the New Testament are followed, the evils of slavery are removed. That’s why some translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
It’s all a matter of priority. According to the NT, the top priority is to live for Christ, which is more important than improving one’s social status. The main purpose of the Bible is to show the way of salvation, not to reform society. Jesus didn’t come to reform society. He came to reform people. When people repent they have a change in attitudes and behaviour. Changes that come from the inside are more effective than those that are imposed externally such as political and social reforms. Likewise the primary task for Christians today is not to change political and social structures, but to further the gospel by offering forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Anyway, we won’t have a perfect society until Jesus comes again to rule in His millennial kingdom.
Lessons for us
How we work affects our testimony for Christ. In our work life is there: respect, submission, obedience, contentment, loyalty, honesty and wholeheartedness? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we lead others at work is there justice and fairness or are we a bully? Do we realise we are accountable to God? Let’s honor God at work.
Finally, do social distinctions hinder our relationships with other Christians or affect the unity of the church? Do we have favorites? Do we ignore others? Let’s honor God at church.
Written, April 2013
According to a recent Australian government inquiry, the story of Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli in Turkey in World War 1 is largely a myth. It was found that the accounts of Simpson’s exceptional bravery were based on false or faulty evidence and fraudulent witnesses. Also, a war correspondent embellished his account of Simpson and his donkey and this was repeated until Simpson became a hero and a legend. So the heroism of Simpson and his donkey is more myth than reality and more fiction than fact. It was found that his deeds were no more exceptional than those of hundreds of other stretcher bearers working at Gallipoli at the time.
The battle of Gallipoli was a disastrous defeat for the Allies which claimed the lives of about 8,700 young Australian men. It was in the context of this bad news that the good news story of Simpson and his donkey was created.
The demise of this hero shows the importance of reliable historical records and eyewitness accounts. When the historical records were examined the facts were established and the story was found to be unreliable. This can also be the case in movies where historical accounts can be embellished until they are more myth than reality and more fiction than fact.
If this can happen for an event that occurred about 100 years ago, what about an event that occurred about 2,000 years ago! What about the story of Jesus Christ in the Bible? Fortunately, the Bible is not a myth – see my post: “How many witnesses does it take to bust a myth”. It is based on multiple eye-witnesses and contains multiple accounts of Christ’s life and His resurrection.
The writers of the Bible were usually eyewitnesses of the events they documented. On the other hand, the legend of Simpson and his donkey was not written by eyewitnesses. That’s one reason why an ancient account can be more accurate than a modern one.
So the Bible is a reliable and robust historical account of events in ancient times.
Written, March 2013
Welfare for the poor
I have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.
According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.
“Slavery” in the Bible
Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.
The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.
Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).
Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).
The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.
Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.
What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.
So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.
When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.
The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.
The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery. A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).
How other nations treated slaves
Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!
When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).
When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.
Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.
How Israelites were to treat slaves
So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?
If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).
Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).
“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).
Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).
“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).
In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.
Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).
The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).
Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.
Rights and privileges
In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!
The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).
Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).
What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).
What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.
When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).
An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.
Liberation from slavery
Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!
God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).
God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.
The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.
So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.
Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.
So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.
Written, February 2013
Have you read the best book in the world? The Christian Bible is the world’s best-selling and most translated book. There are many English versions of the Bible. How can we choose which one is best for us? We will look at six categories.
The most accurate Bible is written in the original languages, which were Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament. This is the best way to appreciate what the Bible meant to its original readers.
Because few of us know these languages there are Interlinear Bibles that show both the words in the original language and the equivalent English words. These can be useful for the purposes of Bible study. When you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that it is impossible to do a word-for-word translation from the original languages into spoken English. For example here is a verse in such a Bible: “so For loved God the world, so as the Son of Him, the Only-begotten, He gave, that everyone believing into Him not may perish, but have life everlasting” (Jn. 3:16). The words are in a different order to the way we speak and sometimes single words need to be expressed as phrases and sometimes phrases need to be expressed as single words. Also additional words need to be added to make it readable. So there is no one-to-one correspondence between the words of different languages, and there is no such thing as a word-for-word literal translation of the Bible into spoken English. Furthermore, interlinear copies of the Old Testament are extremely difficult to read as Hebrew was written from right to left!
But, what if you can’t read ancient Hebrew and Greek or want a Bible that is readable? You could read the Bible that has the most comprehensive footnotes that relate to the original languages.
The New English Translation (NET) Bible (2005), which is mainly available in electronic form, has extensive footnotes comprised of Translation Notes, Text-critic Notes, Study Notes, and Map Notes. This enables a functional equivalent (readily readable and understandable) text with formal equivalent information about the source text in the footnotes. The translators’ notes show the decisions and choices behind the translation and makes the original languages more accessible.
But, what if you don’t want to read a Bible with extensive footnotes and that is not readily available in hardcopy form? You could read the Bible that has been read over the longest period of time.
The King James Version (KJV) has a 400 year heritage. It is a product of a bygone era that added many sayings to the English language. Of course the type style and spelling has been modernised, otherwise it would be too difficult for most of us to read comfortably. The most recent edition seems to be 1987. If you appreciate the work of Shakespeare and classic literature then this is the Bible for you. For example, it uses pronouns such as “thou”, “thee”, “ye”, “thy”, and “thine” and verbs such as “speaketh”.
The source language for this translation, the “Received Text” (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). As the Received Text was first published in 1516, it lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time. Also, it lacks the input of much of linguistic scholarship of the past few hundred years.
In order to make the KJV more readable for modern readers, its vocabulary and grammar was revised in the New King James Version (NKJV, 1982). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on the KJV, then the NKJV is the Bible for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is based on more recent scholarship than the Received Text? You could read a Bible that retains some traditional aspects of the English language.
Languages are always changing and English is no exception. Traditionally male terms were often used to refer to groups that included both men and women. This was particularly the case for patriarchal societies. But this pattern has been changing. For example, people now say “people” or “humanity” instead of “man” and “mankind”. All translations make these changes from the source text to some degree. Those that do it to a small extent, I will refer to as “traditional”, whereas those that do it to a large extent, I will refer to as “gender accurate”. Here is a comparison between different translations.
The following translations generally use male terms for groups of people: New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1995), English Standard Version (ESV, 2007) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009). So if you prefer a traditional Bible that is based on current scholarship, then these are the Bibles for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is easier to understand and closer to spoken English? You could read a Bible that aims to read more like people speak today.
Translators transfer the meaning of a text from the source language into the receptor language. When they do this they have choice in how much they use equivalent idioms in the receptor language. The more idioms they use, the more readable the translation.
The following translations generally use idioms in the receptor language: Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995) and New Living Translation (NLT, 2007). So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then these are the Bibles for you.
But, what if you want to read a Bible that is readable but structured closer to the text structure in the source language? You could read a Bible which combines contemporary language with accuracy in translation.
The New International Version (NIV, 2011) aims to be “gender accurate” by using the words spoken today to describe groups of people. Here is a link to my review of the NIV Bible. So if you prefer a Bible that is closer to spoken English, then this is the Bible for you.
But, what if you want to read the best Bible?
Best of all
Although no translation is perfect, the best Bible is the one you read! They all tell us what God wants us to know and to do. They are God’s message to us all, and God continues to speak through them today. Let’s translate this message into our lives.
Written, January 2013
In part 3 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess some criticisms of this translation by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)
The CBMW issued “An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible” in mid-2011. They are concerned that “the 2011 NIV … unnecessarily removes male-oriented terminology that was present in the 1984 NIV — especially the use of generic masculine forms of expression”.
Their accusations against the NIV 2011 are summarised below, including the verses referenced.
It adopts feminist-leaning translations – 1 Tim. 2:12
“The 2011 NIV changes some key verses on women’s role in the church so that they favor an evangelical feminist position, especially in translating 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that differs with all other commonly-used modern English translations and that gives women a wide open door to serve as pastors and elders in churches, contrary to the actual teaching of the New Testament.”
Rom 16:7; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34; Romans 16:1
It incorrectly changes “father” to “parent” or something else – Proverbs 15:5; 1 Samuel 18:2
It incorrectly changes “forefather” to “ancestor” – Joshua 19:47
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “son” to “child” – Proverbs 13:24; Psalm 8:4
It incorrectly changes “man” to a gender-neutral term – 1 Kings 9:5; Proverbs 27:17
It incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” or to other non-family words -
Luke 17:3; Deuteronomy 22:1
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “he” and “him” to “they” and “them” – John 14:23
It loses many more masculine singular pronouns than the “Translators’ Notes” suggest -
Proverbs 28:19; John 6:40; John 15:6; Proverbs 5:21; Romans 4:8; Matthew 10:24; Matthew 12:35; Matthew 18:15; Revelation 3:20
It incorrectly changes “women” to “weaklings” – Nahum 3:13
It waters down or omits details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive – They object to the removal of male examples to teach general truths, by removing words such as “father,” “son,” “brother,” “man,” and “he/him/his.”
Most of these accusations have been responded to generally by the NIV translators and specifically by Decker (2011).
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- The NIV translators have never been motivated by a concern to avoid giving offense. We were simply following what wide-ranging, objective research tells us about the state of modern English.
- It is the scholarship that has influenced the translation decisions – not a modern agenda of any kind.
- The CBMW review betrays a simplistic understanding of word meaning.
- Why single out the NIV for criticism for translation decisions that, to some degree, are being widely adopted by modern translators? We, along with translators of other modern versions, are not trying to “avoid” certain words. Rather, positively, we are trying to find the right word in contemporary English to represent the meaning of ancient Hebrew and Greek words.
Dr Rod Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania USA. His response to the CBMW report is summarised below.
The CBMW is a very vocal single-issue group that has determined that one of the primary ways to champion their position is to advocate a single approach to translation: formal equivalence with explicit objection to “gender-neutral” translation. Their single issue is defending a complementarian view of men and women and opposing egalitarianism. I personally hold a complementarian position, so my objection is not to the position itself but to some of the ways in which CBMW has attempted to advance that cause.
The tone of their official review of the NIV 2011 is unhelpful, and the methodology employed is designed more for rhetorical effect than it is for a substantive engagement in the issues. The methodology essentially collates a large quantity of data presented in summary form. This gives the uninformed reader the impression of thousands and thousands of errors. In reality there are a few basic issues in regard to how gender-related language should be translated. These get too little attention in the review. One sometimes sees a parallel in the manner in which “KJV-only” advocates defend their preference against all comers.
More specifically, 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a feminist-driven translation choice. To say that “in one stroke the NIV 2011 removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders” is ill-advised rhetoric. Decker also quotes Paul Wendland:
The CBMW overstates the case when it claims that the NIV 2011 translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 will give “an open door” to women pastors since “in one stroke it removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders. As soon as a church adopts the 2011 NIV, the debate over women’s roles in that church will be over”. The NIV 2011 still says that the husband/man is the head of the wife/woman and that an elder/overseer in the church is to be “faithful to his wife.” How has a wide open door been given to women pastors when NIV 2011 says these things? Just as gender roles could be taught on the basis of the KJV, in spite of “usurp authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, so it will be possible to teach gender roles on the basis of NIV 2011.
Also, I do not find the CBMW’s argument convincing when they say that ‘assume authority’ must be understood as ‘assume authority on one’s own initiative.’ If I would say in a conversation, “The president assumed office today,” would anyone think, “He means the president is assuming office on his own initiative”? I have a hard time believing it.
Moo has stated “that in order to have or exercise authority, it must first be assumed”. You could even argue that “assume” is stronger than “have” or “exercise”. You can have authority but never exercise it. You could exercise authority without having it (in any official, designated capacity). But you can’t have or exercise authority without first assuming it.
Decker also addresses the linguistic concerns of the CBMW, including:
- To state that Luke 17:3 incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” “is biased and ill-informed”.
- To suggest that eliminating a “male-oriented” term (i.e., generic “man”), as in Proverbs 27:17, is capitulating to the feminist agenda is foolishness.
- To ask why is the male meaning that is present in the source text of John 6:31 eliminated makes an unwarranted semantic assumption.
People like the CBMW are concerned about neutering masculine pronouns. John 6:44 is an example of a masculine singular pronoun (“him”) being replaced by a gender-neutral plural pronoun (“them”). In this instance they think that a corporate element is being added to a verse that originally had an individual focus. However, the “them” in this verse does not refer to a group of people, but to the “one” referenced in the start of the verse. The NIV 2011 verse is worded exactly how people speak today!
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day||No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day||John 6:44|
However, there is a verse in the NIV 2011 that I think would be improved if it was translated like John 6:44. Revelation 3:20 is not worded how people speak today. Is there any reason why “them” can’t be used in this verse instead of “that person’”, because “them” is much more readable than “that person”.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||My suggestion||Reference|
|Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.||Revelation 3:20|
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
Other opposition has come from the US SBC, which passed a resolution opposing the NIV 2011 at their annual convention in June 2011. The heart of the 2011 resolution claims, “this translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” It also references a 1997 resolution on translation that condemns “gender inclusive translation”. It is understood that the CBMW report would have given the 2011 resolution momentum. The resolution has also been used to claim that the NIV 2011 undermines the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible (God supernaturally guided the biblical authors to write the exact things that He wanted expressed).
The NIV translators and Decker (2011) have responded to this accusation.
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- We object strongly to the accusation that the NIV “alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” Our concern is always, in every decision we make, to represent God’s unchanging Word accurately and naturally in modern English.
- We object strongly to the accusation that “the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” In fact, our translation standards are exactly those followed by professional translators around the world. We employ these standards in combination with the best biblical and linguistic scholarship to render God’s eternal Word accurately into modern English. This mandate is what guides us in all our decisions — not any other agenda.
According to Decker (2011):
Unfortunately, neither “gender-neutral” … nor “gender inclusive” in the 1997 resolution are defined. Definition is the heart of any such statement … It appears that the resolution assumes a very broad definition of the term and applies it to a translation that itself uses a very narrow definition. .. the only changes in the NIV 2011 that may be termed “gender inclusive” are those that the translators understood to be inclusive of both men and women in the original text. That is hardly objectionable. It is unfortunate that the SBC has not issued a more accurate statement …
The 1997 resolution of the SBC that is referenced in the 2011 resolution indicates that their concern is with regard to “gender inclusive language” in “Bible translations with the intent of translating the Scriptures into the current language of the people”. In their opinion this is a deviation from the historic principles of biblical translation. As translations such as the KJV were in the current language of their day, this seems to be a bias against translating the Bible into modern language. Instead they prefer to retain the language of a previous era and reject aspects of current language, which is similar to how the Amish view aspects of technology. This is acceptable provided their view is not forced on others with a differing opinion.
As the SBC doesn’t provide any biblical examples of its concern or any reasoning, it could be difficult to convince others of their viewpoint. Instead they only provide a brief statement. This may have been due to their reliance on the CBMW report.
It is instructive to compare a selection of verses in different translations. Here we see that translations like the ESV and HCSB, which are accepted by the CBMW, sometimes make similar choices to the NIV 2011. However, they are not as consistent as the NIV 2011.
As these criticisms of the NIV 2011 by the CBMW and the SBC have been answered adequately by the NIV translators and Decker (2011), the criticisms appear to be weak in view of current biblical scholarship. As most of their claims were linguistic, it is appropriate that they be answered by biblical linguists. Furthermore, according to Dr Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the NIV 2011 is a well-thought out translation, with checks and balances through rigorous testing, overlapping committees to ensure consistency and accuracy; the scholarship is excellent both in text and translation decisions; and it has great readability. Dr Wallace is an expert in Greek grammar and New Testament textual criticism and a strong complementarian. It would be helpful if more biblical linguists confirmed this to help counter the negative comments by non-linguists on the internet.
As a result of this 3-part series it is clear that most of the changes between 1984 and 2011 are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the NIV translators, of the paper by an independent New Testament scholar, Decker (2011), and of criticisms by the CBMW and the SBC, indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written, January 2013
See the previous articles in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 1
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2
In part 2 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess a statement by an independent New Testament scholar. In order to avoid duplication, points already made in Part 1 of this series will not be repeated.
Dr Rodney Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This is a conservative Bible college which serves a (theologically) conservative constituency. He teaches courses in New Testament (NT) Greek language and NT textual criticism.
Rodney Decker has a doctorate in NT Theology from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minnesota USA. His 1998 doctorate dissertation was titled, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark in Light of Verbal Aspect”. He is the author of numerous journal articles on linguistic, exegetical (explanatory, expository), and theological topics and has written text books on Koine Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament. Rod holds a complementarian position where men and women have complementary roles that include male leadership in the home and in the church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended for all times and cultures), whereas egalitarians believe that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended only for his time and culture).
Further information on Rod’s activities is available on his website: NT Resources.
Assessment of evaluation done by Dr. Rodney Decker
“An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version” (Themelios 36, 3, 415-456) was published in November 2011.
Decker explains the two general approaches to translation – “formal equivalence” (attempts to reproduce the word order, grammar and syntax of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language, with minimal changes for intelligibility) and “functional equivalence” (attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, while it may relax the form of the source language). All translations include both formal and functional equivalents to a certain degree. The NIV balances both approaches, whereas the ESV and HCSB are more “formal” and the NLT more “functional” on the translation spectrum. Every translation, including the most formal, makes many substantial revisions to the form of the source language.
Decker explains that an update of the NIV Bible was necessary because “our language has changed”. With regard to changes in the NIV 2011 in English usage, advances in scholarship, and improved clarity, he agrees that most of these changes are “very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English”.
Changes related to gender language
If a translation intends to communicate in contemporary English, then that translation is fully justified to make changes that reflect current usage. The change in English usage of gender language was determined by a study based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion-word database of English usage worldwide based on both print and audio recordings. This is the first time that such an objective approach has been used in Bible translation. For example, of the current terms referring to both men and women, about 70% use “people” or “human” and about 15% use “man” or “mankind”.
The principle involved in the NIV 2011, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT), is that wording in the source language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. In this respect, the receptor language for a passage should match the donor language. If one is addressed to men and women then so should the other. Likewise, of one is addressed to men (or women), then so should the other.
Seven guidelines were used to revise gender language in the NIV 2011. Decker lists these and gives some examples using NT passages. In all cases he is in agreement with the approach adopted by the translators.
Decker did a sample comparison between the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 using the book of 2 Timothy. Some of the changes he found are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|ignoble||common||2 Tim. 2:20
|weak-willed||gullible||2 Tim. 3:6
|forefathers||ancestors||2 Tim. 1:3
|reliable men||reliable people||2 Tim. 2:2
|workman||worker||2 Tim. 2:15
|a man||those who||2 Tim. 2:21; 3:13
|the man of God||the servant of God||2 Tim. 3:17
|the servant of God||the brothers and sisters||2 Tim. 4:21
He didn’t think that any of these seven gender changes are controversial. However, he did identify three potentially controversial passages.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servanta of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacona of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2|
|a Or deaconess||a Or servant|
Whether one objects to this translation, will probably depend on how deacons function in their church. The NIV 2011 has reversed the text and marginal translations that were found in the NIV 1984. In this case Decker prefers the NIV 1984. Of the changes in 12,000 verses between 1984 and 2011 (most of them are minor), this is the only one that Decker quotes where he prefers the 1984 version. Whether a technical term (“benefactor”) is used in this verse or a general descriptive (“great help”) is probably a minor matter.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding amonga the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Romans 16:7|
|aOr are esteemed by|
In Greek only a difference of accent distinguishes between Junias (male) and Junia (female) and accents were not part of the original text. There are arguments for either accent pattern. Contemporary NT scholarship appears to favor the feminine form, but it is not certain.
The issue is not with Junia being a woman, which seems likely, but the nature of the statement made about her. Decker provides evidence that it may have been better if NIV 2011 had reversed the text and marginal readings, though including the alternative reading is an improvement over the NIV 1984.
1 Timothy 2:12
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12|
The Translators’ Notes explain the reasoning behind this change as follows. Much debate has surrounded the meaning of the rare Greek word authentein … The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide. “Assume authority” leaves the question open … until we discover more conclusive evidence.
Decker states that from a translation perspective, this position is defensible. Given the uncertainty in meaning, it is most appropriate for a translation not to decide the issue. Instead, one’s conclusions regarding this text must come not from one word but from the immediate context, Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and a biblical theology of the subject.
It is a translation that allows multiple interpretations (“assume” may be read in either a positive or negative sense), but that may be a wise choice in this case. Those who want to proof-text certain positions (whether that position is valid or not) may not be happy, but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue that must be resolved on a much broader basis. He also states that this is not a feminist-driven translation choice.
Changes related to “Messianic” texts
Decker looked at the most commonly cited example of changes related to “Messianic” texts, the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|What is man that you are mindful of him,||What is mankind that you are mindful of them,||Psalm 8:4|
|the son of man that you care for him?||human beings that you care for them?a|
|5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings||5You have made thema a little lower than the angels||Psalm 8:5|
|and crowned him with glory and honor.||and crowned thema with glory and honor.|
|a 4 Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him?|
|a 5 Or him|
This is a typological OT text that does not specifically prophesy Messiah directly but that the NT identifies as typological in relation to Jesus.
Decker thinks that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects this text than the NIV 1984 and other similar translations. When Psalm 8 is interpreted on its own (without reading any NT use back into the OT text) the psalm refers only to human beings. This is the original meaning – what it meant to the original readers and hearers. The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person. As such, using English plural pronouns (“them”) following them is appropriate. There is no hint here of anything Messianic. If we had only Psalm 8, we would never suspect that it had any relevance to Jesus.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|But there is a place where someone has testified:||But there is a place where someone has testified:||Hebrews 2:6|
|“What is man that you are mindful of him,||“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,|
|the son of man that you care for him?||a son of man that you care for him?|
|7You made him a little lower than the angels;||7You made them a little lower than the angels;||Hebrews 2:7|
|you crowned him with glory and honor||you crowned them with glory and honor|
|8and put everything under his feet.”||8and put everything under their feet.”b||Hebrews 2:8|
|In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||Hebrews 2:8b-9|
|b 7,8 Or 7You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8and put everything under his feet.”|
Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. Once again it’s all about human beings, although “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (v.8b). The dominion over the rest of creation given to humans has never been properly administered. This problem is solved in v.9 where Jesus is introduced as the One who became human to fulfil the typology of Ps 8 – He will demonstrate this dominion in His coming kingdom. The incarnation began demonstrating how someone who is fully human should and will exercise the dominion God intended.
This means there is nothing obscured in the NIV 2011 version of Psalm 8. A generic reference for humanity is thus valid for Psalm 8:4-8 and Hebrews 2:5-8. Only in Hebrews 2:9 does the reference become Christological and singular, and at that point the NIV 2011 is perfectly clear.
The NIV 2011 more often explicitly represents the conjunctions compared with the NIV 1984, which often left them untranslated for reasons of English style (see Rom. 1:16). Also some passages that have been debated and for which there are multiple options have been left open (see Rom. 1:17). Decker thinks most of these of changes are improvements that contribute to understanding the Bible in English.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||Romans 1:16|
|For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed||For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed||Romans 1:17|
In Part 1 of this series, it was noted that the Greek word “sarx” was usually translated as “the flesh” in the NIV 2011 instead of “the sinful nature” as in the NIV 1984. Although this was because “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin, I expressed some uneasiness about this change. Decker thinks that this change encourages some people to think of the physical body as sinful and is inclined to think the earlier choice was better in many cases, but “sarx” does not always have the same meaning. However, “sinful nature” remains in Romans 7:18, 25.
Decker also evaluated the NIV 2011 in terms of its accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness. He rates it high in terms of accuracy as the meaning is communicated accurately. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence (though tending closer to the formal end of the spectrum), the NIV 2011 has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. It excels in communicating clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. By using expressions that a receptor-language speaker would use, the NIV 2011 sounds much more natural than many other translations. Also, it is as well-suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries.
In Decker’s opinion, the NIV 2011 is a usable translation in many situations. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways. It is not perfect, but no translation is. Overall, however, it improves an otherwise fine translation. He thinks that many churches would find it helpful in ministry. It is of sufficient quality and accuracy to serve as the primary Bible in the local church, just as was the NIV 1984. So long as one realizes that the purpose of gender accurate language is to accurately reflect the language in the original texts of Scripture, it is hard to fathom objections.
One group of churches that uses the NIV 1984 is of the opinion that if a church began using the NIV 2011 in public reading tomorrow, most congregation members wouldn’t even notice the change.
In this part of an evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, the contributions of an independent New Testament scholar, Dr Rodney Decker, have been presented. As Professor of New Testament and Greek at a US Baptist Bible Seminary, Dr Decker has provided expert input on the linguistic aspects of this evaluation including grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences). Dr Decker confirms that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Criticisms of the NIV Bible
It’s important for people to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.
How the Bible came to us is described in the blog, Can we trust our Bibles. The steps in the process are:
- God-breathed: The original text was “God-breathed” via the prophets and apostles
- Preservation: Faithful copies of the original text have been preserved
- Scholarship: Textural scholars have reconstructed the original text
- Translation: The reconstructed text has been translated into various languages
The two most recent translations of the NIV Bible were done in 1984 and 2011. The process of translation involves transferring the message from a source language to a receptor language. In the case of the NIV2011 the source languages are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and the receptor language is everyday English. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.
This evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible looks at:
- Part 1 A statement by the committee that did the translation
- Part 2 A statement by an independent Bible scholar
- Part 3 A statement by a group that is critical of the NIV 2011
Assessment of statement by the committee that did the translation
The update reflects advances in biblical scholarship and changes in the usage of the English language between 1984 and 2011. Some examples of these are given below (italics added to highlight the changes). About 95% of the text is unchanged between 1984 and 2011.
Changes in English usage
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|ankle chains||anklet||Isaiah 3:20|
|heart will be glad||he will be glad||Exodus 4:14|
|overweening pride||great . . . arrogance||Isaiah 16:6; Jeremiah 48:29|
Advances in scholarship
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|inn||guest room||Luke 2:7|
|demons||false gods||Psalm 106:37|
|richly ornamented robe||ornate robe||Genesis 37:3|
|something to be grasped||something to be used to his own advantage||Philippians 2:6|
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother …||when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban …||Genesis 29:10
|If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both||If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together||Job 9:33
Explains the second clause.
|I can do everything through him who gives me strength||I can do all this through him who gives me strength||Philippians 4:13
Stops misapplication outside the context of v.12 (to be content in all circumstances, whether in riches or in poverty).
Improved accuracy in gender language
About 25% of the changes related to gender. The Collins Bank of English was used to determine current usage of gender language. Some of the guidelines used were:
- ‟Ancestors” usually replaced ‟forefathers”.
- When it was clear that a passage addressed both men and women, ‟brothers and sisters” usually replaced “brothers” (Greek “adelphoi”). In this sense, the NIV 2011 is more gender accurate than the NIV 1984.
- When the Greek word “anēr” (‟man” or ‟person”) refers to both men and women, this is made explicit.
- A variety of words were used to replace words that referred to both men and women. For example: ‟people”, ‟humans”, ‟human beings”, ‟humanity”, ‟human race”, ‟mankind”, and ‟man” (which has been retained for some memorial phrases, such as ‟The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, Mark 2:27). Here is an example of some of these changes.
Examples of texts that now have ‟mankind” where they didn’t before include:
- ‟Let us make mankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26a);
- ‟Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and
- ‟For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Some other examples are given below (italics added).
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2
According to current scholarship, “diakonos” means “deacon”, not just ‟servant” and “prostatis” means patron or benefactor not just someone who was a ‟great help” in some unspecified way.
|For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.||It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels||1 Corinthians 11:10
‟a sign of” did not correspond to anything explicitly in the Greek.
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12
There is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”. Other alternatives are “exercise authority” and “usurp authority”.From the context, I assume that “authentein” includes the authority of an elder in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
|In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.||In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything||1 Timothy 3:11
From the context, it is possible that these women were either deacons’ wives or women deacons.
Some other improvements include:
- ‟Saints” often becomes ‟God’s people,” ‟the Lord’s people,” ‟the Lord’s holy people” and the like.
- In the Gospels and Acts, when associated with the coming deliverer of the Jews, ‟Christ” has often been changed to ‟Messiah.”
- In the New Testament, ‟spirit” has been capitalised whenever a reference to the Holy Spirit made good sense in a given context.
- Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh”. Especially in Paul’s letters, “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the NIV 1984 often rendered sarx as ‟sinful nature.” But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses ‟flesh” as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present.
Some well-known texts that have been updated are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Psalm 23:4
“shadow of death” is a metaphor
|‛I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‛and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.||‛The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‛does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.||Malachi 2:16
The beginning of the verse is hard to translate.
|Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!||Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!||2 Corinthians 5:17
It is likely that Paul is making a much more sweeping claim than just the salvation of the individual believer.
|For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.||For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.||1 John 2:16
Returns to KJV rendering.
It is clear that most of the changes mentioned above are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible. As I am not qualified to comment on some aspects of the linguistic changes, these have been omitted above.
With regard to the word “mankind”, I prefer to use the word “humanity”. Other changes that may take a while to get used to are “the flesh” (from “the sinful nature”), “impure spirits” (from “evil spirits”) and “forbearance” (from “patience”). I need to investigate these further.
As the changes to 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 3:11 move the verses closer to the Greek text, they are an improvement.
The change to Romans 16:1-2 was based on current scholarship, although I suspect that whether Phoebe was a deacon in the local church will be debated by some. On the other hand they would probably accept a woman as the coordinator of a children’s ministry at church, which could be deemed to be the role of a deacon (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).
The change to 1 Timothy 2:12 has some ambiguity, but this may be appropriate as there is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the committee that did the translation indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2
Promise and judgment
Recently I was asked this question about the Bible: I was wondering, what about the parts of the Bible that say that God ordained for the Israelites to slaughter so many people. Yes, I understand that was God’s judgment on a wicked people, but that doesn’t explain slaughtering innocent children, and in some cases of wiping out a people. It seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners. I agree that wholesale slaughter of nations seems incompatible with a God of love and mercy. It’s an argument that is often brought against the Old Testament.
The context of the Israelite invasion of Canaan begins with Abram who was in the 20th generation of life on earth. Abram was given many promises including that his descendants would be a great nation, the Jews who were God’s special people on earth. They were to be different and separate to the other nations: “you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Dt. 7:6NIV). The Israelites were given special laws to follow, including “You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices” (Lev. 18:2-3).
In the 10th generation, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:25), which was an act of divine judgment. As the Old Testament is an account of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel, we will see that Israel as God’s representatives on earth was to be involved with the judgment of the sins of the Canaanites.
When Abram travelled to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land” forever (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 1 Chron. 16:15-18). God confirmed this promise in a covenant: “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it” (Gen 15:7). The promise was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses (Gen. 50:24-25; Ex. 6:8). This was an unconditional promise (Ps. 105:8-11). It was like a grant given by a king to a loyal subject.
What land would they receive? “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:18-21). They were to be given the land of Canaan that was occupied by these nations.
When would this happen? “Know for certain that for 400 years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (Egypt). But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). So under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites would leave Egypt and travel to occupy Canaan. Note that the timing of being given the land was when the sin of the Amorites was fully developed. This is explained in Deuteronomy, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you” (Dt. 9:4).
Sins of the Canaanites
The Bible describes the wickedness of the Canaanite nations: “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (Dt. 18:9-12).
Their sexual immorality is described in Leviticus 18 as detestable. The Israelites were told “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Lev. 18:24-25). They were also warned against child sacrifice to the god Molek (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5) and against religious prostitution (1 Ki. 14:24; Dt. 23:17).
So the Canaanites were characterised by extreme wickedness, like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have been likened to a cancer in society. In such situations, God gives a warning of His judgment. In the days of Abraham they had the witness of Melchizedek the king-priest of Salem (Jerusalem) (Gen. 14:19-20) and the judgment of Sodom and Gormorrah (Gen. 19:1-29).
Before Jericho was destroyed, Rahab told the spies, “I know that the LORD has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:8-11). They knew about God’s promise – the land grant – made over 400 years before and were fearful because of the exodus 40 years beforehand when the God of the Israelites defeated the Egyptians, who were the most powerful nation at that time. This fear had been predicted (Ex. 15:14-17). They also knew about the Israelites recent military victories. Most people would flee when their country was invaded by a stronger army (Jer. 4:29; 6:1). The Amorite and Canaanite kings were also afraid because they knew that God had dried up the Jordan river so the Israelites could cross over (Josh. 5:1). As the Israelite invasion would be gradual (“little by little”), the Canaanites had plenty of time to escape (Ex. 23:30; Dt. 7:22). So they knew what was coming and they could either repent of their ways or escape by migrating out of the land of Canaan.
God had promised that the Israelites would occupy the land of Canaan. When we look at how this is described in the Bible we see two kinds of words: the Canaanite nations were both “driven out” and “destroyed”. What does this mean? We see that the Canaanites had a choice, either migrate before the Israelites arrive or be executed. It was an eviction, not a genocide. This meant that the wicked Canaanite culture and nation was to be destroyed, but most of the people could be assimilated into the surrounding nations. Also, it was to protect the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanite idolatry and wickedness.
For example, God said, “I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you” and “I will wipe them out” (Ex. 23:23, 31). The people were to be banished or killed and their idols destroyed. To avoid idolatry, there were to be no treaties and intermingling: “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against Me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you” (Ex. 23:32-33). More detail is given in Deuteronomy and Numbers: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them” (Dt. 7:2-3); “drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:52-53); “in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Dt. 20:16-18).
So the Canaanites were to be driven out of the land (Lev. 18:24-25) and those who refused to leave were to be executed as judgment of their wickedness and to minimise the chance of the Israelites catching their wicked ways. It was an expulsion, not an extermination. As some always escaped and migrated elsewhere, there were no instances of “wiping out a people”.
Later when the Israelites followed the idolatry of the Canaanites, they were also evicted from Canaan and deported to Babylon (Lev. 18:28)!
Was this fair? Was it consistent with the ways of God?
God’s revelation to those who have not heard the gospel
According to Paul, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).
This passage describes people like the Canaanites. They could see the works of God in the created world. A creation requires a creator, it can’t create itself, and it doesn’t happen by accident or just by the physical laws of this world. The immensity and magnificence of the created world requires a creator with power and knowledge that greatly exceeds those of humanity. This should be obvious. There is no excuse for not realising that a powerful being has made the universe.
However, people rejected and suppressed this truth and foolishly worshipped idols (Rom. 1:21-32). Their gods were created things instead of the One who created everything. This led to sexual immorality and other sinful behaviour. That’s why the Canaanites were under God’s wrath and judgment. God was fair, He had revealed Himself in His creation and then He waited 400 years while the Israelites were in Egypt. God was patient in judgment (2 Pt. 3:9). He allowed evil to run its course and allowed plenty of time for repentance. Instead of turning to God, the Canaanites turned to increased sinfulness. Physical death was one of the consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:19). In this instance, people died prematurely during the Israelite invasion. This means of death discontinued after the Israelites were defeated and captured by the Babylonians. After their captivity, God’s people were not required to kill so they could occupy the promised land.
In the instance of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said he would not destroy these cities if there were ten righteous people there (Gen 18:32). As He enabled Lot’s family to escape this destruction and Rahab’s family to be protected at Jericho (Josh. 6:25), we can infer that all the Canaanites who died had rejected God’s revelation and decided to stay and oppose the Israelites.
What about the children?
We have seen that the Canaanite inhabitants, including children, were either driven out or killed to prevent intermarriage and idolatry (Dt. 7:3-4; 20:16-18). Otherwise, the children who were killed would have probably followed the ways of their parents who were the leaders and those deeply involved in the Canaanite culture.
Also, with respect to idolatry, God said He punishes “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5; 34:7; Num. 14:18; Dt. 5:9). Here we see that children suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions, which is also the case today. For example, if parents are involved in crime or drugs or are alcoholics, it affects the lives of their children. As they lived in extended households, more generations of the Israelites and Canaanites were victims of their family circumstances than would be the case today. For example, Achan’s family were stoned because of his disobedience – the plunder was put under the family tent (Josh. 7:20-25). Household members share in the fate or fortune of the parents, like collateral damage in a war. The fate of the Canaanite children depended on whether their parents migrated out of Canaan or stayed there. On the other hand, Rahab’s family were saved because they were in her house when Jericho was destroyed – they shared in Rahab’s fortune. We should blame the parents and not God for the “slaughtering of innocent children”.
The Bible teaches that we are sinful from birth: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death.
Three Bible verses teach that young children are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognise His works of creation and choose to accept, honour and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11)?
Clearly, Israel’s God was greater than the false Canaanite gods, showing that there is only one true God (Isa. 43:10-12).
God kept His promise to the Israelites. It was a unique time when God established His kingdom across Canaan for a period of about 800 years, which was a foretaste of His future promised kingdom over all the earth for 1000 years. Also, God has given Christians many spiritual promises in the New Testament which He will also fulfil.
God punished the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites. This reminds us that sin has consequences. It results in physical and spiritual death. The only remedy is that eternal life is available for those who accept Christ’s gift of salvation.
God warned the Canaanites of the coming invasion and gave them plenty of time to escape. Today, the gospel message goes out and God is patiently waiting for people to turn to him (2 Pt. 3:9).
Household members, including children, shared the fortunes of their parents. We need to realise that our actions can have consequences for others.
Canaan was Israel’s promised inheritance, which was gained by their faith and obedience and lost by their disobedience. After being rescued (redeemed) from Egypt, because of their backsliding, most of the Israelites died before they reached Canaan. They succumbed to the temptations and trials of this sinful world. Canaan symbolises our present spiritual inheritance. God has given us many spiritual promises in the Bible. By claiming these and living lives in obedience to Scripture, we will be rewarded in heaven at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Let’s resist the temptations and claim God’s promises like the Israelites who claimed Canaan. It’s not easy, but God has supplied our weapons including; the truth in the Bible, our righteousness, the gospel, our faith in God, God’s salvation, the Bible and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20).
God’s main aim was to destroy the Canaanite religion, not the Canaanite people. This was to protect Israel from idolatry and the sins that were associated with idolatry. Likewise, we are told to flee idolatry (1 Cor. 10:1-14). When we are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that we can endure it. Christians are to be separate from all forms of sin, wickedness and idolatry such as are practiced by unbelievers. We are to flee from these like the Jewish exiles fled from idolatrous Babylon (2 Cor. 6:17).
So this unique period in history reminds us that God keeps His promises and judges sin.
Written, October 2012
The Bible is Not a Myth
MythBusters is a TV show on the Discovery Channel that sorts out myths and facts in an entertaining way. Did you know that the Bible is written in a way to show that it is not a myth?
The Bible teaches that the truth of a matter should be established on the testimony of at least two or three eye-witnesses (Dt. 17:6; 19:15; Mt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Ti. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). This is also the case in law courts.
Paul emphasised that the resurrection was a proven fact and not a myth because afterwards Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:6-8NIV). There were many more than two or three eye-witnesses! As most of these were still alive, they could be questioned by anyone who doubted Paul’s account.
The life of Christ
The most comprehensive record of the life of Christ is given in the books of the Bible written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are obviously four accounts of the same events, which satisfy the requirement of at least two or three witnesses. Who were these authors?
Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples who accompanied Christ during His public ministry (Mt. 4: 21-22; 9:9; 10:2-4; Mk. 1:19-20; 2:14; Lk. 5:10-11; 27-28). They were there and saw the events they recorded. They were part of the twelve apostles who were Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8). When Judas was replaced by Matthias, Peter said that an apostle was a man who had “been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us”, who was “a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
As a tax collector, Mathew was skilled in writing and keeping records. John’s testimony is reliable: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (Jn. 21:24). John was one of the three apostles that were closest to Jesus, the others were Peter and James (Mt. 17:1; Mk. 14:33). Also, he may have been a cousin of Jesus (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40).
Mark lived in Jerusalem during Christ’s public ministry and was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10). Mark may have been at the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested as he wrote; “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mk. 14:51-52).
Tradition says that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and wrote down Peter’s account of the life of Jesus. This is supported by the fact that he was with Peter when 1 Peter was written (1 Pt. 5:13). Also, when Peter escaped from prison, he went to Mark’s mother’s house (Acts 12:12-17).
Luke was a historian. His record begins: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-5). He interviewed eye-witnesses of the life of Christ, including Mary as he gives the best account of Christ’s early years.
Luke was a Gentile medical doctor who travelled with Paul and was one of his fellow workers (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24). He was well educated and had an outstanding command of the Greek language. He also wrote the book of Acts and witnessed many of the events recorded in Acts.
Confirmed and busted
As documented history always trumps science with regard to past events, we don’t need the MythBusters to test the truth of the Bible. Instead, because of multiple eye-witnesses the resurrection of Christ and the Biblical account of the life of Christ are confirmed to be proven facts and not myths. So the viewpoint that the Bible is myth is busted!
Postscript – The rest of the New Testament
The other New Testament writers were also eye-witnesses of the events they documented.
Peter was a disciple and apostle like Matthew and John. He was present during the public ministry of Christ and the life of the early church. He witnessed everything that Jesus did, including His death and resurrection (Acts 10:39-41; 1 Pt. 5:1). Silas may have helped Peter write his first letter (1 Pt. 5:12).
James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus: they had the same mother, but different fathers (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). Although they didn’t follow Jesus at the time, they grew up with Him and were aware of His public ministry. The Lord appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). James and Jude became believers after the resurrection and were part of the life of the early church (Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14; Gal. 1:19).
Paul was different to the other apostles as he became an apostle by special revelation. Instead of living with Christ during His three years of public ministry, Paul saw the Lord in a vision (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:16). He wrote that in this sense he was inferior to the others, like a premature birth compared to a normal one (1 Cor. 15:8). Nevertheless, he was to be a witness who told others about what he had seen (Acts 22:15; 26:16).
Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:4-5). As he studied under Gamaliel at Jerusalem, he was well educated (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14). Paul established churches in Asia Minor and Europe and was part of the life of the early church.
Written, September 2012
Made to be inhabited
A letter in a newspaper stated that Genesis chapter 1-11 is pre-history and is probably best described as a ”saga”, which is a story. They said it was a different genre to the rest of Genesis, which I assume was considered to be real history which had been verified by archaeology. Well, what does the evidence show us?
The history of the universe from the beginning of time according to those who reject the Bible and the God of the Bible is often told as follows:
- About 15 billion years ago – there was a “big bang” and stars like the sun formed from the exploding gases
- Then about 4.6 billion years ago – planets like earth formed around the stars
- 3.5 billion years ago – the first life appeared in deep water when molecules combined to form single-celled organisms
- 1 billion years ago – multi-cellar organisms evolved
- 600 million years ago – invertebrate animals and fish evolved
- 475 million years ago – land plants evolved
- 360 million years ago – amphibians and then the first land animals evolved
- 250 million years ago – reptiles ruled
- 200 million years ago – birds and mammals ruled
- 90 million years ago – flowering plants evolved
- 200 thousand years ago – the first humans evolved
Bill Gates is funding a project to present this information online for high school students. Let’s look at what the Bible says about such “big history”.
According to Jesus
When Jesus was discussing divorce and marriage He went back to Genesis and quoted from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female’. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife …” (Mk. 10:6-7NIV). These verses refer to the first people Adam and Eve. Here He links the “beginning of creation” with the beginning of the human race.
When Jesus was condemning the Pharisees, he quoted the range of martyrs in the Old Testament, “the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk. 11:50-51). Abel was in the first family (Genesis 4) and Zechariah was mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24, the last book in the Jewish Old Testament. Here He links the “beginning of the world” with the first family.
Clearly Jesus believed that early Genesis was real history, not just a story.
We can also learn something about the beginning of everything from Jesus. It is instructive to consider how Jesus demonstrated God’s power. He did many miracles; more than is recorded in the Bible (Jn. 20:30). For example:
- A storm was calmed straight away (Mk. 4:39)
- 5,000 men plus women and children were fed from five loaves and two fish (Mk. 6:30-44)
- People were healed immediately: the blind could see (Mt. 20:34); the crippled could walk (Lk. 13:13) and the dead stood up (Mk. 5:42; Jn. 11:43-44).
So Jesus could change the physical world instantly. He didn’t need time to do it in gradual steps. Likewise, God can create physical things instantly. He doesn’t need time to do it in gradual steps from the simple to the complex.
According to Paul
When looking at why people who have not heard the gospel still face God’s judgment, Paul wrote “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:21). God’s attributes have been evident to people “since the creation of the world”, not just since people have been on the earth. The implication is that people have been here since the creation of the world. This is consistent with what Jesus said about Adam, Eve and Abel.
Paul also believed in Adam and Eve (Rom. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14). For example, He contrasted Adam and Jesus in three passages of the New Testament:
- “If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:44-45). From Adam we have physical life in a natural body, but from Jesus we can have eternal life now and a redeemed body at the resurrection.
- “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin … through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:12-21). So death entered the world because of Adam’s sin, but eternal life is possible through Jesus.
- “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). From Adam we have physical death, but from Jesus people can be resurrected from the dead.
So Paul viewed both Adam and Jesus as true historical characters, not as mythical figures. He saw the creation and fall into sin of early Genesis as historical events that had a significant impact on our world, not as “pre-history” stories.
According to historical records
If there has been a crime or a car accident, the police determine what happened from the evidence and by interviewing witnesses. The Biblical writers witnessed what they wrote about, except for situations such as creation when God was the witness.
History is the study of past events. We don’t use operational science because it’s only reliable for present events – we can’t do experiments on the past or the future unless we make assumptions (then the finding relies on the assumptions made). Documentary evidence is the best form of historical record. Let’s look at what the historical records in the Bible meant for its original readers, the Children of Israel.
When God gave them the ten commandments, He said “in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day” (Ex. 20:11). This was a model for their working week. In this context, the heavens are the stars and galaxies. God took 6 days to create the universe, but could have taken 6 hours, 6 minutes or 6 seconds. After all, God is outside the time of our finite world. He is infinite and all powerful.
God didn’t use a long process to create everything. He commanded and it was done immediately (Ps. 33:6-9; Heb. 11:3). I am not aware of any Scriptures which indicate long ages of time were involved in creation.
This is also supported by the resurrection which is described as “we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). So our resurrection bodies will be created instantly. This is consistent with the original creation taking a short period of time and Christ’s miracles happening instantly. God doesn’t need lots of time to create something new.
The creation was finished on day 6, which was when Adam and Eve were created. So we know that people have been on earth since then.
A mature universe
On the day they were created, Adam named the animals and Adam and Eve were married (Gen. 2:19-20, 24). They were created as mature adults. The universe and the earth that God created were mature. Its complex interacting systems functioned properly from the beginning. The animals and plants lived in mature and functioning ecosystems. So the creation was mature and fully functional from the beginning. It didn’t need to develop gradually over time from simple to more complex.
This means that at that time the apparent age of things didn’t match the actual age. Scientists calculate the age of the universe by assuming that all the stars and galaxies have expanded to their positions after a big explosion. It is an assumption that is also based on using the red- shift of light and the Hubble law to calculate the expansion rates and the distances of galaxies. However, the Bible says that God placed them in their positions on day 4 of creation by stretching them out (Gen. 1:14-19; Ps. 104:2). So the difference between their apparent age of 15 billion years and the Biblical age of thousands of years represents the miracle that God did on day 4.
When did this happen? Is Genesis 1-11 pre-history? It is followed by Genesis 12-25 which is about Abraham. Do we know much about before this time? Yes we do. In Genesis 5 and 11 we have detailed genealogies from Adam to Abraham (Gen 5:1-32; 11:10-26). These are not just lists of ancestors and descendants. Their ages at the birth of their child in the family tree and their death are also given. Some Biblical genealogies have gaps because their purpose is to show their main ancestors (Ezra 7:1-5; Mt. 1:1-16). But these ones are worded in such a way as to exclude omissions and gaps. They are the most comprehensive genealogies in the Bible. Because they cover 19 generations, we know more about these people than our own ancestors!
Besides this, there are two other genealogies that cover this period in the Bible (1 Chron. 1:1-27; Lk. 3:33-38). There are three genealogies in the Bible covering the period back to Adam that some allege is pre-history! So it’s real history. It seems as though in recent times some people call it pre-history to explain the inconsistency with the recent extra-biblical account.
When you add up that dates given in Scripture you find that Adam lived about 6,000 years ago and the global flood was about 4,500 years ago. That’s a long time, thousands of years, but it’s not millions of years. When compared to the extra-biblical timeline, the historical timeline:
- Is documented historically instead of being calculated
- Is shorter (about 6,000 years compared to about 15 billion years)
- Has people appearing near the beginning (people have been here for 99.9998% of the time); instead of near the end (people have been here for 1.3% of the time). People have been here most of the time. After all, God made the world to be inhabited, “For this is what the LORD says—He who created the heavens, He is God; He who fashioned and made the earth, He founded it; He did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited … I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isa. 45:18-19).
The extra-biblical account is inconsistent with recorded history. As it relies on assumptions of people who were not there when it happened, clearly these assumptions are wrong. What are these incorrect assumptions?
- They rule out a God of miracles. This means they have to rely on current physical processes and forces to explain the past.
- Consequently, they believe that the present is the key to the past, but according to the Bible the past is the key to the present – after all history goes forwards, not backwards!
- They believe that given enough time everything can create itself and organisms always evolve or build up gradually over time from simple to complex. Therefore the biological world has become more complex with time.
- They believe simple organisms are primitive and developed earlier than more complex organisms.
Does it matter if the extra-biblical explanation of the past history of the world is wrong? Yes, because it destroys the gospel message. It destroys the source of sin and death, removes the need for a Savior, and ruins the possibility of future restoration of the earth when Christ reigns (Acts 3:21). That’s what happens if the first three chapters of Genesis are not historical, but a story that isn’t necessarily true. This means removing creation, the Garden of Eden and the fall into sin as real events in real places.
This explanation moves the source of sin, disease, decay and death from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to making it be a part of our world (which Christians call God’s creation). In this case disease, decay and death have always been a part of our world. They are the normal situation; and not viewed as being abnormal. It takes away the lack of disease and death before the fall. It puts death before sin, not after it. It puts evil before sin, not after it. It means that the created world, which God said was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), was marred by disease and death. It takes away the fact that the original sin affected all of God’s creation (Rom. 8:19-23). It takes away the promise that all creation will be liberated from its “bondage to decay” when Christ returns to rule over it.
Lessons for us
As believers, our thoughts and opinions should be controlled by God, not by the views of those who reject God. This means that our thoughts and opinions should be controlled by the Bible, not by the extra-biblical theories which rule out the possibility of divine intervention in the natural world, such as miracles. The Bible says that God has intervened in our big history and He will intervene again. We ignore that at our peril.
Sin, death and salvation are important aspects of the Bible and Christianity. Let’s be aware of the implications of ideas such as extra-biblical big history which are inconsistent with the Biblical record.
Finally, the Bible is not a science book; but it is a history book. It is the best record of ancient history we have today; a supreme example of ancient history; and a big history book. It contains documentary evidence by eyewitnesses which has been accurately preserved over the years. So we can trust the Bible on big history.
Written, June 2012
How the Bible came to us
I recently read about five alleged myths and shortcomings of the Bible: the creation story, the morality of the Jews destroying the Canaanites, Noah’s flood, the virgin birth and inconsistencies between different parts of the Bible. So can we trust our Bibles or are they the unreliable product of a more primitive era? To answer this question we will look at how the Bible came to us.
The word Bible comes from biblion, the Greek word for book and the word Scripture comes from scriptura, the Latin word for something written. The Bible is a collection of 66 books from more than 40 authors. It has two main parts, the Old Testament (OT), written before Christ and the New Testament (NT), written after Christ. They were both written in the everyday language of their time. The OT was written in Hebrew, except for portions in Aramaic after the Jewish exile in Babylon, while the New Testament was written in Greek.
Paul said that the OT was “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). This also applies to the NT as Peter equates Paul’s letters with Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So how did the words of God get to be written on earth? Well, the apostle John reported, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: …’” (Rev. 1:10-11NIV). In this case John was given a vision and he was to write down what he saw. In Jeremiah’s case, he dictated God-given words to his secretary Baruch (Jer. 36:1-4).
In Hebrews we learn, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). This means that in the OT God communicated to people via the prophets and in the NT He communicated via Jesus and the apostles, who recorded the life of Jesus and the early church.
Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter wrote, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable … Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (own mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). Clearly the Bible message came from God via the prophets and apostles. The Holy Spirit influenced them like a wind moves a sailing boat: see Acts 27:15 where the same word is used. So the Holy Spirit helped the authors write the words. But it wasn’t just dictated mechanically, because each author used their own style.
So God created the books of the Bible via human authors. It’s God’s words (in the original text). That’s why it is also referred to as God’s Word. Each word of the entire Bible was “God-breathed” as originally written. This means it was recorded accurately without error. So it’s trustworthy and reliable in all the matters it addresses.
Paul communicated “things God has revealed to us by His Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:10), “not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). So the words used by the apostles were especially chosen by the Holy Spirit. Paul and the other writers “had the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). This passage is about new truths revealed in the NT, not about heaven.
What about the Apocrypha which is comprised of 13 Jewish writings from the period between the OT and the NT (350 BC to 50 AD) that are included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles? The word Apocrypha comes from a Greek word meaning hidden. However:
- They were never accepted by the Jews as part of their God-given Scriptures
- None are quoted or referred to in the NT or accepted by Jesus and the apostles as God-given Scripture
- None were written by the OT prophets
- They were only recognised by Roman Catholics as part of their Scriptures in the 1540s (1,500 years after they were written)
So the Apocrypha are Jewish religious books written between the times of the OT and the NT, but they are not God-breathed Scripture.
By 400 BC the OT was complete and written on scrolls and by 100 AD the NT was complete and written on scrolls. However, because scrolls don’t last for thousands of years, we don’t have any of the original Biblical texts today. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Many copies have been made and early manuscripts have been preserved.
Photocopiers have been used since 1959 and the printing press since the 1450s. Gutenberg printed the first Bible in 1456. Copies of the books of the Bible were handwritten before the printing press. A handwritten copy is called a manuscript, which comes from the Latin words manu (hand) and scriptum (written). An amazing number of Bible manuscripts have been preserved for us to examine today. These comprise ancient fragments, scrolls and books.
The characteristics of these documents changed over the centuries between when they were first composed and the advent of the printing press. The media they were written on changed from stones (like the Ten Commandments), to clay tablets (Moses), to papyrus (paper made from a reed plant that grew along the Nile River – that’s where our word paper comes from), to parchment (also called vellum; made from animal skins), and to paper. Paper as we know it was invented in China, but wasn’t used in Europe until the 1200s. Books replaced scrolls in about the second century AD. In about the eleventh century AD, the Greek text changed from modified capitals to lower case. In about the fifth century AD, the quill replaced the reed as the “pen” used by copyists. Scholars examine these characteristics when dating manuscripts.
Old Testament manuscripts
The OT was written between 1500 BC and 400 BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were the most important archaeological discovery in the last century. They were found in clay jays in caves near the north-western shore of the Dead Sea. Scholars believe that the DSS were hidden about 70 AD when Roman legions invaded Israel.
Before this time, the oldest Hebrew manuscript of the whole OT was Codex Leningradensis (1008 AD). Codex means book. In the DSS there was a copy of Isaiah dated 150 BC, which was about 550 years after the original text was written. The Hebrew text of this copy was virtually the same as the copy made over 1,000 years later. So the Jewish scribes did a good job! They were diligent and developed many practices to protect copies of their scriptures from error. For example, the Masoretes numbered the letters, words, and paragraphs of each book and the middle paragraph, middle word and middle letter had to correspond to those of the original document. Earlier Jewish scribes were just as meticulous in their transcription. After all, they were instructed not to add to or take away from the word of God (Dt. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).
Most of the DSS predate the time of Christ (they were written 150 BC to 70 AD). Parts of all the books of the Old Testament were found except Esther. They closely follow the Masoretic Text, the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible (the tanakh), copied by a group of Jews about the 10th century AD, but there are a few exceptions. For example, Psalm 145 is an alphabetical psalm. Each verse begins with the next letter in the alphabet, but “N” verse is missing in the Masoretic Text and King James Bible.
Between the third century BC and 130 BC, the OT was translated into Greek and this version of the OT is known as the Septuagint. Fragments of Septuagint manuscripts date from the first and second centuries BC. Relatively complete manuscripts of the Septuagint include the Codex Vaticanus from the 4th century AD and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are the oldest surviving nearly complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest existing complete Hebrew texts date some 600 years later, from the 10th century.
New Testament manuscripts
The NT was written between 50 AD and 100 AD. The oldest NT manuscript is a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which is dated about 125 AD about 30 years after the book was first written! The earliest manuscripts of each book in the NT are usually papyrus fragments which are dated from 125 AD (for John) to 350 AD for 1&2 Timothy and 3 John, with a median date of 200 AD.
Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript of the Bible written about 350 AD, contains the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. It was discovered at a monastery on Mount Sinai in the 1850s. The hand-written text is in Greek. On the other hand, the earliest manuscripts of the works of the Jewish historian Josephus in their original language are dated 900-1000 AD, at least 800 years after they were written.
As there are earlier, better and more manuscripts of Scripture, the manuscript evidence of the Bible is superior to that for any other ancient book. However, none of these Biblical manuscripts is perfectly accurate, they all contain copy errors. Does this mean our Bibles are unreliable? No! Scholars have reconstructed the original text.
The study of biblical manuscripts is important because handwritten copies of books usually contain errors. Textural scholars reconstruct the original text from the manuscripts available. Generally earlier versions are closer to the original as they have fewer copy errors.
Scholars have grouped the NT manuscripts into families: Alexandrian (200s-400s AD), Caesarean (200s AD onwards), Western (300s-500s AD) and Byzantine (500s onwards). There have been three major attempts to reconstruct the original New Testament text from ancient Greek manuscripts:
The Received Text (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD). It was first published in 1516. This text lacks the input of many early Biblical manuscripts which have been discovered since this time.
The Eclectic Text (selected from the best of a variety of sources) was based on an analysis of all the manuscripts, with a preference for the earliest ones (mainly Alexandrian, Caesarean and Western manuscripts). It was first published in the 1880s. This text tends to be shorter than the others.
The Majority Text was based on the majority of existing Greek manuscripts and first published in the 1982. As fewer ancient texts have survived and the Byzantine church was quite wealthy and produced many manuscripts, the Majority Text is largely based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (dated the 9th to the 13th centuries AD) and has some similarities to the Received Text. However, no major Bible translations are based on the Majority Text.
The differences between the reconstructed New Testament texts mentioned above are mainly technical and not doctrinal. They don’t affect any Christian doctrine because the Bible is a robust document. It has a great deal of redundancy and repetition with multiple accounts of important events. For example, there two accounts of Israel’s history (Samuel & Kings; Chronicles), three genealogies from Adam to Abraham (Genesis 5&11; 1 Chronicles; Luke 3) and four accounts of the life of Jesus (the gospels). All major doctrines are taught in several places in the Bible. They don’t rely on a single verse.
So scholars have reconstructed the original Biblical texts. However, as these reconstructed original texts are in Hebrew and Greek, which most of us can’t read, does that mean that our Bibles, which are not in Hebrew and Greek are unreliable? No! These languages have been translated accurately.
Translators transfer the message from a source language to a receptor language. These Biblical texts have been translated into most of the languages in the world. In fact, the Bible has been translated and retranslated more than any other book in history. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.
Some ancient translations are:
• The Septuagint – a Greek translation of the OT dated about 200 BC, which was quoted by Christ and the apostles. This shows that God approves of translations. Jesus viewed this translation of the Old Testament as reliable and trustworthy (Mt. 5:17-18; Jn. 10:35).
• The Vulgate – a Latin translation of the Bible dated about 400 AD, which was used for over 1,000 years including the Middle Ages.
If you look at an Interlinear Bible you will realise that a word-for-word translation is impossible. This is because each language has a different vocabulary (we may need more than one word to describe a word in another language or vice-versa) and a different grammar (or sentence structure). Also, languages are flexible and there is often more than one way to correctly translate a text. The same information can be communicated in different ways.
What’s the difference between different translations of the Bible?
Two types of reconstructed source have mainly been used:
- Received Text – This was used by the 1611 KJV and has been maintained by subsequent editions of the KJV and for the NKJV.
- Eclectic Text – This is used by most other translations of the Bible where some verses are omitted because it is believed that they were added by copyists.
Some translations try to follow the pattern of the source language (but are not as readable), others follow the pattern of the receptor language (but are not as close literally). For example:
- Most literal includes: NASB (11), KJV (12), NKJV (9) and ESV (9)
- Most readable includes: CEV (4), NLT (6)
- Intermediate: NIV (8), HCSB (8)
The number is the grade level required to read the text. Note: interlinear Bibles are most literal, but they are not readable at all, and The Message is a paraphrase not a translation. Different translations have different purposes, which are indicated in the front of the Bible. They usually have a particular readership in mind. Most of the translations are trustworthy. Rarely does a doctrinal matter hinge on the translation of the text.
Lessons for us
We can be thankful for the Bible’s preservation over thousands of years.
Our Bibles are very close to the original because early manuscripts have been preserved, scholars have reconstructed the original text and languages have been translated accurately. So we can trust our Bibles.
Paul told Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Each of our Bibles contains all we need to know about salvation, spiritual growth and Christian living, by making us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and thoroughly equipping us for every good work.
Which is the best Bible? The one you read! Read it regularly and memorise key verses.
Written, March 2012
Chinese New Year is the main holiday of the year for more than one quarter of the world’s population. Our daughter and her family and Chinese in-laws spent the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong where the streets were decorated colorfully. Chinese holiday traditions include parades, feasts, fireworks, lanterns and giving children money in red envelopes. This is the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, which began on 23 January 2012 and will end on 9 February 2013. A surge in births is expected in China during this year as it is regarded as the zodiac sign which will give their offspring the most success and happiness in life.
Each year is associated with one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac in the following order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep or Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. So the year of the dragon follows the year of the rabbit and is followed by the year of the snake. The names are repeated every 12 years. Rather than remembering their current age, the Chinese tend to remember the animal of their birth-year. For example, I was born in the year of the Ox.
Nowadays the Chinese calendar is mainly used for traditional festivals that occur on new moons or full moons. As the months are lunar months, it has the feature that the phases of the moon, and astronomical and tidal phenomena associated with them, such as spring and neap tides, fall on approximately the same day in each month.
Today it is considered that the Chinese dragon is a legendary and mythical creature. But what about when the Chinese zodiac was developed thousands of years ago? Clearly the other 11 creatures in the zodiac were not mythical. Why would one be mythical? That would be inconsistent. Was it a creature that was known in ancient times? Could it be extinct?
Dragons in the Bible
Dragons are mentioned in the King James Bible (KJB), which was published about 400 years ago. The KJB is the all-time bestselling book in the English language. In the Old Testament, on 23 occasions the name “dragon(s)” was given to animals that lived on the land and in the sea.
Are these creatures real or mythical? During a drought wild donkeys were said to pant like dragons (Jer. 14:6). The “dragon well” was located near the southern walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 2:13). Also, Jerusalem and Babylon were to be reduced to a heap of ruins and a “den of dragons” (Jer. 9:11; 51:37). Pharaoh king of Egypt was like a “great dragon” lying in the Nile River and Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon would devour Judah like a dragon swallows people (Ezek. 29:3; Jer. 51:34). It seems as though the original translators of the KJB understood that a “dragon” was a real creature, not one that was legendary or mythical.
It is interesting to note that in more recent editions of the KJB, the word “dragon” has been changed to “jackal” or “serpent” or “sea-monster”, which are clearly real animals.
Dragons and dinosaurs
In the KJB, “dragons” are associated with Leviathan (Ps 74:13-14; Isa. 27:1). Leviathan in turn is associated with Behemoth and their descriptions seem to match those of certain dinosaurs (Job 40:15-24; 41:1-34). Another creature, Rahab, is like Leviathan (Job 9:13; 26:12; Isa. 30:7; 51:9). These creatures were also used as metaphors for powerful nations such as Egypt and Babylonia (Jer. 51:34; Ezek. 29:3).
Therefore, it appears the “dragons” that were understood to be real animals were probably types of dinosaur which are now extinct. The translators of the KJB didn’t know about dinosaurs as this word was coined 230 years later in 1841. So the word “dragon” is an old word for “dinosaur”. The changes to the text of the KJB occurred after the theory of evolution popularised the idea that the dinosaurs died out millions of years before human beings populated the earth. This shows how one’s worldview can be used to reject evidence and to modify history. Unfortunately this aspect of the secular theory of evolution has influenced all Bible translations.
It is interesting that dragon stories occur in many cultures, particularly the Chinese and Japanese. The pictures we see of dragons are often composite drawings that combine the features of different kinds of dinosaurs. They would also be embellished.
Dragons and dinosaurs are massive examples of God’s creation. When Job was reminded of the greatest dragons and dinosaurs he responded, “My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” He had seen God’s great power and this caused him to turn and go in the opposite direction and follow God (Job 42:5-6NIV). God also wants us to respond to His power and might.
Written, February 2012
The following verses are not included in many recent Bible translations: Mt. 17:21; 18:11; 23:14; Mk. 7:16; 9:44, 46; 11:26; 15:28; Lk. 17:36; 23:17; Jn. 5:4; Acts 8:37; 15:34; 24:7; 28:29; Rom. 16:24. They represent 0.2% of the verses in the New Testament. These differences between some translations are due to differences in the Greek source text.
Many ancient copies exist of the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek on papyrus, then parchment (from the 4th century) and paper (from the 10th century). The earliest fragments date from 110 AD and the earliest complete texts from 200 AD. However, none of these are manuscripts of the original text. Instead they have been copied by scribes. Minor variations in hand copying have appeared through the centuries before mechanical printing began in about 1450 AD.
There have been three major attempts to construct the original New Testament text:
- The Received Text (“Textus Receptus” in Latin) was based on some Byzantine (eastern portion of the Roman Empire) manuscripts (dated from 1000 AD) and first published in 1516.
- The Critical (or eclectic) Text was based on an analysis of the manuscripts of all periods (up to the invention of the printing press) and all geographic regions, including the Alexandrian (Egyptian), Byzantine, Caesarean and Western families and first published in the 1880s. Dryer climatic conditions in Egypt favored the preservation of ancient manuscripts, while the Western and Caesarean families are also represented by early manuscripts (as early as the 4th century AD) as well.
- The Majority Text was based on the majority of existing Greek manuscripts and first published in the 1982. As fewer ancient texts have survived and the Byzantine church was quite wealthy and produced many manuscripts, the Majority Text is largely based on the Byzantine family of manuscripts (dated the 9th to the 13th centuries AD) and has some similarities to the Received Text.
Which of these Greek texts most closely corresponds to the original New Testament? Although no one knows the answer to this question, since errors tend to accumulate with the number of copies made, textural scholars favor older manuscripts, which presumably have been copied less often. They also assume that most copy errors are accidental additions of marginal notes rather than accidental deletions. Furthermore, because of warnings in Scripture, scribes tended to add marginal explanations rather than remove words from the text (Rev. 22:19).
So the reason the verses listed above are omitted in recent translations is because scholars believe that they were not in the original text. Some may have been margin notes that were later added to the main text. The verses in question are of minor significance, although Acts 8:37 did include the eunuch’s confession of faith in Christ before he was baptised (the fact that faith precedes baptism is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture as in Acts 8:12-13). Most of the additions in the gospels repeat verses that are included elsewhere in the Bible and the other additions don’t change any Biblical doctrines.
We can be thankful for the Bible’s preservation over thousands of years. It is the most accurate ancient literature that is available today. The differences between the reconstructed New Testament texts mentioned above are mainly technical and not doctrinal. As there is no substantial difference between these texts, each can lead one to salvation and spiritual growth.
Written, December 2011
Also see- Can we trust our Bibles?
The Bible is a collection of books which were written over a period of over 1,500 years with unique origin and content.
We will look at three statements about the source of the Bible. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16NIV). When written in ~67AD by Paul, this statement mainly applied to the Old Testament as not all the New Testament books had been written. But when Paul quoted from the book of Luke, he called it Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18) and Peter referred to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). So today we can apply the statement to the whole Bible. This means that God is the source of every verse in the Bible.
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (mind). For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The men who were given the message were called prophets. This passage emphasises that the words of Scripture were given by God via the Holy Spirit; and they didn’t originate from the prophet’s mind.
“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2:13). Once again, the Bible contains God’s wisdom, not human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6-15). It’s “the thoughts of God” and the amazing things that “God has prepared for those who love Him”, which can only be understood with the help of the Holy Spirit.
As the Bible is the only book with God as the author, it is unique. The Bible is God’s message to us. The supreme God who created the universe and continues to sustain it has communicated with us. This also means that:
- The Bible has authority – coming from the ruler of the visible and invisible universe.
- The Bible is infallible. It is “completely reliable” as the source of truth, being absolutely true (2 Pet.1:19). The original text was without error and only minor copyist errors have occurred over the passage of time. When interpreted correctly, it never deceives us, never contradicts itself and can be trusted.
- The Bible is profitable. God has told us what we need to know. It’s like our instruction manual for life.
The Bible tells us the history of the universe from beginning to end. It begins with the creation of the universe and contains a history of mankind from Adam and Eve to the end of history. It describes the global flood that has shaped the earth and gives a detailed history of the Jewish nation, which is confirmed by archaeology. There is also a history of God’s dealing with mankind, a history of human failures, an accurate record of human behaviour and information about heaven and hell.
The Bible answers difficult questions, such as the following. Why do we exist? Why does anything exist? What can we hope for in the future? What is our destiny? Where has humanity come from? Why are we male and female? Where does marriage come from? Why is there suffering?
The Bible deals with our greatest problem (being God’s enemy instead of His friend) and our greatest need (to be reconciled with God) and how that was addressed by Jesus. God’s plan of salvation through Jesus is the theme of Scripture. We learn the way of salvation through the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15). It also provides assurance of salvation.
The Bible tells us what to know about the unseen world, including: God, angels, Satan, and demons. It describes the interaction between the unseen and seen parts of our world. It reveals what is God like; what has God done; God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It also reveals that humans are comprised of spirit, soul and body.
As the Bible is the only reliable source of this information, it is unique (Eccl. 3:11).
The Bible uses the following powerful images to describe itself:
- A sharp sword that penetrates and judges our thoughts and attitudes (Heb. 4:12-13). It is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).
- A light that shines in darkness (Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19). It illuminates the way ahead and guides us.
- A mirror that shows our true condition (Jas. 1:22-25).
- Food (milk and solid food) that sustains us (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14).
- Water that purifies us as we obey Scripture (Eph. 5:25).
- More precious than gold (Ps. 19:10).
- Sweeter than honey (Ps. 19:10).
So, the Bible is not just another book, it’s God’s unique powerful message to us. Let’s read it, study it, memorise it and obey it.
Written, September 2011
Also see: Read the Bible in one year
God’s Word is the Key
In Old Testament times the Jews were God’s special people. He promised them many things, but some of these were conditional on their obedience (Ex. 15:25-26; 23:25-26; Dt. 7:12-16). If they worshipped idols, they were told: “The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you” (Deut. 4:27NIV). Because the Jews were unfaithful and followed idols instead of the true God, they were overrun by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Jerusalem was plundered and destroyed.
However, after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, some returned to their homeland. This journey of about 1500 km took them 4 months to travel (Ezra 7:8). They returned in three phases: Zerabbabel rebuilt the temple, 80 years later Ezra led a spiritual revival, and 13 years later Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. Although there was opposition from the surrounding nations, they persisted and there was a spiritual revival when they turned back to worshipping the only true God. Let’s look at the key steps in their revival.
The main character is Ezra, who was a devoted student and a teacher of the Scriptures (Ezra 7:10). He was instrumental in a spiritual revival after Nehemiah rebuilt the city walls. One day all the Israelite men and women gathered together and Ezra “read it (the books of Moses) aloud from daybreak till noon” (Neh. 8:3). The people listened for 5-6 hours! That’s a long time! Thirteen Levites helped by “making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8). As Aramaic was the language at the time, they probably translated it from Hebrew into Aramaic. On the next day Ezra taught the leaders, priests and Levites from the Scripture (Neh. 8:13). When they discovered that they had not been celebrating the Festival of Shelters, they celebrated it with joy. On every day of this 7-day festival, Ezra read from the Scripture (Neh. 8:18).
Three days later the people gathered together to confess their sinful ways. They “read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for 3 hours, and spent another 3 hours in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God” (Ezra 9:3). They prayed one of the longest prayers in the Bible, which traces God’s faithfulness across history despite the Jews unfaithfulness (Neh. 9:6-37). After this they wrote a binding agreement that they would obey the Lord and follow the Scriptures (Neh. 9:38 – 10:39). So the sequence of events was: they read the Bible (Neh. 8), they confessed their sins (Neh. 9), and they obeyed the Lord (Neh. 10).
This pattern is similar to the Jewish revival under king Josiah. After he was informed of God’s message in Scripture, “he tore his robes” and wept in anger and sorrow acknowledging their disobedience, and then promised “to follow the LORD and keep His commands” and acted to remove all the idols in the land of Israel (2 Ki. 22:8 – 23:20; 2 Chr. 34:14-33).
Read the Bible
What can we learn from this? Revival begins with God’s word. Did you notice how often they read the Scripture? The Bible showed them how they had failed. The bible is our spiritual food: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16). It helps us learn God’s perspective on our world including what is right and what is wrong (“teaching”); where we are on the wrong track (“rebuking”); how to get back onto the right track (“correcting”); and how to live a godly life (“training in righteousness”).
Confess our sins
After they read the Bible, they felt guilt and shame. This led to confession of sin in prayer to the Lord; they were honest with God. After God speaks to us in Scripture, we need to respond in prayer. This is necessary to keep in touch with God: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Although the penalty of our sins has already been paid, they affect our relationships in the family of God. If we confess our sins to the Lord, He promises to forgive them and enable these relationships to be restored. If the sin is against another person, we should confess to them so that they in turn can forgive us (Lk. 17: 3-4; Jas. 5:16).
Follow the Lord
After they confessed their sin, there was repentance and obedience; they acted to get back on track. Signs of being in fellowship with the Lord and with believers in the family of God are that we “keep His commands”, obey “His word”, and “live as Jesus did” (1 Jn. 2:3-6). This means obeying Christ’s teachings, doing what pleases Him, and letting Him live His life through us. Paul said, “I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Christ left an example for us to follow, and said “learn from me” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 11:29; 16:24; 1 Pt. 2:21).
Lessons for us
So let’s read and meditate on the Bible and apply it to our lives. This is the key to the three steps of spiritual revival: read the Bible, confess our sins, and follow the Lord.
Written, June 2011
The wisest man of ancient times wrote, “He (God) has planted eternity in the human heart, but … people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11NLT). What is eternity? It’s an endless period of time. This suggests that there is more to life than what we see. Our world is big, yet its satisfactions are small. We don’t understand what’s going on. Solomon summarised it from a human viewpoint; “everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 3:19NIV).
Since we were made for eternity, the things of time cannot fully and permanently satisfy. After the ipod, the iphone and the ipad, we look for the next technology.
We live in an amazingly complex world which has much beauty that scientists are still exploring. It is loaded with information and design. Design demands a designer and creation demands a Creator. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. Creation shows that He is a clever and powerful God. The Bible’s message to those who reject this knowledge is “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). The eternal God is the source of our eternal future.
But there is more information in our world than the atoms and molecules of our physical world. Everyone is born with a conscience, which is part of our eternal soul. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. It is like an inbuilt alarm. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. But in this world where people often reject God’s revelation it can be programmed wrongly.
The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. So the Creator made us with a mind that is able to make choices, not one that is driven by instinct. Unfortunately, we often choose to disobey our conscience. Then we have a guilty conscience which we may try to ignore. But the Creator has provided an answer to our selfish and rebellious ways.
Eternity is a continual reality in the Bible, which is God’s special message for mankind. It tells us all we need to know about history and about humanity. About the moral choices made throughout history from the times of our original parents Adam and Eve. About how we have all rebelled against God and gone our own way. How we all have a guilty conscience, whether we acknowledge it or not. How this selfish and rebellious (sinful) attitude has lead to suffering, disease, decay, death and eternal punishment. How God’s solution to our problems was to send Jesus to take the punishment that we deserve. He was executed and then resurrected back to life, which we remember at Easter time. He offers each of us the opportunity to be reconciled back to God and have our conscience fixed: “Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23CEV).
Firstly we need to realise our hopeless situation and then we need to accept the gift of forgiveness. Jesus shows that He is a compassionate and loving God. He is waiting for people to accept His offer to give them a new life and an inheritance with Him in the life to come.
Lessons for us
As we all live on the edge of eternity, keep eternity in mind (Lk. 12:16-20). God has revealed Himself to us all through His creation and our conscience. But the clearest revelation is through Jesus Christ who is made known through the Bible. This is why the Bible is the most important book ever written. It is life changing. Through it we can be part of God’s eternity. His new eternal creation; His eternal life.
Written, June 2009
What happened at the beginning of time?
The best place to begin reading a book is at the beginning. It’s important to read the beginning in order to understand what happens later. This article begins a series that looks at the beginning of the bible. This helps us understand later events in the Bible, like when Jesus Christ came to earth.
Interpreting the Bible
As “all Scripture is God-breathed”, the original text contained no errors or mistakes (Prov. 30:5-6; 2 Tim. 3:15-17). The words in the original language were inspired by God as the human writers of the Bible were given the words by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt. 1:20-21). That is why it is often referred to as the Word of God. In fact Scripture is the only source of revelation that is not affected by sin (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20-22). The Bible is our only reliable authority on the creation of the world—we have no other eye-witness account.
While Scripture is accurate, it is not exhaustive. However, it is sufficient to make us “wise for salvation” and “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-17NIV). It is a concise book with no unnecessary detail. God gives us the important things that we need to know and we need to use our intellect to apply these to our situations in life.
God intended that ordinary people would be able to understand the Bible. For example, fathers were to teach the Scriptures to their children at home (Deut. 6:4-9; Eph. 6:4). Also, the Bereans “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). They only need the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14).
The meaning of scripture is the meaning the inspired authors intended to convey to their generation. The only exception to this rule is prophecies which also have another meaning when they are fulfilled at a future time. So, it is important to find out how the original readers would have understood the words. After all, it was their language being used in their circumstances.
The Bible is a theological book. It contains the message of salvation from the penalty of our sin. But this theology is set in a world of history and science. It uses the physical world to illustrate and reveal spiritual truths. Although it is not a history book, the history in the bible is accurate. Although it is not a science book, the science in the bible is also accurate. What it says is exactly true. Because it is the inspired word of God, its language communicated accurately to its original readers and a good translation communicates accurately to us today.
The interpretation of scripture requires consideration of the text and the context in which it was written. This includes knowledge of the language, culture and history of that time. For example, is the text a literal narrative or is it poetic? It should be taken literally unless there is ample reason to believe the text was meant to be taken figuratively, such as metaphors, symbolism and parables. Also, other passages of scripture may help to confirm the meaning of a difficult passage.
The Context of Genesis
The book of Genesis was complied and written by Moses in the 14th century BC from oral history and revelation from God (Acts 7:22; 15:1; Genesis 17; 2 Peter 1:21). Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Until he was weaned, his mother would have taught him the history of the Hebrew people. When he was older, Moses was “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in words and action” (Acts 7:22).
Moses wrote the first five books of the bible while travelling between Egypt and Canaan. The people in both of these lands worshipped idols. The forces of nature were personified as pagan gods. These mythical beings included the sun god, the river Nile, and the golden calf in Egypt and sun, moon and stars, Baal – the god of the rain and storm, Asherah – the goddess of the sea and fertility in Canaan. The ten plagues were directed against the gods of Egypt. On the way to Canaan they moved through lands where people tried to seduce them into idolatry and immorality. Middle Eastern creation myths usually involve how one of the gods triumphs in a mighty battle against the forces of chaos and then reigns over the other gods and creates order out of chaos.
Genesis was written to these Israelites to educate them about the true God and protect them from idolatry. Moses is declaring that God has revealed Himself in creation and in history; Baal is not the true god. The New Testament affirms this as real history. Jesus quotes v.27 in Mt 19:4 and Mk. 10:6 and Adam and Eve are mentioned several times (Lk.3:38; Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; 1 Tim. 2:13-14; Jude 14).
Genesis is the foundation of the Bible. It is a book of beginnings; containing a selective history according to God’s purposes. The word “Genesis” comes from the Greek word meaning “origin” or “beginning”. The Hebrew name for this book was “in the beginning”. So Genesis describes the beginning of the universe, the earth and all its inhabitants of human beings, marriage, family, society, civilization, sin and redemption and how God relates to His creation. It contains the original and true account of creation and shows who God is, who we are, what our basic problem is and God’s solution to that problem. In this article we look at Genesis 1:1-2:3.
God is the Creator
The bible begins by saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). So the answer to the question of the origin of the universe and of life is given in the first verse of the bible. The fact that God refers to Himself as “us” seems to be a reference to the trinity (Gen. 1:26; 3:22). This is confirmed in the New Testament, which says that Jesus created everything (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16).
How did God Create?
God created the universe in a series of creative acts over six days (Gen. 1:1-31). “God said” is mentioned nine times in this passage. For example, “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light” (v.3). He spoke and light shone in a world that was previously dark. So the pattern is that God spoke and it happened (Psalm 33:6, 9; Hebrews 11:3). His creative acts are also described as “God created” (v.1,21,27), and “God made” (v.7,16,25). The outcome is stated, but few details are given of the process. After all, this was written in the 14th century BC to be understood by ordinary people. This helps understanding by readers with a wide range of linguistic skills and intellect. So, according to the Bible, God created everything out of nothing, whereas according to evolution, nothing organised itself into everything.
I believe that over this period God created a mature world that was fully functioning. For example, Adam and Eve were adults, not babies or children; they were called man and wife right after Eve was created (Gen. 2:25). Also, they and the animals needed food to eat from the very beginning of their creation. Of course, this was a miracle and Moses was familiar with miracles (Ex. 10:1).
God also created the laws of science which have operated since the creation. These laws do not include the act of creation itself. For example, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy and matter (remember e=mc2) is always conserved; it cannot be created or destroyed. We cannot apply these laws to the week of creation when energy and matter were made. This means that today’s operational science does not apply to origins like creation. It cannot explain miracles. We should be careful not to extrapolate to areas outside the area of our observations. Like Job, we need to be reminded by God that no-one was there in the beginning, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4).
When did God Create?
It happened “In the beginning” (v.1). This was the beginning of time because God created time. God was all that existed before this occasion, because He is timeless (Psalm 90:2). Jesus said, “at the beginning of creation God made them male and female” (Mk. 10:6). So this first week when Adam and Eve were made was the “beginning of creation”. The Israelites knew it was only a few thousand years before their times. They had the genealogies from Adam to Noah; Shem to Abraham; Isaac, Jacob, Levi; Levi to Moses and then down to their generation (Gen. 5:1-32; 11:10-26; Ex.6:16-20,26-27). Luke supplies similar information in the genealogy of Jesus (Lk. 3:23-38).
Why did God Create?
Creation shows God’s power and divine character (Rom. 1:20). Like the universe, God exists, and is orderly and reasonable and good. God is also personal, like mankind. He greater than all other gods. As He has chosen to show His love through human begins such as us, God created the earth to be inhabited (Is. 45:18). Adam and Eve are described as being the last of God’s creative work (v.27).
Why did God take so long?
After each creative act, the bible says “And there was evening, and there was morning—the X day”, where “X” ranges from “first”to “sixth” (v.5,8,13,19,23,31). Then it says that God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2-3). The instances in this chapter of the Hebrew word for day, “yom”, used in conjunction with “night”, obviously refer to daylight hours (v.5,14,16,18). What about the six times that “yom” is qualified by “evening and morning” and a number? What did this mean to the Israelites in Moses’ time? Is it daylight, 24 hours, some other period of time, a moment, or a theological category? A period of 24 hours is the only meaning that makes sense in this context. This is consistent with the fact that a Jewish day begins and ends at sunset, rather than at midnight. This means that a day is comprised of an evening (night) followed by a morning (daylight). Genesis 1 is also a sequence of events in time like the lifetimes in the genealogy of Genesis 5.
The sun, moon and stars are to “serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years” (v.14). Obviously this instance of the word “days” means periods of 24 hours. This phrase also shows the Hebrews had words for longer periods than day which could be used by the author if required. But the language used for the six days in Genesis 1 makes no suggestion of a longer period of time.
Why did God take six days? After all, He could have made everything in six seconds! God’s six days of work and one day for rest were an example for His people. According to the fourth commandment, they were to work for six days, but not do any work on the seventh day because God made the universe in six days and then rested on the seventh day (Ex. 20:8-11). This only makes sense if the days of the creation week were the same as those of the working week. God set the example of six days work and one day rest. The working week is based on the creation week. That’s why there is seven days in a week. The seven-day week has no basis outside Scripture.
Creation of the Universe
The clear intention of Genesis 1 is to give the Israelites an account of the origin of the universe. It shows God as the creator of time, matter and energy and everything within the universe. They needed to know why their God was greater than the gods and idols of the Egypt and Canaan. Many pagan creation myths were probably corruptions of the original account of creation recorded in Genesis.
Moses summarized God’s creative work as follows:
Day 1: Space, matter and energy, and light created (v.1-5).
Day 2: Matter and energy distributed across the cosmos (v.6-8).
Day 3: Dry land and vegetation were created on earth (v.9-13).
Day 4: The sun, moon, stars and planets provided light and their cycles provided measurements of times and seasons (v.14-19).
Day 5: Aquatic creatures and birds were created (v.20-23).
Day 6: Animals and the first people, Adam and Eve, were created (v.24-31).
On Day 7 God rested (Gen. 2:2-3). He had finished His work of creation. Now he would sustain His creation and after man’s sin He would change the universe and then reconcile and redeem (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).
The fact that God created different kinds of organisms which reproduced “according to their kinds” is mentioned ten times in v.11,12,21,24,25. This implies that each “kind” of creature is distinctive, which is consistent with the statement that “All flesh is not the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another” (1 Cor. 15:39). Their descendants never change from one “kind” of life to another.
What is Moses saying to the Israelites? Our God supersedes all the others. He is a powerful Creator who made everything. He even made what other nations considered to be gods. The true God is separate from creation. This is the same message that Paul told in Romans 1.
People: In the image of God
The fact that mankind was made in the image of God is stated three times (v.26-27). It shows that people were in the image of God from the beginning. What did this mean to the Israelites in Moses’ day? They used the term to describe a likeness between parents and children—Seth was described as being in Adam’s likeness (Gen. 5:3). Also pagan idols were represented as images (Lev. 26:1).
To answer this question we will see what Adam and Eve do that is unique to humanity. First, the statement that is made twice with respect to humanity but to no other creature is that they will “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (v.26, 28). For example, Adam was to tend and care for the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). So mankind was to rule over the rest of creation: we are the link between God and creation. (Ps. 8:5-8). But due to sin “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb. 2:8). We have great power and responsibility. Second, Adam was prohibited from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16). People are conscious of moral values: we call some things good and others bad. This moral nature of mankind is different to the instincts of the animal world. Third, Adam named the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). Mankind is creative and inventive: this involves imagination, the ability to think in conceptual terms (abstract thinking), and the ability to see a thing with the eye of the mind and then create it physically. Fourth, Adam and Eve talked with God (Gen. 3:8-13). People can communicate and use language to convey ideas and discuss issues. In particular we can communicate with God.
Elsewhere the Bible says that people are comprised of spirit, soul and body (1 Th. 5:23). No other creature on earth is a spirit. Our spirits live forever, but there is no mention of life after death for animals. Maybe it is the spirit that is made in the image of God.
Creation was very good
“God saw that it was good” is mentioned 7 times in Genesis 1 (v.4,10,12,18,21,25). This means that it is in line with His divine purposes and in accordance with His divine character. Also, “good” is the opposite of “evil” and fruit is “good” food (Gen. 2:9). It finishes by saying, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (v.31). This is a strong indicator that the world originally had no death or disease.
It was an excellent creation that had not yet been spoilt by sin. Sin is never described in the Bible as being “good” and death is called the “enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). This original creation is very similar to last two chapters of Revelation, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” because “no longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 21:4; 22:3). Peter said that after Christ returns God will restore everything (Acts 3:21).
Because there was no sin, there was no death of animals or humans. In fact the animals and people were vegetarian at the beginning (v.29-30) and in the restored state (Isa. 11:6-9: 65:25). As people and animals faced no predators, they were in harmony and there was no fear. There was peace on earth.
Lessons for us
The Bible shows that the universe was created by an intelligent and powerful God. He did it in six days with one days rest to give us the pattern for a seven day week. There was no sin in the original creation and we can look forward to the restoration to this in the new heavens and new earth described at the end of the bible (2 Pt. 3:13). In the meantime we can praise God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).
Adam and Eve were the climax of creation. They were made in the image of God to rule the rest of creation. They were also creative, with a moral nature and the ability to communicate with God. Even though our world has been spoilt by sin, people still bear the image of God. This gives them great significance.
Becoming a Christian is like being recreated in the likeness of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). We become a child of God. Do we think and act like an image of God? Like an image of Christ? Are we using our personality and spirituality like God? Are we behaving in His likeness? Through Christ in our lives, believers are becoming more Godlike (2 Cor. 3:18).
 A day is the time for one rotation of the earth about its own axis. A month is approximately the time for one orbit of the moon around the earth. A year is the time for one orbit of the earth around the sun. There is no such physical relationship for the week.
Written, July 2004
See the next article in this series:
- In the beginning. Part 2: The first marriage
Dealing with debatable matters
In the previous article we saw that God communicates to us progressively through the Bible. So Old Testament (OT) verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the New Testament (NT). In doing this we can look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope in the OT which are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, which prohibited the Jews having tattoos, the tests for a tattoo today could be: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
Now we will look at how the teachings of the NT apply to this topic, which provides further insight into how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives. The previous article stated that tattooing was not mentioned specifically in the NT. However, some people think the following verses could refer to tattoos. During the time of tribulation after true Christians are taken to heaven, the false prophet will force “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18TNIV). Also, when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and to set up His kingdom, “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Rev. 19:16).
As the word translated “mark” (Strongs #5480) is a scratch or etching; something engraved or stamped it looks like it could be a literal mark on the skin. However, this is only an inference. The word translated “written” (Strong’s #1125) usually refers to something written in a book, scroll, or on a board. However, it may be symbolic not literal, like the sword out of His mouth (v.15). Obviously, there can be various views on the “mark” and the “writing”.
In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognising false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1TNIV) or “doubtful things” (NKJV), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions. Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterised by practical righteousness, peace and joy.
The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?
A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Welfare of Others
Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.
Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)
With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behaviour and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.
Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).
The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1. Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).
Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.
With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.
Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.
Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
Those with as strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person” (Rom. 14:3b).
As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.
Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behaviour.
Don’t hinder spiritual growth
There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.
Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Order in the Church
When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.
Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practised. In these situations, what is taught and practised within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether we and our family will still want or regret a tattoo in many years time. Also, because images affect our thoughts, any tattoo or image that we focus on should be true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy and not obscene (Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:8). For example, it could symbolise a Biblical truth which benefits our relationship with Christ.
Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a tattoo or not (Rom. 12:1).
Lessons For Us
When considering tattoos and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honour or dishonour God? Are we acting in love?
Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church?
Let’s apply these NT principles to the debateable maters in our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
- What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.
God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.
The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.
The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.
In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!
If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:
- “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
- “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
- “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).
So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.
When was it written?
The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.
As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.
Why was it written?
In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).
The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).
They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.
The Meaning for the Jews
What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).
So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.
Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope
How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws. Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).
The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).
So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).
What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?
The Meaning for Christians
As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.
We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.
The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.
The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).
So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.
The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Lessons For Us
What to know
There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).
What to do
When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?
These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.
Written, August 2009
See the other articles in this series:
- What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?
A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures.
The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews in about 1450 BC when they were travelling from Egypt to Canaan: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28 TNIV). According to Scripture, Christians are not under Old Testament Law. When Christ fulfilled the Law by paying the death penalty for sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament Law was set aside as obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13), and believers are not under it, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25). However, when specific laws are interpreted in light of their context and the New Testament, useful principles may be derived from them (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).
The context of Leviticus 19:28 is a set of laws that prohibited Jews from following the pagan practices of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24). These laws mainly related to sexual immorality, spiritualism and witchcraft and other areas of personal conduct that were to distinguish God’s people. The punishment for disobeying them is given in Leviticus 20. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were associated with false religious practices, they were prohibited for these Jews because God did not want them to be identified with idolatry. The New Testament also teaches that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and apostasy (Heb. 3:12).
Some other commands in Leviticus 19 are also no longer associated with idolatry: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (19:19), and “’Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (19:27). Since it is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not prohibited for Christians today, but the principle of not being identified with idolatry and not backsliding would still apply.
Today, a tattoo is usually a decorative means of self expression and personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry. In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered a debatable matter, like whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day is more sacred than another (Rom. 14:1-6). The Bible gives five principles that can help us determine God’s will in situations like this.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In other words, will a tattoo honor or dishonor God? Is the reason for getting one to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)? A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Will He be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His Church or His Word because of what I do?
Second, it is sinful to cause believers with weaker consciences to stumble by violating their conscience (Rom. 14:13-14, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). In this instance we should refrain from doing something that is not specifically forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of a weaker believer. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior (1 Cor. 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Third, with regard to tattoos and other matters of secondary importance, we shouldn’t judge others because they are accountable to the Lord and not to us (Rom. 14:4, 10-12). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1).
Fourth, make every effort to do the things that lead to peace and spiritual growth (Rom. 14:19). Will what we do help or hinder the harmony of believers?
Fifth, despite our differences of opinion with regard to matters of secondary importance, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7). Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters.
As tattoos are permanent, consider whether having a tattoo will be regretted by you and your family in years to come. Also, because images affect thoughts, any tattoo that you might get should focus on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, and not obscene (Phil. 4:8; Eph. 5:3-5). For example, it could symbolize a Biblical truth which represents your relationship with Christ.
Finally, our bodies are like “instruments” or tools that can be used for good or bad purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question to ask is whether we are using our bodies for God, not whether we have a tattoo or not. Romans 12:1-2 says this: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God … Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Published July 2010
See the other articles in this series:
- What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
- What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?