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Understanding the Bible

Understanding the Bible 1

Bonjour!

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

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

A divine message

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

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

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

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

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

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

The method

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

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

 

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

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

The original meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original principles

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

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

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

What has changed since then?

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

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

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

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

The modern principles

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

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

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

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

The modern applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the Lessons for us?

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

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

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

Au revoir!

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

Written, June 2014


Who is a saint?

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IMG_4293 400pxMany places in France are named after saints. Recently I visited the city of Saint-Étienne, which is named after Stephen the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).

According to the dictionary, today a saint is:

  • A person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behavior, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding to God for people on earth, or
  • A person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness.

The word “saint” comes from the Latin word “sānctus” that means holy and was used in the Vulgate version of the Bible (which was used in western Europe, AD 400–1530). In the middle ages saints were often depicted with halos, a symbol of holiness. “Saint” is also the French word for holy.

Bible usage

The English word “saint” dates from the 13th century and was first used in a Scripture translation in the Geneva Bible version of 1587. It was carried over into the King James Version in 1611 and continues today in the New King James Version and other versions as a translation of the Greek word “hagios” (Strongs #40) in the New Testament. The Greek word means set apart by (or for) God, holy, and sacred. It is an adjective used to describe God, things connected with God, or people connected with God. The Hebrew word “qaddish” (Strongs #6922) has a similar meaning in the Old Testament (Dan. 7:18-21, 25, 27).

Six of Paul’s letters to churches are addressed to these people (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). Paul also said that before he became a Christian, “I put many of the Lord’s people in prison” (Acts 26:10NIV). These people were Christ’s disciples and followers (Acts 9:1-2; 13-14). They were Christians who were living at that time. So the in the Bible, the word “hagios” means a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian.

The Biblical meaning of “hagios” differs from the most common meanings of “saint”, because:

  • A Christian is not “a person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness or goodness”. They can disagree with one another (Acts 15:39) and they can sin (Gal. 2:11-14). But they are holy in God’s sight as they received Christ’s righteousness when He took their sin – a marvellous exchange.
  • A Christian is not “a person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behaviour, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth”. The Christian’s in the New Testament were on earth, not in heaven – they were alive, not dead. They were saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, not by good works. They weren’t venerated – in the Bible, Peter is not called Saint Peter, Paul is not called Saint Paul and Stephen was not called Saint Stephen after he was martyred (Acts 11:19; 22:20). God alone was to be venerated. Although they could pray when alive, there is no mention in the Bible of them praying after they died.

Because the Biblical meaning of the Greek word “hagios” differs from the common meaning of the English word “saint”, Bibles translated into everyday spoken English don’t use the word “saint”. Consequently, the NIV Bible mainly uses “the Lord’s (holy) people” or “God’s (holy) people” instead of “the saints”

The frequency of occurrence of the English word “saint(s)” in various translations of the Bible is given below:

  • 98 times – NKJV
  • 82 times – ESV
  • 63 times – HCSB
  • 62 times – NET
  • 0 times – NIV
  • 0 times – NLT

As indicated above, in the versions that include the word “saint”, this word has a meaning that differs from common usage. A reader should be told this technical (jargon) meaning in order to correctly understand these Bibles.

This is one of the reasons why I prefer the NIV translation of the Bible.


How to read the Bible in chronological order

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Bible-TimelineApart from flashbacks, it’s best to watch a video or read a story in chronological order from the beginning to the end. Did you know that some of the books of the Bible are not listed in chronological order? The message of the Bible was revealed progressively over a period of about 1,500 years. Some time ago I prepared a calendar to help read the whole Bible in one year, the “Bible in one year calendar”, which was based on the order of the books in our Bibles. Let’s look at the events described in the Bible in the sequence they occurred historically.

Our Bibles

The books of most Bibles are arranged according to categories:

  • Pentateuch (is also history) – Genesis to Deuteronomy
  • History – Joshua to Esther
  • Poetry – Job to Song of Songs
  • Prophetic – Isaiah to Malachi
  • Gospel – Matthew to John
  • History – Acts
  • Letters (Revelation is also prophetic) – Romans to Revelation

As the poets, prophets and letter writers wrote at particular times in history, the events they relate to may be recorded elsewhere in the Bible. A chronological Bible moves these writings nearer to their place in the historical account.

When were they written?

The Old Testament took about 1,000 years to write (1400 BC to 400 BC), whereas the New Testament took about 50 years to write (50AD to 100 AD). The chronological order of the books of the Bible according to when they were written is given below. These estimated dates of writing are based on current scholarship and because of uncertainties, they are often rounded. They give a general indication of when each book was written; it’s impossible to be more precise. Of course some books may have been written over a period of several years.

Biblical events in historical order

The Biblical writers describe events both before and after they occurred historically. Sometimes an event is predicted (like in the prophets) and sometimes an event is described afterwards or the record may be edited some time afterwards.

Three approaches have been used in chronological Bibles to place the recorded events in the order they actually occurred. These are based on the size of the portion of Scripture that is moved:

  • “Whole books”, which has the advantage of preserving the context of the writings within each book. This is the simplest approach.
  • Whole chapters”, which enables the chapters to be placed more accurately in time order. For example, Job is within Genesis, individual psalms are placed within historical books, events in the gospels are cross-referenced and Paul’s letters are integrated within Acts.
  • “Subdivided chapters”, which enables portions within chapters to be placed more accurately in time order. This is the most complex approach. For example see the “One year Chronological Bible” by Tyndale House Publishers. “Cover to cover complete” (CWR, 2012) is a more complicated version, which is based on “The Reese Chronological Bible” (1977).

A chronological Bible reading calendar

I have edited my “Bible in one year calendar” by placing the books in chronological order according to the events they describe. It is based on “whole books”, except the book of Job is placed between Genesis 12 and 13. This enables you to read the events in the general order they occurred historically. As this is based on current scholarship, the order differs slightly from the other chronological Bibles available on the internet. Another difference is that two passages are given each day, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament–Otherwise you would only be reading from the Old Testament for at least 70% of the year.

This enables the prophetic books to be read in historical order. The main distinction between these is: those written before the Babylonian exile; those written during the Babylonian exile; and those written after the Babylonian exile.


Written, January 2014


What is the Christian “good news”?

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Good news 400pxRecently I heard someone say that all our problems would be solved if we followed the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you”. It was their key to harmonious and peaceful relationships. Whereas the Bible says that the good news about Jesus Christ is the key to solving our problems and restoring our relationships.

The Pope’s recent exhortation to the Roman Catholic church “On the proclamation of the gospel in today’s world” encouraged them to spread the message of the gospel; the good news about Jesus Christ. But the exhortation makes some claims about Mary the mother of Jesus Christ that are inconsistent with the Bible. Is the different teaching with regard to Mary significant? Is it syncretism (the combination of different or opposing forms of belief or practice)? Is the Pope teaching a different gospel to the Bible’s gospel (Gal. 1:6-9)?

The Bible’s “good news”

The word “gospel” is the translation of a Greek word that means “good news” (Strongs #2098) and the word “evangelist” is the translation of a Greek word that means “a preacher of good news” (Strongs #2099). Paul summarised the Biblical gospel, “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved … For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4NIV). He said that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key to solving our problems.

The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned – resulting in separation from God and eternal punishment (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The only means of rescue is salvation by faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8, 9). In the beginning of time, God created a perfect world where there was no sin.  But this world changed and there was disease, suffering, decay and death after Adam and Eve sinned. Now we all inherit this sinfulness. Because sin separates us from God, we are excluded from heaven. But God planned to rescue us from our sinful ways by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to fix the relationship between us and God. Jesus took the punishment for sin that we deserve by dying for us so that those who accept the rescue plan can live with Him eternally in heaven. Jesus also summarised the Biblical gospel, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). The “good news” is also summarized in the Postscript.

The characters involved today in the good news of salvation for humanity are:

  • God the Father planned it.
  • Jesus Christ obeyed the plan.
  • Missionaries and preachers communicate the message from the Bible (Rom. 10:14-17).
  • The Holy Spirit empowers the messengers, convinces people of their sinfulness and need of salvation, and empowers them to repent and turn to Christ in faith (Jn. 16:8; 1 Cor. 2:4-5; Ti. 3:5).

Mary has no role at all—she is not mentioned in the Bible after the church commenced on the day of Pentecost.

A different “good news”

Paul was astonished when the Galatians turned “to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). He states that false teachers were “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” and should be “eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:7-9). These strong words are repeated to emphasize their importance.

A “different gospel” differs from the Bible’s good news. It either adds to it or takes away from it, and Revelation warns against this tampering with aspects of the Gospel (ch. 22:18-19; 1:5; 4:11; 21:1-22:6). For example, the Pharisees and Sadducees added extra rules and regulations to the true gospel (Mt. 16:5-12). This gospel says there are things you must do to get saved and stay saved. Paul rebuked Peter in Galatia because he was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

The Pope’s “good news”

Although the Pope’s exhortation addresses “the proclamation of the gospel”, it is difficult to determine his understanding of the gospel from this document. He says “Christians have a duty to proclaim the gospel” (p. 14), but doesn’t explain the gospel very well. For example, “Before all else, the gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others “ (p. 34). How are we to respond? ­He mentions preachers “bringing Jesus” to others (p. 85). What do they preach? There is little mention of sin, confession and repentance in the exhortation (Lk. 15:7; p. 14-15).

The best statements on the gospel in the exhortation are:

  • “Those who ac­cept his (Jesus’) offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (p.3).
  • “The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice” (p.6).
  • “The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ” (p.10).
  • The missionary mandate of Jesus is quoted, “go and make disciples” (Mt 28:19-20; p. 19).
  • “In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made mani­fest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (p. 31-32).
  • “Let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ” (p.41).
  • “Evangelization as the joyful, patient and progressive preaching of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be your absolute priority” (p. 89)
  • “Witness to the saving love of the Lord” (p. 98).
  • “Bring the love of Jesus to others” (p. 103).
  • “But al­ways keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship” (p. 103).
  • In a sermon “the Lord, more than his minis­ter, will be the centre of attention” (2 Cor. 4:5; p. 110).

However, “Journeying together to shrines” is given as an example of evangelization (p. 101) and the exhortation concludes with a section on “Mary, the Mother of evangelization” (p. 211-217). This is a great concern because as Mary is no longer alive on earth, she has nothing to do with evangelization today. Instead her body has decayed to dust and her soul and spirit are with the Lord in heaven. She is not “Jesus’ gift to his people” (p. 211) and not the “Star of the new evangelization” (p.214) and not the one to pray to for help “to proclaim the good news of Jesus” (p.216).

Although the Pope rejects syn­cretism (the combination of different or opposing forms of belief or practice) with the followers of non-Christian religions (p. 187), he accepts scyncretism between the Bible and extra-Biblical teachings on Mary.

Does it matter?

Paul said that the gospel advanced when he was imprisoned in Philippi: “Because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:14-18).

Those that preached Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition had the right message but the wrong motives. But Paul rejoiced because the gospel message they preached was true. When the Pope preaches about Christ, the message is true, but when He introduces Mary as an essential part of evangelization and Christianity, the message is jeopardized. Paul rejoiced when the message was true, but he rebuked when it was false (Gal. 2:14). So we can rejoice when the Pope and the Roman Catholics preach about Christ, but we should rebuke them when they are “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” with regard to Mary (Gal. 2:14).

Conclusion

So the gospel message in the Pope’s exhortation contains a combination of truth and error. In this sense it is different to the Bible’s gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). The main error is the inclusion of Mary as an essential part of Christianity. Although God can use the truth, people can be deceived by this error. This false teaching about Mary is a significant addition to the Bible’s message (Rev. 22:18-19). It is syncretism (the fusion of different or opposing forms of belief or practice).

When we proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, let’s remember it’s all about Jesus, and not Mary.

Postscript – Summary of the “good news”

God loves you and wants you to have a full and satisfying life:

  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
  • “I (Jesus) have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10).

We are separated from God because we all disobey God, and so we can’t know and experience His love or have a full and satisfying life:

  • “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
  • “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

The only way to be free from the sin that separates us from God is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died on a cross to take the punishment for our sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection made it possible to remove our separation from God:

  • “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
  • “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).

We must personally invite Jesus to come into our lives and take charge:

  • “To all who did receive Him (Jesus), to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).
  •  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Here’s how to respond to the “good news”:

  • Admit that you are a sinner.
  • Believe that Jesus Christ loves you so much He died for you so you can be close to God.
  • Change your mind about sin—be willing to break your sinful habits and build good habits by obeying God’s word, the Bible. The Bible calls this “repentance”. It’s a 180 degree turn towards God.
  • Ask God to live in you through His Spirit, to forgive you for the sinful things you have done and take charge of your life.

Written, January 2014

Also see – What does the Bible say about Mary the mother of Jesus?


What about God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them?

Mitre Peak Milford Sound New Zealand

Mitre Peak Milford Sound New Zealand

Jesus Christ talked about moving mountains on two occasions.

Mountain moving from here to there

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 (see Appendix below). 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.

Mountain thrown into the sea

On the Monday before His crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He then 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?

Appendix

Some other biblical examples of the figurative use of “mountains” to mean obstacles and difficulties are given below.

“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’” (Zech. 4:7). The context of this verse is that the Israelites faced opposition to rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem after they returned from exile (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Zerubbabel was their governor (civil leader) at that time. The verse is part of a prediction that the temple would be rebuilt after the “mighty mountain” (a symbol of the opposition to the rebuilding) became “level ground” (a symbol of the opposition being removed). The “capstone” is the final stone to be put in place.

“If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). This verse is in a chapter which teaches that the use of spiritual gifts must be motivated by love. In this instance, the spiritual gift is being able to trust God to overcome or remove difficulties or obstacles. If such a gift was only used for one’s own benefit and not for helping other believers, it is of no value.

Written, September 2013


Does the Bible condone rape?

Rape-is-Rape

Rape-is-RapeI 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).

Jewish law

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.

New Testament

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).

Summary

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


Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Roman slave & master

Roman slave & masterElevated status for Christian slaves

Some people use the mention of slavery in the Bible to criticise God and the Bible. Let’s look at what the New Testament (NT) says about slavery. The Greek word “doulos” (Strongs #1401) is usually translated as “slave” or “servant”. Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire, but it was not racist, as many races were involved. The slaves were usually prisoners of war or poor people. Slavery rescued captives from death and the poor from starvation at a time when there was no government welfare or charities. In the NT, slaves are told to obey their masters and a runaway slave is told to return to their master; so it appears to condone slavery.

You may think: what’s this topic got to do with us? Slavery is not prevalent today. We will see that the slavery described in the NT was like employment. As we look at what the NT says about slaves and their masters, we can apply these principles to us as an employee working for a client, team leader, supervisor or employer, or if we lead other workers.

Philemon and Onesimus

Philemon was a slave owner in Colossae which is now in Turkey (Philemon 8-21). As the church met in his home, he may have been an elder in the local church. One of his slaves, Onesimus had apparently stolen from him and run away. But Onesimus had met Paul in Rome and become a Christian and was now willing to return to his master and be reconciled. He was willing to resume his obligation to his master.  Paul wrote this letter to ask Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, no longer as a slave but as a fellow Christian (v.16). What can we learn from this short letter?

First, Paul does not issue an order to Philemon, although he was confident of his obedience (v.21). Instead he presents reasons for forgiving and accepting his runaway slave and then makes an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus had become a believer in Rome – like Philemon he was now Paul’s spiritual son and that changed everything. He had a change of character, from an escaped thief to a Christian who helped Paul. From being “useless” to being “useful” (v.11). This is a word-play because the name Onesimus means “useful”. Paul even suggests that the reason Onesimus ran away was so that he could be converted and then return as a fellow Christian. Then Paul makes his appeal, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v.17). He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back into his household so that they could be reconciled. Although Paul did not order Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery he seems to infer it by saying he knows Philemon “will do even more than I ask” (v.21). This was the legal way to liberation from slavery; whereas escaping was illegal.

Equal before God

According to the Bible, whether someone was a slave or a master it made no difference in their standing before God. Both were sinners bound for hell and both could be saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22-23). All sinners are guilty before God and so are condemned to judgement. The Bible says that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13NIV). Everyone includes both slaves and masters and whatever category you can think of. So salvation is equally available to all. It’s not like one’s social standing on earth; no one has any special privileges in this respect.

What about after they become a Christian by trusting in Christ for paying the penalty for their sin? The Bible says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). A Christian slave has the same position before God and the same inheritance as a Christian master. Social standing makes no difference in terms of salvation and its blessings. In this way, social distinctions disappear in God’s spiritual family; they are irrelevant. Such differences are replaced by equality and unity. All Christians have equal standing before God (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11). Our unity in the family of believers transcends all other distinctions, including the social distinction, between slaves and masters. So slaves and masters and workers and team leaders have equal standing before God.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon he said that a Christian slave such as Onesimus was a “dear brother” who should be accepted as though he was the apostle Paul (Phile. 16-17)! What a change of status for a runaway slave! He now shared a common faith with his master. The principle here is “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Rom. 15:7). Because God had accepted Onesimus into His spiritual kingdom and Onesimus was serving God, then Philemon should accept him as a fellow believer. So Christianity elevated slaves to be equal with others in the family of God. By the way, this verse comes after Paul deals with matters of secondary importance in Romans 14 and Paul taught that whether a person was a master or a slave was less important than whether they were a Christian or not.

So our relationships with other believers should cut across the social barriers in our society. If God has accepted someone into His kingdom, we should accept them as fellow believers regardless of their social status. As a church we should accept any believer that seeks to follow God, regardless of their place in society. So a local church can be comprised of people with not only a diversity of nationality and culture, but also a diversity of position in society.

Also Christian slaves and their masters will be rewarded equally by God. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:7-8). So when they are rewarded at the Judgment Seat of Christ for the good things done for the Lord when they served others, there is no discrimination between slave and master, they are treated the same. There is no favoritism with God.

Christian slaves and workers

Let’s look at what the Bible says to slaves such as Onesimus and apply this to our working life. When a slave became a Christian they were to be content with their situation and not rebel and demand their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21-24). Instead they were to live the Christian life in their situation. But if they had an opportunity to be freed, they should take advantage of it.

“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves” (1 Ti. 6:1-2). Slaves must respect their masters because otherwise they may dishonor Christ’s name and Christianity.

“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” (Ti. 2:9-10). Christian slaves were to be loyal and trustworthy because their behavior could either help or hinder the gospel message.

“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” (1 Pt. 2:18). Christian slaves are told to respect and obey even hash masters. By enduring suffering, they were following Christ’s example. He suffered unjustly for the wrongs of others. As a worker are we willing to submit to a harsh client or boss? This is difficult in our day when we readily claim our rights, but forbearance is part of the fruit of the Spirit.

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free” (Eph. 6:5-8). Slaves were to obey and serve their masters as it they were Christ. Do we give our client or boss good value? Do we work cheerfully and willingly? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we do, then we will be rewarded for this when we get to heaven. Once again how we work affects our testimony for Christ.

There are similar instructions in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). As Christians, all our work should be for the Lord. Even the most menial tasks are included in “whatever you do”. Do we serve and work as though we have two bosses: one on earth and one in heaven?

So slaves were to be content with their situation and respect their master submitting to their leadership and obeying them. What about us? Are we content with our work situation? Do we respect our team leader, submitting to their leadership and obeying them? Are we loyal and trustworthy?

Christian masters and team leaders

Let’s look at what the Bible says to slave owners such as Philemon and apply this to team leaders.

“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). They were to pay a proper wage and not exploit their workers because God was watching. Christian masters and team leaders should treat their workers with justice and fairness. The worker deserves their wages and it is the team leader’s responsibility to ensure they receive what is due to them. The worker may also deserve recognition and acknowledgement for a job done well.

“And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Eph 6:9). They are not to be a bully who uses abusive or threatening language because they have a Master in heaven to whom they are accountable. Just because you may have more status on earth doesn’t mean you get preference in heaven.

As masters had positional power over slaves, so team leaders have positional power over their team. In the previous passages we saw that such power should not be abused. To put it in perspective, team leaders must report to higher powers. If not on earth, then certainly in heaven. Christian masters and team leaders are reminded of their Master in heaven.

If you are a team leader, are you devoted to the welfare of your workers (1 Ti. 6:2)? Do you treat them fairly or do you exploit them? Are you a bully? How we lead and manage others affects our testimony for Christ.

Reconciliation

In his letter to Philemon, Paul wrote, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (v.18). Paul was willing to pay for whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. He said “I will pay it back” (v.19). It seems as though Onesimus had stolen things from Philemon before he escaped and went to Rome. Now he was ready to make restitution so they could be reconciled, but Paul was going to make the repayment. Even though Onesimus was guilty of theft and was obliged to make the repayment, Paul said no, I’ll do it. Paul substituted for Onesimus. Because Paul stepped in, Onesimus could be reconciled with Philemon.

In this case, Paul is like Jesus Christ and we are like Onesimus because Jesus substituted for us. We are all guilty of going our own way and rebelling against God, which is called sin. The Bible says that because we have sinned we are eternally separated from God. But Jesus took the initiative and paid the death penalty for us so we can be reconciled with God. Because Jesus stepped into our world, we can be reconciled with God. Have you taken up His offer like Onesimus did with Paul?

Conclusion

So does the NT condone slavery? No, it mentions slavery because slavery was prevalent when it was written. The Bible records practices in society at the time, such as slavery, which it does not necessarily approve. For example, slaves were mentioned in some of Christ’s parables because they were common at that time. However, the NT does say that kidnapping slaves is as sinful as murder because it is stealing (1 Ti. 1:9-10).

The NT regulates slavery so that the slave of a Christian master was treated as well as an employee. There was to be no abuse or exploitation but justice and fairness. When the teachings of the New Testament are followed, the evils of slavery are removed. That’s why some translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.

It’s all a matter of priority. According to the NT, the top priority is to live for Christ, which is more important than improving one’s social status. The main purpose of the Bible is to show the way of salvation, not to reform society. Jesus didn’t come to reform society. He came to reform people. When people repent they have a change in attitudes and behaviour. Changes that come from the inside are more effective than those that are imposed externally such as political and social reforms. Likewise the primary task for Christians today is not to change political and social structures, but to further the gospel by offering forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ. Anyway, we won’t have a perfect society until Jesus comes again to rule in His millennial kingdom.

Lessons for us

How we work affects our testimony for Christ. In our work life is there: respect, submission, obedience, contentment, loyalty, honesty and wholeheartedness? Do we work as though God is our boss? If we lead others at work is there justice and fairness or are we a bully? Do we realise we are accountable to God? Let’s honor God at work.

Finally, do social distinctions hinder our relationships with other Christians or affect the unity of the church? Do we have favorites? Do we ignore others? Let’s honor God at church.

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

Written, April 2013


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