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
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?
Why do Christians celebrate Christmas, when everybody knows it is pagan in origin, tradition and most of its practices?
Christmas is a time when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ. Most historians agree that the celebration of Christmas did not begin until the fourth century, although they are not certain exactly how or why it began as a Christian festival. The most accepted explanation is that it began in Roman culture that held a pagan celebration for the winter solstice on December 25. As Christians were reluctant to take part, they replaced it with Christmas.
Local customs, culture, traditions and history influence Christmas practices around the world. Some, such as giving gifts or using a star, were derived from the biblical nativity stories. Some, such as the legend of Saint Nicholas, have their origin in Church history. Others, such as the use of evergreens and a yule log, have pagan origins. Still others, such as reindeer, elves, and the North Pole, are secular in origin and used as commercial marketing techniques.
The word “pagan” means one who worships a false god – an idolater, an unbeliever. Many things have a pagan origin. For example, the names of the days of the week in English were named after Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses (except for Saturday, which was named after the Roman god Saturn). These in turn were based on Roman gods. However, the meaning of these names has changed from that of a deity to that of a particular day. Previously they had a pagan connection, but now they do not. So, it’s not the source long ago that’s important, but whether there is a connection today to idolatry (1 Cor. 10:20). The same applies to tradition: it’s the situation today that counts.
Many customs cannot be linked directly to Scripture. For example, families remember birthdays and weddings, but in the Bible the former are only mentioned with respect to Pharaoh and Herod (Gen. 40:20; Mt. 14:6). This custom is not wrong. We have freedom in many areas of life. New Testament passages that apply to the Church are much less prescriptive than those applied to the Jews in the Old Testament. Customs can be morally good (Lk. 4:16), evil or neutral. Two tests that can be applied to customs and practices are: Will God be glorified, and will anyone be stumbled (1 Cor. 10:31-32)?
There is no mention in Scripture of celebrating Christ’s birth, although believers are to remember His death. On the other hand, there is no prohibition against it. The incarnation is part of the gospel message: Christ was born and lived as a human before He was crucified. The celebration of Christmas could be considered a debatable matter (Rom. 14:1). Christians shouldn’t quarrel over debatable matters, but follow their conscience and honor God in whatever they do (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8:4-13; 10:14-33). They shouldn’t impose their convictions on others but respect each other’s conscience on these matters.
In a secular society, Christmas provides a great opportunity for evangelism. The birth of Christ is the theme of many Christmas carols. Believers can use this time to explain that Christ came into the world to address the problem of our separation from God and enable us to be reconciled with God and to have the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven.
The main dangers at Christmas are the idols of selfishness, materialism and the gospel of good works. Are we focused on what we receive or on what we give? Do we get caught up in the frenzy of shopping and celebrating? Do we tell children that if they are good enough they will receive presents from Santa Claus?
Beware of the false gods of Christmas. Remember that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and that the gospel teaches that we are not saved by what we do, but by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8).
Published, December 2007
What Should Be Our Attitude Toward Money And Wealth?
In the first part of this series we looked at the positives of money and wealth; now we’ll consider the negatives – the bad news and warnings in the Bible about our attitudes toward money and wealth.
I live in an affluent country abounding in material goods. Our consumer society views greed as good, particularly for the economy. A recent newspaper editorial said, “Longer working hours and higher levels of debt mean that Australians are working more to own more and consume more.” We are very busy improving our standard of living. Money is a measure of success.
In Haggai’s prophecy (520 BC) the temple was in ruin and needed rebuilt. He questioned the people: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin? … Each of you is busy with his own house” (Hag. 1:4,9). They were using the same cedar paneling in their houses as that which was to be used in the temple (1 Ki. 7:3,7). They were looking after themselves, but neglecting God’s things. The song, “Revive us, O Lord” says it this way: “Idols have captured our land/We worship the works of our hands/Lord for too long we have built/Houses on sand.”
Greed Is Sinful
Paul wrote: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:9-11). From the context we see that those who wanted to be rich were not content with what they had, and were determined to increase their standard of living; they were opposite to those who were content with their physical circumstances (6:8). This desire to have more is also called “greed” or “covetousness.” The Greek words to describe this are “pleonexia” (“a desire to have more” in a bad sense), and “philarguros” (money-loving).
This passage says that greed is destructive because it leads to dishonest behavior and becomes a dangerous habit. Is money evil? No! It’s the love of money (or greed) that results in evil. Greed brings anxiety and a wasted life. It is a sin associated with many kinds of evil. It causes people to neglect their spiritual life and wander from the faith. Greed does not buy happiness. We should flee from the love of money and develop Christian character instead (6:11).
Jesus said this to His disciples: “Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Lk. 12:29-31). What a warning! We live in a world that runs after money. The tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife … manservant or maidservant … ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Ex. 20:17). It’s sinful to desire what God doesn’t intend for you to have. Greed is as serious as murder, adultery, stealing, lying and idolatry which are also in the Ten Commandments. Paul himself was convicted of this sin (Rom. 7:7).
The Bible lists greed with other serious sins (Mk. 7:21-23, Rom. 1:29-31; 1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; Eph. 5:3-5; Col. 3:5; 2 Tim. 3:2-5), and says that it defiles us and makes us unacceptable to God. Yet our society sees greed as acceptable, respectable, even desirable. We have a problem.
Greed Is Idolatrous
When a man asked Jesus to help him obtain his inheritance Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk. 12:15). Is success measured by how much we own? When we judge people by their income, clothes, cars and housing, we’re acting like pagans. Are possessions the principle things in life? Will life be better when we make more and get more? Such thoughts don’t come from God; they come from advertisements.
Jesus told the story of a rich man who was devoted to gaining wealth, but who died before he could build bigger barns for his good crop (Lk. 12:16-21). Instead of using his abundant crop to help the needy, he greedily stored it up for himself so he could retire early. Jesus also said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt. 6:24, Lk. 16:13). Money and things can be false gods. Paul said that greed is idolatry, because the greedy want things more than they want God (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). They are more devoted to money than to God.
The Fruit Of Greed
Greed is associated with the following behaviors.
Hoarding: Jesus condemned the hoarding of money. He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21). James condemned the rich for hoarding their wealth instead of putting it to work for the benefit of others (Jas. 5:3). Hoarding is the opposite of giving.
Self-Sufficiency: The church in Laodicea felt self-sufficient. They said, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (Rev. 3:17). However, although they were materially rich, they were spiritually poor. Likewise, the rich were warned not to put their hope in wealth (1 Tim. 6:17). James told them, “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (Jas. 5:5) or judgment. The greedy are like cattle that continue to fatten themselves, unaware that they are destined for slaughter. They are spending on themselves when there are many in need.
Indifference: Greed can also lead to indifference to others’ needs. The rich man who “was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” didn’t care about Lazarus, the diseased beggar, who lay at his gate (Lk. 16:19-21). Because of his selfishness and lack of faith, he suffered eternal punishment. Paul told Timothy, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant” (1 Tim. 6:17). The wealthy are likely to look down on those who do not have as much money.
Worry: Jesus told His disciples not to worry about the future, about food and clothes, but to “seek His kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Mt. 6:33; Lk. 12:31). A desire for wealth and an obsession for maintaining one’s wealth leads to a life of worry instead of peace. We worry about money when we have it, and when we don’t have it.
Waste: Selfish people can really waste money. In the parable of the prodigal, the younger son asked for his share of the inheritance and then traveled to a distant country and “there squandered his wealth in wild living” (Lk. 15:13).
Dishonesty: James condemned acquiring wealth by dishonesty. His example was failure to pay proper wages. He said that God was aware of this: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” James rebuked harsh treatment of others, particularly employees (Jas. 5:4-6). In this case the rich exploited their employees by underpaying and overworking them.
Ananias and Sapphira were punished for dishonesty when they lied about the amount of money received from the sale of property (Acts 5:1-11). Another example of wealth from a sinful enterprise was Demetrius who made silver shrines of Artemis (Acts 19:24-25). He made money promoting idolatry.
Barrier To Heaven
Jesus said that the invitation of eternal life was like an invitation to a banquet (Lk. 14:16-24). But the invitation was rejected by those who were devoted to the things they had bought, to their business and occupation. They didn’t get to taste the banquet. A greedy attitude for material wealth is a barrier to heaven.
The rich young man who asked what to do to get eternal life shows that coveting wealth is an obstacle to trusting Christ (Mt. 19:21-22; Mk. 10:17-22). Living for money and possessions makes it difficult to follow Christ. Jesus said it was hard for a rich man to enter heaven (Mt. 19:23-24).
Hindrance To Spiritual Life
Greed can be the downfall of the godly. Greed ruined Lot when he moved to the plain of Jordan (Gen. 13:10-11). In the parable of the sower, a farmer scattered seeds. Some seeds fell among thorns which choked the plants so they did not mature and bear grain (Mt. 13:7). Jesus explained that this is like those who hear the Word, “but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the Word making it unfruitful” (Mt. 13:22; Mk. 4:18-19; Lk. 8:14). Because of their greed they become preoccupied with making money and lose interest in spiritual things. There is no fruit for God in their lives. Material prosperity can often lead to backsliding, as it can choke one’s spiritual life like weeds spoil a crop. This is because wealth gives a false sense of self-sufficiency, security and well-being.
The Futility Of Greed
Even if greed brings wealth, it’s so unreliable that one shouldn’t trust it (1 Tim. 6:17). Economic depressions, unemployment and disasters can destroy wealth. Jesus warned the rich: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Lk. 6:24). Those who fail to use their wealth to benefit others have already received their reward, the gratification of self. Like flowers, wealth only lasts awhile (Jas. 1:10-11).
In the story of the selfish farmer, “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Lk. 12:20-21). When he died he lost everything. Jesus warned His disciples about the temptation of getting rich: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Mt. 16:26). Greed can lead a man to miss out on eternal life. Although a winner in life, he’s a loser in death. The fruit of greed is all around us. How can we live in a money-loving world and not serve the god of money?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be rich – God’s way. He wants us to be spiritually rich: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Here the Greek verb “to be rich” is a metaphor for salvation. The materially rich need to become spiritually rich: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich” (Rev. 3:17-18). True wealth consists of being “rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21; 2 Cor. 6:10). Our heavenly inheritance will endure for eternity (1 Pet. 1:4; Heb. 10:34).
A New Way Of Thinking
How can we know God’s will about riches? Instead of copying the world’s greedy behavior we need to let God transform us by changing the way we think (Rom. 12:2). We need to be aware of the spirit of greed in society and dare to be different. We need to reject the world’s endless desire for a higher standard of living. Are our hearts set on seeking God or money? Do we provide so lavishly for ourselves that there’s little left for God’s work?
The Bible tells us to watch out for greed, flee from it and kill every greedy desire (Lk. 12:15; Col. 3:5; 1 Tim. 6:10-11). Greed is a hindrance to the spiritual life (Heb. 12:1). We need to learn that life is more than money and what it can buy. Eternal life is more valuable than money and possessions. We can only flee greed by pursuing values such as “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11). Does the fruit of the Spirit counter the advertisements and lifestyle messages you see daily (Gal. 5:2-23)?
Greed can hinder our service for God. Are we willing to downsize, not live for money and possessions and be content with what we have (Mt. 6:31-32; 1 Tim. 6:8, 17; Heb. 13:5)? God knows our needs. We should practice being content with what we have and being generous in giving to others. We shouldn’t waste our money on get-rich schemes, gambling or chain letters. Instead, we should use our money to help others benefit spiritually (Lk. 16:9).
Enjoying God’s Wealth
The Bible teaches that greed is a serious sin, a form of idolatry. It has no place in the Church. Its fruit includes: hoarding, self-sufficiency, indifference, worry, waste, and other sinful behaviors. It is a barrier to heaven and a hindrance to spiritual life. Worshiping money is futile because material wealth is fleeting, uncertain, and of no benefit beyond this life. Instead, Christians should enjoy their true and lasting wealth that comes with salvation and eternal life. Our behavior should be transformed as we adopt God’s way of thinking and as we pursue godliness in all things including our attitude toward money.
Published, March 2007
See the next article in this series:
- Does God Want Us To Be Rich? Part 3
Satan’s Invisible Agents
Many people doubt the existence of demons or evil spirits, because they believe in a scientific view of the world. They assume the physical world is all that exists, as only it can be observed and measured by scientific methods. But what if a reality exists outside the world of science? Our Christian faith believes in such a reality because after His resurrection and ascension Jesus Christ lived in the unseen world which science cannot sense in any way. Such unbelief is nothing new; the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, angels or demons (Acts 23:8).
The Unseen World
The Bible is the only reliable source of information about demons and the unseen world. It teaches that God’s creation has two components: visible and invisible (Col. 1:16). The unseen spiritual part of our world is like an extra dimension which we can’t detect with our physical senses. The word translated “spirit” in the New Testament is the same Greek word as “wind,” which is used to describe things that are invisible and powerful. By faith we can be “certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1 NIV).
The unseen world is inhabited by personalities with intelligence, emotions and wills; not “forces” or “influences.” It is comprised of two components; the divine and the created. The triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the divine inhabitants of the unseen world (Jn. 4:24). The created inhabitants of the unseen world are: angels who are God’s agents that serve God and His followers (Heb. 1:14); Satan who opposes God and His followers (1 Pet. 5:8); demons who are Satan’s agents; and human spirits which are the eternal part of our being (2 Cor. 4:18). Note that demons are not divine and they are not human spirits.
The unseen world is eternal, it will never end: “What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Demons are immortal. Their destiny is eternal torment in the lake of fire (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10).
Demons are Satan’s angels and Satan is described as the “prince of demons” (Mt. 12:24; 25:41). Demons share some things in common with angels and with Satan. They were created as God’s angels, but they followed Satan and rebelled against God. There are many references to demons in the Bible. Demons are always associated with evil because they work as Satan’s agents.
Demons have greater power and knowledge than humans, but less than God their creator. They were created as angels and because they have existed since the creation of the world, they have much more experience than we do.
Demons are not just superstitious explanations for an unknown disease. A clear distinction is made in the Bible between disease and demons. For example, Jesus told the apostles to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Mt. 10:8). When demon activity is associated with ill health, a clear distinction is made between the two.
Demons are not spirits of the dead. Human spirits are separate from demons. After the rich man and Lazarus died, their spirits were in a place of torment and in paradise (Lk. 16:19-31).
Agents work in various ways. Satan can work in secret as an “angel of light” and a “deceiver.” This is the main way he works today, because Satan and demons want us to believe that they don’t exist. This helps them to achieve many of their purposes because people are unaware of their activity. Satan and demons can also work in an obvious fashion as a “roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Four arenas where demons are particularly active as agents of Satan are: idolatry and false beliefs, the occult, demon possession, and the apocalypse.
Idolatry And False Beliefs
Idolatry is linked with demons: “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20). It seems as though demons use idolatry to control unbelievers. So those who are involved with idolatry of any kind are involved with demons and are influenced by demons.
Paul wrote, “Some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). In this case people were being encouraged not to marry and not to eat certain foods. This was a false belief or philosophy that was deceiving people at that time. It originated from demons who inspired the hypocritical false teachers to spread these false beliefs. Demons are the power behind false beliefs.
Demons are also involved in the occult. The word “occult” means hidden, secret, dark, mysterious and concealed. This is Satan and his demons deceiving as an “angel of light.” The occult involves predicting the future by means such as astrology, horoscopes, visions, or crystal balls. It also involves magic such as charms, curses, spells and attempts to communicate with the dead through such means as seances in which a demon may be disguised as the spirit of a person who is dead.
Demons have superhuman knowledge and intelligence. The slave girl who was possessed by a demon could foretell the future (Acts 16:16). This shows that mediums can get information from demons.
Demons desire to live in people (Mt. 12:43-45). Demon possession occurs when one or more demons inhabit the body of a person and take control of him/her. It was particularly evident in the Gospels and Acts. Satan was particularly active in opposing Jesus Christ and the early Church. Our struggle against demons is described as being “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). There is not one example in the Bible of a Christian being possessed by demons, although they may be tempted and afflicted by Satan and by demons (Lk. 13:16; 2 Cor.12:7). However, demons can promote jealousy, selfishness, pride and disorder (Jas. 3:14-16).
The man who lived in the tombs was demon possessed (Mk. 5:1-15). His symptoms were caused by an evil spirit, not by an illness (Mk. 5:2). He had unusual physical strength: “No one could bind him any more” (Mk. 5:2-3). He was isolated from society, living in the tombs. He had a spilt personalty; he ran to Jesus at first, but then he cried out in fear (Mk. 5:6-7). He resisted Christ. He had clairvoyant powers; he knew who Jesus was even though he was isolated from the community. The demons spoke through him; maybe in a different voice or a different language (Mk. 5:7-9). These show the characteristics of demon possession. They include opposition to Christianity. On this occasion, Jesus caused the demons to transfer into a herd of pigs (Mk. 5:13). From this episode we see that demons have names, they have intelligence, they have emotions and they have a will.
In another instance, demon possession is associated with physical ailments such as lack of sight and lack of speech (Mt. 12:22-29). When Jesus healed the man, the people thought He was the promised Messiah. They knew that this act indicated that Jesus was more than just a human being. Jesus claimed that the demons were driven out “by the Spirit of God” (Mt. 12:28). We see that Christ’s will prevails over the demons. His power was strong evidence of His deity, as the Trinity is the only power that is stronger than Satan and his demons.
There are instances of others casting out demons. Jesus gave His disciples “authority over evil spirits” and they drove out many demons (Mk. 6:7,13). Of course it didn’t always work for them. The reasons given were: “because you have so little faith,” and “this kind can come out only by prayer” (Mt. 17:14-21; Mk. 9:14-29). They needed to have the power of God working through them to cast out demons.
Philip cast out demons (Acts 8:7), and Paul said to a demon in a girl who could predict the future, “‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ … at that moment the spirit left her” (Acts 16:16-19). When some Jews imitated Paul they failed to cast out demons, which indicates that the power of God was not working through them (Acts 19:13-16).
Satan and the demons are revealed as a “roaring lion” in the end times. We read of people who “did not stop worshiping demons and idols” (Rev. 9:20). Here we see that demons are associated with idolatry once again. The other behaviors associated with worshiping demons were murder, magic arts, sexual immorality and theft (Rev. 9:21). Three evil spirits are described as “spirits of demons performing miraculous signs” that gather armies for the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-14). These demons have great power as they are associated with miracles.
Babylon the Great, the evil system that killed many believers, is called “a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit” (Rev. 17:6; 18:2,24). Demons are influencing any people that persecute believers.
God’s Power Over Demons
As Satan’s agents, demons are strong influences in the unseen world. They promote Satan’s strategies in his ongoing battle against God and believers. There is a spiritual war going on in the unseen world around us even though we may not be aware of it. In our response to this we need to be aware of the following:
Christ’s Victory – The Son of God appeared “to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn. 3:8). He died “so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). The demons are working for Satan, but Christ is destroying Satan. God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Col. 1:13). Christians have changed sides, from Satan’s to Christ’s kingdom.
Christ’s Power – Only God’s power can defeat demons. “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). Do we really believe that one believer and Jesus are stronger than any other force in the universe? When we fear the evil about us we need to realize that we have access to a greater strength than the demons do. “If God is for us, who can be against us? … We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither … angels nor demons … nor any powers … will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:31-39). “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Eph. 6:10). Christ’s power is the only power that is stronger than that of Satan and his demons.
Delegated Authority – There are two Greek words for power: “exousia” means “delegated power or authority” while “dunamis” means “inherent power.” As Jesus subjected Himself to the limitations of humanity, He didn’t use His inherent power, but exercised the authority He received from God the Father (Acts 2:22). He gave His disciples a similar delegated authority/power to cast out demons (Mt. 10:1). They reported: “‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name.’ He replied, … ‘I have given you authority … to overcome all the power of the enemy … However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Lk. 10:17-20). Similarly, God has given believers authority over Satan and demons, provided we use His weapons His way (Eph. 6:10-18). But our salvation is much more important than any power over demons.
Our Response To Demons
First, we need to pray before we act. We need to resist the enemy in the unseen world, that’s where the real battle is happening. God’s kingdom is advanced through God and this requires prayer and Spirit-led action.
Second, we need to resist the enemy by using God’s resources. Our weapons should be directed at Satan, demons and the issues involved, not at people: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). Otherwise we are not building up the kingdom of God or tearing down the kingdom of Satan. Release any anger about sin and Satan in prayer. Our weapons are:
Jesus’ Name – This carries the victory of the cross and the resurrection. But we must be wholly committed to Jesus to use it effectively.
God’s Word – Claim Christ’s victory and power. Remind the demons of the “eternal fire” prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41). “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God … Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 Jn. 4:1-3). Get help from a believer with the gift of “distinguishing between spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10).
The Holy Spirit’s Power – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit has a greater influence on people and circumstances than we do.
Jesus’ Blood – Believers can overcome Satan and demons “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev.12:11). Remind Satan and the demons of Christ’s victory and their defeat at the crucifixion.
The Truth – Tell them about God and be honest about ourselves.
Believers don’t have to fear Satan and his demons. We have been rescued from their dominion of darkness, sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13) and provided with the resources to stand against them. We are more than conquerors through Christ. If God is for us, who can be against us?
See the other article in this series:
– The unseen world of angels
Did you know that our view of the physical world can strongly influence our thoughts, our behavior and our future?
From its first verse, the Bible clearly teaches that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This message is the foundation of the Christian faith, and is repeated throughout the Bible. In Job, the oldest book of the Bible, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” and “Everything under heaven belongs to Me” (Job 38:4; 41:11 NIV). Paul wrote, “All things were created by Him” (Col. 1:16). And the last book of the Bible says God, “created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it” (Rev. 10:6).
The Bible tells us how God communicated to mankind and how people have responded since the beginning of recorded history. Our key reference for this article is Romans 1:18-32. Read it now.
The Universe: A Revelation Of God
Paul summarized how God has revealed Himself to humanity through the physical world. Regarding wicked people, he wrote: “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. 1:19-20).
People have no excuse for not knowing God; it should be instinctive. They have no excuse for rejecting the Creator. Instinct is a programmed response that is essential for life. Our two pet rabbits have dug a burrow in the ground without ever being taught to do so by another rabbit. Some of our body functions that are instinctive are: our heart beat, blood circulation, digestion and breathing. A breakdown of any of these systems is life threatening. The same applies to our knowledge of the Creator.
God reveals Himself to us through His creation. We all see this every day – in people, plants, animals, earth, sun, moon and stars. They are evidence of a great Creator. God is the only Creator of energy, matter and life; He is the ruler of the universe. By looking at the beauty and complexity of creation – whether on the large scale of stars and galaxies, or the small scale of atoms and molecules – anyone can know there is a God.
King David expressed this well in a song of praise: “The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies display His marvelous craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak: night after night they make Him known. They speak without a sound or a word: their voice is silent in the skies; yet their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to all the world” (Ps. 19:1-4 nlt).
The existence of the physical world is a message of God’s creatorial power. This is called God’s general revelation of Himself. It is available to everyone no matter where or when they lived and it doesn’t depend on knowing the Bible. People in ancient times would have also heard by word of mouth, as Adam and Eve would have passed on the account of God’s great creation to their descendants. So people originally knew God the Creator, but this knowledge was lost over time.
Moses compiled the record of the early history of our earth in the book of Genesis. He recorded man’s failures including: Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Cain’s murder of Abel, Lamech’s violence, the prevalence of evil before the great flood, the behavior that caused Canaan to be cursed, Nimrod building Babylon in rebellion against God, and building the tower of Babel as a monument to man’s greatness (Gen 3:6; 4:8,23; 6:5; 9:24; 10:8-12; 11:2-4). These were all symptoms of man forgetting the Creator.
Then we read that Abraham travelled from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan. Clearly both these civilizations rejected all evidence of the Creator. Ur, the capital of the Second Sumerian State, was a center of pagan idolatry where people worshiped many gods (Gen. 11:31; Josh. 24:2). They also kept careful records of the movements of the planets and stars and had a form of astrology in which they associated the planets and stars with their gods and goddesses. After Ur was destroyed it was replaced by Babylon as the dominant city in the Middle East.
The Canaanites also worshiped idols. They explained nature by reference to their gods and goddesses – such as Baal, the god of the rain and storms, and Asherah, the goddess of the sea and fertility. They had a pantheon of gods under the control of El, the creator of created things, and his counterpart Asherah, the mother goddess. Kings were regarded as divine, and former kings were invoked as saviors.
Canaanite religion was the most sexually depraved of any in the ancient world; male and female prostitution and sexual fertility rites were common (Dt. 23:17,18). Drunkenness and immorality were prevalent during their religious celebrations. The Canaanites also mutilated their bodies (Dt. 14:1-2). Led by Joshua, the Hebrews came out of the desert to invade Canaan in 1440 bc. At this time many tribal groups lived in the area.
The Hebrews were forbidden to worship the Canaanite gods. Instead, they were to destroy their objects of worship, destroy the Canaanites, and not intermarry with them (Ex. 23:23-24; 34:11-16; Dt. 7:1-5; 20:17-18). However, we know they disobeyed God: Judah’s first mistake was in marrying a Canaanite woman (Gen. 38:2). This led to the idolatry and evil practices that were later removed by King Josiah (2 Ki. 23:4-25). These included: shrines and articles made for idols such as Baal, Asherah and all the starry hosts; pagan priests “who burnt incense to Baal, to the sun, and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts”; male shrine-prostitutes; child sacrifices; horses and chariots dedicated to the sun; spirit mediums and seance leaders; and household gods.
Clearly the Canaanites rejected the Creator and turned to idolatry and wickedness. As a result they were judged by God when Josiah was king.
When Paul visited Athens, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Athens was a great cultural, educational and religious center – the most important university city in the ancient world. It contained several temples to honor the goddess Athena, and its citizens would have also worshiped their emperor.
The Acropolis in Athens was decorated with buildings and sculptures such as the Parthenon and the immense statue of Athena which was over 10 meters (33 ft.) high. The Athenians worshiped the great Greek gods and their Roman equivalents including Zeus (Jupiter), Hera (Juno), Poseidon (Neptune), Demeter (Ceres), Apollo (no Roman equivalent), Artemis (Diana), Ares (Mars), Aphrodite (Venus), Hermes (Mercury), Athena (Minerva), Hephaestos (Vulcan), Hestia (Vesta) and Dionysus (Bacchus) .
Paul spoke with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans lived for pleasure, while the Stoics were pantheists who avoided expressing their emotions. The Greeks were well known for their philosophers – such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – so it’s not surprising that a favorite activity in Athens was to discuss “the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21).
When Paul preached in Athens his topic was “An Unknown God.” He knew the Athenians were “very religious,” so he introduced them to “The God who made the world and everything in it” – the very source of life (Acts 24-25). Like the ancient Canaanites, the Athenians had lost the knowledge of the Creator. They forgot that design demands a designer, and a complex world requires an intelligent Creator – nature didn’t create itself.
In Athens Paul declared that all nations who live on earth come from a common ancestor, Adam. Then he pointed out how the Greeks were worshiping something of their own creation – idols made of gold, silver and stone. What ignorance! God isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. The truth according to the Bible is that God made us; we don’t make Him with our hands or our minds.
Then Paul urged them to turn to the true Creator God in order to escape His coming judgment. He gives a clue on how this is possible by mentioning that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
Published: May 2004
See Part 2 of this article:
- What happens if we reject the Creator?: Part 2