Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Christian living

The essential 100 challenge

E 100 challenge 1 400pxHere’s a systematic approach to start or restart reading the Bible. The challenge is to read 100 key Bible passages – 50 from the Old Testament and 50 from the New Testament. The passages are usually one to two chapters in length and can easily be read in 10 minutes or less. They include the Historical books, Poetry and Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles (Letters) and Revelation. This gives a big picture of the Bible. And it’s designed to develop a daily Bible reading habit. It works because it’s simple, flexible, and achievable.

The Challenge, which is published by Scripture Union, is available on the the E100 Challenge app and the YouVersion app. A version has also been developed for children, which is called “The Big Bible Challenge”.

After completing the challenge, you can try to “Read the Bible in one year”, where two passages are given for each day, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.

Old Testament

In the Beginning
1. Creation. Genesis 1:1-2:25
2. The Fall. Genesis 3:1-24
3. The Flood. Genesis 6:5-7:24
4. God’s Covenant with Noah. Genesis 8:1-9:17
5. Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:1-9

Abraham, Issac and Jacob
6. The Call of Abram. Genesis 12:1-20
7. God’s Covenant with Abram. Genesis 15:1-21
8. Issac’s Birth and Sacrifice. Genesis 21:1-22:19
9. Jacob and Esau Conflict. Genesis 27:1-28:22
10. Jacob and Esau Reconcile. Genesis 32:1-33:20

The Story of Joseph
11. Joseph Sold Into Slavery. Genesis 37:1-36
12. Prison and a Promotion. Genesis 39:1-41:57
13. Ten Brothers Go to Egypt. Genesis 42:1-38
14. The Brothers Return. Genesis 43:1-44:34
15. Joseph Reveals His Identity. Genesis 45:1-46:7

Moses and the Exodus
16. Birth of Moses. Exodus 1:1-2:25
17. Moses and the Burning Bush. Exodus 3:1-22
18. The Ten Plagues. Exodus 6:28-11:10
19. Passover and Exodus. Exodus 12:1-42
20. Crossing the Red Sea. Exodus 13:17-14:31

The Law and the Land
21. The Ten Commandments. Exodus 19:1-20:21
22. The Golden Calf. Exodus 32:1-34:35
23. Joshua Succeeds Moses. Joshua 1:1-18
24. Crossing the Jordan. Joshua 3:1-4:24
25. The Fall of Jericho. Joshua 5:13-6:27

The Judges
26. Israel’s Disobedience. Judges 2:6-3:6
27. Deborah Leads Israel. Judges 4:1-5:31
28. Gideon Defeats Midianites. Judges 6:1-7:25
29. Samson Defeats the Philistines. Judges 13:1-16:31
30. The Story of Ruth. Ruth 1:1-4:22

The Rise of Israel
31. Samuel Listens to God. 1 Samuel 1:1-3:21
32. King Saul. 1 Samuel 8:1-10:27
33. David and Goliath. 1 Samuel 16:1-18:16
34. David vs. Saul. 1 Samuel 23:7-24:22
35. King David. 2 Samuel 5:1-7:29

The Fall of Israel
36. David and Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 11:1-12:31
37. King Solomon. 1 Kings 2:1-3:28
38. Solomon’s Temple. 1 Kings 6:1-8:21
39. Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. 1 Kings 16:29-19:18
40. The Fall of Jerusalem. 2 Kings 25:1-30

The Psalms and Proverbs
41. The Lord is My Shepherd. Psalm 23
42. Have Mercy on Me. Psalm 51
43. Praise the Lord. Psalm 103
44. Godly Wisdom. Proverbs 1:1-4:27
45. The Proverbs of Solomon. Proverbs 16:1-18:24

The Prophets
46. The Suffering Servant. Isaiah 51:1-53:12
47. Jeremiah’s Call and Message. Jeremiah 1:1-3:5
48. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Daniel 6:1-28
49. The Story of Jonah. Jonah 1:1-4:11
50. The Day of Judgement. Malachi 2:10-4:6

New Testament

The Living Word
51. The Word Became Flesh. John 1:1-18
52. Gabriel’s Message. Luke 1:1-80
53. The Birth of Jesus. Luke 2:1-40
54. John the Baptist. Luke 3:1-20
55. The Temptation of Jesus. Matthew 4:1-17

The Teachings of Jesus
56. Sermon on the Mount – Part 1. Matthew 5:1-6:4
57. Sermon on the Mount – Part 2. Matthew 6:5-7:29
58. The Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 13:1-58
59. The Good Samaritan. Luke 10:25-37
60. The Prodigal Son. Luke 15:11-32

The Miracles of Jesus
61. Feeding the Five Thousand. Luke 9:1-17
62. Walking on Water. Matthew 14:22-36
63. Healing a Blind Man. John 9:1-41
64. Healing a Demon-Possessed Man. Mark 5:1-20
65. Raising Lazarus from the Dead. John 11:1-44

The Cross of Christ
66. The Last Supper. Luke 22:1-46
67. Arrest and Trial. John 18:1-40
68. The Crucifixion. John 19:1-42
69. The Resurrection. John 20:1-21:25
70. The Ascension. Acts 1:1-11

The Church is Born
71. The Day of Pentecost. Acts 2:1-47
72. Growth and Persecution. Acts 3:1-4:37
73. The First Martyr. Acts 6:8-8:8
74. Sharing the Word. Acts 8:26-40
75. Good News for All. Acts 10:1-11:18

The Travels of Paul
76. The Road to Damascus. Acts 9:1-31
77. The First Missionary Journey. Acts 13:1-14:28
78. The Council at Jerusalem. Acts 15:1-35
79. More Missionary Journeys. Acts 16:6-20:38
80. The Trip to Rome. Acts 25:23-28:31

Paul to the Churches
81. More Than Conquerors. Romans 8:1-39
82. The Fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:1-26
83. The Armor of God. Ephesians 6:10-20
84. Rejoice in the Lord. Philippians 4:4-9
85. The Supremacy of Christ. Colossians 1:15-23

Paul to the Leaders
86. Elders and Deacons. 1 Timothy 3:1-16
87. The Love of Money. 1 Timothy 6:3-21
88. Good Soldiers of Christ. 2 Timothy 2:1-26
89. All Scripture is God-breathed. 2 Timothy 3:10-4:8
90. The Coming of the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

The Apostles’ Teaching
91. The Most Excellent Way. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
92. A New Creation in Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:1-6:2
93. Be Holy. 1 Peter 1:13-2:12
94. Faith and Works. James 1:1-2:26
95. Love One Another. 1 John 3:11-4:21

The Revelation
96. A Voice and a Vision. Revelation 1:1-20
97. Messages to the Churches. Revelation 2:1-3:22
98. The Throne of Heaven. Revelation 4:1-7:17
99. Hallelujah!. Revelation 19:1-20:15
100. The New Jerusalem. Revelation 21:1-22:21

© Scripture Union 2010

Posted, October 2017

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Marriage equality

Vote no 4a 400pxOn Sunday morning Sydneysiders could not miss “Vote No” sprawled across the sky. A skywriting Cessna plane wrote these words high over the city. The sky message attracted a lot of attention on social media both for and against the No campaign. Who would have thought that the act of saying that you were going to vote NO (and paying a skywriter to write that message in the sky) was so radical, even subversive!

Australian marriage law

This month Australia faces a postal survey on same-sex marriage. The current marriage law says that marriage is between a man and a woman. A typical church marriage rite says, “Marriage is the God ordained covenantal union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”. There are three main parts. It’s “God ordained”. God designed marriage for humanity. It’s a “covenantal union”. Malachi criticized the Jews for being unfaithful to “the wife of your marriage covenant” (Mal.2:14NIV). A covenant is a binding agreement. But it’s not merely a human contract, because Jesus says that God joins husband and wife together (Mt. 19:6; Mk. 10:9). In this case it’s a promise to be faithful to one another for life, regardless of what the future may hold. It’s a special relationship between the genders. A one-on-one, male-female, relationship; which was the case with Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation. And it’s for a lifetime (“for life”).

This blogpost differs from many others on this topic because it’s based on the Bible and not on reason. Let’s begin with what Jesus says about marriage.

What Jesus said about marriage

When the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, He told them about God’s plan for marriage, “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them (people) male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together (in marriage), let no one separate (in divorce)” (Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9). Jesus goes back to the time before sin came into the world to show God’s original intention for marriage. Then He says that humanity was created in two genders: male and female (Gen. 1:27). That should be obvious to us. When a baby is born, it’s announced as being either a boy or a girl. There’s no gender ambiguity at birth! Our gender is determined by our genome and we can’t change that. But Facebook has at least 50 gender options! How confusing. Then the two genders are given as the reason (“For this reason”) why marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s easy to understand. In this way, marriage is linked to God’s creation. “United” means that there is a strong bond between husband and wife. “One flesh” means sharing all of life together, like a body that doesn’t separate until death. God designed husband and wife to complement each other. Jesus recognizes that the first marriage was between Adam (a man) and Eve (a woman). It wasn’t between Adam and Steve or between Madam and Eve! The pattern of marriage was established in the Garden of Eden, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). So according to the Bible, marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Jesus quotes this verse and adds that because God has joined the couple together in marriage, it’s meant to be a lifelong union (“let no one separate”). Jesus showed that God’s original intention for marriage still applied in a sinful world. And it applies everywhere because it was instituted in the Garden of Eden before cultures began. In fact, marriage and gender exist until we go to heaven (Mt. 22:29-30; Mk. 12:24-25; Lk. 20:34-36). So, Jesus answers the question on divorce in the context of marriage being heterosexual, not homosexual.

God’s plan for mankind is that sexual relationships are so important that they are protected by the marriage covenant. God places a boundary around these sexual relationships where any sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are prohibited. This means that sexual intimacy is designed to be between a husband and a wife. According to God, that’s the only “safe sex”! Any other sexual activity (hetero or homo or pornographic) is a corruption of God’s design. It’s “dangerous sex”. And if we ignore God’s design there will be consequences.

This is Jesus’ definition of marriage. And same-sex marriage isn’t included. Jesus never discussed same-sex marriage because the way He defined marriage already excluded it! So, according to Jesus, the term “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction, an oxymoron. The words “same-sex” and “marriage” don’t go together. Biblical marriage combines both genders, and it’s not a single gender relationship.

Notice that the word ”love” isn’t mentioned in this definition of marriage. This means that any loving relationship isn’t necessarily marriage.

Adam and Eve were commanded to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:28). One of the important functions of the first marriage was to produce and nurture children. This is the example of marriage that Jesus tells those in the first century AD to follow. Of course, it only makes sense in the case of heterosexual marriage. There was no way to produce children from homosexual relationships.

What Paul said about marriage

Paul’s main instructions for marriage are given in Ephesians 5:22-33. And a short summary of these is given in Colossians 3:19-19, Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. He commands husbands to lead and love their wives, and wives to respect and submit to their husbands. These are commands for heterosexual marriage between a husband and a wife.

Husbands are to care for their wives like Christ cares for the church (v.29). As Christians are like Christ’s body, a wife is like a husband’s body (v.28,30). These are close relationships. Then Paul, like Jesus, connects back to the origin of marriage in Genesis 2:24. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Marriage is the formation of a new family. The bond between husband and wife should be the closest of all bonds between human beings.

Marriage also reflects the union between Christ (symbolized as the bridegroom) and the church (symbolized as the bride)(v.32). The bond between Christ and the church should be the closest in all human relationships. This union culminates in the wedding of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9). So heaven begins with a wedding! The Bible begins in Genesis with a marriage and ends in Revelation with a marriage. At the wedding in heaven, two different types of people are united (Jesus and the church). In the Bible they are likened to husband and wife, man and woman; and not man and man or woman and woman. The illustration only works for heterosexual marriage, and not for homosexual marriage (as there is no “husband” or “wife”, just “partners”).

Lifelong marriage between a man and a woman guarantees children their biological birthright to a mother and a father and has a proven track record of providing them with protection, education, welfare, support and nurture. No other arrangement has improved upon the benefits of biblical marriage.

Trajectory of marriage in the Bible

We have seen that God’s design for marriage involved one man and one woman. On a graph of marriage practice through the ages, this is near the top of the graph. This is the “safe sex” line that represents protection by the marriage covenant. In the Old Testament, Lamech had two wives (Gen. 4:19, 23). He was part of the 7th generation on earth. Polygamy occurs from this time onwards in the Old Testament. This even included Jacob, David and Solomon. So the graph goes downwards. These marriages were not according to God’s design. They are reported and described in the Bible, but they were not prescribed by God. They caused social chaos in families and societies. Solomon’s foreign wives lead him into idolatry. So polygamy wasn’t an example to follow. In the 5th century BC when the Jews returned to Judea after their exile, Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi commanded them to get rid of their foreign wives (Ezra Ch 9-10; Neh. 13:23-27; Mal. 2:10-12). Malachi also denounced them divorcing their wives (Mal. 2:13-17). They had been unfaithful to their wives and breaking their marriage covenants. So the graph moves upwards because the Jews in Judea improved their marriage practice at this time. In the New Testament Jesus restored the original design for marriage of one man and one woman and this continued in the early church. So, the graph moves up to the top once again.Marriage trajectoryHow does the same-sex marriage proposal compare to this trajectory? It’s not on the line! Adding a new category to marriage works against the Bible’s trajectory on marriage. It’s like in the Old Testament when polygamy was added as a new category to marriage and the curve goes down. In the Old Testament, God let people deviate from His marriage design, but there were serious consequences. Likewise, today God will let people deviate from His marriage design, and the curve will go down again, and there will be serious consequences.

What Jesus said about homosexuality

How do we know what Jesus thought of same-sex marriage (or homosexuality) when it’s not mentioned specifically in the gospels? We can find out from the Old Testament because it describes the principles and practices of Judaism. Jesus was a faithful Jew who lived under the Old Testament law. He obeyed the law of Moses (Jn. 8:29,55) and He didn’t sin in any way (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pt. 2:22). So, He would have followed the laws of Moses about unlawful sexual relations, such as: “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22). And, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” (Lev. 20:13). So Jesus would have prohibited any homosexual sexual activity as it was against the laws of Moses for sexual relationships. As this was accepted by the Jews that He came to teach, He didn’t need to discuss this topic.

What Paul said about homosexuality

Paul describes the behavior of those who reject God’s revelation in creation, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (sexual immorality) … Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations (heterosexual marriage) for unnatural ones (homosexual sexual activity). In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women (heterosexual marriage) and were inflamed with lust for one another (homosexual sexual activity). Men committed shameful acts with other men (homosexual sexual activity), and received in themselves the due penalty for their error…. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Rom. 1:24-27, 32).

Losing a proper view of God (v. 23) leads to sexual immorality (v.24), including homosexuality (v.26-27). In particular, homosexual sexual activity is described as “shameful lusts”, “unnatural” and “shameful acts”. That’s God’s view. But ignoring it leads to a society without shame. It’s an unnatural sexual activity because it’s an abnormal sexual activity. Natural (normal) sexual activity is in heterosexual marriage, which is fruitful (can produce new life). This was God’s order in creation (Adam and Eve were the first husband and wife). If Adam or Eve was homosexual, there would be no humanity!

This passage says that homosexual sexual activity (which was prevalent in the Roman Empire) was one of the characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle. The other characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle were idol worship (v.23, 25), other sexual immorality (v.24) and “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (v. 29-31). This list of sins identifies those who were not Christians.

God’s judgement for these people who reject His revelation is given in v.32 as eternal separation from God (spiritual “death”). What a sad outcome of going one’s own way. So rejecting God’s truth has eternal consequences. The only way for such people to avoid God’s judgment is to repent (stop this behavior) and turn to God.

So what did this passage mean in the 1st century AD? The characteristics of ungodly behavior are given and idolatry and homosexual sexual activity are condemned in particular. It meant that anyone who practiced idolatry was under God’s judgment. And anyone who practiced homosexual sexual activity was under God’s judgment. And the same applied to the other behaviors listed in v.29-31. There are similar lists elsewhere (1 Cor. 6:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). Everyone was condemned! All were sinners who deserved eternal punishment in hell. The only way to avoid this punishment was to accept the good news about Jesus.

So homosexual sexual activity was one of the characteristics of the flesh (sinful nature; Gal. 5:19-21). It was a human invention, and not God’s intention. This means that the Bible condemned homosexual sexual activity in the 1st century AD. As there are no qualifications given, any and all homosexual sexual activity was condemned. They were all sinful.

The biblical principles for the church to follow haven’t changed since the1st century AD. And people still reject God’s revelation in creation. So human rebellion against God hasn’t changed. And idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexual sexual activity, wickedness, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, and slander still occur. And people are still God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, promise-breakers, cruel, and ruthless. So human nature hasn’t changed, although history, society and technology have changed. Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all homosexual sexual activity is unnatural and against God’s order of creation.

What about same-sex attraction? This passage is addressing homosexual sexual behavior and not just homosexual attraction. There is a difference between being a practicing homosexual and having a homosexual tendency. Adam and Eve were created with an opposite sex attraction. But same-sex attraction is a result of the fall into sin. The temptation isn’t sinful. It is the sexual practice that the Bible condemns, not the orientation. The Holy Spirit gives believers the power to resist temptation (1 Cor.10:13). There are many who have an attraction to their own gender but refuse to give in to it. By the power of the Spirit, they have disciplined themselves to resist the temptation and to live in purity.

Trajectory of homosexuality in the Bible

We have seen that homosexual sexual activity is condemned by the laws of Moses about unlawful sexual relations. These applied throughout the Old Testament up to the time of Jesus. On a graph of homosexuality through the ages, this is near the bottom of the graph. As Paul also condemned homosexual sexual activity, the graph stays down during the church age. God consistently disapproves it. Every biblical text on this topic is negative. This leaves no scope for homosexual sexual activity to be approved by the church as acceptable behavior.Homosexuality trajectoryThis graph isn’t unique to homosexuality. The same graph applies to adultery, divorce, incest, and any other sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage. It’s the “dangerous sex” line that represents corruption of God’s good design.

Marriage law postal survey

The Australian marriage survey, which is being mailed out now, asks the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” It’s a simple question with big implications. The idea is to redefine marriage by making gender irrelevant to marriage and by making the procreation of children irrelevant to marriage. This is a massive change in social policy and shouldn’t happen without thorough consideration of the consequences of such a change.

If we plan a new project, under the planning legislation, we are required to undertake an environmental impact assessment. And organizations have risk management procedures to ensure their activities are safe. These include risk assessment. Yet there’s no mention anywhere of the risks of this change in social policy. The possible consequences include loss of freedom of speech, loss of religious freedom, forced acceptance of same-sex marriage, loss of parental rights, children not being raised by their birth parents, children conceived by IVF who won’t know who their biological parents are, and surrogate mothers. If the law changes, Christians who follow the Bible will out of step with the law of the land. Christianity will become a counter-culture.

If the law changes then it will be used to silence dissent. It will impact Christian participation in education, charity and welfare. How will the law treat those disobedient citizens who hold to a Biblical understanding of marriage? It seems as though there will be negative social and religious impacts. And we will move closer to secular society, where people write their own Bible. We should vote “no”, because it’s against the Bible and there has been no disclosure or discussion of the likely impacts. We do a social impact assessment of a new shopping center, but not for a new marriage law!

“Marriage equality” is a catchy slogan for same-sex marriage. How could anyone oppose equality in marriage? It’s very deceptive. Of course, what we should be asking is what the slogan means and how it will be put into practice.

The unmarried

What about those who aren’t married? This is a larger fraction of the population than those having same-sex attraction. Jesus wasn’t married and Paul was unmarried when he wrote his letters to Christians. Paul gives advice to the unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9, 25-38. His principle was if you are married, don’t get divorced, and if you are unmarried stay that way if you can because you will have more time to serve the Lord and marriage brings extra troubles. Paul is writing to a church where there was immorality and persecution (v2, 26, 28). He says marriage is not God’s will for everyone. Some people have the gift to remain single. It’s good and preferable to remain unmarried if God enables you to control your sexual temptations because you can serve the Lord with less distractions. “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v.9). So Paul says the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is celibacy (abstaining from sexual relationships). People are free to choose between biblical marriage and celibacy.

Morality

We have looked at what God says in the Bible about marriage and homosexuality. God is our creator and the source of morality. He defines what is right and wrong. People don’t set the standard, God does. We are not autonomous. We need to appreciate the difference between a creator and a created being. God defines gender and marriage. Whatever humanity defines it to be doesn’t matter. We are all accountable to God. Changing the meaning of a term like “marriage” in our culture will not in any way change God’s standards.

God is good and His commands are good. God’s design for marriage is good. And it’s good for everyone. For all of our society. He is our authority on important matters like this. And His words in scripture are our authority.

Our identity in Christ

As Christians, we should find our identity as children of God, not in our achievements or sexuality or any other label. The Holy Spirit lives in us and grows the fruit of the Spirit. We are a new creation. We are citizens of heaven. We are special in God’s sight. We are made in the image of God. And we are God’s handiwork.

Discussion

Paul told the self-righteous, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same (kind of) things” (Rom. 2:1). It’s easy to be a hypocrite. We’re all sinners in one way or another. Paul also challenged the Jews about hypocrisy, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law” (Rom. 2:21-23)?

Likewise, do we lapse into idolatry (anything that replaces God), or greed, or deceit, or gossiping, or lying? These are all listed alongside homosexuality in Romans 1:29-31. The Bible says that people who practice any of these (and similar) sins are not true Christians. The solution is to confess our failures and repent (change behavior) and turn to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). So let’s always try to honor God and follow His will, be content and generous, and be honest.

God switch 400pxIdolatry is when the “God switch” in our life is turned off. For many people it’s off permanently – that’s why we are having a marriage survey. But what about us? How often do we switch off God and go our own way?

We are Christ’s representatives on earth who are to be like light and salt in society. Let’s speak up for the truth, but do it in a loving way (Eph.4:15). Are we ready to face persecution after marriage is redefined, because the law of the land will be against God’s definition of marriage? Will we be able to say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34)?

How should we deal with instances of homosexual sexual activity? We can look at how Jesus responded to adultery and how Paul responded to incest (Jn. 8:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Jesus didn’t condemn or pardon the adulteress, but He told her to “leave your life of sin” (Jn.8:11). And Paul said that ongoing sexual immorality amongst church members, including homosexual sexual activity, is to be judged by excommunication (1 Cor. 5:9-11). If the offender is sorry and repentant of such a serious sin, they should be lovingly restored to church fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11). This means that Christians should not tolerate homosexual sexual activity or same-sex marriage amongst church members.

Also, Paul says that Christians are not to judge the sins of unbelievers because God will judge them at the great white throne (1 Cor. 5:12-13; Rev. 21:11-15). This means that Christians should tolerate homosexual sexual activity and same-sex marriage (if it is legalized) amongst people who aren’t church members. We are not the moral police. Leave it up to God to be the judge. Church should be a safe place for the vulnerable. It should be safe for all kinds of people. Is our church a safe place? Is it a refuge? Are we a welcoming accepting church? Anyone should be free to walk into our church and be welcomed and accepted. After all Jesus came to call sinners to repentance (Mt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17; Lk. 5:32).

Conclusion

We have seen that according to Jesus and Paul, marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. Consequently, the term “same-sex marriage” is an oxymoron.

As the Bible condemns any sexual activity outside marriage as sinful, it condemns any homosexual sexual activity or same-sex marriage as a lifestyle for Christians. But Christians should tolerate unbelievers who follow such a lifestyle. The reason for this is that they are sinners who need to see God’s love. And like the Corinthians, they can turn around to follow Jesus.

Let’s leave the God switch turned “on” and vote “no” in the marriage survey!

Written, September 2017

Also see: Gender and marriage
Same-sex marriage
Jesus and marriage


Jesus and marriage

Thousands rallied at Sydney Town Hall to campaign for same-sex marriage. And there are new laws against hate speech during Australia’s same-sex marriage postal survey. The survey, which is being mailed out now, asks the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” The current marriage law says that marriage is between a man and a woman. But what did Jesus say about marriage? To investigate this topic, we will look at the books of Matthew to John in the New Testament.

I have previously written a blogpost on what the Bible says about gender and marriage, which shows that the early church taught that marriage is between one man and one woman. We will see that Jesus taught this truth as well.

Husband and wife

The Greek noun translated “man” (aner Strongs #435) means a male human being or a husband or a group of people, with the preference being indicated by the context. According to the ESV, it is translated “husband” or “husbands” in 8 verses in Matthew to John.

The Greek noun translated woman (gune #1135) means a female human being or a wife, with the preference being indicated by the context. According to the ESV, it is translated “wife” or “wife’s” in 37 verses and “wives” in one verse in Matthew to John.

Is heterosexual marriage a command, a model or a report?

The contents of the Bible can be divided into commands, models to follow and reports of events. A command is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive). A model to follow is a practice that is described that is worth following today. Whereas, a report is a description of events (like in the news media) that is not necessarily worth following today. For this post, all the verses in the ESV that included any of the words, “husband”, “wife”, or “marriage” were examined.

Heterosexual marriage commanded

When Jesus was asked about divorce He replied, “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them (people) male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together (in marriage), let no one separate (in divorce)” (Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9NIV). Jesus goes back to the time before sin came into the world to show God’s original intention for marriage. Then He says that humanity was created in two genders: male and female (Gen. 1:27). That should be obvious to us. When a baby is born, it’s announced as being either a boy or a girl. There’s no gender ambiguity at birth! Our gender is determined by our genome and we can’t change that. Then the two genders are given as the reason (“For this reason”) why marriage is between a man and a woman. It’s easy to understand. In this way, marriage is linked to God’s creation. “United” means that there is a strong bond between husband and wife. “One flesh” means sharing all of life together, like a body that doesn’t separate until death. God designed husband and wife to complement each other. Jesus recognizes that the first marriage was between Adam (a man) and Eve (a woman). It wasn’t between Adam and Steve or between Madam and Eve! The pattern of marriage was established in the Garden of Eden, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). So according to the Bible, marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Jesus quotes this verse and adds that because God has joined the couple together in marriage, it’s meant to be a lifelong union (“let no one separate”). Jesus showed that God’s original intention for marriage still applied in a sinful world. In fact, it applies until we go to heaven (Mt. 22:29-30; Mk. 12:24-25; Lk. 20:34-36). So, Jesus answers the question on divorce in the context of marriage being heterosexual.

This is Jesus’ definition of marriage. And same-sex marriage isn’t included.  Jesus never discussed same-sex marriage because the way he defined marriage already excluded it! So the term “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction, an oxymoron.

Adam and Eve were commanded to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:28). This means that one of the important functions of the first marriage was to produce and nurture children. This is the example of marriage that Jesus tells those in the first century AD to follow. Of course, it only makes sense in the case of heterosexual marriage. There was no way to produce children from homosexual relationships.

Whenever Jesus taught about adultery (Lk. 16:18) and divorce (Mt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mk. 10:2-12; Lk. 16:18), He assumed that marriage is between a man and a woman.

But what about models of marriage in the gospels that aren’t commands?

Heterosexual marriage modelled

There are other verses that indicate that the pattern of marriage in the time of Jesus was monogamous and heterosexual and that Jesus approved of this pattern for marriage.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were the parents of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:5-24). And Jesus’ family had a father and mother, Joseph and Mary (Mt. 1:20, 24). One of the woman near the cross was Mary the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25). And when Jesus listed a man’s family He included a wife and children (Mt. 19:29; Lk. 14:26; 18:29).

In the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus said that the servant had a wife and children (Mt. 18:25). In the parable of the ten virgins, the women were waiting to celebrate a wedding banquet. As a bridegroom is mentioned, the marriage was between a man and a woman (Mt. 25:1-10).

Jesus performed a miracle (turned water into wine) at a wedding feast in Cana (Jn. 2:1-11). As He attended the feast with His mother and disciples, Jesus clearly approved of marriage. Also, because the marriage involved a bridegroom (v.9), it was between a man and a woman. Jesus also used weddings in His parables and metaphors (Mt. 9:15; 22:1-12; 25:1-10; Mk. 2:19-20; Lk. 5:34; 12:36; 14:8). And John the Baptist used a bride, bridegroom and best-man in an illustration (Jn.3:29).

But what about when marriage is reported in the gospels and it isn’t necessarily an example to follow?

Heterosexual marriage reported

The prophetess Anna became a widow after seven years of marriage to her husband (Lk. 2:36). And when Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman, they both assumed that a woman like her usually had a husband (Jn. 4:16-18).

When they asked Jesus about divorce, the Jewish religious leaders assumed that marriage was between a man and a woman (Mt. 19:3; Mk. 10:2). And the Sadducees asked Jesus a hypothetical question which involved a woman marrying seven brothers in turn under the levirate marriage law (Mt. 22:23-28; Mk. 12:18-23; Lk. 20:27-33). Although this looked like serial monogamy, in each case the woman was widowed  before she remarried.

John the Baptist denounced the marriage of Herodias to Herod Antipas, after she had been married to Herod Philip (Mt.14:3; Mk. 6:17-18; Lk. 3:19). Pilate was married (Mt. 27:19). And Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household, was married to Joanna (Lk. 8:3).

These verses indicate that the most common pattern of marriage when Jesus was alive was monogamous and heterosexual, where a man was married to a woman.

Other types of marriage?

I am not aware of any other verses between Matthew and John in the Bible that are related to marriage. So, the Bible doesn’t teach any other pattern for marriage besides a man and a woman. This means that homosexual marriage is a human invention, whereas heterosexual marriage is God-ordained.

Discussion

Clearly, all the marriages referred to above involved the union of one man and one woman. It involved both genders (heterosexual marriage), and not only a single gender (homosexual marriage).

How do we know what Jesus thought of same-sex marriage (or homosexuality) when it’s not mentioned specifically in the gospels? We can find out from the Old Testament because it describes the principles and practices of Judaism. Jesus was a faithful Jew who lived under the Old Testament law. He obeyed the law of Moses (Jn. 8:29,55) and He didn’t sin in any way (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pt. 2:22). So, He would have followed the laws of Moses about unlawful sexual relations, such as:
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22).
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” (Lev. 20:13).
So Jesus would have prohibited any homosexual sexual activity as it was against the laws of Moses for sexual relationships.

Conclusion

We have seen that according to Jesus, marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. Consequently, the term “same-sex marriage” is an oxymoron.

Written, September 2017

Also see: Gender and marriage
Same-sex marriage
Marriage equality


The Canberra Declaration

Canberra declaration 1This document was drafted in 2010 by a number of concerned Christian leaders from various backgrounds. It is a national declaration about the Judeo-Christian foundations which have made the West and Australia free, prosperous and democratic. It directs us to some of the key issues and values facing not just this nation, but all nations. The values listed here are very much under threat, and need to be vigorously and courageously championed.

The Preamble to the Australian Constitution contains the words, “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”. As Australian citizens we continue to declare that we too put our trust in Almighty God.

For centuries, to speak of Western civilization was to speak of Christian civilization. The two were in many ways synonymous. The values that we have cherished and sought to strengthen are in large measure founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system. The many freedoms, advantages, opportunities, values and liberties which characterize the West owe much to the growth of Christianity with its inherent belief in the dignity of the human person as created in the image of God and the code of behavior that flows from this belief.

The Canberra Declaration follows on from the 2009 Manhattan Declaration and the 2010 Westminster Declaration. It declares that when Christian values are respected and allowed freedom of expression, not just confined to so-called sacred spaces but in the public arena as well, society is richer and healthier.

We wish to emphasize three areas that demand particular attention in our contemporary Australian society, namely religious freedom, marriage and the family, and the sanctity of human life. Were we to undermine any one of these values, the social fabric of our nation would be seriously weakened, to our personal and collective detriment.

Religious Freedom

Religious freedom includes freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. The importance of these freedoms is shown in countries where they are threatened or absent. Police states and totalitarian nations inevitably begin with the curtailment of basic liberties, including religious freedom and the right to speak one’s mind and conscience. This includes the right to change one’s religious beliefs.

We affirm the basic necessity of freedom of conscience, having the liberty to speak publicly about one’s faith and beliefs, and having the right to practise the religion of one’s choice. If these freedoms are removed – even in the name of supposed benefits – the prized values of democracy and liberty are seriously undermined.

In Australia today these freedoms are being restricted by laws which, although appearing positive on first reading, have the potential to lead to unintended and unacceptable consequences. These laws include anti-discrimination legislation, hate crime laws and legislation on religious and sexual vilification – each of which may be interpreted in a way that effectively works as a barrier to religious freedom and freedom of speech.

Thus the signers of this declaration affirm the fundamental right of Australians to religious freedom and freedom of speech, and we oppose legislation which denies such freedoms. We likewise oppose laws subjugating our nation to foreign powers and instrumentalities which restrict these freedoms.

Marriage and Family

Another vital package of values and social benefits is the long-standing institution of the natural family resulting from marriage between a man and a woman – as affirmed by the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act: “…the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life”.

No other social institution has done so much good for people and for nations, yet marriage is being undermined, to the detriment of children, individuals, and society itself.

Lifelong marriage between a man and a woman guarantees children their biological birthright to a mother and a father and has a proven track record of providing them with protection, education, welfare, support and nurture. No other arrangement has improved upon the benefits of marriage.

In the face of competing alternatives and moves to redefine marriage, we affirm the importance and social utility of marriage between a man and a woman and the families formed thereby.

Human Life

The third important set of values revolves around the sanctity of human life which is being undermined in much of the Western world, through abortion, euthanasia, and some of the new reproductive technologies.

We believe that all human life, being made in the image of God, has intrinsic and equal value from conception to life’s natural end.

The very heart of a humane and civilized society is based on the way it treats its most vulnerable and innocent members including the unborn and the disabled. We therefore insist on the right of all persons, including those who are vulnerable or dependent, to protection from conception to natural death. We will support, protect, and be advocates for such people, since to do anything less is to weaken our humanity and despise our personhood.

We will not comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves the intentional taking of innocent human life.

Conclusion

Religious freedom, marriage and family, and the sacredness of human life have provided the foundations enabling Western democratic societies to flourish. We erode these foundations at our peril.

The faith which is at the heart of many of the values and strengths underpinning the Australian nation now compels us to speak up in their defence.

For the future of this nation, and for our children’s future, we call upon all like-minded citizens to support and sign this declaration.

Posted, April 2017


True worship

worship 400pxWhat is “true worship”? You may think that worship is limited to a church meeting or the singing in such a meeting. But it’s much more than that!

In Romans Paul shows that worship is an important part of our Christian lives. After 11 chapters on doctrine (what we believe about what God has done for us), he turns to practice (how we should live in view of what God has done for us).

This turning point in the book of Romans begins, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Rom. 12:1NIV)

Christians are urged to do something here. It says that our actions, conduct and behavior should flow from an appreciation of what God has done from us. He says, “I urge you”. It’s not a command from a dictator, but an appeal from a friend. God is urging us to live in fellowship with Him.

This appeal is in view of “God’s mercy”. All that God has done for us and given us is described in the previous 11 chapters. This includes: salvation, forgiveness, justification, grace, redemption, righteousness, peace, hope, love, reconciliation, a spiritual life, the Holy Spirit, being released from the law of Moses, and being children of God, heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ. It’s so amazing that Paul concludes this section with a doxology expressing awe and wonder at what God has done and continues to do though Jesus (Rom. 11:33-36). That’s the basis of why we should live for God.

Paul says “offer your bodies” to God as a living sacrifice. This means to offer our whole lives to God, like sacrifices were offered in the ancient world. It’s our whole body, soul and spirit and all we do, not just in a meeting at church. It’s a total commitment.

It’s a “living sacrifice”. Like animals were sacrificed daily to God in the Old Testament, we are to be the sacrifice. We give up our rights and obey God. Our sacrifice is to be “holy”, exclusively for God. Just as in marriage we give ourselves fully to our spouse, so we give ourselves fully to God. The sacrifice is also to be “pleasing to God”. We are to live to please God.

This is “true and proper worship”. It’s what worship is! It’s offering ourselves to God because of all He’s done for us. It’s our logical and reasonable response to God.

We have seen that Romans 12:1 describes what worship is for each believer. It’s a way of life. It’s individual worship. This worship is not just a church meeting or singing, but the whole of our lives.

So according to the Bible, worship is a part of our response to God’s revelation. It is an attitude and an action. The attitude is offering adoration, respect and honor to God (Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 5:14). And the action is showing this respect by a life of service, obeying God (Rom. 12:1). Everyone worships something or someone. It’s evident in how we spend our time and money.

But God also calls us to collective worship (1 Cor. 11: 23-33). That’s how our individual worship can be combined and expressed corporately. It’s an opportunity to express our adoration, respect and honor of the Lord collectively. Corporate worship is focused on what the Lord has done in dying for us. That’s one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper. Like individual worship, this should engage our minds, wills and emotions.

Let’s worship the Lord “in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).

Written, March 2017


The ethics of IVF

ivf-4-400pxInfertility can be devastating for couples who desire to have children. But medical technology now enables some of these to have their own children.

I have been asked about what should be the Christian attitude towards in-vitro fertilization (IVF)? The world’s first baby to be conceived by IVF was born in July 1978. In 2012, about 3.5% of all children born in Australia were conceived as a result of IVF treatment. And many Christians consider IVF an acceptable means to overcome infertility.

In this blogpost we look at IVF which uses the gametes of a husband and wife, and not the use of eggs or sperm that are donated by a third party. So only the sperm and egg of the married couple themselves are being considered and not surrogacy.

IVF procedure

The process of IVF consists of taking a woman’s eggs (ova) and a man’s sperm, fertilizing them outside the body, and then implanting them back into the woman’s womb with the goal of pregnancy and childbirth. It generally involves the following stages.

Pituitary suppression – The mother’s natural menstrual cycle is switched off with drugs.
Ovarian stimulation – fertility drugs are taken to stimulate the ovaries to produce several mature eggs, instead of just one.
Egg collection – Under a general or local anaesthetic, fluid is removed from the mother’s follicles, which contain eggs. The average number of eggs collected is 8-15. This number is required because of the attrition that occurs during the IVF cycle.
Sperm collection – Sperm is obtained from the father. And the best sperm are selected.
Fertilization – After the eggs are removed from the ovarian fluid, they are placed in a dish with the sperm and allowed to fertilize. Approximately 60-70% of the eggs will fertilize. If the sperm fertilizes an egg, it becomes an embryo, which is grown in a special incubator.
Embryo transfer – After 5-6 days, the embryos are in the blastocyst stage, when the embryo is transferred to the mother’s uterus. The healthiest one or two embryos are chosen for transfer. In Australia single embryo transfer is usually recommended unless the mother is over 40 years old, if the embryos available are of suboptimal quality or if there have been several previous unsuccessful IVF attempts.
Pregnancy – If an embryo successfully implants, the mother becomes pregnant.

Some differences between IVF and natural fertilization are:
– the mother experiences large dosages of hormones and invasive medical procedures.
– several eggs are fertilized at once instead of one at a time.
– the fertilization is occurring in the laboratory (outside the body) instead of inside the uterus.
– the sperm and eggs that fertilize have been selected artificially instead of naturally. Natural conception is a complicated process that is not fully understood and so can’t be replicated in the laboratory.

What happens to surplus embryos?

IVF generally produces more embryos than those that are transferred to the mother. But what happens to these excess embryos? Poor quality embryos are usually discarded, while healthy (good quality) embryos not transferred are usually frozen and stored. What happens to these frozen embryos?
– They may be used in subsequent IVF cycles.
– They may be used in medical research and then discarded.
– They may be discarded after pregnancy and childbirth is achieved.
– They may be stored indefinitely and even completely forgotten about.
– They may be donated to couples seeking children. But donating embryos does not ensure they will survive.
– They may be implanted at a time where pregnancy is very unlikely. This is actually a means of discarding embryos.

If several embryos are made for every woman who undergoes IVF, and about half of the embryos are discarded (or frozen) during or after the process, then millions of embryos have been discarded (or frozen) over the past 40 years.

When does human life begin?

There have been many suggestions as to when life begins including:
– The moment of fertilization when 23 chromosomes from each parent are combined to comprise the genetic makeup of a new and unique individual, known as a zygote. The zygote begins as a single cell which can subdivide by mitosis.
– About six days after fertilization, when the zygote (known as a blastocyst) is implanted in the uterine wall. The blastocyst is comprised of about 200-300 cells.
– About 14 days after fertilization, when occasionally the embryo can split to produce identical (or Siamese) twins. Twelve countries restrict in vitro research on human embryos to within 14 days of fertilization. Now that the culturing of human embryos in vitro beyond 14 days seems feasible, there is pressure to relax this restriction.
– About 20 weeks after fertilization, when the thalamus (a central part of the brain that plays a role in consciousness) is formed.
– When the fetus can exist outside the mother’s womb, which with current medical technology is about 24 weeks after fertilization.
– About 26 weeks after fertilization, when brain and neural pathways are developed enough to enable mental activity.
– At birth when breathing commences.

After fertilization, an embryo usually grows within the mother’s uterus until its birth. The unborn baby is alive before it’s born as its movements can be felt by the mother and monitored by ultrasound (Lk. 1:41-44). The characteristics of life include: sustenance, growth, responsiveness and reproduction. The smallest unit of life is a single cell that has these attributes. An organism is alive when it is comprised of living cells.

As functional genetic information and cell division are characteristics of a living cell, I think that a human embryo is alive from the time of its conception (fertilization).  An embryo has a distinct human genetic code and exhibits metabolism, development, the ability to react to stimuli, and cell reproduction. And if the baby’s life is not interrupted, the embryo will someday become an adult man or woman.

As an unborn baby undergoes continual development with time, we can trace backwards in time to when life begins. But where do we stop in the list of suggestions given above? The most logical beginning of life seems to be the moment of fertilization when a new genetic organism is formed from the male and female gametes. The other suggestions are steps in the development of the fetus, with no one being more important than the other – they are all equally important. Only fertilization is unique because it’s the beginning of the sequence.

The Bible refers to the unborn as an actual person by using personal pronouns (Ps. 139:13-16). This indicates that God considers the unborn to be a person. Some contest this by saving that the passage is poetic. Here’s another passage that is more definitive:
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:22-15NIV).

The context of this passage is Israelite laws for dealing with personal injuries. It is interesting that a pregnant woman is described in the Hebrew language as being “with child” (harah, Strongs #2030). So an unborn fetus is described as a “child”. In the first case there is a fine when a child is born prematurely because a pregnant woman was accidently injured. According to the Brown-Briggs-Driver lexicon, it was an “untimely birth”. But in the second case, injury to either the child or the mother incurs a more severe punishment. The same penalty applies to the unborn child and the mother. They are considered to be of equal worth under the laws that God gave Moses at Mt Sinai. So the Bible values the life of unborn children and teaches that it is wrong to harm or kill them. In this case it was accidental harm. The same would apply to intentional harm. This means that the Bible forbids intentional abortion. The Bible does not give us permission to destroy innocent human life—this would be murder (Jas. 2:11).

This understanding of the beginning of human life means that embryos are alive as a human being at the beginning of their life. What about an embryo that aborts naturally? Should we be concerned about this as the death of a human being? As this is a natural occurrence which happens according to the will of God, it isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes the mother may be unaware of this event. But if the parents are aware of it, then they can experience grief and loss. But for reasons only known to God, He allowed that to happen. We just need to be assured that that was the best outcome for the baby and the parents (Rom. 8:28).

Implications for IVF

One’s view of IVF will largely depend on one’s view of human intervention in the process of conception and one’s belief on the beginning of human life. If you are against human intervention, then IVF is not for you and you should seek other more natural ways to promote conception. On the other hand, if you believe that human life begins at or after implantation, then the use of IVF may be acceptable. In this case a young embryo is just a bunch of cells with the “potential” to be a baby, but it’s not a living being. However, you also need to appreciate the financial cost of IVF and the physical impact of the procedure on the mother.

IVF is more problematic if you believe that human life begins at fertilization. This means that the embryos produced in the laboratory by IVF are human lives. Usually the embryos that are not implanted are frozen or discarded. As these are not usually given the opportunity to develop into adults, their fate is equivalent to abortion. To destroy an embryo is to destroy a human being near the beginning of their life. If you want to respect human life and not destroy a human being, then IVF is only acceptable if no embryos are discarded. God values human life and does not condone murder (Exodus 20:13; Jas. 2:11).

Is the ethics of IVF a debatable matter?

As one’s view of IVF will largely depend on one’s view of human intervention in the process of conception and one’s belief on the beginning of human life, the ethics of IVF could be a debatable matter (like tattoos). These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith (Rom. 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23-33). The Biblical principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters are given in the Appendix.

What about freezing embryos?

Excess embryos are often frozen for future usage. However, in practice the majority of these are eventually discarded. As mentioned above, this is a concern if you believe that human life begins at fertilization, as it represents the death of a human being.

Another possibility is that excess (frozen) embryos can be donated to other infertile couples. Embryo donation programs exist to enable this process. Embryo donation is legal in Australia. Some clinics have a policy that you can only donate two or more embryos, but other clinics will facilitate a donation of a single embryo. Also, the NSW Health Central Register allows for information to be shared between donors and donor conceived children with the consent of both parties.

However, when excess embryos from IVF are frozen, they are placed in immediate danger and face an uncertain destiny. It’s not possible to guarantee that the frozen embryos will be kept safe.

Are there any alternatives to IVF?

Some alternatives to IVF are mentioned on the internet, but these may not be widely available. For example, in natural cycle IVF, there is no ovarian stimulation and only one egg is collected and one embryo implanted. So there are no excess embryos. However, it appears as though there is a lower probability of pregnancy than for normal IVF.

Mild stimulation IVF also works with a woman’s natural cycle, and uses mild ovarian stimulation. In this case 2-7 eggs are typically collected and the probability of pregnancy is similar to normal IVF. In-vitro maturation (IVM) also uses significantly less hormone drugs than IVF. Artificial insemination (also called intrauterine insemination, IUI) is a simpler process that introduces sperm into the woman’s uterus.

Also, one could use a natural method to enhance the possibly of natural conception such as the Billings or Creighton or Sympto-Thermal Methods which involve identifying the fertile period during a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Options for a Christian

If a couple believes that life begins at fertilization, then they would probably want to ensure that any human embryos are not intentionally lost or discarded. This could make it difficult to use IVF unless they can find a clinic that is willing to limit the number of eggs collected to the number that they plan to implant in the womb and willing to donate any excess embryos to other couples that are unable to conceive themselves. Unfortunately, this approach usually reduces the probability of pregnancy. This means that the woman may have to go through additional procedures and expense to have more eggs collected later on.

Conclusion

IVF is a product of medical technology which can enable some infertile couples to have children. Some people accept it as an example of modern technology, while others have some concerns. For example, it is an artificial way of producing human life. Also, many of the human embryos created by IVF are discarded. The ethics of dealing with these embryos depends on one’s view on the commencement of human life. If you believe that human life begins at fertilization and if you want to respect human life and not destroy a human being, then IVF is only acceptable if no embryos are discarded. This seems to be difficult to achieve. And although they can be donated to infertile couples, the majority of embryos that are frozen are eventually discarded.

What do you think?

Appendix: Biblical principles for debatable matters

The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters.

God’s honor

First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word?

A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

The next six principles involve the welfare of others.

Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)

With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behavior and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.

Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).

Acceptance

The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1). Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).

Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.

Harmony

With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.

Don’t quarrel

Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.

Don’t judge

Those with a strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3b).

As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.

Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behavior.

Don’t hinder spiritual growth

There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.

Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).

Order in the Church

Finally, there should be unity within the local church. When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.

Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practiced. In these situations, what is taught and practiced within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.

Written, March 2017

Also see: What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?


Encouragement for tough times

call-to-prayer-400pxI’m currently visiting Morocco and France. The Muslim call to prayer (five times each day) and poverty are common in Morocco. About 1% of the people are Christians and most of these are foreigners. Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. So, it’s difficult being a Christian in Morocco. Although France is still culturally Catholic, most of the French are essentially secular (atheists). And less than 1% are evangelical Christians. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries.

There is a temptation to give up following Jesus in difficult times. But tests and trials of our faith are inevitable (1 Th. 3:3; 2 Tim. 3:12; Jas. 1:2-3; 1 Pt. 4:12-13). The letter of 1 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see that the prospect of Christ’s second coming encourages those facing adversity and trials.

Context

Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, with a population of over 200,000, was a busy seaport. Christianity came to Thessalonica when Paul preached the gospel and some Jews and Greeks became believers (Acts 17:1-10). After the jealous Jewish leaders started a riot, Paul and Silas escaped at night to Berea.

The believers at Thessalonica experienced trials, severe suffering, and persecution (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul wrote to them in 50-51 AD to address the issues they faced. Jews claimed that Paul was not a real apostle; pagans persecuted them because they worshiped one God instead of many; sexual immorality was common in Greece; there were misunderstandings about the second coming of Christ; tensions arose between the congregation and the elders; and some stifled the Holy Spirit’s work, treating prophetic teachings with contempt.

Paul encouraged them “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more” (4:1 NIV). This letter can be divided into six sections: model believers; Paul’s example; Paul’s joy; living to please God; the Lord’s second coming; and living as a Christian. Firstly, their joy in the middle of persecution was an example to all the Christians in Greece.

Model believers (1:1-10)

Paul regularly prayed for these believers (1:2-3). They were his children in the faith. He thanked God for their spiritual birth and growth, shown by their “work produced by faith (conversion),” their “labor prompted by love (service)” and their “endurance inspired by hope (anticipation of Christ’s return)”. Here we see that the motivation for Christian activity is faith, love and hope. The faith that God gives us results in love for God and the hope of Christ’s return, which in turn produces action such as labor and endurance.

Although persecuted for their faith, they didn’t give up. But Paul reminded them of two things (1:4-5). First, they were loved. God loves all of us, even before faith is evident in our lives (Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8). He loves us so much that His Son died for us. Second, they were chosen by God (Jn. 6:44). After they became Christians it was evident from their behavior that they had been chosen by God (Eph. 1:4).

The dramatic change in their lives occurred after Paul preached to them the gospel of God and Christ (2:2,8; 3:2). It came “with” four things. First, “with words” he preached about the Old Testament promises of God, who Jesus was and what He had done. Second, “with power” there was conviction of sin, repentance and conversion. The gospel has power to change lives. Third, “with the Holy Spirit” identified as the source of that power. Fourth, “with deep conviction” they knew that Paul spoke for God and they gave their lives to Him. They accepted that Paul spoke God’s Word and acted upon it and it changed their lives.

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ, and were a good example to other believers (1:6-9), even though they were persecuted. Their love was shown in three ways. First, they stopped complaining and started rejoicing. They saw that God was in control and their eternal destiny was secure. Their suffering was short compared to their eternal salvation in Christ. Second, they shared the gospel with their neighbors and friends: “The Lord’s message rang out from you.” The gospel was worth telling because it gave joy and hope. Third, they trusted God to care for them daily; their “faith in God” was well known.

The Thessalonians had made a great start in their Christian life. First, they repented of selfish living and turned to God from many idols. Second, they served God out of love, which is a sacrificial concern for others (Jn. 13:34-35). Theirs was “labor prompted by love” (1:3).

They were also waiting for Christ’s return (1:10; 4:13-18; Jn. 14:3; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). God promised to take believers to be with Him at the rapture. Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3). The Christian should live expecting the Lord to come at any moment. Our hope is knowing that what God has begun through Christ’s work on earth, He will complete at His return. The trials of this life are temporary and bring endurance despite difficult circumstances. God is in control, and knows what He’s doing.

What does Paul mean when he refers to Jesus rescuing us from “the coming wrath”? The same thought is in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, in the context of the “day of the Lord.” This is a coming time when God’s wrath will be poured out on the world (Mt. 24:4-26) immediately before His return in power and judgment (Mt. 24:27-31). When Christ returns at the rapture to take believers to heaven, He will rescue them from the tribulation that will occur between the rapture and His appearing (5:1-11; 2 Pt. 2:9; Rev. 3:10).

The Thessalonians imitated Paul and Christ and were good examples for other believers in Greece. They are also good examples for us. But are we a good example for others? Are we a help or a hindrance to those we meet? The gospel produced a radical change in these believers: a new faith – they followed God instead of idols; a new love – they served God; a new hope – they anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ; a new joy – they knew God was in control; and a new mission – spreading the gospel. God wants us to be like them.

Paul’s example (2: 1-12)

Paul preached in Thessalonica despite opposition from the Jewish leaders (2:2). Why did Paul persist in preaching the gospel to them despite its unpopularity? Paul says it was not for any of the three reasons given by the opposition (2:3-6). First, Paul was not a false teacher. He didn’t promote his private conviction, but instead preached God’s truth. Second, he didn’t encourage people to indulge in immoral behavior and do whatever they liked. Third, he did not deceive nor delude his hearers with fine words.

Then he told why they continued to preach even though it led to trouble: God had entrusted them with the gospel; It was God’s message, not theirs; They were not trying to please people but God; They knew that God’s opinion counted more than that of others.

Paul then countered two more reasons given by the opposition – flattery and greed. They never used flattery to influence others or to please people (2:5). They didn’t preach for money, even though they were entitled to support (1 Cor. 9:3-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-11). He said that God was his witness as only God can know our motives.

After dealing with the accusations against him, Paul gave more information about their behavior in Thessalonica (2:7-8). Paul’s team behaved like a nursing mother caring for her children. They were gentle, protective and loving. As a mother puts the interests of her baby ahead of her own interests, they put the interests of the Thessalonians ahead of their own. As a mother expends energy day and night for her baby, so they spent time and energy shepherding the Thessalonians. They cared about them individually. What a contrast to the false accusers!

Paul was a hard worker, a tentmaker by trade (2:9). He could have relied on the support of others, but he worked to pay his own expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding new believers, he was making and repairing tents. He worked so he wouldn’t be a burden to the poor and persecuted, and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.

Paul described their conduct in three ways (2:10). First, they were “holy” – set apart to God from sin. They had a good relationship with God. Second, they were “righteous” in character and conduct. Third, they were “blameless” towards God and people. This doesn’t mean they were sinless, but that they had confessed and knew that “God … tests our hearts” (2:4). Paul set a high standard of integrity. This is the standard of living that we should aim for; not one of wealth, but one of integrity. It is the pattern of life of those who desire to please God.

Paul also coached like a father (2:11-12). In that culture the wife did most of the nurturing and the husband was responsible for the training. Paul’s goal was that they “live lives worthy of God.” This training was one-on-one discipleship: “We dealt with each of you.” A father coaching and training his children would include three elements: “encouraging, comforting and urging.” True discipleship takes time and patience. To grow to spiritual maturity, a new Christian needs all of these elements of discipleship.

What can we learn from Paul? First, he was an apostle. While we don’t have apostles today, as they were the founders of the Christian Church (Eph. 2:20), we do have elders to provide leadership in the local church. Second, Paul was a preacher, particularly to the Gentiles. The mission to spread the gospel is a responsibility for all believers, especially those with the gift of evangelism. Third, Paul was a teacher who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. Elders, preachers and teachers can learn from Paul who said he was a servant to the Church (Col. 1:24-26). He worked hard to bring people to the Christian faith and to help them grow in it.

Is our lifestyle drawing people to Christ? Let’s follow Paul’s example and live lives worthy of God. His key message was the gospel. His motive was to please God. His manner of living was one of courage, gentleness, hard work and holiness. He showed love to new believers. He was bold, honest, full of integrity, and a toiler. His speech and behavior brought glory to God. The Thessalonians became model believers by imitating Paul’s example. Whether we are elders, preachers, teachers or servants, we can all imitate Paul.

Paul’s joy (2:17-3:13)

Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!

Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.

Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.

Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were obvious. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter. They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9).

When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically (3:10-13). He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.

In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually. Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.

Making disciples was Paul’s passion. Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?

Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong during suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?

Living to please God (4:1-12)

Although the Thessalonians were pleasing God, Paul urged them to do so more and more (4:1). The Christian life is one of continual progress. Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to please God. These are important instructions for those who claim to follow the Lord. (4:2). They show us the way to live for Him.

God’s will was that the Christians in Thessalonica be sanctified. Sanctification means being set apart for God. There are three phases to sanctification – positional (at salvation), progressive and perfect (in heaven). In this passage Paul addressed progressive sanctification in daily living – a process over time, not a single event. Paul then gave two examples of sanctification – avoiding sexual immorality and pursuing brotherly love (4:4-10). And he gave them three steps to avoid sexual immorality: control sexual desires (4:4); respect the rights of others (4:6); and listen to God and love one another (4:7-10).

This passage addresses the sin of sexual immorality in the Christian community. We live in a world where many don’t know God’s biblical guidelines. Sexual immorality is promoted in movies, television and magazines. But a Christian has a different standard. Because our natural functions need to be controlled, the Thessalonians were urged to control their sexual desires (4:4) instead of indulging in “passionate lust like the pagans” who don’t trust God. This should be one of the areas where a believer should differ, or be set apart from an unbeliever.

Our behavior affects others, so there is a need for boundaries if we are to continue to be friends. Paul wrote, “No one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister” (4:6a). Sexual sin harms others besides those who engage in it. Outside of marriage, there is no such thing as safe sex. In adultery, the spouse is wronged. Premarital sex wrongs one’s future spouse. Believers should respect others and not harm them by the consequences of sexual sin. “The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before” (4:6b).

We need boundaries if we are to maintain a good relationship with the Lord (4:7-10). Paul reinforced that this instruction was given by God and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. These are not Paul’s words, but God’s. He wants us to control ourselves and not fall into sin. The Holy Spirit lives within us to help us please God. Believers should follow His instruction about sexual sin.

Because our mission is to please God, we should avoid sexual immorality as it destroys the beauty of a sanctified and holy life. Sexual purity is the key to holiness. The three steps to achieve it are: controlling sexual desires, respecting the rights of others, and loving one another. Don’t follow your feelings; instead engage your mind and don’t give in to society’s sexual pressures.

Paul now changes the topic to love, and mentions two types of love. The first is the affection shared by brothers and sisters in a family – a heart love (phileo). The other is a deliberate decision to act in the interests of another – a love of the mind (agape). The relationships between believers should be driven by both loves. Our care and concern for each other is a Christian obligation, but it should be expressed with affection. It holds us together and attracts others to Christ.

Although the believers in Thessalonica loved one another and all believers in Macedonia, Paul urged them to do so “more and more.” He had already mentioned this earlier: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you” (3:12). Each day there are new challenges and opportunities to love one another. But how can we “love one another” daily?

Paul gave these believers three examples of loving one another (4:11-12). First, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Some who misunderstood the promise of Christ’s return were restless and panic-stricken. Others retaliated against persecution. He told them not to seek the limelight, live a life of selfish ambition or clamor for recognition, but to lead a peaceful life.

Second, he said, “mind your own business.” Some idle Thessalonians were taking undue interest in other people’s lives (2 Th. 3:11). He told them not to be busybodies who interfere in the lives of others in unnecessary, unhelpful ways. Idleness and meddling in the lives of others is incompatible with love.

Third, he said “work with your hands” to provide for your families (1 Tim. 5:8). Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they wouldn’t be a burden to others (2:9). Because of their belief in the imminent return of Christ, some in Thessalonica stopped working and relied on others for support. Two reasons were given by Paul for working: “to win the respect of outsiders” who were watching and judging Christianity and God’s Word by their behavior; and to “not be dependent on anybody”. Living quiet lives, minding our own business and earning a living are all acts of love.

The Rapture and the day of the Lord (4:13-5:11)

The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). But further teaching was needed on this topic. The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they miss Christ’s coming and His Millennial kingdom? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.

He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (4:13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care.

When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them to heaven with Jesus at the rapture (4:14).

The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the Greek word parousia (Strongs #3952). It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). So the Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once. When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth.

The sequence of future events can be inferred from the book of Revelation: at present the Church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); next is the Rapture, when Christ returns to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; then the Church is in heaven (Rev. 4-5); and the Tribulation is on earth (Rev. 6-18); followed by the appearing when Christ returns to earth in great power (Rev. 19); then the 1,000 year millennial kingdom (Rev. 20); and finally the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).

The Rapture (4:15-18) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever.

The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.

Likewise, the “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period (5:1-4). In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (5:2; Acts 2:20; 2 Pt. 3:10). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.

The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected (“like a thief in the night”), destructive (“destruction will come on them suddenly”) and inevitable (“and they will not escape”). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth. Paul likens it to the labor preceding birth. Once it starts birth follows soon after. So the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments. The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).

Paul said that there is a way of escape (5:4-5). The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,6,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments (5:9-10). Instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation. They will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.

Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled (5:6-8). We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.

Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord both conclude with: “Encourage one another” (4:18; 5:11). The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?

Living as a Christian (5:12-28)

Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church elders, other believers and God. The congregation was given two responsibilities about the elders (5:12-13). It was to “respect” them and “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else. Paul also encouraged them to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (5:23; Gal. 5:22).

Next Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. (5:14-15) We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-13). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that anyone “who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.

“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work. “Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. They need our encouragement, friendship and help.

Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else”. The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.

It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving (5:16-18). Paul began with “Rejoice always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.

Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.

“Do not quench the Spirit” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church (5:19-22). This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to follow Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and follow the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.

“Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful (5:23-24). Paul prayed that their (progressive) sanctification (holiness) would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul. It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.

After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him (5:25-28). Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.

Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.

Lessons for us

Let’s read the book of 1 Thessalonians when life is bleak and we are facing tough times. It reminds us: to be good examples for other believers by imitating Paul and Jesus Christ; to encourage and disciple others in the Christian faith; to please God by avoiding sexual immorality; to eagerly anticipate the second coming; and to have godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with church leaders, other believers and God. That’s how to keep following Jesus despite the difficulties of life.

The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven encourages those facing adversity and trials because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. This is important because it’s mentioned in each chapter of this letter (1:9-10; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:23-24). Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (5:10-11). And it’s one of the greatest motivations for Christian service.

Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus. May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.

Written, November 2016

Also see these posts on 1 Thessalonians:
Model believers
Paul’s example
Paul’s joy
Living to please God
The Rapture and the day of the Lord
Living as a Christian