Observations on life; particularly spiritual

New Testament

Mind the gap

gap-4-cropped-400px“Mind the gap” is a warning phrase to take caution while crossing the spacial gap between a train doorway and the station platform. It’s used by many train and rapid transport systems. This gap is wider at stations with curved platforms, which increases the likelihood of passengers or luggage falling into the gap between the train and the platform.

In this blogpost we look at the temporal gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today. We will see that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

According to scholars, the New Testament was written between AD 50 and AD 95. And most of the events described in the New Testament occurred between 5 BC and AD 65. But why was the New Testament written so long after the events it describes (up to about 65 years)?

Oral communication

The major way in which events and ideas were communicated in the ancient world was through the spoken word. It was an oral society. Many people were illiterate and writing materials were scarce. There were few books (scrolls) and they were very expensive to produce. So information was passed on by word of mouth and oral accounts were valued above written accounts.

In oral communication, the accuracy of a message received by a listener depends on the reliability of the speaker (sender) and the reliability of the information that the speaker wants to communicate. A reliable speaker tells the truth (instead of lying) and the information they communicate is more reliable if the speaker has access to the original source of the information, such as eyewitnesses.

A message can become unreliable if it passes through many intermediate speakers between the original speaker and the final listener. This is demonstrated in the telephone (Chinese whispers) game in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. What usually happens is that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player. Obviously, if a message (or story) has been retold by many people, some of it can change if people forget parts of what they are told.

But the telephone (Chinese whispers) game doesn’t apply to the New Testament, because the time period when it was communicated orally was less than 65 years, which is one lifetime, and not many lifetimes. I call the gap to the first written account of the New Testament “the memory gap”, because in this case the accuracy of the message is dependent on the accuracy of the messenger’s memory.

The memory gap

The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates who were eyewitnesses to the events they described.  An apostle had accompanied Jesus Christ during His 3-year ministry (from His baptism to His ascension) and had been with the other apostles when Christ was resurrected (Acts 1:21-22). So they knew Jesus very well. This means they had accurate source of the information.

The memory gap for the gospels is 30-55 years. Mark, Matthew and Luke were probably written in the AD 60s, and John about AD 85. Some skeptics claim that, even with eyewitnesses, memory isn’t trustworthy over that period of time and that all kinds of things can contaminate the message. But the accuracy of the New testament message is enhanced by the fact that:
– there were multiple witnesses. According to the Old Testament, there must be at least two witnesses to establish the truth in a court case (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). For example, the accounts of four separate witnesses are given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John).
– there were 12 apostles who could oversee (control) the accuracy of the message. In this was there was corporate control of the message.
– When it’s all you’ve got, memory works well. For example, children have good memories for stories and the words and tunes of songs.
– Memory works well if you have a stake in what took place. The apostles had a stake in the gospel message because they had given up everything else to follow Jesus and most of them were martyred for their Christian faith.
– Corporate repetition is important for retaining stories and memories. The Christian message was repeated at weekly church gatherings.

It seems as though the message in the gospels was put in writing when the eyewitnesses were near the end of their lives. This enabled an accurate record to be passed on to subsequent generations. In a eulogy children recollect events that occurred in their family up to 50 years earlier. When they do this, the gist of their accounts will be the same, although they will recollect different details. Likewise, the gospels have the same core message, but each writer records different details. Most alleged contradictions in the gospels are just minor variations in the account. One eyewitness will include a piece of information, while another one will leave it out. If the accounts were identical, then there could have been collusion or plagiarism.

As Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, he knew what had happened. So when he was writing letters between 50 and 66 AD (20 to 26 years later), he knew what he was writing about. Paul was probably converted a few years after the resurrection. He summarized the gospel as “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He received this message orally from other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19) and passed it on to others. That’s an example of oral communication.

Oral transmission was done very carefully in ancient times. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians “for following the teachings I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2NLT). These teachings were prescribed standards for Christian living.

The copy gap

The Bible is like a library (or anthology) – it’s a collection of books written by different authors. The text of each book was originally written on a manuscript (written be hand) called an “autograph”, which in the case of the Bible would have been a scroll. The memory gap is the period of time between the writing of the autograph and the events described in the autograph.

We don’t have the autograph (original manuscript) of most ancient documents. Instead we have copies that were made at a later time. Textural critics use the available copies to reconstruct the original autograph. I will refer to the time gap between a copy and the autograph, as the “copy gap”. Obviously, other things being equal, a longer copy gap provides more opportunity for copy errors to accumulate in the manuscript.

Ancient texts were written on papyrus scrolls which may have had a useful life of about 100 years (and up to 500 years in dry climates). However, some papyrus codices (books) from the third century AD survive today (such as the Chester Beatty Papyri written about AD 200). Between the late 3rd century and the 5th century AD, papyrus scrolls and codices were replaced by parchment pages in a codex (book). Parchment (or vellum; made from animal skins) was more durable and could have a lifetime of about 1,000 years. For example, marginal notes in the Codex Sinaiticus indicate that it was still being used by scholars about 300 years after it was written.

codex-vaticanus-2-400pxAccording to classical scholars, the oldest surviving complete copies of single New Testament books were written around AD 200, and the oldest surviving (nearly) complete copy of the New Testament, was written about AD 350 (see below). And the oldest surviving fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament were written in the second century AD (such as the John Rylands Papyrus written about AD 125). The fragments and books could be 1st and 2nd generation copies of the autograph, while the whole New Testament (copied in the mid 4th century AD) could be a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the autographs. It should be understood that “complete manuscript” when used by a textual critic does not necessarily mean 100% of it has survived. “Complete” is a technical term meaning that the manuscript has the beginning and end of the book in question. For example, a “complete copy of John” would be required to have John 1:1 and John 21:25 and substantial portions of those verses between.

It’s instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest complete manuscript) for other historical documents. The copy gap is about:
– 1,400 years for the Histories of Herodotus (written in the 5th century BC),
– 800 years for the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek (written about AD 90),
– 1,000 years for the Annals of Tacitus (written about AD 115),
– 750 years for the letters of Pliny the Younger (written AD 112),
– 700 years for the “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written AD 120).
It has been stated that the copy gap (for the oldest complete manuscript) for most non-biblical classical sources is about 700-1400 years.

On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap is about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was written in about 325-350 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in about 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for most other ancient historical documents.

The scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded, “The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant (complete) evidence becomes so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

Conclusion

An investigation of the gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today shows that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest complete manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

Appendix: Dating the New Testament

We can infer that most of the NT was written before AD 70, because there is no mention of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event was prophesied in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So these gospels were written before AD 70.

Also, the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD, which would have had a significant impact on the Christian community aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. So Acts was written before 64 AD, and Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1-2). This is consistent with Paul quoting from Luke in 1 Timothy (Lk. 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).

Most scholars agree that John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke because it seems to build on and supplement these. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John may be because the book was written 15-20 years later, when the shock had worn off. Also, church fathers thought that John wrote Revelation in about AD 95 (during Domitian’s reign over the Roman Empire).

Written, January 2017

Also see: Is the New Testament reliable?
Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.

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Is the New Testament reliable?

website-evaluation-2-400pxA US assistant professor of communication and media has compiled a list of about 134 unreliable news sites. The list has four categories of truthfulness. Category one includes fake, false or regularly misleading websites, which use distorted headlines or dubious information. Category two covers websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information. Category three is used for websites that employ clickbait-headlines, while category four covers sites that are purposefully fake with the intent of satire/comedy, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. The best thing to do to combat unreliable and untrustworthy web sites is to read/watch/listen widely and often, and to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.

I have received the following comment.
“Explain 1 john 5:7-8 and why roman church admittedly added this idolatry to the koine Greek original scriptures? Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers? Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus.
Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …Many people are now asking these questions.”

The commentator seems to be saying that the New Testament isn’t reliable. This post addresses the topics raised by the commentator and concludes that the New Testament is a reliable document.

Explanation of 1 John 5:7-8

6This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 Jn. 5:6-8NIV).

The author, the apostle John wrote this letter in about 90 AD to combat Gnostic heresy whose central teaching was that the spirit is good and matter is evil. Gnostics believed that the human body (being matter) is evil and God (being spirit) is good. Salvation is the escape from the body, which is achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge). They denied Christ’s humanity. Some believed that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before He died. This means that it was only the man Jesus who died.

John opposed this heresy by stressing that Jesus was truly divine and truly human (1 Jn. 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3; 5:1; 5:5). Then he says that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). Water probably symbolizes Christ’s baptism and blood symbolizes His death. Jesus was just as much Christ when He died as when He was baptized.

In verses 7-8 John mentions three sources of testimony for believing the divinity of Christ. These are the Holy Spirit, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s death. The witness of the Holy Spirit is the message of the apostles recorded in the New Testament. The witness at His baptism was when God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The witness of Christ’s substitutionary death is that it fully paid the penalty for our sins. No one took His life from Him; He gave it up by Himself. If He was only a man, He couldn’t have done this. All of these witnesses are united in their testimony of the divinity and work of Christ.

Addition to 1 John 5:7

A few very late manuscripts of the (Vulgate) Bible add to the end of v.7 “in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth”. Erasmus added these words about the trinity to later editions of his Greek New Testament under pressure from the Pope (they occur in the official Roman Catholic Latin Bible, the Vulgate). These words are included in the Textus Receptus Greek text (e.g. NKJV), but not in the Critical (e.g. most modern translations) or Majority Greek Texts. But this passage isn’t found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century AD (see Appendix A). Please note that the doctrine of the trinity does not rest upon this single passage because, as shown below, it is mentioned in many other Scriptures.

The commentator calls the late addition of the trinity to 1 John 5:7, “idolatry”. So is belief in the trinity of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the God Holy Spirit, Scripturally correct or heresy? Here’s what God says (2 Tim. 3:16) about this topic:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice (of God the Father) from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better” (Eph. 1:17).
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal (Holy) Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God (the Father), cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14).
“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:2).

As each of these seven Bible passages refer to the members of the trinity as being part of the triune God, the trinity is a fundamental belief of the Christian faith. So, it’s not idolatry to believe in the trinity. Instead, it’s heresy to claim to be a Christian and not believe in the trinity.

Other additions to the Bible

The commentator askes, “Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers?” The original manuscripts of the Bible are no longer in existence. What we do have is tens of thousands of copies of the original New Testament manuscripts dating from the 1st to the 15th centuries A.D. There are many more manuscripts than for any other ancient document and the oldest manuscripts are closer in time to the original than for all other documents. This means that the Bible is the most accurate document we have from antiquity. Yet historians believe the account of other ancient documents, which are not as reliable as the New Testament.

In these manuscripts, there are many minor differences. Textual criticism is the linguistic study of these manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original reading actually was. For example, see a discussion of Mark 16:9-20 in Appendix B. This is the only addition to the New testament that involves several verses. All the others only involve one or a few words. Consequently, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts.

It is important to keep in mind that even though there are textual variations in the Bible manuscripts, they are all of minor significance. None of the discrepancies affect the Bible’s crucial teachings. No significant Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variants. Even if all the “additional” verses were completely removed, the Bible’s message would not be altered.

The King James Bible was translated over 400 years ago and many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered since then. Many of the more recent discoveries are older than anything the KJV translators had access to and are considered more accurate. So, today’s Bible translators have the benefit of greater knowledge and better manuscripts than the translators of the KJV had in the early 1600s.

Contradictory or consistent?

The commentator also says, “Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus. Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …” These comments relate to the Jews, the Jewish laws, and alleges contradictions between different characters and authors of the New Testament. The answer depends on an understanding of the old Jewish covenant and the new Christian one. The Old Mosaic covenant applied until the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death. Jesus lived under this covenant and His ministry was to Jews, and not to Gentiles. So Jesus kept the old Mosaic covenant.

But the letter of James was written under the new covenant. James was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. James mentions some of the ten commandments (Jas. 2:8-13). But Christians are not under the law of Moses. Believers are delivered from the law and its penalty through Christ’s death. However, 9 of the 10 commandments are repeated in letters written to the church. They are not given as laws but as instructions in right living. And they affect one’s reward, but not one’s salvation. So it’s wrong to claim that James urges Christians to follow the laws of Moses. There is no record of him doing this. This means that he wasn’t belittled by Judaizers.

Like James, Paul’s letters were also written under the new covenant. That’s why he condemned those who were trying to live under the old covenant.

The main differences between James and Paul relate to the place and time of their ministry. James ministered in Jerusalem where there were more Jews than Gentiles and Paul ministered in countries around the Mediterranean Sea where there were more Gentiles than Jews. And James wrote in about 50 AD, whereas Paul wrote in about 50-68 AD.

Conclusion

If “many people are now asking these questions”, then they need to read these answers. Because of linguistic studies of the numerous ancient New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts. This means that it’s reliable and can be trusted.

When reading the New Testament it’s important to realize that the Christian church commenced after Christ’s death. So the books of Acts to Revelation cover Christianity, whereas the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe a period when the Jews were the people of God. So, the gospels record events under the old covenant and the change of covenant needs to be taken into account before we can apply their principles to the church today. When this is taken into account, and there is competent exegesis (interpretation), the messages brought by different characters and authors of the New testament are consistent and not contradictory.

Appendix A: NET Translation notes on the late addition to 1 John 5:7-8

This passage is found only in nine late manuscripts (mss), four of which have the words in a marginal note. Most of these mss (221 2318 [18th century] {2473 [dated 1634]} and [with minor variations] 61 88 429 629 636 918) originate from the 16th century; the earliest ms, codex 221 (10th century) includes the reading in a marginal note, added sometime after the original composition. The oldest ms with the passage in its text is from the 14th century (629), but the wording here departs from all the other mss in several places. The next oldest mss, 88 (12th century) 429 (14th) 636 (15th), also have the reading only as a marginal note. The remaining mss are from the 16th to 18th centuries. Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek ms until the 14th century (629), and that ms deviates from all others in its wording; the wording that matches what is found in the Textus Receptus (TR) was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the passage appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either ms, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until a.d. 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The reading seems to have arisen in a 4th century Latin sermon in which the text was allegorized to refer to members of the Trinity. From there, it made its way into copies of the Latin Vulgate, the text used by the Roman Catholic Church. The Trinitarian formula made its way into the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek NT (1522) because of pressure from the Catholic Church. After his first edition appeared, there arose such a furor over the absence of the passage that Erasmus needed to defend himself. He argued that he did not put in the passage because he found no Greek mss that included it. Once one was produced (codex 61, written in ca. 1520), Erasmus apparently felt obliged to include the reading. He became aware of this ms sometime between May of 1520 and September of 1521. In his annotations to his third edition he does not protest the rendering now in his text, as though it were made to order; but he does defend himself from the charge of indolence, noting that he had taken care to find whatever mss he could for the production of his text. In the final analysis, Erasmus probably altered the text because of politico-theologico-economic concerns: He did not want his reputation ruined, nor his Novum Instrumentum to go unsold. Modern advocates of the TR and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the passage on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings – even in places where the TR/Byzantine mss lack them. Further, these advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: Since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. (Of course, this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text.) In reality, the issue is history, not heresy: How can one argue that the passage goes back to the original text yet does not appear until the 14th century in any Greek mss (and that form is significantly different from what is printed in the TR; the wording of the TR is not found in any Greek mss until the 16th century)? Such a stance does not do justice to the gospel: Faith must be rooted in history. Significantly, the German translation of Luther was based on Erasmus’ second edition (1519) and lacked the passage. But the KJV translators, basing their work principally on Theodore Beza’s 10th edition of the Greek NT (1598), a work which itself was fundamentally based on Erasmus’ third and later editions (and Stephanus’ editions), popularized the passage for the English-speaking world.

Appendix B: NET Translation notes on the ending of the gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark ends at Mark 16:8 in some witnesses (א B 304 sys sams armmss Eus Eusmss Hiermss), including two of the most respected mss (א B). The following shorter ending is found in some manuscripts (mss): “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.” This shorter ending is usually included with the longer ending (L Ψ 083 099 0112 579 al); k, however, ends at this point. Most mss include the longer ending (vv. 9-20) immediately after v. 8 (A C D W [which has a different shorter ending between vv. 14 and 15] Θ Ë13 33 2427 Ï lat syc,p,h bo); however, Jerome and Eusebius knew of almost no Greek mss that had this ending. Several mss have marginal comments noting that earlier Greek mss lacked the verses, while others mark the text with asterisks or obeli (symbols that scribes used to indicate that the portion of text being copied was spurious). Internal evidence strongly suggests the secondary nature of both the short and the long endings. Their vocabulary and style are decidedly non-Markan (for further details, see TCGNT 102-6). All of this evidence strongly suggests that as time went on scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at v. 8. (Indeed, the strange variety of dissimilar endings attests to the probability that early copyists had a copy of Mark that ended at v. 8, and they filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. All of the witnesses for alternative endings to vv. 9-20 thus indirectly confirm the Gospel as ending at v. 8.) Because of such problems regarding the authenticity of these alternative endings, 16:8 is usually regarded as the last verse of the Gospel of Mark. There are three possible explanations for Mark ending at 16:8: (1) The author intentionally ended the Gospel here in an open-ended fashion; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the last leaf of the ms was lost prior to copying. This first explanation is the most likely due to several factors, including (a) the probability that the Gospel was originally written on a scroll rather than a codex (only on a codex would the last leaf get lost prior to copying); (b) the unlikelihood of the ms not being completed; and (c) the literary power of ending the Gospel so abruptly that the readers are now drawn into the story itself. E. Best aptly states, “It is in keeping with other parts of his Gospel that Mark should not give an explicit account of a conclusion where this is already well known to his readers” (Mark, 73; note also his discussion of the ending of this Gospel on 132 and elsewhere). The readers must now ask themselves, “What will I do with Jesus? If I do not accept him in his suffering, I will not see him in his glory.”

Written, December 2016

Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us
Mind the gap


Songs in the Bible

Singing 2 400pxSinging is good for you. It can have physical and psychological benefits and help you to feel good. Singing improves the memory and can alleviate depression. It involves the mind, the emotions and the body. It’s been said that, “Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought”. In ancient times, when few people could read or write, stories were passed down through song, because songs are memorable.

Group singing has three benefits. It enables the expression of our emotions, which can increase our confidence. It requires a flexible mind in order to make the correct sounds, which can make us more creative and adaptable to life’s challenges. And it connects us socially to others with a common purpose. So group singing can enhance our wellbeing.

In this post we look at some songs in the Bible. We know that Jesus sang with His disciples and Paul and Silas sang in prison (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26; Acts 16:15). And there are songs throughout the Bible.

About one third of the Bible is poetry. For example, the Wisdom books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs and the Prophetic books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations are all poetic. Some of these poems are the lyrics of songs. For example, Psalms, Song of Songs and Lamentations. There are 150 songs in the book of Psalms. It was the Israelites song book. They must have been passionate singers. In all, there are about 185 songs mentioned in the Bible. Let’s look at a few of them.

The first song – after a great victory

The first song mentioned in the Bible happens after one of its greatest miracles. God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea, allowing them to escape from Pharaoh’s army. When the Egyptians pursue them, the sea flows back over them, washing away their chariots and horsemen. Not one of them survived. This was a display of God’s power over nature and a picture of salvation.

What was the people’s response? The Bible says, “when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him and in Moses His servant” (Ex. 14:31NIV). They then had a great celebration that included music, singing and dancing. It was like after victory in battle (1 Sam. 18:6-7; 2 Sam. 1:20). The lyrics of the song they sang are in the Bible. It had five parts.

The chorus is (Ex. 15:1, 21):
“Sing to the Lord,
for He is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
He has hurled into the sea”
Here they are summarizing and praising God for what He had done.

Who God is (v.2-3). They praise God as a strong warrior and say “He is my God”.

What God has done (v.4-12). They retell the defeat of the powerful Egyptian army. How they “drowned in the Red Sea”. Only their God had such power.

What God would do in future (v. 13-17). They predict that God will lead them in the conquest and occupation of Canaan. When the Edomites, the Philistines and the Canaanites hear what God had done, they would be terrified. This was later confirmed by Rahab (Josh. 2:9-11).

Conclusion (v.18). “The Lord reigns for ever and ever”. His powerful rule is eternal.

So the first song in the Bible celebrated a great military victory over their enemies. The lesson for us is that as God delivered the Israelites from slavery, through Jesus He can deliver us from the slavery of our sinfulness.

The last song – anticipates a great victory

The last song mentioned in the Bible happens in heaven when there is a time of great tribulation on earth. It’s sung by those who were martyred for their faith in God. They sang the song “of Moses and of the Lamb”.
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev. 15:3-4).

The song is comprised of quotations from the Old Testament. The context is God’s judgement of the ungodly. Those martyred in the tribulation are celebrating God’s coming victory over the ungodly. When Jesus returns in power and glory, He will right the wrongs on our world (2 Th. 1:6-9). Justice will be administered by our mighty God (“Lord God almighty”) over all the nations (He’s “King of the nations”).  He is unique (“You alone are holy”). And in the millennial kingdom, He will be worshipped by all nations.

Because of His sacrificial death, Jesus is worthy to execute judgment, as described earlier in Revelation in the new song also sung in heaven:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).

So the last song in the Bible celebrates the final victory over Satan and those who oppose God. They anticipate deliverance from the presence of sin. The lesson for us is that in future all the wrongs and injustice in our world will be made right through Jesus and justice will be done.

The longest song – All about the Bible

Psalm 119 is a massive acrostic poem of 176 verses. There are 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Moreover, the eight verses in each stanza begin with the same Hebrew letter.

The theme of Psalm 119 is the Hebrew Bible which is called by names such as: “law”, “statutes”, “precepts”, “commands”, “laws”, “decrees”, “word”, and “promise”. It’s mentioned in almost every verse. For example, Psalm 119:89-96 can be titled “God’s enduring word”:
89 Your word, Lord, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens.
90 Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
you established the earth, and it endures.
91 Your laws endure to this day,
for all things serve you.
92 If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.
93 I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have preserved my life.
94 Save me, for I am yours;
I have sought out your precepts.
95 The wicked are waiting to destroy me,
but I will ponder your statutes.
96 To all perfection I see a limit,
but your commands are boundless.

This stanza begins by saying that God’s word is eternal and ends by saying that it’s boundless. So, God’s word is a reliable enduring foundation for our faith. God also established and sustains creation. Through exposure to the Scriptures we can be saved from the penalty of sin. Peter wrote, “you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pt. 1:23). An acquaintance with God’s word reminds us to confess our sins a daily basis in order to maintain our relationship with God (1 Jn. 1:9).

So the longest song in the Bible celebrates God’s word, which is available to us in the Bible. The heading that I’ve given it is “All about the Bible”. It’s about how important the Bible is and how it can guide and help us in our daily life. The lesson for us is that we can trust God’s unchanging word.

The shortest song – God keeps His promises

The two shortest songs in the Bible, which are comprised of five Hebrew words, are in 2 Chronicles.

After Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem (about 958 BC), the priests carried the ark of the covenant into the Most Holy Place of the temple. Then “Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang:
‘He is good;
His love endures forever’
Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2 Chr. 5:13-14). So they celebrated the ark’s transfer from the tabernacle to the temple with this song. God had kept His promise to bring them into the Promised Land.

About 100 years later, Jehoshaphat was king of Judah (860 BC). When the Moabite and Ammonite armies came to attack, Jehoshaphat prayed to God for help. He was told to go to the pass of Ziz near the end of the gorge in the desert of Jeruel. “You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (2 Chr. 20:17).

Early the next morning they set out and Jehoshaphat “appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise Him for the splendor of His holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:
‘Give thanks to the Lord,
for His love endures forever’” (2 Chr. 20:21).
So the army was led by the singers! As they began to sing and praise God, the Lord caused the enemy to kill themselves. So the Israelites showed they trusted God to deliver them from their enemies by singing this song.

A verse based on these two short songs occurs six times in the Bible (1 Chr. 16:34; Ps. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1). It says,
“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
His love endures forever”.
Two reasons are given to give thanks to the Lord. First, “He is good”. That’s a part of God’s nature. Second “His love endures forever”. Under the old covenants, God promised to love the Israelites (Dt. 7:8-9, 12-13; 23:5; 2 Sam. 7:15). So this covenant love never ends. It goes on and on.

The last sentence of this verse, “His love endures for ever” occurs 43 times in the Bible. 26 of these are in Psalm 136 where it is repeated as a chorus or refrain. Under the old covenant, the Israelites knew that God loved them eternally.

So the shortest songs in the Bible reminded God’s Old Testament people that God keeps His promises and He helps them. Today Christians live under the new covenant of God’s grace. Likewise, He will keep His promises to us and help us as His New Testament people.

Summary

Songs are a powerful way to express our Christian faith and to remind us of what God has done for us.

The first and last songs in the Bible are songs of deliverance from enemies and the ungodly. They are songs of salvation. So let’s sing songs of Jesus as our Savior and Redeemer.

The longest song in the Bible emphasised the importance of God’s word. Let’s use the Bible to guide and help us in our daily life. So let’s sing songs that remind us of Scriptural events and Scriptural truths.

The shortest songs in the Bible were reminders of God’s covenants with His people. So let’s sings songs about God’s promises to us.

Christians are told to sing “to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16). So, let’s “Give thanks to the Lord (our Creator and Redeemer), for He is good; His love (shown by Christ’s sacrifice) endures forever”.

Written, April 2016


What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?

Sabbath vs Lord's DayI have received the following comment about a post on whether Christians should gather together on the Sabbath day.

I am so disturbed to learn that we as Christians have decided that the Sabbath which was commanded by God can be dealt away with. There is nowhere in scripture we are told to change that. In face Jesus says if you love me follow my commandments. There was no new commandment set by Jesus to abandon the sabbath. He said I came to do my fathers will. Sunday worship comes from Rome and the worship of Roman gods. The same goes for Christmas and Easter. All these are pagan celebrations which has infiltrated the church. The true Christians under Paul and Peter never celebrated anything besides preaching on the Sabath. In the book of Revelation, John declares he saw seven golden candle sticks, a symbol from the old testament and Christ was in the midst of this. The God, Yahweh has never changed and will never changed. His laws remains the same till the end of time. I truly believe its satan worship if we tell Christains to worship on Sunday’s and don’t follow the laws of God. That’s against everything God stands for, if you love me keep my commandments. Which commandments? We still obey the laws because we Gentiles are the spiritual Israelites, but our path way salvation is Christ not just obeying the Law. I dont understand why anyone will teach this to the Christian world that you can disobey the Creator because of what man has decided it’s the new religion. Wake up and come out of Babylon, we are called by God and not by man. There if God says 7th day is the week is the day of worship, nothing changes because Yahweh doesn’t change. The first day of the week is the worship of the Sun God, do some research and you will know Constantine started this with the Roman Church. You cannot change God’s Law or command. Jesus said I came to fulfill, not to change. Jesus said I came to do my fathers will. So there is no where Sunday worship was instituted and declared the Holy Day of the Lord. Brother George ask the Holy Spirit for deep teaching and insight so you don’t deceive his children. Shalom

This post is based on a survey of the instances when the Sabbath day (7th day of the week) is mentioned in the New Testament between Acts and Revelation inclusive. These are the books of the Bible that apply to the Christian church, which began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In the previous books of the Bible (Exodus to John), the Israelites (or Jews) are God’s special people on earth who are commanded to obey the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath). Because there is no Jewish temple (with altars for sacrifices) or priesthood, today it is impossible to practice the Mosaic covenant as it was followed in the Old Testament.

We will see that the model given in Scripture for the early church was for Sunday observance, which was different to the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance.

In this post we look at whether the instances of Sabbath day observance between Acts and Revelation are a command, a model to follow or merely a report of events. Instances of Sunday (1st day of the week) observance will be considered in the same way so the two can be compared.

Is Sabbath day observance 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 worth following today.

Sabbath observance commanded

I am not aware of any command to observe the Sabbath day between Acts and Revelation in the Bible. It is interesting to note that the other nine of the ten commandments given to Moses are repeated as commandments for Christians in this portion of Scripture, but the 4th commandment isn’t. Also, when they joined the early church which was largely Jewish, the Gentile Christians weren’t commanded to keep the Sabbath (Acts 15:19-20). Furthermore, Sabbath breaking is never mentioned as a sin in this portion of the Bible.

But if Sabbath observance isn’t commanded for the church, is it modelled?

Sabbath observance modelled

During his first missionary journey, Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch on two Sabbath days (Acts 13:14-49), but the message was rejected by the Jews. Then Paul preached to the Gentiles and they accepted the message. Paul and Barnabas left this town when they were expelled by the Jewish leaders (Acts 13:50-51).

During his second missionary journey, at Philippi Paul went outside the city gate to the river on the Sabbath day, where he expected to find a place of prayer (Acts 16:13-15). Paul must have preached there because Lydia responded to his message. But Paul and Silas had to leave this town after they were imprisoned. According to the NIV Study Bible, there were so few Jews in Philippi that there was no synagogue (ten married men were required), so the Jews who were there met for prayer along the banks of the Pangites river. It was customary for such places of prayer to be located outdoors near running water.

Next Paul visited Thessalonica where: “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:2-4). After this the Jewish leaders forced them to leave the city.

When Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18:4-5NIV). But when the Jews opposed him and became abusive, Paul went next door and preached to the Gentiles.

So on his missionary trips Paul had a custom of visiting synagogues on the Sabbath. Why did he do this? What did he do there? From the four accounts summarized above we see that he preached that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament. Paul kept on doing this until he was forced to leave because of Jewish opposition. Then he preached to the Gentiles. So the purpose of this custom was to preach the message about Jesus to the Jews because they knew about the Old Testament. Paul only went to the synagogue on the Sabbath because there was an audience there for his message.

What is the example for us to follow? It is about preaching about Jesus whenever there is an opportunity and not about observing the Jewish Sabbath day. The other main occurrence of preaching to the Jews was Peter’s address on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). This was on a Sunday because the day of Pentecost was the 50th day after the after the Sabbath of Passover week (Lev. 23:15-16). So the apostles preached whenever the Jews were gathered together, whether it was on the Sabbath or on Sunday. The day of the week they preached wasn’t important to them.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the early church met on the Sabbath. The meetings that Paul attended on the Sabbath during his missionary journeys were meetings of Jews held in a synagogue.

But if Sabbath observance isn’t commanded or modelled for the church, is it reported?

Sabbath observance reported

I am not aware of any other verses between Acts and Revelation in the Bible that are related to observance of the Sabbath day. The only other occasions the Sabbath is mentioned are in Colossians and Hebrews.

Paul prohibits Christians being condemned for not following particular food or drink regulations and for not observing particular religious activities that are held on an annual, monthly or weekly basis: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16-17NIV). The examples given in this passage are arranged in the order of annual, monthly, and weekly. From Numbers 28:9-25 it is clear that the religious festivals were the annual Jewish festivals (such as the Passover), the New Moon celebration was the monthly Jewish offering, and the Sabbath day was the weekly Jewish Sabbath. As Christ has come, there is no value in keeping these things that foreshadowed His coming. Observance of these holy days is no longer required. Today we celebrate the reality, not the shadows.

Also, the “Sabbath-rest” in Hebrews 4:1-11, is different to the Sabbath day. This is the spiritual rest of salvation through faith in Christ (Heb. 11:2-3) that is likened to the physical rest of the Sabbath. Christians rest in the completed work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-30).

How does this compare with what the New Testament says about Sunday observance?

Is Sunday observance a command, a model or a report?

Sunday observance commanded

I am not aware of any command to observe Sunday (the 1st day of the week) between Acts and Revelation in the Bible.

But if Sunday observance isn’t commanded for the church, is it modelled?

Sunday observance modelled

When they visited Troas during Paul’s third missionary journey, Luke reported “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight” (Acts 20:7). In the previous verse it says that they stayed in Troas for seven days. Although he was in a hurry to travel to Jerusalem over the next month Paul seems to have waited until he could meet with the local church when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:6, 16). This is the most likely meaning of the saying “we came together to break bread”. It didn’t mean an ordinary meal, because they would have had these during the rest of the week and because Paul preached and taught as well. The Lord’s Supper and the apostles’ teaching, which are mentioned on this occasion, were two of the corporate activities of the early church (Acts 2:42). Therefore, the statement in the comment that “The true Christians under Paul and Peter never celebrated anything besides preaching on the Sabbath” is false.

Was this an unusual farewell meeting, and not necessarily indicative of normal practice? The fact that Paul spoke to midnight was probably unusual as the reason given for this is “because he intended to leave the next day”. But there is nothing in the passage to indicate that their celebration of the Lord’s supper was unusual or that Paul speaking after this celebration was unusual. In fact the prime reason given for meeting together on Sunday was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. There is a spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper and Sunday – the former symbolizes Christ’s death and the latter His resurrection.

So it seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians to gather together on the first day of the week in order to observe the Lord’s Supper and carry out other corporate activities.

When Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth he urged them to support needy believers in Jerusalem, “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:1-2).

Paul doesn’t say exactly how this money is collected, “set aside” or saved up. The Greek noun translated “collection” (Strongs #3048) only occurs I these two verses and none other in the Bible. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, in this context it means “money collected for the poor”. The passage seems to promote systematic giving. There was to be a collection each week so that the amount could accumulate over time and there would be no need for a collection when Paul came. So it was a corporate collection, not one done individually (if it was individual, there would need to be a collection when Paul came). If Paul wanted the collection to be done “at home” he could have included this phase as in 1 Corinthians 11:34; 14:35. This means that the finances of the early church were centralized as they were amongst the apostles when Jesus was on earth (Jn. 12:6; 13:29). So it seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians when they gathered together on the first day of the week to collect money from each other to support the needy.

Although Sunday observance is modelled for the church, is it reported elsewhere?

Sunday observance reported

I am not aware of any other verses between Acts and Revelation in the Bible that are related to Sunday observance. The only other possible mention of the first day of the week was when John said he saw a vision of Christ “on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). The only other occurrence of this Greek adjective (Strongs #2960) in Scripture is a reference to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20). According to the NIV Study Bible, “The Lord’s Day” is a technical term for the first day of the week because Jesus rose from the dead on that day. It could indicate that John and the early church treated Sunday in a special way among all days.

Some think that Romans 14:5-6 addresses Sabbath or Sunday observance, but there is no evidence of this from the context of this passage.

Sabbath observance and Sunday observance compared

We have seen that the Greek noun for Sabbath (Strongs #4521) is associated with Paul preaching in the synagogue. It’s an example of Paul adapting to the customs of the Jews in order to win them to the Lord. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law” (1 Cor. 9:19-20).

On the other hand, the phrase “the first day of the week” (Strong’s #1520 and #4521) is associated with gathering together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7). This phrase is also linked in the gospels with Christ’s resurrection (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk.24:1; Jn. 20:1). So the resurrection of Christ seems to be the reason why the early church met on Sunday and this practice has continued down through the ages. Of course Christians can meet on other days of the week as the Bible doesn’t prohibit this. But there is no spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper (and His resurrection) and the Sabbath day.

I am not aware of any command given between Acts and Revelation in the Bible to the early church to observe either the Sabbath day or Sunday. There is no biblical command that either Saturday or Sunday be a day of worship.

It seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians to gather together on the first day of the week in order to observe the Lord’s Supper and to carry out other corporate activities including collecting money from each other to support the needy. But it’s not a day of rest or a holy day like the Sabbath was for the Jews. The only Christian practice in the Bible that’s related to the Sabbath is preaching about Jesus whenever there is an opportunity. As one of the opportunities was when Jews gathered on the Sabbath, that was when Paul preached (until he was rejected by the Jewish leaders). There is no model to follow for the church to meet on the Sabbath. It was only the Jews who held their services on the Sabbath.

Conclusion

A study of the portion of the Bible written about and to the early church (Acts to Revelation, inclusive) shows evidence for Sunday observance of the Lord’s supper and other corporate activities by Christians, but there is no evidence of Sabbath observance.

So the model given in Scripture for the early church was for Sunday observance, which was different to the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance.

Written, September 2015

Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God what does the Bible say about this topic?
The Sabbath day difference between Jesus and Paul
Why the new covenant is better
Is insistence on Sabbath-keeping legalism?


Understanding the Bible

Bonjour!

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

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

A divine message

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

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

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

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

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

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

The method

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

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

 

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

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

The original meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original principles

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

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

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

What has changed since then?

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

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

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

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

The modern principles

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

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

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

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

The modern applications

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the Lessons for us?

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

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

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

Au revoir!

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

Written, June 2014


A change of mind

u turnWhat does it take to change your mind about something? Did you know that Jesus’ bothers changed their mind about Him? They did a u-turn from opposition to attraction.

Opposition

Jesus had at least four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and at least two sisters (Mt. 13:55-56; Mk. 6:3). They had the same mother, but not the same father. It was a Jewish family, Mary is a shortened form of Miriam, Jesus’ Hebrew name was Joshua, James’ Hebrew name was Jacob, and Judas’ Hebrew name was Judah.

Jesus was popular and many people followed Him, but His brothers thought he was insane and mentally ill (Mk. 3:21-22). This is consistent with others who thought He was demon possessed (Mk. 3:22; Jn. 10:20). After crowds came when he healed many people, His brothers travelled from Nazareth to Capernaum “to take charge of Him” (Mk. 3:21). They may have thought he brought shame and embarrassment to the family. John said that “even His own brothers did not believe in Him” (Jn. 7:5). They didn’t believe He was the promised Messiah. Instead they were deeply offended and refused to believe in Him when He preached (Mt. 13:57; Mk. 6:3-4). So He was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth and in His own home.

Even at His death Jesus entrusted the care of His mother, Mary, to His disciple John instead to His half brothers (Jn.19:26-27). It seems as though the brothers still didn’t believe in Him at this time.

Attraction

The next reference in Scripture to Christ’s brothers is after His resurrection when the believers who gathered together to pray included, “Mary the mother of Jesus, and … His brothers” (Acts 1:14). Here we see that the brothers had changed their mind about Jesus and had joined His disciples. What caused the change?

Look at what happened before this time: Christ had died, was buried, resurrected back to life and ascended to heaven. The Lord had appeared to the disciples twice after His resurrection (Jn. 20:19-23, 26-29). The “disciples” present at this time behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders may have included the women and the Lord’s brothers. Also, a special appearance by Jesus to James would have impacted James (1 Cor. 15:7).

After this the Lord’s brothers were preachers like Paul and the apostles (1 Cor.  9:5). James became an elder in the church at Jerusalem and wrote the book of James (Gal. 1:19; Jas. 1:1) and Judas probably wrote the book of Jude (Jude 1).

So Jesus’ brothers changed their mind radically about Him when they understood who He was and what He had done. Have we?

Written, February 2014


Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Roman slave & masterElevated status for Christian slaves

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

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

Philemon and Onesimus

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

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

Equal before God

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

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

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

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

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

Christian slaves and workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian masters and team leaders

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Lessons for us

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

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

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

Written, April 2013