I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You could say, I’m a skeptic! But what if I don’t believe that Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and Christopher Columbus were real people? That they were myths as well.
Also, what if I don’t believe that people who lived longer ago like William Shakespeare (AD 1600) and Muhammad (AD 600) were real people? And what if I don’t believe that Jesus (AD 30) existed? That He’s a myth made up by Christians.
According to a survey in 2015, 22% of people in England thought that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while another 17% were unsure whether He was real or not. The remaining 61 % said Jesus was a real person who actually lived. It was found that younger people are the most skeptical about Jesus’s existence.
What is a “myth”?
In everyday language, the term “myth” is given to stories, ideas or beliefs that are false and not true. They are unreal or imaginary stories that may be called “legend”, “fiction”, “fairy tale”, “folklore”, or “fable”. But academic scholars use “myth” as a synonym for a story with a symbolic message that used to be believed as true, but now there are no implications on the truthfulness of the story. In this post I’m using the everyday usage of the word “myth”, not the academic one.
Let’s look at two skeptical views about Jesus.
Skeptical views about Jesus
Christ myth theory.
Some people claim that Jesus is a mythical character, and not a historical person. He never existed. He was made up by the early church which wrote the New Testament. They conclude this from the following beliefs:
– Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence.
– We don’t have any original manuscripts of the New Testament.
– The genre of the gospels may be legendary fiction instead of ancient biography.
– The Gospels and other early Christian writings cannot be verified as independent sources, and may have all stemmed from a single original fictional account.
– All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus – so it’s all unreliable hearsay. No eyewitness accounts survive.
Mainstream historical view
Others say that Jesus of Nazareth did exist but He had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. They believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He didn’t do miracles. The miracles were made up by Christians afterwards and written in the Bible. The life of Jesus was embellished like St Nicholas became Santa Claus.
We will now evaluate these two skeptical views about Jesus. Do they match the evidence or not?
Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered. But the existence of someone in history is often easily established on the basis of small textual samples, sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence. For example, my great grandfather Richard Hawke is in a list of people living on the goldfields at Hill End near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1867. This is listed in a book that was published 109 years later in 1976 (“Valleys of gold” by Brian Hodge).
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem). And Palestine was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for evidence of Jesus that is independent of the Bible is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
About 80 years after Christ’s death, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote (“Annals”, 15, 44, AD 115-117): “They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home”.
The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July AD 64. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) accused the Christians of starting the fire and he persecuted them.
Josephus is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in AD 71 where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around AD 93 (about 60 years after the death of Jesus).
A passage in Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day”.
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period.
A passage in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at AD 62. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier.
Summary of Roman and Jewish literature
These two non-Christian historians are independent historical sources, one Roman and one Jewish. What do they say about Jesus?
– He was a Jewish man named Jesus and Christ (in Greek) who lived in Judea.
– He had a brother named James.
– He had a reputation for doing unusual works (possibly miracles)
– He won over both Jews and Greeks (but most of this happened after His death).
– He was sentenced by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion during Tiberius’s reign. The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus in this way.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
– Both Jewish and Roman leaders were hostile towards Jesus and Christians.
So, hostile Jewish and Roman witnesses show that Jesus is a historical figure, and not a myth. This means that the first skeptical view that Jesus never existed is debunked. It is a myth itself!
In 2013 Time magazine had an article on “the 100 most significant figures in history”. They ranked them like Google ranks web pages. They said that historically significant people leave evidence of their presence behind. The top rank went to Jesus, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. So Jesus left an impact in our world. One indication of this is that the years in our calendar are dated from when He was born. Mythical figures don’t leave such an impact. Another indication is the growth of the church despite persecution.
We will now evaluate the second skeptical view that doesn’t believe Jesus did miracles.
Historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles
Now we’ve established that Jesus existed, the question is “did He do miracles?”. Is the only evidence of these in the New Testament that was written by Christians? No! The Christian message was offensive to both the Jews and the Romans. They attacked Christianity by saying that Jesus was a real wonder-worker who made blasphemous claims to divine authority.
Jesus was regarded by the Jews of His day as a person who possessed supernatural powers. According to Justin Martyr, they said that Christ’s miracles “was a display of magic art, for they (Jews) even dared to say that he (Jesus) was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (Justin Martyr, AD 160). They executed Him for sorcery and said His power to do miracles was Satanic.
According to Celsus, an anti-Christian Greek Philosopher, “Jesus performed His miracles by sorcery” (“The true word”, about AD 180). And, “because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of those powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God…”.
“These were the actions of one hated by God and a wicked sorcerer…”
Celsus treated Jesus as a person who was a dangerous con-artist like a conjuror or illusionist. He considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.
So both hostile Jews and Greeks acknowledged that Jesus had miraculous powers. And they said that these were magical, Satanic and deceptive.
Were the gospels fabricated?
Some skeptics claim that the gospels were fabricated after Christ’s death and aren’t reliable accounts of what actually happened. But you wouldn’t expect the following in the gospels if they were fabricated:
– Mathew was written by a tax collector and Jews hated these.
– A key event, the resurrection of Christ, was revealed first to women who had low status in society at that time. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days.
– No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, and Christians wouldn’t invent such a horrific ending for their leader.
– There are multiple accounts of the life of Jesus in the gospels with variations between them.
– The embarrassing parts would probably have been deleted: Jesus’ baptism by John (Mk. 1:4-11), His family believing He was out of His mind (Mk. 3:21), His ignorance of the time of His own return (Mk. 13:32), His not doing miracles in some places (Mt. 13:58), and Jesus calling Peter Satan (Mt. 16:23).
– Why would the apostles invent so many miracle stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
– Why would the apostles invent a religion that caused them painful humiliating deaths?
The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events they described and the associates would have obtained information from eyewitnesses. Scholars think that the “memory gap” between the events described in the gospels and their documentation is about 30-55 years. There are variations between the gospels. This is because there are multiple witnesses and multiple writers. And like in real life, there are variations between the accounts (each records different aspects and details) but they have the same core message and they are consistent with each other. It’s a bit like children recalling events from their childhood for a parent’s eulogy.
Let’s look at the “copy gap” (between the original document and the oldest manuscript available today) for some historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in AD 300-325 and Codex Sinaiticus in AD 330-360. 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 these other Roman and Jewish historical documents. In this way, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is stronger than that for most other people of the ancient world.
Do we have an open mind?
I’ve presented some evidence, but whether you believe it depends whether you have an open mind or not. Our presuppositions can override the evidence in order to inevitably conclude what was presupposed from the start. That’s circular reasoning! In such cases our assumptions and beliefs largely determine our findings and interpretation of these. If we have already made up our minds, no evidence will change them.
Let’s look at some people who investigated Jesus with an open mind.
CS Lewis was Irish and became an atheist in his early teenage years. He graduated from Oxford University with triple First Class Honors in Classics, Philosophy and English. And he wrote many books. His mother died when he was 10 years old, he had been unhappy at school, and he experienced trench warfare during the First World War. But after spending some years with Christian colleagues at Oxford University, at 30 years of age he became a Christian. He realized that atheists don’t have an open mind because they deny the supernatural and therefore the existence of God. They don’t even consider this possibility. But if God exists, then surely the Creator can intervene in His creation. He can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of disease, or conquer death in ways we consider to be miraculous. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “Mere Christianity”.
Lee Strobel trained at Yale Law School and was an avowed atheist. He was a legal journalist for 14 years. After his wife’s conversion, he began investigating the Biblical claims about Christ. After a nearly two-year investigation, he became a Christian at the age of 29 years. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “The case for Christ”.
Jennifer Fulwiler was an atheist blogger. But she came to realize her mind was closed to ideas that didn’t fit into her atheist worldview. At the birth of her first child the only way her atheist mind could explain the love that she had for him was to assume it was the result of nothing more than chemical reactions in her brain. Then she realized that’s not true! She found that the Christian worldview had the best rational explanation for the world in which we live. She writes a blog called “Conversion Diary”.
Warner Wallace was a homicide detective. He was an atheist, but reading the gospels changed his life. After he saw that they were accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, he became a Christian. He stresses that as detectives need to be open minded by avoiding presuppositions, so should we. And the highest standard for prosecution is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond every possible doubt”. This is because they are dealing with history, not observational science or mathematics. Wallace writes a blog called “Cold case Christianity”.
This evidence from an author, a journalist, a blogger and a detective shows that when people investigate Jesus with an open mind, they are convinced that He did the things described in the Bible.
Lessons for us
We have seen that Jesus is a historical person and not an imaginary figure. The evidence is overwhelming. And that He wasn’t an ordinary person. He did miracles and founded Christianity that has spread across the world. Also, the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and not something fabricated by early Christians. And people with an open mind will agree with this finding.
Do you have an open mind about Jesus? Have you read about Him in the gospels? Do you think He is a great moral teacher, but don’t accept his claim to be God? In that case, Jesus would be a liar. Why would a person willingly die under an accusation they knew wasn’t true? Or do you think He was deluded? That He had a mental illness? Then why would the apostles give up their lives for such a person? The only other option is that He was the person who He claimed to be and who He demonstrated to be by His miracles, the divine Son of God.
And if Jesus existed and did the things that history says He did and He’s alive today as the Son of God, then what must change in our lives today?
Why did Jesus come?
Jesus coming to earth is a bit like us becoming an ant in order to talk to the ants. Or us becoming an amoeba or bacteria to communicate with them. It’s amazing! It’s even more amazing because Jesus made and sustains the world He entered! The Creator and Sustainer became a creature at the same time.
Jesus came to earth so we can have spiritual life. A life connected with God now. A life that is connected with God forever. That’s called eternal life. He did it to solve the problem of our rebellion against God. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Noah’s generation rebelled against God. The people of Babel rebelled against God. The Israelites rebelled against God. The Jews and Romans killed the Son of God. And we ignore God. He’s not in our calendar! The Bible says that we all rebel against God and that’s what separates us from Him (Rom. 3:23). We’re all guilty of wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? The Bible gives examples and our conscience can guide us (Rom. 2:15). The consequence of our guilt is to be separated from God.
Jesus solved the problem of our rebellion against God by taking our punishment when He was executed by crucifixion. He substituted for us. No one else could have done this because everyone else is a rebel and is separated from God themselves. Only Jesus could do this because He is the Son of God who is always in contact with God the Father.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:15-16NLT). Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God”. Can you say that as well? If we recognize that we can’t get right with God ourselves because of our rebellion, and that as the Son of God, Jesus has done all that is needed for us to get right with God, then the Bible says that the barrier between us and God comes down and we are no longer separated from Him. We come near to God. We become spiritually alive. If you want to get right with God, pray to Him about it and speak about it to a Christian today.
Jesus described eternal life as follows: “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up (be crucified), so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:14-17NLT).
Here we see that Jesus was on a rescue mission. Just as the Israelites could be healed of snakebite by looking at the bronze snake on a pole, which changed their status from dying to being alive, our separation from God can be removed by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. We become spiritually alive and our destiny changes from hell to heaven.
Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have (eternal) life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus came so we can have spiritual life. And following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one. “Life, be in it!” was a program to encourage us to be more physically active. But Jesus says, “Eternal life, be in it!”. Let’s get spiritually active.
Jesus as Lord
But what if you already follow Jesus? This evidence about Jesus and the Bible supports our faith. We are Christians because of historical events, not because of mythical stories.
Peter told Cornelius that Jesus Christ “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). “Lord” means a person who has authority over others; a master, boss, chief, or ruler. But most people act like Jesus was a liar or a mental case. They live as though Jesus never came to earth. But if we have trusted Him to bring us close to God, the Bible says that we are to live as though He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9). That means giving Him priority. How can we do that? By obeying God’s commands and principles in the New Testament. A disciple follows their leader.
Paul is also a good example to follow. He said “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Is what we say and what we do consistent with what Paul said and did? Here’s one example from Paul, “dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Do we give our bodies to God? Does He influence our calendar? Do we copy the behavior and customs of this world? Or, do we let God transform our lives? Do we let Him change the way we think? Are we different from those that don’t follow Jesus? Is it evident that we are spiritually alive?
We have seen that because Jesus lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, and did miracles to prove His divinity, and paid the price so we can be reconciled with God, if we turn to follow Him, He turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful spiritual life.
Eternal life, be in it!
Written, February 2017
Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.
This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.
Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.
So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).
The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.
We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.
I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”. It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”
So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.
God’s Christmas gift
Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.
But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?
We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.
Written, December 2016
Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance is expected be tested at the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s Christian Governor Basuki Purnama. Blasphemy is speaking irreverently of God or sacred things. Apparently Mr Purnama told voters that they were being misled by Islamic clerics who said Muslims were not permitted to vote for a Christian. This remark sparked inaccurate reports that Mr Purnama had criticized the Koran, not the clerics. Mass protests followed as conservative Muslims campaigned for Mr Purnama’s jailing. Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Indonesia and punishable by up to five years in prison.
It is estimated that about 25% of the world’s population is Muslim. This increases to over 90% in the Middle East and North Africa. The Islamic faith is monotheistic like Judaism and Christianity. But do Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians?
True or false?
The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests.
The Jesus test
This test states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 6NIV). The question to be answered in this test is: What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, divine and human nature, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming (1 Jn. 4:1-3)?
The gospel test
The Bible warns about those promoting a different gospel, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal.1:9). The question to be answered in this test is: What is its gospel? In other words: what is the core belief or hope? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements—resulting in death. The only means of rescue is salvation by repentance of sin and faith in the work of Christ. ‘Different gospels’ are those that differ from this. They either add to it or take away from it. There is a warning against adding to or taking away from the words of the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19).
The fruit test
Jesus Christ warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20). The question to be answered in this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? In other words, what type of attitudes and behavior does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident (Gal. 5:19-23)?
Testing the Islamic faith
The Jesus test
Jesus is mentioned in 93 verses of the Quran. But what do Muslims believe about Jesus Christ? See Appendix A: “What Muslims think about Jesus?” In summary, they believe that:
– Jesus was a Muslim prophet.
– He had a miraculous birth.
– He performed many miracles.
– He wasn’t crucified or resurrected.
– He wasn’t God or the son of God.
– He announced the coming of Muhammad.
– He will return in the end times to help bring the world to its end.
Islam clearly fails the Jesus test. The Islamic Jesus is different to the Biblical Jesus. The main shortcomings are a failure to acknowledge Christ’s divinity and His sacrificial death (crucifixion) and resurrection. This means that Muslims reject the climatic part of the Bible when God solves the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. He does this by sending His only Son Jesus to the earth as a substitute to take the punishment that we all deserve.
The Islamic view of Jesus lies between two extremes. The Jews rejected Jesus as a prophet, while the Christians considered Him to be the Son of God and worship Him as such. The Islamic claim that Jesus was not executed by crucifixion is without any historical support. One of the things that all the early sources agree on is Jesus’ crucifixion.
But is Allah like God the Father? They are similar in being omnipotent, omniscient, creator, and sustainer. But there is a major difference: Allah didn’t send Jesus to die for our sins. So Allah isn’t the God of the Bible.
The gospel test
The Quran mentions Paradise and Hell as future destinies for humanity. But how do Muslims believe one gets to Paradise instead of Hell? See Appendix B: “What Muslims think about Salvation” In summary, they believe that:
– Allah sent prophets to show us the right way of living.
– Salvation is possible through belief/faith in Allah and good works, including keeping the five acts of worship (pillars of Islam).
– The essential belief/faith is that “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammad is God’s Prophet”.
– On the day of judgment, if a Muslim’s good works outweigh their bad ones and if Allah wills it, they may be forgiven of all their sins and then enter into Paradise. So salvation is based on Allah’s grace/mercy and a Muslim’s good works.
This is different to what Christians believe about salvation. The Bible teaches that salvation is by God’s grace alone: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith … not of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). The Christian gospel may be summarized as: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son (Jesus) to earth to save people so they could live right. He was the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our holy God. Jesus died for the sins of humanity”. But Islam teaches that faith in Allah alone is not enough for salvation. It is a religion of salvation by works because it combines a Muslim’s works with Allah’s grace/mercy.
Christ’s substitutionary death is the core of a Christian’s salvation. But Muslims deny that Jesus came to this earth with the purpose of sacrificing himself for the sin of humanity, freeing them from its burden.
A Muslim’s salvation is never guaranteed. There is no assurance of going to Paradise, regardless of how devout they may be. They must do good works and hope that at judgment day Allah will grant favor. By contrast, the Christian’s salvation is sure and confident. God’s promises are never broken, and we can rely on scripture when it declares that faith in Jesus saves (Acts 16:31) and we can rest confidently in this assurance (1 Jn. 5:13). Our forgiveness and salvation are completely based on the work of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and not on any of our deeds because we have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:18).
It would seem the Islamic system of salvation is more a reward than grace. Faith in God alone saves a Christian (Rom. 5:17, 19), but faith in Allah alone isn’t sufficient to save a Muslim. The problem with being saved by God’s grace and human works is that human works are never sufficient to please God. God is infinite and holy. How can we finite sinners ever hope to please God by our deeds? By the way, works do have a place in the life of a Christian, but only as evidence of a pre-existing faith (Jas 2:18).
Islam is also different to Judaism where the death of a sacrificial animal dealt with one’s sin. And one of the characteristics of God was a Redeemer who delivered and rescued His people from Egypt. There are no substitutionary sacrifices or redeemers in the Islamic faith.
So, Islam fails the gospel test.
The fruit test
It’s difficult to assess attitudes and behavior objectively. I have just visited Morocco and France. Cultural and religious pressure makes it difficult to be Christians in these countries. About 1% of the people in Morocco are Christians and most of these are foreigners. And less than 1% of the French are evangelical Christians.
There seems to be a lack of religious freedom in Morocco. I was unable to find a Christian church anywhere near where I was staying in Casablanca (a city of about 4 million people). Attempting to convert a Muslim to another religion is punishable with up to three years imprisonment and a substantial fine. And Moroccan Christians have to meet secretly in houses. They are not free to worship at a Christian church. Whereas in Lyon (a city of 500,000) there were several evangelical churches nearby. Also, although some Moroccan stores had Christmas decorations, there were no depictions of the nativity. There is no freedom for Moroccan Christians to practice their faith in Morocco or to organize a Christian celebration. Yet in Australia (where ~2% are Moslem), all Muslims are free to worship at an Islamic mosque.
There also seems to be a lack of individual freedom and joy in Islam. It’s a demanding religion that doesn’t tolerate independent thinking or probing questions,which is supported by the prohibition on translating the Quran into other languages. There are many man-made rules created by Muslim imams (who lead Sunni Moslems in prayer) for circumstances that aren’t mentioned in the Quran, which can result in legalism and coercion. In contrast, the word “joy” appears frequently in the Old and New Testaments.
Islam also makes a habit of demanding and complaining in order to insist that others view the world in the way that they do. The blasphemy trial of the Christian Governor in Indonesia is an example of this. In 2011, all Islamic nations had criminal laws on blasphemy. And thousands of people in these nations have been arrested and punished for blasphemy of Islam. In some Muslim countries Christians live in fear because of what a careless word or a false accusation might lead to. Is blasphemy a criminal offense in any non-Moslem country? Have any blasphemy trials been held recently in these countries? Have you ever heard of Christians trialing those who criticize Jesus or the Bible for blasphemy?
What type of attitudes and behavior do you think the Islamic faith encourages?
Results of the tests
So the Islamic faith fails the Jesus Test and the Gospel Test and the results of the Fruit Test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which isn’t consistent with the overall message of the Bible.
Islam regards itself, not as a subsequent faith to Judaism and Christianity, but as the primordial religion. They believe that the Biblical prophets were all Muslims. They also believe that in the generations after Jesus’ departure from this world, his teachings were distorted and he was elevated to the status of God. Six centuries later, with the coming of Prophet Muhammad, the truth about Jesus Christ was finally retold and preserved eternally in the last book of divine revelation, the Quran. Furthermore, many of the laws of Moses, which Jesus followed, were revived in their pure and unadulterated form and implemented in the divinely prescribed way of life known as Islam.
The Biblical narratives are rich with historical details, many confirmed by archaeology. They cover more than a thousand years, and reveal a long process of technological and cultural development. In contrast the Quran’s sacred history is devoid of archaeological support. Its fragmentary and disjointed stories offer no authentic reflection of historical cultures. No place name from ancient Israel is mentioned, not even Jerusalem. Many of the supposed historical events reported in the Quran have no independent verification. And many Quranic stories can be traced to Jewish and Christian folktales and other apocryphal literature.
There is a fundamental difference between Christian attitudes to the Jewish scriptures and Islamic attitudes to the Bible. Christians accept the Hebrew scriptures as authentic. They were the scriptures of Jesus the apostles and the early church. In contrast Islam’s treatment of the Bible is one of complete disregard. Although it purports to ‘verify’ all earlier prophetic revelation, the Quran is oblivious to the real contents of the Bible. The claim that Christians and Jews deliberately corrupted their scriptures is made without evidence, and this only serves to cover up the Quran’s historical inadequacies.
Islam is characterized by many laws and salvation through good works. In this aspect, it is like the Old Testament. It’s like an Arabic version of the Old Testament that also mentions Jesus. But the new covenant (of Christianity) is superior to the old ones (the laws of Moses and the laws of Islam).
So Islam is a retrograde religion. It’s like the false teachers at Galatia who were putting Christians back under the law of Moses. In the book of Galatians Paul opposed these false teachers and stressed that good works are not a condition of salvation, but a fruit of it. The false teachers were zealous because they wanted a following and they enslaved people with rules and regulations (Gal. 4:17-31). Islam is like Ishmael who was born into slavery. But Jesus can set us free from the need to slavishly following such rules and regulations (Gal. 5:1).
Some Muslims are zealous and devout, but salvation is dependent on the object of one’s zeal and devotion and not on the zeal itself. Their focus/object is the teaching of Muhammad and the Quran, which we have shown to be false. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, Muslims are “trusting in deceptive words” (Jer. 7:8). In Judah’s case the deceptive words spoken by the false prophets was that God wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem because He wouldn’t allow the Jewish temple to be destroyed. This superstitious belief was stated repetitively, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4), which reminds me of the repetitive nature of Islamic prayer. But repetition doesn’t increase the truthfulness of a statement. In Islam’s case, the deceptive words were spoken by Muhammad who was a false prophet. Because of false prophets, Judah followed “other gods” (Jer. 7:9) apart from the real God, while because of Muhammad, Muslims follow the “other god” of Allah.
Muslims also claim that Christians believe in three Gods: Father God, mother Mary, and son Jesus. And they say the trinity is polytheistic. This isn’t true. Mary wasn’t divine. And the Bible says that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three aspects of one God. So, Christianity is monotheistic.
We have tested Islam against three tests from the Bible. It clearly failed two tests (about Jesus and the gospel) and the results of the third test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which isn’t consistent with the message of the Bible. So Muslims don’t worship the same God as Christians.
Appendix A: What Muslims think about Jesus
According to Islamic tradition, the main Muslim prophets were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Jesus was a precursor to Muhammad. Jesus announced the coming of Muhammad. They claim this is also mentioned in the New Testament – “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16-17).
Jesus was one of the greatest messengers (prophets) to humanity. He was created miraculously like Adam with no parents. His mother was a virgin named Mary (but this doesn’t mean that he was the son of God). He performed many miracles. He will return in the end times to help bring the world to its end.
Jesus wasn’t crucified. For Jesus to die on the cross would have meant the triumph of his executioners; but the Quran asserts that they undoubtedly failed. Jesus wasn’t resurrected – it was spiritual, not physical. The Quran says that the original biblical message has been distorted or corrupted over time.
Jesus is not divine. He’s not God or the son of God. The miracles of Jesus and the Quranic titles attributed to Jesus demonstrate the power of Allah rather than the divinity of Jesus—the same power behind the message of all prophets.
Islam regards all prophets, including Jesus, to be mortal human beings who were righteous messengers of Allah. They view Muhammad as the perfect man, not Jesus.
Appendix B What Muslims think about Salvation
Salvation is defined to be the saving and deliverance of people from sin and its consequences. It’s difficult to determine what Muslims think about salvation, because individual statements don’t always cover all the general beliefs that are held on this topic. The following is compiled from a range of sources.
The core belief of Islam is: “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammad is God’s Prophet”. Allah gave this teaching to Muhammad. In this way, he showed Muslims how to live. This belief is an essential part of the Islamic faith.
The Quran teaches the necessity of both belief/faith in Allah and good works for salvation. The good works include doing honorable deeds plus keeping the five “pillars” of Islam: witness (“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”), ritual prayers five times daily, giving money to charity, fasting during Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. On the day of judgment Allah will have a set of scales to weigh one’s good deeds against their bad deeds. Salvation is achieved by having more “good” deeds on account than “bad” ones, thus hoping to win Allah’s favor. And if Allah wills it, they may be forgiven of all their sins and then enter Paradise. So salvation is based on Allah’s grace/mercy and the Muslim’s good works.
Islam teaches that on the Day of Judgment every person will be resurrected and will be accountable to God for their every word and deed. Consequently, a practicing Muslim is always striving to be righteous while hoping and praying for Allah’s acceptance and grace. Salvation is only through belief and practice.
Islam stresses the notion that God can forgive all sins, if a person truly repents and then refrains from repeating it. God does not need any blood sacrifice for that, let alone descend in the form of man himself and die for everyone’s sins (like Christians believe). Rather, God’s mercy extends to all creatures, believers and disbelievers alike.
Written, December 2016
There is no such thing as sin. It’s an outmoded religious idea. Sin is an illusion. A perception. A mental creation. It is not real outside of your head. Morals are evolved responses. Humans are hardwired by evolution to behave the way they do. That’s what some people think about sin. Another idea is that some people are sinless.
The Shia branch of Islam says that prophets of Allah (God) are infallible. They claim that “All the prophets and messengers of Allah, with no exception, are sinless and infallible”, while some others say they were protected from major sins but not from minor ones. What does the Bible say on this topic?
In the Bible, a prophet (nabi in Hebrew, Strongs #5030) is one who speaks on behalf of someone else. For example, Aaron was Moses’ spokesman (Ex. 7:1). So he was a prophet of Moses. The word is usually used in the Old testament for a spokesman for God, a person chosen by God to speak to people on His behalf. God’s prophets brought messages from God. They were God’s messengers to humanity who were enabled by the Holy Spirit (2 Chr. 15:1; Neh. 9:30; Mic. 3:8). They guided the nation of Israel spiritually and wrote the Old Testament. In this post, we list some of their sins and shortcomings which are mentioned in the Bible. Sin is rebellion against God which is a part of human nature that’s inherited from Adam and Eve (Dt. 9:7; Rom. 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3).
Abraham is the first man to be given the title “prophet” in the Bible (Gen. 20:7). During his life, he deceived both Pharaoh and King Abimelek by saying that his wife was his sister instead of saying that she was his wife (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-13). On both of these occasions, which were 20 years apart, he didn’t trust God’s promise that he would have a son (Isaac). Instead he thought that they would kill him to take his beautiful wife for their harems.
God spoke indirectly to prophets by visions and dreams, but He spoke to Moses directly, face to face (Num. 12:4-8; Dt. 34:10). Also, “No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Dt. 34:12NIV). That’s why Moses has been called the greatest prophet. He also complied and wrote most of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). By the way, John the Baptist was the prophet with the greatest privilege because he announced the arrival of the Messiah (Mt 11:9-11).
God commissioned Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt northwards to Canaan (Ex. 3:1-22). Previously God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would occupy Canaan (Ex. 6:8). But Moses died before Israel reached Canaan. This was God’s judgment because he “broke faith with me (God) in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah Kadesh in the desert of Zin and because you (Moses) did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites” (Dt. 32:51NIV). This occurred when there was no water for the Israelites and their livestock and they complained to Moses and Aaron (Num. 20:1-13). God told Moses to take his staff and gather the people together and speak to a rock and water would pour out of it. But Moses didn’t obey God. Instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it twice with his staff. Because of this sin, God told him “you will not bring this community into the land (Canaan) I give them”.
A prophet from Judah
After King Jeroboam set up an idolatrous system of worship in the kingdom of Israel, God sent a prophet from Judah to denounce their idolatry (1 Ki. 13:1-32). Because of God’s judgement of their apostate worship, the prophet was commanded not to eat or drink while he was in Israel. But when an old man said, “I too am a prophet, as you are. And an angel said to me by the word of the Lord: ‘Bring him back with you to your house so that he may eat bread and drink water.’ (But he was lying to him.) So the man of God (prophet) returned with him and ate and drank in his house” (1 Ki. 13:18-19). This was a lie because although the old man may have been a true prophet in his younger days, he was now living in Bethel where there was a golden calf idol. While they were eating together, the old man from Bethel received a message from God saying that because of his disobedience, the prophet would die and would not be buried with his family. On his way home, the prophet was killed by a lion and buried in Bethel.
Peter said that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30). King David wrote many of the psalms. But he exploited his positional power in adultery with Bathsheba and arranging the killing of Uriah her husband (2 Sam. 11:1-27).
When God told Jonah to preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh, he disobeyed by boarding a ship travelling in the opposite direction (Jon. 1:1-3; 4:1)!
Jeremiah predicted the Babylonian invasion of the kingdom of Judah and demise of the Babylonian empire about 70 years later and the return of the Jews to their homeland. He also wrote the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations. But at times Jeremiah regretted his unpopular ministry. This led to depression and suicidal thoughts (Jer. 20:14-18).
What about Enoch and Elijah?
The Bible says that sin leads to death (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, people die because of sin. Did any prophets not die? Yes, Enoch and Elijah (Gen. 5:24; Heb. 11:5). Does this mean that they never sinned?
James used Elijah to illustrate the prayer of a righteous person. He emphasized that Elijah had the same human nature as us:
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are” (Jas. 5:17NIV).
“Elijah was a human being like us” (Jas.5:17NET).
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17ESV, HCSB)
So Elijah had a sinful nature like us: He wasn’t infallible and sinless.
For example, after he was threatened by Queen Jezebel, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life”. He ran from Jezebel travelling at least 160 km (100 miles) to Beersheba! Then he was depressed and suicidal (1 Ki. 19:1-14). So Elijah was like us when he experienced fear, discouragement and dismay.
We know very little about Enoch, except that his father was Jared and Methuselah was one of his sons (Gen. 5:18-24). “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen. 5:24). And Jude records a prophesy by Enoch (Jude 14-15). As Enoch had two human parents; according to Romans 5:12 he inherited the sin of Adam. This is a characteristic of humanity. The only exception is Jesus, who didn’t have a human father (Joseph was His step-father).
After Jesus miraculously fed over 5,000 people and taught at the festival of tabernacles, they thought He was the prophet who was promised in the Old Testament (Jn. 6:14; 7:40). The Samaritan woman, the blind man, and those who saw Him raise the widow’s son thought that Jesus was a prophet (Jn. 4:19; 9:17; Lk. 7:16). So some people thought He was a prophet (Mk. 6:15; 8:28). When some Pharisees advised Jesus to escape from Jerusalem, He said “no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Lk. 13:33). When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the people said He was “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee” (Mt. 21:11). And the two travelling to Emmaus after Christ’s death called Him a prophet (Lk. 24:19). God had promised Moses “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (Dt. 18:18). This prophet would be a mediator between God and people. In the context of Christ’s coming reign on earth, Peter said that Jesus would be a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:21-23). The similarity is that both are raised up by God (Dt. 18:15, 18).
But Jesus was unique. He didn’t have a biological (human) father like all other people. And He is the only sinless infallible person to have lived on earth. The Bible says “He committed no sin”; He “had no sin”; and “in Him is no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pt. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). He made no mistakes or errors. He was greater than Moss (Heb. 3:1-6). Also see, “Ten reasons Jesus was more than a prophet”. These reasons are all consistent with Jesus being the divine Son of God who is equal with God and is alive today.
All the Old Testament prophets were sinners because they had a sinful nature (being born of human parents) and so they weren’t infallible. Likewise, people like Mary the mother of Jesus, the Pope, and Muhammad are sinners and so they weren’t (or aren’t) infallible. Also, the originators and leaders of all religions (except for Jesus Christ) are sinners and so they weren’t (or aren’t) infallible.
However, a biblical prophet’s revelations were divinely authoritative and infallible. David wrote, “the Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; His word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Peter said that a prophetic message is “completely reliable” and “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pt. 1:19-21). A prophet’s words were God’s words. What a prophet said, God said.
What about prophets who lived after 33 AD? Those whose message is not consistent with Jesus being the Son of God and the only mediator between God and humanity are false prophets: because “In the past God spoke to our (Jews) ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son (Jesus), whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2). In fact, “many false prophets have gone out into the world” and they can be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3).
What about Christians today? The Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin (a sinful nature), we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins (individual sins), He (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned (individual sins), we make Him (God) out to be a liar and His word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8-10). Conversion doesn’t eradicate our sinful nature. But it gives us a new divine nature with power to live victoriously over the sinful nature. One of the ways to do this is to confess our individual sins and through God’s parental forgiveness (based on Christ paying the penalty for us) our fellowship with God and each other is restored. If anyone claims to be sinless, they make God out to be a liar and deny the reason Jesus come to earth to die. This applies to both the Gnostics of John’s era and todays atheists who deny that immoral actions are sinful.
The Bible shows that prophets like Abraham, Moses, a prophet from Judah, David, Jonah, Jeremiah were sinners and so they aren’t infallible. Even a prophet who didn’t die (Elijah) was a sinner. In fact, all the descendants of Adam and Eve were sinners except for Jesus Christ who wasn’t conceived in the usual way. He is the only infallible person.
So the Shia Islamic view that prophets of Allah (God) are infallible isn’t consistent with the Bible. Also, the atheist and Buddhist view that there is no such thing as sin isn’t consistent with the Bible. This means that they are human ideas that don’t come from God.
Written, November 2016
Someone has commented on keeping the Sabbath day. The comment is given below in italics and my reply in normal type. Here is a link to the post commented on: “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?”
Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation of the Bible. Here’s a link to a post on this topic: Understanding the Bible.
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?
In “What has changed since then?” 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 look at all the scriptures written after the passage because God’s revelation is progressive. In the case of Jesus and Paul, we will see that they lived under different covenants.
Jesus and the Mosaic covenant
When interpreting a passage of Scripture, it’s important to understand the era being addressed. There are at least four eras in the Bible:
– The time before the Mosaic covenant.
– The Mosaic covenant (the law), from the time of Moses to the day of Pentecost.
– The church era (grace), from the day of Pentecost to the Rapture.
– The end times, after the Rapture.
The fact that our Bibles are divided into Old and New Testaments indicates that Jesus caused a major division in how God deals with humanity. John wrote, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17NIV). Paul told Christians, “you are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The era of the law applied before Christ’s death and the era of God’s grace applied afterward (specifically after the Holy Spirit was given 50 days later, on the day of Pentecost). This explains why Christians are not required to offer animal sacrifices.
A major difference between Jesus and Paul (besides Christ’s divinity), was that they lived in different eras. Jesus lived under the Mosaic covenant, while Paul lived in the church era. This means that Jesus advocated keeping the Mosaic law which includes animal sacrifices at the temple, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath; while Paul didn’t advocate animal sacrifices at the temple, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.
The tabernacle/temple together with the offerings and priesthood were an essential part of God’s Mosaic covenant with the Israelites (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). Jesus lived under this religious system. But when He died, God tore the curtain inside the temple from the top to the bottom and the temple was subsequently destroyed in AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The torn curtain, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the temple has not been rebuilt for a period of over 1,900 years indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with humanity.
Consequently, I have divided the comments according to whether they related to Scriptures dealing with events before or after the day of Pentecost.
The commentator advocates keeping the Sabbath today as it was kept when Jesus was on earth about 2,000 years ago.
But the Sabbath day is a sign of the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelites about 3,450 years ago (Ex. 31:13-17). They were to keep it until it was fulfilled when Jesus died. Jesus was a Jew who kept the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath) and taught Jews who were living under the Mosaic law. This period under the law of Moses covers Exodus to John (inclusive) in the Bible.
Also, according to the law of Moses, disobedience of the Sabbath day was punishable by death. “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death” (Ex. 31:15; 35:2). For example, a man found gathering wood on the Sabbath day was publicly stoned to death (Num. 15:32-36). But I haven’t seen this mentioned by those who advocate keeping the Jewish Sabbath today!
After the day of Pentecost, there was a new way to approach God. This doesn’t involve Jewish laws like male circumcision (or animal sacrifices and keeping the Sabbath) because Paul wrote against this in Galatians. However, 9 of the ten commandments are repeated in this section of the Bible. But the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath is not repeated. This significant fact is ignored by those that want to impose Sabbath keeping today.
Unfortunately, the commentator uses 1 Corinthians 11:1 to claim that Paul followed Jesus in all respects, including keeping the Sabbath day. Besides ignoring the different eras (covenants), this is an example of failure to use the context when interpreting a passage from the Bible. This context should be deduced from the surrounding Scriptures and not imposed by the reader.
Jesus kept the Sabbath day because He lived under the law of Moses, whereas Paul preached to Jews on the Sabbath day in his early ministry until he was rejected by the Jews, and seemed to worship God on Sunday (Acts 20:6-7).
The time-period before the day of Pentecost
This time-period is addressed in the biblical books before the book of Acts when the Israelites and Jews were God’s people on earth, they were required to follow the Mosaic law and offer sacrifices at the temple. As Jesus was a Jew, He followed these laws.
This is for those of you who thinks the Old Testament is obsolete and we are no longer under the law but grace… and of course the one who wrote the initial post that everyone is responding to here.
Who are you worshipping or serving? Who are you following, Christ; the Messiah or the Christian church of today and their teachings?
Christians should follow the inspired scripture that was written to the church in the first century (Acts to Revelation) and the principles within the rest of scripture that are consistent with this. This includes recognizing Christ as the Savior of humanity.
With that being said, IT IS MISLEADING TO TELL ANYONE THAT THE OLD TESTAMENT (FIRST TESTAMENT) AND THE LAWS ARE OBSOLETE. It is therefore false preaching and interpretation of the word of the Most High and the Messiah (the one you call Jesus).
The Old Testament was written to Jews living under the Mosaic covenant, not to Christians.
Hear me now those of you who are seeking the truth, let heaven and earth be my witness as you will not hear this from your pastor or the christian church of this age – THE TRUTH. And tell you the truth so tomorrow you’ll be without excuse – saying that you didn’t know.
I don’t need to run through hundreds of scripture to explain this, those who have ears will hear and those who don’t will not hear, but continue in the same way they have always been – worshipping idols.
The source of truth is proper exegesis of the Bible. I would be concerned about an interpretation that wasn’t taught by any pastor or Christian church.
They will also have you believe that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew or Gentile, that Christ came for us all. But let hear what Christ and Paul have to say about this. Christ as was foretold by the angel came to save his people (not the whole world).
Matthew 1:21 (He shall save his people) In case you’re wondering who are his people then – the Israelite or Hebrews or Jews are.
Mathew 10:5 – 6 (These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel).
Christ came only for his people – The Israelites or Hebrews or Jews. Also for who the Israelites or Hebrews or Jews are today that’s a whole different conversation. But I tell you this, some of you are wise enough to already know who they are, the sign is upon their heads and all their doings. But this I tell you, certainly not the current occupants of Israel.
Now, am I saying that the gentiles will not enter the kingdom of Heaven, no, that’s not what I’m saying but there are stipulations they will have to follow in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven – to share in the salvation of the Israelites or Hebrews who are the chosen children of God.
These scriptures are about events before the day of Pentecost, so they apply to Judaism, not Christianity.
It’s true that Christ’s ministry was to the Jews. But after the Jews rejected this, put Jesus to death and rejected the preaching by the apostles, the gospel went to the Gentiles. That’s why there are more Gentiles than Jews in the Christian church today. After His death and resurrection, Jesus commanded the gospel message be taken to all nations. He told His disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). Also, today only Christians are children of God (Gal. 3:26). So a Jew isn’t a child of God unless they are a Christian.
To crown it all up, let us bring the Master himself (Christ; the Messiah – the one you call Jesus) on the stand. Lets hear if he said the OLD TESTAMENT AND LAWS ARE OBSOLETE.
Matthew 5:17-19 This is Christ himself speaking (Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven).
Go to your Bible and read it so you don’t think I making things up.
What did Christ come to fulfill – the sacrificial Laws.
Christ himself observed the sabbath. Luke 4:16
If the Messiah (Jesus) himself tells you that the laws and prophets are not done away with, who would you rather believe?
If you are following Christ, then why would you not follow his words but instead go about lying to the people that the old testament is obsolete? Has heaven and earth passed away, don’t you wake up in the morning and stand on the earth and see the heaven above?
John 14:15 – Christ (the one you call Jesus) is saying if you love me then keep my commandments. Here is the Messiah himself speaking to you.
Matthew 5:17 – 19 (keep the commandments of which the Sabbath is one of them)
These scriptures are about events before the day of Pentecost, so they apply to Judaism, not Christianity. At this time, the law of Moses was still operative.
Jesus said that He came to fulfil the law (Mt. 5:17). He did this by taking our penalty of death (as a substitute). Jesus’ death fulfilled all the demands of the Law (Rom. 8:1-3) Because we all sin, we face the penalty of death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Gal. 3:10; Jas. 2:10). So those who trust in Jesus are no longer under the law as He has paid the penalty.
The time-period after the day of Pentecost
This time-period is addressed in the biblical books from Acts to Revelation. 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.
Lets start with Revelation 12:9 – (And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him).
The deceiver of the whole world was cast into the earth and brethren I tell you this, he has been at work while you sleep and go about your smooth day.
The context of Revelation 12 is as follows:
– the birth and resurrection of Jesus (v.5)
– the church age (between v.5 and v.6)
– the coming tribulation (v.6-17)
So Revelation 12:9 describes events that are still future.
Now I will not be able to go through all the scriptures but I will list few so you can read. All what the writer of this blog has pointed out here, for this same reason, the apostle Paul (the apostle sent to the gentiles) was put on trial in the book of Acts.
This is Paul on trial for the same accusation that he was teaching people not to obey the laws of Moses or as the church of today so eloquently put it, old testament is obsolete. Read the Bible yourself, don’t be lazy.
Acts 21:20 – 29
Acts 24:1 – 14
Acts 25:1 – 12
I can’t see any mention of Sabbath keeping in these passages. And I’d rather agree with Paul than his accusers.
Paul was attacked by some Jews who caused a riot and tried to kill him. The Romans responded by arresting Paul (Acts 21:27-36). The Jewish religious leaders said that Paul was a trouble maker who desecrated the temple (Acts 24:5-8). Paul explained that this occurred because he preached about Jesus (Acts 26:19-23).
And Romans 11:1 – 22 will explain some of these stipulations. If you are a gentile (basically those who are not Hebrews or Jews or Israelite), hear this now, don’t boast against the natural branches who are the chosen children of the Most High. Don’t go about saying it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew or Gentiles. You are being boastful, if the Father can cast out his own children, what makes you think He will not cast you out in the next second you start misbehaving? And Paul the apostle sent to the gentiles made this crystal clear as I expect you to read in Romans the 11th chapter.
Romans 11:1-22 says that although God rejected the Jews (v.15), those who became Christians like Paul weren’t rejected (v.1). Such Gentiles were chosen by grace and not by works (keeping the Jewish law) (v.5-6). Because the Jews rejected the gospel, the nation was set aside and the gospel went out to the Gentiles (v.1-12). Verses 13-24 are addressed to the Gentile nations, and not to Gentile Christians.
God’s children were those who trusted God in the Old Testaments times, and those who trusted in Jesus Christ in New Testament times. Here’s what Paul says about the church era:
“So in Christ Jesus you (Christians) 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” (Gal. 3:26-28).
God doesn’t “cast out His own children”. He only casts out unbelievers. It’s our faith that counts, not our day to day behavior – the former determines our destiny and the later our fellowship with God.
This is the major mistake the church of this age continue to make, if you don’t understand what has been written in the FIRST TESTAMENT (OLD TESTAMENT), if you have no foundation in the writings of the FIRST TESTAMENT, don’t mess with the Letters of Paul. You are only leading yourself to destruction. But then, some of you know the truth but you are simply a deceiver. You choose to deceive rather than preach the true integrity of the Gospel to the people.
2 Peter 3:16 explains why you should not mess with the letters of Paul. The writings of Paul are stumbling blocks for those pagan worshippers who claims they are following Christ but remain in the same old mindset from their pagan worshipping days. They simply don’t want to obey any laws which is why when it comes to the old testament, they’re quick to tell you that it is obsolete – the laws are done away with.
Elohim our Father is constantly testing us to know where are heart is. And if you are familiar with your Bible then you should know this, from the garden of Eden, even Joseph (the dreamer) did the same to his brothers, the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, even when they conquer Canaan, the Most High left 4 nations to prove or test Israel. And all of these was just for Him to know whether they will obey his commandments. Same thing you will find in the letters of Paul. It is all to prove you to see whether you will obey his commandments or follow the desire of your flesh. The head apostle Peter already warned you about this in 2 Peter 3:16.
Proverb 4:7 – says wisdom is the principal thing, so therefore get wisdom. And I tell you, this age lacks wisdom.
You may be asking why are we going through this whole other discussions when this is supposed to be about the Sabbath. But if people are quoting from the letters of Paul then don’t you thing we should bring him on the stand so he can testify to this accusation? But as you have already read in Acts, Paul did not permit any of the things this brother is saying here on his page or what the Christian church is saying. It is simply misinterpretation of the letters of Paul.
2 Peter 3:16 says, “He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction”. Peter is saying that some Biblical truths are hard to understand. He’s not criticizing Paul’s style of writing. This verse has nothing to do with following commands in the Old Testament. Instead it’s warning against distortions such as saying that the law is a way of salvation rather than a revealer of sin.
It is true that God tests people in all eras. But today God is now testing people under grace rather than under the law of Moses.
Even after Christ’s dead and resurrection, his disciple continue to observe the Sabbath.
Acts 13:42 (unlike the gentiles of today, the gentiles then understood the Sabbath commandment and worshipped on the Sabbath)
When Paul visited Psidian Antioch he preached about Jesus in the synagogue for two Sabbath days (Acts 13:13-52). After a large crowd gathered to hear the word of God, the Jewish religious leaders stirred up persecution that caused Paul to leave the city. In this case Paul went to the synagogue to preach to Jews, not to observe the Sabbath.
When Paul visited Thessalonica, he preached to them about Jesus (reasoning from the Old Testament) in the synagogue for three Sabbath days (Acts 17:1-8). Some believed that Jesus was the Messiah and others started a riot that caused Paul to leave the city. In this case Paul went to the synagogue to preach to Jews, not to observe the Sabbath.
Furthermore, Paul preached in the Jewish synagogues at Salamis (Acts 13:5). He also preached to the Jewish women (they “began to speak to the women”) at Philippi on the Sabbath because that was when they gathered together (Acts 16:13). And Paul preached at the synagogue in Corinth on the Sabbath until he was opposed by the Jews (Acts 18:1-6).
So during Paul’s first two missionary journeys, it seems that whenever possible he preached to Jews on the Sabbath day whenever (because that was the day they gathered together to worship God). On these occasions, he was preaching about Jesus, not observing the Sabbath. This is evident because he was usually rejected by the Jews soon afterward. Also, it only happened during his first visit because the Jews would have continued to reject him.
If you don’t understand what Paul is talking don’t going around lying, just leave it along, just leave it along.
Now, use these two scriptures when you don’t understand what the Paul is talking in his letters. And this is because the christian church is founded upon the letters of Paul and not the teaching of the Messiah; Christ the one you call Jesus.
1 Corinthians 11:1 – Here Paul is saying “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ”. Paul is pointing out to you that he himself is just a follower.
Paul wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). This verse probably goes better with chapter 10. So the context is being unselfish (v.24, 33), doing everything for the glory of God (v.31), and not causing anyone to stumble (v.32). There is no mention of keeping the Sabbath or the Old Testament laws near this verse. After he became a Christian, Paul didn’t attend the animal sacrifices at the temple like Jesus did.
Likewise, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps” (1 Pt. 2:21) has the context of unjust suffering and not keeping the Sabbath or the Old Testament laws.
HE WHO HAS EARS LET HIM HEAR.
The full quotation is, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7). This is the conclusion to each letter to the seven churches in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in Revelation 2-3. As the church originated on the day of Pentecost, the most relevant message to them is in Acts to Revelation. Likewise, today Acts to Revelation is more relevant to Christians than the rest of the Bible.
Written, November 2016
Also see: 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?
What about keeping the Sabbath day?
What does the New Testament say about the Sabbath?
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?
Why the new covenant is better
Christ’s resurrection and the feeding of the 5,000 are the only miracles recorded in each of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John of the Bible. According to the Bible, Jesus was the first person to be raised from death to eternal life, never to die again (Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:23). But who raised Jesus back to life from death? The Bible gives various answers to this question.
God did it
The most frequent explanation is that God raised Jesus from death (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:31; Rom. 4:24; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:15; Col. 2:12; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pt. 1:21). “God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead so that He (Jesus) will never be subject to decay” (Acts 13:34NIV). As Jesus was both a physical human being and the spiritual Son of God, the death and “decay” refer to His physical body, and not to His divine nature. Only people die, not spirits. His earthly body wasn’t eternal but was subject to death just as ours is.
Righteousness is promised “for us who believe in Him (God) who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He (Jesus) was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:24-25). So Christ’s death dealt with the problem of our sins and the fact that He rose confirms that the price has been paid to make us right with God. As Paul says, ‘‘If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him (Jesus) from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).
Also, “by His power God raised the Lord (Jesus) from the dead, and He (God) will raise us also” (1 Cor. 6:14). So because God raised Jesus from death, in the future He will also raise the bodies of believers from death. Resurrection is the opposite of death. Death separates the body from the soul and spirit, while resurrection reunites them. But as noted above, it didn’t affect the divine part of Jesus.
God the Father did it
The Bible also says that God the Father raised Jesus from death (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:19-21; 1 Pt. 1:3). Paul said that through His “incomparably great power” and “mighty strength”, God the Father, “raised Christ from the dead and seated Him (Jesus) at His (God the Father’s) right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 1:19-20). So Jesus was raised and given the place of highest honor and authority (the right hand) in God’s dwelling place (the heavenly realms).
It should be noted that some of the instances of the word “God” used in the context of Christ’s resurrection actually refer to God the Father (1 Th. 1:9-10).
Jesus did it
The Bible also says that Jesus raised Himself from death (Jn. 2:19; 10:17-18). Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19-21). In this instance, the temple was a metaphor for His body. So to “destroy this temple” was a figurative way to predict His death and to “raise it again” was a figurative way to predict His resurrection. When Jesus said that He had the power to raise Himself back to life, it shows that He had divine power, because this is impossible for a human being to do.
When Jesus predicted that faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles would be united in the Christian church, He described how this would be made possible: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (Jn. 10:17-18)”. To “lay down” one’s life is to die willingly and to “take it up again” is to resurrect back to life. So He willingly died and rose again for those who trust in the saving power of His death and resurrection. This passage says that Jesus used His divine power to rise from death in obedience to the command (instruction or plan) of God the Father. This was possible because His divine power wasn’t affected by His death – it wasn’t destroyed.
Did the Holy Spirit do it?
Some think that the Bible also says that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death (Rom. 8:11; 1 Pt. 3:18). Romans 3:18 says:
NIV: “And if (since) the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you”.
ESV: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you”.
HCSB: “And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you”.
NET: “Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through His Spirit who lives in you”. And according to the NET Bible “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” and “the one who raised Christ from the death” refer to God. So this verse belongs to the first category. “God did it”.
Another possibility is that the term “Spirit of Him” could be a title of the Holy Spirit like “Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:9). According to this interpretation, the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death. But according to its context, this verse is saying that the Spirit of God within us is stronger than the sin that is in our bodies. Which is similar to “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4). So this verse doesn’t definitely say that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death – it is only a debatable inference.
1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ was:
NIV: “made alive in the Spirit”.
ESV: “made alive in the spirit”.
HCSB: “made alive in the spiritual realm”.
NET: “made alive in the spirit”. And according to the NET Bible “The reference may not be to the Holy Spirit directly, but indirectly, since the Spirit permeates and characterizes the spiritual mode of existence”.
As most of these contemporary translations don’t capitalize “spiritual”, there is no conclusive evidence in 1 Peter 3:18 that the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from death.
The Bible definitely teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, God the Father and by Himself. Is this a contradiction? No, because God the Father and Jesus Christ are referred to as “God” in the Bible and they can do what God alone can do (Heb. 1:8).
None of the verses say that God the Father alone raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus by Himself without the aid of the Father raised Himself, or that Jesus didn’t have the power to raise Himself. Paul called Jesus “the author of life” (Acts 3:15) and Jesus certainly had the power to resurrect Lazarus back to life (Jn. 11:11-44). Furthermore, Jesus told Martha “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).
Also, it doesn’t follow that the Father and the Son must be one and the same person in order for all these statements to be correct, since all that is required is for them to have the same ability and power to raise the dead. After all, Jesus said that He could do everything that the Father does (Jn. 5:19-24).
Whether the Holy Spirit, who is also referred to as “God” (Acts 5:3-4), was involved in the Resurrection of Christ is a debatable matter as the Bible doesn’t seem to provide conclusive evidence of this.
Written, October 2016
Geographic names in New Zealand often reflect its native people and European settlement. Some place names were given by Māoris, explorers, surveyors and administrators. Others are named after British places and battles, historical events, immigrant ships, and important people (explorers, cultural heroes, political heroes, government officials, pioneers, and royalty). Each geographic name has a story associated with it. So, where is Zion and what’s its story?
“Zion” is a word that’s associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “Zion” Tsiyyon (Strongs #6726) occurs 152 times in the Old Testament (mainly in the Psalms and prophets).
Hill of Ophel
In about 1,000 BC, king David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The Jebusites were Canaanites (Gen. 10:15-16; Jud. 19:10) and their city Jebus (Jerusalem) was a natural fortress because it was on a ridge that was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys (Kidron, Hinnom, and Tyropoeon). This site was also called the “hill of Ophel”, which was in Jerusalem near the Water Gate and Gihon Spring (2 Chron. 27:3; 33:14; Neh. 3:26NIV). The spring was an essential water supply for the fortress. About 250-300 years after David’s victory, Kings Jotham and Manasseh strengthened the fortifications at Ophel.
When David took up residence at Ophel he “called it the City of David” (2 Chron. 32:30; 33:14). It was his royal city, where he built his palace and ruled over Israel. After David brought the ark to Ophel (Zion), it also became a sacred place where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God (2 Sam. 6:10-19; 1 Chron. 16:1-38). David called it God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 3:4; 15:1ESV). So Ophel (Zion) was the key place in Israel for government and worship during the reign of King David. And it was still called Zion when king Solomon dedicated the temple in 966 BC (1 Ki. 8:1; 2 Chron. 5:2).
So in the first instance, Zion referred to the hill of Ophel which was the site of a Jebusite fortress and the City of David.
During David’s reign the city of Jerusalem expanded towards the north. And after king Solomon built the Israelite temple on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chron. 3:1), it became known as Mount Zion. This hill had been called Mount Moriah in Abraham’s time about 880 years earlier.
When the temple was dedicated, it was filled with a cloud which represented God’s presence (1 Ki. 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). In this aspect it was similar to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). The temple was God’s dwelling place (Isa. 8:18; Ps. 132:7, 13). That’s where the Israelites went to meet God (Jer. 31:6). And that’s why Mount Zion was called, “the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 18:7). This cloud occupied the temple for about 375 years until it departed in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10).
Because the temple was the centre of Israelite praise and worship, God calls Mount Zion “my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6ESV). The temple gave it holiness. That’s where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God. That’s where Jewish men travelled to three times a year for major religious festivals (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:16). So the temple was the center of their spiritual life. It was the center of Jewish religion.
So in the second instance, Zion referred to the temple mount which was north of the hill of Ophel.
The word “Zion” can also refer to Jerusalem – it’s often used as a synonym for Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:21; Ps. 69:35; Isa. 1:8; 40:9). This is clearest in poetic passages where “Zion” is the parallel term to “Jerusalem” (Ps. 51:18; 76:2; 102:21; 135:21; 147:12; Isa. 2:3; 33:20; 37:32; 40:9; 41:27; 62:1; Jer. 26:18; 51:35; Amos 1:2; Zeph. 3:14). In these instances, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can also be figures of speech for the inhabitants of Jerusalem or for the land of Judah or Israel or for the Jewish people as a whole.
Jerusalem is also called God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 48:1NET)(Jer. 31:23; Dan. 9:6; 20ESV). The city is said to be holy because it includes the temple. Joel gives a warning in Zion, God’s holy hill and promises future peace (Joel 2:1; 3:17). Likewise, God promises to return to Zion, the holy hill, and bring back the Jews to restore Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity (Zech. 8:3).
In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is called “Zion”, “Mount Zion”, “the city of the Lord Almighty” and “the city of our God”. In Psalm 87, Jerusalem is called “Zion” and “city of God”. In captivity, the Jews said “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-5). The Babylonians had asked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”, but they couldn’t do this because they were committed to not forget Jerusalem.
So in the third instance, Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem or its inhabitants or the kingdom associated with Jerusalem.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the name Zion was assigned to its present location across the Tyropoeon Valley (see Josephus). Apparently the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover (Mk. 14:15; Lk. 22:12) and the room where the disciples gathered after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:13) were in this area. So, today the more dominant western hill is called “Mount Zion”.
So in the fourth instance, Zion refers to the hill west of the Tyropoeon Valley. This means that “Zion” has been used to describe three hills in Jerusalem: the hill of Opel, the temple mount, and the western hill.
In the coming millennial kingdom “the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isa. 24:23). In that day Jerusalem will be the religious and political capital of the world (Isa. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3, 7). Once again, God calls Zion “my holy hill” (Joel 3:17). That’s where Christ reigns and where people worship Him (Ps. 99:2,9). As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the fifth instance, Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem. This is similar to the third instance only Christ will be personally present, and not just represented by a cloud.
The Greek word translated “Zion” (Sion, Strongs #4622), occurs seven times in the New Testament. Five of these are synonyms of Jerusalem from the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 21:5; Jn. 12:15; Rom. 9:33; 11:26; 1 Pt. 2:6). Another seems to refer to the second coming, which results in Christ’s Millennial reign in Jerusalem (Rev. 14:1). We will now look at the other instance of “Zion” in the New Testament.
In the New Testament “Mount Zion” refers metaphorically to the heavenly Jerusalem, God’s holy, eternal city. Hebrews says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is the eternal dwelling place of God and His people (Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).
Just as there is an earthly Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so there will be a heavenly Mount Zion and new Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). As the Bible progresses, the word Zion expands in scope and takes on an additional, spiritual meaning. As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the universe from the new heavenly Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the sixth instance, Zion refers to the new heavenly Jerusalem inhabited eternally by God and His people.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Zion stretches from about 3,000 years ago into the eternal future. Zion was a holy place for the Jews because that was where God dwelt. This was true for the hill of Ophel, the Temple Mount and for the city of Jerusalem. But according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit now lives in Christians. They are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. This means that instead of holy places, we now have holy people. Does our practice match our position? Do we respect each other as being holy?
In the coming stages of God’s plan of salvation, Zion is associated with both Christ’s earthly reign from Jerusalem and with God’s eternal reign from the new heavenly Jerusalem. Are we looking forward to this time? Does it encourage us in our Christian lives?
Written, August 2016