From Genesis to Revelation
History is full of examples of the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). The Titanic was declared indestructible by its proud makers, but it sank on its maiden voyage. The word “Babylon” occurs in about 270 verses of the Bible, where it is associated with humanism, materialism, pride and wealth. But we will see that this atheistic way of life is doomed to destruction.
Is “Babel” the same as “Babylon”?
The Hebrew word that’s translated “Babylon” (Babel, Strongs #894) can also be translated “Babel”. The reason for this is that the written Hebrew text only uses consonants and not vowels. The word “Babel” means confusion, because that’s where God caused different languages to arise and cause confusion between the different groups of people (Gen. 11:9). It’s not a Hebrew word, but is a word from one of the Semitic languages of the Shinar region. “Babel” was most likely what the place of the Tower was called by the Semitic people who lived in Shinar at the time of the final editing of the Old Testament (about 450 BC). The Greek name “Babylon” comes from the Assyrian word Bab-ilani, which means “gate of the gods”. The first occurrence of this Hebrew word (Babel, Strongs #894) in the Bible is in Genesis 10:10 where a city in the kingdom of Nimrod (Noah’s great-grandson) is said to be: “Babel” (ESV, NET) or “Babylon” (CSB, NIV, NLT). And the NET says “or Babylon”, and the Septuagint (written about 3rd to 1st century BC) says “Babylon”. So the ESV is the only one of these five modern translations that doesn’t specifically equate Babel with Babylon. So the consensus is that the words Babel and Babylon refer to the same geographic location.
Nimrod was a mighty warrior and a great hunter. Babel (Babylon) was one of the cities in his kingdom and he built the city of Nineveh, which became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nimrod rebelled against God and the tower of Babel was probably one of his projects. His personal emblems were the dragon and the snake. “Ancient gods and their associated legends arose from the deification of dead human heroes” (Merrill, 2005). This happened to Nimrod and his wife Semiramis.
After the flood, God told Noah’s descendants to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1NIV). But they embarked on a project to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves (a reputation that would be honoured after death) and thereby avoid being “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11:4). The tower was to keep people together, so they wouldn’t spread out across the earth. Maybe it was to be a place to sacrifice to God. In fact, ziggurats and pyramids have been used all over the world for religious events. It seems as though this disobedience against God’s command to fill the earth may have occurred at Babylon (Babel). However, God responded by confusing their languages, which resulted in them being scattered “over all the earth” after all (Gen. 11:9).
So, in about 2200 BC, Nimrod and the people of Babel (Babylon) rebelled against God. They were anti-God. God’s plan was that people spread out across the earth and form nations (Gen. 10 – The table of nations), whereas they congregated in the same area, glorified humanity, and took pride in their achievements.
A powerful and wicked nation
The ancient city of Babylon was located on the Euphrates river, about 80km (50 miles) south of the modern city of Baghdad (in Iraq). Abraham travelled through it on his way from Ur to Haran and then Palestine (Gen. 11:31). About 1,500 years later this city became the head of the Babylonian Empire.
After conquering Assyria in 612 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC (2 Ki. 24:7). The Babylon Empire ruled the Middle East for about 70 years (612 – 539 BC).
Babylon was a great city with an area of about 200 square miles (513 square km). It was protected by a double brick wall with towers and a moat (Jer. 51:53, 58). Access was via eight gates, the best known being the Ishtar Gate with images of dragons and bulls. There were many temples to gods and goddesses, including Marduk (also called Bel, Jer. 50:2). The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Babylon was likened to a queen and a jewel (Isa. 13:19; 47:5). It was a city of merchants and traders, and manufacture of clothing (Josh. 7:21; Ezek. 17:4). King Nebuchadnezzar called it “The great Babylon” and he was proud of his achievements (Dan. 4:30). Babylon was wealthy (Jer. 50:37; 51:13) and had great military and naval power (Isa. 43:14; Jer. 5:16; 50:23). The Babylonians thought they were invincible.
But the Babylonians were cruel and arrogant (Isa. 14:13-14, 17; 47:6-10; Jer. 50:31-32; 51:25; Hab. 1:6-7). They trusted in sorcery and astrology (Isa. 47:9, 12-13; Dan.2:1-2) and followed idols (Jer. 50:38; Dan. 34:18). Jeremiah said that “it is a land of idols” (Jer. 50:38). Babylonians were also irreverent and wicked (Isa. 47:10; Dan. 5:1-3) and oppressive (Isa. 14:4).
Babylon and Judah
God made a covenant with the nation of Israel (Ex. 24:1-8). The conditions of the covenant were given in the law of Moses and they were summarized in the Ten Commandments. There were rewards for keeping the covenant and punishments for disobedience (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). The punishments included being invaded, taken captive and being scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:27-35; Dt. 28:36-37, 47-57). Once Israel accepted the covenant, they were bound to the promises made to God.
Unfortunately, the message of the prophets and the history of Israel show that Israel did not keep the demands of the covenant. They broke the covenant and worship idols like Baal by offering sacrifices to them, and trusting them for fertility, healing and deliverance from enemies (Jer. 19:4-5). Because they were unfaithful to God, God divorced the kingdom of Israel and allowed them to be invaded by Assyria (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:1-13). But Judah took no notice of this and continued to be unfaithful! God said that they were guilty of spiritual adultery. They were like an unfaithful wife (Jer. 3:20; 9:2; Ezek. 6:9) and like a prostitute (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1-5; Ezek. 16:15-34). The prophets used these metaphors repeatedly. And because Judah continued to be unfaithful to God (like an adulterer or prostitute), God’s judgement was that they would be destroyed by the nations they idolised (Ezek. 16:35-43).
When Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon sent envoys to king Hezekiah of Judah (who ruled 715 – 686 BC), they were shown the kingdom’s wealth. After Isaiah questioned Hezekiah, he prophesied that all of Judah’s wealth “will be carried off to Babylon” and some of the people would be deported as well (2 Ki. 20:12-18; 2 Chron. 32:31; Is. 39:1-4). This prophecy happened over 100 years before the Babylonian exile and before the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians.
Because Judah was a “rebellious people”, the prophets predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Isa. 22:1-25; Jer. 21:3-14; Ezek. 12:1-3). Ezekiel said, “Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25:8-11).
Fall of Jerusalem
King Nebuchnezzar lead three campaigns against Judah: 605 BC, 580 BC and 586 BC. In the final campaign he conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and deported part of its population to Babylonia (2 Ki. 24:1 – 25:21; 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Ezra 5:2; Jer. 39:1-10; 52:12-30). So Babylon was God’s instrument to punish Judah (Ezek. 21:1-27).
Psalm 137 records the feelings of a Jew who was captive in Babylon. The first three verses say:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem).
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
They missed their homeland and didn’t want to sing Jewish songs to their captors. Daniel was deported in 605 BC and he tells us what it was like living in Babylon in his book of the Old Testament (Dan. Ch. 1-6).
Even the remnant of Jews who escaped to Egypt would be largely destroyed because they burnt incense to “the Queen of Heaven”, who was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (derived from Semirami, the wife of Nimrod).
End of empire
Although Babylon was God’s agent for the punishment of Judah, the Old Testament prophets predicted that God would also punish Babylon (Isa. 13-14; 21:1-10; 47; Jer. 25:12-14; 50-51). Babylon was to receive what she had done to others (Jer. 50:15, 29; 51:24,35,49). They said that it would become uninhabited (Isa. 13:19-22) and a heap of ruins (Jer. 51:37). Babylon’s judgement was inevitable (Isa. 47:1-15).
“Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19).
“Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals (dragons, dinosaurs) an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives” (Jer. 51:37).
Fall of Babylon
In 539 BC, Babylon surrendered without a battle to Cyrus king of the Persians. This enabled groups of Jews to return to help restore the city of Jerusalem in 538 BC (Zerubbabel), 458 BC (Ezra) and 444 BC (Nehemiah). Their efforts are described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Babylon fell into disrepair after the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC and after this it declined in importance and it is now only a mound of rubble (a tell). The kingdoms that followed Babylon were the Medes and Persians, the Greek, and the Roman. Like the Babylonian Empire, these were all anti-God (they had different gods).
After Jesus was born, Magi (Magos; Strongs #3097) came from the east to worship Him (Mt. 2:1, 7, 16). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, a magus is the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, prophets, sorcerers etc. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the Magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians who lived to the east of Palestine. The magi were skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words “magic” and “magician” are derived.
The magi were a powerful group of advisors in the Babylonian empire. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; which none of the other court seers was able to do; Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (Dan. 2:48).
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, the magi would have learned much from that prophet about the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times. So the Magi who visited Jesus probably travelled from somewhere near Babylon (in their day Parthia) and followed a similar route to Palestine as Abraham did many years before.
Symbol of Rome?
“Babylon” is also mentioned in the New Testament. Peter’s greetings at the end of his first letter include: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Pt. 5:13). “She” could refer to an individual woman or to a church with whom Peter is staying. According to the NET, “Most scholars understand Babylon here to be a figurative reference to Rome. Although in the Old Testament the city of Babylon in Mesopotamia was the seat of tremendous power (2 Ki. 24-25; Isa. 39; Jer. 25), by the time of the New Testament what was left was an insignificant town, and there is no tradition in Christian history that Peter ever visited there. On the other hand, Christian tradition connects Peter with the church in Rome, and many interpreters think other references to Babylon in Revelation refer to Rome as well (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). Thus it is likely Peter was referring to Rome here”. Also, Peter was in Rome in the final years of his life.
Peter may have used “Babylon” as a symbol for the city of Rome in order to protect the Christians in Asia Minor from prosecution. Nero was the Roman Emperor when this letter was written in about AD 62. It’s interesting to note that John Mark was in Rome with Paul in about AD 60 (Col. 4:10), which is consistent with him being in Rome with Peter when this letter was written. So it seems that in this instance Peter probably used a metaphor to describe Rome as being like Babylon.
Just as ancient Babylon had oppressed the Jewish exiles, the Roman Empire was persecuting the Christians that lived in Rome. It also invaded Jerusalem in AD 70, burned the temple and dispersed the Jews from their homeland. So there are similarities between Babylon and the Roman Empire.
What about the references to “Babylon” written in about AD 95 in Revelation (14:8, 16:19; 17:5; 18:1, 2, 10, 21)? According to the Futuristic interpretation of Revelation, its structure is outlined in 1:19. “What will take place later” (after AD 95 and still future) is given in 4:1 – 22:5. This includes aspects of the tribulation (Rev. 6:1-18:24) between the rapture (when all Christians are taken to heaven) and the second coming of Christ (after which Christ rules on earth for 1,000 years). The events of the tribulation are designed to bring Israel back to God.
“Babylon” in Revelation
Babylon is mentioned in the judgement associated with the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-21). The context is the second coming of Christ at the end of the great tribulation. It doesn’t relate to the true church because all believers are taken to be with the Lord at the rapture. The fall of Babylon is also mentioned in Revelation 14:8 and more details are given in chapters 17-18. Chapter 17 is the religious fall of Babylon and chapter 18 the political fall of Babylon. Babylon stands for a global system of religion in chapter 17 and a global system of government and commerce in chapter 18.
Revelation 17-18 is apocalyptic literature. Ancient apocalyptic writings were filled with visions that revealed hidden truths in figurative language for the purpose of assuring persecuted people of the goodness of God’s ways. For example, Ezekiel 37-39 and Daniel 7-12 were messages to the Jews who were devastated after their defeat and exile by the Babylonians.
“Babylon” is symbolised as a prostitute riding upon a scarlet beast. Her name is “Babylon the great – the mother of prostitutes – and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5-6). She also commits spiritual adultery (Rev. 14:8). In the old Testament, “prostitution” and “adultery” were used symbolically to describe God’s people when they followed the idols of other nations instead of following the true God (Ezek. 16:26-32; 23:1-48). So Babylon the great is a spiritual adulterer and a prostitute; an apostate religion. Grant Richison calls her a “worldwide ecumenical religion”, a super-religion.
This apostate religion will be attractive and wealthy and comprised of unbelievers. It will blend different belief systems together. And she will cause the death of martyrs who will preach the gospel of the kingdom of God in the tribulation period (Rev. 11:1-10; 17:6; 18:24).
The woman rides a beast with seven heads that represent “seven hills on which the woman sits” (Rev. 17:7, 9). Some think that this refers to Rome, which has seven hills. But this passage is not dealing with a literal city or mountains but with kings (Rev. 17:10, 12).
The fall of Babylon is predicted as being God’s judgment. The global systems of religion, government and commerce think they are invincible. But they will receive what they have done to others (Rev. 18:5-6, 20). This is a principle that God uses in “the day of the Lord” (Obad. 1:15). Babylon is also guilty of pride, idolatry, and demon possession (Rev. 18:2, 7). And it’s clear that the global systems of religion, government and commerce are based on materialism and humanism.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Babylon stretches from about 4,200 years ago to the coming tribulation between the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Babylon is opposite to Zion. Babylon was a wicked place (where people rebelled against God), while Zion was a holy place (where God lived).
It reminds us that:
– God kept His promises to Israel. The law said that if they disobeyed God and followed idols, they would be expelled from Palestine (Dt. 4:25-28; 28:62-65; 30:1-3). And that’s what happened. Likewise, God will keep His promises given to us in the New Testament.
– God is sovereign over all the events in human history. He is powerful (source of different languages and different nations; and caused the rise and fall of nations). And He uses who He wills to achieve His purposes. He used a pagan nation to punish Judah.
– God judged the wickedness of Babylon. Likewise, in the future God will judge all evil and wickedness.
– Apostate religion is doomed. God wants us to separate from apostate religion.
– Materialism and humanism is doomed. God wants us to separate from materialism and humanism.
Steven Merrill (2005) “Nimrod. Darkness in the cradle of civilization”. Diakonoa Publishing. Greenboro, North Carolina, USA.
Grant Richison. Commentary on the book of Revelation.
Written, February 2017; Edited January 2019
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
Many battles at Megiddo
If you don’t acknowledge the Creator God, you will foillow a false god or a false idea
When you travel by commercial airline in Australia, the terms with your ticket include the following: “For safety reasons, dangerous goods may not be packed in checked or carry-on luggage or taken on board with you.” In the USA they are called “hazardous materials” instead of “dangerous goods.”
Dangerous goods are grouped into nine classes including: explosives, compressed gases, flammable substances, oxidizing agents, toxic substances, radioactive substances and corrosives. Vehicles transporting dangerous goods display diamond shaped signs – red-colored for gasoline.
Dangerous goods can explode, burn and spill. Accidents with dangerous goods can cause major disasters – such as those involving rail, road or ocean tankers. Oil spills, such as the one off the coast of Spain last November, can contaminate seacoasts and oceans.
In my profession, I deal with dangerous goods, and sometimes when typing reports I accidentally leave out an “o” and type them as “dangerous gods.” When that happens, I’m reminded that we live in a world of dangerous gods. Let’s look at some of them.
Secularism and the pursuit of leisure, pleasure and wealth characterize much of the western world. Secularism is a rejection of all religious faith. It assumes that scientific, rational faith is superior to religious faith. But we all make assumptions, and live by them. How reliable are the ideas from science and rational minds that we have faith in?
The Bible says atheists are fools: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1 NIV). This doesn’t mean that such people are not intelligent; many atheists and agnostics are very clever people. They are foolish by choice; in their thoughts “there is no room for God” (Ps. 10:4). Because they feel no need for God, they live as if He never existed. Agnostics say they don’t know whether there is a God, but they generally behave as if God doesn’t exist. The motivation for both seems to be that they don’t want to be accountable to a supreme being.
If you don’t acknowledge the Creator God, you will follow a false god or a false idea: “When you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Rom. 1:23-25; Gal. 4:8-9). This is the most dangerous god of all because it is Satan’s deception to lead people to the lake of fire (Mt. 25:41). This disaster goes on and on. There are no fire fighters, no emergency response crew and no chance of rescue there!
The Bible’s answer to atheists and agnostics is, “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). He has revealed Himself in creation and in our conscience (Rom. 2:1-16).
Money And Possessions
There is another dangerous god. After his return from a visit to Europe an early Chinese philosopher declared, “The European god is not so large as the Chinese. It is so small that one can take it in the hand. It is round, made of silver and gold, bears inscriptions, and is called money.” My uncle used to say, “Money is round to go around, but it is also flat to stack.”
In the western world people often aspire to a standard of living well beyond their means. What were once luxuries are now essential parts of daily life. Credit card debt and personal bankruptcies have soared and people work longer hours to finance their purchases.
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions” (Lk. 12:15). Self-worth is not measured by possessions. But what you think you own may end up owning you! Money isn’t evil, but it is seductive: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). A strong desire for wealth leads to sinful behavior. If we keep chasing better jobs, investments and possessions, we will lose the desire to live for the true God. Wealth doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction and is easily lost (1 Tim. 6:17).
The Bible’s answer to those seeking money and possessions is this: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8). “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). God doesn’t value us according to our money and possessions, so we shouldn’t use these to compare ourselves with others. Instead, God wants us to be “generous and willing to share” our money for His work (1 Tim. 6:18-19). We need wisdom as we earn, save, give and spend money.
Selfish ambition is another dangerous god. One of the reasons why the Jews didn’t accept Jesus was because they placed high importance on receiving approval, recognition and honor from others (Jn. 5:44). They wanted praise from others, not praise from God.
It’s good to have goals and a purpose in life. However, they should be godly, not selfish. Jesus was asked to give James and John a prominent position in His kingdom, a place of authority and recognition (Mt. 20:21). Like Pharisees, they desired a place of honor (Mt. 23:6). Also, the disciples argued among themselves as to who would be greatest among them (Lk. 9:46).
This can also happen in the local church. Paul said, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us” (3 Jn. 9). Diotrephes loved being the leader. He took charge and dominated others. This is pride and arrogance supposedly carried out in God’s name!
The Bible’s answer to those seeking a position of importance is, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:26-28). Jesus Christ did not come to earth to be served but to serve.
Legalism And Religion
The next two dangerous gods are opposites, either adding to or taking away from what God has revealed in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible, and liberalism involves taking away from it. Both are mindsets from the sinful nature, not from the divine nature. They are associated with distorted views of “grace” and “truth.”
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works.”
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules; Jesus strongly criticized their religious practices (Mt. 23). Strict religious rules don’t have power over the sinful nature (Col. 2:20-23).
The risk of legalism comes from within the Church. The Bible is largely comprised of principles which can be expressed in many ways. Any group that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to change, as some confuse change with liberalism.
So, we should be careful not to equate customs and traditions with biblical truth. Otherwise we will be locked into the practices of times past, and become irrelevant and old-fashioned to today’s generation. Instead, we should unselfishly consider today’s generation and be culturally relevant. We also need to avoid pride, and “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7). “For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Liberalism And Pleasure
Liberalism interprets the Bible and Christianity in terms of current ideas and reasoning. This means using the glasses of secular humanism where “reason and science” replace “faith” and “license” replaces “grace.” From this viewpoint, there is no such thing as right or wrong or sin. There is no need for God’s grace or a Savior, and we have license to live as we wish. We are the authority, instead of God.
The Gnostics were liberals who influenced Christians to think they were free from moral law because of grace. Liberalism involves doctrinal error, hedonism and immorality (2 Tim. 4:3; Jude 4-10), where people “follow their own evil desires” (Jude 16).
The risk of liberalism and pleasure comes from the culture we live in. Christians are exposed to the media, movies, and advertisements. We must be aware that these preach humanism, hedonism and materialism. For example, TV and movies encourage sexual immorality. The Church needs to be relevant to the culture but not accept its values. This is a challenge.
We need to recognize sin. Paul wrote, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom 6:1-2). “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13).
The Bible says that these dangerous gods are idols (1 Chr. 16:26; Ps. 96:5; Gal. 4:8-9). They hinder and entangle Christians causing them to backslide and lose their joy (Gal. 4:15; Heb. 12:1). That is why believers are urged to get rid of them (Gal. 4:30; 1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Jn. 5:21). We should be reminded of this when we see “dangerous goods” or “hazardous materials” signs.
Jesus said the religious leaders were able to predict the weather by interpreting the sky’s appearance, but could not interpret the signs of the times (Mt. 16:1-3). Likewise, sometimes we fail to recognize the dangerous gods in our midst.
Dangerous goods need to be contained so they can be used safely and not explode, burn or pollute the environment. When large quantities are involved, it is good practice to provide more than one level of protection. Major industries typically have three levels of protection for dangerous goods: the container, an impervious wall, and drainage to a spill tank.
With dangerous goods the policy is always “Safety First.” But if there is an emergency, people refer to the “Material Safety Data Sheet” to find out how to bring it under control. The MSDS is written by the manufacturer of the hazardous material. Similarly, the Bible was written for our protection, providing three levels of protection against dangerous gods.
1. Leaders. Paul warned against the dangerous gods of his time, including: pagan idols (1 Cor. 10:14), Jewish legalism (Gal.), liberalism and sexual immorality, false teachings, and all sorts of sinful behavior, including greed (Eph. 4:17-5:6). The elders at the church of Ephesus cared for the flock, and part of that care was to warn about dangerous gods (Acts 20:28; 1 Th. 5:12). Similarly, our leaders, preachers and teachers should remind us of the dangerous gods today and help us stand against them. We should listen to and obey our leaders (Heb. 13:17).
2. Peers. “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Gal. 6:1). Here we see Christians helping to get a friend back onto the right path. In these situations we should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). We need to have Christian friends so we can help each other stand against dangerous gods. This means knowing each other well, telling the truth and respecting the advice and help offered (Gal. 4:16).
3. Individuals. We don’t have household gods as Laban did, or do we? (Gen. 31:19, 33-35). God said, “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Ex. 12:12). Likewise, we need to judge them in our lives.
“We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1). Christians should remember the truths learned from the Bible, so they are not deceived into following dangerous gods. These gods can be tempting (Heb. 2:18). Jesus used Scripture to deal with temptation (Mt. 4). But how can we combat temptation, if we don’t know the Scripture?
In the beginning God created the universe and it was excellent in every way. But Adam and Eve’s disobedience affected God’s creation. Today all creation groans with pain, and longs to be released from its slavery to decay and death, and to live in a world free from sin. In the future, God will judge the ungodly, as He did in Noah’s day, but this time by destroying His creation with fire not a flood. Then He has promised to replace it with a new creation that is perfect and free from sin (Gen. 9:15; 2 Pet. 3:7-13).
That’s the big picture of the material world made up of atoms and molecules that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. It is essential for living, providing such things as air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and materials to use from farms, mines, forests and factories.
We can have three possible attitudes toward the material or physical world: we can idolize it, despise it, or use it to honor God. Let’s look at each view and its consequences.
Idolizing The Material World
Ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun and the Nile River as gods. There were also sacred animals such as the cow and the crocodile. Remember Aaron’s golden calf (Ex. 32:4)? There have also been sacred mountains and trees, and some people have even worshiped images and shrines.
Most of us do not idolize such things today, but materialism dominates the thinking of many. For example, many believe that the physical world made itself; so there was no separate Creator. Also, many consider possessions and pleasure to be their goals in life.
What does the Bible say about this? According to the Epistle to the Romans, people who worship idols have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” It also says that “although they claim to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:25,22 NIV). This means that rejecting the Creator-God is a lie, and living for possessions and pleasure is a lie. Such people are “worshiping” creation instead of the Creator, and adoring what is made instead of the Maker. They are foolish, living for something they cannot keep (Mt. 6:19).
We should not “run after” material things nor live for money and possessions; instead we should be content with what we have (Mt. 6:31-32; 1 Tim. 6:8, 17; Heb. 13:5). God knows our needs. As our time on earth is short, we should not be taken up with the things in our lives (1 Cor. 7:31).
What is the consequence of this way of life? Living for possessions makes it difficult to follow Christ (Mt. 19:23-24). Such people use excuses to reject the gospel (Lk. 14:16-19). It also crowds out the Christian’s chance of maturing (Lk. 8:14). Unfortunately this is evident around the world today. As in life we reap what we sow, these behaviors are often a result of being devoted to the material world (2 Cor. 9:6).
Warnings about our attitude toward money can also be applied to the material world: “The love of money (or the material world) is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). So idolizing the material world is a great source of evil. Christians should always remember that Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money (or material things)” (Mt. 6:24).
Despising The Material World
The opposite view, that of despising the material world and looking down upon it, can be traced back to Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived about 400 b.c. He valued the soul and mind much more than the body and nature. Then in the first few centuries a.d. the Gnostics thought that all matter was evil. They only valued the unseen spirit and believed that the body was worthless. They minimized contact with the physical world.
Christianity in the Middle Ages also concentrated on the heavenly realm, so nature was absent from their art. This view of the world has crept into some forms of Christianity today, where the only interest is in heavenly things, in saving the soul and getting to heaven. Little emphasis is placed on the proper pleasures of the body or the proper use of the intellect. Bodily senses and pleasures are despised and regarded as being evil.
What does the Bible say about this? Colossians 2:20-23 describes such people as living under many rules and regulations. They have long lists of don’ts: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (v. 21). These are merely the wisdom of sinful people (v. 22), not God’s intention for us today, as the New Testament gives us general principles, not detailed rules. Remember, the Jews had the best set of rules in the world, but they couldn’t follow them! These rules may seem good. They may appear to make you love God more and to be very humble and to have control over your body. But they don’t really have any power over our desires (v. 23). They only result in pride.
The consequence of this way of life is a list of useless rules. We are driven internally, not externally. It is the attitude of the mind that is evil, not the material world (Mt. 15:10-20; 1 Tim. 6:10). Remember, everything that God created is good (1 Tim. 4:4). “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (the material world) but against … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Eph. 6:12). So the material world is neither evil nor against us; it is with us, sharing both our suffering and our longing to be released from the influence of sin (Rom. 8:18-23).
Using The Material World To Honor God
If the material world is not an idol to be devoted to nor an evil to be despised, then how should we view our material world? As created by God, it was very good; and although now spoiled by sin, it still belongs to Him. So it shows God’s unique power (Rom. 1:20). Also, it is sustained by God: “In Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
Adam was to work the material world, take care of it and receive food from it (Gen. 2:15-16). As a consequence of the fall into sin, this work is difficult and many struggle to survive (Gen. 3:17-19). The thought of needing to work for our food is repeated in the New Testament (2 Th. 3:10). Paul thanked God for food before he ate; likewise we should be thankful for the physical resources that God provides for us (Acts 27:35).
People still have some of God’s image, which gives them extra value (Gen. 9:6). God loves all people (Jn. 3:16), body, soul and spirit. In fact, God loves people more than anything else in the material world, and to demonstrate this Jesus healed their diseases (Mt. 4:23) and died for their sins.
Jesus had a body and lived in the material world (Heb. 2:14). Our bodies and the physical world will be transformed one day, like Jesus was after His resurrection (Rom. 8:18-23; Phil. 3:21). The believer’s body is like a temple where the Spirit lives, and which God bought with the blood of Jesus. So we should use our bodies to honor God (1 Cor. 6:20). The same principle can apply to the physical world of which our bodies are a part.
We are urged to give our bodies to God (Rom. 12:1), and are told, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God … and offer the parts of your body to Him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Here we see that the body can be viewed as an instrument or a tool which can be used for good or bad purposes. Again, the same principle can apply to the physical world.
This means we should honor God in our way of living in the material world. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we need to work out what this means in the various areas of our lives such as: work, housing, transport, care of our bodies, recreation, sport, how we use our money and possessions, nature and the environment, art, music, literature, movies and TV. What are our dreams and goals?
“Nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). When God replays the video entitled “This is your life,” our lives will be shown for what they are (1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:10). Will we be assets or liabilities for Him? Will there be much evidence that we honored Him in our material world? Will His life be obvious in ours? (2 Cor. 4:11).
How Christ Used The Material World
It is instructive to be reminded of how Jesus Christ used the physical world in what He said and did, teaching spiritual principles and helping others. Parables, metaphors, similes, and illustrations from the material world were used liberally in His teaching of the disciples and the people. In this way, people had a visual impression of the truth being taught and they would have been reminded of it whenever they came across the object or situation in everyday life.
Christ healed diseases, calmed the storm and fed the hungry – for the benefit of people. He taught that God knows all about our circumstances and will provide our material needs (Mt. 6:33; 10:30). Likewise, we should remember to use the material world and life’s circumstances to teach spiritual principles. Helping to meet others’ physical needs is part of being Christ’s ambassadors on earth (2 Cor. 5:20).
The Material World Is Not The Sinful World
Sometimes the Bible uses the words “earthly” and “world” to describe the sinful nature. For example, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2,5). “Do not love the world or anything in the world” is explained as referring to sinful craving, lust and boasting (1 Jn. 2:15-16). Also, “earthly” wisdom is described as “unspiritual, of the devil” (Jas. 3:15) and “jealousy and quarreling” as “worldly” (1 Cor. 3:3).
This is an example of metonymy – the rhetorical technique of using one thing to represent another thing to which it is related in some way, such as “crown” instead of “king.” It is a figure of speech, like a metaphor, where words do not take their literal meaning. Here the words are linked because sin entered the world via Adam and Eve who were created from the physical world (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:47). So when “earthly” and “world” are used in this manner they mean “sinful,” not “material.” They are contrasted with “heavenly” which is used metonymically to mean “divine,” as Christ came from heaven to bring divine life (Phil. 3:19-20; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). Confusion regarding this distinction can lead to falsely despising the material world and considering it evil.
Although the Bible says believers are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we presently live on planet Earth. Our time here is relatively brief and our planet has a finite future (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12). Considering our destiny, we can be pictured as strangers visiting Earth (1 Pet. 2:11).
The physical world is not an idol to be devoted to; this is a lie that results in evil behavior. Also, it is not an evil to be despised; this attitude results in a list of useless rules. The Bible shows us that the material world should be valued and used to honor God.