Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “New Testament

Search for the real Jesus

“Believers revere Him as the Son of God. Skeptics dismiss Him as a legend. Artists cast Him in images that reflect their own time and place. Today, archaeologists digging in the Holy Land are helping to sift fact from fiction”. That’s the introduction to an article in National Geographic magazine (December 2017) by Kristin Romey on what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus. Romey hoped to discover how Christians texts and traditions compare to the discoveries of archaeologists.

Could Jesus have never existed?

Is it possible that the story of Jesus is pure invention and He never really existed? Although this is the view of some outspoken skeptics, it’s not that of scholars such as archaeologists. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University says, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure”. And professor Bryon McCane of Atlantic University says, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist”. Even scholars who disbelieve Christ’s miraculous deeds believe that Jesus did certain things in Galilee and he did certain things in Jerusalem that resulted in his execution. (more…)


Is the New Testament reliable?

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

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

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

Explanation of 1 John 5:7-8

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

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

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

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

Addition to 1 John 5:7

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

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

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

Other additions to the Bible

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

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

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

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

Contradictory or consistent?

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written, December 2016

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


Does the New Testament condone slavery?

Roman slave & masterElevated status for Christian slaves

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

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

Philemon and Onesimus

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

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

Equal before God

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

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

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

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

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

Christian slaves and workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian masters and team leaders

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

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

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

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

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

Reconciliation

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Lessons for us

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

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

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

Written, April 2013


What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?

Dealing with debatable matters

In the previous article we saw that God communicates to us progressively through the Bible. So Old Testament (OT) verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the New Testament (NT). In doing this we can look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope in the OT which are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, which prohibited the Jews having tattoos, the tests for a tattoo today could be: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?

Now we will look at how the teachings of the NT apply to this topic, which provides further insight into how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives. The previous article stated that tattooing was not mentioned specifically in the NT. However, some people think the following verses could refer to tattoos. During the time of tribulation after true Christians are taken to heaven, the false prophet will force “all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666” (Rev. 13:16-18TNIV). Also, when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and to set up His kingdom, “On His robe and on His thigh He has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Rev. 19:16).

As the word translated “mark” (Strongs #5480) is a scratch or etching; something engraved or stamped it looks like it could be a literal mark on the skin. However, this is only an inference. The word translated “written” (Strong’s #1125) usually refers to something written in a book, scroll, or on a board. However, it may be symbolic not literal, like the sword out of His mouth (v.15). Obviously, there can be various views on the “mark” and the “writing”.

Debatable Matters

In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a tattoo can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognising false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.

Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1TNIV) or “doubtful things” (NKJV), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions. Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterised by practical righteousness, peace and joy.

The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.

The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “Some consider one day more sacred than another; others consider every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?

When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.

God’s Honor

First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?

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

The Welfare of Others

Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.

Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)

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

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

Acceptance

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

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

Harmony

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

Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.

Don’t quarrel

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

Don’t judge

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

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

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

Don’t hinder spiritual growth

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

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

Order in the Church

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

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

Tattoos

As tattoos are permanent, consider whether we and our family will still want or regret a tattoo in many years time. Also, because images affect our thoughts, any tattoo or image that we focus on should be true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy and not obscene (Eph. 5:4; Phil. 4:8). For example, it could symbolise a Biblical truth which benefits our relationship with Christ.

Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a tattoo or not (Rom. 12:1).

Lessons For Us

When considering tattoos and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honor or dishonor God? Are we acting in love?

Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church?

Let’s apply these NT principles to the debateable maters in our daily lives.

Written, August 2009

See the other articles in this series:
What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?


What does the Old Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?

A tattoo is a permanent marking made by inserting ink into the layers of skin to change the pigment for decorative or other reasons. Tattooing is a tradition among indigenous peoples around the world. The symbolism and impact of tattoos varies in different places and cultures. We are looking at this topic because it gives us an example of how we can apply the teaching of Scripture to our daily lives.

The Bible

God has communicated to us in words that are recorded in the Bible. The Bible is a progressive revelation of God’s dealings with humanity, which is divided into two main parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (OT) records events up to the birth of Jesus Christ (B.C.) and was written in the Hebrew language to the Jewish nation. It begins with the creation of the universe and the first people Adam and his wife Eve and the fact that they disobeyed God. Because this rebellious pattern has been inherited by us all, we are all under God’s judgement. According to the OT, God chose the Jewish nation to be His special people, but they were unfaithful.

The New Testament (NT) records events after the birth of Jesus Christ (A.D.) and was written in the Greek language to Christians. It describes Jesus as the Son of God who came to pay the punishment for our rebellion by giving up His life. All those who recognise that He died for them and accept His offer of a future eternal life in a world without sadness, sickness, decay or death become His followers who are called Christians. The NT contains principles for living as a Christian.

The Jewish Bible is the OT, while the Christian Bible is the OT plus the NT. So, although the OT was not written to Christians it is the first part of their Bible, which provides the context for the NT.

In order to understand the meaning of any words we need to understand the text or words themselves and the context or how they are used.

The Text

The only specific mention of tattoos in the Bible is a command given to the Jews about 3,450 years ago; “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28NIV). The text is clear; it says don’t get tattoos. If that’s the complete answer to our question, we can stop now and finish early!

If you think that is the answer, then you would also need to obey the following commands which occur in the same chapter:

  • “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”, which would require removing many items from your wardrobe (Lev. 19:19).
  • “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”, which would require the cultivation of bushy sideburns and beards (Lev. 19:27).
  • “Observe my Sabbaths”, which would require keeping the Sabbath day as in OT times (Lev. 19:30).

So, in order to understand the context of this verse we will look at when it was written and why it was written.

The Context

When was it written?

The book of Leviticus is a series of commands that ends with; “These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites” (Lev. 27:34). It contains instructions given to the Jews as they travelled from Egypt to Canaan. As they were to be God’s people in that age, He gave them the ten commandments and many other instructions on how to live. The book of Leviticus was an instruction manual for the Jewish priests, who were from the tribe of Levi and so were called “Levites” (Ex. 32:25-29; Num. 8:5-22). That’s why it’s called Leviticus.

As Christians are God’s people today, and as God doesn’t change, the instructions in Leviticus may apply in some way to Christians today. However, as this was over 1,400 years before Christ lived on earth and founded the Christian faith, we would also expect that these instructions may apply in a different way to Christians today compared to how they applied to the Jews, or they may not apply at all.

Why was it written?

In order to understand the reason and circumstances for a verse, we can look at the verses nearby. Two main reasons are given for the instructions in Leviticus 19. The first reason was the requirement to be holy and the second reason was to not follow the wicked customs of the Egyptians and the Canaanites (Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30; 20:22-24, 26). They were commanded to “Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them” and to “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 18:30; 19:2).

The Hebrew word translated “holy” (Strongs #6918) is an adjective that describes something or someone as being “pure” or “devoted”. God is holy because He alone is pure and sinless. The Jews were to be holy in the sense that they were to be devoted to God. They were to show this by obeying His commands given in the OT (Ex. 19:5-6).

They were to be a nation that didn’t worship idols or offer child sacrifices or practice sexual immorality like the other nations (Lev. 18; 19:4; 20:1-5). Holiness is the key theme in Leviticus and it was to characterise the Jewish nation.

The Meaning for the Jews

What did “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves” mean when Moses was alive (Lev. 19:28)? A similar verse says, “You are the children of the LORD your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Dt. 14:1-2). Self-inflicted wounds were symbolic of self-sacrifice as an extreme method of arousing a pagan god to action. For example, the 450 prophets of Baal in Elijah’s day slashed themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed (1 Ki. 18:28).

So the tattoos were associated with people cutting their bodies and with pagan gods. As the “tattoo marks” described in Leviticus 19:28 were related to false religious practices, they were prohibited because God did not want the Jews to be identified with idolatry. The principle associated with this command is that God’s people were not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which was backsliding and deserting their Jewish faith.

Examples, Warnings, Encouragement and Hope

How should we interpret the OT today? According to Scripture, Christians are not required to obey Old Testament laws.  Because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the death penalty for everyone’s sin (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4), the Old Testament laws have been set aside and are obsolete (Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:18; 8:13) and believers are not under the laws received by Moses, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:23-25).

The following verses throw more light on the purpose of the OT. When Paul wrote about the need for self-discipline and self-control in the Christian life to be rewarded for faithful service, he thought of the examples and warnings from the history of the Jewish people (1 Cor. 10:1-13). “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Also, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Rom 15:4TNIV).

So, when OT laws are interpreted in terms of their context and the doctrines of the New Testament, useful principles and examples may be derived from these laws (1 Cor. 10:6-11; 2 Tim. 3:15-1). They can also be a source of encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4; Heb. 11). In this sense, the OT has a message for Christians. A test of the examples, warnings, encouragement and hope we find in the OT is that they must be consistent with the teachings of the NT. It’s like looking through polarised sunglasses, where only light in a particular plane is transmitted. Of course, the OT also contains references to the coming Messiah, which we can see by hindsight (Col. 2:17).

What examples and warnings can we learn for our everyday life from the Jewish prohibition on tattoos?

The Meaning for Christians

Text

As it is not mentioned in the New Testament, the practice of tattooing is not specifically prohibited for Christians today. However, a comment on Revelation 13:16-18 and 19:16 is given in the next article in this series.

Context

We are Christians living in 2009, not Jews travelling from Egypt to Canaan many years ago. Also, believers are under the new covenant, not the old one.

The two main reasons for the instruction in Leviticus were: the requirements to be holy, and not to follow the wicked customs of other nations. The first reason is repeated in the NT: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pt. 1:14-16); which quotes from Leviticus 19:2. Christians are also to be devoted to God and to show this by obeying His commands in the NT.

The second reason is also repeated in the NT. The Bible teaches that true believers display the fruit of the Spirit instead of the acts of the sinful nature and do not sin continually and habitually (Gal. 5:19-23; 1 Jn. 3:4-10).

So the overall reasons for the instruction still apply today. They are universal timeless principles. However, today a tattoo is usually a means of self expression and a personal decoration that is not associated with idolatry.

The meaning of Leviticus 19:28 for Christians is that God’s people are not to be involved with idolatry and false religious practices, which would be backsliding and deserting their faith. In this case, the faith is the Christian faith, not the Jewish faith. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that believers are to have nothing to do with idolatry (1 Cor. 10:7, 14; 1 Jn. 5:21) and not desert their faith, which is apostasy (Heb. 3:12).

Lessons For Us

What to know

There is a difference between the OT and the NT. Because the verses in the OT were written primarily to Jews and not to Christians, they may have no direct application to us today. As God communicates to us progressively through the Bible, OT verses need to be understood in view of the additional knowledge we have in the NT (Lk. 24:25-27).

What to do

When reading the OT, look for examples, warnings, encouragement and hope that are consistent with the messages given to churches in the NT. In the case of Leviticus 19:28, the questions that could be considered before a Christian gets a tattoo are: Is it consistent or inconsistent with being devoted to God? Is it linked to idolatry? Does it display the fruit of the Spirit or an act of the sinful nature? What is the motivation behind the tattoo?

These are factors we should consider when applying the OT to our daily lives.

Written, August 2009

See the other articles in this series:
What does the New Testament say about Christians getting tattoos?
What does the Bible say about Christians getting tattoos?


God’s great and precious promises

About 4,000 years ago Abraham received some special promises when God spoke to him. The bible contains many other promises as well and in this article we look at some key promises given for Christians today. As Abraham had to listen in order to hear God’s promises to him, we should read the Bible to know God’s promises for us.

A survey of the New Testament

The Greek word for promise is “epangalia” (Strongs #1860). This article is based on a survey of every occurrence of this word and its close derivatives in the New Testament that relate to God’s promises—this was 60 verses, which are all referenced below. I am assuming that these verses indicate God’s key promises for Christians living between the day of Pentecost and the rapture. We will look at the context of these verses to help discover—what message did they convey to those of the early church and what is their message for us?

The topics that relate to the word “promise” in these verses are listed in the table below. It is interesting that half of the verses relate to promises given to Abraham and his descendants—the majority of these being in the books of Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. This is not surprising as a majority of the early Christians were Jewish and the Old Testament was the only Scripture that the early church possessed. Therefore, God often used illustrations from the Old Testament. Also, these books deal with topics of those times, such as the fact that justification by faith and not works is taught in the Old Testament, and with the trap of legalistic Judaism.

Key promises mentioned in the New Testament

Promise Verses %
Given to Abraham and his descendants 32 53
Eternal life 12 20
Holy Spirit 7 12
Second coming or end times 6 10
Children of God 1 2
All God’s promises 2 3
Total 60 100

Old Testament promises mentioned in the New Testament

The greatest occurrence of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament relates to the promises given to Abraham and his descendants (Acts 7:5,17; Rom. 4:20-21; 9:4, 8, 9; Gal. 3:16; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 6:13; 7:6; 11:9,13,17,33). The three main messages in these passages are summarized below:

Firstly, God keeps His promises—Isaac was born “as the result of a promise” (Gal. 4:23NIV). “And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). This happened because of Abraham’s faith and God’s power (Heb 11:11).

This was an important message for the early church, particularly in times of persecution. They knew that their sins had been forgiven and they had a home in heaven. This gave them hope and security. It is also important for us during difficult and disappointing times—if we can’t trust in God, who can we trust? No-one. In a post-modern world, characterized by change and instability, it can be difficult to trust in God. When our faith is weak we act as though God is a part of creation; but of course God is not like us—He is reliable and always keeps His promises.

Secondly, Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 13:23,32; 26:6; Heb. 11:39). Paul wrote, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8). The remainder of this sentence says Christ came so that the Gentiles would also praise God. When sinners put their faith in Christ, they share in the promises given to Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 4:28).

As already mentioned a majority of the early Christians were Jewish. When they realized that Jesus was the Messiah, they converted from Judaism to Christianity and this truth about Jesus would have featured in evangelism to the Jews. For example, on the day of Pentecost Peter proclaimed, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” and Stephen told the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin, “you betrayed and murdered the Messiah”.

The message for us is that all God’s promises are fulfilled through Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). Paul writes that we are blessed with every spiritual blessing because we belong to Christ. The promises in the Old Testament look ahead to Christ and those for the future rely on His great sacrifice for the sin of the world.

Finally, God’s promise of salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt. In Romans 4 Paul shows how the gospel is in harmony with the Old Testament—God accepted Abraham because Abraham had faith in Him (Rom 4:13-14)—“The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). The Old Testament law was only a temporary measure until the coming of Christ (Gal. 3:17-19, 21-22). So, eternal life is guaranteed to those who have faith in God like Abraham did (Heb. 11:11).

The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews in the times of the early church. They endeavored to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law as interpreted and amplified by the scribes and their tradition and they believed in salvation by works. Consequently, the message of salvation by faith and not works was a vital distinction between Christianity and Judaism.

This truth is also important for us as it is fundamental to the Christian faith. Salvation is a gift that God promises to those who receive it by faith. There is no way we can earn our salvation. As a result of this salvation all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.

Eternal life

The second most prevalent topic associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament is that of eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Eternal life is one of the “better promises” in the new covenant that came though Christ (Heb. 8:6). It is shared by all believers—there is no distinction based on race or any other difference between believers (Eph. 3:6).

As Paul wrote concerning “a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time”, people who followed God in Old Testament times will be included in those who share eternal life  (Tit. 1:2).

Heaven, the place of eternal rest is still available to all who believe in Christ (2 Tim 1:1; Heb 4:1; 6:17). It is an “eternal inheritance” for all those who have been freed from the penalty of their sins by Christ’s death (Heb 6:12; 9:15; Jas. 2:5). All believers have eternal life and are looking forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord.

Heaven also includes rewards given at the judgement seat of Christ for service done for the Lord. For example, those who persevere under trials are promised “the crown of life”, which may be a deeper appreciation of eternal life in heaven (Jas. 1:12).

As God promises eternal life as a gift to sinners who receive it by faith it is guaranteed to all believers (Rom 4:16). We can be confident of this based on God’s Word, because we can’t earn salvation by good works.

Some in the early church thought Jews were privileged and so they looked down on Gentiles. But the fact that they both had eternal life and were indwelt by the Holy Spirit illustrated that there should be no barrier between them—Christianity is multinational! The same applies today—we should accept all true Christians as Christ would—regardless of differences in race, in status, or in gender.

The Holy Spirit

The word “epangalia” in the New Testament is also often associated with the topic of the Holy Spirit. Before His ascension, Christ promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come as had been promised in the Old Testament (Is. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit is God and He gives believers a divine power. This happened initially on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). This promise was for all believers, whether they were Jews (“you and your children”) or Gentiles (“all who are far off”) (Acts 2:39).

The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation—“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession” (Eph. 1:13). This pattern—hearing the message, believing it, and then receiving the Holy Spirit—was evident when Peter spoke at Cornelius’ house. The gift of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessings that were promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14).

These verses also teach that the Holy Spirit is a sign that we belong to God and that He will protect us and will keep His promises.

This promise is equally important to the early church and to us. The New Testament is full of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and they are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit”. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.

Second coming or end times

The second coming of Christ and other future events are also often associated with the word “epangalia” in the New Testament. The book of Hebrews was written for those struggling with leaving Judaism for Christianity, who were encouraged to preserver until they received the reward that God had promised (Heb. 10:36). This reward is explained in the next verse as being when Christ returns to take Christians to be with Himself at the rapture. It is important that our present circumstances do not cause us to forget about the wonderful future that God has promised us—“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). God is reliable and will keep His promises.

Scoffers say, “Where is this ‘coming’ He promised?”—they do not believe that God is coming to judge the world (2 Pt. 3:4). So, why has there been a long delay in the coming of God’s judgement? The reason is that He is patient, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). He is giving people every opportunity to be saved. He waited 120 years before He sent the flood and has waited thousands of years before destroying the world with fire.

God has promised many awesome demonstrations of His power after He takes the believers to be with Himself during the rapture (Heb. 12:26). But, believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.

This expectation can help believers through life’s struggles—whether they live in the first century or today. It gives them an eternal perspective.

Children of God

The promises of 2 Corthinians 7:1, mentioned in the previous verses, include that believers are “sons and daughters” of God the Father and that God welcomes those who stand against evil. There are two relationships here: between a child and a parent and between siblings. As a result of this promise, we receive blessings from God and from one another.

A parent has special care for their child who they nurture and encourage from infancy to adolescence and then to adulthood—that’s how God cares for us. Meanwhile a child is to obey their parents—and Christians are to obey and imitate God.

Although siblings can be rivals, they share a common family and the same parents. As a consequence of this relationship, most of us help and care for others in our family. Likewise believers, who follow the same Savior and share the same destiny, should care for one another.

The illustration of being children of God applies to the early church and to today. All believers need to appreciate they serve a loving Father. However the situation regarding relationships between believers has changed in the past 1,900 years. The early church was small and all believers fellowshipped with one another, except when dictators such as Diotrephes had their way. Today there are different Christian denominations and we need to remember we are children in a global family comprising believers from all Christian denominations, not just the one we happen to support. The Bible emphasises that God has no favorites, nor should we.

All God’s promises

The remaining instances of the word “epangalia” in the New Testament are two verses that relate to all of God’s promises. We mentioned earlier that all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

God has given us everything we need to live for Him including “His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:4). It is estimated that there are at least 30,000 promises in the Bible. They are “very great” because they help us do such things as:

  • “participate in the divine nature”—as we appreciate what God has promised, we become more like Him, and
  • “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”—God’s promises can help us resist temptation—when temptations come we should claim the promises.

Application to us

These promises can have a strong influence on our lives when we remember:

  • We follow a God who keeps His promises—look back at history. Our God is reliable and trustworthy.
  • All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ – Christ has “better promises” than any others in the world because they are given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.
  • Salvation is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earnt—this is a fundamental of the Christian faith.
  • The Holy Spirit is God with us on a continual basis—we should be more aware of His presence as all our power to live for Christ comes from the Holy Spirit.
  • We are children of God—we have a global family and should welcome fellowship with other believers. The early church was not restricted to a small community—it witnessed in Jerusalem, then Judea the southern section of Palestine, then Samaria in central Palestine and then to the ends of the earth. Like evangelism, our fellowship should spread out across the land. Paul had to be reminded by the Lord when he was in Corinth; “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city”. We need to be aware of other believers in our community who are also a part of the body of Christ and not avoid them or isolate ourselves from them.
  • We should be looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future. This includes eternal life in heaven and seeing Jesus exalted to the highest place and seeing every knee bow before Him and hearing every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and singing together with all creation, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
  • God doesn’t reveal His promises to us unless we read them in the Bible—so we need to: read them, understand them, meditate on them, and store them in our memories. If you have trouble sleeping at night, then be like the psalmist who wrote, “I lie awake at night thinking of your promises” (Ps. 119:148). Then we can say, “I have hidden your word in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). As a consequence you will realize that they are great promises and they will become precious to you, and The Holy Spirit will recall them when you need refreshment and encouragement—“Your promise revives me; it comforts me in all my troubles” (Ps. 119:50).

Written, March 2003

Also see: God’s greatest promise