In the last few days, millions of people were evacuated due to floods and landslides in Japan. Tough times come to everyone at some point. Serious illness, disability, unemployment, financial problems, family strife, conflict at work, the death of a loved one. Life doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to. We find ourselves thinking, why is this happening to me? How could a loving God allow this hardship? Why aren’t you doing something about this, God?
And we wonder, how can we get through such difficult times? In particular, how can God help us get through hardship? In this article we’re going to answer this question from the letter of 1 Peter in the Bible. There will be three main points:
– God helps us through the privileges of salvation.
– God helps us through Christ’s example.
– And God helps us through godly living.
Peter was a disciple of Jesus and an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. He was put in jail more than once for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:4). He knew that Christians had faced opposition since the beginning of the church. They were jailed and interrogated by the Jewish leaders and commanded not to speak about Jesus (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42). These leaders seized Stephen and made false accusations against him and stoned him to death (Acts 6:8-7:60). Then “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1NIV). Some went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Saul made “murderous threats” against the Christians and went to Damascus to arrest them and take them as prisoners to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2, 21). Then king Herod arrested some Christians “intending to persecute them” and he executed James the brother of John who was an apostle like Peter (Acts 12:1-2). Paul also suffered for following Jesus (2 Cor. 11:23-26).
1 Peter is a letter from the Apostle Peter to Christians living in provinces of Asia Minor (now Turkey). It was written about AD 62, in the middle of the reign of Emperor Nero, who persecuted Christians. You can see this on Peter’s timeline. These Christians faced threats, slander and the possibility of having to “suffer for what is right” and to “suffer for doing good” (1 Pt. 3:13-17). And they were being persecuted, which is described as to “suffer grief in all kinds of trials”, “abuse”, a “fiery trial”, “the sufferings of Christ”, being “insulted because of the name of Christ”, to “suffer as a Christian”, unjust suffering, and being wrongfully accused of wrong doing (1:6, 17; 2:121; 4:3-4, 12-16). This hostility towards Christians was being experienced across the Roman Empire: “the family of believers throughout the [known] world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (5:9).
The purpose of the letter is to encourage them to persevere and endure in their trials and suffering and not give up.
1 Peter’s themes
Peter says that those following Jesus will face trials and suffering. It’s inevitable. They will “suffer for what is right” and “suffer for doing good”. They lived in a world that was hostile to Jesus. And so do we. Do you notice how often Christians are ridiculed in the media? So we will look at this letter as though it was written to us.
If trials and suffering are inevitable in the life of a Christian, what do we do about it? We have a choice to trust God and endure the suffering or go our own way into bitterness and resentment. Will we draw near to God or turn away from Him? These two responses are shown in the schematic diagram.
Peter says we are to prepare for suffering and hostility beforehand, and endure it by persevering in the Christian faith. He gives three ways to ensure endurance. These are: the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example, and godly living. We will look at these themes in turn and they are shown in the schematic diagram.
Prepare for suffering
Some people stumble in their faith when they are impacted by suffering. They think how can a good God allow such suffering?
Peter tells them how to get ready to face suffering because it’s coming (3:13-17; 4:2-6). When they face criticism and hostility they should, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And do this with gentleness and respect” (3:15-16).
If we live in a wildfire (bushfire) zone, we need a wildfire (bushfire) emergency plan. If we live in a flood zone, we need a flood emergency plan. We need to get ready and be prepared. Likewise. Christians need to be ready to face criticism, ridicule and hardship. This means being ready to answer questions like. How can anyone believe in God after a disaster? Hasn’t science disproved God? Why would you read the Bible? Why do you go to church? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why don’t you sleep with your girlfriend or boyfriend?
We don’t know when this situation will occur. Can we say why we are a Christian? Are there good reasons for what we believe? Have we thought through what we believe so we can testify to others? We need to know why we believe what we believe. Do we respect those we are witnessing to? Is what we say supported by a consistent life? We need to both show and tell.
So it’s good to prepare for suffering. But what should we do when trials and suffering appear?
Peter also tells them how to cope with suffering (4:12-19):
- He says, don’t be surprised about suffering as a Christian. It’s not unusual. It’s the normal Christian experience.
- “All kinds of trials” can test our faith (1:6-7). Traffic jams, the slow queue at the supermarket, cancer, depression, mental illness, marriage problems, and hostility from others because of our faith, all test our Christian faith. Some of these things happen to us sooner or later. Hard times prove our faith is genuine. James says that the testing of our faith by “trials of many kinds” produces perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3).
- Also, suffering can train us and mould our character. Those who endure suffering are strengthened and become more spiritually mature (5:10).
- And suffering is temporary; “for a little while” (1:6; 5:10). It’s only for this life. “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (5:10).
- Peter also says, “it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God … But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (2:19-20). God is pleased when we endure undeserved suffering without retaliation. “Endure” means to hang in there. To carry a heavy load without complaining. To be strong. God gives that ability. He does not want us to suffer from a sense of duty but from a conviction about His purpose for us. He wants us to patiently endure suffering even when we do good. How much hostility can we take? Are we resilient?
At the end of the letter, Peter says, “I wanted to encourage you and tell you how kind God really is, so that you will keep on having faith in Him” (5:12CEV). It was written to encourage them to endure and persevere in trials and suffering and not give up trusting God.
The summary statement for Christian suffering is, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (4:19). Nothing can happen to us without God allowing it. He wants us to put our trials into His care. He will sustain us. “Doing good” means to the benefit others. Hardship isn’t an excuse for wrongdoing.
So it’s good to prepare for suffering, and to endure during trials. But Peter also reminds them of some other reasons for enduring and persevering in trials and suffering.
God helps us through the privileges of salvation
The first way that God helps us through hardships is through the privileges of salvation. Peter focuses on three of these: our secure future (1:3-12), our direct access to God (2:4-8), and the fact we are special to God (2:9-10).
We have a secure future
The Bible says that “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” Christians have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1:3-4). And “this inheritance is kept in heaven [by God] for you”.
It‘s human nature to break promises. Governments make and break promises. Advertisers and politicians make and break promises. And people make promises to each other which are often broken. Many of these promises do not materialize. Thankfully, God’s promises are not like ours. Every promise He makes, He keeps. The promise of a secure future is certain to be fulfilled.
So Christians should be confident about their future. Their inheritance is guaranteed.
And God is protecting them until it’s revealed when Jesus comes back. This promise gives them joy even “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6). They have inner peace despite these trials.
We have direct access to God
Peter says that each Christian is like a “living stone” in a new building and Jesus is like the cornerstone. God builds this spiritual building by adding Christians to the global church. One day this building will be finished, then Jesus will come again. This spiritual house is like the temple in the Old Testament, where the priests had access to God. Today Christians are like these priests: they have direct access to God. They are “to be a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices” to God.
When a relationship breaks down and the couple have children, the Family Court may deny one parent contact with a child if there is a serious physical or emotional risk for the child. In this case, one parent has direct access to the child, but the other doesn’t. In the same way, Christians have direct access to God, they are no longer separated from Him. This means they can pray to God anytime. We can confess our sins to God, pray for others and offer ourselves to God.
We are God’s people
The Bible also says that Christians are God’s special people (2:9-10). They are “a chosen people”. Like the Israelites were God’s chosen people in Old Testament times, Christians are His chosen people today. They are “God’s special possession”. They are safe because of His protection. And their purpose is to praise God.
At the Australian State of Origin Rugby League Football game this week, supporters were praising their teams. And Queenslanders even think they are chosen people, but those from New South Wales don’t agree! Anyhow, this gives people an identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. In the same way, Christians have a special identity, a purpose and something to celebrate. So we can feel safe and represent God in our world.
So their secure future, their direct access to God, and their identity as God’s people helps believers to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. They don’t worry about ridicule or persecution. Besides these privileges of salvation, Christ’s example can also help.
God helps us through Christ’s example
The second way that God helps us through hardships is through the example of Jesus who suffered when He was unjustly crucified (1:11; 2:24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1). It’s mentioned in every chapter of this letter.
Jesus was a model for how to deal with a hostile work situation (2:21-25). After commending those who bear up “under the pain of unjust suffering”, and who “suffer for doing good” under harsh employers, Peter says, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth’. When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God] who judges justly” (2:21-23). Peter also says, “since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude [as Jesus], because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin” (4:1).
In Peter’s day, retaliating to a personal insult or injury was considered a virtue. Non- retaliation was interpreted as a sign of weakness. Our society is much the same. Our heroes tend to be those who fight back with physical strength or litigation. But Jesus didn’t do that when He suffered unjustly and for doing good. Instead He prayed for His killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). When He was falsely accused, insulted and abused, He didn’t retaliate. Instead, He left these things in the Father’s hands.
Christians should expect hostility because they follow Jesus. They should be prepared to endure trials and suffering. Believers have a choice between sin and suffering. If we live like an unbeliever, we can avoid hostility and suffering. But if we live in a godly way and not under the power of sin, we will face hostility. Do our friends know that we follow Jesus? Are we willing to endure ridicule because of this?
So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering. Godly living can also help.
God helps us through godly living
The third way that God helps us through hardships is through godly living. The previous helps were what to know (doctrine), now they are told what to do (practice). They are instructed how to live and behave in a pagan society where they were misunderstood and insulted for their faith.
First, they are urged to be holy (1:13-2:3). God says, “for it is written [in the Old Testament]: ‘be holy, because I [God] am holy’”. This would have reminded them of the Israelites who were to be devoted to God and different from the other nations by following God’s laws for them (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8). Now Christians are to be holy and live for God and so be different to unbelievers.
The hippies who dropped out of society in the 1960s were counter-cultural. Today it might be those who aren’t online watching things like Facebook or Youtube. Or those home schooling. Or those in an outlaw bikie club. These ways of life and attitudes are completely different from those accepted by most of society. Likewise, God wants Christians to be different from our pagan society.
Christians are like foreigners on earth because our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom (2:11). We are to behave differently to our previous sinful lifestyle. God wants us to be like Him and He gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us. We are to be driven by the Holy Spirit and not the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). The standard for distinguishing what’s sinful and what’s holy is the Bible, because it’s God’s message to us.
An example of holiness is the fruit of the Spirit which is “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23NLT). What do we do with our sexual desires and how to we use our money? We are regularly bombarded with temptations by the media. How do we react to these?
Second, Peter urges them to show godly behavior in their relationships with others.
He mentions at least four areas of life where we should be humble, submissive and respect others. These are: towards governing authorities (2:13-17), at work (2:18-20), in the family (3:1-7), and in the church (3:8-12; 5:1-10).
The media often depict those in positions of authority as incompetent, disrespected, and corrupted. And if we criticize a teacher, a cop, or a spouse, it shows our lack of respect for authority figures. If we want our kids to respect us, we need to demonstrate that we respect others.
So the privileges of salvation and Christ’s example and godly living can help us to endure and persevere in trials and suffering.
Enduring hostility today
Jesus faced hostility. Peter faced hostility. The Christians that Peter wrote to faced hostility. And today Christians face hostility. Since the times of Jesus, the world has been hostile to Christ and His representatives.
In our postmodern world, Christians are viewed as intolerant and unloving bigots because of their view on marriage, abortion and euthanasia. They are characterized by hate, fear, oppression, abuse, power, and violence. And Christianity is misrepresented and ridiculed. While non-Christians are seen as being tolerant and compassionate because of their love, justice and mercy.
How resilient are we? When trials and suffering come our way, do we choose sin or suffering? Trouble is meant to draw us closer to the Lord, not push us further away.
Peter quotes from the Old Testament to prove his point. We need to substantiate what we believe from the Bible. That’s why it’s important to read and study the Bible.
Our original question was, “How can God help us get through hardship?” To answer this we have looked at the letter of 1 Peter. And we’ve seen three ways that God helps us get through trials and suffering. He helps us through:
– The privileges of salvation – like our secure future, our direct access to God and being God’s people.
– Christ’s example, of enduring unjust suffering.
– And godly living, by being holy and respecting others.
Trials and suffering can cause us to sin and give up following Jesus. But God offers us the privileges of salvation, Christ’s example and godly living. Now we must use these to persevere in hard times and not give up.
It’s the Football (Soccer) World Cup once again. But the team getting most attention last week was the one rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. It was a great example of perseverance, hope, heartbreak, and victory. Just like the way Christians should respond to a hostile world. They escaped a dangerous situation. But the Bible says that those who don’t follow Jesus are in a more dangerous situation. The letter of 1 Peter was written to those who followed Jesus. As we have seen, they have plenty of resources to endure tough times. To get these resources we need to realize that our relationship with God the Father is broken. And if we trust in Jesus’ death for us, we can be reconciled with God. And He can become the cornerstone of our life.
Written, July 2018
It’s the best way to: transform yourself; find lasting happiness; clear your mind; find inner peace and relaxation; reduce stress and normalize blood pressure; develop awareness, ethics, mindfulness, insight and wisdom; find meaning to what would otherwise be a senseless life; understand the true nature of reality; be more understanding of others; improve relationships; be calmer when strong emotions arise; be kinder to ourselves and others; be more caring, and skillful; be freed from difficulties and problems; attain a state of purity and perfection; end one’s suffering; and gain insight into the true nature of life. These benefits have been attributed to Buddhist practices such as meditation.
It’s estimated that about 10% of the world’s population is Buddhist. This increases to at least 50% in Mongolia and Laos, at least 70% in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, at least 80% in Myanmar, and at least 90% in Thailand and Cambodia. However, the Buddhist population of China has been estimated at 20-80%, which is a huge uncertainty. The Buddhist faith is atheistic, although polytheism is also evident in many countries. In this way Buddhism is different to Christianity. But is Buddhism consistent with the message of the Bible? Is it one of the ways to salvation and spiritual liberation?
True or false?
The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests.
The Jesus test
This test states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 6 NIV). The question to be answered in this test is: What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, divine and human nature, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming (1 Jn. 4:1-3)?
The gospel test
The Bible warns about those promoting a different gospel, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal.1:9). The question to be answered in this test is: What is its gospel? In other words: what is the core belief or hope? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements—resulting in death. The only means of rescue is salvation by repentance of sin and faith in the work of Christ. ‘Different gospels’ are those that differ from this. They either add to it or take away from it. There is a warning against adding to or taking away from the words of the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19).
The fruit test
Jesus Christ warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20). The question to be answered in this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? In other words, what type of attitudes and behavior does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident (Gal. 5:19-23)?
I have previously summarized Buddhism. These tests will now be used to assess the Buddhist faith.
Testing the Buddhist faith
The Jesus test
Buddhism is a religion of the mind, which advocates present moment awareness, inner purity, ethical conduct, freedom from the problem of change, impermanence and suffering, and reliance upon one’s own experience and discernment on the Eightfold path as the teacher and guide, rather than an external authority (such as God) other than the dharma (teachings of Buddha).
Buddha found enlightenment in mediation. This is achieved by human effort, not through belief in any god. Buddha didn’t claim deity and didn’t attribute his teachings to any deity. So his teachings are not theistic. Instead they are a human system of self-discipline. Buddhism does not involve the worship of gods nor require a belief in gods. Buddha believed that if the world was created by a God, there would be no suffering. One doctrine agreed upon by all branches of modern Buddhism is that “this world is not created and ruled by a god”. In this sense, Buddhism is atheistic.
Buddhism applies the law of cause and effect to people’s lives (karma). But the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies (heavens) proclaim the work of His (God’s) hands” (Ps. 19:1). The heavens that David saw were the sun, moon and stars. He realized that they were made (created) by God. So the Bible applies the law of cause and effect to all creation, not just to people’s lives. According to the law of cause and effect, creation (including the sun, moon and stars) demands a creator and the design (of the universe) demands a designer. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a Creator God. Creation shows that God is intelligent and powerful. The Bible’s message to those who reject this knowledge is: “They know the truth about God because He has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky (including the sun, moon and stars). Through everything God made, they can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20 NLT).
More evidence of the Creator God is the fact that each person has a knowledge of right and wrong through their conscience. For those who are ignorant of God’s moral laws the Bible says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT).
The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:15). The conscience proves that they are all sinners because they don’t always follow their conscience. The Bible says they will be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation and to their guilty conscience. However, as mentioned above, Buddhists generally believe that “this world is not created and ruled by a god”.
The Bible also says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1NIV; 53:1). Also, “In his pride the wicked man does not seek Him (God); in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Ps. 10:4). And “fools mock You (God) all day long” (Ps. 74:22). So it’s foolish to deny the existence of God. And it’s foolish to feel no need for God and live as if He never existed. This means that the Buddhist belief that the world is not created and ruled by a god is foolish!
Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the numerous Buddhist scriptures and none of their gods is like Jesus. So, Buddhism says nothing directly about Jesus Christ. But Buddhists may think that Jesus was a holy man, or a guru (teacher). However, they wouldn’t see Jesus as the only way to God. At best, He would be one guru amongst the many gurus that they follow.
Except in matters of ethics and moral conduct, there is very little in common between the teachings of Jesus and the main teachings of Buddhism. So, Buddhism clearly fails the Jesus test. Buddhists don’t believe that Jesus is the unique Son of God whose sacrificial death (crucifixion) and resurrection solved the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. They don’t believe that Jesus came to the earth as a substitute to take the punishment that we all deserve.
But what about the supernatural beings believed by Buddha and in Mahayana Buddhism? These are gods with a small “g”. Although they are like superhumans their power is limited. They are not all powerful. Although Buddha was a polytheist, he focused on suffering rather than on a god. See the Appendix for the what the Bible says about polytheism. As these gods aren’t relevant to Buddhist practice, they are generally discarded by Buddhists in western countries. Some Buddhists also believe in a non-personal god who is evident in acts of love, compassion, and kindness.
The gospel test
The ultimate goal of Buddhist religious life is liberation from the cycle of birth and death (endless rebirth) and to escape from suffering. We will look at each of these in turn. One goal is liberation from suffering, fear and danger. The means of achieving this is to exert great effort to follow Buddhist teachings. If our sufferings are like a disease, then the teachings are like medicine, Buddha is like a doctor and Buddhist monks and nuns are like nurses. For example, Buddha taught that desire is the root of suffering and ignorance is the root of all evil. So he taught his followers to be detached and not to desire anything.
The Bible describes where the world came from, what has gone wrong in it, and what God is doing to set it right. It has four parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Suffering begins with the entrance of evil in part two and suffering ends with the judgement of evil in part four. So suffering is not permanent. The Bible says that sin (rebellion against God) is the source of our suffering and pain (Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 6:23). This is the opposite of Buddhism which says that both we and our world are basically good (this claim is debatable or unreliable, see comments below).
Our body responds with pain when it is subject to injury or illness. This is a normal reaction. It’s an indicator that lets us know something is wrong. Painlessness is the root cause of the damage leprosy (Hansen’s disease) patients incur. Although pain is something that none of us want; none of us can live a normal life without it.
From the beginning of time God has warned humanity about the relationship between sin (disobeying God’s will / word / laws) and the pain and death that are a result of it. Whether innocent or guilty, the reason for pain and death is sin. Sometimes it is the direct result of our own sin; sometimes it’s the indirect result of the cumulative sinfulness of the world. So Buddha made a poor diagnosis; He tried to fix a symptom (suffering) while he was ignorant of the root cause (sin)!
When God called Moses, He said: “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt … I have heard them crying out … and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them … So now go. I am sending you … I will be with you” (Ex. 3:7-12). After this, Moses rescued the Israelites from their suffering in Egypt. Likewise, God has seen humanity’s suffering and sent Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sin and suffering. The Bible says “Surely He (Jesus) took up our pain and bore our suffering … He was crushed for our iniquities (sins) (Isa. 53:4-5; Mt. 8:17). And God also sees our suffering today and is concerned for us!
The Christian gospel may be summarized as: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son (Jesus) to earth to save people so they could live right. He was the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our holy God. Jesus died for the sins of humanity”. But Buddhism is based on salvation by works.
The other Buddhist goal is liberation from the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death (rebirth). There are two problems with this goal: the problem being addressed and the solution that is offered.
The Bible shows that humanity is the special creation of God, created in God’s image with both a material body and an immaterial soul and spirit. People are distinct and unique from all other creatures—angels and the animal kingdom. The Bible teaches that at death, while a person’s body is mortal (it decays and returns to dust) their soul and spirit continue to either a place of torment for those who reject Christ or paradise (heaven) in God’s presence for those who have trusted in the Savior. Both categories of people will be resurrected, one to eternal judgment and the other to eternal life with a glorified body (Jn. 5:25-29). The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This makes it clear that humanity only dies once and is then judged on the life they have lived. One is not born again in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and its opportunities to improve one’s karma. The Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals. As Larry Norman sang, “you live once and you die once, with no re-incarnate (rebirth) episodes”.
We have seen that the idea of rebirth is a false teaching. On the other hand, the Christian faith addresses the problem of sin (rejection of God’s revelation in creation and in Jesus Christ) and its consequences. We will now look at the solution being offered.
Because a Buddhist’s place of birth and their status in the next life is believed to be based on rebirth and karma, good works and striving to keep the rules of Buddhism play an important role in a Buddhist’s way of life. A Buddhist tries to follow many rules to live a moral life. Yes, good works do please God, but only the good works and the good and sinless life of Jesus. The Bible says that it was Jesus’ good work (sacrifice) on the cross that will get us salvation and liberation!
Our good works are not good enough. Larry Norman also sang, “you can’t hitchhike to heaven or get there by just being good”. The Bible says that most of the work of salvation is done by God and not by us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
Paul told Christians, “why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Col. 1:20-23NLT). Paul is saying that Christianity is not a religion of rules. Taboos fail in their purpose. They are futile. They do not restrain evil. God wants us to avoid such human religious systems. We cannot control the sinful nature by rules. Following strict rules, like in Buddhism, is worthless because it fails to control sinful desires.
A Buddhist’s salvation is never guaranteed; they don’t know how much meditation they need to do or how many lives they will live before reaching nirvana (Buddhist heaven). By contrast, the Christian’s salvation is sure and confident. God’s promises are never broken, and we can rely on scripture when it declares that faith in Jesus saves (Acts 16:31) and we can rest confidently in this assurance (1 Jn. 5:13). Our forgiveness and salvation are completely based on the work of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and not on any of our deeds because we have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:18).
Some Buddhists are zealous and devout, but salvation is dependent on the object of one’s zeal and devotion and not on the zeal itself. Their focus/object is Buddhist teachings, which we have shown to be false. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, Buddhists are “trusting in deceptive words that are worthless” (Jer. 7:8). In Judah’s case, the deceptive words spoken by the false prophets were that God wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem because He wouldn’t allow the Jewish temple to be destroyed. This superstitious belief was stated repetitively, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4), which reminds me of the repetitive nature of Buddhist mantras. But repetition doesn’t increase the truthfulness of a statement! In Buddhism’s case, the deceptive words come from Buddhist teachings which are false. Because of false prophets, Judah followed “other gods” (Jer. 7:9) apart from the real God, while because of Buddhist teachings, Buddhists follow many “other gods”.
So, Buddhism fails the gospel test.
The fruit test
Buddhism is often said to be a tolerant religion. But Laos is included in the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. It was ranked 24, between Palestinian Territories and Brunei. Christians make up about 2% of the population in Laos. There is some freedom for Christians to meet in more developed areas, but in the rural regions many find themselves harassed, isolated and even imprisoned. Buddhism plays a big part in society and is central to Lao culture. Christianity is seen as something foreign and a threat to their way of life. Believers must be very careful when living out their faith. Building new churches is almost impossible as you need government approval and extensive amounts of paperwork must be submitted. Worshipping or reading the Bible in illegal places can result in jail time, fines or violent punishment. Since their homes are so small, trying to worship in secret is impossible. If someone converts to Christianity their spouse can threaten divorce, and their families can cut them off from their inheritance. Because of the negative views of Christianity, believers are often limited when accessing resources. They can be denied employment and acceptance into schools.
Myanmar was ranked 28 in the World Watch List, between Jordan and Tunisia. Christians and other minorities have been under attack from government forces for many years. Pressure comes from both radical Buddhist groups and the government. Buddhism is the majority religion, and could be used to instigate nationalism and further marginalize every other religion. The Buddhist majority have put in place attempts to try and curb the spread of Islam. Christians are also viewed with suspicion. The government promotes Buddhism over Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Minority populations that adhere to these and other faiths are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to the majority faith. Religious groups must register with the government, and Myanmar’s citizens must list their faith on official documents. Myanmar’s constitution provides for limited religious freedom, but individual laws and government officials actively restrict it. Also, in 2014 the U.S. State Department named Myanmar amongst eight “Countries of Particular Concern” that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. For example, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called the current Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of Muslims and Hindus.
Bhutan was ranked 30 in the World Watch List, between Tunisia and Malaysia. Christianity is seen as a foreign and dangerous religion. No congregation has ever been allowed to build a church. All Christian fellowship remains underground. Christians are monitored and their meetings can be threatened and closed. Many Christians have not been issued with an electronic identity card. They therefore cannot access government services like healthcare. They cannot travel, enrol at a school or apply for jobs. This puts immense pressure on the struggling underground church.
Sri Lanka was ranked 45 in the World Watch List, between United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka the idea of Buddhist supremacy is on the rise. Dangerous attitudes continue to grow, especially in rural areas. Buddhist monks regularly attack believers. Pastors feel unequipped to face persecution and are left traumatized and unsure. Christians are exposed to acts of extreme violence and discrimination. If believers want to worship, they can only do so in registered houses. They are regularly visited by angry mobs and Buddhist monks. There was even discussion of a new law to make converting people illegal. School is difficult for Christian children. Religious education is compulsory, but due to the lack of Christian teachers, most kids are left attending Buddhist classes. If they do not want to, they are punished and even fined. They are subject to harassment, bullying and bad grades. Some children are even denied entry to a school because of their faith. Christians are often prevented from accessing wells or electricity. They’re treated like second class citizens. The pressure to deny Jesus is relentless. Christian businesses are often boycotted and families’ livelihoods suffer.
Although it’s difficult to assess attitudes and behavior objectively, these reports mention persecution of religious minorities and a lack of religious freedom in some Buddhist countries.
Buddha taught that there would be no social classes (like castes) in the Buddhist monastic order. They would be like a humanistic society. However, when Buddha created the monastic order he divided society into two social classes, a practice that Buddhism intended to do away with!
What type of attitudes and behavior do you think Buddhism encourages?
We have tested Buddhism against three tests from the Bible. It clearly failed two tests (about Jesus and the gospel) and the results of the third test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which is the product of human imagination, and which isn’t consistent with the message of the Bible. So, Buddhists don’t worship the same God as Christians.
Appendix: What the Bible says about polytheism
Buddhism arose in northeastern India in about the 5th century BC when their religion was polytheistic. During this period, the deities of Babylon, and Greece were also polytheistic. In fact, this was probably a characteristic of all the Gentile nations at that time. It was also characteristic of previous nations (such as Egypt and Phoenicia) and following nations (such as the Roman Empire).
What does the Bible say about such polytheistic religions?
– About 2000BC Abraham left the polytheistic religion in Ur of the Chaldeans (in Mesopotamia) to live in the land of Canaan and to follow the monotheistic God who created the universe.
– About 1750BC when Jacob left Paddan Aram (in upper Mesopotamia), his wife Rachael stole her father’s polytheistic household gods (Gen. 31:19, 30, 32, 35). When he arrived back in Canaan, Jacob buried all their foreign polytheistic gods (Gen. 35:2-4).
– About 1450BC when the Israelites left Egypt in the exodus, God told them to stop practicing the polytheistic religion of the Egyptians and gave them commands on how to follow the true monotheistic God.
– About 1500BC when the Israelites conquered and settled in Canaan, God warned them not to follow the polytheistic religion of the Canaanites and the surrounding nations.
– Between 1380BC and 1050BC the Israelites forsook the God that brought them out of Egypt and followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them (Jud. 2:10-13). They intermarried with these peoples and served their polytheistic gods (Jud. 3:5-6). Consequently, the Israelites were punished by God and brought back to serving the true monotheistic God by a series of judges.
– Between 930BC and 722BC Israel was divided into two kingdoms and the northern kingdom followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire.
– Between 700BC and 586BC, the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah) often followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Babylonian Empire.
– the 70-year exile in Babylon decimated the nation of Israel and seemed to cure those who returned to Judah from following polytheistic religions. But it took over 900 years for them to learn this lesson!
– In the 1st century AD, the New Testament apostles, such as Peter and Paul, preached against the polytheistic religion of the Roman Empire.
Since 2000BC God has distinguished Himself from polytheistic religions. By reading the Bible we can see repeated warnings against polytheistic religions. These warnings were given over a period of more than 1,500 years. Why not check this for yourself by reading the Bible?
Paul said that polytheistic gods are not real gods (Acts 19:26). He knew that they “cannot see or hear or eat or smell” (Dt. 4:28; Dan. 5:23; Rev. 9:20). And that they are the work of Satan and his demons (2 Cor. 6:15-16; Rev. 9:20).
The clearest biblical arguments against polytheism are the numerous commands against idolatry. When the Thessalonians became followers of Christ, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us (believers) from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:9-10). The God who was living and true is contrasted against idols that were dead and false gods. They had learnt that God “doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve His needs—for He has no needs” (Acts 17:24-25NLT). The Corinthians were told to separate from idol worship (2 Cor. 6:16-17). John repeats this message that Christians should “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). The true God is said to be God the Father or God the Son (Jesus), while idols are false gods.
Paul described the state of the Corinthians before they became Christians as “you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols” (1 Cor. 12:2NLT). Their idols were lifeless! But how were they being “led astray and swept along”? The Bible says that idolatry is associated with demon worship (Rev. 9:20). And it’s the work of Satan (2 Cor. 6:15-16). So they were being led astray and swept along by Satan and his demons! That’s why Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city (of Athens) was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).
So, the Bible forbids the worship of idols, angels, celestial objects, and items in nature. The Bible’s clear and consistent denunciation of idolatry is a conclusive argument against polytheism.
Written, August 2017
When Emma Slade visited Bhutan in 2011, the seeds of her meditation and yoga came to fruition. The Buddhist mantra of compassion and interaction with a lama (guru) touched her deeply. Consequently, she left her accountancy career to become a Buddhist nun. She says, “Your life is in your hands. But you should ask what matters to you? What do you know that is of any use?”
Buddhism is the major religion in the Asian countries of Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, Tibet, China and Mongolia. It is comprised of the teachings of the Buddha, which includes concepts such as karma, rebirth and nirvana (enlightenment). This post is one in a series on major religions. To minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Buddhist websites.
The word “Buddha” is derived from “budhi”, which means ‘to awaken”. So the Buddha is the awakened (or enlightened) one. The term applies to both the founder of Buddhism and to those who attain enlightenment and nirvana.
“Dharma” refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the later traditions of interpretation and addition that the various schools of Buddhism have developed to help explain and to expand upon the Buddha’s teachings. And it is also used to describe the way things are.
A Lama is a Buddhist spiritual teacher (or guru). For example, the Dalai Lama (a former political leader of Tibet) is the spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhists. He lives in exile in Nepal after fleeing Chinese rule of Tibet in 1959. As the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetans believe he is the reincarnation of his 13 predecessors.
Buddhism has a wide range of sacred texts and scriptures. There are three primary canons of Buddhist scripture, called after the languages in which they were preserved — the Pali Canon (The Tripitaka, complied in the 1st century BC), the Chinese Canon, and the Tibetan Canon, and many of the same texts are preserved in more than one canon. The Tripitaka has three sections: disciple for monks and nuns; the teaching of Buddha; and Buddhist theology. And the Sutras were written by the 2nd century AD.
There are three main movements in Buddhism: Southern Buddhism (Theravāda, in south Asia and southeast Asia), which maintains the importance of the community of monks and uses the traditional Pali canon; Eastern Buddhism (Mahāyāna in east Asia), which is more liberal and open to a wider range of authoritative texts (appearing several centuries after the death of Buddha) and ideas; and Northern Buddhism (Vajrayāna in Tibet, Bhutan, and Mongolia) which is based on tantras (texts) that appeared another several centuries later and has mystical and magical elements and uses techniques such as the mantra (spells) and mandala (symbolic diagrams).
Buddhism arose in northeastern India in about the 5th century BC. It’s founder, Siddharha Gautama (Buddha), was a charismatic teacher. He was brought up in the ancient Hindu (Vedic) faith. Buddha found enlightenment in mediation. This is achieved by human effort, not through belief in any god. Buddha didn’t claim deity and didn’t attribute his teachings to any deity. So his teachings are not theistic. Instead they are a human system of self-discipline. Buddha spent much of his life teaching the dharma (the path to liberation from suffering) and establishing the sangha (a community of monks).
However, early Buddhist theology shows that the Vedic gods were highly respected and enthusiastically worshipped by the earliest Buddhists. Buddha was a polytheist, but he rejected the idea of a creator. He often spoke with various gods and one his names was “teacher of gods and humans”.
There are many varieties (schools) of Buddhism. About the 3rd century BC, the Sthaviravada and the Mahasanghika schools formed. Over the following centuries the Mahasanghika school eventually disappeared and the Theravad (“Doctrine of the Elders”) school, emerged from the Sthaviravada school. The latter is the dominant form of Buddhism today in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
During the 1st century CE, a new Buddhist school named Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) developed. This school had a more adaptable approach and was open to doctrinal innovations. It is the dominant form of Buddhism today in China, Japan, and Korea.
Buddhism spread through much of Asia, but it declined in India during the Middle Ages when Hinduism incorporated the Buddha as part of its pantheon of gods.
Several centuries later a third Buddhist denomination emerged in North India. Called Vajrayana (the “Diamond Vehicle” or “Tibetan Buddhism), it spread throughout the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and northwards into Mongolia. In more recent times, immigration lead to Buddhism impact elsewhere via Meditation, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and New Age beliefs.
Over its long history, Buddhism has taken a wide variety of forms. Some emphasize rituals and the worship of deities, while others completely reject rituals and gods in favor of pure meditation. Yet all forms of Buddhism share respect for the teachings of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth.
Although there are a wide range of Buddhist beliefs, here are some of their major beliefs. Please note that different Buddhist schools can follow different beliefs and practices.
Nine major beliefs
Some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism are summarized below. These are believed to be universal truths. The core beliefs are called jewels, truths and precepts.
The three jewels (three refuges)
– I take refuge in my Buddha (as our teacher, so we can be enlightened).
– I take refuge in my dharma (in the Buddha’s teachings and methods).
– I take refuge in my religious community (monks and nuns).
The four noble truths (of suffering)
– All of life is marked by suffering. It’s the central reality of life. People get sick and die. Sometimes we can’t have what we want. Or, if we can have it we can’t keep it because nothing is permanent.
– Suffering is caused by desires and attachments. It originates in our mind. When we want something, that creates karma. And the karma keeps us trapped in a re-birth cycle. Desire means clinging to an impermanent world. Craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
– Suffering can be stopped by eliminating desire and attachment. If we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free.
– The way to end desire and suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path (like a monk).
In Buddhism, the primary purpose of life is to end suffering. How can we be happy when there is so much misery and suffering? What can we do to find enlightenment (nirvana)? By following these beliefs, we can be freed from suffering and become enlightened. We can overcome the suffering that is an inevitable part of life by attaining a state called nirvana, in which we are no longer attached to our life. It has also been called a middle path between extremes such as indulgence and austerity. People who have attained detachment are enlightened and have attained nirvana. Those nearing nirvana are called bodhisattvas, who are committed to leading others towards Buddhahood.
The noble eight-fold path (of compassionate living)
These are eight rules of behavior that involve right (or compassionate):
– Wisdom (view, and intention),
– Moral values (speech, action or values, and livelihood),
– Meditation (mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration).
This path is an intense program of self-perfection and self-discipline in how to live with compassionate non-attachment in each moment. It leads to a form of meditation (like Raja Yoga in Hinduism) which enables a person to reach enlightenment. It encourages the Buddhist to live a virtuous life by following the ‘right’ (or compassionate) course of action in eight contexts. Many of these are moral evils to be avoided. But the eighth step, ‘Right Concentration’, goes to the heart of the Buddhist ideal. Right Concentration is described in Buddhist scripture as concentrating on a single object (or nothing) to induce a special state of consciousness through deep meditation. In this way, the Buddhist hopes to achieve complete purity of thought, leading ideally to nirvana, which is blissful acceptance of the world as it is.
The 5, 8 and 10 precepts
These are the moral code for Buddhists:
– Do no harm to any living being
– Always tell the truth
– Do not steal
– Refrain from illicit sex
– Do not consume alcohol
– Wear no decorations or jewelry
– Do not attend amusements (such as dancing, singing, and music)
– Eat moderately and not after noon
– Do not sleep on high or wide beds
– Touch no gold or silver
The first five precepts are for all Buddhists. The first eight precepts are for lay people on special days and the whole ten precepts are for monks and nuns.
The five clinging aggregates (Skandhas)
The components that make up an individual are:
– Physical body
– Emotions and feelings
– Mental activity
It is believed that these five factors constitute and completely explain a person’s mental and physical existence. But each of these is claimed to be empty and without substance. They are illusionary. This means that a person’s “self” is also illusionary. It has no real existence. This is a way to remove suffering because a belief in self is said to be a source of suffering They are suffering because they are impermanent. They change from moment to moment. By getting rid of the idea of self, we can look at happiness and suffering, praise and blame, and all the rest with equanimity. In this way, we will be no longer subject to the imbalance of alternating hope and fear.
The Buddha taught that the skandhas are not “you.” They are temporary, conditioned phenomena. They are empty of a soul or permanent essence of self. And clinging to these aggregates as “me” is an illusion.
The skandhas refute the idea of a “being or individual”, and complement the anatta doctrine of Buddhism which asserts that all things and beings are without self. The anatta and “five aggregates” doctrines are part of the liberating knowledge in Buddhism, wherein one realizes that the “being” is merely made up of a temporary grouping of five aggregates, each of which are “not I, and not myself”, and each of the skandha is empty, without substance. This means that there is no such thing as individual identity. Instead, we are all part of the oneness of the universe.
Reincarnation refers to the idea that there is an eternal soul that gets reborn into body after body. As Buddhists don’t believe in an eternal soul (they prefer to use the word “mind”), strictly speaking they don’t believe in reincarnation. Instead, they use the term rebirth to convey continuity across different lifetimes. This lifetime is the effect of previous lifetimes, and the actions and intents of this lifetime will affect future lifetimes. So many Buddhists believe in a cycle of birth and death, which differs from the Hindu sense of reincarnation in which the soul is transferred. But Secular Buddhists, and probably lots of Zen Buddhists, don’t believe in the sort of continuity that results in remembering past lives.
In the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, karma determines where a person will be born and their status in the next life; good karma leads to a heavenly realm, while bad karma can lead to rebirth as an animal or torment in hell. In Buddhism, there are six realms into which a person can be reborn; these realms are depicted in the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life). There are numerous heavens and hells into which one may be reborn; one also may be reborn here on earth, either as a human being or as an animal. The form into which one is reborn is dependent upon the way that one lives in this life.
Only with enlightenment can a person be freed from the cycle of rebirth. The rebirth depends on the merit or demerit gained by one’s karma, as well as that accrued on one’s behalf by a family member. After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain nirvana. This is a state of liberation from the cycle of rebirth and freedom from suffering. So, after death one is either reborn into another body (rebirth) or enters nirvana. Only Buddhas (those who have attained enlightenment) will achieve nirvana.
Buddhists believe that each rebirth we go through offers a chance to learn how to behave, how not to hurt someone, how not to be evil, and how not to be selfish. Nirvana is the Buddhist belief of lasting peace, which releases us from the cycle of rebirth. But we will not reach nirvana until we learn these things.
As in Hinduism, this is the moral law of cause and effect. Everything we do has consequences. This simple law explains things such as: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, and why some live only a short life. People build up karma (both good and bad) as a result of their actions. This then determines the state of existence to which one is reborn after death. In Buddhism, the different levels can include hells, humans or animals in this world, or one of several heavens.
A notable aspect of the karma theory in Buddhism is merit transfer. A person accumulates merit not only through intentions and ethical living, but also is able to gain merit from others by exchanging goods and services, such as through dāna (charity to monks or nuns). Further, a person can transfer one’s own good karma to living family members and ancestors.
We are responsible for our past and present actions. How can we test the karmic effect of our actions? We can look at (1) the intention behind the action, (2) the effects of the action on ourselves, and (3) the effects on others. This inspires us to take responsibility for our own lives. Just like gravity, the law of karma functions everywhere and all the time. We shape our future through our thoughts, words and actions. What we do now accumulates good or bad impressions in our mind. Knowing this gives us great freedom and puts us back in control of our lives. Karma is not fate. We can choose not to do harmful actions, and thus avoid creating the causes of future suffering. To sow the seeds for good results, we engage in positive actions.
The goal of Buddhism is a state of lasting, unconditional happiness known as nirvana (enlightenment). It is also described as full liberation, highest happiness, bliss, fearlessness, and freedom. Nirvana means ‘blowing out’, as of a flame. It is the end of the cycle of rebirth. It is a blissful transcendent state which can be achieved either in life or after death – and which is achieved by anyone who becomes Buddha. Anyone can be a buddha. That’s when they reach enlightenment.
To bring us to this state, Buddhism points us to lasting values in this impermanent world, and gives us valuable information about how things really are. Through understanding the law of cause and effect, using practical tools like meditation to gain insight and develop compassion and wisdom, we can tap into our potential to realize the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Buddhism teaches that the solutions to our problems are within ourselves not outside. The Buddha asked all his followers not to take his word as true, but rather to test the teachings for themselves. ln this way, each person decides for themselves and takes responsibility for their own actions and understanding.
The Buddha’s teachings and Theravada Buddhism are essentially atheistic, although neither deny the existence of beings that might be called “gods”. Buddhism does not involve the worship of gods nor require a belief in gods. One doctrine agreed upon by all branches of modern Buddhism is that “this world is not created and ruled by a god”. God is unnecessary in Buddhism because it emphasizes practical results over faith in beliefs or deities.
But in the earlier scriptures, the deities of Brahmanism are taken for granted, and later on Buddhists adopted the deities of their local district. So, most Asian Buddhists seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods”. Also, in Mahayana Buddhism, the universe is populated with celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas (a person who can reach nirvana but because of their compassion delays doing so and instead stays in the human realm to help others reach enlightenment) who are worshipped as gods and goddesses. Among the most popular Buddhist deities are Kuan Yin, the Medicine Buddha, the Laughing Buddha and the Green and White Taras.
Five major practices
Buddhism embraces many practices and traditions. Some Buddhist practices are summarized below.
Meditation is at the heart of the Buddhist way of life. It is a method for understanding and working with the mind by learning to identify different mental states, and then learning how to minimize disturbing emotions and to develop peaceful and positive mental states.
Anyone can learn basic meditation techniques and experience great benefits, but to progress beyond basic meditation requires confidence in the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (monks).
A mantra is a sequence of words or syllables that are chanted, usually repetitively, as part of Buddhist practice. The chanting of a mantra is thought to evoke enlightenment. Sometimes mantras are used as a form of meditation to induce an altered state of consciousness. Often it is combined with breathing meditation so that one recites a mantra simultaneously with in-breath and out-breath to help develop tranquility and concentration. Many Buddhists meditate on thousands of mantras each day. Usually, a minimum of 21 recitations is considered useful, but normally a minimum of 108 mantras will be chanted in a meditation session.
Mantras are a linguistic device for deepening one’s thought or developing the enlightened mind. They are like medicine for the mind. Mantras are often considered protective and healing, or even life-changing. They are enable protection and blessing from the Buddha. The more we say a mantra, the closer to the Buddha we get. If we lack compassion, we might chant a mantra to Tara the Tibetan goddess of compassion. If we need healing, it could be to the Medicine Buddha. If we face an exam, it could be Manjushri’s wisdom mantra.
It’s repeated because it purifies our mind, blesses our body and purifies our karma. The more we say it the less time there is for delusions in our mind. They have also been used for purposes such as attaining wealth, long life and eliminating difficult circumstances in order to be of benefit to others. Mantras can also be chanted for the healing of others.
Simple mantras use repetition of the Buddha’s name, “Buddho,” or use the “Dharma,” or the “Sangha,” (the community of monks), as mantra words. Some mantras direct attention to the process of change by repeating “everything changes,” or “let go”. Because the sound of the mantra is as important, sometimes more important, than the meanings, they are usually chanted in Asian languages. Sanskrit was usually the original language, but they have been translated into other languages as well.
The mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, known by the Chinese as goddess Kuan Yin, is “Om Mani Padme Hum” which translates to “Hail to the jewel in the lotus.”. The mantra calms fears, soothes concerns and heals broken hearts. And this mantra is on the lips of many Tibetans all their waking hours. By chanting this mantra, they can invoke the divine protection and immense blessings from Chenrezig, the manifestation of divine compassion from Bodhisattva (a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings) Avalokitesvara.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, the mantra “Om tare tutare ture soha” can not only eliminate disease, troubles, disasters, and bad karma, but will also bring believers blessings, longer life, and even the wisdom to transcend one’s cycle of rebirth.
Veneration of Buddha
Buddhists pay respect, reverence and honor to statues of the Buddha and are encouraged to have household shrines with images of the Buddha. Offerings such as lights, incense, flowers, water, fruits, sweets, and prepared food are placed near the shrine. The offerings acknowledge Buddha as the ultimate teacher and the embodiment of enlightenment. Bowing to the image is an expression of gratitude for the teachings.
To express veneration, a Buddhist may bow before the image of the Buddha, or members of the Sangha. When a Buddhist prostrates before an image, they acknowledge that the Buddha has attained perfect and supreme enlightenment. Such an act helps the Buddhist to overcome egoistic feelings and prepares them to listen to the teaching of the Buddha.
Buddhists revere the image of the Buddha as a gesture to the greatest, wisest, most benevolent, compassionate and holy man who has ever lived in this world. The worship of the Buddha means paying homage, veneration and devotion to Him and what He represents, and not to the stone or metal figure.
Buddha images are symbolic representations of his great qualities. The image is a visual aid that helps one to recall the Buddha in the mind and to remember His great qualities. Images of Buddha can also be seen as representations of one’s own Buddha qualities. And bowing can be seen as respecting the divine in one’s self and others.
Monastic order (Sangha)
Monks and nuns are responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teaching and the guidance of Buddhist lay people. They embody or represent higher levels of spiritual achievement. They live an austere life focused on the study of Buddhist doctrine, the practice of meditation, and the observance of good moral character.
Monks and nuns refrain from sexual conduct; taking life; taking what is not given; telling untruths; taking intoxicants; attending entertainment; using ornaments, cosmetics, and perfumes; sitting on luxurious seats and beds; taking food at unregulated times, and handling silver and gold. Marriage, family life, career, and personal concerns are rejected as distractions to their religious concerns. Other rules help them remain mindful of every action in daily life. Traditionally, Buddhist monks and nuns wear robes and have shaved heads.
As Buddhist monks generally do not engage in commerce or agriculture, the monastic order is dependent on the lay community for economic support in the form of finance and property. Buddhists give the monks material gifts that function as sacrificial offerings. Buddhist monks and monasteries accept donations of cash, land, and material of all kinds, and they sometimes become rich and powerful.
Festivals and pilgrimages
Buddhist festivals are joyful occasions. Typically, Buddists will go to the local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks and take the Five Precepts and listen to a Dharma talk. In the afternoon, they distribute food to the poor to make merit, and in the evening perhaps join in a ceremony and walk around the temple three times in honor of the Three Jewels (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). The day will conclude with evening chanting of the Buddha’s teachings and meditation.
The most significant celebration happens every May on the night of the full moon, when Buddhists all over the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. It has become to be known as Buddha Day. Buddhists also attend festivals involving the dead, or to arrange or participate in funerary rites on behalf of the dead. They also visit a temple to pray to a deity through the medium of a statue of that deity and leave a gift (incense, fruit, or flowers).
The earliest centers of Buddhist pilgrimages were the places associated with the life and teachings of the Buddha in Nepal and India. After the death of the Buddha, the relics of his body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed and burial mounds were erected on the relics. The practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism probably started with visits to these places, the purpose of which was to achieve personal advantage such as rebirth in a good location, as well as to honor the great master. It is stated that the Buddha encouraged all devotees to make pilgrimages to four holy sites to ensure that they would be reborn in a heavenly world. Also, many Buddhist countries have shrines and places which can be visited as a pilgrimage. For example, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afganistan (that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban).
Comparison with Hinduism
Buddhism rejected the Hindu scriptures (the Vedas and Upanishads), the concept of the Atman (soul, self), Brahman (god), and the nature of the afterlife. In traditional Indian thought, the soul (atman) is an eternally existing spiritual substance or being and the abiding self that moves from one body to the next at rebirth. The Buddha rejected this concept. He taught that everything is impermanent (anicca), and this includes everything that we associate with being human: sensations, feelings, thoughts and consciousness. This is the doctrine of anatta (“no-soul” or “no-self”), which is a central concept of Buddhism.
The Buddhist belief of rebirth is a concept of “renewal” and not exactly reincarnation of a spirit (or soul) or body. Under Hinduism the soul is reborn (reincarnated) in a new body. Under Buddhism, the consciousness of a person can become part of the consciousness of another person, as a flame moves from one candle to another. The second flame is not identical to the first, nor is it totally different. Thus, Buddhists believe life is a continual journey of experience and discovery and not divided between life and the afterlife.
This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Buddhist faith. These beliefs, practices and culture impact everyday life for about 1 billion people across the world.
Written, August 2017, updated in January 2018 (using comments from quantumpreceptor)
Facebook has been criticized for disseminating fake and misleading stories that are indistinguishable from real news. US President Obama said that these bogus news stories were a threat to democracy. Because Facebook’s algorithm is designed to determine what its individual users want to see, people often see only that which validates their existing beliefs regardless of whether the information being shared is true. Seven projects are underway to stop the spread of misinformation among Facebook’s 1.79 billion users. But deception isn’t new because Paul faced it almost 2,000 year ago.
The letter of 2 Thessalonians was written to Christians who were deceived by false teachings which were alleged to come from Paul. This post addresses the highlights of this letter where we see the need to stand firm against false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning.
Paul visited Thessalonica for a short time and in response to his preaching a church was established. After he left, he wrote them the letter of 1 Thessalonians to encourage them in the Christian faith. But some time later Paul saw a need to encourage the believers in Thessalonica once again as they were still being persecuted. Besides this, some of them thought the tribulation described in Revelation had already arrived and some had stopped working. So Paul wrote them another letter (2 Thessalonians) in about 51 AD.
Because some were deceived by false teachings, Paul urged them to “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we have passed on to you” (2:15NIV). This letter can be divided into three sections: encouragement during trials and suffering; standing firm against false teachings; and don’t be lazy. God allows Christians to go through trials, suffering and persecution. Now Paul shows how we can cope in difficult times.
Chapter 1: Encouragement during trials and suffering
Paul thanked God for their increasing faith and love (1:3-4). Faith keeps us in contact with God and this leads to love for one another. In the first letter faith, love and hope are mentioned together, but here “hope” is left out maybe because they needed correction concerning the second coming of the Lord (1 Th. 1:3; 5:8). Their hope was not clear. So Paul writes to correct the situation.
They were doing so well that Paul boasted about their spiritual progress to other churches. Despite tough times of persecution and trial, their faith remained strong. By mentioning this in the letter, Paul is affirming their faith, love and perseverance.
Their endurance in the face of persecution was evidence that God was at work among them (1:5-7a)! They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith, but God knew that they could bear it (1 Cor. 10:13). People who are under pressure give up easily unless something is strengthening them. God provided strength so they could endure their suffering and persecution.
Paul points out three things about their suffering. First, it showed they were “worthy of the kingdom of God”. They had been made worthy by faith in Christ and this was evident in their endurance under suffering. The pattern is one of suffering followed by future glory. It is the same one that Jesus followed. The Old Testament prophets predicted; “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11), but they didn’t understand that these events would be separated by at least 1,900 years. The Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory, but instead He came in a humble way and suffered greatly. Whereas at His future appearing He will come in great power and glory. This pattern also applies to believers: Paul wrote: “… if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18).
Second, their suffering showed that their persecutors deserved to be judged. Because God is just, He will punish the persecutors—“He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you”. The Greek word translated “trouble” (1:6) means to suffer due to the pressure of circumstances or under antagonism (Vine). We know that God judges unrepentant sinners, both on earth when He “gives them over” to suffer the consequences of their sins (Rom. 1:24,26,28) and at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15).
Third, their suffering showed that they deserved relief for their undeserved persecution. Because God is just, the punishment will be balanced with relief. The Greek word translated “relief” means relief from persecution. But, when will this all happen? It will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven (1:7b-10). Christ is now hidden and many people even deny His existence. But when He appears visibly, He will be seen by all, so that no one will be able to deny or avoid Him.
When will the Lord Jesus be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels”? As this hasn’t happened in the last 1,900 years, it is still future. Obviously, it’s a reference to the second coming. When Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. In fact there are two main comings, the rapture when Christ returns to the air to take all believers, both dead and alive, to be with Him in heaven (1 Th. 4:13-17) and the appearing when He returns to the earth in great power and glory to remove unbelievers for judgement (Rev 19:1-21).
The timing of these events is evident from the sequence of topics in the book of Revelation: at present the church is on earth (Rev. 2-3); then church in is heaven, which implies that the rapture has occurred between chapters 3 and 4 (Rev. 4-5); then there is tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); which is followed by the appearing (Rev. 19:11-21); and then the millennium (Rev. 20:1-7); and finally the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Further evidence that the rapture and the appearing are separate events is shown by their relationship to the tribulation. Christians are said to be “saved from God’s wrath” (Rom. 5:9) and kept from “the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 3:10); for “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 5:9). Of course, God’s “wrath” may refer to the tribulation (Rev. 6:16-17; 14:9-10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19) or to His eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the context is the tribulation. This is consistent with the rapture occurring before the tribulation—believers will be in heaven while the tribulation is occurring on the earth. This understanding is known as the pre-tribulation rapture.
On the other hand, the appearing occurs at the end of the tribulation. The tribulation is described in Matthew 24:3-28, and then the appearing in v.29-31. It is a time of awesome power and punishment of Christ’s enemies (Is. 66:15-16; Rev. 1:7).
When Paul writes about when this will happen (1:7b, 10), he means when it will be visible to all. From the story of the rich man and Lazarus we know that when a believer dies they obtain relief and all their suffering and persecution has ended—they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). So, after death, believers enjoy relief in heaven, while unbelievers suffer in hades.
Two classes are marked for punishment. First, “those who do not know God” – these have rejected the knowledge of the true God that is revealed to everyone through creation and conscience (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:12-16). Of course, they may never have heard the gospel. But God has revealed Himself clearly to everyone that He is God. He is in charge of the world. Second, those who “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – these have heard the gospel of salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ, but sadly they have rejected it.
These people are punished because God’s justice demands punishment for sin. The punishment is “everlasting destruction”, which means eternal ruin; and being “shut out from the presence of the Lord”, which means without Him forever. They will reap the consequence of their choice to ignore God.
The appearing will be a time of great glory and amazement. The Lord Jesus will be glorified and the spectators (those saved during the tribulation) will be amazed at what God has done in the salvation of believers—“glorified in His holy people”. God will reveal to the world what He has been doing with His people through all these years. So, not only is Jesus Christ revealed, but His followers will be revealed as well.
Paul prays that the believers may live lives that are worthy of their calling to participate in the appearing and to reign in the millennial kingdom (1:11-12). He asks for God’s power to enable them to obey every desire to do good and to carry out every deed prompted by faith. Here we see that God prompts such desires and deeds.
These are also difficult days and some are going through tough times. Let’s remember how Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to persevere at such times. Be encouraged that if you hold out against the pressures and temptations of this life it is evident that God is at work in your life in developing character and maturity.
Like the Thessalonians, we can be so occupied with suffering or persecution that we forget about our hope for the future. Do we have a clear view of what we are waiting for? Present suffering will be replaced by glory in future. Do we have a vision of the rapture and the appearing? There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. It will be amazing and spectacular.
We can help believers who are going through tough times of trials, suffering or persecution by reminding them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. Be encouraged that God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. Give them a reality check. Help them see the big picture; the eternal perspective. Remind them that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”. This helps them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching which didn’t match what Paul had told them. A rumor was spreading about the end of the age.
Chapter 2: Standing firm against false teachings
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica (2:1-2). Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumor that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by” (see BRG, Darby, DRA, GNV, KJV, PHILLIPS, WYC). It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thessalonians 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth. The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic (2:3-5). He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (2:6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (2:9).
It is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people (2:7). The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (2:7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
So we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation (2:8), and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
The antichrist will work like Satan works (2:9-12). He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that these miracles prove that he is divine (2:10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (2:11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (2:12; Rev. 20:15).
So how does this evil work? In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works. It can use counterfeit miracles. Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive. And in those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica (2:13). This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them. This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (2:14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are involved; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them (2:13). On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (2:14). Also, the people needed to believe (2:13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul says that despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (2:15). In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defense and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word. Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly (2:16-17). Their greatest resource was God Himself. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognized by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9).
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
Chapter 3: Don’t be lazy
There are different attitudes to work. Some work long hours, while others work as little as possible. Is work a vital part of our lives or just a consequence of the fall into sin? Next we see how Paul addressed laziness at Thessalonica. The third problem in Thessalonica was that some had stopped working because they thought the Lord was returning soon. Instead of working they were being lazy and disruptive in the local church. Paul had told them in his first letter to return to work, but evidently his directions had not been obeyed.
Paul now balances God’s provision for the Thessalonians with their responsibility to keep doing the things that Paul had commanded. It’s not good enough to relax and think that because God will look after us, then we can be lazy and ignore His commands. Christians need to be active, not passive. It’s doing the things God has commanded and continuing to do these things.
Ever since the days of Adam, people must work for a living. Adam had to work and take care of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). After the fall into sin this work became arduous (Gen. 3:17-19).
Paul now addresses the third major problem in the church at Thessalonica (3:6-13). It seems as though some of the Thessalonians thought the Lord was returning soon, so they stopped working and relied on others to support them. So they were idle instead of working and this lead to them interfering with other people’s affairs. What is a Paul’s solution to this problem? First, he says these people are out of line with what he had taught them (3:6).
Paul, Silas and Timothy had worked hard while they preached in Thessalonica so they would not be a burden to others (1 Th. 2:9). Paul was a tent maker by trade. Although he could have relied on the support of others for food, accommodation and money, he worked night and day to pay his expenses and not be dependent on them. When he was not preaching, teaching and shepherding the new believers, he was probably making and repairing tents. Paul was self supporting; he didn’t seek funds from those to whom he was preaching the gospel. The reason he worked was so he wouldn’t be a burden to those who were poor and persecuted and he didn’t want to hinder the gospel message in any way.
Now he urges those who had stopped working to follow his example (3:7-9). Although he had the right to financial help, Paul “did not use this right” of support in Corinth so that the gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 9:12, 14). Instead, he offered the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18). He then gives another reason for supporting himself: Paul wanted to be a model for them to imitate; an example to be followed.
Next Paul gives further instructions about these people who were minding everybody’s business but their own (3:11-12). When they could no longer find any meaning in their work, they started messing in other people’s business, criticizing, grumbling, gossiping, and trying to control others. Paul commanded and urged them to get back to work to support themselves and their families. How they behaved would have affected their witness for the Lord. How could they urge people to get their spiritual lives in order, if they couldn’t get their physical lives in order?
Now we will look at how Paul advised then to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:10). Paul said don’t help them by feeding and supporting them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior. This is addressed to those who are “unwilling to work”, not those who cannot work. If an able-bodied Christian refused to work, neither should they eat. This rule was to stop them becoming busybodies that disrupt the local church. Does this conflict with the fact that Christians should be kind and loving? No, it is a tough love that draws a boundary against encouraging laziness. That’s why this section is titled, “Don’t be lazy”.
This was followed by further instructions on how to deal with those who refused to obey his instructions (3:6, 13-15). Finally, Paul commands them in Christ’s name not to socialise with believers who refused to work and who were disrupting the local church. The Greek words used mean to “withdraw” from or “avoid” and to not keep company with them. It was to be a more distant relationship instead of a close one. This let them know that this behavior was not acceptable. The purpose of this discipline was to awaken their conscience to make them feel ashamed of their behavior and give them a reason to change it. They can still have some of the benefits of the church family, but their part is restricted until they repent and are restored to the close relationship.
Paul warns them not to take it too far, so they feel like an enemy. Don’t make them feel like an unbeliever, as they don’t deserve to be expelled from the church. In the case of expulsion, people are to be treated as an unbeliever; as though they are not in the family (Mt. 18:17). Note that the instruction was addressed to the behavior of fellow believers, not to the behavior of unbelievers.
Paul finishes reminding them of the Lord’s peace, presence and grace (3:16-18). They could have “peace at all times and in every way”, including when they faced the problems created by those who refused to work for a living. They needed this peaceful attitude as they addressed these problems. The Lord of peace was with all of them, including those who were idle and disruptive.
Paul worked hard night and day to support himself while he preaching the gospel. He was an example to be followed. Are we? What sort of a witness is our work? Do we support our families? Work is important because it gives a sense of worth and meaning in our lives. But there were believers at Thessalonica who refused to work and were disruptive busybodies in the local church. Are we idle?
Today we don’t face the problem that people are so ardently looking forward to the Lord’s return that they abandon their daily duties. Instead we are so busy with our business and money-making that we forget that the Lord could return at any moment. Nevertheless, the same principles apply in cases of disobedience. What would Paul say to us? Would it be that we work too much instead of not enough? Are we so busy with our things that there is little time for God’s things? Are we lazy, busy or too busy supporting our families?
Paul wasn’t lazy. Are we lazy or busy for God? Let’s be like Paul by being busy for God and busy supporting our families.
Lessons for us
Like 1 Thessalonians, this letter is occupied with the second coming of Christ and the day of the Lord. The anticipation of this time when justice will prevail, alleviates our suffering. It helps to know about the future. Let’s remind ourselves of the time when the Lord is going to return to right all the wrongs and end all the suffering. An eternal perspective can help us get through our daily life.
Paul also warned them not to be deceived by false teaching that twists the plain meaning of scripture to something inconsistent with the original meaning. How do we distinguish between what is true and what is false? Let’s compare any new teachings with what the Bible says. Using reliable exegesis (interpretation) of scripture – see “Understanding the Bible”. And distinguishing between what a Bible passage meant when it was written and its application today.
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to without any adverse consequences. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, November 2016
Scientists have estimated that the number of stars in the observable universe is 7 x 1022, which is “7” followed by 22 zeros! This is similar to their estimate of the number grains of sand on planet earth of 7 x 1021, which is “7” followed by 21 zeros. These are big numbers!
Many years ago (about 2,100BC), God promised Abraham: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 22:17). He was given this promise (“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth”) before he had any children (Gen. 13:16; 15:5) and it was repeated (Gen. 28:14). Isaac and Jacob were given similar promises and Moses recorded them (Gen. 26:4; 32:12; Ex. 32:13). And its fulfilment was confirmed by the writer of Hebrews: “And so from this one man, and he as good as dead (he was childless at 99 years of age), came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Heb. 11:12).
The Bible says that the Israelite population grew rapidly in Egypt (Ex. 1:7-12). Moses wrote that the promise was fulfilled when they were about to enter Canaan (Dt. 1:10; 10:22; 28:62). “The Lord your God has increased your numbers so that today you are as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Dt. 1:10). As there were about 600,000 men in the exodus, their population would have been at least 2 million (Ex. 12:37; 38:26). This shows that God keeps His promises.
The statement, “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore” was probably a metaphor or simile for a very large number. Apparently about 1,000 stars could be seen in the night sky in ancient times. But from the light in the night sky it is clear that there were more stars than this. The Bible says that although we can’t count all the stars, God can (Gen. 15:5; Ps. 147:4). Likewise for the grains of sand on the sea shore and the dust of the earth. In the ancient world these were symbols and illustrations of very big numbers. And modern science has verified that these are indeed very big numbers. In Abraham’s case they were symbols and illustrations of a large number of descendants.
For example the sand on the sea shore is used as a hyperbole for a large number (Gen. 41:49; Josh. 11:4; Jud. 7:12; 1 Sam. 13:5; 2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Ki. 4:20; Ps. 78:27; 139:18; Is. 10:22; 48:19; Jer. 15:8; Hos. 1:10; Hab. 1:9; Rom. 9:27; Rev. 20:8) or for something that is beyond measure (1 Ki. 4:49; Job 6:3).
We have seen that although the promise wasn’t fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime, it was fulfilled at a later date. Likewise God has given Christians promises that He will fulfill after our lifetime. For example, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Also, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). This means that although we suffer in life, we are promised a glorious inheritance. Something fantastic is coming. There is a contrast between present suffering and future glory. The glory outweighs the suffering and it’s eternal instead of temporary. Like Abraham, we don’t see any evidence of this future glory now, but it’s assured.
Focusing on this promise helps us get through suffering and difficult times without giving up in despair. Then we can live in a way that glorifies God.
We have seen that God keeps His promises. Because He kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He will also keep this promise to His followers today.
Written, August 2015
Checklist in Hebrews 13
Before you climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge there’s a checklist that covers your: age, height, blood alcohol reading, pregnancy status, essential medication, and health. To climb the bridge, you need to satisfy all these requirements.
Today we are looking at a checklist given at the end of Hebrews that helps us to keep following Jesus and not turn back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish religious customs. Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. First, that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests (Ch 1-10). Second, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race (Ch 10-12). As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. Third, the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins (Ch. 1-12). Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.
As Hebrews was probably written to a church about AD 68, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.
Hebrews 13 begins with three outward things.
Love one another (v.1)
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.
The Greek noun used here is philadelphia (Strongs #5360), which is love among brothers and sisters in a family. It describes the connection and relationship that should be felt with all true Christians. Because God is now like our Father and we are like His children, all who have trusted in Him are like siblings in a spiritual family. That’s why we often call each other brothers and sisters. These metaphors should influence our thoughts and behavior towards each other. Paul wrote, “Be devoted to one another in love (philadelphia)” (Rom. 12:10NIV).
Do we feel the family connection with believers in our church? Do we feel the connection with other believers in our area? In our city? In our state? In our nation? In other nations across the world?
Practice hospitality (v.2)
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
The Greek noun translated “hospitality” (#5381) means friendliness shown to strangers. It’s providing them with food and shelter. The Bible also says “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” and “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Christians who were fleeing from persecution certainly needed hospitality. Jesus commended those who showed hospitality, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt. 25:35).
By showing hospitality, we can support God’s people and God’s servants. Abraham (Gen. 18:1-15), Lot (Gen. 19:1-17), Gideon (Jud. 6:11-24 and Samson’s father Manoah (Jud. 13:9-23) each showed hospitality to angels although they didn’t know who their visitors were at the time.
Do we show hospitality to Christians who are in need? Have we taken the initiative and invited them into our home? In this way we can share in their Christian lives and our family can benefit from the interaction. Do we show hospitality to non-Christians? Have we invited a non-Christian into our home over the past year? This can be a blessing to both families.
Practice empathy (v.3)
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Christians were imprisoned and mistreated during this time of persecution. Their colleagues were told to remember them in a particular way. The Greek text says “as being bound with them” in prison and “as also yourselves being in their body” when they are mistreated. This is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Paul expressed it as, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Previously they had “stood side by side” with those who were persecuted and “suffered along with those in prison” (Heb. 10:33-34). Also, Jesus commended those who visited prisoners, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:36). Ancient prisons didn’t give prisoners any food, so visits from friends were essential.
Do we have empathy for Christians who are suffering? Can we imagine what it is like walking in their shoes?
Hebrews 13 then addresses two inward things.
Be sexually pure (v.4)
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Before sin came into the world, God created marriage between a man and a woman. He wants us to hold it in high regard. On the other hand, the Bible says that sexual immorality is a sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Besides the problems it causes in this life, it brings God’s judgement unless one is pardoned through Christ’s death as our substitute.
A reason to honor marriage is because it is to be an example of the loving relationship between Christ and His bride the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage is dishonoured by adultery and sexual immorality, which is having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. Sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). God’s people need to exercise self-control in this area. After all, one of the gifts of the Spirit is self-control.
How are we influenced by the loose sexual standards in society today? What about pornography? If we are married, are we faithful to our spouse?
Be contented (v.5-6)
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
These Christians were tempted to want more money and what it can buy. Paul used the same Greek adjective (#866) to say that a church elder shouldn’t be “a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). He also learnt “to be content whatever the circumstances” and taught that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, which brings griefs and causes people to wander from the Christian faith (Phil. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10). Instead they were to be content with what they had, which was Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Verse 5 quotes Moses at the end of his life telling the Israelites that God would help them possess the land of Canaan, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:6). This strong promise is the key to being freed from the love of money. It’s realizing that God is always with us; we’re never alone.
Verse 6 quotes the Israelites giving thanks to God for deliverance from their enemies “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; He is my helper” (Ps. 118:6-7). Nothing can separate us from God and His love and His promise of eternal life. Likewise, Christians can trust God for their safety, protection and economic welfare. They shouldn’t fear financial loss or poverty. Instead trust God to take care of you.
If we believe the promise that the Lord is always with us and empowers us, then we will love one another, show hospitality and empathy, be sexually pure, and avoid the love of money.
Are we contented with what we have in life? Or are we discontent and influenced by materialism? Are we greedy? Are we afraid of the future? Or do we trust that the Lord is with us?
Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life like this.
Follow godly church leaders (v.7-8, 17)
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
They are given the example of godly church leaders to follow and imitate. In the past these leaders had taught them God’s word. The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They didn’t go back to their previous Jewish ways of worship. That’s the kind of faith to follow and imitate.
These leaders’ teaching and faith was based on the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v.8). This means that His character is the same, not that He does the same things in every age. As God, He has the same love, wisdom, righteousness, power, knowledge and plan. He never changes His mind because of unforeseen circumstances.
Church leaders are also mentioned in v.17.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Church elders are to care for (“keep watch over”) the spiritual welfare of the congregation. Elders are accountable to God at the Judgment Seat of Christ for this pastoral care. This is serious business. They will be asked, what did you teach? How did you live? How did you care for the lonely, the suffering, and the disobedient?
The congregation is to respect, trust and follow such godly leaders (elders) because of the work they do. This gives them joy and the congregation benefits.
If we are an elder are we a godly example for the congregation? Are we keeping watch over them? Do we pray for them regularly? Are we interested in their spiritual growth? Are we ready to give an account of our time and effort used in this task? If we are in the congregation, do we respect the elders? Do we pray for them? Are we willing to let them take an interest in our spiritual growth?
Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism.
Follow Jesus (v.9-12)
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (v.9-10)
Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.
Then it says “we have an altar”, which is a figure of speech (metonymy) for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Through it we can have forgiveness and hope. Instead of Jewish rituals and rules, we have Christ’s supreme sacrifice and the blessings it brings. All those involved with the Jewish religion had no right to the better things of Christianity (because they rejected Jesus as their Savior). They must first confess and repent of their sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood. (v.11-12)
Under the Jewish sacrificial system, certain animals were killed and their blood was brought into the most holy place of the temple by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin. The people’s sins were symbolically transferred to the sacrificial animal. The body of the animal was disposed of away from the temple (or “outside the camp”) (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:12, 21; 9:11; 16:14, 27). Likewise, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem at a place where criminals (those rejected by society) were punished (Jn. 19:17). His death enabled us to have our sins forgiven so we can be holy before God. It says that God can make us holy through the death of Jesus (“His own blood” means His death).
Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old ways of life? To the things that occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord.
Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices.
Suffering, praise and good works (v.13-16)
Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (v.13-14)
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (v.16-17)
Instead of offering sacrifices at Jerusalem, as Christians they were to offer three other kinds of sacrifices. The first is a sacrifice of suffering for Christ (v.13-14). Because Jesus suffered outside the city of Jerusalem to meet our need (v.12), Christians are urged to join Jesus in His sufferings (v.13). “The camp” represented their old Jewish religion centred at Jerusalem (for us it can mean our previous way of life before we followed Christ). The Jewish believers escaped from Jerusalem because they were persecuted and ridiculed by the Jewish religious leaders for following Jesus (Acts 8:1-4). They suffered insults and shame. As disciples of Christ they denied themselves, took up their cross and followed Him (Mk. 8:34). Likewise, to meet the needs of this world we need to leave our comforts and security. Instead of putting our efforts into building our lives in this world, which won’t endure; we should be putting them into heaven, which is everlasting.
The Jewish religion was centred on the city of Jerusalem. That’s where the temple was.
But Christians don’t have a special city on earth. Instead, they look ahead to the new Jerusalem (the coming city) where God and Jesus are enthroned (v.14). Unlike earthy cities, this city is permanent and secure. They long for heaven and its joy and eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:11). Because they are satisfied with all that God has done, they long to be with Him. They value the Creator above the creation. They’re only visiting this planet, it’s not their home.
The second is a sacrifice of words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus (v.15). It’s “through Jesus” because that’s the only way we can approach God (Heb. 7:25; 10:19-21). He’s our mediator. This is to be “continual” verbal praise, not just on Sunday. Every day of the week and in good times and bad times (Acts 16:23-25). It flows from our satisfaction with God and longing to be with Him (v.14). How can we creatively mention our faith in Jesus and God’s greatness and goodness in our conversations? Are our meetings God-centred?
The third is a sacrifice of good works (v.16). It says “to do good and to share with others” who are in need. This would include the things mentioned earlier in the chapter, such as using our time and possessions in loving one another, and showing hospitality and empathy. Living for others. Doing the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). Then a reason is given for doing this “for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. God is pleased with this sacrifice because when we live like this, we show that He is more valuable than the things of this world. If God is our treasure, we’ll serve Him by helping others instead of being devoted to the things of this world.
How do we rate on these sacrifices? Are we willing to suffer and be ridiculed because we are a Christian? What about moving outside our churches to evangelize our neighbourhoods, our cities, our nation and the nations of the world? Do we have a heart of praise? Do we live for others?
Up to now the book of Hebrews has been like a sermon, but it finishes like a letter.
Keep praying (v.18-19)
Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.
The writer appeals for their prayers. Because he says he has a clear conscience and desires to live honorably in every way, he may have been attacked by Jewish critics. As he also asks them to pray that he might be able to visit them soon, it seems as though he had been delayed. Perhaps he was in prison (v.23). Prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him.
Do we pray for others?
The writer now expresses his final desire and prayer for those he is writing to.
Recognize God’s work (v.20-21)
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
He calls God the “God of peace”, because through Jesus we can have peace with God. Our sins separate us from God, but through Jesus we can be reconciled and draw near to God.
The fact that Jesus was raised back to life after being in the tomb showed that His mission was accomplished – His death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity. Because of this we can share in God’s eternal covenant, which is also called the new covenant. A covenant is a promise, and because of what Jesus did, we know that God keeps His promises.
Jesus is called the “great Shepherd of the sheep”, which is a metaphor for a great leader of all the redeemed. Sheep need guiding to fresh pasture and protection from predators. Because He is alive, and because by His Spirit He is always with us, He can guide and protect those who follow Him.
His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out (also see Phil. 2:13). Doing God’s will is what pleases Him. Then they could be faithful and keep following and serving Christ and have inner strength and faith to persevere to the end (Jer.32:40).
All this equipping believers and pleasing God is achieved “through Jesus Christ”. It’s the same explanation as given for how Paul learnt to be content in all circumstances: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). That’s why Jesus deserves glory and praise for ever and ever.
Do we give Jesus glory, honor and praise as our great spiritual leader? Do we realize that God equips us and works in us? Are we like Paul whose goal was to please God (2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 1 Th. 4:1)?
We have seen that an understanding of the greatness of Jesus, the importance of perseverance and the danger of unbelief needs to be expressed by loving one another; showing hospitality and empathy; sexual purity; avoiding the love of money; following Jesus and godly church leaders instead of false teachings; persevering in the Christian faith by accepting suffering, by continual praise and by doing good works; prayer; and by letting God work though us.
In 1935 a Boeing B-17 aircraft crashed when being evaluated by the US Army. The crash was caused by pilot error. When they realized that flying the plane was too complex to rely on the pilot’s memory, they developed checklists to make sure nothing was forgotten.
Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Written, May 2015
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles
Recently a friend of ours died of leukaemia. His family cared for him while he was in palliative care. It was a hopeless situation. They knew he wasn’t going to be healed. Yet they prayed for God’s will to be done and the funeral was a celebration that he had been delivered from his suffering and was now with the Lord.
Jeremiah’s letter to Jewish exiles in chapter 29:4-23 shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate deliverance and restoration.
Jeremiah prophesized during the last 40 years of the nation of Judah (626 – 586 BC). At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. The Assyrians and Babylonians used their overwhelming military force to terrorize the people of the lands they invaded. They also took heavy tribute and deported masses of people into slavery. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of five kings: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jahoiakim, Jehoichin and Zedkiah. All of these kings except Josiah “did evil in the eyes of the Lord”.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. At the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The prophets before Zephaniah announced God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. This was also Zephaniah’s message. Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies.
Later in Jeremiah’s period, Obadiah pronounces judgment on Edom, one of Judah’s closest enemies and predicts Israel’s restoration. Habakkuk complains to God because He’s doing nothing about the terrible violence, wrongdoing, destruction, strife, and injustice in Judah. He is perplexed when told that the pagan Babylonians were going to invade Judah. But God reassures him that the Babylonians will eventually be punished as well.
In the book of Jeremiah, he speaks out against the sins of Judah (Ch. 1-38). He warned them for at least 23 years (Jer. 25:2-3). The punishment for these is that they will be invaded by Babylon and taken captive. Chapter 29 is a letter that Jeremiah wrote to all the Jewish captives in Babylon (Jer. 29:4). After chapter 29, Jeremiah predicts that the Jews will be released from captivity and able to return to re-establish their lives in their homeland. He also predicts living under the Messiah with a new covenant.
The letter, written by one of God’s prophets, is comprised of commands and promises (Jer. 29:45-23). This means that it was a command to be followed by the Jewish exiles and promises they were to believe.
The Babylonians attacked Jerusalem three times. On the first occasion in 605 BC, Judah became a vassal state and paid tribute to Babylon and a group of people including Daniel was carried off to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:1-2). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem in 598-597 BC, replacing the king, taking tribute, and taking about 10,000 Jewish captives to Babylon (2 Ki. 24:8-17). Then they laid siege to Jerusalem again in 588-586 BC, destroying the city and taking more Jewish captives to Babylon, including the king (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Instead of being a nation, Judah was now a province of the regional superpower. The remaining Jews, including Jeremiah, fled to Egypt for safety (Jer. 41:16 – 44:30). This wasn’t unexpected because it was the ultimate punishment for breaking their covenant with their God (Lev. 26:31-33; Dt, 28:49-68). Everything that God had done for them since they left Egypt would be destroyed. The goal of the punishment is their repentance (Lev. 26:40-41).
So after being warned for at least 100 years, Judah has finally been punished for their sins. The captives in Babylon were suffering grief and loss, forced relocation and slavery. They probably feared the worst and thought their fate was similar to that of Israel in 722 BC. Over 136 years ago, the Assyrians invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Israel and took captives and the people were scattered to other nations. That was the end of the kingdom of Israel and there was no way it could be restored. It seemed the same when Babylon invaded Judah. So the Jews in Babylon thought this was the end of their nation. They cried in despair as they were in a helpless and hopeless situation (Ps. 137:1). Jeremiah also lamented because he saw the destruction of Jerusalem (Lamentations).
Jeremiah also predicts the destruction of those who didn’t go into exile (v.15-19). It’s punishment for their disobedience. They didn’t deserve God’s protection like those sent into exile (Jer. 24:5-7).
What a surprising letter from Jeremiah! They are told to prepare for a long captivity (v.4-7) by settling down to live for a long time in Babylon. To establish families and raise children among themselves; but don’t intermarry with foreigners. God wanted them to grow in number, not dwindle.
Usually captives hate their captors. But the Jews are told to pray for Babylon! To pray for their enemy! To seek Babylon’s peace and prosperity so things will go well for them as well. To pray for the prosperity of their enemy!
What did the exiles think of Jeremiah? Whose side was Jeremiah on, first he says to surrender to the Babylonians and now when they are prisoners of war (POW) he says this? Has he lost his marbles?
Australian POWs in World War 2 endured hard labor working on roads and battling to survive the harsh Austrian winter. Under their German masters, it seemed a hopeless situation. But after 12 months they began receiving Red Cross packages with food clothes and medicine, which were like a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world. These helped many POWs to survive.
Through the fall of Jerusalem, the exiles learnt that God eventually judges sin (many died, others were POWs, some escaped and their capital city was destroyed). Also, what seemed to be the worst to the captives (being POWs), was actually the best because they would be kept safe in Babylon (most of the rest died). Also, they were to accept the situation that God had placed them in and not hope for something better.
Then God warns the exiles not to be deceived by false prophets who were prophesying lies in God’s name (v.8-9, 21). They contradict the words of Jeremiah (Jer. 27:16-22; 28:3). The captivity was to be 70 years, not two (Jer. 25:11-12; 28:3, 11; 29:10)! God’s prophets predicted disasters, but the false prophets predicted peace (Jer. 14:13-16; 23:17; 28:8). One of them sent a letter to the priests rebuking them for not putting Jeremiah in prison (v. 24-27). Because of their lies and adultery, Jeremiah predicted they would be put to death by the king of Babylon (v. 21-23).
Jeremiah tells the captives to not be gullible by believing their lies. Instead, they should ignore them and not listen to them.
After the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, the Russians claimed that the missile was fired by a Ukrainian fighter jet. They were telling a lie.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was to be discerning and listen to God’s prophets and not the false ones. They needed to know the difference between the two.
Next Jeremiah predicts deliverance and restoration for the exiles. He says that God will bring them back to their homeland after 70 years of exile. Those still alive at the time and their descendants would be able to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, including the temple and the city walls. This restoration was predicted over 900 years beforehand (Dt. 30:3-5).
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:11-14NIV).
God hadn’t forgotten them. In fact He had planned their future lives. These plans were for their collective good, to prosper them collectively and give them a hope and future to look forward to. There was hope for their nation after all. But the benefits wouldn’t come for 70 years! In the meantime they were POWs.
God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future (v.11) are described as their return to Judah from exile (v. 10, 14) and these plans were fulfilled with the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC (Ezra 1:2-4; Jer. 29:11). So this promise has already been fulfilled.
God also predicts that by that time they will return to following Him once again. This implies that they will confess and repent of their sins. The Bible teaches that their restoration was conditional on their repentance (Dt. 4:29-31). This shows God’s mercy and His commitment to the covenant made with their ancestors.
Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has just been released after 400 days in an Egyptian prison. He said the experience was a “baptism of fire” that helped him learn more about himself. It felt like a “near-death experience”, but also like a “rebirth” because he was given an opportunity to look back at his life.
So the lesson for the exiles to learn was that repentance was the way to a restored relationship with the Lord and to their release from being POWs in Babylon. This repentance was essential for their deliverance and the restoration and rebirth of their nation.
They also learnt that their situation is never helpless or hopeless because God promises ultimate deliverance and restoration from whatever situation they are in. The way to optimism is to remember that God has plans for their future. But there was no shortcut; they had to go through suffering along the way.
What are the lessons for us today?
What’s changed since then? We are God’s people today, but we are not a nation with their own home-land like the exiles. Jesus brought a new covenant. He prayed for His enemies (Lk. 23:34) and taught His followers to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44-45). Paul taught that we are to never take revenge, but leave that up to God (Rom. 12:19-21). Because, doing good to one’s enemy, instead of taking revenge, may bring about repentance.
The lesson that God eventually judges sin applies to us as well. People say, what’s God doing about the evil in the world? He seems absent. But the Bible says that He is patiently waiting for more people to turn to Him before He brings judgment (2 Pt. 3:9).
Also, what seems to be the worst for us may be the best because He knows us better than we know ourselves and He ensures that everything that happens to us is for our benefit (Rom. 8:27-28). That’s why God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the way we would like it.
The lesson to accept the situation that God had placed us in and not hope for something better applies to us as well. Paul gives an example of this for marriage (1 Cor. 7:17-20). He also wrote, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18).
Do we believe all we see on the internet? How gullible are we? How do we know what to believe? Do we compare what people say and write with Scripture? Because there are false teachers out there. In Jeremiah’s day they ignored gross sinfulness and said, God’s not going to judge us. They wanted God’s blessing without going through the suffering of the captivity. But the Bible teaches that suffering precedes blessing and glory, with Jesus the greatest example (Rom. 8:18; 1 Pt 3:18, 22). Christians should expect to suffer for their faith (1 Pt. 4:12-19). We should be skeptical of those who teach an “easy” Christianity that brings lots of benefits because our benefits are largely spiritual (Eph. 1:3-14). Also, beware of false hopes.
The lesson that repentance is the way to a restored relationship with the Lord applies to us as well. In the New Testament, God doesn’t promise to release us from our physical problems (if this happens it is a mercy), but deliver us from our spiritual ones. The steps of repentance include “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:7-10).
As God’s plans to prosper the exiles and give them hope and a future was fulfilled in 538 BC, this promise isn’t for us today. But what sort of plans does God have for us? We can ask God in prayer (Jas. 1:5). Of course, He wants us to be faithful to Him in everything we do by following the commands and principles He gives for believers in the New Testament. We can begin by being faithful where we are (Mt. 25:21). As we do this, God usually reveals the next step. It’s one step at a time, not a jump to our final destiny.
The lesson that our situation is never helpless or hopeless applies to us as well. However, our ultimate deliverance and restoration is spiritual, not physical. When there’s despair, discouragement or bad news our hope is the good news of Jesus. Heaven is the ultimate hope for Christians, though we may have to go through suffering along the way.
We have seen from Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles that God judges sin (which is why they were POWs), and cares for His people and warns them not to be deceived by false prophets.
It shows that for God’s people, the situation is never helpless or hopeless because He promises ultimate spiritual deliverance and restoration.
Written, February 2015