Living Thanks is available in three electronic formats for reading on any computer or eBook reader. Download your free copy (no registration or email necessary) from the Download page on our sister site here.
Gratitude may be one of the most important qualities we can develop in this life, yet many Christians do not seriously focus on growing in this area. After showing why gratitude is good for us, both physically and spiritually, our new eBook, Living Thanks: A Guide to Growing and Showing Gratitude, looks at why and how we can increase thankfulness – to not just occasionally give thanks, but to live thanks with the gratitude that God desires to see in our lives.
Living Thanks is available in three electronic formats for reading on any computer or eBook reader. Download your free copy (no registration or email necessary) from the Download page on our sister site here.
One of the primary laws of success is not to try to pursue too many goals at one time. When we attempt many goals at once, we tend to stretch our efforts too thin – and if we are not careful, we can become mediocre in everything we do. As a result, many leadership experts stress that it is best to focus on one major goal at a time and to put most of our efforts into that single, primary, goal.
So how does this fact balance with what we are called to do in our Christian lives? The apostle Paul actually gives us at least three major goals for which we should be aiming – and we are not given the luxury of tackling one goal at a time! But let’s look at those biblical goals and then consider how we can fulfill them without lessoning our success with any one of them.
Goal One: Perhaps the primary goal Paul gives every warrior of the Way is to glorify God. The apostle made it clear when he wrote: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). In context Paul is talking primarily about food and drink, but the words “whatever you do” add a breadth of application that clearly means we are to glorify God in everything we do – and of, course, everything we think or say. That’s a huge goal, but it meshes perfectly with what Jesus himself said about the greatest commandment being to love God (Matthew 22:36-38). If we truly love God, we will be seeking to glorify him in every aspect of our lives.
Goal Two: Although the first goal of the Christian life we looked at is already incredibly broad, we can now add on a second goal: helping and strengthening others. Just as Jesus taught that after love of God we must love our neighbor (Matthew 22:39), so Paul stresses the importance of loving others through helping them in whatever way we can: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10). We should note that Paul urges us not only to apply love in our dealings with everyone – but also especially to do what we can to strengthen fellow believers.
Goal Three: We already have two major goals to contemplate, but Paul adds a third one: being a light to unbelievers. This is fulfilling the “Great Commission” Jesus gave his disciples before his ascension (Matthew 28:18-20), and it is called a “great” commission or goal for good reason. As Paul wrote: “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47 and see also Acts 26:18, Philippians 2:14-16). In a figurative sense, of course, “Gentiles” includes all who are not part of “spiritual Israel” (Galatians 3:7, 6:16, etc.) – in other words, all unbelievers – another huge goal.
So the biblical evidence is clear. As Christians, we are given not one, but at least three major goals, and we are expected to fulfill them all! But given what we said at the beginning of this article, how can we possibly fulfill three such massive goals without diluting our efforts and producing only mediocre results in what we accomplish? Fortunately, the Bible answers this question in a very encouraging way. Unlike physical goals which usually require focused attention and effort that can be applied in only one area or another, the New Testament makes it clear that if we are diligently working toward one of the three goals we have been given, we will, in effect, be working toward them all.
Consider a small example of this. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples: “… In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, ESV). Did you see it? If we are fulfilling the goal of letting our light shine before others, we will also be fulfilling the goal of bringing glory to God! Paul made exactly this same point when he wrote that through the spreading of the word: “… the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
Putting this example in a practical context means that helping a stranger or a fellow believer in some way not only fulfills the goal of serving and helping others, but our action also glorifies God – whether the person we help knows we are a Christian or not. A little reflection on the three goals we have been given will show that every one of them overlaps and interacts with the others in the same way.
This does not mean that we need only attempt to do one of the things we have been given to do in our Christian lives, but it helps us to see that unlike attempting physical goals we can successfully accomplish multiple spiritual goals at once. That is one of the most encouraging things we can know about the Way to which we have been called, and it is a powerful antidote to feeling that we are responsible for managing long lists of spiritual goals. We are given multiple goals, but when we strive to fulfill any one of them, very often we are working on fulfilling them all.
“Do not fear … Be faithful … and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10 ESV)
The words of the “First and the Last” to Christians in the city of Smyrna in Asia Minor recorded in Revelation 2:10 are words that we can all profit from. The message doubtless had specific application to its original readers, but its core is one which applies to us all. We see this truth in the words that directly follow the statement not to fear and to be faithful: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches…” (Revelation 2:11).
So how does the message apply to us today? Jesus does not just say “Don’t fear and I’ll give you the crown of life” and he doesn’t just say “Be faithful and I’ll give you the crown of life” – he says both. These dual commands are based on the fact that fear and faithfulness are opposites that cannot coexist. If we are faithful in our behavior, we gain spiritual confidence that banishes inner fear. On the other hand, if we live in fear, we often end up compromising our beliefs and being unfaithful in some way.
This is easier to understand when we realize that “do not fear” is just another way of saying “have faith.” So “Do not fear … Be faithful…” is simply saying “Have faith and be faithful.” Faith and faithfulness together make up the sum total of Christian responsibility of inward belief and outward behavior. But the two qualities are not independent of each other in our lives. Faith leads to faithfulness and faithfulness leads to faith.
The apostle John reiterates the necessity of both faith and faithfulness later in the book of Revelation when he writes: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus (Revelation 14:12, emphasis added).
We must remember that we are saved through faith, not faithfulness, but the book of Revelation makes it clear that faithfulness is involved in our reward – in the crown of life we are offered, and in the identity of the saints of God who will not only be saved, but also crowned.
While the apostle John wrote his first epistle as a major work on Christian doctrine and practice to an unspecified or unlimited group of Christians he calls “my children” (1 John 2:1), the much shorter second and third epistles attributed to John (the two shortest books in the Bible) clearly are much more like actual short letters sent to individuals. They are named as such, of course, 3 John being addressed to an individual named “Gaius” (3 John 1:1) and 2 John being written to “…the elect lady and her children…” (2 John 1:1 ESV).
We do not know who the “elect lady” was to whom John wrote his second epistle, but the short letter provides a number of clues that can help us make an educated guess. Most biblical commentaries suggest that the elect lady could have been a wealthy or influential early Christian who may have supported John’s evangelistic work. Several such women supported the work of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), and John’s comment regarding something that the lady knew – “As you have heard from the beginning” (2 John 1:6) – could even indicate that she was one of those same supporting women.
Many commentaries also consider the possibility that the term “elect lady” is used metaphorically of the Christian Church by John – who himself refers to the Church as a woman in the book of Revelation (Revelation 12:1-17). But this possibility, while it is a commonly accepted one, does not fit well with some of the things John writes in 2 John. For example, in his command: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them” (2 John 1:10), we would expect “houses” if the letter were written to a church. Similarly, the expression “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face” (2 John 1:12) hardly sounds like something that would be said to a group. And it would seem strange indeed, if the woman’s “children” (2 John 1:1) were really the members of the congregation, for John to say: “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth” (2 John1:4, emphasis added).
But there is another possibility that we should consider: that “the elect lady” to whom John wrote was actually Mary, the mother of Jesus. We know that in his dying hour Jesus gave the care of Mary over to his disciple John (John 19:26-27), and tradition tells us that John did indeed care for Mary after Christ’s death and resurrection.
The fact that John offers spiritual advice and counsel to the elect lady in his letter by no means suggests that she could not be Mary, when we properly understand John’s role as both a senior apostle and the one entrusted with Mary’s care. It is perhaps only if we elevate Mary the mother of Jesus more than we should elevate a human individual that John’s counsel might seem in any way presumptuous. In any case, John offers no correction in his letter, simply encouragement not to doubt the divine sonship of Jesus because: “many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world” (2 John 1:7). Such encouragement might be particularly apt for the mother of Jesus.
Many other details of 2 John fit the possibility that the lady could have been Mary. The Greek term used by John in calling the lady “elect” was eklektos: “picked out” or “chosen.” While this word could be used of any called Christian – and is used this way in verse 13, and in Matthew 22:14, etc. – the term obviously applied with special historical significance to Mary as the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-48). The expression “As you have heard from the beginning” (2 John 1:6) would also obviously apply to her, as would John’s desire to visit her and see her “face to face” (2 John 1:12) if he wrote the letter while traveling for an extended time.
Most significantly, John’s statement that the elect lady was someone “whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth” (2 John 1:1) fits Mary in a way that cannot be said of any other individual Christian woman. What woman would be known by all Christians more than the mother of Jesus? And what woman would be loved by all believers more than Mary, the mother of Jesus?
There are other possible clues in 2 John that make Mary a likely candidate as the addressee of this letter. John’s statement that “The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings” (1 John 1:13) potentially fits Mary who, as John 19:25 tells us, had a physical sister. Also, “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth” (2 John 1:4) certainly fits the fact that some of the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3) were converted (Acts 1:14) and eventually became prominent figures in the early Church (Galatians 1:9).
So, while it is possible that the apostle John wrote his second epistle to an unnamed and relatively unknown individual Christian woman who supported the work of the Church, there are problems accepting that as being likely. In the same way, while it is possible that the “elect lady” represented not an individual woman but a local congregation or even the whole Church, there are reasons why this may not be likely, also. On the other hand, while we have no proof that 2 John was written to Mary, the mother of Jesus, there is nothing within the letter that would discount that possibility – and much that fits it well.
When we think of parables it is usually the parables of Jesus that come to mind. His parables were one of the most characteristic features of his ministry. Yet they are not the first parables to be found in the Bible – parables were an essential part of the religious teaching of ancient Israel. The book of Hosea tells us, for example, that God: “... spoke to the prophets … and told parables through them” (Hosea 12:10). If we learn to recognize them, we can actually find this form of teaching throughout many books of the Old Testament; and understanding its nature can help us better understand the parables that Jesus gave.
The key to recognizing true biblical parables in the Old Testament (as opposed to figurative or metaphorical statements, short riddles, or stories with an obvious moral) is that a true biblical parable has two parts. In the first part – called the mashal in Hebrew – a simple story is told for the sake of conveying a deeper truth. But that truth is never obvious in the story itself; it has to be revealed in the second part of the parable – called the nimshal – which provides the “key” to unlocking the parable’s meaning. The two parts of content and intent are only brought together at the conclusion of the narrative – which is why, of course, we read in the New Testament that Jesus often taught in parables and later explained them by providing the nimshal or key to his disciples (Luke 8:9, Mark 4:33-34, etc.).
We see this two-part structure in one of the earliest parables of the Old Testament. The book of Judges records that the young man Jotham told the people of Shechem a detailed story of how the trees of the forest made themselves a king (Judges 9:7-15). When the parable is finished, he explains it by showing how the parts of the story fit their own political circumstances (Judges 9:16-20).
We also see the two-part structure in the famous story that the prophet Nathan tells King David about a sinful rich man who took his poor neighbor’s only lamb when he had plenty of lambs himself. When David indignantly states that the evil man deserves death, Nathan provides the nimshal to the parable by simply saying “you are that man” – because David had taken the only wife of his general, Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-4).
In these cases, the connection between the mashal/content of the parables and their nimshal/intent is easy to grasp, but sometimes the Old Testament gives parables that would be very difficult to understand without the explaining “key” or the background we are given. Such is the case with the story of the two fighting brothers that was told to David by the wise widow from Tekoa (2 Samuel 14:1-7). In this story David’s general Joab carefully constructs a parable with a meaning we would not guess unless it is explained – as it is by the wise widow (2 Samuel 14:13-14).
When we look for such stories that have to be explained in the course of the narrative in which they appear, we find many parables in the Old Testament. Parables were especially favored by the Hebrew prophets, and the book of Ezekiel, for example, contains at least nine of them. Isaiah also uses parables in his teaching, and some of these parables clearly influenced those given by Jesus. In Isaiah chapter 5 the prophet tells a parable of a vineyard and its bad fruit (Isaiah 5:1-6) which he then explains as being relevant to the nation of Israel (vs. 7). Although Jesus altered the details slightly in his parables found in Matthew 21:33–44 and Luke 13:6–9, the stories are recognizably similar, and their message is identical.
Jesus often framed his own parables on both parable and non-parable stories found in the Old Testament. His parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of this and appears to be based on a section of 2 Chronicles which tells of the kindness given to Judean captives by men of Samaria who:
“… clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria” (2 Chronicles 28:15).
In this simple narrative Jesus found the basis for one of the most profound of his parables, the lessons of which are far-reaching and apply in every age. But the greatest reliance of Christ’s parables on the Old Testament is found not in their use of Old Testament story plots, but in their use of imagery applied to God. Old Testament parables show God as a king, a father, a husband, and in other key ways. Of the somewhat more than forty parables of Jesus recorded in the New Testament, at least twenty metaphorically refer to him by means of the same imagery used of God in Old Testament parables and stories. This self-portrayal with imagery used of God is unique to the parables of Jesus and ties directly to his teaching of his own messianic role.
So the parables of the Old Testament are important not only in their own right in the stories in which they are found, but also in forming the basis for some of Jesus’ own parables, as well as providing images for his parables that Jewish hearers would associate with God when they understood the parables’ nimshal key or intent. But although there are numerous well-crafted parables in the Old Testament, there is no doubt that Jesus perfected the art of parable-telling and brought to the form a subtlety and spiritual depth that had not been seen before.
“Gratitude is the gift God gives us that enables us to be blessed by all his other gifts, the way our taste buds enable us to enjoy the gift of food.” – John Ortberg
The point of the quote above is an excellent one that bears reflection. Although Christian writer John Ortberg did not develop the analogy between gratitude and our physical taste-buds in the context of the quote, it’s a comparison that can be profitably explored.
Our taste buds, containing the taste receptor cells that allow us to experience pleasure from what we eat and drink, are minor miracles of design and planning. The average human tongue has multiple thousands of these little cell clusters, and although most people are not aware of it, they are also found on the soft palate of the mouth, the upper esophagus, the insides of the cheeks, and the epiglottis at the back of the throat.
Some people are also naturally blessed with heightened abilities of taste through having a greater number of taste buds than others. These people – representing about 20 percent of the population – are known to science as “supertasters.” Most of us (about 60 percent of the population) have an average numbers of taste buds, but another 20 percent of the population are known as “non-tasters” as they can have far fewer taste buds than average.
But whatever our natural level of taste buds may be, it is a fact that anyone – even so-called “non-tasters” – can develop their ability to recognize and enjoy tastes. That ability to develop our sense of taste is the reason some people become connoisseurs of fine foods and wines. Those who train themselves in this way develop the ability to distinguish even the slightest differences among thousands of different tastes – and to appreciate and enjoy them to a heightened extent.
Our sense of gratitude and appreciation is certainly no different. Although some people may seem to be naturally more appreciative than others (perhaps we could call them “super-appreciators”), the truth is that we can all develop our capacity for appreciation in life. And that is something, of course, that we are commanded to do in dozens of biblical verses. The apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians are only one example of many: "Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20 ESV).
How do we develop our “appreciation” buds to better honor this instruction to be appreciative for everything in our lives? We do it exactly as the connoisseur of fine foods or wines develops his or her taste buds to better appreciate tastes – we concentrate on them.
Normally, we may not pay much attention to our physical taste bud sensors; but without them eating even the finest foods would be an experience no different from chewing sawdust or styrofoam chips. A life without gratitude and appreciation is no different – we derive no real joy from the things we receive, we fail to give thanks for them as we should, and ultimately we fail to give credit to God for the gifts themselves. On the other hand, when we learn to make a habit of focusing on the gifts we receive, we learn to properly appreciate them, to give thanks for them, and to credit them to God as we should. As the book of Psalms tells us: “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” (Psalms 50:23 ESV).
God gives us the capacity for gratitude, but we must develop it. And that is something anyone (even those with naturally few “appreciation buds”) can do with practice. We may not choose to become connoisseurs of fine wines or foods, but the God who gives us all things (James 1:17) invites, encourages, and even commands us – for the sake of our own heightened enjoyment and his praise – to become connoisseurs of his gifts.
Scriptures in Question:
“And the next day the Lord did it: All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one animal belonging to the Israelites died” (Exodus 9:6).
“Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every person and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die” (Exodus 9:19).
In the narrative of the plagues sent on Egypt described in the book of Exodus, we are told that in the fifth plague “All the livestock of the Egyptians died” (Exodus 9:1-7), while later, in the seventh plague, Moses tells Pharaoh that any livestock not brought under shelter will be killed by a great hailstorm. If all the animals were killed in the fifth plague, how could there be animals left to shelter from the seventh? There are at least four possible answers to this seeming contradiction.
First, strange as it may sound, the words “all” and “every” in Hebrew do not mean “all” or “every” in all cases. Just as in modern English we can say “Everyone was at the party” meaning a great many people or all the people of a certain type such as a group of co-workers, so in ancient Hebrew the words all and every sometimes simply mean the majority or a great many.
Second, the expression “all the livestock” can mean livestock of every kind – horses, cows, sheep, goats, etc. – as, in fact, we find in Exodus 9:3: “…your horses, donkeys and camels and … your cattle, sheep and goats.”
Third, the exact wording of Exodus 9:3 is that “the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field …”, so it may be that livestock not in the fields would not be affected. The ancient Egyptians had extensive stables and holding areas for livestock, as many of the “fields” were covered in water during the annual inundation of the Nile.
Fourth, we are specifically told that in the fifth plague none of the livestock of the Hebrews was affected (Exodus 9: 7), so it is very possible that by the time of the seventh plague the Egyptians had forcibly requisitioned many of these animals and now had them in their own fields.
Given all these – and even other – possibilities, there is no reason we need see any contradiction between what Exodus tells us occurred in the fifth and seventh plagues. The fact that the supposed contradiction is an obvious one that occurs within a few verses indicates that the ancient Hebrews were fully aware of what was said but saw no problem regarding the situation. As a result, we need not either.
After more than nine years imprisonment – on death row for most of that time – Asia (pronounced “ahseeya”) Bibi, the young Pakistani Christian woman who was charged with violating Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, has been freed.
Pakistan's Supreme Court finally ruled that Bibi had been falsely accused and that she was to be freed in October of 2018, but widespread and often violent reaction among the country’s Muslim population led to the Christian not being allowed to leave the country and the court’s decision being legally challenged.
Thankfully, and despite great domestic pressure, the Supreme Court upheld its decision confirming Asia Bibi’s freedom and allowing her to leave the country – and potentially to travel to Canada where her children have already been relocated.
The harrowing years of legal turmoil and possible execution for the young Christian field laborer and mother of five began in 2009 when Muslim co-workers who had sent her to bring water to them were upset that she drank some water from the same source, claiming that as a non-Muslim she had defiled it. When an argument erupted, the Muslim co-workers brought charges against Bibi of blaspheming the prophet Mohamad – using a notorious law that is often brought against non-Muslims.
In its 56-page ruling, however, Pakistan's highest court found the accusation to be false saying “She appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare's King Lear, 'more sinned against than sinning.'” Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, went as far as to say that Bibi’s accusers were guilty of perjury and if the case hadn’t been so sensitive, they would themselves have been jailed for life. Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, who had to flee the country due to death threats, said the decision was a victory for Pakistan’s constitution and rule of law.
However, as Amnesty International has announced: “After nine years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, it is difficult to see this long overdue verdict as justice. But she should now be free to reunite with her family and seek safety in a country of her choice.”
Asia Bibi remained hidden under government protection after the Supreme Court upheld her release this week, but after being transferred to the capital Islamabad yesterday, Bibi was expected to leave the country as soon as possible for Canada where she has now been offered asylum. News sources quote a close friend as saying Bibi is overjoyed at her freedom and had said: "I am really grateful to everybody, now after nine years it is confirmed that I am free, and I will be going to hug my daughters.”
Bibi’s faith appears to have remained strong throughout her ordeal and in the 2012 book, Get Me Out of Here, that Bibi was helped to write, she included a letter to her family urging them not to “lose courage or faith in Jesus Christ.”
We can and should be grateful for this resolution of Asia Bibi’s situation, but this young Christian field worker’s case well illustrates the plight of many Christians in Pakistan who are, like Bibi herself, often poor, illiterate, and without connections – making them easy targets for religious persecution. The anti-Christian forces within Pakistani society may now turn on Christians who remain in the country, and even more of the ongoing persecution is likely. Some 187 other Pakistani Christians remain in prison on the same charge of blasphemy.
So, although the prayers of those who have faithfully remembered Asia Bibi over the last several years have finally been answered, now is no time to let down. We can and should give thanks for this young woman’s release, but we should also continue to remember the many Christians in Pakistan who still need our concern.
* Update: Asia Bibi arrived in Toronto on Tuesday, February 5th, and has now been reunited with her family in Canada.
Many electronics and small home appliances that are returned to their manufacturers due to problems are worked with, tested, dusted off and sent back out for sale as “factory refurbished.”
Perhaps they are a reasonable deal, but I have always had a deep distrust of such “refurbished” items. Obviously damaged or defective parts might be fixed, but what about the long-term functioning of some of these items? It seems to me that a refurbished appliance just isn’t as trustworthy as one made new and made right.
Apparently, God follows that same line of reasoning with us. After all, I suppose it would be possible for a spiritually “malfunctioning” individual to be repaired, then sent back out into the world again, but God’s word seems to indicate that’s not a good idea. Jesus spoke a parable specifically relating to the wisdom of going with a new product:
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:21-22).
God did not issue a refurbished or revised edition of his Covenant, but introduced a totally new one (Hebrews 8:13). In a similar manner, the One who originally formed the human mind prefers to renew our outlook completely rather than just to affect an attitude “adjustment” or “refurbishment” (Ephesians 4:23). He prefers totally remade characters, too: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In fact, he calls us to “… put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
Ultimately, we are told, God will establish new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-2), so it seems clear that he really prefers the new to the refurbished in every case. In fact, he says: “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).
If the One who has called us will remake everything in his quest for the renewed and perfected, shouldn’t we look at our own lives that way? God clearly does not call us to be refurbished – with just the outer visible problems fixed, but with no real remaking of the inner person we are. So it’s a question we can ask ourselves as we go further into this new year: Are we content with just being refurbished each day, or are we striving to be truly made new?
SEVEN LETTERS: LESSONS FROM THE GENERAL EPISTLES
By R. Herbert, Living Belief Books, 2019.
The so-called General Epistles are of immense importance to Christianity and to you personally. They were composed by the leading apostles of the early Church and significantly affect our understanding of Christian beliefs as well as being filled with a great deal of practical advice in Christian living.
Yet despite their importance, many people do not know these biblical books as well as they might. Our new eBook looks at specific lessons we can learn from the General Epistles and may significantly increase your understanding of these treasures of the New Testament.
You can download copies in three formats for reading on computer, phone or eBook reader. As always, the downloads are free and do not require registering or emails – just click on the file you wish to download. Download a copy here.
Many internet bible sites regularly publish lists of their most frequently searched-for scriptures – the well-known Bible verses such as John 3:16 that people look up and read more often than others. That can be interesting information and can show us regional differences, for example, in what people are searching for in the Bible.
But in this article we are looking at something entirely different – the passages of scripture most quoted by the biblical writers themselves. If we believe in the inspiration of the biblical writings, then we could also say these are the passages that were most often quoted under inspiration of the Spirit of God – or, put another way, the verses to which God most frequently referred!
So what are those verses? There is no question as to their identity as two verses stand out above all others. Among the writers of the Old Testament, the most commonly quoted verse is found in the book of Exodus: “maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin …” (Exodus 34:7A).
These memorable words were spoken to Moses by God regarding a central aspect of his own identity. They appear again at Numbers 14:18-19 where Moses reminds God of them, and they are quoted repeatedly in the writings of the later biblical writers.
The passage is quoted, for example, three times in the book of Psalms alone. In Psalms 86:15 David quotes it in a prayer for God’s mercy, and in Psalms 103:8 and 145:8 he quotes it again in praising God’s deeds. The prophets Jonah (4:2), Joel (2:13), Micah (7:18) and Nehemiah (9:17, 31) all quote it,and it is alluded to in other verses such as 2 Chronicles 30:9 when King Hezekiah urged the people of Judah to return to God.
When we turn to the New Testament we also find a verse that is quoted more often and by more New Testament writers than any other. That verse is found in the book of Psalms: “The Lord says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” (Psalm 110:1).
This verse is quoted or alluded to some 23 times by seven of the nine authors of the New Testament, and the much-quoted words “the Lord says to my lord” were often used by the Christian writers as an expression of the divine nature of Jesus Christ alongside God. In Matthew 22:44 we see that Jesus himself referred the Pharisees to this verse to make the point that the Messiah is more than David’s son – he is also David’s Lord.
Psalm 110:1 is also an expression of God’s ongoing purpose in history. The words "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" were used frequently from the beginnings of Christianity. The book of Acts shows us that Peter included them in his sermon when the New Testament Church was founded on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:32-36) specifically to show that “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (vs.36). Peter and Paul repeatedly use the verse or allude to it in their writings. Paul, for example, refers to it in stressing the basis of the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:22-25).
We know historically that the earliest Christian confession was simply “Jesus is Lord!” and this confession was primarily a declaration that Jesus had been enthroned at God’s right hand as Lord and King – the very substance of Psalm 110:1.
So these two verses – Exodus 34:7 and Psalm 110:1 summarize the nature of God and the nature of his Son. The two tie together in many ways, of course. Both foreshadow many other verses. So it is hardly surprising that we find them as often as we do and that they are truly “favorite” biblical verses.
Of course, we have no way of knowing which verses in the Bible are really “God’s favorites,” but it is certain that the two verses we have looked at here were regarded as being of tremendous importance in setting out the message of the Scriptures – not just by us, its readers, but by the biblical writers themselves.
When we think of the book of Revelation, the first things that come to mind are mysterious symbols and apocalyptic imagery. But one of the book’s most significant characteristics may be one we tend to miss: a consistent message of hope to the persecuted church.
Persecution is described in all parts of Revelation – from its opening chapters to the final attack on Jerusalem – and the historical context of Revelation provides a reason for this. John’s apocalyptic writing most likely dates to the AD 90’s, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. The persecution of Christians reached a climactic level at this time, many Christians were executed, and John himself was banished to the Island of Patmos.
When we see this historical context clearly, we begin to grasp the importance of the message of hope-despite-persecution within Revelation. We see it in John’s personal introductory words to his fellow believers: “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ…” (Revelation 1:9) – words which set the tone for the whole book.
We especially see this theme of endurance under persecution in the letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation’s second and third chapters. The letters are written in the form of imperial edicts, but John makes it clear that Jesus is the king of kings (and emperors) to whom we must listen. Just as Imperial Roman edicts proclaimed, for example: “Hear what Domitian says …,” so the letters of Revelation all include “… hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, etc.).
Just as imperial edicts would often say “I know what you have done” to their recipients, so the seven letters repeatedly stress Christ’s words: “I know your works” (Revelation 2:2, etc.). The letter to Smyrna, for example, makes this theme clear: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty … Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer….and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:9-10).
We can learn much about persecution and hope from these seven letters. Consider two vital facts:
1) The letters to the seven churches – except for Sardis and Laodicea – all contain encouragement regarding perseverance in the face of persecution. Sardis and Laodicea are the two churches where persecution is not mentioned and are also the two churches that are said to be either asleep or blind.
2) Conversely, each church is given some correction – apart from Smyrna and Philadelphia, which we know historically were the two most persecuted churches. Of the seven churches, the most fiercely persecuted congregations are the only ones praised without reproach.
These facts remind us that we must never presume persecution comes upon believers because they are not sincere or righteous enough. If anything, Revelation indicates the opposite – that churches that do not experience persecution of any kind may not be spiritually active or alive.
This is not just a message regarding persecution in John’s time (Revelation 1:19). Today, Christianity is the most persecuted religious faith in the world. It has been calculated that more people died for their belief in Christ during the last century than in all nineteen previous centuries, and in the 21st century the number of Christians suffering persecution has increased even more. But if there is a single, unifying message in Revelation’s letters to the churches, it is that God sees their trials and promises that whatever is taken from them by persecution will be returned in the Kingdom at an infinitely greater level – whether relationships, positions, possessions, or life itself.
During the course of this past year we published well over a hundred blog posts here and on our sister site.
The list below gives the twelve posts that were most popular on this site, so check out the list to see how it compares with your own favorites and to see if you missed any of these popular posts ...
A Life of Prayer
Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?
What Forgiving ‘from the Heart’ Means
The Need for Knowledge as well as Good Works
Where Is Jesus in the Epistle of James?
Does the Existence of Evil Prove There Is No God?
Paul: Walking in the Prophet’s Steps
The Two Sides of Faith
When Action Must Come before Understanding
What Love Is – and Is Not
How Old Were the Disciples?
You might also like to see the parallel list of most popular posts this year on our sister site: www.TacticalChristianity.org .
Despite his position as the human father figure in the family of Jesus, Joseph is perhaps one of the least known heroes of faith. In mainstream Christianity he is represented in countless Christmas scenes and crèches each year, but then largely disappears from view. Even from the perspective of the Gospel writers (who doubtless desired to stress the true nature of Christ’s parentage), Joseph appears as a somewhat indistinct third member of the family mentioned in only a few scant verses before and after the Nativity. Yet a number of important facts can be deduced regarding Joseph’s character of faith.
Although apparently a humble and practical man (the Greek word tekton which is applied to him can mean a worker in a number of trades other than just “carpentry”), Joseph was a descendant of King David (Matthew 1:20) and clearly a man of great integrity. When we are first introduced to him we are told “… Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19). We see that although Joseph was a God-fearing man who was faithful to the observance of the Mosaic law (which in this situation would have punished Mary), he was also a man who was willing to follow first and foremost the law of love. Rather than reacting to Mary’s pregnancy with indignation – especially to protect his own reputation – Joseph’s desire to divorce Mary “quietly” is a clear indication of the degree of his compassion and decency.
When Joseph’s kindness was rewarded by a dream in which an angel explained the divine origin of Mary’s pregnancy, he accepted the role he had been given without hesitation (Matthew 1:24). We then hear nothing of him until the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus. Some time after Jesus’ birth, Joseph was again instructed by an angel in a dream – this time to flee with Mary and the infant Jesus. “So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod … After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel” (Matthew 2:13-15, 18-21).
Joseph clearly experienced more than the average new parents’ share of lost sleep due to the multiple dreams in which he was told to get up and do something – yet in every case we see him reacting obediently and at once. In each situation we see things being commanded of Joseph which were of potential danger or loss to him and his family, especially considering the difficulties of travel in that day, yet he responded quickly with faith in every instance.
We see Joseph only one further time in the Gospels, leading his family to the Passover festival in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. After that he disappears from the narratives, so it is usually presumed that he died at some time before Jesus began his ministry. Mary continues to be mentioned, of course, and it is due to these extra references, and those in earlier narratives, that we feel we know her better than Joseph. Yet Joseph must have had many excellent qualities to have been selected with ultimate care and knowledge, along with Mary, as the human parents of God’s Son. We can presume that Joseph was an excellent human father figure and male role model for the growing Jesus, and despite the lack of many details we certainly see him as a man of warmly accepting love and also of deep faith, who could be trusted to act firmly and without delay when his faith required it.
The holiday season and the end of the year is traditionally a time for giving to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and even many people who do not normally give to charitable causes throughout the year give at this time. But whenever we choose to give, we can increase the power of our gifts – large or small – by using tactics that function as force multipliers to increase the effectiveness of what we can give. There are a number of tactics we can use in this way, but in this post we will look at just three.
First, and most importantly, we can ensure that we are giving wisely There are so many causes clamoring for our money that it can be confusing trying to select a worthwhile one, but it is vital that we do. Unfortunately, there are many registered charities that spend massive amounts of the money they receive on overheads and administrative expenses so that in some cases only a small fraction of what is given actually gets to those for whom the help was intended. In other cases, overheads may be relatively low but large amounts of funding go to peripheral causes that are not the activities we want to support.
That is why the use of a good charity ranking organization such as CharityNavigator.org is imperative if we want to make what we can give have maximum effect and not be wasted or diverted. There are several charity ranking organizations, but the Charity Navigator site clearly and simply details how charities spend the money they get and shows what percentage of those funds actually go to the programs they claim to support. The site grades each charity with a score that is simple to compare with the scores of other charities. Charity Navigator also provides carefully prepared lists of different types of charities – including a great list of charities that they have ranked with 100% scores. Assessing this information does not take long and can transform our giving in terms of what it actually accomplishes.
For example, Charity Navigator gives a perfect 100% score to the organization Lifesong for Orphans that provides adoption and financial assistance for homeless children around the world – so if you gave to them, you would know your gift was helping in that particular area about as much as is humanly possible
Beyond giving carefully with intelligent checking of the organizations we want to support, we can also often make our gifts go further by giving boldly. Giving boldly does not have to mean giving more – though if we are able to do so that is good, of course. Giving boldly often simply means giving to charities that are doing truly innovative and unusual work – perhaps helping take the Gospel to unreached people groups – what we might call “Giving boldly where no one has gone before.”
That sometimes means being on the lookout for newer and likely smaller charitable organizations that may not even be rated yet, but in many cases we can still find out enough about the organization to warrant our support. A great example is the Children in Christ Ministry that is carrying the Word of God to whole people groups that have not heard it by means of childrens’ clubs and other innovative ways. Although this smaller charity is not numerically rated by Charity Navigator yet, it is possible to find plenty of information showing how effectively and cost effectively it functions (the CEO even works on a volunteer basis), so you know that contributions are truly accomplishing something.
Finally, we can often give more than we think we can because giving doesn’t just have to be about money. Perhaps we can increase the power of our gifts by sharing products we produce or by giving items we no longer need – or don’t need as many as we have. Most people are aware of the opportunities to give in these ways through the food banks, Salvation Army or other helping agencies in our own communities, but we may not be aware of some of the excellent charities that send products and lightly used items to distant places around the world where the needs may be far greater than those of our own communities.
An example of this kind of charity is Matthew 25: Ministries (another Charity Navigator 100% rated charity) which aims to help “a needy world with the things we throw away.” This innovative charity collects and passes along used items that can truly help those in need nationally and internationally – including things we may not often think of such as empty prescription pill bottles which are sent to areas where what medicines are available are often literally wrapped in leaves or paper and subsequently are spoiled through moisture and in other ways. Yet another organization, Christian Resources International, specifically focuses on sending used Bibles and religious books to areas where they are not generally available.
All these tactics require thought and perhaps a little time on our part – but they are simple things that can make a very real difference. So if you choose to give this season, think about the advantages of giving wisely, boldly, and in more ways than just cash. The effectiveness of our giving can be doubled if we do.
* You can find interviews with the CEO’s of some of the charities mentioned in this post in the "Works of Faith" section of our Articles page.
Among the band of heroes that the Bible tells us were King David’s leading warriors – his “special forces operatives” – one warrior is particularly interesting. David’s chief fighters were all noted for great exploits, but one who stands out even in that crowd is Benaiah the son of Jehoiada. We might well call this warrior “Benaiah the lion hearted,” considering what is said about him:
Benaiah son of Jehoiada, a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, performed great exploits. He struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. And he struck down an Egyptian who was five cubits tall. Although the Egyptian had a spear like a weaver’s rod in his hand, Benaiah went against him with a staff. He snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear. Such were the exploits of Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he too was as famous as the three mighty warriors. He was held in greater honor than any of the Thirty, but he was not included among the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard (1 Chronicles 11:22-25).
Take a minute to consider these exploits. The son of a famous warrior, Benaiah ended up excelling his father’s deeds. Living in a time when ancient Israel was frequently attacked by surrounding nations, he is first said to have killed the two greatest warriors of Israel’s arch-enemy Moab. We don’t know if he fought these enemies separately or together, but the Hebrew term used of them seems to imply that they were “lion-like.” Yet that is only the beginning of Benaiah’s reputation.
We are also told that Benaiah slew a giant Egyptian warrior who was doubtless part of an invading Egyptian force. This man is said to have been of great height – approximately the same as the famous giant Goliath that David himself had killed – but it seems that Benaiah was armed only with a staff and that either through cunning or sheer strength he snatched the Egyptian’s huge spear and killed him with his own weapon.
But the most notable of Benaiah’s feats is that he “went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.” This is the deed we need to think about in order to truly appreciate its magnitude. We are not told why Benaiah slew this fierce animal, but at that time lions frequently preyed on flocks and herds (1 Samuel 17:36), and this predator may well have been endangering the people of the area where the incident took place.
Whatever the reason Benaiah ended up fighting the lion, this story gives us some important details about the contest. Military ground operations must always take three major factors into account: the strength of the enemy, the terrain – including options for mobility and withdrawal, and the ambient conditions (fog, smoke, bad weather, etc.). If any one of these factors is disadvantageous, military units must operate with great care. In Benaiah’s case, all three of these factors were against him. The simple statement “a lion in a pit on a snowy day” indicates an enemy of vastly superior strength, in very difficult terrain, and with very negative ambient conditions.
These combined conditions meant that on the snowy day visibility may have been limited by flying snow. Being in a pit meant that the sun would not melt ice on the ground, making it easy to slip, plus the fact that the wind would likely have blown more snow into the pit where it could have become quite deep – making it hard to move. These are all very difficult conditions in which to find oneself: in a pit, facing a lion, with no easy way of retreat. Keep in mind that a fully grown lion can smash a human skull with a swipe of one of its paws and can bite completely though a human body. The lion may have been trapped in the pit, but once Benaiah entered it, so was he. Any person with a tactical background knows that the simple biblical description of this contest indicates what a huge victory it was for Benaiah.
Even with these great exploits, Benaiah was not one of David’s three top generals at this time. However, he is said to have been greater than the king’s top 30 fighters and, perhaps not surprisingly, to have been made the commander of the king’s bodyguard. But there is one final detail that is often overlooked regarding the hero Benaiah. 1 Chronicles 27:5 tells us that “… Benaiah [was the] son of Jehoiada the priest. He was chief and there were 24,000 men in his division.” Both Benaiah and his warrior father were Levites and his father is actually said to have served as a priest.
Perhaps we might not expect an individual with this priestly background to have taken on the enemies he did – including lion-like warriors and an actual lion. But the story of Benaiah, like that of David and Goliath, is one of several accounts given in the Old Testament that show the connection between faith and fearlessness – of active, tactical involvement in life and the willingness to take on real problems and enemies. In that sense, Benaiah is the story of a religious man who was not afraid to fight to help others. Thankfully, in our own day we do not have to fight lions, but the battles are out there for the warriors who are willing to fight them in faith.
* This post was first published on our sister site, TacticalChristianity.org
We have all seen pictures of Jesus teaching the disciples – adult males about the same age as Jesus himself. But is this representation of the disciples accurate, or could the disciples have been significantly younger?
We should always remember that only one part of Jesus’ calling and training of disciples was unique – the calling. In Judaism of the first century many rabbis or teachers taught students and trained them to be rabbis like themselves. The major difference was that young men wanting to be taught in this way usually sought out a teacher. Jesus, on the other hand, directly called his students himself – something he stressed in his teaching (John 15:16).
But apart from this aspect of “student selection” Jesus’ role as a rabbi or teacher was not unusual for its time and it is worth remembering that most students selected by rabbis were younger – commonly in their later teens. It is perfectly possible, therefore, that a number of Jesus’ disciples were younger than we usually presume and there is some biblical indication that this might have been the case.
The apostle John is known to have lived till very late in the first century, but while we presume he was perhaps younger than the others we should remember that the other disciples seem to have been martyred earlier in the century – very possibly well before they would normally have died.
Also, consider the interesting story regarding the occasion Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum and the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” Jesus then told Peter to catch a fish – which miraculously had a four-drachma coin in its mouth – and to pay the tax for Jesus and for himself (Matthew 17:24-27). It might seem odd that Jesus only provided the tax money for Peter and himself and not for the other disciples – until we realize that the tax only had to be paid by those aged 20 and above.
So it is possible that Peter alone of the disciples was older – a possibility which may throw light on the fact that Peter seems always to be the one who speaks for the other disciples Acts 2:14-36, etc.), why he is the only disciple said to be married at the time of Christs’ ministry (Matthew 8:14-17, etc.) and why he was given such a prominent role in the period of the very early Church (Galatians 2:9).
If many of the disciples were in fact younger than we often think, this would have had no bearing on their ability to act as witnesses of the resurrection. Jewish law accepted the witness of young men down to the age of bar mitzvah which usually was in the early teens.
Ultimately, the age of the disciples does not matter or we would have been told what age they were. On the other hand, recognizing the possibility of the relative youth of most of Jesus’ chosen followers can help us understand some things that might otherwise seem unclear in the New Testament.
But returning to how young Jews became students of a rabbi, it is helpful to remember that young men did not simply turn up at a rabbi’s door and expect to be taught. There were relatively few rabbis and many young men. Those who sought out a rabbi to follow were examined and tested by the older teacher and only a select few were chosen. Being selected to follow a rabbi and to continue his teaching was viewed as an exceptional honor in that society – perhaps indicating why we are told many of the disciples Jesus chose dropped everything they were doing and followed him immediately (Matthew 4:18-22).
Maybe there is a lesson in this for us today. Whatever the age of Jesus’ disciples at their calling, it is certain that the opportunity would have been regarded as a great honor and privilege – to be one of so few selected from so many. Perhaps, in terms of our own lives and calling, that is something we need to remind ourselves of more often.
In many ways, gratitude is the most important of all the good character traits. It is the most indispensable trait to both happiness and goodness. One can neither be a happy person nor a good person without gratitude. The less gratitude one has, the more one sees oneself as a victim; and nothing is more likely to produce a bad person or a bad group than defining oneself or one’s group as a victim. Victims, having been hurt, too often believe they have a license to hurt others. As for happiness, if you think of all the people you know, you will not be able to name one who is ungrateful and happy. The two are mutually exclusive.
From The Rational Bible: Exodus by Dennis Prager.
You may have known people who were offended at the concept Christians teach – that an individual’s mind must be “opened” to see the truth. To many it sounds almost insulting that they would not be “intelligent enough” to fully understand Christian belief. Nevertheless, the Bible does teach that no matter how intelligent we may be, we cannot understand spiritual things unless God “opens our mind.”
The ancient biblical writers did not talk about opening the “mind,” of course, as that is a modern concept. Instead, writers in both the Old Testament and New Testament used the expression to “open the eyes,” meaning the same thing. In fact, antiquated as it might seem, the concept works well because our eyes are already open and yet need to be “opened” – just as people’s minds can be functional, yet may need to be opened spiritually, too. That is why Jesus said: “I praise you, Father… because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25; see also Matthew 13:13-14).
That is why the work of the coming Messiah was foretold in just these terms by the prophet Isaiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5); “… to open eyes that are blind … to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:7). When Christ commissioned Saul – the apostle Paul – it was to do the same work: “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-19).
So fully perceiving and understanding spiritual things requires God’s help. We may know this, but the understanding calls for the use of wisdom in several areas of the Christian life. First, in sharing our faith we cannot expect people to understand the truth of God’s word unless God is opening their minds to see it. That is something to remember at all times. Trying to “help” or force people to understand spiritual realities cannot work unless God is already calling them.
Second, we should remember that people’s eyes are not usually “opened” all the way at one moment in time. God is gracious in revealing to us what we can handle before helping us to move to the next level of understanding and responsibility. We should always remember to have the same patience with those we aspire to help in the knowledge of the truth.
Finally, we must constantly remind ourselves that the fact spiritual eyes are opened slowly and not all at once is something we must apply to ourselves daily. It is always easy to presume – at every stage along the way – that we know or understand “most things.” But the truth is, the further we progress along the road of Christian growth, the more we become aware that we still have so much more to learn, so much more to understand. That is why David prayed – as we should, too – “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18). It’s a prayer we never outgrow.
* Reproduced from the February, 2015 blog post on our sister site TacticalChristianity.org
In 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul famously defines love for us – he tells us a number of things that love is, and he also tells us a number of things that love is not. In fact, he tells us sixteen things about love and exactly half of them (bolded below) tell us what love is, and half (italicized below) tell us what love is not. Take a look at his list:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, emphases added).
Now why did Paul do this? Why did he not simply list all the good things that love is rather than listing positive and negative aspects of what love is and is not? Some have guessed that Paul was applying his description of love to the Corinthian church to which his letter was sent – to what the Christians there were getting right and what they were not. But 1 Corinthians 13 clearly has wider application that just any one church group, and the previous chapter shows that Paul has the whole church in mind as the context of what he is saying (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).
So what was Paul’s point in giving us this “split vision” of the characteristics of love in this, his fullest description of the greatest spiritual quality? One simple answer is found in the rabbinic teaching style of Paul’s day and, in fact, throughout much of the Bible. Positive and negative expressions of important teachings and commandments were frequently put in juxtaposition in this way. We only have to look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) themselves to see the same kind of positive (“You shall …”) and negative (“You shall not …”) expressions.
The same method is found throughout the teaching of Jesus and is particularly clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – as when Jesus taught “…when you pray do not … But when you pray …” (6:5-6); “when you fast do not … But when you fast …” (6:16-17); etc. Paul also uses this same method on several occasions – for example, when he speaks of the Spirit of God which “… does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
But the fact that this was a common teaching technique of Paul’s day does not mean there is no lesson to be learned from his use of both positive and negative methods of expression in his description of love. We must always remember that Paul’s discussion of the qualities of love, and the whole of the chapter in which it is found, is given in the context of spiritual gifts. The love he speaks about is spiritual rather than physical love, and Paul’s list reminds us that this kind of love is not like human love. If we look closely we see that his list shows that spiritual love is not about the feelings involved in relationships, but about the actions that take place in them. Not a single one of the qualities of love that Paul gives is about our feelings for someone.
Paul’s description of love is actually a powerful corrective to the idea that spiritual love is an amorphous feeling that somehow guides us into being “nice” or “good” people through an elevated form of “liking” or “feeling good” about others. In fact, some of the things Paul says – such as the fact that this kind of love “is not easily angered” and “keeps no record of wrongs” – indicate that it may be applied to people with whom we do not feel much affinity just as much as to people we do like.
Part of our inability to recognize the dynamic and much more powerful nature of the spiritual love Paul talks about lies in the fact that in English the word “love” often simply means “like.” We say we love pizza, or we love the color blue, or we love a person because our concept of love involves our feelings toward something or someone. But Paul’s use of love, as we see so clearly in his list of its qualities, has nothing to do with feelings toward anyone – only our actions toward them. This is something we must always remember. No matter how warmly we feel about anyone, if it is a feeling, it is physical love. To love with spiritual love is to act toward others– just as God acted when he “… so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… ” (John 3:16, emphases added).
So Paul’s list of the various qualities of love teaches us that spiritual love is entirely about how we behave and how we treat others. By stressing the negatives that spiritual love protects us from just as much as he stresses the positive aspects of love, Paul shows us that real love produces loving actions and precludes unloving actions. The great “love list” of 1 Corinthians 13 shows us in a concrete way what spiritual love is and what it is not.
What’s the difference between our two websites – TacticalChristianity.org and LivingWithfaith.org ? It’s a question we are sometimes asked, so we thought we would explain!
Tactical Christianity.org was our first website, launched in October, 2013. Then, a few months later – in January 2014 – we launched LivingWithFaith.org. Both websites are non-denominational, non-profit, and dedicated to making the Bible clear and meaningful in everyday life. Both sites have hundreds of articles and blog posts on a great many subjects that are easily accessible through the site indexes and blog archives. Both sites receive hundreds of thousands of visitors from almost two hundred countries around the world.
So why two websites, and what’s the difference between them? The main difference is one of approach and type of material covered. TacticalChristianity (as its name might suggest) concentrates more on topics having to do with Christian living, while LivingWithFaith (as its name might also suggest) tends a little more to matters of faith and belief. That doesn’t mean that we never talk about faith on Tactical Christianity, or Christian living on Living With faith, but that’s where the stress is respectively.
That same difference is reflected in the free e-books we publish under the imprints of the two websites. Our “Tactical” books are frequently about practical subjects such as prayer, study, and everyday living, while our “Faith” site books tend to include more on subjects like Christian beliefs and biblical understanding. Once again, however, there is overlap and many of the e-books we publish could be on either site. As it is, we list all our free books on the e-books download page of each site so you don’t have to site-hop in order to see what is available.
On the other hand, a little site-hopping is sometimes a good idea. We publish new blog posts or articles on each site every week so checking out our two sites gives you twice the material there would otherwise have been. And here’s an insider tip. If you haven’t noticed, our new material is auto published every Sunday on TacticalChristianity.org and every Wednesday on LivingWithFaith.org – so many of our followers routinely check the blog on each site on these two days.
So there you have it. Both our sites are committed to providing quality Christian information based on sound biblical scholarship, and – as always – without charge. We have nothing to sell, but lots to give, and if you have only visited one of our sites we hope you will try the other!
At a time when Jerusalem lay under the shadow of the brutal Assyrian Empire – which had already conquered the northern tribes of Israel – the prophet Isaiah was given the difficult task of taking bad news as well as good news to the people of Judah. The Book of Isaiah not only records those messages, but also shows us an important aspect of how they were delivered.
You may not have noticed it, but Isaiah delivered the news he was given to relay in a way that we can learn from. You can see the lessons that apply to us today by taking a look at our latest article: "How Isaiah Delivered the News." Read it here.
Is God’s love for us conditional or unconditional? If that seems like a somewhat abstruse philosophical or theological question, realize that it does have important practical applications, and, as a result, it is a subject of ongoing debate for many.
Those who think that God’s love for humanity is unconditional often feel that the alternative would be an invitation to legalism, to trying to save ourselves by meeting God’s requirements that were fulfilled in our place by the life and death of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, those who see God’s love as conditional often feel that anything else is “cheap grace” that amounts to an invitation to sin because we feel we are unconditionally loved despite our behavior.
If we look closely at what the Bible teaches, however, we find that the answer to this question does not lie on either side of this debate, but on both! Many verses show that God’s love for us is indeed unconditional and not based on our meeting some standard. The apostle Paul summarized this when he wrote: “… Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8, emphasis added here and below).
Yet other scriptures show just as clearly that God has a conditional love for us. Notice the words of Jesus himself: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (John 14:21) and “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27).
So what are we to do with this apparent contradiction? The Bible clearly teaches that God loves us both conditionally and unconditionally! The answer can be seen in our own human experience that there are different kinds of love. For example, as parents we still love our children even when they misbehave and we have to correct them. Normal parental love is unconditional in the same way that God loves us unconditionally.
On the other hand, if a mate is unfaithful or unkind to us, we may well lose our feelings of love toward them. That is no different from the conditional love that God expresses to us based on our faithfulness and love of him.
This comparison is more than just a simple analogy because the Bible specifically compares God’s love for his people to both that of a parent (1 John 3:1, etc.), and that of a spouse (Hosea 2:19, etc.). To say that God expresses both kinds of love – what we might typify as parental and marital love – is no different than saying God expresses both unconditional and conditional love toward us.
When we understand this, we see that in one way – as our heavenly parent – God will always love us no matter what mistakes we might make. Even if, in his love, he has to punish us (Hebrews 12:6), his actions will still be based on the kind of unconditional love a parent has for a child. But the fullest and richest human love that we can know, that of individuals bound in total love of each other, is the kind of conditional love that God gives us according to our relationship with him.
In a way, this description of God’s love for us is a summary of the gospel itself. The first half of the gospel is that God, through his unconditional love, determined to save us (as we saw in Romans 5:6-8). The second half of the gospel might just as well be said to be that through his conditional love God is pleased to reward us (John 14:21). God loves us both unconditionally and conditionally. We cannot change the first kind of love, but the second kind of love that God feels for us is determined by the love we show for him (John 16:27).
The New Testament contains a profound and beautiful story that illustrates exactly the three aspects of care, acceptance and respect that underlie godly love. The Book of Luke records that Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While he was there, a woman who was a prostitute slipped into the house and, weeping at his feet, wiped her tears from him with her hair before kissing his feet and pouring expensive perfume onto them. When Simon began to think that Jesus surely could not be a prophet of God or he would have known the sinfulness of the woman, Jesus rebuked him by comparing her behavior with that of the Pharisee:
“Look at this woman,” he said. “When I entered your home, you didn’t bother to offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You refused me the customary kiss of greeting, but she has kissed my feet again and again from the time I first came in. You neglected the usual courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has covered my feet with rare perfume. Therefore her sins – and they are many – are forgiven, for she loved me much; but one who is forgiven little, shows little love” (Luke 7:44–47 as paraphrased by The Living Bible).
It is a story of heartfelt agape love and its results. Agape means to love actively and deeply, sometimes even sacrificially (John 3:16) – as this woman clearly did, considering her actions and the economic sacrifice she must have made in her gift of expensive perfume. But if we look closely at the story, we find that it highlights three of the key aspects of agape love and how it is expressed to others. Notice the three specific things that the repentant woman did:
Care – She washed Jesus’ feet: This was a physical need in the hot dusty climate of Jesus’ world, though it was something that the Pharisee did not even provide for – although this was a common courtesy at that time. But the woman’s actions signified, in Christ’s words, the fact that with her tears she expressed love by caring for another. We care for others when we are concerned for them and when we “take care of them” by helping them.
Acceptance – She kissed him: In doing this the woman expressed total acceptance of the one whose feet she kissed. It was also customary in that culture for a host to greet guests with a kiss to the cheek to express acceptance and welcome. In her actions the woman expressed the aspect of love which addresses acceptance – one of our deepest emotional needs.
Respect – She anointed him: By pouring extremely costly perfume on him the woman showed great respect – an area in which the Pharisee also failed by not even providing the customary (and relatively inexpensive) anointing of olive oil to honor his guest. Giving respect to another person addresses the underlying mental need for personal significance that all humans have. This is not the same as pride, but it is part of what it means to be human and part of God’s love (Psalm 138:6).
Significantly, then, the woman’s expression of love addressed the physical, emotional and mental needs of the human condition – all things the woman herself doubtless rarely received; but these were the qualities of care, acceptance and respect she had probably seen Jesus give, unreservedly, to many like herself who were rejected and despised by many religious people of the day.
The story not only paints a clear picture of these three qualities, it also reminds us that all of these qualities are necessary. We can interact with others without caring for them. We can provide care to others without really accepting them. We can accept people without truly respecting them. But the repentant woman’s actions showed all three things: the care, acceptance and respect that constitute the most fundamental aspects of the expression of love to others – as Jesus affirmed in his acknowledgment of the woman’s deep and godly love.
Scriptures in question: Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13
A number of books claiming to show discrepancies and contradictions in the New Testament mention that the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness found in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 give the temptations in a different order. This is said to show disagreement among the New Testament writers as to what happened and that they were not sure themselves.
The temptations of Christ are identical in the two accounts, but Matthew records them as:
1. Turn stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger.
2. Leap from the temple pinnacle to show his divine nature.
3. Worship Satan to receive great power.
Luke changes the order of the temptations slightly to:
1. Turn stones into bread.
2. Worship Satan.
3. Leap from the temple pinnacle.
However, there is a very likely reason for the different order in Matthew’s Gospel and that of Luke. Matthew’s Gospel was written to a Jewish audience. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, seems to have been written to a primarily Greek-speaking audience. Many of the differences between the two Gospels – for example, the genealogies of Jesus – are clearly as a result of the audiences addressed. The stories of the temptation of Jesus are no exception.
In Matthew, from a Jewish perspective, the temptations are arranged in an increasing order from appropriating God’s power for personal needs, to taking an easier path to fulfilling God’s will, to finally placing another god before God himself. For a Jewish audience, all these temptations would seem serious, but there is no question that they would be seen as being in an increasing order.
In Luke, the order of the temptations is subtly but importantly changed. For a gentile Greek audience, the temptation to perform the miracle of changing stones to bread would not be as great as a temptation to great power and rulership in the world, but that would itself not seem as great a temptation as to become like a god oneself. Luke’s order of the temptations perfectly fits this gentile Greek perspective, as do so many of the details in his Gospel.
There is another detail we should consider in looking at these accounts. Matthew’s order of the temptations not only fits the Jewish perspective best, it also seems to be an actual chronological order. We see this in the fact that Matthew uses chronological markers in his account – he writes “then…” or some similar term before each of the temptations to show that one followed the other (Matthew 4:1, 5, 8, 11).
Luke, however, uses no chronological markers and simply tells us what the temptations were – in an order that would make the most sense to his own primarily non-Jewish audience.
Ultimately, the fact that the temptations are listed in a different order in Matthew and Luke shows that the order itself does not matter. But the cultural perspectives of the audiences addressed by the two Gospels may show why the order changes in each of the accounts.
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Unless otherwise stated, blog posts are written by R. Herbert, Ph.D., who writes for a number of Christian venues – including our sister site: TacticalChristianity.org