Two of our three websites (this one and TacticalChristianity.org) have blogs, and we usually publish a post on each of these two sites every week. But in order to concentrate on production of new free e-books, we will be rotating the blogs for a while – a new post will appear on this site one week and on our other site the following week. As a result, our latest blog post ("Biblical Body Language") appears today on our sister site. There are, of course, hundreds of past posts that you can select from on this site (see the "Categories" links on the right side of this page). But if you are looking for something new, our other site with today's blog is only a click away, here.
“God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17 ESV)
In his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis makes an interesting observation about the things we enjoy:
“I have tried ... to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different … We can’t – or I can’t – hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (‘That’s a bird’) comes with it inevitably—just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I ‘hear the wind.’ In the same way it is possible to ‘read’ as well as to ‘have’ a pleasure.”
This “reading” of things we enjoy, in addition to simply experiencing them at a neurological level, is what enables us to move beyond simply appreciating them, and even giving thanks for them, to actually seeing them as expressions of the kindness of the God who gave them as gifts to us. That, in turn, allows us to appreciate God all the more, and our appreciation becomes praise – or, as Lewis, puts it, adoration. The difference between gratitude and praise, between appreciation and adoration, is clear:
“Gratitude exclaims, very properly, ‘How good of God to give me this.’ Adoration says, ‘What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!’ One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
Lewis’ poetic expression “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun” is an apt one. It certainly makes for a clear analogy. We do not simply see the sunbeam: our mind – if we encourage it to do so – runs back to the source of the beam, the sun itself. If that is our outlook, we see the sunbeam, but trace it back in our minds to the sun that makes it, and from there it is a short mental step, of course, to the One who made the sun and who is himself light (1 John 1:5). We might say that what begins in observation ends in adoration.
But, while running up sunbeams makes for a good word-picture of this concept, we must learn to widen the principle in our own minds in order to express it in other situations. The chances are good that after reading Lewis’ words you may think of them – and God – next time you see a sunbeam. But what about when you next taste a refreshing glass of clean water, when you next curl into a warm bed on a cold night, or when you experience any other pleasure – great or small?
The key to implementing what Lewis described so well is in learning to react to physical neurological stimuli with one’s mind and not just one’s nerve endings. And many pleasures, of course, are ones of the heart and mind, rather than simply feelings that we experience neurologically. But in every case, we need to learn the same response of “reading” the pleasure rather than just letting it flow past us.
Once we begin to make the transition from only experiencing to also thinking about the things that please us and how they were designed to do so, it soon becomes a habit. But we must guard the habit or other things will override it. We can lose the habit like any other by not practicing it for extended periods of time. We can also lose it, as Lewis himself observed, by thinking about the gifts we experience in a selfish and grasping manner. Instead of saying “amen” to the gift, we can become possessive of it, always wanting more with “the fatal word Encore.”
But if we are careful to avoid these and other possible pitfalls, we can make and maintain the habit of seeing God in his gifts. We simply need to begin the process (if we have not already done so). Did you experience something today – from the moment you woke until now – that was clearly a gift? Even if you appreciated the gift, did you follow the thought to its logical conclusion – from gift to Giver? If you did so, you probably realize that God desires us to do that for our own sake as much or more than for his own. You already doubtless know that the more we look to the Giver, the more we actually come to appreciate the gifts themselves. There is nothing like running up sunbeams to develop one’s joy in the light.
Every year countless people make “New Year’s resolutions” – setting goals ranging from cleaning out closets to getting more exercise. Many people make resolutions regarding character issues, too – resolving to stop doing things they wish to stop, or to do better at things they want to do.
Many Christians also make resolutions, of course, and like other people they find varying degrees of success in reaching the goals for which they aim. But some think that making resolutions is not a biblically sound idea for Christians as they feel God has already given us his “resolutions” in the form of biblical admonitions and commands and we should just concentrate on trying to follow them. Others feel that making resolutions encourages us to focus on our own human ability to accomplish spiritual goals.
But the Bible shows a number of God’s servants making resolutions – ranging from Daniel resolving not to partake of the food and wine of the Babylonian palace (Daniel 1:8) in the Old Testament, to Paul resolving to go through Macedonia and Greece to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21) in the New Testament.
In fact, making resolutions can be an extremely important aspect of biblical living. Consider an example of this in the Book of Malachi: “If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me” (Malachi 2:2).
In cases like this the Bible shows we need to resolve to follow God’s will whenever we come to see it in a given circumstance. Also, each and every time we make a mistake and repent of doing something we have come to see is wrong, we need to be making firm resolutions to overcome the problem in the future. This kind of resolution does not in any way lessen our understanding of our need for God’s help, and the same is true of many New Year’s resolutions that involve spiritual issues.
Now, it’s clear that the Bible does not mention resolutions in the context of a new year, but new beginnings are psychologically among the best times to make resolutions and are among the times when they are most likely to succeed. The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) doubtless understood this when he wrote: “Unless a … man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” Chesterton’s point is a good one – humanly we often need the impetus of some event to resolve to do better in our lives – and the New Year provides just such an occasion with a “new beginning” to work from.
The main problem with resolutions, of course, is that so many of them do not last long enough. Humanly we so often begin with great dedication only to “lose steam” as we go along. But as Christians that is exactly where we can ask for God’s help to continue to apply and to keep our resolutions. In fact, that is exactly what we find in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11 ESV).
Notice that Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God would help them fulfill every "resolve" or resolution for good. It’s a prayer we can pray for ourselves as we go into this coming year – and one that we can pray for each other, too.
During the course of the past year we published over a hundred blog posts here and on our sister site. The list below gives the 12 posts that were the favorites on this site, so check out the list to see how it compares with your own favorites and to see if you missed any...
God’s Favorite Verses
Who is the “Elect Lady” the Apostle John Wrote to?
Fulfilling Three Goals at One Time
Letters of Hope in the Book of Revelation
Male and Female: The Purpose of Pairs in the Gospel of Luke
Daniel and the King’s Kitchen: Applying Faith with Wisdom
The Tax Collector and the High Cost of Love
The Lord’s Prayer: What We Ask and What We Do
It Begins and Ends with Patience
The Treasures of Cirta
A Letter from God?
Asking for Wisdom Wisely
*For more favorites, check out the 12 most popular posts on our sister site TacticalChristianity.org in a few days – and look out for the new year's offerings coming soon!
Every Christian knows that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, but many do not know why. There are actually two reasons why Jesus was born in that tiny Judean village, and both can be found in Scripture.
First, it was foretold that the Messiah was to come from the house of David – to be a descendant of the young shepherd who became king of ancient Israel 1,000 years before the time of Christ. This was promised to David himself:
“When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom … and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
This prophecy could not have been completely fulfilled by David’s physical descendants, but only by a Messianic king who could rule “forever” (vss. 13, 16). That is why in the New Testament it was foretold of Jesus: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), and why, of course, Jesus is called the “Son of David” throughout the Gospels.
So the Davidic sonship of the Messiah was one reason for his eventual birth in Bethlehem – the place where David was born (and crowned) and his ancestral home (1 Samuel 17:12). As a descendant of David, Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary, was required to travel to Bethlehem for a Roman census:
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:1-4).
But there is another reason for the Bethlehem nativity. The Old Testament Book of Micah contains a fascinating prophecy of what was to occur in the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah:
“And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem … But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. ... And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace” (Micah 4:8, 5:2-5).
This prophecy tells us that the Messianic ruler who would shepherd his people was, like David, to come from Bethlehem and that he would eventually reign “to the ends of the earth.” But notice another detail. The prophecy begins “And you, O tower of the flock ...” for which the Hebrew is migdal eder, literally “Tower of Eder.” This tower is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis. It stood on the outskirts of Bethlehem where the patriarch Jacob’s wife Rachel (Genesis 35:18-19) gave birth to her son “Ben-Oni” (meaning “son of sorrow”), whose name was changed to Benjamin (“son of the right hand”). In New Testament times, the tower was a watchtower used to guard the flocks of sheep that were pastured in that area.
The Jewish Mishnah (Shekalim vii. 4) indicates that sheep in the fields around Migdal Eder were controlled by the Temple in Jerusalem and were used to provide the animals sacrificed in the temple rituals. A number of biblical scholars have pointed out that if the prophecy of Micah 4:8 was fulfilled literally, then Jesus may well have been born in some building in this general part of the outskirts of Bethlehem. The word translated “manger” where the infant Jesus was placed (Luke 3:7) could also be translated as “stall” or any holding area for animals.
More importantly, have you ever wondered why the Gospel of Luke tells us that at the Nativity, angels appeared to shepherds? The heavenly host could have appeared, of course, to a group of soldiers, priests, travelers, or any other individuals, but we are told that they appeared to shepherds who were grazing their flocks in the area where Jesus was born (Luke 2:8-15). If Jesus was born in the area of Migdol Eder, the area where the sacrificial lambs were born and raised, the shepherds would naturally have been the people present in that area.
But regardless of the details of its fulfillment, the intent of the prophecy of Micah is clear. The promised Messiah who was the Lamb who would be sacrificed for his people (John 1:29) would also be their future Shepherd (Matthew 2:6). We see this principle throughout the Gospels, which speak of Jesus in both his initial human and later divine roles – as both the Servant and the future promised King, the Captive and the future Warrior, the Judged and the future Judge (Matthew 25:32, etc.). In every case, at his first coming Jesus fulfilled the lesser role, and at his second coming he will fulfill the greater role.
And there is a lesson in this for us. As we read the Gospel accounts and reflect on the life of Jesus, we should look carefully at how he carried out the lesser roles he fulfilled as a human being. These roles are recorded so that our present lives may be modelled on his – just as he promises to eventually share his greater roles with us if we are faithful in the lesser ones we have now (Luke 16:10).
Jesus saw the signs – as did many of the early Christians. Stone blocks mounted on the wall that divided the “Court of the Gentiles” from the inner courts, where only Jews were allowed to enter, proclaimed in Greek: “No foreigner may enter … the sanctuary and the enclosure. Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”
The text of these warning signs was preserved by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, and two of the actual signs still survive today in museums in Jerusalem and in Istanbul – so there is no doubt about what they said or the threatened punishment for any foreigner who attempted to enter the temple. The apostle Paul refers to this well-known “dividing wall” as a wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:14. But was this the way the temple of God was originally organized with strict limits placed on Gentiles, no matter what their dedication to God?
The answer – which is somewhat surprising to many people – is a definite “no!” Although the Hebrew Bible states that only the descendants of Aaron could function in a priestly role within the temple (Numbers 18:7), there was no “Court of the Gentiles” in the original Tabernacle Israel was instructed to set up. Gentiles were permitted to pray and sacrifice to God in the same way Israelites did:
For the generations to come, whenever a foreigner or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you (Numbers 15:14-16).
At the dedication of the first temple, in the tenth century BC, King Solomon prayed:
As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm — when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name (2 Chronicles 6:32-33).
And the prophet Isaiah records the words of God regarding the Gentiles and the temple:
… foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:6-7).
By the third century B.C., however, the Jews began to exclude Gentiles from the Temple enclosure. By the time of King Herod the Great (immediately before the life of Jesus), when he rebuilt the temple, Herod even had priests trained in masonry so that they could carry out the construction of the sacred precincts rather than the Gentile builders he had used in other projects (Josephus, Antiquities 15.390).
As a result of this distancing of the Gentiles, throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, foreigners were allowed only into the specially added outermost court of the temple – the “Court of the Gentiles.”
This situation was doubly sad. The outer court was also where the animals that would be sacrificed were kept, and the noise, stench, and excrement of the many animals hardly made the court a place conducive to prayer. Gentiles were permitted, if not encouraged, to donate animals for sacrifice in the temple, but Roman coinage was not accepted, and so money changers conducted a lucrative business exchanging the foreign currency for Hebrew coins which could then be used to purchase sacrificial animals (very likely at inflated prices).
It was this situation, of course, to which Jesus reacted so violently when he drove the money changers and animal sellers out of the Court of the Gentiles, quoting Isaiah in saying: “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’” (Mark 11:17). But while we tend to focus on Jesus’ words about the den of robbers or thieves, we may miss his equal stress on the fact that the temple of God was to be a house of prayer “for all nations” – for Gentiles as well as for Jews. Jesus’ anger was clearly directed just as much at the exclusion and mistreatment of the Gentiles as it was at the financial gauging being perpetrated in the temple.
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that after the death of Jesus, when the temple curtain or screen blocking the view of the inner temple was torn in two by a great earthquake, Matthew’s Gospel (the Gospel originally written for a primarily Jewish audience) states that it was not a Jew, but a Gentile – the centurion who beheld Christ’s death – who was inspired to state: “"Surely he was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54).
The tearing of the temple curtain signified the opening up of access of mankind to God through the death of Christ, and the access was of course one given to Jew and Gentile alike. With the granting of the Holy Spirit to the Gentles (Acts 10:44-46), God’s inclusion of non-Jews – as was always his intent – was made doubly clear.
So it was that the apostle Paul could write of Christ (referring to the wall with its warning signs between the court of the Gentiles and the inner temple): “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Although the Gentiles were excluded from the temple proper during the life of Christ, God’s intent was always to include all peoples.
A few weeks ago we announced our new website, FreeChristianEBooks.org, dedicated to making quality Christian e-books (our own and selected others) freely available for reading on any computer, e-reader or smartphone.
The new site has received a lot of visitors and positive comments already and we are excited that it has had such a great reception. There is an obvious and growing need for Christian e-books that can be read on any electronic device, but although there are numerous websites offering free Christian literature, their books all too often offer a narrow denominational perspective, are only “occasionally” or “partially” free, and often require registration with an email address that leads to advertising or other “follow ups.” Perhaps that is why our new site has been an immediate success with its non-denominational approach and completely free downloads without any strings, conditions or registrations.
And there is more good news. Free Christian E-Books is not intended to be a static library – we plan to add new titles to the site on a regular basis. We have already added a number of new e-books and more are on the way.
The new additions include a small selection of Bible translations as well as Bible study and Christian living helps by established Christian authors. There is already a wide selection of titles to choose from, but the new additions make the site even more useful. So if you haven’t visited yet – or to see the new titles – you can visit FreeChristianEBooks.org here.
The apostle Paul’s famous words that we should “give thanks for all things” (Ephesians 5:20) are perhaps his best known regarding the principle of gratitude, but they are not the only ones.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul gives another dimension of gratitude: that we should give thanks not only for things throughout “space” – the blessings of the family, home, work, recreation, relationships and friendships near and far – but that we should also give thanks for all things throughout time.
This does not just mean to give thanks in an ongoing manner, which is right and good, of course, but regarding the different parts of time. Gifts we enjoy in the present are naturally things for which we should express appreciation (Philippians 4:6). But because we live in the present we can often limit our thankfulness to gratitude for that which we see around us in the here and now. Paul shows that deep and full gratitude extends further than that.
One of the first things Paul mentions as he begins his letter to the Philippian church is that “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Philippians 1:3). It had clearly been some time since Paul had seen the brethren in that congregation and his statement is one not only of affection for them, but also one of giving thanks for his time with them in the past. Paul makes it clear in this same letter that we do not need to dwell on the misfortunes and mistakes of the past (Philippians 3:13), but he also shows that we can remember the good things with a spirit of thanksgiving.
This is true of many things and is especially true of relationships. Paul’s words remind us that we can remember the good times we have enjoyed with family members and friends and be thankful for them now. But the principle of gratitude for past things certainly extends beyond relationships. The second part of many of Paul's letters expresses his thankfulness for the spiritual growth that occurred in the lives of those to whom he writes.
In Philippians, Paul continues the theme of thankfulness by saying that one of the reasons for his gratitude and joy was “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 and see vs. 9-11). We see the same thought in some of Paul’s other letters, such as Colossians: “…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12). This is not just “positive thinking” about the future – it’s an attitude of thankfulness for the future. It is a mark of Paul’s faith – and ours – when we are thankful for things to come just as much as for things we see and receive right now.
So in his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows us that giving thanks for the things of the past, as well as those things to which we look forward, is just as much a part of true thanksgiving as gratitude for all the good things we experience in the present.
It is often said that the apostle Paul seldom, if ever, quotes the actual words of Jesus as we find them recorded in the Gospels and Acts. This assumption is then sometimes used in attempts to claim that Paul ignored or rejected much of Jesus’ teaching and supplanted it with his own ideas. Unsound as these exaggerations are to those who know Paul’s writings well, it can be profitable to see just where Paul does quote Jesus.
First, we must remember, of course, that many of Paul’s letters were written before most of the Gospels and Acts were composed – so he could hardly quote books not yet written. But Paul could and did quote sayings of Jesus that were already recorded or held in memory by the disciples and other early Christians. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:22-24 the apostle clearly quotes Jesus’ words from the Last Supper, and these sayings are also found in Luke’s later account of the event (Luke 22:19-20). Clearly, both Paul and Luke were relying on words of Jesus from that event that had been preserved by those who heard them.
There are a few other examples like this where Paul appears to quote things said by Jesus during his ministry. In 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul seems to quote words later recorded in the Gospel of John (John 17:3), and in 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul uses an expression of Jesus – “the worker deserves his wages” – recorded by Luke (Luke 10:7), though Paul could possibly be summarizing one or more Old Testament scriptures on this topic (Deuteronomy 25:4, Leviticus 19:13, etc.).
But are these few direct quotations from Jesus’ teachings all that we can find in Paul’s writings? The answer is a decisive “no” – but we have to look carefully for evidence that is easily read over. Where we do find Paul almost constantly quoting Jesus is in small expressions found in the parables recorded in the Gospels.
Jesus told his disciples that his parables were given to teach them, but to hide the truth from “those on the outside” or “them that are without,” as the King James Version puts it (Mark 4:11). Interestingly, Paul uses this exact expression five times in his writing (1 Corinthians 5:12, etc.), clearly following Jesus in referring in the same way to those who do not understand God’s truth. In the opposite situation, Paul refers to those who do know God as the “children of the light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5, etc.), using an expression of Jesus recorded in Luke 16:8.
When we turn to the parables themselves, we find example after example of Paul using the expressions of Jesus – clearly from parables that Paul must have heard and memorized. Some of those parables were doubtless the apostle’s favorites because he uses expressions from them or makes allusions to them frequently. Take, for example, Jesus’ parable given so that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1 ESV). Paul uses the same word and expression in 2 Thessalonians 3:13 when he writes “do not grow weary in doing good” – and the “doing good” that Paul is speaking of in context specifically includes prayer and perseverance (2 Thessalonians 3:1, 5) – themes he repeats often.
The various parables regarding the sower and the seed, the different types of ground the seed falls upon, as well as the “tares” or weed seeds that are mixed in the crop are all reflected directly or indirectly in Paul’s writings. For example, Paul characterized those who perverted or attacked the truth (as in Acts 13:10) with the same term, “sons of the evil one,” used by Jesus in the parable of the tares (Matthew 13:28 ESV).
Just as Matthew 13:22 states that riches can choke a person's spiritual development, Paul warns us that those who want to be rich are drowned by their desire for riches (1 Timothy 6:9). Conversely, just as Jesus spoke of the good ground that brings forth much fruit (Matthew 13:23), Paul encourages the Romans to be persistent in fruit-bearing (Romans 2:7) and praises the Colossians for this (Colossians 1:6).
Paul also takes expressions from the parables in describing his own ministry and work. In 1 Thessalonians 2:2 he states that he was “shamefully treated” in Philippi – using exactly the same expression found in the parable of the king whose servants were “shamefully treated” by the tenants of his vineyard (Matthew 22:6).
But perhaps nowhere do we see more connections between Paul’s writings and the sayings of Jesus than in the final parables Jesus gave at the end of his ministry. Ephesians 5:32, for example, is based on an analogy Paul does not feel he need explain – that of Christ as the bridegroom – because it was already made by Jesus himself (Matthew 25:1). In the same way, Paul alludes to the spiritual application of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) not once, but three times: in Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:11, and Ephesians 4:7.
In all these examples and a great many more, we find ample evidence that far from ignoring the teachings of Jesus, Paul was steeped in them, had them in his mind whenever he wrote his epistles, and alluded to them constantly.
We are very happy to announce the launch of our latest website: Free Christian E-Books! Our new site brings you more food for the soul – in the form of Christian e-books that you can read on any computer, e-reader or smartphone.
Naturally the new site carries all of our own e-books (including the latest 2nd editions and new titles) and also carefully selected books ranging from classics like The Pilgrim's Progress to recent titles by some of the leading Christian writers of today. Books have been chosen to reflect our non-denominational perspective, and while some authors are affiliated with specific denominations, the works we have selected do not focus on denominational topics.
Also in keeping with the philosophy behind our website ministry, all the books we offer on the new website are completely free and do not require any registration or email address to download. The site is newly launched, but there is already a wide selection of titles to choose from, and new books will be added regularly. Why not come on over to visit and pick up a couple of free books while you are there! You can visit FreeChristianEBooks.org here.
You have probably heard or read how the genealogy of Jesus Christ includes, among his human ancestors, the prostitute Rahab (Joshua 2, Matthew 1:5). Historically, some translations of the Bible have clearly felt uncomfortable with this situation and have translated Rahab’s profession as that of “innkeeper,” but the Hebrew word used in the Book of Joshua to describe Rahab is zonah – which does indeed mean prostitute.
The nature of this situation – the love of God that included this woman in the ancestry of his Son – is remarkable enough of itself, so we sometimes overlook the details of the faith of Rahab. We may know that Hebrews 11 – the Bible’s great “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter – includes her in its list of believers of great faith, but have you ever thought about the details of Rahab’s mention in that chapter?
Setting out its list of the most important examples of faith in the Old Testament, Hebrews 11 details the faithful lives of the greatest patriarchs: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. The stature of these patriarchs is self-evident. It’s hard to argue that there are greater biblical figures than Noah, Abraham and Moses, and the importance of these patriarchs in the biblical narrative is such that the list could well have stopped there, and it almost does.
A few verses after discussing Abraham, the writer of Hebrews tells us: “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets …” (Hebrews 11:32). It’s as though even the spiritual greatness of King David (Acts 13:22) and the prophet Samuel (Jeremiah 15:1) are almost glossed over when compared with the faith of the patriarchs. The later characters, those coming after Moses, are simply listed as greats in the “also mentioned” category.
But there is one exception: Rahab. After describing the faith of Moses, Hebrews adds one more person to its list of patriarchs whose exploits of faith are actually detailed – and that person is Rahab (Hebrews 11:31). While it might have been completely natural to conclude the detailed list of the faith “greatest of the greats” with Moses, and then to include Rahab in the list of “also mentioned,” Rahab is the final person listed with details – the final member of the Faith Hall of Fame’s inner circle of greatness.
Think about this for a minute. If we were asked to list the greatest individuals in biblical history, would we include Rahab alongside Noah, Abraham, and Moses? Would we give her precedence over David, Samuel, and the great prophets? And think about another aspect of this situation. If we were asked to list the greatest female counterparts of the patriarchs we would immediately think of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel – but Rahab? As it is, Hebrews 11 does not mention any of the female matriarchs – not one of them – only Rahab. In fact, Rahab is the only woman mentioned by name of the fourteen greats listed in this chapter.
So, what is it about Rahab? What makes this woman stand out above the crowd of later biblical greats and from all the Bible’s named women? The answer is obviously her faith. That may not be easy for us to understand because the only details Hebrews gives us are the facts that “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31).
Simply “welcoming” a group of spies may not sound like an act of particularly great faith, but there was clearly something about this situation that meant Rahab truly risked her life in accepting the Israelite spies and in helping them to escape the city of Jericho. Doubtless then, as now, if they are discovered, those who aid spies often receive the same penalty as the spies themselves. In fact, in the ancient world, the penalty of death would probably have been more than likely for Rahab.
We know from the biblical record that many other individuals risked and lost their lives in the Old Testament era because of their beliefs, but apparently none exhibited more faith in this situation than that shown by Rahab. There is no other reason that can account for Rahab’s inclusion with faith’s greatest of the great. This is all the more remarkable considering that from the Israelite perspective Rahab had three strikes against her: she was a Canaanite, a woman, and a prostitute.
In that sense, Rahab reminds us of the woman in the New Testament account who led “a sinful life” (polite-speak for “prostitute”) who Luke tells us anointed the feet of Jesus, was forgiven by him, and who Jesus told: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). It was faith that saved Rahab physically, but the extent of her faith must have been great indeed for her to have been given the place of honor she holds in Hebrews 11.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
It’s a verse we all know and love. It seems to promise unbounded wisdom and that if we just ask for it, God will generously give it to us. But is that what this verse means?
Certainly, it is in God’s power to grant unbounded and universal wisdom to anyone he wishes, but does God really work that way? Put the question in human terms. If you walk into your local bank branch and tell the manager “I want a big loan, just give me money” – is the banker likely to help or will he or she ask “How much do you need and for what purpose?”
What we often miss in James’ words on asking for wisdom is their context. If we look carefully at the immediately preceding verses, we see James is writing about a very specific situation. He says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
James’ context is one of persecution. He tells believers that trials can bring about spiritual maturity in which we do not lack anything needed to deal with such problems (vs. 4). But if we do lack wisdom – implying wisdom in dealing with matters of persecution and patience – we can ask God and he will help us.
Take another example – that of the archetypal story of God granting wisdom to King Solomon. When God appeared to Solomon and offered him anything he wanted, Solomon did not simply ask for wisdom. Notice his request to God: “give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1 Kings 7:9). Because Solomon asked for wisdom in a specific context – to do the work of ruling Israel – God was well pleased and granted him great wisdom (1 Kings 7:12, 29-34) as well as other blessings.
But we should remember that Solomon asked for the wisdom he needed in a specific situation. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the compositions believed to be written by Solomon, he often ties wisdom to particular contexts. Notice the wording of just one example: “Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure” (Ecclesiastes 8:5). Here, we see wisdom relating to “proper times” and “procedures,” and in many of the proverbs of Solomon, wisdom is tied to other specific needs and circumstances.
So when we consider the wider biblical context, the words of James regarding wisdom become clear. God rarely, if ever, gives unneeded gifts. If we desire wisdom, his word indicates we should not ask to be funnel fed wisdom without specific purpose. But we can humbly take our needs to God and ask for wisdom in the areas of life where we need it in order to best fulfill his will and our calling – and then, as James affirms, God will gladly give it to us.
Scriptures in Question: Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God...” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Did Jesus misquote an important prophecy in the book of Isaiah, as is sometimes claimed? Luke’s Gospel tells us that early in his ministry Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue and began to read from Isaiah. Luke records the words that Jesus read out, and it is clear that they were the opening verses of Isaiah Chapter 61. But when we compare the words of Isaiah in our Bibles with Jesus’ words recorded in Luke, we see some important differences. Jesus apparently:
1) Omitted the words “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” in Isaiah.
2) Omitted the words “to set the oppressed free” in Isaiah.
3) Appears to have changed the words “release from darkness for the prisoners” in Isaiah to “recovery of sight for the blind.”
4) Stopped reading halfway through Isaiah’s sentence and omitted the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
The first of these points is the simplest to explain. The words “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” may not have appeared in the manuscript from which Christ read. It is known that versions of the Hebrew Bible existed that were slightly different from the Masoretic text that our modern translations are usually based on. As there is no apparent reason why Jesus would omit these words, we can presume they were not present in the text from which he read.
Everything we have said about the first point of difference also applies to the second point.
The third point of difference is an interesting one. What we said about the first point could also apply to the small difference between “release from darkness for the prisoners” in Isaiah and “recovery of sight for the blind” in Luke. This is especially true as the ancient Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek has the same words found in Luke – indicating that Jesus could have used a Hebrew text similar to that used by the Septuagint, or that Luke could possibly have quoted the verse from the Septuagint as he himself was writing in Greek.
Yet another possibility also exists for this difference. It is known that the ancient rabbis often gave interpretive commentary on the scriptures when they recited or read them out and Jesus, as a visiting rabbi, could have done the same here. The words “to open eyes that are blind” do occur elsewhere in Isaiah (42:7) in the context of the release of prisoners, so Jesus may have brought the two scriptures together – especially in tying Isaiah’s words to the healing of the blind that would occur in his own ministry (Luke 18:35-43, etc.).
But why did Jesus stop reading halfway through what we now call the second verse in Isaiah 61 – a sentence which all the ancient versions seem to have had? Luke tells us that after Jesus stopped reading: “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him” (Luke 4:20). It was no wonder that Jesus had captured the attention of everyone in the synagogue that day, not just for what he said, but because of what he did not say.
The passage in Isaiah ends with the words: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” When we compare these words with the ones that come before them – that Jesus did read out – we see a stark contrast between God’s mercy and his justice. These two aspects of God’s dealing with us are juxtaposed throughout the whole book of Isaiah, but perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in these verses.
We know that during the time of Jesus, the Jews were expecting and longing for a messianic figure who would free them from Roman occupation and restore their national independence. All those of his hometown who had heard the rumors of the miraculous signs accompanying Jesus would have been listening to him intently to see if he would proclaim himself the agent of God’s vengeance on their enemies. When Jesus did not read out Isaiah’s words “to proclaim … the day of vengeance of our God,” he made it clear that such was not his purpose at that time.
The people of Jesus’ day did not understand, of course, that Isaiah seems to telescope time in this and many other passages by juxtaposing events that would occur separately – the great manifestation of God’s mercy at the Messiah’s first coming, and the expression of God’s judgment at his second coming. Sadly, many in Jesus’ day were more interested in the possibility of judgment on their enemies than mercy for all, though that is what Jesus offered in his sermon to all who would accept it.
So there is no reason to believe that Jesus “misquoted” Scripture in his reading from Isaiah 61. It is probable that he quoted a version of the prophet’s writings extant at that time – which would account for the small differences we see between his words and those of Isaiah in modern Bibles. The reason Jesus stopped reading where he did is equally clear.
MannaBooks – the free mobile phone application that offers the ability to both read and publish Christian books and devotionals.
Launched in 2018, MannaBooks is a relatively new ministry based in Abuja, Nigeria. Founded by Anthony Joseph and Gideon Oyediran, it is a non-denominational Christian ministry aiming to serve the whole Christian community.
What makes MannaBooks different, and the reason you need to know about them, is the unique approach they have taken to publishing the gospel. As their website explains, “Our mission is to make great Christian books available to the world.” This goal is being accomplished in both established and novel ways. First, MannaBooks produces a free app that works on any recent android smartphone (4.4 and up). The app not only allows searching their catalog for Christian books and downloading and reading them, but also provides access to tools and help for Christian writers to publish their work through the MannaBooks platform.
Looking at these aspects individually, the MannaBooks app functions smoothly and with most of the “bells and whistles” that can be found on the best e-book readers. It is a cleanly designed program and very straightforward to use. Rather than just being lumped together in a jumbled “catalog,” titles can be selected from a number of useful categories. The reader uses the ePub e-book format and displays books flexibly for comfortable reading, so font size, layout, and background color can all be customized.
Although selection is not yet extensive on this new platform, there are a number of good books already available (including all of our LivingBelief and TacticalBelief e-books) and more titles are being added all the time. Current titles include classics like The Pilgrim's Progress as well as works by selected modern Christian writers. All the books in the current selection are free, and although selected titles will be added for purchase as time goes on, free Christian books will always be featured. Audiobooks are also planned, as is an iOS application for iPhones.
The second aspect of the MannaBooks app is equally impressive, and perhaps unique. The free services available through the app and website help Christian authors to prepare and publish their works. In an area of publishing already crowded with established authors, MannaBooks publication services can be a tremendous help for new authors trying to get their work out who may find it difficult to meet the costs associated with self-publication.
Once written and prepared for publication, the app also gives authors a platform to share their books with a focused audience that will be interested in them. Basic publishing services are offered free, and premium services like book distribution and editing, ePub conversion, cover designs, and ISBN registration are also offered to authors. A book publishing arm of MannaBooks, where new titles that do exceptionally well on the app can be published physically, is also planned.
For those not involved in Christian writing themselves, the MannaBooks app is still worthwhile in giving readers access to a growing array of Christian books and devotionals on the go. The app is great for use during commutes or at any time and is an excellent way to be able to have a Christian library with you without having to carry a bulky laptop or e-book reader. There is no cost for the application or for downloading any of its free books, which may be a blessing for many people around the world.
So this is an app that deserves to succeed in its goal of making Christian books available to people everywhere, and we might think about ways in which we can help bring that success about. MannaBooks staff members are working as volunteers to make the project possible, so consider contributing to MannaBooks to aid its development. Even by simply downloading and using the free app you can help support this worthwhile ministry. By doing so you will have a dedicated Christian e-book reader on your phone with access to many free titles, and you will also be helping to provide an audience for Christian writers everywhere.
You can download the free MannaBooks e-book app directly to your phone from the Google Play Store, here, and from the Apple App store soon.
The Bible clearly teaches that sin causes suffering (Deuteronomy 11:26-28; etc.), but does that mean all suffering is caused by sin – as some claim? Even sincere people who are committed to doing what is right can sometimes wonder if they are at fault when things do not go well for them – or even judge others who are experiencing ongoing problems.
There is no question that we do often bring suffering upon ourselves. We all recognize that if we break certain health principles, for example, we will probably suffer as a result. First Peter 4:15 also tells us, “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” – showing that wrongful behavior of many types can lead to self-induced suffering.
However, that’s not the whole picture. It was the limited understanding of Job's friends in this regard that caused them to presume he must have done something wrong to be experiencing such pain and misery. But the conclusion of the book of Job shows God’s displeasure with those friends and that Job’s suffering was not really caused by wrongdoing at all (Job 42:7-9).
There is, in fact, a great deal of biblical evidence to show that individuals can and often do suffer as a result of circumstances beyond their control that have nothing to do with their righteousness or lack thereof. Sometimes we suffer as a result of sheer chance. Jesus himself confirmed this in what he told his disciples when they asked about people who had suffered because of political upheaval or physical accidents:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! … Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:2-4).
Jesus continued to explain that such extreme cases should remind us of the uncertain nature of life and the need to repent, if we have not already done so; but he was adamant in stressing that such suffering may be the result of chance rather than sin.
In other cases, the Bible makes it clear that illnesses and other difficulties come upon us and are used by God to ultimately help us – as in the case of the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) – so this suffering can hardly be seen as being the result of failure on the part of others or ourselves.
There is another section of Scripture, not so well known, that can also encourage us that suffering need not be equated with God’s displeasure. The prophet Jeremiah was given a vision by God regarding the people of Judah – both those who had been carried into captivity in Babylon, and those who had not. In this vision, the people in captivity were symbolized as a basket of good figs, and those who were not taken captive as a basket of bad figs. God then told Jeremiah:
This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
‘But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the LORD, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’ (Jeremiah 24:5-10)
From the perspective of those who had escaped captivity, it may have been natural to think that those who had been deported and were now suffering captivity were still the objects of God’s displeasure. In actuality, the opposite was true. Those who had suffered deportation were spared a later, more thorough, destruction and – despite their present suffering – were now closer to God and his favor than those who had not suffered, but who would eventually be punished.
We find scriptures such as these throughout the Bible – showing time and again that suffering is not a sure sign of God’s displeasure. Suffering that comes upon us may happen as a result of time, chance, the actions of others, or simply genetics. The Scriptures warn us to be sure, whenever possible, that we do not suffer as a result of our own foolishness (Psalm 107:17, etc.), and if we find ourselves experiencing ongoing problems, it is always a good idea to reflect on our lives to see if some of those problems are self-induced (Ecclesiastes 7:14). But we should never simply presume that suffering experienced by us or by others is self-caused.
If suffering does come, we should strive, like Job, to trust that God has a purpose in what he allows us to experience. As the apostle Peter assures us: “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” (1 Peter 5:10).
THE CITY ON A HILL:
LESSONS FROM THE PARABLES OF JESUS
By R. Herbert. Second edition, revised and expanded, Living Belief Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-942573-62-3
This new edition of one of our popular e-books has been revised to make its information more accessible. It also includes new material and a new appendix on the parables of the Old Testament. The City on a Hill: Lessons from the Parables of Jesus is a practical but carefully researched commentary on all of the parables found in the Four Gospels. Use it as a study aid or reference, to prepare lessons or sermons, or simply enjoy it as a profitable Christian read!
Like all our e-books, The City on a Hill is free and free from advertising. It is available in multiple formats for reading on any computer, e-book reader or smart phone. You do not need to register or provide an email address to get a copy – simply click on the link on the download page here.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:1, 18).
The opening paragraphs of the first chapter of the Gospel of John are one of the most majestic sections of the Bible. John’s eloquent prose seems unique in its presentation of Jesus as the “Word” of God. Yet despite its apparent uniqueness, John’s introductory chapter – like almost every other part of the New Testament – has its roots in the Old Testament and can only be fully appreciated when we see what those roots are.
It is often said that the Greek word logos – literally “word” – with which John begins his description of the preexistent Christ was used in ancient philosophy to signify the “reason” or underlying principle that created the universe. The Hellenistic Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria who lived around the time of Christ used logos in this manner. However, the majority of John’s audience would not have known this philosophical usage, and they would have more likely understood the apostle’s description of Jesus as the “Word” in terms of their own Scriptures.
Jewish people would naturally have associated what John wrote with the opening statement of Genesis, that “In the beginning God made ...” (Genesis 1:1); but while Genesis stresses God’s action, John chooses to first stress the Son of God’s person and identity. Jewish readers (or hearers) would, however, also have recognized wider associations regarding John’s use of “Word.” They knew that “by the word of the Lord” (meaning by his command) “the heavens were made …” (Psalm 33:6), and they also knew that the Book of Proverbs personified that word or “Wisdom” as being active in the Creation of the world, and it is likely that most of John’s readers understood the personified “Word” in a similar manner. Some early Jewish commentators even pointed out that the Creation story of Genesis 1 used the expression “God said” ten times, seeing an analogy in this with the Ten Commandments which were called the aseret hadevarim – the “ten words” or “ten utterances.” God’s “word” could also mean, of course, all of God’s revelation to man. So John’s readers would have understood that he was characterizing Jesus as the personification and embodiment of God’s wisdom, law, and even all of God’s word – the entirety of the Scriptures.
But there are more specific connections between what John says in the introduction to his Gospel and the Hebrew Scriptures. The most significant are the parallels we find between John’s description of Jesus and the portrayal of God in the Book of Exodus. These connections are frequent and clear.
For example, just as Exodus tells us that God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34), so John begins his description of Jesus by telling us that the Word dwelt (literally “tabernacled”) with humankind (John 1:14). Just as Exodus tells us that Moses beheld God’s glory (Exodus 33:18), so John makes a point of recording that the disciples and others beheld “…his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father…” (John 1:14). Just as Exodus tells us that God’s glory was full of graciousness (grace) and truth (Exodus 34:6 Holman, NKJV, etc.), so John goes on to say that Jesus was full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
Because the New Testament makes it clear that the preexistent Christ was the One who was with Israel in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:4), these connections may seem straightforward to us, but to John’s audience they were revelatory. The single verse John 1:14 alone would have suggested numerous parallels that devout Jews of that day would have recognized, but found amazing.
First century readers versed in the Hebrew Scriptures would have picked up other similarities between John’s record and that of Exodus. Most of the associations John makes within his first chapter are those expanding on the divine nature of Jesus. The Word is shown to be not just the promised “prophet like Moses,” but also very God himself. John does this by emphasizing not only Christ’s preexistence, but also his superior position to Moses. While Exodus tells us that the law was given through Moses (Exodus 34:29), John confirms that although “…the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Jesus was not simply a prophet relaying the words of God, he was the One who was the Word and who himself exhibited the very nature of God.
This was John’s central point in comparing Jesus with the revelations of the Book of Exodus. Although Exodus stressed that no one could see all of God’s glory, and John confirmed the fact that “No one has ever seen God…” (John 1:18), John also stressed that in Jesus that glory was revealed: “…but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Seeing this, we see John’s Gospel in a different light. The apostle who perhaps knew Jesus best did not just preface his Gospel with a grandiose but unconnected introduction. What John truly did, and what should inform our reading of his whole Gospel, was to show his readers from the outset that Jesus was everything that the “Word” of God was revealed to be – the personification of the wisdom, the law, and the very nature of God himself.
Scriptures in Question: Isaiah 43:18, 26
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18)
“Review the past for me.” (Isaiah 43:26)
These two verses, from within the same chapter of the book of Isaiah, are sometimes said to be an example of the Bible contradicting itself. While the one verse clearly tells us to forget the past, the other verse is equally clear in stating that it should be remembered.
As is so often the case, the simple answer to this apparent contradiction is found in the contexts in which the two verses appear. When we look at the verses surrounding Isaiah 43:18 we find that God is speaking of working with those who had turned to him and whom he had redeemed. We see this beginning in the first verse of the chapter: “But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you'” (Isaiah 43:1).
The same situation applies in a number of verses in the following chapters – as when we read “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist” (Isaiah 44:22). It is because of this forgiveness that God offered the comforting words: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”
But the situation is entirely different with those who had turned from God and refused to walk in his ways. It is to those people that the words of Isaiah 43:26 and its surrounding verses were addressed. Notice that verse in full: “Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence. Your first father sinned; those I sent to teach you rebelled against me” (Isaiah 43:26-27). Here, God instructs those who rejected him to remember the history of humanity and what that rejection had caused.
This principle of urging those who were not following God to remember the past is repeated several times in Isaiah. We read, for example: “Remember this, keep it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:8-9). Here, God clearly reminds those who rebel against him of his actions – both of correction and blessing.
There are other biblical verses, of course, that urge us to remember the things that God has done for us in the past. For example, Deuteronomy 6:12 states clearly: “be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In exactly the same way, the apostle Paul reminds us of our past and tells us to “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” ( Ephesians 2:12).
But in the context of Isaiah 43, we see God differentiating between those who rebel against him and those who do not. Isaiah, like many other biblical writers, shows that God works with us according to our attitude. His message to those who turn to him and want to walk in his ways is very different from the message he addresses to those who refuse and rebel.
So there is no contradiction between verses 18 and 26 in Isaiah 43. In actuality, the two verses simply provide examples of two different situations. The first shows God urging the repentant to refuse to be afflicted by their past mistakes – as one of the benefits of his forgiveness. The second shows God urging the unrepentant to consider the past – as a reminder of both his blessings and his judgments.
A few years ago the suicide-prevention group Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) ran a highly successful advertising campaign in which they published a series of ambigrams – words or messages that say one thing, but have an entirely different meaning if they are read upside down.
The ad reproduced here – "I'm fine" – becomes "Save me," when inverted, and the other ads in the series – "Life is great" and "I feel fantastic" – inverted read "I hate myself" and "I'm falling apart." Each ad was run with the statement "The signs are there if you read them. Help us save a life before it's too late." These unusual advertisements drew attention to a widespread social problem and uniquely showed how we can be oblivious to the subtle and often hidden symptoms of depression and related disorders if we are not focusing on the people with whom we interact.
Effective though they were, the SOS ads are now remembered mainly as an example of an innovative and highly successful advertising campaign, though hopefully the message will be remembered by those who saw the ads. The messages also reflect an aspect of life that every Christian should keep in mind: that what we hear people say can often cover a deeper reality that calls for our help.
Sometimes the additional reality comes out if we simply take the time to engage the individual facing problems in sincere rather than surface conversation. In that way, the situation can be similar to the poignant New Testament story of the father who asked Christ to heal his son. The fact that he did this suggests, on the surface, belief, but when Jesus challenged that assumption, the father replied “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This is primarily about faith, but it is also a classic example of how a troubled person often opens up to someone who spends the time and energy to focus on them – perhaps only later in a conversation opening up to show desperation or depression.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean we should attempt to verbally probe and question every person with whom we interact, presuming they have problems; but as the SOS campaign so clearly demonstrated, if the signs are there we can often see them hidden in plain view. It is then that we should be sure to take the time to try to discern the problem and how we can help.
That’s one of the things that Christians are supposed to do: to look beneath the surface of the world in which we live and to see the real needs around us and then seek to help as we can. Serious disorders and psychological problems may need professional help, but a great many people live with lesser problems, depression, discouragement and emotional pain. Those people often say “I’m fine” – and while it may not be a cry of “save me!” – it may be an invitation, if we can see it, to help them.
Paul vs. James: What We've Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate
By: Chris Bruno
Publisher: Moody Publishers, 2019
It’s one of the first “problems” many Christians encounter in beginning to seriously study the Bible. How do we reconcile the words of Paul as typified by Romans 3:28 with those of James, as found in James 2:24?
If we research the question, we can find many convoluted explanations that argue vigorously for one or the other of the two approaches – that all we need for salvation is faith, or that we must have good works to be righteous in God’s sight.
It is relatively rare to find explanations that clearly, effectively – and biblically – show that the truth lies not in either of these approaches, but in both. That is why Chris Bruno’s new book, Paul vs. James, fills an important void in making a sound biblical explanation of the apparent problem both available and accessible. Read our full review of this worthwhile new book here.
Have you ever noticed that one of the four Gospels mentions faith far more than the others? That Gospel is the Gospel of John. Actually, as we will see, John does not use the noun “faith” at all – it occurs nowhere in his Gospel. Instead, John always uses the verb “believe” (Greek pisteuo), and he uses that word about 100 times (perhaps surprisingly, given most people’s perception of John, that is over twice as many times as he uses forms of the word agape or “love”!)
To put John’s use of “believe” in perspective, we should realize that this is more than the use of the word in all the other Gospels combined. In fact, John’s Gospel contains well over half of all the instances of pisteuo or “believe” in the whole New Testament.
Clearly, then, “believe” is a key word in understanding John’s Gospel, and we can learn a great deal about the nature of belief and believing by focusing on what John tells us in his account. Three points stand out – John repeatedly shows our faith must be based upon these three aspects of believing.
Based on the Person of Christ
It is not coincidental that the great summary of God’s purpose set out in John 3:16 revolves around belief: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, emphases added here and below). What we miss, reading this so-often-quoted verse out of context, as is so often done, is John’s continued stress on believing: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18). Four times in the space of these two verses John hammers home the point that it is only as we believe on the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God that faith will be rewarded with eternal life.
Throughout his Gospel, John gives many examples of what and why we must believe (2:11; 4:41; 8:24; 10:38; 16:30; etc.), but they are all based upon the person of Jesus Christ, his nature, character, and the work that he accomplished. There is no room in John’s Gospel for any abstract “all you need is love” message. His Gospel is deeply rooted in the necessity of active believing faith in Christ as much as it is in showing the importance of love.
Indeed, the very purpose for the Gospel of John, as the apostle himself tells us near its conclusion, is so that we “ … may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Based on the Work of Belief
Although as Paul affirms, “… the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23), John’s Gospel paints a complementary picture stressing that although God does give eternal life freely, the gift comes with responsibilities. While Matthew’s Gospel shows Jesus asserting: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21), John’s Gospel records Jesus instructing his disciples in the work that relates to faith. When they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:27-29).
We should not presume that in this statement Jesus is talking only about passively accepting or holding a belief. John’s Gospel stresses that believing is something active that we do, rather than just accept, and that believing is always associated with doing. It is probably not coincidental that like the word “believing,” John also uses the word “doing”(poieō) about one hundred times. This is the larger picture that helps us to correlate what John's Gospel tells us about the work of believing with what the apostle writes about faithful obedience in his epistles (1 John 2:6; 5:3; etc.).
For John, this active believing work is something we do on an ongoing basis – as we see in the way he repeatedly tells us the disciples “believed” as they witnessed Christ’s miracles and teachings (John 2:11; 16:27; etc.), and this leads us to John’s final stress regarding the nature of true believing.
Based on Perseverance
Precisely because true believing is a repeated action on our part, John also stresses that believing must be coupled with perseverance. John gives clear instances of individuals who had believed, but who stopped believing. In John 8, for example, we read: “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him,'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples’” (John 8:30-31).
The importance of ongoing and continuing faith was already stressed by John two chapters earlier when he tells us that previously believing individuals “… turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). This scripture alone shows that believing faith is not something entered into on a one-time basis, but an ongoing action that must be maintained through perseverance.
When John tells us, near the close of his Gospel, that “ … these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31), the word “believe” in the Greek is literally “be believing” – ongoing persistent believing.
The Three Aspects of Believing
John’s Gospel clearly shows us that true believing is based on the person of Christ, involves active expression on our part, and must be maintained through perseverance. The apostle makes it clear that lack of these three factors led to many not believing or losing the belief they once had. It is in these three ways, however, that John shows we can truly believe, and that through believing we can have life.
We have all been saddened at some point by stories – often trumpeted across the news media – of churches or individuals within churches having amassed embarrassingly large sums of money and goods apparently for their own use. The lavish lifestyles, the luxury items, the extravagant hoarding and spending, all sadden us not only for how they reflect Christianity out into the world, but also for how they represent such a deep failure of what Christianity should be on the part of those who appear to be selling heaven and keeping the profits.
It is tempting to believe it may have always been this way. The Gospels tell us that Judas profited from the bag he kept (John 12:6), and in Acts we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira soon after the Church’s inception. Although the sin of that couple was lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3, 9), the root of their problem clearly lay in the desire to hold onto what had been given to the church – in this particular case by them.
But, sometimes, history can throw light on situations such as this and give us a better perspective. During Rome’s great persecution of Christians enacted during the latter part of the reign of Diocletian (AD 284 to 305), Imperial troops were sent to seize the possessions of a church in the city of Cirta (present day Constantine in Algeria) in North Africa. The soldiers were doubtless delighted to find some items of gold, silver, and bronze – the chalices, urns, lamps, candlesticks and other small items used in the church’s worship services. The exact value of these metal objects is not known, but it is clear that they did not represent substantially more than what was in use by the church in its day-to-day functioning.
However, the soldiers were probably suspicious that there were so few books (a single codex was found in the church) so they searched the homes of the church leaders and found a total of 37 manuscripts, which the Christians had hidden. Clearly, the manuscripts regarding the faith were of much greater value in the eyes of these Christians than the more expensive furnishings that had been left in plain sight in the church.
But in a storeroom within the church building the soldiers found goods of a different kind. An imperial document dated May 19, AD 303, lists these hidden-away treasures: 82 women’s tunics, 38 capes, 16 men’s tunics, 13 pairs of men’s shoes, 47 pairs of women’s shoes, and 19 peasants’ wraps (A. Luijendijk, “Papyri from the Great Persecution: Roman and Christian Perspectives,” Journal of Early Christian Studies, 16(3): 2008, 341-369; p. 350).
These carefully amassed items of clothing were not for the benefit of the leaders of the church, but were items collected to help the poor, the widows, and the destitute of the city. Certainly the church had accrued some valuable vessels for use in its worship, but the value of the items was commensurate with their intended use (2 Timothy 2:20). What is clear is that the treasures of this church were its documents of faith, and what was being amassed was being gathered for others.
Surely, this has often been the case. For every church infected with the heart of mammon there have been others – and frequently many others – infused with the heart of Christ. Although Acts itself gives prominent mention to the cautionary story of Ananias and Sapphira, that story follows directly on the heels of the statement that “… God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need …” (Acts 4:33-35).
If Ananias and Sapphira were in the Church from near its inception, many who reflected the faith truly and who were gathering for others were also there from the beginning. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this fact of history when we are confronted by the failings of the day in which we live. The treasures of a great many of the earliest believers, of the Christians of Cirta in AD 303, and of many churches throughout history were their faith and their love for others. May our treasures be the same.
DISCOVERING THE BIBLE:
AN INTRODUCTION TO EACH OF ITS BOOKS
By R. Herbert, Tactical Belief Books, 2019
Our latest free e-book is a straightforward guide giving a brief introduction to each book of the Old and New Testament: who wrote it, why it was written, and what it says. Summary verses and verses to think about are also included. If you are only now beginning to read the Bible – or would like to refresh your knowledge of its individual books – this guide will help you discover, or discover more fully, the individual books that make up the “book of books” – the Bible.
As is the case with all our e-books, Discovering the Bible is completely free and has no advertising. You do not need to register or give an email address to obtain a copy – just click on the link here to go directly to the download page on our sister site.
The analogy is often made that the Bible is a letter from God and this metaphor works in many ways, although it’s not actually found in the Bible itself. But the Bible does make a clear analogy about a letter from God that is often overlooked. That analogy is found in the apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians:
“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
In this passage Paul uses the analogy of believers being a letter in a particularly interesting way. First, he tells the Corinthians that “You … are our letter, written on our hearts … known and read by everyone” – meaning that they functioned as a “letter” representing the visible results of Paul and his co-workers’ labors to all who knew them.
Paul extends the analogy of the believers being a letter from God in several ways. While the NIV translates his words to say the Corinthian believers were “the result of our ministry” (vs. 3), many other versions translate more literally that this letter was “delivered by us” (RSV, CSB, NET, ESV, etc.) meaning that Paul and his co-workers acted as the letter carriers for the message.
In New Testament times, letters were commonly written on parchment with some form of pigment mixed with oil, or on papyrus, or even pottery fragments. Less commonly, letters were carved or written on tablets of wood. Paul tells us this letter from Christ was written “on our hearts … with the Spirit of the living God” – stressing the living nature of the medium as well as the message, and also showing that this “letter” was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that God would write his laws on people’s hearts with his Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).
The letter, Paul tells us, is a letter of recommendation: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter…” (vss. 1-2). While Paul had made use of letters of recommendation before his conversion (Acts 9:2; 22:5) and often wrote letters of recommendation for others (Romans 16:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 8:16-24; etc.), he himself now needed and carried no such letters. Yet, he says, the Corinthians who had heeded his teaching were a letter of recommendation for him to anyone who needed such a letter.
So, Paul’s analogy of the believer as representing a letter from God is one that he develops in some detail, and it is an analogy that we can think about. Although Paul was writing specifically to the Corinthian church, what he says obviously could apply to any believer. In a very real sense, we are all “letters” from God to those around us – either recommending Christianity or failing in this regard.
We can, in fact, extend the analogy to ourselves in a number of meaningful ways. We can ask if we, too, are “known and read by everyone,” or is the message God desires to impart through us obscured in some way – just like a letter that has become smudged and illegible? All wrongdoing not only makes marks on our own characters, but also makes “blots” on the letter that God desires to send through us.
Being a “letter from God” is a wonderful but a very sobering responsibility. Whatever we do in life and whatever kind of father, mother, employer, employee, friend, or co-worker – or even stranger – we are to those around us becomes an inseparable part of the message that is sent through us. Fortunately, the letter is not written by us, but by God. Yet we must do our part to be made into the kind of message he wants to give others, or we degrade the message and it may appear more like “junk mail.”
A little later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul states his point directly: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us … “ (2 Corinthians 5:20). In the analogy he uses earlier, those chosen by God are called to be a letter from God – a concept that we can all profit from. The Bible may be regarded as a “letter from God,” but – to paraphrase a well-known quote – we may be the only “letter” from God that many people ever read.
“… But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground” (John 8:6-8).
The story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus in the temple courtyard by the scribes and the Pharisees is found in John 8:2-11. The teachers of the law hoped to trap Jesus and so, after reminding him that the law of Moses demanded that an adulterer be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10), they asked him how he would judge her. This was obviously a well-thought-out trap. If Jesus concurred with the biblical law, the Pharisees could report him, as it was illegal for the Jews to execute anyone under the Roman occupation. On the other hand, if Jesus said she should be spared, his enemies could use the fact as evidence that he did not follow biblical teachings.
It was at this point that Jesus stooped down and began to write in the dust in the temple courtyard. This prompts two obvious questions: Why did he write in the dust (as opposed to simply speaking or writing what he wanted to write on some parchment or other writing surface), and what was it that Jesus wrote?
We can answer the first question with some certainty. The event described by John seems to have taken place on a Sabbath day (John 9:1) in which all the many Sabbath laws made by the Jews were in force. Although the biblical requirement for keeping the Sabbath law was simply to refrain from work (Exodus 20:8-11), the Jewish theologians defined many activities as “work,” including the activity of writing. But these human religious leaders also determined that “writing” was making any permanent mark such as writing with ink on parchment. According to them, writing in the dust was permissible on the Sabbath, however, because the writing was not permanent and would soon disappear. This law was first recorded in the Jewish Mishnah around AD 200, but it was doubtless in effect well before that and probably followed in Jesus’ day.
The strict application of the Sabbath law to writing in this era certainly provides the most likely explanation of why Jesus wrote in the dust of the temple court, but what about what he wrote? We cannot be certain in this area and scholars have long argued various explanations. But two possibilities stand out.
Whatever Jesus wrote, it had the immediate effect of piercing the consciences of the woman’s accusers and causing them “… to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (John 8:9). It is often said that what Jesus wrote consisted of laws that the accusers themselves had broken – perhaps a list of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), or even a single all-encompassing law such as “… [you shall] love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus frequently responded to questions using scriptures, so it is very possible that he answered here with a scriptural summary of the law.
The main problem with this idea is that the self-righteous Pharisees and other accusers of the woman could well have justified their own sins and not been moved by such scriptures. Perhaps an even more likely possibility is that Jesus wrote down one of the numerous biblical statements stressing that everyone has sinned (Psalm 143:2, Ecclesiastes 7:20, etc.). To then immediately state, after writing such a verse: “… Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7) might well have placed the woman’s accusers in an impossible situation.
Another possibility often suggested is that Jesus actually wrote down the names of the individuals accusing the woman along with their sins. A verse in Jeremiah is often quoted in this regard: “Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:13). The point here is that by writing down the names and sins of the accusers Jesus put them to shame, and they could not then cast the stones of judgment. While this possibility may be a little less likely than that which we considered above, we should note that Jesus wrote not once, but twice (John 8:8), so it is possible that after writing a verse stressing that all have sinned he then proceeded to “name names.”
Ultimately, of course, we cannot know with any certainty what Jesus wrote on the ground, and had it been necessary to know in order to understand the story the words written would doubtless have been recorded. Nevertheless, we do have a very likely reason why Jesus wrote on the dusty ground, and of the possibilities considered it may be most likely that his writing consisted of a verse or verses of scripture that affirmed “…there is no one who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46).
By forcing the self-righteous Pharisees and teachers of the law to accept their own guilt and to drop their charges, Jesus was able to show mercy to the adulterous woman while still telling her “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
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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