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.
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.
The annual festivals given to ancient Israel (Leviticus 23, etc.) involved certain biblically commanded rituals such as the blowing of the ram’s horn shofar on Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets.
As time progressed, certain other rituals also became attached to the festivals. These were traditions which were part of Israel’s understanding of the purpose and meaning of the days and provided ways in which the priests and people could participate in them. Many of these additional rituals were in place in Jesus’ time, and in some cases Jesus used them as background for his message and even compared himself to them in his teaching.
Until the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, each day throughout the Fall festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles a special water pouring ritual was performed. The priests descended the hill on which the temple stood, dropping down to the pool of Siloam in the City of David. There, they would fill a golden pitcher with pure sparkling water from the spring and carry it back up to the temple where the water was ritually offered by pouring it into a silver cup at the corner of the altar. The people of Jerusalem lined the paths along which the water was brought and thronged the court in the temple to witness the ritual which was performed with celebration and great joy.
The waters poured out in the ceremony held a number of meanings for festival goers of the first century. The ritual was connected to the rainfall of the coming year and was accompanied by prayers for rain and for blessings on the earth and its produce. On a spiritual level, the water offering was also associated with the waters prophesied to flow out of Jerusalem in the Messianic kingdom: “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem....” (Zechariah 14:8, and also Ezekiel 47:1-12). But perhaps most importantly, the ceremony was also connected to the giving of God’s Spirit. The waters were tied to the promise found in Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon your seed, and my blessing upon your offspring.”
If we read the Gospel accounts carefully, we find that it was on the seventh day of the festival (called “Hoshana Rabbah” in Hebrew – the “Great Hosanna” or “Great Salvation”) that Jesus stood up in the midst of the crowds thronging the temple courtyard and called out: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). When Jesus’ words are seen in the context of the water ceremony, they come alive – and the way they were perceived by his ancient Jewish audience becomes much clearer. Jesus’ statement was doubtless received with amazement and perhaps in some cases with disbelief or doubt, for rather than making a simple analogy using water in an abstract sense, Jesus clearly was tying the water ceremony and its meanings to himself – as the One from whom blessings flowed, and as the One who would make the Spirit of God available.
But Jesus did not stop there. Each night of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the outer temple courtyard, thousands of worshippers would gather to watch another ritual unfold. Once darkness fell, pious citizens carrying lit torches would dance in the court to the musical accompaniment of instruments played by the Levites. Even more impressively, great lamps of gold were raised, with four golden bowls at the top of each lamp. It is said that all of Jerusalem glowed with the light from this ritual celebration in the temple courtyard.
Knowing about this ritual helps us to understand why, on the morning of the day after the last day of Sukkot, on “the 8th day festival,” Jesus used the ceremony to explain his own role to the crowds of worshippers remaining in the temple courtyard. This is recorded in the Gospel of John that tells us: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). For those who had not heard Jesus’ statement of the day before – and for those who had – this new statement was momentous. In comparing himself to the brightness of Jerusalem with its awe-inspiring ritual of light, Jesus was making a clearly Messianic claim in calling himself the Light of the whole world. These were truly profound statements.
So these rituals of water and light provided the themes of two of Jesus’ most important “sermons” on his own identity. But Jesus’ words not only identified him, they also remind us that we are called to participate in spiritual events that go far beyond physical rituals – to let God’s Spirit flow through us like water, and to reflect the Light of the world in our own lives.
There are some areas of life where understanding needs to precede action. When we visit a doctor or other medical professional, for example, we want them to understand what the situation is and what is needed before they take any action in prescribing medications or treatments. In cases like that, understanding obviously has to come before action.
But in other areas of life we find situations where this “normal” way of things is reversed, and we simply have to act before we understand, counterintuitive as that may sound. Falling in love might be a good example – we have to experience love before we can really understand it. Following God’s instructions is often one of these situations. No amount of philosophizing can help us understand why it really is more blessed to give than to receive, for example – it is only when we do give that we begin to understand how we are blessed in giving. But it is easy to forget that sometimes action has to come before understanding. We may make the mistake of not acting on what we see in the word of God because we don’t understand why we should do or not do a certain thing.
Yet the Bible is very clear about the reality of “action before understanding” when applied to its teachings. Notice, for example, how David expressed this fact in the Psalms: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). This is not saying that if you have good understanding you will follow God’s ways (though that is true, of course), but that following God’s instructions leads to understanding them. Another verse that makes this same point is found in the book of Exodus. According to many translations, directly after God gave the Ten Commandments and other laws to ancient Israel the people said: “All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient” (Exodus 24:7 NKJV). But the Hebrew literally says “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand.” Here again, as in many other instances, doing comes before “hearing” – action before understanding.
In the New Testament the principle is spelled out even more clearly. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying: “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). This does not mean something esoteric and mystical – by “showing” himself to those who are obedient, Christ simply meant that they would come to understand and know him, just as we say “Ah! I see it now” when we come to understand something. But once again, the order is action before understanding.
In fact, this principle lies at the very heart of much of what the New Testament tells us. Compare these two very important verses in the book of Acts: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38); “And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit which God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32). Now the apostle Paul taught very clearly that: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14). When we put these verses together we see that we cannot understand spiritual things until we receive the Spirit of God, and we have to act – to repent and be baptized – before we can receive the Spirit. So action must come before full understanding even from the very beginning of the Christian life.
The important thing for us to remember is that this principle does not only apply to us as new Christians – it applies to us every time we see some new guidance in God’s word. The instruction may be clear as to what we must do, but we may only understand the guidance once we follow it – that is simply the way God often teaches us.
Many of the individuals mentioned in Hebrews’ great “Faith Hall of Fame” chapter (Hebrews 11) understood that faith means we must sometimes act before we understand – we must obey before we fully comprehend. These people seem to have learned a lesson we all must learn in the course of the Christian life: that faith often enables our obedience and our obedience often enables our understanding.
It’s clear that we have entered the age of the infographic. So it makes sense that the publishers of the New International Version of the Bible brought out the NIV Quickview Bible which (usually) effectively summarizes many aspects of the Biblical narrative into easily accessible and interesting infographics.
The infographic we look at here, “Teachings of Jesus in the Gospels,” provides a good example of the value of this kind of presentation for rapidly conveying important data. The first thing we notice in this graph is the huge preponderance of Christ’s teachings regarding “Spiritual Life” – far greater in number than even those on the Kingdom of God. Yet herein lies a problem in that we don’t know what criteria the producer of graphics of this nature utilized in dividing the verses on these topics – many of which overlap. For example, many of the verses where Jesus is speaking about “Spiritual Life” are clearly in the context of what has been called “Kingdom Living” – living according to the principles of the Kingdom of God in this life now, and when this is taken fully into account, the balance between the “Kingdom of God” and “Spiritual Life” categories might be quite different. Further, many of the verses regarding “Last days and judgment” may actually be relevant to the Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, the graphic is successful in showing us several things. Even if we ignore possible or probable overlaps, we can still see the centrality of some of these great themes of Jesus’ teaching; and some – such as marriage and family – may come as a surprise.
As with any other infographic, we must always ask ourselves what other ways the pie could have been sliced. For example, if we made a category for “Prophetic statements,” it would have to include many of those in the “Kingdom of God” category, as well as all those from the “Jesus' death and resurrection” and “Last days and judgment” categories. As such, at as many as 480 verses, it would clearly become the second largest category. But we can do some of this re-cutting of the pie by simply adding relevant categories to form new ones. If we are willing to take the time to do that, graphs of this type become even more significant.
Most infographics are also limited in the ability they give us to distinguish between real and apparent significance. I would presume that the Parable of the Lost Coin is included in the section on “Money and Treasure,” but if we read that parable we find it is not about money as much as it uses money as a metaphor for something else. In cases like this we need to be careful that we do not think that Jesus put more stress on the importance of money than he really did – something an infographic can’t really show us.
Ultimately, then, by their very nature, infographics are always going to be limited in the degree that they can be specific about details, but the one we have chosen here represents particularly difficult data to present. The graph still shows us interesting and important things, however, and if we think about it, we can see just a little bit more clearly what Jesus talked about.
Some Days We Soar: Words of Encouragement for the Christian Life has always been one of our most popular free e-books, with a huge number of copies having been downloaded. The book is a practical collection of short essays on different aspects of being encouraged and encouraging others through life's difficulties, challenges, and opportunities – so if you are on the lookout for some effective encouragement to give or receive, check out this brand new edition.
The new edition of Some Days We Soar is revised and improved with a number of new chapters and we feel that it will be more popular than ever. You can download your own copy without registration, cost, or having to give an email address (as is the case with all our e-books). It is available in three formats to read on any computer, smart phone, or e-reader. Download the format of your choice from our sister site: here.
A PARAGRAPH TO PONDER
Church history is a treasure box, not a map. As Christians, we do not honor our forefathers and mothers by seeking to return to their times; rather, we honor them by receiving their wisdom and learning from their victories and failures. We retrieve from the past the elements and tools needed for faithfulness today. No golden age of Christianity existed in the past, only an unbroken line of broken sinners saved by the grace of God and empowered to transmit the gospel to the next generation.
Extracted From: Trevin Wax, This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel (2017).
Scriptures in Question: Ezekiel 29:10 Isaiah 19:21-25
“… I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush.” (Ezekiel 29:10).
“So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. … In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.’” (Isaiah 19:21-25).
The most obvious answer to the apparent discrepancy between the two scriptures above, and others like them, is that they address different times. Ezekiel speaks to a time close to his own when Egypt would fall to outside invaders – as it soon did, in fact, to the emerging Babylonian and Persian Empires. On the other hand, Isaiah speaks to a more distant time of millennial peace when the future nation of Egypt will be blessed for its obedience.
But there is another aspect to understanding scriptures like these. Ancient Egypt is represented with a kind of “split personality” in the Bible. On the one hand it is sometimes shown quite negatively, and on the other hand it is sometimes shown in a much more positive light. Egypt and Israel shared a common border in the ancient world, just as they do today, and this fact led to a great deal of interaction between the two lands – some of which was of a negative and some a positive nature.
Many scriptures speak of the national sins of ancient Egypt (Isaiah 19:1-25, etc.), and ancient Israel was repeatedly warned not to follow its example in many things – ranging from religious customs (Ezekiel 20:8, etc.) to trusting in horses and chariots for their national protection (Isaiah 31:1, etc.). But most scriptures giving a negative view of Egypt do so by using it as a symbol of slavery and bondage, as the Bible records it had been for the Israelites.
On the other hand, although Israel left Egypt in the Exodus, the land of the Nile remained a major superpower during most of Israel’s history, and it provided shelter for a large number of individuals mentioned in the Bible. We see this even as early as the time of Abraham and Sarah who went to Egypt when conditions were difficult in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:10-20), and we see the same thing in the life of Joseph, of course, when his brothers went to Egypt for food during a famine in Canaan. Other biblical figures such as Jeroboam fled to Egypt for political asylum (1 Kings 11:40), and later, when the nations of Israel and Judah were overthrown and taken into captivity, many individuals fled to Egypt for refuge (2 Kings 25:26) – including the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 43:5-7). In the New Testament, of course, Mary and Joseph also fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to avoid persecution by King Herod.
So throughout biblical history Egypt played two very different roles – both as a land that had held Israel in slavery, and as a land that was a safe haven for many who escaped to it. Depending on the time and circumstances, Egypt was either an adversary or an ally, a place to flee or a place to flee to.
As a land symbolizing pride and oppression as well as refuge and protection, it is understandable that some scriptures speak of punishments that would come on Egypt and others speak of rewards. The Bible shows that nations, just like individuals, are held accountable for their behavior, and so it is no contradiction that Egypt was prophesied to receive curses when it did evil and blessings when it did good.
As Christians, we come to understand that faith has two sides, two aspects, two dimensions. Call them what we may, our belief must include not only faith in the existence of God, but also faith in the nature of God – his goodness.
These dual aspects of belief and trust are summed up perfectly in the book of Hebrews: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). We must first believe that God exists and we must also believe in his just and good nature – that he is a God who rewards righteousness.
But, basic as this might seem, we do not always understand that these two aspects of faith are the story of the Bible itself – that throughout the Scriptures God introduces and reveals himself to humanity in exactly these two ways. If we start at the beginning, we find the existence of God is shown in the creation story of Genesis 1. The nature of God is then seen in the story of God’s gifts to humans – including the potential gift of eternal life – in Genesis 2. The same two-part story is repeated in every major theophany of the Bible. God’s existence is shown to the Israelites in the fire and thunder on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:17-20), and his nature is revealed to them in the law of love that he gives them there shortly afterward (Exodus 20:1-17). There are dozens of smaller examples of this pattern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. In words or actions, God reveals himself, then his nature.
Of course, the New Testament is no different. On numerous occasions Jesus is revealed as the son of God and then his nature is demonstrated in his works and teachings (Matthew 14:22-36, etc.). The reality of his divine existence is made especially clear to the key disciples in the visible transfiguration on the mountainside, and his nature as the son of God is then stated audibly (Matthew 17:1-5). At the conclusion of his ministry, the same two principles are made evident in more symbolic yet equally real ways for all to see. The identity of the Son of God is revealed to Jerusalem in the triumphal entry, and his nature, his sacrificial goodness, is revealed a few days later in his public crucifixion on behalf of all. The expressions of these two bases of our faith are inseparable and reach backward and forward as we read the Scriptures – the Passover lamb, as a foreshadowing of Christ, was identified on the tenth day of the month and sacrificed separately on the fourteenth, and so on. Throughout the Bible we find God continually reveals himself and then reveals his nature. God appears and God blesses; God is and God acts; the great “I AM” (Exodus 3:14) is also the great “I DO” (Psalm 86:8).
Our faith in God must also follow the same development. It is never enough to simply believe God exists. As the apostle James tells us: “Show me your faith … You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:18-19). That kind of faith is purely belief in God’s existence, and James shows that we must go beyond that. The second half of God’s revelation of himself is always of his nature, and the second half of our faith that must be developed is always our trust in God’s nature. As we saw above in Hebrews: “… anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6, emphases added).
We must never be content in feeling that we are Christians because we believe God exists. The Bible shows from beginning to end that we must believe that – then come to deeply know and trust the One we believe exists. We are reminded of this in almost the final words of the Bible which stress the existence and the nature of God: “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12). Our faith is ultimately rewarded not because we believe God exists, but because we trust in the way he is and wants us to be.
Does God ever seem far away to you – as though he were hidden from view and you cannot “see” his presence in your life? How can we know he is still there and just as desirous to work with us at times like that? Consider the biblical book of Esther.
Our new article on the brave and beautiful Esther looks at some of the "hidden" aspects of the book and shows how they provide a valuable lesson for us. You can read the article here.
We tend to think of the apostle Paul as a somewhat unique New Testament figure – a spiritual giant in his own right who received a different calling and training from the other apostles. Yet despite the unique nature of Paul’s identity in the New Testament Church, in one sense the apostle’s ministry was not unique. It was at least foreshadowed in the work of a great Old Testament figure.
We see this fact from the beginning of Paul’s ministry. In the autobiographical section of his letter to the Galatian Christians (Galatians 1:11-2:21), the apostle tells us that after his conversion “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (vs. 17).
Paul telescopes events somewhat here, as Acts tells us that immediately after his conversion “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). It was either then, or “After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him” (Acts 9:23) that Paul “went into Arabia.”
Today we might presume that the “Arabia” Paul mentions was the same area that we call Arabia today – the Arabian Peninsula – but in Paul’s day that was not the case. In New Testament times Arabia referred to the area of Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, and the territory on the northwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. It was this area that was made into the Roman Province of “Arabia” beginning in the second century.
That this was the area Paul had in mind when he said he went to Arabia is seen just a little later in the apostle’s letter where he wrote about the symbolism of Hagar: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia …” (Galatians 4:25 ESV, NKJV, etc.). In fact, of all the places in “Arabia” to which Paul might have gone after his conversion, it is more than likely that Mount Sinai would be the one to which he would have been drawn. As a devout Jew steeped in the law of Moses and the Covenant made at Sinai, Paul might naturally have desired to go to that very area to pray, meditate and learn how the truth he had now come to see related to what he already deeply believed.
Additionally, of course, Paul was fully aware of the story of Elijah who, after the prophet’s life became endangered, fled to Horeb, the Mountain of God also called Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:10, 1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chronicles 5:10, etc.) where he was instructed by God (1 Kings 19). In fact, Paul mentions exactly this incident in his letter to the Romans:
“…I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Romans 11:1-5).
In this passage Paul shows a similarity between his own situation (“I am an Israelite myself”) and that of Elijah, the remnant in Elijah’s time and the remnant in his own time. The verses he quotes are from 1 Kings 19 – the story of Elijah running to the mountain of God in Sinai. A number of scholars have pointed out that there are repeated echoes of the story of Elijah going to Sinai in what Paul tells us of his own trip to Arabia. Just as Elijah stressed at Sinai, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:10), so Paul tells us he “was extremely zealous.” Just as Elijah complained at Sinai that his enemies were trying to kill him, so we saw in Acts that the Jews were apparently trying to kill Paul before his journey to Arabia. Just as God told Elijah to return to Damascus (1 Kings 19:15), so Paul returned directly to Damascus from Arabia (Galatians 1:17).
As N.T. Wright has written, there are even more subtle parallels between the two stories. Just as Elijah went to Sinai after zealously killing the prophets of Baal, so Paul, mistakenly but with equal zeal, went to Arabia after persecuting members of the Christian Church. Just as Elijah is told to return and anoint and thereby announce the new kingship of Hazael of Syria and Jehu of Israel, so Paul returned to announce the new kingship of Jesus as the anointed one – the Messiah (Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 115, p. 689).
The similarities with Elijah do not stop with these parallel events. One of the most significant aspects of Elijah’s ministry is recorded in his trip to the coastal area of Sidonian Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-10), which Jesus himself used as a symbol of the Gospel going to the Gentiles (Luke 4:25-26). Paul’s undoubted knowledge of the story of Elijah going to the Gentiles gives us even more reason to believe that he may well have seen himself as travelling in the footsteps of the zealous Old Testament prophet.
The autobiographical section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians shows us that God will always use zeal when he can guide it to his purposes.
Scholars of the New Testament mainly agree that the last few verses of the Gospel of Mark as we now know it (Mark 16:9-20) were probably added after the Gospel was written in order to make it more complete and to bring it more into alignment with the other accounts of the life of Jesus by adding a few verses about what occurred after the resurrection. This probability need not trouble us. Such a scenario does not mean that the verses added later could not have been inspired. In any case, the additional material is largely taken directly from the endings of the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John (see our post “Question Mark” here).
That the present ending of Mark probably was added is clear: it does not appear in any of the earliest known manuscripts; it was evidently unknown to early Christian scholars such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen (early third century); and the style of verses 9-20 is nothing like that used throughout the rest of the book. But the fact that early Christians seem to have eventually felt a need to bring Mark’s Gospel to a more understandable close only points up the question we must ask: why did Mark end his Gospel so abruptly?
It has sometimes been guessed that Mark may have died or have been otherwise unable to complete his work; but considering that we are only talking about a few short verses this seems unlikely. Recently, scholars such as N. T. Wright have suggested another possibility – that the ending of Mark was intentionally left “dangling” in order that Peter or another eyewitness to the events could verbally add his or her testimony after the Gospel had been read out in the early churches. The problem with this latter idea is that there is simply no evidence that anything like this happened, either with Mark or with any other book of the Bible. In fact, there is a far more likely reason for the seemingly abrupt ending of Mark.
What most discussions of the “abrupt” ending of Mark fail to take into account is that Mark’s Gospel begins as abruptly as it ends. While the other three Gospels all include some background material, Mark’s account regarding Jesus simply starts “in mid stream,” as it were, by beginning with his baptism and continuing through his ministry.
The abrupt beginning and ending of Mark compared to the other Gospels suggests that its purpose was never to try to provide a more complete “Life of Christ” in the way that Matthew and Luke do (and that even John approximates by giving us key sections of the story from before Jesus began his ministry to the post-resurrection events). This indicates that the purpose of Mark – which is thought to have been the earliest Gospel written – was not to look at the background to and aftereffects of the life of Christ, but purely to provide a summary of his words and works, his deeds and teachings.
This scenario fits well with what we know of the history of Mark’s Gospel. Papias (AD 60-130), the bishop of Hierapolis near Laodicea, tells us: “… [Mark] accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings.”
In other words, rather than making an extended summary of the life of Jesus, the purpose of Mark’s Gospel was, as many modern scholars believe, to provide a manual for disciples – a selective narrative that could be used to teach new believers the Way of Christianity and to help current believers grow in understanding and faith.
That Mark begins his Gospel with the baptism of Jesus and ends with his death is probably no coincidence – these are the points where the life of every Christian begins and ends. It is precisely in limiting himself to the part of the story of Jesus that is parallel to the lives of his followers that Mark provides a focused guide for the Christian life. For that purpose, details of the early life or post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were not necessary.
So the ending of Mark only seems abrupt when it is compared to the endings of the other Gospel accounts – which is doubtless why, in time, the additional verses were added to Mark’s original ending.
If you have read the biblical book of Ruth, you probably think you know it well. But whether you have read it once or many times, we think you will find a lot more in this beautiful story with the help of our short new e-book.
Many people think of the book of Ruth as a simple love story, but in reality it is far from simple, and it is not really a “love story” in the modern sense of “romantic love” either! Instead, Ruth is a story of deep courage, strength, loyalty, determination, and kindness with an underlying message that reaches from the ancient world to our lives today.
You can download a free copy of our latest e-book in your choice of three formats (PDF, Kindle, and Nook (E-Pub) to read on your computer or e-book reader. There is no registration necessary and you do not need to give an email address - just click on the file type you want to download! Download RUTH from our e-book page, here.
“….if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Freedom is always a good idea. You don’t have to persuade Americans of that, especially around the fourth of July each year, and most every other place in this world either celebrates freedom or mourns its absence at any given time. But freedom comes with a price, of course. It is always bought with a struggle, and in this country we can look back on the War of Independence and the abolition of slavery as only two examples of the value of freedom and the struggles necessary to obtain it.
The apostle Paul recognized the same truth applies in a spiritual sense. Writing to the Corinthians, he said “….if you can gain your freedom, do so,” and the context is interesting. Notice the whole sentence from which this quote is taken: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21).
Paul tells us several things here. First, we must remember that slavery in the biblical world was not the evil of the racial slavery conducted at various times in history. It was more like indentured service from which people could often work their way to independence, and it was certainly nothing like the totally demeaning and dehumanizing types of slavery with which the world is sadly more familiar. So Paul tells his readers “don’t worry about it if you were called without freedom.” Under the circumstances of his time, although it was not the best situation, slavery in that culture did not restrict many aspects of personal freedom and usually didn’t interfere with a person’s choice of religion or other things we would regard as essential rights.
Nevertheless, Paul still wrote to people in that situation: “… if you can gain your freedom, do so,” and the words are not given as advice to be considered, but a principle to be followed. It’s easy to read over them today as being antiquated and not applying to us in our modern age, but they do.
Many biblical verses show that when we are called we are all actually spiritually enslaved – enslaved to sin and our own human nature (John 8:34, 2 Peter 2:19, etc.). But many other verses show that through the struggle fought on our behalf by the Son of God, we are given freedom from these things (2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 5:1, etc.).
Yet, just like physical freedom, spiritual freedom has to be recognized, appreciated, guarded and preserved. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). How can we lose our spiritual freedom? The New Testament shows that we can sink back into slavery through accepting false beliefs (Galatians 2:4), by not controlling our physical natures (Galatians 5:13), or through anything that takes control of our lives (2 Peter 2:19).
But it needn’t be that way. Just as celebrations of freedom, such as the Fourth of July, each time we observe them remind us of the need to protect our physical freedoms, every time we study the word of God it should be a reminder that we need to preserve our spiritual freedom, too. Look how the apostle James – the brother of Jesus – reminds us of this truth: “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:25). A little later in his letter, James also tells us: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom” (James 2:12), and it’s really the same principle.
Freedom is always a good idea, but whether it’s this Fourth of July or the next time we open our Bibles, we must remember: freedom must be chosen, and choosing freedom is always the right idea.
* This post first appeared on 7/3/2016 on our sister site, TacticalChristianity.org
“… Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation” (Psalm 109:1, 6-13).
The imprecatory psalms have a way of getting our attention, but it is not always in a positive manner. How do we reconcile the seemingly brutal and even vengeful attitude that appears to lie behind these psalms and the teachings of forgiveness and love for enemies found in the New Testament?
Our new article looks at the imprecatory psalms and gives reasons why these psalms are not what they might seem to be. You can read the article here.
All of the four Gospels record an event in which a woman came to Jesus during a meal and anointed his feet and dried them with her hair (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 7, John 12). Many feel that Luke’s account refers to an event in Galilee early in Jesus’ ministry, while the stories told by Matthew, Mark, and John refer to a separate nearly identical event occurring in Bethany near the end of Jesus’ life. Some even divide these latter three stories into separate events because John apparently says the event he described occurred “six days before the Passover” (John 12:1), while Matthew and Mark say the event occurred “two days before Passover” (Matthew 26:2, Mark 14:1).
But this confusion fails to put the various accounts together properly. For one thing, John does not say the woman anointed Jesus six days before Passover. What he says is: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor” (John 12:1). John says Jesus came to Bethany six days before Passover, and that at some point while he was there a dinner was given in his honor. So there is no contradiction between the accounts of Matthew, Mark and John in this regard.
As for the account in Luke, that story does not say where the event took place – or when, though it is placed with other material from the early part of Jesus’ ministry. Although many presume that Luke’s “orderly” (Luke 1:3) account is chronological, it does, in fact, often stray from a chronological sequence. For example, in Luke 3 we read that King Herod shut John the Baptist up in prison (Luke 3:19-20), but then we read in the following verses that Jesus was baptized by John (Luke 3:21-22). In reality, of course, John baptized Jesus before being placed in prison (Matthew 3:1-17; 4:12; John 1:29-34). An even more striking example of “achronological” recording is seen at the end of Luke’s Gospel where he appears to compress the five weeks between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into a single day – if we treat what is said chronologically (compare Luke 24 with Matthew 28 and John 21).
As for differences in the anointing stories, they are small and easily explained. For example, Mathew and Mark say the woman anointed Jesus’ head; the other Gospels say his feet were anointed. But the woman may well have anointed Christ’s head and feet – recorded differently according to the stress the individual Gospel writers had in mind (for a kingly anointing, or an anointing for burial).
Luke’s account says the event occurred in the home of a Pharisee named Simon; the others say it was in the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. But Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee were probably one and the same. A leper could never have hosted a dinner nor have partaken in one with other people – Simon the Leper must have been healed and could thus have been the same as Simon the Pharisee. Simon may well have been referred to as “the Pharisee” in Luke because Luke stresses Jesus’ reply to Simon’s pharisaical and self-righteous attitude, while the other Gospels remember him as Simon the Leper.
So there is no real reason why all the Gospel accounts could not be referring to the same thing. That being the case, consider the probability that they are, in fact, simply different accounts of the same event. It would be a strange coincidence if two different women (or more!) had gone to the house of a man called Simon, had anointed Jesus with exactly the same amount (300 denarii worth) of exactly the same kind of expensive perfume (nard), and had wiped his feet with their hair. If they were different women, why did the Gospel writers not differentiate them in some way? On the other hand, that Mary sister of Martha was the one woman who anointed Christ may perhaps be seen earlier in John’s account where he tells us: “(This Mary… was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)” (John 11:2). Note that John says “the same one who” rather than “one of the women who.”
It would also be strange if not one of the four Gospel writers recorded both or all stories, if multiple similar events had occurred. This is especially true considering Jesus’ words in Mark 14:9: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Would Christ have put so much emphasis on this event if it was the second instance of two virtually identical cases? If this had been done by two different women, surely both would be clearly recorded.
Beyond these facts, we should remember that in John (12:4-5) we are told Judas complained that the perfume used to anoint Jesus was worth 300 denarii and the money could have been given to the poor, but is rebuked by Jesus who tells him to leave the woman alone as she has done a good work. In Matthew (26:9) and Mark (14:4) we are told that some of the disciples made exactly the same complaint (“300 denarii”) and were rebuked in the same way by Christ. Are we to believe that given identical circumstances, the disciples made exactly the same mistake after Jesus had already rebuked them for it just a few days before? It is much more reasonable to put the Gospel accounts together and to see that they refer, with differing details, to one dinner, one woman, and one anointing of Jesus.
Regardless of how many women were involved in these Gospel stories, however, they teach lessons that we can apply in our own lives. The attitude of love they exhibit is one we can all strive to imitate. How? Just as love was shown to Christ through the gift given for his physical body, we too can give gifts to the Body of Christ, which is his Church (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12–13; Ephesians 3:6, 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24; etc.). The lessons of human love and godly forgiveness* that underlie these stories are ones which are indeed, timeless (Mark 14:9).
* Our article “Are Simon the Leper and Simon the Pharisee the Same? – and Why it Matters” shows a practical lesson we can all learn from these accounts, here.
In Genesis 15:8-21 we find the story of God sealing his covenant with Abram (before he became Abraham) by means of animal sacrifices. In response to Abram’s request for a sign that God would fulfill his promise (vs. 8), God instructed him to take various animals and sacrifice them in a particular manner.
After killing the animals, Abram divided them into halves, placing them on the ground in such a way that someone could walk between the halves of the carcasses. The narrative then states: “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram …” (Genesis 15:17-18).
Many biblical commentaries suggest that this event was symbolic of such things as the “furnace of affliction” Israel would suffer in Egypt, but there is no reason to make such a symbolic connection, especially one so stretched. The real meaning of this event can be clearly seen from what is known of ancient Near Eastern land grant treaties (a type of “suzerain-vassal treaty” in which an agreement is made between two unequal parties, one of higher status and one of lower status, in which land is granted to the ruler of lower status on condition of faithfulness to the higher king).
In this type of ritual, sacrificed animals were divided in half and in some cases the participants to the treaty walked between the halves of the animals as a way to seal the agreement made by the participants. This legal procedure of the world in which Abram lived is clearly central to understanding the story of Genesis 15. Perhaps Abram walked between the animal halves when he arranged them on the ground, but it is clear that God did – represented by the burning torch which "passed between the pieces."
Another, much later (c. 590 BC), but clearly parallel biblical example of this ritual in the time of Zedekiah involves an animal being killed, cut into two pieces, and then individuals passing between the divided pieces (Jeremiah 34:8-22 and note vss. 15, 19).
The Hebrew Bible speaks of covenants not as being “made” but as being “cut” (Hebrew karat), and the ancient sacrificial covenant animal cutting practice explains that usage.
* Reproduced from the post of 4/6/2014 on our sister site TacticalChristianity.org .
The identity of the author of the Epistle of Jude has often puzzled students of the New Testament. The epistle itself simply calls him “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James” (Jude 1:1). But who was this Jude and what can we learn from his identity?
First, we should realize that the name Jude is just a shortened form of the Jewish name Judah – or, as it was written in Greek, Judas. So it is not difficult to see why modern translations of the Bible call the author of this epistle “Jude” rather than “Judas” in order to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus.
Some have thought that this righteous Jude was the same person as the other individual called Judas in the lists of the twelve disciples. Although the King James Version calls that apostle “Judas the brother of James” in Luke 6:16, this is based on a mistranslation. The word “brother” does not appear in the Greek of the verse and virtually all other translations call this individual “the son of James,” as the expression should be rendered.
Another idea is that Jude was another of the original twelve disciples of Jesus – the one called Thomas. The reason for this is interesting. The Gospel of John – the only Gospel that ever mentions Thomas separately from the lists of disciples – calls him “Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve” (John 20:24, etc.). Several early Christian manuscripts actually refer to Thomas as “Didymus Judas Thomas,” and the names Didymus in Greek and Thomas in Aramaic both mean the same thing: “twin.”
While this might seem like an attractive possibility for the identity of Jude, it is an unlikely one. Apart from the fact the early texts that speak of Thomas as having the name Judas are few and only found in a very limited area, the letter of Jude itself suggests that Jude was neither the apostle called Judas or the one called Thomas. If Jude had been one of the original disciples, there would be no reason why he would not have introduced himself in his letter as the apostle Jude – just as the other apostles generally did in their letters.
Even more importantly, the author of Jude specifically does not include himself with the apostles when he wrote: “But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold” (Jude 1:17) – which we can contrast with the nearly identical statement of Peter (who does call himself an apostle) when he says: “… be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” (2 Peter 3:2 NKJV).
It is much more likely that when Jude writes simply that he is “a brother of James,” he is referring to James the half-brother of Jesus. This identification has the weight of a great deal of Christian tradition and of scripture itself behind it. Matthew 13:55 records the names of two of the brothers of Jesus as James and Judas, and very early Christian writings state that Jude was that same Judas, the brother of Christ.
Both these brothers of Jesus – James and Judas – were not among the original disciples who became apostles, and the New Testament tells us, in fact, that they rejected Jesus and his teachings (John 7:5, Matthew 13:57, Mark 3:21, etc.). It was only after the resurrection that Jesus’ half-brothers came to believe and then became important members of the early Church, with James becoming the virtual leader of the Jerusalem Christians (Galatians 1:18-19). In stark contrast to the Judas (Iscariot) who appeared to accept Christ’s teaching at the beginning, but who betrayed him at the end, the Judas who wrote our book of Jude may have rejected Christ at first yet eventually, like James, he became a fervent believer and upholder of the truth.
In writing to many people he did not know personally, it is certainly inconceivable that the author of the epistle of Jude would not explain which James he was the brother of unless he and James were known to everyone – that he was not just the brother of any James, but the brother of James the brother of Jesus. This puts the first verse of Jude in clear perspective and provides one of the most impressive examples of deep humility in the whole New Testament.
Jude was one of the most important people in the early Church, yet his description of himself as simply “the brother of James” is an amazingly humble one. How many people, if they had been the brother of Jesus, would not have introduced themselves that way? Yet humility was one of the greatest traits of Jesus (Philippians 2:7) and one which Jude and the other brothers of Jesus had witnessed frequently.
Jude knew that Jesus had described himself as a servant (Matthew 20:28), and in describing himself not as the “brother of Jesus,” but as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:1), Jude begins his letter by stressing that first and foremost he was simply the servant of a servant. This may not tell us what made Jude important, but it tells us exactly who he was.
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The existence of evil in our world is impossible to deny. Sadly, the pages of history and the stories of our daily news provide endless examples of evil at the individual, national and even international levels. As a result, atheists often claim that the clear existence of such widespread and ongoing evil proves there cannot be an all-powerful and loving God.
According to this thinking, the existence of evil and the existence of God are mutually exclusive. If God exists, and he is good, the argument goes, why would he allow such terrible evil and its resultant suffering to continue?
As Christians we may occasionally wrestle with this conundrum ourselves, and we are very likely to hear it spoken by friends or others who are not believers. The natural reaction in such situations is for us to try, where appropriate, to explain the temporary necessity of evil in the plan of God – that God must allow evil in order to grant us free moral agency and the opportunity to develop the character he seeks.
This explanation for the existence of evil is one that makes sense to most Christians and it is one which the Bible itself addresses. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul summarizes the situation in saying that “… the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:20-21).
In these verses we could easily substitute the word “evil” for “decay,” and the sense is clearly the same – God allows the present situation in order to fulfill his purposes in our lives. And, as Paul specifically stresses, in the long run allowing evil to exist will be worth the end results: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
However, this argument is a theological one that may make little sense to many whose minds have not been opened to understand the plan of God (Luke 24:45, Ephesians 1:18). But there is another and much simpler explanation that we should consider giving to others who question God’s existence in the face of the evil that is evident in the world. To say that the undeniable existence of evil indicates that God does not exist, we must also admit that by the same argumentation, the undeniable existence of good in the world must indicate that he does exist.
Although it does not explain the existence of evil, this answer is as sure as it is simple in showing that evil does not prove the non-existence of God. If an individual can see this, it is likely that they may be receptive to begin to understand the underlying reasons the Bible gives for the present existence of evil in the plan of a good and loving God.
“…To the one who is victorious, I will give … that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).
Today, people change their names because they do not like the name they have or because they see some advantage to having a different name. This is particularly common for actors and musicians, of course, who change their names or take “stage names” they feel might be easier for people to remember and better for their chosen careers. Some past and present examples include John Wayne, who was born Marion Robert Morrison, Bob Dylan who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Kirk Douglas – born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, Alan Alda – born Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo, Martin Sheen – born Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estevez, Elton John – born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, and Natalie Wood – born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko.
But name changing is not just a modern phenomenon. The birth name of the great theologian Martin Luther was actually Martin Luder. He later changed his name to “Luther” (based on the Greek “eleutherios” meaning “free”) as being more appropriate to his beliefs.
There are also many instances of name changes in the Bible, though the ones we find there almost all occurred because someone else changed an individual’s name rather than the person changing it themselves. An exception was Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth (Ruth 1:20), who changed her name to Mara, meaning “bitter,” after losing her husband and sons.
More commonly, the names of individuals were changed when they entered the service of the king of a foreign culture, just as Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah – the meaning of which is unknown – by the Egyptian pharaoh (Genesis 41:45), Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar – a form of “Bel protects the king” – by the king of Babylon (Daniel 1:7), and the Jewish girl Hadassah was given a new name, Esther (meaning “star,” Esther 2:7) when she was taken into the court of the Persian king.
Many think that the apostle Paul’s name was changed by God from “Saul,” though the New Testament shows that the name Paul – the Greek form of Saul – simply began to be used of him when he started to work in Greek-speaking areas (Acts 13:9). Yet it is also possible that there was some significance in the changed name. In Greek, paulos means small, and it was perhaps a mark of humility to willingly exchange the name of the Hebrew king Saul for the humble Gentile name Paul, just as the apostle became a humble servant to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:8).
More important, biblically, are the clear examples where God did change the names of his servants. God renamed the patriarch Abram as Abraham (“father of nations,” Genesis 17:5), for example, and his wife Sarai as Sarah (probably meaning “princess,” Genesis 17:15). He also renamed their grandson Jacob as Israel (meaning either “prince of God” or “he who overcomes with God,” Genesis 32:28). There was deliberately expressed symbolism in these new names given by God, of course, each new name expressing a new identity based on what the individual had accomplished or the person’s potential in the plan of God.
In the New Testament we see exactly the same process in action when Jesus renamed his disciple Simon as Peter – meaning “stone” (John 1:42). Peter had certainly not earned this new name to that point, but with the coming of the Holy Spirit he was transformed into a stable pillar of the New Testament Church (Galatians 2:9).
Interestingly, however, there are relatively few such changes recorded in the Scriptures where God gave his servants new names. The phenomenon was uncommon and always full of great meaning when it did occur. Yet despite the relative infrequency of God’s acts of re-naming, the Bible does make it clear that every faithful believer will be given a new name in eternity as we see in the scripture at the top of this post (Revelation 2:17).
At that time the changed names of believers will apparently be as meaningful and relevant to our potential roles in eternity as the names changed by God in the past. The answer to Shakespeare’s question in “Romeo and Juliet” “What’s in a name?” may be “very little” – unless it is a name changed by God. But then the answer will doubtless be “a great deal!” And the best news of all is that when a name is changed by God, the new identity is certain.
Just as Abraham in his great age became a “father of many nations” according to his new name, so we can all be encouraged by Numbers 23:19 which tells us that: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” God will fulfill his promise to give every believer a new name.
Does God punish the children and other descendants for the sins of their “fathers” – their parents or ancestors? Some scriptures – including the Second of the Ten Commandments – seem to show this to be the case:
“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
The principle is repeated in Deuteronomy 5:9 and appears again in the Book of Exodus with only slightly different wording: “… he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).
Yet other scriptures, which are equally clear, seem to contradict this principle of the punishment of children for their parents’ sins. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16). The prophet Ezekiel repeats this opposite approach: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:20).
In order to untangle this seeming contradiction, we must realize that the situations covered by these two sets of scriptures are different. First, notice that in the first set of verses (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Deuteronomy 5:9) nothing is said about death, whereas in the second set of verses (Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:20) the death penalty is mentioned in each case.
Moses and Ezekiel both make it clear that under God’s law no one was to be punished for someone else’s crimes or sins. The context is a specifically legal one regarding punishments meted out under human justice. In the Second Commandment and parallel verses it is God who is being said to punish – in a general manner that does not apply to humanly applied punishments.
This is not because God somehow deals out “tougher” justice than he commands humans to do in specific situations, but because God has set in place spiritual laws (summarized in the Ten Commandments) that have an effect when they are broken. Just as we cannot act against the physical law of gravity by dropping an object on the ground without risking breaking it, or jumping from a height without risking hurting ourselves, we cannot break a spiritual law without hurting ourselves – and often others as well.
The scriptures that speak of the sins of parents affecting the individual’s children and other descendants are simply speaking of the unavoidable consequences that people bring upon themselves and others through breaking spiritual laws. Children who are born to drug-addicted mothers will unavoidably be affected by the parent’s addiction. Children who grow up in homes where parents routinely break spiritual laws almost always get hurt by the result of those behaviors. Unfortunately, those children often then pass on the negative results of such choices by following the same behavioral patterns themselves – so the problems suffered by those who reject God’s laws may indeed last till the “third and fourth generation.”
But these unavoidable ongoing effects of the behavior of individuals on their families and others are separate and different from situations where individuals are condemned and punished by society through specific laws for specific crimes. In such cases, God’s law stresses, children should never be punished for the behavior of their parents.
In 1952, the Congress of the United States of America established a National Day of Prayer as an annual event by a joint resolution. This resolution was signed into law by President Harry Truman, who called for the nation to take time “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” Every president over the last 62 years, regardless of political or religious affiliation, has proclaimed a National Day of Prayer which is now set by law to be observed on the first Thursday of May each year.
The roots of this day of prayer may be said to go back to 1775 when, on the very eve of the U.S. War of Independence, the First Continental Congress called for a day of prayer. Today such public devotion may seem foreign to many, but the principle of approaching God in a spirit of national rededication is itself an echo of such days in biblical times.
This year, the National Day of Prayer falls on Thursday, May 3. and its theme is unity. It is a great opportunity for us to both give thanks for our national blessings and to remember the spiritual problems and the needs of our nation at this time.
* If you would like more information on prayer, you can download a free copy of our e-book Your Call: Using the Direct Private Line of Prayer (available in different versions to view on computer, e-reader, or phone) from our sister site here.
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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