The following series contains lessons related to foundational truths and practices related to the Christian faith and life. The series may be used in a small group setting, a one on one discipleship meeting, or for individual study. Powerpoint presentations are included for each lesson that can be used as a teacher resource.
In the past several years my wife Trece has introduced me to the Pilates exercise program. Unlike me though, she has been faithful to consistently use this wonderful exercise system. I also to a much more limited degree have experienced its benefits. One time in particular I was experiencing nagging back and neck pain but after a few weeks of Pilates this pain began to subside and eventually disappeared. The basic philosophy of Pilates is to strengthen the inner core muscles of the body. The theory then is if the core of the body is strong the rest of the body will be strong and healthy as well. Thus, I have entitled this book and course Core Faith. It is the basic faith and practice that all Christians need understand and do whether they know it or not. If the Christian is strong in the basic core beliefs and disciplines then as with Pilates the entire Christian life will be strong and vital as well.
Welcome to Core Faith. E. M. Blaiklock, Professor of Classics at Auckland University once stated: “I claim to be an historian. My approach to Classics is historical. And I tell you that the evidence for the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ is better authenticated than most of the facts of ancient history . . .”1 Our faith has a historical basis, the historical life of Jesus, the historical death of Jesus and the historical resurrection of Jesus. This should give us the confidence to pursue the path of Christian life with confidence. But as we get started on the Christian journey or are on the way we all have certain questions.
Questions that some of us may have are: 1) Who is God and what is he like? 2) How can I be sure I am going to heaven? 3) How can I grow in my Christian life? 4) What does God want me to do? 5) What is the nature of the Bible and where did it come from? 6) How do I interpret the Bible? 7) Who is Jesus and how does his life impact me? 8) Who is the Holy Spirit and what does he do? 9) What does the Bible say or not say about the future? These are some of the questions that the following lessons are going to address.
The first reference to a disciple in the New Testament is found in Matthew 5:1-2, which states, “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them by saying: . . . .”2 What follows is perhaps the greatest Sermon of all time known as the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon for disciples of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple is Mathetes (Μαθητης). Its dictionary definition is: “1. one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice 2. one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views, disciple, adherent.3 In short a disciple is a student, a learner. But let’s look at Jesus’ definition of a disciple. “Then he [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me’” (Luke 9:23).4 Being a disciple is for “anyone.” The invitation is open. But there are conditions. First, a disciple must deny himself and take up his cross. When we think of self denial it’s something like I will only eat one donut today instead of two. Jesus is talking about denial to the point of death, death on a cross if need be. Second, discipleship is daily. It’s not a one-time thing but every day I need to get up and be a disciple. Third a disciple follows Christ. It’s his example, his teaching, his call.
I would like to address two questions that are related to Core Faith. The first question is why is theology important? And secondly, why read this book or use it as a course? Why is theology important? The word theology means the study of God. Theology may seem intimidating but anytime we form an opinion about God or make an assertion about him or look to him for anything we are in essence doing theology. If we say God is good that is a theological proposition. If someone curses God they are saying God is bad. If we say a prayer to God, we are implying that he not only exists but that he acts in our lives in a personal way. So most of us are theologians whether we think we are or not. I would like to suggest two basic reasons of why theology is important.
First is that we are commanded to love God. This is referred to as the greatest commandment. Jesus was once asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt 22:36-38). If the most important commandment is to love God then we must learn who God is with our total being, heart soul and mind. How can we love someone we do not know and strive to know? Some people want to experience God emotionally which is good but then in practice neglect learning about God with their mind. The mind is an area that the evangelical church has neglected and it has even been described as serious as a “scandal.” Christian historian Mark Knoll states, “The scandal of the evangelical mind, is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”5 God has revealed himself in creation and more specifically and importantly in his Word. Theology then is learning about the one God we are to love. This may be dismissed as merely head knowledge but as someone once well said how can we love God less when we know him more?
Second, sometimes when we encounter difficulties in life we do not have the answers we want or need. The problem we face is perplexing and seems to defy resolution. It is times like this when we need to fall back on the character of God. But if we do not know what the character of God is for sure, we may lack confidence in it. Job in the Old Testament is a good example for us in this regard. He was a godly man with an abundance of blessings: wealth, health and family
(Job 1:1-3). But one by one these things were taken away. First, Job lost all his children when they were attacked and taken captive or killed. Also, all his possessions were destroyed or stolen (Job 1:13-22). He was stricken with some kind of malignant skin disease (Job 2:7). The question of the book then is why? Job’s friends bring many theologically wrong answers that suggest that Job had sinned and this was the result. But the trials were not due to Job’s sin. Finally, Job has an encounter with God and no final answer to Job’s suffering is given except that God is God and one has to trust in who he is in such problems. In the end, God blesses Job beyond what he had before (Job 42:10-17). But the point is that sometimes all we have is to accept and trust in the character of God. So we need to know that character to be able have assurance in it and to recognize our experience with it.
More examples include Joseph who was beaten and sold into slavery but reminded his brothers who had done the act, that even evil things can be used by God for his purposes. In theologically reflecting on the situation he stated, “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day” (Gen 50:20). Jonah who was displeased that God had not judged Ninevah but rather saved them attributed this action to the character of God. “He prayed to the Lord and said, “Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! – because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment” (Jonah 4:2). Jesus himself trusted in God and his character as he was dying on the cross and said, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Luke 23:46).
So all these examples show how understanding God and his character can relate to hard situations. This is theology. So let’s go to the next question. Why use these lessons?
1) The first and foremost reason is to get to know God better and grow in our relationship with him. Jesus said: Now this is eternal life – that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent (John 17:3). This course will have a God focus. We are on a lifelong and even eternal pursuit to know God and his Son Jesus Christ.
2) The second reason is to better appreciate and understand God’s gift of salvation through the gospel and basic Christian doctrine. This course will have a Bible focus. The Apostle Peter said “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation) (1 Peter 2:2; NASB). As physical food moves a baby toward growth toward adulthood, so the “milk” of the Word is how we grow spiritually. It’s our spiritual food.
3) The third and last reason is so that we will be able to share the gospel with others and be able to help others to grow in their faith. This course will also have a people focus. Jesus gave the commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” When I was in college, I benefited from a man by the name of Ted Boyls who met with me every week for about two years to help me understand God and the Christian life. Like Ted did, we should desire to help others.
We have a saying in America, “live and learn.” It refers to learning from mistakes or learning from the school of hard knocks. But the Bible encourages the opposite approach, to learn first and then live. What is the course procedure? This course has 11 lessons not including this introduction that give a basic overview of the Christian life and doctrine. Each lesson concludes with potential discussion and application questions. The material can be used in one of three ways. First you as an individual can study the material yourself. Second, this material can be covered by two individuals in a one on one discipleship relationship perhaps at a rate of one lesson per week. Both parties may read the lessons together or separately and then come together for questions, individualized application and use of the discussion questions. Thirdly, the following lesson materials may be used in a small group setting in Sunday School or home.
Whenever I have taken Bible courses, I always been interested in the person teaching me. What are their credentials? Are they qualified? My name is Dr. James Davis. You can reference my ministry profile on the Bible.org website. But in short I have been a Christian for over 30 years and have been involved in teaching the Bible in various venues since that time from dorm Bible studies, to small groups, Sunday school classes, and seminary classrooms. Since 1999 I have taught seminary classes as a professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, Capital Bible Seminary and Liberty University. I have a Masters in New Testament from Capital Bible Seminary and a PhD in New Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary.
I want to thank Dave Austin, Hampton Keathley IV, Bob Deffinbaugh and Lauren Menge for the help they have given me in producing these lessons by their encouragement, ideas, insight and editing.
So I now invite you to this journey of learning about Core Faith. And as a Christian or soon to be one I encourage you to be a better disciple of Jesus. May the Lord bless your study of Jesus and God’s Word.
Table of Contents
1 As cited by Josh McDowell, “Evidence for the Resurrection”, http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/josh2.html (Date accessed October 29, 2012).
2 Unless otherwise noted Bible citations are generally taken from the NET Bible, New English Translation © by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C.
3 Baur, Danker, Arnt and Gingrich, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd edition; University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2003), 609.
4 Scripture references are taken from the NET Bible unless otherwise noted.
5 Mark Knoll, The Scandal of Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4.
Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so ― reportedly said by prominent Swiss Theologian Karl Barth when asked at Princeton University if he could summarize the millions of words in his Systematic Theology entitled Church Dogmatics.1
Christian apologist Josh McDowell once said: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men and women, or it is the most fantastic fact of history.”2 Since the advent of Jesus Christ men and women have been willing to die for the gospel’s truth. It started with the 12 men who knew Jesus best, the disciples who saw the resurrected Lord and risked and gave their lives for the truth of this fact. The gospel has changed millions of lives of people who have responded to its message. It claims to be the exclusive and only way to God and has given offense to those in a pluralistic mindset. Jesus himself said in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. Peter echoed this in Acts 4:11-12, “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, . . . And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.”3
What is the gospel? What must I do to be saved? Did God choose me or did I choose him? How does the gospel affect my current life? What does it mean for my future? Can I lose my salvation? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer.
The lesson can be broken down into four separate segments: 1) the definition of the gospel and the five basic points of the gospel message, 2) theological past aspects of the gospel, 3) theological present aspects of the gospel, and 4) theological future aspects of the gospel.
Why is this issue important? For those of you who have not heard or believed the message of the gospel your eternal future depends on it, heaven or hell, bliss or torment, with God or without him? Others of you might say I already know the gospel so why is this topic important for me? First, I would say we are forgetful people and need reminders and review (cf.
2 Pet 1:12). Second, I would ask those that know the gospel, do you know it well enough to be able to share it with others?
The English word gospel is from the Greek word euanngelion. This word in essence means “good news” and in the New Testament it specifically refers to God’s good news to people about Jesus Christ. It can also refer to one of the four books written about the life of Jesus.4 Paul defines the gospel concisely this way: “Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-3).
The gospel is much more than a ticket to heaven; it’s an invitation to new life, forgiveness of sins and an eternal relationship with a loving eternal God. The gospel message can be broken down into five points:
The first piece of good news is that God loves you and has a plan and purpose for your life. Jesus stated, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Someone once well said that people matter to God. People are valuable in his sight. But how valuable are they? As this verse states, they are valuable enough to give something valuable. God gave his one and only Son so that we might have eternal life. For parents, how valuable would something have to be for you to turn over the life of one of your children?
Jesus explained, “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly”
(John 10:10). God’s plan for us is life, eternal and abundant. Rick Warren Pastor of Saddleback church and author of the best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life well stated, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.”5 This leads us to the second point.
The bad news, however, is that people are sinners and separated from God by sin. Paul states, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) . . . “and the payoff of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Notice that this verse does not say that a few sinned, or some sinned or even most sinned but rather that all sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory, God’s standards. Also, the payoff or consequence of this sin is death. From the biblical perspective not only do people do bad things called sin but they are sinners by nature that is they are “depraved.” All the physical death we see in this world is a consequence of sin. As bad as this is, there is a greater consequence for sin, which is spiritual death. Spiritual death separates people from God eternally in a fiery place of punishment. The Bible refers to this as the second death or the lake of fire (Rev 20).
One cannot really relate to the good news until one understands the bad news. Let me illustrate: if a cure for terminal cancer was discovered it would be good news but if I have terminal cancer myself, it’s more than good it’s great; it’s fantastic; it’s life changing; it’s lifesaving. That’s how the gospel is for those who understand that they have the cancer of sin, a cancer that is terminal.
The third point is an extension of this bad news. No amount of good works can earn one’s way to heaven and establish a relationship with God. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). One of the major problems with religions in the world and even in the church is the belief that certain types of good works or enough of them will merit one’s way into heaven. Baptism will not save you; having Christian parents will not save you; going to church will not save you; giving to the poor will not save you; and the list can go on and on. Yet the Bible over and over again states that it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves and that faith must be personally held. No one else can hold it for you.
The way that God chose to deal with our sin problem is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. Paul states in Romans, “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The biblical concept of this point is referred to as the substitutionary atonement of Jesus’ death. His death paid the penalty that God required for our sins; it was him for us, or him instead of us. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices for sins illustrated this concept. One example is in the Passover instructions that God gave to Israel in the Old Testament when they were enslaved in Egypt. God commanded them that a lamb without blemish was to be killed and the blood was to be spread on the door posts and lintel. For those houses that had made this sacrifice and applied the blood, the angel of death passed over the house but for those who did not the firstborn was struck with death. In this way God delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt (Exod 12). In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7). So when God sees the blood of Jesus applied to our life, death passes by and we are given life. Jesus stated, “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
The last point is that you must receive Jesus by faith to receive the eternal life God has for you and start your new relationship with God. John writes, “But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children” (John 1:12). The gospel requires a faith response to its message, a personal trust response in which we receive the benefits of what Jesus did for us on the cross. I pray that all of us at some point in our lives say “yes” to God. Yes, I believe that I am a sinner and in need of salvation. Yes, I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. And yes I receive him as my personal Savior to fulfill his plan of goodness for my life.
So in review, the five basic points of the gospel are: 1) God loves you and has a plan and purpose for your life; 2) people are sinners and separated from God by sin; 3) no amount of good works can earn one’s way to heaven; 4) Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins; and 5) you must receive Jesus by faith to receive the eternal life God has for you.
One could express faith in Jesus with this example prayer asking God for salvation: “Father, I know that I have broken your laws and my sins have separated me from you. I am truly sorry, please forgive me. I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, and was resurrected from the dead. I now ask you enter into my life and give me the gift of eternal life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.” For those who have not responded to God’s plan of salvation, I would just challenge you to do this. Get answers to questions that you may have from someone who has believed in Jesus Christ already.
Past aspects of salvation refers to what God did in an individual’s life prior to that person placing his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Someone might say who cares about the past in this regard, so what? My response would be that we need to understand it was God’s plan that we be saved. He is the one who gets the credit. He is the one who gets the glory, not me. There is nothing more distasteful for someone taking credit for something they did not do. So let’s see why God gets the credit or glory by examining the following theological concepts: election, predestination, and the drawing of God; it’s all to the praise of the glory of his grace
(Eph 1:6, 11, 14).
Election or Predestination is “Gods pretemporal choice of who would be saved” (Greek ekloge).6 Paul states, “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ. For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love” (Eph 1:3-4). God chose us before we were even born and this is referred to as election or predestination. The question though that many theologians have asked is on what basis did God choose some individuals and not others? The response to this question has developed into two camps. One of which, the Arminian view, feels that God looked down the corridor of time and saw ahead of time those who would have faith and chose them on the basis of that. Another view, the Calvinist view, sees it as simply part of God’s sovereign choice without regard to anything an individual may or may not do, including faith. It seems that one must leave it in some senses to the mystery of God, trusting in his justice and goodness. The two passages that deal in part with this question indicate that God’s choice is not based on our works (Rom 9:16), but it is based on God’s foreknowledge of people (Rom 8:29; 1 Pet 1:2).
The Drawing of God is also something that God does to bring us to salvation. Jesus stated, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). In the drawing process one can include the idea of giving light to the truth (John 1:9) and conviction of sin
(John 16:8-9). The main point is that God not only choose us before the creation of the world, but he also took an active role in what we could call pre-conversion work by drawing us, giving us the light of truth, and convicting us of sin. This “drawing” put us into a position by which we would be receptive to the gospel. The God who shined physical light into the creation is the same God who shines the light of the glory of God into our hearts (2 Cor 4).
Present aspects of salvation refers to what happens at the moment of salvation and the process of living out the Christian life. One can divide the theological present aspects of salvation into 1) the conditions for salvation/eternal life and 2) the results of salvation/eternal life. This is important since it addresses both the condition of salvation and the immediate impact in our life of receiving that salvation, a radically changed life in new relationship with Almighty God.
The conditions of salvation include both faith and repentance.
Faith (Greek pistis) can be defined as “belief or trust.” In regard to eternal salvation faith is trust or belief in what Jesus has done for us on the cross. It is the only means of how we receive the gift of eternal life. Faith or belief is mentioned in the New Testament “nearly 200 times” as the sole condition to eternal life.7 One example is found in Acts, “Then he [the Philippian jailer] brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They [Paul and Silas] replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household”
Repentance concisely means “change of mind” (Greek metanoia). In regard to salvation, repentance is a genuine change of mind and heart about who Christ is and transferring one’s trust to him. On the Day of Pentecost Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Fruits or good works are normally expected as a result of genuine repentance (Luke 3:8).
What is the relationship between faith and repentance? In short in regard to salvation one could consider them synonymous with a little different emphasis. Faith in Jesus emphasizes our trust in him, while repentance emphasizes the change of heart we have had about Jesus in regard to who he is, what we are and what he has done for us. An illustration would be to see salvation as a coin with two sides to it. One side is repentance and the other is faith, one coin but two aspects (cf. Acts 20:21).
The results of salvation include the theological concepts of regeneration, justification, redemption, reconciliation and sanctification.
Regeneration (Greek paliggensia) can be defined as “the work of God which gives new life to the one who believes.”8 Paul writes, “He [God] saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Like questions about election, theologians have debated the issue of the timing and nature of regeneration. Asking if it precedes faith (i.e., the Calvinistic view) or follows faith (i.e., Armenian View). We are not going to be able to solve this issue here. But one caution though in my view is not to put a gap of time between one event and the other. In other words in my view, the reception of the Holy Spirit is not “before faith” or “after faith” but rather “when faith.”9 Regeneration is more a logical consequence of faith than a temporal one. When we believe we will be sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13).
Justification means “to announce a favorable verdict, to declare righteous” (Greek verb dikiaoo).10 In the New Testament justification has the idea of being declared righteous based on the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. Paul states, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). We are all familiar with the judge who at the end of a trial hits the gavel and says guilty or not guilty. In this case God hits the gavel and says, “Righteous” based on the penalty paid by Christ.
Redemption in essence means to purchase with a price (Greek apolutrosis). In the New Testament it is the price that Jesus paid by his blood to rescue us from the penalty of sin and make us as owned by God. Paul states, “In him [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7). In New Testament times it is estimated that approximately one third to one half of people in the Roman Empire were slaves. Potential owners would come to auctions of people looking to buy a slave. When they made the purchase the slave was legally owned by the master. In a similar way God purchased us. The price was the blood of Christ. And as a result we are owned by God. As Paul explains, we were slaves of sin but now we are slaves of God (Rom 6:22).
Reconciliation means the “change in relationship from hostility to harmony and peace between two parties” (God and man) (Greek katallage).11 Paul states, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?” (Rom 5:10). The two parties who were at war were God and us. We were at war with God by breaking his standards and sinning against him and his laws. He was at war with us bringing judgment and wrath, not a pretty picture. By the death of his Son, we have a peace treaty. No longer are we at war with God but at peace, no longer enemies but friends, reconciled in a right relationship with him.
Sanctification basically means to “set apart” (Greek hagiasmos). The believer is set apart in right standing before God (positional sanctification; 1 Cor 1:2) and also set apart for a life of holiness in this world (practical sanctification; Rom 6:19). Paul states in Romans, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (Rom 6:19). Someone once well summarized sanctification by stating it this way, “Be who you are.” You have been declared righteous now live righteously; you have been purchased by God submit to his lordship; you have been reconciled with God so pursue your relationship with him; you are sanctified now go and live holy lives and the list could go on and on.
Future aspects of salvation refers to what happens for the believer after he or she dies. This topic is important because it can give us confidence about our future and security in our relationship with God.
Glorification (Greek verb doxazo) is the future state of salvation in which a believer has received an immortal body and been morally perfected. Paul states in Romans, “And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Rom 8:30). Notice in this verse there are no dropouts and, in fact, the last term “glorified” is in the past tense because it is so certain. All those who are predestined will also be glorified. When Jesus went up on to the Mount of Transfiguration the Bible says, “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” Matt 17:2. Paul states that the glorified body will be immortal, incorruptible, powerful, glorious (1 Cor 15:42-55). This amazing condition is what awaits every believer.
Eternal Security is the objective fact that once a person is truly saved, his salvation cannot be lost. Sometimes this is stated, “Once saved always saved.” Some Christians (Arminian) believe that a person can lose his salvation based on certain passages of the Bible (e.g., Heb 6; 2 Pet 2:20-22) but there are other clearer passages that teach security. Romans 8:30 was one of these. Another one is from John 10 where Jesus said: “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). There is hardly a stronger way to say this, that the sheep will never perish from the hand of an all-powerful God. The Christian is kept for salvation by the power of God (1 Pet 1:5). How powerful is God? It’s not so much that we keep him but that he is keeping us.
What about people though apparently Christians who “fall away from the faith.” What about them? I once knew a man who went to church with me. We had Bible studies together and prayed together. Later I found out he fell into some sins of immorality and stopped going to church. What happened? For those who hold to the biblical teaching of eternal security generally two answers are given, either of which may be true. The first answer, is that the person was never saved to begin with. Perhaps they participated in the church or other types of Christian activities, but they never had a genuine conversion experience. This is possible in some of these cases. Someone like Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples, extensively participated in Jesus’ ministry yet Jesus referred to him as the Son of perdition (John 17:12). The second possibility is that the person was truly a Christian but had fallen into serious and even prolonged sin and doubt. This does not mean that God has eternally abandoned this person but God will use discipline even to the point of physical death as a consequence. One biblical example could include Peter who denied Jesus three times, but was later restored. Also, there was the serious case of the Corinthian church who were abusing the Lord’s supper meeting and Paul stated that for this reason some are sick and sleep (= a euphemism for Christian death)(1 Cor 11:27-29). In both these cases though we have to remember that we have a limited and imperfect picture of what spiritually has happened and of what God is doing in people’s lives.
Related to the doctrine of eternal security is the topic of Assurance. Assurance can be defined as the subjective conviction that a believer personally possesses eternal life. This distinction is important because of the possibility of false assurance (= a person who falsely believes they are going to heaven but are not) and the possibility that a true Christian can have doubts about his or her salvation due to personal sin or misinterpretations of the Bible. The apostle John states that it is possible for a believer to have assurance of salvation. He writes: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).”12 In short, God wants Christians to know for certain they are saved.
The gospel is the great news of God providing salvation for man though Jesus Christ. We were lost but now are found. We were guilty but now we are not guilty. We were unforgiven but now we are forgiven. We were an enemy of God but now we are at peace with him. We had eternal death but now have eternal life. God has justified us saving us from the penalty of sin. He is sanctifying us, saving us from the power of sin. Finally, he will glorify us saving us from the presence of sin. John Calvin stated, “Man’s only righteousness is the mercy of God in Christ, when it is offered by the Gospel and received by faith.”13
1 (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
2 Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1979), 179.
3 Scripture passages are generally taken from the NET Bible unless otherwise noted.
4 A standard Greek dictionary to the New Testament defines it in three ways: “1. God’s good news to humans, good news as proclamation . . . . 2. details relating to the life and ministry of Jesus, good news of Jesus . . . . 3. a book dealing with the life and teaching of Jesus, a gospel account.” Baur, Danker, Arnt and Gingrich, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd edition; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 403.
5 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life ( October 30, 2012). In the book Pastor Warren gives five basic purposes of life which are: “We were planned for God’s pleasure, so your first purpose is to offer real worship. We were formed for God’s family, so your second purpose is to enjoy real fellowship. We were created to become like Christ, so your third purpose is to learn real discipleship. We were shaped for serving God, so your fourth purpose is to practice real ministry. We were made for a mission, so your fifth purpose is to live out real evangelism.” (http://www.purposedrivenlife.com/about/aboutthebook/)(Accessed October 30, 2012)
6 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 535.
7 Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, 1950.
8 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 537.
9 As Peter stated in the verse we mentioned earlier, “Repent, . . . and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Thus while I would say there is no temporal sequence the Bible may indicate a logical relationship since reception of the Holy Spirit = regeneration is conditioned on repentance. This would be similar to saying something like when I opened the door I saw my family inside = when I believed I received the Holy Spirit. In any case though, preconversion work by God needs to be done prior to faith or repentance for faith or repentance to occur.
10 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 536.
11 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 292.
12 It can be noted that for those who believe in eternal security there is a division concerning the basis of assurance of salvation. In other words on what basis can a Christian be assured he or she is going to heaven. Grudem summarizes a Calvinistic position that emphasizes and defines the “perseverance of the saints” that assurance is based on 1) “present trust” in Christ that continues throughout life 2) evidence of the regenerating work of the Spirit such as good works, and 3) long term patterns of Christian growth. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 803-806. Radamacher with a different perspective takes the position that assurance of salvation “is based solely on belief in Christ.” And while believers are commanded to do good works, eternal salvation is not dependent on them. Earl Radamacher, “How can a Believer Have Assurance of Salvation?” in Understanding Christian Theology (eds; Charles Swindoll and Roy Zuck; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 926.
13 John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, Calvin’s Commentaries; ed. Torrance, 5.
If you’re sincerely seeking God, God will make His existence evident to you. ― William Lane Craig
It used to be that most people in America believed there was a God and that the Bible was God’s word. They believed in heaven and hell, even the Apostles Creed or something to close it. Hurdles to the gospel were apathy, lack of personal response, or wrong views of how to get to heaven. Now all that has changed. Many people now don’t believe in God. They don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. Now people don’t agree on issues of morality and sin and don’t accept the foundational tenets of Christianity. Now, if you try to present the gospel to someone, you’re more likely to have them say, “That’s just your opinion.” Or, “That may be true for you, but not for me.”2 When one is surprised that you believe in the resurrection of Easter or the virgin birth of Christmas it is likely because they are operating with a different world view than you are. The diversity of world views in America and elsewhere is something critical for Christians to understand if the church is to have some positive impact for Christ in our pluralistic world. How does Christianity fit into the larger contexts of other world views? Is there a God? How do we know? Why is there evil and suffering? These are some questions this lesson is going to try to survey.
To start with, it is helpful to try to understand how Christianity fits into a larger context of world views. These large categories of worldviews can be classified into the larger categories of Theism, Pantheism, Naturalism and Pluralism.
Theism is the belief that there is a personal God outside of time and space who created the universe out of nothing and is involved in events (supernaturally). He reveals himself to man through nature and through the Bible (Christians) or the Tanakh = Old Testament (Jews) or the Koran (Muslims). He sets the rules for mankind. And there will be eternal consequences for breaking the rules. Theism allows for the possibility of miracles since God can act in the world. If one denies that God created the universe or that he acts in human history with supernatural events, it is because they have a different world view.
Deism is a form of theism. God created everything, but is no longer involved in creation. Deism stresses God’s transcendence or distance from creation. To illustrate Deism, one can describe creation as a clock. God made the clock, wound it up and started it running according to its design, but in essence left it after that. 3
There are various forms of the world view termed Panthesim. At its core, Panthesim teaches that everything is god: humans, animals, and plants are god. The world is god and god is the world. God is neither personal nor conscious. God is not a “He” but an “It.”4 The universe is one. Everything material is an illusion. Knowledge is getting in touch with the cosmic consciousness. One of the favorite terms you’ll hear from pantheists is “enlightenment.” History is cyclical and men are reincarnated until they realize their own divinity. This world view is the basis for Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian Science, and New Age teaching.5
Naturalism (or Modernism) takes the basic position that there is no God (Atheism), or the position that God’s existence or nonexistence of God cannot be known or that God is unknowable (Agnostism). The emphasis of naturalism is that there is no supernatural. We live in a closed system in which God is not operating and the world and mankind just evolved. People are the product of their environment. Morality is decided by man. Reason and science are the basis of authority and pursued for the good of mankind. There is no purpose to history; it just happens. When you die, you cease to exist. For example, someone who denies the possibility or likelihood of miracles may be operating from a world view of Naturalism.
Pluralism (or Post-Modernism) is sort of a cafeteria style world view. People mix and match various aspects of the other world views as well as blend in new ideas. Generally, they reject the idea of objective truth and no one view may be considered right. People are suspicious and skeptical of authority. They are in search of identity, not from knowledge, but through relationship. They are on a quest for a meaningful community. They seek transcendence or spirituality, but not religion. They express the “knowing smirk” (= Yah right) at anyone who says they know the truth.6 One may encounter pluralism by hearing something like: there are many ways to God; there is no one truth; or even absolute truth itself does not exist.
Increasingly, we as Christians find ourselves in this melting pot of various world views. But let’s move to a basic starting question. Is there a God? And if so, how might we know?
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion stated, “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”7 Another outspoken atheist, Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great stated, “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”8
But is it true that there no evidence for God? Paul states in Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22). These verses say that God is known by all or at least certain aspects about God based on the evidence of the created universe, specifically, his eternal power and divine nature. How powerful must a Being be to be able to create something as large and magnificent as the universe? Think about it. The revelation that God has given in creation makes man responsible to God in honoring him as God and giving thanks. The story is told of Napoleon who while on one of his ships at night heard some of the sailors mocking the idea of God’s existence. As he pointed up to the stars he said, “Gentlemen, you must get rid of those first.”9
Yet why do people reject the existence of God? First one has to say that rejection of God is primarily a moral (sin) problem and intellectual arguments will not solve this. If someone does not want to be morally accountable to God, they will not accept even good arguments. The Bible presupposes a belief in God and much of the Bible is defining who the true God is. The very first sentence of the Bible assumes God. “In the beginning God created . . . .” (Gen 1:1). But do we just have to merely accept the existence of God by faith, or is our belief in God based on evidence too? It’s that old debate of presuppositional apologetics versus evidential apologetics again. God gave Moses signs to prove to Israel that God had sent him and to prove to Pharaoh that the God of Israel was the one true God (Exod 4:1-9). Thomas needed evidence for Jesus’ resurrection when he asked to see the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and spear pierced side (John 20:25).
One way to address the issue of God’s existence is to consider some of the basic traditional evidences for God. These represent apologetic arguments that should not be considered absolute proof of God or without counterargument. These evidences, especially when taken together, lead one to believe that the existence of God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. These arguments can be termed and classified as: 1) the cosmological argument, 2) the teleological argument, and 3) the moral argument.
The basic cosmological argument is that everything that exists has a cause, and since the universe exists, it must have had a first cause. Another way to state it is to stress the inception of the universe. If the universe began to exist then the universe has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe has a cause.10
Sometimes the counter argument is made that the universe was caused by “chance.” But there are two problems with this: 1) chance can’t cause something; chance is not a being; it is just a mathematical probability and 2) when one looks at the odds (what the chances are), it becomes evident that it is not a probability – it is an impossibility. The “Big Bang” presupposes matter/energy before the “Bang” happened but where did this matter come from? What or who caused this? To try to get around this, some say that the universe is eternal. Carl Sagan said, “The universe is all there is, and was and ever will be.” There are two logical problems with the view that the universe is eternal: 1) Scientists have discovered that the universe is expanding (or moving) and if you go back far enough, the expansion (or moving) had to have started sometime in the past. What started this motion? 2) The “Kalam” argument stresses that the universe had to begin to exist a finite time ago. You can’t get to “now” if you start from infinity because “now” never arrives. Only if you have a finite beginning can you arrive at “now.”11
Therefore, it is reasonable that that first cause must be something outside of time and space (since the universe came into being at some time in the past), immaterial (since the universe is made up of matter), powerful enough to “create” everything and a personal agent. For example consider dominos falling. Each domino falling is caused by the one before it, but you fall into an infinite regress unless you have someone pushing that first domino over. That first event is caused by an “agent,” some being who chose to start the process. What would be an adequate cause for the effect of the creation of the universe? Some Being like the God of the Bible would be that adequate cause.
Related to and part of the cosmological argument are the laws of thermodynamics. Simply, the first law of thermodynamics is also referred to as the conservation of energy. It is an established scientific fact. The law in essence states that energy/matter cannot be created or destroyed in a closed natural system. Therefore, the existence of matter and energy must have come about by a supernatural event or force outside of the system.12 The second law of thermodynamics simple stated is that is energy is becoming less usable. It is also called the law of entropy. It also is an established scientific fact. Things are winding down, becoming more disorderly, the energy is continually being spread out in less and less usable forms. Since the universe contains highly concentrated energy sources (e.g., sun) it cannot be eternal but must have had a beginning.13 And this beginning must have had a cause.
The basic teleological argument states that since the world is so complex and so ordered, it had to have been designed/created by some intelligent being. The design points to a designer, a car points to a manufacturer, a watch points to a watchmaker, an I-Phone points to Steve Jobs etc. The universe and everything in it is too complex, orderly, adaptive, apparently purposeful, and/or beautiful to have occurred randomly or accidentally. Therefore, it must have been created by an intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful being. God is that intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful being.14
The moral argument states that since everyone has conscience and a concept of right and wrong, this must reflect some higher conscience or higher moral absolute. If God does not exist, objectionable moral values do not exist. Objectionable moral values do exist. Therefore, God exists. Paul states, “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them” (Rom 2:14-15). Here the Bible says that man’s conscience bears the work of the law on it. C.S. Lewis points out that when someone quarrels, they are not just saying that something the other person did displeases only them. They are appealing to some standard of behavior that says what that other person did was wrong. Where does this sense of fairness come from?15 If survival of the fittest is the evolutionary law of nature why should not stronger nations commit genocide against weaker nations? Why would this be morally wrong?
These three apologetics evidences strongly suggest that belief in a powerful personal God has a reasonable basis to it. One might add that most people in history have been persuaded by the evidence seen in creation to believe in God in some fashion. While these are valid evidences for the existence of God, there are objections. The very existence of evil is sometimes presented as a major objection to the existence of God.
If God is good and God is all-powerful then how can there be evil in the world? It may be claimed that since there is evil, there must not be a God. Or if there is a God, he must not be good or he must not be all-powerful. This problem is also called theodicy and constitutes one of the major objections to God’s existence. But there is no logical fallacy in that statement of the problem of evil and the existence of a good God. All of the following statement can be true. God is good. God is all-powerful. God created the world. The world contains evil. Where is the contradiction? What they really mean is this: God is good. God is all-powerful. God created the world. The world shouldn’t contain evil. However, the idea, that the world should not contain evil is just an assumption on their part. One could also respond that objective evil presupposes objective good. It has been said, “Shadows prove the existence of sunshine.” Some additional responses to theodicy can be summarized as follows:
1) Necessary for free-will to work. If it was impossible to disobey God, then we’d never have to choose to obey. We would be like robots. One could also supplement this: for true love to exist it must be reciprocal with a choice made by both parties freely. For those of you who are married, do you want to be married to someone who chooses to be married to you or to someone who was forced to (due to no choice of their own)?
2) Necessary for human spiritual growth. If there are no dangers, difficulties or disappointments in life, how can we gain character traits such as patience or endurance? C.S. Lewis rightly described that pain is God’s megaphone that rouses the ear of a deaf world. When are the times people have grown closest to God? Are they the good times or the hard times? Are they the times of feasting or the times of mourning? James stated: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (Jas 1:2-4).
3) Necessary to promote the greater good and God’s glory. The chief purpose of life is to glorify and know God. It is not human happiness! God’s role is not to make life comfortable for us. However, if we recognize that the evil, which causes human suffering, is leading people to know God, then there is a greater good. There is a good example of this in John’s gospel when Lazarus, Jesus’ friend gets sick and dies. “When Jesus heard this, he said, ‘This sickness will not lead to death, but to God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’”
4) Temporal suffering compared to eternal glory. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Paul compares the suffering of this life with the eternal weight of glory. Compared to eternity with God the sufferings of this world are a “slight, momentary affliction.” This perspective is critical for Christians who are undergoing suffering.
5) It is too complicated for us to understand. Even if we can see some possible purpose in some evil/suffering, there are events which we can’t understand and we just have to recognize that we are finite creatures who can’t know God’s purpose in allowing those things.
Jesus summarized an important lesson when considering situations of evil and suffering. Luke 13 reads, “Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. He answered them, ‘Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!’” (Luke 13:1-5). First, notice that two different types of situations of evil and suffering are presented. The first one refers to moral evil in which Pilate governor of Judea had killed some Galileans. Why they were killed is not known. In the second case, a tower had fallen apparently accidently and killed 18 people. One might call this a natural evil or disaster. The Jewish people might have been asking the question from a theological perspective concerning why this happened. They came to the conclusion that it was because these people who died were sinners. But consider Jesus’ point. He basically says you are all sinners and unless you repent you will perish as well. In other words, do not focus so much on why these evil events occurred but focus on your own relationship with God to make sure it is right.
Sin and evil are not things created by God. They are a deprivation of things created by God. Just like darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, evil is really the absence of good. This was one of Augustine’s arguments.16 The Bible says: God created the world and it was “good” (Gen 1). However, man sinned and brought sin and suffering into the world (Gen 3). God is in the process of eradicating sin, suffering and Satan and all this will happen in his perfect timing (Rev 20-22). The apostle John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist anymore – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist (Rev 21:1, 4).”
1 This lesson is an abbreviated formation of a series entitled “Understanding World Views” (http://bible.org/series/understanding-world-views) Hampton Keathley IV, which was edited and modified by James F. Davis.
2 See Jim Keller, The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World. Audio message from desiringgod.org.
3 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 151-171.
4 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 184-185, 193.
5 Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 151-171.
6 Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Post-Modern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 26.
7 Richard Dawkins, (Date accessed Nov 5, 2012).
8 Christopher Hitchens, (Accessed Nov 5, 2012).
9 (Accessed Nov 7, 2012).
10 Norman Geisler, Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 172.
11 (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
12 See Jeff Miller, (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
13 See Jeff Miller, (Date accessed March 5, 2013)
14 Based largely on Wikipedia, (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
15 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (The McMillian Company, New York, 1960), 17-18.
16 Augustine states, “For has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name .” Augustine, City of God, 11.9.
To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement. ― Church Father, Augustine
The Triqueta shown above is an ancient Celtic symbol that Christians used to try to communicate the concept of the Trinity: three persons but one God symbolized by three separate ovals that are linked into one shape. Where does the doctrine of the Trinity come from? The word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible but the teaching has been a part of the Christian church since the early centuries of its existence.
The word theology means the study of God and that is in essence what this lesson is about in an introductory way. Sometimes this area of study is called theology proper. Theology may seem intimidating, but anytime we form an opinion about God or make an assertion about him or look to him for anything we are in essence doing theology. If we say God is good, that is a theological proposition. If someone curses God, they are saying God is bad. If we say a prayer to God, we are implying that he not only exists, but that he acts in our lives in a personal way. Therefore, most of us are theologians whether we think we are or not. This lesson will be divided into four separate sections: 1) sources of knowledge about God, 2) the basic names of God, 3) the attributes/perfections of God, and 4) the evidence and explanation of the Trinity.
The source of all knowledge about God comes from God himself and this can be divided into two areas: natural revelation (i.e., the creation itself) and special revelation (primarily, God’s words recorded in the Bible and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ).
There are at least five passages the Bible that speak of the natural revelation that God gives through his creation. The first is in Psalm 19. It reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon” (Ps 19:1-4). This passage says that every day people can see the glory and magnificence of God. Everyone day and night 24-7 can understand the greatness of God.
The second passage occurs in Romans 1. It reads, “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). Here Paul states that another thing we can learn from creation is how powerful God is. A vaguer expression relates to the divine nature of God, which is seen as well.
Thirdly, in Matthew, Jesus makes a statement that relates to this topic. He states, “But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:44-45). In arguing that disciples of Jesus need to love their enemies, Jesus mentions that the blessings of the sun and rain go to all people whether they are righteous or unrighteous. This would imply that God’s love toward all is seen in these blessings, which is sometimes referred to as common grace. In a similar passage, Paul addresses the topic of God’s goodness as witnessed in the blessings he gives to all people. Luke records the speech: “In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:16-17).
The last passage is from Genesis 1. “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Since God is a spirit and man is created in God’s image, there must be something about the immaterial nature of man that is reflected in God. The question though is: what part of God’s image is there? Both God and man are personal, relational, moral, and rational. These seem to be some of the inferred characteristics that both God and man share.
So what can we understand about God through natural revelation? The following characteristics are evident: 1) God is glorious; 2) God is powerful; 3) God loves all; 4) God is good to all and; 5) God is a personal, relational, moral and rational being. One must also notice what is not understood though natural revelation, which is God’s plan of salvation.
As good as natural revelation is, special revelation was needed to communicate more specific truths about God and his plan of salvation for man. Paul states regarding the gospel that it needs to be preached and heard: “And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them (Rom 10:14).” This suggests that no one is going to understand God’s plan of salvation by looking at a star. Even understanding what natural revelation communicates comes from special revelation found in the Bible. Special revelation is God speaking to man through signs, dreams, visions, manifestations of God, inspired verbal messages, inspired written messages and also the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The focus of special revelation centers on two areas: the written word of God (the Bible) and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The Bible speaks about God and is inspired by God. Every scripture is inspired by God as Paul states (2 Tim 3:16). Over and over in the Old Testament the prophets speak: “This is what the Lord says.” The Bible speaks about who God is and what God does and what he wants people to do. For example, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Apart from such statements, mankind would be very much in a fog of knowledge about God and his actions.
The second major area of special revelation is God the Father revealed by the Logos (translated as “Word”) who is his son Jesus Christ. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning. . . . Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory . . . . No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18). Later Jesus stated, “The person who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). The author of Hebrews states that God has spoken by his Son, who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:1-3).
One good way to start to understand God is through the names of God as recorded in the Bible. Names have meaning attached to them and the names of God are no exception. The meanings of God’s names give us instruction as to who God is and what he is like. The first reference to God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word Elohim (Gen 1:1). Sometimes this fuller name is abbreviated to El. The root meaning of this Hebrew word is to “Be strong.”1 The Greek translation of the Old Testament normally translates these Hebrews words as theos, which is the basic Greek word for God Elohim is used 2,310 times for the true God in the Old Testament.2 One interesting point about this name is that it is a plural word in Hebrew. A common explanation for this is that it is a plural of majesty indicating the manifold greatness of God. It has also been suggested that it allows for the later revelation of the Trinity.
There are also compound names for God with Elohim: 1) El-Shaddai means God Almighty, which indicates God’s omnipotence (Gen 17:1); 2) El-Elyon means God Most High (Gen 14:19), which stresses God’s supremacy and sovereignty; El-Olam means The Everlasting God
(Gen 21:33), which communicates his timelessness or eternality; El-Roi means The God who Sees (Gen 16:13), which is an indication of his omniscience.3
The personal name for God in the Old Testament is the Hebrew YHWH (יהוה) or Yahweh. The four consonants are sometimes referred to as the tetragrammaton. The first occurrence of YHWH is in Gen 2:4 and it occurs about 5321 times in the Old Testament.4 This name is probably related to a Hebrew word which means “to be or exist.” The name Yahweh was considered so sacred in Israel one was not allowed to speak it. As a substitute when the Old Testament was read, Adonai was spoken. Adonai is the Hebrew word for Lord. The Jewish people had other ways of referring to God that avoided verbalizing God’s name. For example, instead of saying Yahweh will bless you, one could say the Lord or heaven will bless you. One could also put a statement in the passive voice “you will be blessed” with Yahweh as the understood agent of the blessing. Following this respect for God’s personal name, the Greek in the Old and New Testaments translated the divine personal name as kurios, which means lord in Greek as Adonai did in Hebrew.
A key passage regarding God’s personal name is found in Exodus 3. There Moses said to God, “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ – what should I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am that I am.’ And he said, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you.’ God also said to Moses, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh] ( – the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation’” (Exod 3:13-15). One thing to notice in this passages is that Moses was instructed by God to verbalize God’s name = Yahweh to Israel. Saying the name itself was even commanded by God so that people would know what his name was.
As with the name El, there are also compound names for God with Yahweh. Yahweh Jireh means, The Lord Will Provide (Gen 22:14); Abraham named God this after God provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac who was one altar and about to be offered as a sacrifice. Yahweh Nissi means, The Lord is my Banner (Exod 17:15); Moses named God this after a defeat of one of Israel’s enemies. Yahweh Shalom means, The Lord is Peace (Judges 6:24). Yahweh Sabbaoth means The Lord of Hosts or Armies (1 Sam 1:3). Yahweh Maccaddeshsem means The Lord your Sanctifier (Ex 31:13). Yahweh Roi means The Lord my Shepherd (Ps 23:1). Yahweh Tsidkenu means The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6). Yahweh Shammah means The Lord is There
(Ezek 48:35).5 These names indicate the greatness of God and how he concerns himself in meeting our needs in various situations we face. Someone once well said, “God is the answer now what is the question.”
What is God like? The names of God start to address this question but there is much more. God is the subject but what is the predicate? God is . . . . . what? What are the characteristics or attributes of God. Some like to refer to these attributes as perfections since God has the full or perfect expression of them. For example someone might be a loving person but is that person perfectly loving with no flaw? God is perfectly loving with no flaw. God is the fullest or perfect expression of all his characteristics. Also, one must be careful when studying the attributes of God as these attributes relate to each other. As Enns points out, “In the study of God’s attributes it is important not to exalt one attribute over another; when that is done it presents a caricature of God. It is all the attributes of God taken together that provide and understanding of the nature and person of God.”6 The following is only a survey of some of God’s attributes or perfections and the implications of these for us.
God is all powerful, that is omnipotent. Jeremiah states, “After I had given the copies of the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the Lord, ‘Oh, Lord God, you did indeed make heaven and earth by your mighty power and great strength. Nothing is too hard for you!’” (Jer 32:17 cf. Job 42:2). The New Testament echoes that with God all things are possible. This should give us Christians comfort that nothing is out of God’s reach and ability; it’s only a matter of his will. A philosophical question is sometimes asked: “can God create a rock so big he cannot move it?” God’s omnipotence extends to the things that are logically possible and not logically impossible. It also only extends things that are consistent with God’s nature, not to things inconsistent with his nature. Can God be unjust? The answer is no because it’s not consistent with his nature.
God is everywhere, that is omnipresent. A very good passage on the omnipresence of God as it relates to us is found in Psalm 139. It reads, “Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me” (Ps 139:7-10). No matter where we are, God is there for us, in any place in any circumstance.
God is all knowing and in control, that is omniscient and sovereign. Isaiah writes, “Truly I am God, I have no peer; I am God, and there is none like me, who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred, who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire’”(Is 46:9-10). Nothing catches God by surprise as he knows everything before it will happen. While we might be surprised at certain events, we also have to realize that God has a plan and he will accomplish what he desires.
God is unchanging, that is immutable. James explains, “All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (Jas 1:17). God will always act consistent with his nature. We do not have to be concerned that God will be good one day and then bad the next or that he will only sometimes be just or merciful.
God is eternal, that is without beginning or end. The Psalmist states, “even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God” (Ps 90:2). This means that God always was, always is, and always will be. God is not here today and gone tomorrow. God does not die, he only lives. For us as Christians, he will always be there for us. Revelation 1:8 confirms this with the statement, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God – the one who is, and who was, and who is still to come – the All-Powerful!”
God is just/righteous. “Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps 89:14). Society is consistently crying out for justice in the world. Human abuses of justice are everywhere. But what many of them do not realize is that God is a just God in his nature and his actions are always just. They are just by his perfect standards. It is true that justice does not always come right away but it will come in God’s timing of things. He will right every wrong, bring evil acts to judgments, and righteous acts in his name will be rewarded.
God is holy. John states, “Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful” (Rev 4:8; cf. Is 6:3). The holiness of God is mentioned three times in this passage to emphasize that absolute holiness and purity of God, that he is the Most Holy.
God is good. “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’”
(Mark 10:18). When hard times and trials come sometimes we are tempted to think that God is bad. After all, why is God doing this or at least allowing it to happen? We know from the Bible that God is using the hard times for his purposes including bringing maturity to our faith
God is true. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Conversely, the author of Hebrews states that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18). This would mean that we can count on all that God says including his promises. It would mean God is trustworthy. If God says it, we can “take it to the bank” so to speak.
God is merciful. Paul describes nature of God’s mercy. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us” (Eph 2:4). As Christians we deserved death but God gave us life. We deserved curse but God gave us blessing. We deserved judgment but God gave us mercy. Not only is God merciful but as Ephesians says here he is “rich” in mercy; it overflows; it is plentiful and abundant.
God is love. “The person who does not love does not know God, because God is love”
(1 John 4:8). When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered by giving two: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). Paul stated that the greatest Christian virtue is love and that even if he gave everything he owned or his body to the flames but did not have love he was nothing (1 Cor 13).
There are many more attributes that could be given. What is interesting about all of God’s attributes is that man in a very dim way is to reflect God’s nature by becoming more godly in character. Peter reminds us of the command: “Be holy for I am holy (1 Pet 1:16).” Paul states that we as Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). As we study what God is like, we learn more what we should be like. As people experience God in a greater way they grow to be more like him.
The Trinity is probably the most important doctrine in the Christian faith that defines who God is. The word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible but it is a theological formulation of truths that are taught in the Bible. A concise definition of the Trinity is this: One God in three persons the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This theological concept could also be referred to as “Triunity”7 a term which emphasizes the “three in oneness” of God. But how is this teaching communicated in the Scripture?
First, the Bible teaches there is one God. “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”
(Deut 6:4). And in the New Testament, “For there is one God . . .” (1 Tim 2:5). Second, the Bible teaches the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God and they all have the characteristics that are unique to God. To make this point, one supporting verse for each member of the Trinity will be given. For the Father: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” (Rom 1:7). For the Son: “But of the Son he says, Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”
(Heb 1:8). For the Holy Spirit: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? . . You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). The Great Commission illustrates the “three in oneness” by using the singular word “name” with all three members of the Trinity. There Matthew states, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).8
There is no perfect illustration for the Trinity. But some analogies have been used to try and communicate the concept.9 It is reported that Saint Patrick used the three leaf clover as an object lesson in teaching about the Trinity. Three leaves in one clover equals the concept of one God in three persons, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. One might wonder what he would have done though if he picked up a four leaf clover!
God is a great and awesome God. He is the answer to life’s questions and needs. He has communicated himself to mankind through his creation and special revelation he has given. John Piper states, “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow.”10
1 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (2nd ed; Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 201.
2 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 45.
3 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 46.
4 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47.
5 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 47, Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 201-202.
6 Peter Enns, Handbook of Theology, 192.
7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.
8 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, 53.
9 For example, there is the egg that has three parts shell, white and yolk but is one egg. Or the sun that has light, heat and mass but is one sun.
10 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 13-14.
The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience. ― Oswald Chambers
There is a Chinese Proverb that says, “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials” The Apostle Paul stated: “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).” Paul assures us as Christians that what God started in us he will finish. It will be perfected or matured until the Lord Jesus returns. But how does a disciple of Jesus grow in his or her Christian life? What does it take to mature in the faith? What is God doing in the process? What is our role and what does a well-balanced Christian life look like? How can I make the decisions that God wants me to make? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer. The purpose of this lesson is to encourage us along the path of spiritual maturity.
There are seven aspects of personal spiritual growth that need to be understood as one goes through the process of growing in an intimate relationship with God and others. They are: 1) the cost of discipleship; 2) the larger picture of what God is doing and being Spirit filled; 3) the role of trials and rewards in spiritual growth; 4) basic Christian disciplines in our relationships with God and people, 5) the importance of good works in growth, 6) biblical decision making, and 7) having an eternal perspective.
We can start with the definition of a disciple. A disciple is a learner; a disciple of Jesus is one who learns and lives from the teachings of Jesus himself and those whom Jesus directly taught (the apostles). One discipleship ministry called the Navigators gives this definition: “A disciple continues in the Word, loves others, bears fruit, and puts Christ first.”1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German pastor who ministered in Germany during the difficult days of Adolf Hitler. His ministry and resistance of the Nazi regime eventually led to his execution toward the very end of the European portion of the war. In his work the Cost of Discipleship he writes, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth . . . . The disciple places himself at the Master’s disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a program of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves.”2 The call to spiritual growth is the call to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s a call to be more like Jesus. It’s a call to submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus. Jesus summarized the cost of discipleship with a vivid metaphor: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24). This leads us to the importance of understanding what God has done and is doing in our life.
What is God doing with a disciple’s life? When considering this, one must understand God’s purpose or goal, that he is moving all Christians towards Christlikeness. Paul explains God’s plan: “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”
(Rom 8:29). God is chipping away at the stuff in a Christian’s life that is not like Christ to bring forth an image that is. He is molding us into a perfect piece of pottery so to speak. God is promising every believer in Jesus Christ that he will get him or her to this goal. The theological term for this is sanctification. Sometimes when God chips away and molds his grooves we feel the impact of it. God is using at least three means to propel believers in this direction: 1) the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, 2) trials, and 3) rewards.
The Role of the Holy Spirit. One way that God is conforming believers into the image of Christ is through the work and empowerment or filling of the Holy Spirit. When we were saved we received the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit at which time we were indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 12:13). This occurs one time. The indwelling Spirit gives us the inner spiritual resources to overcome sin. He gives us the desires and abilities to resist temptation and overcome it. As we submit to God’s commands following the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are “filled” with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). This is a continuous process in which we allow the Spirit to direct and control our actions. On the other hand when we sin we stifle the blessing of the Spirit’s activity in our lives. Paul states, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19; NASB) and again, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30).
The Role of Trials. God uses trials to produce spiritual growth in our lives. James writes: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (Jas 1:2-4). How can one possibly be joyful in difficulties? It’s because God is testing our faith and using the trial to bring us to maturity. We can rejoice not at the painful experience of the trial but at the opportunity for growth. One of my mentors once well said that trials can make us better or bitter.
The Role of Rewards. The Bible uses rewards as a motivation for our obedience. Paul writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. . . For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:8-15). Each one of us has two piles of types of work. One pile is the precious metals and stones; these represent the good works we do that God will reward. The other pile is the pile of materials that is burnable. It represents things we do that are not rewardable, not necessarily bad things but things that God does not give us a reward for. So the question we have to ask ourselves as we live our life is what pile are we building on? Are we building on the pile God rewards or the one that will be burned up in the end?
Dawson Trotman was the founder of the discipleship ministry called the Navigators. One illustration that he developed and this group has long used to explain the disciplines of Christian growth is called the Wheel Illustration.
The Wheel Illustration
At the center or hub of the wheel is Christ. He represents what is powering the wheel. For the wheel to roll the hub must supply the power. For the wheel to run smoothly balance is needed between the spokes. The vertical spokes on the wheel represent our relationship with God through prayer and the Word. The horizontal spokes represent our relationship with people by witnessing to nonchristians and fellowship with Christians. As the Christian is obedient to God’s commands and maintains balance in these Christian disciplines, while relying on the power of Christ, the wheel will roll.
Let’s develop the four Christian disciplines related to this illustration a little more. One of the disciplines related to our relationship with God is the absolutely necessary of the Bible. The Word of God is a catalyst for Christian growth. Peter writes, “And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation” (2 Peter 2:2). The spiritual milk that Peter is talking about is God’s word. How can we get the Word of God more involved in our lives? The more we feed on it, the more we will grow. There are many ways to do this and all of us should be involved in more than one: Quiet time (Just a few minutes each day in the Word and prayer can help us make that personal connection with God), Bible memorization, Bible reading, Bible study, listening to good expository preaching (Sunday morning church, internet posted sermons, Christian radio, etc). D. L. Moody, the 19th century American evangelist once stated, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”
The second Christian discipline related to our relationship with God is prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God. Paul states, “constantly pray” (1 Thess 5:17). What kind of prayers should we pray: 1) praising God for who he is, 2) praising and thanking God for what he has done, 3) confessing our sins, 4) praying for others in authority or in our circles of relationship, 5) lastly, making requests for ourselves including God’s guidance. One missionary friend of mine was working in a difficult area to share the gospel. He had a plaque over his desk which stated, “Prayer Changes Things.” It was a reminder and encouragement for him to pray every day. E. M. Bounds, Civil War chaplain, pastor, and author summarized the importance of prayer, “Prayer succeeds when all else fails.”
The third Christian discipline, which is related to people, is witnessing or evangelism. We need to share the good news of salvation with others. Paul explains, “I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:14-16). Family, friends, fellow workmates are all people that God has brought into our lives and many of them need exposure to the gospel. Think of the person who shared the gospel with you. Aren’t you glad that they did? Billy Graham stated his goal in life, “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.”3
The fourth Christian discipline, also related to people, is fellowship. We need to make a commitment to fellowship with other Christians committed to living out God’s commands. The author of Hebrews emphasizes this. He writes, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). We need to all be involved with a local church. If the church is large, we especially need to be in a small group with a spiritual emphasis.
In one exchange with the Pharisees Jesus was once asked, “What is the most important commandment?” What is interesting is that when Jesus was asked for one commandment he gave them two. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40).4 These two commandments are inseparable. You cannot obey one without the other. We love God by growing in our relationship with him though the Word and prayer. We love our neighbor as ourselves when we share the gospel with the lost and fellowship and grow with other Christians.
Good works have sometimes been downplayed by Protestant evangelicals due to teachings that have tried to make them as the basis or condition of salvation. While this concern is valid, one should not downplay them in the context of the Christian life, rather they need to be emphasized. While we are not saved by good works we are saved for good works. Paul writes, “We are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (Eph 2:10). James adds to this concept pointing out that there is a relationship between faith and works in that good works mature our faith. “You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works . . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead”
(Jas 2:22, 26). Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding an international convention and their founder, General William Booth, could not attend because of physical weakness. He cabled his convention message to them. It was one word: “OTHERS.” When we shift our focus of life from our self to others, good works will naturally flow out of a life empowered by God.
How do I make decisions in my Christian life? Josh McDowell has a helpful pattern for us to follow which can be referred to as the four Cs.5 The first C is 1) Consider the choice. What is right and wrong and who determines this? God is the one who determines what is right and wrong. The Old Testament prophet Micah states, “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you” (Micah 6:8). Other people may give advice, some of it good and some of it bad, but we have to come to grips with the fact that God alone has the ultimate authority of what is the right course to take. The second C is 2) Compare it to God’s Word. What does the Scripture have to say about what God want you to do? Since the Scripture is God’s revelation to man it is the message that God wants us to follow. In the Psalms we read, “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path” (Ps 119:105). The third C is 3) Choose the biblical way. Make a commitment that you will follow the biblical way as the way that God wants you to go. “Who is the man who fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way he should choose” (Ps 25:12). The fourth and last C is 4) Count on God for protection and provision. As we follow God’s path, we can trust him for the outcome and blessing that he wants for us. Moses wrote, “All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut 28:2).
Lastly, Christians need to be able to see beyond the here and now to the reality of what lies ahead. We need to be able to live in view of the light at the end of the tunnel. If we have an eternal perspective, understand what God is doing with us and where we are heading, we will be in a good position to grow in the grace that God has given us being conformed to the image of his Son. Paul writes, “Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
1 Church Discipleship, Vol 11, No 1, the Navigators.
2 Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 64, 66.
3 Billy Graham, (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
4 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt 22:34-40).
5 Adapted from the 4 C’s from Josh McDowell, “Setting You Free to Make the Right Choices,” Leaders Guide, 9-10.
The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me. ―Martin Luther
It is often rightly said that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Just looking at the distribution of Bible by the United Bible Societies for 2011 they distributed over 32.1 million Bibles.1 This amounts to about 88,000 Bibles per day. The Bible has been translated in whole or in part in over 4800 languages and this work is still ongoing.2 Scribes have spent countless hours over the course of history to bring forth accurate copies of the biblical manuscripts. William Tyndale died by a fiery execution in his efforts to translate the Bible into English. The Bible has had an amazing history and an amazing impact.
What is the nature of the Bible? Is the Bible without error? Is the Bible authoritative and how did Jesus view the Bible? How did we get it? Who decided what books went into the Bible and why? Why are there differences in Bible translations? The theological term for the study of the Bible is referred to as bibliology. This lesson will survey these critical issues surrounding the book that we base our entire faith and salvation on.
The Bible itself claims to be inspired by God. Paul states, “Every scripture is inspired by God”
(2 Tim 3:16) and also Peter, “No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Pet 1:20-21). In essence, we can say that the Bible is “God breathed.” Also, sometimes the inspiration is referred to as verbal and plenary. That is, inspiration applies to all the individual words of the entire Bible. One good theological definition of inspiration is articulated like this, “The act of the Holy Spirit in which He superintended the writers of Scripture so that, while writing according to their own styles and personalities, they produced God’s Word, written, authoritative, trustworthy, and free from error in the original writings.”3
There are two implications of the doctrine of inspiration. The first is that the Bible is a human book. The authors used their own language, writing methods, style of writing and literary forms of writing. For example, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek. These were the common human languages of the authors. They used writing materials such as scraped animal skins. Also, the human authors wrote to an audience in a specific historical context for a specific purpose. Moses wrote the law for the nation of Israel as they were about to enter the promised land. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to address certain problems in a church in Greece. In addition, the Bible is influenced by the culture in which the author wrote. Jesus is engaging the Jewish culture; Paul largely is dealing with the Roman and Greek cultures on his missionary journeys. The Bible has over 40 authors and was written over a time period of 1500 years.
The second implication of inspiration is that the Bible is a divine book. As such the Bible is inerrant and authoritative. Also, the Bible has unity of a coherent and consistent message and can be compared with itself for proper interpretation. In addition the Bible has an element of mystery. Some passages may be hard to understand. Lastly, the Bible has an interpretation to it that is intended by God.
A good example of the dual authorship of the Bible can be seen in the example of Matthew 1:22-23 who is citing the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: ‘Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel.’” Notice that the Old Testament passage of Isaiah was spoken “by the Lord,” which indicates the divine ultimate source of what was said. This passage was also spoken “through the prophet,” which indicates a human intermediate source in this case Isaiah. It’s by the Lord and though the prophet. In other words the prophet is the human messenger by which God spoke.
A theological definition of inerrancy can be stated as follows, “The teaching that since the Scriptures are given by God, they are free from error in all their contents, including doctrinal, historical, scientific, geographical, and other branches of knowledge.”4 The inerrancy of the Bible is derived from Scripture itself. Deductively one can say that if God is true (and he is; Heb 6:18) and the Bible is inspired as God’s word (which it is; Mark 7:13), then this leads to the doctrine of inerrancy which means that the Bible in its entirety is without error.5 Jesus stated himself that the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) and that even the smallest part of it would be fulfilled (Matt 5:18). Paul saw interpretive significance in a singular word as compared to a plural (Gal 3:16).
Despite the view though of many evangelicals, overtime there has been many challenges to inerrancy and these can be divided into three general categories: 1) alleged contradictions of the Bible with science, 2) alleged contradictions of the Bible with history, and 3) alleged contradictions of the Bible with itself. Let’s just take a look at a few examples of these common objections.
Evolution is often stated as a scientific contradiction to the Bible showing that the Bible is not without error in terms of the science of our origins. But while there is natural variation within species, macro-evolution (e.g., one species evolving to another species) is a theory and not a fact. It has never been observed and is not subject to the scientific method. The most that one can say is that the Bible is not consistent with a theory but this does not prove the Bible has an error when it speaks of the world and man’s origins. Some theologians have tried to reconcile the Bible with evolution by arguing for theistic evolution. Theistic evolution views that God created living things through the evolutionary process itself as understood by science. But this is a difficult exercise that is hard to square with all of the biblical data. For example, in the Bible plants are created on the third day but light is created on the fourth day (Gen 1). The existence of plants before light does not fit into any evolutionary scheme.
Another example sometimes given to argue that the Bible is not scientifically accurate is the case of the mustard seed found in Matthew 13:31. “He [Jesus] gave them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches.’” The problem that some people have pointed out is that a wild orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. The Bible is then said to be inaccurate. What would a response be to this? Well for one thing, if this is true not only would the Bible be in error, but there would be a larger problem that Jesus spoke the error as well. While various solutions to this dilemma have been given, perhaps the simplest is to look at the statement in context and see that Jesus is referring only to sown seeds. Jesus speaks of a seed “sowed in a field.” The wild orchid is not a sown agricultural seed. Also, within the Judean world view and in their context it was the smallest seed.6
Alleged historical discrepancies have also sometimes been cited as an argument against the inerrancy of the Bible. Prior to the advent of the archeological era of the 19th and 20th centuries, critics often called into question the historicity of the Bible especially the Old Testament in terms of places, peoples and events. However, over time archeological discoveries have often silenced specific historical criticism. One can cite three examples of alleged or once alleged historical inaccuracies that have later been validated by archeological finds: 1) the Hittite Empire: In 1876 and later in 1906 evidence of the Hittite capital and language was discovered at Boghazkoy in modern Turkey; 2) the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: starting in 1924 excavations were done in the area of the Dead Sea and evidence of cities which had been burned is present during the time of the biblical account; and 3) King David: In 1993 at Tel Dan in Northern Israel a 9th century BC inscription was discovered referring to the “King of Israel” and the “House of David.”7
William Albright was a prominent archeologist and professor at John Hopkins University (1930-1958). He stated, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.”8 Nelson Glueck, archeologist and President of Hebrew Union College gave his overall perspective: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical description has often led to amazing discoveries.”9
The third area that the Bible’s inerrancy has been challenged on is alleged contradictions with itself. In other words if the Bible claims to be the word of God there should be no real factual contradictions in comparing one passage with another because if there were then one of the passages would be in error. But one has to realize that differences in parallel passages do not necessarily mean there are actual contradictions. Harmonization and understanding the nature of historical reporting most often provides good solutions to differences. For example in a football game on a pass interference play one reporter states the cornerback bumped the receiver while another states the receiver bumped into the cornerback. Both statements while different may be true because they are being reported from a different perspective.
Let’s look at a difference in a parallel passage between Matthew 10 and Mark 10. Are there two blind men or one blind man? Matthew writes, “As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed them. Two blind men were sitting by the road. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (Matt 10:29-30). But Mark writes, “They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!
(Mark 10:46-47).’” Can these passages be harmonized? That is, can both of these accounts be reconciled as true or does one have to be false? Matthew writing to a Jewish audience may wish to confirm the testimony of the blind men (Jesus = the son of David = a Messianic title) by the Jewish required number of at least two (Deut 17:6). Mark chooses to focus on one of the blind men naming him. The fact that Mark reports that one blind man was healed does not preclude that another blind man was also healed on the same occasion. Therefore both accounts can be true even though they contain differenes.
How does one explain the following differences in Peter’s confession at Caesarea Phillipi? The question Jesus asks is slightly different: In Matthew 16:13 Jesus states, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In Mark 8:27 it’s reported as “Who do people say I am?” And in Luke 9:18, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Peter’s answer in Matthew 16:16 is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In Mark 8:29 it’s, “You are the Christ.” And in Luke 9:20 the reply is reported as, “The Christ of God.” Can one reconcile these differences and if so how? Sometimes the Bible’s authors condense or summarize speeches and events. It does not mean the condensation is inaccurate. This is the nature of historical reporting. For example when the President of the United States gives the annual State of the Union address that lasts one hour, there is a verbatim speech of what he gave. But a reporter comes on the TV and gives a five minute accurate summary of what was said. The summary is correct but is condensed from the entire verbatim speech. This practice is considered accurate reporting of what was said. It’s not erroneous.
If the Bible is God’s word then the implication is that as God has authority over his creation, then his Word would also have authority over us. The term Sola Scriptura comes from the Latin which means, “by Scripture alone.” This was one of the major themes of the Protestant Reformation. Simply it means that the Scripture alone is our supreme authority to all other authorities in matters of faith and practice. The author of Hebrews writes, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12). As Martin Luther said, “The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”10 How did Jesus view the Bible? Jesus appealed to the authority of the Bible when he was tempted in the wilderness and in his arguments in citing the Old Testament stated “it is written” (Matt 4:1-11). Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place (Matt 5:18).” And “If those people to whom the word of God (= Old Testament Psalm) came were called `gods’ (and the scripture cannot be broken)”(John 10:35). These verses suggest that Jesus believed even the smallest portion of Scripture down to the letter or even the part of a letter would come to pass; none of it can be broken or nullified. The Scripture is what is authoritative in regard to truth and how that truth relates to us.
The term canon is from the Greek word kanon meaning reed or straight rod thus a “standard.” By the 4th century A.D. for the New Testament, it is what was applied to a list or a collection of books that met a prescribed standard recognized by the church. Now in a theological sense, the canon refers to the closed collection of Jewish and early Christian writings that are divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture for the beliefs and practices of the church.
The basic guideline for whether a book was included in the Old Testament canon was if it had a prophetic origin (Deut 18). The Old Testament canon is divided between the Law (or Torah), Prophets (or Neviim) and Writings (or Kethuvim). This is referred to as the Tanakh. For the New Testament the basic guideline was and is apostolic origin or association. For the Gospels, Matthew and John were apostles while Mark was an associate with Peter and Luke was an associate with Paul (cf. also Acts). For the Epistles Paul, Peter, Jude, James, John, the author of Hebrews11 and Revelation (John) were either apostles or associates of them. Other factors for New Testament canonicity included universality that is that the writings applied to the whole church (geographical and time); orthodoxy: that the writing in agreement and not conflict with the teaching of Jesus, the apostles and with the rest of the canon; and traditional usage: whether the book was used in the early first century church.
One historical factor that led to a formal list of the canon was heretical writings and groups who were making competing claims for authority. An example is the abridged canon of the heretic Marcion (A.D. 140) who left Jewish elements of the Bible out. He abandoned the Old Testament and only accepted Paul’s writings (except the pastorals letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) and Luke. There was also the expanded Canon of Montanus, who wanted his prophecies to be included and be elevated to canonical status.12 It is best to understand that the church recognized what the canon was as opposed to determining it. In some cases, it took some time for the entire church to recognize the entire collection of books.
What about books written between the Old Testament and New Testament (mostly 250 BC-AD 100) that are referred to as the Apocrypha? There are 15 books in this category: 1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasseh and 1&2 Maccabees. The church father Jerome included them in the Latin Vulgate but separated them from the canon describing them as “Deuterocanonical.” In response to the strong position against these books by the reformers in 1546 the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent declared them all canonical (except the Prayer of Manasseh and 1&2 Esdras). The Apocryphal books should not be part of the canon because: 1) they are not accepted in the New Testament as authoritative as seen by the fact there are no direct quotations from them; 2) they never make the claim to be inspired or say, “Thus says the Lord” like the Old Testament does; 3) they are not part of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews never viewed the books as authoritative or canonical and they wrote them; and 4) the Council of Trent in 1546 was the first official proclamation on the matter for their canonicity and this was 1500 years after the books were written.13
Perhaps the strongest argument for the canon’s close is that there is no longer the apostolic office to originate or validate the writings (cf. 1 Cor 9:1–2; 2 Cor 12:11; Eph 2:20). An important criteria to be an apostle is that one had to have seen the resurrected Jesus and been appointed by him. Paul states that these men as well as the prophets formed the foundation for the church, which has already been laid.
Most of the Old Testament is written in Hebrew. It was written over a period of over 1400 years from Moses (and probably before) to the last book of the Old Testament Malachi. The text was transmitted by Jewish scribes, experts in the Old Testament. The Masoretic Text refers to the Hebrew Old Testament text that Jewish scribes14 in the Middle Ages received with consonants only and they added vowels to it. These vowels aided in the pronunciation and interpretation of the text. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained Old Testament biblical manuscripts some of which were 1000 years earlier than other manuscripts that we previously had. Some sections of the Old Testament were originally written in Aramaic (Gen 31:47; Jer 10:11; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26); Dan 2:4b-7:28). The entire New Testament is written in Koine Greek which was a period of Greek language that last from about the time of Alexander the Great (300 BC) to Constantine (300 A.D.). The New Testament text was transmitted by Christian scribes and there are over 5600 Greek manuscripts (2nd to 15th A.D).
בּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς· ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια καὶ ἡ ζωή· οὐδεὶς ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸν πατέρα εἰ μὴ δι᾿ ἐμοῦ.
The purpose of Bible translation is to get the Bible into a native language that people can understand. There were many early Bible translations that preceded any effort to get one into English. For the Old Testament some of these early translations were the Koine Greek Septuagint (LXX) which was started in the 3rd Century B.C., the Syriac Peshitta, the Aramaic Jewish Targums and the Latin Vulgate done by Jerome 400 A.D. Early translations of the New Testament were also done starting in the second century A.D. in Coptic (Egyptian), Latin, and Syriac.
John Wycliffe (1330-1384) is credited as being the first person inspiring the effort toward a complete English translation though his followers did the actual work15. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate. Here is a verse from the Wycliffe translation. Matt 22:37-40: Thou schalt love thi Lord God of al thin herte, and of al thi soule and of al thi mynde, and thi neighebore as thi self, for in these twey comaundements hangith al the lawe and prophetis. The Wycliffe translation was copied by hand as it preceded the development of the printing press. In 1415, Wycliffe was condemned by the church, his followers were jailed and Wycliffe’s bones were dug up, burned and ashes scattered in a river. William Tyndale (1492-1536) was the first to use Greek and Hebrew manuscripts for an English translation. He explained that the reason he did it was for the common man: “I will cause a boy that drives a plow to know more of the Scripture than a learned scholar.”16 Many modern renderings of English Bible phrases can be traced back to Tyndale. John 14:6: “Iesus sayd vnto him: I am the waye verite and lyfe. Noman cometh vnto the father but by me.” He was the first to complete a printed edition of English Bible and six thousand printed copies of the English Bible were smuggled into England. Tyndale was hounded and eventually burned at the stake for the translation and prayed as he was being burned, “Lord open the King’s eyes.”
God answered Tyndale’s prayer and later the English King began to allow the English Bible into the church. Following Tyndale’s translation there was: The Coverdale Bible (1535); Matthew’s Bible (1537); The Tavner Bible (1539); The Great Bible (1539); The Geneva Bible (1560; Bible used by the Pilgrims); The Bishops Bible (1568); The Douai-Rheims Bible (1609-10). These were largely revisions of each other. In 1603 King James I took the throne of England. He was unhappy with the Calvinist notes in Geneva Bible and the anti-protestant notes in the Douay-Rheims Bible. The King wanted to have one standard Bible for the English church. So he supported 50 scholar/translators to complete the King James Bible, which they did in 1611. The King also controlled the English presses which helped to ensure the translation’s widespread use. The King James Version underwent revisions in 1629, 1638, 1762, 1769 (Current KJV), and 1982 (New King James Version (NKJV)).17 Starting with the English Revised Version in 1885, many other English translation followed: 1901 American Standard Version; 1952 Revised Standard Version (RV) (1971; Protestant); 1989 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (Protestant); 1958 The Phillips Bible (Evangelical.); 1960/95 The New American Standard Bible (NASB) (Evangelical.); 1966 Jerusalem Bible (JB); 1985 New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) (Catholic); 1971 The Living Bible (LB) and 1996 New Living Translation (NLT)(Evangelical); 1979 New International Version (NIV) (1984; 2005 TNIV; 2011 (Evangelical); 1993 The Message (Evangelical); 1995 Contemporary English Version (CEV)(Evangelical); 2004 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) (Evangelical); 2005 The NET Bible 2001; and The Evangelical Standard Version (2007, 2011; Evangelical).18
Many people who read different Bible translations wonder why there are differences in Bible translations. One of the main reasons for these differences is differing translation philosophies. The three major translation philosophies are termed Dynamic Equivalence, Word Equivalence, and Paraphrase. Dynamic Equivalence translations seek to express the meaning of the text in a way that is idiomatic in English. It is more concerned about good stylistic English and willing to forgo some literalness to accomplish this objective. It usually results in translations that are easier to read and understand. These types of translations are also more interpretive to what the translators think the text means. Examples of Dynamic Equivalent translations are: NIV, NLT, CEV, (NET and HCSB in part). Word Equivalence translations are more literal to the language structure of the original text. The translations seek to produce the semantic equivalence of each word and represent it in the translation. This type of translation is usually harder to read. Also, sometimes these may confuse what the author means with an unfamiliar idiom. They are generally less interpretive in translation and allow for more interpretive options translating what text says not what it means necessarily. Examples of Word Equivalent translations are: NASB, NKJV, RSV (NET and HCSB in part). Paraphrases are not translations from the original language, but someone putting something in their own words as to how they would say it. Examples of Paraphrases are the Living Bible and The Message. Below is a comparison of how different types of translations render Psalm 1:1.
Comparison of Ps 1:1
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers.
How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand in the pathway with sinners, or sit in the assembly of scoffers!
How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join a group of mockers.
How well God must like you– you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon, you don’t slink along Dead-End Road, you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College
Notice how the word equivalence rendering of the NASB translated the Hebrews words very literally as “walk”, “stand” and “sit”. The NET keeps two of three of these renderings but on the first one translates, “follow” for a more literal “walk.” The HCSB renders all three terms in a dynamic equivalence fashion “follow” for “walk”, “take” for “stand” and “join” for “sit”. The Message speaks for itself.
The Bible has an amazing history of how it came to be and how it came to us. It is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. People, some of them to the point of death, have dedicated themselves to get the Bible into our hands. John Wycliffe states the importance of God’s word: “God’s words will give men new life more than other words that are for pleasure. O marvelous power of the Divine Seed which overpowers strong men in arms, softens hard hearts, and renews and changes into godly men, those men who had been brutalized by sins and departed infinitely far from God.”
1 (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
2 (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
3 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 715.
4 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 713-714.
5 See Norm Geisler, (Date Accessed Nov 28, 2012).
6 Other less attractive solutions have been to see the statement as proverbial or as seeing the reference to the seed as “very small” as opposed to “smallest”. But in any case the different possibilities are a demonstration that a scientific error what Jesus said cannot be proved.
7 See Patrick Zukeran, (Date accessed Nov 27, 2012).
8 William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religions of Israel (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1956), 176.
9 Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Strous and Cudahy, 1959), 136.
10 Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.
11 Even though we do not know for sure who wrote Hebrews it seems clear that at least he had an association with the apostles (Heb 2:3-4).
12 James Davis, “Class Notes Critical Issues and Bible Backgrounds – New Testament Portion,” Capital Bible Seminary, 2009; Köstenburger, Kellum, and Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown (Nashville: Broadman Holman Publishers, 2009) 8-10.
13 Credit is given to Dr. Todd Beall for most of the ideas in this paragraph. Todd Beall, “Class Notes Critical Issues and Bible Backgrounds- Old Testament Portion,” Capital Bible Seminary, 2004.
14 The Jewish scribes of this historical era were called Masoretes which means “tradition.” See .
15 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible A History of Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 12-13.
16 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible A History of Translation, 29.
17 Arthur L. Farstad, The New King James Version in the Great Tradition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993) 9-18.
18 Andreas Köstenburger and David A. Croteau, eds, Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (Nashville: Broadman Holman Publishers, 2012), vi.
19 Peterson notes that the Message was not intended to be a replacement for other translations: “When I’m in a congregation where somebody uses [The Message] in the Scripture reading, it makes me a little uneasy. I would never recommend it be used as saying, “Hear the Word of God from The Message.” But it surprises me how many do.” Eugene Peterson, “I didn’t Want to Be Cute,” Christianity Today (October 2002) (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/october7/33.107.html?start=2) (Date accessed March 5, 2013).
20 The HCSB editors prefer to term their translation approach as “optimal equivalence” using word equivalence where they can but dynamic equivalence when deemed necessary. Andreas Köstenburger and David A. Croteau, eds, Which Bible Translation Should I Use, 117.
As a Protestant I cherish the NT teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right. ―Daniel Wallace
When it comes to making claims about what the Bible means, sometimes we hear comments from Christians or non-Christians like the following: “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” “The Bible can be made to say anything you want.” “You can’t really understand the Bible. It is full of contradictions.” “No one can understand the true meaning of anything anyone says.” Or, someone sitting in a Bible study might say, “This is what the Bible means to me.” All of these types of comments are about principles of biblical interpretation also called in theological jargon hermeneutics. Welcome to our postmodern world. Pilate’s question lives on: “What is truth? (John 18:38).”
Some issues that we as Christians face regarding the topic of biblical interpretation include: How does divine inspiration and human authorship affect biblical interpretation? What does a text mean? What are some general principles of interpretation? How do we interpret the Old Testament? How do we interpret the New Testament? These are all critical questions for us to consider as we seek to become better interpreters of God’s word, the Bible.
The last lesson looked at the topic of inspiration and found that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. There are certain implications of this for biblical interpretation. The first is that the human authors had a specific historical audience, context and purpose. These authors used their own language, writing methods, style of writing and literary form of writing. The divine authorship of the Bible gives it its unity and the ultimate source of all interpretation is from God. In the book of Genesis Joseph was asked about the meaning of some divinely given dreams and he replied, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? (Gen 40:8).
So let’s just start with the most basic question. What does a text mean? The answer to this question is that a text means what the author intended it to mean. If there is only one thing you learn from this lesson this is it. For a simple example, if you wrote a letter with some statements in it that are a little ambiguous, then what does the letter mean? Does it mean what you intended it to mean or how the readers interpret it? Of course it means what you intended it to mean. The true meaning of a text resides in the authorial intent of the text. This leads us to the first primary and fundamental principle of interpreting the Bible.
Principle 1: Interpretation must be based on the author’s intention of meaning and not the reader. This means we must get into the author’s context, historically, grammatically, culturally and the literary forms and conventions the author was working in. To be able to do this some good Bible study tools are needed since we are 2000 years or more removed from the biblical authors and their context is very different than ours. The first tool that any one should get is a good study Bible with notes that explain historical and cultural background information. Most major Bible translations come in editions with these types of notes but by far the NET Bible with its over 60,000 notes surpasses them all. Get the most extensive Study Bible that goes with the translation you use. After this, good evangelical commentaries are essential tools to study the Bible but make sure to look at a couple to get a variety of perspectives. When someone in a Bible study states what the verse means to him, we need to redirect and clarify that the meaning is what the author intended. After that the question then is how that historical meaning applies to us today. The second principle of biblical interpretation should also be considered foundational.
Principle 2: Interpretations must be done in the context of the passage. What does the following mean? “It was a ball.” Well, the answer depends on the context. Consider the following sentences: The baseball umpire saw the pitch drift to the outside and said, “it was a ball.” We went to the dance last night, in fact it was so formal “it was a ball.” As I was walking along the golf course I spotted something small and white in the tall grass, “it was a ball.” I had so much fun at the game night, “it was a ball.” In each case the word ball means something different. Therefore, context determines meaning! The nearest context must given the most weight in interpretation. First, there is the near context of the sentence, then the paragraph, then the section and then the book and even author. The interpreter should look at all these circles of context to be able to correctly assess the meaning.
Far too often people try to interpret a verse by itself in isolation without looking at the context itself. For example, consider the verse Revelation 3:20 which is sometimes used as an illustration for evangelism. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20; NASB).1 If this is all you looked at, it would be easy to understand the verse in terms of someone asking Jesus into his or her life for the first time. But the context in the preceding verse (v. 19) is talking about discipline of those whom Jesus loves, which would most naturally refer to believers. Also, in looking at the larger paragraph the passage is to a church
(Rev 3:14, 22). The verse is really addressed to believers who need to repent from their sin and return to fellowship with God.
Principle 3: Interpret the Bible literally (or normally) allowing for normal use of figurative language. Take the plain meaning of the text at face value. When the literal does not make sense you probably have a figure of speech. For example, Isaiah 55:12 states the trees of the field will clap their hands. Since trees do not have hands or clap this must be a figure of speech. Look for words such as “like” or “as” which can also communicate a figure of speech. Figures of speech and illustrations give the Bible a powerful and colorful means of expression. They are an important part of the normal expression of language.
Principle 4: Use the Bible to help interpret itself. Interpret difficult passages with clear ones. This is sometimes called the law of non-contradiction. Because the Bible is God’s word, and God is true, the Bible will not contradict itself. For example, there are clear passages that teach the doctrine of eternal security, that once a person is truly saved he or she cannot lose salvation (John 5; Rom 8). Some passages in the Bible are very hard to interpret like Hebrews 6:4-6.2 So I would let the overall and clear theology of the Bible influence me that a very hard passage like Hebrews 6 is not teaching that someone can lose his salvation. Also, use the New Testament to help interpret the Old Testament. This recognizes the progressive nature of revelation, that is the Bible is giving more revelation on topics over time. But one must start by interpreting the Old Testament text in its context before a New Testament consideration is made.
Principle 5: Interpretation must be distinguished from application. While there is one interpretation that is historical, there are many applications that can be carried over to our modern context. Build an application bridge from the interpretation to the timeless principle and then to the application now. For example in John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with very expensive oil. The historical context records a historical event. The interpretation relates only to what Mary did to Jesus. What about us today? An application might be that we are willing to give sacrificially for the Lord’s work and give Jesus acts of worship as Mary did. Or when Jesus states the principle in Matt 7 to love one’s enemies it is a general command that I might apply specifically by loving a worker who undermines me or a neighbor who offends me.
Principle 6: Be sensitive to distinctions between Israel and the church and Old Covenant and New Covenant eras/requirements. Promises made to Israel in the Old Testament cannot automatically be transferred to the church in which we are a part. For example, the land promises were given to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:7) but that does not include me, a Gentile Christian. Christians are not under the requirements of the Mosaic law (Rom 6:14). For example, in Lev 19:19 there is a command “you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.” This was a binding command under the Mosaic law but not under the terms of the New Covenant. It is true that certain Old Testament commands repeated in the New Testament are still binding, but this is made clear by their repetition in the New Testament. The church was formed in Acts 2 with the descent of the Holy Spirit and most direct statements to and about the church occur after that. Also, there is a future for national Israel (cf. Rom 11) in which many Old Testament promises will yet be fulfilled and certain practices of the church age will come to an end at the second coming of Jesus (such as the Lord’s supper 1 Cor 11:26).
Principle 7: Be sensitive to the type of literature you are in. The Bible contains many different types of literature: law, narrative, wisdom, poetry, gospel, parable, epistle, and apocalyptic. Each of these types of literature has specific features that must be considered when interpreting a text. Some of these will be examined in the next section. For now we need to understand that where we are in the Bible makes a big difference on how we interpret and apply it.
Narrative Literature: Much of the Old Testament contains narrative literature. First, the passage needs to be interpreted in its historical context and then applications can be drawn from the characters and events. In the book of Judges, only one verse is given to the judge Shamgar. It reads, “After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath; he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad3 and he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Why did God include this passage? Yes, it records an historical event. Also, the verse teaches God’s delivering power can come in an unexpected way, not with a mighty army but with one man wielding an oxgoad.
Law: Realize that Christians are not under the law as a legal system (Rom 6:14) but that we are to fulfill the principles that stand behind the law of loving God and loving one’s neighbor (cf. Matt 22:37-40)? Sometimes the teaching is carried directly into the New Testament (e.g., Do not murder, etc). Other times, the New Testament takes a text and applies a principle from it. For example, “You must not muzzle your ox when it is treading grain” (Deut 25:4). Paul takes this verse, which refers to feeding a work animal and applies the principle of the Christian worker being worthy of tangible support. Paul states, “Elders who provide effective leadership must be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in speaking and teaching. For the scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and, ‘The worker deserves his pay’” (1 Tim 5:17-18, cf. 1 Cor 9:9). In general, if the Old Testament command in the law is not repeated in the New Testament, look for the principle behind the statement in the law and then try to apply that.
Wisdom Literature: Realize that much of the proverbial type of wisdom in the Old Testament is general truth based on observations but not absolute truths or promises. Two good examples are seen in the following: “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath” (Prov 15:1). Another one is, “Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov 22:6). Christians should not take these types of proverbial statements as promises of what will always happen but rather patterns that are generally true outcomes based on observation. A gentle answer will not always prevent an angry outburst but it is much more likely to than a harsh one. Christian parents who have a child who has gone astray from the faith may have done their best to train the child the right way but the child did not take it.
Poetry: Realize that poetry often has a greater use of figurate language than narrative or law. Also, Hebrew poetry’s main characteristic is parallelism. For example, Psalm 24 says, “The Lord owns the earth and all it contains, the world and all who live in it. For he set its foundation upon the seas, and established it upon the ocean currents. Who is allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?” (Ps 24:1-3). Here we have three sets of pairs in side by side fashion with the second reference restating the basic idea of the first. The phrase “the earth and all it contains” is amplified by the phrase “the world and all who live in it”. The phrase “he sets its foundation upon the seas” is rephrased “established it upon the ocean currents.” The question of who is allowed to ascend to the mountain of the Lord is restated “Who may go up to his Holy Dwelling place?” Most English Bible translations will format poetry using indentation, which helps show the parallel ideas.
Gospels: Understand that each writer has a specific audience for whom he is writing, and that he has selected his material for them. Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. Mark was written for a Roman audience. Luke was written for a Greek audience. John was written for a universal or Gentile audience. This can help us see nuances or explain differences between accounts. For example, in Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12 Jesus teaches on the hard topic of divorce. Both gospels state that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. Mark alone though adds the point that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she commits adultery against him. Why is this difference there? It probably has to do with the audience. Matthew is writing to a Jewish culture in which a woman could not divorce her husband while Mark is writing to a Roman audience in which one could.
Read the gospels not only vertically, that is, understanding what is said in each individual account, but also horizontally, that is, considering why one account follows another. For example, see Mark 2-3:6; what do these various accounts have in common? One can notice that they are all different stories that relate to the conflict that Jesus had with the Jewish leadership. Mark 3:6 reads, “So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians as to how they could assassinate him.” The stories are grouped in a way that gives an explanation as to why Jesus was rejected as strongly as he was.
Lastly, recognize that the gospels are in a transitional stage between Old and New Covenants. Jesus lived in the context of Judaism prior to the birth of the church. For example, Jesus is keeping the Old Testament prescribed feasts in many of his journeys to Jerusalem. Also, he is introducing changes that will be inaugurated with the start of the New Covenant. For example, in Mark 7 Jesus declared all foods clean which was a change from the Old Testament dietary laws.4
Parables.5 Parables are a form of figurative speech. They are stories that are used to illustrate a truth. There are parables in different parts of the Bible but Jesus was the master of them and many are found in the gospels (e.g., Matt 13, Mark 4, Luke 15). How then should we interpret the parables? First, determine the context that prompted the parable. Parables always arise out of a context. For example the Pharisees disdain for Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners prompts Jesus to tell a parable about how God loves a lost sinner who repents (Luke 15). Second, understand the story’s natural meaning which is often taken from real life situations in first century Palestine. Third, ascertain the main point or truth the parable is trying to give and focus on this. Only interpret the details of the parables if they can be validated from the passage. Many details are there only for the setting of the story. For example, what is the main point of the mustard seed parable? Jesus stated: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest garden plant and becomes a tree, so that the wild birds come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32). The parable is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven which starts small but grows to be very large in size. This seems to be the main point. The birds and the branches are probably there only to illustrate how large the tree has become.
Acts. Recognize that Acts is a theologized history of the early church. Acts tells what the church was doing from the human side of things and what God was doing from the divine side of things. For example, consider these passages on the early growth of the church which refer to the same event but from two different perspectives. “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added”. . . . (Acts 2:41) “And the Lord was adding to their number everyday those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Here we see what God is doing in and through the church. Also, we need to recognize that the church starts in Acts 2 with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, church planting and gospel outreach characterize the events of the book. In addition, some events in Acts are descriptive of what happened not proscriptive of what is necessarily expected in the modern church. For example, Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 8 upon faith in Jesus. They had to wait for Peter and John to get there. When Paul was bitten by a viper in Malta, yet he miraculously lived (Acts 28:1-5). These are descriptions of what happened and are not necessarily normative of what happens in the church today. So it probably would not be a good idea to start snake handling services!
The book of Acts is also a book of transitions. First there are key transitions in biography. This is especially true as the book focuses more on the ministry of Peter in the first portions of the book then shifts to Paul. There is also a transition in ministry focus from the Jews to the Samaritans and to the Gentiles. Lastly there is a geographical transition starting in Jerusalem taking the gospel outward into Samaria, Asia Minor, Europe and eventually Rome. In Acts 1:8 Luke gives us a rough outline of the progression emphasizing the progress of the gospel. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth."
Epistles. Since the New Testament epistles are directed to churches and individuals in the church, they most directly apply to us today. Most commands given in the epistles are general enough in nature that we need to obey them, or in the case of promises we can claim them. For example in 1 Corinthians 15 there is a promise given for immortal bodies and eventual victory over death. These promises are not just for those in the local Corinthian church but the universal church of God.
In the epistles, pay special attention to logical connectors/conjunctions to explore relationships of clauses and sentences. Look for these types of words: “for, “therefore,” “but,” etc. For example Hebrews 12:1 reads, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The word therefore points back to the previous chapter in which Old Testament saints were held up as people who had given a good testimony or witness of faith. The phrase “cloud of witnesses” then would naturally refer back to the people of the preceding chapter. In another example the author of Hebrews writes, “So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Heb 12:28-29). Here the word for sets up a subordinate idea giving the reason we as Christians should offer worship in devotion and awe to God.
Revelation. Revelation is the one book in the New Testament that is one of the hardest to interpret. There are several reasons for this. First, there are substantially different interpretative approaches on the overall timing of the book. Some see most of it as purely historical. Some see most of it as yet future. Second, there are many Old Testament allusions in Revelation. Allusions are phrases and references to the Old Testament without an explicit statement by John that he is quoting the Old Testament. So when John refers to the Old Testament he generally does not tell you he is doing so. Third, there is a greater use of symbolic language in Revelation than in other parts of the Bible. Revelation is in a form of literature known as apocalyptic.6
How can one get started? First, the book of Revelation promises a blessing to the one who reads it (Rev 1:3). So we should read it even if we do not completely understand everything. The basic thrust of Revelation’s message is clear. Jesus is coming again and will defeat the forces of evil. We can be assured of this. Other interpretative helps that can be given would be to interpret the seven churches as seven historical churches in existence in the first century A.D (Rev 2-3). Interpret chapter 4 onward as primarily future events from our perspective (Rev 1:18-19).7 Follow a generally chronological view of the book from chapter 4 sequencing the bowls, trumpets and seals, second coming of Jesus, millennial kingdom and eternal state. Use a study Bible with a good set of notes to help frame common interpretations and Old Testament backgrounds. Lastly, become a student of the book and keep working at it.
Biblical passages must be interpreted according to the intention of the author and in the context in which the statement is made. Interpretation must be distinguished from application. One must be sensitive to what type of literature one is in and how this may or may not apply to a believer in the church age. Interpreting the Bible is sometimes hard work but it’s always worth the cost. David reminds us of the value of God’s word, “They are of greater value than gold, than even a great amount of pure gold; they bring greater delight than honey, than even the sweetest honey from a honeycomb” (Ps 19:10).
1 The NET Bible gives a translation rendering that helps to alleviate this confusion. “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
2 “For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt (Heb 6:4-6 NET).
3 An oxgoad is simply a long stick with a pointed end that was used to prod animals into walking.
4 He [Jesus] said to them, "Are you so foolish? Don't you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer." (This means all foods are clean.)(Mark 7:18-19 NET).
5 Adapted from Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Colorado Springs: Victor, 1991) 194-226.
6 A scholarly definition of Apocalyptic: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world” J.J. Collins “Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979), 9. Revelation focuses on the future and spiritual world to a much greater degree than other portions of the New Testament and it is communicated in visions and symbolic language.
7 Revelation 1:19 gives a basic chronological outline of the book. “Therefore write what you saw, what is, and what will be after these things” (Rev 1:19 NET). (past: what you saw (Chapter 1:9-20); present: what is (Chapters 2-3); and future: what will take place after these things (Chapters 4-22:5).
I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religions the distance of infinity. ―Napolean Bonaparte
Jesus once asked the question of his disciples, “Who do people say that I am” and after some answers he quickly followed with a second more important question, “But who do you say that I am.” (Matt 16:13-15). This is life’s greatest question and our whole eternity is hinging on the correct response. C.S. Lewis once stated: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”1
The study of who Jesus Christ is and what he did is something that deserves our lifelong pursuit until as Paul says we see him face to face (1 Cor 13:12). The study of Christ is referred to as Christology. This lesson will survey the study of Christ from his preexistence to his future return and earthly reign. Did Jesus exist prior to his birth? How did the Old Testament point to Jesus? What is the incarnation? What is the biblical evidence that Jesus was both God and man? What is Jesus doing right now? What will his future reign look like? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer.
The eternality of the Messiah was stated as early as in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah 9:6 reads: “For a child has been born to us a son has been given to us. He shoulders responsibility and is called: . . ., Everlasting Father (cf. Micah 5:2). Here the “son” to be born is described as the “Everlasting Father.” But how can a son be “everlasting” and how can he be father? Clearly, something unique is being said about this promised son. This son is identified in the New Testament as Jesus Christ (Is 7:14; Matt 1:23). Also, John points to the preexistence of the Word who became flesh at the outset of his gospel where he states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. The Word was with God in the beginning . . . The Word became flesh (John 1:1-2, 14). The Word clearly refers to Jesus Christ. John the Baptist also gives testimony about Jesus’ preexistence: “On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me’ (John 1:29-30). Even though John the Baptist was older than Jesus, John states that he existed before him. Lastly, in a conversation with his fellow Jews Jesus gave testimony himself about his preexistence prior to His birth. “The Judeans replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:57-58). That sums it up pretty well. In summary, Jesus not only existed prior to his birth, but he also existed from all eternity past. This means that Jesus was not a created being but rather eternal God.
Since Jesus Christ did exist prior to his birth and is the promised Messiah, then a question one could ask is how and where he is seen in the Old Testament. A very important testimony regarding Christ in the Old Testament can be found spoken by Jesus himself in the gospel of Luke. “Then he [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The reference to the Law, Prophets and Psalms is a reference to the threefold division of the Old Testament canon sometimes referred to as the Tanakh.2 We should expect to find Christ in all the sections of the Old Testament. Besides general designations for God, there are three primary ways that Christ can be seen in the Old Testament: direct prophecy, typological prophecy, and what is called theophanies or christophanies.
Direct prophecy refers Old Testament passages that give explicit predictions of the coming Messiah. These predictions then are fulfilled in Jesus Christ some of them at the first advent. A good example of this is the prophecy of the virgin birth: “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14; cf. Matt 1:23).3 Other direct prophecies will be fulfilled at the second advent when Jesus returns to earth. A good example of this is found in Zechariah 14. “Then the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which lies to the east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in half from east to west, leaving a great valley. Half the mountain will move northward and the other half southward” (Zech 14:3-4).
Typological prophecy refers to Old Testament people, places and events that are intended by God to illustrate and point forward to Jesus’ Christ’s person or his work. Sometimes these prophecies are explicitly validated in the New Testament and other times they are not. A good example of this was the Passover Lamb sacrifice instituted by God in Exodus 12. The Lamb had to be male and perfect. Its blood had to be applied to the house for the angel of death to pass over it. This sacrifice would then point forward to the ultimate Passover sacrifice that God would accept. Paul makes this explicit tie when he states, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7).
Various manifestations or appearances of God himself in the Old Testament are referred to as theophanies. These are sometimes called christophanies if one makes an explicit connection by later revelation to the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. One example of this, in my view, is the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament who is equated with God in Exodus 3:1-6. This Angel followed Israel as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21; 14:19). The New Testament makes an allusion to this which appears to specify this Angel as Christ. Paul writes, “For they [the Israelites in the wilderness] were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4 cf. Exod 17:6).
What does the incarnation refer to? In short the word means “in flesh” and it refers to God, who is spirit, taking the form of human flesh. A more precise theological definition would be that the incarnation “defines the act wherein the eternal God, the Son took to Himself an additional nature, humanity, through the virgin birth.”4 One of the main biblical passages on the incarnation is from John 1:14: “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us” (John 1:14). Another important passage is from Paul, “Christ Jesus . . . who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature (Phil 2:6-7). This emptying was not emptying Jesus of his deity, rather it was the adding of his human nature into a humble situation to even death on a cross. C. S. Lewis well articulated, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”
The result of the incarnation was that the preexistent Christ became a man, and as such Jesus experienced the realm of humanity. Luke emphasizes this when he says, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). Jesus had the title of Son of Man (Matt 8:20) which was the most common way he referred to himself. He had the human lineage of son of Abraham and David (Matt 1:1). As a man Jesus was: hungry (Matt 4:2); thirsty (John 19:28); grew tired (John 4:6); grieved to the point of tears (John 11:35); tempted (Matt 4:1); experienced physical death (Luke 23:46). In short he was a man and he experienced humanity to the full. He was one of us. The only qualification one would have to make regarding Jesus’ humanity is that while he came in the “flesh” he came only in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), and that while he was tempted in all things as we are, he was without sin (Heb 4:15). At the same time, sin is not an essential part of humanity the way God created man. After God created Adam and Eve, they were perfectly and fully human and God declared it good. God even stated it was very good prior to the sin that led to man’s fall (Gen 1:31; Gen 3). In the first and second century A.D., there was a heretical movement known as Gnosticism which denied that God who is good could take on an actual human body which they thought was sinful. In essence, they were deniers of the doctrine of the incarnation (cf. 1 John 4:2).5
Jesus is not only presented in the Bible as a man but he is also presented as having the nature of God. He has a unique identity with the Father. Jesus stated, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “the person who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Also, Jesus had the titles of Son of God (John 10:36) as well as Lord and God (Matt 8:20). He is equated with Yahweh in the Old Testament (1 Cor 2:16; Is 40:13). As God Jesus is creator (Col 1:15-16), had power over nature (Matt 8:26), had power over death (John 11), forgave sin (Mark 2:1-12) and rules as God (Heb 1:8). He was and is the exact representation of God inwardly and outwardly (Heb 1:1-4). Martin Luther stated, “If Christ does not remain the true natural God . . . then we are lost. For what good would be the suffering and death of the Lord Christ do me if He were merely a man such as you and I are? Then He would not have been able to overcome the Devil, death and sin. He would have been far too weak for them and could not have helped us.”6
The theological term used to describe the teaching of the two natures of Christ, divine and human, is called the hypostatic union and was articulated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D7. A simple definition of the hypostatic union is this. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man (= two natures) united in one person.8 In other words, Jesus is the God-Man.
While this is most certainly too simplistic, it is nonetheless helpful that Jesus is sometimes described as prophet (first advent ministry), priest (death on the cross and current ministry) and king (his rule now from heaven and in the future on earth). The earthly ministry of Jesus can be divided into two major activities, his words and his works. He called people to repentance and associated with sinners (Matt 4:17; Mark 2:16); he identified with humanity (Matt 1:23); he rebuked hypocritical religion (Matt 23); he gave sermons (like the Sermon on the Mount; cf. Matt 5-7); he drew lessons from life (such as parables)(cf. Matt 13), he gave prophecies about the future (Matt 24); he selected, trained and commissioned the 12 (Matt 4:18-22), he did miracles (Matt 8-9); he revealed the Father (John 17) and so much more.
About one third of the gospels cover the last week of Jesus’ life. This shows the importance of these final events in Jesus’ earthly life to the gospel writers. Jesus clearly stated the reason for his coming: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:25).
The following is a short chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life: On Saturday, Jesus arrives at Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 11:55-12:11). This town is near the Mount of Olives a short walk to Jerusalem. Here Jesus is anointed for burial with the expensive oil (John 12:1-7). On Sunday, there is what is termed the triumphal entry as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19). Here the people shout out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” which can be understood as save now, the promised Messiah. On Monday, Jesus drives out the money changers in the Temple and later curses an unfruitful fig free symbolizing the dire state of Israel’s condition (Matt 21:12-19; Mark 11:12:18; Luke 19:45-48). In the temple he rebukes them saying, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a den of robbers!” (Matt 21:13). On Tuesday, Jesus’ authority is debated with the Jewish leadership, the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees (Matt 21:23-23; Mark 11:27-12:40; Luke 20:1-47). The story of the widow who out of her poverty gives a very small amount (a mite = less than a penny) happens in the midst of this turmoil (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4). The Olivet Discourse explains the fact of the Temple’s future destruction and circumstances surrounding the second coming of Jesus (Matt 24-25; Mark 13:1-37; Luke 21:5-36). The main point is to “be ready” for the coming of the Son of Man. On Thursday, events really start to pick up. First Jesus is betrayed by Judas one of the twelve. (Matt 26:17-25; Mark 14: 12-21; Luke 22: 7-13, 21-23). Washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20), the Last Supper (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20) and the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-17) give Jesus the opportunity to give some final teaching to the disciples. After Jesus’ prayer in a garden called Gethsemane (Matt 26:30, 36-46; Mark 14: 26, 32-42; Luke 22: 39-46; John 18:1) the arrest occurs (Matt 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12) and the trials of Jesus start. On Friday, the trials continue when Jesus appears before the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor Pilate and Herod Antipas (Matt 26:57-27:31; Mark 14:53-15:15; Luke 22:54-23:25; John 18:12-19:6). At the verdict and scourging Pilate tries to release Jesus but the crowd wants death. Pilate asks “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” Jesus then is placed on the cross (Matt 27:31-34; Mark 15:20-23; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:16-17).
The last words of Jesus on the cross give us a glimpse of Jesus’ concern and mindset in his final hours. Seven of these sayings are recorded in the gospels and while a lot can be said about each one perhaps just a reading of them without comment has a powerful impact when they are seen together: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). “He said to his mother, ‘Woman, look, here is your son!’ He then said to his disciple, ‘Look, here is your mother!’”(John 19:26-27). “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt 27:46). “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). “It is completed" (John 19:30). “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
Jesus predicted his resurrection (Matt 16:21). If he would not have been raised from the dead he would have been considered a false prophet. After Jesus died, his tomb was guarded by a Roman guard and sealed with the Roman seal (Matt 27:62-66). Yet the tomb was opened, Jesus came out in a resurrected physical body and it became empty. The empty tomb that was guarded and sealed continues to be one of the strongest proofs of Jesus’ resurrection. There is also the eyewitness testimony of the disciples that they were willing to die for. He was seen by the disciples and over 500 brethren (1 Cor 15:1-7). He talked with them and ate with them (Luke 24:39-43). After 40 days of being with the disciples, Jesus was taken up into heaven from the Mount of Olives. This is referred to as the ascension. Luke records, “After he [Jesus] had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
While many studies about Jesus focus on what he did at his first advent or even what he will do at his second advent, Jesus is not inactive in the present age. He has a current role and ministry. Christ is the head of the body directing the activities of the church. Paul teaches, “He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). Also, Christ as High Priest intercedes in prayer on our behalf. The author of Hebrews states, “So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb 7:25). What a wonderful proclamation about Jesus praying for us which keeps us and our salvation in God’s omnipotent grip. Robert Murray McCheyne once stated, “If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet the distance makes no difference; He is praying for me.”9
The second coming of Jesus Christ can be divided into two major parts. The first is the coming in blessing for the church, which is referred to as the rapture. The word rapture means “caught up.” The primary passage on it occurs in 1 Thess 4:16-17.10 There Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:16-17).
The second phase is the coming in judgment for the world and the rule of Jesus on the earth. John writes, “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev 19:11). After Jesus comes back to earth he will set up his rule. Jesus himself said in Matthew: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (Matt 25:31).
Amazing! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior, the Alpha and Omega, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Word, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the light of the World, Judge, Prophet, Priest, King, Kings of Kings and Lord of Lords and much more. As John states if everything that Jesus said and did were recorded there would not be enough books in the world to contain it (John 21:25). In closing, contemplate Jesus as described in the hymn “I Saw One Hanging on the Tree” by John Newton.
I saw One hanging on a tree,
In agony and blood;
He fixed His loving eyes on me,
As near His cross I stood.
Sure, never to my latest breath,
Can I forget that look;
It seemed to charge me with His death,
Though not a word He spoke.
My conscience felt and owned the guilt,
And plunged me in despair:
I saw my sins His blood had spilt
And helped to nail Him there.
A second look He gave, which said,
“I freely all forgive:
This blood is for your ransom paid,
I die that you may live.”
1 C. S. Lewis, (New York: The McMillian Company, 1952), 58.
2 The Tanakh refers to the Torah = Law, the Nebiim = Prophets, and the Kethubiim = the Writings.
3 Matthew 1:23 reads, “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” Note that the Hebrew word translated “young woman” in Is 7:14 in the context of Old Testament Israel would normally refer to young woman who was a virgin and the Greek translation of the Old Testament specifically translates it as virgin as well as the fulfillment of the passage in the Greek New Testament regarding the virgin birth of Jesus.
4 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology – Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 713.
5 John seems to write against Gnosticism in 1 John 1:5–8; 4:1–3. One major form of Gnosticism was called “Docetism” = the Christ only appeared to be human (cf. 1 John 1:1–4; 4:2; John 1:14). Also, “Cerinthianism” taught that the divine Christ descended on the human Jesus at his baptism and left before his death (cf. 1 John 5:6).
6 Roy Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 74.
7 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987), 534.
8 A longer definition of the Hypostatic Union is, “A theological expression that refers to the dual nature of Christ. God the Son took to Himself a human nature and He remains forever true God and true man—two natures in one person forever. The two natures remain distinct without any intermingling, but they nevertheless compose one person, Christ the God-man.” Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 713.
9 Zuck, The Speakers Quote Book, 78.
10 The other major passage on the Rapture is, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:51-53).
You might as well try to hear without ears or breathe without lungs, as try to live a Christian life without the Spirit of God in your heart. ― D. L. Moody
Someone once articulated that the average church member’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is so vague it is nearly non-existent. Imagine a conversation with a Jehovah witness (JW); it might go something like this. JW: The word Trinity never appears in the Bible and is a myth. Christian: While you are correct that the word Trinity itself never occurs in the Bible the Bible teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate persons but one God. JW: The Holy Spirit is merely God’s “active force”1 kind of like electricity but not a separate person. Christian: Really! I am not sure; that doesn’t sound right. I will have to get back to you on that.
Whether we know it or like it or not non-trininitarian groups are confronting Christians with such issues like this every day in person and in writings posted on the internet. A Unitarian website tries to convincingly offer thirty four “biblical” and historical reasons why the Holy Spirit is not a person.2
The study of the Holy Spirit in theological terminology is called pneumatology. The study of the Holy Spirit raises certain basic questions. Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the biblical evidence for the personhood of the Spirit? What did the Holy Spirit do in regard to creation and revelation? What is the Holy Spirit’s role in a person’s conversion and sanctification? What about spiritual gifts? These are some of the issues that this lesson is going to cover.
First things first. The Holy Spirit is a member of the Trinity and as such is a person. The Spirit has attributes that only a person could have. He has intelligence (1 Cor 2:10-13), feelings (Eph 4:30), and a will (1 Cor 12:11; Acts 16:6-12). He prays (Rom 8:26). He does miracles (Acts 8:39). He can be lied to (Acts 5:3). He can be insulted (Heb 10:29). He teaches and directs (John 14:26; Acts 8:29; Rom 8:14). Let’s look at two of these examples. In 1 Cor 12:11 Paul describes the Holy’s Spirit’s role in distributing spiritual gifts: “It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things” (1 Cor 12:11). Here the Holy Spirit is seen “deciding” what gifts to gift to each person. In other words, the Holy Spirit has a will, which is one characteristic of a person. In Acts 5:3 the Holy Spirit is directly equated with God. Here in the early formation of the church Peter is rebuking two individuals who state that they had given more than they actually had: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!’” (Acts 5:3-4). Notice two aspects about these verses. The first is that the Holy Spirit is lied to. This means that the Holy Spirit is personal. You cannot lie to a table or to electricity because it is not a person. The second aspect is that lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God. This means that the Holy Spirit is God.
In the very first verses of the Bible the Holy Spirit is seen as involved in the creation of the universe. There we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water” (Gen 1:1-2). In another place Elihu says to Job: The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4 cf. Gen 2:7). In fact the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach) can also be translated as breath or wind. The same is true in Greek (pneuma) in the Greek Old Testament and Greek New Testament. The significance of this is that breath is what gives life to a body.
In regard to the revelation of God’s word the Holy Spirit also has a role. In citing Psalm 2 Peter and John state “Master, who said by the Holy Spirit through your servant David our forefather, ‘Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot foolish things” (Acts 4:25). Here the Psalm is said to be by the Holy Spirit though David. The human author David is described as the intermediate source of the message while the Holy Spirit is the source that channeled it to him. In citing Psalm 95, similarly the author of Hebrews states, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! (Heb 3:7). In this passage even though the Psalmist writes the message the Holy Spirit “says” it.
In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit filled individuals for various kinds of service and in some cases this filling is explicitly seen as temporary. A good example of the temporary nature of the filling of the Spirit in the Old Testament occurred in the life of Israel’s first king, Saul. The record of it starts in the book of First Samuel: “Then the spirit of God rushed upon Saul and he prophesied among them” (1 Sam10:9). But later after Saul’s disobedience to God the Spirit of God departed from him: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had turned away from [departed] Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1 Sam 16:14). Apparently, the next King of Israel, David, learned from Saul’s example. After David’s sin of adultery (and murder) with Bathsheba he recorded a prayer found in Psalm 51, “Do not reject me! Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me” (Ps 51:11). David did not want what happened to Saul happen to him. However, a temporary filling of the Spirit seen in the Old Testament era should not be confused with the baptism of the Spirit in the church age (Acts 2). This baptism is a permanent act of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. So Christians can be assured that the Holy Spirit will not be taken from them (cf. Eph 1:13-14).
The Bible also describes the Holy Spirit as very active in man’s salvation. In fact, the Spirit is indispensable for anyone to be saved. His work can be divided into three general categories of activity: his pre-conversion work, conversion work and post-conversion work.
Prior to anyone placing his or her faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is involved in setting the conditions that allow for someone’s faith response to the gospel. One of these roles is the convicting of sin and truth. John states, “And He (The Helper = Holy Spirit), when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:8-10; NASB). One could supplement this idea with the concept that the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals though the preaching of the gospel. Paul writes to the Thessalonians “our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:5).3
Regeneration may be defined as “the impartation of new life” or “the washing of the new birth.” This washing and new life is accomplished by the Holy Spirit. The primary verse that supports this is from Paul’s letter to Titus. He states, “He [God] saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). While some theologians place regeneration prior to faith which results in conversion, it’s probably better to see regeneration as equated to conversion itself. In Acts Peter states, "Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Here, the gift of the Holy Spirit is conditioned upon repentance in relation to the gospel preaching of Peter.
Upon conversion the believer in Jesus Christ is said to be baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit. This baptism is a one time event in which metaphorically speaking Christ becomes our head and we are joined with believers as fellow members of the body. Paul states, “For in [or by] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). This baptism forms our union with Christ and with fellow believers. Related to the baptism of the Spirit is the indwelling of the Spirit. Upon and after conversion, the Holy Spirit indwells the life of the believer. Paul reminds the Corinthian church, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). In the book of Romans Paul adds, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him” (Rom 8:9). One could say that the indwelling Spirit is the definition of a Christian.
Believers, who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, are also sealed with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation) – when you believed in Christ – you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Sealing communicates God’s mark of permanent ownership on us. The Holy Spirit is also described in these verses as a pledge or down payment that insures that God will complete his salvific work in us.
Lastly, every person who has been born again receives a spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit. Paul writes: “Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. . . . To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all” (1 Cor 12:4, 7). This leads us to the very large topic of spiritual gifts and their use in the life of a believer. In some cases unfortunately this is a topic comes with a lot of questions and even controversy. Lists of spiritual gifts occur in Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. The gifts are listed in the order in which they are given.
gifts of healing
gifts of leadership
different kinds of tongues
message of wisdom
message of knowledge
interpretation of tongues
discernment of spirits
We can begin the process of studying spiritual gifts by describing points of clarity and agreement from 1 Corinthians 12-14. The first point is that each Christian has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:7). It’s not that some Christians have gifts and some don’t. Second, it’s the Holy Spirit who decides what gift(s) he gives to each person. We may want to have one gift or another but it’s the Holy Spirit who decides on the distribution (1 Cor 12:7-9). It’s not what we want but rather what he wants. Thirdly, gifts are to be used for the “benefit of all” (1 Cor 12:7). Gifts are not given primarily for the benefit of the gift holder but rather as a ministry for others. Spiritual gifts are not to be self-focused but rather others focused. Fourthly, not all people have the same gift. This is Paul’s point at the end of 1 Cor 12 where he asks a series of questions where the expected answer is no.5 For example, “Not all speak in tongues do they?” The answer is that no not all have the gift of tongues. Lastly, gifts are to be exercised in love. As Paul states, exercising gifts without love is like an annoyance of banging gongs or symbols (1 Cor 13:1).
Most evangelical Christians are at least somewhat aware that there are questions and points of difference and disagreement regarding spiritual gifts. For example, is God giving all gifts today, such as the gift of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, or healing? The gifts of apostleship and prophecy are foundational to the church and on which the church is built. Paul writes regarding the church “you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (Eph 2:20; cf. Heb 2:3-4). One criteria of apostle in the early church is that the person saw the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1). Unless Christ made a special appearance as he did to Paul on the road to Damascus this criteria would not be replicable today. There is no explicitly clear statement that some gifts have ceased but one must also compare the claim of possessing a certain gift with Scripture. What is the nature of the gift in the Bible? What is its purpose? How did or does it function? Comparing claims of how the various gifts operate with the Scripture itself is the best way to determine a claim’s validity or lack thereof. God can give any gift anywhere at anytime but the question to consider now is, “Is he giving all gifts today?” To answer this question, we need to compare the claim closely with the Scripture. Lastly, for most evangelicals even if one does not hold to all the gifts functioning today this does not rule out God going miracles directly such as healing in response to prayer (James 5:13-18). My own view though is to be very cautious about accepting claims of apostleship or prophet or other “sign” or “revelatory” gifts. These were gifts of authority, infallible prediction, miracles/signs, and revelation that God used in the founding of the church.
What is the role of the Holy Spirit following conversion? The filling, empowering and guiding of the believer is included in this part of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. While the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs once at conversion, the filling of the Spirit can happen multiple times after conversion and also is commanded. In Acts after Paul’s conversion we read, “But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him” (Acts 13:9). Here the filling of the Spirit is at the forefront propelling Paul’s ministry and happens well after his conversion recorded in Acts 9. To the church at Ephesus Paul writes, “And do not get drunk with wine, which is debauchery, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Here the filling of the Spirit is given as a command to be followed. In this analogy the Spirit is compared negatively to wine. The point is don’t let wine control you but rather have the Holy Spirit do so. Closely related to being filled with the Spirit is being empowered with the Holy Spirit. Paul writes, “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:16, 22-23). It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that enables Christians to live lives obedient to God. Lastly, not only does the Holy Spirit fill and empower but he also leads or guides the believer in Jesus Christ. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14).
A final area of discussion is that of some instances where the Holy Spirit is referred to in the Bible with a symbol. Four prominent symbols that refer to the Holy Spirit are the dove, fire, wind and water.6 Each one communicates something different about the Holy Spirit. When looking at a symbol, one must be careful to make sure the context is identifying the symbol with the referent you are considering in this case the Holy Spirit. For example, even though the Holy Spirit is identified with a dove in Matt 3:16 it would be an interpretive mistake to see the Holy Spirit in every place a dove is referred to in the Bible. In Genesis 8:8 Noah sends out a dove to see if the flood waters had receded, but one should not interpret this as Noah sending out the Holy Spirit.
Probably the most recognizable symbol of the Holy Spirit is the dove that appeared at the baptism of Jesus. It is recorded in all four gospels (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). Matthew writes, “After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him” (Matt 3:16). The dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit communicates beauty, gentleness, and peace. The dove also comes from above, perhaps suggesting coming from heaven.7
Another symbol of the Holy Spirit is fire. In the Bible, fire can communicate the Lord’s presence (Exod 3:2), purification (1 Pet 1:7) or judgment (Lev 10:2; Heb 12:29) depending on the context. The most explicit passage that refers to the Holy Spirit as fire is in Acts 2. “Now when the day of Pentecost had come, . . tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4). In a similar analogy, Paul commands the Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit” (NASB; I Thess 5:19). Disobedience to the Spirit is like throwing water on a fire.
The Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) can also be translated as breath or wind. Perhaps then it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit is seen and compared to as wind. Two verses in the New Testament communicate this.8 In Acts 2:4 Luke writes, “Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting.” And in John 3:8, John describes, “The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The image of wind communicates that the Holy Spirit is powerful, invisible, immaterial and sovereignly blows where he intends.9
Lastly, water is also an image of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes this explicit connection on one of the feast days of Israel. “On the last day of the feast, the greatest day, Jesus stood up and shouted out, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Just as the scripture says, `From within him will flow rivers of living water.' (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive, for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified)” (John 7:37-39). As physical fresh water is needed for physical life, the living water of the Holy Spirit is needed for spiritual life.
In conclusion, Christians should not be afraid of the Holy Spirit but rather look to the Spirit for guidance and spiritual strength. The Holy Spirit is alive and active today in the lives of both believers and unbelievers.10 As Christians, we are to be eternally grateful that the Holy Spirit is our permanent indwelling companion, gifting us to serve others and empowering us to live the Christian life. He is to be respected, followed and cherished.
1 (Accessed December 27, 2012).
2 (Accessed December 27, 2012).
3 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 639.
4 While some people see one gift of “pastor-teacher” here based on one Greek article in the original language it is probably better to see two separate gifts due to the fact that the words are plural and teaching is seen as a separate gift in Romans 12. See Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 284.
5 And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? (1 Cor 12:28-30).
6 Walvoord lists several others including “clothed with power”, oil, the earnest or pledge, the seal, and the servant Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 18-25.
7 Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 19.
8 One could also add though 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Here the Holy Spirit “carries along” men and the imagery may suggest a ship being powered by wind. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 24.
9 Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, 24.
10 For more information on the Holy Spirit today one could see Daniel B. Wallace and M. James Sawyer, eds. Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An Investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today. Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2005.
The true Church can never fail. For it is based upon a rock. ― T.S. Eliot
What are reasons that people do not go to church? One Christian website lists 10 reasons.1 Perhaps you have heard some of them:
In spite of these types of objections, Jesus stated, “I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). The study of the church in theological terminology is called ecclesiology. What is the church? When did it start? What is its purpose? How should it operate and be organized? How does the church relate to Israel? How important is it to go to church? These are some critical questions that this lesson is designed to cover.
The word translated church in the New Testament is from the Greek word ekklesia which means an assembly or congregation. It does not refer to a building rather it refers instead to people. In the New Testament, it generally refers to believers Jew or Gentile who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and have received the Holy Spirit following Pentecost in Acts 2. It may refer to a local assembly such as the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:1) or the universal church of all believers in Jesus Christ in this age everywhere.
Metaphors are expressions of figurative language that are used to communicate truth through analogies. There are several metaphors that are used in reference to the church, which helps to define what the church is and how it functions. The first is that the church is the body of Christ. There are two good passages that teach this both of them written by the Apostle Paul: 1) “He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church,” (Col 1:18) and 2) “The husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body” (Eph 5:21-22). As a physical head directs the physical body so also Christ directs the church. The body of Christ image also communicates our connection to Christ and to each member of the church. We are members of the same body and joined together. When Paul was persecuting Christians and on the road to Damascus Jesus appeared to him. Jesus didn’t ask Paul why are you persecuting Christians or the church? Rather he asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Christ is so connected and identified with the church that a persecution against the church is directly equated to a persecution against him.
A second metaphor of the church is the description of the church as the bride of Christ. John writes in Revelation: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints)” (Rev 19:7-9). The imagery of a bride communicates both intimate relationship and purity.
A third metaphor is that the church is a temple. “So then you are . . . members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19-22). In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where God dwelt among the people of Israel (Exod 40:34-35).2 The church as a temple then would communicate that holy God indwells it and even individual members of it (1 Cor 3:16).3
Fourthly, the church is also referred to as a royal priesthood. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:8-9). Royal suggests the idea that the church rules or will rule, while priests suggest that those in the church are God’s ministers or servants.4
Lastly, the church is referred to as a flock. Paul tells the Ephesians elders: “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). Sheep imagery for God’s people is seen in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. Ps 23; Is 53:6). Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that his sheep follow his voice (John 10). Sheep communicate the need for a shepherd who will lead, feed and protect. Sheep are vulnerable and one could say dumb animals which need steady care.
While some people define the church as God’s people of all ages, there are strong implications from the Scriptures that the church did not begin until after the death of Jesus in conjunction with the inauguration of the New Covenant and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. There are several passages that one can point to that support this view. First, Jesus spoke of the establishment of the church as a future event in his life. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:18-19). The term key suggests that Peter would open up the kingdom in the form of the church, which he did at Pentecost in Acts 2. Secondly, the church was “obtained” by the finished work of Christ on the cross. In the verse that we looked at above the church of God is said to be “obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). This also implies the church was not in effect until after the death of Christ.5
Lastly, the church is defined by the “body of Christ” and members of the body of Christ are placed there by the baptism of the Spirit. Paul states, “For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13). This baptism of the Spirit was predicted in the Old Testament (e.g., Joel 2) but occurred in Acts 2. The formation of the body of Christ formed by the baptism of the Spirit can be supported by the following verses. John the Baptist stated that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). This was predicted as a future event. Jesus later stated that the baptism would take place “not many days from now in Acts 1:5. The Holy Spirit descended in Acts 2. In hindsight this event in Acts 2 is referred to as the “baptism of the Spirit” by Peter. Peter states, “Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:15-16).6 All of these are good reasons to see the start of the church after the death of Jesus and specifically in conjunction with the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.
The purpose or function of the church can be summarized into three broad areas: worship of God, edification of the church itself, and evangelization of the world. The worship of God is the highest calling of man. God created us for this purpose and failure to do so will leave a God shaped hole in our lives. Jesus stated, “But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). The early church shifted the day of worship from Saturday (= the Sabbath) to Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) most likely to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on the first day of the week (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).
Secondly, the church as the body of Christ is to edify itself in the community of faith. Luke records this basic practice of the church in Acts. “They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Paul supplements this idea: “It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature” (Eph 4:11-13).
Thirdly, the church is to evangelize the world. Two passages illustrate this well. The first is referred to as the Great Commission. Matthew is one gospel that records it: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). Luke also gives Jesus’ instructions to the disciples just prior to his departure to heaven called the ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Whether worship, instruction, or evangelism, the overarching purpose of all that the church does is to glorify God (1 Cor 10:31). It’s not about us but it is about him!
Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also referred to as Communion) are two mandates that Jesus gave to the church. The Catholic church and some Protestants refer to these mandates as well as others as sacraments. The word sacrament is used due to the Catholic church’s teaching that participation in these ceremonies will convey grace to the participant with or without faith on the part of the participant.7 Other Protestants have emphasized that the performance of these mandates should be referred to as ordinances and are merely are acts of obedience. Also, they are not grace bearing or meritorious in regard to one’s eternal status of salvation in any way.8
The purpose of water baptism is to identify with Christ and his message. Symbolically, in baptism there is identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6:3-4) as well as purification and cleansing (cf. Acts 22:16). Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). While the church has had differing practices on the modes of baptism (sprinkling, immersion, etc), the practice of infant baptism is hard to substantiate from the practice of the early church as seen in the New Testament. People were baptized after they believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of the Lord’s Supper (also known as communion) is to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. This is also a mandated practice for the church. Paul tells the Corinthian church. “[T]he Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11:23-25). Like baptism, there are different views on the nature of the Lord’s supper. Referring to the bread, “This is my body” and the wine as, “This is my blood” historically led to debate on what “is” means during the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic View is termed Transubstantiation, which means that the elements turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus. The Lutheran View (i.e., Martin Luther) is termed Consubstantiation, which means that Jesus is with, in, under and around the elements but they do not actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus. The Reformed View (i.e., John Calvin) is termed the Spiritual Presence View, which means that Jesus is spiritually present during the ceremony. Lastly, the Memorial View (i.e., Huldrych Zwingli) sometimes called the Remembrance View, is that the Lord’s table is simply a symbol used for remembering Christ’s death.9
One thing that most people are aware of is that there are different kinds of churches. Some differences relate to the history and doctrine of the church. Other differences relate to different types of church government.10 The table below gives a description of the major types of church government.
Type of Church Government
Examples of Churches
Churches that are headed by the Secular National Government of the Country
Anglican Church of England or Lutheran Church of Germany
The body of clergy is divided into various ranks reporting eventually to a single person like the Pope or Archbishop
Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal and Orthodox and Anglican (in part).
Regional Federal Government
Synods and General Assemblies appoint pastors and determine doctrine
Presbyterian, Lutheran and some Reformed
Ultimate authority for the church rests with the members themselves, ministry, budget, choosing leaders etc
Some Baptist churches
Local Federal Government
Elders/Pastors in the local church are ultimately responsible for governing the church
Brethren, Bible Churches Some Baptist and Reformed
The apostles were the highest authority of leaders in the early church. But as one theologian states, it would seem unwise to give someone that title today.11 The apostles were part of the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) and today’s church is being built on this foundation. In addition when one looks at the criteria of an apostle, the New Testament makes it clear that 1) the person had to have seen the resurrected Jesus (Act 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1), and 2) he must have been appointed by Christ (Matt 10:1-7; Acts 1:24-26).12
Leadership in the church today according to the New Testament consists then of two offices: Pastor/Elder and Deacon. Pastors/Elders are men who are willing to lead and are spiritually qualified to lead the church (Titus 1:6-9; 1 Tim 3: 1-7). Paul tells Titus to appoint such leaders in the church. Paul states: “The reason I left you in Crete was to set in order the remaining matters and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). They are responsible to shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet 5:20). The New Testament also indicates that multiple leadership or a team of elders are to be present in each church. This is seen in the plural use of the term. For example, James tells the sick person to call for the “elders” of the church (James 5:14) or Peter who exhorts the “elders” among the church (1 Pet 5:1-2). All of the New Testament examples that we have indicate a plurality of male elders who oversee the church.13
The second church office is the office of deacon. These individuals are also to be spiritually qualified (Acts 614; 1 Tim 3: 8-13) and they are responsible to serve the needs of the church under the leadership of the pastors/elders. Acts 6 reads: “Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task’” (Acts 6:1-3). The tasks of these men was to assist the apostles in serving the church by meeting physical needs so that the apostles could focus on the spiritual needs of the church. One question surrounding the office of deacon is whether or not the office is to be held by men only or also includes women. In the Acts 6 passage they are men, but in 1 Tim 3:11 women who are deacons may be in view. Another interpretation is that these refer to deacon’s wives.15
How do we distinguish between Israel and the Church? Or should we? In short, the Bible indicates that while there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church that needs to be maintained, there is also a relationship that needs to be understood. One can start to examine this issue by comparing basic definitions. The church is both Jew and Gentile in the current age who believe in Jesus and are baptized into the body of Christ. This baptism took place with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. Israel (used 2515 times in the Old Testament and 68 in the New Testament) refers ethnically to the descendants of Abraham that came though Isaac and Jacob. Sometimes the concept of circumcised of heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Rom 2:29; Phil 3:2-3) or the phrase Israel of God (Gal 6:10) is used to reflect the idea of saved ethnic Israel. There is no place in the New Testament or entire Bible where the term Israel refers to or means the church.16 The distinction between Israel and the church is also seen in statements that contrast them after the establishment of the church.17 One good verse for this is 1 Cor 10:32 which states, “Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God.” Here the “church of God” is distinguished from “Jews.”
In regard to the church’s relationship with Israel, Paul states that Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree (= a symbol for Israel) to participate in blessings while natural branches (= unsaved Jews) are broken off (Rom 11:17). God told Abraham that “in you” all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). The promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant. In line with this covenant as Gentile members of the church we are a part of the blessing God gave to “all nations” though the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul also states that we are “sons of Abraham” by faith (Gal 3:7). It is important to understand though that Israel was under the provisions and requirements of Old Covenant while the church is under the New Covenant. The Old Covenant included: animal sacrifices, prescribed festivals, dietary laws, Sabbath keeping which included meeting on Saturday, moral laws and penalties for violation. The church on the other hand is under the provisions of the New Covenant and directly stated requirements for it are included in the gospels and epistles. There is both continuity and discontinuity in the relationship of these covenants to each other, that is some requirements of the Old Covenant are carried into the new while others are not. Paul clearly states that Christians are not under law as a system of requirements but under grace (Rom 6:14).
Lastly, there is a future for national Israel in which all the remaining Old Testament promises that God gave to them will be fulfilled: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:25-29). This does not mean that Christians have to agree with everything that modern day Israel does but it does mean that God has not abandoned his commitments of a future political and spiritual restoration of the that nation.
The lesson started with reasons why people do not go to church. Now, it would be good to conclude with reasons that we should go to church.
The author of Hebrews says, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). Penguins are one of the few warm blooded animals that live in Antarctica during the winter. They can even breed in temperatures of -22°F and winds of 125mph.18 How can they survive in such harsh conditions? One of the main ways is that they huddle together, sometimes with thousands of penguins. Those on the outside of the circle as soon as they are faced with freezing to death move in toward the center while those in the center work their way to the outside. It’s only by sticking together that they survive. Any penguin that gets isolated will die. Is there an application for Christians? I think so. God designed us to survive and thrive spiritually by the encouragement we gain from each other.
1 This is a slightly edited list based on Pete Brookshaw, (Date accessed Jan 2, 2013).
2 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-35).
3 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Cor 3:16-17).
4 Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago, Moody Press, 1972), 38-39.
5 One could also supplement this with the point that the new covenant did not start until the shed blood of Christ as well (1 Cor 11:25).
6 One passage that is sometimes used to indicate that Old Testament Israel was also a part of the church is Acts 7:38 (cf. Heb 2:12) which refers to people of Israel in the time of Moses as the “ekklesia.” But this term can generally refer to an assembly or congregation in secular usage which later came to be applied to the church as the body of Christ a more specific technical referent. See Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 15.
7 See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 976 for a more detailed discussion on this topic.
8 One should emphasize that both water baptism and the Lord’s supper (communion) are acts of obedience but are not in any way a condition of reception of eternal life (Eph 2:8-9).
9 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 371-374.
10 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 405-411.
11 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 911.
12 Ibid., 906-911.
13 For an excellent resource on church elders see Alexander Strauch. Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. Littleton CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers.
14 The men in Acts 6 are not specifically called deacons but they probably serve as a prototype of what the later office of deacon would become.
15 See Grudem for a discussion on this topic. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 918-19.
16 Sometimes Galatians 6:10 is argued that the “Israel of God” refers to the church. It reads, “and all who will behave in accordance with this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on the Israel of God (Gal 6:10).” But even here the “Israel of God” as a reference to the whole church is doubtful for two lexical reasons. First, the last “and” (Gk. και) would have to be translated as “even” which is possible but much less likely lexically for the meaning of this conjunction. Second, one would have to find a meaning of “Israel” here that is not seen for the usage of the term in Paul’s writings, the rest of the New Testament or the whole Old Testament.
17Ryrie, Basic Theology, 399.
18 (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
He who will not look forward must look behind ―Gaelic Proverb
Consider a few of some of the world’s worst predictions. King George II said in 1773 that the American colonies had little stomach for revolution. An official of the White Star Line, speaking of the firm’s newly built flagship the Titanic, which launched in 1912, declared that the ship was unsinkable. In 1939 the New York Times said the problem with TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn’t have time for it. An English astronomy professor said in the early 19th century that air travel at high speed would be impossible because passengers would suffocate.1
Question one: How do we know that the Bible can predict future events? The answer is because it has a 100 percent track record of doing so. Daniel predicted Alexander the Great
(Dan 8:21). Malachi predicted Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Jeremiah predicted the 70 year captivity (Jer 25:11). Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD
(Matt 24:1-2). And the list goes on and on and on.
Question two: Why is studying about the future in biblical prophecy important? Sometimes Christians are told not to focus too much on prophetic issues because what is important is the gospel. We are told we should focus on the gospel that unites us as opposed to future events, which have not yet happened and people have differing opinions on. In response to this attitude first one must say that future events are part of the gospel. It is a major part of the good news in which Jesus is coming back, we will be in his presence, and God will complete the salvation process in us. We will receive glorified bodies and will be freed once and for all from our struggle with sin. Secondly, when one considers the amount of prophecy that is in the Bible it is apparent that it is such a major emphasis that it must be very important in God’s overall message for us. J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists 1,239 prophecies in the Old Testament and 578 prophecies in the New Testament for a total of 1,817. These encompass 8,352 verses out of 31,102 verses.2 Thus, over a quarter of the entire Bible is biblical prophecy. Why is it there in that quantity if it’s not that important? Third, Paul taught detailed events surrounding the second coming of Jesus in Thessalonica after planting a new church there and only being there three weeks. He thought it was a critical teaching that the church needed to be introduced to at a very early stage in its development. Lastly, God wants us to know certain events about the future so that we can live our lives today with confidence about what is to come. He gives us the light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. Thus, one would have to conclude that biblical prophecy is a critical part of the core faith of Christianity.
In theological terminology, the study of future events is referred to as eschatology. This lesson will briefly survey and focus on key topics related to future events. These areas are: the rapture and great tribulation, our resurrection, the return of Jesus Christ, the millennium and future for national Israel, and future judgments including heaven and hell. Lastly, it will conclude with what not to say about the future and a primary application for us.
The rapture refers to an event in the future in which believers in Jesus Christ who are alive at that time will be taken up into heaven in conjunction with the Lord’s coming without having to physically die. Those believers who had already died will rise from the dead and all those in Christ will receive immortal glorified bodies. The word rapture is from the Latin word rapturo which means to be “caught up.” All evangelicals agree that the rapture will happen but the differences evangelicals have are concerning when it happens in relationship to what is called the great tribulation and the return of Jesus’ coming to earth. There are two primary passages on the rapture both located in Paul’s writings.3
The first is in 1 Thessalonians: “For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15-17). The second is in 1 Corinthians: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51-52).
In evangelical circles, there are three major views on when this rapture will take place. The first is called the pretribulation rapture view.4 This view is that the rapture will occur at the beginning or just before the start of the 7 year tribulation period. The second view is called the midtribulation rapture view as it sees the rapture occurring at the middle of the 7 year tribulation period. A development of the midtribulation rapture position is referred to as the prewrath rapture view, in which sometime during the second half of the seven year tribulation the rapture takes place prior to a great outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth. The last view is called the posttribulation view as it sees the rapture taking place at the end of the 7 year tribulation period.5 The postribulation rapture position along with the pretribulation rapture view are probably to be considered the most common views today. Once one understands the various framework for these basic events one can then consider some of the arguments for the differing positions for the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation period. Since the rapture is still future and there are differing interpretations of the biblical data by good scholarly evangelicals, one has to hold one’s position with a degree of humility that reflects some of the ambiguity on this issue. If someone has a view on it, as this author does, it should be held with an open hand rather than a clenched fist.
The “great tribulation” or just “tribulation” in certain New Testament contexts refers to an unprecedented time of global suffering and trial in the world that immediately precedes the second coming of the Lord. Jesus stated, “For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen”
(Matt 24:21-22). If you think about all the different types of and magnitude of suffering has been experienced already in the world, this statement is a sobering description of how devastating this time period will be. In other words this devastation will be far worse than the Christian persecutions under any Roman Emperor, famines in Africa, genocides, what the U.S. saw in its own civil war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed at the hands of their fellow countrymen, what the world saw in World War II with the Holocaust, massive battles and nuclear detonations, or the 2004 Asian Tsunami in which over 200,000 people were killed.6 And the list could go on. In another passage dealing with this time period John writes, “Then one of the elders asked me, “These dressed in long white robes – who are they and where have they come from?” So I said to him, “My lord, you know the answer.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!” (Rev 7:13-14). What do we know about this “great tribulation”? It’s a period that lasts 7 years long (Dan 9:27; Rev 13:5). It is a time of God’s wrath (Rev 6:17) and involves at least three series of judgments from God toward the world that are global in nature (seals, trumpets and bowls; Rev 6-18). The suffering and conflict will be greater than has ever been seen (Matt 24:21-22). It involves a unique manifestation of evil driven by the Devil, the Antichrist and the False Prophet (2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev 12-13). People will be faced with a stark choice to repent and worship God or follow evil and receive the consequences of this choice (Rev 14:6-7).
Why do some people hold to the postribulation rapture view? Here are five basic arguments in support of it.7 First, there is only one “coming” of Jesus and both the rapture and conquest of Jesus must be the same event after the tribulation when he comes as seen in Revelation 19. Second, a resurrection is mentioned in Revelation 20 just following the second coming of Christ in glory (Rev 19), which suggests that the rapture that includes the resurrection is there at this event as well. Third, the saints (or elect) are seen in the tribulation period (e.g., Rev 7) and this must be the church. Also, the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 seems to indicate that believers go through the tribulation and these are to be identified with the church as well. It is argued that the church does not have to be removed from the tribulation to be protected from God’s wrath through it, similar to God protecting Israel during the plagues against Egypt in the book of Exodus. Fourth, the pretribulation position is a relatively recent development in part promoted by the writings of J.N. Darby8 and is not seen in the writings of the early church fathers. And lastly, the parable of the wheat and tares suggests that believers and unbelievers will be together until the “end of the age,” which would be until the second coming of Jesus (Matt 13:24).9
At least three basic arguments can be given for the midtribulation rapture view. First, the rapture is said in 1 Corinthians 15 to occur at the “last trumpet.” In Revelation there are a series of seven judgments that start with the blowing of trumpets. The seventh trumpet blows in Revelation 8 which appears to be approximately half way through the tribulation period.
Second, there is an emphasis in Revelation on 3 and one/half years in the seven year judgment sequence (Rev 11:2-3; 12:6, 14; 13:5 cf. Dan 9:27). This suggests a major event at the midway point. And third, the church is delivered from the wrath of God (1 Thess 5:9) which this view argues starts at the mid-point of the tribulation (Rev 15:1). The prewrath rapture view is a development and modification of the midtribulation rapture position which sees the church going through the midpoint of the tribulation period and undergoing persecution but being taken out sometime prior to the end of the seven year period and before a great outpouring of God’s wrath.10
The view that in this writer’s opinion provides the most coherence with the biblical data is the pretribulation rapture view. There are four basic arguments that lead in this direction. First, in the Old Testament there is Daniel’s 70 week prophecy, which relate to these end time events.11 Daniel states that these events are for or concerning “his people” (Dan 9:24). This must refer to national Israel as Daniel is an Israelite. Since the first 69 weeks primarily refer to the time when God is focusing his program/dealings with the nation of Israel, it makes sense that the 70th week would as well. The 70th week, a seven year period, is the same length of time as the tribulation period (See Rev 12:6, 14; 13:5 which refers to half of this period) and Daniel’s events fit well with a future tribulational framework (e.g., the abomination of desolation (Matt 24:15), etc). The point then is that the tribulation period is not for the church or concerning the church. Second, while the church is explicitly mentioned many times in Revelation 2-3 it is not explicitly mentioned once in chapters 4-19. It is true that believers are described in Revelation 7:9-17 but they are not described as the “church.” There is a shift in terminology which suggests a change has taken place. In Revelation 4-19 the focus appears to be on the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:1-8), which is contrasted with believers from other peoples (Rev 7:9). Third, in Revelation 3:10 it appears that the church is promised to be kept from the hour or time of trial that is coming on the whole world, not protected through it. We are not just kept from the trial but kept from the time of it. The phrase “to test those who dwell/live on the earth” (cf. Rev 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 14; 17:2, 8) describes God’s purpose for the event and refers to the unbelieving world some of whom will turn in belief to God. Lastly, the church is not appointed to God’s wrath (1 Thess 5:9). It is clear that even from right at the start of the tribulation with the seal judgments, God’s wrath is unleashed in terrifying force (e.g., Rev 6:16-17).12
Our future resurrection is also a significant theme of understanding the biblical picture of the future. In essence, the resurrection refers to the replacement of our mortal physical body with an immortal physical body. Jesus promised this to those who believe in him in the clearest of terms. In John 11 after a man named Lazarus had died, Jesus gave hope to his sister. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies’” (John 11:25). The foundation of the Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Christ. Also, Jesus’ resurrection is a prelude to every Christian’s resurrection. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Jesus’ resurrection is only the first of many to come. The reference to those who have fallen asleep refers to Christians who had died. The symbolic language of sleep suggests that we will wake up again. The Christian who dies will wake up in the resurrection. But what kind of body is it? Paul describes, “It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). It is an imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual body. What a glorious future we have to look forward to! For the church, the resurrection takes place at the time of the rapture (1 Thess 4:15-17). For the Old Testament saints as well as those believers who die in the tribulation, their resurrection appears to occur at the second coming of Christ prior to the millennium (Dan 12:1-2; Rev 20:4).
The ascension of Jesus Christ was a prelude to his second coming. Luke records, “After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight. As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11). While Jesus had predicted his return earlier than this (See Matt 24), the ascension shows how Jesus would return and even where, on the Mount of Olives (Zech 14). In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, the entire theme of the book is centered on the return of Jesus: “Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes on the earth will mourn because of him. This will certainly come to pass! Amen” (Rev 1:7). Revelation 19 describes the majestic and awesome climax of Jesus’ return as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19).
Another major topic related to future events concerns what is termed the millennium. This word comes from the Latin term mille, which means 1000. The length of the reign of Jesus is mentioned 6 times in Revelation 20:1-6 as being 1000 years long. John writes, “Then I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and tied him up for a thousand years. The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.) Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev 20:1-4). There are three major views related to the millennial reign of Christ. They are termed amillennial, postmillennial, and premillennial.13
The amillennial position believes that the 1000 years is a symbolic time between the first and second coming. Based on events at Jesus’ first advent14 it also holds that Satan is currently bound by the chain mentioned in Rev 20:1. This view was introduced by the early church father Origen and popularized by Augustine.15 The postmillennial position believes that the church will usher in the God’s kingdom and ideal millennial conditions. After that, Jesus will return to the earth. This view was more popular going into the early part of the 20th century but faded following the devastations of World Wars I and II and lack of the church’s ability to stem it. The premillennial position believes that the 2nd coming of Jesus occurs prior to a literal 1000 year reign on the earth.16 This view was held by early Christian interpreters (Epistle of Barnabus (about 130 A.D), Papias (60-130 A.D. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr (100-165).17
The main test though for the truth of any position is the biblical arguments for and against it. The premillennial position has much to commend it. First, it fits a natural chronology of the book of Revelation. In Revelation the second coming of Jesus comes first in Chapter 19 and then the millennium is described in Chapter 20. Secondly, it will take Christ himself coming in judgment to bring in His kingdom and defeat evil including Satan and his forces. This is what is pictured in Zechariah 14 and Revelation 19. A future millennial reign on the earth also fits the Old Testament passages that promise a messianic kingdom that has not yet been seen. For example, the Son of David is said to rule on David’s throne forever and the government being on his shoulders (2 Sam 7:13-14; Is 9:6). In the New Testament, Jesus told the 12 disciples that in the future they would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28). This did not happen in their lifetime.
Also, it is claimed by some that the 1000 years are merely symbolic not literal. While other numbers in Revelation may be symbolic they also have a literal referent (e.g., 12 literal tribes
(Rev 7), 7 literal historical churches (Rev 2-3) etc). The reference to 1000 years is mentioned 6 times and thus it is emphasized in Revelation 20. Whenever time references are given with a number, for example 1260 days or 42 months (Rev 12:6; 13:5), they are always taken literally in correspondence with Daniel’s seventieth week. So it would also seem to be true for 1000 years. Lastly, when John speaks of an indefinite period of time he states it that way. For example Satan is released for “a short time” in Rev 20:3 which contrasts with a definite period 1000 years.
My main objection to amillenialism though from the passage is that the purpose of the binding of Satan is not currently being fulfilled: the deceiving of the nations. During the period of binding there is no indication of any freedom for Satan in his confinement; the pit is locked and sealed. This description of Satan being bound contradicts quite a few New Testament passages. For example, Satan is a roaring lion seeking someone to devour
(1 Peter 5:8).18 Ananias’ heart was filled with Satan (Acts 5:3). Satan blinds people to the gospel
(2 Cor 4:3-4). Satan hindered Paul (1 Thess 2:18). Christians are alerted to Satan’s temptations
(1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14). This point strongly suggests that we are not currently in the millennial period.
There are two basic types of judgments described in the Bible, one for believers and one for unbelievers. This is the basic dividing line. Jesus stated, “The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (John 3:18). The final judgment and condemnation of unbelievers is sometimes referred to as the great white throne judgment based on John’s description of it in Rev 20:11-15: “Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; . . And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened – the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. . . If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:11-15). There is also a final judgment and reward for believers in Jesus Christ. This is sometimes referred to as the Bema judgment based on the Greek word related to this judgment. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat (Gk. Bema) of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil”
(2 Cor 5:10). This judgment is not related to whether or not a Christian gets into heaven but rather the reward that awaits when one gets there (cf. 1 Cor 3). Lastly, there is a judgment of believers (as represented as sheep) and unbelievers (as represented as goats) at the second coming of Jesus in which the sheep enter the blessing of the kingdom while the goats go off to judgment (Matt 25:31-46).
What is hell like? The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. It is a place of fire (Matt 13:30; Luke 3:17); weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 8:12); darkness (Matt 8:12); separation from God
(1 Thess 1:9) and eternal destruction (2 Thess 1:9). From these verses and others, it is clear that the Bible pictures hell as a place of conscious eternal torment.19 On the converse side, what is heaven like? First there is the continuous praising of God in his very presence by saints and angels (Rev 4-5). Paul states that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord
(1 Cor 5:8). There will be no more sin, death, crying or pain (Rev 21:4). We will be in resurrected eternal bodies. Heaven is a place to be with Jesus forever as well as with our fellow saints
(1 Thess 4:17). A new heavens and new earth will be created for us to live on and in (Rev 22). The tree of life gives healing to the nations and God’s glory lights the new creation (Rev 22:1-5).
In conclusion, despite the debates about the rapture and nature of the 1000 years perhaps the most important point to take away is this: When Jesus comes back he is coming back to earth and when he gets here he will defeat his enemies and rule. As Matthew states, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne”
(Matt 25:31). In this passage, notice the word “then,” which describes the future rule of Christ after the second advent.
But we must not try to make date setting predictions for Jesus’ return. Unfortunately, not all have heeded this advice as numerous people have tried their hand at date setting to the church’s detriment. One of the latest of these attempts was broadcast and publicized on family radio by Harold Camping who predicted that Jesus would come back on May 21, 2011.20 But as Jesus stated, “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone. For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man”
(Matt 24:36-39). Instead, we need to be ready and live in light of Jesus’ future coming and our accountability before him. Jesus himself gives us our basic responsibility. “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matt 15:13).
1 The World’s Worst Predictions in Reader’s Digest, March 1991.
2 J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).
3 Some also add John 14:1-3 to this list but this passage is not as clear as the passages in Paul.
4 One could also add the partial rapture theory in which only faithful Christians are raptured but this view is not that common today.
5 For an in depth presentation of three views on this topic see Stanley Gundry and Alan Hultberg, eds., Three View on the Rapture – Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Postribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
7 These are developed in part from George Ladd. See George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.
8 John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) is sometimes considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism and was a major figure in England in the origin of the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies. See (Date accessed December 2).
9 Counterarguments could be developed on these points but for now we want to try to understand some of the main arguments for postribulationalism.
10 Marvin J. Rosenthal, The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church: A New Understanding of the Rapture, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming (Nashville: Nelson, 1990).
11 To start understanding the 70 week prophecy one must realize that a “week” in the Old Testament can refer to a week of days or a week of years and here it refers to a week of years. For more information on this prophecy see Alva J. McClain. Daniel’s Prophecy of the 70 Weeks (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969).
12 One could also add for those in a premillennial framework that postribulationism does not easily have a solution of how believers will enter the millennium in mortal bodies since at the rapture the church receives its glorified bodies. Millennial conditions appear to start out with only the saved (Matt 25: 31-46) and also have people dying during that period though at older ages (Is 65:20). For pretribulationalism though those who get saved and also live through the tribulation events can enter the millennium with their mortal body.
13 See Robert Clouse ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).
14 One verse that is sometimes given is Luke 10:17-18, in which Jesus states that he saw Satan fall from heaven like lightening.
15 Augustine states: “Those who, on the strength of this passage, have suspected that the first resurrection is future and bodily, have been moved, among other things, specially by the number of a thousand years, as if it were a fit thing that the saints should thus enjoy a kind of Sabbath-rest during that period, a holy leisure after the labors of the six thousand years since man was created, and was on account of his great sin dismissed from the blessedness of paradise into the woes of this mortal life. And. this opinion would not be objectionable, if it were believed that the joys of the saints in that Sabbath shall be spiritual, and consequent on the presence of God; for I myself, too, once held this opinion. But, as they assert that those who then rise again shall enjoy the leisure of immoderate carnal banquets, furnished with an amount of meat and drink such as not only to shock the feeling of the temperate, but even to surpass the measure of credulity itself, such assertions can be believed only by the carnal. They who do believe them are called by the spiritual Chiliasts, which we may literally reproduce by the name Millenarians (Augustine, The City of God, 20.7).
16 See Donald Campbell and Jeffrey Townsend eds., A Case for Premillenialism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992).
17 Justin Martyr states: “But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Tryho, 80.4.
18 Someone has once well said that if Satan is currently chained with the description of Rev 20 it must be an awfully long chain.
19 For some differing views on this topic see Stanley Gundry, ed. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
20 (Date accessed January 9, 2013).
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In 1933 a man named Dawson Trotman founded a worldwide Christian organization called the Navigators. At the heart of Trotman and the ministry he founded was the discipleship of believers—grounding Christians in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, Bible study, and service. Navigators started when Trotman was asked to visit a sailor, Les Spencer, and share God’s Word with him. Soon Spencer was asking for another man to be taught by Trotman but Trotman challenged Spencer, “You teach him.”1 The discipleship ministry of the Navigators was birthed. The Navigators’ influence has since grown to worldwide proportions with about 4,600 staff representing 69 nationalities working in 103 countries.2
What is discipleship and why is the church commanded to do it? What are some of the methods of discipleship that Jesus and Paul used? How can disciples grow in numbers? What are the marks of a mature disciple (i.e. what does a mature disciple look like)?
What is a disciple? The basic meaning is that a disciple is a learner. A disciple of Jesus is one who learns and lives from the teachings of Jesus himself and those whom Jesus taught, the apostles. Another good definition from the Navigator is this: “A disciple continues in the Word, loves others, bears fruit, and puts Christ first.”3
The primary command in the New Testament to make disciples comes from what is called the Great Commission. Matthew states, “Then Jesus came up and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt 28:18-20). In the original Greek language the phrase “make disciples” is the main verb which is the command, as opposed to “go.” Someone once said, “The main thing is to make the main the main thing.” Therefore, to make disciples is the main thing. All nations are to be disciples, and this implies you have to go to them (cf. Acts 1:8). The imperatival mood of the command to make disciples carries over to the word “go.” How does one make disciples? The text indicates that it is by baptizing and by teaching. The baptizing into the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit implies both evangelism and conversion. The teaching is a teaching with a view toward obedience of all that Jesus said. In summary then, making disciples includes both evangelism and instruction in the Christian faith. What has happened to the church’s obedience to the Great Commission? Sarcastically, due to failures of the church (myself included) it is sometimes referred to as the Great Omission. Billy Hanks Jr. and William Shell write, “Historically it is difficult to discover why the simple plan which worked so effectively in the early church ceased to be used in later generations . . . The challenge of the future is simply to apply the timeless divine strategy of the past. Nothing less than total victory should be expected in world evangelization and church growth.”4
In examining proper methods of discipleship, it would seem wise to look at the discipleship methods that both Jesus and Paul used. The first thing that one could point to is that both Jesus and Paul selected a few good men for the purpose of training. In regard to Jesus, Coleman well states, “men were his method.”5 Luke writes: “Now it was during this time that Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God. When morning came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles” (Luke 6:12-16). The fact that Jesus spent all night in prayer showed the importance of what he was doing in selecting the disciples. He only chose 12. Beyond that, he focused on three (Peter, James and John). The whole future of the church would rest in the faithfulness of God working though only a few men.
In regard to Paul, his discipleship method is seen in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And what you heard me say in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well (2 Tim 2:2). This verse describes the type of people who should be discipled, that is faithful people. Some have described them with the acronym FAT = faithful, available and teachable. There are some very prominent discipleship relationships in the Bible that illustrate its importance. Joshua had Moses; Elisha had Elijah; the Twelve had Jesus; Paul had Barnabus; and Timothy had Paul. Now the questions is, who do we have?
A second aspect of discipleship that is modeled in both Jesus and Paul is that they had a life to life association with their disciples. In regard to Jesus, Mark writes, “He appointed twelve (whom he named apostles), so that they would be with him” (Mark 3:14). The purpose of the selection of the twelve was so that they might be “with Him.” The disciples were with Jesus for over three years, observing, listening, and doing. Paul did the same with his disciples. A good example is when Paul picked up Timothy to go with Paul on his missionary journey. Acts records, “And he came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him” (Acts 16:1-3). In another place, Paul tells the Corinthian church, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Someone once remarked, “discipleship is more caught than taught.”
A third aspect of discipleship that Jesus and Paul modeled is that they were always trying to transfer the ministry so that others could do it. Jesus preached but he sent the disciples out to preach; Jesus healed but he sent the 12 out to heal (Matt 10). We should always be trying to work ourselves out of a job. In looking at Second Timothy 2:2 again, “And entrust what you heard me say in the presence of many others as witnesses to faithful people who will be competent to teach others as well” (2 Tim 2:2), one can see four generations of ministry to disciples: First Paul to Timothy, then Timothy to faithful people, then faithful people to “others”. This is the pattern that Paul was looking for. D. L. Moody once stated, “It is better to train ten people than to do the work of ten people. But it is harder.”
Consider how small of the group of early disciples were with Jesus and the command to reach all the nations with the gospel. How could this possibly be expected and carried out. It took Jesus over three years to train only 12 people with millions of people in the world at that time. How could the whole world possibly be reached taking only a few at a time? Figuratively speaking, how can a very small mustard seed result in a very large tree as Jesus indicated how the kingdom of God would grow (Matt 13:31-32)? The answer to this dilemma can be found in the principle of multiplication. Let’s look at an illustration of the power of multiplication. What would you rather have someone do: 1) give you one million dollars every week for a year or 2) one penny for the first week then doubling it every week for a year (1 cent, two cents, 4 , 8 cents, etc)? At the end of the year option one would yield you 52 million dollars, which is a pretty nice sum, but option two would yield you over 40 trillion dollars. This is about 750,000 times more money. What would be better in the long run over 30 years 1) discipling 10 people a year or 2) one person every two years but that person in turn would be able to and actually disciple someone else? Option one would yield 300 disciples over a lifetime but option two would yield over 32,000 disciples, more than one hundred times the amount of option one. The point of the principle of multiplication is for one to take enough time to make reproducing disciples.
Let’s look at the question of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What does a disciple of Jesus look like? What are the characteristics of a disciple? What are the marks of a disciple? If we do not know what we are shooting for, it will be hard to hit it. In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out the twelve disciples for their first attempt at ministry without Jesus. From this passage, at least seven characteristics or marks of a disciple can be seen.
Mark 1: The first mark is that a disciple must share the message of the kingdom/gospel with others. In Matthew 3 Jesus had preached a message of repentance because the kingdom of heaven was near. In Matthew 10 he asked his disciples to do the same where he states, “Go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near!’” (Matt 10:6-7). The focus is getting the good news out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Sharing the good news focuses on the needs of others. Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding an international convention and their founder, General William Booth, could not attend because of physical weakness. He cabled his convention message to them. It was one word: “Others.” When we get our focus off of ourselves and put it on others, we are in the right mindset of a disciple
Mark 2: The second mark is that a disciple must learn to trust God for his or her needs and circumstances. As Jesus was sending his disciples out he told them, “Freely you received, freely give. Do not take gold, silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for the journey, or an extra tunic, or sandals or staff, for the worker deserves his provisions” (Matt 10:9-10). Jesus gave the disciples a hard task to accept. Even if they had some extra to take for their own needs, they were to trust God to supply for the work of the ministry. C.H. Spurgeon, sometimes referred to as the prince of preachers, once commented on the importance of trusting in God’s sovereignty. He stated, “There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that sovereignty overrules them, and that sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children ought to more earnestly contend to than the doctrine of their Master over all creation—the Kingship of God over all the works of His own hands—the Throne of God and His right to sit upon that throne. . . for it is God upon the Throne whom we trust.”6
Mark 3: The third mark is that a disciple must be prepared to be rejected. Jesus stated, “And you will be hated by everyone because of my name” (Matt 10:22). Sharing an invitation to believe the gospel or even just naming the name of Jesus may produce a hostile result. In other words, if the message of the gospel is rejected the messenger of the gospel may be rejected as well. The disciple must learn not to take personal offense at a rejection but rather see that is in fact God himself and his gospel message that is rejected.
Mark 4: The fourth mark is that a disciple must place Christ above family relationships if need be. Jesus told them, “Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rise against parents and have them put to death. . . . Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:21, 34-37). Here Jesus points out that our commitment to him must exceed all, even that of our family. Christians who have come out of Muslim or Hindu backgrounds are often painfully aware of this truth.
Mark 5: The fifth mark is that a disciple must fear God more than men. Jesus taught, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:28-31). But why not be afraid of people who might harm you? There are at least two reasons. First, God is the ultimate judge; he will judge everyone and everything; man’s judgment is temporal but God’s judgment is eternal. We have to stop and ask the question of what God thinks. Second, God cares for you. He sees; he knows and he cares and we are worth a lot to God. If even a bird falls and it’s in God’s plan, how much more must it be with us. People matter to God; we matter to God; I matter to God; you matter to God.
Mark 6: A sixth mark is that a disciple must lose his old life and find his new life in Jesus. He instructed the disciples, “And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it”
(Matt 10:38-39). To take up the cross is to take up an instrument of death. In other words, a disciple must be willing to die to the old life and live a new life that God has for him. Martin Luther once explained, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
Mark 7: Lastly, a seventh mark is that a disciple must look to the future reward reserved in heaven. The disciples were given this promise before going out with God’s message into difficult situation, “Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, I tell you the truth, he will never lose his reward”
(Matt 10:41-42). In essence God’s gives us the promise that being a disciple will be worth it in the end.
God’ plan is to reach the world with the gospel. He commanded the church to do this by making disciples. Men training men and women training women is his method. The encouragement of this lesson is to train reproducing disciples even though it takes longer and is harder. Martin Luther stated that our future life needs to affect the present. “If we consider the greatness and the glory of the life we shall have when we have risen from the dead, it would not be difficult at all for us to bear the concerns of this world. If I believe the Word, I shall on the Last Day, after the sentence has been pronounced, gladly have suffered ordinary temptations, insults, and imprisonment.” Finally, a word of exhortation from Dawson Trotman: “God works through men. I see nowhere in the Word where God picks an organization . . . . Do what others cannot and will not do.”7
1 (Date accessed February 25, 2013).
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Navigators_(organization) (Date accessed October 16, 2012). For a biography on Trotman’s life see Robert D. Foster. The Navigator (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1983).
3 “Church Discipleship”, Vol 11, No 1, the Navigators.
4 Billy Hanks Jr. and William Shell, Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12, 13.
5 Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 27.
6 C. H. Spurgeon, (Date accessed January 18, 2013).
7 (Date accessed February 25).
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. ― Church Father, Augustine
Faith in the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ is a precious possession. It is the core of Christian life and well-being. It is more valuable than any amount of riches in this world. These lessons have been designed to establish and build up the core teachings and practices of the Christian faith.
The Christian life well lived out will be blessed and receive God’s reward. Paul gives the following analogy: “For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1Cor 3:11-15). In this passage, Paul compares two different types of works that the Christian have in his or her life. One set of works is described as gold, silver, and precious stones. These good works will be tested by fire, approved by God and receive a reward. The other set of works are described as wood, hay and stubble. These uncommendable works will not survive the test of fire and will be burned up. What Paul in essence is saying is that whatever a Christian does in this life will be placed in one of two piles. One pile of works will be rewarded and the other pile will be burned up and the Christian will suffer a loss. In view of this coming accountability, what pile of works will we build on? Will what we do have eternal value or only temporary pleasure? May God give us the grace to fulfill his plan of good works he has prepared for us (Eph 2:10).