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20. The Sanctity of Marriage (Exodus 20:14)


A few months ago, I was talking on the phone to my friend, John Maurer. In the midst of that conversation I said to John, “John you would not have been very happy with me. I did something which would make you cringe. Can you guess what that was?” John did not hesitate, even for a moment. He responded, “I’ll bet you’ve been using that Stanley wood chisel to scrape gaskets off of automobile engines again.”

To understand John’s response, you have to understand John. To John, my Stanley chisel is a wood chisel, only to be used for chiseling wood. He is a purist in that regard—I am not. To me, my Stanley wood chisel is a very fine instrument for scraping old gasket material off an automobile engine. The difference between John and me in this instance is that John believes everything should be used for the purpose it was made.

You may wonder what wood chisels have to do with the Seventh Commandment. As a matter of fact, my differences with John over the proper use of a wood chisel have a great deal to do with the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” The principle underlying this commandment is that of the sanctity of marriage. The difference between John and myself over the use of a wood chisel is also a matter of sanctification. To John, a wood chisel is to be sanctified—set apart for use only on wood. To me, a wood chisel can be used for any number of things, including, if necessary, automobile engines.

Throughout the Bible, God sets certain things apart; He restricts their use; He sanctifies them. Mount Sinai, from which God spoke to Moses and the Israelites, was sanctified, set apart. Neither man nor beast was allowed to draw too near to it (Exod. 19:12-13, 23-24). The Israelites themselves were set apart from the Egyptians and from all other nations. We will discover in our lesson that marriage and sex were also sanctified by God. The implications of the sanctity of sex and marriage are the subject of this lesson.

Our approach to this study will be to consider the progressively revealed truths of God about sex and marriage, beginning in the Old Testament, and then going to the New Testament. Finally, we shall attempt to distill the biblical teaching into a few guiding and governing principles. Finally, we will attempt to discover how these principles apply to our daily Christian walk.

Adultery in the Old Testament

The foundation for the sanctity of marriage and sex is laid early in the Book of Genesis, where we read of the first marriage.

Then the LORD GOD said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” And out of the ground the LORD GOD formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the LORD GOD caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at the place. And the LORD GOD fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. And the man said,

“This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Gen. 2:18-24).

Just as God gave life to all of His creatures in Genesis chapter 1, now in chapter 2 He gives a woman to Adam as his wife. It is God who brought Adam and Eve together as husband and wife. God not only created man and woman, He also created the institution of marriage. He joined the first man and the first woman together in marriage. This union involved the husband’s leaving of his parents42 and cleaving to his wife. The old dependent and submissive relationship of child to parent had to be set aside so that this unity of husband and wife could be established (v. 24). God has here joined a man and a woman so that they have become a unity. He has also set this unity apart, distinguishing it from the previous parental-child entity. In short, there has been both a leaving and a cleaving, a separation and a union. I believe that the sexual union of Adam and Eve consummated their marital union, and thus there is implied here a sanctity of both the marriage and the sexual relationship of Adam and Eve. From the very beginning of creation, to commit adultery was to violate the sanctity of sex in marriage.

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis is significant to our study as well. When the first sin was committed by partaking of the “forbidden fruit” God pronounced punishments which were appropriate to each party involved, as well as the consequences for all mankind. The important thing to note here is that God also promised salvation through the seed of the woman in the midst of the curse pronounced on Satan: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you will bruise him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Satan, to save his skin, would begin to understand that he must begin to wage war on the seed of the woman. We would thus expect him to wage war on the marital union, for it is through marital union that the seed will be preserved and the promised seed will come. We know, of course, that the Lord Jesus was not born of the union of Mary and Joseph, but by a supernatural conception brought about by the Holy Spirit. But the messianic line until Mary was preserved through the union of a man and a woman in marriage. Satan can be expected to attack the sanctity of marriage in order to wage war on the “seed.”

In Genesis chapter 12 further revelation about man’s salvation is given as the benefits brought about by human (and ultimately divine) seed: “And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you; And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). God told Satan, Adam and Eve that the Savior of mankind would be the seed of the woman. Now, he tells Abram that the blessings He will give him and all the nations will come through his seed. Just a few verses away from the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1-3, Abram places the “seed” in jeopardy, at least from a human perspective:

Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. And it came about when he came near to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen. 12:10-13).

Abram’s request was for Sarai to lie, representing herself as an eligible bride, and thus potentially putting her in another man’s bed in order to save his life. In effect, Abram was not only endangering the promises of God and the purity of his wife, but he was paving the way for men to unknowingly commit adultery with his wife. This is not one of the high points in Abram’s life.

There are other instances of sexual immorality in Genesis, but let us turn our attention to the bright light of Joseph’s character, in contrast to that of his close relatives.43 Joseph was a young man, with all of the sexual desires of any other healthy male. Away from his family, perhaps never again to return to his own people, how easy it would have been for him to succumb to the advances of his master’s wife:

And it came about after these events that his master’s wife looked with desire at Joseph, and she said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, with me around, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house, and he has put all that he owns in my charge. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” And it came about as she spoke to Joseph day after day, that he did not listen to her to lie beside her, or be with her (Gen. 39:7-10).

This incident reveals several important truths:

(1) Joseph knew he could not lie with this woman because she was the wife of another man. Marriage, in Joseph’s understanding, was an exclusive relationship. Not only did his master not give him authority over his wife, he could not have done so.

(2) We can see by Joseph’s words that adultery was not only wrong, but that he understood it to be sin.

(3) Joseph understood that, more than anything else, adultery was a sin against God.

(4) The immediate results of Joseph’s actions were painful, but the ultimate outcome was the blessing of God.

It is against the backdrop of Israel’s history as described in Genesis that the Seventh Commandment is given to the Israelites: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18).

From what we have already learned in Genesis, it is apparent that the Israelites understood what adultery was and that it was sin. Nevertheless, the rest of the Pentateuch (the Pentateuch is the five books of the Old Testament, written by Moses) provides us with a great deal of detail concerning sexual sins, and the various forms of punishment required by each. Let us briefly summarize this revelation.

Exodus 22:16-17—A man who seduces a virgin must marry her or pay the price of a virgin’s dowry.

Leviticus 18—Israel is to distinguish herself from practices of Egypt and Canaan by maintaining sexual purity (vss. 3, 24-30). Uncovering the nakedness of a relative is prohibited (vss. 6-18), as well as illicit intercourse (vss. 19-23). Sexual sin defiles the people (vss. 24, 30) and the land (vss. 25, 27, 28), thus resulting in expulsion from the land.

Leviticus 20—Israel is not to “play the harlot” by consulting mediums or spiritists, but they are to consecrate themselves to the God of Israel, who sanctifies them (vss. 6-8). Sexual sins and their penalties are spelled out in detail (vss. 10-21). Sanctification is then stressed, so that Israel must not practice the immorality of the Canaanites before them, lest they too be thrust from the land (vss. 22-27).

Numbers 5—A test is given to determine whether or not a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. The consequences of either guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 11-31).

Deuteronomy 22—When a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin at the time they were married, the parents can show her (blood-stained) garment as proof of her purity. The consequences of guilt or innocence are spelled out (vss. 13-21).

Taken as a whole, I believe that the above passages convey several vitally important truths, which we must pause to underscore:

(1) Adultery is a more serious sexual sin because it is a violation of a marriage. While the seduction of a virgin entails either marriage to the virgin or the payment of her dowry price to the father, sexual union with a married woman is punishable by death. While illicit sexual union is a sin, those unions which violate a marriage are taken more seriously. The reason seems to be solely because God has sanctified the marriage and the sexual sin has profaned it.

(2) Sexual impurity defiles both the persons involved and the land. Leviticus 18 and 20 emphasize the defiling nature of adultery, and warn that the practice of such sins will defile the land and will result in expulsion from the land, just as the Canaanites were expelled (cf. Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-26).

(3) Terms referring to adultery and sexual immorality are employed non-literally, referring to Israel’s infidelity to God. “‘As for the person who turns to mediums and to spiritists, to play the harlot after them, I will also set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people’” (Lev. 20:6). This is a point which the prophets of the Old Testament will take up and greatly expand upon in later times.

The dubious distinction for the most well-known case of adultery would have to go to David, who sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah:

Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. Now when evening came David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” And David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, and said, “I am pregnant.” Then David sent to Joab, saying, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked concerning the welfare of Joab and the people and the state of the war. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and a present from the king was sent out after him. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. Now when they told David, saying, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will let you go.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. Now David called him, and he ate and drank before him, and he made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his bed with his lord’s servants, but he did not go down to his house” (2 Samuel 11:1-13).

In these verses the sin of David is contrasted against the backdrop of the devotion and discipline of Uriah. Note these points of contrast:

(1) Uriah’s military devotion in the “front lines” of battle is contrasted with David’s complacency, who never even makes it to the battle.

(2) While David enjoys all the luxuries of the palace, Uriah refused to enjoy them, even when urged on him.

(3) While David enjoyed sexual intimacy with Bathsheba, even though forbidden, Uriah refused such pleasure, even when legitimate and encouraged by the king.

(4) While Uriah was willing to lay down his life for the king and the nation, David was willing to take Uriah’s life to save his own reputation and to satisfy his own sexual desires.

(5) Though David had many wives, he was willing to take the one wife that Uriah possessed.

(6) Though David was of the chosen seed, Uriah was but a Hittite. Uriah was a Canaanite, but a godly one, while David, the Israelite, acted like a heathen.

The Scriptures frankly tell us that sexual sin can be the source of other sins. It can dull the mind, like wine, making one insensitive to reality (Hos. 4:11-12). Here, David’s immorality led to the additional sin of murder. Sexual sin is also related to religious apostasy (cf. Num. 25:1-9).

The Old Testament prophets take up the themes already developed in the Pentateuch. The sexual immorality of Israel has defiled the people and the land, and necessitates their expulsion from the land. Spiritual adultery has also become rampant, and is condemned. Judgment awaits this nation, which is likened to a harlot. Her restoration is described as a marriage between God and His bride.

“Why should I pardon you? Your sons have forsaken Me And sworn by those who are not gods. When I had fed them to the full, They committed adultery And trooped to the harlot’s house. They were well-fed lusty horses, Each one neighing after his neighbor’s wife. Shall I not punish these people,” declares the LORD, “And on a nation such as this Shall I not avenge Myself?” (Jer. 5:7-9).

“As for your adulteries and your lustful neighings, The lewdness of your prostitution On the hills in the field, I have seen your abominations. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! How long will you remain unclean?” (Jer. 13:27).

“I will also put an end to all her gaiety, Her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths, And all her festal assemblies. And I will destroy her vines and fig trees, Of which she said, ‘These are my wages Which my lovers have given me.’ And I will make them a forest, And the beasts of the field will devour them” (Hos. 2:11-12).

Harlotry, wine, and new wine take away the understanding. My people consult their wooden idol, and the diviner’s wand informs them; For a spirit of harlotry has led them astray, And they have played the harlot, departing from their God (Hos. 4:11-12).

Thus, because Israel practiced the same sins as the Canaanites, who lived in the land before them, they were thrust forth from the land, just as their predecessors, and just as God had warned:

“’Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have visited its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land may not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people. Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the LORD your GOD’” (Lev. 18:24-30).

“’You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine. As for a man or a woman, if there is a medium or a spiritist among them, they shall surely be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them’” (Lev. 20:22-27).

Adultery in the New Testament

Jesus did not have nearly as much to say about adultery and sexual immorality as did the apostles. Furthermore, He may even appear to be lenient on those guilty of immorality. Such could be the conclusion one would reach from a reading of John chapter 4, where Jesus spoke to the immoral woman at the well, or of John chapter 8, where Jesus refused to cast stones at the woman caught in the very act of adultery. There are several reasons for the difference in the emphasis of our Lord from that of the Old Testament, which condemned adultery and demanded the death penalty.

(1) Jesus had come to bear the penalty for sinners, and thus He did not come to condemn anyone, but to offer salvation to all (cf. John 3:16-17). At His second coming He will bring judgment to the wicked.

(2) Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience, while most of the apostles addressed Gentiles. Judaism condemned adultery and sexual immorality, as can be seen from John chapter 8. The Gentiles were more like the Canaanites of Old Testament times—they were distinctly pagan in their sexual conduct and values. Thus, it was not necessary for our Lord to dwell on the sinfulness of sexual immorality, since the Jews of His day agreed with Him on this point.

(3) The Jewish religious leaders felt smugly self-righteous because they did not practice this form of sin, but they were guilty of other, more subtle, sins, which were more socially acceptable. The sexually immoral, such as the woman caught in the act of adultery, honestly acknowledged their sin, but the scribes and Pharisees were hypocritical, refusing to acknowledge their own self-righteousness. Thus Jesus majored on those sins which were more subtle, and which were more characteristic of the religious leadership of Israel.

If these Jewish leaders condemned sins which were overtly wrong actions, Jesus chose to focus on those hidden sins which were attitudes. Thus, in the gospels we see how our Lord pressed beyond the actual act of adultery to the attitudinal sins of adultery:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you, that every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if you right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. And it was said, ‘WHOEVER DIVORCES HIS WIFE, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DISMISSAL’; but I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:27-32).

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19).

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

These three texts provide us with the essence of our Lord’s teaching on adultery and sexual immorality. Let us briefly consider the important truths our Lord taught on sex and marriage.

(1) Jesus teaches here that it is not enough to keep the Law in its letter, but must also keep it in spirit. We must begin by taking the Bible literally, and thus we acknowledge that any act of adultery must be avoided. But this does not take the Law far enough, as our Lord must continually point out to His listeners, and to His literalistic opponents, the scribes and Pharisees.

(2) Jesus thus teaches here that attitudinal sins precede sins of action (cf. James 1:13-15). He does not necessarily teach that attitudinal sins are as bad as action sins. From the standpoint of the harm done to men, action sins are more serious. (It is better for society that a man only think of murder than it is for him to take a life.) From the standpoint of our sin against God, attitudinal sins and action sins are both rebellion against God.

(3) The way to fully keep the Seventh Commandment is to view sexual sin as so serious (damning) that we are willing to take any measure required to prevent it. We must begin by understanding that plucking out eyes and cutting off hands will not cure sin or assure us of keeping the Seventh (or any other) Commandment. Hands and eyes are involved as precipitating causes of immorality, however. Visual and sensory (touch) stimulation are often the prelude to immorality. Having said this, let us note that eyes and hands are very precious body members. To remove either is a drastic action (as, for example, one would do in the case of cancer). If one were so serious as to be willing to pluck out an eye or cut off a hand then that person’s attitude is what it should be with regard to adultery. Our Lord is teaching us that we must, unlike our culture, take sexual sin most seriously. When we are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a sin, we will likely take the steps necessary to avoid it.

(4) Adultery is a violation of the union of marriage. It is significant that our Lord began by talking about adultery, but that He almost immediately came to the subject of divorce. It is also significant that He taught divorce causes adultery, except in the case where the divorce was based upon previous adultery. The inference is quite clear: since sexual union joins a man and woman in marriage, adultery violates that union. Thus, when a divorce is granted due to adultery, a later marriage on the part of the innocent (that is, not guilty of adultery) party is not viewed to be adulterous.

It is very important for me to be precise in what I say here. First, I believe that a Christian has the right to divorce a spouse for adultery, but that this is never one’s duty, and seldom one’s highest calling. I do not think that it is correct to conclude that adultery terminates a marriage, any more than it is correct to conclude that sin terminates our salvation. Thus, one should be careful not to think or say that since adultery is a sin against a marriage, it has also, de facto, terminated the marriage.

(5) Divorce causes adultery. How many times have we heard that adultery breaks the marriage union, that is, that adultery (legitimately) causes divorce? Our culture believes that the obtaining of a certificate of divorce legitimizes adultery. Our Lord teaches us here that divorce causes adultery. According to Matthew 19:9, if one divorces and marries another (except for the divorce based on the immorality of the other partner) that person commits adultery. The assumption here is that the divorce is obtained in order to marry another, or that it will ultimately result in marriage to another. Furthermore, the one who divorces their spouse also causes them to commit adultery, since a remarriage is assumed. Let those who would consider divorce an option carefully ponder the implications of their actions in accordance with our Lord’s words here. Let those who have already divorced and remarried remember that divorce and immorality (as all other sins save unbelief) is not an unpardonable sin. Let those who think this is an occasion or an excuse for sin read Romans chapter 6 very carefully.

When we leave the gospels of the New Testament and come to the epistles, there is a change which we should recognize and appreciate. First, we move from a Jewish to a Gentile culture. Pagan religion often intermingled sexual immorality with its “worship.” We therefore would expect to find some very specific revelation on the subject of adultery and sexual sin in the epistles. Second, we move from an Old Testament dispensation (centered around the nation Israel) to a New Testament dispensation (centered around a predominantly Gentile church). Israel’s sexual conduct set them apart from the Egyptians and the Canaanites. It also assured the integrity of the home and a righteous seed, through whom the Redeemer would come. This was now accomplished. What is it that makes sexual purity so important to the New Testament saint, who is not an Israelite, but a member of the church, the body of Christ? This is what we shall seek to learn from the writings of the apostles in the New Testament.

The apostle Paul has the most to say of the apostles on the subject of sexual purity. In the Book of 1 Corinthians he focuses on illicit sexual union and its relationship to the believer’s union with Christ:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “the two will become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Cor. 6:15-20).

Throughout the Scriptures, both Old Testament (cf. Gen. 39:9; 2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51:4) and New, adultery is, first and foremost, a sin against God. From the Old Testament perspective, adultery was a violation of the sanctity of marriage, which God established, and which the Law sought to maintain. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 go much farther, showing the implications of a Christian’s sexual union with a harlot. When one comes to faith in Christ, when he is born again, that person becomes one with Christ. Thus, whatever one does, he does in union with Christ.

Sexual intercourse with a harlot, contrary to popular thought, is no casual matter, it is a union as well. Indeed, in verse 16 Paul makes a statement of monumental importance. He equates sexual union with marital union. When one enters into a sexual union, Paul reasons, one enters into marital union. For a Christian to engage in sexual intercourse with a harlot puts two unions in conflict: his union with Christ and his union with a harlot. Just as no man can have two masters, neither can one have two unions—one with Christ, and another with a harlot. Sexual sin has very serious theological implications.

In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul focuses on the relationship between the Christian husband and wife, and the way it portrays an important spiritual truth to the world:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:28-32).

While I have cited only a portion of this important paragraph (vss. 22-33), the important point to recognize here is that the relationship of a Christian husband and wife is to be a reflection of the relationship of Jesus Christ to His church.

Finally, sexual purity is vitally important to the Christian life because it is directly related to one’s sanctification:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3-8).

Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:19-22).

In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 Paul says that the will of God is for us to be sanctified. He then immediately turns to our sanctification as it relates to our sexual conduct. Our sanctification cannot be expressed or realized apart from a radical change in our sexual conduct—that is, a radical change in the way we conduct ourselves sexually, as contrasted with our former conduct and that of the pagan world around us.

In 2 Timothy chapter 2 Paul’s instruction is more general, but still very much to the point of sexual morality. Sanctification involves setting something apart for a special use. Sanctification involves purity, the absence of what is unclean. And, Paul says, it involves for Timothy the fleeing of youthful lusts, which surely include illicit sexual passions and conduct.

When we come to our last text, we come full circle: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). The marriage union which God established, God also sanctified. Sexual purity begins with highly esteeming that which God has given—marriage, and the one whom God has given—our mate. When we thus honor marriage, we will see to it that the marriage bed, the blessing of sexual union, remains undefiled by sexual union outside of that marriage, which profanes.


We can see, then, that throughout the Bible, the enjoyment of sex is restricted to marriage, and to that which is consistent with our position and calling in Christ. Let us conclude by seeking to isolate the principles which underlie and govern sexual purity, and then some of the practical outworkings of these principles.

(1) The principle of sanctification. Sanctification is one of the great principles of the Bible, whether in the Old or the New Testament. Sanctification was, for example, the first great test which man failed in the Garden of Eden. Some have attempted to show that the sin committed in the Garden of Eden was a sexual sin. I think there is little evidence for this conclusion. I do, however, believe that the first sin is similar to that of adultery, and thus very instructive. Consider, for a moment, how that “forbidden fruit” (whatever it might have been) is similar to the “forbidden fruit” of illicit sex.

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is very desirable. I find it interesting that the fruit of this tree of knowledge of good and evil was good, like everything else God created (cf. Gen. 1:11-12, 31). More than this, it was very desirable: “And out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9). It is no wonder, then, that Eve was attracted to the “forbidden fruit”: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is available. Just as God placed the “forbidden fruit” in sight and within the reach of Adam and Eve, so the “forbidden fruit” of sexual immorality is visible and available.

In both cases, the “forbidden fruit” is forbidden. Just as God had clearly forbidden the partaking of the “forbidden fruit” in the garden, so He has clearly forbidden the “fruit” of sexual impurity.

In both cases, partaking of the “forbidden fruit” brings disastrous results. Satan made great promises about the benefits of partaking of the fruit of that tree, but he failed to tell all. Great were the consequences. Sin entered the human race and human history, and the consequences are evident all about us. So, too, the pleasures of sexual sin are prominently proclaimed, but the price for immorality is exceedingly high (cf. Prov. 2:16-22).

The “forbidden fruit was not forbidden because is was intrinsically bad. It did not look bad, it did not taste bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad, in and of itself. Remember that God made it, and that all He made was good. The forbidden fruit was forbidden, not because of any evil characteristic of the fruit itself, but because God “sanctified” or set it apart. He did not permit man to use it.

Sanctification, therefore, was the first test which God gave mankind, and it was this test which man failed. It is little wonder, then, that God has so much to teach man about sanctification in the Bible.

Abraham, and his seed, is set apart from the rest of mankind, and through Him Messiah will come and will bring blessing and salvation to all nations. The nation Israel is kept apart from other nations by her time in Egypt, and in the plagues, the Israelites are distinguished from the Egyptians. The covenant which God made with Israel on Mt. Sinai was a further means of sanctifying His people, to be a priestly nation:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (Exod. 19:4-6a).

To play out her role as God’s priestly nation, Israel had to be separate, sanctified, different from the surrounding nations. Those distinctions are spelled out in the Law, one of which is that of the maintenance of sexual and marital sanctity.

The New Testament portrays a very similar picture. Here, the church is the “bride of Christ,” with the responsibility of exemplifying the relationship of Christ to His church (Eph. 5:22-33). In order to do this, Christians must be holy, sanctified, just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16). The Christian life therefore involves making many distinctions and then living them out. We must distinguish between truth and error, between good and evil, between holiness and unrighteousness. We must even distinguish between what is personally permissible and what is personally beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). Furthermore, there must be a distinction drawn between what is personally permissible and what is detrimental to others (cf. 1 Cor. 8-10).

The differences between holy and unholy, clean and unclean are crucial. In a divine vision, God said to Peter, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15). At times we are tempted to think that what God has called clean is really unclean (as was the case with Peter; cf. also 1 Tim. 4:1-5). At other times, we are tempted to call “clean” what God has called “unclean.” One of the most important decisions the Christian can make is to rightly distinguish between the holy and the unholy—the see what God has sanctified and what He has not. Sanctification is therefore one of the great, governing and guiding principles of the Word of God.

(2) The sanctity of marriage. If we have accepted the principle of sanctification in general, we must then see it in the particulars of our Christian experience. One of these particulars is that of marriage. Marriage, by God’s decree, is sanctified, it is a relationship that is set apart and restricted. The sin of adultery is dealt with so severely because it is a violation of the sanctity of the marriage which God has ordained and set apart.

The sanctity of marriage is indicated by the statement in Genesis 2:24, that a man must leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. This union is set apart, it is to be distinct from the previous relationship of parent and child. When our Lord commented on this text He said, “Consequently they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). The Law pertaining to adultery also confirms the sanctity of marriage.

Just what is it that distinguishes a man’s relationship with his wife from other relationships? In other words, what is it that makes a marriage distinct, unique, sanctified? I believe that there are several ways in which marriage is sanctified:

Unity. The relationship between a husband and his wife is a union. The husband and wife become one. They become one in spirit, and sexually they become one in physical union. This sexual union consummates and symbolizes the union of marriage. Our Lord says that this union of husband and wife must not be severed (Matt. 19:6). The Bible seems to teach that this union is not severed by anything but death, anything including divorce. The union of husband and wife is one of the unique elements of marriage. This union is violated and defiled by adultery. Adultery mocks the union of a man and his wife, and the God who joined them together.

Intimacy. Closely related to the union of a husband and his wife is the intimacy which they experience in marriage. Physical intimacy is the most obvious, but there is also a spiritual and emotional intimacy. This intimacy can be both constructive and destructive. One can build up the other in those intimate areas of one’s heart and life, but one can also do great damage in the intimate areas as well. Who knows better how to hurt his mate than the one who has the most intimate knowledge of her?

Reproduction. When God brought man and woman together as husband and wife, He commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28). The reproduction of life is that function which is carried out within the marriage union, according to God’s design and decree. It marks out yet another way in which the marriage is sanctified.

Fellowship. When God had created a mate for all of His other creatures, He looked upon Adam in his solitude and said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). God created Eve and brought her to Adam for fellowship, to be his helper and his companion. Marriage is sanctified in the degree to which a man and his wife have fellowship with one another.

There are two specific applications which I would suggest emerge from the observation of these unique areas in which marriage is sanctified, unique. The first is that the sanctity of marriage not only demands that we not defile the union in any way, including adultery, but that we actively seek to enhance the marriage. I would suggest that the categories of unity, intimacy, reproduction, and fellowship are four specific benchmarks of the quality of our marriages, and thus four specific areas for concentrated effort. I would further suggest that these four areas (there are probably others, too) provide the “glue” which holds a marriage together. Let us work at growth in each of these areas.

The second layer of application relates to the church. I would suggest that the four things which set a marriage apart from other relationships are the very four things which distinguish a Christian’s relationship with his Lord and with His body, the church. Time will not permit further exploration, but take note of how often unity (e.g. Eph. 4:1ff.,), intimacy and fellowship, and reproduction (evangelism, fruit bearing) are discussed in the context of one’s personal walk with the Lord or with the corporate union of believers in the body of Christ.

(3) The sanctity of sex. If the Seventh Commandment teaches the sanctity of marriage, it also teaches the sanctity of sex, for it is only in marriage that the pleasure and product (children) are to be experienced. Our culture is adamantly opposed to the sanctity of sex. Most Americans seem to think that human sexuality is to be used in the same way I use my Stanley chisel—the more uses to which it can be put, the better. Viewed from a contemporary secular perspective, sexual pleasure restricted only to marriage is a tragic waste, a failure to make full use of one’s sexual potential, and thus to deprive oneself of a great deal of sexual pleasure. Virginity is thus looked upon as a stigma, from which one should rid oneself as quickly as possible.

In my opinion, the rampant sexual immorality of our day is not primarily the result of greater temptation, of increased sexual desire, of greater opportunity, or even of the availability of the pill and abortion. The epidemic of sexual immorality is, I believe, the result of a failure to understand or appreciate the sanctity of sex and of marriage. For this and other reasons, the Seventh Commandment is of vital importance, not only to a pagan world, but to a carnal and permissive church.

Here we come to one of the very crucial implications of the sanctity of sex. When we sanctify sex, it is because we value it highly, not because we disdain it as something of little worth. We sanctify those things to which we attach great value. Our culture protests that Christians disdain and demean sex, that we have little appreciation for it. The opposite is true. We sanctify sex because we value it highly, as a good gift from the hand of a gracious God.

Think about this carefully, for it is of the greatest importance. Women, why do keep your silver in a special place, bringing it out only for “special” occasions? The same could be asked about your best china, or that very special dress (maybe even your wedding dress). Men, what about that special car, or gun, or golf club? If you owned a Mercedes Benz, would you loan it to a neighbor to go hunting in, or to haul firewood? We all restrict the use of (we sanctify) those things which we most highly prize.

Teenagers, culture is lying to you. Our culture does not value sex, it thinks of it as very common, so common that virtual strangers will share life’s most intimate treasure. How tragic it is to see young people seduced (philosophically and physically), so that they will share that most treasured gift with those who cannot even be named or numbered. The sanctity of sex in marriage clearly calls for the sanctity of sex before marriage. May God grant you the conviction to stand against the flood of cultural and peer pressure.

In conclusion, let me suggest three additional ways in which the sanctity of sex is to be applied in a practical way. First, since the sanctity of sex reflects its value, its beauty, its goodness, let us never think of sex as something dirty and defiling. Some people seem to disdain sex in marriage as much as the Bible disdains it outside of marriage. The Bible speaks otherwise. In both the New and Old Testaments we are urged to let the pleasure and enjoyment of sex within marriage serve as a godly defense against sexual immorality:44

Drink water from your own cistern, And fresh water from your own well. Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? Let them be yours alone, And not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love. For why should you, my son, be exhilarated with an adulteress, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Prov. 5:15-20).

Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3-5).

Second, in order to avoid the evils of sex, we need to minimize our exposure to those things which only stimulate lustful thoughts and sexual temptations. Specifically, I am referring to what Paul has written in the Book of Ephesians, which especially relates to sexual impurity:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:1-14).

Third, we must beware of that teaching (either by direct statement or by inference, or by silence) which holds that any and every sexual pleasure can be enjoyed by a married couple behind closed doors. I understand that “possessing one’s vessel in sanctification and honor” (1 Thes. 4:4), and “holding the marriage bed in honor,” “keeping the marriage bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4) implies that not every sexual practice of the pagan world is permissible or beneficial for the Christian. This may be a matter of personal conviction, over which there is some disagreement, but marriage does not make every sexual practice holy.

May God grant that we hold sex and marriage to be sacred, and may God enable each of us, by His grace and through His Spirit, to move ahead in the process of sanctification, to the praise of the glory of His grace.

42 One may wonder why only the husband is to leave his father and mother, and not the wife. Some of this may be cultural, but I think the primary reason is that in those days especially (and in other cultures still today) the woman is under the authority of her parents, and her parents authority over her is simply transferred to her husband. The man, on the other hand, is under his parents’ authority as a child, but when he “leaves” them he terminates that “chain of command” and establishes a new “chain of command,” being the head of his wife and the family which may follow.

43 In Genesis chapter 34, Dinah is apparently forcibly raped by Shechem, a deed to which Jacob’s sons violently reacted as an abomination (cf. 34:7). In chapter 35, Ruben lay with one of his father’s concubines (35:22). In chapter 38, Judah engaged in sexual union with his daughter-in-law, whom he thought to be a Canaanite cult prostitute (38:14-23). His indignation at discovering his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock (not knowing yet it was by him), reveals that sexual immorality was clearly condemned (cf. v. 24). The incidents in chapters 34 and 38 indicate that the Law of Moses only codified what was already understood to be wrong.

44 In saying that sexual pleasure in marriage is one of God’s safeguards against immorality, I am not saying that the husband or wife who gives freely of themselves in a sexual way thereby guarantees the sexual purity of their partner. I have heard it cruelly stated or implied that had a mate satisfied his or her partner in marriage, adultery would have been prevented. While depriving a partner tempts them, fulfilling a partner does not necessarily keep them from sexual sin. We need only look at men like David and Solomon, who had so many wives they couldn’t keep up with them, but still sought after more (such as David sought Bathsheba).

Related Topics: Christian Home

22. The Sanctity of Truth (Exodus 20:16)


This past week, I was given a copy of an apocryphal memo from a superintendent of schools regarding Halley’s Comet. It demonstrates how communication often fails:

MEMO to Assistant Superintendent from Superintendent:

Next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Halley’s Comet will appear over this area. This is an event which occurs only once every 75 years. Call the principals and have them assemble their teachers and classes on the athletic fields and explain this phenomenon to them. If it rains, then cancel the day’s observation and have the classes meet in the auditorium to see a film about the Comet.

MEMO to Principals from Assistant Superintendent:

By order of the Superintendent of Schools next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Halley’s Comet will appear over your athletic field. If it rains, then cancel the day’s classes and report to the auditorium with your teachers and students where you will show films—a phenomenal event which occurs every 75 years.

MEMO to Teachers from Principal:

By order of the phenomenal Superintendent of Schools, at 10:30 a.m. next Thursday Halley’s Comet will appear in the auditorium. In case of rain over the athletic fields the superintendent will give another order—something which occurs only every 75 years.

MEMO to Students from Teachers:

Next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. the Superintendent of Schools will appear in our school auditorium with Halley’s Comet—something which occurs every 75 years. If it rains the Superintendent will cancel the comet and order us all out to our phenomenal athletic field.

MEMO to Parents from Students:

When it rains next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. over the school athletic field, the phenomenal 75 year old Superintendent of Schools will cancel all classes and appear before the whole school in the auditorium accompanied by Bill Halley and the Comets.45

If we have learned anything about communication over the centuries it is that even when we strive to convey a given truth, it often comes out somewhat distorted. The well-known party game of “gossip” is but another evidence of the same phenomenon. When we add to this the fact of the fall of man and the sinful inclinations of our hearts, it is apparent that our speech will be corrupted and distorted. Thus, we read: “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13-14).

In this message we are studying the Ninth Commandment, which states: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20). Technically, this is not a prohibition of lying in general, but of that “false testimony” which is given in a court of Law, by which another is either convicted or found innocent. The implications of this commandment go much farther, as we shall soon see.

The approach of this study will be similar to that in dealing with the other commandments. We will begin with a study of false witness in the Old Testament. We will then consider the subject of false witness in the New Testament. Finally, we will seek to isolate the underlying principle of this precept, along with the guiding principles for bearing witness. We will then attempt to explore some of the ways in which this commandment intercepts our everyday life.

False Witness in the Old Testament

When God created Adam and Eve He gave them the gift of speech, which was one of the ways He distinguished them from the rest of His creatures. The gift of speech was distorted and corrupted at the fall. It was not long after the fall that falsehood raised its ugly head in the Scriptures. It is appropriate that the first falsehood in the Bible should be spoken by Satan, the “father of lies” (8:44). He assured Eve that partaking of the forbidden fruit would not result in death, as God had said (Gen. 3:4). Cain lied to God, insisting that he did not know where his brother was (Gen. 4:9). Abraham lied about his wife, passing her off as his sister (Gen. 12:11-13). Jacob was a master of deceit (e.g. Gen. 27). Joseph’s brothers deceived Jacob, their father, into thinking he had been killed by a wild animal (Gen. 37:20, 32-33). The midwives were not completely truthful with Pharaoh, when he asked why the Hebrew boy babies were not put to death (Exod. 1:18-19). Moses was not forthright with his father-in-law about his reasons for returning to Egypt (Exod. 4:18).

The falsehood which is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment, however, is much more specific: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20).46 The false testimony which is forbidden here is that which is given in the context of a trial, by which a person will be found innocent or guilty of an offense against God or man.

Before we consider this commandment in greater detail, let us briefly consider the cultural context, which makes this commandment necessary. We live in a world that is quite different from that of the ancient Near East. Our laws are made by men, not given by God. Our laws are carried out by Law-enforcement professionals. When we speed, a radar-equipped policeman may pull us over and give us a ticket. When our house or car is broken into, or when we are robbed, we very often do not know the criminal. The automobile has given the criminal great mobility, and consequently anonymity.

In ancient Israel, there were no policemen. Society was not very mobile. Courts were much less formal. If a man was robbed, it was frequently by a neighbor, someone the victim knew and associated with day after day. One did not call the police if one was victimized illegally; it was that person’s obligation to press charges. These charges were most often presented to the group of the elders or leaders of the town or city in which the victim (or the villain) lived. The accused and the alleged victim both produced their witnesses and the leaders passed judgment. The sentence was frequently imposed immediately, initiated by the one who had pressed charges (cf. Deut. 17:6-7).

In American Law, Law cases are usually divided into two categories: criminal and civil cases. In Israel, criminal, civil, and religious violations were considered by the same “court.” A man could not only be accused of murder or rape (a criminal case), but of damaging property (a civil case), or of idolatry or witchcraft (a religious violation, something which our courts would not consider). Some crimes, like theft, were dealt with more as civil cases, because restitution was the prescribed punishment. There were no prisons, and so one either made restitution in some way, or paid for his crime with his life, or the loss of some member of his body.

At first thought, the prohibition of perjury (which is really what the Ninth Commandment does) would seem to be rather unimportant—not important enough to make a part of the Ten Commandments, at least. Our culture would seem to agree, since perjury is an offense which merits little more than a “slap on the wrist,” at least in comparison with the penalties prescribed in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 19:16-20). There are several reasons why perjury should be viewed as a serious offense, not only in Old Testament times, but in our own as well.

(1) Truthful testimony is essential for a just trial. “A rascally witness makes a mockery of justice, And the mouth of the wicked spreads iniquity” (Prov. 19:28). Essentially, there were three components in Israel’s judicial system, which are common to most judicial systems, including our own. First, there is a body of laws, which distinguish the evils which a society wishes to punish and to prevent. Second, there are the judges, who apply the Law to the specific facts of the particular case. Third, there are the witnesses, who by their testimony, make certain claims as to the facts of the case. (In our own judicial system, the duty of the jury is to determine what the facts of the case are, on which the judge will rule, applying the Law. The jury must determine which testimony is true and which is not, since testimony constitutes a large part of the evidence.)47

In Exodus God was giving Israel the Law, to serve as His perfect standard for men’s conduct. Since this Law was written by God, it was untainted by man’s sin. It was, as the psalmist wrote, perfect (Ps. 19:7). The “judges” varied. Sometimes judgment was rendered by the “elders” of the particular city in which the trial was held. Later, when Israel had a king, he could render judgment, especially on appeal (cf. 1 Ki. 3:16-28).48 Even though the Law was perfect, justice could be perverted by unjust judges, of which there were many. The Old Testament has much to say about rendering just judgment (as is the case in Proverbs, addressed to some degree to kings).

In the Ninth Commandment, attention is drawn to the witnesses in any given trial. If the testimony given in the course of a trial were false, a just verdict is threatened. The Ninth Commandment seeks to insure a just verdict by prohibiting the bearing of false, that is untrue, testimony, which may either wrongly incriminate or justify a person who is accused of wrongdoing.49

(2) Just trials are essential for righteousness to prevail in any nation. There is a very close relationship between justice and righteousness, so close that you cannot have one without the other. If a nation is to be righteous, as the nation Israel was called to be, then there must be justice rendered in its judicial decisions. This is worth reflecting upon for a moment.

The outcome of the judicial process has a direct bearing on our understanding and application of the Law. God’s Law is perfect; men are not. The way the perfect Law is applied to imperfect men affects both men and the Law. To uphold the Law vigorously motivates men to keep the Law zealously. To be lax in applying the Law causes men to take the Law less seriously.

Let me illustrate the impact of the judicial process on the Law by pointing to the role which the courts (and ultimately the Supreme Court) have on the laws of the land in the United States. It has been the decisions of the courts on cases related to racial segregation, abortion, and the teaching of evolution or the offering of prayers in public schools which have dramatically affected the laws of the land. Abortion, once unlawful, is now legal. Prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools is now considered unlawful (or virtually so). The particular rulings of the courts have wide-ranging implications. Unjust rulings in court thus promote unrighteous living in the land.

In the case of the nation Israel, it was not enough for the people of God to have just laws. God’s purpose was for His people to be holy, sanctified, set apart, so that they could reveal His character to the surrounding nations, so that they could serve as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). The Law which God gave to define righteousness, also addressed itself to the process by which unrighteousness could be dealt with. Thus, God gave His Law, judges, and this Law prohibiting untrue testimony, on the basis of which decisions would be reached.

(3) False testimony is a barrier between man and God, which hinders his worship.

O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the Lord; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change; He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken (Psalm 15).

The question with which this psalm begins is, in essence, “Who can worship God and fellowship with Him?” The answer includes many aspects of personal righteousness, but most prominent here is the righteousness which has to do with one’s speech. The one who can approach God in worship is the man who is careful in choosing his words, and is careful to keep his word. In this psalm false testimony is surely one of those things which a godly man avoids.

(4) False testimony is a violation of the rights of the falsely accused, which can do great harm. “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, But through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” (Prov. 11:9). “Like a club and a sword and a sharp arrow Is a man who bears false witness against his neighbor” (Prov. 25:18).

The second half of the Decalogue is concerned with one’s responsibility toward his fellow man. False testimony is surely an offense against one’s neighbor, just as true testimony is one’s duty. False testimony can not only ruin a man’s reputation, it may even cost him his life. Perhaps one of the most abominable acts of false witness is found in 1 Kings chapter 21, where Ahab and Jezebel obtain the property of Nabal by means of false testimony, which results in his execution (which is murder).

In our own day, we have recently seen the injury imposed upon Lenell Geter, a 26-year-old engineer, who was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. This was based upon his identification from a driver’s license photo (who would ever want to be identified by or with those pictures?), and the inaccurate statement that he was known to have been involved in criminal activity. All of this in spite of the fact that he was proven to be at work at the time of the robbery. Cathleen Crowell Webb’s recent “recantation” of rape charges against Gary Dotson, still doubted by some, may be another example of the injustice imposed by false testimony.

As we look at the Law in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as it relates to false witness, we find that it provides us with considerable clarification on the Ninth Commandment. We will briefly summarize some of the ways in which the Pentateuch explains and expands this commandment.

(1) The Law clarifies what false witness includes. The language of the commandment itself indicates that false witness, first and foremost is that testimony which is given in a trial, which could convict an individual of a charge or prove him innocent. False witness is broadened, however, to include one’s statements outside of the courtroom (in the case of Israel, outside of the city gates). Thus, slander (Lev. 19:16) and its closely-related evil of spreading rumors (Exod. 23:1) are prohibited. Both entail statements which falsely accuse another of a transgression. In some ways, slander and gossip are the more evil, for these are statements made which are unlikely to be scrutinized or challenged, as they would be in a legal trial. I would take it from Deuteronomy 5:20 that careless or sloppy testimony is also condemned. There, “vain” witness is forbidden, which I understand to be that which is “empty” or “without substance.” While some would willfully condemn another by deliberately false testimony, there are many others who would unknowingly convict another by testimony which is not precise, which goes beyond the facts and actual knowledge. Those in the legal professions (prosecutors or lawyers) can urge their witnesses to be more specific or more confident than what the facts will sustain.

Finally, the Law condemns that “false witness” which is the result of one’s silence. There are many instances in which a person does not want to give testimony. Leviticus 5:1 deals with such cases by teaching that when one who has personal knowledge of a matter before the court, but who does not wish to testify, that person will be placed under oath, and if they refuse to testify under oath, they are guilty of false witness. Thus, in Proverbs, the false witness becomes an accomplice in the crime, a partner to the thief: “He who is a partner with a thief hates his own life; He hears the oath but tells nothing” (Prov. 29:24). I understand this to be what took place in the trial of our Lord. He refused to answer the trumped up charges of His adversaries, until He was placed under oath, at which time He directly answered the question put to Him, but not to their satisfaction (cf. Matt. 26:62-66).

(2) The Law identifies evil causes of false witness. Witnesses are necessary because all men are sinful. The prohibition against false witness was necessary because all witnesses are sinful. There are certain pressures to which men are vulnerable, which will influence them to give witness which is false. The Law recognizes these influences, and cautions the witness to guard against them. One such factor is prejudice. For some, it will be prejudice for the poor (Exod. 23:3, 6; Lev. 19:15); for others prejudice for the rich or powerful (Lev. 19:15). Some may even favor the evil (Exod. 23:1).

Peer pressure is another strong influence, and so the witness is warned against testifying contrary to the facts and consistent with the desires of the majority (Exod. 23:2). Hatred and animosity can create such enmity that one will bear false witness in an attempt to have vengeance against an enemy (Lev. 19:18). Finally, bribery is not to change one’s testimony (Exod. 23:8).

(3) The Law prescribes safeguards against false witness. The Law goes beyond warning against false witness, to prescribing preventative measures, which promote a truthful testimony. No one may be executed on the basis of the testimony of one person (Deut. 17:6-7), thus requiring a conspiracy to convict one of a capital offense. The requirement of at least two or three witnesses assumes that the testimony of any witness is going to be incomplete and possibly distorted. When there is only one witness to a particular (non-capital) offense, an oath must be taken and the testimony of both parties (the witness and the one accused) must be carefully scrutinized (Deut. 19:16-20). In a capital case, the witness must initiate the execution (Deut. 13:1-5; 17:6-7), thus making the false witness a murderer, which will stop some short, who would be willing to kill another with their words, but not with their own hands. Finally, the false witness must be punished for the same crime about which their testimony bore witness (Deut. 19:16-20).

(4) The Law holds the individual Israelite responsible for leading and initiating charges against a Law-breaker (Deut. 13:1-5). When any Israelite gained knowledge of a violation of the Law, it was that person’s duty to initiate the corrective process. In fact, from what we have already learned, the knowledgeable witness must commence the process and consummate it, by casting the first stone if required. There were no police officers, no sheriffs. The individual was to take action.

(5) Thorough investigation is required to assure that charges are legitimate (Deut. 13:12-18; 19:16-20).

(6) The testimony which is to be carefully scrutinized and investigated must include “prophetic revelations” (i.e. the “testimony of God,” Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). False prophets falsely testify for God, and thus all prophetic testimony must be carefully scrutinized.

Bearing false witness is a prominent theme in the Old Testament prophets. When Israel sinned, God bore witness50 against the sinners. The Law itself was a witness against the Israelites if and when they disregarded and disobeyed it:51

“Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore” (Deut. 31:21).

God spoke to the Israelites, bearing testimony against them through the prophets. When the prophets spoke they spoke for God; when they spoke, it was God speaking, bearing witness against His people:

Yet He sent prophets to them to bring them back to the LORD: though they testified against them, they would not listen (2 Chron. 24:19).

“Because they have acted foolishly in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken words in My name falsely, which I did not command them; and I am He who knows, and am a witness,” declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:23).

The language of the prophets often refers to God’s dispute in legal terms, just as though God were pressing charges against His people. The sins for which God indicted the nation included perjury and false witness:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:5).

“And they bend their tongue like their bow; Lies and not truth prevail in the land; For they proceed from evil to evil, And they do not know Me,” declares the Lord. “Let every one be on guard against his neighbor, And do not trust any brother; Because every brother deals craftily, And every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. And everyone deceives his neighbor, And does not speak the truth, They have taught their tongue to speak lies; They weary themselves committing iniquity; Your dwelling is in the midst of deceit; Through deceit they refuse to know Me,” declares the Lord (Jer. 9:3-6).

“For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Just as I purposed to do harm to you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and I have not relented, so I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear! These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates. Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate,’ declares the LORD” (Zech. 8:14-17; cf. Jer. 2:9; 5:1-9).

God’s people did not listen to His rebuke. Instead, they rejected His accusations and maintained their innocence. This necessitated the discipline of God in the form of their exile from the land. “Yet you said, ‘I am innocent; Surely His anger is turned away from me.’ Behold, I will enter into judgment with you Because you say, ‘I have not sinned’” (Jer. 2:35).52 Not only did the Israelites refuse to repent when confronted with God’s charges against them; they chose to listen to false prophets, who told them what they wanted to hear:

But it came about, as soon as Jeremiah whom the Lord their God had sent, had finished telling all the people all the words of the Lord their God—that is, all these words—that Azariah the son of Hoshaiah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You are not to enter Egypt to reside there’” (Jer. 43:1-2).

“For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, Every one is greedy for gain, And from the prophet even to the priest Every one deals falsely. And they have healed the wound of My people slightly, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jer. 6:13-14; cf. 8:10-11; chap. 23).

It became increasingly clear to the prophets that if righteousness were to come to the earth, Messiah would be the One to bring that righteous rule, and to execute judgment on the earth. The Messiah would be God’s witness to men:

“Hear, O peoples, all of you; Listen, O earth and all it contains, And let the Lord GOD be a witness against you, The Lord from His holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him, And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place” (Mic. 1:2-4; cf. Ps. 85:8-13; Isa. 42:1-4).

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Mal. 3:1-5).

“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, According to the faithful mercies shown to David. Behold, I have made him a witness to the peoples, A leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, And a nation which knows you not will run to you, Because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you” (Isa. 55:1-5).

False Witness in the New Testament

Let us briefly look at the way the false witness is taken up and developed in the New Testament.

(1) Our Lord was the faithful and true witness. In the Book of Revelation, our Lord is called, “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5; 3:14). The Book of Hebrews begins with the statement that God has finally and fully given testimony to men in the person of Christ: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).

Jesus was like the prophets of old in that He came to bear witness to the truth, but He was unlike them in that He was the truth (John 14:6). He was the “light” who had come to expose the sins of men: “Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The things which Jesus spoke were the things of the Father. He spoke for the Father:

“I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world. … I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (John 8:26, 38).

(2) Jesus taught that truthfulness should be habitual, and that oaths ought not be necessary for those who give testimony.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:33-37).

In the Old Testament, a witness was sometimes put under oath, swearing to tell the truth. Our Lord taught that truthfulness should be a way of life, so that no oath taking is ever necessary. We should, as it were, always speak as though under oath.

(3) The Lord Jesus directly applied the Old Testament teachings on giving testimony to the maintenance of purity in the church. In my opinion, we cannot read our Lord’s instructions in Matthew 18 without seeing their relationship to the Old Testament teaching which we have been studying: “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matt. 18:16).

Just as the individual Old Testament Israelite was responsible to take the initiative in the execution of justice when a Law was broken by a fellow-Israelite, so the individual Christian is responsible to deal with sin in the church. As in the Old Testament, one witness is not sufficient, but 2 or 3 are required for so serious a matter as excommunication. Since the passing away of the old covenant, the state is not the instrument for dealing with spiritual sins, the church is, and thus the same principles which the Israelites were to apply are carried over (or largely so) into the church.

(4) Those who rejected the witness of our Lord, sought to do away with Him by their own false testimony. The witness of our Lord, like that of the Old Testament prophets, was rejected by sinful men: “The Pharisees therefore said to Him, ‘You are bearing witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true’” (John 8:13). Consequently, it was not too long before the scribes and Pharisees determined that they must be rid of Jesus and that they must put Him to death. After some time, they found the opportunity to use Judas to help arrest Jesus. Ironically, it was through false testimony that they were able to find Him worthy of death, so that they could crucify Him:

Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find it, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” (Matt. 26:59-62).

Here, we see Israel’s judicial system at its very worst, using it to condemn the One who authored it. The judges were corrupt and personally prejudiced; the witnesses were false; and the Law was ignored.

(5) The Lord’s final command to His disciples was to be His witnesses.

“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matt. 24:14).

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In some of His last words to His disciples our Lord promised them that He would provide them with all that they needed to be His witnesses. First and foremost, they were eyewitnesses of His death, burial, and resurrection. In John 14-17 there are several specific provisions for the witness of His disciples mentioned. Their obedience to His commandments and their love for one another would be a witness to the world. Then, He would leave them with His word, which they were to obey and to share with others. His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, would bear witness to the Word of God and the word of their testimony. Finally, His high priestly prayer in chapter 17 was related to their role as His witnesses.

Jesus came as a witness, and when He departed from the earth, He left His church behind to be His witnesses. Thus, in the Book of Acts, the believers were frequently described as bearing witness to their faith and the fact of the resurrection. “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). It was this testimony which the Pharisees sought to silence by their persecution and intimidation (Acts 4:15-18), and yet the apostles could not cease to share what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20). In answer to their prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon these witnesses, giving them boldness to speak the word of God (Acts 4:27-31).

(6) The apostles taught that those who would give witness to their faith would suffer persecution for doing so. Our Lord had indicated that those who gave witness to their faith would be persecuted, just as the Old Testament prophets were: “Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).

Peter also taught that men would bear false witness against those who were godly: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).

At the time of Paul’s conversion, it was revealed that his calling was to bear witness of God’s salvation to the Gentiles, and that he would suffer much in carrying out his commission: “But the Lord said to him [Ananias], ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake’” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul wrote of the suffering which he endured for the sake of his gospel witness (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:1-10). Thus, he also taught that those who would be faithful as witnesses would suffer as well (cf. 1 Thes. 2:1-2, 14-16; 2 Thes. 1:3-5; 2 Tim. 3). The Book of Revelation does not avoid the fact that there will be many martyrs for their faithful testimony. Paul knew that persecution or the fear of it would silence some, thus resulting in false witness.

In the midst of persecution, the believer was exhorted by the apostles to be ready to give testimony to their faith:

But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:14-16).

Just as sinful men did not want to hear God’s witness against them through the prophets, neither will many wish to hear God’s testimony today. Not only will these people refuse to hear our testimony and persecute us for speaking the truth, so they will also turn to those “false witnesses,” those teachers who speak the things that accommodate the sinner (cf. 2 Tim. 3:6-8; 4:1-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-3, 18-19).

(7) The apostle Paul warned that to proclaim as the gospel something which is not true is to be a false witness. “Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:15). To bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, if this did not happen in history, would make one a false witness. To extend Paul’s point, to proclaim a doctrinally or factually inaccurate gospel is to become a false witness. Let us be sure that our message is biblical.


If we are to deal with some specific implications and applications of the Ninth Commandment, we must determine the principle underlying the commandment so that we can then pursue its practical ramifications. We know of course, that the tongue is a powerful tool, for good or evil. It can either bless or curse, do good or evil (cf. James 3:3-12; 4:11-12). With his tongue, Peter spoke words of the greatest significance (Matt. 16:15-19; Acts 2:14-42). With the same tongue, Peter spoke words that were Satan’s testimony, not God’s (Matt. 16:21-23). If we were to attempt to deal with the broad area of our speech and the use of our tongue, that would be study of great magnitude, and frankly, one that would go far beyond the specific intent of the Ninth Commandment. What, then, was the principle underlying this commandment, which we are to understand and apply? TRUE TESTIMONY IS ESSENTIAL FOR THE ADMINISTRATION AND EXECUTION OF JUSTICE AND JUSTICE IS THE OUTWORKING OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Israel was set apart from the other nations in order to manifest God to the nations as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The Law was God’s definition of the righteousness which God required of Israel. The judicial system was established to interpret and enforce the Law. Testimony was necessary as a basis for righteous judgment. False testimony would undermine the justice and righteousness which God required of His people as a “holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests.”

Of course, God requires truthfulness of His people at all times and in every situation. But here truthfulness is required of those who would give testimony because of the dire consequences of falsehood. In establishing the requirement for truthfulness in testimony, God is also requiring that men be truthful in all speech, a point which our Lord emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37).

If we should learn anything from the Ninth Commandment, it is how seriously God takes the matter of justice, and of anything which perverts it. Justice and righteousness are two of the most important qualities in the heart and mind of God. Perhaps more than anything else, these two terms sum up the character of the kingdom which our Lord is going to establish on earth. Justice, righteousness, and mercy are three of the key concepts of the Old Testament prophets. It is not for her failure to follow all of the right ceremonies that God condemned Israel, but for her failure to preserve and promote righteousness, justice, and mercy.

There have, at various times in history, been men like William Wilberforce, who have championed a particular cause in the name of justice, but these have not been as numerous as they should have been. I must say, however, to our shame, that the evangelical church in America has not been known for her zeal to preserve and promote justice. The evangelicals were not leading the way for the prohibition of slavery, nor for the end of segregation. All too often, evangelicals were searching their Bibles for proof texts which justified the injustice of segregation. If we are to catch and put into action the spirit of the Law, then we must learn to love justice, and be zealous to preserve and promote it.

Having considered God’s love for justice, let us briefly survey some principles which bear upon the matters of false witness and the promotion of justice.

(1) False testimony is a very strong temptation and a very pernicious evil in our society. Giving false testimony is a way for one person to do great harm to another, and yet seem innocent, even pious in doing so. In the nature of the case, there is great potential for sin in the process of giving testimony. We can distort the truth for any number of reasons. People are tried for overt acts, not thoughts or attitudes, and thus testimony tends to dwell on the outward appearance, not the heart of the matter. This understanding and application of the Law is what Jesus sought to correct in the Sermon on the Mount, which focused on the underlying attitudes, not just the outward actions of sin. The witness can give testimony for very impure reasons (social pressure, hatred, spite, even for a bribe), and yet seem to have righteous indignation at the sin of another. Think, for example, of how pious the scribes and Pharisees and high priests were acting as they tried the Lord and found Him worthy of death.

(2) There is the principle of the priority of witnessing. It is evident in the Ninth Commandment that false witness is forbidden, but beyond this we should see that truthful witness is imperative. As we have seen, to fail to testify for God against sin is to give false testimony. Thus, one of our highest obligations to our fellow man is to hold them accountable for sin. This holds true for fellow-Christians, but also for unbelievers. Our neighbor’s highest interest is best served by the exposure of their sin and the grace of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(3) The principle of plurality in witness. The requirement of two or three witnesses suggests that no one person can really know enough about a particular act of another to condemn them. The New Testament has much to say about the unity of the body of Christ (the church) and of the interdependence of Christians on one another. It is not uncommon to have one Christian try to “straighten out” another Christian, and yet be completely mistaken in his or her analysis of the problem. I would suggest that the principle of plurality applies here. Any sin which merits strong corrective action also requires plural participation. An accusation made against us by one person should not be shrugged off casually, but one confirmed by others must be taken most seriously.

The principle of plurality means that “no Christian is an island,” who does not need the encouragement and admonition of the church body. It means that one who justifies himself in the face of plural criticism may be foolish and sinful in doing so. It certainly means that we should seek godly counsel from others to learn more of our own wickedness. It means that for us to justify ourselves is to take our own testimony (the testimony of one) over that of others. Those who are strong-willed and headstrong need to beware of the tendency to trust one’s own assessment of matters, rather than to listen to the rebuke of others.

Conversely, there are some whose tendency is not to justify themselves, but to condemn themselves. I would suggest that since Satan is both the “father of lies” (John 8:44) and “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10), his accusations are nearly always false (in one way or another). Just as we should not justify ourselves in the face of the correction of others, neither should we condemn ourselves without seeking the evaluation of others. Whether we justify or condemn ourselves, we should always seek testimony other than our own.

(4) The principle of purity in our witness. Righteousness and justice cannot be preserved and promoted by deception and falsehood. One may wonder at why such a statement even needs to be made. The reason is that Christians sometimes fail at this very point. We tend to use the same deceptive advertising techniques to promote the gospel that others use to sell soap or toothpaste. I have seen evangelicals use “interviews” and “polls” as shabby excuses for giving their testimonies. Such practices pressed the ragged edge of honesty, in my opinion. More currently, I know of anti-abortion groups who attempt to lure pregnant women into a counseling session by deliberately misrepresenting themselves as a pro-abortion agency. God’s purposes must never be pursued through falsehood and deception.

For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God (2 Cor. 2:17).

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:1-2).

Even one step beyond this, Paul even refused to use lofty and persuasive speech, but taught in simple terms:

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:2-5).

(5) The love of justice is a purifying force. Throughout the Old and the New Testament, godly men and women have longed for the day when the Messiah would come to the earth and establish His righteous rule, when justice will finally and fully come to the earth. Until then, human justice will be fallible and imperfect. But knowing that He will come to judge the wicked is a motivation to live godly lives now (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8-13). When He comes again, the Lord Jesus will not be a “babe in a manger,” nor will He be one whose deity, majesty, and power are not recognized. He will be the One who is described in the Book of Revelation, the One in whose presence men will fall, as though dead. He will be an awesome judge. He will need no witnesses, for He knows all. He knows what men do, and why they have done it. No testimony will be needed then, for He will know all. Even in His first coming there were indications of this. Our Lord knew what men were doing, and what they were thinking. We will have no excuses when we stand before Him. Those who love justice will look for His coming. Those who love wickedness will dread His return and do everything they can to convince themselves that He will not return (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-7).

(6) The justice and righteousness which God requires of His people must be preserved and promoted by the practice of church discipline. Not only does Matthew chapter 18 apply the Old Testament principles of bearing witness to the preservation of the purity of the church, but a number of other texts as well. We are individually “our brother’s keeper.” We must initiate and carry through with the corrective process, giving testimony for God against the sin of a fellow-believer, even as our Lord taught.

(7) False witness includes many of the “little sins” which are so prevalent among Christians and in the church. My contention is that false witness is included among the Ten Commandments because of the seriousness of this sin. It is significant, I think, that many of the sins included in the general category of false witness are the most prevalent sins among Christians, and that they are not viewed as being very serious transgressions.

Tattling among children (often) and gossip among adults is one form of false witness, as identified in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:1), and which is also forbidden in the New (cf. Rom. 1:29; 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Thes. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:15). Very often, slanderous gossip is given in the name of a “prayer request” or information which enables one to “pray more intelligently.” The bottom line is that the reputation of many has been sacrificed on the altar of gossip. Such “testimony” is doubly evil, for it is not spoken in the hearing of the accused, or before impartial judges, nor is it open to challenge, as it would be in a public trial. Let us beware of sanctified sins.

Let me suggest several differences between the false witness of gossip and slander and the true witness of the Bible:

  • False witness bears testimony to the wrong people. True witness takes up the matter with the offender first, and then with those in authority, and finally, before all if necessary.
  • False witness neglects the God-given process; true witness begins with the individual and ends with a public proceeding, if required. Evidence and testimony is carefully scrutinized.
  • False witness seeks the harm of the innocent and the practice of evil; true testimony seeks to protect the innocent, to preserve justice, to restore the sinner and to remove unrighteousness.
  • False witness seeks to make a matter as public as possible; true witness makes sin only as public as is required. Put differently, love seeks to cover sin, while animosity seeks to publicize it.
  • False witnesses sometimes keep quiet when they should speak out; true witnesses speak out, even when it is painful to do so.
  • False witnesses are motivated by evil; true witnesses by their love for God, for good, and for justice.
  • False witness tears down and destroys others; true witness ultimately edifies others, even if it is initially painful and unpleasant.
  • False witness is selfish at its root; true witness is selfless and sacrificial.

45 I regret that I do not have the source of this humorous illustration.

46 It is important to note that the wording in the two statements of the Ninth Commandment is not the same. Hyatt points out that Exodus 20:16 “… may be literally rendered, ‘You shall not answer against your neighbour as a lying witness [‘ed seker].’ The corresponding commandment in Dt. 5:20 has ‘as a witness of emptiness [‘ed saw].’ The Exodus form is the more original, since the phrase ‘lying witness’ occurs elsewhere in the OT (Ps. 27:12; Prov. 6:19; 12:17; 14:5; 19:5,9; 25:18), and the phrase ‘ed saw’ occurs only in Dt. 5:20. This commandment was originally directed against the giving of false testimony in a judicial trial, not against all forms of lying or untruthfulness. The language of the verse is that of the Law court. Hebrew ‘anah (‘answer’) was a technical term meaning to testify, give testimony in a court, as in Num. 35:30; Dt. 19:16, 18.” J. Philip Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 215.

The Exodus commandment seems to zero in on that testimony which, by malicious intent, is false. The commandment in Deuteronomy seems to be more general, condemning any testimony which, whether deliberate or not, may prove to be false.

47 All of this is more profoundly impressed on the writer since I was selected to sit on a jury panel just last week, for three days! In His providence, God was helping to prepare me for this message.

48 The thought occurred to me that when Nathan confronted David he may have done so as though he were presenting a legal case for David to pronounce judgement on. Only after David had rendered his verdict did Nathan expose the villain—David himself. This would add some force to the indictment, I believe. It would also help to explain the way in which Nathan brought David’s sin home to him.

49 True testimony was also considered vital by other ancient peoples. Craigie writes, “The Code of Hammurabi begins with four laws specifying various types of false witness: (a) bringing an unproved charge of murder; (b) bringing an unproved charge of sorcery; (c) false witness in a capital case; (d) false witness in a civil case (ANET, p. 166).” Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 162, fn. 26.

50 There were many “witnesses” against sinners in the Old Testament. Included were: (a) The Law (Dt. 4:45; 6:17, 20; 1 Ki. 2:3; 1 Chron. 29:19; 2 Chron. 34:31, etc. (b) Our Sins—Isa. 59:12; Jer. 14:7. (c) The prophets—2 Chron. 24:19; Mal. 2:14; 3:5 [Note that both in Isaiah’s case (6) and Jeremiah’s (1:9), their lips were touched by God before they were sent forth to speak to men for God]. (d) God Himself—Deut. 8:19-20; Ps. 50:7; Mal. 3:1-6; Mic. 1:2.

51 One of the frequently employed synonyms for the Law was “testimony” or “testimonies” (cf. Deut. 4:45; 6:17, 20; 1 Ki. 2:3; 1 Chron. 29:19; 2 Chron. 34:31; Ps. 19:7; 119:2, etc.). Does this confirm the fact that the Law is the testimony which God has borne to men concerning sin? I have not followed through with this thesis, but it is a possibility.

52 Cf. also Isa. 1 and 2; 48:1; 59 (all); Jer. 5:1-9; Zech. 8:14-17; Mal. 3:1-5.

21. The Sin of Stealing (Exodus 20:15)


Stealing is a subject well worth our attention for several reasons. First, stealing has become a national problem of epidemic proportions. For example, consider the impact of “time theft” on our economy:

The Robert Half Personnel Agencies has calculated that time-theft will cost the American economy as much as $70 billion a year. Time-theft is defined as those deliberate employee actions which result in the massive, growing misuse and waste of time. Estimated time-theft are: arriving to work late, leaving early, taking unjustified ‘sick’ days, extensive socializing with co-workers, turning the water cooler into a conversation pit, inattention to the job at hand, reading novels and magazines on the job, operating a business on the side during working hours, eating lunch at the desk and then going out for the ‘lunch hour,’ excessive personal phone calls, on-the-job daydreaming and fanticizing, long, frequent coffee and snack breaks, etc.53

Second, our culture sends us “mixed signals” as to how serious a problem stealing is. On the one hand, stealing is taken very seriously, when compared with some other evils. An adulterer is not even punished by the Law enforcement agencies any longer, even though there may be laws against it. A person may be given a lengthy sentence for misappropriating money (e.g. banking violations) while another may serve less time for murder. On the other hand, stealing is often romanticized in the media. Television programs portray police officers as either inept or bound by the Law from apprehending the villains, and so the private eyes always get their man, often by the use of a “pick” to break into locked quarters, where they steal incriminating evidence.

Third, stealing is a much more complex problem in our society than it was in the days of ancient Israel. In the ancient world, very tangible objects were stolen: cattle, property, wives, and the like. One could hardly argue that he had not taken anything if it were found in his possession. On the other hand, we now live in an age of sophisticated technology. For example, we have ideas which are patented and materials which are printed, both of which can be stolen. Credit cards and electronic banking have made matters even more complicated. And then there are the electronic gadgets. Satellite dishes are available to “steal” electronic signals from the sender, electronic recordings may be duplicated, so that the owner does not get any remuneration for his labor. And now there is computer software, much of which can be copied in seconds, making it possible for thousands of dollars worth of programming to be obtained for the few pennies it costs for a diskette.

Fourth, stealing is often viewed as an evil for the wrong reasons. Usually we think of stealing as a violation of the right of private property. While this may be true, I believe that there are much more serious problems than this, which we shall explore in this sermon.

Finally, stealing is a serious sin because it is included in the Ten Commandments, which identifies the “ultimate evils” of Israel’s day, and of our own as well. I have come to view the evils prohibited by the Ten Commandments as the “ultimate evils” which God prohibits. There are other evils, but they are condemned under one of the “ultimate evils.” For example, if it is wrong to kill our neighbor, it is also wrong to do bodily harm to him, or to destroy his reputation (as taken up in the Sermon on the Mount). If it is wrong to commit adultery, it is also wrong to practice other sexual sins. In our society, since first degree murder is wrong, then so is second degree murder or manslaughter. (Thus, one charged with first degree murder may be charged with any lesser offense. But one charged with a lesser offense cannot be charged with a greater, of the same kind.) The greater offense thus includes the lesser.

My approach in this lesson will differ somewhat from that of the study of previous commandments. Rather than to follow the development of the commandment (or the evil condemned) progressively through the Bible, I will seek to explore the nature of stealing, ending up with a concise definition. This will enable us to explore some of the ways in which we steal today. Finally, we will conclude by focusing on the biblical solution for stealing, as prescribed in the Scriptures.

Stealing—Its Categories

Broadly speaking, stealing falls into two categories: active stealing and passive stealing. Active stealing aggressively, willfully, maliciously takes what belongs to someone else, through a variety of means. In Leviticus chapter 6 we find several forms of active theft identified:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD; and he shall be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt” (Lev. 6:1-7).

(1) Embezzlement. Embezzlement is the misuse or misappropriation of something that has been entrusted to us (Lev. 6:2). Embezzlement is a violation of trust, for what has been placed in a person’s keeping has been appropriated for selfish purposes. Embezzlement is frequently an offense of a bank employee or of a comptroller of a corporation.

(2) Robbery. Robbery is the act of taking what belongs to another (Lev. 6:2). Robbery, I believe, is a broad definition, covering several kinds of stealing. Robbery generally takes things directly, often by the use of superior force (frequently involving a weapon). Stealing suggests stealth. A pick-pocket for example, uses stealth, as does a burglar. Fraud may also be included here. If so, fraud involves getting what belongs to another by deception. Here, the victim often gives what is stolen to the thief, thinking that doing so will be profitable. The only one who profits, however, is the thief.

(3) Extortion. Extortion gains possession of another person’s property by the illicit use of authority or of force (not a weapon, however).54 Sometimes, charging an excessive price is included here, if one feels compelled to buy the product. For example, if your child was seriously ill and there was only one medicine which would cure the child, you would be willing to pay almost anything to obtain it, even if the cost were excessive. In many parts of the world, Law enforcement officers use their position of authority to extort funds from those who are vulnerable. If a policeman could, by his false testimony alone, convict you of a crime that would imprison you, you would gladly pay his extortion fee to avoid the threatened punishment. Thus, John the Baptist told the tax gatherers and soldiers of his day:

“Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:13-14).

(4) Kidnapping. In the ancient Near East, kidnapping was considered a form of theft (Deut. 24:7), probably because the individual would be kept as a slave, rather than because he or she would be ransomed.

In addition to these “active” forms of stealing, there are a variety of “passive” forms of stealing. While the thefts previously described wrongly took something from the possession of another, passive theft is the failure to give to another what belongs to them or is due them. For a variety of reasons, we may have in our possession what rightfully belongs to another, and yet fail or refuse to give it to them. While a more passive act, it is nevertheless stealing. The following forms of passive stealing are forbidden in the Bible:

(1) A man’s negligence which results in a loss to his neighbor. Exodus chapter 22 (verses 1-15) describes several acts of negligence which deprive a neighbor of his property, and which thus require restitution. For example, if a man’s pasture land has been grazed bare, and he therefore lets his animal loose, so that it grazes on his neighbor’s pasture, consuming it, the negligent man is guilty of passive stealing (Exod. 22:5).

(2) A man’s failure to return something lost to its owner is stealing. In Leviticus 6:3, the old adage, “finders keepers, losers weepers,” is shown to be an excuse for theft. To find what belongs to another, and not to return it, is to steal it, by one’s negligence or refusal to return it.55 Clear instructions regarding the returning of lost items is given in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“You shall not see your countryman’s ox or his sheep straying away, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly bring them back to your countryman. And if your countryman is not near you, or if you do not know him, then you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall remain with you until your countryman looks for it; then you shall restore it to him. And thus you shall do with his donkey, and you shall do the same with his garment, and you shall do likewise with anything lost by your countryman, which he has lost and you have found. You are not allowed to neglect them. You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay no attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up (Deut. 22:1-4).

(3) Failure to give what belongs to another is stealing. A day laborer is to be paid at the end of the day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15). For an employer to keep a laborer’s wages, which at the end of his work day rightfully belonged to the worker, was to rob him. So, too, to keep back the tithes, by which the Levites were supported, would have been robbery (cf. Deut. 18:1-8; 26:9-13). Withholding the charity which was to be shown to the poor, the alien, and the stranger, was also stealing. God instructed the Israelites to make certain provisions for the poor, such as leaving the corners of their fields unharvested (Deut. 24:19-22). Whenever an Israelite became greedy and did not leave something behind for the poor, he was stealing from them, for God had given the gleanings to them.

Stealing—Its Characteristics and Its Culpability

Theft, whether actively or passively perpetrated, has certain characteristics, so that stealing can be positively identified as an evil act. For each of these characteristics, there is a corresponding principle or precept of God which is thereby violated, identifying the act as sin. Several of the tell-tale ear marks of stealing are:

(1) Stealing involves an unauthorized change of possession. When one steals, he takes possession of something which does not belong to him. Obviously, ownership of the stolen property belongs to the one from whom the property was stolen. Ultimately, all things belong to God: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). “The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1). God not only owns all things, He also possesses all people. When a person steals, he disregards both divine and private ownership of that property.

God is so concerned that property not accumulate in the hands of a few that He gave Israel regulations which would assure a relatively equal distribution. In Deuteronomy chapter 15, for example, a number of measures are prescribed to prevent the concentration of Israel’s wealth into the hands of a few. Debts were be canceled and slaves were to be liberated every seven years. The land was to revert to its original owner at the end of 70 years. The thief resists God’s distribution of property and seeks to concentrate and control it.

(2) Stealing does harm to one’s neighbor by taking what rightfully belonged to him. Stealing is always detrimental to the victim. Indeed, stealing is often accompanied by other evils, which are harmful to one’s neighbor (cf. Prov. 1:10-19). The man who was robbed in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) was also beaten. Stealing therefore is a violation of one’s obligation to love his neighbor, and to do good to him (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19).

(3) Stealing takes unfair advantage of one’s neighbor. Stealing is always accomplished by gaining some advantage over the neighbor who is the victim. The advantage may be that of strength (including the use of a weapon), subtlety (deception or stealth), or power. For example, a person who has wealth may take advantage of a neighbor who is in dire economic straits, loaning him money at a high rate of interest (cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Neh. 5:1-14; Hab. 2:6-11). This is to take advantage of a neighbor’s adversity and vulnerability, often preying upon the most vulnerable members of society:

For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, And the greedy man curses and spurns the Lord. The wicked, in the haughtiness of his countenance, does not seek Him. All his thoughts are, “There is no God.” His ways prosper at all times; Thy judgments are on high, out of his sight; As for all his adversaries, he snorts at them. He says to himself, “I shall not be moved; Throughout all generations I shall not be in adversity.” His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness. He sits in the lurking places of the villages; In the hiding places he kills the innocent; His eyes stealthily watch for the unfortunate. He lurks in a hiding place as a lion in his lair; He lurks to catch the afflicted; He catches the afflicted when he draws him into his net. He crouches, he bows down, And the unfortunate fall by his mighty ones. He says to himself, “God has forgotten; He has hidden His face; He will never see it” (Ps. 10:3-11).

Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Every one loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them (Isa. 1:23).

The Israelite was not to capitalize on such tragedies and hard times, but was to help without expectation of profit, or even of getting back what was given. The biblical principle, both in the Old and the New Testaments is that the strong are to support the weak (Deut. 15; Rom. 15:1). One steals when he is strong and he gains from the adversity of the weak. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees wrongly used their power to oppress the widows, and to “devour their houses” (cf. Matt. 23:14), rather than to help them in their distress (James 1:27).

(4) Stealing sins against God by wrongly possessing the property of another. Stealing is a sin against God (Lev. 6:1-2, 6-7), profaning His name:

Two things I asked of Thee, Do not refuse me before I die: Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion; Lest I be full and deny Thee and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God (Prov. 30:7-9).

(5) One who steals sins against himself, thereby bringing calamity upon himself. The folly of stealing is that while the victim of the theft is harmed, the thief is not benefited. Both the thief and his victim will suffer due to the theft. The thief will suffer because he will not gain from stolen goods and God will bring divine judgment upon him. In fact, the thief destroys himself by his crime.

Do not trust in oppression. And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Psalm 62:10).

My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent. If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait for blood, Let us ambush the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We shall fill our houses with spoil; Throw in your lot with us, We shall all have one purse,” My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, For their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed blood. Indeed, it is useless to spread the net In the eyes of any bird; But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors (Prov. 1:10-19).

Ill-gotten gains do not profit, But righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 10:2).

Then I lifted up my eyes again and looked, and behold, there was a flying scroll. And he said to me, “What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits and its width ten cubits.” Then he said to me, “This is the curse that is going forth over the face of the whole land; surely everyone who steals will be purged away according to the writing on one side, and everyone who swears will be purged away according to the writing on the other side. I will make it go forth,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and it will enter the house of the thief and the house of the one who swears falsely by My name; and it will spend the night within that house and consume it with timber and stones” (Zech. 5:1-4).

(6) Robbery corrupts the nation and the land:

Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness Or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, And every one who lives in it languishes Along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky; And also the fish of the sea disappear (Hosea 4:1-3).

When I would heal Israel, The iniquity of Ephraim is uncovered, And the evil deeds of Samaria, For they deal falsely; The thief enters in, Bandits raid outside, And they do not consider in their hearts That I remember all their wickedness. Now their deeds are all around them; They are before My face. With their wickedness they make the king glad, And the princes with their lies (Hosea 7:1-3).

(7) Stealing is destructive to the community, to the unity of the people of God. A friend observed that few things adversely affect the sense of unity within a community more than a theft. When the thief is not known, everyone tends to look at one another as a possible thief. Thus, the sense of trust which binds a group together is destroyed. Stealing is therefore referred to as a “breach of trust” (Exod. 22:9).

(8) Stealing seeks to set aside the consequences of man’s sin. Because of man’s sin, God decreed that man would live “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen. 3:19). Stealing is man’s effort to make a living by the sweat of another man’s brow. Often, stealing is obtaining those things which one is not willing to work for. Stealing therefore is an attempt to set aside the curse. It is a sin which endeavors to avoid the consequence of sin.

(9) Stealing seeks to set aside the covenant of God with Israel. The commandments, of which the prohibition of stealing is one, are a part of the covenant God made with Israel. The purpose of the covenant was to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, to be a holy people, so that they might be a priestly nation, representing God to men. Stealing was one of the evils of that day, as it is today. To refrain from stealing would set Israel apart. To practice stealing would be to fail to live up to the high calling of God. Stealing would thwart the intent of the covenant.

Furthermore, the terms of the covenant were that God would prosper Israel as she kept His commandments and pursued His purposes. On the other hand, God’s judgment was promised if the covenant was violated (cf. Deut. 28). For an Israelite to seek to prosper on account of sin was to disregard, indeed, to disdain, the terms of the covenant which God had made with Israel. The thief sought to prosper by sin, rather than by obedience.

But to the wicked God says, “What right have you to tell of My statutes, And to take My covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline, And you cast My words behind you. When you see a thief, you are pleased with him, And you associate with adulterers” (Psalm 50:16-18).

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

(10) Stealing disregards God’s laws, because of the distrust of God and His promises. In the final analysis, stealing evidences a man’s lack of faith in God, and in His promises to provide for His people, who keep His commandments. Men trust in stealing because they refuse to trust in God. In the final analysis, the thief trusts himself more than God:

Do not trust in oppression, And do not vainly hope in robbery; If riches increase, do not set your heart upon them (Ps. 62:10).

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, “Since you have rejected this word, And have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them, Therefore this iniquity will be to you Like a breach about to fall, A bulge in a high wall, Whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant” (Isa. 30:12-13).

(11) Stealing was sometimes an effort to avoid genuine sacrifice. God gave, as a part of the covenant, a sacrificial system, by which men were able to approach God and worship Him. As an expression of worship and gratitude, the Israelites were to offer a part of their crops and cattle as a sacrifice. In time, they refused to do this:

“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes, and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of hosts. “But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed Thee?’ In tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing until there is no more need. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it may not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the LORD of hosts. “And all the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:7-12).

In some cases, the Israelites would sacrifice to God, but rather than give of their own goods, they stole from their neighbors and sacrificed stolen goods:

For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense, And I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isa. 61:8).

“You also say, ‘My, how tiresome it is!’ And you disdainfully sniff at it,” says the LORD of hosts, “and you bring what was taken by robbery, and what is lame or sick; so you bring the offering! Should I receive that from your hand?” says the LORD (Malachi 1:13).

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, How much more when he brings it with evil intent! (Prov. 21:27).

In effect, the offering of stolen sacrifices enabled men to give to God without really sacrificing at all. It was the victim who made the sacrifice, not the thief. How blatant was the sin of the thief, which actually had the audacity to give to God what he had stolen.

(12) Stealing is an act that is completely contrary to the character of God. Perhaps the reason why God hates stealing so much is that it is a crime which completely contradicts His character. God is gracious; the thief is greedy. God gives; the thief takes. God responds to the cries of the needy; the thief callously creates needs and tragedy. Nothing could be more contrary to the graciousness of God than the cruelty of the thief.

Stealing, then, is a sin against God, against one’s neighbor, against one’s nation, and ultimately against one’s self.

Stealing—Its Contemporary Forms

Before we attempt to expose some of the popular forms stealing takes in contemporary society, let us seek to arrive at a simple, working definition of stealing. Originally, I thought that a good definition would be: Stealing is getting ahead at another person’s expense. I think this definition has some merit. But upon more reflection, I have decided on this definition: STEALING IS TAKING FROM OTHERS WITHOUT GIVING IN RETURN.

Stealing is, in its essence, an unfair exchange. When we steal, we take something from another person, but we do not adequately compensate them for what we have gained. In this sense, we gain, but our neighbor loses. Let’s consider some of the ways in which men seek to take from others, without giving adequately in return. Here, I believe, is where the “rubber meets the road,” where stealing can be seen for what it is—sin. (I am going to assume here that the most blatant forms of stealing—armed robbery, extortion, and embezzlement, those for which one can be sent to prison, need not be described in detail here.)

(1) We must beware not to steal on the job. Petty theft is one of the most costly losses of American business. Tools mysteriously disappear, along with supplies ranging from paper and pencils to much more costly items. Services can also be stolen. We may ask others (our secretaries, for example) to do personal work for us. We can also use the copy machine for personal copying, without permission. Then there is the stealing of time, which was mentioned in the introduction to this message. Padded expense accounts are another tempting way to steal from our employer.

It has been my observation that we often attempt to justify theft at work by the use of some rather questionable reasoning. One of the popular excuses is, “I’ve put in a lot of extra time.” If such is the case, turn it in as overtime, or at least be sure that your boss is willing to exchange a given amount of services for your extra time. Another justification is that “I’m worth a whole lot more than they pay me.” If that is so, ask for a raise, and then pay for the things you take from the office (if this is permitted).

(2) Stealing from others by depriving them of the fruit of their labor. The stealing of software (“bootlegged” copies) deprives the author and the dealer of the fruit of their labor, and is nothing less than stealing. The same is true of duped copies of audio and video recordings. Taking credit for the ideas or the labor of another is also stealing. It deprives the individual of the reward they should obtain for their labor. Also included in this area would be failing to pay those we owe promptly.56 From a biblical perspective, withholding our giving to those who minister to us is also a failure to let the Lord’s servants benefit from their labor (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-14).

(3) Stealing may also involve the abuse of legal rights. The Law provides certain legal remedies for particular evils, but these remedies may be abused so as to rob another. The Law thus becomes the advantage one has over another. For example, bankruptcy can be a means for structuring the payback of debts, and as such is honorable, but as a legal pretext for non-payment of debts it is robbery. Insurance claims can also be abused, so that claims are paid based on false information. Lawsuits provide another means of forcibly taking (excess) money from another. Let us be on guard concerning the use of these legal remedies for evil, so that the remedy itself does not become an evil.

(4) Stealing by negligence or neglect. Our negligence can be costly to others. For example, littering and polluting is an act of negligence which makes life easy for us, while others pay the price. We avoid the inconvenience of disposing of our trash or pollutants, but someone else has to pay for cleaning up our mess. And lest you think this is something that doesn’t relate to you, how many of you turn your pet loose in the neighborhood to “pollute” someone else’s yard, so that you don’t have to clean up the mess in your own yard?

(5) Stealing in the name of getting a “good deal.” This kind of stealing is far more subtle. Indeed, one can actually be praised for this kind of deal. It is getting a “great deal” at the expense of the other party. For example, suppose that you went to a garage sale and found a widow selling some of her husband’s tools, at far below their real value. We could buy them all up and walk away feeling that we really got a great deal. But is this really honest? Is this not stealing, gaining at the expense of this woman, having the advantage over her, due to her ignorance of the value of what she possessed? I have had people tell me in the past that I “stole” something at a sale. At the time I was flattered. Now, I might be embarrassed. Good deals should not be occasions when we got the better deal because of another person’s vulnerability.

Incidentally, modern advertising has taken note of our greed here. Have you noticed how many advertisements include statements like, “getting divorce, must sell,” or, “going out of business,” or “lost our lease,” or “fire sale.” All of these statements (often untrue) cause us to think that the seller is in desperate straits, and thus vulnerable. Rather than having feelings of sympathy and compassion, we leap at the chance to get the upper hand.

(6) Corporate or collective stealing. There are ways in which we can participate in a theft that is perpetrated by a group. For example, some large business can steal, either by fixing prices, or manipulating the market, or by using their power to pay inadequate wages. They can also provide unsafe working environments, which can certainly produce profits at the expense of their employees. The child labor abuses of the last century are an example of corporate theft. The existence of labor unions can be attributed, to a large degree, to industry’s gains made at labor’s expense.

Labor unions quickly learned from the carnality and greed of big business. They, too, have stolen by the misuse of their power. By threatening a strike (or worse), which could economically destroy a company, unions have been able to demand wages and benefits for workers which they have not earned. In other words, labor has gained at the cost of big business.

Governments, too, can steal. It is possible for the majority of a country’s citizens to impose unfair taxes on the rich, so that by a “legal” governmental function (taxation) the poor rob the rich. In other countries, the rich use their influence and power to oppress and rob the poor, by manipulating and misusing governmental power. Communism appeals to the greed of the masses, encouraging revolution and the formation of a new government which will disenfranchise (take the property away from) the rich, and give it to the poor. Functionally, this is stealing.

Governments can also employ tariffs to steal from people. Tariffs can be levied on foreign goods, so that higher prices must be paid to purchase American goods. This could mean that Americans are “forced” to pay higher prices for inferior goods, or that foreign peoples are deprived of the ability to sell their goods and to make a living. On the other hand, some foreign manufacturers have no qualms about copying (stealing) U. S. designs, manufacturing the products with “slave” or “cheap” labor, and then selling their product below the U. S. market price, thus stealing from American business.

(7) Religious robbery. Religious robbery is one of the most serious forms of stealing, in my opinion. The reason is that we are either robbing God, robbing in the name of God, or robbing in a way that suggests God is our partner in crime. Let us consider “robbing God” first.

We rob God whenever we withhold from Him what is due Him, or what belongs to Him. We rob God when we withhold our offerings from Him. Now I would be the first to point out that the Old Testament tithe is not binding on the New Testament saint. I would also point out that everything we have ultimately belongs to God, and that we are only stewards of what He has given us. I would suggest that whenever we treat ourselves better than we do God’s servants and God’s work, we have withheld from Him. Thus, Haggai, the Old Testament prophet, accused the Israelites of robbing God when they lived in paneled houses, while the house of God was in shambles and incomplete (Hag. 1:2-4). To put the matter a bit more personally, when we find our own houses in better condition and better maintained and furnished than the church building (I am not saying that the church building is God’s house) we are in danger of robbing God.

There is another way that we rob God. Some Christians pride themselves for having left money to the church or to Christian causes in their will. I commend those who have the forethought to assure the good stewardship of their resources after their death. But we can deceive ourselves in this matter if we are not careful. Let us not salve our consciences for poor stewardship now by leaving our worldly goods to God in our wills. For some this is only saying, “I’ll enjoy all that my money can do for me now, ignoring the pressing needs of others and the great opportunities before me, comforted by the fact that when I am dead and gone (and won’t be able to use the money anyway), God will have my money.” We should be good stewards of God’s resources now and in the future.

The most frequent and flagrant way in which men rob God is when we fail to give Him the praise which He deserves. Unsaved men and women are condemned for failing to give God praise:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in the speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Rom. 1:18-21).

Perhaps we should expect this of unbelievers, but the tragedy is that Christians also fail to give God the praise and adoration He deserves. Frequently this evil is compounded by our taking the credit and praise for what God has done in us, most often in spite of us (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26-31; 4:6-7; Eph. 2:8-10).

Then, there is what I call “sanctified stealing.” Sanctified stealing is that which is done in the name of God, in the name of religion, or by the misuse of religious position or power. The scribes and Pharisees were sanctified stealers. Jesus accused them of “devouring widows houses,” while at the same time they prayed long pretentious prayers (Matt. 23:14). Outwardly, they were pious, but in reality they were thieves: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence (Matt. 23:25). In addition, they used their religious position and power to make money in the Temple, buying and selling sacrificial animals and exchanging money. For this these religious merchandisers were forcibly cast out of the Temple with the rebuke, “It is written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers’ den” (Matt. 21:13).

As harsh as it may seem, I believe that some ministries rob God and His people by mismanagement and specifically by excessively high operating and administrative costs. This is particularly inappropriate for those ministries which are supposed to be caring for the poor.

Some ministries and so-called “Christian businesses” rob their employees by paying them sub-standard wages. They assure the employee that they are “serving the Lord” and that some of the profits of the company are being given to Christian causes, but that does not put food on the tables of the employee. I would suggest that Christian companies pay a fair wage and let the employee determine which Christian ministries he or she would like to support. Then, of course, some of these employees do poor quality work, or steal time, comforting themselves with the fact that they are underpaid anyway.

The worst robbery of all, in my opinion, is that which is done by the false prophets and teachers of every age. They generally live very well, generously provided for by the gullible, who love their “smooth words” and who fall prey to their sophisticated fund-raising schemes. And in return the deceived not only fail to learn the truth, but very often believe the lies which they are taught, and which will lead them to destruction.

Stealing—Its Corrective and Its Cure

For those who had stolen from another, the Old Testament prescribed restitution. The most detailed prescription of the restitution required is found in the Book of Exodus:

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double. If a man lets a field or vineyard be grazed bare and lets his animal loose so that it grazes in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best of his own field and the best of his own vineyard. If a fire breaks out and spreads to thorn bushes, so that stacked grain or the standing grain or the field itself is consumed, he who started the fire shall surely make restitution. If a man gives his neighbor money or goods to keep for him, and it is stolen from the man’s house, if the thief is caught, he shall pay double. If the thief is not caught, then the owner of the house shall appear before the judges, to determine whether he laid his hands on his neighbor’s property. For every breach of trust, whether it is for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any lost thing about which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he whom the judges condemn shall pay double to his neighbor” (Exod. 22:1-9).

It is interesting to note that restitution varies in this text, according to several factors. First, restitution varies, depending on whether of not the stolen animal is recovered. Second, restitution varies according to the value of the animal, especially with regard to the productivity of the beast. I believe that the oxen was more valuable than the sheep because it was the “John Deer,” the farm tractor of that day. If a man’s ox was stolen, the fields could not be plowed, the wagon pulled, or the grain threshed. Thus, a stolen (and not recovered) ox was to be paid for fivefold, while a sheep only fourfold. In Leviticus chapter 6, we find that the sacrificial system provided a means for the thief to repent, to make restitution, and to obtain forgiveness. In the New Testament, Zaccheus demonstrated his repentance by restoring what he had wrongly taken fourfold (cf. Luke 19:8-10).

Restitution reveals both the wisdom of God and the failure of the present approach to criminal justice in America. Restitution kept the offender out of prison, and kept him in society. It also enabled him to make his offense right by repaying the victim of the crime in a way that replaced the harm by the a positive benefit. Thus, both the offender and the offended could live together, both with a sense of justice and human dignity. Today, the victim receives little or no compensation, the offender makes no restitution, and is forced to live apart from society, at a price society is penalized to pay. For these reasons I believe the efforts of Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship to reform the present criminal justice system have a great deal of merit and are worthy of our support.

Restitution is a corrective, but not a cure for the crime of stealing. The Bible clearly prescribes the cure, especially in the New Testament. Crime would have the thief get ahead at the expense of one’s neighbor. Justice would have one person gain while, at the same time, the other party gained equally. Jesus Christ teaches that we should be willing to sacrifice our own interests if that benefit our neighbor:

“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).

“And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same thing. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men” (Luke 6:32-35).

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:3-5).

Christ calls for nothing less than what He Himself exemplified, nothing less than a complete reversal of the attitudes and actions of the thief.

Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need (Eph. 4:28).

The thief does not wish to work, but rather to live off of others who work. The thief looks upon the needy as the vulnerable, whose weaknesses he may very well use to his advantage, and thus to prey upon them. The Christian must put away laziness and go to work. The Christian views the needs of others as the opportunity to manifest the love and grace of God to men, and thus reaches out to help, giving of his own resources. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the radical change which conversion, faith in Christ, produces in the life of a sinner than that change which should occur in the Christian who was formerly a thief.

Let me very briefly summarize the thrust of this message:

  • Stealing takes from others with no thought of giving in return.
  • Justice demands that when one takes he must give something equal in return.
  • Christianity teaches us to give freely, with no expectation of getting something in return.

May God enable all of us to give without expecting to receive anything in return, rather than to take without expecting to give anything in return.

53 Cited in Mission Outreach, January, 1986, p.12.

54 This would seem to cover usury (loans made at excessive rates of interest), cf. Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Neh. 5:1-14; Hab. 2:6-11.

55 This seemingly passive act of negligence could very quickly become more willful in the ancient Near East, for one might have to swear to the fact that he did not find the lost item (cf. Lev. 6:3).

56 I have not thought the matter through carefully, but it would seem that Romans 13:8 may apply here: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” Some have said that this prohibits any borrowing. I doubt this. It seems to me that the text teaches us that we must not have any unpaid obligations. So long as we are repaying a loan according to our original agreement, we have not left an obligation unmet. The only obligation we should view as unmet is the obligation to love one another—a debt which will never be paid in full.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)

23. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Coveting -- and a Whole Lot More! (Exodus 20:17)


This week will be one of those few unforgettable landmarks of life. People will remember where they were and what they were doing when word of the explosion of the space shuttle reached them. The explosion cost our nation seven of our astronauts, one of whom was a school teacher, who was planning to teach from space. In the eloquent speech of our president, and from the words of many others, two predominant themes emerged as the week went on.

The first theme was the preciousness of human life. While millions of dollars of equipment were destroyed, including an expensive satellite which was to be launched from space, there was almost no mention of these financial losses, because of the sorrow and grief at the loss of seven precious human lives. We were assured by NASA officials that the safety of the crew was the top priority, and that no other considerations would in any way be allowed to jeopardize the lives of the crew of the shuttle.

The second theme was the importance of space exploration. It was clearly stated that space exploration is a dangerous task. Lives had previously been lost, and it was grimly accepted that more lives would someday be lost in the conquest of space. In spite of the near certainty that lives would be lost in exploring the universe, the determination to continue pursuing this goal was reiterated frequently and with resolve.

The relationship between these two values fascinates me. As precious as human life is to Americans, we have openly stated that we are willing to sacrifice human life if need be in the conquest of space. The goal of space exploration, then, is so important that what we value most highly—human life—will be sacrificed.

This illustrates the important role which goals play in our lives. Those goals to which we attribute great importance and value become the basis for making sacrifices. Because our nation views the conquest of space to be of utmost importance, we sacrifice great amounts of money and even human life in the pursuit of this goal.

The subject of our message is covetousness. On the surface, covetousness may not seem to be related to the subject of goals. We will see, however, that what we covet becomes our goal. If we covet the wrong things, we will have the wrong goals, and we may thus sacrifice things of great value in our effort to attain what has little ultimate and eternal value.

I believe that as we study this 10th and final commandment we will discover that we will learn a great deal about coveting. In fact, as my title suggests, we may learn a great deal more about coveting than we really wish to know.

My approach will be to first characterize the coveting which the Bible condemns. This will help to explain why coveting is sin, as well as to enable us to better identify those forms of coveting which have become a part of our own lifestyle. Next, we will consider coveting as a goal, and seek to learn why the Bible calls covetousness idolatry. Then we will seek to learn how our Lord addressed the evil of covetousness in His teaching. Finally, we will seek to discover how coveting corrupts our lives and the means God has provided to cure us of this evil.

The Characteristics of Coveting

As we search the Scriptures we learn that the coveting which is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment (and elsewhere in the Bible) has certain characteristics, which make it possible to identify this evil in it various forms:

(1) Coveting is a desire. It is a matter of the heart, an attitude, a matter of strong emotion. As such, coveting is somewhat unique among the evils condemned by the commandments. The evils prohibited by the other commandments were such that one could be tried and found guilty of committing a certain act. This act was based upon attitudes, of course, but a society cannot convict people for what they are thinking and feeling. The final commandment is a forbidden feeling, as it were, not a forbidden act.

(2) Coveting is a strong desire.58 Coveting is a desire, a motivation so strong that the one who covets something will have it if there is any way possible to do so, even if it involves evil. Coveting is a consuming desire, which is highly competitive. It is an evil attitude, which will likely lead to an evil act. Coveting is a kind of conspiracy in one’s soul to commit evil.

(3) The coveting which the Tenth Commandment condemns is the desire to have something which one does not have, or which one does not think he or she has enough of. In brief, coveting wants more. It is not content with what it already has, no matter how much that might be. As Habakkuk put it, “He enlarges his appetite like Sheol, And he is like death, never satisfied” (Hab. 2:5).

Ecclesiastes also describes the futility of the man who is discontent with what he has:

There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task (Ecc. 4:8).

(4) Coveting wants not only what one does not have, but what one cannot have. Coveting wants what is forbidden, that which belongs to another and which cannot be obtained. It is possible, of course to buy a neighbor’s animal, but not his wife. The assumption here, I believe, is that what we covet is what we cannot have, that is, what our neighbor either cannot give up (like his wife, or his land), or what he will not give up.

(5) Coveting is a deliberate desire, of which one is conscious, and for which one is responsible. The coveting which this commandment forbids is one for which the individual is responsible. In effect, the individual is held accountable for discovering the sin, and for dealing with it. This is necessary because no other human being can know our thoughts. God thus holds us responsible for what we determine in our hearts and minds.

(6) The coveting which the commandment prohibits is a well defined desire. Coveting must be distinguished from lust. Lust is a general desire. Greed is a lust for money and possessions. Coveting is a specific, focused desire, a desire to have a particular thing, which belongs to a particular person. Greed may desire money or material things; coveting desires our neighbor’s car, or his house, or his wife. Coveting is lust well defined and specifically focused. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17).

(7) Coveting is a selfish desire, which is willing to gain at the expense of others. The covetousness which is condemned is that which wants what one’s neighbor has. This kind of covetousness is clearly self-centered.

Do not weary yourself to gain wealth. Cease from your consideration of it. When you set your eyes on it, it is gone. For wealth certainly makes itself wings, Like an eagle that flies toward the heavens. Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, Or desire his delicacies; For as he thinks within himself, so he is. He says to you, “Eat and drink!” But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, And waste your compliments (Prov. 23:4-8).

(8) Coveting is a devious desire that is complex and complicated, which is often well concealed. The heart, we are told, is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). We must expect that covetousness, which is a matter of the heart, is deceitful and deceptive, and that it may be well disguised.

(9) Covetousness is a detrimental, destructive, desire. One of the reasons why covetousness is condemned is because of its consistently detrimental effects. There are several dimensions of this destructive impact of covetousness.

First, covetousness hinders the generosity which God requires of His people.

“If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings (Deut. 15:7-10).

So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, that the same might be ready as a bountiful gift, and not affected by covetousness (2 Cor. 9:5).

The one who is covetous wants more, and thus he or she will certainly not be inclined to give of what they already have. Covetousness is the number one enemy of generosity. Think about it for a minute. How many occasions have you had to give to someone in need, and as you were thinking about doing so, into your mind comes a specific item that you have always wanted, which you know you will have to give up if you are generous. Covetousness thinks of generosity as a threat to the accumulation of things which are strongly desired.

Second, covetousness is destructive and dangerous because it is often the motive for offenses against one’s neighbor. The man who covets his neighbor’s ox is likely to steal his neighbor’s ox. While coveting does not always lead to sin, sin most often begins with coveting. Thus, the Scriptures speak of coveting as the source of many evils:

“When I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it” (Josh. 7:21).

“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness And his upper rooms without justice, Who uses his neighbor’s services without pay And does not give him his wages, Who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house With spacious upper rooms, And cut out its windows, Paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’ Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, And do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord. “But your eyes and your heart Are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, And on shedding innocent blood And on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:13-17).

“And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as My people, but they do the lustful desires expressed by their mouth, and their heart goes after their gain” (Ezek. 33:31).

Woe to those who scheme iniquity, Who work out evil on their beds! When morning comes, they do it, For it is in the power of their hands. They covet fields and then seize them, And houses, and take them away. They rob a man and his house, A man and his inheritance (Micah 2:1-2).

And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23).

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

Third, the covetousness of a person is also self-destructive. A covetous person destroys himself, as well as others.

The hope of the righteous is gladness, But the expectation of the wicked perishes (Prov. 10:28).

Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 11:4).

The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, But the treacherous will be caught by their own greed. When a wicked man dies, his expectation will perish, And the hope of strong men perishes (Prov. 11:6-7).

Do not let your heart envy sinners, But live in the fear of the LORD always. Surely there is a future, And your hope will not be cut off. Listen, my son, and be wise, And direct your heart in the way. Do not be with heavy drinkers of wine, Or with gluttonous eaters of meat; For the heavy drinker and the glutton will come to poverty And drowsiness will clothe a man with rags (Prov. 23:17-21).

A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth, And does not know that want will come upon him (Prov. 28:22).

“Will not all of these take up a taunt-song against him, Even mockery and insinuations against him, And say, ‘Woe to him who increases what is not his—For how long—And makes himself rich with loans?’ Will not your creditors rise up suddenly, And those who collect from you awaken? Indeed, you will become plunder for them. Because you have looted many nations, All the remainder of the peoples will loot you—Because of human bloodshed and violence done to the land, To the town and all its inhabitants. Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house To put his nest on high To be delivered from the hand of calamity!” (Hab. 2:6-9).

Nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10).

(10) Covetousness is a deified desire—idolatry. The Ten Commandments began with a prohibition of idolatry, and they end with a prohibition of covetousness, which is called idolatry:

But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-6).

This text tells us that the covetous man is an idolater. Thus, we have come full circle. The last commandment takes us back to the first commandments, condemning idolatry. But why is covetousness called idolatry? We will now explore the reasons why covetousness is called idolatry.

The Relationship Between Covetousness and Idolatry

Coveting is especially significant because it is a “root sin,” from which all kinds of other evils flow:

But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

Just because coveting is the root of all kinds of evil, we must be very careful not to conclude that all coveting is evil. The term “covet” for most of us is a loaded one, suggesting only evil desires. In the Scriptures, however, “covet” may be used both positively and negatively. One may covet in a good sense or in a bad sense, depending on the context in which the term is used.59 Our Lord strongly desired (He desired with desire, Luke 22:15) to eat the Passover with His disciples. Paul strongly desired to know Christ more intimately (Phil. 3:7-14), to be with those whom he loved in the Lord, as well as for their spiritual well-being and growth (cf. Phil. 1:7-11). Paul also encouraged the Corinthian saints to covet the better spiritual gifts:

But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31).

Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:39).

The covetousness which the Bible prohibits is restricted to the illicit strong desire to possess what one doesn’t have, which rightfully belongs to another, and which we cannot rightly obtain. Thus, we should not conclude that all coveting is sin, only that misdirected desire is evil. What, then, is the good which we should covet, and why is other covetousness evil?

The answer can be found by employing a bit of biblical logic. I will first develop this line of logic, and then show this to be the teaching of our Lord:

(1) It is only wrong to covet what God has denied us, or what is of little value. In the Tenth Commandment God has forbidden us to desire those things which He has not given and which we cannot rightly have. Coveting is only evil when we covet the wrong things.

(2) W covet most what we value most, what we believe to be good. Coveting is a reflection of our value system. No person covets what he believes to be of no value. We do not covet our neighbor’s garbage, we covet those possessions of our neighbor which we value highly. I have never known a man who coveted another man’s wife, whom he thought to be ugly and undesirable. We covet most those things which we value most.

(3) What we covet most we will sacrifice to obtain. We will sacrifice those things which we value less to gain those things we value most. Thus, whatever a man covets is something he will make sacrifices to attain. What he will sacrifice is determined by what he most values, for ultimately a man will sacrifice most anything for what he values most highly.

There are some times in life when the hard choice of giving up some things in order to keep others is imposed upon us unwillingly. Sometimes these choices are agonizing. I remember one of my college professors telling of his days as a prisoner of war in a Japanese P.O.W. camp during the Second World War. The prisoners were all to be marched up into the mountains, to a remote camp. Each prisoner was granted 20 pounds of goods to take along. All the prisoners were instructed to go around in a circle, placing in the center those items which they were disposing. The problem was that when one man cast off an item, another decided he liked it more than what he had, so the event turned into a giant swap meet, which the Japanese soldiers eventually had to terminate.

The point is that life imposes these agonizing choices upon us, so that we must give up some things to attain others. What we value most determines what we are willing to give up. In the case of exploring space, this is a goal of such value, our government has determined that we will sacrifice life to attain it.

(4) If God is the greatest good and of infinite value, then we men should covet having fellowship with Him, and make whatever sacrifice is required to attain and enjoy it. If we once agree that God is the greatest good, then He must be man’s highest goal. Whatever sacrifices a man must make to know God and have fellowship with Him is worth the price.

(5) To covet anything more than God, is to place that thing we covet above God, which is idolatry. Coveting anything above God is making that thing our god. It is assigning to that thing ultimate value and worth. That which has ultimate value and worth in our eyes is our god, it is our idol. Thus, covetousness (which assigns highest value to things, rather than to God) is idolatry.

Coveting is a crucial matter because it assigns value to certain things, and at the same time is willing to sacrifice other things to attain what is coveted. This is what our Lord taught in the New Testament. This can be demonstrated by considering several New Testament texts.

Matthew 13:44-46 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”

Our Lord here taught that what one recognizes to be of great value he will seek to attain, and that he will pay a high price to do so. In the context, it is clear that it is the kingdom of God which is the treasure which men should sacrifice anything to attain. He is the kingdom personified, so that it is Jesus Christ who is most precious, for whom men should be willing to give up all to gain.

Luke 12:13-21 And someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But He said to him, “Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?” And He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

The point which our Lord makes here which is of particular importance to our study is that what we covet (possessions, things) are not the essence of life. In the words of our Lord, “… not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (v. 15).

In the gospel of Matthew, our Lord puts the matter even more pointedly:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26).

Life, Jesus taught, eternal life, is not attained by gaining, but by giving up. The gaining of things, even the whole world, does not gain one life. To gain everything at the cost of one’s soul is a bad bargain. Thus one must give up his own life to gain it; one must give up the gaining of things in order to gain his own soul.

Matthew 6:19-24 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

At the outset of His ministry our Lord warned of the danger of covetousness.60 Covetousness (an “evil eye”) could corrupt a person. The covetous person becomes the slave of possessions, and thus one must choose between serving God or money, for he cannot serve both (v. 24). The way for a person to cause his affections to turn toward the kingdom of God is to have his treasure there, and the way to have one’s treasure in heaven is to “lay up treasures in heaven” by using money to help others, rather than to indulge self.

What our Lord taught in a general way in Matthew chapter 6, He applied specifically to the rich young ruler:

Mark 10:17-22 And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property.

It is of great importance to note that our Lord loved this man. Some seem to think that our Lord was brushing this man aside, or that He asked something excessive and unnecessary. My conviction is that Jesus acted entirely out of love and that what He required was both necessary and beneficial. To what ever degree we identify with the grief of this man at the words of our Lord we reveal the same kind of covetousness which kept him from heaven.

The issue which Jesus raised with the “rich young ruler” was that of “goodness,” occasioned by the words of the man himself. He had called Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus pressed him to define this goodness. Our Lord pointed out that God alone is good in any absolute sense. Had this man really believed that Jesus Christ was good in the same way that God is good, then he would have to admit that Jesus Christ was God. Had He acknowledged Christ as God and as (ultimate) good, he would have had no problem giving up everything to follow Him, just as the man who found the pearl of great price gladly sold all that he had to obtain the pearl.

This man believed that he was a Law-keeper. Jesus cited every Law of the Ten Commandments which related to one’s relationship to his neighbor, save one. The one commandment which our Lord did not mention was the Tenth Commandment, the commandment which forbade coveting. It is this evil which our Lord exposed when he commanded the man to sell all that he possessed and to give the proceeds to the poor. Had the young ruler sold his goods and given the proceeds to the poor, his heart would have turned from earthly treasure to heavenly treasure. Jesus was urging him to redirect his heart by divesting himself of his worldly riches, which had become his highest good, and thus his god. The man who began by thinking of himself as a Law-keeper now had to accept the fact that he was not willing to forsake covetousness, and was thus a Law-breaker.

The rich young ruler’s problem was, at its roots, a problem with his values, with what he believed to be good, and what therefore constituted his goal in life. He was willing to serve Jesus in addition to serving money, but he was not willing to sacrifice his money to serve God. Consequently, this man went away sad. Because he coveted money, he served money as his highest goal, the highest good. Because he served money, he sacrificed his soul, his relationship with God. How tragic this story is.


Understanding coveting gives us a very practical insight into the pathology of sin, and thus a means of avoiding the evils which stem from coveting. Many Christians have puzzled at how a mature brother or sister in Christ can throw off the teachings of the word of God and pursue some blatant sin. Surely one who knows Bible doctrine so well could not fall prey to such obvious sin. The explanation is frequently found in an understanding of coveting and its relationship to one’s ultimate goals. Once our heart is turned toward that which is forbidden as our highest (or at least most desirable) goal, we are willing to sacrifice whatever we value less to attain it.

It is seldom lack of knowledge of what is right (or wrong) which is the reason for man’s sin, it is his decision to desire the wrong things, and to whatever is necessary to have them. When a man decides to forsake his wife and family it isn’t that he doesn’t know its wrong, it is that he has no commitment to do what is right. The reason why we do the wrong thing, knowing it is wrong, is because we want (covet) it more than we covet what is right. Coveting what is wrong causes us to be willing to sacrifice what is right to attain what we want, even if it is sin.

The bottom line is simply this: sin is more often a problem with our heart (coveting) than it is a problem with our mind (knowledge). Solomon knew more than any man who ever lived, and yet his heart was turned to foreign wives, until finally his heart was turned from God by his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). Such is most often the case. We sin, not because we don’t know better, but because we desire to have what is wrong more than we desire to know God and to serve Him. It is indeed tragic that Solomon did not take his own advice: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

One of the most common reasons why men refuse to submit to Jesus Christ and to follow Him is because they cannot commit themselves to Christ and continue to covet things. Covetousness and Christ are two different masters, and many men do not wish to forsake their coveting for Christ. This is because coveting has made things their god, and God (in Christ) will not take second place to things.

Unlike Christ, Christians today attempt to lead men to Christ by minimizing the cost of following Him. Throughout Jesus’ life, He refused to minimize the cost of discipleship. Jesus refused to commit Himself to those who were uncommitted (John 2:23-25). He gave no encouragement to those who would have half-heartedly followed Him (Luke 9:57-62). He said that those who would follow Him would have to deny themselves and take up their cross (Matt. 16:24).

Why is it, then, that we try to make discipleship so undemanding, so easily attained? Why are we reluctant to ask men and women to give up everything to follow Him? Why are we so timid as to only ask people to follow Christ conditionally? The great travesty of this is that it demeans the worth of our Lord. It suggests that He is not worthy of a total sacrifice of self and of self-interest. It is no wonder so many fall away, when they finally realize the high price of discipleship.

Let me make the gospel as clear as I possibly can. There is nothing you can do, no sacrifice you can make which will ever be sufficient to earn salvation. All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, the Bible tells us (Isa. 64:6). There is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor, for we are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are helpless and hopeless, apart from God’s grace (Eph. 2:1-3). The gift of salvation is free to the sinner, but at great cost to God—the death of His only Son (John 3:16). To receive the gift of salvation, all one has to do is to acknowledge his sinfulness, his lost condition, and receive by faith the death of Jesus Christ in his place. You need only trust in the righteousness of Christ which you receive by faith in His death, burial, and resurrection in your place.

Having said that we cannot earn our salvation by self-sacrifice or good works does not mean that discipleship is of no personal cost or sacrifice. The Scriptures clearly stress the high cost of discipleship, and we dare not minimize it. When we recognize Christ as the “pearl of great price” we should be willing and ready to sacrifice anything and everything in order to follow Him. Let us never lose sight of the self-sacrifice which our Lord requires for discipleship.

Covetousness is something which our culture seems to value, and which the church has become accustomed to, even catering to it instead of condemning it. I honestly believe that if coveting were to immediately cease in America, our economy would be in shambles. Madison Avenue incites us to covetousness, and credit buying enables us to buy what we don’t need and can’t afford. If coveting stopped, our economy would collapse. Coveting therefore seems to be one of those “sacred sins” which we dare not tamper with.

Competitiveness is another of the foundational elements in American society. We will hardly consider hiring or promoting anyone who does not have great ambition, but at its roots, ambition is built upon the competitive desire to do better than his neighbor so that we can have what he or she has: their position, their prestige and power, and their pleasures.

With covetousness so interwoven into the fabric of our society, one would expect that the church would be condemning covetousness, especially among the saints, as the Old Testament prophets did. This is seldom the case. Instead, the church treads softly on matters of covetousness.

Worse yet, the church has come to accept covetousness as one of the “givens” of our culture, and has gone so far as to capitalize on covetousness by appealing to this illicit desire to motivate people to serve and to give. The “gospel of the good life” is one form of this error. We tell people that if they “do things God’s way” God will wonderfully bless them and prosper them. We tell people that God’s desire is to prosper everyone, if they will simply follow God’s prescribed guidelines for success. We appeal to men’s covetousness when we present the gospel, making it sound as if discipleship were the key to success and prosperity. We minimize the cost of discipleship or its demands of self-denial and self-sacrifice. We speak only of its benefits and blessings.

When we speak of the benefits of discipleship we often refer to those passages which promise us that God will grant us the desires of our heart (cf. Ps. 37:4). In our carnality, we tend to think of these “desires” as the things which we covet. The commandment not to covet is a command to clean up the “desires of our heart” so that our desires conform to God’s word (cf. James 4:3).

We do not ask Christians to give sacrificially, without any expectation of return, we speak of giving as a sure-fire investment, for which the giver is certain to gain back many fold. Whenever we attempt to induce people to give because of the returns they will receive, we are appealing to the ungodly motivation of covetousness, not the Christian motivation of sacrifice. We cease talking of treasures in heaven, and talk only of treasure here and now. I am sad to say that I know of very few Christian ministries which ask people to contribute without promising to give something (a book, a tape, a “cloth”) in return. In doing so we are in danger of appealing to people’s covetousness, not their commitment to Christ. God help us in this area.

The church should therefore be calling Christians to self-sacrifice, but all too often it is the church which is characterized by self-indulgence. The Laodicean church of the Book of Revelation (3:14-22), for example, was very comfortable, but also very complacent and self-satisfied. We, too, are very much like the Laodicean church, I fear, and rather than calling the saints to commitment and self-sacrifice, we are caving in to the covetousness of our society.

Put negatively, the Tenth Commandment, confirmed by the commands of the New Testament, is teaching us that we should put off coveting, that we must cease from making anything but God our God. Positively, this commandment is urging us to cultivate a hunger for God, the kind of hunger which characterized the psalmist when he wrote, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1-2). It is the kind of godly coveting on which our Lord pronounced His blessing: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 6:6). It is the orientation toward heaven and heavenly things which the apostles urged the saints to cultivate:

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things, For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself (Phil. 17-21).

If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).

I believe that more than any other of the Ten Commandments, the Tenth Commandment exposes the depth of our depravity, the seriousness of our sin. Our Lord used this commandment to convict the rich young ruler of his sin. Paul confessed that this commandment “wiped him out” also:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7:7-12).

May I ask you very candidly my friend, does this commandment forbidding covetousness condemn you, just as it did Paul? Have you ever experienced the kind of coveting for God which we find in the psalmists and in the godly men and women of the Bible? Then I urge you to come to the cross of Christ, where the commandments were nailed to the cross in Christ (Col. 2:14). Jesus Christ bore your guilt, shame, and punishment. He died in your place, and was raised for your justification (declaration of righteousness), if you will but receive Him. Once loosened from the bondage of sin and self-interest, you will find an appetite for God you never knew.

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost (Rev. 22:17).

My Christian friend, may I ask if you still have that same desire you once had? Can you honestly say, with the psalmist of old, that you thirst for God as a deer pants for water? I must admit to you that I have been convicted in my study this week of my own coldness of heart, of my own lack of strong desire for God. There is a way back, for God knows that our love for Him can grow cold. Let me close by suggesting some of the means God has provided for rekindling the flame of our desire for Him.

(1) First, pray that God will renew your heart, and that He will give you a passion for fellowship with Him. David, whose sin with Bathsheba began with covetousness, prayed this prayer, which can just as easily apply to us: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Thy presence, And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, And sustain me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-12).

(2) Second, saturate your heart and mind with the word of God, which will expose impurity and which will give you an appetite for the things of God:

Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, And I shall observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may observe Thy Law, And keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Thy commandments, For I delight in it. Incline my heart to Thy testimonies, And not to dishonest gain. Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in Thy ways. Establish Thy word to Thy servant, As that which produces reverence for Thee (Ps. 119:33-38).

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:11-12).

(3) Third, work at your worship of Him, for it is in our worship that we are reminded again of His worth, of His purity and perfection, and thus of Him as our ultimate goal, both to know and to serve.

(4) We must begin to “take up our cross” of self-denial, while at the same time putting off our self-indulgence.

(5) Finally, we should practice sacrificial giving. By thus “laying up our treasures in heaven” we will begin to experience that our hearts will follow our treasure, and begin to focus on heaven and not earth, on Christ and not things.

May God grant that each of us may covet Him, for His glory, and for our good.

57 The key texts for a study of coveting in the Bible are: Gen. 6:5; Exod. 18:21; 20:17; Deut. 5:21; 15:7-10; Josh. 7:21; Ps. 119:33-40; Prov. 11:6-7; 21:25-26; 23:1-8, 17-21; 28:22; 30:7-9; Ecc. 4:8; Jer. 22:13-17; Ezek. 33:31; Micah 2:1-2; Hab. 2:4-9; Matt. 6:19-24; 13:44-46; 16:21-27; Mark 7:20-23; 10:17-22; Luke 12:13-21; 16:14; Acts 20:33-35; Rom. 7:7-11; 8:5-8; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 6:10; 12:31; 14:39; 2 Cor. 9:5; Eph. 5:3-6; Phil. 3:17-20; 4:11-13; Col. 3:1-7; 1 Tim. 6:6-10; Heb. 13:5-6; James 1:13-15; 4:1-2.

58 Cf. Proverbs 21:26, where the “craving” mentioned is literally a reference to the fact that the sluggard “desires desire.”

59 “The word used for ‘covet’ can also refer to a good rather than an evil desire (cf. Ps. 19:10 KJV …). But here [Exodus 20:17] it is used in a negative sense.” W. H. Gispen, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), pp. 198-199.

60 The “bad eye” of Matthew 6:22 and 23 is, I think, synonymous with the “evil eye” of Deuteronomy 15:9 and Proverbs 28:22 (contrast Prov. 22:9). An “evil eye” is a symbol, a figure of speech, for a man’s looking on the things of another with the hope that he can have them. In other words, the “evil eye” is covetousness.

24. The Magnificent Meal on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:1-18)


The text we are about to study is one of the most fascinating passages in the Old Testament. One of the attractions of this passage is its uniqueness. The God who cannot be seen, is seen, not only by Moses, along with Joshua, his servant, but by Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, the priests, and also by seventy of the elders of Israel. The description of God is one that we would not have expected to find in the Old Testament. In addition to seeing God, the nobles of the nation Israel also sat and ate a meal in His presence. If nothing else would motivate us to study this text, our curiosity could inspire us.

The 24th chapter of Exodus is noteworthy also because it records one of the most significant and solemn events of the Old Testament. The nation Israel has been camped at the base of Mt. Sinai for some time. They will continue on there for a considerably longer period. It is at Mt. Sinai, in the 24th chapter of Exodus, that the Mosaic Covenant is ratified. Centuries before, God had promised Abraham that he would become a great nation, through his offspring. He promised Abraham a seed (a son, which would become a great nation), a land (the land of Canaan), and the promise that this nation would be blessed and a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3). The promises which God made were ratified as a covenant between Himself and Abraham in the 15th chapter of Genesis.

That covenant was reiterated to Abraham’s offspring, Isaac and Jacob, and the sons of Jacob. In our chapter, the Mosaic Covenant is now imposed upon Israel by the God who has delivered her out of Egypt. The stipulations have been spelled out in summary form (the Ten Commandments) and in more detail in the “book of the covenant,” (Exod. 20:22–23:33).

None of us has ever experienced a covenant in the making as significant as that which God made with Israel. We can recall or read of the treaties which have been signed, concluding the two world wars of this century, but they pale in the light of this chapter. Those of us who are married can recall the day when we solemnized our marriage vows in a marriage ceremony. The marriage covenant is an important event, but it, too, fails to overshadow the covenant God made with Israel.

The events of this chapter are critical in the history of Israel, as we shall point out at the conclusion of the message. We might wonder, however, how important this text can be to us, since we are not living under this “old covenant,” but under the “new covenant,” the covenant inaugurated by our Lord. What is in this text for us? This is a logical and valid question. Answers to it must include these:

(1) The ratification of the Mosaic Covenant in the 24th chapter of Exodus is the key to the remainder of the Book of Exodus. I have to admit that I was tempted to leave Exodus right after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, we must see the Law of proportion at work here. In the Gospels of the New Testament, the greatest amount of detail is given with respect to the last week of our Lord’s life. We thus must surmise that the events of this week were of great importance.

So, too, when we come to the Book of Exodus, we find that the “human interest” accounts of the book are heavily outnumbered by the details bearing upon the design, the construction, and the inauguration of the tabernacle. The 24th chapter of Exodus is the transition point, where once the covenant is ratified, the tabernacle becomes the most prominent subject. If we are to understand the Book of Exodus as a whole, we dare not neglect chapter 24. This matter will be pursued more fully later.

(2) We cannot possibly understand the message and the meaning of the Old Testament apart from an understanding of the old covenant, which is instituted here in Exodus 24.

(3) We cannot understand the New Testament apart from an understanding of the Old, of which the Mosaic covenant is the key. Even a casual reading of the Book of Hebrews underscores the need to understand the old covenant and the Old Testament, if we are to grasp the work of Christ in bringing the new covenant. Understanding covenants is important to Christianity. The concept of a covenant must be understood, since the gospel is the proclamation of a new covenant, which was instituted by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

As the Book of Hebrews indicates, the new covenant is to be viewed in contrast to the old. In a word, the new covenant is “better” than the old. On the other hand, there is a great deal of continuity between the two covenants, and thus we can also learn much by focusing on the similarities of the two covenants.

The ratification of the Mosaic Covenant was not only important for the nation Israel, it is also important for us. It is well worth the time and effort which we expend as we explore the 24th chapter of Exodus.

Review of Covenant-Making in the Bible

The making of covenants in the Old Testament should not come as a surprise to us. Moses has already provided us with a considerable amount of precedent in the Book of Genesis. The first covenant is that which God made with Noah, promising never again to wipe out the whole earth by a flood (Gen. 8:20-22; 9:9ff.). The sign of this covenant was the rainbow (Gen. 9:12-17). The next covenant is that which God made with Abraham (Gen. 15:8-21). The promises (a land, a seed, a blessing) of chapter 12 (vss. 1-3) are formalized in the covenant of chapter 15. The sign of this covenant, circumcision, was later indicated in chapter 17, where the covenant was confirmed to Abraham. Isaac made a covenant with Abimelech in Genesis 26:26-31, agreeing to live in peace. Finally in Genesis, Jacob made a covenant with Laban (31:43-45), agreeing not to do harm to one another. This covenant has many similarities to that which God made with Israel, as we can see from the text of Genesis.

Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have borne? So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as an pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Now Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore it was named Galeed; and Mizpah, for he said, “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you mistreat my daughters, or it you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold this heap and behold the pillar which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain (Gen. 31:43-54).

Covenants, as illustrated in the Book of Genesis, as well as from secular sources, had several common elements. There were usually promises or commitments which were made, to which the parties bound themselves. There was often a sacrifice made, followed by a meal, which partook of some of the sacrifice. There was also a memorial, some kind of physical token of the oath, which served to remind the parties of their commitments. There was also a curse attached to the one who broke the covenant which he had made. There was always a sense of solemnity in the making of a covenant, for it was a serious step of commitment.

Most of these elements are found in the ratification of the covenant on Mt. Sinai, as described in Exodus chapter 24. Given an understanding of the nature of the covenant-making process, there is little in chapter 24 which we should not expect to see in such a significant event.

The Structure of Our Passage

In its simplest form, this chapter in Exodus falls into two divisions: (1) A Divine Call and the Ratification of the Covenant (verses 1-11) and (2) A Divine Call and the Recording of the Covenant (verses 12-18).

The first and second divisions of this chapter are similar in that they both begin with the call of God (“come up,” vss. 1, 12). The first call includes Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. The second call is for Moses alone. Both divisions end similarly, as well. The first division ends with a description of the revelation of God as seen by the elders. The last division ends with a description of the revelation of God as seen by the Israelites in the camp.

The Call to Worship and the Confirmation of the Covenant

God’s call for the elders to “come up to Him,” along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu,61 in verses 1 and 2 makes two very important distinctions. First, it clearly distinguishes God from the Israelites, with whom He is making this covenant. Some covenants were made between equals, such as those between Isaac and Abimelech (Gen. 26) and between Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31). Others, known as suzerainty-vassal (king and subject) treaties were not between equals. The Mosaic Covenant is of this latter kind. God clearly distinguished between Himself and His subjects in three ways:

(1) He initiated the covenant. He brought Israel out of Egypt, and He declared the covenant, and He invited the seventy elders to come up to Him.

(2) God invited the seventy elders to come up to worship Him (24:1). Worship is not practiced among equals. The inferior always worships the superior being.

(3) God invited the elders to worship Him “from a distance” (v. 1), allowing only Moses to come near to Him. While the leaders of Israel had to keep their distance, the nation as a whole had to remain even further removed. God is the superior Being who institutes this covenant with Israel.

There is not only a distinction drawn between the Israelites and God, but also a distinction made between Israelites. Furthest removed is the nation as a whole, back at the base camp. Barriers had to be constructed to keep the people back, lest they be put to death (cf. 19:12-13). The seventy plus leaders of Israel were granted to draw nearer to God (24:1), but only Moses could approach God as he did (24:2). These same distinctions are paralleled in the tabernacle, where the priests had greater access to God than the people, and the high priest alone could enter the holy of holies, once a year. Such distinctions are abolished in the new covenant.

The response to this divine invitation is recorded in verses 3-8, where we see Moses taking the initiative to make preparations for the worship of God on the mountain. It should be clear from the context that Moses understood that the covenant which God was making with Israel needed to be ratified by the nation. It also seems apparent that the 75 leaders (70 elders, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron, Moses, and his servant Joshua) were representatives who acted on behalf of the entire nation. These were also the leaders of the nation who would teach, interpret and apply the Law which God was giving Israel.

Twice in these verses (vss. 3, 7), the Israelites have verbally committed themselves to keep this covenant. If this is not enough, they have said virtually the same words before, in chapter 19, verse 8. There has been great care taken to communicate the covenant clearly, and over a period of time, so that this verbal commitment is based upon a clear understanding of the conditions of the covenant. God spoke verbally, in the hearing of the Israelites (cf. 19:9; 20:18-19), and several times through Moses (cf. 19:3-7, 10-15, 20-25). Moses conveyed the contents of the “book of the covenant” to the Israelites, which the people committed to keep (24:3). Then, Moses put the “book of the covenant” into writing (24:4), which he later read to the Israelites, and they again committed themselves to keep the covenant (24:7). Finally, God will Himself write the covenant in stone, and have it placed in the ark of the covenant, so that Israel will not forget it. The commitment which the nation Israel makes here in chapter 24 is one which is based upon a clear understanding of the covenant which is put before them.

Since the Israelites have verbally ratified this covenant, Moses now carries out the ratification process, which we have seen previously in the Book of Genesis, by the use of symbols and representatives. Symbolically, Moses offered covenant sacrifices (note: these are not sin offerings), making an altar with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. The blood of the sacrifices is sprinkled upon the altar and upon the people, thus linking the people with the covenant sacrifices. Israel has truly ratified the covenant which God gave through Moses.

The covenant meal, eaten by the 75 leaders of Israel in the presence of God, is the final act of ratification. As God had summoned them in verses 1 and 2, now Moses (attended by Joshua) and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders went up on the holy mountain. Here, we are told, they “saw the God of Israel” (v. 10), and yet He did not strike them dead (v. 11).

In the light of the way covenants were made, it is not unusual to find the leaders of the nation Israel eating the covenant meal in the presence of God, for both parties were present at the covenant meal. What is unusual is that men saw God and did not perish, and that the vision of God is indeed rare, unlike all other manifestations of God in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).

Precisely what did these leaders see? Well, we know that they saw God. We also know that the God they saw had feet (cf. v. 10). All that is described, to our dismay, is the feet of God and the sapphire-like clear blue pavement under them. Why does our text describe only the feet of God and the pavement under them? One might think that this is all one would have seen stretched out on one’s face before God,62 since most of those who had such visions of God fell before Him in terror or in humility (cf. Ezek. 1:28; Rev. 1:17). I believe that there is another explanation, however.

There are two other texts which describe God enthroned in heaven, which are parallel to the description of God in Exodus 24, and which therefore serve as a commentary on our passage:

And as I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire … Now over the heads of the living beings there was something like an expanse, like the awesome gleam of crystal, extended over their heads. And under the expanse their wings were stretched out straight, one toward the other; each one also had two wings covering their bodies on the one side and on the other. I also heard the sound of their wings like the sound of abundant waters as they went, like the voice of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army camp; whenever they stood still, they dropped their wings. And there came a voice from above the expanse that was over their heads; whenever they stood still, they dropped their wings. Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of his loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of his loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking (Ezek. 1:4, 22-28, emphasis mine).

After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardious in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. And around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. And from the throne proceed flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne there was, as it were, a sea of glass like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind (Rev. 4:1-6, emphasis mine).

The similarities in these descriptions are striking to me. The cloud and the lightening of Ezekiel 1:4 (cf. Rev. 4:5) take us back to the description of the revelation of God on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19:16. In both Ezekiel (1:22, 25-26) and Revelation (4:6) there is a crystal-like floor, on which the throne of God stands, very much like the crystal-clear sapphire pavement of Exodus 24:10. In Ezekiel’s description, this crystal floor is above the heads of the four living creatures (1:22, 25). In both Ezekiel (1:26) and Revelation (5:1),63 as well as in Exodus (24:10), the One who is enthroned appears with human characteristics.

I therefore understand that the revelation of God in each of these three passages is similar, but that God is progressively more closely and more intimately revealed, and from a slightly different perspective. I believe that the elders of Israel (Exodus 24) saw God enthroned high above them, from under the crystal floor, looking through it. They would thus have seen only the feet of the God who was enthroned, since the throne would have obscured the rest of Him. Since the floor was crystal clear, they could see God above them through the floor, with the throne sitting on the floor, and God on the throne. Ezekiel’s vision describes God as enthroned on the crystal expanse, above the heads of the four living creatures, but more of Him is seen. Thus, Ezekiel must have been closer, and perhaps elevated and looking at the throne of God from a different angle. John, on the other hand, sees God enthroned “from heaven,” so that his view of God is not restricted. Appropriately, those who behold God at later times see more of Him.

This distant view of God may explain why we do not read of any fear on the part of the elders (perhaps only wonder). This also helps to explain why Moses could later ask to see God, as though he had not seen Him earlier (Exod. 33:17-23). I have heard people say that they “saw” the president in Washington. This can be true in any number of senses. We may “see” the back of the president through a pair of binoculars, as he is sitting in his oval office, or we may “see” him from across the desk of that oval office. In both cases we have seen the president, although in the latter instance we have seen him much more intimately. I believe that the elders of Israel did not “see” God as intimately as did Ezekiel and John, but they did indeed see Him. The latter passages help to fill in some of the missing details.

Verses 1-11 inform us that the Mosaic Covenant was ratified, in much the same way that other ancient treaties were. The Mosaic Covenant is thus now in force.

The Upward Call of Moses and the Tablets of Stone

The second “upward call” is given in verse 12, calling Moses alone to the top of Mt. Sinai. This is for the purpose of giving to him the commandments written on stone by the finger of God (24:12). It is also for the purpose of revealing to Moses the “heavenly pattern” and the blueprints for the tabernacle and its furnishings:

“According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Exod. 25:9).

“Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen” (Acts 7:44).

Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. … Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for “See,” He says, “That you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” (Heb. 8:1-2, 4-5).

From chapter 25 to the end of the Book of Exodus, it is the tabernacle which is the principle subject. I believe that the tabernacle was designed of God to institutionalize, as it were, the manifestation of His presence among His people on an on-going basis, as the mountain had served on a one-time basis.

Moses made the necessary preparations for his trek up the mountain, which indicate that he may have planned to be gone for some time (which indeed was the case). In particular, Moses appointed Aaron and Hur to judge any legal matters which might arise in his absence. It was not until later (Numbers 11; Deut. 1) that Jethro’s advice of Exodus 18 was actually put into practice, so that Aaron and Hur are to take Moses’ place.

It may appear that Israel is encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the elders somewhere part way up the mountain, and Moses alone goes to the top. I doubt that this is the case, for several reasons. Some time may have passed between the covenant meal of verses 9-11 and the ascent of the mountain by Moses. A second call from God was issued in verse 12. Moses told the elders to “wait here” (v. 14), but the “here” seems to have been the base camp of the Israelites. Aaron and Hur were there to judge the people, who could not ascend the mountain (cf. 19:12; 24:2). We know that Aaron was with the people in the absence of Moses, because Aaron made the golden calf for them (Exod. 32). We also know that Aaron and Hur were with the elders (24:14). Thus, I understand that everyone except Moses and Joshua (who ascended at least part way with Moses, 24:13) was back in the camp with the Israelites.

For six days Moses waited, and on the seventh God called Moses to Himself in the cloud.64 Once again, the seventh day is set apart from the other six. The forty days of Moses’ absence provide a test, one which Israel failed (cf. chapter 32).

The wonder of the revelation of God to the elders of Israel was that God did not strike them dead. The wonder of the revelation of God to Moses is that it is described from the perspective of the Israelites, at the base camp, rather than from Moses himself: “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (Exod. 24:17, emphasis mine).

Admit it now, wouldn’t you rather see what Moses saw on the top of that mountain, than to have a report of what the Israelites saw from down below? Why, then, didn’t Moses give us a first-hand account? I think that there are a couple of reasons which are worthy of our consideration.

First, we must remember that Moses was a very humble man (Num. 12:3), a man who was not intent upon glamorizing his own experiences. In this regard, Moses is a rare individual. How many books have been written by men and women, dwelling on their own descriptions of some unusual experience. Unfortunately, many Christians get caught up in the commercialization of their experiences as well. Paul’s words to the Colossians may relate to this problem: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col. 2:18, emphasis mine).

Second, I doubt very much that Moses could have described what he saw, even if he wanted to. I came across this interesting verse in my study this week, which relates to this matter: “There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another” (1 Cor. 15:40). The glories of heaven are such that men simply cannot comprehend them: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9; Isa. 64:4; 65:17). Paul therefore calls such heavenly things indescribable: “And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (2 Cor. 12:3-4). When the Scriptures, Old and New Testament, speak of the glorious things of heaven, they use expressions like “appeared as …” (cf. Ezek. 1; Rev. 4, above), because such things can only be described in comparison to the precious and beautiful things we know, which fall far short of the treasures of heaven.

Both Moses and Paul thus refrain from trying to describe for men the glories of heaven which they have seen, for it is an impossible task. They also resist focusing men’s attention on themselves, when their vision and experience are but the product of the grace of God.


The ratification of the Mosaic Covenant had great meaning for the Israelite of that day. It meant that there was now a way for God to identify with Israel as His people. Because of this, the tabernacle could be constructed and the glory of God which once was manifested on Mt. Sinai could now come down to this dwelling place:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34).

For the Israelites of a later time, it was a great comfort to know that God had established a unique relationship with the nation Israel, and that even when the nation sinned and suffered the discipline of God, their future was assured, for God had committed Himself to His people. Even in a few days, when the Israelites would worship a golden calf, Moses could appeal to God on the basis of His covenant promises.65

The Mosaic Covenant clearly defined Israel’s relationship with God, and what was expected of each Israelite. The covenant also spelled out the consequences, both of obedience and of disobedience. Israel could always know where she stood with God. The covenant was the key to understanding Israel’s history, throughout the Old Testament times.

The ratification of the Mosaic Covenant is relevant to the New Testament Christian as well. Let me point out three areas of application of our text. All of them are implications of the same principle: THE NEW COVENANT, LIKE THE OLD COVENANT OF EXODUS, IS A COVENANT.

Both the Mosaic Covenant, to which Israel submitted in Exodus 24, and the new covenant, to which every Christian must submit, are covenants. The application of this text thus stems from the similarity of both covenants, as covenants.

(1) The new covenant, like the old covenant, must be ratified, in order for its benefits to be attained. The 24th chapter of Exodus informs us that Israel did not casually accept the covenant, the Israelites solemnly ratified it. They verbally ratified the covenant, repeatedly. They participated in the sacrifices, and, by their representatives, they partook of the covenant meal.

The gospel of the New Testament is the news that God has provided a new means of relating with men, through the new covenant, the covenant which was achieved through the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. The Book of Hebrews spends a great deal of time expounding the similarities and the differences between the two covenants. The point here is that the gospel is the message of a covenant which men can enter into with God. The ratification of this covenant is a solemn event, and one which requires a definite decision. Paul spells out the ratification process in the Book of Romans:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation (Rom. 10:8-10).

There are many who think they are Christians because they know that Christ died for sinners. There are some who believe that they believe in Him. But I fear that there are also some who have heard of this covenant (Paul says in the text above that it is near) but they have never made the commitment, of faith and confession, which God requires of those who would enter into His covenant. The new covenant, like the old, must be ratified. Without ratification, the covenant does not apply.

There are some who will say, “My relationship with God is a very private matter, something between just me and God.” Of course one’s relationship to God is a very personal thing, but it is a relationship based upon the clear terms of the covenant which God has offered to us. We cannot come to God on our own terms, but only on His terms, those of His new covenant.

(2) The new covenant, like the Old, must be communicated clearly, so that men can make a choice based on an adequate understanding of the commitment required. If we are impressed with the decisive way which Israel ratified the covenant, we should also be impressed with the clarity and frequency with which the covenant was communicated from God to men.

Moses was God’s instrument, the mediator, of the old covenant. Repeatedly, Moses ascended and descended the holy mount. He reported the words of God, both orally and in writing. The old covenant could not have been communicated more clearly. The commitment which Israel made was based on a clear grasp of the issues.

Evangelism is the task of communicating the gospel, the good news that a new covenant has been achieved by God Himself, in the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. The way the gospel is conveyed today, you would think it could be obtained by a bonus coupon, rather than something of great value obtained by a solemn commitment. We have merchandized the gospel. We have not heralded the gospel as a word from God. We have cheapened it, modifying it to accommodate men, rather than to represent God.

When Paul speaks of his proclamation of the gospel, he does so in terms that are befitting a covenant of the greatest value and significance:

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:3-5).

For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God (2 Cor. 2:17).

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:1-2).

Let us all proclaim the gospel, the offer of the new covenant, in a way that is befitting that covenant, and the God who has called men to a commitment to Him by means of it.

(3) The new covenant requires not only commitment and communication, but commemoration. When the Lord was about to go to the cross, He shared a covenant meal with His disciples and instituted a commemoration of the new covenant which the church was commanded to keep (cf. Lu. 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-34). Failure to commemorate the new covenant, or doing so in an inappropriate way was a matter of serious consequences. Due to misconduct at the commemoration of the new covenant, some were sick and some died (1 Cor. 11:30). Those who willfully and persistently sinned were not to be invited to the table (1 Cor. 5).

If our estimation of the value of the new covenant were to be gauged by the fervency and frequency with which we commemorated the Lord’s Supper, I am afraid we would fear to face the God who has made this covenant with us.

Let us, then, commit ourselves to this covenant (personal salvation), communicate it clearly to men (evangelism), and commemorate it frequently and fervently.

61 Nadab and Abihu (24:1) were the sons of Aaron (Exod. 6:23), and were also those who died because they offered up “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1-2). The fact that these two were named is significant. First, it points out the integrity of the Scriptures. Secondly, it warns us that even men who may have been godly, at least those who have had the privilege of seeing God in an unusual way are still very capable of falling into serious sin. Let those who would rest on the laurels take warning (cf. 1 Cor. 10:12).

62 “At first sight, this is a contradiction of Exodus 33:20. But it will be remembered that even there Moses was to be allowed to see God’s ‘back’ (33:28). In this verse [10] it is equally stressed that the elders did not dare raise their eyes above His footstool. Naturally, there is deep spiritual truth in these anthropomorphic metaphors, a truth which finds expression in Moses’ hiding of his own face (Ex. 3:6) and Isaiah’s cry (Is. 6:5). No mortal man can bear to see the full splendour of God; it is only in Christ that we can see Him mirrored (Heb. 1:3).” R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), pp. 186-187.

63 In Revelation 4:2-3, the One sitting on the throne is described as being “jasper-like” in appearance, but in 5:1, He has a book in His right hand.

64 Whether this week of waiting is included in the 40 days and nights Moses spent on the mountain (24:18), I am not certain. He will again spend another 40 days and nights when he returns for the second set of stone tablets (Exod. 34:28).

65 It is significant, however, that Moses appealed to the Abrahamic Covenant, not the Mosaic (cf. Exod. 32:11-14).

25. The Rejection of God and the Revelation of Man (Exodus 32:1-14)


A few weeks ago our nation corporately shared the grief of the explosion of the space shuttle, Challenger. It was the worst disaster in the history of America’s space program. This tragedy stunned people around the world. It also precipitated an intense investigation to determine the cause of the accident. NASA and the American public wanted to know how such a disaster could have happened with so much scientific expertise, so many safety checks, and so much dedicated talent involved. Initially, the focus of the investigation was physical and mechanical. The ocean bottom was searched and pieces of wreckage are still being brought to the surface and carefully scrutinized. From pictures of the launch, attention quickly turned to the seals which were used between the sections of the rocket’s main fuel tank.

As time has on, however, the investigation has turned more and more to the human factor. Why did the warnings from top scientists and engineers about the dangers of a cold weather launch go unheeded? What was it that kept this troubled launch from being shut down? How much part did politics and economic considerations play? In the final analysis I believe that it will be concluded that while there were mechanical problems, it was human failure that was a major contributing factor to this disaster.

The investigation of the space shuttle tragedy will undoubtedly have some very positive results. Not only will potential or actual mechanical problems be identified and corrected, but the human errors which led to the tragedy will be identified as well. In the long run, the investigation resulting from this disaster may save many lives and enhance man’s conquest of space.

Exodus 32-34 is God’s report on a disaster of even greater proportions. Like the launch of the Challenger, it all began with great excitement and expectation. Like the Challenger tragedy, it ended with horror at the loss of life and with wonder at how such a disaster could have happened in the first place. It was not the failure of a seal, but that of a covenant which our passage describes. And while the covenant had its weaknesses, it was ultimately human failure that was to blame.

A number of the commentators who have studied our text in Exodus chapter 32 have pointed to the fact that one of the principle sins of Israel here is that of impatience. I have come to think otherwise. It is not Israel’s impatience which is condemned here, but her idolatry. Idolatry is one sin that we may feel is far removed from 20th century Christianity. I would like to differ which such thinking. The idolatry of our day differs only in form from that which we will find in ancient Israel in our text. A further investigation of this tragedy in Israel’s history will greatly enhance our understanding of the covenant which has just been made and broken. It will enable us to understand why the Mosaic Covenant cannot save or sanctify men. And it will enable us to see how we are idolaters today, even within the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us listen well, then, to the warnings of this text for us. And let us learn from this disaster, so that future tragedies of this type do not happen to us.

Israel’s Idolatry

The Setting of Israel’s Sin

Chapters 1-17 of the Book of Exodus have brought us from Israel’s bondage in Egypt to her encampment at the base of Mt. Sinai, a stay which lasted the better part of a year.67 Chapters 18 through the end of the Book of Exodus deal with Israel’s experience at Sinai. Chapters 19-24 focus on the revelation and ratification of the Mosaic Covenant. Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 deal with the plans and the construction of the tabernacle, along with its furnishings. Chapters 25-31 contain the “blueprints” for the tabernacle and its furnishings. These are given Moses during the 40 day period that he is on Mt. Sinai. Moses also saw the heavenly sanctuary, after which the earthly model was to be patterned (25:9, 40; Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:2, 5). Chapters 35-40 describe the construction of the tabernacle, climaxed by the presence of God being manifested in the tabernacle (40:34).

Chapters 32-34 separate the plans for the tabernacle from the report of its construction. There is a very important reason for this, as we shall soon see. It is vitally important to remember that some of the events of chapters 25-31 are happening simultaneously with some of those in chapters 32-34. That is, while God and Moses are discussing the construction of the tabernacle, the Israelites and Aaron are making preparations for the construction of the golden idol.

In terms of time, Exodus chapter 24 depicts the events which provide the historical backdrop for chapters 32-34. Only days have passed since God had spoken from the mountain, giving Israel this commandment:

“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exod. 20:3-5).

“‘You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves” (Exod. 20:23).

To these commandments, along with all the others, Israel repeatedly affirmed, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exod. 24:3; cf. 24:7; 19:8).

Chapter 32 is written to create an emotional impact on the reader. We are caught totally off guard by the blatant disregard for the covenant which Israel has just ratified. We are shocked by the idolatry which is a flagrant violation of the commandment of God. We are puzzled by the way things go wrong so quickly, and that Aaron seems to not to offer so much as one word or one moment’s hesitation. How can we possibly explain such a rapid turn of events? How can those who have enthusiastically committed themselves to keeping the covenant which God has made suddenly reject it, not in some backhanded and indirect way, but in a high-handed, bold act of rebellion?

There are several essential observations which must be made from this text before the answers to our questions can be found. These observations pertain to the facts of the case. Our findings, our conclusions (or interpretations) must be based upon these facts:

(1) The sin of the Israelites happened very soon after the Mosaic Covenant was ratified in Exodus chapter 24—sooner, in fact than 40 days. Moses had prepared the people for him to be gone for some time,68 and part of the forty days had passed. I believe that a good part of the forty days could not have passed before the people of Israel proposed that Aaron fashion an image. Making this idol involved the collection of the contributions of gold from the Israelites, melting it down, determining what form the idol would take, making a cast, and then tooling the roughly cast image. Since Moses was absent 40 days and the idol was completed by the time he returned, we must conclude that somewhat less than 40 days had elapsed when Israel practiced idolatry.

(2) The absence of leadership is a contributing factor to Israel’s idolatry. There is a direct, cause-effect relationship between the absence of leadership and the practice of idolatry. It is obvious that Moses is absent. He is on the mountain with God, gone for 40 days and nights (cf. 24:18). His absence gave the Israelites a pretext for taking action, and also the opportunity for doing so (Moses wasn’t there to stop them). Aaron, of course, was present, but he hardly deserves the title “leader” here. The seventy elders who ate the covenant meal in the presence of God, Whom they saw (24:9-11), are not so much as mentioned, and yet they are most likely in the camp. How could they not have exercised some leadership in this situation? Moses had given only Aaron and Hur authority to handle legal disputes (24:14), and even Hur’s name is not mentioned in chapter 32. Perhaps even more interesting, no leaders are named of the group which wanted an idol. In other places the rebel leaders are named (e.g. Num. 16:1-3), but in our text the only designation given is “the people” (32:1, 3, 6). The absence of leadership plays a significant role in the idolatry of Israel.

(3) The hostility of the people plays a significant role in explaining the role which Aaron played in Israel’s sin. The crowd which had “assembled about” Aaron was not a friendly group, gathering for small talk and making casual suggestions. The expression used here suggests that this was an angry, aggressive mob, whose presence Aaron perceived to be a threat to his safety, perhaps even his life. Given the actions of the Israelites before and after, Aaron was probably right to see this situation as one that was “dangerous to his health.”

The same expression which is rendered “assembled about” in Exodus 32:1 is rendered differently in the Book of Numbers, in a way that is very similar to the assembly about Aaron in our text: “And they assembled together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num. 16:3, emphasis mine; cf. 20:2).

One could hardly say that the assembly in Numbers 16:3 is a friendly group. In the context the people have gathered to rebuke Moses for keeping the leadership of the nation restricted to himself and Aaron. We are not told what this angry mob intended to do, but God’s action against them would suggest that the matter was indeed serious. The same sense is present in this assembly in Exodus chapter 32. Aaron was under fire. He capitulated, and wrongly so, but he folded because he feared this hostile crowd and what they might do if he failed to give them what they wanted.

Further evidence of the aggressiveness and hostility of the crowd is to be found in the expression, “Come” (32:1, NASB). I believe that the Berkeley Version more accurately conveys the demand of the people in this imperative, when it renders the verse this way:

When the people noticed that Moses delayed his coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and told him, “Get up! Make gods for us to lead us on; for this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we have no idea what has happened to him” (Exod. 32:1, Berkeley Version, emphasis mine).

The only other place in the Book of Exodus where this expression “Get up!” is found is in chapter 12, where Pharaoh was speaking to Moses, whom he disliked greatly, but was eager to remove from Egypt, after the death of his son. The Berkeley Version consistently renders the expression the same way: “During the night he [Pharaoh] sent word to Moses and Aaron, ‘Get up and get out from among my people; both you and the Israelites. Go and serve the LORD as you argued’” (Exod. 12:31, Berkeley Version, emphasis mine). Just as Pharaoh spoke with authority here, the people spoke authoritatively to Aaron. They were not asking for an idol, they were demanding one. No wonder Aaron responded so quickly, and with no resistance.

(4) There is a military motivation behind Israel’s demand to have a graven image. What was it that the Israelites thought the graven “god” could do for them? I have concluded that there is a rather strong military factor here. Twice in our text, the expression, “who brought us up from the land of Egypt,” has occurred, the first time with regard to Moses (32:1), the second, with respect to the idol which was made (32:4). Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. This victory was viewed as a military victory over the army of Pharaoh (cf. Exod. 15). The idol which the Israelites demanded was to serve as the nation’s military leader, which would lead them to victory over her enemies.

The Israelites had faced the Egyptians and won. They have also been opposed by Amalek at Rephedim (Exod. 17:8-16). They are now facing the conquest of Canaan, which is also a military matter. I believe that the people want a visible symbol, a kind of mascot god, which they can take before them as they proceed on to Canaan. Since Moses was not there to go before them, their idol will be their leader. The expression “to go before” definitely conveys the idea of leadership, and it has a military connotation: “The LORD your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes” (Deut. 1:30; cf. also Exod. 14:19; 23:23; 32:34). If the Israelites cannot look to Moses to lead them to victory, then they will have a “god” who will “go before them” as they march into Canaan, to possess it.

(5) Idolatry is not something new to the Israelites; it is something which has characterized this people from the very outset of their history. Israel’s idolatry should not be viewed as some new form of evil, never known among them before. Instead, it is the recurrence of an age old problem. It is a reverting back to her old ways:

“Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:14).

“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves” (Amos 5:25-26; cf. Acts 7:43).

“Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day—in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also” (1 Sam. 8:8).

Israel’s Demands

Moses has been on the mountain, away from the camp, long enough for this nameless group of Israelites to conspire to create an idol to represent God, in direct, deliberate disobedience to the commandment of God prohibiting the making of idols. These people came to Aaron demanding that he make them an idol (literally “gods”).69

Aaron’s Aquiescence

Aaron responded to “the people” by telling them to “tear off” the gold rings. This gold jewelry was undoubtedly Israel’s “wages” from the Egyptians (cf. 3:21-22; 12:35-36). This gold should also have been what was contributed for the construction of the tabernacle, rather than the golden idol (cf. Exod. 25:3). The expression, “tear off,” seems to suggest that what the Israelites did was a hasty, spontaneous, act. Spur of the moment decisions and actions are often suspect.

Seemingly it was Aaron who decided on a calf, or, better, a young bull, as the symbolic representation of God. He melted the gold, cast the idol and fashioned it. When “the people” saw this idol they responded, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (v. 4). Seeing that the Israelites regarded the image as their “god,” Aaron began to play the priest, solemnizing this idolatrous occasion with “worship” which strikingly mimics the actions of Moses in chapter 24. Aaron built an altar (32:5), just as Moses had (24:4). Aaron proclaimed a feast (a covenant meal?), a “feast to the Lord” (v. 5), just as there was a meal on Mt. Sinai (24:11). Israel’s early rising (v. 6) indicates the zeal with which this “worship” was pursued. Burnt offerings and peace offerings were sacrificed, too, (32:6), just as these had been sacrificed in chapter 24 (v. 5). All the people sat down to eat and to drink.

There was a very great difference between the “worship” of the people before the golden calf and that of the elders on the mountain. The people not only ate and drank, they “rose up to play” (32:6). This term “play” refers to illicit and immoral sex play. The same expression is used in Genesis 26:8, where Abimelech “looked out through a window, and saw, and behold, Isaac was caressing his wife Rebekah” (emphasis mine). Thus, this “worship” had turned into an orgy. And so another of the commandments, the prohibition of adultery, is most likely violated.

When you visualize this incident in your mind’s eye it is a scene of incredible evil. Those who had fervently vowed to keep God’s commandments are blatantly violating them. They are in a drunken frenzy, worshipping an idol, engaging in sexual indecencies. Their worship is little different from that of the Canaanites, whose sins are the reason for their being cast out of the land (cf. Deut. 9:5). And all the while they are worshipping in front of that idol, behind and beyond them, Mt. Sinai still is covered with the cloud of the glory of God, with God appearing as a consuming fire (24:17; cf. Deut. 9:15). And while the Israelites are supposing that they have the presence of God among them, God is handing down the plans for the tabernacle, by means of which God will manifest His presence among the people. What tragic irony!

Divine Indignation and Human Intervention

The plans for the tabernacle have been given to Moses, along with the two tablets of stone, on which the commandments have been written by the finger of God (31:18). Knowing all that has been going on in Moses’ absence, God told Moses to go down to the people. Before Moses departed from God’s presence, God first diagnosed Israel’s condition, and then threatened judgment which Israel richly deserved.

God gave Moses a three-fold description of the sin of the Israelites. The first two characterize the sin which the nation has just committed. These are expressed in the past tense “have corrupted themselves” (v. 7); “have quickly turned aside” (v. 8). The third term focuses on the root problem, the spiritual condition of the nation which has produced these symptomatic sins seen in chapter 32. By worshipping this idol, Israel has violated the covenant they just made with God, and have thus “corrupted”70 themselves. They are not the “holy nation” which God had set them apart to be (cp. 19:5-6). Furthermore, they have “quickly turned aside” from the way which God had shown they should walk and live, the “way” declared by the commandments. The nation had not only corrupted themselves by their disobedience, they had done so quickly. With this we should all be able to heartily agree.

The cause of Israel’s quick corruption is declared by God in verse 9: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.’” In one word, the people of Israel are obstinate. That is, they are stubborn, willful, and rebellious. Literally, the Israelites were “stiff-necked,” a term which was frequently employed to identify Israel’s sinfulness (cf. 33:3, 5; 34:5, 9; Dt. 9:6, 13; 10:16; 31:27; 2 Chron. 30:8; 36:13; Ps. 75:5; Jer. 17:23; Acts 7:51).

What the Israelites have just done (or are presently, from the perspective of the text, doing) is the result of what they are. What the Israelites are, here, is not a new thing, not a new condition. God said, “I have seen this people” (v. 9). What Israel now is, Israel has always been. Israel is not, just now, idolatrous, they have always been so.

God’s words in verse 7-10 reflect the consequences of sin—a separation from God and the ominous threat of judgment. God spoke no longer of Israel as “His” people, but rather as the people of Moses: “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves” (Exod. 32:7, emphasis mine). Both in what God says and in the way He says it, Israel’s sin has put the nation in great danger.

God then threatened to annihilate the entire nation, to wipe them out, and to start over, making a new nation of Moses: “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation” (32:10). These words pose an ominous threat to Israel’s future. It looks as though Israel will be wiped out, and, we must say, God would have been wholly just in doing so, at least from the standpoint of the seriousness of Israel’s sin.

God’s words here are intended to convey the great danger which Israel is now in. But they are also intended to produce something different than destruction which is not only suggested by the outcome of the story, but is also implied by the words themselves.

If God had intended to wipe Israel out, what reason was there for Him to tell Moses about it, and then send Him down to the people? God tells of judgment in advance so as to afford an opportunity for men to repent. Furthermore, the words, “let Me alone,” suggest to Moses that if he did not leave God alone, the people would not be destroyed. The inference is that if Moses did intercede for Israel, God would likely turn His wrath from His people.

Finally, Moses knew that God’s threatened action (of destroying Israel) and His offer to Moses (of making a new nation through him) would have been inconsistent with His character and His covenant with Israel. The Egyptians would have taken pleasure in the fact that the Israelites were destroyed, which was precisely what they had attempted to do (cf. Exod. 1:8-22). The character of God would have been demeaned, for God would not have kept His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Messiah could not come through Moses, for he was of the tribe of Levi, while Messiah must come through Judah (compare Exodus 2:1-2 with Genesis 49:10). Thus, the words which God spoke were intended to stimulate Moses to intercede for his people, and thus to bring about forgiveness.

Moses was never more noble, more fervent, or more eloquent than he was here. He took his clues from the words God had spoken and appears to change God’s mind. His appeal71 employs several lines of argumentation. Summarized, I believe the argument includes the following:

(1) The Israelites God threatened to destroy are the same people God chose and brought out of Egypt. Idolators? Yes, and so they were when God brought them out of Egypt (cf. Amos 5:25-26). Stiff-necked? Yes, as they were the day God brought them out of Egypt (cf. 1 Sam. 8:8). The people of Israel have not changed. They are now what they were then.

(2) The purposes and promises of God require God to finish what He began. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel that he would make a great nation of their seed, and that they would possess the land of Canaan (v. 13). The Lord had brought this people out of Egypt, for the purpose of possessing Canaan. For God not to complete what He promised and began to do, would be to deny Himself.

And so it is no surprise to us that God “changed His mind” (v. 14). He did appear to change His mind, but from the context we know that God simply turned His anger from destroying His people. In reality, God’s actions here show that He persisted to do what He had purposed. As Hyatt, points out, God’s “change of mind” was one which we should expect: “The bases of Yahweh’s repenting are three: (i) intercession, as here and in Am. 7:1-6; (ii) repentance of the people (Jer. 18:3ff.; Jon. 3:9f.); and (iii) Yahweh’s compassionate nature (Jg. 2:18; Dt. 32:36; 2 Sam. 24:16).”72


There is only one word which can describe the events which we have read about in our text—incredible. Before the “ink has even dried” on the Mosaic Covenant, Israel has broken it, in spite of the repeated, zealous affirmations of the Israelites that they would obey it. At the very time when God is giving Moses the pattern for the tabernacle, where He will manifest His presence to the Israelites, the Israelites are fashioning an idol, which they hope will manifest God’s presence among them. Not years, I suspect not even a month, has passed before this evil plan was set in motion.

How could something like this possibly have happened? I was hoping that my study of this text would uncover some scarcely recognized secret, which would unveil the failure of Israel, and would prove to be the key to our own spirituality. The simple fact is, there is no such hidden truth. And that, I believe, is one of the most significant truths which we learn from this text.

The Root Problem—The Depravity of Man

God Himself has diagnosed the failure of Israel in clear and simple terms: Israel corrupted herself, turning quickly from the way God had prescribed because of a malady common to man—the “stiff-neck syndrome” (theologians call this the “depravity of man”). The Israelites, like every other people who have ever lived, were sinners, and thus were rebellious, stiff-necked, stubborn people. Given this fallen condition, a sin as serious of the pagan worship of a forbidden golden idol should not surprise us at all. In no way is this meant to justify Israel’s sin, but it does help explain it.

If we are at all observant of our own Christian community, there are scores of Christians who have suddenly fallen into sin. We often agonize of such spiritual catastrophes, wondering how a person so sincere, so spiritual, so devoted to the Lord could ever do such a thing. The reason for such sin is the same as that for Israel’s sin—depravity. We, like Israel of old, are stubborn and stiff-necked. We, like they, can quickly turn from the way God has prescribed, corrupting ourselves in the process. Our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others betrays our grasp of one of the most fundamental of all truths—man is sinful and desperately wicked, and his spiritual downfall can come quickly.

The Inadequacy of the Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic Covenant, ratified approximately one month before Israel’s idolatry of Exodus 32, defined the relationship which Israel had with God. Obedience to it promised certain blessings. Disobedience implied negative consequences. In the appeal which Moses made on Mt. Sinai for his people he did not refer to the Mosaic Covenant, even though this covenant is so prominent in Israel’s history and in the Book of Exodus. Why is the Mosaic Covenant not the basis for the mediation of Moses for his people? The reason is that the Mosaic Covenant is able to condemn sin, but not to remedy it.

I believe that the sudden failure of the Israelites serves a vitally important purpose in the progressive revelation of the Old Testament. It serves to show us, as it did the Israelites, that there was no way that the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant could ever be fulfilled by means of Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic Covenant. There was nothing really wrong with the Mosaic Covenant; the problem was with the Israelites. The covenant could promise blessings for those who would obey it, but no cure for those who did not. Given their depravity, their stubborn, stiff-necked rebellion, there was no way that they could ever hope to keep the Law in order to obtain the blessings which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Paul put it centuries later,

Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified (Gal. 2:16).

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (Gal. 3:10).

Put bluntly, the Law can only condemn, it cannot save. Thus, when Moses appealed to God, pleading with Him not to destroy the Israelites as He threatened, he did not make his appeal on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant, just inaugurated; he appealed to the Abrahamic Covenant, made centuries before. The Law was God’s provisional covenant, given to men because of their depravity, but it was not the cure. If the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant were to be fulfilled, it would have to be by some other covenant than the Mosaic Covenant.

Within the provisions of the Mosaic Covenant, there was really only one solution for sin—death. God was right in proposing the destruction of the entire nation to remedy their sin problem. Death was the only way that the Law could remove sin. And this is what the Law has done, only it is not we who have died for sin, but Christ. He died, under the curse of the Law, so that the problem of sin could be removed. He also rose from the dead, giving us a new covenant, and the power of the Holy Spirit, so that sin need no longer rule over us.

The Mosaic Covenant could not change men’s hearts, and this is the root problem of sin. When the Mosaic Covenant was ratified by the next generation of Israelites, there was a much greater emphasis on the negative consequences of violating this covenant. There was also a clear word from God that the problem was with the hearts of the Israelites:

“And the LORD heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have done well in all that they have spoken. Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!’” (Deut. 5:28-29).

Later on, just as the Israelites were beginning their new life in the land of Canaan, Joshua challenged them to choose whether they would serve their old “gods,” which they had served in Egypt, or they would serve the God who had brought them from Egypt and had given them this land (Josh. 24:14-15). The people enthusiastically promised to serve the LORD (24:16-18). Joshua’s response is consistent with what we have learned about the people of God (their depravity) and the Mosaic Covenant (its inability to save sinners):

“You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression of your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you” (Josh. 24:19-20).

The people insist that they will serve the Lord, saying, “No, but we will serve the LORD” (24:21). Instead of assuring the people that they will be blessed in so doing, Joshua responded, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves, to serve Him” (24:22). This is a very pessimistic word from Joshua, but it is true. Given the “stiff necks” of the Israelites and the inability of the Law to remove sin, there is no hope of God’s blessing. The solution to the problem is a new covenant, one which will change men’s hearts and will remedy the problem of sin. That solution is the promised new covenant, promised by the prophet Jeremiah.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My Law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:31-33).

Salvation, sanctification, and blessing can only be attained by someone other than ourselves. That person, the only person who has achieved the righteousness demanded by the Law, is Jesus Christ. He perfectly fulfilled the Law, and then died under the Law, bearing our punishment, and then rose from the dead, so that we might have life in Him (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 3:21-22; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 4:4-6). The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were thus a foreshadow of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would die as the “Lamb of God.” Moses, the mediator of the Mosaic Covenant, foreshadowed the mediatorial role of Christ, our Great High Priest.

There are those today who would tell us that the way for us to obtain the blessings of God is to live in accordance with the Law of Moses. While the standards of the Law are those which men should strive to keep, striving to keep them in order to be saved, sanctified, blessed, or empowered is folly. The reason is simple: we suffer from the same ailment Israel did—sin, manifested by stubbornness and stiff-necked rebellion to the will and the word of God.

The sinfulness of the Israelites and the weakness of the Mosaic Covenant, as evident less than 40 days after that covenant was ratified helps us understand Paul’s strong words in the Book of Galatians to those legalists who were attempting to turn men from the work of Christ (the new covenant) back to the old (the Mosaic Covenant). To try to keep the Law in order to be saved, sanctified, or blessed, fails to understand the depravity of man, which prohibits him from keeping the Mosaic Covenant perfectly, as is required. The legalist not only overestimates the ability of man (to keep the Law), but he minimizes the work of Christ, which alone saves and sanctifies. The worship of the golden calf only a few days after the ratification of the covenant should warn us about placing too much faith in our ability to keep the Law of that covenant.

The Sin of Idolatry

The question which comes to my mind as I consider our text is this: “Why was the sin of idolatry the first which Israel committed?” We might say that it came first because it was the worst sin. I am inclined to think that it is the first sin because it is the easiest and most likely sin men commit, and it is also the sin which leads to many others. For example, it was Israel’s idolatry which led to the sexual immorality described in our text. I think it can also be said that idolatry was perhaps the sin which was most characteristic of Israel. Over and over in the Old Testament Israel is accused of being idolatrous. Idolatry, for the Israelites, was a way of life, one which was easily reverted to. Idolatry was also a characteristic of the culture of the Canaanites.

We may think that idolatry is one sin which the Christian need not concern himself about today, at least in enlightened evangelical America. To the contrary, idolatry is also a very common sin and one which is frequently practiced by Christians today. It only differs in the form which it takes. Let us pursue this matter of idolatry further, seeking to better define it in principle and in practice.

Idolatry in Principle

(1) Idolatry makes something other than God one’s “god.”

(2) Among God’s people idolatry often involves the worship of something or someone other than God as though it were God. A polytheistic culture may worship any number of “gods,” but Israel’s religion is monotheistic, which means she can worship only one God. The heathen may worship their “gods” by whatever name they wish; Israel can worship a “god” only by the name of Yahweh. Israel’s idolatry is a more insidious variety because it can appear to be the worship of the true God, when, in fact, it is the worship of some other “god” in the name of the true God. This idolatry is, by far, the most dangerous, and the most prevalent among Christians. It looks and sounds so pious, but is misdirected. It has the “appearance of godliness” but not its purity or power (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5).

(3) Idolatry can be either conscious or unconscious, deliberate or defacto. In Exodus 32 Israel’s idolatry is both conscious and deliberate. In other instances, idolatry may be practiced without actually knowing what is happening.

(4) Idolatry seeks to replace what cannot be seen with something that can be seen—it is physically oriented. Thus the underlying issue of idolatry is faith, since faith focuses on what is not seen: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1; cf. 2 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 11:27).

Idolatry attempts to replace something invisible or perceived as absent with something present and visible. Ironically, while the problem was one of seeing God, He was visibly present behind them, on the mountain. Ironically, as well, it was what the Israelites “saw” that was wrong, and which got them into trouble.73 We say, “Seeing is believing,” but for the Christian the opposite may be true.

Thomas believed only because he had seen our Lord, but the risen Lord said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29). For those who have not seen the risen Lord, we nevertheless have the promise of His presence with us, so that we do not need visible tokens (idols) of His presence: “… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you” (Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5).

(5) Idolatry is a very dangerous temptation for the New Testament saint, for the circumstances of today are very similar to those found in our text in ancient Israel. There are some remarkable parallels between the situation which Israel faced at this point in her history and that faced by the church. The more we understand these parallels, the more we will grasp the possibilities for practicing idolatry today.

In the Book of Exodus, God had come down, manifesting Himself to men. In particular, a handful of Israel’s leaders had seen God and had undoubtedly communicated what they saw to the rest of the nation. Moses, God’s appointed leader then was called up and away from the people, but they were nevertheless left with clear instructions from God regarding their conduct. Without their visible leader, Israel fashioned one of their own making, thus breaking their covenant with God and disobeying His Law.

In a similar way, God came down and manifested Himself to men in the person of Jesus Christ. A few of the leaders of the church saw Him, both before and after His death, burial, and resurrection, and they reported these things to men (cf. Heb. 1:1-3; 2:3-4). Our Lord was then taken up into heaven (from a mountain) and the church was left behind, with clear instructions as to how God wants us to live (the Bible). In His absence, Christians are tempted to look for something or someone visible to assure them of God’s presence and power. One form of idolatry will be the subject of our further inquiry.

(6) Idolatry is a matter of leadership,74 since ultimately whatever we serve is our “god” and whatever is our “god” is what we follow. Put in simplest terms, people choose their gods in order to follow after them. Thus, our gods are our leaders. Conversely, we must be very careful about who we choose as our leaders and how we view them. Just as our gods become our leaders, our leaders can become our gods.

One of the things which I have learned from my study of Israel’s idolatry in Exodus chapter 32 is that there is a very clear and direct relationship between leadership and idolatry. There was a cause-effect relationship between the absence of Moses and the act of idolatry described in our text.

To practice idolatry one does not need a graven image. There are times when our idols are people. One case of idolatry which is both significant in the history of Israel and relevant to Christians today is found in the Book of 1 Samuel:

And it came about when Samuel was old that he appointed his sons judges over Israel. … His sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah; and they said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this dayin that they have forsaken Me and served other godsso they are doing to you also.” … Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:1, 3-8, 19-20, emphasis mine).

Notice the ways in which these events, which occurred several centuries later than the exodus, parallel the idolatry of the worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32.

First, both accounts clearly identify the sin committed as idolatry. Second, both involve Israel’s leadership, having someone or something to “go before the people.” Third, in both cases, the Israelites were rejecting God’s appointed leadership and establishing a leader of their own. Fourth, in both cases, the people are acting the same and are imitating their culture, rather than obeying God by being a distinct people.

The contribution which this passage in 1 Samuel makes is a significant one because it shows us that idolatry can be practiced by exalting men too highly, and looking to them, rather than to God. There was no golden calf in this incident between God, Samuel, and the people of Israel, only a king. But it is clear in the context that the kind of king Israel wanted was to be a “god” to them, an idol, not of gold but of flesh. Just as the Israelites of Moses’ day wanted a golden image to “go before them,” taking the place of God’s leader, and ultimately, the place of God Himself. To reject God’s established form of leadership is to reject God’s leadership.

This matter of Israel wanting a king is very relevant to 20th century Christianity. You and I, in our culture, are not likely to melt down our jewelry, cast a golden image, and fall before it in worship. We are, however, very likely to look to some human leader in a way that one should only look to God. The idolatry of Samuel’s day, while similar in essence to that of Moses’ day, is much more likely the form idolatry will take in contemporary Christian circles.

This is apparent in the idolatry of both Exodus 32 and 1 Samuel chapter 8. Whenever we look to men, giving to them what only belongs to God, or looking to them for what only God can give, we are idolaters. We have made our leaders our gods, just as Israel did in Samuel’s day. We look to them instead of God. We have expectations and demands of them which are only rightly directed toward God.

This not only happens in the church, it happens in marriage. One of the most persistent complaints about husbands is that they don’t lead (the way we think they should). One of the frequent realities is that we are looking to our husbands to provide us with what only God can give. Much of the present emphasis on leadership, in my opinion, is based upon an idolatrous foundation. Let us take heed from the warning of this text and from the failure of our forefathers.

66 Parallel texts are Deuteronomy 9:7-21, 25ff.; Neh. 9:13-21; Ps. 106:19-23; Acts 7:36-43; 1 Cor. 10:1-13, esp. v. 7. Cf. also Jer. 15:1, where Moses, along with Samuel, are seen to be the foremost mediators of all time.

67 Israel arrived at Sinai three months after her departure from Egypt (19:1). She broke camp and set out for Canaan late in the second month of the second year (Numbers 10:11-12). Thus, nearly a year was spent camped at the base of Mt. Sinai.

68 God had told Moses to “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain [literally, “be”] there” (Exod. 24:12). Moses’ provision for leadership in legal matters also implied that he would be gone for some time (cf. 24:14). Thus, the Israelites should have expected Moses to be delayed and not to return to them quickly.

69 When Israel speaks of the idol, the term “gods” is used. This term can be used of God, but also of pagan idols. When Aaron spoke of the image he had made, he spoke with reference to “the LORD” (32:5), clearly identifying this idol with Israel’s God, Yahweh. The more I think about it I am inclined to think that Israel was willing to set aside the God whom Moses served, the God with whom they had entered into covenant, for a new “god.” Aaron knew better, and thus referred to this idol by God’s name. Israel seemed more willing to forsake God than Aaron.

70 Cf. Dt. 9:12; 32:5; Hos. 9:9; cf. Gal. 1:6. Of this corruption Davis writes, “The word translated ‘corrupted’ … has the idea of to ‘go to ruin.’ It is the same word that is used in Genesis 6:12 to describe the corruption of the world of Noah’s day.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 286.

71 Some have suggested that there is an unexplainable “confusion” here in that Moses interceded with God on several occasions, all of which are similar, and yet different. The answer is to be found, I believe, in differentiating between the dangers in each case, the basis of Moses’ petition, and the outcome. In this case, the danger is that Israel is in danger of being wiped out by the wrath of God. Extinction is the problem. Moses petitioned God not to wipe the nation out, for He has promised and purposed to work through this people, sinful and “stiff-necked” though they may be. Later on, the danger will be the permanent setting aside of the Mosaic Covenant and the withdrawal of the presence of God from His people.

72 J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 307.

73 Three times in this account, the word “saw” (vss. 1, 5) or “seen” (v. 9) are used. In the case of God’s seeing, it was absolutely correct—He saw Israel’s sin. In the case of Israel’s seeing (v. 1), however, and Aaron’s (v. 5), was wrong. Both acted on what they saw, and were wrong. We often act on what we think we see, and make some very serious mistakes. We must “see” things as God does, see them in the light of what God says. We do not walk by sight, but by faith.

74 From a dispensational point of view there was a rather decisive change in the whole concept of leadership. Before Christ’s coming there were men, like Moses and David, who were sort of solo, single, leaders. These men prototyped and typified Christ in His leadership. Now, after Christ’s coming, no man is to presume to take Christ’s place (Matt. 23), and so the church, as a whole, is the body of Christ and must corporately and collectively represent Him. This is why love for one another, unity, and the functioning of every member of the body is so crucial. This is why, in the church, leadership is plural. This is why, in the New Testament, women are excluded from leading in the church.

Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson

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Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003, 240 pages.

This review is written at the time of the great public debate concerning Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. The debate has pitted the Hollywood establishment versus Mel Gibson, the unbelieving world versus Christians, and within Christendom, liberal Christians (who would have preferred an emphasis on the teachings of Christ) versus evangelical Christians (who believe the atoning work of Christ is the centerpiece of Christianity). However, the debate has also pitted evangelical Christians versus evangelical Christians on certain issues. To see some of the areas of disagreement among evangelical Christians, refer to the “Reviews and Reflections on the Movie” in the special Passion section of the website of the Biblical Studies Foundation (/docs/theology/christ/passion.htm ). Issues of debate have included violence, anti-Semitism, Biblical accuracy, artistic license, narrow focus (to a 12 hour period in the life of Christ), and the degree to which Gibson’s conservative Catholic views give the movie a “Catholic spin”. One particular aspect of the latter that comes up for discussion and disagreement is the place of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the film. Was the overall depiction of Mary “restrained” (as per Reg Grant in one of the aforementioned reviews) or “theologically disturbing” (as per J.B. Hixson in another review)? Hixson said “while Catholics may applaud such veneration (of Mary), evangelicals should deplore it”.

But the purpose of my writing is not to evaluate the movie. In view of all the public and private discussion of the various issues raised by the movie, I believe the book I am reviewing is very relevant. Just what do Catholics believe about Mary, and what is the basis for those beliefs? That question is answered very clearly in the book Mary: An Evangelical-Catholic Debate. The pairing of the two individuals to represent the opposing sides is very intriguing in itself. Dwight Longenecker (Dwight) and David Gustafson (David) both went to Bob Jones University (BJU) at the same time, and were acquainted with each other; thus, both received a fundamentalist and most decidedly protestant Christian education. They went in different directions after college, and were reunited 20 years later when Dwight posted a note in a religious forum on the internet asking for any BJU graduates out there who might be interested in discussing religion and, to his surprise, received a reply from David. That led to a six-year period of religious discussions over the internet, and eventually to this book.

David, who represents the Protestant side in the debate, has remained Protestant since his BJU days. After graduating from BJU, he got a law degree and a job with the Justice Department. Over the 20 years since leaving BJU, he has developed a great interest in the historic church and diligently studied it as a layman. He eventually settled in a conservative Episcopal parish because he believed that was the church “best suited for worshiping as Christians have always worshipped, and studying the Bible in light of what Christians have always believed” (page 19).

Dwight, on the other hand, had begun attending a breakaway Episcopal church while at BJU, called the Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox Church. This attraction to the Anglican Church led to a love of all things English, and he eventually took advantage of a chance to study in England. He said he was drawn to “an expression of the Christian faith that was ancient, historical and rooted in European culture” (page 17). He spent fifteen years in the Anglican Church—ten of those as an Anglican priest. By the early 1990s he was married with two children, and was a country parson in England. However, he had begun feeling that the Anglican Church was becoming unsure of her beliefs and drifting away from the “mere Christianity” that he sought to follow. At the same time, he was becoming more and more interested in Catholic spirituality, liturgy, and history. He began to feel he had more in common with his Catholic friends. And so, in 1995, his spiritual journey culminated in he and his family entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. And this brings us to the issue of Mary, as Dwight says:

One of the final obstacles in becoming a Catholic was the problem of Mary. I had accepted certain basic Marian devotions in my spiritual life, but still had trouble with the theological dogmas that Rome expected us to give assent to. In the summer of 1994, those final problems fell away and I realized there was nothing to stop us from entering the Catholic Church…For now I stand here calling myself an evangelical Catholic. I value, and thank God for, the evangelical customs and traditions in which I was brought up. I want ordinary Catholics to become more aware of the riches of that evangelical tradition., but I am also keen to share with Evangelicals more of the riches of the Catholic faith. One of the treasures of the faith is Mary, the Mother of Our Lord…So my intention in this discussion is not to prove you wrong, but to challenge you a little. If the Catholic Church is my home, I’m inviting you to come and visit my Mother (page 17).

Dwight expresses his opinion that American Evangelicalism “is largely cut off from the grand sweep of Christian history from before the Reformation”(page 19), and states that in this discussion he will be quoting from writers from the first four or five centuries of the Christian Church. However, he says:

I should make it clear that I do not quote from these documents as if they bear the authority of Scripture. I use the letters, sermons, hymns and theological writings from the first five centuries to show what the early Christians believed. I quote them for their historical authenticity and authority—not because they are the inspired Word of God (page 19).

Dwight further says that because of his background, he understands the Protestant deep-seated suspicion of “things Catholic”, and he has not forgotten what a “scandal” Mary has become to Evangelicals. In fact, he says that during the formative period of his movement toward the Catholic Church, he found that when he put his past prejudices aside:

I discovered that devotion to Mary dates from the very earliest days of the Christian Church. I found that the vast majority of Christians both now and down through the ages have understood devotion to the Mother of the Lord as a natural and simple part of their whole faith. Therefore, we Catholics find the Evangelicals’ neglect of Mary to be a sort of scandal—a late invention by a small segment of Christianity, that has diminished the historic faith in a significant way (page 20).

The Introduction concludes with David acknowledging that he too “has learned an enormous amount by discovering the writings of the church fathers” (page 19), and that whereas in some respects that discovery has “smoothed off some of the harder edges” (page 20) of his differences with Catholics, in other respects, the differences remain or have gotten even more pronounced, and one of the issues in the latter category is his view of Mary.

The Introduction is preceded by two Forewords commending the book. The first is by Richard John Neuhaus from the Catholic side, and J.I. Packer from the Evangelical side.

Then begins chapter one, which is titled: I Stand Alone On the Word of God: The Biblical Evidence About Mary. David begins by acknowledging that when you examine the Scriptures, you find that the Bible does have a great deal to say about Mary, and that he senses that much Protestant thinking about Mary is “disproportionately negative…(and) a reaction against Roman Catholic devotion.” Further, whereas “we do seem to be very emphatic about what Mary is not…(we) do fail to appreciate all that she is” (pages 22-23). And that, he says, should change.

However, David says that is where his concessions end, and his disputes begin, for he says “the New Testament is also remarkable for its overt deemphasis of Mary, as seen for example by four occasions when Jesus seemed to downplay Mary’s maternal connection to him. He concludes that the Gospels do not show Jesus creating for Mary a place of special honor or attention, or to be someone of continuing importance to his followers." Secondly, whereas the New Testament epistles are full of the doctrinal significance of specific events of Jesus’ life and death, there is no apparent doctrinal significance attached to Mary’s person or actions, with the one exception of the virgin birth. So David concludes:

For now I will generalize this biblical data: if Mary has special importance in the life of the believer or the life of the church, it is an importance not evident in the plain text of the Bible (page 29-30).

As part of his rebuttal to David’s conclusion, Dwight cites Mary’s presence in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and the interpretation of Mary as the woman in Revelation 12. Further, he uses typology to find Mary prefigured in many places in the Old Testament. For example, he cites fourth century teaching by Ambrose, Augustine and Athanasius that saw the Ark of the Covenant as a type of Mary. Dwight’s main point is that Mary “does not just appear in salvation history out of nowhere” (page 33), and that from the symbols and types of the Old Testament, “the Catholic Church from the earliest centuries has deduced the true role and function of the Lord’s mother in God’s plan for the human race” (page 33).

Thus concludes the first chapter. I might add at this point that each chapter in the book is followed by helpful questions for study, reflection and discussion.

Subsequent chapters deal with each of the various aspects of Marian devotion, one at time, such as Holy Mary, Mother of God (chapter 2); The Virgin Birth (chapter 3); The Perpetual Virginity of Mary (chapter 4); Spouse of the Holy Spirit (chapter 5); The Immaculate Conception (chapter 6); The Glorious Assumption (chapter 7); Apparitions of the Virgin Mary (chapter 8); The Veneration of Mary (chapter 9); The Rosary (chapter 10); and finally, Co-Redeemer, Mediatrix, and Advocate (chapter 11).

Early on in the book, in chapter 2 on Mother of God, a key difference between Dwight and David’s positions comes up for discussion. Dwight will cite early church teaching on various aspects of Marian devotion to show how it has been around for centuries. But there is generally a gap between the apostolic era and the time when those doctrines regarding Mary began being taught. As David says:

Let’s assume (as you would assert) that not all the apostles’ teaching was committed to the canonical Scriptures, and that some of the genuine apostolic “traditions” were passed on orally (see John 20:30, 21:25; 2 Thess 2:15). If that were true, and if the alleged teaching was well-attested, was early enough, and was widespread enough, then we might well justify Marian doctrine or devotion…by the example or teaching of the early church—that is, we could presume that the early Christians were doing what the apostles had taught orally. However, reconstructing apostolic-era practice doesn’t seem to be the Catholic method for guiding Marian devotion. Instead the Roman Catholic Church is frank to admit that its understanding of Mary, and its devotional practices related to her, have evolved (page 43).

In support of his comment that Marian devotion has evolved, David goes on to quote a Catholic writer, Luigi Gambero, who stated that during the first centuries the Fathers and other Christian writers “rarely speak of Mary apart from Christ”, but that as the centuries passed, especially from the second half of the fourth century on, those same groups “began to pay more attention to Mary” (although he acknowledges that the quantity of Marian literature produced in that period was still modest). Gambero says that it was after the Councils of Ephesus (431 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) that there was “a sharp increase in the level of Marian doctrine and devotion” (page 44). Several times in the book, David reiterates that premise (for example, page 107).

In response, Dwight said that while Gambero recognizes the subordinate role of Mary in the early church, Gambero also makes clear that:

Faith, devotion, and interest in the ineffable mystery of the Mother of the Lord were never lacking among the people of God, even though the manifestations and expressions of faith and doctrine may vary in different historical periods (page 44).

While Dwight acknowledges that Catholic understanding of Mary’s role and identity has “developed and matured over the years”, he says the same can be said of other aspects of Christian theology and practice. However, he acknowledges that “this is a very important point and I think we ought to give it more time later” (page 44).

In chapter 3 on The Virgin Birth, one might have expected basic agreement. However, that is not the case, as Dwight says that since Jesus received his human nature from Mary, then “her virginity had to be of an extraordinary kind…it had to be unique in human history” (page 54), and that for Jesus’ human nature to be really human and really sinless, “its human source must have been uniquely pure” (page 55). In other words, was Mary a recipient of grace by being chosen to bear the Christ child, or was she chosen to bear the Christ child because she already possessed some special grace of purity or holiness? To David, this is “pious speculation”.

As you move on through the rest of the chapters, be ready for some surprises. I certainly found some. For example, in chapter 4 I was surprised to learn that the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was held not only by most of the church fathers, but by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and even John Wesley (page 64). In response to this, David restates the premise that underlies much of his thinking.

As instructive as it is to know what Luther, Calvin, Origen, and Tertullian thought about this subject, the critical question is whether we have any apostolic teaching on the point. A postapostolic novelty is a distortion (reviewer’s emphasis), whether it originated in the sixteenth century or the second. So…to learn that Mary’s alleged perpetual virginity is another issue on which we disagree with Luther and Calvin is not a shock (page 66).

Chapter 6, The Immaculate Conception deals with the Catholic belief that Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception to the end of her earthly life. Dwight says he expects that this is one of the Marian doctrines most objectionable to Protestants, and he acknowledges that it is not stated explicitly in the Scriptures. David responds that theoretically a case for Mary’s sinlessness could be made, even in the absence of direct biblical support, if there is evidence that “the first-century church had received it orally

from the apostles, or if Mary’s sinlessness is implicit in what the apostles taught” (page 98). Regarding the latter, Dwight makes much of the translation of the Greek word kecharitomene in Luke 1:28 with which the angel addresses Mary, and which comes from the root charis which is generally translated grace. Catholics therefore translate this as “full of grace”, while Protestants translate it as “highly favored one”. Catholics understand that Mary was “so completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” that sin was absent (page 99). This is not the sole base of their case of course, as Dwight acknowledges:

I accept your point that the implications of two biblical references are not proof of a dogma…As you’ve observed…Catholics do not rely on Scripture alone for the development of doctrine…At Pentecost the Holy Spirit inspired the apostolic church, and now the church is the pillar and foundation of truth. We therefore submit our own theories to the dynamic and living tradition of the church. For 2000 years the best Christian minds have been reflecting, praying, and debating these issues, guided by the promised Holy Spirit. One might be able to formulate other theories, but we believe that the consensus of the church in this matter is the right one (page 106).

To which David responds:

It’s not just any tradition to which Christians adhere; it’s apostolic tradition… The church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” when it faithfully perpetuates what the apostles taught (and, arguably, what the apostles’ teaching implies); the church is not a perpetual revelation machine. The “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) consists of what the apostles wrote and taught. Other ideas—even if generations of Christians have thought those ideas fitting or sweet—are simply not part of what was “once for all entrusted” (page 107).

Dwight ends that particular conversation by saying that he basically agrees with what David has said, but that Catholics “have a larger understanding of apostolicity” than the position described by David (page 107). Whereas he agrees that there can be no new revelation, he says that the church over the course of time comes into “a fuller and fuller” understanding of the “faith once entrusted to the saints” (page 107).

However, surely the most difficult concept for Protestants to accept is the subject of chapter 11: Co-Redeemer, Mediatrix, and Advocate, which seems to fly in the face of 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”. However Dwight notes at the beginning of this discussion that the understanding of Mary as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix of grace is not a formally defined dogma of the Catholic Church, but rather a “pious opinion—a useful devotional and theological way of meditating on Mary” (page 190). He acknowledges that it is controversial even among Catholics, as some ardent Marian devotees want the Church to define this role for Mary as a “final Marian dogma”, while other Catholics feel Mary has been honored enough and believe dogmatizing this role for Mary would encroach on the unique redemptive role of Christ and would hurt ecumenical efforts. Dwight says he is among the cautious on this issue.

Mary’s role is described as follows:

Mary cooperated with the redemption in a unique way with her total “yes” to God at the Annunciation. In agreeing to be the God-bearer she actively cooperated with God in bringing the Redeemer into the world (page 195).

Dwight recognizes that the terminology of Co-Redeemer could create confusion, implying that Mary had an equal role to that of Christ in redemption. He therefore suggests the term “partner.” However, to David even referring to Mary as a junior partner in the event still causes problems because for Protestants Christ had no partners; he accomplished “not just 95% of our redemption, not just 99%, but all of it” (page 197).

They then move on to Mary as Mediatrix. David quotes 19th century Pope Leo XIII:

Thus as no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by His mother…Mary is this glorious intermediary (page 199).

Dwight agrees that Leo’s language is extreme, but says that “since Jesus came into the world through Mary we have to admit that the grace of Jesus Christ came through Mary”, and that whereas it is not a formal doctrine, Mary’s role of Mediatrix was taught from the early fourth century in the church and has gone on to become an established part of the fullness of the faith. David, however, doesn’t “see any good reason to transmute Mary’s one-time role as mother of Jesus into a role of her being his eternal agent…there is no basis for granting Mary a role as Mediatrix that is continuing and that is unique to herself (page 201).

Finally, they move on to the third issue of chapter 11, Mary as Advocate. By this, Dwight says Catholics mean that “Mary prays for us” (page 202), and says that this tradition goes back to the second century where they find a prayer that says:

Under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications in necessity, but deliver us from danger (page 202).

He also cites Saint Ephraem who called Mary “the friendly advocate of sinners” (page 202). Not surprisingly, David finds this in direct conflict with 1 John 2:1 which says that “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (NASB).

And it is at this point that David says:

I have to pause at the very threshold of this issue, and, in effect, question the whole reason for this discussion (i.e., the discussion of chapter 11)…we reach with these doctrines—Mary as Mediatrix, Co-Redeemer and Advocate—a point where I simply have to say no. From time to time in the history of the Church, orthodox Catholicism has had to suppress a Marian enthusiasm that went too far, and I believe this is one of those times. I urgently hope that sober and responsible Catholics will insist that these titles go too far. I am sure that the proponents of these doctrines mean well…But by their objective terms these doctrines ascribe to Mary titles that, in the Scriptures, are uniquely ascribed to Christ...I am grateful that, so far at least, the Roman Catholic Church has declined to define these terms as binding dogma. I pray that this restraint will persist, and that attention will be directed toward Jesus’ loving readiness and ability to be our Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate (page 206).

Dwight finds himself in agreement with this hope, though he believes that a “proper, minimalist definition” could put the whole issue in its proper perspective and “inhibit further Marian extravagance” (page 206). He further says that “time will tell”, and expresses his belief that, despite some excesses, “the Catholic Church finally gets these things sorted out” (page 206).

The final chapter is a summary and conclusion titled: Our Lady or Your Lady? In it, David says one thing he has learned from the discussion that has made the issue of Mary more of an open question for him, at least intellectually, is the antiquity of Marian devotion as he feels very keenly a connection with the historic church. Yet even before that statement could soak in, he says:

However, I’m sorry to say that your arguments about antiquity haven’t carried the day for me. Whenever you point out that such-and-such an instance of Marian devotion can be traced all the way back to the third century, my reflexive response is that you’re a couple of centuries short. As I’ve surely made tediously clear, my primary determination is to know what the apostles taught and did in the first century…the church’s practice two hundred years after the apostles is inconclusive evidence for what the apostles did (page 211).

Further he feels that Marian devotion is more likely to be a hindrance than a help for future fellowship between Evangelicals and Catholics. He notes that among the Evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism, most say that the issue of Mary was problematic, and one of the last issues they resolved. He thinks the most that can be hoped for is Evangelical toleration of some measure of Marian devotion. Dwight says he shares David’s concerns, but while admitting that there have been excesses:

It would be dishonest for me to downplay devotion to Mary too much (since) an exalted view of Mary has been part of Christian teaching from the earliest centuries. The proper thing is not to reject Marian devotion, but to correct it (page 214).

To conclude this review, the book provided a very helpful discussion of the role of Mary in historical and contemporary Catholicism, as well as clearly showing the differences that divide Evangelicals and Catholics on the subject. I thought both individuals were very knowledgeable about both sides of the Mary issue and by historical church writings, and the “debate” was carried on in a civil and charitable manner. I think the choice of having the opposite sides represented by two individuals who had both gone to Bob Jones University at the same time was particularly interesting. In addition, my knowledge about the issues was very superficial at best, and so I gained a great deal of insight from reading the book. Although I was not moved away from the Evangelical position regarding Mary, I now have a greatly enhanced understanding of the opposing positions and a greater appreciation for the Evangelical side. Toward that end, I would certainly commend this book to any interested readers.

Related Topics: Christology, History, Catholicism

Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 14:1-17, Liberty and Conscience By D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

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Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, 271 pages.

On Friday evening, 1 March 1968, at the age of sixty-eight, Martyn Lloyd-Jones went into his pulpit as usual at Westminster Chapel, London, to preach on the Epistle to the Romans. The few side notes he took with him were numbered as his 372nd sermon in the Romans series which had begun ten and a half years earlier on 7 October 1957. He had now reached chapter 14, verse 17, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost”, and though he did not know it, that night, on the word “peace” he was to conclude his thirty-years’ ministry in the heart of London…(for) before he could return to the pulpit on the following Sunday morning he was diagnosed with a condition that led to surgery and then, two months later in May, to the decision to retire…in all seriousness he was later to tell a group of ministers that he had been stopped before completing verse 17 because he was not yet ready to preach on “joy in the Holy Ghost” (from the Preface by Iain H. Murray, pages xi-xiv).

Murray goes on in the Preface to say that Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) was not discouraged by this sudden retirement from the pulpit ministry. Rather, he saw it as a God-given opportunity to undertake a long-desired but daunting task, that being to prepare the Romans series of sermons for publication. The sermons were all on tape, and the first task was to take the recorded messages down into manuscript form, since MLJ’s sermon notes consisted of little more than headings and main thoughts. Until his death in 1981, MLJ took the main share of the editing, a process undertaken with much thought and care. He was assisted by his wife, his elder daughter Lady Catherwood, and Mr. S.M. Houghton (who died in 1987). Mrs. Lloyd-Jones remained involved in the editing until her death in 1991, and since that time Lady Catherwood has had the sole responsibility.

In addition to the sheer volume of the task, Murray says “there was no modern precedent to indicate how the Christian public would react to a magnum opus on Romans running into very many volumes. Indeed, the preacher (MLJ) “never anticipated the whole going into print” (page xii). The first volume was published in 1970, on Romans 3:20-4:25, and subtitled Atonement and Justification. In the preface, MLJ expressed his hope of “several volumes” to follow. However, that hope has been far exceeded. With the publication of this volume on Romans 14, the entire Romans series from chapter one, verse one, is now in print, with the set consisting of fourteen volumes.

In all, the publishing project took 33 years. Publication of the first volume in 1970 was followed by the second in 1971 (on chapter 5), the third in 1972 (on chapter 6), and so on, on an annual basis, so that by 1975 the series was complete from Romans 3:20 thru chapter 8 in six volumes. There was then a lapse of 10 years until publication of the seventh volume in 1985 and eighth volume in 1989, which went back and picked up chapters 1 and 2-3:20, respectively. In 1991, the ninth volume was published on chapter 9, and subsequent volumes followed in chapter order: chapter 10 (1997), chapter 11 (1998), chapter 12 (2000), chapter 13 (2002), and chapter 14:1-17 (2003).

I began reading the series in 1993, beginning with chapter 6, and was awe-struck by the exposition. I acquired and devoured the other volumes in print, so that by the end of 1995, I had read all volumes in print, covering the first nine chapters of Romans. Chapter 10 came out in 1997, and from then on it was a matter of anxiously awaiting the publication of each new volume, and then immediately diving in. So, having completed the final volume of the Romans series, it is with no small amount of sadness that I realize there will be no more volumes to look forward to every two years or so.

The reason I mentioned my reading history of the series is to emphasize that you don’t need to feel that you have to commit to reading the entire series in order to benefit from MLJ’s great work. Each volume stands on its own, as MLJ is constantly reminding the reader of where the particular chapter fits into the argument of Romans as a whole, and retracing the ground covered in preceding chapters. So the reader would greatly profit from picking up and reading the fifth volume (The New Man, chapter 6), or the eighth volume (The Final Perseverance of the Saints, chapter 8:17-39), or the thirteenth volume (Life in Two Kingdoms, chapter 13). In an Appendix at the end of this review, I will list the volumes and the subjects and chapters covered by each.

As previously noted, the publishing project, begun with some uncertainty, has been a resounding success. In his Preface, Murray cites a review in Christianity Today when the first volume came out in 1970: “This is no average book. Nor will you read it indifferently. It is the kind of book that will grip your mind and heart…it has been a long time since I have read a book I have enjoyed so thoroughly as this”(page xiii). I believe this praise applies just as well to each volume in the series. As far as a publishing success, Murray says it is not known how many volumes have been sold, but “the million mark was passed many years ago” (page xii). The books have been printed in many languages and have been read by “thousands, in nations from Brazil to Korea” (page xiii).

Now as to the contents of this volume: MLJ begins by saying that the section in view should actually extend from 14:1 to 15:4, rather than ending with 14:23. Then he says that this section should fall under the admonition of 12:1-2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”. This is because chapter 12 begins the second major division of the book of Romans: the first division is doctrinal and covers chapters 1-11; the second division begins with chapter 12 and is practical, that is covering the application of the doctrine in practice and in daily living. So chapter 14 (actually 14:1-15:4) is a subdivision , covered by the opening words of the second main division (12:1-2). He then gives a recap of chapter 12 (which deals with our relationships with other believers, first in the matter of spiritual gifts and then in regard to other aspects, and then our relationships with non-Christians) and chapter 13 (which deals with the relationship of believers to the powers that be, to keeping the law of love, and ends with a reminder that since our time on this earth is short we should conduct ourselves accordingly).

But with chapter 14, he begins a new subsection, although “it is still under the general heading of behavior and our relationships with other people” (page 3), though here he is back to our relationship to other people inside the church. And here Paul is primarily concerned with what have been called “matters of indifference”. In fact, this is the theme of the subsection. In contrast to those issues in connection with the Christian life that are absolutely essential, there are other matters “that are quite important but are not essential, and it is conceivable that Christians may hold different points of view about them” (page 3). That is why these questions are referred to as “matters of indifference”. The specific matters Paul takes up in this subsection are food and drink, and the setting aside of particular days as “holy days”. The same principles are dealt with by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Corinthians 10, and 1 Timothy 4. They are obviously issues that had caused a great deal of friction in the early church, and while the specifics may vary today, the general issues regarding matters of indifference, Christian liberty and the guidance of the conscience frequently cause friction in the church today.

With regard to matters of indifference, an important concept is that of the strong believer, versus the weak believer who is “weak in the faith” (14:1). The weak believer is truly Christian, they understand their own guilt and sinfulness, and they understand that they have been justified by faith in the Lord Jesus. So where have they gone wrong?

Though they have clearly seen the great central matter of salvation, when it comes to particular details of life and living, quite unconsciously, they have dropped back from the faith position into an old legalistic, pre-Christian way of thinking, and have begun to think in terms of justification by works (page 9).

So the weak believer is weak in his understanding and/or application of doctrine, while the strong believer is well-grounded in doctrine as well as its application to specific areas of the Christian walk. He understands those areas where he is free to exercise his Christian liberty. So what accounts for the difference between them? On pages 12-17, MLJ cites six possible causes of the believer who is weak in the faith: 1) natural ability, 2) temperament, 3) diligence and application, 4) length of time in the Christian life, 5) lack of good teaching, and 6) background (ancestry, nationality, etc).

On pages 5-6, MLJ gives a basic outline of this subsection:

A). 14:1-12 The Governing Principle: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations” (vs 1).

Vs 2-4: The principle applied to eating certain foods.

Vs 5-6a: The principle applied to the observance of days.

Vs 6b-12: The way these matters should always be considered, i.e., which is in the light of our relationship to the Lord (He is the judge before whom we will all have to appear).

B). 14: 13-16 We must not consider these matters without remembering that we are brothers, we are all children of God.

C). 14: 17-20a We must also always remember the nature of the Christian church, the nature of the kingdom of God.

D). 14: 20b-23. Sums up the argument and reminds us that although we are all brothers, nevertheless each individual must be careful not to violate his conscience.

E). 15: 1-4 Paul’s final appeal, which lifts us up right up to the Lord Himself, to our whole relationship to Him, and especially to what He has done for us already.

MLJ points out that there are always two extremes to which Christians are prone to fall: legalism, which is a kind of “moral scrupulosity” (pg 7), and at the opposite extreme, the danger of antinomianism (license, lawlessness, saying since you are now a Christian, it doesn’t matter what you do). And in this portion of Romans, the issue is one of legalism.

The second chapter or sermon emphasizes how we are to treat the ones who are “weak in the faith” (vs 1), and the Apostle says we are to “receive them”, but not to “doubtful disputations”, which MLJ renders as “but not to judgment of thoughts”. In other words, they are to be received cordially, as brethren, and with grace, but not for the purpose of sitting in judgment on their thoughts. The stronger believer is not to be constantly raising the issue so as to agitate them, or to make fun of them, or to try to foist his opinions on them. All of which doesn’t mean the issues can’t be discussed. In fact, it is desired that brothers teach one another in love. So MLJ sets forth five rules for having discussions among Christians in the life of the church. To summarize, discussions should not be just for the sake of having a discussion, not for the sake of entertainment, not for the sake of displaying yourself, and not in a bad-tempered manner. In addition, there should be a distinction between a discussion and an argument, with the purpose of the latter being to win at all costs. Therefore his sixth rule is that the desire should be to gain a better understanding of the truth and to help one another. MLJ concludes that we must all learn the art of teaching, and in pages 33-35 he sets forth five principles for teaching one another in love.

Over the next several chapters, he deals with such issues as foods, meat and the ceremonial law, Sabbath law, and despising and judging. In chapter seven, he shows that the primary issue in verses 5-9 is being concerned with the glory of the Lord (pages 96-97). Whether one eats or doesn’t eat, he should do so “as to the Lord”.

In chapter nine, MLJ deals with a doctrine that he feels is neglected by evangelicals, the fact that ”we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (vs 10-12). In view of that, Paul says to the weaker Christian, “why doest thou judge thy brother” and to the stronger Christian, “why dost thou set at naught (despise) thy brother”?

In chapter 11, the focus is on a statement by Paul which MLJ says is “in many ways one of the most difficult we have so far encountered in the whole of this Epistle (page 166)”: “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (vs 15b). He begins his analysis by stating what it cannot mean and what it does mean: “it does not mean his everlasting and final perdition and damnation—but it means that you are putting him on the road to ruin, on the road that leads to ruin and destruction” (page 167). The reason for this is that when the stronger believer, in front of the weaker believer, eats meat that the latter feels is tainted, the weaker believer may follow his example and do something against his conscience. And this, to the Apostle, is “one of the most serious things you can ever do” (page 171). Rather, we are to walk in love toward our brother and the supreme motivation for that is that he is a brother “for whom Christ died” (vs 15b). So if Christ loved him enough to die for him, “is it asking too much of you to forego the eating of these meats to which you are entitled?” (page 170). Chapter 12 follows with a thorough study of the conscience, which may be in Biblical terms “good, bad, weak, pure, defiled, or seared” (pages 177-180).

Chapter 13 deals more thoroughly with a question that was earlier raised in chapter 11, concerning vs 15b: “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died”. That brings up the question of the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints, or to put it another way, “the possibility of falling from grace” (page 186). In setting forth the doctrine, MLJ deals with other so-called “problem passages” that bring up the same issue, such as Galatians 5:1-4, Hebrews 6: 4-6, and Hebrews 10:26. He also launches into side discussions such as how to deal with apparent contradictions in scripture (“apparent”, because “Scripture never contradicts itself—never”, page 189). And therefore “it is for us to reconcile the passages that on the surface seem to be contradicting one another” (page 189), and he leads us through the process. After establishing the eternal security of the believer, MLJ concludes that the warning passages discussed in this chapter are the “very means that God uses to preserve the saints.” Another doctrine that MLJ also feels is presently neglected by the church, and which he deals with in this chapter, is the doctrine of backsliding (page 192).

Chapter 14 begins a new subsection that runs from verses 17-19. The subsection is introduced by verse 17 which contains what MLJ considers to be one of “the Apostle’s great resounding statements…a mighty and magnificent statement that seems to be a perfect summary of the gospel and of the nature of the Christian life” (page 203):

For the kingdom of God
is not meat and drink;
but righteousness, and peace,
and joy in the Holy Ghost
(vs 17)

In chapter 14, MLJ spends much time dealing with what he considers one of Christianity’s big problems today: what he refers to as “lop-sided Christianity” (page 205). He says “the principle at issue is the vital importance, always, of preserving a sense of balance and proportion in the Christian life…One of the greatest dangers is to be so absorbed, and concerned about, particulars and details as to forget the whole” (page 205). Because we are unbalanced, minor issues are inflated into major issues, and we strain gnats while swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24). The “grand corrective” to this whole problem is “to remember that what we are really concerned about is the kingdom of God” (page 224).

And so beginning with chapter 15, MLJ sets forth the general teaching of the Bible regarding the kingdom of God (pages 225-229). And when he starts rolling on this grand subject, he will carry the readers along with him. I wish that each reader of this review could read those five pages. He begins with the general statement that “the great theme of the Bible, ultimately, is the kingdom of God” (page 225). God created the world, and made man and woman to live in communion with him. But they rebelled and disobeyed Him, and so “the whole message of the Bible, therefore, is the restoration of the kingdom of God. And this, in particular, is the theme of our Lord’s own preaching” (page 225). But, he warns:

How often we forget this…We put so much emphasis on the subjective experience, upon personal salvation, that we tend to forget this teaching, do we not? Our whole error is that we always start with ourselves…It is the wrong way round. We should start with the kingdom of God, for it is what our Lord preached about. All that happens to us is in order to make us citizens of that kingdom…You must start with what God has done, God’s plan and purpose, and this kingdom that He is establishing (page 225). But what does the kingdom of God mean?…It means the rule, the reign, of God. And He brings about His reign through the Word, the Word that He has given, and through the Spirit. But the center, of course, is always the Lord Jesus Christ…(for) God’s kingdom has happened supremely in the Lord Jesus Christ…He is the King…and everything He did was done in order that this kingdom might ultimately be manifested in all of its glorious fullness. (pages 225-226).

As an amillennialist, MLJ states that while in the old dispensation, the kingdom took the external form of the nation of Israel, “the kingdom of God is now to be seen in visible form in the Christian church”, citing Matthew 21:43. And of course the kingdom of God will yet be seen, again in visible form, when our Lord returns at the second coming, and His kingdom will be universal.

And so the application:

The question for you is: Are you in the kingdom of God? Nothing else is going to matter, nothing except this glorious kingdom of God and His Christ…(and) we must emphasize that the kingdom of God is also within every one of us who is a Christian. It is the reign of God, which means the reign of Christ…That is the sense in which the kingdom of God is within us…My great concern should not be for meat and drink and observation of days, or this, or that, or the other, but that the King should be enthroned in my heart (pages 227-228).

And so MLJ relates the teaching on the kingdom of God to the issues regarding food and drink and special days, which were causing hard feelings and divisions and factions. In fact, he asks if we cannot feel the Apostle’s sarcasm when he talks about meat and drink, and MLJ states:

How pathetic it is. We rob ourselves of the most wonderful things in the Christian faith and the greatest glories when we indulge in this minutiae…The Apostle is saying: Where is your sense of perspective? Where is your sense of proportion? Where is your sense of balance? Do you not realize who you are and what you are?…Now that is the first and greatest and fundamental argument: the kingdom of God. You start with that, then all you do and all your thinking and everything else must be governed by that. The moment it is not, you will go off at a tangent and make peripheral things central. You will make yourself miserable, you will divide the church, you will produce chaos and havoc, and do harm to the kingdom of God. That is what Paul is saying (page 228-229).

So in chapter 16, MLJ goes on to explore the implications of this great proclamation about the kingdom of God in verse 17.

In chapter 17, he looks at the meaning of the first positive descriptive term about just what the kingdom of God is in verse 17: “For the kingdom of God is…righteousness”. Here he deals with an interpretative issue that has found some of the great Reformed commentators of the past in disagreement (pages 244-246). On the one hand, is the term righteousness referring to imputed righteousness, i.e. the righteousness of God in Christ that He puts to our account in justification? This is the way the term is generally used in Romans, and supporters of this position include such worthies as John Calvin, Charles Hodge, and William G.T. Shedd. Or on the other hand, is an ethical righteousness in view, i.e. the behavior of believers who are in the kingdom of God? Supporters of this position include Robert Haldane and Professor John Murray. To these opposing interpretations, MLJ says: “there is a sense in which I agree with both views, and yet, at the same time, say that both are wrong” (page 246). Instead, he concludes:

So to me, this seventeenth verse is a general statement of the character or the characteristics of the kingdom of God and its citizens. In other words, I argue that Paul is not dealing here with ethical relationships, but with personal relationships…he is trying to show that these Romans had forgotten their whole position and their entire relationship to one another, and this was the source of all their trouble. They were reducing the whole matter of the kingdom of God to attitudes towards certain details and certain practices. They had become so involved in the minutiae that they were missing the whole thing (pages 247-248).

So MLJ detects a measure of impatience on the part of the Apostle towards these people.

He then goes on to introduce some supporting evidence from Galatians 5:1-6, Galatians 6:12-17, and Romans 6:17-23 (pages 248-252), and then concludes:

It is the kingdom of God that is the sphere and the reign of righteousness. This is the interpretation of Romans 14:17. Christians, then, are new men and new women in this new realm. They have liberty in Christ, a new way of thinking. And now they view all matters of conduct not primarily in terms of particular actions, but rather in terms of their conformity to the kingdom to which they belong and to the King of the kingdom. That is the difference…The Christians in Rome were tending to forget that there is a great distinction between holiness and morality…Christian men and women are not primarily concerned about detailed rightness, but are profoundly concerned about being well-pleasing to God, and right in His sight (page 252-253).

And then finally, in chapter 18, he focuses on the second positive descriptive term of the kingdom of God: peace, which he says means more than just peaceableness. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace where a great reconciliation has taken place. And what is that reconciliation? First and foremost, peace with God as a result of our justification. Then secondly, salvation gives men peace within. And third, peace with others, “and that is the subject the Apostle is dealing with in particular in Romans 14:17” (page 267). The kingdom of God has broken down the middle wall of partition that divides men. But, says Paul to the Romans, “you are re-erecting these middle walls in terms of eating and drinking. This is not the kingdom of God” (pages 267-268). For:

The kingdom of God abolishes enmities, and re-introduction of enmities in any shape or form is a denial of the kingdom…people only behave as the Romans were behaving when they forget that the one thing that matters is the glory of God and the Lord Jesus Christ…What do my opinions matter as long as God and Christ and the Spirit are glorified and honoured? That is Paul’s appeal (pages 268-270).

For the kingdom of God

is not meat and drink;
but righteousness, and peace,
and joy in the Holy Ghost.
(vs 17)

And so ended MLJ’s masterful exposition of the book of Romans, without his even being able to complete the exposition of the final phrase of verse 17, much less the rest of Romans chapter 17. But although the cancer diagnosis on that date in 1968 led to his retirement, and his pulpit career at Westminster Chapel was over, his work was far from complete, as he lived until 1981 and during that time engaged in ministry in many other ways until he died, including the editing of this Romans series as well as a multi-volume exposition of Ephesians.

It is hoped that some of those reading this review will be encouraged to undertake to acquire (or check out from a library) some if not all of the 14 volumes composing the Romans series. As I previously noted, each volume does stand on its own. And you will be greatly rewarded for your effort. The Appendix below lists each volume, the subject matter covered, and the date of its first publication.

APPENDIX: The Romans Series

The Gospel of God (1:1-32), 1985

The Righteous Judgment of God (2:1-3:20), 1989

Atonement and Justification (3:20-4:25), 1970

Assurance (5:1-21), 1971

The New Man (6:1-23), 1972

The Law: Its Functions and Limits (7:1-8:4), 1973

The Sons of God (8:5-17), 1974

The Final Perseverance of the Saints (8:17-39), 1975

God’s Sovereign Purpose (9:1-33), 1991

Saving Faith (10:1-21), 1997

To God’s Glory (11:1-36), 1998

Christian Conduct (12:1-21), 2000

Life in Two Kingdoms (13:1-14), 2002

Liberty and Conscience (14:1-17), 2003

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology)

Indelible Ink: 22 Prominent Christian Leaders Discuss The Books That Shape Their Faith by Scott Larsen, General Editor

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Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2003, 321 pages.

The underlying truth that serves as the foundation for every word in this book is that books exercise an incredible influence over us—they play a significant role in the process of our continual, lifelong creation (page vii).

And with this comment as the first sentence of the Acknowledgments section, Scott Larsen sets the tone for this book, which is nothing less than a rich feast for all librophiliacs (book lovers, a term cited by Calvin Miller in his essay, page 32).

In his Foreword, popular author Philip Yancey quotes Thomas Merton:

Reading ought to be an act of homage to the God of all truth. We open our hearts to words that reflect the reality He has created or the greater Reality which He is. It is also an act of humility and reverence towards other men who are the instruments by which God has communicated His truth to us (page xii).

Then in his Introduction, Scott Larsen goes on to further build his case for the importance of books and reading.

Books shape us, dynamically molding our minds and souls. You are never the same person when you finish a book…A.W. Tozer has aptly stated that “the things you read, will fashion you by slowly conditioning your mind”… The decisions we make about what we read are vital…As Christians who are called to continuously chew on the wonders of God, our reading diet is nothing to take lightly… What it means is that what we read matters and directly affects who we become (page 2).

Larsen warns against limiting our reading to only contemporary writers: Writers of old share with us our humanity and our foundation on Christ and the Scriptures. But how often do we sit at their feet and find ourselves absorbed in their stories and teaching? We ignore the written works of the fathers and mothers of the church to our own spiritual impoverishment. We cannot limit ourselves to reading only contemporary writers, as great as some are, and truly plumb the depths of our Christian heritage.

Contemporary writers understand this and often quote from older writings, including the wisdom of largely forgotten writers who span the gap of time to feed our souls. Unfortunately, these are the books that long ago lost their place on the shelves of most bookstores, the authors and saints and thinkers who aren’t known to the average Christian today (page 3).

So, in his conclusion to the Introduction, Larsen says the question becomes clear:

Which books will you choose?” (page 4).

And Larsen helps us to make that choice by seeing which books others have chosen, leading us to the structure of this fascinating book. Larsen chose 22 prominent Christian leaders, and asked each the same question: “Which books (limiting it to three if possible), other than the Bible, have most influenced you?” (page 4). He gave no further parameters, not even limiting it to books expressing a Christian worldview. He wanted to know (and share with us) those books that left “indelible ink” on their souls.

So the main portion of the book consists of essays written by each of the 22 Christian leaders to both set forth and give the basis for their choices. Some of the contributors are: Joni Eareckson Tada, Calvin Miller, Dallas Willard, J.I. Packer, Kenneth N. Taylor, Phillip E. Johnson, John R.W. Stott, Edith Schaeffer, Ravi Zacharias, and 13 others.

Following the main section of the book is Appendix 1: The Books That Shaped Other Christian Leaders (beginning on page 227). This list comprises 136 other Christian leaders “who share more briefly about the books that have shaped them” (page 4). Included are such names as William Bennett, Jerry Bridges, Bill Bright, Elisabeth Elliot, Carl F.H. Henry, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, Mark Noll, Janette Oke, John Piper, N.T. Wright, and many others. Since some of the titles mentioned may no longer be in print, Larsen did his readers a great service by listing 17 sources for out-of-print books at the end of the first Appendix (page 292).

When I read the book in September 2003, I decided it would be interesting to keep a tally on the book’s flysheets of which authors and which titles received the most mentions. Then when I began writing this book review in March 2004, I took a look at some of the reviews done by readers of the book on the website of Amazon ( ).

I was surprised to find that one of the reviewers (identified as had the same idea, at least to start out. He said that he eventually decided to settle for a less formal method of accounting, “something between a guess and a hunch”. Like me, he recognized early on that C.S. Lewis was clearly the frontrunner among the authors and Mere Christianity was leading the books. But he said that then he found the link to the Indelible Ink website and learned that the tabulating work had already been done for us.

So I went to and found a wealth of helpful information. First the webpage has a Bonus Appendix which contains yet another 23 Christian leaders who give their three most influential books. Contributors to that section include Joel Belz, William Lane Craig, David Dockery, Gene Edward Veith, and others.

Then I went to the Top Tens section of the website. The statistical data is compiled from both the book and the Bonus Appendix on the website. According to their count, there were 181 total contributors who on a combined basis cited 353 titles and 258 authors. So they compiled charts of the top ten books, the top ten authors, and the top ten authors with the most titles.

For those who are as intrigued as I am by these types of lists, I would refer you to the Indelible Ink website to get all of the details. But just to whet your curiosity I will give the top five in each category and the number of times each was selected:

Top Five Books

# of Times Cited

Mere Christianity (Lewis)


My Utmost for His Highest (Chambers)


Knowing God (Packer)


Institutes of the Christian Religion (Calvin)


The Brothers Karamazov


Top Five Authors

# of Times Cited

C.S. Lewis


Fyodor Dostoyevsky


J.I. Packer


Oswald Chambers




As I mentioned, there was also a listing of Top Ten Authors with the Most Titles. I won’t give a list, but I found it interesting that of the top four, C.S. Lewis had 12 different titles cited, Francis Schaeffer had 7, and Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther had 5 each.

Finally, the website has a list of Contemporaries, that is the Top Ten Contemporary Authors, which excludes those no longer living. In that list the top five authors are J.I. Packer (12), Dallas Willard (7), Philip Yancey (7), John Stott (5) and Elisabeth Elliot tied with John Piper (both with 3).

The Indelible Ink website also has a Reader’s Appendix where readers are invited to go in and post their three most influential books and give the reasons. To date, 14 individuals have taken them up on that offer.

Back to the book itself, my two favorite essays were those by J.I. Packer (Calvin, the Institutes and Me) and John R.W. Stott (Bishop J.C. Ryle and the Quest for Holiness).

Packer, in citing Calvin’s Institutes as the most influential book in his life, gave five reasons. He said that in that classic work, Calvin 1) showed him “how to think to the glory of God”, 2) confirmed him in his view of Holy Scripture, 3) changed him “from a sectarian into a churchman”, 4) formed him as “a Bible-led rather than a system-driven systematist”, and 5) set him “claiming, and reclaiming, all life for God in Jesus Christ, and valuing all goodness and beauty as his gift” (pages 81-85). Packer said that Calvin’s was a “mind for the ages, not just for the sixteenth century, and his teaching is still out ahead of us to an amazing extent” (page 86).

In his essay, John Stott said that one of the most formative books in his Christian pilgrimage was Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. He said he came upon that book at a time when three types of holiness teaching were jostling around in his mind: a “death to sin”, a “let go and let God”, and a “second blessing” (page 156). He said Ryle clarified the issues for him by demonstrating conclusively that “the New Testament depicts us as thoroughly active in fighting against sin, pursuing after righteousness, and laboring to be holy” (page 157). He said “Bishop Ryle clarified for me the differences between justification and sanctification…one of them is that, although we are justified by faith alone without works, we are sanctified by faith and works” (page 157). Stott said that he also collected and read a number of Ryle’s other books, such as Knots Untied (statements on some disputed points in religion), Principles for Churchmen (positive statements on some subjects of controversy), Light from Old Times (sketches of 16th century reformers and martyrs), and The Christian Leaders of England in the 18th Century (biographical pictures of Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw, Romaine, and others) (page 157). I am not sure about Principles for Churchmen, but the other titles have recently been reprinted in attractive hard cover editions by Charles Nolan Publishing.

But all of the essays were a joy to read. So I heartily commend to you Scott Larsen’s book (and the related website). You should come away from it with a list of books you want to read that will keep you busy for a long time to come. As Larsen asked in a question that was quoted earlier in this review: “Which books will you choose?” (page 4)

Additional Note: As a church librarian, I habitually make a note of any quotes I come across that emphasize the importance of books and of reading, particularly Christian literature, and periodically compile them and post them on our church web site. Not surprisingly, I found a great many quotes in Larsen’s book, and if you would like to see them, go to our church web site at , then to the Library section, and click on Notable Quotes on Reading. Then locate Quotes on Reading, No. 11, dated March 3, 2004. Quotes numbered 82 through 92 were taken from Indelible Ink (some of which were used in this review).

Related Topics: Library and Resources, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

A Review of Thurman Scrivner’s Teaching

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Several people in our area (Dallas) have begun attending “healing services” from a local ministry headed by Thurman Scrivner. I’ve been told that the services are mostly teaching about healing with extended prayer for the sick. Thurman Scrivner is not claiming to have the gift of healing. Instead, he is teaching people that Christians do not have to be sick. God does not will that we be sick, and if we understood that, then we would never be sick.

Scrivner claims that he discovered this “truth” a few years ago from studying the Bible and has been healthy ever since. He may have discovered it on his own, but it is unlikely because what he is teaching is exactly the same as what has been taught for 100 years in various sects of the Pentecostal movement and the Word-Faith movement. For example, Albert Benjamin Simpson (1844-1919) founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Essik William Kenyon (1867-1948) considered the founder of the Word-Faith movement1, both taught that healing is just as much a part of the atonement as forgiveness of sins, that God does not will that any Christians be sick, that Christians should never be sick. Like Scrivner, they used Isa 53:4-5; Matt 8:16-17 and 1 Pet 2:24 as support for their doctrine. These teachings have continued today through the ministries of Kenneth Hagan, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton and others. So, Scrivner’s teaching is nothing new.

Basically Scrivner’s is a health and wealth gospel. He doesn’t seem personally interested in money. He has a “good ol’ country boy” appearance, speech, etc. So, it makes him more believable. People might be turned off by the flashy, money-centric ministry of a Robert Tilton, but they wouldn’t dream that Scrivner is teaching the same message, but he is.

First I want to deal with the main passages used by all the health and wealth teachers. And then I’ll look specifically at some of Scrivner’s comments. I’ve been given several audio tapes and a video tape so that I could examine his teaching. So, what follows are some notes I took and my comments on his teaching. Hopefully these comments will give you some information to help evaluate similar teachings. For more in-depth study of the health and wealth gospel, you might checkout, The Word-Faith Controversy by Robert M. Bowman Jr. (Baker, 2001) and The Health and Wealth Gospel, by Bruce Barron (IVP, 1987).

Favorite Passages of Faith/Healing Teachers

For the past 100 years, the faith healers have used the same passages to support their theology: Isa 53:4-5; Mat 8:17 and 1 Pet 2:24. They claim that these passages teach that the atonement provided not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for physical healing. In fact, the gospel message is incomplete if you only teach forgiveness of sins. In practice, the faith healers spend the majority of their time on the healing part and neglect the important part. So, let us look at the passages and see if the Bible “clearly” teaches that Christ died so that we never have to be sick.

Isa 53 is about the Suffering Servant who died for our sins (vs 11) so that we might be saved.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our peace fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

Note the parallelism. In Hebrew they usually said things twice. In the first two lines we see two synonyms for our sins (transgressions and iniquities). In the second pair of lines we see that “healed” is synonymous with the word “peace.” So, the word “healed” is really referring to our spiritual reconciliation to God. “Healed” is a metaphor for forgiveness, which is part of the reconciliation (peace) process. The last two lines are referring to deliverance from sin just like the first pair of lines. The whole verse is referring to our spiritual sickness and healing, not physical sickness and healing.

1 Pet 2:24 confirms this interpretation. Peter is writing about Christians suffering and their proper response to suffering. Christ is given as an example of one who submitted to suffering and how God was able to use his submission with the good result that we can have eternal life.

2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may leave sin behind and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed . 2:25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Peter says nothing about diseases. The focus of the whole section (vss 18-25) is on how we should be willing to physically suffer in this life just like Christ did because we have the promise of eternal salvation. Christ is our example. So, the passage is not at all about physical healing. It is about physical suffering and only secondarily about spiritual healing.

Mat 8:17 is most likely just Matthew pointing out that Jesus, while he was here on earth, healed diseases and fulfilled the prophesies/signs that he was indeed the Messiah. It is not a promise nor proof that He continues to heal “all” our diseases here on earth.

But even if one ignores the context and claims these passages refer to physical disease, it doesn’t mean that in this life we can be exempt from sickness. In the same way that we are delivered from the penalty of sin now, are able to be delivered from the power of sin in the sanctification process and will ultimately be delivered from the presence of sin when we are in heaven, our susceptibility to disease is still present in this life and will only be gone when we are in heaven. There are many “now/not yet” examples in theology. For example, we have been raised with Christ (Col 3:1-3), but we are still here on earth in our sinful bodies. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father reigning in heaven now, but it is not to the same degree as it will be in the millennial or eternal kingdom.

Is there healing in the atonement? Yes. But does that mean that we don’t have to be sick now if we have enough faith and believe that? No.

All we have to do is look at the many examples in Scripture where believers were sick and were not healed. Paul was sick in Gal 4:13, had a thorn in the flesh which was most likely some physical problem that slowed him down. Trophemus (2 Tim 4:20), Epaphroditus (Phil 2:30), Timothy (1 Tim 5:23) and others were ill and unable to be healed by Paul. So, God does not always heal.

And, although this is an argument from silence, if there was healing in the atonement, one would think that Paul would have mentioned it somewhere, especially since he wrote more about the atonement than anyone. But his focus is exclusively on the forgiveness of sins.

Blessings and Curses Audio Tape

Thurman Scrivner says, “Many people are not living where they should be living because there is a curse placed on them. The Word of God is very clear in its teaching on blessings and cursings.”

Later on he says, “How can you have two Christians and one of them seems to always prosper in his business ventures, always make money and the other one always seems to fail, to be having problems…? How can one receive healing quickly and another not seem to get well? The Bible is clear – it is a matter of the blessings and cursings.”

To say that the Word is “very clear” is a misleading statement. It implies that his interpretation is not to be questioned because the meaning of scripture is “clear.” He then departs from the orthodox (i.e. usual) interpretation. If it was clear, then one would think that his would be the orthodox view. What we need to do is examine the passages he uses to support his claims and see if they are being interpreted correctly – i.e., in the context.

Deuteronomy 28

According to Scrivner, Deu 28: teaches us that blessings come from obedience to God’s laws. Anyone not experiencing the apparent blessings of God (health and wealth) are not experiencing it because they are not being obedient. He points to Deu 30:19 and says, “God has given ‘us’ the choice” … to obey and be blessed, etc.

Deu 28-30 was given to the nation of Israel as they were about to enter the land. It outlines the conditions upon which Israel was going to (1) either obey and be blessed and stay in the land, or (2) they would disobey, be cursed and be removed from the land. Their obedience to the law was required. For Scrivner to apply this passage to us is totally out of context. We are not Israel. We are not living in the promised land. And we are not under the law. These are not promises to believers for today. God gave Israel the choice “that day,” not us.

Elsewhere, Scrivner claims that Satan is the one who brings curses, but note in our passage that God was the one that was bringing the curses on Israel, not Satan.

Prov 26:2

Scrivner quotes Prov 26:2 – “an undeserved curse does not come to rest.” He says, “There is a cause for every curse…To be cursed, you have to have broken the laws of God.”

If his teaching is correct, then there is always a cause/effect relationship between any bad thing that happens (or any sickness) and our actions. If we can find out where we have sinned, and repent of that sin, then we can be healed. This flies in the face of John 9 where Jesus said, “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents…” Jewish theology taught that if you were wealthy, you must be spiritual. If you were poor or sick, then you must be sinful. That’s why the disciples asked that question. We can see that Satan is just repackaging the same basic lies 2000 years later.

Human nature searches for certainty, so this type of theology is appealing. If we can find a cause of something bad, then we can avoid the bad by not doing whatever caused it. It is an effort to control life.

One horrible consequence of this type of teaching is that there is a tremendous amount of guilt that is laid on the individual when they do get sick. It’s bad enough to be sick, but to think that you caused it is worse.

2 Cor 4:17-18

Scrivner quotes 2 Cor 4:17-18 – “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving an eternal glory…” He uses this verse to point out that there is a visible and an invisible realm where a battle is going on. He says that blessings and curses are part of the invisible/spiritual realm. What he misses is that there ARE “momentary troubles.” If it’s not God’s will for us to ever be sick or ever suffer financial loss, or face persecution, then what are the troubles? If the troubles are always because we have been disobedient, then how can they “achieve an eternal glory”? They are deserved and we get no glory according to 1 Peter 3-4.

Scrivner says, these are the ways to tell if you are under some kind of a curse:

  • If you have mental or emotional breakdowns, depression - Deut 28:34, 20:65
  • If you have repeated or chronic sickness – especially if they are hereditary – Deu 28:21-61
  • If you are afflicted with bareness, miscarriage or female problems – Deu 28:18
  • A breakdown of a marriage, or family problems Deu 28:41
  • Accident prone – Deu 28:29 – falling down and twisting ankles, falling down the stairs, etc.
  • Financial problems – Deu 28:17, 29
  • History of suicide or untimely death in a family.

Is he saying that if you trip and twist your ankle, you need to stay down on your knees and do some serious soul searching for the sin that caused you to trip? If you can’t have children, then it is because of sin in your life? If you are poor, it is because of sin? I can’t imagine living under this type of guilt or pressure.

Galatians 3:13

Another passage Scrivner uses is Gal 3:13ff. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law… that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith”

Scrivner says that “the Spirit promised these Abrahamic blessings to us.” He says, “How can we receive the blessings by faith if we don’t even know what the blessings are.” He points to Gen 12 and 22 and says, “A great life, salvation, success, prosperity, long life and health are the blessings of Abraham.”

He has totally turned this verse around. The “Spirit” is the promised blessing (singular). The Spirit is not the one who is promising the blessings. The issue in Galatians is justification by faith – the blessing of Abraham is justification by faith (salvation). Gal 3:26 – being sons of God is the point of the passage – not physical prosperity. Scrivner is teaching that those who don’t obey the law are under a curse. But in Gal 3 Paul is really saying that those who try to obey the law are under a curse because they will fail. Nobody can obey the law.

Word Curses

In his section on word curses he says, that Jesus spoke a word curse to the fig tree – (Mk 11). Jesus spoke negatively to the tree and the tree died. “How many times have you spoken negatively about or to someone such as your spouse, not realizing that you were putting a word curse on them.” For support he also turned to James 3:6-10 – out of the same mouth comes blessings and cursings.

He also said that when you are dealing with word curses, evil words others have spoken against us, words we’ve spoken against others and words we’ve spoken against ourselves, if you are walking holy before the Lord, then you can simply say, “I don’t receive those curses.” If however, you don’t know you have the ability to denounce curses, then you will be under a curse. So, “knowledge” is key.

Comment: Jesus, who could work miracles, cursed the tree and it died. To use this as proof that speaking negatively to someone will put a curse on them is a non- sequitur.

Comments on a Video

He begins with a discussion of Job 1, where he says, Tornadoes are really demons because it was a strong wind/tornado that killed Job’s kids and the Tornado was caused by Satan. In fact, those folks in West Texas know this because they call those little dust tornadoes “dirt devils.” Those dust devils in West Texas are really devils. He goes on to tell about a Tornado that destroyed his building but how a recently annointed equipment room was spared from Satan because having your building destroyed isn’t the Abundant life.

Comment: If the recently prayed for room was saved, that certainly shows the power of God, but what is he really saying? The abundant life = prosperity, no problems, etc. i.e. this is a health and wealth Gospel. What about Paul who experienced the abundant life while in prison (twice), and contentment when doing without things?

Scrivner says, “Job was incorrect to say ‘God gives and God takes away’ because it was really Satan who took everything away.” He then quoted Jn 10:10 “Satan comes to destroy but I come to give life abundantly.”

Comment: His logical conclusion: Since Satan gave Job sickness, our sicknesses is from Satan. Headaches in the morning are from Satan, athletes foot is from the devil, etc. (those were his examples)

Scrivner says, that because Job was faultless before the lord, (he actually said Job was sinless) Satan had to have permission. But with us he doesn’t need permission because we sin. Sin is an open door to the Devil. Prov 26:2 is his proof – no curse is without cause.

Comment: But that doesn’t mean it’s our fault! It could be like the man born lame (in Jn 9) – to glorify God. Jesus said that neither the man nor his parents sinned. Also, didn’t Jesus say he gave Satan permission to sift Peter? Peter must have been sinless too!

He says that Jesus cast out demons and healed the sick. Therefore he says, “See, the demons were making them sick.”

Comment: That is not what that proves. While some may have been sick because they were possessed, it just means that some were demon possessed and some were sick. I’m sure some were sick because of the demons, but not all of them.

Scrivner says, Mat 8:17 says, “Jesus bore our infirmities and took away our diseases,” therefore I can refuse to bear them in my body. We have power over disease if we just claim it and we don’t have to be sick.

Comment: We dealt with this earlier, but it bears repeating. Mat 8:17 is referring to the ministry of the Messiah when he was on earth. While Christ was on earth, He did heal many. But this is not saying that no Christian should ever get sick. Our earthly bodies are deteriorating and get sick. It’s not until we get our glorified bodies in heaven that sickness will be gone.

In discussing the demons being cast into the 2,000 pigs, he says, “A demon is a spirit being and can’t do any physical damage unless it’s in a physical body. It prefers humans, but it will indwell pigs, cats, etc.”

Question – How does he know these things? That passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. Assume he’s correct, then how could a demon cause a tornado? What body would the demon be indwelling? It seems inconsistent to me.

He asks, “Is it God’s will to heal us all, all the time? Yes, of course it is. Mt 17:17 proves it. Their problem was a lack of faith. Note: the problem was not the faith of the sick person. It was the faith of the disciples. So, if Scrivner prays for you, and you don’t get well, then logical application of the passage is that it is his fault, not yours.

During the video there was a question from the audience about Joni Eareckson Tada and about how God has used her so much since her paralysis. Couldn’t it be God’s will that she not be healed in a situation like that?

Scrivner’s answer, was that “God wants to heal her and would if she only understood his (Scrivner’s) teaching. It’s not God’s will that she be in a wheel chair. She is just in bondage to the devil.”

Bruce Barron points out in his book, The Health and Wealth Gospel, that, 5 years after her accident, Joni Erickson Tada did in fact become convinced of exactly what Scrivner is teaching. She fervently believed it, publicly confessed to people that she was going to be healed, had a special healing/prayer service, etc.2 But she wasn’t healed. We don’t know if Scrivner is aware of Tada’s brief diversion into the health and wealth teachings, but I suppose, even if he was, he could always claim that she just didn’t have enough faith.

“It’s Just Not God’s Timing”

When confronted with reality – a situation where someone really believes that God will heal them, isn’t guilty of some unrepentant sin, etc., but still is not getting well – Since it’s not God’s will that any Christian be sick, Scrivner’s answer is that it’s just not God’s timing. They need to be patient, continue to have faith and God will heal them.

Comment: If it is “not God’s timing,” then that is the same as saying that it is God’s will for the person to be sick for a while.

What about Doctors?

Scrivner and other health and wealth advocates teach that we should not go to doctors. We don’t need doctors. All we need is knowledge of the “truth” and faith. They don’t forbid that their followers go to doctors. They learned their lesson after the disaster of the Hobart Freeman ministry in the 80’s in which over ninety members of his congregation died in an 8 year period because they were told not to go to doctors. But, these days, they teach that if you go, you are weak in your faith and that if you get well, it’s “man’s healing” and not God’s.

Concluding Thoughts

It is possible that Scrivner is casting out demons and that people are being healed when he prays for them. But that doesn’t make his teachings correct.

The Scriptures he uses are taken completely out of context.

His theology doesn’t work. It doesn’t line up with reality, which is that faithful believers get sick and it’s not always their fault.

And since the focus of his ministry is almost exclusively about healing and the “abundant life,” this should be an obvious clue that Satan is using him to distract people from what is important.

Be sure to check out the article by David Jones on Prosperity Theology. It does a very good job of dealing with some of these same issues.

Related Topics: Theology