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First Principles of the Christian Faith
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part I
REPENTANCE FROM DEAD WORKS
he original apostles of Jesus were instructed by our Lord to: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20a). They were to teach, and they were to baptize. The content of their teaching was to include all of the things Jesus had taught them.
The apostles went out into the then known world, a world dominated by the Romans, and did as they were told. First they taught the basics. They preached the Gospel (Good News) – the same message that Jesus himself had preached. They announced to the world that God had sent a Savior, one who would deliver mankind from itself and from the devil and all his works (I John 3:8). They told everyone who would listen of God’s redemptive plan, and of how they could participate in it. Then they elaborated on the particulars. They explained that now that Jesus the Messiah (Anointed One) had arrived, the Kingdom of God was going to continue to expand right on up to the time when Jesus returned to make it universal. “Kingdom of God” simply means the sovereign rule of God in people’s lives. It does not, as some teach, have to involve “territory”.
Later, after the Church had been established, some began to lose their first love. Instead of growing in Christ, they began to atrophy spiritually speaking. They began to lose sight of the basics. The author of the book of Hebrews (we don’t know who he or she was) admonished the addressees of that letter by writing: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again…” (Hebrews 5:12). Ideally, mature Christians ought to be able to teach newly minted believers the basics of the Christian faith. Sadly, they often do not understand those themselves; let alone know how to pass them on to others. This series of articles will re-establish these foundational doctrines so that new Christians can easily learn them, and so that older believers can review and reinforce them. The list of these “first principles” is found in Hebrews 6:1-2: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment...” Here we see listed six principles that are fundamental to the teaching of Christ. Once these were established in the hearts and minds of believers, they provided a platform for further spiritual growth. In this series, we will discuss them one by one, in the order in which they appear in Hebrews. We will, in the course of this process, focus on Jesus’ own teaching, for that is what he instructed the apostles to pass on to others. In understanding Jesus’ doctrine, we will examine the origins of his very Jewish approach to these teachings. If we do not understand Jesus’ Jewishness, we will not fully grasp the intent of his teaching. As R. Steven Notley wrote in his Forward to Prof. David Flusser’s book on Jesus: “Often, we Christians read the stories and sayings of Jesus with little knowledge of the contemporary issues, personages and nuances of language that provide such an important element in molding our understanding of his life and teachings” (Jesus, by David Flusser, p. 9). In approaching these fundamentals of the faith, we will not neglect to consider Jesus’ Jewishness. The Need for Repentance and Atonement 5
The ideas of repentance and atonement are rooted in the history of mankind as recorded in the Bible. The story of Eden, whether you believe it to be literally true or sacred myth, is in the Bible for a reason: it offers an explanation for how sin entered the world. It helps us understand why the writer of Hebrews used the term “dead works” (KJV) or “works that lead to death.” “Works” are what we do. In Old Testament times, how we live or conduct ourselves was often described as the way we “walk.” Our spiritual walk is either toward, or away from, God. When we are operating fully within the will of God, we are said to be moving Godward – deeper into the Light (I Thessalonians 1:8 – 9; Ephesians 5:8). When we sin, we step away from God and we begin moving into darkness. When we are converted, or changed, we move from the realm of darkness into the realm of light (I Peter 2:9b). It is ha Satan – the Adversary – who presides over the darkness of this world (Ephesians 2:2b; Acts 26:18). Our “works” – in other words the way we conduct ourselves in the world – can either be life-affirming, or “dead.” Why “dead? Dead works are sinful works, works that are done in disobedience to the divine will. In the Eden story, God told Adam: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Eating of the forbidden fruit was a “work” or a behavior that would lead to death. Of course we know that both Eve and Adam – in that order – disobeyed God and ate of the fruit. In doing so, they had turned their back on God’s will and walked away from it. They had moved from light to darkness in a single act. The death they experienced was not immediate physical death. It was the death of the inner man. By disobeying God, they had now qualified for his “death row” and forfeited their right to eternal life. That’s why the apostle Paul could later use the expression “dead in your transgressions” to describe the pre-conversion state of the Ephesian Christians. He wrote: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this 6
world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1-2). Understanding the Role of Satan Satan is a spirit, and he is at work among those who chose to live in disobedience to God. It is sometimes said that the Adversary fulfills three roles in the world: 1). He seduces or tempts mankind to sin; 2). He then accuses the sinner before God; and, finally; 3). He destroys those who fail to repent. We can certainly see his role as tempter in the story of Eden. We can view his role as accuser in the Book of Job; and Jesus himself called Satan a “murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Satan preys on our weaknesses, our desires, our hopes, wishes and dreams. According to the Apostle Peter, Satan prowls the earth “like a roaring lion” looking for prey (I Peter 5:8). In nature, lions prey on weakness: sick animals, the young, the old, animals trapped in water holes, mud or brambles. Satan too looks for weakness. In Judas Iscariot, he found it in the man’s desire for money. Following the Lord’s last supper with his disciples, including Judas, we read: “And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (John 13:2). All it took was thirty pieces of silver to put Judas over the edge. In Genesis 4, we find the story of the murder of Abel, Adam’s son, by his brother Cain. In the original account, we read nothing of the role of Satan. Yet, many centuries later, the apostle John made it clear that Satan had been involved when he wrote: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous” (I John 3:10-12). Murder is a devilish act. It is the devil who seduces men into committing it. Satan first lied, then he murdered. Cain, the first offspring of the first man, committed the first human murder. As Jesus said, Satan is the 7
father of murderers (John 8:44). Hatred of mankind, or any particular class of mankind, is not of God, it is of the devil. John also wrote: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer; and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (I John 3:15). If one murders another, one forfeits his own right to life (Genesis 9:6). All of us, in one way or another, have been children of darkness. We have all, wittingly or unwittingly, followed the way of the devil. As a result, we have incurred God’s wrath, represented by the death penalty. Paul made it clear that what we earn by sinning is the death penalty (Romans 6:23). Understanding Sin The English word “sin” is perhaps an unfortunate “catchall” word to use to translate the Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture. It doesn’t really convey the meaning of the original. In Biblical Hebrew, more than thirty different words are translated “sin” in our English versions. The three most common words are het’, pasha’, and avon. These words mean essentially the same thing, though they are not exact parallelisms. The word het’ comes from the root ht, which occurs in the Bible 459 times. The original meaning of the verb hata is “to miss” something, or “to fail.” (Cf. Genesis 31:39; Leviticus 5:15-16; Numbers 14:40 and other passages.) A “sin” can be a failure in relations, or failure to reach a standard, hit a target or reach an ideal goal. For further detail, look up the word “sin” in the Encyclopedia Judaica, from which the above comments were derived. As scholars Quell, Bertram, Sahlin and Grundmann suggest: “…the Old Testament offers no neat doctrine of sin; qualifications are always necessary, and all sorts of subsidiary questions are involved in the general problem of sin…our word ‘sin’, represents four different Hebrew roots, each with its own nuance, which it is difficult for us to reproduce.” The same authors later write: “There are a few places in the Old Testament where the word literally means missing the mark, and this must be the clue to its religious, legal and ethical significance” (Sin, by Gottfried Quell, Georg Betram, Gustav Stahlin & Walter Grundman, pp. 5 & 7). 8
In the New Testament, a Greek word commonly translated sin is ‘amartia. It means “every departure from the way of righteousness, both human and divine” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, p. 43). Strong’s Concordance, which is not authoritative for establishing word meanings, defines ‘amartia as “missing the mark.” This isn’t far off the Old Testament meaning of “sin.” The discussion of the nuances of the many words translated “sin” in our versions could become encyclopedic. Our purpose here is to establish a basic working definition of “sin” as we understand it in English, and go from there. To sin is to fail to live up to the divine standard; to miss the target of ideal behavior as defined by God; to transgress God’s Torah (Instruction). John defines sin very simply when he writes: “Sin is the transgression of the law (I John 3:4b). Behind the Greek word nomos, usually translated “law” is the Hebrew word Torah, which means “instruction” or “direction.” Torah, in turn, is derived from the Hebrew verb yara, meaning to “cast” or “throw.” If, for instance, you asked a person for directions: “Tell me, which way is it to Jerusalem?” and a person responded by pointing northward, “It’s that way,” he has given the other person “directions” or “instruction” (Torah). To cast one’s hand in a direction is yara. To throw a spear or shoot an arrow at a target is yara. God has given his Torah -- that is his instructions or directions -- to mankind from the beginning. When God told Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit, that was God’s Torah – His instruction. When Adam disobeyed, his missed the mark, he failed; he sinned. Torah is the noun form of yara. We have the written Torah and the Jewish people have oral Torah (Mishnah & Talmud). To walk, or live, within the boundaries of God’s Torah is to live in the light, to walk in righteousness, to be in “The Way,” to move Godward. To step outside of that light is to move away from God, into darkness, into sin and into the realm of the Adversary. From the time of Adam to the present, every human being except Christ himself has sinned (Genesis 6:11-13; Jeremiah 17:5-9; Job 4:17-21; Romans 7:14-25). The writers of both Testaments recognized this painful reality: “God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back; they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 53:2-3). 9
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we say that have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and the word is not in us” (I John 1:8,10). Sin is universal. The realm of sin is “the world” (kosmos) – the system over which ha Satan presides. As John also wrote: “He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8). What are the “works of the devil”? In context, sin and its deleterious effects. We are either children of God, or we are children of the devil. If we do the works of the devil, we are his children. The work of the devil in the world necessitated the coming of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Jesus is the centerpiece of God’s redemptive plan. One of his very first acts following his baptism was to defeat and disqualify Satan as the ruler of this spiritually darkened world (Matthew 4:1-11). The Human Condition The Gospel is good news in the face of all the bad news about human nature, the human condition, man’s inhumanity to man, and Satan’s role in the world. The present state of mankind is the result of concrete cause & effect factors, most of which have to do with some form of sin. Jesus Christ is The Answer to all of the world’s ills. He is God’s designated Savior or Deliverer. To him has been given by the Father “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He has the power to forgive sin, and the power to judge those who refuse to repent of it when invited to do so. Jesus came to deliver the world of sickness, demonization, and the effects of sin. Immediately after his triumph over the devil, Jesus got to work. “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those 10
suffering severe pain, and demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:23-24). This was God’s work through Jesus his Anointed One. The first, most basic, and most oft-repeated part of Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Prior to his death and resurrection, Jesus sent his own talmidim (disciples) out on a trial run. They operated under his authority. A key component in their Gospel is revealed in the statement: “They went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). One of the Hebrew words for “repentance” is teshuva. It means “turning around.” It is from the root shuwb, meaning “turn.” The prophet Ezekiel used it when he conveyed God’s message to the elders of Israel: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!” (Ezekiel 14:6). In adopting idolatry, they had turned away from the Lord and stepped into the darkness. By repenting, they would turn from idolatry, renounce it, and turn back to the Lord in humble obedience to his Torah. This is repentance. Another excellent passage in Ezekiel that makes clear the meaning of repentance is found in Ezekiel 18:30-32: “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of the all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Paul wrote the Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Jesus’ whole purpose was to rescue us from the penalty of our sins, and to give us life. He said, “…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10b). In Jesus’ day, as in our own, most people had unwittingly chosen for themselves the way that leads to death – the way of sin. Perhaps this is 11
why Jesus taught: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Sin is the natural result of Satan “touching” us. He is a corrupting influence in the world, as he was in Eden. In fact, the word “serpent” (Genesis 3:1) is nachash. It can mean “poisoner” or “corrupter.” Satan was the first to suggest that human appetite should be a guide to human conduct (Genesis 3:5, 6, 22). One of the Adversary’s roles in the scheme of things is to set up choices for us so that we can exercise our free will. Of course he tilts us toward the down side of things – to the way that leads to death. In the end, however, the choice is always ours, not his. The Two Impulses In Judaism, the religion of Jesus and the apostles, it was taught that man is torn between two impulses – the yetzer hara, and the yetzer ha tob. The former is “a force which drives to wickedness and as an endowment of man which proves a formidable obstacle in the way to a righteous life.” The latter is the impulse to do good. As Abraham Cohen writes, “The belief that in every human being there are two urges – one to evil and the other to goodness – figures prominently in Rabbinic ethics” (Everyman’s Talmud, both quotes above from page 88). All it takes is a single act of sin – as in the case of Adam and Eve – to qualify for the death penalty. Yet most of us don’t sin most of the time. Some of us live a reasonably clean life spiritually speaking, and others of us are utterly subverted to evil. Cohen explains: “The character of a person is determined by which of the two impulses is dominant within him. ‘The good impulse controls the righteous; as it is said, “My heart is wounded within me” (Ps. Cix.22). The evil impulse controls the wicked; as it is said, “Transgression speaketh to the wicked, in the midst of the heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes’ (ibid. xxxvi.I). Both impulses control average people’ (Ber.61b)” (ibid. p. 88). To summarize, no one is perfect. Every one of us has sinned in some way, at some time. We have all followed the pattern of our father, 12
Adam. But not everyone serves evil as a way of life. The world has seen many unquestionably evil people: Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Usama Bin Ladin, Richard Ramirez, to name a few. These men served evil as a way of life. To them, human life had no value. They could take the life of a human being as easily as they could take that of a fly. They were without conscience. They had no fear of the God who commands: “You shall not commit premeditated murder” (Exodus 20:13). They were, or are, controlled by the evil impulse, and that in turn is associated with Satan. It seems that each generation of mankind finds itself fighting an evil that arises from the sick mind of some tyrant, religious fanatic, or homicidal maniac. In the last century, it was Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. In this century, it is Islamic terrorism. Should that be defeated, newer versions of communism are again asserting themselves. Evil is forever waiting in the wings. On the other hand, most people are not utterly evil. Some are basically good people. Their behavior is either morally neutral, or constructive and helpful to mankind. They leave the world a little better than they found it. While they are here, they are blessing to all with whom they come in contact. Yet, they are not perfect. They are sinners in need of redemption. Most people are a mixture of good and evil. The average person does some good and some evil. We all have skeletons in our closets of which we are ashamed and embarrassed. Devout Christians and Jews repent of these sinful acts. They cease committing them, renounce them, and return to God in deep humility. Where possible, they make restitution. The Process of Conversion The word “conversion” simply means “change.” The NIV translates Acts 3:19 as follows: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus.” Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, put it in a very Jewish way when he said, “Repent and turn…” As we learned earlier, when we perform teshuva, we do an about face and turn back to God. The KJV renders “turn” as “be converted.” 13
This is what our Lord called upon all of us to do: repent and change. When we “repent of dead works,” we simply stop doing them. We halt in our tracks, turn around, and start marching Godward. We move deeper into his will instead of farther from it. Paul explained that through conversion we experience a spiritual renewal at the level of the inner man: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2a). Conversion involves a transformation of the whole person. We cease performing “dead works” and begin to produce the “fruit of the Spirit.” Another name for these dead works is “works of the flesh.” Paul lists a representative number of such works in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts of the sinful nature [Greek: sarkos = “flesh”] are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is representative of the kind of things for which we are called to repentance. Once we have renounced such dead works, we then begin to produce the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of God: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22). Paul then summarizes the nature of the transformation that occurs at conversion: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature [flesh] with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24-25). An Ongoing Struggle Most of us do not successfully crucify the dark deeds of the flesh in one fell swoop. Throughout our Christian walk we continue to struggle against the evil impulse within. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. This 14
struggle with our dark side is described in Romans 7. Paul, as a Torahobservant Jew, describes his own battle to overcome the downside of his flesh. In the end, Paul realizes that it is only in Christ that he will have ultimate victory over his fleshly appetites. He writes, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Jesus Christ, God’s Anointed One, the Lamb of God, and the one on whom God has conveyed “all authority in heaven and on earth,” is the “captain of our salvation” (Matthew 28:18; Hebrews 2:10). When all other efforts fail, he will see us through. One of the most encouraging statements in the Bible was made by Paul in a letter to the Philippian congregation: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-6). God is good, faithful and consistent. As he said through the prophet Malachi: “I the Lord do not change…” (Malachi 3:6a). He said to the sinful people of Israel: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7b). We too are called to “return” to the Lord – to perform teshuva. No matter how far we have strayed from him, we can always return if we are willing to give up our personal package of “works of the flesh.” If we let it, our flesh with its unbridled desires, will drag us down, into death. This is not mere physical death, but a “second death” (Revelation 21:8). It is the death of which Jesus spoke when he said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). The word translated “hell” here is Gehenna. It is the same place described in Revelation 21:8, just cited. God offers us life in Christ – eternal life. God is not anxious to destroy the work of his hands. He is “not willing that any should perish.” He has made a way for us to live. That way is Jesus Christ. John wrote: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God 15
so loved the world that he gave his one and only (Greek: monogenes = “only begotten." The same term as used in Hebrews 11:17), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-17). If we repent of performing the dead works of the past, God offers us eternal life in the world to come. Jesus Christ is the key to God’s redemptive plan for mankind. When we repent of our sinful deeds, and turn to God, we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ that lasts a lifetime. Satan will continue to probe for weaknesses, seeking to exploit them. He can only be as successful as we allow him to be. In Christ, we can defeat him every time. We are called to life of victories, of regular overcoming. Jesus defeated the devil, and we are called to defeat his efforts in our lives as well. John recorded Jesus as saying: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:21-22).
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part II
FAITH TOWARD GOD
n the King James Version of Hebrews 6:1, “faith toward God” is the second listed foundational principle of the Christian faith. When we use the word “faith” in certain circles, it elicits some negative imagery: “blind faith,” stubborn belief without evidence, or circus tent “faith healers” who put on an Elmer Gantry-like show, whipping up audience emotions to a state of expectation. None of these things is really what is meant by “faith in -- or toward -- God.”
To understand how Jesus and his apostles comprehended faith, we must begin in the Old Testament. In later times, other influences came into both Judaism and Christianity, changing the meaning of faith into “belief.” David Blumenthal explains: “During the Middle Ages, under the influence of Islam and Christianity, Judaism came to understand ‘faith’ as a matter of belief. Quickly, the sage-rabbis distinguished between faith based on reason and faith based on authority…This, however, is not the deepest understanding of faith” (The Place of Faith & Grace in Judaism, p. 19). A deeper, and earlier, understanding of faith, according to Blumenthal, is “bound up with the Hebrew word, emunah” (ibid.). To grasp the implications of this word, we will examine the story of Joshua’s battle against Amalek. The account is found in Exodus 17: 8 ff. 17
Moses and Emunah “The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands. “So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other -- so that his hands remained steady [emunah] till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (Exodus 17:8-13 NIV). Emunah, here translated “steady,” in this context means “firmness.” That meaning establishes the tone for subsequent uses, according to Blumenthal. In II Chronicles 20:20, we find this concept described in a clear play on words: “Be faithful to God and you will be firmly established.” The Hebrew is: ha’aminu ba-Adonai…v’te’amnu. Note the reverberation of the word emunah in this verse. When Moses displayed firmness in his obligation toward God; God reciprocated by demonstrating his power on behalf of Joshua and his soldiers. Heschel’s Insight The late Abraham Joshua Heschel was a philosopher of Judaism whose insights into faith and other issues have benefited many long after his decease. He explains, eloquently, what faith is not, and what it is, from a Jewish perspective. “To have no faith is callousness, to have undiscerning faith is superstition. ‘The simple believeth every word’ (Proverbs 14:15), frittering away his faith on things explorable but not yet explored. By confounding ignorance with faith he is inclined to regard as exalted whatever he fails to understand, as if faith began where understanding ended; as if it were a supreme virtue to be convinced without proofs, to be ready to believe” (Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 159). 18
Heschel has here penetrated to one of the great errors of a popular Christian conception of faith: plunging recklessly ahead on the basis of ignorance. Faith is not ignorance, nor is it blind. Faith is not superstitious naiveté. It is not the exaltation of the incomprehensible or mere belief without evidence. So what then is faith? We can understand something of the meaning of faith by the example of Abraham, the “Father of the Faithful.” In Hebrews 11:8 ff. we read: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country…By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” The key to understanding Abraham’s faith does not lie in what he did not know, but in what he did know. He knew that God was faithful. God was the object of Abraham’s faith: “…he considered him faithful who had made the promise” (v. 11). It was Abraham’s recognition of God’s faithfulness that enabled his own faithfulness to God, despite the physical evidence that he and Sarah could not again become parents. Heschel further defines faith as it was understood in Old Testament times: “To have faith does not mean, however, to dwell in the shadow of old ideas conceived by prophets and sages, to live off an inherited estate of doctrines and dogmas. In the realm of the spirit only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity; self-aggrandizement is self-betrayal. “Authentic faith is more than an echo of tradition. It is a creative situation, an event. For God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal. Each of us has caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and 19
unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response” (Man is Not Alone, pp. 164-165). The idea of faith as faithfulness is the deeper understanding of emunah. It is the older and more authentic understanding of “faith.” In Genesis 15: 6, we are told, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV). The Jewish Translation renders this verse as follows: “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.” Blumenthal translates: “And Abraham had faith in God.” Abraham’s faith in God was a response to God’s faithfulness to Abraham. Abraham was loyal to God; he trusted God to do whatever he said he’d do, despite any evidence to the contrary, or any lack of evidence. All the evidence he needed was God’s own faithfulness to his human creation. God’s character, in other words, was Abraham’s evidence. God is always the object of faith. Jesus said, simply, “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). The writer of Hebrews said, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2 NIV). Why can we be sure we’ll receive what we hope for? -- Because of God’s faithfulness to us. God is reliable, predictable and trustworthy. He will do what he says he’ll do, no matter the evidence to the contrary, or the apparent lack of evidence. Faith a two-way street Faith as faithfulness is a two-way street. God is described in the Bible as “faithful.” God always keeps his part of any agreement: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 7:9 NIV). Because God is faithful to us, we should be faithful to him. Faith is a reciprocal phenomenon.
Blumenthal adds another important insight to this discussion of faith toward God: “I should note that, for God, faith as faithfulness also has the nuance of faithfulness despite the evidence. God is faithful to the human race despite the evidence of its sinfulness, and He is faithful to His people even though the evidence of their waywardness is undeniable” (Faith and Grace in Judaism, p. 21). In the same chapter where the faithfulness of Abraham is discussed, we find this statement: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). God rewards. God responds, because God is faithful to those who seriously seek him. The word “earnestly” is from the Greek ekzeteo meaning “to seek out” or “search for.” Because God is invisible, he must be sought out. Those who have diligently sought out God have often been rewarded with a divine response. The phenomenon of conversion itself is a supernatural act performed by a force that originates outside of oneself. Yet, it is also an act of yielding one’s will to a higher will – that of God. A converted person is a changed person; one who is actively involved with God in a transformation of the whole person, beginning at the level of the mind (Romans 12:1-2). As we undergo this personal transformation, we find ourselves developing new capacities of self-control, love, patience and other products of the indwelling Spirit of God (cf. Galatians 5:22). As we experience God in our lives, our faith in him grows. This was also something the Jewish people learned long ago. Abraham Heschel writes: “Memory is a source of faith. To have faith is to remember. Jewish faith is a recollection of that which happened to Israel in the past. The events in which the spirit of God became a reality stand before our eyes painted in colors that never fade. Much of what the Bible demands can be comprised in one word: Remember. ‘Take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from they heart all the days of thy life; make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children’ (Deuteronomy 4:9) (Man is Not Alone, p. 162). When my children and grandchildren and I get together, we often reiterate some of the incredible things God has done in our lives over the 21
years. We talk about the healings we have participated in, witnessed or experienced. We tell of how God changed our lives, converted us, prospered us, blessed us, answered prayers, saved our bacon and protected us. The telling of these true stories builds and shores up our faith in God. We also talk about all of the wonderful things God has done for his people Israel, and for the many great characters of Biblical times. “So then faith comes by hearing…” (Romans 10:17a). As Heschel writes, “With sustaining vitality the past survives in their thoughts, hearts, rituals. Recollection is a holy act: we sanctify the present by remembering the past” (ibid. p. 163). Once we have experienced the reality of God in our personal lives, we no longer have need of academic “proofs” for his existence. Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17). The last statement in verse 17 is a quotation from the prophet Habakkuk. In the KJV version of that verse, it reads, “…the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). In Romans, the KJV leaves out the word “his” – which should be included in the verse. This is an important thought for Paul quotes this verse twice in his writings (Romans 1:17 & Galatians 3:11). The writer of Hebrews also quotes it (Hebrews 10:38). Faith is what sustains us. It keeps us going in the face of adversity. The Jewish translation of Habakkuk 2:4 more accurately captures the idea of faith as faithfulness: “But the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity [emunah].” “Fidelity” is loyalty, faithfulness, a willingness to stick with, and believe in, God no matter what happens around us or to us. We know that God is there for us, no matter the evidence to the contrary. He lives in our memories of the times when he did intervene for us. We are propelled ahead by our memories and our experiences with God. For people of faith, God is no mere intellectual abstraction but a living reality 22
whom they have experienced. Without this kind of faith, we simply cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6). The world we live in is a frightening place, full of threat and danger. Evil in our time is growing and the darkness seems to be inexorably advancing. The hand of the Enemy is everywhere present. Christians today live with large targets on their backs. We are under attack by militant Muslims, the political Left, Academia, the Press & Media, Communists and neo-communists, socialists, neo-Nazis, and even other Christians. Yet, as Paul wrote, “We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7). If we governed ourselves by what we see around us, we would be filled with fear and apprehension. As Christians, we have few friends in the world. We live in faith that God is there for us, that He will see us through. We believe that God is faithful to us because of His divine character – because of whom and what He is. We are faithful to God because we know He is faithful to us. As the prophet Jeremiah wrote when God’s people were living under divine chastisement: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). The word translated “faithfulness” here is emunah = firmness. The Jewish translation renders it “grace.” As in the case of Moses and the Amalekites, the word literally means “firmness, steadfastness, fidelity” (see Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich lexicon, p. 53 c). “Faithfulness” – emunah -- is a divine attribute. A person who is faithful to God will be rewarded by a manifestation of God’s faithfulness to those who show fidelity to Him. As we read in Proverbs: “A faithful man shall abound with blessings: but he that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent” (Proverbs 28:20). This is a similar thought to something Jesus taught. If we show fidelity to God, trusting him for our “daily bread,” we will be blessed: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these [material] things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33 and verses 25-34). To place emphasis on the things of God – on the advance of His kingdom in the world – is to show fidelity to the divine agenda. Those of us who show firmness in looking out for divine interests will experience God’s ongoing provision. This is faith as faithfulness.
Examples of Faithfulness Hebrews 11 is traditionally called “the faith chapter,” and not without good reason. It offers us some sixteen examples of faithfulness toward God that paid off in major spiritual dividends. Abraham’s example is paramount because he became known as the “father of the faithful.” The apostle Paul also wrote glowingly of Abraham’s faithfulness to God: “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, ‘In thee shall nations be blessed,’ So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (Galatians 3:6-9). If we will be faithful to God like Abraham was faithful, we will also be blessed as Abraham was blessed. Abraham believed whatever God said, simply because he knew that the God who said it was faithful. He could be relied upon, trusted and believed in. Moses, who also was faithful to God, wrote of God: “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9). To have faith in God is to tie our lives in a bundle with His life. Abraham and Sarah connected their lives to God at every level. Sarah, like her husband, responded to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness of her own: “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11). God was faithful, so Sarah had faith that whatever He promised would happen, would happen. She knew God’s character. In all of the examples of faith in Hebrews 11, the common denominator is the faithfulness of God. God did what he said he’d do through the people who believed in Him. Moses was able to burn the bridges of Egypt behind him because he tied his life up with God: “By faith he [Moses] forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he 24
endured, as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:22). Moses knew that God was there for him. Consequently, the full wrath and power of the most powerful man on earth in those days meant nothing to him. His spiritual eyes were fixed on the invisible God who would see him and his people through all trials and tests if they were faithful. Faith in God is a powerful thing. It can transform the world. The writer of Hebrews said that there were people – prophets – who through faith, “…subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again, and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection. And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11:33-38). Because of their faith in God, all these received “…a good report.” They were assured of a place in the world to come. Their faith in God gave them the capacity to endure otherwise unbearable suffering for His sake. They knew that on the other side of the pain, God was waiting for them. Their hope, their future, their very existences were tied up with their faithful Creator. Their fear of man dissipated, and their reverence for and awe of God increased (cf. Matthew 10:28; Acts 5:29; II Timothy 1:7 & Hebrews 13:6). These deeds of faith are not limited to Biblical times. Today, the Church is experiencing many of the same kinds of things the heroes of faith of Biblical days experienced. Because of their faith in God, even newborn “baby” Christians have been willing to lay their lives on the line for Christ. Some have died, some have seen miracles, but the same God is doing the 25
same things for those who have faith in Him that he did in Biblical times.
Justification by Faith? The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). What does it mean to be “justified by faith”? To fully grasp the implications of Paul’s theology on this issue, we must first clear the decks of a major misunderstanding on the part of us Christians. Prof. Marvin Wilson explains the nature of this error: “There is a common belief in today’s Church that Judaism – whether in Paul’s day or our own – teaches salvation by works of the Law, whereas Christianity is a religion of grace. Such an understanding of Judaism is in reality far more a caricature or misrepresentation than the truth. Indeed, as one Christian scholar explains, ‘to the extent that we propagate this view in our preaching and our teaching, we are guilty of bearing false witness’” (Our Father Abraham, by Marvin Wilson, pp. 20-21). The Christian scholar to whom Wilson refers is Carl D. Evans writing in “The Church’s False Witness Against the Jews” (Christian Century, May 5, 1982, p. 531). Wilson also cites a well-known Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, who wrote, “The rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of salvation to God…[we Jews] regard salvation as God’s exclusive prerogative, so we Jews are the advocates of ‘pure grace.’” (Wilson, p. 21). Lapide wrote that all masters of the Talmud taught that salvation can be attained “only through God’s gracious love.” When the apostle Paul wrote to Titus that it was “Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us…” (Titus 3:5), he was not stating something new but something that was as old as Judaism.
When Paul also wrote, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: Not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9), he was stating what had long been taught in Judaism. When Paul wrote the Romans: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:29), he was repeating something that Moses had written more than a millennium earlier: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Centuries later, Jeremiah echoed the same thought: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 4:4). Summing it up, Wilson writes, “It is important for today’s Christian community to understand, however, that Judaism does not teach that participation in the olam ha-ba, ‘the coming world,’ is achieved by works, but through the gratuitous mercy of God” (Wilson, p. 21). Luther & Romans Much of the confusion in the Church about the roles of law, faith, works and grace can be laid at the feet of Martin Luther and his commentary on Romans. Dan Gruber writes: “Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans is considered one of the most influential books of all time. It formed a major part of the foundation on which the Reformation was built…Concerning the scriptures in Romans that speak of a continuing role for the Jewish people in God’s plan of redemption for the world, Luther responds basically in two ways: He says nothing at all, or he greatly distorts the text, sometimes maintaining that it means the opposite of what it says” (The Church and the Jews – The Biblical Relationship, by Dan Gruber, p. 282). A fuller discussion of Luther’s commentary on Romans, and its impact on Protestant theology, is found in Chapter 41 of Gruber’s book. As I write, I have before me a copy of Luther’s commentary, and I concur with Gruber’s remarks. 27
Writes Wilson, “The Protestant tradition, especially Lutheranism, has tended to see the leitmotif for Paul’s understanding of the gospel in the emphasis on justification by faith as opposed to works of the Law. Though this theme is certainly important to Paul, we are in essential agreement with Davies, who finds the locus of Paul elsewhere, namely, his ‘subordination of the Law to Christ as in Himself a New Torah – new not in the sense that He contravened the old but that He revealed its true character, or put it in a new light’” (Wilson, pp. 28-29). Jesus and Paul were not antinomian – that is, they were not against the Torah. At the same time, they did not espouse the notion that no works were necessary because we are “saved by grace through faith…” Christians are called to perform “good works” – not to earn salvation by doing them, but because that is the way God’s people are called to live. In fact, right after explaining that justification is not achieved by works, Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Christians should perform good works just as Jesus performed good works. In fact, we should perform the same works that he performed. Yet there is no work we can perform that can save us. We must have faith in the fact that only God, in his grace, and out of his mercy, can justify us, save us and grant us eternal life. Faith in the New Testament In the three instances in the New Testament where Paul and the writer of Hebrews quote Habakkuk 2:4 – “the just shall live by his faith [emunah = faithfulness]” – the word “his” is omitted, and the Greek word used is pisteoos. It is from pistis which basically means “faith, trust.” It is used in various ways in the New Testament; therefore meaning must be determined by context and usage. In Romans 3:3, it is used of the faithfulness or reliability of God: “For what if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith [faithfulness] of God without effect?” Paul is here speaking of the unbelieving Israelites of the Exodus who were skeptical about God’s 28
ability, or willingness, to deliver them through all of the trials of the Exodus. God did not waver; he was firm in his commitment to them and he faithfully carried out what he said he would do for them, despite their doubt. The word pistis can also mean “trust, confidence or faith.” It is the word used in the famous verse quoted earlier: And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22). Jesus is teaching us to place our trust and confidence in God, but it can also have the meaning of being faithful to God – that is, loyal and steadfast, for that meaning is part of the baggage carried by the word. We are called to be firmly confident in God. If we stick with him, God will come through for us. So our basic working definition of “faith” is faithfulness toward God. This is the older, Hebraic understanding. This meaning is confirmed for the Greek word pistis in the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon (BAG), p. 662: “1. that which causes trust and faith – a. faithfulness, reliability.” It is used of the faithfulness of God, as we saw above (Romans 3:3). In Titus 2:10, in reference to slaves, the word is translated “fully trusted” (NIV) or “fidelity” (ENT). Moffat reads, “faithful.” The Amplified version says, “truly loyal and entirely reliable.” “Faithfulness” (pistis) is listed as one of the fruits or products of the indwelling Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22. God wants his children to be loyal to him, to stick with him like glue, to express absolute fidelity, reliability, trustworthiness, firmness, faithfulness and unflinching adherence to him, for he demonstrates all of these things to his children. If we are faithful to God, then God’s faithfulness to us will be richly manifested. Unwavering Faithfulness God does not seek in his children a wishy-washy kind of faithfulness. As Moses’ assistants firmly held up Moses’ hands during the battle with Amalek, we too must maintain a firm faithfulness to God. Jesus’ halfbrother, James, speaks of this kind of unwavering firmness in his letter: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must 29
believe, and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:5-8). When he wrote this, James may have had one of David’s Psalms in mind in which he writes, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). God seeks in us an “undivided heart” – that is, absolute loyalty that is not split by loyalty to anyone or anything else. In ancient Israel, for example, there were times when the people worshiped Yahweh while at the same time serving pagan idols. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God addressed this split loyalty: “They will return to it [the land of Israel] and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit into them…” (Ezekiel 11:18). God seeks in his children undivided loyalty and faithfulness. Our hearts and minds must be single, not split. God is not willing to share his rightful glory with others; either we are wholly committed to God, or we are not. To doubt God is to waver in faith. To worship God and idols is to divide faith. God wants from us faith that is unwavering and undivided. Consider I Kings 18 in this regard. In Elijah’s day, some of the people worshiped Baal, while at the same time claiming to worship Yahweh. Elijah confronted them on their double-mindedness: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (I Kings 18:21). Study the whole chapter to understand the context and circumstances of Elijah’s question. Throughout Israel’s history, the problem of double-mindedness was acute. Their worship of Yahweh was often split. They were not utterly faithful to him. They tried to have it both ways: “Even while these people were worshiping the Lord, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their fathers did” (II Kings 17:41). God seeks our undivided attention. He wants us to worship him and him alone. He desires a firm, unwavering, constant devotion to him that he might fully bless us. He desires emunah: faithfulness, fidelity, firmness, 30
loyalty and unswerving devotion. Wherever the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament (TaNaKh), and the OT uses the word emunah that is what is meant by it. Other Meanings of Pistis The Greek word pistis is used in two other fundamental ways in the New Testament. It can mean “trust, confidence, faith” (BAG, p. 662, meaning No. 2). It is the word used in Mark 11:22, referenced earlier, showing that God is the only legitimate object of faith: “Have faith in God…” Speaking of Jesus Christ, the apostle Peter writes: “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith [pistis] and hope are in God” (I Peter 1:21). Here the word means “trust and confidence.” It is in this sense that Paul seems to use the word in Romans: “But now righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…faith in his blood…faith in Jesus…justified by faith” (Romans 3:21-28, excerpts). To be “justified” means to be declared innocent. If we rely on our own ability to rigorously obey those parts of Torah (God’s instruction or direction) that apply to us as a means of becoming justified, we’re doomed. Later law-keeping cannot erase the penalty for earlier law-breaking. All of us have sinned, no exceptions: Romans 3:23; I John 1:8 &10; Proverbs 20:9 etc. The wages of those sins is eternal death: Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8. Before Christ came into our lives, we “were dead in…transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Now, in the wake of sin and death, we can no longer rely upon our own efforts to save ourselves. As Paul writes: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law…” (Romans 3:20). To be justified – that is “declared righteous” – we must rely not upon ourselves but upon Jesus Christ. Our trust, our confidence, and our faith must reside in what God, in Christ, has done for us by way of redemption. The righteous status that we now enjoy came not through our own efforts, 31
but, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in [trust or confidence in] Jesus Christ…” (Romans 3:22). “Righteousness” is a covenantal term. God’s righteousness is based upon his faithfulness to the covenants he makes with man. Of course the redemptive work of God in Christ in which we now have confidence does not relieve us of our obligation to keep those aspects of Torah that legitimately apply to us. As Paul writes, “Do we, then, nullify the law (Torah) by this faith? Not at all! Rather we uphold the law (Torah)” (Romans 3:31). [Note: The Hebrew word Torah which means “instruction,” or “direction” from God, is usually translated with the Greek word nomos in the New Testament. Nomos is not an exact equivalent, but when we know the Hebrew word behind the Greek word, we gain a better idea of the intent.] A Third Basic Meaning The third basic meaning of pistis is “That which is believed, body of faith or belief, doctrine” (BAG, p. 664a). It is used this way by Paul in Romans 1:23: “They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Paul was speaking here of himself. He uses “the faith” as the body of beliefs and practices of the early Jewish Church, which he once opposed. Jude seems to use “the faith” in the same way in Jude 3. We speak today of “the Christian faith” as opposed to say, “The Jewish faith.” Summing Up This article does not say everything that could be said about faith; but it does provide the basics. Faith (emunah in Hebrew, pistis in Greek) is faithfulness, firmness, fidelity to God. It is trusting God for that for which we cannot trust ourselves (i.e. justification). It is loyalty to God under any and all circumstances. It is placing confidence in God because he is faithful to us. It is God’s unwavering faithfulness to his children that makes our faith in him both possible and wholly valid. Faith is that which carries us 32
forward in obedience to God. It enables us to trust God in otherwise threatening circumstances. It is the possession of faith that made the difference between the great men and woman of God, and ordinary people (Hebrews 11). As the writer of Hebrews puts it: “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promise; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death with the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:32-40). It is little wonder then that the same author writes: “Without faith it is impossible to please God…” (Hebrews 11:6).
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part III
THE DOCTRINE OF BAPTISMS
he King James translation of Hebrews 6:2 describes the “the doctrine of baptisms” as one of the “elementary teachings about Christ” (Hebrews 6:1). The word “doctrine” is here translated from the Greek didache, meaning simply “instruction” or “what is taught” (BAG*). Note another point: the word “baptisms” is plural. In order to understand what was taught among the original believing community about baptisms, we must first consider the origins of baptism. The ritual was not new to the Christian church. Its origins stretch deep into history.
The Origins of Baptism The rite of baptism was not invented by Christians. Its beginnings are of much greater antiquity. Ritual immersion was well known from early times in Judaism. Our English word “baptize” comes from the Greek baptizo (pronounced “bap-tid-zo”) which means to “dip” or to “immerse” (BAG*). In non-Christian usage, it was commonly understood to mean “plunge, sink, drench or overwhelm” (ibid. BAG). Of all these words, the most appropriate is “immerse.” 34
In Biblical times, baptism was a rite in both Judaism and early Christianity, but it was not designated a “sacrament” until post-New Testament times. [Note: “The word “sacrament” is not found in the Bible. It is derived from the Latin word sacramentum, which originally denoted a sum of money deposited by two parties in a lawsuit. After the decision of the court, the winner’s money was returned, while that of the loser was forfeited as a sort of offering to the gods. The transition to the Christian use of the term is probably to be sought (1) in its military use to denote the oath by which a soldier solemnly pledges obedience to his commander; and (2) in the Vulgate’s use of it to translate the Greek word for mystery. The sacraments were regarded as both pledges of obedience and mysteries” -Manual of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof, pp. 310-311]. Ablutions in Israel The real origin of the Christian rite of baptism is to be found in the ritual purification rites of ancient Israel. Washings and ablutions were very much a part of Israel’s relationship with God. It is in the Oral Law of the Jews (Mishnah, Sotah, ix. 15) that we find the basis for the well-known proverb, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” When God commanded the people of Israel to appear before him at Sinai, he said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day…” (Exodus 19:10). God did not want his people appearing before him caked in sweat and dust from the desert floor. When we approach the holiness of God, we must be clean inside and out. As Israelite practice became formalized, it took on three forms: 1) The washing of hands, 2) The washing of hands and feet and 3) Immersion of the whole body in water. Technically, the ritual washing of hands is not specifically commanded in the Bible. It was based on deductive thinking drawing from passages of Scripture like Psalm 26:6. Once it was established, an elaborate set of support rituals grew up around handwashing. Those who wish to research hand washing ritual further may consult the rabbinical code Shulhan ‘Aruk, Orah Hayyim, pp. 117-165. 35
Hand and foot washing were only required for priests. The rule is found in Exodus 30:19 & 40:30. This practice was continued until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Ritual immersion of the whole body is found frequently in the Old Testament (The TaNaKh). We read the following in the Jewish Encyclopedia: “The washing of the whole body is the form of Ablution most frequently ordained in Scripture, and for the greatest number of causes. According to rabbinical interpretation, this is only valid when performed by immersion, either in a natural fountain or stream or in a properly constructed mikweh, or ritual bath, containing at least forty seahs (about one hundred and twenty gallons) of water” (Jewish Encyclopedia.com, article “Ablution”). Examples of whole body immersion requirements are found in the following passages: Leviticus 22:4-6; Leviticus 14:8-9; Leviticus 15:5-11; Leviticus 16:23-28; Leviticus 15: 16-25 and other verses. The same source tells us that, “A Gentile wishing to become a proselyte must also immerse his whole body. This ceremony is, no doubt, historically allied to Baptism, which is thought by modern authorities to have originated among the Essenes, who were very scrupulous respecting ablutions and in the observance of the rules of purity…” (ibid.). A gentile who became a Jew was, during the second Temple period, required to perform three things upon conversion: 1) Ritual immersion, 2). Circumcision (males only), and 3). Offer a sacrifice. These rites became an issue for the early Church which found a need to set forth a ruling on it; more on that later. The Mikveh The Mikveh – ritual immersion bath – was invented to accommodate the requirements of ceremonial immersion. As we have seen, it was designed to contain at least 120 gallons of very pure water. The word mikveh means “a gathering of waters.” It has its source in the account of the third day of creation where God calls “the gathered waters [mikveh] seas…” (Genesis 36
1:10). Because of this reference to the oceans, the ocean itself is considered a legitimate mikveh. The Essenes practiced daily immersion. Ritual immersion baths – mikva’ot – were found in some Jewish homes, and in synagogues of the second Temple period. Many very large mikva’ot have been found at the Temple site itself. Herod’s temple contained a large number of such baths constructed primarily for priestly use. In fact, 48 mikva’ot have been found near the monumental staircase that leads into the larger Temple complex. For Jews, there were multiple occasions for which ritual immersion was called. Converting proselytes (as we saw earlier) had to be immersed. Menstruous women were required to undergo immersion following their period. Various bodily emissions required it. Even pots and pans manufactured by non-Jews had to be immersed before usage. Jews were also immersed just prior to the observance of Yom Kippur (Atonement) as a sign of repentance and purity. In the construction of synagogues, the building of the mikveh was more important than the synagogue itself. Attention had to be paid to exacting requirements. Mikva’ot had staircases leading down into the water with a divider to separate those going down from those coming up. As we have already learned, 120 gallons of water were needed to ensure complete submergence. (If you wish to study Jewish ritual immersion in greater detail, please consult the tractate Mikwaoth in the Mishnah (Oral Law of the Jews). Mikveh Requirements The water in a mikveh could not be mixed with any other kind of liquid. It had to be “living” water, not manually drawn water. Natural springs, rivers or oceans were all considered legitimate mikva’ot. The water channeled to the ritual immersion bath must not be passed through anything unclean. It could not be taken from a vessel or receptacle in which it had been standing. Typically, the water used in a mikveh was taken from a river or a 37
spring. In some cases, rain water was channeled directly into the ritual immersion bath. Those being immersed often went down into the water naked, but never in the presence of the opposite gender. Prof. Marvin Wilson describes the process for proselytes: In proselyte baptism, “The candidate, fully naked, immersed himself in the waters, symbolically cleansing himself from the antecedent defilement. His past behind him, he emerged to take his stand with the people of Israel.” (Our Father Abraham, p. 22.) Self-immersion was the most common form, though officiating priests or priestesses were allowed to touch the baptized person to ensure that all went under, or to stabilize the person. The candidate walked down into the water and squatted down with arms stretched straight out before him or her. Total immersion was then accomplished. An interesting observation about ritual immersion is found in the Jewish Encyclopedia: “The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world. As the convert came out of these waters his status was changed and he was referred to as ‘a little child just born’ or ‘a child of one day (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b). We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as ‘born anew,’ ‘new creation,’ and ‘born from above’…” These terms were not new with Jesus. They were common in 2nd Temple Judaism and reflected Jewish ritual immersion practice. The Significance of Jesus’ Baptism We have seen that the rite of Christian baptism had its roots in longstanding Jewish practice. Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. All three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) include an account of the event. As we have already seen, a free-flowing river like the Jordan met the requirements for a mikveh. Each account of Jesus’ baptism includes a detail not contained by the other two. Luke’s account (the translation) uses the passive voice: “Jesus was baptized…” (Luke 3:21); it says nothing about John the Baptist 38
in this context. We also learn from Luke that Jesus was praying during his baptism (same verse). The next verse tells us that the Holy Spirit took on the “bodily form” of a dove as it came down upon Jesus (verse 22). The arrival of the Holy Spirit was followed by the voice of God from heaven saying, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased” (verse 22b). Mark’s account adds the detail that it was John who baptized Jesus (Mark 1:9). Matthew’s report tells that Jesus experienced baptism “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15b). What does this mean? We know that Jesus was not a sinner and that John baptized for repentance (verse 11). What need of baptism did Jesus have? There was nothing in his life of which he needed to repent (Hebrews 4:15). What does it mean to “fulfill all righteousness”? Dr. Brad Young, a noted Hebrew roots scholar, comments: “He [Jesus] explains that he must fulfill all righteousness. In his identity with the total human need, he submitted to baptism in order to affirm the process of redemption which was in action as a result of John’s prophetic career. Luke’s portrayal drives home the message. Jesus is with all the people, thus demonstrating his total identification with all humanity.” (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, p. 17) What is important about the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is not so much the symbolism itself, but the fact of Jesus’ empowerment to carry out his Messianic role in the divine plan. Again, Dr. Young explains: “Perhaps this is the point at the baptism of Jesus. The phenomenon of the Spirit’s descent is of greater import than supposed symbolism. It is so tangible and real in the dimension of human experience that a dove descends upon him. The Spirit empowerment for service is of prime significance at the baptism of Jesus. Although sometimes the dove is thought to symbolize the Holy Spirit or the people of Israel, it actually opens a vista into the supernatural realm…God has empowered Jesus for service” (ibid. p. 20). According to Dr. Young, the heavenly voice is alluding to two important Messianic passages in the TaNaKh (Old Testament): Psalm 2:7 & Isaiah 42:1. The NIV translation of the former passage reads as follows: 39
“He said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have become your Father.” Dr. Young suggests that a better rendering of that verse would read: “I have brought thee forth.” God is presenting and empowering His Anointed One before the world. This is clearer in the NIV rendering of Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” The word “chosen” in Hebrew is bachiri – synonymous with “beloved.” John’s Prophecy John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. He knew who Jesus was and he understood his mission – at least in part. Matthew’s account sheds light on what John knew: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:1-2). When he said “at hand,” he meant just that. The Kingdom of God (Heaven) was not merely some promise to be fulfilled millennia down the line – with Jesus it would become a present reality. The Greek word here is in the perfect meaning: “it has drawn near but it has not necessarily arrived” (Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament by Reinecker. P. 6). The Kingdom of God was imminent because Jesus was about to commence his ministry. He had spent 30 years of his life preparing for it. Now it was time. God in Christ was now setting in motion the centerpiece of his redemptive plan. John then quoted a Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah: “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3 KJV; Isaiah 40:3). This is an unfortunate translation. It obscures the meaning of Isaiah’s original statement. In the KJV of Isaiah, we read the following: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The word “Lord” here is YHVH and “our God” is Elohim. The “Lord” whose way John is preparing is YHVH, and he is to come through or from the desert.
The Jewish translation makes it even clearer: “A voice rings out: Clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for our God!” In the KJV, not only is the Tetragrammaton (4-letter name of God) obscured, but the punctuation is wrongly placed. The latter part of the statement also refers to “our God” – the word there is Elohim. It is no wonder then that John spoke of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God – the King himself was now on the scene! John then warned that repentance was in order and that human “trees” that failed to bear good fruit would be cut down and burnt up (Matthew 3:10). John spoke of his own mode of immersion; then he spoke of two other baptisms that he would not perform. They would be carried out by the Anointed One: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12 KJV). John was saying that the one who was now in their midst was able to immerse his people in the Holy Spirit – that is, the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is the empowering aspect of the Deity. When Jesus was baptized, he received more of that Spirit to enable him to carry out his divinely appointed tasks (Matthew 3:16). His people, who would come to represent the Kingdom, would also need empowerment. Jesus told his followers: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8a). Jesus’ experience with divine empowerment set a precedent for every true Christian. Ideally, we should first repent, as John taught, then be immersed, and finally become empowered with the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost that was the “birthday” of the Church, the apostle Peter said to the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22): “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). 41
The Rite of Christian Baptism In the centuries since that first day of Pentecost for the Church, many changes have been made to what was once a simple rite practiced within Judaism. (It must be remembered that the first manifestation of the “Church” took place entirely within Judaism. There, it was known as “the sect of the Nazarene” (cf. Acts 24:5). It was a movement centered on Jesus and it was part and parcel with the Jewish world.) Scholars of the Jerusalem School believe the events of that Pentecost day took place within the Temple itself (Luke 24:53) – that is the “house” spoken of in Acts 2:2. It is significant that the birth of the Church occurred on the same day Jewish tradition teaches the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. A sound “like a rushing mighty wind” filled the Temple. Some have suggested that it may have been the sound of a shofar – the ram’s horn used in many Jewish ceremonies; however, there is no way to prove this. Immediately following this sound, “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:3-4). The Spirit descending upon Jesus had manifested a dove-like appearance. For the disciples, it was “cloven tongues of fire.” The Holy Spirit then empowered those gathered in the Temple to speak in languages they had not learned: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The people who were gathered were all Jews. Many had come in from various parts of the Diaspora. A wide variety of regional languages was represented. Remarkably, the assembled Jews heard people from other parts of the world speaking in their languages (Acts 2:5-6). Perhaps the significance of this is to show that the Spirit would give them the wherewithal to carry out the commission they’d been given: “And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the 42
Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Jesus said that it is “necessary” that his redemptive story be told in all nations. It was to start at Jerusalem, and that’s exactly where it did start. God showed that the Holy Spirit could provide the first apostles with anything they needed to get the job done – including the gift of foreign languages if necessary. (I did hear of one man in our time to whom was given the ability to speak Portuguese by the Holy Spirit in order to go to the people of Brazil. He had never been exposed to that language in his life. It is rare to see this happen in our day.) Baptism into the Body The Church is not primarily an institution or an organization. It is the Body of Christ – that is, it his instrumentation in the world. The apostle Paul explained this to the Corinthians when he wrote: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we are all baptized [immersed] by one Spirit into one body –whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free –and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:12-13). The Church has organizations, but it isn’t an organization. The organizations that it has are tools, not ends in themselves. The Body of Christ is the spiritual entity into which we are all immersed by the action of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we “drink of” the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13b). It is the Holy Spirit, not organizational affiliation, or belief systems, that makes one a part of the “Church.” Water Baptism Christian water baptism has its origins in Jewish ritual immersion. It is done once, at conversion (Acts 2:38), not thrice daily or weekly. To be baptized means to be immersed in water, not merely sprinkled with it. The significance of full immersion is explained in Paul’s letter to the Romans: 43
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:14). Christian baptism represents a burial of the old sinful self – the person you used to be. When we rise from the baptismal waters, we are born anew. We begin a new life in Christ. In the past, we were dead in our sins, but now we are alive again because of what Christ did in our lives. When we come up out of the baptismal waters, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to “walk in newness of life.” In baptism then, we have died to sin, and have been resurrected to a new, moral life. In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul connects baptism with faith and sonship. He writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” As baptized Christians, our union with Christ overcomes all human divisions including race, class and gender. Each of us is a new person in Christ. Spiritually, we are all on a par as children of God. We are equally eligible to co-inherit the promises made to Abraham and his progeny. Paul expanded on his understanding of the meaning of baptism in his letter to the Colossians, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you are also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature [“body of the sins of the flesh” – Greek], not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with 44
him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12). Paul then adds one more clarification, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature [Greek: “of your flesh”], God made you alive with Christ” (verse 13). Summing Up “Baptism” means “immersion” in most cases. A possible exception would be Luke 11:38 where the term is used of hand-washing, yet, even that passage could refer to the immersion of the hands in water to cleanse them. Christian baptism retained the sense of ritual purification found in Jewish practice (I Peter 3:21). It also depicts our adoption as God’s children. When we receive the Holy Spirit at baptism, we gain the right to call God “Abba” or “Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15-17). In Judaism, circumcision for males symbolized entry into the fold. For Christians, baptism has the same effect – it is the formal entrance rite into the covenantal community (Colossians 2:11-12). In baptism, we Christians symbolically die to our sins and close the door on our past lives. We are buried in baptism with Christ, and we rise from that watery “grave” in purity to share the new life brought about by Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 6:1-4). Baptism is, in effect, a new birth (John 3:4-5) to a new life in Christ.
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part IV
LAYING ON OF HANDS
he practice of laying on of hands has an antiquitous history. In Moses’ day, Israel offered animal sacrifices to God in the tabernacle. God himself instructed Moses in the correct procedures. He said, “Bring the bull to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. Slaughter it in the Lord’s presence at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting...” (Exodus 29:10-11 NIV).
Laying hands on the sacrificial animal’s head symbolically transferred the deeds and their effects of the one offering the sacrifice to the animal. The animal’s death represented the death of the individual. The priest would lean his hands on the animal’s head, between the horns. Similar instructions were given for sacrificing rams (verse 15). In Leviticus 3:2, 8 & 12, we find similar instructions concerning the sacrifice of goats. The sacrifice of animals was for the atonement of sins: “After the Levites lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, use the one for a sin offering to the Lord and the other for a burnt offering to make atonement for the Levites” (Numbers 8:12). Study also Leviticus 16:20-22 to see how the sins of the sins of the Israelites were transferred to the goat to be carried into the wilderness. 46
Transfer of Authority Not only were hands laid on the heads of sacrificial animals in ancient times, the ceremony was also used to transfer authority from one person, or group, to another: So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hands on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority…” (Numbers 27:18-20). When God separated the Levites for special service to Him, He invoked the authority of the whole congregation: “Bring the Levites to the front of the Tent of Meeting and assemble to whole Israelite company. You are to bring the Levites before the Lord, and the Israelites are to lay their hands on them” (Numbers 8:9-10). The Levites were to represent the people, so the people formally consented to their commissioning. Laying on of hands is also for commissioning: “Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses” (Numbers 27:22 – 23). When Moses laid his hands on Joshua, it had a concrete result: “Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him” (Deuteronomy 34:9). Transfer of Power The laying on of hands also represented a transfer of power – in some cases, for healing: “My little daughter is dying,” said a distressed father to Jesus, “Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live” (Mark 5:23). While Jesus was en route to lay hands on the little girl, a woman touched the hem of his garment – probably the tassel of his prayer shawl – and immediately “power” went out from him to heal the woman who was afflicted with “an issue of blood” (Mark 5:27-30). Spiritual power can be transferred by touch. After Saul’s conversion, at which time he was blinded by God (Acts 9:8), God sent a man named Ananias to lay hands on him: “The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man 47
from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight” (Acts 9:11-12). Ananias obeyed the Lord, went to the house, entered it, and found Saul. “Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me to that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Once Ananias had laid hands on Saul, his sight was restored. Immediately he was baptized (verses 18-19). As most readers know, Saul’s name was changed to Paul and he became one of the Lord’s most effective apostles. Paul preached the Gospel to non-Jews all over the Roman Empire. His converts to the faith were many. Ministers with various talents and abilities were commissioned for service (Ephesians 4:11-13). Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were empowered to serve the Body the Lord was raising up to experience salvation and to preach the Gospel. They were commissioned by the elders. Writing to Timothy, one of the elders, Paul said, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (I Timothy 4:14). Even today, in some churches, personal prophecies sometimes accompany the commissioning, ordination and sending out of ministers for service. This practice is by no means universal throughout the Church, but it does happen in some circles. Receipt of Holy Spirit Perhaps the most important function of the laying on of hands is for the receipt of the Holy Spirit which is the empowering aspect of Deity (Acts 1:8). Note Acts 8:12 in this regard: “Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” A man named Simon Magus was able to observe the visible transformation of those who received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, and he sought to buy the ability to do it himself: “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of hands, he offered them [Peter & John] money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may 48
receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:18). Peter’s response was quick and to the point: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:20-23). One can only impart to another what one first has oneself. Paul at Ephesus The apostle Paul happened to be passing through the town of Ephesus. When he arrived there, he came across some disciples of the Lord. In the course of his conversation with them, he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:1). Remarkably they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (verse 2). Paul then asked about the nature of their baptism. They responded that they had experienced “the baptism of John” – that is, the Baptist (verse 3). Paul explained that “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, Jesus” (verse 4). Paul immediately knew that he needed to lay hands upon them: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all” (verses 5-7). The results were obvious and visible. It was clear that what the twelve experienced was of a supernatural nature. The impartation of the Holy Spirit comes, not by water baptism, but through the laying on of hands of one who already possesses the Spirit. Sometimes there is a clear manifestation of new spiritual power, at other times it is not visible until later. Summary
We see then the laying on of hands symbolizes or represents the transference of something from one person to another person or from a person to a sacrificial animal. It plays a role in empowerment, atonement, ordination and commissioning, or in the impartation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus laid hands on those he wished to heal. On one occasion, Jesus reached out and touched a man with leprosy, and the man was immediately cleansed of it (Matthew 8:1-3). A little later, Jesus found Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. He touched her hand with his and the fever left her (Matthew 8:14-15). The power of Jesus’ touch, or simply of touching his garment, was again demonstrated at Gennesaret: “And when the men of the place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed” (Matthew 14:3536). On the Isle of Patmos, where the apostle John received the visions of the Book of Revelation, the same Jesus whom he had “handled” or touched when he was in the flesh (I John 1:1) returned the favor by laying his hand on John, reviving and strengthening him to receive the disturbing visions of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:17). The touch of our Lord is still available to his people in this time. If we want it, we must seek it. When we receive it, we too may lay hands upon others whose hearts are right, that they too might be empowered by the Presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19 KJV), or healed or commissioned. God gives his Spirit to those of us who are willing to obey him (Acts 5:32).
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part V
THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
f only for this life,” wrote the apostle Paul, “we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (I Corinthians 15:19 NIV). According to Christian Solidarity International, “more Christians died for their faith in the twentieth century than at any other time in history.” Thomas Horn writes, “Global reports indicate that over 150,000 Christians were martyred last year, chiefly outside of the United States. However, statistics are changing: persecution of Christians is on the increase in the United States” (www.worthynews.com).
If all there is to being a Christian is endless persecution and eventual death, then what’s the point? In some cultures, choosing to become a Christian is like committing slow suicide. The worst countries in the world in which to be a Christian are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Maldives, Bhutan, Vietnam, Yemen, Laos and China (in that order). In nine out of ten of the above-listed nations, there is one of two common denominators: Communism or Islam. Only one persecuting power is neither: Bhutan. In that Himalayan kingdom, Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. Officially, Christianity does not exist in Bhutan. Christians are not allowed to pray or celebrate in public, and multiple house gatherings are forbidden. 51
At least 40 other nations, other than the ten worst listed above, make it difficult to be a Christian. Some of them are supposed to be U.S. “allies.” Paul understood from personal experience, and the experience of many of his converts, what it was like to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. He went “through the mill” as they say (cf. II Corinthians 11:16-33). To make his horrendous experience worthwhile, Paul knew there had to be more than this persecution-filled life. There had to be another better kind of life after this painful mortal existence. Consequently, Paul, more than any other Biblical writer, has much to say about the principle of resurrection. Before we get to that, let’s consider some passages in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel 12:2-3 Daniel writes: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” This is the pivotal passage on resurrection in the TaNaKh. It speaks either of two resurrections: one to life, the other to “shame and everlasting contempt,” or of one resurrection with two outcomes. It establishes the imagery of resurrection as an awakening from sleep. Of this passage, the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says, “The prevailing image – from which, indeed, the term itself [resurrection] is derived – is that of waking from sleep (e.g. Daniel 12:2)” (Vol.4, p. 39). To “resurrect” is to: “raise again from the dead.” It is to awaken from an otherwise permanent sleep. Many other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 26:19; Job 19:25-27; Psalm 17:15; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 49:15 etc.) seem to hint at the idea of resurrection, but only this one is entirely clear in its meaning. Beliefs in Jesus’ Day By the time of Christ, Judaism was divided on the issue of resurrection. The Sadducees denied the resurrection altogether. This fact came out on 52
one occasion when Paul was hauled before the Sanhedrin: “Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (Acts 23:6-8). Jesus himself endorsed the doctrine – but not the practice where hypocritical – of the Pharisees for his own disciples (Matthew 23:1-2). He too believed in resurrection, angels and spirits. It is clear that Paul, following the Pharisaic rather than the Sadducean model, believed in the principle of resurrection. In his trial before King Agrippa, Paul again confirmed his belief: “Why should any of you consider it to be incredible that God should raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8). Paul took the hope of resurrection as a given. It was an integral part of his theology. Jesus and the Resurrection The story of Lazarus helps us understand some major points about the resurrection. Lazarus (Greek for Eleazar), whose name means “God is helper,” lived in the village of Bethany. The name “Bethany” can mean either “House of affliction” or “House of response.” Bethany was located on the lower eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about 2 miles east of Jerusalem. (It is not the same as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” – John 1:28 – where John the Baptist baptized.) Lazarus fell sick. His two sisters, Mary and Martha – Mary, being the same Mary who wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair – sent word to Jesus: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:1-3). Jesus’ response was enigmatic: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (verse 4). Instead of rushing over to Bethany to pray for Lazarus, Jesus remained where he was for another two days (verse 5). Then he said to his 53
disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea” (verse 7). This idea didn’t “set well” with his talmidim. They reminded him that some of his fellow Jews had attempted to stone him there (verse 8). Again, Jesus’ response seems enigmatic: “are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light” (John 11:9-10). Jesus knows that his hour of trial has not yet come. He is able to walk by the light of prophetic insight. It is still safe for him to travel to Bethany. He knows, for example, that his friend Lazarus has died: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (verse 11). Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it. They replied that if Lazarus was merely asleep, he would eventually revive and get better (verse 12). But, “Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (verses 14-15). Jesus, like Daniel (Daniel 12:2-3), equates physical death with sleep. Lazarus’ death had a divine purpose. Jesus knew it by the Spirit of God. He was now about to fulfill that purpose. Jesus and his entourage of students were about to head over to Bethany. Before they left, however, Thomas (of “Doubting Thomas” fame) said to the others, “Let us go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16b). He had not grasped the meaning of Jesus’ statement a moment before: “A man who walks by day will not stumble…” Since Jesus and his disciples would again come under the withering gaze of those who sought to stone him, Thomas assumed that all of them would share Jesus’ fate. He did not understand that it was not yet Jesus’ time to die, or that when he did, it would not be by stoning but by crucifixion. With this glum outlook, Jesus, Thomas and the other disciples headed for Bethany. Resurrection at Bethany 54
“On his arrival,” reads the account, “Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days” (John 11:17). Like Rover, he was dead all over. Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters, knew that by this time decomposition of her brother’s body would have set in (verse 39b). This is exactly what Jesus wanted. He wanted everyone to know with certainty that Lazarus was truly dead. If one who was raised from the dead had not been dead long, then skeptics could challenge the reality of the resurrection by saying, “Well, perhaps he wasn’t really dead. Maybe he was just in a coma.” No one could say that in the case of Lazarus! Jesus’ delaying his coming to this point was of strategic importance. When Jesus arrived at the sepulcher where Lazarus was entombed, he was deeply moved (verse 38). He knew that his followers did not fully grasp who and what he was, or what he had come to accomplish. Lazarus’ burial site was a cave with stone rolled over it (verse 38 b). Jesus ordered the stone rolled away from the entrance (verse 39). Then Jesus reminded Martha and the others of what he had said earlier: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (verse 40). Belief here was an expression of faith in Christ – in the truth of what he had said and what he could do. Martha understood the doctrine of resurrection correctly. Speaking of her dead brother, she said, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24). This statement accurately reflected the teaching of Jesus and that of the Pharisees, but Jesus had in mind something more profound. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (verse 26). This is one of the most important and profound statements in the entire Bible. Martha’s response seems to indicate that she still did not fully grasp the implications of what Jesus was saying: “Yes Lord, she told him, ‘I believe that you are the Christ [Anointed One], the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27). Martha was convicted that Jesus was the Anointed One about whom there were more than 400 allusions in the TaNaKh (“Old” Testament). [Note: A list of these Messianic passages can be found in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim, Volume II, page 710 ff., Appendix IX. There are listed 456 passages in all.] 55
Martha then ran to fetch her sister, Mary, since Jesus was asking for her. When Mary arrived she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11: 28-32). Mary, grieved over what she perceived to be the unnecessary loss of her brother, broke into tears. The Jews who had accompanied her did the same. Jesus was disturbed by this display of emotion because he knew what God was about to do through him, and Mary did not. Both Mary and Martha had a sort of “academic” understanding of who Jesus was. They were “doctrinally correct” about him. But their faith hadn’t yet caught up with their doctrine. Jesus and the group then walked up to the site of the sepulcher. The Lord commanded, “Take away the stone.” Mary, thinking practically, and still not getting it, responded, “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there for four days” (John 11:39b). She understood that her brother’s body would have begun the process of decomposition – and that’s exactly what Jesus wanted. He wanted the whole crowd, including his disciples, to know that Lazarus was truly dead. Jesus then said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (verse 40). They then removed the stone, allowing the pungent aroma of a decaying body to waft out into the ambient air. Jesus looked up and prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41). No one could raise the dead to life but with the power of God. Then Jesus raised his voice and called out to the body of Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out!” (verse 43). Out of the fetid darkness of the tomb emerged a man swaddled in mummy-like wrappings. Even his face was wrapped in cloth. Jesus then ordered that the grave clothes be unwound and that Lazarus be released (verse 44b). We assume that someone in the audience provided the resurrected man with suitable garments.
At one level, Jesus’ restoration of Lazarus to life had the desired effect: “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him” (John 11:45). At another level, the effect was negative. Some ran to the Pharisees who called a meeting of the Sanhedrin to discuss the matter. Instead of viewing the event as the great miracle that it was, they saw it through political lenses. You can read the results in verses 46 through 57. Jesus had shown irrefutably that he had the power and the authority to raise the dead. When he said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was speaking literally. On an earlier occasion, Jesus had spoken plainly about his authority to resurrect: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21). Jesus explained that God the Father had entrusted all judgment to himself and that those who heard and believed Jesus would have eternal life (John 5:24). Even in that time Jesus had demonstrated his ability to raise the dead. He then pointed to a future time of resurrection: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). Here Jesus is speaking of a mass resurrection of all of mankind. Some will rise to live, others to be condemned. Clearly the one death we must all die (Hebrews 9:27) is not the end of it. For some, there will be eternal life after this physical life; for others, a second, final, eternal death (Revelation 20:14). In light of traditional pop theology, all of this may be quite disturbing. We are accustomed to hearing the simplistic view that we Christians simply waft off to heaven at death. Little is said about wafting in the opposite direction – or about the principle of resurrection from the “sleep” of death. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, makes clear the process of resurrection. I Corinthians 15 57
With good reason, this is often termed “the resurrection chapter.” More than any other place in Scripture, it outlines what the apostle Paul believed about the resurrection of the dead. Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of the Gospel that he had preached to them. One of its cardinal message points was the fact that Christ had died for the sins of mankind, as the Holy Scriptures had predicted he would (I Corinthians 15:1-3). Jesus’ death paid the penalty for human sin, the wages of which is death (Romans 6:23). Following his crucifixion, Jesus lay “three days and three nights” in a tomb. On the third day, also according to the Scriptures, Jesus rose from the dead (I Corinthians 15:4). Once he was resurrected, Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve apostles, and to more than 500 brethren, many of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote this first letter to the Corinthians. They were living eye-witnesses to the fact that Jesus had indeed been resurrected (verses 5 & 6). After that, Jesus continued to appear to various witnesses including James, all of the apostles, and even to Paul (I Corinthians 15:7-8). Between the time of his resurrection, and the time Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians (perhaps around 54 or 55 AD), Jesus had appeared to hundreds of eye-witnesses. There was no doubt that he had been crucified and killed, and there was no doubt that he was now alive and appearing to his brethren in the Church. The reason God provided so many witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection is that it is the most important single event in God’s redemptive plan. If it didn’t really happen in space and time, then the Christian faith is a meaningless exercise in spiritual futility. As Paul himself wrote: “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Corinthians 15:14). A few sentences later, Paul explains why this is the case: “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (I Corinthians 15:17-19). 58
To the Romans, Paul put it this way: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:9-10). Our salvation hangs on the issue of whether Jesus is dead or alive. His resurrection makes possible our resurrection. Once we know that we will be resurrected, it’s natural to want to understand the mechanics of the process. After establishing the foregoing, Paul then addresses nuts & bolts issues. Order of Resurrection “But Christ has indeed been raised from the death, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam, all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:20-26). Death is an enemy, but Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He is the destroyer of all of mankind’s enemies, including Ha Satan – the Adversary. The devil is associated with the yetzer hara – the evil impulse – in mankind. By tempting man to sin, as he did Adam and Eve in the Garden, Satan produces the “wages of sin” – death. Satan is a killer (John 8:44). Jesus is the opposite. He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). As John also wrote: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I John 3:8). The devil is an unclean spirit who produces only destruction and death. He is a tempter, a murderer, a liar, a snake-in-the-grass, and an adversary to both Christ and man (Romans 12:9 & elsewhere). He brings out the worst in mankind. Jesus brings out the best. 59
The Resurrection Body It is natural to speculate about the kind of body those who are resurrected will possess. Will we have the same old body we have now – with all of its flaws and imperfections? After all, didn’t Jesus show Thomas his nail scars after his resurrection, and the wound in his side (John 20:27). However, until Jesus ascended to heaven, he was not yet glorified (John 7:39b). When we read descriptions of the glorified Jesus, there is no indication of any imperfection (John 1:12-15). Paul addresses the issue of the resurrection body in I Corinthians 15:35-41. He uses the picture of a seed to illustrate his point. The plant that comes up after we have planted a seed does not look like the seed that was planted. After the plant has grown from the seed, we can look in the ground in vain to find the seed. It is no more. Yet it has produced a full-grown plant. By the same token, the present mortal body is analogous to a plant seed that produces something entirely new. One kind of body is suitable for dwelling on this physical planet. Another kind works best for the spiritual dimension. God gives everything a body appropriate for its circumstances. So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable. It is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:42-44). Now, we live with the weakness of our own flesh (Matthew 26:41). We live with the sure knowledge that some day we’ll die. Our fleshly tabernacles are subject to entropy. We, like the physical universe we inhabit, are running down from the moment we are born. Yet what goes into the ground at death produces a beautiful new glorified “plant.” The body God will give us will be imperishable, glorious, and spiritual. The new body will be given us by Jesus who is himself a “life-giving spirit” (I Corinthians 15:45). If we die in Christ, we will “sleep” in our graves until God’s time to resurrect us. Our spirits will be in God’s safekeeping (Hebrews 12:22-24). Then, suddenly, just as Lazarus heard the voice of Jesus and came forth out 60
of his tomb, we will hear the sound of a divine shofar and we will come forth to life. Let’s listen to Paul as he explains it: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (I Corinthians 15:51-54). With the sound of that shofar, the dead in Christ will come forth to inhabit eternity. Like Lazarus, they will shake off the wrappings of death and embrace the golden bands of immortality. Then we will all be able to sing the song, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (verse 55). Paul then offers a final word of explanation: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:56). The Hope of the Resurrection Paul reminded other congregations of their hope in the resurrection, but he cautioned them about setting dates for the return of Christ: “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (I Thessalonians 5:1-3). The return of Christ will come upon the world when it is least expecting it, just as Jesus said it would (Luke 12:35-40). Paul also explained to the Thessalonians that at the same time, the resurrection of the dead in Christ would occur: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (I Thessalonians 4:16). This is the same blast of the shofar about 61
which Paul wrote the Corinthians. The Lord may command his dead to “come forth!” just as he commanded Lazarus to come out of his tomb. Those of us who happen to be alive when the Lord returns will experience something a little different than the dead in Christ: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (I Thessalonians 4: 17-18). What could be more encouraging to persecuted Christians than the sure knowledge that no matter how they die, or when they die, they will one day hear the blast of the divine shofar and that at that time, death, their death, will be forever defeated. They will rise to dwell with the Lord Jesus Christ for all of eternity. Is it any wonder that Jesus taught us: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) ? That brings us to our next, and final, topic in this series: eternal judgment.
First Principles of the Christian Faith – Part VI
hat is meant by the term “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2)? The word “judgment” in Greek is krima. In this context, it refers to the action or function of a judge (see Bauer’s Lexicon, p. 450d). Unlike man’s judgments, God’s judgmental decisions are valid eternally. Ultimately, all who have lived will come under divine judgment. There will a final reckoning. This was a significant theme in Paul’s writings, and indeed throughout the Bible.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, likely written by Solomon, we find a wonderful, yet deliciously cynical, view of life. Over and over again Solomon reminds us that much of what we do in life comes to nothing. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” he cries, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Each generation of mankind is merely repeating the patterns of the past: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). It’s the same old stuff, generation after generation. We have the good guys vs. the bad guys, but no one is truly good: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). People of wealth build great monuments to themselves, yet future generations see them crumble to dust. No matter what we accomplish in the material realm, it all disintegrates. So what if someone builds a bigger pyramid than someone else? Does it really matter how 63
many books someone writes, or how many speeches he gives, or how much material wealth a woman accumulates? When we die, we leave it all behind. In a few years, most people will have forgotten that we were ever around, or that we accomplished anything during our lifetimes. God expects us to enjoy the material blessings he gives us. He fully approves that we enjoy food and drink and material things: “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy n the his work – this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:1819). Life is short; then we die. After this comes divine judgment. While we are here, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too I see is from the hand of God…” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). I enjoy my work: writing and painting pictures. But I realize that if I paint one more painting, it won’t matter to the world. The satisfaction is in doing it, not in storing or selling it. No matter how many paintings I paint, and no matter how good they are, they could all end up in a garage sale, a scrapheap, or being trashed by some invading barbarian. I could write a jillion articles and a myriad of books, and all might end up on the rubbish heap of literary history. What matters to me is that I wrote them, and that I sought God’s inspiration in doing so. Whether they bear fruit is not up to me but to God. Consider what you do for a living, or as an avocation, and ask, “Does this really matter to anyone else but me?” You can work for a company, a church, a school, or a government all of your life, and wind up being discarded in a moment. The rule of thumb is: what have you done for me today? If people remember anything about you, it is more likely to be your sins rather than your good works.
Sooner or later, everything any of us does comes to nothing. In all the generations from Adam to the present, we still haven’t learned how to live godly lives. We continue to murder, bomb and destroy. Hate is the fuel that instigates war after war. No religion has yet demonstrated that it can bring peace to the world. For the most part, religions have brought only war and suffering to the world. Proctologist’s View of Life If you watch television news, you’ll soon realize that, as Dennis Prager often says, it’s a “proctologist’s view” of life. It focuses mainly and the bad things bad people are doing to each other. What aspect of life do you know of that does not include at least a degree of corruption, sin and destructiveness? Politics? The arts? Big Business? Professional sports? Education? The military? Sin is a universal phenomenon. None of us escapes it. Though most of us could not be characterized as wicked, no one is wholly righteous. We have all incurred the divine death penalty as the “wages of sin” (Romans 6:23). Solomon knew that no one would escape divine judgment in the end: “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked” (Ecclesiastes 3:17b). Sooner or later we will have to account to God for how we used the life that he gave us. What is important is that we learn to use all that God has given us to His glory. If we have been blessed with wealth, do we share it with those less blessed? If we have an abundance of food, do we distribute our surplus to the poor? Do we live selfish lives, or do we seek to bless others and help make their lives better? There’s nothing wrong with wealth, food, drink, or sex – so long as we use them the way God intended. God has given us instructions (Torah) that enable us to elevate the expression of our appetites to the level of the holy. After explaining all this to his readers, Solomon concludes with a note of judgment to come: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). 65
The apostle Paul also wrote of a time when even our most secret acts would be judged: “…on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Romans 2:16). Jesus as Judge At his first coming, Jesus did not come to judge the world. He said, “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very work which I spoke will condemn him at the last day” (John 12:47-48). He then went on to explain that he came with a message from God the Father. He preached it faithfully and accurately. Anyone who chooses to ignore it will be accountable to the Father (John 12:49-50). When it is the Father’s time, God will send Jesus back to the earth for a different purpose. John the Baptist explained it: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). The word “baptize” means immerse, as we learned earlier in this series. To be immersed in the Holy Spirit is not the same as being immersed in fire. The latter refers to the time when God will burn up the human chaff in the Lake of Fire, which is the second death (Revelation 20:14-15). Both Jesus and Paul referred often to this final judgment – a divine decision that will last for eternity. Jesus & Judgment On one occasion, Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath. Some of the leaders of the Jews viewed this as a violation of the Sabbath, though, of course, it was not. Then Jesus, referring to God, said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too, am working” (John 5:16, 17). In 66
calling God his “Father,” the Jews saw Jesus as “making himself equal with God” (verse 18b). In response, Jesus then spoke of his relationship with the Father, and of judgment to come: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:21-22). In other words, God will judge the world, but he will do it through Jesus Christ. Then Jesus elaborated on this coming judgment: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29). The apostle Paul was well aware of the coming judgment, and of Jesus’ role in it: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). For those who die “in Christ,” the resurrection will be good news. For those who reject him and persist in sin, it will not. The author of Hebrews wrote: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28). Jesus Christ is the key to the future of mankind. If man is to have a future, it will because of him. He will grant life to whom he is pleased to grant it. He will also condemn those who are unworthy of it. The grace of God, as we all experience it, will be distributed through the person of the glorified Jesus Christ. Because of his sacrifice, Jesus bought each one of us (I Corinthians 6:19-20). Our lives are no longer our own; they belong to Christ. We are his “bond slaves.” We are here to serve his purposes and to do his will. Paul wrote: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 67
Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to” (I Corinthians 7:23). If we have been called to Christ, and if we have accepted that call, been forgiven, justified and redeemed, been baptized, received the Holy Spirit, then we are the servants of Christ. We are responsible to God, not to any human master (Acts 5:29). Our lives are tied in a bundle with the life of Christ and we will not be condemned with the wicked in judgment. If we abandon our calling, and slip back into the “world” with its sins, then we have forfeited eternal life. In Hebrews we read: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:2627). Of course these verses are not talking about the fact that we all sin out of weakness, even after conversion. The apostle Paul wrestled daily with sin (Romans 7). Anyone who says he doesn’t sin is probably a selfdeluded liar (I John 1:8, 10). The point of the verse in Hebrews is to say that if we have been offered salvation through Christ, and we refuse it and persist in the old sinful way of life, there is no other solution to our sinfulness. We are yet “dead in our sins” (Ephesians 2:1). When it comes to salvation, Jesus Christ is the only game in town (Acts 4:12). How God applies the sacrifice of Christ to any given individual is his business. The point is: we are all accountable to God for how we spend our brief lives. In the end, he will call us to account for what we did, or failed to do, in this fleshly existence. As we live out our life cycles, we, like Jesus, must be “about our Father’s business.” As the bond slaves of Christ, we must seek to advance his cause anywhere, and any way, we can. We are not here to do our own will, but God’s (Matthew 6:10). We are here to advance the Kingdom (same verse). In an increasingly dangerous, anti-Christian world, that effort may eventually cost us our lives (II Timothy 3:12; John 16:1-2). Paul said, “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). 68
If we tie up our lives with Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for our sins, then we will have eternal life. John wrote: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (I John 5:11-12). For those who are in Christ, there is no fear of judgment to come. Now is our day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2). Spiritually speaking, it is our time to “clean up our acts.” In correcting the Corinthian congregation for the inappropriate way in which they were observing the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul wrote: “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world” (I Corinthians 11:31-32). The writer of Hebrews also spoke of this time of training and discipline: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’” (Hebrews 12:4-6, quoting Proverbs 3:11,12). Boot Camp for Eternity This present life, for Christians, is “Boot Camp for eternity.” We are under discipline. Judgment has begun at the Church which is the “house of God.” Peter wrote: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family [household – KJV] of God, and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (I Peter 4:1719). God does not want any one of his precious children to perish. He wants all of us to “lay hold on” eternal life (II Peter 3:9). The path to life runs through repentance. For each of us, there will come a time of 69
judgment. How we fare in that judgment depends upon how seriously we take our high calling in Christ. As we close this series the words of the apostle Peter seem appropriate: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (I Peter 1:17-22). It is not important to know the precise mechanics of the resurrection or the timing of God’s judgments. In the sleep of death, there is no consciousness (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The next thing we who are in Christ shall hear is the sound of a divine shofar (ram’s horn) signaling the resurrection (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). Pray that you are called to the resurrection of life. Live as though your life depended on it – it does. In the last chapter of the New Testament, Jesus, speaking in the first person, tells us: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:13-15). Then Jesus says, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (verse 16). As the next verse shows, those of us who are influenced by the Spirit of God will welcome the return of Jesus with great enthusiasm: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). 70
The “bride” is the Church. The Church, which is the body of Christ, longs for the return of Christ. We regularly pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” In the meantime, while we are waiting for our Lord to return, we preach the life-giving Gospel into a spiritually dead world. We disseminate hope into an otherwise hopeless culture (cf. Ephesians 2:12). We strive to overcome our own flesh, the noxious influence of the world around us, and the malevolent tempting of the devil. We accept the discipline of God’s “Boot Camp.” We strive to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord with whom we’ll spend eternity. We wrestle against spiritual forces of darkness which seek to destroy us and thereby thwart the divine redemptive plan (Ephesians 6:12). We resist all that Jesus resisted in his human lifetime, and though our flesh is weak, in him we have the victory. Summing Up Now you understand the “elementary teaching” about Christ and what it means to be a Christian. You have learned that the wages of sin is death, and that all of us have sinned. You have seen the need for repentance from “dead works.” You know that our trust, faith and confidence must be in, and toward, God. It is through faith and God’s grace that we are saved, not through our own efforts. You know that baptism represents a burial of the old, carnal, self. We arise from the waters of baptism to walk in newness of life. When those who have God’s Spirit lay hands on us, we too receive of that Spirit which is the empowering aspect of Deity (Acts 1:8). We have learned that this life is a time of judgment, discipline, learning, growing and overcoming for all believers in Jesus the Messiah. Our hope is in Christ, not in any man or woman, denomination, ideology, government or earthly power. Our citizenship is registered in heaven and we are children of the Kingdom. Though all of us are destined to die at least once, we live in hope of the resurrection, without which our faith would be in vain. We know also that there is coming a time of judgment during which all of us will have to account to God for how we spent the lives he gave us. 71
With these basics in place, we can now “go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).
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