Friday, February 26, 2010

Are all sins equally sinful?

I heard a minister teach that the Ten Commandments are numbered according to their importance, so that to break the first is more serious than breaking the second, and so on. Is this correct? Aren’t all sins equally sinful?

It is not true that all sins are equally sinful. This becomes apparent when we remember what Jesus said about blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matt 12:31-32)
The very fact that there is a sin that God will not forgive shows that not all sins are equally sinful. Blasphemy against the Son of Man (against Jesus), God will forgive—when there is due repentance. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…no.

Perhaps this is what the apostle John has in mind when he says,

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death (1 Jn. 5:16-17)
There are many differences of opinion as to what exactly John means by “sins leading to death”, but by the very circumstance that he categorizes sins as those leading to death, and those not leading to death, shows that not all sins are equally sinful.

We should also consider the fact that Jesus spoke of some matters of the law as being “weightier” (of more importance) than others.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Matt. 23:23)
In the law of Moses we see that God has assigned different penalties to different crimes, showing that he regards some crimes (sins) to be more serious than others.

The very fact that there are varying degrees of punishment also shows that there are varying degrees of sinfulness. Remember that Jesus said it would be “more tolerable” for the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for the Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, and more tolerable for Sodom than for Capernaum (Matt. 11:20-24). And the reason was this: these Jewish cities sinned against greater knowledge. They had Jesus in the midst. They heard his teaching and saw his miracles, and still they refused to repent. Their guilt was far greater than the guilt of these Gentile cities and so their punishment would be greater.

When we consider the nature of various sins, we can see that some sins are inherently more harmful and destructive, and therefore more serious than others. For instance, who can doubt that a violation of the sixth commandment is more harmful than a violation of the tenth? To commit murder is more serious and destructive than to covet your neighbor’s donkey. And a murderer will be more severely punished by God than a covetous man.

It is true that all sins are condemnable, and will be condemned by God. But it is not true that all sins are equally sinful.

We should point out, however, that as all sins are condemnable, they all must be atoned for if one is to be forgiven and find acceptance with God. To say that some sins are more serious than others is not to say that if one is only guilty of lesser sins he has no need of the grace and mercy of Christ. Every sinner, whether a squeaky clean one (by human standards) or a grossly wicked one stand in need of the salvation that only Christ can offer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is it always God's will to heal?

I recently have had some health issues. I heard a teaching the other day that encouraged me to find a scripture on healing, “claim” it, and if I had enough faith...God had to heal me...is this correct?

In a word, “No.” And I should add that this “name it and claim it” business is a very pernicious doctrine, and it’s based on some very questionable assumptions.

In the first place, these false teachers take passages of Scripture that speak about faith and prayer and they absolutize them. For example, they take Jesus’ words in Mark 11:23-24, in which he says,

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours…

These teachers take a passage like this and say, “See if you’re sick, and you pray in faith for healing—and praying in faith means that you believe you have received what you are asking for (not that you will receive it, but that you have received it)—if you pray in faith, you will be healed.”

These teachers will often take a passage like this and fail to qualify it with other passages of Scripture, some of which set forth various conditions to answered prayer, one of which is that we ask according to God’s will.

Now here, these teachers will say that it is always God’s will to heal. They have no Scriptural justification for sayings this, of course, but it doesn’t stop them from saying it. And why do they say it? Because they assume (falsely) that good health is a supreme good. Now, don’t get me wrong. We all want good health, and we all pursue good health, and we do well to pray for good health. But is it an ultimate good, such that everything else must be subordinate to it? Is it not possible that sickness might serve some other and even higher purpose?

The truth is, God is far more interested in our sanctification than in our comfort. And he sometimes uses trials of various sorts, including illness, as a means of sanctifying us—causing us to grow in grace—bringing us closer to himself and into a relationship of greater dependence upon him.

Not only so, but think about this: what if God wishes to use my patient endurance of affliction, perhaps an illness, as a means of leading others to Christ? Should I grumble and complain? How many of God’s choicest saints have demonstrated a patient and joyful spirit in the midst of their afflictions which has led unbelievers to inquire about their faith!

By all means, when we are ill, especially with some serious condition, we ought to pray and ask the Lord to heal us, as we ought to pray for loved ones when they are ill. But we should always say, “Lord, if it be Thy will.” Now, these teachers often say that if we say this—if we add to the end of our prayers, “If it be Thy will”—that this demonstrates a lack of faith. Believe it or not, this is what many of these false teachers say! I have never understood how they can say this. It seems to me that this is the most faith-filled prayer we could ever possibly pray. When we say “If it by Thy will” when we are asking something from God in prayer, we are saying, “Lord, I don’t know everything like you do. I don’t always know what’s in my best interest, or what will best serve your grand purpose. But I trust you. I trust your goodness and I trust your wisdom. I would like to be healed. I would like to be free from this illness. But Lord, you know best. So do whatever seems good to you.”

The Lord sometimes heals—sometimes through medical means and sometimes through a miracle. And we are always grateful through whatever means he is pleased to work. But if our conditions worsens rather than improves, we simply continue to entrust ourselves to him as our faithful God and Father. And we know that we have a new body waiting for us at the resurrection when Christ comes again. In that sense, yes, it is God’s will that all his people be healed. But for the time being we live in a fallen world, with a fallen body that is subject to sin, sickness, and death.

If you are sick, by all means pray for healing. And call for the elders of the church to pray for you. If God chooses to heal you, rejoice! If not, trust that he will give you the grace to endure.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Who is "the beast"?

Do you think the figure called “the beast” in the 13th chapter of Revelation is alive today?

Actually, no, I don’t. And I know that by saying so I disagree with a large number of very popular Bible teachers. The beast, as I hope to show, was a first century figure. The book of Revelation itself demands that we look for a figure in the first century, because there are numerous “time-texts” that indicate the prophecies of the book were to be fulfilled soon after they were first given.

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to he servants the things that must soon take place (1:1)

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (1:3)

And there are several other passages that indicate same thing—that the prophecies of the book were to be fulfilled soon after they were given. I don’t think we can do justice to the integrity of the book if we say that the prophecies have not yet, two-thousand years later, been fulfilled.

All the lines of evidence point to the Roman Empire itself, especially personified in the emperor reigning at the time when Revelation was written, one of the most infamous tyrants of history, Nero (r. A.D. 54-68). The manner in which the beast is described perfectly accords with what we know of Nero and the Roman Empire in the first century.

We don’t have the time to give anything like a detailed exegesis of the passage, but let me just mention a couple of things.

In verse one the beast is described as having “ten horns and seven heads”. Later in the book, the ten horns are further described as ten kings who hand over their power and authority to the beast” (17:13). This is probably a reference to the ten imperial provinces of the Roman Empire, each of which had a governor directly accountable to the emperor.

The seven heads are explained in 17:9, as seven mountains. Interestingly, Rome was built on seven mountains, and numerous writers, both Christian and pagan, refer to Rome as the seven-hilled city. So this description of the beast as having ten horns and seven heads fits the Roman Empire, which at the time of John’s writing Revelation was ruled by Nero.

It is interesting to note that a pagan writer by the name of Appolonius of Tyana, who was a contemporary of Nero, described him in remarkably similar terms as the book of Revelation, calling him a “Tyrant,” and a “beast” with “many heads”.

If ever there was a man deserving to be called a beast, it was Nero. Ancient Roman historians describe in detail his many crimes and horrible moral perversions, things too shameful even to mention. He also claimed to be a god and insisted he be worshipped as such, which comes out Revelation, as well. Furthermore, he set fire to Rome and blamed the Christians, whom he persecuted relentlessly.

In verse 3 John tells us, One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. This refers to the death of Nero, and with his death the near collapse of the Empire through the civil wars that followed. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian line of emperors, the founding dynasty of the Roman Empire. The ancient historians of the time—Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius—all spoke of how the empire nearly collapsed with the death of Nero. His death resulted in a year and a half of civil strife that saw three emperors rise and fall until Vespasian came to the throne. Observers everywhere thought it was the end of the empire. But through Vespasian’s strong and wise rule, the empire continued. It was very much like a deadly wound that had been healed.

We are also told that the beast was given authority to make war against the saints for forty-two months. Nero’s infamous persecution of Christians began in the middle of November A.D. 64 and ended with his suicide in the beginning of June A.D. 68—42 months, just as Revelation had foretold!

It also says that everyone will worship the beast—that is, the emperor—and that a second beast, would enforce the worship of the beast. This is a reference to the imperial cult of emperor worship led by the imperial priesthood that required everyone to recognize the divinity of the emperor.

In verse 14 it speaks of an image of the beast. This refers to the images or likenesses of the reigning emperor placed in temples throughout the empire to be worshipped by the faithful subjects of Rome.

In verses 16-18 John says everyone is caused to have a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and that no one should be able to buy or sell except he has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name, the number being 666. The letters of many ancient alphabets, including both Hebrew and Greek also represented numbers. Consequently, names could be reduced to their numerical equivalent by adding up the mathematical value of all the letters in the name.

The beast is a man whose name has the numerical equivalent of 666. And a matter of fact, the Greek form of Nero’s name transliterated into the Hebrew adds up to the dreaded number.

All the lines of evidence for the identity of the beast converge upon Nero. He lived within the time frame which Revelation imposes; his character fits the portrait painted for us in the text; his activity in persecuting the saints for forty-two months corresponds to what Scripture says the beast would do; and the number of his name is 666.

We need not look, then, for some modern figure to fulfill the prophecy of Revelation 13. The prophecy has already been fulfilled in Nero.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What about the polygamy of the Patriarchs?

Question: In the Old Testament, we read that many men had multiple wives and even concubines. Why was this allowed then, but is sin now? And why was having concubines not adultery (since they were not actually wives)?

Answer: The Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth, the Puritan statesman, Oliver Cromwell, insisted that when a portrait was made of him, his face be painted “warts and all.” Likewise, when the Bible narrates the history of the patriarchs, it mentions both their virtues and their vices. Scripture does not shy away from recording the shortcomings of God’s people. The Bible is refreshingly honest in this respect. The failings of even the choicest of God’s saints are recorded for all to see: Eli’s failure as a father (1 Sam. 3:13; cf. 2:12-17, 27-34); David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11); Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt. 26:69-75); etc.

One of the prominent shortcomings of some of the patriarchs was the sin (yes, sin) of polygamy. Some people have mistakenly assumed that what the Bible records concerning the lives of the patriarchs, it approves. But there is a big difference between merely recording the fact that a Bible character acted in a given way, and approving of his acting in that way. The fact that many men in the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines does not mean that it was right for them to do so. The Bible is simply being honest about their misdeeds. It doesn’t attempt to whitewash their wrongdoing, simply because they belonged to God.

It is true that several otherwise godly men practiced polygamy—Abraham, Jacob, and David, for example. But this is not true of all. Noah, Isaac, and Moses each had one wife.

Neither polygamy nor its cousin concubinary, were ever a part of God’s original intention for marriage. Every indication suggests just the opposite.

At creation God made one man for one woman; and ever since there has been nearly an equal number of men and women who come to marriageable age.

Second, polygamy is first mentioned in Genesis 4:19 as something out of the ordinary. It apparently originated with a man by the name of Lamech, from the ungodly line of Cain.

Third, when God flooded the world, he spared righteous Noah who, along with his three sons, each had only one wife—suggesting that they strictly observed creation law with respect to marriage.

Fourth, God explicitly forbade the kings of Israel from multiplying wives in Deuteronomy 17:17, a law that obviously applied to all the men of Israel.

Fifth, in the Laws authorizing and protecting marriage, monogamy is consistently assumed.

Those of God’s saints who took more than one wife (or took a concubine) did so for different reasons. Abraham took a concubine because Sarah his wife was barren. This was a common way to deal with a wife’s infertility, and Abraham only did so at Sarah’s insistence.

Jacob took a second wife because unbeknownst to him, the woman he intended to marry was withheld from him, and her sister was secretly substituted in her place. The wedding took place at night and she was heavily veiled, and he may have been a bit tipsy, and he didn’t know that it was Leah instead of Rachel until the next morning. What could he do? He had already slept with her before he found out it was not who he had bargained for. Given the opinions of the day, no other man would now marry her. He tried to do right by her. He tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Under the Law of Moses God sanctioned the taking of a second wife, only under one condition, and that was the case of a man whose married brother died childless. In this case, he was to marry his brother’s widow in order to have children by her for his brother’s sake, so that his brother’s name would not be extinguished. This was called Levirate marriage.

David clearly was in the wrong by taking more than one wife, when there were no extenuating circumstances that might otherwise mitigate his guilt for doing so (as in the case of Abraham or of Jacob; or in the case of Levirate marriage).

Solomon, of course, was certainly over the top: 700 wives and 300 concubines. Most of these unions were probably contracted for political purposes, as a way of cementing relations with the kings of other nations, as was customary; but he was clearly in the wrong for making use of this custom.

We read of a number of other men in the OT who practiced polygamy, as well. But it was never God’s intention in creating the institution of marriage that a man have more than one wife (or that a woman have more than one husband). This is a blot on the character of some of the OT saints, a blot we wish was not there, and shows how even good men can fall into grievous sins, demonstrating our need of humility and constant prayer to God for grace to live godly lives.

It would perhaps be appropriate at this point to quote Robert Lewis Dabney. He made an insightful comparison that puts the polygamy of the patriarchs in perspective. He said,

“The man who, misled by the opinion of his day, entered into a regular marriage with a second and a third wife, during the life of the first, was wrong. But he was less wrong than the fornicator and far less guilty than the adulterer of our day. He, at least, attempted to extend to the accomplices of his sin all the protection and permanent rights of a wife, a home, a subsistence, a reputable social status. He aimed to confer upon the progeny of these wives all the rights of legitimacy, a regular home, an education, a name and an inheritance. He acted with a misguided humanity and justice, compared with which the customary conduct of the modern adulterer appears a monstrous inhumanity; for he leaves the accomplice of his illicit desires, often without a home or subsistence and always without any legalized title to them, without name and without character. He visits, too, the same curse upon his innocent progeny” (R.L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy, [Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications (1897)1984], p. 358).

Why the change from Saturday to Sunday?

If the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, why do we keep the first day?

This is a very good question. We wish to be faithful and obedient to God, and if God has said in the Ten Commandments that we are to keep the seventh day holy, why do Christians generally keep the first day (Sunday) rather than the seventh day (Saturday)?

A good place to start is with what Paul wrote to the Colossians. Paul said that the people who were trying to force the Gentiles to keep the yearly festivals, and the monthly festivals, and the weekly festivals (the Sabbath) were wrong. He said, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink [i.e., the Levitical kosher laws], or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” And then he explains why, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17). The elements of the Jewish Sabbath (like the other ritual laws of the OT) are no longer binding, except in so far as Jesus has brought them forward into what we call the Lord’s Day, which we observe on Sunday.

Now what is the basis for this? Let me preface my remarks by saying this: Those who think we must have an explicit passage of the Bible for everything we believe or practice, are not going to be convinced by what I say. But then again, those who think they must have an explicit passage of the Bible for everything are already being inconsistent if they believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, because there is no explicit passage that teaches it. The doctrine of the Trinity is a conclusion arrived at by way of harmonizing all the different passages that speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Those who believe they must have an explicit passage are also being inconsistent if they believe women should come to the Lord’s Table and receive communion, because there is no explicit passage that teaches it. When Jesus instituted the Supper there were only men present. And there is no subsequent (explicit) mention of women receiving it. But what do we do? We reason from what the Scriptures teach concerning the status of women in the church and conclude (properly) that women should be admitted to the Lord’s Table.

The church has done the same sort of thing with regard to the Sabbath. There is no explicit passage in the NT where either Jesus or one of the apostles said, “Now keep the first day of the week instead of the seventh.” Instead, what we have are a number of examples of apostolic practice and some theological reflection.

Consider the following:

1.) Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples on the first day of the week, that is, on Sunday (Matt. 28:1f; Mk. 16:1, 2f; Lk. 24:1f; Jn. 20:1f).

2.) Jesus’ second appearance to the gathered apostles was on the following Sunday (Jn. 20:26). It would seem that Jesus intended to hallow (sanctify) the first day of week, and to foreshadow his continuing presence in the corporate gatherings of the church.

3.) In 1 Cor. 16:2, Paul says, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” This comes as close to a command that we get. “Do this,” Paul said, “take up the offering on the first day of the week.” How could they do this unless they were meeting on the first day?

4.) In Acts 20:7 we find the church gathered on the first day (Sunday). It had already reached a place of normalcy. It was their regular practice.

5.) In Rev. 1:10 John speaks of being in the Spirit “on the Lord’s Day.” We should take note of this phrase, “the Lord’s day.” We are not told in Scripture what day of the week this is, but we do know from Church history that this phrase was used to designate Sunday. This suggests that this is how the word is to be understood here. But what is the purpose of calling Sunday “the Lord’s day,” unless Sunday was regarded as a special day among Christians. And why would Sunday be regarded as special among Christians unless it was because it was the day set aside for worship?

When it’s all said and done, what we find is that the old Sabbath, the seventh day, which was given to commemorate the creation of the old world, is replaced by the new Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, to commemorate the new creation--the new world order that was ushered in by the resurrection of Christ. The ritual elements of the old Sabbath are shorn away and they are replaced by the celebration of the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death.