Better Bible Study Tip #73: Never Base an Interpretation on a Presumed Truth

Far too often, people will presume their beliefs are true, and that they are taught in the Bible, instead of letting God’s word dictate what their beliefs should be.

For example, you’ve probably heard about the three wise men who came to visit at Jesus’s birth. This idea of three wise men is readily accepted by so many people. We see it displayed in nativity scenes, Christmas cards, Christmas specials, and even in Christmas carols (“We Three Kings of Orient Are…”).

But the idea of “three” wise men is nowhere in the Bible. Yes, the wise men brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but the Bible never specifies how many wise men there were. We imagine that the Bible says there were three wise men, but our imagination about the text is based on what we presume the Bible teaches.

Using one’s imagination as a means of interpreting the Bible is not a good method of Bible study. It lacks the necessary limitations to prevent flawed interpretations. To illustrate further, consider this passage:

And he [King Jotham] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD according to all that his father Uzziah had done, except he did not enter the temple of the LORD.

2 Chronicles 27:2

Let’s suppose we want to teach a lesson on why church attendance is important. We stumble across this verse, and we think “King Jotham was a good king, except for one thing. He didn’t go to the temple!” This passage seems to support our idea, and so we use it in our lesson. Just because King Uzziah was a good king who went to the temple every week, that doesn’t mean his son would continue the practice. Tragically, our young people make this same mistake when they don’t go to church like their parents did. Good lesson, right?

Certainly there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to assemble with the church each week, but the interpretation of the above verse is totally wrong. Why? Because it is based on a presumed truth.

If we had taken a step back from our presumption about the meaning of the text, and studied the surrounding context (2 Chron. 26:16-23), we would learn that King Uzziah was a good king, except that he entered the temple to burn incense on the altar of incense. This is something only the priest was allowed to do. As a result of his disobedient worship, King Uzziah was struck with leprosy until the day he died.

When the passage says that King Jotham “did not enter the temple of the Lord”, it means that he did not repeat the mistake of his father by entering the temple to worship in a way that was contrary to God’s will. Because we assumed we knew what the text meant, we missed a very important lesson about the importance of worshiping God only in those ways which he has commanded.

Some mistakes, such as assuming there were three wise men, may be of very little consequence. But this habit of assuming we know what the Bible is trying to say can end up leading to some dangerous and divisive teachings.

When we base our interpretation of the Bible on presumed truths, we risk distorting the meaning of Scripture to fit our own personal cleverness. We run the risk of minimizing or ignoring passages that don’t fit what we think the Bible teaches. We struggle to understand those verses that don’t fit our preconceived beliefs. When our belief isn’t clearly communicated in a particular passage, it’s easier to just give up, and let trusted commentators or preachers explain those “difficult” passages to us in a way that affirms our beliefs.

We must remember that every passage in the Bible is there for a reason. If it seems confusing because it doesn’t sound like it teaches what we think it should teach, we first need to examine our own assumptions. If we really want to do better Bible study, we need to let God’s word be what it is, study it in context, and discover it’s true and intended meaning. We must submit our beliefs to the word of God rather than making the word of God submit to our beliefs.

Christianity and Economics, Part 10: Were the First Christians Socialists?

Click here to read other articles in the Christianity and Economics series.

There are numerous economic problems with socialism, as was argued in part 9 of this series. Because of the incentive problem, the knowledge problem, and the economic calculation problem, socialism will always fail to live up to it’s promise to provide a more abundant life.

But some will defend socialism or socialistic economic policies because of Christian ethics. Advocates for socialism are often driven by attitudes of goodness, generosity, a willingness to share, gentleness, and compassion. Since Jesus taught his disciples to act charitably towards the poor and oppressed, it is argued that Christians should advocate for socialist economic policies. Even if an economic case were made to show that socialism fails to increase wealth, Christians must be willing to sacrifice wealth for the sake of others. After all, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3; Mt. 4:4).

Two passages are often pointed to as a scriptural foundation for socialism, both of which describe the early church in Jerusalem.

And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

Acts 2:44-45

Two chapters later we read of what appears to be a communal pooling and sharing of resources in the early church.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 4:32-37

The Ethical Problem with Socialism

The primary ethical problem with socialism is that it violates God’s prohibitions against theft. As was discussed in detail in Part 5, the commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:11) means that people do not have the right to take other people’s property.

What’s more, the Bible teaches that rulers are not free to establish their own standards of right and wrong. They are bound by the same moral laws as everyone else. Kings are expected to act justly. This means they cannot exact gifts or tributes.

By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.

Proverbs 29:4

Jeremiah emphasized the moral obligation of rulers to act justly. Their position of authority in no way permitted them to steal or murder.

Thus says the LORD: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”

Jeremiah 22:3

Psalm 2 warns kings not to cast off God’s authority over their lives, but rather to submit to God’s anointed King.

Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2:12

If is for this reason that kings are not permitted to commit murder or theft.

One example that illustrates this truth is the account of King Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. Ahab committed both theft and murder, specifically in the case of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). When Ahab desired Naboth’s vineyard and offered to buy it, Naboth refused. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, then orchestrated a false accusation against Naboth resulting in his stoning. As soon as Ahab learned of Naboth’s death, he immediately claimed the vineyard as his own. In response, God, through the prophet Elijah, condemned Ahab for his actions.

I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD. Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.

1 Kings 21:20b-21

This account serves as a clear reminder that rulers are accountable to God for their actions and are expected to abide by the same moral laws as every other human being. It is for this reason that socialism is not an option for the Christian. The prohibition against theft disallows for any sort of state-mandated socialism. Since people are not permitted to take the property of others, the state has not moral right to collectivize other people’s property.

The Voluntary Nature of Christianity

What then should we make of the two passages from Acts previously quoted? Clearly, those early Christians were engaged in the voluntary sharing of their possessions. Their property was not confiscated by either the governing authorities or the church leaders.

The text is clear that Ananias and Sapphira were not punished for owning property which they refused to contribute to the church community. They were struck down for lying about it. Peter even points our that they did not have to lie, because it was their property to start with. It could have remained unsold if they had chosen.

While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? After it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it then that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God. – Acts 5:4

Acts 5:4

The ethical problem with socialism does not lie in the distribution of goods, but in the forcible redistribution of goods. The state is not a god, capable of distributing goods it creates out of nothing. It must first seize ownership of land, labor, and/or goods from others. The state cannot give to one person what it does not first take from someone else.

We must not confuse sharing and generosity with socialism or socialistic policies. Sharing is voluntary. Socialism is not. Sharing expresses love. Socialism does not. Sharing is self-sacrificial. Socialism sacrifices others against their will. Sharing is Christ-like. Socialism is not.

Although the early church is a wonderful example of sharing, it offers no justification for socialism or socialistic practices. Regardless of the motives of those who push for socialistic reforms, socialism violates the economic laws which God built into creation, and it is thus doomed to result in waste, poverty, and strife (Part 9). Although socialism can sometimes help some people, it can only do so by taking from others. For this reason, socialism is an ethical evil which should find no support from those who honor God’s law.

Better Bible Study Tip #72: The Bible Won’t Answer Every Question, and That’s Okay

The Bible will not answer every question that might come into our minds.

For example, when we read about Cain and Able (Gen. 3:1-6), the text never explicitly states why God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Here’s what it says:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstfruit of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Genesis 4:3-5

Why didn’t God accept Cain’s offering? That’s a pretty obvious question to ask. Did God dislike vegetables? Did he have something against Cain personally? Did Cain do something disobedient in his worship? Maybe Cain didn’t offer God his very best? Or maybe there is some other reason? We can guess all day long, but the Bible simply does not answer that question (at least not right here in Genesis).

This is the kind of stuff that can make Bible study frustrating. It may even seem to us that the text isn’t written very well. How could Moses leave our such an important detail?

But what if God knew exactly what he was doing when he gave us the text written just as it is? What if the text is inspired to give us the few details we are given, and also inspired to leave out other details we might be curious about?

Notice what the lack of detail does for us as we read the text. It makes us stop and think, doesn’t it? It’s kind of like Obi Wan training Luke in using the force. In order to help Luke learn the force, he had to blind fold him. “Seeing” too much was causing him to miss the more important stuff, that is, the force (No, I’m not teaching you to accept the Jedi religion. It’s an just illustration. That’s all.)

By not giving us “why” Cain’s offering was rejected, now we can see the story from Cain’s point of view. He doesn’t get it either. Why isn’t God accepting the offering? What did Cain do wrong? By not giving us the answer we hoped to find, the Bible actually draws us into Cain’s frustration. It is then, that we read God’s response to Cain.

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.

Genesis 4:6-7

In short God tells Cain to be careful. Yes, Cain was angry. We can understand why. But God hadn’t given up on Cain. If Cain would do well, he would still be accepted. But if not, Sin was crouching at the door, waiting to pounce.

Now notice what the story does to us as a reader. Are we always going to understand why certain things happen? No. Are we always going to understand why God does certain things? No. Might we feel disappointed and angry at times? Yes. But still, we can choose to do good. If not, sin is crouching at the door. When we read the story the way it was written, God’s warning to Cain becomes a warning to us, the reader.

We could just read the story and get frustrated because it doesn’t answer all of our questions. We could just say, “okay, let’s find a quick life application and move on.”

Or we could read it. Ponder it. Wrestle with it. Ask the hard questions (Tip #1). Think carefully and deeply about it. Pay close attention to every inspired detail we are given. Go for a walk. Talk about it with Christian friends. Come back to the text, and then read it again.

The Bible has a word for this kind of Bible study. It’s called “meditation.” That’s how the Bible is designed to be studied.

His delight is in the law of the LORD,
and he meditates on it day and night.

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1:2-3

The Bible won’t answer every question you have. That’s okay. Keep studying. Keep mediating. You may not ever find the answer to every question you have, but by mediating on His word, you will be blessed.

The Spirit and Miraculous Gifts

This article is the 19th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read other articles in this series, click here.

There is a often disconnect between the way the New Testament speaks about the Spirit and how the church speaks about the Spirit today. In the New Testament there is a major emphasis on the importance of applying the teachings and example of Christ to our lives (see Part 18). Today discussions about the Holy Spirit tend to focus on questions and debates about miracles.

When the Spirit was initially poured out, this was often accompanied by miraculous signs. These wonders served an important role. They signified that the Spirit had indeed been poured out in fulfillment of Old Testament promises (see Part 11).

Some of the Corinthians had been given miraculous spiritual gifts, but they had completely missed the point of these gifts. Instead of using the ability to speak in tongues to build up the church, Paul compared their noise to that of a “lifeless instrument” (1 Cor. 14:7). What was intended to be used as a sign for unbelievers (14:22) had become an occasion for mockery (14:23).

Into this situation, Paul introduces Christ-like love as the key rule by which spiritual gifts were to be exercised.

If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:1-7

Without love, miraculous spiritual gifts are worthless (13:1-3). Love does not insist on getting its own way, but is patient and kind towards others (13:4-5). So it is with the exercise of miraculous spiritual gifts.  Spiritual gifts were not to be used to build up the individuals who practiced them, but rather to build up the church (14:1-5). The Corinthians were in need of a shift in how they thought about the Spirit.

Imitators of Christ

Paul’s emphasis on love stems from his encouragement for the Corinthians to mimic his example as he follows Christ.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1

When Paul mentions “Christ,” he specifically has in mind “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11:1 serves as the conclusion of his reply to the Corinthians regarding the question of eating meat offered to idols (8:1-11:1). Paul began this section of his letter by contrasting knowledge and love.

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.

1 Corinthians 8:1

In the middle of this section, Paul presents himself as an example of relinquishing his own “rights” (9:4, 5, 6, 12, 18), and keeping his body “under control” (9:27), for the sake of benefiting others. He summarizes his own example as that of seeking the advantage of others before himself.

I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1 Corinthians 10:33

That is what Paul means when he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” which is the very next verse.

Love as a Work of the Spirit

As has been seen throughout the rest of the New Testament, Paul identifies the work of the Spirit as this kind of Christ-like love. First, Paul identified Christ as “him crucified” (2:2). Second, Paul urges people to be imitators of the crucified Christ by following his example as one who denies his own interests for the sake of others (11:1). Then, Paul defines love as patience, kindness, loving the truth, forbearance, belief, hope, and endurance, and as opposed to boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, self-seeking, irritability, resentfulness, and wrongdoing (13:4-6). These contrasting characteristics are remarkably similar to the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:19-23 (see Part 16).

By placing the “love chapter” (1 Cor. 13) right in the middle of his discussion of the miraculous spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), Paul establishes self-sacrificial, Christ imitating love as the governing rule by which the Corinthians were to rightly use their spiritual gifts.

The Temporary Nature of Miraculous Spiritual Gifts

In the context of this argument, Paul emphasizes the significance of Christ-like love in contrast to the temporary nature of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.

Love never ends. As for prophesies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

Paul emphasizes that while spiritual gifts will cease, love never fails. Love will continue to be relevant long after the temporary gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous knowledge pass away.

Paul uses three images to describe the temporary nature of miraculous spiritual gifts.

The first image is that of a child growing into maturity (v. 11). Paul viewed prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous knowledge as child’s play for the church. Paul urged the Corinthians to move on to the grown-up stuff, namely, Christ-like love, which would carry on into the maturity of the church. Even if it could be proved that the Spirit continues to give miraculous spiritual gifts today, this would prove nothing except that the church continues to exhibit the maturity of a child.

The second image is that of a mirror. In the first century, mirrors did not present a clear reflection as most mirrors do today. There were often blurry and misshaped, resulting in an imperfect reflection. This is how Paul viewed miraculous spiritual gifts. Yes, they served an important role, through which they communicated something important about God’s plan, namely that the promises of the Spirit had been fulfilled. But Paul saw that they day was coming when we would see God’s plan face to face rather than looking in mirrors. Just as mirrors are unnecessary when we can see face to face, so Paul saw the day approaching when miraculous gifts would be unnecessary.

Then Paul says the same thing in a third way. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” The miraculous spiritual gifts did serve to communicate important knowledge, but the knowledge they communicated was incomplete in nature. Once the completed knowledge is present, the partial knowledge that results from miraculous prophecy and speaking in tongues would be unnecessary.

A Change of Focus

This passage served to direct the Corinthian’s attention away from the pursuit of miraculous spiritual gifts to the imitation of Christ’s love, which is itself a work of the Spirit. Paul wanted the Corinthians to think about the work of the Spirit beyond the miraculous experiences of those in the first century. The fact that love is more enduring made it all the more important for them to prioritize love in the center of their loves in the present.

Unfortunately, many today continue to be infatuated with talking about the Holy Spirit primarily in terms of miraculous gifts, speaking in tongues, and modern-day prophecy. To such, I believe Paul would point to his discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and say, “I will show you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b).

The Mind of Christ

This article is the 18th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. Click here for links to all the articles in this series.

According to Romans 8, it is only those who set their minds on the things of the Spirit who can please God (8:5-8). It is the Spirit who gives Christians the hope of resurrection (Part 15) and relates them to God as children and heirs with Christ (8:9-17). In this passage, Paul briefly, but explicitly, emphasizes that this hope is directly connected to the cross (Part 17). The Holy Spirit relates us to God as children only if we are willing to put to death the deeds of the body (8:13) and suffer with Christ (8:17).

The connection between the Spirit and the cross, mentioned only briefly in Romans 8, is emphasized continually throughout the entire New Testament. Recognizing this connection is critical if we are to rightly understand and apply the New Testament’s teachings about the Holy Spirit.

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

The key question Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatians is this: Who is Israel? Who are those who are to be recognized as God’s true people? The Spirit and the cross are at the very core of Paul’s answer to this question. Throughout the letter, Paul emphasizes that God’s people are not identified by their fleshly characteristics. Israel is not defined as those who are circumcised as Jews, but as those who are in Christ.

But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean for our identity to be “in Christ”? Paul sums up his argument in a great climatic statement found in Galatians 2:20.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

Although Paul does not yet mention the Spirit by name, he does speak of the indwelling of Christ – “Christ lives in me.” Even more specifically, Paul speaks of Christ in terms of his self-sacrificial love. Christ, who lives in him, is the Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me.”

According to Paul, to be “in Christ” means that Christ is “in” them, so that what is true of Christ is true of them. It would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that a person in whom the crucified Christ lives would themselves be a person characterized by the same kind of self-sacrificial love we see in Christ.

But rather than stating this conclusion quite so explicitly, Paul develops this conclusion by discussing the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit of the Crucified Son

Following the discussion of Christ’s self-sacrificial love, Paul’s co-crucifixion with him, and Christ living “in” him, Paul immediately reminds the Galatians that they too had received the Spirit.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

Galatians 3:1-5

Paul says that the Galatians had “received” and “begun by” the Spirit, a reference to the time of their initiation into Christ. Moreover, Paul says that their conversion was in response to the message about Christ’s crucifixion. “It was before your eyes that Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”

Once again, the Spirit is inseparable from what we see in Christ on the cross. It was initially the preaching of the cross that led to the Galatians reception of the Spirit. Moreover, Paul goes on to specifically identify the Spirit as “The Spirit of his Son.”

But when the fulness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father!”

Galatians 4:4-6

Just as Paul was “crucified with Christ,” and now had Christ living “in” him, so too when the Galatians responded to the message about the crucifixion, they too received the Spirit of God’s Son who was sent into their hearts at the time of their conversion.

A Spirit of Self-Sacrificial Love

Both Paul and the Galatians had received the Spirit of God’s Son at the time of their co-crucifixion with him (i.e. baptism, Gal 3:27). Paul goes on to describe walking in the Spirit as a life of self-sacrificial, Christ-like, crucifixion-style, love and faithfulness.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Galatians 5:6

Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Galatians 5:13b

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is not law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Galatians 5:22-24

In other words, the past act of Christ’s faithful obedience and love, namely his crucifixion, is applied to the lives of those who are “in Christ” through the Spirit as they live with that same kind of faithful obedience and love (and joy, peace, kindness, etc).

The Mind of Christ

As was observed at the beginning of this study (Part 1), the word “Spirit” was always closely connected to a person’s words, or thoughts, or mindset. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is described as a very particular mindset, namely that of Christ on the cross. This is emphasized not only in Romans and Galatians, but throughout the entire New Testament.

For example, in Ephesians Paul stresses the importance of maintaining the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). Paul then urges the Ephesians to be “renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Eph. 4:24). That means putting away things like lying, anger, theft, and corrupt talk (Eph. 4:25-29), which according to Paul would “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Eph. 4:30). Instead, Paul urges the Ephesians to mimic the example of Christ, or more specifically, the example Christ on the cross.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:32-5:2

Similarly when Paul reminded the Philippians of their “participation in the Spirit” (Phil. 2:1), he had something very particular in mind. It wasn’t the idea of following a still small voice in your heart. Nor did he reduce it down to simply following the Spirit-inspired scriptures. Paul reminded Christians to remember their participation in the Spirit so that they would maintain a particular Christ-like mindset.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:1-8

This was not just Paul’s viewpoint either. John also viewed the presence of God’s Spirit as the imitation of God’s love.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us His Spirit… So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

1 John 4:13, 16

By “love” John specifically had in mind the kind of love we see in Christ on the cross.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

1 John 3:16

The True Church

How then do we recognize the true people of God? The question is as relevant today as it was when Paul wrote Galatians. When all is said and done, this question can only be answered by going to the cross.

Not only was Christ crucified, but when Christians were baptized, they were put to death with him (Rom. 6:1-4). But this co-crucifixion did not end in baptism. Baptism was only the beginning. The whole world, with it’s fleshly passions and desires, must be crucified to the Christian, and the Christian must be crucified to the world (Gal 5:24; 6:14-16). When we live in this crucified way, we can say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

This then, is at the very heart of the New Testament’s teaching about the Spirit. Christ’s church is not defined by their fleshly identity. They are recognized as such because they have been crucified with Christ. The cross is the dividing line between the Christ’s church and the world.  So it was in the first century, and so it is today. That is why Christians must keep in step with the Spirit.

Better Bible Study Tip #71: The Bible Had Editors, and That’s Okay

There was a time when the idea of someone “editing” the Bible really bothered me. I was taught that it was wrong to add to or take away from the Bible (cf. Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18-19). After all, the Bible is God’s word, and God’s word is perfect (cf. Ps. 19:7). It doesn’t need editing, and it would be wrong to do so.

I still believe that. It is for that reason that I am convinced that it is important to take God’s word as it is, not as we wish it was (see Tip #66: Don’t Second Guess God’s Choice in Inspiration). With that in mind, consider what we read in the first four verses of Ezekiel.

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there.

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal.

Ezekiel 1:1-4 (emphasis added)

The first verse uses the first person, “I was among” and “I saw.” This gives us the impression that Ezekiel is writing about himself. But then it switches to the third person. “The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel” and “the hand of the Lord was upon him there.” Then in verse four, it switches back to first person, “As I looked.”

I suppose it’s possible that Ezekiel just liked to talk about himself in the third person. But when the text switches to the third person, it certainly gives the impression that someone else other than Ezekiel is speaking, that is, an anonymous author who took Ezekiel’s first person account and wove it together into the book we now know as Ezekiel. That’s a not a theory that arises from doubting God’s inspiration, but from wresting with the impression given by the inspired words given in the Bible.

Even if the Bible had editors, that doesn’t make it any less inspired. God inspired many books with anonymous authorship (Tip # 69) and God could have easily inspired the words of the editors themselves. In fact, the book of Jeremiah gives us a glimpse of how editing was part of the process by which we ended up with the book as the final product we have today.

Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, who wrote on it at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them.

Jeremiah 36:33 (emphasis added)

God had Jeremiah write out a second version of the prophetic words he had already written down once before. But when they were dictated the second time, similar words were added to them. This wasn’t the same thing as “adding to” God’s word. It was simply part of the process by which God used Jeremiah and Baruch to produce the book of Jeremiah just as He wanted it to be in it’s final completed version.

Recognizing the existence of inspired editors is important because it enables us to avoid unnecessary confusion, and even false teaching that arises from those who haven’t considered this point.

Imagine if John, upon completing his account of the gospel, sends out multiple copies to various churches. In the copy he sends to Peter, he asks for feedback. “Is it all accurate? Did I leave out anything important?” Now imagine Peter responds to John and says, “I really think your book looks great, but I think you should consider including an account of the woman caught in adultery.” John, after receiving Peter’s feedback decides, “Yes, that was an important event. I better add it in.” But in the meantime, multiple copies of an earlier draft, without the woman caught in adultery, were already in circulation. So what happens? We end up with manuscripts with different versions of the book of John (as can be seen in your Bible’s footnotes on John 7:53-8:11).

As skeptic might look at the fact that we have differences between manuscripts as an opportunity to attack the reliability of the Bible. But if we realize that inspired scripture likely went through multiple inspired revisions, resulting in the possibility of multiple inspired versions which could have circulated at the same time, the skeptic’s attack is exposed as powerless.

Likewise, just because the book of Deuteronomy records the death of Moses (Deut. 34 was clearly written by someone other than Moses), this is no reason dismiss the Mosaic authorship of the law. We can trust that Moses received God’s Law at Sanai (Ex. 19), and what he wrote down (Ex. 24:4) is the essentially the same law we can read today. The fact that in inspired editor collected Moses’s law into the final forms of Genesis-Deuteronomy is no reason to reject the books as inauthentic in their origin.

No, we should not add to, take away from, or otherwise edit God’s word today. What we have now is the completed product. But since we take the Bible as it is, and the Bible presents itself as an edited book, we can believe that God used inspired editors as part of the process of inspiration.

The Spirit Links Christians to the Cross

This article is the 17th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. For earlier parts of this series, click here.

In the first half of Romans 8 (vs. 1-11) Paul argues that it is the Spirit who gives hope for life after, and out of, death. Those who are in Christ have their life in the Spirit (Part 15). In the second half of the chapter, Paul describes the glorious inheritance which can be anticipated by God’s children (vs. 18-36).

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:23

The two sections are linked together by what Paul says in verses 14-17. It is the Spirit who identifies a person as a child of God, and as a child, then as an heir. It is because of the Spirit that we can anticipate an inheritance.

Once again notice that Paul refers to all Christians; not just Jews, not just Gentiles, and not just a few select Christians who had received miraculous spiritual gifts. Observe the use of the words “all”, the plural “you” (I use the word “y’all” in the quotes below), “our”, and “we”. Paul identifies children of God as “all” those who are led by Spirit, by whom “we” (that is, Paul and all those saints to whom he was writing) relate to God as father, and “we” all are joint heirs with Christ. Paul does not exclude any of the saints in Rome to whom he was writing (cf. Rom. 1:7).

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For y’all did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but y’all have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:14-17

According to Paul, it is the Spirit who relates Christians to God as children. First, Paul says “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (v. 14). Then he refers to the Spirit as “the Spirit of adoption,” by whom we cry “Abba Father” (v. 15).

How can we know if we are children of God? Because “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (v. 16). It is because of the Spirit that we are assured of our status as heirs with Christ.

Paul does not, however, describe this assurance as mere emotional confidence, or some sort of sentimental feeling in our hearts. It is important to note that the Spirit confirms our identity as children of God only as two conditions are met. First, we must be willing to put to death the deeds of the body. Secondly, we must be willing to suffer with Christ.

Dying with Christ

Immediately prior to Paul’s claim that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” Paul explains what it means to be “led by the Spirit of God”.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not according to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if y’all live according to the flesh y’all will die, but if by the Spirit y’all put to death the deeds of the body, y’all will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

Romans 8:12-14 (Emphasis added)

It is the Spirit who gives us resurrection hope (Rom. 8:9-11). But this hope is contingent on meeting a condition – indicated by the word “if” in the quote above – “if” we put to death the deeds of the body. Who are those who will live? Only those who put to death the deeds of the body. Who are those who are led by the Spirit? Only those who put to death the deeds of the body. Those who do not put to death the deeds of the body will die – the Spirit offers no hope to such persons.

Just as the Spirit of God was seen in Christ, as he chose to lay down his life (Rom. 5), so the Spirit of God can be seen in Christians when they choose to live with the same mindset – the mindset which puts to death the deeds of the body. It is a hard and painful experience to deny our bodies of what they tell us they want. But a life which is not focused on putting to death fleshly attitudes and actions demonstrates a spirit which is noticeably out of step with the Spirit of Christ on the cross.

A Christian’s existence must be continually characterized by dying with Christ.

Suffering with Christ

Moreover, Paul gives a second condition.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:16-17 (Emphasis added)

According to Paul, the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God and heirs of Christ. But once again, Paul adds a condition, this time indicated by the word “provided.” The Spirit bears witness that we are children, and thus heirs, “provided” we suffer with Christ.

It is only by sharing in the death and suffering of Christ in the present that Christians are able to love and serve others as Christ did. It is not enough to say that a “spiritual” person is one who obeys the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture, although this is certainly true. The Spirit bears witness that we are children of God only if we are obedient to the point of, and through suffering, as Christ was. It is not simply a general attitude of obedience to Scripture – it is a degree of obedience that remains ready to abandon even life itself.

The Spirit, in other words, links Christians to the cross, and via the cross to Christ through suffering and death. The Spirit of God is in a Christian as they walk with the Spirit of Christ in their life (cf. 8:10). That is, as they share in the mindset (cf. 8:5-8) of Christ, who was willing to obey God even when it meant putting his own life to death for the sake of loving others.

It is this shared Spirit which marks Christians as God’s own children (8:14-17). But this is true only to the extent that their lives are marked by conformity to the mind, or “Spirit” of Christ on the cross.

The Fruit of the Spirit

This article is the 16th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read other articles in this series click here.

According to Romans 8:3-8, there are two alternative ways of living. One can walk by the flesh, with a mind focused on the flesh, or one can walk by the Spirit, with a mind focused on the Spirit (see Part 15). In the book of Galatians, Paul stresses a very similar point.

Two Ways of Living

Paul spent a considerable part of his letter to the Galatians arguing that those who are in Christ are free, both from their pagan past and from the demands of the Jewish law.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

For you were called to freedom, brothers.

Galatians 5:13a

But Paul also emphasized that a Christian’s freedom comes with responsibility. A Christian’s freedom must not be abused as an opportunity to emphasize the flesh, but is for the specific purpose of loving and serving one another. Unfortunately, the controversies in the Galatian churches led to behavior that Paul could describe as “biting” and “devouring” one another.

Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Galatians 5:13b-15

It is then that Paul makes his point. If Christians are going to fulfill the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” there is only one way to do this. This cannot be accomplish by them in emphasizing, or finding their true identity in the “flesh” by getting circumcised. Emphasizing the flesh ultimately leads to a disastrous way of life. It can only happen by the Spirit.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Galatians 5:16-24

Crucified with Christ

Underneath these two contrasting lists (the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit) lies Paul’s understanding of what happens in baptism. Notice that Paul concludes his two lists by speaking of those who “belong to Christ Jesus” who have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” As noted previously (Part 12), Paul assumed that all Christians had been baptized in the Spirit and had the Spirit who was sent into their heart (cf. Gal. 3:2-7, 27-28; 4:4-7).

First Paul describes the condition he refers to as “in the flesh.” Those who find their identity by emphasizing their fleshly characteristics will ultimately produce the “works of the flesh.” But those who belong to Christ Jesus have gone through a “crucifixion” with him (cf. Gal. 2:20; Rom 6:1-4) . What they have “crucified” is the kind of life which is driven the passions and desires of the flesh. As a result of their “crucifixion” they now begin to bear new “fruit.”

The Spirit and Self-Control

It is important to note that the nine attributes described by Paul as the fruit of the Spirit (i.e. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control) are not characteristics which will develop by a person’s own efforts apart from the Spirit. But neither should we imagine these attributes as things which simply happen “to” a Christian without them thinking or intending to practice them. Christians must make up their minds to live this way. It is not a matter of simply being baptized, and then putting our bodies on autopilot mode while the Spirit takes over control.

If that were the case, there would be no reason for what Paul says next.

If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25

Similar to what Paul says in Romans 8:5-8, if we are going to walk by the Spirit, we must intentionally keep our minds focused on, and submissive to the path that the Spirit lays before us. Contrary to the idea of the Spirit taking control of someone’s mind or body, Paul says “self-control” is part of the fruit of the Spirit. A Spirit-filled, Spirit-led life is a self-controlled, self-disciplined life. It is a life which intentionally follows the footprints laid by God’s Spirit.

Paul’s point is that if we choose to follow the steps laid by God’s Spirit, God’s breath, God’s words, and God’s way of thinking (cf. Part 1), this is the kind of fruit we will see in our life. When Christians demonstrate these characteristics, it can only be attributed to God’s Spirit, because this fruit will not develop when we follow our own steps, or the steps of any other man.

The Importance of the Spirit

The point Paul makes is as relevant for the church today as it was then. There are many today who emphasize the need for love, patience, kindness, goodness, etc. with an attitude towards God’s word that deemphasizes doctrine whenever they fear it will lead to arguments or disagreement. There are others who are so passionate about defending “the truth” (or rather their party or sect’s definition of the truth; a false “truth” which is determined by their fleshly identity) that their lives are filled with fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.

Paul’s answer to these two errors is short and clear. As Christians, we must be people who are determined to follow His Spirit, His breath, His words, and His way of thinking. If we live by the Spirit, our lives will bear His fruit.

Christians who are concerned with speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) do themselves a disservice when they do not ground in their teaching, as Paul did, in a biblical understanding of the Holy Spirit.

Better Bible Study Tip #70: The Setting of a Biblical Story Isn’t Necessarily When It Was Written

When we read the Bible, it’s easy to assume that what we’re reading was written relatively close to the time of the events described in the book. Sometimes that may in fact be the case, but not always. For example, most scholars believe the gospels were written sometime between 40 to 80 AD. This delay makes sense, since the earliest Christians would have had more first-hand relationships with the apostles, but as the church grew, so did the need to record the events of Jesus’s life writing for posterity. This may seems like an insignificant detail, but understanding when the they were written can help us understand the author’s setting, his purpose for writing, and why he has chosen to arrange his book the way he did.

Of course, writing within a few decades of Jesus’s life is still a relatively short amount of time, but when it comes to the Old Testament, things are different. For instance, when Moses recorded events about the garden of Eden, the flood, and the lives of the patriarchs, he was writing about events that happened hundreds, if not thousands of years before he wrote. The fact that Moses wrote Genesis at a later date and to an Israelite audience as they left Egypt, helps us understand why he structured the book the way he did, and why he emphasized various points along the way.

The gap between an event and it’s recording is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Scripture. For instance, since Moses received the law first hand from God at Sinai (Ex. 19:9), he would have had direct revelation of those events. We know that Luke was able to consult multiple sources to make sure what he wrote was accurate (Lk. 1:1). Ultimately we can trust Scripture is true because it is God’s word, and God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Moreover, external sources and archeological finds have countless times verified that what we read in the Bible fits with what we know about ancient world it describes.

If you want to do better Bible study, don’t only pay attention to the timeline of the events that are described. Also think about who wrote about the events, when they wrote, and who they were writing to. The more we can understand the author’s original purpose for writing, and what he was trying to communicate, the more we can understand God’s purpose and what He was trying to communicate through that author.

Life in the Spirit

This article is the 15th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. Click here to read the other articles in this series.

Romans 8 is of particular importance when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit. Here Paul explains the role of the Holy Spirit in his own life, as well as in the lives of all other Christians (notice the words “us,” “anyone,” “we,” and the plural “you” used throughout the chapter).

In Romans 8, Paul identifies Christians as those “who walk… according to the Spirit” (v. 4). Later, Paul says that the sons of God are those who are “led by the Spirit” (v. 14; cf. Gal. 5:25). To understand Paul’s teachings about the Spirit in Romans 8, it is important to read these phrases in context, noticing the particular role they play in the actual argument of his letter – an argument that began back in chapter 7.

Romans 8 in Context

In the latter part of Romans 7, Paul has argued that the law promised life, but in reality brought death (Rom. 7:10-12). However, the life, which was promised by the law, was ultimately achieved through God’s Spirit, who gives resurrection life to all those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:11).

The beginning of Romans 8 serves as both the conclusion to chapter 7, and the introduction to what Paul argues later in the chapter. What Paul says is indeed very dense and tight packed, but not incomprehensible so long as we read carefully and with the big picture argument in mind.

Paul begins in by stating his main idea that he is going to make throughout all of chapter 8.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1

Paul then begins to explain why that is so.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:2

What Paul says in verse 2 is dense, and it would be difficult (though not impossible) to grasp what Paul means simply by dissecting the verse in isolation. But there is no need to worry. Paul explains it himself, beginning in verses 3-4.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:3-4

Paul then unpacks this idea even further in verses 5-8.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8

Finally, in verses 9-11, Paul’s argument is fully revealed. (I have replaced the plural “you” with “y’all” to help my kinsmen think about this passage in their native tongue).

Y’all, however are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in y’all. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in y’all, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in y’all, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to y’all’s mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in y’all.

Romans 8:9-11

When reading the Bible, and especially when reading the writings of Paul, it is important to not stop at a single verse or phrase. Unfortunately, this seems to happen quite often, especially in Romans 8, and especially when it comes to the Holy Spirit. It is not uncommon to hear people speak of “walking in the Spirit” or “being led by the Spirit” and to assign to those phrases all kinds of imaginative meanings that, quite frankly, do not fit with Paul’s overall argument.

Paul’s Main Argument

Again, back to verse 1, Paul’s main argument is that, unlike those who continually try, and fail, to find life through the law of Moses (Rom. 7:7-20), there is no such condemnation for those who are in Christ.

Why is that? Because “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (v. 2). Because “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (v. 3). Because “Those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (v. 5). And ultimately because “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (v. 6).

That’s why there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus – Because it is by the Spirit, and only by the Spirit, that there is hope in resurrection life (vs. 9-11).

The result is, that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled, and with it, the life that was promised by the law. This promised life is fulfilled, not in those who walk according to the flesh, but in those who walk according to the Spirit (v. 4).

Walking According to the Spirit

In the context of this particular argument, what does it mean to “walk according to the Spirit”? And how is it different from “walking according to the flesh”?

It is not, as many will apply the phrase, referring to someone who spends their life being led by some inner voice or emotional tug on their heart. Rather Paul tells us exactly what he means by this phrase.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Romans 8:5-8

According to Paul, the difference between those who walk according to the flesh and those who walk according to the Spirit is their mindset. What is their mind focused on? What are they thinking about all the time? Those who are focused on the flesh, that is, on pride, jealousy, or slander (see Rom. 2:29-32 for a detailed description) are those who walk according to the flesh. They are opposed to God. They cannot submit to God’s law, and they cannot please God. But those who focus on the Spirit have a mindset that is ready submit to God’s law. They can please God. They can enjoy life and peace.

We can see how all of this leads to the end of his argument: Those who have the Spirit dwelling in them will be raised from the dead (vs. 9-11). It is the Spirit who circumcises the hearts of believers (see Part 14), and it is the Spirit who can breath new life into those who were formerly dead, in parallel to how the Spirit gave life to Jesus (see Part 8). That is why there is no condemnation for those who are baptized into Christ.

In short, the Spirit is the Christian’s hope for life, because the Spirit is the one who transforms death into life. The Spirit is He who gives life after, and out of, death. But this hope is reserved for those who are in Christ, who live with their minds focused on the Spirit of God. Christians live, that is, they have their life in, the Spirit.