Better Bible Study Tip #61: Don’t Use a Study Bible as Your Primary Bible

I’m a big fan of study Bibles. Not only do they include the biblical text, but they also include all kinds of other helpful tools, such as maps, charts, introductions and outlines for each book, cross references, footnotes, as well as essays and articles that help explain difficult passages or concepts. However, even good resources can be misused, and of all the good resources out there, the study Bible is one of the most frequently misused.

The study notes and resources provided in study Bibles should be approached the same way we approach commentaries (see Bible Study Tip #60). Although teachers play an important role in the church (Eph. 4:11), we should always strive to follow the example of the Bereans who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). There is a difference between the inspired word of God and the non-inspired words of teachers who write about the word of God. It is important that we spend more time focusing on the text of the Bible more than on the words of teachers who are seeking to explain the Bible.

For better Bible study, don’t use a study Bible as your primary Bible. Using a regular Bible without study notes will eliminate the temptation to look away from what God has said. I’m not suggesting you should throw out your study Bible. But before you pull your study Bible off the shelf, force yourself to do the hard work of thinking about the text itself. When you struggle to figure out what a text means, meditate on it a little while first. Only by chewing on the text for awhile will you be in a good position to think through the strengths and weaknesses of the essays and explanations provided in your study Bible.

Who is a more reliable teacher? A biblical scholar, or God? When we are overly dependent on study notes, a subtle shift takes place from living by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” to living by “every word that comes from the mouth of our favorite Bible teachers.”

There is no doubt that there are some excellent study Bibles out there produced by wonderful Christian scholars. There is no doubt that a good study Bible can bless your study tremendously. But we must also be aware: if we use them in the wrong way, they may actually distract us from the text they seek to illuminate.

Better Bible Study Tip #53: The Bible is Always True, but the Bible is Not Always Literal

In Amos 9:11-12, Amos prophesies of a day in the future.

In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name.

If we take Amos’s words literally, we might expect that one day some sort of physical structure that once belonged to David will literally be rebuilt. The rebuilding of this physical structure will be connected to Israel possessing the remnant of the Edomites, as well as all other nations called by God’s name.

But the apostle James didn’t read it that way. In Acts 15, when the apostles and the elders met in Jerusalem to hear how Peter had taken the gospel to the Gentiles, James responded by opening to the book of Amos.

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name.”

Acts 15:13-17

James didn’t hesitate to read Amos non-literally. He understood that Amos’s “booth of David” was a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to David’s dynasty (compare this with 2 Samuel 8, where God promised David that he would build him a “house”). James recognized that “Edom” could be understood as a poetic and metaphorical way of referring to all of mankind (the Hebrew word “Edom” is very close to the Hebrew word “Adam” or “mankind”. The book of Obadiah uses “Edom” in this same way).

This doesn’t imply that Amos’s prophecy was untrue simply because it wasn’t literal. “Not literal” doesn’t mean “not true”. It just means that biblical authors were open to using poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical forms of language to communicate truth. If we want to truthfully understand what Amos wrote, we have to recognize that the text was never intended to be taken literally.

This doesn’t mean that we can come up with any sort of weird interpretations of scripture we want. James didn’t just reinterpret Amos to say whatever he wanted it to say. He was reading the text responsibly, by paying attention to how the Old Testament develops certain images. By so doing, he was able to follow how the prophesy was intended to be understood.

For better Bible study, remember that scripture is always true, but scripture does not always have to be read literally.

Better Bible Study Tip #46: Try Hard Not to Filter the Bible Through Your Own Beliefs

There is no such thing as a purely objective bible student. We all have different experiences that shape the way our brain processes information. We all have a tendency to analyze information in such a way that reaffirms our preexisting ideas and convictions. When we study an idea that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right.

For this reason, we all need to own up to the fact that we might believe certain ideas only because a belief was handed down to us. We might believe something is true simply because we’ve filtered the Bible through our beliefs.

So what do we do about it? We shouldn’t pretend that we’re immune from being biased towards certain beliefs. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge our own beliefs, and be aware of the tendency towards confirmation bias. Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. It doesn’t take humility to admit when we are right. It takes humility to admit when we are wrong.

In other words, the best way to avoid filtering the bible through our own beliefs is to develop the humility necessary to filter our own beliefs through the bible. We need to be self aware of the need to examine our own ideas just as critically as we would examine the ideas of others.

Better Bible Study – Introduction

I’ve written a series of short articles filled with practical advice for better Bible study. The purpose of these articles is not to teach a particular Bible study method, nor to develop a hermeneutical system, but simply to offer several “tips” that hopefully will help others grow in their ability to study the Bible.

The truth is, I find myself frustrated with the shallowness of Bible discussions I’ve often encountered in churches. Often my frustration isn’t that churches are teaching error. In nearly every church I’ve been associated with, teaching the truth is of upmost importance, and for that I am thankful. But even still, it seems that Bible knowledge seems to be lacking in many congregations. When Christians don’t have their mind filled with Scripture, their minds become filled with the values of the culture they live in. That concerns me. Although there are certainly many notable exceptions, many Christians just don’t study their Bible on a regular basis.

The reason is simple. The Bible is a strange book, and at first glance, Bible study can be really boring. When we’re studying the parts of the Bible we are familiar with, we think “this is good, but I already know what this says.” For the parts of the Bible we aren’t as familiar with, we think “why am I wasting my time reading about Levitical purity laws or long genealogies?” We’re all busy people. It’s hard to continually invest time in something we’re easily bored with.

But I am a firm believer that Bible study isn’t supposed to be boring. The key to exciting and worthwhile Bible study is to learn to think carefully about what you are reading. Learning to think more deeply about the Bible is a skill that can be developed. We have to learn how to ask better questions. We have to learn how to detect and avoid flawed ideas. We can’t simply settle for explanations that aren’t comprehensive enough to satisfy a critical thinker. Learning to think deeply about the Bible is far more exciting and rewarding than simply trying to restart the habit of daily Bible reading. Careful thinking is what allows us to responsibly apply Scripture (even the obscure and strange Scriptures) to whatever circumstances we may be facing in our churches today, rather than simply giving the same prepackaged answers over and over.

These are simply Bible study tips. They are suggestions for things to try. They are words of caution for mistakes to avoid. If another Christian were to ask me for advice on how to become a better Bible student, these are the things I would say. Some tips will be more obvious than others. I hope that you will find at least some of these suggestions helpful as you try to get more out of your Bible study.

Better Bible Study Tip #34: Read or Watch Book Introductions

One helpful thing you can do before reading any book of the Bible is to try to form a tentative but informed idea about the content and historical context of the book. What was going on that caused the author to write the book? What was the author’s goal in writing the book? What is the attitude of the author? What are the main ideas he wants to communicate? Is there a flow or a structure for the material in the book? Finding the answers to these sort of questions can make it easier to track with the main themes and storyline of each book.

This is why I recommend reading (or watching) Bible book introductions. Many Bibles will contain short introductory essays before good books. These are often very short, yet they contain good information. It can also be helpful to consult the introduction section of a commentary. One of my favorite resources is the Bible Project book overview videos. These short videos provide a helpful visual of the books’ structure and main themes.

Always remember the information you learn from book introductions should be viewed as “tentative” until you are able to verify their information with your own study. So while book introductions are helpful, make sure to jot down your own brief notes as you study the book for yourself. What does the text itself reveal about the recipients? The author’s attitude? The specific occasion of the book? Never stop studying for your own answers. But when you are just getting started, book introductions can be very helpful.

One Piece of Misinformation Christians Must Stop Sharing

Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are correctly informed about healthcare. Christians must stop sharing this dangerous misinformation by acting like it does.

Some will surely be quick to object, “No, but life and death really do hang in the balance! Look at the data! People are dying! We must start listening to the experts!” Of course, this objection may sound slightly different depending on which side of the argument a person is on. Some will point to data that suggests one course of prevention and treatment. Others will point to data that suggests other courses of treatment and prevention. The two sides will fight tooth and nail, pointing to the data and research and charts that support their particular side and prove the other side as foolish. But one thing both sides usually agree on is that the argument is worth having, because, after all, it’s a matter of life and death.

Let’s put the charts and the research and the scholarly opinions aside just for a moment, and reconsider the words of Paul in Romans 8.

Life and Death in Romans 8

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:13

Read it again. Slowly. If Jesus is Lord, life and death do not hang in balance depending on whether or not we are looking at correct medical data. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we listen to the right experts. Life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether we are informed or misinformed. Life and death hang in the balance depending on whether we live according to the flesh or live according to the Spirit.

For a better understanding of what Paul is saying, read the verse in context.

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

Paul contrasts two different ways of living. One is the way of the flesh, the other is the way of the Spirit. You can tell the difference between the two ways by what they think about. What are they focused on? What are they thinking about most of or all the time? Are they focused on the flesh? Do they continually dwell on the corruptible and mortal aspects of the world? Or are they focused on the Spirit?

To live focused on the flesh is to invite death itself, whereas to focus on the Spirit is to have life and peace. That’s Paul’s main point here. He explains it further in verses 7-8 when he says that those whose mind is set on the flesh are hostile to God. They are incapable of submitting to God’s law as long as the fleshly, corruptible, mortal aspects of this world are the things that capture their mind. They cannot please God.

But what about those whose minds are set on the Spirit?

You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, 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 you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:9-13

Those who have the Spirit dwelling in them will be raised from the dead. Even though their bodies are doomed to die, the Spirit will give life to their mortal bodies. They will live.

The promise of the resurrection is the promise that we will be rescued. Our hope isn’t simply for something better after death. Our hope is to be saved from death itself.

Notice how Paul can alternate between “The Spirit in you” and “Christ in you.” They are the same thing. That is why, as Paul says back in verse 1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Keep Things in Perspective

Now, without losing sight of Paul’s inspired words in Romans 8, consider the current healthcare debates. What if we are deceived into listening to the wrong so-called “experts”? What if we pursue the wrong form of prevention or treatment? What if accidently end up misinformed? What if we foolishly reject life-saving medical advice? If Christ dwells in us, we will be rescued. Even though our bodies die, we will still be raised from the dead to live.

Consider the flip side. What if we are able to sort though all the information correctly? What if we do everything exactly right? What if we avoid sickness and death from the disease? We still die. It might be a few years later, in a nursing home, dying of natural causes, but we still die. When we die, the only thing that matters is whether or not we have lived according to the Spirit.

This is not to suggest that we should run towards death while ignoring the various data and expert opinions out there. But as we try our best to process the latest information and respond as wisely as possible, we must keep things in proper perspective. When we act like we can control tomorrow based on making right plans today, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (James 4:14). When act like we are still enslaved to the fear of death, as if the devil has not been destroyed, we are spreading dangerous misinformation (Hebrews 2:14-15). When we think of ourselves as wise, without maintaining good conduct, we are being “false to the truth” (James 3:13-18).

Ultimately, life and death do not hang in the balance depending on whether or not we are “right” in our response to this healthcare crisis. Ultimately, life and death hang in the balance depending on whether or not we have Christ and walk in step with His Spirit. Do not be distracted by all the death and disease. Do not set your mind on things of the flesh. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit, and you will live.

Better Bible Study Tip #29: The Old Testament Came Before the New Testament

I know. I’m stating the obvious here. Even people who have never read the Bible can learn this by looking at the table of contents. Obviously, the Old Testament is older than the New Testament.

Some of the most important keys to good Bible study are hidden in plane sight. Unfortunately, even many seasoned Christians study their Bibles as if this fact is little more than a piece of Bible trivia rather than an indispensable clue as to how to understand the Bible better.

To study the New Testament without having a firm grasp on the Old Testament is like watching the Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Wars first. We can still get the gist of it. We can still enjoy the movie. We can still tell that Han Solo is a pretty cool guy and Darth Vader is bad. But we would be missing an important backstory. We would be missing the context.

The Old Testament should be treated as more than just reference material to be used on occasion to illustrate a New Testament point. Since the Old Treatment is older, it was the text studied by Jesus, the apostles and the earliest Christians. They quoted from it often. Their theology is directly tied to the Old Testament.

It is essential to understand the Old Testament in order to rightly understand the New Testament. It is often said that context is the key to good Bible study. The Old Testament is the context for the New Testament. For better Bible study, don’t skim past the first 3/4ths of your Bible. Study the Old Testament.

The Most Embarrassing Family Story

If you’re looking for a strong internal proof that the book of Genesis is historically reliable, read Genesis 30:1-24. This passage records for us the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel (except for Benjamin, although his future birth is alluded to in 30:24). It would be difficult to imagine a more embarrassing family story. You would never make up a story like this to describe the origins of your great nation.

If you wanted to craft an impressive origin story for your nation, you would come up with something along the lines of Romulus and Remus, or some other exalted tale. But you would never write a story about how your nation was formed by two sisters who became so envious of one another that they got into baby wars with their concubines while the founding father of your nation was helplessly passed back and forth between these feuding women.

But the story is written in a way that, while surely causing shame and embarrassment for the tribes of Israel, ultimately gives glory to God, who’s greatness is highlighted with every birth.

Jacob’s Helplessness

The background of the story can be found in Genesis 29, where Jacob falls in love with Rachel. He works seven years to marry Rachel, but when the time comes, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachell’s less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob then works another seven years for Rachel.

Chapter 29 ends by focusing on Jacob’s unloved wife, Leah. “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb” (29:31). God blessed Leah with four sons:

  • Ruben (meaning “See, a son”, because the God saw Leah’s affliction)
  • Simeon (meaning “heard” because God heard she was hated)
  • Levi (meaning “attached”, because she hoped that Jacob would now become attached to her)
  • Judah (meaning “praise”, because she praised the LORD for her sons).

But, as the text notes, “Rachel was barren” (29:31). Chapter 30 begins with Rachel confronting Jacob about her childlessness. “Give me children, or I shall die!” (v. 1). In response, Jacob is forced to admit something that he has never admitted to himself before, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (v. 2).

This is the same Jacob who manipulated Esau out of his birthright and who schemed Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Now, for the first time in his life, Jacob is powerless to change his circumstances. He was having sons left and right, but he couldn’t change the fact that Rachel was barren. He loved Rachel. He would have loved for her to have children, but Jacob was not God. With language echoing the Garden of Eden, Jacob recognized that God had “withheld… the fruit”.

Rachel’s Schemes

But forbidden fruit didn’t stop Rachel from thinking herself to be wise. Like Eve giving Adam the forbidden fruit, Rachel “gave him” her servant Bilhah to bear fruit in her place. Rachel’s servant then bore Jacob two sons:

  • Dan (meaning “vindicated”, because Rachel felt that God had finally vindicated her)
  • Naphtaili (meaning “God-wrestles”, because Rachel was “wrestling” against her sister, and God allowed her to prevail)

But Rachel’s plan was stalemated when Leah countered by giving Jacob her servant girl, Zilpah, by which Jacob had two more sons.

  • Gad (meaning “good fortune”)
  • Asher (meaning “happy”)

This leads to Rachel’s second plot. Rachel approached Leah, and decided to purchase some of her mandrakes (a fruit believed to increase fertility) in exchange for giving Leah a night with Jacob. But the plan backfires. The mandrakes don’t help Rachel, but the night with Jacob does help Leah. Leah has two more sons:

  • Issachar (meaning “wages”, because God had given Leah her “wages”)
  • Zebulun (meaning “honor”, because Rachel now believed that Jacob would finally honor her)

God’s Gift

These embarrassing baby wars set the stage for verses 22-24:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph (meaning “may he add”), saying “May the LORD add to me another son!

Genesis 30:22-24

Rachel was finally given a son, Joseph. Considering the larger context of Genesis, we know why this birth was so significant. This is Joseph, the brother who would save his family from starvation during the famine.

After the powerlessness of Jacob, and after all the failed schemes of Rachel, the LORD finally makes His move. The LORD simply opened Rachel’s womb, and she conceived. That simple. Suddenly, for the first time in the story, Rachel utters the words “The LORD.” Despite all the scheming, and all the embarrassment, ultimately it is God who gives what is needed.

The Gospel According to Genesis

What are we to make of this strange and embarrassing origin story? Why is it important to realize that the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel came about through such a pitifully dysfunctional family?

On one hand, it would be easy to draw a few moralistic lessons from such a story. Polygamy is bad. Don’t be jealous of someone else who has more kids than you. Don’t blame your spouse for something that is outside of their control. These are all good lessons that could obviously be drawn from the text. But the significance of this story is not just to offer good advice on how to avoid getting into a messy situation, but to remind us that even in the worst situations, God never stops working to fulfill his purposes.

God always keeps his promises. It is incredibly important that we remember this. It’s easy to see how messed up the world is these days. And unfortunately, in many cases, the church it seems like the church is just as messed up. Yes, it’s easy to grow discouraged, but the danger of forgetting God’s faithfulness is far greater than simple discouragement.

When the thought of God’s faithfulness fades into the background, and we grow frustrated like Rachel, we may find ourselves, like Rachel, looking to our own schemes to fix our situation, rather than simply being faithful to God. If we’re not careful, frustration can cause us to lose focus on the big picture.

What Genesis 30 shows us about God’s character is seen even more fully in the cross of Jesus. Israel’s embarrassing origin story has nothing on the embarrassment of the Christian origin story. There has never been a more poignant example of human failure than what is seen in the false accusation, corrupt judgment, and gruesome murder of the innocent Jesus. The cross shows us that no matter how wicked or dark things may get, God can bring about his good intentions. If God can bring about the world’s greatest good out of the murder of his innocent Son, he can bring about good from pandemics, social panics, apathetic churches, and corrupt political schemes (cf. Rom. 8:28).

Think about the significance of the names of Jacob’s sons. When we find ourselves lonely or rejected like Leah, we need to remember that we serve a God who “sees”, a God who “hears”, a God who provides “attachment”, a God who deserves our “praise”. When we feel powerless to fix a bad situation like Jacob, we need to remember that we serve a God who “vindicates”, who “wrestles” on our behalf. When we are tempted to come up with our own schemes like Rachel, we need to remember that “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wages”, and “honor” come from God. In the end, God remember Rachel’s sorrow, and he “added” to her a son, a savior.

The gospel is the most embarrassing family origin story of all time, and yet it is the greatest reversal of evil this world has ever seen. God will remember his people and his purposes.

The Bible and the Ethics of Taxation

Nothing in the Bible indicates that taxation is anything other than legalized theft. Meriam-Webster defines the word “theft” as “(a) the act of stealing; the felonious taking and removing of personal property with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it,” and “(b) an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property.” Simply put, theft is taking someone else’s money or property by coercion.

Practically every Christian knows that scripture teaches that theft is wrong. Theft is a direct violation of one of the ten commandments (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19; Lev. 19:11). To steal is to profane the name of God (Prov. 30:9), and is listed as one of the injustices that led to the destruction of the temple (Jer. 7:9). Stealing isn’t something that can be justified, even when it is done to satisfy basic needs such as poverty or hunger; nor does it become justified when the people excuse the thief (Prov. 6:30-31).

The same moral condemnation of theft appears in the New Testament. Theft is listed as a sin that can exclude people from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). It is something for which a Christian should never be guilty (1 Pet. 4:15). It is an action that grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:28-30).

Yet it is generally accepted that governments have the right to levy taxes on their citizens. After all, when Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” he responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Lk. 20:22-25). And when Paul addressed the Christian’s relationship to government in Romans 13, he wrote:

You also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Romans 13:6-7

Why is this? If it is wrong to take another person’s property by force, why doesn’t scripture simply say “taxation is theft” and clearly condemn it as wrong? Why are Christians commanded to pay their taxes? And if there is a difference between taxation and theft, what is it?

Meriam-Webster defines the word “tax” as “A charge of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.” Yes, taxation and theft both describe the taking and removing of personal property by force. But there is one key difference in the way we use the two words. Taxation refers to the legal confiscation of property which is imposed by an authority, while theft refers to the unlawful confiscation of property.

If there is a difference between taxation and theft, this is it. It’s not simply that taxes become right because they are used to satisfy particular needs, for the Bible is clear that theft is wrong regardless of the needs the stolen goods are used to satisfy (Prov. 6:30-31; 30:9). It’s not simply that taxes cease to be theft because of the democratic approval of the people excuse them (Prov. 6:30-31). If there is a distinction between taxation and theft, the distinction is that of authority.

Therefore, if taxation is justifiable in a way that theft is not, we must be able to answer the following question in the affirmative: Does the Bible describe governments as having a special place of authority that gives them a claim over the property of their citizens?0

Taxation in the Old Testament

In 1 Samuel 8, Israel demanded a king, Samuel warned them that a king would:

Take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

1 Samuel 8:14-17

Observe that even though the king held legal authority, his confiscation of the goods of his citizens is still described with the word “take.” He was “taking” something that didn’t belong to him. If the king has a special place of authority that allows him a legal claim over the goods of his citizens, why would Saul describe this as “taking?”

When Solomon collected taxes from his citizens, this was described as a “heavy yoke” (1 Kings 12:4), a yoke which was increased by his son Rehaboam (1 Kings 12:14). This isn’t exactly a glowing review of the idea of taxation is it?

The story of King Ahab and Naaboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) only makes sense if we recognize that King Ahab did not have a rightful claim to Naaboth’s vineyard simply on the basis of his legal authority as a king. The only way Ahab was able to take possession of Naaboth’s vineyard was to kill Naaboth and to take it for himself (21:13-16). As a consequence of taking possession of something that was not his, the LORD condemned him to die (21:17-19).

While it is often recognized that the prophets warned against oppression and robbery, it should be noted that their warnings were often addressed directly to the rulers. For example, Isaiah pronounced a woe to rulers who “rob” (Is. 10:1-2). Jeremiah rebuked the king of Judah for “dishonest gain”, “oppression”, and “violence” (Jer. 22:11, 17). Amos rebuked Israel’s leaders specifically for exacting grain taxes, through which they “trampled the poor” (Amos 5:11). Evidently, the prophets didn’t view legal authority as a status which excused rulers from the sins of robbery and oppression.

Some may point to the tithes commanded in the Law of Moses as an example of a tax which was approved by God (Lev. 27:30-33). While the collection of tithes does give us an example of a collective pooling of resources, it should be noted that tithes were not to be collected by force, but rather they were to be voluntarily given as an act of obedience and devotion to the law (cf. 1 Chron. 31:4). Rather than establishing a system of taxation, the law of Moses limited the king from maintaining a powerful police force or acquiring much silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:14-20).

Despite the Old Testament’s clarity that theft is wrong, and despite the fact that the Old Testament never suggest that governing authorities were excused from the law’s demands or permitted to take possessions belonging to their citizens, many Christians continue to defend taxation as an ethical practice by pointing to their New Testaments.

Taxation in the New Testament

Many Christians will defend practice of taxation by pointing to Jesus’s quote in Matthew 22 and Luke 20:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Luke 20:25

A simplistic reading of this text would seem to suggest that Jesus recognized, and even approved of Caesar’s claim of ownership over the money he was collecting as taxes. This reading fails to consider the historical or textual context, which I have written about more extensively here and here. If Jesus’s answer simply meant “Yes, Caesar has a right to collect taxes”, nobody would have “marveled” at Jesus’s answer (cf. Lk 20:16). Instead they would have rejoiced, because the trap set by the question of the scribes and chief priests would have worked! But no Jew would have taken Jesus’s statement as an endorsement of taxation.

If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything (cf. Ps. 24:1; 50:10; Hag. 2:8), and Caesar’s claims are illegitimate. If one’s faith is in Caesar, then God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image. Jesus’s teaching should be understood as a challenge to the Jews to reconsider their allegiance.

If Jesus gave a hearty endorsement of taxation, as if often assumed, we are left to wonder why anybody would ever accuse Jesus as forbidding people from paying taxes to Caesar (Mt. 23:2). Such an accusation would have been laughed out of court, for it would have been quickly refuted by those who heard Jesus’ teaching. But if Jesus’s statement is understood as a challenge to serve God alone, then this accusation makes perfect sense.

Some will also point to the words of Paul in Romans 13, where Paul commanded Christians to pay taxes as an extension of their submission to government (Rom 13:6-7). It should be noted, that similar to Jesus, Paul offered no commentary on the ethics of taxation itself. He simply tells Christians to pay taxes should the government require it. To use these verses to justify taxation would be the same as turning to Matthew 5’s command to turn the other cheek as justification for the one who slaps you. Or praying for persecutors as a justification for persecution. Or pointing to Paul’s commands to slaves to submit to their masters as a justification for slavery.

Why did Jesus and Paul feel the need to command Christians to pay their taxes in the first place? This teaching only makes since if it was understood that something about Jesus’s mission actually challenged the very concept of taxation. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If all the silver and gold belong to God, it does not belong to Caesar.

The only sense in which we can understand governing authorities as having the authority to take the possessions of others is the sense in which Jesus said that Pilate had the authority to crucify him.

You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.

John 19:36

So yes, there is a sense in which Pilate had been given the rightful authority to crucify an innocent man. In this same sense, we can accept that government has been given the authority to collect taxes. But just because Pilate “had the right” to crucify Jesus, that does not imply that Pilate was free from guilt when he did so. In the same way, just because there is a sense in which governments “have the right” to collect taxes, this does not imply that they are free from guilt when they do so.

The Bible is, of course, extremely supportive of free will generosity (Prov. 22:9; Mt. 5:42; Lk 3:10-11; Acts 2:46; Heb. 13:16). The Bible regularly condemns theft, even among governing authorities, even when theft receives approval from others, and even when theft us used to meet other necessities. There is nothing in the Bible that would suggest that taxes are approved by God. But as Christians, our response is not to rebel against paying taxes. Rather we should be like the Hebrew Christians who “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property, since they knew that they had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34).

What Does It Mean To Be “Saved Through Childbearing”? (1 Timothy 2:15)

What did Paul mean in 1 Timothy 2:15 when he wrote “she will be saved through childbearing”? Is having children is somehow connected to a woman’s salvation? Here is the phrase in context.

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

To begin to understand salvation through childbearing, we must start where Paul does, with the story of Adam and Eve.

Creation Order and Temptation Order

In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul refers to the familiar story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. There are two key observations that Paul draws from this familiar text. First, notice that the temptation order (Eve first, then Adam) is a reversal from the creation order (Adam first, then Eve). The significance of Satan approaching Eve is magnified when we observe that God had given the command about not eating the tree directly to Adam prior to Eve’s creation (2:16-17), and Adam was with the woman during the temptation (3:6). When Satan approached Eve, the woman took the lead in responding to Satan while the man, who was there prior to the woman and heard the commandment directly from God, stood by silently and never intervened.

Satan never addressed the man directly. But by approaching the woman first, and using her initiative over the man, Satan successfully brought about the failure of both man and woman.  Paul points to Genesis 3 to remind them of what happens when Satan subverts God’s created order, and what happens when men stand by silently while their wives take the lead. Satan has used this plan of attack in the past. When Satan attacks man through the woman, we should not be caught off guard. He is using play number one from his play book.

Eve’s Salvation Through Childbearing

Secondly, observe that Genesis 3 does not leave Adam and Eve without hope. Towards the end of the story, as God is speaking to the serpent, God makes a very interesting promise.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.

Genesis 3:15

The snake and the woman will each have offspring. There will be enmity between these two seed lines. The seed of the snake will strike, but the seed of the woman will crush the snake. For Eve, salvation from the curse was quite literally going to be found in bearing children so that her offspring could crush the serpent.

This idea – salvation through childbearing – doesn’t stop in Genesis 3:15. It is developed time and time again throughout the Old Testament scriptures. As we keep reading about the woman’s offspring, we eventually get to the story of Abraham, who was promised an offspring through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). Late on we get to the story of David who was also promised an offspring who would establish a kingdom (2 Sam. 7:12).

As we read through the prophets, it becomes clear that hope for God’s kingdom was going to be found through a “holy seed” (Isa. 6:13); through a virgin who would conceive and bear a child (Isa. 7:14); a child who would bring salvation (Isa. 9:6).  According to Isaiah, salvation really was going to be found through childbearing.

For this reason, childbearing carried very special significance for God’s people, because one day, salvation was going to come through an offspring. This helps explain why Malachi, in addressing the problem of divorce, refers to “godly offspring” as the very purpose of the marriage relationship (Mal. 2:15). To reject the covenant of marriage was to reject the hope of godly offspring.

The point is that salvation through childbearing is not simply strange phrase used by Paul in one obscure verse. Rather salvation through childbearing was a well-established principle in Jewish thought, tracing all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve. For a woman to suffer through the pain of childbirth (cf. Gen. 3:16) was an act of faith in God’s promises. The pain of childbearing was not only the curse that was going to be reversed, it was also the means by which that curse would be reversed.  Childbearing was the act through which Eve, and all women, would be saved.

Childbearing After The Birth of the Savior

But if Paul was thinking of the seed-promise, why would Paul refer to salvation through childbearing while writing to the early church? Would Paul have continued to view childbearing with the same saving significance after the Savior had been born?

Here it is helpful to remember that the word “offspring” can be used to refer to one specific individual as well as to an entire group of offspring. For example, I could refer to my son as my offspring, or I could refer to all of my descendants as offspring. Galatians 3 is a place where Paul applies the seed-promise to Christ individually (Gal. 3:16, “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’ who is Christ.”) and then moves quite easily to apply the seed promise to all those who are in Christ when he writes, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

When Paul applied the seed-promise to Christ individually, he didn’t simply say “now that promise has been fulfilled, so we can put a checkmark by prophecy as fulfilled.” When Paul saw that the seed-promise was fulfilled in Christ, he quite naturally applied the promise collectively to all those who belong to Christ.

Yes, Jesus individually fulfilled the seed-promise when he rose from the dead, robbing the snake of his power (Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:10). But because of Christ’s fulfillment, now all those who belong to Christ have the power to resist the influence of the serpent (Rom. 16:20; Jas. 4:7; 1 Pet. 5:8-9). Yes, childbearing brought salvation through the birth of the Child, Christ. But, because of Christ, now all in Christ can have the same power to crush the influence of the serpent. The birth of Christ does not end the significance of childbearing; it fills childbearing with even more hope! Because of Christ, the offspring of women can themselves be snake-crushers.

Implications For The Church

With this in mind, go back and reflect on the passage in 1 Timothy 2. After prohibiting a woman from teaching and exercising authority over a man in verse 12, and after reminding readers of Eve’s deception in verse 14, it is not surprising that Paul should positively affirm a woman’s peculiar honor in bearing children. This explains the conjunction “yet” at the beginning of verse 15. Verse 15 should be understood in contrast to what immediately precedes it. Paul is, in effect, saying, “this way isn’t good, yet this other way is” in reference to the peculiar role of women in the church. Salvation for women is not going to be found in reversing the creation order like Adam and Eve did, yet salvation is found when godly women devote themselves to childbearing. From a biblical perspective, childbearing has incredibly important significance for the world. Childbearing is the act through which Eve’s curse is reversed; it is the act through which women are saved.

Because this verse so strongly affirms the blessedness and value of a godly woman’s role in bearing children, and even ties childbearing directly to salvation, some might conclude that women who are single or childless have diminished value, or are perhaps be unable to be saved. This conclusion might follow if the text were to teach that childbearing is the only thing that women can do to bring about salvation, but that is not what 1 Timothy 2:15 teaches. Although the text does teach the blessedness and honor of women in bearing children, it does not logically follow that alternative avenues of service for Christian women are not available within the church.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:7-8 Paul teaches that there is real advantage to remaining single, so that one can be fully devoted to the work of the Lord. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul refers to older widows, who though unable to bear children, devote themselves to supplications and prayers night and day (1 Tim. 5:5). Nothing in 1 Timothy 2:15 would contradict with these verses.

What’s more, we know from the New Testament that women have served the Lord in a diversity of ways beyond simply bearing children. Women were among the first the report the news of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:7, 10). At Pentecost, the Spirit fell on both men and women alike (Acts 2:16-18). Men and women are both equally “one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Women played an important role in the early church, serving as “fellow workers” with Paul (Rom. 16:1, 3).

The affirmation of women in 1 Timothy 2:15 does not diminish any of these diverse ways in which godly women have served the church. In fact, in appealing to the way this verse gives unique honor to women who bear children, it should remind us to be even more sensitive to and appreciative of the tireless service of those women who have not been given that opportunity.

Also note the way Paul switches from the singular pronoun (“she shall be saved through childbearing”) to the plural pronoun (“if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control”). This indicates that Paul was looking to Eve as representative of women collectively speaking. So while it is true that salvation for women is found when women, as a collective whole, devote themselves to bearing children, it does not follow that each individual woman’s salvation depends on her individual ability or opportunity to bear children.

So without diminishing the faithful efforts of godly women who are unable to bear children, Paul resoundingly proclaims the dignity of a godly woman who devotes herself to work of being a mother. Though it certainly sounds old-fashioned, or even unacceptable in our modern western culture, this verse was given to the church to remind us of something we too often overlook: godly women who devote themselves to bearing and raising children play an immensely important role in God’s plan to save the world from the curse of sin and death.