What Christians Miss When They Can’t Assemble

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers… And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common. – Acts 2.42, 44

From the very beginning, God designed the church to be together. Due to the recent spread of the coronavirus disease, a vast majority of congregations have decided to cancel their regularly scheduled weekly services.

It should be noted that those churches which have chosen not to assemble are not simply acting out of fear. Even faithful Christians who do not fear death feel a deep level of love and concern for those who are most vulnerable to the disease, as Wesley Hazel has articulated so well here.

It should also be noted when churches temporarily cancel services due to extremely unique health concerns, this is not “forsaking the assembly” as several others have effectively explained.

As Jack Wilke has rightly observed, now is not the time to disregard the authority of our elders, or to “downplay [another congregation’s] autonomy, diminish their eldership, and place ourselves as an arbiter of their of their church’s decision.”

If you are struggling with guilt over your congregation’s decision to temporarily cancel services, I encourage you to carefully consider the points these brothers have raised, and then search the scriptures to see if these things are so.

At the same time, if you are missing your regular routine of gathering with other Christians, that’s a good thing! When Christians can’t assemble, they should miss it! From the very beginning of the church, Christians have prioritized the practice of assembling together. Live-streamed worship services and social media interaction is a great blessing that can help us temporarily fill some gaps while we are separated, but they will never be a suitable replacement for Christian assembly.

Christians Miss Praying Together

Of course we can and should pray individually while social distancing (Mt. 6.5-6). But the early church had a practice of praying together.

And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them…” – Acts 4.24

So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God. – Acts 12.5

It is important to pray with other believers. Praying together encourages us and unifies us as we share our common faith. Those who may be alone and struggling, can be greatly encouraged as they hear others praying with them. It also builds up love and concern for others as we intercede together.

The good news is that this is not completely impossible during this time of separation. It may require extra effort, such as calling someone, and (though it may feel awkward at first) inviting them to pray with you over the phone. Churches should also take care to livestream prayers along with their livestreamed lessons.

Christians Miss Singing Together

Once again, we can and should sing privately (Ja. 5.13). But part of the point of singing is “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3.16) and “speaking to one another” (Eph. 5.19).

We often think that “teaching and admonishing” are tasks reserved for teachers and leaders in the congregation. But Paul’s command was for the entire church, not just the leadership. We all have a role to play in helping one another grow in wisdom, love, and knowledge. Paul also tells them that one unique way to do this is in our singing. Our songs are indeed directed vertically, as praise towards God, but they are also directed horizontally towards one another. The words we sing can teach, inspire, strengthen, and lift up our brothers and sisters. This is something that we can’t do when we are separated, and we should miss it.

Christians Miss Studying Scripture Together

Once again, private Bible study is important. But it was important for the early church to be “devoting themselves to the apostle’s doctrine” while gathering together (Acts 2.42, 44). Although nothing requires that Christians must do this in large assemblies of hundreds of people, Luke observes the practice of the early church in this way:

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. – Acts 5.42

When Christians study Scripture together, we have built in “checks and balances”. A group of Christians studying together are less likely to all make the same interpretation mistake as one individual. We all come to the passage with slightly different eyes and backgrounds, and are more likely to discern the author’s original meaning when we work together. Studying scripture together builds relationships and unifies us around a common understanding of the truth.

When the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, they also took the time consider God’s message together (Acts 20.7).

Speaking of breaking bread…

Christians Miss Sharing the Lord’s Supper Together

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight. – Acts 20.7

One of the most important reasons the church gathered on the first day of the week was to break bread together. The Lord’s Supper is something we are supposed to share with one another.

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless as sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. – 1 Corinthians 10.16-17

This is something can’t do when we can’t assemble. Of course we can, and should, partake of the Lord’s Supper in our homes, and as we eat that bread, we should be mindful of our brothers and sisters scattered all over the world who are sharing that bread with us. But the Lord’s Supper is designed as something we share together. That’s why Paul instructed the church at Corinth to “wait for one another” before partaking (1 Cor. 11.33).

Sharing that one bread reminds us that we are one body. Bodies are not designed to be separated, and when they are separated, it should be painful and it should be temporary. Separated body parts don’t survive long without being reattached to the body. We must reassemble as soon as we possibly can.

Christians Miss Sharing and Giving

The early church was noteworthy for the way they came together to share with one another.

And those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. – Acts 2.44-45

When necessity arose, the church systematized their giving, by giving on each first day of the week when they gathered together (1 Cor. 16.1-2). When Christians gather together, this makes it easy both to identify the needs of one another and it becomes convenient to give. When Christians give together, we are able to hold one another accountable for our generosity.

We are facing a time when many Christians are, and will be struggling. Layoffs and income reduction are happening everywhere throughout our economy. Financial needs are higher than they have been in a long time. Yet without the convenience of the weekly assembly, almost every congregation is experiencing a significant decrease in their contributions.

Yes, we can and must give even when we can’t assemble. We should be reaching out to our elders and asking them how. But we certainly miss the convenience and accountability that comes with Christian assemblies.

Christians Miss Love and Encouragement

And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10.24-25

The word translated “forsaking” is a word for complete abandonment. Temporarily canceling services is not “forsaking the assembly.” But we must emphasize the word “temporary” and we must assemble together again as soon as possible, even if only in groups of ten meeting in back yards in the open air with ten feet between each chair.

According to this scripture, one of the purposes of assembling is to stimulate love and good deeds. In other words, by assembling together, Christians have an opportunity to deepen their relationships with one another and to encourage one another into deeper involvement in the works of the church. When Christians can’t assemble, relationships and involvement both suffer.

“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord”

It is to be hoped that as churches go through this time of separation, that Christians will grow to appreciate the privilege of assembling more than ever before. It may be that this will help us all to develop an attitude like that expressed by David in Psalm 122.2

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD”

The New Testament nowhere teaches that we must assemble in large crowds. In fact, the early church didn’t meet in church buildings. They met “from house to house” in crowds that were small enough to fit inside a single home.

It may be a very long time before we can gather back together in large church building auditoriums. But we must not forget that Christian assemblies are critically important. When Christians can’t assemble, we miss out on numerous blessing and opportunities to encourage one another. To some extent, when we are apart, relationships will weaken, involvement will wane. It is likely that many weaker Christians will not survive this time of separation.

Any separation from the assembly must be as temporary as possible. Online worship services, social media, and text messaging are all great tools that can help alleviate the pain of separation. But there is no replacement for Christians assembling together.

If this coronavirus crisis drags on for longer than we expect, the time may come when we need to take some measured risks so that we can assemble – even if only in small groups in back yards. Christian assemblies are absolutely indispensable.

May we never take lightly the privilege of Christian assemblies. Let us pray together that the LORD will hasten the day when we will hear those word again: “Let us go to the house of the LORD”. I will be glad. Won’t you?

I Am Not Alone: The Ever-Present God, Israel, and the Church (part 1)

Article written by guest author, Stephen Scaggs

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We live in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” In the beginning God said about humans that, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). While this, in context, refers to the creation of the woman as helper, Paul looks back on this chapter retrospectively and writes, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32).

It is still a staggering number of Christians who claim they can be spiritual without the church. Even though many want “Jesus, but not church,” the inherent tragedy is the misunderstood Jesus. For people who make such statements, if you were to ask them, “What was Jesus’ mission?” or “What did Jesus teach about more than any other subject?”, the likely response would be his mission was about individual salvation and his subject was about love, grace, and forgiveness.

What is clear from people who say such things is that they do not actually read the gospels, to see what the Jesus of history actually was about. Nor do they seem to know anything about the Hebrew Bible, divorcing the gospel from its story. If we picked up Return of the King or Return of the Jedi without having read/watched the saga so far, we would not have a clue what was going on, who the characters were, what was the tension needing to be resolved, etc.

The purpose of this series of articles is to magnify the church as the bride of Christ, and to help persuade my fallen brothers and sisters that, in the words of one person, “[Church is] more than an obligation, it’s our foundation: the family of God. I know it’s hard, but we need each other. We’re brothers and sisters!”

The Ever-Present God

Ever since man was expelled from Eden, God has never gave up his pursuit to reclaim what was lost. From the calling of Abraham to the formation of Israel at Sinai, God has been committed to restoring “blessing to all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3) and frequently expresses his desire to “live among his people” (Exodus 25:8).

Back in the beginning of Exodus when Moses encounters God in the Burning Bush, it is the first time where God seems to reveal the divine name. But before that he states community: he says, “I am the God of your father: the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (3:6). We’re not ethnically Jewish (at least most of us aren’t!) so those names may not mean the same to all of us: however, not only does this communicate God’s promises to bless, but as Jesus points out (Matthew 22:32), this implies that they were present with God even though they have been dead for 400+ years.

And God confesses that “he has not forgotten about his promises.” He says,

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land…. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”

This may be somewhat humorous: “I am going to deliver them… I will send you to bring my people out of Egypt!” I think Moses was on board for the first part, but not for that last part! Moses? A deliverer? Moses asks, “What makes you think anyone will listen to me?” To which God replies, “I will be with you.” That would be enough, wouldn’t it? But then Moses asks, “What name should I give them?” And then God replies, “I AM WHO I AM” (EHYEH) and then in the next verse he says, “YAHWEH (this is the 3rd person of EHYEH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob sent me to you.” This is usually translated in our English translations as LORD in all capital letters, or Jehovah.

The very name of our God communicates that God is both immutable and ever present, from generation to generation. Time, space, and matter cannot deter our God. Even if the church has been in exile in Egypt for centuries, God has not forgotten his people. He will dwell once again with his people: this is his promise, this is his blessing. This is the mystery of Christ and the church, and what this starving world needs.

And Man Became a Living Soul

Article written by guest author, Stephen Scaggs

Soul, spirit, and body. These words make their rounds in our Christian vocabulary and they have a rich depth of meaning. I hope that in exploring this we learn to appreciate the importance of the body, and better understand the hope for resurrection and the eternal destiny of the soul.

Throats and Souls

What in the world does your throat have to do with your soul? Well, quite a lot actually. The word used predominately in the Bible for soul in its most literal definition means “throat” or “neck.”

This is how it is translated into English in many passages. In Psalm 69, the psalmist David is in the thick of turmoil. In verse 1 he writes, “Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck.” Notice the wordplay here. The Hebrew people see your neck as a connection or bridge to life. And your life becomes endangered when you are on the verge of drowning. So David depicts his dire straits as water coming up and nearly drowning.

Perhaps the most famous example of this usage is from Psalm 42. Notice how the psalmist begins. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” While this may seem like an endearing image of a stag longing for God, the reason the deer is panting is because it is dying of thirst. As the rest of Psalm 42 bears out, this is a psalm for help and deliverance. But notice the subtle wordplay where you drink water with your throat, and the psalmist uses this metaphor to describe his deep longing for God’s presence.

You Are a Soul … and a Body

The first time the word soul appears is on the second page of the Bible.

…Then Yahweh God formed the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֗ם] of dust from the ground [Hebrew adamah הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man [Hebrew adam הָֽאָדָ֖ם] became a living soul [Hebrew nephesh לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ].
– Genesis 2:7

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” This is sometimes falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis. But what I find interesting about this statement is that nowhere do the biblical authors seem to have this ideology. Rather the first time the word soul appears in the holy scriptures, humans are not given souls, but rather the dust becomes a soul.

Is there a distinction between your body and soul? Yes… and no. Even Jesus recognizes that there is a distinction between body and soul (Matt. 10:28 ESV). But Jesus’ statement here is in no way validating a low view of the body. The point here is that for the biblical authors your body is an integral component of your identity. It has been pointed out that the word soul functions more of as a life spark for man. It is who you are. But your body is an integral component of your soul, and should not be thought of as expendable or temporary.

Motivation for Godly Living

In many circles it seems that there is some significance given to the body, but that the body is ultimately expendable. But this is not the case for the apostle Paul. This emissary for King Jesus spends much time talking about the connection between your body and how you should then live your life. Notice some often quoted but glossed over texts:

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:1-2

Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits fornication sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
– 1 Corinthians 6:18-20

…According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
– Philippians 1:20

Hope for Bodily Resurrection

Despite many popular misconceptions, the Bible nowhere describes our heavenly hope as a bodiless or soulish existence. Biblical hope for the Christian is anchored in redemption: the holy prophets and apostles appeal to the bodily resurrection as the hope in which we are saved. For the New Testament authors, the bodily resurrection is not another check off the itinerary list as part of the Judgment Day: rather it is a core event. And in this bodily resurrected state, it is then we will be with the Lord forever and ever (1 Thess. 4:17).

To this point, arguably one of the clearest texts is Romans 8:18-25. Notice what the apostle Paul considers the hope of our salvation:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. … 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: for it is in this hope we were saved! Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Some object to this bodily hope with appellations to 1 Corinthians 15, which is ironic. It is ironic because 1 Corinthians 15 is precisely saying the opposite. “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…” (15:44). Those who attempt to use this verse to argue against bodily resurrection must completely separate this verse from rest of the context in order to argue their point. Also, we need to be using the words “natural” and “spiritual” here as Paul uses them in chapter 2. The difference between natural and spiritual is not that one is immaterial or ethereal, and the other is dirt. The difference here is between what has become corrupted and what is incorruptible, what has become weakened by sin and what is strengthened by the Spirit of God (i.e. spiritual). Also, it is still a body, not a ghostly apparition.

Some also object with phrases like “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of heaven” or other miscellaneous texts about not being able to see God. But I think it is important for us to stop when we read “flesh and blood” and realize that Jesus describes his spiritual, glorified resurrected body as “flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). The phrase “flesh and blood” is actually a Hebrew idiom, and if you trace how it is used in the Bible (five other times), it is used to describe fallen, unregenerate, corrupted man (Matt. 16:13-17; Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 2:14).

Some also appeal to 2 Corinthians 5. But I encourage you to not to read 5:1 in isolation from the entire context. The argument Paul is making from 5:1-10 is not that “our earthly tent” is torn down. While in this present existence “we groan,” and we “long to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven,” which is what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15. The dwelling from heaven and the building from God is our resurrected body. Notice for the apostle Paul what it means to be dead and out of the body: “we will not be found naked … we do not want to be unclothed … what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.” (vv. 3-4). For the apostle Paul he desires earnestly to be in the presence of the Lord, but his ultimate hope is to be in his glorified body and in the presence of the Lord. It is not an either/or, but a both/and.

The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Though some may think of their bodies as expendable, simply housing what is truly important, the hope of the resurrection of the body is utterly crucial to our faith. Not only does Jesus debate strongly for bodily resurrection (Matt. 22:29-33), but it is for the resurrection from the dead that the apostle Paul most frequently preaches on (Acts 23:6). When Jesus was resurrected, at no point does Jesus discard his appearance. When he was risen, Jesus actually eats breakfast on two separate occasions with his disciples (John 21:12). He describes himself. In fact, even at God’s right hand, Jesus is still a human (1 Tim. 2:5).

What do we mean by resurrection? Well, we have a lot of examples of what resurrection meant for the people of God. Every time the dead are risen in the bible, it is in their own body: Lazarus (Jn. 11), Jairus’ daughter (Lk. 8:40ff), Tabitha (Acts 9:36-43), Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12). And ultimately, of course, Jesus (Lk. 24:39; Acts 2:31; 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). The difference between the resurrection of Jesus, the firstfruits of the dead, and the others raised is that Jesus would be raised never to die again: he was immortal, incorruptible.

The resurrection from the dead that we long for is precisely this. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col. 3:4 ESV). As John the Beloved writes:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
-1 John 3:2

Where Does This Leave Us?

Many Christians are comfortable talking about the resurrection of the body. But I suspect for many Christians this talk is uncomfortable. I think that it is uncomfortable because we all, as the apostle Paul mentions earlier, “groan in this present existence.” The material body itself is not evil: it is part of what God called “very good.” A statue is not evil even if black paint is vandalized on the image: all it needs is to be cleaned. So our experiences in this body, whether it is cancer, sickness, disease, chronic pain, or death, does not mean our body is bad or subpar: it means it needs redemption.

So as Christians, let us learn to love our bodies, which will one day be redeemed from the grave, redeemed from bondage, and will finally exist in all its created glory in the presence of our Savior.

“My Kindom Is Not of This World” – Can You Prove It?

Jesus cited the fact that His disciples were not fighting for His self-defense as the proof that His kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus was facing trial before Pilate as a suspected Jewish revolutionary, Pilate gave Jesus a chance to explain His actions. In response, Jesus didn’t simply proclaim “My Kingdom is not of this world”; He pointed to the non-violence of His servants as proof to substantiate His claim.

Two thousand years later Jesus’s kingdom is still not of this world. But can we prove it like Jesus did? Can we still point to His disciple’s refusal to fight to bear witness to this fact?

Therefore Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me? Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm.” Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” – John 18.33-37

What Did Jesus Mean By “Not of This World”?

A commitment to nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of His Kingdom. Of course the differences between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms go far beyond whether or not the servants of those kingdoms fight or not. There are many ways in which the Kingdom Jesus preached is “not of this world.”

  • Their source of authority is different. Earthly kingdoms are led by men, while Jesus’s kingdom has its authority in heaven.
  • Their ability to influence the behavior of their citizens are different. Earthly kingdoms seek to reform behavior by use of outward force, while Jesus’s kingdom seeks to inwardly transform hearts.
  • Their boundaries are different. Earthly kingdoms are divided by geographic or racial boundaries, while Jesus’s kingdom is universal in nature.
  • Their source of power is different. Earthly kingdoms look to the power of the cross (or other weapons used to impose the threat of death), while Jesus’s kingdom looks to the power of the cross (i.e. the willingness to submit to death).

But of upmost importance, we must not miss the one key difference that Jesus actually points to in His answer.

  • Their response to evil is different. “If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would have been fighting”

When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7.7). Elsewhere John would say, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.15).

The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to a worldly way of doing things and a Godly way of doing things. The commitment of Jesus’s followers to nonviolence is at the heart of this difference.

Jesus Proved It. Can We?

Jesus didn’t just claim that His Kingdom was not of this world. He pointed to the observable fact that His servants were not fighting as proof.

If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.

Just a short time earlier He has rebuked Peter when Peter attempted to come to his defense (Jn. 18.10-11).Had Peter, or any of the other disciples been fighting at the time, Jesus’ claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you image Pilate’s response if such had been the case? “What do you mean your Kingdom is not of this world!? Then how do you explain the actions of your disciples!?” But as it was, Jesus’ disciples were not fighting, and Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.

What’s the Big Deal about Inerrancy- Part 2

This is a response to Shane Himes’s article: “Israel’s Journey to Know God: Progressive Revelation Part One”

This is the second article I’ve written in response to Shane. You can find his first article here, and my first response here. This response is following his second article in this series.

Again, in the desire for brotherly love and unity, and to keep myself from polemicizing a brother in Christ with whom I greatly disagree, I’ve written to Shane personally.

Hi again Shane, 

To be honest, I hesitated for a few moments before clicking on your most recent article. The thoughts running through my head sounded something like, “What if there is some argument he brings up that I’ve never heard of before and can’t answer?” This initial thought led me to ask a couple of questions: “Why do I feel the need to answer your denial of biblical inerrancy?” and “How much of this discussion deals with our presuppositions before ever even coming to the passages in the text that are a bit troublesome?”

To answer the first question, I feel the need to answer because I believe inerrancy to be foundationally important to the Christian faith, for the reasons I stated in the previous article. Secondly, despite the litany of alleged biblical contradictions, why do I still hold so stubbornly to my belief that the Bible is, in fact, a unified collection of documents and does not contradict itself? 

It seems to me that we are dealing with our presuppositions. You and I are looking at the same evidence and coming to two different conclusions. It’s not that the issue with Exodus 6:3 absolutely convinced you that the Bible was prone to contradiction. I know that because when I look at this discrepancy, I (and others like me) don’t have the “ah-ha” moment you mention.

It saddens me that you felt limited to two options when addressing this issue.

“I could declare the Christian faith a hoax due to contradictions in certain parts of the Bible, or I could nuance my understanding of biblical inspiration and my expectations of the Bible.”

Have you considered a third option? I could hold onto my trust in the reliability of the Scriptures, dig deeper, and find an explanation that reasonably reconciles this passage with the times God is known as YHWH to the patriarchs. 

Yes, I think the issue you initially brought up can be addressed reasonably and without stretching the text. The foundational issue here, however,  is whether or not, at its very core, the Scripture is accurate and trustworthy. Do we get to subjectively decide where we think God’s Word is right and where it must be wrong?

When God states that He was not known by His name to the patriarchs, how can we account for the 100+ times that He (or they) use that name in Genesis 12-50? Here’s my attempt to answer it, but like I said (and will continue writing about), the issue we are dealing with is so much deeper than just one (of hundreds) of apparent discrepancies.

We are dealing with the storyline of God’s name, which doesn’t climax until Exodus 34:5-7. The concept of God’s “name” is never biblically emphasized as the four letters that make up the tetragrammaton, but the very character and nature of God. He is consistent and faithful. He will always be who he always has been (YHWH). The reason we can trust Him is because we can have absolute surety in “who” He is. The writer of Exodus was very familiar with Genesis and wasn’t contradicting it, but pointing out that Moses’s connection with God was so much deeper than what the patriarchs might have experienced. The point wasn’t that they didn’t know the word “Yahweh” in connection with God. The point is that God’s might was revealed to Abraham, but the fullness of His character wasn’t revealed until Moses, and even then it had to be limited so that Moses wouldn’t be destroyed (Exodus 33:17-23).

Can you answer how as a young boy Samuel “ministered before Yahweh” (1 Sam. 2:18; 3:1) but he “did not yet know Yahweh” (1 Sam. 3:7)? Did he know who he was serving or not? Clearly to know in this passage means more than simple recognition of existence.

What about every other time in Exodus when yadah, the Hebrew word to know,” is applied to human engagement with Yahweh (6:7; 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22; 9:29; 10:2; 14:4, 18; 16:6, 12; 29:46)? Each of these passages indicates so much more than simple recognition of existence. Is it good exegesis to use a modern Western definition of know in Exodus 6:3, when it is clearly much more than that?

What about the fact that yadah  is applied to the intimate sexual experience between husband and wife? Did Abraham really not know Sarah before that happened?

What about Jeremiah 16:21 and Isaiah 52:6? Did the people of Israel really not know how to pronounce God’s name? I don’t think either of us would make that claim.

This isn’t stretching the text. This is exactly what you have been asking us to do, recognize the cultural, linguistic, narrative, and historical context of the Writings. We can’t apply the Hebrew word yadah to our cleanly defined 21st century Western understanding of what it means to know something, when it is clear from Scripture that it means so much more.

Moving to the bigger issue, however, where does my trust in the Scriptures come from? Is it a game of circular reasoning? I believe Jesus because I believe the Bible because I believe Jesus because I believe the Bible…and so on? I don’t think so.

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

I believe in the “gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:1-2). 

Because He was declared to be the Son of God, I believe the things He said to be true.

I believe what Jesus taught about the Old Testament. When did He ever cast doubt on its origin? Did he teach that the Old Testament writings were just the author’s interpretation of what God wrote? Actually, He taught exactly the opposite. Jesus regularly referred to passages from the Old Testament as “the commandment of God” (Matt. 15:3) and “The word of God” (Matt. 15:6; John 10:35). In fact, Jesus, Himself, quoted the very passage that convinced you that the Old Testament must contain errors.

“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt. 22:31-32; Jesus is quoting from Ex. 3:6)

Who did Jesus credit these words to? You have attributed this passage from Exodus to a mistaken human, when Jesus attributes it to God Himself. 

I believe in Jesus’s promise to the apostles that they would be given the “Spirit of truth” who would teach and remind them of Jesus’s words (John 14:17, 26). 

I believe what Jesus said to those same apostles when he promised,

“When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-15).

For those reasons, I also believe what the apostles say about the Hebrew Scriptures. When do they ever cast doubt on its origin? Do they teach that the Old Testament writings were just the author’s interpretation of what God wrote? Actually, they teach exactly the opposite.

2 Timothy 3:14-17

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

When Paul writes this about the Hebrew Scriptures, he emphasizes God’s intimate involvement in the Word. Where exactly is the room, according to Paul, for the Hebrew prophets to misunderstand Him and write their own interpretation of their experience with God?

2 Peter 1:19-21

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Prior to this quote, Peter emphasizes his own role as an eyewitness and how God’s revealed words are even more concrete and trustworthy than what he had previously experienced walking daily with the incarnate Lord. Should this passage read, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as best as they could understand him, while of course being limited by their unscientific, morally unrefined, ancient worldview”?

I’m just not comfortable with the presuppositions that would allow for Jesus and the apostles to be mistaken on their teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

I really do appreciate your attempts to show that the Bible must be seen in the cultural and historical context that its authors lived. I agree wholeheartedly, but to suggest that God was not able (or willing), in those ancient times, to communicate his words accurately is contrary to Jesus’s teachings. The term “inerrancy” might be a modern construct, but its definition has been the foundation of most Christians throughout history: the reliability that anyone with a copy of it has access to God’s own words.

As for the Akkadian texts you mention, I think they are amazing finds that really shed light on the Torah! If the global flood really did happen, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that other ancient cultures (even those who began writing their histories before the ancient descendants of Abraham) would recount these stories? Even the ancient Māori, in the land I’m currently living in, had a story of an overwhelming flood. Most ancient cultures do. That should increase our faith in the Hebrew Scriptures! 

Sidebar: Does the Bible claim that Moses was the first person to ever write anything down? Does the fact that these Akkadian texts are older mean that they are in some way better? The Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin is actually much older than Hammurabi.

It’s great that you’ve listed some of the laws from the Code of Hammurabi, written centuries prior to the Exodus. Aren’t they amazing? The similarities to the Torah are awesome! If God did give His Law to a theocratic society that had recently departed Egypt, wouldn’t we expect some of the civil laws found therein to be similar to other ancient law codes? Of course we would. But, I think you forgot to mention some of the important differences. Hammurabi’s law is completely inundated with polytheism, like all cultures of the day (except the Hebrew). The Torah continually declares the Israelites’ reasons for believing and obeying it: God’s faithfulness and rescue. Before giving any laws, God states: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) Throughout the Torah He emphasizes the mandate for obeying Him is tied to His love and his previous action (Lev. 25:38; 26:11-13, Dt. 4:7). Yahweh’s laws are tied to His real presence and righteousness among His people. Is this something that Hammurabi can claim?

As for Joshua 10:12-14, I hope you can maintain consistency and never again use the phrases “sunrise” and “sunset.” Otherwise, people might consider you ignorant and unscientific. It might be more reasonable to allow the Bible to speak the same language that ancient people spoke, and in this case, the way people still speak today, as things appear from our perspective. 

You mentioned in a Facebook post that “these articles are fun, but they aren’t going to be the best means of academic engagement.” You suggested that we read your thesis if anyone really wanted to “dive into the issue.” While I appreciate the hard work and study that goes into a thesis, I think that since you’ve introduced the topic in a nonacademic venue, its best for us to continue the conversation down here. I also enjoy spending some time in academia’s ivory tower, but if conclusions reached there can’t be effectively communicated to those without access to it, we’re doing a great disservice to the Lord’s people. 

I’m not sure if you plan to respond to my responses, but I think I’ve voiced some questions that many of us have when inerrancy gets the boot. Perhaps you didn’t intend your articles to be a large scale defense of your position of “errancy,” but when you finish your series I would really appreciate your time in helping me understand your point of view in some of the questions I’ve raised. 

Shane, I appreciate you and hope we can come to a better understanding of God’s truth together.

What’s the Big Deal About Inerrancy?

Today as I was scrolling through Aggos.com, a new social media site for members of the church of Christ (check it out!), I noticed a post by Shane Himes sharing his article “Israel’s Journey to Know God: Biblical Inspiration” (find it here). In short, I disagree with his conclusions about biblical inerrancy and want to share why.

In the past authors within churches of Christ who disagreed with each other often wrote to their opponents in journals, blogs, or brotherhood publications to encourage a written debate and sort out the issues at hand. Sometimes, their correspondence was published for the readership of those journals. Unfortunately, and more often than not, these authors resorted to the vilification of those who disagreed with them through twisting the words of an author who would respond and setting up “straw-man” arguments against those who didn’t. These things don’t make for the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). While we may disagree, I have a responsibility in my response to show “humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). In order to do this, and remind myself that I am writing to a brother, not an enemy, I’ve decided to write directly to Shane.

Hi Shane,
I know we’ve never met, but if you’re ever in the Henderson, TN, area in the next year or so, let me know and let’s grab some lunch. I’ve read your article about inerrancy and appreciate some aspects of it. I agree that adages and oversimplified viewpoints of the Scripture can cause more harm than good. The Bible is sometimes confusing and often difficult to understand. Even Biblical authors have acknowledged that. Acknowledging that fact, the question then is, “Where do we go from here?”

As I read, I noticed that you are a young guy, like myself, who obviously loves Jesus and His people. The topic of your writing, however, was troubling and in my opinion, inconsistent with what the Bible teaches. Though the Bible is difficult to understand in some places, I sincerely disagree that the best way to deal with these issues is to give up on inerrancy, deny the unity of the biblical writings, or overemphasize the human involvement in the word of the Bible to the point of neglecting the divine. This seems to be what your article is attempting to do.

For the sake of some readers of this, inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy that Shane mentions is probably taken from article XI:

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

It is important to remember that this “statement” that Shane and I are referring to is not a denominational creed, but a definition of what many believe to be a summation of biblical principles on God’s authority and man’s involvement in the writing of the Christian Scriptures.

I think that your definition of inerrancy is a bit misleading. Article VI, that you’ve mentioned reads: “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” Without reading more of the statement, however, it might seem that they mean that God miraculously took control of the biblical author’s writing hand and mechanically dictated each stroke of the stylus. For clarification, Article VIII reads: “We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.” The Bible is full of the original authors’ personalities: John’s Greek is easier to read than Luke’s, Paul doesn’t necessarily remember who all he baptized in Corinth, and Matthew’s gospel seems inherently “more Jewish” than Mark’s. These marks of authenticity don’t negate God’s inspiration, they actually emphasize God’s power in providing a consistent message through numerous human authors over long periods of human history.

Many have suggested that the Bible is inspired as far as it speaks to spiritual truths, but not necessarily in regard to what you phrase, “science, sociology, theology, morality, or anything else.” CSOI Article XII reads: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.” In your upcoming articles, could you please inform us how we can trust the spiritual positions expounded in Scripture that come from a God unable (or unwilling) to correctly communicate the physical aspects of history or geography? Are the human authors involved in the process somehow limiting God’s accuracy of inspiration?

I appreciate your unique view of the growing understanding of the Hebrew people throughout the ages, but I believe you’ve created a false dichotomy between inerrancy and progressive revelation as the Israelites experienced it. In fact Article V of the CSOI states: “We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.” It is completely reasonable to assume that God’s purposes and personality were more clear to those who had more of His revelation available to them. Hebrews 1:1-2 make that evident. While those who only had access to the Torah may have been more aware of God’s judgment and less of his grace, it’s an unsubstantiated leap to assume that their writings would contradict what would later be revealed. Is it not possible that the people of Israel were emphasizing different aspects about God as more of His revelation became known through prophecy? Do the supposed discrepancies force us to leap to the conclusion that they often changed their thoughts about God, contradicting themselves previously?

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that your viewpoint must concede that our ultimate authority as Christians is not Scripture, itself, but our subjective deliberations as to what within the Bible is correct by our own definition of proper morality, history, or science. You make some very concrete assertions about your faith, which is laudable. Let’s look at a few of them and apply your hermeneutic.

“I’m not always the follower of Jesus that I should be, but his grace is enough in the absence of my perfection. ”

Amen, brother. Me too. But if we can’t know with certainty which aspects of Scripture are truly God’s Word and which are just human reflections on God’s revelation (which are prone to error), how can you know that Paul’s description of Christ’s grace was what was intended by God?

“It is in Christ that we find the answer all of humanity, including ancient Israel, has searched for.”

I agree, but once again, I feel like my foundation of scriptural inerrancy upholds this. From your position how can you say this, without allowing for the possibility that the apostles misunderstood certain aspects of God’s revelation in Christ?

“Jesus is the perfect revelation from God and all previous revelation must bow to him.”

Amen again. But, if previous revelation and the human tendency to misrepresent God are any indication of how fallible men have represented Jesus in the books of the New Testament, how can I trust Jesus when I don’t actually know for certain who he is and what he is about? It sounds subjective at best.

If I can venture to guess what strategy you’ll take in regard to the concepts introduced in your upcoming article series, I would say that the “points of error” in the Bible (in your opinion) are actually “according to standards of truth and error that are alien to [the Bible’s] usage or purpose” (CSOI Article XIII). If you are planning to focus on “biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations,” (CSOI Article XIII) these can be explained without throwing out inerrancy in what you’ve termed as the “examining of Scripture on its own terms and in its own context.”

…We… deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.

Chicago Statement of Inerrancy- Article XIX

This point is vital. Shane, if your view is correct, what are the rest of us missing out on by holding on to the doctrine of inerrancy? Acceptability in scholarly communities? Relevance in the modern world? An easy “out” when difficult questions (like the “violent depictions of God in the Torah”) arise? Is there actually something significant to our faith and knowledge of Christ that we can gain by letting go of inerrancy?

In my understanding, I don’t think those things are worth the price of cutting off the branch we are sitting on. The trustworthiness of God’s inspired word is a pillar that undergirds our faith. When we become the moral, scientific, historical, and theological authorities instead of trusting in God’s Word for all truth, our faith will eventually become a skeleton of what it once was, after we’ve picked it clean of what society deems as inappropriate or distasteful. We certainly won’t look like the church that Jesus built and our witness for Him will be limited to whatever is palatable to the majority.

Shane, as your series of articles appear, I will attempt to show that God’s Word as we have it, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, is without error in anything that it asserts. The New Testament and Old Testament are in complete agreement with one another and the difficult questions that arise in this discussion can be answered without denying the ability of God to produce an authoritative message to mankind that is free from mistakes.

Capital Punishment, War, and Loving Your Enemies

Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?

Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?

There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.

There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.

You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)

In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.

Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)

Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?

Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.

Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.

Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).

Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).

Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.

What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?

  1. God is a Just God

God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6

  1. Not All Killing Is Murder

Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.

  1. The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God

Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.

The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4

When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.

Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.

In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.

The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
-Psalm 33.16-19

Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.

Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands

The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness.  If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?

What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?

The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…

That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.

What About Justice?

Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).

In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.

This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.

God is the all-knowing, and perfectly-just Creator of life. As such, if God wants to use governments to execute His wrath against evildoers, He certainly has that right (Cf. Rom. 13.1-4).

But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).

Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.

What About Common Sense?

Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?

The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.