Eternal Life, Here and Now

…Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. (1 Tim. 6:11-12)

When we think of eternal life, we usually think of life after death and forget that eternal life starts in the present, not just after we die.This idea is often discussed in Judaism — what it means to live in eternity here in the present, while in this world. When Jesus uses the term “eternal life,” he also sometimes refers to the present world, and if we read his words thinking about only heaven, we miss his point. Not only does this Jewish idea clarify our reading, but it gives us wisdom about how to live in the world today.

In the Talmud, from the first few hundred years after Christ, there are several references to the rabbinic concept of hayei olam (Hi-YAY Oh-LAHM),  meaning eternal life.2 Often it was contrasted with hayei sha’ah (Hi-YAY Sha-AH), which means fleeting life, or earthly life. Usually they didn’t speak of one as before death and the other after death. Rather, hayei olam was “lasting life,” and it referred to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance: living now as if you were living for eternity. In contrast, hayei sha’ah was to living a life that is only concerned about the short term material needs of today: working, making money, eating, etc.

The rabbis considered the study of Scripture one of the most important ways you could partake in eternity while on earth. A story is told about a rabbi who spent years in study of the Scriptures, and then walked past farmers tilling their land. He remarked, “they have abandoned lasting life (hayei olam) and involve themselves instead with fleeting life (hayei sha’ah).”3

The rabbis described a person who lives only for today as having “the soul of a cow.” Just as a cow stands all day long munching grass, only thinking about where the next mouthful will come from, this person focuses on daily cares and material things, not on eternal truths.

Jesus’ Words About Hayei Olam

Jesus mentions “eternal life” in the gospel of John, and he often appears to be thinking in terms of having a life in eternity here and now. For instance:

This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:2)

Using a definition of life after death, this line doesn’t quite make sense. We may try to read it as, “We will have eternal life after we die if we know God and Jesus Christ.” However, if we hear its intent to focus on the present life, we understand that Jesus is saying that knowing God intimately and living with Jesus Christ as Lord, here and now, is living as if you were already in eternity. This makes a lot of sense — what thing in our lives has more eternal significance than that?

Jesus makes one comment about eternal life that makes little sense without a knowledge of his Jewish context. He critiques the Jewish idea that the study of Scriptures was the ultimate way to live out one’s “eternal life”:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. John 5:39-40

Jesus is speaking to some of his fellow Jews who did not see that the Scriptures ultimately pointed toward him. Eternal life is not had even in studying the Scriptures, but in finding in them that Jesus is our Lord, and we can know and serve him.

Paul’s Words About Life

Paul also spoke about hayei olam in Romans. He points out that just as Christ died and rose again into eternal life, if we partake in Christ’s death through baptism, we now have this eternal life as well. We have been brought from death into life, and this eternal life is very much in the present world:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life… For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:4, 6-13)

To Paul, if we now are living in our “eternal life” we should not let sin reign over us, but live the way God designed us to live. Just as Jesus now has eternal life, we have it too, here and now, and extending after we die. Paul exhorts us to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim 6:11-12). We need to take hold of our eternal lives and live them well now, not just wait for them in the future.

How Do We Live in Response?

This question was essentially what the rich young ruler said to Jesus: how can I acquire eternal life? (Luke 18:18-22). Our traditional reading assumes he is asking about eternal life after he dies. While we can’t be sure, it is interesting to read that story with the idea of hayei olam in mind.

The man has read and obeyed the Scriptures, but Jesus sees that his wealth is what keeps him bound to hayei sha’ah, fleeting life, an empty life focused only on material gain. Jesus says that if he wants true life, he should give away the wealth that binds him, and follow after him as one of his disciples. Then he would have hayei olam, as in John 17:3, knowing Christ and the Father intimately in this life and for eternity. The ruler declines the offer, to Jesus’ sorrow. We should look at ourselves in the rich man too: are we so distracted by our material wealth that it keeps us living for what will not matter in eternity?

Jesus made another statement about wealth and eternity that can also give us direction for today. He says, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). We are not obligated to give all our money away, but our focus should be to use it to invest in eternal things — sharing the gospel, deepening our relationships, and helping others in need.

We have Jesus’ blessing to spend our money extravagantly on things that will show God’s love. We should also look at how we spend our time — on ourselves? Or on God and others? Do we fill our extra time with mindless entertainment like TV, movies and video games? Or do the things we do invest in people who will live forever, like nurturing friendships, showing hospitality, raising children, and loving others? As Paul says,

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Galatians 6:8-10)

The Challenge of “Here and Now” Eternal Life

When we only think of eternal life as “going to heaven when you die,” and not a new life in this world, we can actually distort the gospel’s message. Sometimes the gospel is presented starting with the question, “Do you know what would happen if you died tonight?” And then the next statement is, “If you receive Christ, you can know where your eternity will be spent.”

If nothing else is added to this, the gospel becomes a hollow kind of “fire insurance” that has nothing to do with our lives, but is just concerned with what will happen after we die. It’s an easy thing to offer people, because their lives don’t need to change, and it is easier on us, too, because we can go on as shallow people of hayei sha’ah, living only for today.

In contrast, Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Following Christ is what gives our lives here eternal meaning and purpose. How can we forget to share that with people? The world is full of people who see no meaning in life here on earth. Perhaps we would have a stronger witness if we had obviously different lives, and we invited others to join us in investing our lives in eternity with Christ.


1 See also “Salvation in this Life.”

2 These terms are found written down first in the Talmud, which dates from around 500 AD. Many oral traditions are recorded in it that come from Jesus’ time and before.

3 Quote is from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b:7.

Photos: Elijah Hail on UnsplashBKMD at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Seeing God From a New Perspective

Learning more about the Bible and its Hebraic cultural setting is always helpful for understanding the text. Even more than that, some concepts can make an enormous difference in our relationship with God. In my own journey, one of the ideas that has changed me most is the Hebraic picture of God.

Because our Western cultural heritage has its roots in Greek philosophy, the Greek concept of God sometimes overshadows the biblical picture of God. The ancient Greeks’ dualistic worldview influenced their understanding of God, and still influences us today.

Dualism is the belief that physical reality is worthless and evil; goodness and perfection is found only in the spiritual world. The ancient Greeks believed that if the supreme god is perfect, this god must be beyond the heavens, uninvolved in the material world in any way. We inherit from them the idea that God is far away and uninterested in humanity, who may have created the universe but has no involvement in it now.

Sometimes we hear that idea from Christians, even though the Bible shows God was intimately involved in the life of Israel, walked on earth as Christ, and is still present now in the Holy Spirit. We also inherit from the Greeks the dualistic idea that our lives on earth are of no consequence, and we should only care about the life to come. In contrast, the Hebraic picture is that salvation is a redemption of our life here on earth that extends into eternity.1

In the second century AD, dualism gave rise to the heresy of Marcion. Marcion believed that Christians should reject the God of the Old Testament as an evil, violent, lesser God than Christ, who came to teach about the true supreme God. After all, the God of the Old Testament had created the corrupt material world, so must be evil too. Marcion wanted to remove the entire Old Testament from the canon, and much of the New Testament besides Luke and Paul. He considered the Old Testament to be inferior to the New, its Jewish God angry and unloving. Marcion focused only on teaching about Christ devoid of his Jewish context. Although the church denounced him as a heretic, the philosophy behind his ideas still influences our church culture today.

Our Loving Father?

Personally, I used to embrace much of Marcion’s thinking, but that has changed as I’ve learned more about the Bible’s message in its Hebraic setting, and how the Jews understand God. Years ago, I would have agreed intellectually that God the Father is wise, loving and merciful; but the way I read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, betrayed the fact that in my heart I didn’t believe it.

Didn’t God choose a nation of complainers, burden them with meaningless regulations, and punish them harshly for their sins? This really had a negative effect on my desire to learn about God or grow closer to him. I knew that Christians were supposed to dedicate their lives to serving God, but was pretty unexcited about that idea. If I did, God would probably call me to some job I hated or make me abandon people I loved. Wasn’t that the kind of harsh thing he did to the Jews? Even though I believed that Jesus was God too, that did not placate my negative feelings toward his Father, and my love and trust in this God was minimal.

In some churches I still get a sense that they share this lack of love for their heavenly Father that I used to have. I suspect it when a church prays only to Jesus, or sing songs praising Christ exclusively. Or when people talk longingly about seeing Jesus in Heaven, but never mention our loving Father, the one that Jesus came to bring glory (John 17:4). I also suspect it when every sermon comes from the New Testament and ignores nearly 80% of the scriptures, the only part Jesus studied.

In some circles there is even a tendency to accuse God the Father of evil, even though it would be unthinkable with Jesus. When reading the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac, some will say, “I think God is a child abuser!”2 But when Jesus initially turned down the Gentile woman who asked him to heal her child (Mark 7:26), it’s assumed that his motives are good even if we don’t understand them.

Isn’t this a strange kind of schizophrenia that allows us to speak lovingly of Jesus and angrily of his father, and yet worship them as one God? Knowing that Jesus is the very likeness of his Father should answer any doubt we have about the goodness of our Father in Heaven.

A Challenge from the Jews

The thing that really challenged me to rethink my picture of God was to read from the Jews themselves about how they related to God. I admit, I was curious how this people who had only known God’s “bad side” in the Old Testament would relate to him.

It came as an utter surprise to me to hear the love that Jews have for God the Father in the prayers they have used for centuries. Much of Jewish prayer is filled with an attitude of praise, blessing God for the most minute gifts that he has given.3 One traditional hymn from the 3rd to 5th century AD goes:

Every living soul shall bless your name, O God!
All created things will give you glory and thanksgiving!
Eternally you are God, and no one can stand before you.
Who but you offers freedom and help,
nourishes us and redeems us, sustains us and saves us,
and at all times views with unfailing compassion our sorrows and distress?
There is no one but you!4

I remember being amazed that the Jews who only knew the God that I didn’t like would describe him in such loving terms. Why did these people see God’s mercy and kindness where I didn’t?

I think it is because they come to the Hebrew Scriptures with an understanding that is less obscured by a foreign worldview. Westerners want theology laid out in a systematic way, with clear creeds and statements of truth. Instead, we find stories, rules, and long lists of names. It is foreign to us, so we preach and study mainly out of the New Testament, and only dabble with the rest of scripture.

For thousands of years, the Jews (including Jesus) have revered this text and memorized it, meditated on it and applied it to their daily lives. They have found some excellent answers for many of the hardest questions I’ve had, because they dwell in the Scriptures as natives.

The Command to Wear Tassels

A case in point is the commandment to wear tassels with a strand of blue thread (Numbers 15:37-39).5 I used to think this was a truly pointless regulation and I was glad to be free from silly, oppressive laws like this. When I opened the Jewish commentaries, I saw that they asked a far better question than I did — what good purpose did a loving God have in giving this law?

They pointed out that this was a very meaningful command because in ancient cultures, tassels were a sign of nobility and priesthood. It was like God was telling his people to wear a royal robe each day to show that they were his treasured possession, a nation of priests. What I had seen as legalistic foolishness, they saw as a great gift from God.

Jewish scholars had a good response for laws that do not have any clear function. They would ask, “Why did God give us this command to obey?” and answer, “To show our love and trust for God, whose purposes are beyond fathoming.” What a better attitude than my own!

God is Present and Sovereign

Another thing I learned from Judaism is a sense of God’s participation in this world, and sovereignty over everything. The Greeks believed that the supreme God was uninvolved in this world, and the Western view of God tends to view him this way too. We assume God is not interested in our computer problems, how our job is going, or whether we are overweight, but only in “spiritual” things. Or we assume that only after we die will we have any interaction with him.

Westerners also view him as a judge we will meet for the first time after we die, rather than a loving Father who seeks a relationship with us to heal our lives in this world. The difference in the Jewish attitude shows in their pattern of prayer, which continually praises God as the source of every good thing in life through short prayers throughout the day. It is difficult to not feel that God’s love surrounds us when we repeat dozens of these prayers each day.6

Another dualistic attitude in Christianity is the assumption that God only works through the miraculous, and that human advances are not under his control. For instance, some feel it is unspiritual to seek medical help, and that only prayer for healing is God’s will. In Judaism, however, a prayer is said before taking medicine which praises God for giving man wisdom to discover this blessing, and then asks him to work through it to heal them.

They see God’s presence in what we see as our own accomplishment. Rather than assuming human effort is an affront to God, they assume God is sovereign over what humans achieve too. Many with treatable mental illness have suffered too long because they felt they just needed to be more “spiritual.” How much better it is to assume that the Lord uses human beings to care for us!

The Lord our God, the Lord is One

Even though the Jewish people lack the critical knowledge of our Lord Jesus, through their scriptures they have found amazing wisdom about the goodness of our Heavenly Father. When I read the Bible from their viewpoint, I now find that the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation, becomes good news of God’s love, not just the last part.

More importantly, my love and trust for this God has greatly increased as I have started to see him as the passionate, loving God that rescued his people from Egypt rather than the cold, distant, intellectual God of the Greeks. The more I study from this perspective, the more God the Father and his wonderful Son Jesus seem to be one and the same.


1 See “Salvation in This Life” and “Eternal Life, Here and Now.”
2 See “Offended by God.”
3 For more information, see “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.”
4 From Praying with the Jewish Tradition, by Elias Kopciowski, ©1997, Eerdmans.
5 See “Wearing our Tassels So They Show.”
6 See the references in note 2.

Note: A good source for further reading is Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson ©1989, Eerdmans. See especially chapters 8 & 9, which describes Marcionism and explains the Hebraic world view.

Photos: Attributed to Cima da Conegliano [Public domain], Ben White on UnsplashBlake Campbell on Unsplash

Salvation In This Life

In classical Greek thought, there was strong sense of dualism — that the material world is corrupt and worthless, and only the spiritual world was worthwhile. In contrast, the Bible was written from a Hebraic perspective that believed that God’s creation is good, and that human life on earth is meaningful. Our Greek background still makes Christians somewhat dualistic. We sing songs with lyrics like

This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through,
my treasures are laid up a-way beyond the blue,
the angels beckon me from heaven’s distant shore,
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

While it is good to look forward to heaven and Christ’s return, we tend to disparage the life we have here on earth as unimportant. We often think of our activity on earth simply as waiting—waiting for Christ to come again, or waiting to die and go to heaven. Re-examining the Bible’s Hebraic picture of salvation may give us a different perspective.

Salvation as a Relationship with God

Most Christians would define salvation as being allowed to enter heaven after death, which of course is focused on the afterlife. It is true that we will be saved from judgment, but the Bible also uses another picture of salvation that we rarely emphasize: salvation as a restored relationship with God, in this life. An unsaved person lives a life separated from God, because sin alienates him or her from God. As Paul says,

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:21-22)

Through the new covenant of forgiveness that Jesus established, we can come into a relationship with God. Christians often think of that only in terms of being pardoned from the judgment to come.

Each time we take communion, however, we are celebrating the fact that under this new covenant of forgiveness by Christ’s blood, we can “sit down to dinner” with God, something that wasn’t possible before. In biblical times, partaking of a meal together was only done if people had a close relationship with each other. If there was a conflict between two people, after it was resolved, the parties would eat a meal together to celebrate their reconciliation. We also see this picture in Revelation 3:20:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.

The picture is that a person who is saved is restored to fellowship with God in this life, as well as the next. We also see this in Jesus’ parables. He describes an unsaved person as being like a sheep lost from the flock, or like a rebellious prodigal son who has left his family. Salvation comes when the shepherd finds the sheep and brings it home, or when the prodigal son is received back into the family.

This idea of salvation in this life allows us to understand some texts that otherwise don’t make sense. Paul says “by grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. Even more importantly, Paul says,

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

If we think in terms of salvation as a future reward, this passage sounds like we should be in a perpetual state of worry. However, if we see salvation as something that we already have, he is talking about having awe and reverence for God who is helping us bring every part of our lives into relationship with him.

A related idea is that eternal life starts in this world. John seems to think of this when he says:

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Many verses like these are ones we should read in terms of salvation in its present sense. Many others do speak of salvation in its future aspect as well. We should keep both in mind as we read the Bible.

What are the implications?

One thing is that our picture of God changes. If we only think of salvation as escaping hell, our idea of God is mainly that of an angry judge. In contrast, Jesus portrays God as a loving shepherd who searches for his sheep, or a loving father eager to see his son come home. This picture is of a God that actively wants to seek out his lost children, and bring them back into relationship with him. He loves us and wants us near him, he doesn’t just want to pardon us from our sins.

We are also forced to ask ourselves, if we are already living in eternity, in a relationship with God, does our life show it? If we think of ourselves as just waiting for a future promise, we can easily fall into wasting our life here.

Should a life in relationship with God be filled with mindless entertainment or materialism? Our priorities change when we don’t see our life as disposable. The world around us is filled with people who see no meaning in life. Perhaps the gospel would go forth more boldly if we took hold of our salvation and started living it here, rather than waiting for it in the future.

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Our Final Dwelling

A fundamental aspect of God’s plan to redeem the world is mend is the idea that sin caused a break in the relationship between humankind and God, so God’s plan is to mend that break so that we can dwell together forever.

When God first makes man and woman, he puts them in a garden, and he walks and talks with them there. When they sin, they are cast out of the garden, and therefore barred from entering his presence. Mankind rapidly increases in wickedness until the whole world is filled with corruption.

However, God makes a covenant with the people of Israel that they will be his people, and he will be their God. After the covenant is first enacted, and before it was broken in any way, seventy elders of Israel could enter God’s presence and not suffer harm (Ex. 24:9-14).

This shows that God had, through this covenant, already begun to mend the severed relationship between mankind and himself, so that people could enter his presence once again, even if only temporarily. The break in intimacy was beginning to be healed, but it still was only partial: only a few could enter God’s presence, from one nation that he had chosen to extend his covenant.

When the Israelites left the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, he gave them instructions on how to make a portable facility where they could meet with God once again, the tabernacle. God said to Moses,

Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. (Ex. 25:8)

Notice what is significant in this sentence: God tells them to make a sanctuary for him, but his goal is not to dwell in it, but to dwell among them. His goal is to have intimacy with his people, for them to live in his presence. After it is built and consecrated, God’s Holy Spirit indwells it, and his people can worship him in the desert wherever they go.

When the Israelites sin by worshiping the golden calf, God threatens that his presence would not go with them into the Promised Land. He relents, however, after Moses pleads for them, and says they do not want to go if his presence does not go with them (Ex. 33). Later, Moses reminds them that they are unique among the nations in having their God so near them (Deut. 4:7). This was a central aspect of the blessing of Israel, that they could come near the true God.

Looking ahead to the New Testament, we see fulfillment of the messianic imagery of God’s presence coming near his people in a powerful new way. Certainly, when Jesus walked on earth as Emmanuel, God with us, God’s presence was at its peak in the person of Jesus. Yet he said there was coming something better: God’s presence as the Holy Spirit being poured out on humanity.

While before the people worshiped God in the temple where his presence dwelt, now God’s presence dwelt in the people, making God’s people the temple. The blood of the first covenant made it so that the seventy elders could enter God’s presence, but the blood of the new covenant by the atonement of Christ made it so that God’s presence could be poured out into the whole world.

Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the LORD. “Many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you. (Zech 2:10-12) 

Here, God had accomplished an even greater thing than in his first covenant, in terms of healing the breach between himself and humanity. While the first covenant allowed a few to enter his presence, this new covenant allowed people of all nations to repent and enter his presence. His presence would flow out into the world through them!

The final picture of God’s presence fully among his people is that of heaven in Revelation.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1-4)

It is impossible to imagine the glory of God we will experience when we are present with him in heaven, but if there is any doubt that this is not the ultimate goal from the very beginning of scripture, we only need to compare the vision of heaven at end of the book of Revelation with the garden of Eden in the beginning of Genesis.

In Revelation, we read a description of heaven that includes a tree of life, a river of life, no sin, no death, and many other things that remind us of the the garden of Eden in Genesis. In Hebrew, the word for “heaven” is actually gan eden, the Garden of Eden! It is a picture of what all of the Bible is about, that the Lord made humans to dwell with him in intimate relationship.

When that relationship was severed by sin, God immediately made a plan to redeem humanity. Over history he worked out that plan so that the end is even more glorious than the beginning. At first only two people live in the presence of God, but at the end an entire kingdom of people live with God for all eternity!


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Forever and Ever … Hallelujah!

An overarching theme in both the Old and New Testaments is the idea of God becoming king over all the world. In Zechariah we read:

The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zech. 14:9)

In Revelation, we find a similar vision of God becoming king over creation:

Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,”The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:15)

It seems odd to us that the creator of all the universe would not be considered its king at all times. The biblical picture, however, is that even though God is creator over all of his creation, once humanity fell, they excluded themselves from God’s kingdom because of their disobedience.

After the fall, the world was in bondage to sin, and was given over to worshiping other gods. While God is the sovereign judge over all creation, the Bible says that only those who accept him as their king are actually a part of his kingdom.

One of the main themes of the Bible is that after the fall, God’s plan is to repair the breech and bring humans back into his kingdom. Only a couple stories after the flood, the time of man’s worst rebellion, we begin to hear about how God finds one man who will be faithful to him, Abraham. God tells him that he would make him into a great nation.

Later, God makes a covenant with Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, that he would be their God and they would be his people. God’s kingdom started with one man and expanded to the nation of Israel. The goal was that the whole world would see the true God through this nation who worshiped him as King. He would give them a land that was in the middle of the international trade routes, so that their culture would impact the world as they lived according to his instruction.

In addition, God promised that one of king David’s descendants would be king, and have a kingdom without end. The plan was that this righteous king, the Messiah, would come to establish God’s kingdom over the whole world. The Bible’s vision is that finally, at the end of all things, the LORD will be king over the whole world once again, through the messianic king that God promised to send.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

We can imagine there would be much speculation about how God would establish his reign over the whole world. At the time of Jesus’ coming, this was especially important to Israel, who was under oppression by the pagan Romans. Obviously, when the Messianic King came, he would establish God’s reign by conquering the Romans. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne. For instance:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (Messiah, in Hebrew). Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (Ps. 2:2, 4-6, 8)

They also read about the “great and dreadful day of the Lord,” where he would come to judge the enemies of Israel, and they longed for that day.

Messianic prophecy also talks about a “suffering servant” and a “Prince of Peace,” but the people of Jesus’ day expected the Messiah would bring God’s judgment. They imagined that there would be one sudden event when he would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” of the nations around them. Then, God’s kingdom would be established because God had destroyed all his enemies. Only the righteous would be left to be God’s Kingdom. They assumed they were the righteous who would survive the judgment, and their enemies would not survive.

When Jesus comes and proclaims himself as Messiah, he spends much of his time talking about the Kingdom of God, because it was the role of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Much of his teaching deals with the fact that God’s way of establishing his Kingdom on earth would be very different than their expectations:

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

Jesus explained that the kingdom was not going to be established by a sudden, great war to kill all the wicked, but would grow like a mustard seed, as each person repented and enthroned God as their king. It would be a spiritual kingdom that would expand as people heard about the mercy of God, that he would forgive their sins and they could have new life as his people.

It would be good news to the poor in spirit, those who were humble and realized their need to repent, but not to the arrogant who wanted his judgment to fall on the other “sinners.” God would hold off his judgment, allowing the wheat and tares to grow together: he would allow his kingdom to grow in the midst of evil, rather than wiping it out. Only at the end would Jesus return as judge between good and evil, and then his kingdom would be fully established and have its greatest glory.

Jesus explained that God’s way of establishing his kingdom over the whole world was just the opposite of what humans had imagined. The Messiah had come to extend mercy to humanity rather than judgment. God’s kingdom would be established by the atoning death of the Messiah, by which sinners, even the most wicked, could enter by repenting of their sins and being forgiven. In that way, God’s kingdom could expand as the whole world would hear about his amazing grace. Jesus came and brought God’s kingdom to earth, and its expansion is unstoppable, as God’s spirit is poured out, the lost are found, and God’s glory fills the whole earth.

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea! (Habakkuk 2:14)


Photos: John Stephen Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], Warrior King Jesus on a White Stallion by Amy Meredith [CC BY-ND 2.0]

The Kingdom Breaks Forth

In Matthew 2:6 we read a famous prophecy from Micah about the town of Bethlehem:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)

This is one of several messianic passages in the book of Micah. Christians are largely unaware of another passage in Micah that has been considered very messianic by Jews over the ages:

I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. One who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out. Their king will pass through before them, the LORD at their head. (Micah 2:12-13)

This passage was understood as quite messianic in the time of Jesus. To us, it doesn’t make a lot of sense unless we understand the imagery behind it. Once you understand it, you see that it clarifies one of Jesus’ most puzzling sayings and makes bold claims to be the fulfillment some of the most important messianic themes in the Old Testament.

Regathering His People

Micah 2:12 begins by describing the gathering of the “remnant of Israel.” What does that mean? At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God forewarns Israel that they would wander from the covenant that he made with them. He says that if they forsake him, they will lose the promised land, where they worshiped him and will be scattered to different lands, where they will serve other gods.

However, he promises that if they repent, he will regather this remnant of his people who seek him. It’s very important to realize that to “regather” doesn’t just refer to a physical gathering, but spiritual renewal too. God will regather his people spiritually, to give them hearts to worship him. Deuteronomy 30 says,

So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, … and you call them to mind in all nations where the LORD your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul…the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut 30: 1-3, 6)

Even back when Israel made the covenant, God promised them that even after they broke his covenant, God would search them out and bring them back to him again if they repented. Several times in the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd that will search for his people (see Jer. 23, Ezek. 34). When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10, he is claiming that he is the fulfillment this promise.

The Flock and the Shepherd

Looking back at the Micah passage, it says the flock will be gathered together like many sheep in a pen, and “one who breaks open the way will go up before them; they will break through the gate and go out.” What does this mean? Here, you need to know how shepherds took care of sheep in biblical times.

The shepherd would lead the sheep around open land to graze all day, and at evening, would herd them into a makeshift pen made out of boulders rolled near the mouth of a cave. Sometimes the shepherd would even sleep just inside the rocks so that he blocked the exit for the sheep himself, as if he was the “gate” for the sheep (think of John 10:7-9).

In the morning, one of the shepherd’s helpers would “break open the way” by pushing aside a boulder, so that the sheep could exit from their overnight confinement. The hungry sheep wouldn’t just leave calmly, they would burst out in a stampede, breaking through the other boulders in their way. The shepherd would exit along with them, and they would follow the shepherd out to pasture.

In the time of Jesus, the passage in Micah 2 was understood to be messianic. It was understood as describing two figures who were supposed to come, a messenger who would prepare the way, and the Messiah, who was going to be a king who would reign over his people. In this passage, they imagined that the “one who breaks open the way” was the messenger, who would cause people to repent and be ready for the Messiah, and then the Messiah was the shepherd with the sheep.

Interestingly, the passage says that the Shepherd is the LORD, hinting that the Messiah is God himself! We can see how this would apply to John the Baptist and Jesus.

The picture in this prophecy is really that of a people who are full of joy at the coming of their Messiah. Like sheep that are stampeding out of their pen after a night of being confined, the “sheep” of the messianic shepherd will be exuberant at his coming, and eager to follow where ever he leads. A very similar image is used of calves in another messianic passage in Malachi:

But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. (Mal. 4:2 )

The Kingdom Suffers Violence, or Bursts Forth?

It is not immediately clear to readers that Jesus speaks about this image in Micah 2, because difficulties in translation have obscured the meaning of the passage. Older translations of Matt 11:12 read,

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.

As it has been translated, it sounds as if Jesus was talking about the kingdom “suffering violence” in terms of the persecution he and John went through. Some have even hypothesized that Jesus was advocating violence in order to be a part of it.

The problem is in assuming that the kingdom is the victim of violence. The word “suffers” is not literally there in Greek at all: it is a way to explain how the kingdom and “violent” can be connected. However, the word for “violence,” biazo in Greek, can also mean “forceful,” or “bursting out.” Biazo can even mean “explosive,” poretz in Hebrew, which is the word used in Micah 2.

Instead of the kingdom being victim of violence,  Jesus was describing the bursting out of the kingdom! In the New International Version (1984) this verse is translated:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

Jesus appears to be alluding to the bursting out of the sheep with their shepherd, as in the Micah 2 passage. He is speaking of John the Baptist as the “breaker” who has begun the explosive effect of the kingdom of God on earth. A similar verse appears in Luke 16:

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing (biazo) his way into it. (Luke 16:16)

What does this mean?

This is one more example of how we see Jesus using the messianic imagery of the Old Testament to describe the amazing implications of the Kingdom of God being among them. He is saying that God had begun doing a powerful new thing on earth at the coming of John the Baptist, who with his ministry called people toward repentance.

Now that he the Messiah had come, the movement was exploding outward, as people were filled with joy at the coming of their redeemer and telling others about him. This movement was like yeast or a mustard seed that had started small, but was rapidly gaining force and power. When people realized its worth, like a pearl of great price, they were excitedly forcing their way into it.

Jesus is giving us a potent picture of the fulfillment of the promise of the ages: the Lord would come to his people, to forgive their sins and restore their relationship with him. The messianic age had arrived with his coming! The Spirit of God would propel this movement outward until it would fill the whole earth.

It is easy for us to become complacent, to feel that the need to grow and expand has waned. From this passage, it seems that Jesus is reminding his followers of the force behind them, that the Spirit was bursting out on earth in an entirely new way, and they should be filled with excitement. So should we be too!


Photos: Daniel Case [CC BY-SA 3.0];; Paul M on Unsplash

Gracious, Compassionate, Slow to Anger

Did you know that the Old Testament has a “John 3:16” — a verse that everyone knows by heart that describes the incredible love of God?

On Mt. Sinai, Moses asks the Lord to show him his glory. So God passes his glorious presence before him and delivers this profound description of his nature:

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Ex. 34:6)

This description of God, that he is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament, more than any other text. It’s found several times in the psalms (Ps. 86:15, 103:8, 145:8 and others) and was probably part of worship liturgies during Bible times.

Because these are God’s own revelation about himself, they are some of the most important words in all of the Bible about the nature of God. They begin with God saying his divine name, so holy that for thousands of years Jews, including Jesus, do not utter it out loud, even to this day. Then they describe God’s great mercy, patience and willingness to forgive even the worst sin.

Today Judaism refers to this passage in Exodus 34 as the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” counting thirteen ways God’s mercy is described, though some are not obvious as we read it. Jewish people still recite this every morning as part of their congregational prayers and every time they read from the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, and on other fast days, many prayers focus on this verse.

But What About the Next Verse?

You might be surprised that when Exodus 34:6 is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, usually the next line is not included even though it seems to be part of God’s self-revelation:

…Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Ex. 34:7)

Why is this? You probably find this line troubling, so you might be relieved that it is left off. But it this picking and choosing of quoted texts allowable? Yes, say rabbinic scholars, because of a pronouncement God made in Ezekiel 18, which says that innocent children are not punished for the sins of their fathers:

If a man is righteous and does what is just and right, … walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things… though he himself did none of these things, he shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:5-12, excerpted)

Because of Ezekiel 18, the rabbis interpret Exodus 34:7 about God’s punishment of later generations as only applicable as long as the children do not repent, but carry on in their father’s sin. While God does not let the unrepentant go unpunished, he is ultimately forgiving. Therefore, in Jewish prayers (as well as in the rest of the Bible), the focus is on the first verse about his mercy.

God’s Frustrating Graciousness

In the book of Jonah, you might be surprised that the Exodus 34 passage is used in anger toward God. God sent Jonah to Ninevah to warn them of God’s judgment, and Jonah ran the other way to Tarshish. Why? Jonah knew about the incredible cruelty of the Assyrians in war, who were well-known for the horrific things they did to their prisoners. He knew that of all peoples, they deserved punishment.

Finally, he did go to Ninevah to tell them to repent, and they did! When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, he did not bring the destruction he had threatened — and Jonah was outraged at God’s mercy. We read:

He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)

It is amazing to hear that Jonah is so furious with God for his forgiveness that he wishes he was dead. What a contrast between the emotions of sinful humanity and the grace of a holy, but compassionate God! While we usually look to the New Testament for stories of God’s mercy, we find one of the most powerful accounts of God’s grace in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah.

Christians sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament was an angry, unforgiving God, until he poured out his wrath on Jesus. Yet we see here that when God reveals himself in all his glory, he describes himself in terms of his grace, love and mercy.

His mercy winds its way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Because Jesus says he does nothing but what he sees his father in Heaven doing, we know that his life and death reflects his Father’s great desire: that we be forgiven and reconciled with him.


Photos: Shelby Miller on UnsplashHult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod. [from old catalog] [No restrictions]

Seeing Prophecy Through Jesus

Both the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation are apocalyptic in nature, meaning they are filled with visions of end times. Christians spend a lot of time discussing the end times and have many viewpoints on how to read prophetic material.

One way to gain wisdom about prophecy is to look at it through the life and words of Jesus. How prophecy was fulfilled at his coming? What did he himself say about it?

Surprisingly, according to Jesus, God doesn’t necessarily fulfill prophecy as we think. Many of the prophecies that describe the coming of the Messiah also describe a time of judgment by God. For instance, in Luke 1:17, the angel tells Zechariah that his son John “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.”

The angel was quoting a prophecy from Malachi which says,

Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse. (Mal. 4:5-6)

The Malachi passage appears to describe the “great and terrible day of the Lord” as coming right at the time of Elijah. John the Baptist knew scripture well, and in his ministry we hear him preaching that judgment is right around the corner, in accordance with his scriptures.

These prophecies are also the reason why John sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” John knew he was to be the “messenger” prophesied in Malachi 3, and he had expectations for the one coming after him:

See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap… So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3:1-2, 4-5)

John’s question for Jesus came from the fact that Jesus wasn’t fulfilling prophecy as he expected. It appears he was thinking that Jesus would be a mighty warrior who would destroy the wicked, including those who had imprisoned him.

Jesus replies by quoting other prophecies about the Messiah, that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22-23). John probably still believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but he was asking the question to show how perplexed he was at how Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

Jesus specifically avoids passages about vengeance, demonstrating that his ministry is one of healing and forgiveness. In one place, Jesus selectively quotes a passage to avoid words about judgment. In Luke 4, he says,

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18 -19)

He is quoting from Isaiah 61, but stops in mid-sentence, because after “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” it goes on to say, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus made a point of saying that he was the Messiah, and that his time on earth then was to bring forgiveness and a new relationship with God, but the judgment would come later. He was to suffer as in Isaiah 53, and only later come to judge and to reign.

Often, Christians say that Jesus’ people rejected him as Messiah because they just wanted a political leader, not a spiritual leader. It is more likely that many rejected him because he did not fit their reading of prophecy. They wanted vengeance and expected Jesus to come in judgment, as the Bible appeared to say.

Even Jesus’ disciples were waiting for him to announce when he would begin the war, and they would take their thrones to reign in power. They expected he would kill all his enemies, and then usher in a great messianic age where he would reign as Prince of Peace.

Instead, he fulfilled the prophecies about the “suffering one” in Isaiah 53, who by his own death would justify many and make atonement for their sins. He ushered in the Kingdom of God by his death, not by war. Only in his second coming will he come in judgment.

God surprised everyone, even the most faithful, in the coming of Jesus. It should humble us to realize that he does not use our logic to fulfill prophecy, and should make us very careful to say we have definitive knowledge about the future from Bible prophecy. Jesus said of his second coming, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mark 13:32).

One thing Jesus does say about his second coming that we often hear is the need to repent and to be prepared. He will return when he is least expected. As Peter says, God is not tarrying: he is waiting patiently for as many to come to faith to avoid judgment as possible. As we read Revelation and other prophecies about the end, it should give us a special urgency to share the gospel and live lives that are a witness to Christ.


Photos: Dimnent Chapel [public domain], James Tissot [Public domain], Rapture sign by Marc Nozell [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Son of God, Son of Man

The book of Daniel has many symbolic visions, and even though they are strange, some of them are very important for describing the coming of Jesus and his kingdom. One of the most important passages is in Daniel 7:13-14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This passage is about the Messianic king. God had promised David that one of his own offspring would have a kingdom without end (2 Sam 7:13), and this is who is being described here. Daniel has visions of many kingdoms rising to power, but the final kingdom that conquers them all is this kingdom of the Messiah. This is the scene of the the great King coming to take his seat of honor and receive authority over all creation.

The most significant part of this passage is the description of the Messiah as “one like a son of man.” The term “son of man” is often used poetically in the Old Testament to refer to a human being. Often, it emphasizes that the human being is merely mortal and not divine, like in Psalm 8:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:1, 4)

Many Christians have assumed that when Jesus uses the phrase to describe himself, he is emphasizing his humanity. That appears to be true in some places. However, people are often unaware that the phrase “Son of Man” was one of the most powerful Messianic claims, because of this passage in Daniel that describes the incredible glory that is given to this particular “Son of Man,” who is also the Son of David who is the Messianic King.

When we now look closer at how Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself, we can see that he is often referring to himself in terms of this passage.

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)

At that time, the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30 )

We can see in these scenes the Son of Man coming in the clouds, and the picture of Jesus having great glory, just as in Daniel. Here, Jesus is hinting to his great glory as the Messiah by alluding to these passages, as he does many places.

While Jesus frequently refers to himself using the term “Son of Man,” it is rare in the rest of the New Testament for anyone else to refer to him in this way. In the places where they do, they are clearly reflecting the picture of the glorious messiah in Daniel 7:

Stephen, about to be stoned to death, looks up and says, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a Son of Man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. (Revelation 1:13-14, see also Rev 14:14)

The passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus’ usage of the term as prophetic toward his return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that he didn’t regard himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted messiah who would have a kingdom without end.

The Suffering of the Son of Man

While it is clear that Son of Man is often used by Jesus to describe himself as the Messianic King who has authority, glory and power, he also says something paradoxical — that the Son of Man must suffer and die:

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? (Mark 9:12) 

And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22)

One scholar, Dr. Steve Notley, has shared his hypothesis of how the Jewish people had come to understand who the “Son of Man” was going to be. In the few hundred years before Jesus, during the rule of the Greeks, the Jews had suffered terribly for trying to be faithful to God. This was very difficult for them to understand theologically, because before they had been attacked by enemies when they lapsed into idolatry, but now they were killed if they were faithful to God. They began to ask how could God bring justice to all the people who had been killed because they refused to forsake him.

The Jews looked back to their scriptures and saw the first innocent victim of murder in the Bible, Abel. He was murdered by his brother Cain, after God accepted his worship because he was more righteous than Cain (Genesis 4:4-8, 1 John 3:12). Abel became the forerunner and representative of all the righteous people that had been killed for being faithful.

Jesus says so in Matt. 23:35: “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”

They noted that Abel was the son of Adam, or ben Adam. In Hebrew “adam” can be a proper name, or it can just mean “man” or “human,” so “ben adam” can mean either son of Adam or Son of Man. They imagined that in Daniel 7, the messianic king who came on the clouds of heaven was one like Abel, the first Son of Adam, who had died for being righteous.

Like him, he would suffer and be murdered, but then would come on the clouds in glory to judge. It appears they understood that the reason God gave Jesus authority to rule over all mankind is precisely because he walked on earth as a human, and suffered and died as a righteous man!

This understanding of “Son of Man” links two paradoxical things we have known about the messiah, that he would suffer and die, as in Isaiah 53, but yet he would be a victorious king, as in Daniel 7. This has been a problem for many, and some even postulate that two messiahs would need to come: one to suffer, and one to reign.

This figure of the Son of Man would first die as a righteous man, then would be resurrected to glory, and be given authority to judge. It is fascinating that Jesus could link, extract, and create multidimensional meanings with such a “simple” phrase to teach us so much about himself!


Photos: Jastrow [Public domain], William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain]

Encouraging Evidence

In the early 20th century, scholars had a profound cynicism about the historicity of the Bible. This was mainly because very little archaeology had been done, and scholars didn’t understand the results well enough to see the evidence that was there.

Just in the past twenty years, key evidence has been found for many of the characters in the biblical text. For instance, in 1990, the ossuary of the family of Caiaphas the high priest was found, and some of the bones that were found were those of a man in his 60’s, presumably Caiaphas himself. We even have the very bones of one of the people present at the trial of Jesus. Inscriptions with the names of Herod, Pilate and others have also been found. Next time you read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, think about that!

Christians tend to be intimidated by scholarship and are fearful of higher study, feeling that it is more spiritual to not fill our heads with lots of facts. This is unfortunate because if we believe that God is who he says, and that the message of the gospel is true, we should not lose confidence that it will hold up under scrutiny.

The “good news” is that the archaeological evidence points our way, and we can study with integrity and see that the story holds up. If anything, the message only gets stronger when put into its native context.

In my own “walk,” I have found that the more knowledge I have under my belt about the evidence for the scriptures, even for potential difficulties in the text, the more bold my witness has been. Before, I felt like the ground I stood on was a tiny patch of knowledge. I was poised on one foot trying to keep my balance while defending it from others, as well as from my own doubts! The more I study, the more the ground becomes solid around me, and the bolder I become in sharing with others.

Jews say that “study is the highest form of worship” — and it is, because the more we study the real world, the more the reality becomes clear that God truly is here, and that he is acting powerfully in our midst.


Photos: Nicole Honeywill / Sincerely Media on Unsplash, Colin W [CC BY-SA 3.0]