Introductory Note: Back in 2010, some of the teachers in the International Churches of Christ were asked by the editors of a scholarly quarterly periodical published within the Mainline Churches of Christ to write articles for one issue of their publication. I was one of those writers for the December 2011 issue of Leaven, and the following is the article I contributed.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Any writer who starts an article with this title must do so with a sense of fear and trembling. Simplistic answers will not do in the realm of hermeneutics. Yet, the two millennia of Christendom’s history have demonstrated that men will seek for, and expound upon simple answers. The varied approaches to biblical interpretation are enough to demonstrate that the answers are anything but simple. We are not talking about only the differences between liberal Protestant theology that made such a bold entrance into the theological world in the nineteenth century and in what we would all recognize as conservative theology. Those variations are to be expected. What might be unexpected and even unwelcomed are those variations among conservative Bible scholars and the religious groups they represent. Claiming to accept the Bible as the inspired, authoritative, and infallible Word of God does not guarantee a uniform understanding and application of it.
What causes such variations among Bible believers? The answers to that one are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that our level of accurate biblical knowledge and our own spiritual background experiences are likely the most significant factors in determining how we view and use the Scripture. While we may view Scripture in lofty ways as God’s Word, inadequate or inaccurate training in the handling of it will lead to misusing it. Hence, one’s view of Scripture generally may be highly commendable and even idealistic, while one’s use of it may be quite flawed – with all good intentions. Thus is the challenge of hermeneutics, a challenge that has been faced by Bible believers from the beginning of the Christian era.
Much could be said about this subject from an historical perspective or from a general theological perspective. However, the stated purpose of the series of articles in this edition of Leaven is to introduce the reading audience to a lesser understood segment of the broader Restoration movement of churches. Therefore, I will address the rest of my remarks to this particular group of which I have been a member for about twenty-five years.
My own view and use of Scripture has been shaped by many varied influences. My early years were spent in a very narrow splinter group among the Churches of Christ, commonly referred to as the “one cup, no-Sunday-School” group. As a young married man, I became associated with the more mainstream Churches of Christ. While in this group, I attended the Preston Road School of Preaching, a very conservative training school, and later taught there for a number of years. During those years, I completed an M.A. degree in New Testament studies at Harding Graduate School of Religion.
Since the campus ministry movement stage of our history was influenced most strongly by a graduate of Harding College, Chuck Lucas, it would be expected that biblical interpretation would follow certain lines. The basic fundamental view of Scripture as the only guide for faith and practice was indeed embraced by his young campus converts. Their hermeneutics were essentially the same as those in other Churches of Christ.
Dating back to the early American Restoration period, one of the cherished mottoes was stated in these words: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.” This emphasis on “doing Bible things in Bible ways” led to some amazing applications of what might be termed patternistic theology. Attempting to follow examples of the early church, hence their patterns, was far easier to espouse than to apply consistently.
Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the break in the Restoration Movement between what became known as the Christian Church and the Church of Christ movements allegedly had to do with this hermeneutic. Those in the latter group claimed that those in the former group had now reversed the revered motto. Hence it had supposedly become “We speak where the Bible is silent, and are silent where the Bible speaks.” This difference was said to account for the use of instrumental music in worship. Seemingly logical arguments can be made for either side of this old adage, which suggests that both ways of stating it have both pros and cons.
It is interesting to note that this hermeneutical challenge has been present since early Reformation days. According to the church historian, Bruce Shelley, Luther would allow whatever the Bible would not prohibit, whereas Zwingli rejected whatever the Bible did not prescribe. This difference states in slightly different terminology the aforementioned Restoration mottoes. While simplistic mottoes may be appealing, no one can totally follow either of these to the ultimate degree. Attempting to limit ourselves to only what we can actually find an example of in the Bible would result in a 21st century quagmire. On the other hand, claiming the freedom to do anything the Bible did not specifically prohibit would lead to practices that would surely result in some type of bondage. Such challenges of biblical interpretation should lead us in the direction of striving for much humility toward self and extending much grace toward others.
In what became known as the International Churches of Christ , or what some term simply the International Churches (IC) , our earlier stricter hermeneutic, particularly as related to a “pattern” to be followed, gave way to a broader interpretation that was quite similar to the supposed reversal of that early Restoration slogan. In the 1990s, our churches began to use instrumental music in worship, and to generally have more relaxed views toward things like the moderate use of alcoholic beverages and a broader role of women in the church.
Additionally, in this movement there was much more focus on what were seen as “weightier matters” and less interest in some of the peripheral issues that seem to occupy an inordinate amount of time in Churches of Christ in the 1960s. All this involved a hermeneutical shift, one that left us with more in common with the Christian Churches than with the root system out of which we grew. While there are some variations in thinking among individual members about such matters, most of our members do not come from a Restoration background, and the majority of those who do have made the shift in thinking relatively easily. On matters like the use of instrumental music in worship, we would be equally comfortable in any part of the present Restoration groups, although our preferences would tend in the direction of a less stringent interpretative approach.
A Different Theology?
Those who are even vaguely aware of the Campus Ministry Movement history among Churches of Christ in the 1970s and 1980s are aware of the conflicts that occurred when campus ministry groups grew within existing Churches of Christ. Most of these conflicts resulted when young campus ministers were trained in an “in house” setting (primarily at the Crossroads Church) and sent out to serve as campus ministers in various Churches of Christ. In these settings, it was not the nature of their theology that caused frequent conflicts with the other leaders and members in those churches, it was the primarily the practical application of same.
Prior to their arrival, the accepted definition of what constituted a faithful member of the church was well understood, as was the terminology used to describe their commitment. The incoming campus ministry group had different standards defining their commitment and different terminology describing it. Their definition of commitment was not about attending all the services of the church, giving consistently and significantly financially, and avoiding the outward sins of the flesh. Those things were presupposed. Now the talk was about “sharing one’s faith,” “being fruitful in evangelism,” having daily “quiet times with God,” and getting with your “prayer partner to practice one another Christianity.”
The stark differences in defining what constituted a committed Christian led to significant upheavals in nearly all congregations who hired young campus ministers trained in churches like Crossroads. These differences were too great to overcome, and reactionary sins on both sides were all too prevalent. The seeds of yet another division in the Restoration Movement were too deeply sown to ultimately be avoided. But it is important to note that it was not the view of the Bible or theology as much as practical application that led to the parting of the ways in the 1980s.
Perhaps a story told me by a close friend in our family of churches illustrates the point. He was brought to Christ in Gainesville and trained there for the ministry. Later serving in another church near a large campus, he eventually was relieved of his duties by the elders during the time of nationwide controversy. As he was leaving, one of the elders told him this: “It is not that you preached anything all that different from what we already knew. It is just is just that after you preached, you expected us to do it.”
Helpful Views and Uses of Scripture
The comment made to my friend reflects one of the early oft-stated views of the Bible within the movement: The Bible is intended by God to be a standard for life, not simply an ideal for which to aim. Many of the young converts in the Campus Ministry Movement phase had been repulsed by what they saw as gross hypocrisy in the lives of professing Christians. In their view, outside “the right acts of worship” and the right doctrine of baptism, most church people viewed the Bible as only a lofty ideal to be admired rather than a standard that was expected to be seriously followed. For these zealous young disciples, no selective obedience was allowed – it was all or nothing, a total commitment of one’s life to the Lordship of Christ. He was either Lord of all in one’s life, or Lord not at all.
This emphasis (and a biblical one at that) led to what was pejoratively referred to as “Lordship baptism.” Young people from all religious backgrounds, including the Churches of Christ, were asked to seriously examine whether their original baptism was based on making Jesus their Lord, and if not, they were urged to be baptized again with a true biblical understanding of conversion.
At bottom, it was an issue of repentance. For many who had been brought up in Churches of Christ, repentance was defined primarily as ceasing to do wrong. Biblically, refusing to do wrong is only the stepping stone to doing what is right, and that part of repentance can be defined as making Jesus the Lord of your life. Making him Lord means that we, as a part of his spiritual Body, will do what he did in his physical body while on earth. We are now his representatives, called to imitate his heart and life and commissioned to carry out his mission on earth, particularly to seek and save the lost.
That commission, as stated in Matthew 28:18-20, has two parts. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” The first part gave the command to go and make disciples initially, which culminated in baptism into Christ. The second part was to teach them to obey all things Jesus commanded, another way of saying to mature the converts into the image of Christ. Discipleship must have both a vertical aspect (total commitment to Christ) and its horizontal aspect (helping mature one another), commonly called “discipling.”
I have been asked many times why I became a part of the IC, and why I have stayed with them in spite of the systemic sins that have become painfully apparent, especially in this century. The answer is threefold: dedication of the large majority of our membership to evangelizing the world, teaching and practicing full biblical repentance, and discipling one another to become more and more like Christ. The latter presupposes a real openness with one’s personal life and a strong desire to keep changing and growing. A failure among some leaders in regard to the last two of these led to a crisis. But through that crisis I saw a return to the practice of them all. I have never encountered these three things in any other group in the measure I have found them in the IC fellowship. But having listed the helpful things, for which I am most thankful, the sinful things which have regrettably been a part of our movement culture must also be addressed – honestly and candidly.
Harmful Views and Uses of Scripture
What is said next is not an attempt to shift blame, although it could at first appear as such. However, the influence of one man on our movement for years was so significant that it has to be mentioned and explained. What those of us who had more biblical training did in either following his lead or allowing his influence to be widely exerted is our own fault, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We either knew better or should have known better, but were blinded to some extent by the rather amazing results in converting large numbers of people and planting churches all over the world. I clearly speak of my own guilt in this matter, and I think I speak for many more who share much the same viewpoint and present convictions. The well-known leader to whom I refer is no longer a part of our family of churches, and ultimately it was the determination to return to a biblical model that led to the end of his influence. In the final analysis Scripture was allowed to rule the day.
In spite of the more in-depth biblical teaching of Chuck Lucas in the Campus Ministry Movement days, that leader just referred to took a different approach to the Bible and to ministry training. Chuck was a good student of the Bible and a preacher of expository sermons. Further, he not only led “on-the-job” ministry training, but also encouraged further academic training. This resulted in some of our present older leaders receiving biblical training at the graduate school level some decades back. However, the eventual leader of the movement had a very negative reaction to his attempts at further academic education at one of the Christian graduate schools. As a result, he began touting the “on-the-job” type ministry training as the only type needed and eschewing religious training in academic classroom settings. His argument was that he was training “just like Jesus trained.” Since no human trainer is Jesus, I would judge that he was half right and half wrong in his approach. Some ministry training is best accomplished through a direct mentoring relationship, an apprenticeship, but some training is best accomplished in the classroom.
Too many holes in our biblical knowledge and an often distorted hermeneutic more influenced by pragmatism were the results of turning a “both/and” need into a “one and only choice.” We are now digging out of that pit that we dug ourselves, through availing ourselves of a variety of different educational opportunities, some of which we are establishing in our own ranks by those having the needed academic credentials.
Combining this former incomplete philosophy of ministry training with a strong emphasis on practical ministry generally, it would be natural to expect teaching and preaching that was almost exclusively topical in nature, and those expectations would not be unmet. The impact of this is still felt in our churches.
Effective biblical teaching and preaching on a congregational level should contain a good balance between historical context and present application, stated by some simply as “God’s then” and “God’s now.” My experience in Churches of Christ in former years left me with the feeling that we were focused too much on God’s then without enough direct application of Scripture to our present life situations. My experience in the IC in later years has left me with the opposite feeling. Both are extremes and both yield incomplete or even damaging effects. Our present challenge in the IC is to help equip leaders and members alike with enough in-depth Bible knowledge to enable them to accurately handle Scriptures contextually.
Finally, it should be stated that all strengths can become weaknesses, if we are not careful. I mentioned previously that what drew me to the IC and has kept me here were the strong focuses on evangelism, discipling and repentance. Each of these has been applied well at times and applied sinfully at times, and I will mention some examples.
Regarding evangelism, motivational approaches too often degenerated into something akin to pressure tactics and a performance orientation in our relationship to God. Clearly, the ends do not justify the means, and faulty building resulted in the upheaval in our movement that came to a head in 2003. Regarding discipling, an increasingly authoritarian approach resulted in more of a military model than a Jesus model. A very good thing done in very wrong ways leads to bad results. Understanding repentance as not only a decision before baptism (Acts 2:38), but as a continual, all-embracing part of the Christian life is undoubted biblically correct. However, the challenge is to keep the emphasis on imitating our Master, an emphasis which produces the ongoing repentance – rather than focusing on the acts of repentance themselves. The latter focus results in a works mentality that cannot continue to yield good fruit and will not sustain us as joyful Christians for a lifetime.
I would say (with apologies to Dickens) that the history of the IC has indeed been the best of times and the worst of times. But the underlying commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and his Cause has enabled even the more influential leaders among us to truly repent of the wrong and to recommit themselves to the right. To me, that is both remarkable and commendable, and a strong indicator of many great things to come.
What is our present view and use of Scripture? About the same as it has been throughout our brief history – we see the Bible as the inspired, authoritative Word of God, to which we are committed to keep following as we rejoice in the victories God gives and humbly repent at the discipline he provides. Our desire is still to be a “restoration movement,” which means that we know that we have not arrived at a complete understanding of all biblical truths nor will we ever. Only God is at the end of that rainbow. We must stay open to seeing our blind spots and learning new things. On the other hand, we do believe that we have solid footing on a number of foundational issues regarding how we view and use the Scriptures. We are changing, we are growing again, and Jesus is still Lord!
 Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1995), 250.
Excerpt From Romans – The Heart Set Free, by Gordon Ferguson
According to Romans 13:1-4, rulers protect society by punishing wrongdoers and rewarding those who do good (verses 3-4). Notice “bear the sword” in verse 4, which seems to be a reference to capital punishment. In many countries today, discussing this topic produces controversy. Certainly the controversy is understandable, especially in America where the rich often find a way to avoid capital punishment and those without substantial financial means are the ones most often executed. Add to this the fact that the minority races most often fit in that latter category, and the discussion becomes even more emotional.
Capital Punishment in the Old Testament
Regardless of what we feel about capital punishment, the Bible must determine our ultimate conclusions as disciples. We know for sure, at the outset, that God approved of many kinds of killing in the Old Testament, including capital punishment, under the legislation he inspired. For example a whole host of sins and crimes elicited the death penalty in the Mosaic Law.1 Several modes of carrying out the death penalty are mentioned in the Old Testament, including burning (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14, 21:9), stoning (Leviticus 20:2, 27; 24:14; Numbers 14:10; 15:33-36), hanging (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, Joshua 8:29) and death by the sword (Exodus 32:27-28; 1 Kings 2:25, 34, 46).
At times, the executions were carried out by the authorities, as would be expected, but at other times, by the witnesses of a crime (Deuteronomy 13:6-9, 17:7). At still other times, executions were performed by the people as a whole (Numbers 15:35-36, Deuteronomy 13:9). In no instance was capital punishment to be inflicted on the testimony of less than two witnesses (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). Coming into the NT era, we read about the Roman forms of capital punishment, notably beheading (Matthew 14:10; Mark 6:16, 27-28) and crucifixion (Matthew 27:35-38, Mark 15:24-27, Luke 23:33). What are we to make of all of this? Only that God believes in capital punishment and commanded its practice on a fairly broad basis in the OT period.2
Capital Punishment in the New Testament
As we move to the teaching of the New Testament about capital punishment, we must dig a bit deeper. The heretic, Marcion, dug in the wrong direction, concluding that the God of the Old Testament (the Father) was harsh, while the God of the New Testament (Jesus) was full of grace. This solves no problems, for Jesus as the eternal Logos (the eternal Word in John 1:1) was with the Father from the beginning. Whatever the Father did in the Old Testament, Jesus did. Whatever Jesus does now, the Father does with him (John 10:30). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and so is the Father. God is God and cannot be otherwise. Therefore, Marcion’s “god” was not the God of Scripture.
To begin our consideration of the NT teaching on the subject, Romans 13:4 clearly indicates the legitimacy of capital punishment. It might be argued (though it is not my persuasion) that like polygamy in the Old Testament and slavery in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God allowed a practice that he knew would eventually be largely phased out by his deeper principles to the contrary. But even now one cannot be dogmatic in opposition to any of these three practices, however unnatural and distasteful they may be to our modern thinking. Both polygamy and slavery have again become issues in some societies into which the gospel is being sent¾calling for wisdom, rather than rigid opinions, on the part of church leaders.
In his book, Questions and Answers, Douglas Jacoby makes the point that Romans 13 answers the question about the right of a state to enforce capital punishment, but when we ask should a disciple ever be in the role of taking the life of another person, we are asking a different question. In the next chapter of Romans Paul will show us that we sin whenever we go against our own conscience. Therefore, a disciple might conclude that the state has the right to carry out capital punishment but not be able to participate in its implementation.3
As a citizen of a country, we have some governmental rights that we cannot as disciples exercise. I assumedly have the legal right to view pornography, commit immorality and drink alcohol to excess. But as a disciple, my higher allegiance to God’s spiritual laws supersede what government allows. In other words, what the government does or allows is not the end of the matter for me personally as a disciple.
Acting As an Agent of the State
The more sensitive issue is the possibility of a Christian acting in this capacity as an agent of the state. In other words, can a disciple of Jesus destroy life as a member of the military or other branch of law enforcement? I see some differences between the two. Those with whom law enforcement officers deal are supposed criminals, while those in another country’s military force may be innocent pawns of their own government.
As this book goes to press, the military issue now looms very large in our minds following the heinous terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. It did not take long for our nation’s utter shock and unbelief to become anger and the desire for vengeance. Many disciples, if they are honest, have struggled with the same attitudes. What answers does the Bible offer in this emotionally charged area?
In the Old Testament, wars were commonplace for the Israelite nation. However, we must remember that civil and religious laws were intertwined for them, since they were the nation of God (a theocracy). Also, they most often went into battle after being directed to do so by God. In the New Testament, there is a separation of church and state, which ushers in some different principles. While we are citizens of two kingdoms at once, our higher calling is to the kingdom of God. Certainly we are to be under the authority of our government, but only as long as it does not violate the authority of God (see Acts 4:18-20, 5:27-29). The Old Testament predicted this difference in passages like Isaiah 2:1-4, in which the prophet said that in the new kingdom, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (v4).
Jesus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred in 70 ad and warned his disciples to flee, rather than to fight, when it happened (Luke 21:20-21).Jesus told Pilate that the kingdom he was bringing was not of this world, and had it been, then his servants would have fought (John 18:36). Read Matthew 5:38-48 and Romans 12:17-21 carefully. If we are persecuted for our spiritual convictions, clearly we cannot fight fire with fire. We are to love our spiritual enemies, not hate them. God hates those who love violence (Psalm 11:4-7). Vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12:19), and we need to trust him with it¾whether in this life or on Judgment Day. What the government does, it does. Governments are agents of God to deliver justice, but that does not automatically grant a disciple the right to participate in that process. My participation or lack thereof is another matter, since my highest allegiance is to God’s law.
The question of whether a Christian can engage in military service has been an issue with which I have wrestled since I was a teenager. At age eighteen, I had to register with the American Draft Board. Then I had to make a choice about my willingness to bear arms and possibly take another’s life. We have many brothers in different countries who are required to be in the military. We also have police officers and other similar agents of the state who are converted while serving in these capacities. What should their position be about these matters as new disciples?
My understanding is that the early church solved this dilemma by allowing those converted to remain in military or law enforcement roles until they could get out of them gracefully, but disciples did not accept such roles after conversion. At age eighteen, in an unusual move for people in that cultural setting, I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, meaning that I would be willing to serve in the military in a capacity that did not require bearing arms. Although my religious commitment was severely limited in general at that point of my life, I did have convictions in this area. These convictions have remained the same in the fifty years since, although I do think the complexity of the subject makes it a personal matter of conscience. When my son was concerned about the possibility of the draft being resumed during the Gulf War, I shared my thoughts with him and then encouraged him to talk to some of my spiritually mature friends on both sides of the issue.
In light of the recent calamitous events in America, the subject is no longer an intellectual issue¾it is a very practical one. Even the fact that we have now planted churches in all major nations of the earth demands that we proceed with Biblical caution and not be carried away by emotions. I do not intend to shoot at someone on the other side who might be a brother in Christ, and I am thankful that the American government allows young men and women that choice. Other governments may not, and no matter what the country, we must struggle with our own consciences and convictions. As with all difficult subjects, I respect your right to come to a different conclusion than I have come to.
Even though I am settled in my conclusion, the most difficult aspect of it comes by recognizing that two principles can be in conflict, thus prompting a choice between them. For example, love for God supersedes love for family, and we may have to choose him over them (Matthew 10:34-37). Similarly, love for family supersedes love for enemies, and we may have to choose the former over the latter. What would you do if an intruder broke into your home and threatened the safety of your family? Use force, perhaps killing in the process? If you answered “possibly” or “probably,” you assumedly would answer the same way if that intruder was a member of an enemy military group. Then, some would argue, why would you not go abroad as a member of our military forces and protect your family before the enemy made it to your front doorstep?
Hopefully you can see that this topic is not easy for any of us. I am glad that God promised that we will not be tempted with anything beyond what we can bear and that he will provide the way to endure trials (1 Corinthians 10:13). Let’s study the subject, ask counsel of many advisors, make personal decisions about how we are going to deal with the subject and then extend grace to those who come out on the other side of the issue. A preacher supposedly said something to this effect over a century ago: “Remember that while we may disagree in the hundredths, we agree in the thousands.” Amen to that!
1 Murder (Genesis 9:5-6; Numbers 35:16-21, 30-33; Deuteronomy 17:6), adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:24), incest (Leviticus 20:11-12, 14), bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:15-16), sodomy (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), lack of virginity discovered on the wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:21-24), rape of an engaged virgin (Deuteronomy 22:25), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7), immorality of a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9), witchcraft (Exodus 22:18), offeringhumansacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5), striking or cursing father or mother (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9), flagrant disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11-16, 23), desecration of the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36), false prophesying (Deuteronomy 13:1-10), sacrificing to false gods (Exodus 22:20), refusing to abide by the decision of the court (Deuteronomy 17:12) and treason (1 Kings 2:12-46; Esther 2:21-23).
2 In an interestingly related vein, Douglas Jacoby, in his book Q & A: Answers to Bible Questions You have Asked (Billerica, Mass.: Discipleship Publications International, 2001, p. 162), spoke about the punishment of the wicked in eternity. In the essay entitled “Reexamining the Biblical Doctrine of Hell” under the section “Heaven and Hell¾Terminal Punishment,” he wrote this : “The terminal view is simply that after a period of torment (‘corporal punishment’) suited to the individual, God destroys him or her (‘capital punishment’).”3 Douglas admits that his terminal view has not been the traditional view in our movement and might not be the view held by the majority even now. However, if it is true (and I personally am persuaded that it is), capital punishment, even of an everlasting nature, would need to be seen as godly and righteous. In that sense, God’s own practice would have to influence what we think about what he ordained governmental authorities to practice.
3 Ibid, 132-133.
Paul’s Actions in Acts 21
Paul was not only the designated apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:8; Romans 11:13), he was a staunch defender of Christianity against attempts to force it into a Jewish mold. A cursory reading of Galatians is enough to see his strong resistance to those Judaizing teachers who would bind aspects of Judaism on Gentiles, or bind it on Jews as a matter of necessity in pleasing God. Clearly he was the most influential voice in the early church against all efforts to blend the religion of the Old Testament with New Testament Christianity. Therefore, after reading about all of his teachings and his battles in this regard, we are somewhat shocked to read about his behavior in the following passage:
When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.
27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)
30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. (Acts 21:17-32)
After reading this passage, it is natural to ask the question posed in the title: “Did Paul sin in Acts 21?” The answer to the question is neither simple nor brief. However, it will lead us into some deeper truths that are highly important in understanding the early church and one of the primary challenges it faced.
What Was Paul Thinking?
Reading this section of Scripture without understanding the underlying issues can leave us perplexed and confused. This many years after the cross, with its subsequent termination of the old covenant and inauguration of the new, how could James and Paul be parties to such a blatant observance of Mosaic Judaism? After all, these men were two of the top leaders in the movement. Articles and books have been written by biblical scholars accusing or excusing Paul’s decision here in Acts 21. Did he give in to the influence of James (who was perhaps too close to the forest to see the trees), and just make a serious mistake in judgment with even more serious consequences? Many have alleged this very thing. And then another question looms large. If what he did was permissible, even advisable, what does that say about people continuing to observe many aspects of their former religion today? Some see the possibility of a broader application of the “disputable matters” in Romans 14, extending to non-Judaistic religious practices which would correspond to denominational practices in Christendom or practices in other religions. However, the thrust of Romans makes such applications questionable, for Paul is therein consistently correcting the understanding of the basis of salvation held by those with Jewish backgrounds. But these are good questions to wrestle with, don’t you think?
Let’s examine the denominational issue first, for it seems simpler. Biblical Judaism (not tradition-bound Judaism as we find it during the ministry of Jesus) had been originated by God. Denominationalism was neither introduced nor approved by him, and certainly other world religions were not. The two really don’t compare. Much in the OT is still quite applicable in principle today, excepting the ceremonial laws. Therefore, knowing which biblical principles were to remain in effect required, both then and now, good judgment and discrimination. Even the ceremonial type practices could be viewed as nationalistic and cultural rather than a requirement for pleasing God. Consider Timothy’s circumcision by Paul in that light (Acts 16:1-3), in contrast to Paul’s refusal to circumcise Titus, a non-Jew (Galatians 2:3-5). Therefore, with God’s tacit approval, much of the Law continued to be followed in one way or another during what I believe was a transition period.
Ultimately, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD ended this transition period. Hebrews 8:13 states: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” In other words, the old covenant was obsolete and no longer binding after Acts 2 and the establishment of the church. However, this had not become obvious to non-Christian Jews, but should have become obvious even to them in AD 70 when the temple was destroyed, forever ending Biblical Judaism with its temple, priesthood and animal sacrifices. Thus, it disappeared. But until that time, the God-given Law could be honored by those with Jewish backgrounds, as long as they met two requirements: they could not bind their Judaism on Gentiles; and they could not trust Judaic practices for salvation. Denominationalism is a perversion of Christianity, and as such, does not compare to the first century transitionary period of Judaism.
Now to the other key question: did Paul go too far in trying to please his Jewish brothers in Christ and make a serious error in judgment? The text says nothing to indicate that God was displeased with what he did, unless the ultimate result of going into the temple – false accusation and arrest – is taken to mean that. Certainly his concession did not accomplish its desired end, but this cannot be viewed as proof that he made a mistake or sinned. The principle of 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, that of becoming all things to all men, was to achieve only the saving of “some.” My opinion is that Paul did not sin in what he did, but went as far as possible to satisfy his critics. The failure was with them, not him.
We face similar challenges today. We try to do all that we can to answer logically and sensitively those who criticize us. When we are guilty of making mistakes and committing sins, we must repent and learn from those mistakes. But we refuse to compromise biblical issues, although we are willing to make concessions if we think such will yield favorable results in the overall mission. How well does it work to make concessions in the interest of relating to others? Usually not very well, but we still try to obey the principles of 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 and Romans 12:17-18, which reads: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The real issue is not whether what we do will be approved by men, but whether it will be approved by God. However, we still want to do all we can to be viewed by non-Christians as those deeply desiring to do the right thing. 2 Corinthians 8:21 puts the principle in the apropos words: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.”
The early church was soundly criticized and condemned for their determination to follow Jesus. Did they make mistakes which could be rightly criticized? Probably so, since they were human. Certainly we have made our mistakes and committed our sins, but we have continued to repent of them and learn from them. The condemnation of our first century brothers and sisters by the large majority of the society in which they lived was not due to their well-intentioned mistakes. It was because of their convictions and lifestyle which condemned the sins of their fellow man. When young disciples today hear the charges of persecutors, with the old “where there is smoke, there must be fire” adage loudly alleged, they are tempted to doubt the movement and its leaders. “Maybe we really are doing something wrong,” they may think. Just remember that the founder of your religion was God in the flesh, without sin, and yet charged as a blasphemer of God and murdered as a criminal. We can make all of the concessions possible without compromising principles, and the result will often be the same as Paul experienced: emotion-filled outrage and shameless slander. When the modern-day movement of which you are a part is falsely charged, stand tall for Christ. You are in good company with the saints of old.
When we read parts of Matthew 24, we may quickly assume that Jesus is talking about his Second Coming and the end of the world. Such assumptions are based perhaps primarily on the questions the apostles asked, as recorded in 24:3: “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’” We are also influenced strongly by the wording of his answers in verses such as these:
“Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 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. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other” (Matthew 24:29-31).
Wow! Jesus must have been describing the end of the world – right? Let’s not be too hasty in reaching that conclusion. When we look at the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, we see some differences that appear to be significant. Let’s begin by looking at the questions the disciples asked Jesus in those passages and at the answers he gave to them. Keep in mind that a basic rule of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) is that we need to interpret difficult passages in light of simpler passages on the same subject, not vice versa. Therefore, we will do well to begin with Mark’s account, written to a Roman type of Gentile audience, and then proceed to Luke’s account, written by a Gentile to a general Gentile audience. After delving into these parallel passages, we will be in a much better position to examine Matthew’s account, which is clearly the more difficult one. The difficulty lies in the fact that he uses much Jewish terminology, since Jews were the main audience he had in mind when he wrote his Gospel.
Mark 13 – The First Parallel to Matthew 24
Thus we begin with Mark 13, the text of which we will include here to make it easier to study out the specifics of the passage.
As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” 2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. 9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.
11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. 12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.
13 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.
17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!
18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now–and never to be equaled again. 20 If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.
21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect–if that were possible. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. 30 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back–whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'” (Mark 13:1-37)
It is immediately noticeable here that Mark records two questions by the apostles and not three, as Matthew 24 seems to do. Jesus had just foretold the destruction of the temple, to which they replied: “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” They had a time question (when will these things happen?) and a sign question (all these events about to take place?). Both questions refer to “these things,” the destruction of the temple Jesus had just predicted. Absolutely no mention is made by the apostles about a second coming or the end of the world, as far as Mark’s account is concerned.
What just preceded all of these comments were Jesus’ observations at the end of Mark 12 regarding the little widow who gave her last coins into the temple treasury. Jesus wanted to make sure the disciples didn’t miss the lesson provided by her example, so he called them over and said: “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44) They were evidently not only shocked at what he said, but felt compelled to offer him a correction by way of a gentle reminder. “As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’” (Mark 13:1) Luke will make it even clearer – they wanted to make sure Jesus remembered that the temple was built by the offerings of the rich, not by the pennies of poor little widows. That prompted him to foretell the absolute destruction of the temple in the not-too-distant future. Material things may be highly impressive to men (even supposedly spiritual men), but they mean absolutely nothing to the King of Glory! We cannot afford to miss that lesson while in the process of trying to deal with a difficult passage.
Jesus begins to answer the two questions by first saying what the sign is not (verses 6-13). It is not false Christs (verse 6). It is not wars and revolutions (verses 7-8). It is not natural calamities (verse 8). It is not persecution (verses 9-13). Next, he addresses what the sign actually is, starting in verse 14. First he mentions the “abomination that causes desolation.” That just sounds scary, doesn’t it – like something that would be associated with the end of time. If Jesus were describing his second coming and the end of the world at this point, nothing that follows in these verses would make any sense at all. When Jesus returns, how could anyone be tempted to go back into his house to get his cloak or anything else, and where would he get the time to do it? In a passage that clearly talks about the Second Coming, we see that everything associated with Christ’s return is going to happen fast – really fast! “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52) A twinkle of an eye won’t leave any time to worry about coming down off your roof, and you surely won’t be concerned about whether it is winter or not!
Just read Mark 13:14-20 with these things in mind. Jesus was talking about an event of great distress from which he said to flee. No man can flee the return of Christ at the end of time. Note in verse 20 that the Lord was going to shorten these days of distress. When God sent the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, he indeed shortened the days to protect the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea. In a siege against the city lasting nearly a year, Cestius Gallius, the Roman general, withdrew to Caesarea and brought back a larger army. This break in the battle allowed the Christians who understood Jesus’ prophecy to flee the city, and Josephus, the Jewish historian and eyewitness to the event, says that many did, leaving behind the Jews in the city who were determined to fight to the death (which they did).
Next, Jesus turned his attention to the time question – about when this calamity was going to take place (verses 24-32). In this section, he used what we call “apocalyptic” language, using symbols to describe this time of upheaval. It is a passage virtually guaranteed to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by anyone not familiar with the same type of language in the Old Testament. However, for those who are familiar with the OT Prophets, it is understood that this type of symbolic language was used frequently to describe God’s judgment against nations. We should take the time to give some examples to make sure this point is obvious.
Help From the Old Testament
Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. 7 Because of this, all hands will go limp, every man’s heart will melt. 8 Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame. 9 See, the day of the Lord is coming –a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger– to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. 10 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. 12 I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the Lord Almighty, in the day of his burning anger. (Isaiah 13:6-13).
Note in verse 1 of Isaiah 13 that all of this is spoken against Babylon centuries before Christ.
An oracle concerning Egypt: See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them. (Isaiah 19:1)
The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. 3 Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. 4 All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. 5 My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed. 6 The sword of the Lord is bathed in blood, it is covered with fat– the blood of lambs and goats, fat from the kidneys of rams. For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah and a great slaughter in Edom. 7 And the wild oxen will fall with them, the bull calves and the great bulls. Their land will be drenched with blood, and the dust will be soaked with fat. 8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause. (Isaiah 34:2-8)
In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month on the first day, the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, take up a lament concerning Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him: “‘You are like a lion among the nations; you are like a monster in the seas thrashing about in your streams, churning the water with your feet and muddying the streams. 3 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “‘With a great throng of people I will cast my net over you, and they will haul you up in my net. 4 I will throw you on the land and hurl you on the open field. I will let all the birds of the air settle on you and all the beasts of the earth gorge themselves on you. 5 I will spread your flesh on the mountains and fill the valleys with your remains. 6 I will drench the land with your flowing blood all the way to the mountains, and the ravines will be filled with your flesh. 7 When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. 8 All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land, declares the Sovereign Lord. 9 I will trouble the hearts of many peoples when I bring about your destruction among the nations, among lands you have not known. 10 I will cause many peoples to be appalled at you, and their kings will shudder with horror because of you when I brandish my sword before them. On the day of your downfall each of them will tremble every moment for his life. (Ezekiel 32:1-10)
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand – 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come. 3 Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste– nothing escapes them. 4 They have the appearance of horses; they gallop along like cavalry. 5 With a noise like that of chariots they leap over the mountaintops, like a crackling fire consuming stubble, like a mighty army drawn up for battle. 6 At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. 7 They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. 8 They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead. They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks. 9 They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows. 10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 The Lord thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the Lord is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? (Joel 2:1-11)
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:28-32)
Many other similar accounts from the OT could be cited, but these are sufficient to help us understand just how such language was used, and how often it was used. You will recall that this last passage from Joel 2 is quoted in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost when the church was established, and was referring to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that occasion. The language in all of these passages is very similar to that used in Matthew 24 and parallels, and also in the Book of Revelation. It can be (and was) applied to God’s judgment against any people in rebellion. Taking it literally will lead to more misunderstanding and twisting of Scripture than you can imagine. If you try to make symbolic language literal, you will at some point be forced to make literal language symbolic. Much modern interpretation of Revelation provides a clear example of such erroneous exposition. But the main point here is that no one is equipped to deal with Matthew 24 (or Revelation) without having a reasonably good grasp of the writings of the OT Prophets.
Now let’s return to Mark’s account. In continuing to answer the time question, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree (verses 28-31). While no specific time is given, the general time is to be within one generation (verse 30). In that era, a generation was considered to be 40 years. Jesus spoke these words around 30 AD and the temple was destroyed in 70 AD – 40 years later. However, Jesus said that no one could know the exact time – expressed by the term “day or hour” (verse 32). Therefore, Jesus concludes by speaking of the need to watch for the sign (verses 33-37). If this material was only found in Mark and Luke, the confusion would have been reduced considerably. One thing to be learned in this situation is the need to study less difficult passages on any subject and allow them to help us understand the more difficult ones on the same subject. It is, after all, one of the most common principles of biblical interpretation, but espoused more than practiced in trying to interpret passages like those we are considering here. Too many people love speculative “end time” interpretations to practice good biblical exegesis or exercise common sense.
Luke 21 – The Second Parallel to Matthew 24
Luke even more basic and simple than Mark in describing these events. As stated earlier, he is a Gentile writing to Gentiles, and he simplifies quite a few things for his intended original readers. He is clearly the least “Jewish” in writing style and terminology, which is of great help in understanding this particular section of Scripture. Again, to make is easier to follow, let’s include Jesus’ words as Luke describes them.
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2 He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3 “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4 All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
12 “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 This will result in your being witnesses to them. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 All men will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By standing firm you will gain life.
20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkeness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:1-36)
The order is about the same as that of Mark 13. Jesus first commends the little widow, after which the apostles remind him of how beautiful the temple is and how it was built with the gifts of the rich. He tells of the temple being destroyed, and Luke records the two questions by the apostles regarding the signs and the time when they would take place. Luke’s order follows very closely to Mark’s, so we don’t need to go back through it in detail – except in the things that are slightly different and will help us understand better what Jesus is saying. The two questions both refer to “these things” about which Jesus had just spoken. If the Second Coming was in view, Theophilus, to whom the Book of Luke was addressed (1:3), would have been misled. The sign was not false Christs (verse 8); wars and revolutions (verse 9); natural calamities (verses 10-11); or persecution (verses 12-19).
Verse 20 removes any confusion in talking about what the other two accounts call the “abomination that causes desolation.” Older versions call this the “abomination of desolation,” a term widely used by the “end time” speculators. Luke could not have made it clearer: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.” Jesus follows this statement with the warning to flee when the armies were approaching Jerusalem. With this comment, he switched to what the sign was, and he goes on to describe in symbolic language the great upheaval of God’s judgment against the Jews and Jerusalem. The fig tree parable came next, with the general time before the destruction being a generation. Jesus concluded with the warning to watch for the sign and to live life accordingly –righteously and not carelessly (verses 34-36).
Matthew 24 – A Very Jewish Passage
Let’s move directly to the key issue here in Matthew’s wording of the questions. Did Jesus’ disciples really ask three questions, or did Matthew just use Jewish terminology to state the same two questions recorded in Mark and Luke? By now, the latter possibility is becoming obvious, isn’t it? When we read “the sign of your coming” in verse 3, it should be noted that the Greek word translated coming is parousia, commonly denoting presence. Readers with a Jewish background would have taken these words to describe a coming in judgment (as we read about in OT passages such as Isaiah 19:1). Actually, Matthew 16:28 speaks of another coming of Jesus which cannot be the second coming as we know it. “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Clearly, all “comings” of God or Jesus were not associated with the end of the world. See also Luke 19:44 for “the time of God’s coming to you,” a clear reference in context to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
What about the “end of the age?” The Greek term is aion, for “age,” not kosmos, for “world.” The same phrase is used in Matthew 28:20. Whatever may be said of Jesus’ answers in Matthew 24, it is virtually certainly that the disciples could hardly have been asking about a second coming according to our concept, since they had not yet wrapped their minds around even his death or resurrection, much less a “second coming” at the “end of the world.” See Luke 9:45 and 18:34, which shows that their understanding of even his clearly-told death was absolutely nil.
The word end here is the same root word in Greek translated fulfilled in Mark 13:4. It refers in Matthew 24:6, 14 to the same event, which in its context, points to the destruction of the city. If the disciples were not asking about the second coming and the end of the kosmos, what were they asking? Two possible interpretations have merit contextually. One, the disciples may have assumed that such a great event would be the end of the Jewish world (or perhaps the whole world) – if the Jews (23:34-36) and the temple (24:1-2) were to be destroyed, their world ends. Two, since coming is from parousia (presence), often used in contemporary Greek to denote the arrival of a king, they may have pictured Jesus coming in battle against Jerusalem literally, thus terminating the old age and ushering in a new age. This view coincides with popular Messianic expectations of the disciples pretty closely. Either way, the question refers to these things as in Luke 21 and Mark 13, the destruction of the temple about which Jesus had just spoken.
Matthew adds a few things besides a different wording of the apostles’ basic questions. He mentioned the apostasy, when the love of most would grow cold (verses 10-12). He also speaks of the gospel being preached in the whole world before the “end” comes (verse 14). Of course, Colossians 1: 6, 23 give us a first century fulfillment of that prediction. Christ’s coming will be definite, in contrast to the false Christs (verses 26-27). The location of this coming will be where the vultures gather for the desolation of the decaying carcass (of Judaism – verse 28). Compare this statement with Hebrews 8:13; 12:25-29. Judaism with its sacrificial system was nearing its final end when all of these statements were made and written.
In verse 29, Jesus ushers in the apocalyptic language section with the phrase “Immediately after the distress of those days.” Immediately is from the Greek eutheos, meaning at once or soon, and it obviously refers to something which will occur shortly. Trying to fit in 2,000 years would strain the meaning of the word considerably! “Sign” in verse 30 is from the Greek semeion, which refers to a token of something rather than to the thing itself. In other words, a signification of Christ’s coming would be seen in the events he predicted rather than the Son of Man in person. Mourn in verse 30 is in the future passive tense, and could be translated “mourn for themselves.” The angel gathering the elect (verse 31) could refer figuratively to the preaching of the gospel to the world after the destruction, or it could refer to a gathering of the elect out of the city before its destruction. See the following verses for the gathering concept: Deuteronomy 30:4; Psalm 22:27; Isaiah 27:13; 45:22.
The need to watch for the sign Jesus had predicted is described in more detail than in the other passages. The wicked are contrasted with Noah, the righteous (verses 37-39). Noah was not caught unprepared – only the wicked were. Therefore, the comparison to the destruction of Jerusalem makes sense. He says that one is taken, and one is left in verses 40-41. The wicked were taken, not the righteous, for the righteous fled at the approaching armies. Of course, this text is a favorite of those who teach the “Rapture” doctrine, a doctrine with many biblical difficulties – but one that we cannot discuss in any detail here. We will save that one for a later discussion. The admonition to watch is concluded in verses 45-5l.
Remember that the Bible had no original chapter divisions. Since verse 44 is a culminating statement, this section may go better with chapter 25. Three views of kingdoms are given in Matthew 24 and 25: the kingdom destroyed (Jewish) – chapter 24; the kingdom remaining on earth (Church) – 25:1-30; and the kingdom eternal (exalted at God’s throne) – 25:31-46.
Luke 17:22-37 – Unsolvable Mystery or Mystery Solved?
This passage is not a parallel to Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, but it contains many of the same signs. However, the order in which they occur is different – in fact, they occur rather in random order compared to the other three passages that follow a similar outline. It will be worth our time to read this passage as well before proceeding.
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.
23 Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left. 37 “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17:20-37)
A number of biblical scholars divide Matthew 24 into two major sections: the destruction of Jerusalem (verses 1-34); and the end of the world (verses 35-51). Let’s call the first part Section A and the second part Section B. When you parallel the Luke 17 passage with Matthew 24, here is what you find:
Luke 17 paralleled with Matthew 24, with the wording classed in Sections A or B:
1. Luke 17:24 – Matthew 24:27 (A)
2. Luke 17:26-30 – Matthew 24:37-39 (B)
3. Luke 17:31-33 – Matthew 24:17-18 (A)
4. Luke 17:34-36 – Matthew 24:40-41 (B)
5. Luke 17:37 – Matthew 24:28 (A)
Obviously, the signs in Luke 17 are mixed up considerably when compared to Matthew 24 and the parallel accounts. We are left with three possibilities when trying to make sense of Luke 17. One, Luke 17 is a jumble which cannot be understood, which reflects negatively on the Holy Spirit who inspired it. Two, the entire passage refers to the second coming – a position with multiple problems, to put it mildly. For example, the same wording is found in Matthew 24 and parallels, definitely referring to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. And then why (and how) could one go into his house for material goods (verse 31) when Christ comes? We have already elaborated on that point earlier. Lot is used as an example in verses 28-29, which exactly coincides with the case of Jerusalem where the righteous fled and wicked remained to be destroyed in the city. In the day that the Son of man is revealed (verse 30), the watchful are to escape rather then going back to their homes (verse 31). Of course, no such choices will exist when the second coming occurs!
Third, all of Luke 17 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem. In light of all the evidence, this view is really the only logical and consistent view. Therefore, Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 are referring entirely to the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Jewish age, rather than speaking about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Other passages discuss those subjects, but these passages under discussion do not. I pray that this rather lengthy article not only answered the original question to your satisfaction, but motivates you to study the Old Testament more – especially the Prophets. If that is the result, the study will have been well worth it. God bless!
This article represents the findings of a study conducted a group of Bible teachers in the ICOC fellowship of churches. The group was called at that time, “Kingdom Teachers.” It consisted of the following members: Steve Kinnard, Douglas Jacoby, Marty Wooten, Sam Laing, Andy Fleming and Gordon Ferguson. We were asked to study this challenging subject and present something of a position paper, The study lasted about two years and was finished and published in February 2001. Although it was something of a position paper, it was no more than the best thinking of the group working together in collaboration. Each church leadership had to decide what they agreed with and disagreed with, and further, how to apply the conclusions in their own situations (or not). Another more recent study has been done by our “Teacher Service Team,” and since I (Gordon) am no longer a part of that team, I will seek a copy of that paper and post it on this website.
The issues regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage do not appear as broad as we teachers thought in the beginning of the study. We reached our conclusions much more quickly and easily than first imagined. Having said this, we recognize fully that this issue is not a simple one, nor should it be addressed lightly. Applying the biblical teaching on divorce/remarriage to the myriad situations people get themselves into is often fraught with difficulties. It is one whose application has become more and more pressing as our growth has included those with divorced backgrounds or in challenging marriages already. As the kingdom has expanded, the complexity of the issues has followed suit. Our mode in this study has been to not only wrestle with the issues, but to reach some unifying conclusions that can be shared with leaders in the movement. Otherwise, we fall into the plight of advising one thing for divorced people in one church and another in a different church.
At least two potentially disunifying factors have been present in the movement in past years. First, our individual religious backgrounds have caused some of us to want to question things more because we have preconceived conclusions. We must learn to deal wisely with difficult issues that are not easy to harmonize, especially those in the more challenging realms of application. It is going to take patience and a willingness to study more deeply to avoid jumping to legislative (and often legalistic) conclusions. Second, a desire for quick resolution can cause us to take lightly something that God takes very seriously. Quick fixes are often appealing, but over time they will come back to haunt us. Doing things God’s way is not normally the easiest way in the short term, but in the long term, it always pays dividends.
Even if people divorce for biblically correct reasons, the damage is there for life, and we cannot take it lightly. Due to the complexity of the issue, having an overview of many passages to get a clearer picture is paramount. This subject is not like that of baptism, where one verse may clearly state the bottom line and others on the subject merely amplify it. To gain a biblical view of divorce and remarriage we will begin with the pertinent OT passages and then proceed to the NT passages that directly shed light on the issues that we are facing today. Our focus will be on societies characterized by monogamous marriages; therefore, the issue of how to deal with polygamy will not fall within the scope of this study.
Any study of marriage, divorce, and remarriage needs to begin with God’s view of divorce, which is stated clearly and succinctly in Malachi 2:16: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Here Malachi warns husbands to stay faithful to the wife of their youth. Obviously, this was a problem in their culture. Why stay faithful? Because God hates divorce. Any study of divorce and remarriage must recognize where God stands on the issue: God hates divorce. Since he does not take our vows lightly, neither can we. In Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, we read: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, ‘My vow was a mistake.’ Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” Proverbs 2:17 describes the wayward wife as one “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” Obviously, marriage vows fall into a realm of utmost seriousness before God.
We must continually keep in front of our people both God’s ideal for marriage and his view of divorce. Church members should not view divorce as an option. In our premarital counseling, we must stress that God hates divorce. As a movement, we have done an exceptional job of helping those married within the church to stay married. We must maintain this high standard.
The revelation of God began with the creation of man, followed quickly by the institution of marriage, since “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God’s ideal for marriage was clear – one man for one woman for life. Verses can be multiplied to show the exalted view of marriage in the mind of God. In fact, God often used the relationship between husband and wife as the best description of his covenant relationship with his chosen people (Isaiah 54:5-8; Jeremiah 3:14; Hosea 1-3).
Old Testament legislation regarding marriage and divorce shows clearly that God is deadly serious about fidelity in marriage and the sanctity of the marriage covenant. An Israelite man was not allowed to marry certain of his close relatives, a former wife that had since re-married then divorced, or any Gentile women (excluding captives of war). If a newly married woman was found not to be a virgin, she was to be stoned to death, as were a man and a woman who slept together while she was already betrothed to another man (if it happened in the countryside then only the man was killed and the woman was presumed innocent). If a man seduced a virgin who was not pledged to be married, then he had to pay the bride price and marry her (if her father was willing) and could never divorce her. Illegitimate children (born outside of marriage) had to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
In spite of the seriousness of the marriage vows, God did allow divorce. The best known OT passage regarding this is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which reads:
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,  and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man,  and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies,  then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Here a man is instructed that if he finds something indecent (‘erwat dabar) about his wife, then he can give her a certificate of divorce (seper keritut). This certificate gave her the right to remarry. The teaching of Jesus helps us understand that God allowed divorce under this legislation because of the hard-heartedness of humanity (Matthew 19:8). Men were leaving their wives and abandoning them without any rights or privileges. This legislation was apparently designed to force the husband to count the cost soberly before divorcing his wife (since he could later not remarry her) and to establish some rights for women in this unjust environment. God loves justice. His heart for his people allowed divorce to be established in the Mosaic code to meet a practical need.
The “indecent” thing found in a wife has been much debated. In Jesus’ day, two schools of thought predominated. One group believed the indecency was immorality and the other believed it to be almost anything displeasing to the husband. Since God hates divorce, it surely could not have been anything trivial. On the other hand, although it must have been directed at something very serious, it seems likely that it was not full-blown immorality, since that was punishable by stoning. Regardless of the exact identification of the indecent behavior, the passage clearly demonstrates that in some situations, something less than God’s ideal was allowed by way of concession.
Therefore, all divorce allowed by God is concessionary in nature which shows that God has both an ideal will (no divorce) and a concessionary will (divorce under certain circumstances). Under God’s concessionary will for marriage also fall both polygamy and concubinage. Regardless of how our sensibilities may be shocked by these OT practices, God did allow them. Polygamy was regulated but not prohibited. Some of God’s most outstanding OT heroes had multiple wives and concubines. Solomon was condemned for marrying foreign wives but not for marrying multiple wives (1 Kings 11:1-6, Nehemiah 13: 26). These observations alone should militate against our becoming too rigid in dealing with marriage, divorce and remarriage in the New Testament, since in the OT period God’s concessionary will was considerably broader than his ideal will.
The contemporary applications of the latitude of God’s concessionary will are not always easy to identify. When the Israelites were called back to God after the Babylonian captivity, those who had married foreign women were required to send the women (and their common offspring) away. This was not called divorce in the passages, and would probably best be described as annulment (Ezra 9-10). A period of time was allowed during which unlawful relationships were identified and repentance effected. Nehemiah, on the other hand, although he rebuked the erring Israelites, apparently did not require them to divorce. The different approaches of these contemporaries, Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the “grace period” allowed by Ezra, are factors to take into account as we lead the people of God into a fuller appreciation of God’s position on divorce and remarriage. Rigidity and dogmatism are unsavory qualities generally, but they are especially dangerous when trying to discern appropriate practical applications in sensitive areas.
The primary NT passages regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage are the following: Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; and 1 Corinthians 7. In order to compare the Synoptic accounts, they are included at this point, beginning with the simpler passages in Mark and Luke.
 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  “What did Moses command you?” he replied.  They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.  “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,  and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:2-12). “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).
In Mark’s account, we see that a man or woman who divorces their mate and marries another commits adultery (against her, in the case of the man divorcing his wife). The presupposition is that they are divorcing for the express purpose of remarrying, since divorce is allowed by concession in some situations, as is remarriage. Luke adds that the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. What was Jesus dealing with? He was addressing legalistic, hard-hearted people who went by the letter of the law and not by its spirit. These are people who had lost the meaning of the heart of God’s law and had turned it into rules and regulations. Taking the marriage vows lightly was never acceptable to God. Hence, these accounts state unequivocally the ideal divine marriage law with no exceptions noted. Now consider the accounts in Matthew that seem to include exceptions (highlighted in the passages below) of a concessionary nature.
[ 31] “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’  and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”  Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:3-12).
The question naturally arises about why these exceptions are included in Matthew (i.e. 5:31, 19:9) and not in Mark or Luke. First, we must remember the principle that all relevant passages on a given subject have to be studied, not just isolated ones. Especially is this principle true when some passages on a topic are general in nature while related ones contain detailed specifics. For example, the biblical doctrine of salvation stated in John 3:16 is absolutely true, but can be easily misunderstood unless we consider other more detailed passages which elaborate on the need for repentance and baptism.
Perhaps more significantly, we cannot leave out an important part of determining doctrine in the early church as well as providing practical direction to the early disciples – the revelatory ministry of the Spirit. It is clear that the gradual formation of the canon would have left many theological and practical gaps in many parts of the early church. For instance, the early church functioned a considerable amount of time without the benefit of Paul’s writing on the important distinction between faith and works. Yet, there was still the expectation to be faithful disciples and to live by faith and not by works.
During the time the canon was being written, the Spirit was actively communicating through unrecorded prophecy and revelation, filling in the theological and doctrinal gaps. It would take some time before the canon would have been sufficiently completed to clear up any doctrinal misunderstandings. As applied to the issue of divorce and remarriage, since there is one Spirit, we can trust there is one teaching on divorce which the Spirit made known through his prophets and inspired people during those times of confusion. The Scriptures that appear somewhat contradictory to us would assumedly have been clearer to the early writers in that the necessary assumptions surrounding those passages for a conciliatory understanding were intact as the Spirit revealed the necessary information in all the churches.
The simplest answer for us today regarding the “exception passages” in Matthew is that Matthew recognized a growing problem in the church over the divorce issue and included it in his gospel to expand and explain what Mark and Luke stated more generally. Similar examples can be found involving other biblical subjects, and were it not for the controversial nature of this issue, we would likely not even feel the need to take the time to explain the principle in any detail.
Matthew Examined More Closely
Jesus was always more concerned with the effect of our behavior on our relationship with God and with other people than with legal perfection. When a man divorced his wife he thereby placed her in a difficult and hard position in the world (women of that day did not have the employment opportunities available in today’s society) and virtually forced her to re-marry to protect herself. To Jesus, this was a great offense. The wording of Matthew 5:31-32 seems to indicate that his words are more condemning of the man’s actions in placing his divorced wife in the situation of compromise then they are of the woman for re-marrying. However, he makes it clear that she sins when she re-marries.
Many religious folk have exhibited a strong tendency to force Matthew’s apparent exceptions to be aligned with Mark’s and Luke’s lack of exceptions rather than vice versa. In other words, they are uncomfortable with accepting any divorce and remarriage. A similar tack is taken regarding 1 Corinthians 7:15, which appears to allow divorce and remarriage when an unbelieving mate deserts one who is a disciple. Even if this most rigid position is avoided, the issue of whether a “guilty party” can remarry ushers in even a greater challenge. There are a couple of factors that likely have contributed to this emotional reaction against allowing divorce and remarriage of the guilty party for sexual unfaithfulness. First, there is the concern that such an option promotes a strong temptation to engage in adultery for the purpose of getting out of a less-than-ideal marriage relationship, and secondly, a failure to regard marital unfaithfulness as a sin from which someone can truly repent and be trusted enough to remarry.
Those so inclined would allow someone to remarry who murdered his wife and repented, but someone who commits adultery may not be offered the same opportunity. If this track is followed, once a person is “put away” for the sin of immorality, no hope is offered of overcoming the sins that led to the adultery to the point of entering another marriage relationship. Some have justified this position by maintaining that the consequences for sin are sometimes great, yet with no solid biblical evidence for such an extreme position, the consequences for imposing such a position on God’s people would seem even more consequential and discouraging. If the guilty party cannot remarry, it cannot be that the guilty party is still joined to the now divorced partner. When the union is broken for one, it is broken for the other. Therefore, if the guilty party does not have the right of remarriage also, it must be because penance in the form of lifetime celibacy is demanded.
There are two circumstances that allow a divorce and remarriage to take place: 1) marital unfaithfulness (porneia) which, from the definition of the Greek word, would include sex with another person, and 2) desertion by a non-Christian spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). In the latter case, a strong implication that the deserting spouse would inevitably be involved with other relationships is reasonable but not stated. Jesus addresses the situation of his day by telling the men within his community that there is only one reason (parektos logou – “except for the reason/word/matter”) for divorce. The sole reason to give a certificate of divorce is porneia, meaning sexual unfaithfulness. To divorce her for any other reason is to make the divorced woman an adulteress. Because of the socio-economic situation of first century Palestine, the woman would be forced to find another husband to support her. Since she was divorced illegitimately, she would become an adulteress and anyone who married her would become an adulterer.
Another example of Jesus’ teaching in this area is found in John 8: 1-11, the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did not enforce upon the woman the teachings of Deuteronomy 22:22-24; instead he dealt with the hypocrisy, hard heartedness and self-righteousness of her accusers. Instead of the prescribed stoning, he admonished the adulterous woman to leave her life of sin. A study of Jesus’ teachings and their emphases will reveal a pattern: he stands against legalism, harshness and binding burdens on people that hinder them from entering the kingdom of heaven; he upholds justice, mercy and right relationship.
For most sins, repentance means something like this: “What I did was wrong; I wish I had never done it; if I had it all to do over, I would not have done it; and I will never do it again in the future.” Even if one committed a sin like murder, he would have no further recourse but to honestly repent, and we would then have to accept such a person back into our fellowship. Our best approach with some divorces and remarriages that are difficult to sort out should probably follow the same reasoning. Since those who come into the kingdom with remarriages after a divorce (or divorces!) not based on scriptural grounds are accepted as they are, then those who as disciples sin by unscriptural divorces and remarriages and who later repent of this should be accepted “as they are” as well. Since we do not demand a change in the marital status of those coming into the kingdom with unscriptural divorces and remarriages, how can we fail to follow the same logic with, and extend the same mercy to, disciples who sin in this same way and later repent? This may be unsettling to us, but can we do otherwise and be consistent? Some cases become so tangled that leaders can do no more than point out the appropriate Scriptures, give their best advice and leave ultimate judgment in the hands of God.
1 Corinthians 7 – Preliminary Considerations
Before we proceed to discuss divorce and remarriage, a related teaching of this chapter is both obvious and striking: some people should remain unmarried simply on practical grounds. In our movement, we have often used Genesis 2 to stress the need for marriage to the point that harmonizing Paul’s admonitions here becomes somewhat challenging. In other words, we have been reluctant to encourage permanent singleness in the way that Paul did. We have tended to make people feel guilty (subtly and unintentionally) for not getting married. We very much need to address this issue and remove the stigma of remaining single.
Paul and Barnabas gave up their right to be married in order to serve in the ministry unencumbered (1 Corinthians 9:5). Where are the single evangelists among us who remain single without feeling pressured to marry? Yet no one can question Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:33-34 that “a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided.” The issue becomes even more significant when we are considering church plantings in dangerous places. Clearly the unmarried evangelist would have a huge advantage over a married one. Considering 1 Corinthians 7:34, it would probably only be fair and reasonable to include that a sister might remain single to better serve “full-time” in some ministry of the church as well.
Purely on practical grounds, many disciples should be advised against remarriage, or at the very least, not be encouraged to remarry. Among this number would be divorcees that come into the kingdom with terrible track records in previous marriages. Another group that should think long and hard before remarrying are those who are divorced and have older children still at home. These disciples hope that an additional parent will help them in raising their children, but they may instead find themselves in the middle of horrendous marital and family strife. When both potential partners are in this situation, entering into a “blended family” status may invite dire consequences. Another category in which marriage might be a very unwise choice would be the case of older singles with personality and character qualities that would make adjustments in marriage very challenging.
Getting married, according to Paul, is not always the ideal. Marriage is neither commanded nor absolutely forbidden. Putting undue pressure on people either way is not biblical or practical. Remaining single may be the wisest choice. On the one hand is the need to be kingdom-focused in a way that marriage does not allow, and on the other hand are the practical issues that make marriage for some downright difficult and perhaps disastrous. Great wisdom is needed in giving advice in this arena. Some do not want to get married but should, while others want to marry who should not. The person’s own conscience is an important factor in deciding whether to marry or remain single, as indicated by Paul’s comments in verse 37: “But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin – this man also does the right thing.” In summary, if we improved our advice regarding contracting marriage in the first place, we would lower the number of seriously dysfunctional marriages among us.
1 Corinthians 7 – Examined More Closely
Now let us begin considering the specific passages in 1 Corinthians 7 relating directly to our subject. In verses 8-16, Paul addresses those in three different marriage categories: the unmarried and widows; marriages in which both partners are disciples; and “mixed” marriages in which one partner is a disciple and one is not. The advice and applications vary in each.
He begins with the unmarried and widows (verses 8-9), who are said to be better off remaining unmarried. However, if they did not have the gift of celibacy, it was better to marry than to burn with passion. This passage cannot be construed to mean that lust is excused for single people, nor can it be used to justify hasty marriages. Further, it cannot be used to excuse breaking up a marriage in which one partner is incapacitated (i.e. poor physical or mental health) or unavailable (in jail, for example). Any of these interpretations would violate many other passages. The setting that lay behind this advice (the “present distress” of verse 26) is mentioned as a practical reason for remaining unmarried. Others have already been mentioned in the introductory comments to this section.
In verses 10-11, the “married” are addressed. A comparison of these verses with those immediately following them will demonstrate that the “married” referred to here are both disciples. (Note also that these verses are commands and not concessions, in contrast to the previous verses, which give the unmarried the right to marry without sinning.) Paul states that he is not giving this command, but the Lord is. When Paul says that the Lord has already spoken to this situation, he must have had in mind the Lord’s teaching recorded in Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18. Therefore, these passages in the gospel accounts must be viewed as covenant legislation (where both marriage partners are in a relationship with God) not universal legislation.
If either spouse leaves, then both disciples must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to one another. Neither disciple is allowed to remarry. While God’s ideal will is here stated clearly (no separation), the very mention of separation shows that God allows this concession as long as no remarriage to other partners takes place. In some rare cases, church leaders might counsel or approve, albeit reluctantly, ongoing separation between two married disciples without church discipline being applied. Paul’s statements have to be harmonized with the exception clause in Matthew 19, but the general application was what evidently was the need of the hour in the Corinthian church. Although the text does not mention other reasons for separation, in certain extreme cases it might be recommended. However, if both spouses were supposedly disciples, any ongoing sin in the life of either disciple in this situation would be dealt with by counseling, and if need be, by church discipline, resulting in repentance or removal from the church. If one disciple was disfellowshipped or fell away, the marriage would then move into the category of a believer married to an unbeliever, which is next discussed.
In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul moves on to address those he terms “the rest.” Contextually, it is evident that this marriage is comprised of one disciple and one non-disciple. We would have to assume that one partner became a disciple and the other did not, as is often the case today. This passage should not be regarded as an example of a Christian marrying a non-Christian, because that is ruled out by other passages, including verse 39 in this very chapter. Note that Paul says that he, not the Lord, is speaking to this specific situation. This means that the Lord’s teaching noted above was to be applied to those in the kingdom. Now, however, Paul, as an inspired apostle, is making an application that became necessary as the church was spreading, especially into Gentile culture. In passages like John 14:26 and John 16:12-13, Jesus prepared the apostles for additional revelation they would receive to meet needs that would arise in the future. Obviously, the situation in Corinth constituted such a case.
If the non-Christian is willing to live with the Christian, the Christian must stay in the marriage. It should be noted that the non-believer is willing to live with the disciple as a disciple. In other words, the non-Christian must be willing to allow the Christian spouse to practice his or her Christianity. Obviously, a disciple could apply the definition of “willing” in an unreasonable manner by insisting that absolutely no tension be produced by the religious differences present in the home. Such a position would not only be impractical, but it would also be quite unbiblical. It is important to remember that 1 Peter 3:1-6 is a continuation of the admonition to be submissive in less-than-ideal situations. No disciple can expect an absence of tension when his or her spouse is governed by a very different standard. But they can expect that an unbelieving spouse be “willing” to live with them as they serve Jesus on his terms. Wisdom is vital in attempting to apply biblical principles in difficult situations, necessitating the seeking of much advice from spiritual leaders.
But a highly significant issue in the passage is what it means to no longer be bound (verse 15) – what is the bondage? It would seem clear that the marriage bond is in view, and all of the kingdom teachers agree that this is the case. If the unbeliever departs, the believer is no longer bound, but if the unbeliever is content to live with the believer, the believer is still bound. Many commentators feel compelled to harmonize this passage with the gospel accounts, which would necessitate ruling out the possibility of divorce and remarriage. But Paul himself makes it clear that the situation here being considered is different from the situation and the teaching in the gospel accounts (“The Lord, not I;” “I, not the Lord”). If mere separation were in view, the directions would be the same as for two married disciples as in verses 10-11.
Paul writes in verse 14 that the unbeliever is “sanctified” through the Christian mate. This, of course, does not mean that they are thereby saved – it merely means that God recognizes the marriage as valid and they can remain in it. If it were not thus recognized, then the children born into it would be “unclean” (illegitimate). Since Paul was answering the questions about marriage raised by the Corinthians (verse 1), they evidently were wondering if a Christian/non-Christian marriage was acceptable to God as a lawful relationship. Here Paul says “yes.” Perhaps they mistakenly applied a teaching like that found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 to the marriage bond itself.
Verse 16 most likely is saying that the Christian should accept the departure of their mate and the subsequent divorce it will bring, rather than try to hang on to a lost cause in the hopes of saving the mate. If the unbeliever leaves, they are demonstrating their lack of openness to the gospel by the very act of leaving. The breakup of a marriage is always tragic and the Christian should always do everything within reason to avoid a breakup. A disciple must focus on the principles of 1 Peter 3 in seeking the most righteous solutions, not on trying to justify getting out of a marriage. Exhibiting an arrogant attitude violates both 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Peter 3. If we are doing all we can to make the marriage work and the unbeliever leaves anyway, so be it, but our conscience must remain clear.
A question regarding the identity of the unbeliever naturally arises when a disciple falls away. Does such an apostate qualify as an unbeliever in this context? Yes, they do. One who falls away can certainly be prone to become a persecutor of their mate, and desertion is not uncommon for such a person. In the case of a believer who leaves the church under any circumstances, we will have to strive to maintain gracious attitudes toward them if they decide to return after messing up their life considerably, including by marrying again. What if they are single when they are restored, but their former spouse is remarried already? Can the restored disciple now be allowed to marry another disciple in the church? This issue may be a thorny one, but the righteous approach is to allow this person a new beginning. If they leave the kingdom and later get restored, they return under the same status they entered originally – with a clean slate.
No other human relationship is like that of marriage, for it pictures the relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Both relationships are a great mystery, deeper than human intelligence can fathom. We must do everything within our power as leaders to preserve the sanctity and permanence of the marriage union. Our constant focus must be to keep marriages together, even if we have to expend much counseling energy over long periods of time. God hates divorce but loves harmony and resolution. If reconciliation between all brothers and sisters in Christ is crucial, reconciliation between estranged marriage partners is even more essential. The tendency to allow unrighteousness in Christian marriage relationships that would not be tolerated in any other kingdom relationships must cease. Leaders must exercise their God-given responsibility to not allow Christians to remain in a state of bitterness, resentment, animosity and conflict. Sin must be dealt with and repented of. In some extreme cases, in keeping with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, separation of spouses might be tolerated as a concession to weakness and immaturity. Certainly, leaders would need to exercise much godly wisdom in reaching such decisions.
Marriage or remarriage is not for everyone. In fact, we have much need to build a biblical mind-set about the practical value of remaining single in a number of different situations. As we give advice of this nature, two things must be kept in mind: 1) the need to explain the principles behind the advice in specific detail, and 2) the necessity of realizing that advice is just advice. If Paul as an inspired apostle refused to bind his advice on people, we certainly cannot succumb to viewing our advice as being tantamount to God’s will.
We must always strive to strike a balance between being more legislative than God and being more tolerant than he. We cannot bind what he has not bound nor loose what he has not loosed. Being aware of God’s concessionary will in the realm of marriage should cause us to shun legalistic answers to difficult circumstances. For those disciples in the unfortunate position of having divorced (as disciples) without due grounds (adultery), we must have faith that they will be able to survive without remarriage. Reconciliation is the only alternative allowed by Scripture, but God will be with them in that situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Similarly, dating couples where one partner is divorced from a believer (on any grounds other than adultery) should “break up.”
In brief form, the following observations sum up most of the key issues:
- At conversion, people are accepted in their present marital status.
- Those who leave the fellowship and are restored are also accepted in their present marital status.
- Someone in the church whose spouse has been unfaithful has the right to divorce and remarry since the cause of the divorce was immorality on the part of their mate. Since this sin allows the marriage bond to be broken for the innocent party, the bond is broken for both parties, and hence both can remarry. Each local leadership will need to decide how to deal with the immorality that occurred.
- It is noteworthy that although the leadership of a local church might respond to an isolated act of adultery with no more than a private warning to the one who sinned, the spouse of such a person would be within his/her biblical rights to demand a divorce. Although reconciliation would always be strongly encouraged, the unfaithfulness may be so devastating that the faithful spouse can no longer stay in marriage with the adulterous partner. Divorce should always be considered the last possible resort.
- Disciples should certainly not divorce one another for other causes, but if they do, they must remain unmarried or be reconciled (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
- If a non-Christian mate leaves a disciple, then the disciple is not bound and can divorce the one who departs.
- Any Christian who leaves God is considered an “unbeliever” in light of 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. If the unbelieving spouse deserts the disciple and is no longer willing to live with them, the faithful spouse can then divorce them.
- The need for preventive counseling, including the disciplinary steps of Matthew 18:15-17, should always remain our first and strongest line of defense against divorce.
- Though there are definite Biblical commands and principles regarding divorce and remarriage, we cannot underestimate the need for leaders to pray for wisdom and seek advice in order to properly apply them.
 Leviticus 20:14, 17, 21; Deuteronomy 22:30; 24:4.
 Deuteronomy 7:3, 21:10-14, Joshua 23:12.
 Deuteronomy 22:20.
 Deuteronomy 22:23-27.
 Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
 Deuteronomy 23:2.
 In view of these two schools of thought, it is interesting to note how Joseph chose to react to Mary’s apparent adultery:
‘… Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly’ (Matthew 1:18-19).
 Romans 7:1-4 addresses marriage and remarriage, but only as an example of the general marriage law for the purpose of illustrating a spiritual principle of being released from law.