I have expressed my alarm many times about the current teaching and emphases of American evangelical churches. Honestly, the emphases are in many ways more disturbing than the specific doctrines with which I disagree. Living in the Bible Belt and interreacting with those having a past or present history in these churches shows me what they really believe in their heart of hearts. They are in the majority quite comfortable with wrong teachings about both doctrine and lifestyle. Regarding lifestyle, Jesus made it abundantly clear that his followers had to be “all in,” “sold out,” “heart and soul” disciples of his. This means far more than just getting a vaccination to protect you from the consequences of sin when you die and then going on about your business as usual, with little changed. Just look at a few of the many passages that could be listed which teach this truth.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Is total commitment to Jesus and his spiritual body, the church, the emphasis of evangelicalism? I don’t think so, based on what I hear from individuals and preachers and what I read in their writings. Their main focus is usually on “getting saved,” a part of the basic stated definition of their purpose as evangelicals. It is quite common for preachers or the more committed members to urge the “unsaved” to invite Jesus into their hearts or to pray the sinner’s prayer, with little or nothing said about what becoming a follower of Jesus includes from that point forward. Not only is what is being offered as the salvation process not in line with New Testament teaching, becoming a sold-out disciple of Jesus for a lifetime is not taught and/or emphasized. The offer of salvation in this case is much more of an offer of “fire insurance” to keep you out of hell when you die than a lifetime commitment to Jesus as the very Lord of our lives.
The Problem Compounded
But this is only the first part of the problem. Most evangelicals still believe and teach that once you are saved, then you are always saved. You cannot lose your salvation. One of my good friends related a conversation he had with the preacher at his girlfriend’s church decades ago, and it illustrates my point well. He told the preacher that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian, and since he really wanted to marry her, he needed to know what becoming a Christian entailed. The preacher said that he simply needed to accept Christ as his personal Savior and that was it – he would then be a Christian and set for eternity. Of course he would, if you accept this answer as the way to enter a saved relationship with Jesus, and if you cannot lose your relationship with him once you have it. My friend said, rather incredulously, “So what’s the downside?” The preacher said, “No downside; at that point you are set for life and eternity.”
Again, I could quote passage after passage showing the total commitment Jesus is asking for – demanding, really. But in our Christian culture, you just need to get your eternity set and then you can go about your business just like everyone else does. Most who claim Christianity appear little different from those who don’t. Of course, you are encouraged to attend church and avoid the really “bad” sins, but rest assured that no matter what, you will be pronounced “at home with God” and “safe in the arms of Jesus” at your funeral. If you have been to many funerals (or pretty much any funeral), you know what I am saying here is correct. Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 talked about a narrow way to eternal life found only by a few, and a broad way that the majority end up on, the way of eternal destruction. He taught that most will be lost in eternity, not saved. But you will not hear anything close to that in the Bible Belt, rest assured.
Enough Preaching, Gordo!
Okay, I’ll quit preaching and get back to teaching – teaching about what is wrong with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Interestingly, this doctrine is a part of historic Calvinism and the only part still accepted by most evangelicals. Yet, it rests upon the foundation of the other four parts of the Calvinistic system. In short, the word TULIP represents the basic tenets of that system. T stands for Total Depravity. John Calvin (and many others) during the period of the Reformation overreacted to the focus on human works in the Catholic Church and went to the other extreme. Now it was all up to God in way that boggles the imagination (and contradicts the Bible). Thus, children were said to be born totally incapable of doing good, lost sinners at birth.
If that is accepted, then the U stands for Unconditional Election. If you are totally depraved and cannot choose good, God must make the choice for you and so only those whom he unconditionally elects will ultimately be saved. By the way, those not elected to salvation are by necessary logic elected BY GOD to be lost. Next comes the L, which stands for Limited Atonement, meaning that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the the rest of the world. Then comes the I, standing for Irresistible Grace. If you are born totally depraved and unconditionally elected, with Christ dying for you as one of the fortunate elect, then you certainly cannot resist God changing your heart and saving you. It’s his choice and not yours.
Finally, we get to the P in our TULIP system, and that stands for the Perseverance of the Saints – another way of saying “once saved, always saved.” In my first book, “Prepared to Answer,” I devoted a full chapter to these five tenets of Calvinism. Regarding the perseverance doctrine, I will use some of the material in my book here. It is still quite relevant in this one area of teaching which is a part of evangelical doctrine, although an increasing number of evangelical teachers are questioning it or outright rejecting it. Get ready to dig in and dig in deeply!
Digging in More Deeply
This doctrine is about the only part of the Calvinistic system that remains in many denominational groups which once accepted the entire system. In the introduction of a book on election by a former Baptist writer, another Baptist scholar had this to say: “Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin’s system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin’s system of theology.” (Elect in the Son, by Robert Shank, p.16).
Back in 1960, Shank wrote a book entitled Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. He started writing that book for the express purpose of supporting the Calvinistic position, since that position was the accepted one within his denomination. However, as he looked carefully at all of the supposed Calvinistic proof-texts, they did not support the position. His book is especially good in looking at the Greek tenses of the verbs. He shows that perseverance of the saints is completely tied in to a perseverance of faith. In other words, a Christian’s security is always intact as long as his faith continues. The idea of the security of the believer is a beautiful biblical concept. But the truth is that a believer can become an unbeliever, and at that point, there is no security at all. What does the Bible have to say on the subject?
In teaching those who are not really entrenched in this doctrine, pointing out a few passages often solves their problem. The entire book of Hebrews is dealing with the possibility of apostasy. See especially 2:1-3; 3:7-13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25. James, in his epistle, told brothers (1:2) that sin can become full-grown and bring about spiritual death once again (1:13-15). Paul clearly stated that if we deny Christ, he will also deny us (2 Timothy 2:12). He wrote in Romans 6:16 that “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-12, the disobedient of the Old Testament are presented as examples, that New Testament people should “be careful that you don’t fall!” An unbiased person should be able to grasp this point readily, for the NT is absolutely full of such passages.
The Real Security of the Believer
However, some are so rooted and grounded in this error that time and patience must be expended with them before they are willing to give it up. With such people, we suggest approaching the subject from a slightly different angle. Admit readily that the NT does teach the “security of the believer.” The key to the whole misunderstanding is found in the term believer. A believer is one who has become a Christian through an obedient faith, and who then continues to exercise the same obedient faith. Once he stops exercising this faith, he ceases to be a believer. A believer can become an unbeliever. It is just that simple.
Notice carefully the wording of Hebrews 3:12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Therefore, a brother can become an unbeliever and, as such, fall away. In John 5:24, we are told “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Then, in John 3:36 we find, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Now, which will not is stronger? Why should either of these statements be irreversible? If an unbeliever can become a believer and escape the wrath of God, a believer can turn back to the state of unbelief and thereby be under condemnation again.
At this point, a trained Calvinist will usually say something like this: “Well, if they fall away, they never really were saved in the first place.” If they resort to this even after we have studied how believers can become unbelievers, their minds may be closed. In this case, about all that we can do is turn to a passage like 2 Peter. 2:20-22 and camp there until they either deny the passage or deny their error. Do not be sidetracked. Stay with this passage until they accept it or deny that Peter was correct when he wrote: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
For further study on the perseverance issue, see John 15:5-6 which shows that a branch in Christ can be cut off and burned. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 10:5-12 uses the OT people in the wilderness wandering period as examples of those who sinned and lost the grace of God. Can a Christian fall from grace? If we wanted to prove it beyond any doubt in words that are precisely to the point, no better statement could be penned that the one in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
Yup – I’m Talking to You Too!
I have two cautions with which to end the article. One, never focus so much on the fact that we can lose our salvation that you forget the beauty of Jesus’ assurance of the security of the believer. Insecurity in a child of God is hurtful to everyone, especially to our heavenly Father who loves us so dearly. I love this passage and I need this passage: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Walking in the light is not sinlessness or there wouldn’t be any sin from which to be purified. The verb, “purifies,” is a continual action verb, meaning that if our lives are characterized by walking with Jesus, sins are continually taken away by his blood on the cross. As Paul put it in quoting from David, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Romans 4:8). Perseverance of the believer is a precious doctrine indeed!
Two, while I wrote this article addressing a teaching found mainly in evangelical circles, I am concerned about any supposed Christian with a watered-down commitment to Christ and his Cause. I continue to see a lessened commitment level among members of my own family of churches, the ICOC, and the pandemic lifestyle has surely increased this malady. When (sometimes I just say “if”) this pandemic ends and we are able to return to mixing and mingling with others at will, I am concerned about what we may likely see – that many have become too comfortable with isolation. Being an active part of a church fellowship may seem too high a price to pay at that point. I pray to be wrong, but the dangers are there. We need to be helping each other right now by being in each other’s lives in every way possible. Brightly burning coals don’t last long when removed from the fire and left alone. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).
In a previous article, “Gentiles and the Law of Moses,” I addressed the increasingly popular Torah pursuant concept that we need Christ plus the Law. Of course, the claim of such adherents is that only Christ saves us, but God never intended his followers to forsake the basics of the Law, especially the Sabbath observance, food laws and the special Feast Days. Not only is such teaching patently false, it is misleading and dangerous. It is the reason that books like Romans and Galatians were written in the New Testament and the reason that the early church nearly split along racial lines. “Christ Plus” teaching, in any form, is heresy biblically. If you haven’t read the aforementioned article, please take the time to read it on my Bible teaching website (gordonferguson.org).
This present article shows the connection between this form of Christ Plus teaching of Law observance and the claim that Israel is still God’s special nation for whom he has special plans in the future. If you grant the latter, the former makes more sense, although not perfect sense by any means. However, the acceptance of their specialness as a nation would certainly usher in the idea that their laws would remain special too. The assumed connection is wrong, because both parts of it are shown to be unbiblical in multiple passages in the New Testament, but the connection does make some sense logically. Thus, it is important to examine and answer the question posed in the title of this article.
The Development of End-Times Theology
According to many Evangelicals, the Jewish nation is still God’s special nation, especially as we near the “end-times.” As an old guy in my late 70s who has been involved in Bible study and teaching for most of those years, seeing such doctrines develop has been interesting, although disturbing. As a young minister, this teaching was fairly rare. The church was viewed as the earthly presence of God’s spiritual kingdom and the Jewish nation was seen as simply a nation among nations. Israel was once a very important part of God’s purpose to bring the Messiah into the world and to establish his kingdom and his new covenant, but after that was accomplished in Acts 2, Christians were seen as Christians and non-Christians as non-Christians, regardless of nationality or race.
The growing emphasis of the importance of modern-day Israel was tied directly to a developing end-time philosophy called “premillennialism,” and one flavor of this philosophy was called “dispensationalism.” This flavor can be traced back to a few key figures who promoted such speculations, men like Charles Nelson Darby. He was a religious leader in the 1800s who is considered to be the father of Dispensational theology. A later very influential figure was C.I. Scofield in the mid-1900s whose popular reference Bible promoted this theology.
If memory serves correct, I received one of his Bibles for my 15th birthday and through a preacher friend of the family, heard this doctrine espoused all throughout my youth. Scary stuff, that. I have some very interesting stories about its effects on me. It took some years to get it expunged from my thinking, but serious contextual Bible study will do that for you. When I was still a young minister, Hal Lindsey began his writing career and popularized these end-time doctrines in books like “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” along with a growing number of writers of this persuasion. The end result is that now, most of the evangelical movement accepts such teaching as absolutely true, unquestioned and unquestionable. Even a popular Christian author like Tim LaHaye has delved into this genre of writing with his “Left Behind” series of novels, several of which have been made into movies (which didn’t turn out to be a very popular film series, by the way).
The Imagination Knows No Bounds
Let me just comment at this point that, although widely accepted, these teachings filled with concepts like the “Rapture,” a personal “Antichrist,” and the “Restoration of Israel” are far from being unquestionable. They constitute a twisting of Scripture that boggles the mind of a serious biblical student who has not been indoctrinated with such teaching. I have examined each of these concepts in more detail in other writings through the passages from which they are supposedly derived, but for now, here are a couple of “teasers” to prick your interest and to perhaps ease your mind if you are thinking I have lost mine!
Consider the antichrist concept. The NT uses this term four times, all in the letters of the apostle John (1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3 and 2 John 1:7). He defines the term quite clearly for us. “I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (2 John 1:7).” One of the false doctrines that sprung up in the early church was a form of Gnosticism which taught that anything physical was bad and only the spirit world was good. Therefore, it was argued that since flesh was inherently bad, Jesus didn’t really come in flesh and blood, but just “seemed” to be material. This particular form of Gnosticism is called “Docetism,” from the Greek term dokein, meaning “to seem.” So where did the concept of a personal Antichrist associated with the end-times come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly. Otherwise, why would so much emphasis be placed on anything other than Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3)?”
Then let’s take a brief look at the idea of the Rapture, when the good Christian folks will purportedly be suddenly snatched from the earth, leaving the bad folks for a period of seven years until Christ and the good folks return to reign physically upon the earth for a literal 1000 years. Now let’s read the passage upon which this popular teaching is supposedly based.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul had a basic purpose in mind when writing these words. He simply wanted to reassure those in the church whose fellow Christians had died that the departed ones had in no way lost their reward. In offering this encouragement, he spoke of two classes of people: living Christians and dead Christians. He says absolutely nothing about living or dead non-Christians. Further, all Christians will meet Christ in the air to be with him forever. Nothing is said about him coming down to earth in the passage. Neither is anything said here about what happens to non-Christians, dead or alive, at his coming. You have to look at other passages to discover what happens to them, and one such passage is John 5:28-29. Read it. It’s not complicated. “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” John affirms one resurrection from the dead of both Christians and non-Christians. Simple enough?
By the way, the word “rapture” is the Latin, rapio, from which the English word is derived. It is a translation of “caught up” (Greek harpazo) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Again we must ask: where did such a well-developed, widely accepted doctrine of the Rapture come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly (again). The passage used to support the teaching says nothing about non-Christians at the coming of Christ, nothing about a seven-year departure of Christians from the earth, nor a return to earth after that period of time. It is an invention of man, embellished and emphasized long enough to make people think it must be real, but is in fact not found nor even suggested in the Bible. Amazing! Simply amazing!
What About Physical Israel?
I mention the above doctrines for two reasons. One, they are unbiblical, although popular and widely accepted. Two, they are associated with the so-called “Restoration of Israel,” a doctrine that declares the Jewish nation of today to be special to God and to have a special place in his plans for the future. I believe the best way to show the fallacy of this teaching is to defer to what Paul said in Romans 9-11, which we will do shortly.
One of the greatest challenges to the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians was in trying to understand and accept the current plight of most of their fellow Jews. Although many of them had accepted Christ as Messiah and Savior, the majority had not. Thus, they were outside of the church, which meant that they were outside Christ and outside a saved relationship with God. They must have asked themselves questions like these: “How were we the chosen nation of God for centuries and now most of us are no longer a part of the chosen?” “Did all of our years of hardship and persecution mean nothing?” “Does God no longer love the Jews as the ‘apple of his eye’ (Deuteronomy 32:10) as he did throughout our history?”
Speaking of history, both the Jews of the first century and many Christian faith adherents today seem pretty confused about what historical Israel was really like. By “cherry-picking” their favorite Scriptures and failing to examine OT books as a whole, especially the Prophets, their views of Israel as God’s beloved nation warm the hearts. However, the Israelite nation was about as rebellious toward God as could be imagined. Even a casual reading of the OT prophets would demonstrate this. They went from serving God faithfully at times to absolute apostasy of the worst kind, repeating this cycle over and over again. The description of their sins included every type of moral violation and every type of idolatry, including sacrificing their own children in the fire. Just do a word search of “idols” in the Bible. The types of idolatry and numbers of times it was practiced by the Jewish nation is absolutely shocking.
All of these sins, repeated in spite of repeated warnings from God, resulted in God sending enemy nations to punish Israel throughout their history and ultimately resulted in him allowing them to be taken into captivity. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Reading the biblical accounts of these events are not simply horrifying; they will make you nauseous. Take a look at God’s prediction of such way back in the early part of Israel’s history during the Wilderness Wandering period.
Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (NIV2011)
Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.
The tendency toward sentimentality in the case of Israel was alive and well in the first century and it is just as apparent today among those who espouse the view that Israel is still God’s special nation. Those of Christ’s days on earth trusted their heritage in spite of what it actually demonstrated. The self-righteousness of the religious Jews knew no bounds. After all, they were God’s special nation and the other nations of the world were less than worthless. The Gentiles were viewed as “dogs” and as perfect fodder with which to stoke the fires of hell. John the Baptist expressed the same absence of sentimentality toward Israel that God did in the OT.
Matthew 3:7-10 (NIV2011)
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In one way, the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews shouldn’t have been that surprising, since most of them hadn’t responded too positively to the teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. Oh sure, they had turned out in droves to see his miracles and to perhaps be the recipient of his miraculous healing or even feeding. But when it came down to accepting his most challenging teaching, that was quite another story. This passage from John 6 illustrates the point well.
John 6:60-66 (NIV2011)
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” 61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
A Kingdom Within a Kingdom
The truths contained in this section, if understood and taken seriously, would eradicate the mistaken views of the actual position of the Jewish nation from its very inception to this present day. Is Israel still a special nation in God’s eyes? Were they a special nation in his eyes in the OT period itself? The answer – yes and no in both cases. In the OT, they were a part of his special plan to bring forth the Messiah and through him to bless the world spiritually. However, being a part of that plan did not mean that they were right with God spiritually as individual members of the nation. In the NT, from the first day of the New Covenant until the present, God loves non-Christian Jews simply because they are a part of the human race and also because they descended from the patriarchs (Romans 11:28). That being said, they have not been a part of any special plan of God since the New Covenant was instituted. They are not, nor will they be, a part of God’s spiritual kingdom without accepting Christ on an individual basis according to that covenant.
Everyone from Adam onward who were (or became) people of faith, were a part of a kingdom within a kingdom. They voluntary submitted to their God as their King, which made them a part of two kingdoms at once. The spiritual part of the kingdom has gone through various phases, which can easily be overlooked or misunderstood. Before the Law of Moses was given at the inauguration of the Judaistic kingdom, those who were faithful to God were in his spiritual kingdom – whether it was officially called a kingdom or not. If he was the king, they were his subjects. If his will was being done by them, they were in his kingdom of the redeemed. This kingdom before the cross was nonetheless based on the sacrifice made on the cross, for Jesus was the Lamb slain from the creation of the world in the mind of God – Revelation 13:8. The citizens of that early kingdom understood none of this, but they didn’t have to. God did. They just had to be faithful to the light God had given them.
Then historically, the kingdom of the Jews was established at Sinai. God’s will was for all of those descendants of Abraham to be a spiritual kingdom under his kingship. He made this clear through Moses in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, although this lofty goal for Israel represented God’s ideal will, it didn’t play out in an ideal fashion. In fact, by the end of the Wilderness Wandering period, Deuteronomy was written to correct legalistic views of observing the Law that had developed in just a forty-year period, which explains why so much in this amazing Book addressed the heart. But Deuteronomy did not halt the slide into legalism (and worse). From its inception, the nation of Israel became a nation within a nation, a kingdom within a kingdom. The whole nation was used as God’s instrument to prepare for the coming of the Messiah and to produce him. Sadly, only a remnant (the spiritual kingdom within the physical kingdom) was faithful to him.
Paul certainly made this principle clear with his comments in Romans 9-11, as we will see. This explains why there had to be a kingdom within a kingdom, a spiritual kingdom and a physical kingdom existing concurrently. The nation may have become a nation at Sinai, and although God used them for his ultimate purposes, they were often a nation in rebellion. Praise God for the encouragement we get from knowing that there was a remnant even in the worst of times, Ruth being a shining example of that – though a foreign proselyte. Even in the largely apostate Northern Kingdom during the time of the divided kingdom, Elijah was told by God that the remnant numbered 7,000 (1 Kings 19:18).
The most important phase of the Israelite kingdom began when David was made king, for God promised him that someone from his lineage would remain on the throne forever. Saul’s family lost the throne due to his sin, but David’s family would never abdicate the throne to another family. Of course, the ultimate Davidic king who would reign forever and ever was none other than Jesus the Messiah.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV2011)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
The apostles’ question about restoring the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 was not a dumb nor naive question, in spite of frequent assertions of same. The kingdom of the Messiah was a restored kingdom, especially relevant historically because from the time of the Babylonian captivity until Jesus was crowned, there was not a king on David’s throne (meaning from his lineage). The kingdom of Christ was given first to the Jews as a fulfillment of many OT prophecies, and it was a number of years before Gentiles began flooding into his kingdom. Of course, the OT foretold the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the Jews evidently understood this to mean that they would come in through the funnel of Judaism. That misinterpretation led to the Jew/Gentile controversy in the early church that nearly split it.
Paul’s Answer to Our Question
For most modern Jews, since most of them are secular and not religious, all of this is a moot point. They are neither intrigued nor disturbed by such considerations. But an increasingly large number of those claiming to be Christians, most of whom come from Gentile (non-Jewish) heritage, are quite concerned about the Jewish nation. They have become deeply involved in what they believe to be “end-time” prophecy and the place of the present Jewish nation is quite prominent in much of current prophecy. We have already examined some of the popular basics of this teaching, but now let me share with you an abridged, edited version of Romans 9-11 from my practical exposition of Romans, “Romans: The Heart Set Free.” Although I chose to leave out most of the biblical passages themselves, they are all included in the book. If you have any questions after reading a given section, please read the passage in your Bible.
Romans Chapter Nine: God’s Right to Make His Choices
After carefully developing the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in chapters 1-8, Paul now addresses the issue of physical Israel. The question naturally arose: “If the Jews were used by God as a nation in bringing salvation to the world (by producing the Messiah), why were the large majority of them not in his Kingdom?” Paul explains that the problem is not God’s love, nor even his love as a fellow Israelite – the problem was the Jew’s reaction to a crucified Messiah. As always in God’s dealings with man, it boils down to the issue of choice.
God created us as humans, which by definition means that we have the ability and the freedom to choose. That freedom would not be freedom unless we could choose either the good or the bad. When we exercise this freedom in the wrong way, God does all possible to persuade us otherwise, but he will never remove our freedom in the process. Sadly, most Jews choose to reject the Messiah who did not fit their mold of what they thought a Messiah should be. Of course, Jesus fit the mold of OT prophecy perfectly, but Jewish expectations were more based on traditions than Scripture. However, neither God nor Paul had given up trying to reach them. With the skilled pen of a rabbi, Paul masterfully used Jewish history to reach out with the heart of God to hearts that were hardened to the gospel. Maybe there was yet hope! With that thought burning inside, Paul begins.
Paul’s Love For His Jewish Brothers (Romans 9:1-3)
Romans 9:2-3 (NIV2011)
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.
Paul begins by expressing his own intense love for his countrymen (verses 1-3). He assures the readers that he is being truthful about this, for no one was more hardline in his preaching to Jewish audiences than was Paul. Read Acts 28:23-28 to get a feel for the power of his convictions and the directness with which he spoke. He was a great imitator of Jesus, who said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
Next Paul asserts that he lived with the burden of their spiritual rejection, and in fact would be willing to be lost if that would save them. I can only wish that my love for the lost rivaled that of Paul. Allow yourself to sit quietly and contemplate that possibility in your own life – think about being lost for eternity, and think about who you love enough to go to hell for! Paul’s statement about having constant sorrow and anguish does catch us a little off guard, because we think of him as being such a positive, upbeat thinker. After all, he is the one who said to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). Yes, even though he said that and did that, he still had unceasing anguish in his heart over his lost brothers. Obviously, the anguish and the rejoicing exist together.
God’s Love In Making Choices (Romans 9:4-18)
God had clearly loved and blessed the Jewish nation throughout their history (verses 4-5). Of all the people on the face of the earth, they had been most blessed. Here Paul lists seven things that were unique to their nation. In light of this, how could they question God’s love? What else could he have done to win their hearts and move them to repentance by his kindness (Romans 2:4)?
However, he had always made choices in his dealings with them, most of which they accepted without any problem (verses 6-13). In fact, they gloried in them as they recounted them with great pleasure and approval. Their very lineage showed God’s choices, and none of them would have argued that the choices were poor ones. But their sacred history demonstrated clearly that it had never been simply an issue of physical descent. Abraham had two sons, but only one was chosen. Isaac also had two sons, and only one of them were chosen.
The allegation that God loved Jacob and hated Esau is somewhat shocking at first glance. But this is a quote from Malachi 1:2-3, referring to the nations of Israel and Edom respectively, and thus the term “hate” applies primarily to a nation. God chose Jacob, who had his own character flaws, but who ended up as a man of faith after he responded to the discipline of the Lord. Sometimes writers describe Jacob in as negative of terms as his brother Esau, which suggests that God’s choice had no moral basis at all. However, the passage of time showed that Jacob had the more righteous heart. However, the point of Paul’s argument here is that God had the right to make these choices.
God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt showed other choices, and were choices that the people had always readily accepted. Moses was especially blessed by God to catch a glimpse of God that no one else was privileged to see (Exodus 33:18-23). Pharaoh, on the other hand, was hardened by God. What does that mean? Simply this: God “hardened” Pharaoh through his commands and Pharaoh’s free will to choose. Back in Exodus, the text says a number of times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and a number of times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God’s word hardens some hearts and softens others, depending on the type of heart is responding to that word. The same sun hardens clay and melts butter. But again, the thrust of this passage in Romans is that God has the right to do what he pleases. Thankfully, he pleases to always do the righteous thing and the thing which allows men to make their own moral choices.
God’s Choices Were Always Right (Romans 9:19-33)
God is always God, and he is always right. He is the potter and man is only clay. Obviously, the potter can do what he wants with his own clay! Romans 9 is a much-used chapter by the Calvinists in their attempt to show unconditional election and predestination, and the potter and clay illustration is a favorite as they try to bolster such a belief. The clay has nothing to do with how the potter chooses to shape it, we are told by them. However, similar potter and clay passages show that while God has the right to do what he wants, the clay has a choice in the outcome of the shaping. Read Jeremiah 18:1-10 and 2 Timothy 2:20-21 to see this point clearly established.
The sovereignty of God and the free choice of man run concurrently all through Scripture (again, see Acts 2:23 for a classic text). As difficult as it may be for our minds to harmonize the two, we cannot throw out either part of the equation. God’s foreknowledge and man’s choices, complete with total responsibility, are not mutually exclusive. And God knowing in advance what someone is going to do in no way rules out their free moral agency nor forces them to do it.
In Romans 9:20-21, we see that getting angry and blaming God is totally out of place. In verses 22-29, Paul makes a point from the OT that only a remnant in the Jewish nation had ever really followed heart and soul. How could they argue with their own history? As mentioned previously, there were really two OT election processes working at the same time, the physical and spiritual, but the Jews mistakenly assumed that the former guaranteed the latter. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and their own prophets had made the point clear, if they had but listened.
The fact that was becoming more obvious in Paul’s line of reasoning is that Israel simply made the wrong choice. Their response to Christ and the cross revealed the nature of their hearts (verses 30-33). They pursued their law that was designed to lead them to righteousness in Christ, but they sought it by performance, not by faith. Hence, they stumbled at the idea that they were so sinful that God had to become a man and die for them. The cross was pure foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). They did not understand God’s way of making men right with himself (grace through faith), seeking to establish their own path to being right with God (legalism). Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah showed the entrenched legalism in their hearts. The true Jews, like the 3,000 on Pentecost, obviously had very different hearts.
Romans Chapter Ten: Israel’s Lack of True Faith
Romans 9 made the point that God had the right to make the choices that he did, including the choice not to bend his rules for the physical Israelites. Romans 10 argues the point that the real problem is Israel, for most Israelites had simply made the wrong choice by deciding to reject Jesus. That rejection was not God’s fault, and certainly not his will. It could and should have been different. Romans 11 will go on to show that even though the choice had been wrong up until then, it could in fact be reversed. God’s outstretched hand has not been pulled back; he was (and is) still willing and anxious to accept the Jews, but only if they exercise true faith. Zeal they had, but faith they did not have. Hence Paul addresses that issue head-on.
Israel Had a Zeal For God (Romans 10:1-4)
Romans 10:1-4 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
They were filled with zeal for God, but it was misdirected zeal (Romans 10:1-4). Christ was the culmination (aim, fulfillment) of the Law of Moses – it all pointed to salvation in him. From this passage, it is obvious that we cannot be saved outside a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Belief in Yahweh did not save those who did not accept Christ. Spiritual zeal did not save them either. The Bible is clear about this matter of salvation – no one can come to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6), and no salvation can be found in anyone else (Acts 4:12). If these statements be viewed as narrow-minded, so be it, for Jesus himself said that the way of salvation was narrow (Matthew 7:13-14,21)!
Righteousness Was Readily Available (Romans 10:5-15)
In Romans 10:5-15, Paul proceeds to demonstrate that the spiritual needs of the Jews could have been met, for righteousness was readily available. The hard part has already been done – Christ died and was resurrected. The word of faith is simple to obey, and the progression in verses 14-15 is preaching, hearing, believing, and calling. Calling on the name of the Lord includes baptism, as may be readily seen in Acts 2:21,38, and also in Acts 22:16. In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:32 which reads: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then, when the people asked, in essence, just how to do that, Peter told them to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:37-38). Acts 22:16 is even clearer, as Paul was told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
In Romans 10:9-10 Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and addressing the reasons for that rejection. He was making the point beginning in verse 5 that the righteousness which comes by faith is not a complex issue nor an unreachable goal. God has already done the difficult work by sending his Son to the cross. Now in response to what he has done, we need to accept him as Lord and Messiah. That was the challenge to the Jew. Being baptized was not a hard concept for them. It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had received it from his hands. Matthew 3:5-6 says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Proselytes to Judaism were customarily baptized as an initiation rite into Judaism.
The problem that the Jew did have was to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to then make this crucified Jew from despised Nazareth their Lord and King. Now that was a challenge! This background focus explains why the passage was worded as it was. In a related vein, the problem with Gentile acceptance of the gospel was repentance. Therefore, Luke, a book written by a Gentile for Gentiles, focused on that need all through his Gospel. In fact, his account of the Great Commission only mentions repentance. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:46-47). Luke’s failure to specifically name faith in this account does not mean that he was excluding it from the conversion process. He was simply focusing on their greatest challenge. And Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10: address the key need of the intended audience.
Israel’s Rejection and Gentile’s Acceptance Was Foretold (Romans 10:16-21)
As in the ending of Romans 9, Paul makes two basic points in this section: only a remnant of Israel had ever responded in faith to God; and the inclusion of the Gentiles was foretold by Israel’s own prophets. The bulk of the Jews rejected Christ because they did not accept the words of the Scripture that they supposedly cherished like no other. They had the message for centuries, but they had misinterpreted it by reading into it what they wanted to see. If we come to the Bible to prove a point that we already have decided upon, we are wasting time opening it up. We will see from God only what our hearts are prepared to see.
The message, says Paul, comes through hearing the word of Christ. Certainly the OT was all about Christ, for he himself said to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). As far back as Moses (Deuteronomy 32:21), their rejection was cause for God to announce that he would use another nation to provoke them to envy. (Paul will make much use in Romans 11 of this envy provoking idea.) Then other prophets such as Isaiah added their voice to the same message. Israel could not claim that Paul’s argument was a new revelation to them; they had only to read their own prophets. The fact of the matter was what Paul concluded the chapter with: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Isaiah 65:2). How sad! But for God’ apostle, hope springs eternal, and in Romans 11, he continues to try and move the Jews toward faith in Jesus.
Romans Chapter Eleven: Israel’s Choice Is Not Irreversible
As Paul brings his line of reasoning on this subject to a conclusion, he will correct attitudes of both those with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. The Jews thought that God had excluded them with some ulterior negative motive, which was certainly not true. His invitation is always open to anyone who will hear. The NT message closed out with such an invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). That will forevermore be the heart of God for everyone, and certainly for the Jews, with whom he shared so much history and memories.
By this point in Paul’s arguments, the Gentiles ran the risk of becoming self-righteous and puffed up about their inclusion in God’s kingdom. Thus, they had to be warned. Pride is always looking for ways to get into the nooks and crannies of our hearts. We are all too tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3), for many reasons. We can be prideful about our salvation, the fact that we chose Jesus when most do not. But why did we choose him? Surely not because we are good, for none is good. Everything about our salvation is a matter of grace. Acts 11:18 informs us that even our repentance is by God’s grace. Paul, the apostle of grace, will make sure that those on both sides of the issues get what they need in Romans 11, whether encouragement or correction.
Only a Remnant Made the Right Choices (Romans 11:1-10)
Actually, only a remnant of Israel had ever made the right choices (verses1-10). Paul was an example of those in the remnant in the first century, as were thousands more. In Acts 21:20, James mentioned that thousands were believers at that time in Jerusalem. In Elijah’s day, God said that 7000 had not bowed the knee to Baal – and keep in mind that Elijah was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, the most godless part of Israel. The ones who did not respond to grace were hardened by their own rejection. As was the case with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, verse 8 shows that God gave the people a spirit of stupor. He did this by giving commands of righteousness and giving them the freedom to make choices in their response to these commands, thus revealing the nature of their own hearts.
The same principle is applied by Jesus in his use of parables (Matthew 13:13-16). The lesson that we must gain from this passage is a realization and appreciation of how God wrote his message in a manner that reveals hearts. Another example of the principle is seen in Lydia, who could hear a single message and respond in faith (Acts 16), while the Jews about whom Paul wrote could try to kill him for preaching the same message. The Word can be understood by a person with a heart of faith, but it can be twisted unknowingly by a person without a heart of humble faith. Indeed, through God’s message, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
God Intended To Use Their Wrong Choices (Romans 11:11-24)
In spite of God’s pain over a majority of Jews rejecting Christ, he still intended to use even their wrong choices to accomplish good (verses 11-24). Israel’s wrong choices and subsequent rejection has ended up being a blessing to the Gentiles. The Jews had Jesus crucified, making salvation available to Jews and Gentiles alike. They drove Christians out of Jerusalem, which resulted in the Gentiles being able to hear the gospel sooner. They rejected the message in each city to which the early missionaries preached, after which they preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). If the Jew’s rejection of the gospel ended up blessing the world, then how much more their acceptance would do! Now Paul hopes that the Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom will provoke the Jews to envy, causing them to reconsider the message of Christ.
Read verses 13-14 carefully with this in mind. “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” This section concludes with a warning to the Gentiles not to be prideful and self-righteous. They had not been a part of the olive root (Judaism) in the first place – they had been merely grafted in by the grace of God. The Jews had been cut off because of their faithless rejection of Christ, but they can be grafted back in again if they turn to Jesus in faith.
They Still Had Choices To Make (Romans 11:25-36)
The motivation and opportunities for future choices are found in verses 25-36. Israel’s hardening is only partial, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. If it is partial, it has the possibility of being reversed. The key to a reversal is the coming in of the full number of Gentiles. Here is the key section in verses 25-27: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Paul likely was referring to the completion of his own ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), resulting in more and more Gentiles in the church all over the world. In Romans 15:24, we find that his missionary plans were not nearly completed, for he planned to go as far as Spain. Once this larger Gentile inclusion had occurred, all Israel could be saved. The phrase “in this way” in verse 26 is translated from the Greek houtos, an adverb of manner. The earlier version of the NIV (New International Version) translates it as, “and so all Israel,” as do a number of other versions. Even the more accurate NASB (New American Standard Bible) translated it as “and thus all Israel.” Although these translations are not technically misleading, they are not clarifyingly accurate either. I think in this way refers back to the envy-provoking process mentioned in verses13-14. Paul refers to the same idea again in verse 31: “so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” Therefore, when the Jews saw the growing number of Gentiles in the church, and the blessings from God that they were enjoying, those with good hearts would be envious enough to humble out and reconsider. In this way, or manner, they would be saved.
The all Israel referred to those whose hearts would allow them to humble out and reconsider. It could not refer to every last Israelite coming to Christ at some future point, for a number of reasons. For starters, the narrow path will never be chosen by a majority from any nation, race, or population group (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul had already in this chapter expressed his hope that some (not all) would turn to Christ by being provoked to envy (verse 14). Even if some future generation of Jews in the majority were to accept Christ (which I don’t believe will happen), what comfort would that be to the scores of generations that had already died lost? The key idea of all Israel being saved is that of hopeful potential – much like Jesus expressed in John 12:32, when he said: “I will draw all men to myself,” and in John 13:35: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples.”
Note that the quote in Romans 11:26-27 refers to salvation in Christ which became available at the cross and will continue to be available to anyone who will accept the gospel in faith. “As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” He is still talking about the one new covenant in Christ, the final covenant God has offered to mankind to save us through Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. The only plan of salvation that God has and will have to the end of time is this plan, which must be accepted individually! God still loves the rejecting Jews and wants to save them, for the promises made to the patriarchs still stand. The section concludes with a beautiful doxology, showing that God’s ways are beyond man’s ways, and thus above our comprehension. But we do know that even bad things (like Israel’s rejection) can be used for good ends, even as Romans 8:28 promises. Praise God that he is in control of the world and not we ourselves! Hope springs eternal!
PS — For a more extensive study of the end-times, see my practical exposition of Revelation entitled, “Revelation Revealed” from Illumination Publishers (ipibooks.com).
From time to time, for reasons I do not fully understand, Christians are tempted to combine Judaism with Christianity. Perhaps they get bored with Christianity as they know it and are looking for something new and more exciting. This reason certainly is involved when various new emphases such as “speaking in tongues” spring up from time to time. Church as traditionally viewed and practiced often leaves people unfulfilled spiritually and emotionally. I think the concept sometimes expressed as being “Torah pursuant” is based at least partially on this condition.
Douglas Jacoby, one of the best-known teachers in the ICOC family of churches, recently made this observation in an article entitled, “Messianic Judaism – Why Focus on this movement?”
A growing movement—with perhaps a quarter million members in the U.S., and 10% that number in Israel—is proclaiming that the path to Christian spirituality is through embracing the Jewishness of the early church. They aim to keep the Sabbath, obey Torah, observe the Old Testament festivals, use Hebrew and Aramaic words, call their leaders rabbi, and much more.
You can read the numerous articles of Doug’s and listen to his many podcasts at douglasjacoby.com. I especially urge you to read and listen to his material on this topic if you have friends who are entertaining or teaching this type of doctrine. As we will see in my present article, it is a blending of covenants expressly forbidden in the New Testament.
The Root Issue
Such teaching hardly ever arises from the grassroots membership of the church; it is promoted by someone who is a leader or wants to be a leader. This is an age-old problem, as Paul’s comments demonstrate in 1 Timothy 1:3-7:
3 As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer 4 or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. 5 The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.
These verses give us insights about the motivation and direction of these described as wanting to be teachers. They are teaching false doctrines by digging into little details of the Law of Moses with have little to do with the gospel of Christ. If all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ (Colossians 2:3), why would anyone want to dig into the minutia of the OT? By the way, Paul was dealing with exactly the same issues in Colossians – disciples wanting to go back into the OT and combine it with the Christianity of the NT. They lose their way and end up with meaningless talk. We usually describe the teaching in Colossians 2 with the term “syncretism,” the blending of two or more religious systems into one new conglomeration. In this case, it was a blending of Gnosticism and Judaism.
16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Strangely, I have heard Torah pursuant folks claiming that verse 16 is giving them the right to pursue Judaism without having anyone judge them for doing so. That is simply amazing to me! The context of the passage is clearly warning against observing Judaistic and Gnostic practices. The very next verse is sufficient to make the point, for these Jewish observances were merely a shadow while Christ is the reality. The chapter ends by identifying these ceremonial practices as rules having to do with self-denial, which “lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Texts taken out of contexts are pretexts, and such usage of Colossians 2 is a prime example.
While I have my opinions, based on experience, about the motivations to minimize Christ in order to seek Jewish tenets, one thing of which I am certain is that trying to do such is a dangerous practice for a number of reasons. As the old saying puts it, the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed and the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed. The purpose of the OT was to serve as a preparatory system leading to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ and his kingdom on earth. Simply put, the Jewish kingdom was a temporary one and with its purposes fulfilled, it no longer occupies a place of biblical significance in God’s plan for those of us living since the cross of Christ.
As I have prepared this presentation and looked at many biblical passages on the topic, my honest response has been, “So tell me again – why are we studying something that seems so obvious in Scripture?” I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I am puzzled a bit and left scratching my head. This topic is not a complex one, given the multiplicity of Scriptures on it, and it is certainly not as complex in concept and application as topics like marriage, divorce and remarriage or pacifism or the role of women in the church. At any rate, here are my thoughts about Gentiles and the Law of Moses – in the first century church and in the 21st century church.
What Do We Mean by “Law?”
The dictionary defines law as a rule of conduct or action recognized as binding, enforced by a controlling authority. The term “moral law” is often applied to the Ten Commandments, but this is problematic for more than one reason as we shall see. That which is moral in nature really has to do with human relationships with fellow humans. The term comes to us through the Latin and then Old French and carries that meaning in its entomology. For example, you would use “immoral” in reference to human relationships, but not to our relationship to God. That term would be “unrighteous.” This being true, the 10 commandments are not THE moral law, for several of them are about man and God.
Since the Law of Moses was given to the Jews, we should pay attention to how they used the term law. In the first century, any part of the OT could be (and was) called “law.” For example, in John 10:34 Jesus quoted from Psalms and called it Law, as did the crowd in John 12:34. For the rabbis, even the commonly accepted traditions might well have been called law. Various groupings could be found, such as the “Law and the Prophets” (Luke 16:16), “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:29), and the “Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).
Broadly, there were two types of Divine laws: self-evident, or moral laws – assumedly unwritten until the Law of Moses was committed to writing. Revealed law – also written or unwritten, and even the NT revelation was unwritten for some years after the church was established. The self-evident laws come out of the nature of God himself. In the absence of a written law, Cain still knew that the world’s first murder was wrong.
Other laws come from the voice of God in revelation and are not self-evident. To state it another way, some things are in the Bible because they are true (the moral laws), while other things are true simply because they are in the Bible. The self-evident laws were true from the beginning, whether or not they were written down by God in a revelation. However, when God did inspire men to write, these types of laws were always included in that written revelation.
Examples of self-evident laws:
Romans 1:32 – Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Romans 2:14-15 – (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
Galatians 5:19-21 – The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Abraham, for example, had laws of both types (moral and revealed): Genesis 26:4-5 – “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.”
Written law began as far as we know with the Law of Moses – given only to the Israelites.
Leviticus 26:46 – These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.
Nehemiah 9:13-14 – You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14 You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.
Psalm 147:19-20 – He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. 20 He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the LORD.
Romans 9:3-5 – For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
The three “Ages” concept is helpful in looking at biblical history accurately. The Patriarchal Age was from Abraham until Moses. Job fell within this age, sacrificing for his family, for offering sacrifices went back to the beginning of humanity, as shown by the examples of Cain and Abel. The Mosaic Age was just for the Israelites, beginning with Moses and lasting until Christ’s death. The Christian Age began with Acts 2 and the inauguration of the Christians covenant, and was given for all men everywhere. Paul in Acts 17 preached to Gentiles, calling them to repent and accept Christ.
Gentiles were only a part of the first and third ages and never were under the Law of Moses, unless they joined themselves to the Israelite nation. Books like Jonah show that God did have dealings with nations outside Israel during the Mosaic age. But it was not the purpose of the OT to show that; rather it was to show God’s development of the Jewish nation through whom he would bring Christ for the world.
The Main Purposes of the Law of Moses
Many of these purposes were positive and essential for that period of time. First, the Law provided a basis of fellowship with God as it guided them to a covenant relationship with him. Sadly, the Jews quickly perverted this covenant into legalism early in the wilderness wandering period and led God to clarify his original design for the Law in Deuteronomy, showing that it was all about the heart and not just outward compliance. In the first century, legalism was again rampant. See Galatians 3:10-12 warned against relying on one’s obedience as a means of obtaining and maintaining a relationship with him. The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Matthew 18 shows beyond doubt that Paul had good reasons for later writing that warning!
Second, the Law provided religious nomenclature for the Jewish nation, which would find itself expressed as future spiritual concepts in the NT. Many terms associated with God and his relationship with man are found in the Law of Moses first. Third, many direct prophecies about the Messiah are a part of the Mosaic system, along with another type of prophecy, typology. In the latter, both practices and institutions in the OT were fulfilled by Christ and the new covenant. The book of Hebrews is replete with such typology.
Fourth, both positive and negative examples from the OT are used in the NT as encouragement or as warnings, depending on the type of example. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12 is one of the negative examples by which Paul warned us and Hebrews 11 is a chapter full of OT heroes by which we are encouraged to imitate their faith. Fifth, civil legislation was provided in the Law of Moses to govern the new nation, consisting of constitutional, social and criminal laws.
Sixth, an interesting overall purpose could be viewed as negative in the short run, but positive in the long run. Moses’ Law was definitely designed to keep the Israelites separate from other nations so that they in their infancy as a nation wouldn’t be polluted for their long-term purposes. Perhaps that shouldn’t be described as negative, but it surely was not the Great Commission!
Seventh, the Law increased sin in two different ways, namely through sins of commission and omission. With 365 negative commands (“don’t do it”) and 248 positive commands (“make sure to do it”) for a total of 613 commands, the ways to sin increased dramatically. Note that most of these commands were of the non-self-evident type – meaning that they were not opportunities to sin prior to the Mosaic Law being given. Here are a few NT passages to illustrate this purpose:
Romans 5:20 – The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (The burden of too many commands can raise the desire to sin.)
Romans 7:7-8 – What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. (The intended positive long-term effect.)
Galatians 3:22 – But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Gentiles Never Had the Law Unless They Became Proselytes
Circumcision was necessary to observe the law for all males. Even the covenant given to Abraham, based on the three promises of Genesis 12:1-3 couldn’t be kept without circumcision. When the Mosaic legislation was in effect, circumcision was required to observe all parts of that legislation.
Genesis 17:11-13 – You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.
Exodus 12:43-49 – The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “These are the regulations for the Passover meal: “No foreigner may eat it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it. 46 “It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. 48 “A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. 49 The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.”
The place of circumcision could be seen as a bit confusing in the early church period. Jewish Christians could be circumcised as a matter of custom or expediency, but not as a requirement for salvation. For example, Timothy was a Christian without circumcision, but since a half-Jew was considered a Jew, much like a half-black person in our society is considered Black, he could be circumcised – and was, by Paul himself. A contemporary of Timothy was Titus, fully a Gentile, and Paul refused to have him circumcised. In this case, not only was he a Gentile, but Judaizing teachers were insisting that he be circumcised in order to be saved.
Acts 16:3 – Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Gentile Christians never had circumcision required – quite the contrary.)
Galatians 2:3 –Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Galatians 5:3-4 – Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Thus, Jews could be circumcised as a matter of culture and/or expediency, but this could not be bound on Gentiles and no example in the NT shows them ever being circumcised. If it were to be a part of their requirements, surely Acts 15 would have shown it. And if they were not circumcised, they could not adhere to the Mosaic laws – the two were inseparable. You simply cannot find Gentiles in the early church obeying any part of the Mosaic Law as a part of following Christ.
Understanding the Promises Made to Abraham
Here we find one main promise which was to affect mankind to the very end of time, with two temporary promises which were essential to bringing about the main one. The main promise was that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Abraham, which was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The temporary promises were for a great nation (Israel) to be established, which required a land in which to live. The nation existed as a called nation until Jesus came and the church was established.
Genesis 12:1-3 – The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
They were an elect nation for a physical purpose but being a part of that nation did not save them spiritually unless they were spiritual. Hence, there were two elections running concurrently during the Mosaic period – one physical and one spiritual. The Jews during the time of Christ were quite confused about this two-fold election, as John the Baptist’s statement in Luke 3:8 shows clearly. Once Jesus had come and the old covenant had ended, the purpose of physical Israel was over – they were God’s special nation no longer. Now the true Israel is the spiritual nation of God.
Galatians 6:14-16 – May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
Philippians 3:2-3 – Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.
The land we still call the “Holy Land” has no relevance other than history, for it served its temporary purpose to house a temporary nation. This land was the promised land to Abraham and his descendants after him, but once the promise was fulfilled, it has no present-day purpose. However, some Jews and many Evangelicals see a modern or future fulfillment of prophecy. Let’s go back and look at the extent of the land promised:
Genesis 15:18 – On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.
1 Kings 4:21 – And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.
Yet, the Jews since 1948 have demanded the rights to Palestine, which has resulted in an amazing amount of strife. Those with a confused view of prophecy say that the promise to Abraham was either never fully satisfied (an ignorance of 1 Kings 4:21 – read it) or that it must yet be fulfilled in Jesus’ supposed 1000 year reign on earth. The truth? One and done – long ago!
Matthew 21:43-44 – “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Romans 9:30-33 – What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
The Law of Moses Was as Temporary as Was the Nation of Israel
Further explanations could be provided here, but are they really needed? Galatians 3 says explicitly that once Christ came, we are no longer under the Law which had served temporarily as a guardian. 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that Ten Commandments engraved on stone was transitory and a ministry that brought death. Could Paul have been clearer? Finally, the Hebrew writer said that the Law was changed, obsolete, outdated and soon to disappear. That final ending would have been in AD 70 when the Roman armies destroyed the temple for the final time, the coup de grace. Again, with the Scriptures being this clear and explicit regarding the old and new covenants, just why is this conversation even necessary? Read the passages for yourself.
Galatians 3:19-25 – Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. 23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
2 Corinthians 3:6-14 – He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.
Hebrews 7:11-12 – If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood – and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.
Hebrews 8:7-13 – For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” 13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Ceremonial Laws and Self-Evident Laws
The ceremonial type laws were temporary because they were a part of the old covenant and were not of the moral or self-evident type. This included the Sabbath law – it was only given to Israel. Just read the following passages:
Nehemiah 9:13-14 – “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. 14 You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses.
Exodus 31:16-17 – The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.
Colossians 2:13-19 – When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. 16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
As stated earlier in this study, the passage in Colossians 2 is one of syncretism – a combination of Jewish laws and pagan Gnosticism, both of which were ended by the cross. The legal indebtedness that was cancelled may refer to the law itself or to sin caused by violating it as Jews or violating self-evident laws as Gentiles.
The day of worship was the first day of the week in the new covenant, not the Sabbath.
Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:1-9). Jesus first appeared to his group of disciples on the first day of the week (John 20:19), and his next appearance to them was one week later, also on the first day of the week (John 20:26). Since Jesus was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4), this marvelous declaration is inseparably connected to the first day of the week. The church was established on the Day of Pentecost, which always fell on the first day of the week (50 days from the Sabbath of the Passover week).
Therefore, the long-awaited outpouring of the Spirit occurred on the first day of the week (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:1-4, 16-21); the first gospel sermon was preached on this day; and, the first converts were baptized into Christ on this first day of the week. How could the events of a Judaistic Sabbath compare with these highly significant events on this new day of emphasis in the new covenant?
Another important passage in this light is Acts 20:7, which reads: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” The previous verse tells us that Paul had arrived a week before in Troas and stayed seven days. The implication from the text is that Paul waited for these days in order to meet with the church in Troas before continuing on his journey. Since their day of meeting was on the first day of the week, he waited until then, met with them and departed the next day. This one passage provides rather conclusive proof that the Church met regularly on the first day of the week, rather than on the Sabbath.
Further, the church was commanded to assemble (Hebrews 10:25) and they observed the Lord’s Supper when they assembled. The day of this assembling was on the first day of the week as 1 Corinthians 16:2 clearly says: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” Therefore, the first century assembled on the first day of the week and not on the Sabbath.
The Ten Commandments are not the foundation of all other Jewish law, as is often mistakenly claimed. Jesus told us clearly what that foundation in fact was.
Matthew 22:35-40 – One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
These ceremonial, temporary laws also included the food laws, and a multiplicity of other laws which were not of the self-evident or moral types of laws. We have already mentioned these types of laws in Colossians 2:16, called “shadow” of the things to come in Christ. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”
Mark 7:17-23 – After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Mark’s comment in verse 19 was a parenthetical one, realized and put into practice after the new covenant had been put into effect. Prior to then, Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:17-20 were still very much in force. Note that the real issues of defilement are laws of the self-evident type.
Acts 10:13-16 – Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Can the Law Be Changed?
This question has oddly become the starting place for those who insist that the Sabbath and other parts of the Law of Moses are to be assimilated into Christianity. Like all systems of false doctrine, this one is based on certain basic presuppositions, which if granted, allow for the seemingly logical development of a system that cannot stand up under biblical examination.
Did Jesus change the Law? Let’s look at a key passage and his terminology.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
These two terms, abolish and fulfill, must be defined and understood in this context. “Abolish” comes from the Greek, kataluô, and means to abolish, destroy, overthrow, or tear down. “Fulfill” is a translation of plêroô, meaning to accomplish, complete, fill, or supply. I’ve never heard anyone argue that Jesus came to destroy the Law, for it was of God and remained in effect until the new covenant took its place. That occurred on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as recorded in Acts 2.
Here is what Jesus said about the matter in Luke 24:44: “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’” Once all had been fulfilled, including the death and resurrection of Jesus, the old covenant could be removed as a binding covenant on the Jews and replaced by the new covenant for Jews and Gentiles alike. As with the “age-lasting” promises of the OT, including the occupation of Palestine, once the Mosaic age had ended, so did those promises.
Did Paul change the Law? For starters, Hebrews 7:11-12 said that the law had to be changed, as we have already read.
Hebrews 7:11-12 – If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood – and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood – why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.
This next passage could not be clearer about the inferiority of the old law compared to the new covenant and about the transitory nature of the old law. Note that Paul begins by specifically addressing the Ten Commandments (which included the Sabbath observance). As I said earlier, this topic is not a complex one. We have read this passage once, but it is worth reading again in this context regarding the change of the covenant laws.
2 Corinthians 3:7-16 – Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10 For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
Paul had no authority as a human to change anything God had instituted, but as an inspired apostle and prophet, he could be the instrument God used to make the changes he wanted. The following passages show what this means.
Ephesians 3:2-6 — Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
2 Peter 1:20-21 – Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Exodus 4:15-16 – You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.
Going Backwards is Rarely Progress
I close with a few additional passages showing that Gentiles were never a part of Mosaic practices. The whole issue of trying to bind the old covenant on those in the new covenant, Jew or Gentile, was the battleground in the early church that could have split it right now the middle. We could have ended up with a Jewish church and a Gentile church rather than a church of all nations, made possible by the death of Jesus that ushered in the personal peace of salvation and the universal peace between all races in Christ. Any attempt to mix the temporary national religion of the Jews with the ultimate goal of salvation in Christ for all peoples is false doctrine, and damnable doctrine at that, according to Paul. Such attempts cannot be ignored nor sugar-coated. They were stoutly resisted in the first century church and they must be stoutly resisted in the twenty-first century church.
2 Peter 2:20-22 – If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
Hebrews 13:9 – Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.
Acts 15:10 – Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
Acts 15:27-29 – Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The gospel is centered fully in Christ. Any attempt to add elements not found in the New Testament is an attempt with Satan in the center of it. He is fine with Christ PLUS! God is not. The rationalizations to include add-ins are many and some of them are persuasive to those who don’t study the bible in-depth and in context. As with any false teaching, you end up explaining away plain teaching in order to support false teaching. Let’s avoid that malady and concentrate on Christ and his kingdom. Nothing else will suffice in God’s eyes and nothing else will satisfy in our heart of hearts.
When I wrote the first part of what is now becoming a series, I intended for it to generate discussion and responses. To some degree, it has done that. Nearly all of the responses I’ve received directly have been quite positive, by the way, with a few exceptions of course. However, from what I sense and hear about, I think one of the responses has been, not surprisingly, similar to responses generated by my articles addressing another type of systemic issue, that of unconscious racial prejudice. So, how are the responses similar? Avoidance, with the hope that the discussions will simply die down quickly and disappear. They won’t. Our younger generations (and many of their parents, by the way) simply won’t let that happen.
One of my advisors for this article is a very impressive young woman who just began her college career in an Ivy League school. She gave me this feedback: “My one suggestion would be to possibly include some of the positive reactions you received to the first article. I think many people don’t understand how big of a deal it was to so many women for you to say those things. I think it could help some of the older generation understand how deeply our hearts yearn for change and how strong our desires for validation are.” (I will let her speak for all the others – and there have been many.) What that in mind, I will do my best to keep all prejudices and biases of which we are generally unaware (unless we are the object of them) exposed on a consistent basis, at least the ones most pertinent to church life. They are hurting individuals within our fellowship and they are a hindrance to our effectiveness in reaching the lost. If we address them and change what needs changing, they can be a genuine catalyst for growth.
In this article, due to the length of material I want to ultimately include, I am going to limit my observations to the main things I am seeing, hearing and hearing about in response to addressing this topic. By far, the biggest needs to explore further fall within two basic areas. They will each be explored in two separate articles in the near future. One is the identity and relationship of leadership roles and authority. We are yet a long way from understanding this topic, and unless we understand the finer points of this one, we will not be able to make the needed progress in the realm of women leadership.
The other most pressing topic is that of understanding the importance of the cultural settings in place when the NT was written, and from there, what those cultural scenarios were and how they influenced the content we are reading 2000 years later. I made a statement in my first article that I believed was very fundamental, but I now view it as even more important to our continuing discussion. Here’s the statement: “The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.”
In that upcoming article on contextual considerations, I will include quotes from highly respected biblical scholars that will at least get us closer to seeing why and how these issues demand our attention. Prior to sharing those, we will have to deal with the topic of simplistic, flawed approaches to biblical interpretation that selectively choose which contextual issues to seriously consider and which to ignore. These fall within the realm of explicit and implicit sexist biases – which I will now take a moment to define more broadly.
In my first article, I described “systemic” in this way as it related especially to racial issues: “Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen.” My good friend and wordsmith par excellence, Tom Jones, offered an observation regarding my use of terminology. He pointed out that technically, systemic refers to something system-wide (our whole society in this case), whereas “implicit bias” more accurately describes unconscious biases, expectations, or tendencies that exist within an individual. Of course, biases accompanied by ill-will or self-aware prejudices fall into the realm of explicit (intended) bias whereas the unconscious type are implicit.
To say that racism is systemic is to say that it is found throughout our system – in business, in education, in criminal justice, basically everywhere so that a person is affected it by it wherever they turn – not simply that it is something people are doing unconsciously or without awareness. However, I believe that we can for the sake of simplicity tie systemic and implicit bias together and legitimately say that that implicit bias is systemic in our society. It is in that sense that I have used the term systemic and will continue to do so, including in my references to gender bias and sexism. But for those who might aware of and interested in more technically accurate terminology, I include this brief explanation. With that now clarified, let’s move to the more practical examinations and applications toward which this present article is aimed.
Responses and Concerns Prompted by Our Discussion
Several things have become more obvious through the responses and questions I have received after teaching on and writing about male/female role relationships. One already mentioned is that we are indeed painfully unaware of cultural contexts of the first century in which the books of the New Testament were written. Some of that lack of awareness is simply due to not yet being exposed to its importance and its content. However, some of that lack is related to a faulty approach to hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) – and in some cases, that flawed approach is deliberately chosen to apparently avoid having our traditional interpretations questioned. Due to underlying explicit and implicit gender biases, males can be curiously disturbed by delving into this area. That issue I will address in much more detail in a later article, for it is a scary one and a dangerous one. All I can figure out is that somehow it threatens our manhood and brings the insecurities out of our carefully locked and guarded emotional closets.
A second area of awareness based on responses that I have received is that far too many of us seem almost incapable (at this point) of considering any type of leadership role without reading a worldly concept of authority into it. In my book, “Dynamic Leadership,” my first chapter was devoted to trying to help us distinguish roles and functions from positions and offices. Whether that had much effect I don’t know, but I do know that our worldly concepts are nearly impossible to shed, no matter what Jesus said and demonstrated about them. Our years in the world, with all of our experiences therein, established and reinforced our views of leadership and authority.
Then, in our earlier history as a church movement, we were led by a Navy Admiral’s son. In his attempts to tie his work in Boston to the so-called beginning of our movement, he prided himself in establishing what he (and then we) called “ordered” discipleship partner relationships. These were purposely designed to replace those previously called “prayer partners” relationships. The latter type provided a very reasonable approach to helping implement the many “one another/each other” directives in the New Testament. The former type provided Satan with an opportunity to promote the abuse of authority through these “one-over-another” relationship pairings.
In my opinion, this authoritarian approach to discipling ended up almost being the death knell of discipling, or nearly so. To me, this is beyond sad, for the biblical concept of discipling is what drew me into this movement in the first place, and a concept without which I do not believe that the evangelism of the world can be accomplished. The decline (near-demise?) of true discipling and our falling growth rate have tracked together, say what you want. Unbiblical, damaging discipleship (and the resultant absence of the right kind) is not the only thing on the list of what has negatively affected our growth, but I would put it at the top of the list – and almost everything else on that list is inseparably tied to the sins and failures of leadership. We must develop a much better understanding of Golden Rule leadership if we are to reverse some trends that badly need reversing. When we do broaden this understanding, the women’s role is going to end up inseparably connected to it.
A third area that has become more apparent is that far too many of us are lazy – and careless as a result. We don’t like to dig into deeper issues. We don’t even like to read anything that is not quickly and easily understood. Our younger generations raised in the electronic age can be especially guilty of this, although many of them are indeed avid readers and students – in and out of classrooms. Others of their peers don’t read much unless forced to in school or jobs – they love Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media platforms. They can handle a reasonably short You Tube video addressing serious topics, but if the time length indicator registers more than 10 minutes, they will hit the start arrow button reluctantly, if at all. The idea of digging into more technical writing almost causes them to hyper-ventilate. Because of that widespread tendency, I have been encouraged to put more and more of my writing into those briefer and more visual formats. While I’m willing to do at least some of that, complex issues cannot be understood without deeper study, and that includes reading slowly, carefully and even somewhat extensively at the very least.
If we are not willing to do that, we will simply scan what others have said until we find something with which we agree and latch on to it without expending the intellectual and emotional energy of studying for ourselves. Trust me, some have already stopped reading this article when it spread onto a second page! But based on passages like 2 Timothy 2:15, we can’t please God without being willing to pay the price demanded for learning spiritual truths, especially the more complex ones. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Since we are going to be judged by God’s Word, we had better be studying it – seriously! “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (John 12:48).
One dear sister in my own age category, a very accomplished student and teacher of the Bible, said something to this effect about my article. “I agree with what you have written, but my fear is that women especially will quickly buy into it just because you have said it and not as a result of their own study.” I couldn’t agree more and that thought disturbs me greatly. We cannot just follow what others have said, no matter how much we may like them or respect them. God is calling us all to be Bereans. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Please follow that example when reading what I and others say or write.
A fourth area brought to the surface by discussion our topic is how quickly we want to jump past principles directly to applications. This is closely related to area #3. Our attention spans are shot to pieces. If we don’t have ADD or ADDA or ADHD, we act like we do. Just give us the bottom line, Man, and let’s get on with it! What I said under Area #3 is certainly quite applicable here also.
Here is why I make this a separate, though related, category. One of the most frequent questions asked of me after my first article was published concerned specific roles that I thought women could serve in. So, Gordon, are you saying that women can be appointed as elders or evangelists; that they can lead churches? Those questions will have to be addressed in time but starting off the discussion by asking them is disturbing. We are dealing with a very sensitive area involving some interpretative complexities. The principles simply must receive our attention first, for without understanding them, how can we make applications that are biblically allowable and practically helpful?
Basically, all I said in my first article is that we needed to restudy the whole topic and that in my judgment, women were too limited and not utilized as fully as they deserved to be and as the church needed them to be. Some assumed that I was opening Pandora’s Box to anything and everything that the religious world was already practicing. Within that “some” were those saying “Amen!” and those saying “Oh, NO!” Let’s stop assuming and jumping to convulsions, and begin studying and talking. And let’s put a governor on our emotions, be they giddy excitement or red-faced anger.
A fifth type of response demonstrated just how resistant some are to the idea of expanding (again) the involvement of our sisters in more public church participation, and how that resistance is most often age-related. We did once expand their involvement, as mentioned in my first article, but now seem even more reluctant to consider doing so again. Although I have received some surprisingly strong encouragement from those in our older generations, all of the negative responses have come from those over 50 (maybe 60). Hence, my oft-repeated statement (to the chagrin of some) that some who were once new wine, willing to break old wineskins, have unknowingly become old wineskins themselves. If you find yourself thinking “Amen” when you read that, you are not one of them; if you find yourself feeling defensive, you are. Figure it out.
As a young minister in the Mainline Churches of Christ, I was often very frustrated with some of our older ministers and our lack of direction in churches. I appreciated what they had done in their years of service and I learned many things from them. But I saw the ineffectiveness of the then-current status quo and just couldn’t act as though I were oblivious to it. I was viewed by not a few as something of a rebel, but I was not a rebel without a cause. This drive to be a part of something where great things happened led me to leave my former church association (in which I was pretty well established) and become a part of what I then called the “Discipling Movement.” There were a few others of my age and background who followed a similar path but not many. Those who did were still young inside no matter what their wrinkles may have been on the outside.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today in our movement of churches. Our younger members are not going to be content with just “doing church” in the way that many of the older generation are. They want to change the world. Our young men and young women want to change the world. They are trying hard to be appreciative of all that we older ones have done in the past and remain respectful toward us, but they are not talking very openly about what they are really feeling about our status quo. I feel for them and I’m concerned about where they are going to end up if we don’t get back to a mission aimed at changing the world far more than we are now changing it. I am loath to think that they may feel the necessity of leaving our fellowship as I left mine when I was young, but I know that some already have. Therefore, I am going to begin quoting more of the responses I receive from the those in Generations X, Y and Z. I am also going to begin publishing some of their own writing containing their honest-to-God beliefs and feelings that we need to hear and seriously consider. So, enough editorializing! I feel better – on that point at least!
A Disturbance in the Force!
I close with a great quote I just saw in a Facebook post by my dear friend, Steve Hiddleson. It strikes a great note for ending a potentially disturbing article!
“The kind of teaching that I have been giving has disturbed some people. I am not going to apologize at all, because, necessarily, if I have been traveling along thinking I am all right and there comes a man of God and tells me that there is yet much land to be possessed, it will disturb me. That is the preliminary twinge that comes to the soul that wants to know God. Whenever the Word of God hits us, it disturbs us. So don’t be disturbed by the disturbance. Remember that it is quite normal. God has to jar us loose.”
Watch for the next article! It’s a’coming soon!
After I wrote three books in early 2016, I felt somewhat in a vacuum afterwards because I didn’t have any other area to pursue about which I felt passionate. Through a series of events, I discovered one and that led me to start a blog on racial issues. While I don’t think we have much overt racism in our fellowship of churches, I do think that we have far more systemic racism in our midst then we are aware of. Recently another series of events led me to delve into a similar area, that of systemic sexism. I agreed to be a sounding board and adviser to one of my sisters in Christ who was researching the subject, which started the ball rolling for me. To be honest, I was a reluctant adviser at the outset, but in time I became motivated to do a lot of my own study of male/female role relationships in the church.
Then, the region evangelist in my home region of the Dallas church, Derik Vett, asked me to teach a special series of midweek lessons on topics that he felt we really needed. One of these was on relationships in the church, and after we talked about my new area of interest, he encouraged me to make that aspect of relationships a part of the lesson. I just taught it Wednesday night. On the day before, I was finishing up my outline, which I write in some detail since we are sending them out via email after the lessons are taught. It occurred to me that such a detailed outline would be fairly easy to format into article form, which I did over the next few days.
The segment in my oral presentation Wednesday night was not too long, although the outline provided was longer. The article is even longer by quite a bit. However, it is not an exhaustive study of the topic and certainly not intended to be the “last word” on it. But it is intended to prompt some reexamination of the subject, and I believe it will. A number of individuals and groups in our fellowship of churches are currently studying the topic with renewed interest because the need is pretty obvious to many. Some may not appreciate a deeper examination of our traditionally held positions and practices, but most will welcome it. With that as a backdrop, I invite you to read the article and encourage your friends to do the same. God bless!
The Need For Discussion
Much discussion about the woman’s role is taking place in most church groups today who are identified as biblically conservative. That is certainly true of the ICOC group of churches, although most of the present discussion is taking place among the membership (especially the younger people) rather than among the leaders. Thankfully, some leaders and groups of leaders are delving into the subject. Several aspects of the discussion are much more important issues than most imagine. Although it is not the purpose of this article to dig into these issues too deeply, and certainly not to present a position paper for others to follow, I do want to prompt more dialogue on a subject that I believe is highly important right now.
Its importance is based on the fact that it involves one of the most visible current trends in our society, especially in the United States. Our young people are more influenced by trends than we older folks are, and although trends often go against biblical teaching, sometimes they prompt needed examination and re-examination of traditionally held views and practices. In my firm opinion, this area fits into the latter category. I have been thus motivated to restudy some of my own viewpoints recently, but this isn’t my first time to dig back into the topic. Quite the contrary. I have studied the role of women in the Bible for many years, although I have never been able to tie up all of the loose ends of the topic in a way that fully satisfied me – yet.
Some years back, shortly after Douglas Jacoby wrote an article entitled, “Wine, Women and Song,” I presented a similar lesson in the Boston Garden to the whole Boston church, which was followed by a presentation by Kay McKean, the congregational women’s ministry leader at the time. Doug’s lesson addressed three topics: social drinking in moderation, women’s roles and the use of instrumental music in worship. Mine addressed only the women’s role and is posted on my teaching website (gordonferguson.org). This present article will show that I have progressed in my teaching and conclusions on the topic since that original article. Continuing learning usually means changing some of our thinking. One thing about which we should totally agree is that this is a difficult subject and as such, dogmatism should be eschewed firmly.
Fear and Trepidation or Excitement and Adventure?
When we enter a discussion of these roles, I do so with at least some sense of fear and trepidation. It is a historically controversial area, and without spiritual guidelines being fully in place, one that often produces more heat than light. For whatever reasons, emotions are more likely to get hooked in contemplating this subject than in talking about most other biblical subjects. Like all such discussions that may take us in directions other than our traditional viewpoints, we need to tread carefully and spiritually. We also need to enter the learning arena with a spirit of excitement and adventure. Learning and changing are essential for us imperfect humans.
We cannot let our traditions keep us from examining and re-examining the positions that we hold currently. In our movement of churches, it took a painful re-examination before women were allowed to baptize other women, serve as ushers, and do any sharing at all in public worship services. Are we willing to be as open to discovering truth now as we were then, or have we reached the stage expressed by this somewhat humorous comment: “We have the truth in a wee small box and we have the keys to all of the locks!” May God protect us from such a mindset!
I am aware that a study of this subject has historically caused initially strong reactions and I’m sure will again. However, when we are dealing with areas that seem to fit into the “disputable matters” category (Romans 14:1), dogmatism, emotionalism and refusal to engage in such discussions are simply not spiritual responses. Although this article has been reviewed and encouraged by other respected teachers, I am speaking for no one but myself, but speak I will. Advice and input are always welcome and appreciated, but reactions aimed at stifling open discussion of potentially controversial topics are just not spiritual reactions or acceptable reactions. That being said, you are certainly invited to give me your (spiritual) reactions to this article. My best email address for responses is firstname.lastname@example.org. Disagreements are fine as long as we can disagree without being disagreeable. Capisce?
Hermeneutics – An Inexact Science
In order to restudy this topic, we naturally enter into the sometimes-challenging world of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). One of the most challenging aspects of New Testament interpretation is in trying to separate what is being taught merely because of the cultural setting from what is being taught as transcendent, enduring principle.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, women are told to pray and prophesy only with their heads covered, which we generally take to be based on the culture of the day in Corinth. Going bareheaded in that time and location indicated that the women doing so were loose morally. However, in Genesis 38:15, it was quite the opposite – the prostitutes covered their heads and faces. A comparison of those two passages makes it pretty much mandatory to view this practice as a matter of custom that varied in time and location.
But what of other passages – like 1 Corinthians 14:35?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The word “silent” here means absolute silence, and if applied generally, women could not even sing. As always, contextual considerations are essential. The word “women” here could be translated as women or wives – and contextually it has to be wives because they had husbands! In the immediate context, prophets are being addressed, so the most likely interpretation is that the wives of the prophets were interrupting them. Hence, Paul in essence says, “Don’t do it – ask them later at home.” I would never spend much time explaining this passage, given how clear the context is for those who can get past their preconceived ideas.
However, here is a similar passage with a context that isn’t so easy to interpret culturally.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 – A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Paul does use an argument based on the beginning of mankind, but does that make it transcendent in application? Could it be that he is addressing only the need in this location and not setting forth a principle for all people in all places for all times? “Quietness and submission” was a stock phrase used for any student in ancient times. Rather than limiting women in some way, Paul appears to be granting them status as equal students/disciples. Such was certainly not the norm outside Christianity, nor had it been in Judaism prior to that. Verse 12 may be laying out a limitation in which he basically uses “teach” and “authority” in a technical, capital T and capital A sense. It’s almost, in the opinion of some, as if he is putting some hedges up and saying, “I’m talking about women elders or women running the show like they do up the street at the temple of Artemis.” No, they should not be elders, but rather be “quiet” – in first century vernacular like any other student where “quiet” seems to have equaled “learner.” This fits perfectly with the word translated “authority” (authentein), for it is only used this one time in the NT and its very etymology suggests a very harsh and controlling type of authority.
Consider verses 8-10 of this same chapter in this same type of cultural light:
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
Should this passage be interpreted to mean that only males should pray and that only women should be concerned about modesty and discreetness in dress? Or does it make more sense to conclude that what is addressed about men and women is based on their particular sinful tendencies in Ephesus (lack of modesty on the part of women and praying without unity on the part of men)? Surely we should conclude it is the latter option and not the former.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5:11-15, younger widows had specific spiritual challenges with which to deal and were advised to remarry. This principle ties in well with 1 Timothy 2:15 – the need to be content with being wives and mothers, for that was the cultural practice and expectation of women generally. Taking that verse literally would mean that only married mothers would be saved. Literalism seems very positive when trying to support concepts that we are tied to emotionally, but it is in many biblical contexts a horrendous way to interpret God’s Word. The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.
What Type Equality?
Oddly, many discussions of the male/female role relationships in the church don’t pay much attention to Galatians 3:26-28, but it is indeed a very key passage in trying to understand those relationships.
Galatians 3:26-28 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Three examples of relationship areas are listed: Jew/Gentile; slave/free; and male/female.
All three were given biblical guidance in the NT, using principles that would help regulate these relationships in light of the then current cultural setting. Slavery was not condemned but rather regulated in passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2. However, Paul’s mentions of slaves are often similar to Galatians 3:28 in that slaves and free are to be regarded as equals in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:21-23; 12:13; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:11).
Surely these passages prove that Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free and males and females are equal in value before God and must be considered equal in value by each other in Christ. It doesn’t matter what our ethnicity, social status or gender is, for we are all equal in value as fellow disciples. But let’s take it a step further. Did God intend that other distinctions in these three areas continue in functional ways?
I think we can quickly agree that ethnicity or race shouldn’t have any bearing on how we relate in Christ, since we are all a part of God’s family as his children. I think we can also agree that God didn’t want slavery to continue, but only tolerated it for a time because it was so ingrained in the culture outside of Christ that it couldn’t simply be obliterated quickly by divine edict. The principles of Christ did in fact eventually overcome this cultural sin in most of our world and eliminated slavery in a return to God’s ideal will.
The real question is how much of what is said about the “place of women” in Scripture is similar to what is said about slavery, in that the customs of culture were recognized and regulated until such time as God’s original principles could be once again recognized and accepted? If God intended distinctions between slave and free to end, could he have intended distinctions between males and females to end? If so, then roles in the home and in the church should be entirely gift-based and not gender-based. More on that point will come as we continue.
Arrow and Target – God’s Provisional and Ideal Wills
The difference between God’s provisional will and his ideal will must be understood. A very helpful illustration of how the two “wills” relate was given to me through Michael Burns, one of the best exegetical teachers in our movement of churches. It involves seeing God’s provisional will as an arrow in flight toward its target, and the target represents God’s ultimate goal, or ideal will. Anywhere along its flight path, the teaching will be provisional, but when it hits God’s intended target his ideal will is then achieved. The eventual elimination of polygamy and slavery provide us with two excellent examples of the arrow/target analogy.
We know that the teachings about Jews, Gentiles and slaves fell within God’s provisional will. We have already mentioned the regulations about slavery within that provisional will, and many passages could also be listed that regulated Jew and Gentile relationships in the church. The whole of Acts 15 addresses some of those regulations, as do Acts 21, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. In time, the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles lessened considerably, as would be logical after the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
In fact, as the writer of Hebrews described the legal replacement of the old covenant (the Old Testament covenant) by the new covenant, he predicted the practical end of the old covenant observations of customs. Hebrews 8:13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Prior to this time, Jews were welcome to follow Jewish customs as a matter of their culture as long as they didn’t bind those customs on Gentiles or view them as salvation issues. Based on the Hebrews 8 passage, I think God provided a transitionary period that lasted about forty years, from the establishment of the church to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Oddly, we now have some modern-day Gentiles in the church wanting to practice these customs, which is rather astounding to me. The Jewish Christians of the first century tended to hold on to their customs almost as firmly as to Christ, so it was Christ PLUS. Now some Gentile Christians of our day are returning to Christ-plus thinking. Strange indeed are the whims of those “Torah pursuant” folks! You would think that the Book of Hebrews, written to help Jewish Christians avoid returning to Jewish practices in the first century, might be equally effective in helping modern Gentiles avoid customs that were never meant for any Gentile in any age, ancient or modern.
But back to our topic. If God intended for distinctions between slave and free, Jew and Gentile to end, why would that not have been the case with males and females? We certainly wouldn’t argue that God-given regulations for Jews, Gentiles and slaves in the NT meant that God intended those regulations to be in force in all places for all times, would we? If no, how can we argue that the similar regulations for females are to be in force in all places for all times? I know that imagining the possible implications of such possible conclusions is causing some of my readers to generate stomach acid and elevate blood pressure right now but hang in there and keep your mind open!
Back to the Beginning
This might be a good time to go back to the beginning of all male/female relationships, to the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 3:16-19 — “To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Was this description of the consequences of sin for both males and females intended to be prescriptive (what should happen) or merely descriptive (what would happen)? If prescriptive, consistency would make it wrong for women to try to reduce their pain in giving birth and wrong for men to try to make earning a living easier. The most pressing question is whether Adam and Eve were equal before sin, and if so, would salvation in Christ provide us a return to spiritual life in a “Garden” state with God and each other in fully restored relationships? Just how powerful was the cross, in other words? Did it fully cure the curse or just partially cure it? I think Ephesians 2:6 has something to contribute in this regard: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” But we still haven’t answered the question about Adam and Eve enjoying full equality prior to the Fall.
What about this passage – does it show that man is somehow superior to woman and thus to be her leader?
So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
For starters, it was obvious even to Adam that he needed help – indicating that he was not the complete package within himself. (Help the boy, Lord!) But does the term “suitable helper” (“help meet” in the KJV) indicate a role that is somehow inferior or subservient to the man? Since this word in Hebrew (“ezer”) is often used to describe God as our helper, it cannot possibly imply such. That may well have been the assumed implication in the minds of most folks for centuries, but it is not implied by the word itself.
My own life experience of 75 years would suggest that females are more spiritual inherently than males – superior in that way at least. We men need help, and but for our wives, would be more of a mess than we are! I call my wife an angel sent from God to help me get to heaven, because she is clearly more spiritually attuned than I and I genuinely don’t think I could have made it without her influence in my life.
And then you have the origination of man and woman, their source material. Does woman being made from a man’s rib make her inferior to man – who himself was made from dirt? As the quote from the old commentator, Matthew Henry, puts it: “Women were created from the rib of man to be beside him, not from his head to top him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected by him, near to his heart to be loved by him.”
Equality is suggested in more than one way by this passage in Genesis 2. Marriage produces a unity of oneness, a virtual parallel to what Jesus prayed for in all of his followers and illustrated by his complete unity with the Father (John 17:20-21). Further, his teaching caused his enemies to say that he was making himself “equal” with the Father (John 10:33).
The man was incomplete, needing help and the woman provided this aid as his partner. Their mutual nakedness and all that goes with it in marriage, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, makes them totally equal in both sexual desires and responsibilities. The concept that wives are designed by God simply to meet the sexual needs of their husband’s supposedly stronger sex drive is a sexist viewpoint and not a biblical one. It certainly has never been the case in my own marriage – my historically strong sex drive (though diminished by old age) has been more than matched by that of my wife (still is)! This sexist view, in my opinion, has significantly affected in a negative way the full enjoyment of the sexual relationship in marriage for many women. After all, our most important sex organ is the one between our ears!
But isn’t man the protector of woman, as Matthew Henry’s quote puts it? Often, yes – especially physically, for the male is stronger physically, and in some other areas, perhaps also stronger emotionally (more fitted for battle as one example). That being said, the woman’s emotional capabilities often provide the protection of the male’s limitations and weaknesses emotionally. We males are sometimes thought to be a bit “clueless” in some areas, and probably for good reason! In general, we are not as in touch with our emotions or the emotions of others as females are. Small children with boo-boos go first to their mothers to be comforted, understandably. Bottom line, the male is incomplete without the woman and the woman is incomplete without the male – neither of which makes one superior or inferior to the other.
Are Roles Gender-Based or Gift-Based?
A question that must be addressed in our discussion is whether roles in the church are determined by the spiritual gifts we have or merely by our gender? The gifts of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are not described in any gender sense at all. I don’t see any reason to confine the gifts of leadership or teaching to men, or the gifts of encouragement and serving to women. Some years ago, our Teacher Service Team was comprised only of men. When we discussed the possibility of adding women teachers, I was one of the most vocal in supporting such additions and suggested Kay McKean as one of the first women thus recognized. Thankfully, she was asked to join as several others have been since.
Of course, the discussions at the time focused on women teaching other women, but does God allow women to also teach men? In our physical family settings, you know quite well that women teach men – their husbands, their grown sons and grandsons, their brothers, etc. What about in God’s family? Acts 2 highlighted a very vocal role for them quite clearly:
Acts 2:17-18 — “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
Peter quoted Joel 2, which predicted that women would prophesy, and prophesy they did, as 1 Corinthians 11 amply illustrates. Philip the evangelist had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Of course, we can insist that they only prophesied to other women if we want, but we cannot prove it biblically. It is only an assumption. Interestingly, in my study of Restoration history (composed of groups like the Church of Christ and Christian Churches), early leaders accepted the idea of women in the first century church prophesying to mixed groups of brothers and sisters but explained it in two different ways.
One approach was to say that such practices only applied in the miraculous age and the other approach stated that the same principles would apply in any age. In the latter instance, the accepted practices were far from the apparent accepted principles. Women were generally quite silent in most of those early restoration churches, with the exception of congregational singing. That being said, there are recorded instances of women being “exhorters” in church services, which is likely surprising to many of us coming out of that background. Comments of male leaders in those settings showed that they thought one’s gift-set and not gender should determine their role.
Does Pragmatic Evidence Have a Place?
Whatever you make of the passage in its entirety, experience has taught me some valuable lessons in my marriage. One, gifts are far more important than gender in determining function. If the wife has a gift of understanding finances and the husband does not, she had better quickly become the financial leader of the family. If the woman has a much stronger gift of discernment (emotional intelligence), she had better use that gift to help her husband learn how to relate to people generally and especially to his own children. We could give other examples of giftedness, but whoever in the marriage has the best gifts in any given area, they should be encouraged to use them. My wife and I recognize our strengths and weaknesses as individuals pretty well by now, and we are submissive to the leadership of the one with the stronger gifts. We have learned that leadership in the home cannot be determined simply by gender; it must be determined by strengths in any area, “gifts” to use a biblical term.
Two, leadership is a matter of both gifts and training. It takes time (along with some sparks) to determine giftedness, but training must help develop the practical use of the gifts. The goal is to maximize the use of our combined gifts, which results in an effective leadership team. When I first started teaching about leadership in marriage, I was more gender-based in my thinking than gift-based. That has decidedly changed over the years. In a later phase, I agreed that the husband shouldn’t make the big decisions singlehandedly, but in the event of a tie regarding smaller issues (smaller in his opinion, of course!), he should break the tie by just making the decision.
Now, we make decisions as a team and if we reach a stalemate on issues that we both agree are big ones, we ask someone else in to help us decide. When we reach stalemates on issues that we both agree are small ones, we each pick a number between 1 and 10 to indicate how important our choice is to us, and whoever has the higher number thus casts the deciding vote. We heard someone say that this is how they broke ties but decided to start practicing it when we were once arguing about a restaurant in which to eat. In the midst of our disagreement, it dawned on me that if we eat three times a day, that adds up to well over 1000 meals a year. So, just how important could any one of them be? I am not going to overpower my partner about any decision, nor she me. Pragmatism in many areas is just common sense involving practical applications of the Golden Rule and the intent to obey what Paul said in Philippians 2:3-4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Making changes as time passes can be evidence of losing convictions and otherwise drifting away from the Scriptures. But gradual changes can also reflect practical learning experiences under the providential leadership of God. Consider these two passages in that light:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
The first passage implies that in our following of God’s Word, truths (application of truths) dawn on us. We don’t see and understand them immediately and may never understand exactly how and why they work, but in time their effectiveness becomes clear. The second passage promises that God will continue to reveal the practical application of his truths and keep us on a maturing track if we will cooperate by doing our best with what we know in the meantime. In both cases, time is necessary to produce a better understanding of some things. Thus, an element of pragmatism is built into the Christian system by God himself.
We Have Already Accepted Pragmatism!
I find it interesting that we as a movement of churches have continued to adapt our practices both consciously and unconsciously. Women were hired to be “in the ministry” fairly early on but limited in other ways. A couple of decades ago, we discussed and accepted the concept of women baptizing women, women serving as ushers and passers of communion trays, and as sharers along with their husbands in giving communion talks.
Gradually we began to accept more public types of participation. Married couples taught together about marriage and parenting principles. We may have prefaced such team teaching with the statements that the women were addressing women, but the men didn’t insert earplugs when the women were teaching, and I was often as convicted and inspired by what the women taught as by the men’s teaching (sometimes more so). My wife and I have taught as a team on subjects beyond those of family, and I have heard others do the same.
On at least one occasion, I was assigned a class in a leadership conference where I co-taught with a woman not my wife, my good friend Linda Brumley in this case. Our topic was forgiveness and since she had just written a book on the subject, I suggested that she take the majority of the class time, which she did. Everyone in that audience seemed pretty comfortable with the approach, and I certainly was. I didn’t see one person, male or female, blocking their ears with their hands or walking out! Linda is a great teacher and she taught a great class. Of course, the question is whether we “drifted” into these changes or gradually adapted to the culture changes around us without violating scriptures. I believe it was the latter.
Although it took me some years to learn how a husband/wife relationship works best, some are faster learners than I. One young married disciple, a husband and father to daughters, had this to say after reading similar material of another writer.
First, it brought to the forefront my personal reflection on how being a dad of daughters and no sons affects my role in God’s kingdom. I’ve at times lamented the lesser influence I may have because the people I can most influence in this world are female. Some Old Testament narratives and earthly culture suggest the notion I have failed in some way by not having a son. It’s hard for me to separate from that notion, and I’ve felt that certain scriptures and how I’ve understood them only perpetuate it. I cry as I type this, tapping into this feeling that frankly I’ve suppressed unknowingly. If I feel less valuable because of this notion, I can only imagine how my daughters (wife, mothers, sisters, etc.) feel. The transcending gospel message rejects this notion, and I need to take that thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.
I commend this young man for coming to recognize and deal with his own form of subtle sexism, because it is hurtful to others and to ourselves. I only pray that my material helps some of those who read it to see their own hang-ups and biases more clearly.
Are Women Inferior to Men?
That’s a more relevant question than you might imagine. Charles Darwin wrote that women were definitely inferior to men, falling into his evolutionary chain about halfway between children and men. I was raised in a full-blown Southern chauvinistic cultural setting in which I often heard statements like this as I was growing up: “If you let women get in the middle of this, you are going to end up with a mess!” After all, a woman’s place was in the home minding her own business, a business which consisted of taking care of the children, cooking, washing and ironing, keeping the house in order and providing sex. Such thinking was blatant and easily identified, and it laid the foundation for what has now become systemic sexism or systemic chauvinism. As such, it is embedded in our cultural thinking in much more subtle ways – at least to males, although not nearly so subtle to females.
We wouldn’t succumb to such antiquated thinking in the church, right? Ask the women. Ask especially the women under 40. They will be happy to provide examples of how they feel marginalized. Our leadership groups are typically male dominated, especially when it comes to making decisions about the direction of the church. For years, I have pushed to have the wives of leaders in leadership meetings of all types. I began asking for such as a result of my own pragmatic nature. I don’t particularly like business type meetings but have spent thousands of hours in them. Often, after spending a considerable chunk of time in a meeting of men only, I would go home and tell Theresa about our wonderful decisions. She would frequently say something like this in response: “You decided what? Have you thought about this, this, this and that regarding the women?” Nuts! Now we had to go back into another meeting and reconsider what had already been decided by us brilliant males!
Encouraging the wives of leaders to be included in leadership groups is not the whole story. We have single women who have the gift of leadership who would provide great insights from their perspectives. We have women in other situations who have such gifts and are exercising them in the world but are not invited to do so in the church. Although I favor our normal approach of having married leaders serve together in leadership roles, that is not always possible. Some have the gift whereas their mates do not. Should the mate with the gift always be excluded because their mate’s gifts don’t coincide with theirs? And then we have another loose end hanging out on this subject. What about when a leader’s mate dies or is otherwise incapacitated – what then? The male may often stay in leadership but the female who loses her mate usually doesn’t. Where is the logic of that, and more importantly, where is the biblical foundation for such? If you can’t identify that customary practice of ours as pure tradition, please keep thinking about it. We have many aspects of male/female role relationships in the church with which to wrestle, do we not?
If over half the church is comprised of women, how can we make decisions about them without them having a voice? The movie title, “Dumb and Dumber” is pretty apropos in describing our modus operandi when we don’t have women in leadership groups consistently. That basic pragmatism put me on the track of trying to promote female inclusion in leadership meetings. Then in time, another type of pragmatism found its mark in my head and heart. Women are just flat-out smart, and often smart in ways that males are not.
In the mid-1990s, I was asked to head up a committee to develop a curriculum for our movement’s Children’s Ministry. How I ended up in that role is still a mystery, for although I was a recognized teacher in our churches, I had no experience with the children’s ministry. Thankfully, my wife had quite a bit of experience and quite a bit of interest in it. Knowing that the best leaders are those who seek assistance from others who are more qualified than they, beginning with the advice asking stage, I started putting together our Kingdom Kids Curriculum Committee. We ended up with some couples, giving us some males (who were really good in this field), but the majority of the group were females (who also really knew their stuff).
We spent hundreds of hours together over the next several years, and it was one of the highlights of my ministry career. I knew less than anybody in the group about what we were doing, but I was a pretty effective facilitator. However, near the end of the project, I hit my own wall, and persuaded Sheila Jones of Discipleship Publications (DPI) to take over my role. She very expertly brought the project to a conclusion. By the time we had a conference in Los Angeles to roll out the curriculum, any remnants of chauvinism that would make me question the abilities of women in any fashion, subtle or otherwise, were gone.
Of course, some males reading this may be thinking to themselves that if women are so talented, why are they not in more high-powered positions of leadership in the world? Ask a black person that question. They know the answer. From their perspective, they will say, “It’s a white man’s world,” meaning a white person’s world. But the black women know that it is also a white male’s world. The reason those of color know the answer is because they have to deal with the same question about why more people of color aren’t in those high-powered positions either. Bottom line, our systemic racism and systemic sexism produces in the majority a mistrust, however subtle it may be. These systemic issues are as real as raindrops in a hurricane, but often so incredibly subtle that only the ones affected realize their presence.
Going back to my early chauvinistic roots and the idea that women in the middle of things will somehow mess it up, I have a big question. As I look at the history of our male dominant leadership movement, do you really think that including women in much more prevalent ways could have messed up things more than we males did? (Yes, of course I include myself – I’m a male leader!) Our military style leadership put us in a place that a single letter in the early part of this century set off a timebomb that had been ticking for years. Although we have recovered pretty remarkably in some ways since that explosion, our growth rate as a whole has all but stalled out. So, I repeat: do you really think that including women in a much greater way in our leadership would have done worse than we males have done? I rest my case! (Smile…)
Systemic Issues Abound
For the past year and a half, I have been posting articles on my blogsite about racial issues (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). One of the biggest challenges I have faced is in helping white folks who are not conscious of having racial prejudices understand that they still have views and reactions coming out of the systemic racism ingrained into our American society. Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen. Thus, we get “woke,” to use a common term in the racial discussion realm, and then see what we have been missing without having realized it prior.
Systemically present ills are not reserved for systemic racism. We also have systemic nationalism, systemic politicalism, and systemic sexism. The latter is what this article is addressing. It can be found in various aspects of systemic ageism as well – a topic we will address shortly. Here is how one sister helped me to see my chauvinism (which I very much appreciated, by the way). She quoted a section from my book on Romans as follows:
The differences here are in the realm of opinion, to be sure, but how can you tell if an area is an opinion area? Good question, but not an easy one. When good brothers [and sisters…I asked Gordon if I could add “and sisters,” while lovingly chiding him, “See what I mean?”] who love God and his word have consistent differences on a given subject, we had better guard ourselves from having dogmatic attitudes. To one, a given issue may seem quite clear, but the issue may be not at all clear to another. In such areas, abide by your own personal conscience, but avoid dogmatism.
Another evidence of systemic sexism in our churches is the very resistance of some males to the idea of women teaching about their own role as a woman. The resistance sometimes takes the form of suggesting that our sisters don’t have the formal training necessary to write about deeper doctrinal or academic subjects. However, we seem to recognize that the validity of one’s training doesn’t have to be tied inseparably to one’s time spent in an academically accredited institution of higher learning – at least in the case of males. I don’t recall Jesus or his apostles having such credentials, Paul being the exception, but I do recall both Jesus and his original Twelve being discredited for lack of same. Some of the most educated people I have ever known were self-educated or educated in ways other than in the ivy halls of academia. That’s about the only way that we have in years past encouraged our women leaders to be trained. Are you starting to understand what the term “systemic” means? I hope so, for we cannot change what we do not see.
Who Should Have a Voice?
Speaking of comments about the role of women in the home or church, most lessons (whether oral or written) are given by men and not women, at least in our movement. Does that not strike you as being a bit strange? Imagine an audience of blacks and whites in which only whites addressed racial issues? Honestly, that is too close to what we have practiced regarding the women’s role to leave me feeling comfortable. Our US Diversity Group is more black than white, and in a recent presentation to a group of leaders, a few of the presenters were white but most were black. In an upcoming leadership conference, two of our US presenters will likely be black (one male and one female) and the only white presenter is married to an African American. Isn’t it obvious that this should be the case? Then why in the name of common sense should it always be the role of men to examine and explain the role of women?
Ephesians 5 – Proof Positive?
Ephesians 5 is a passage that has received much attention in arguing for male leadership in the home. Verses 22-24 do say that the wife is to be submissive to her husband and that he is her head. But are the issues really as simple as that? Not to me, and I speak from the position of having taught male dominance in my early marriage and ministry, but I now speak from the position of having been married for 53 years. In those decades, I have learned quite a lot about leadership in the marriage relationship, many of those lessons coming from my own mistakes and stupidity.
Here are some considerations that should totally eliminate any idea that Ephesians 5 supports the husband being anything like the “boss” of the relationship. For starters, verse 21 states that we should “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission goes both ways in any form of true spiritual leadership. Then, verses 25-28 require that the husband love his wife in a Christ-like, sacrificial manner that helps her be holy – loving her as much as he loves himself. If you can get anything akin to “boss-man” out of that, you must have used a crowbar!
Also keep in mind that Jesus was using the marriage relationship to illustrate his relationship to the church, not vice-versa. Ephesians 5:32-33 – “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Then you have to ask the question of this passage that we have asked of others. Is this one based on the then-current cultural viewpoints (in which women were often viewed as possessions – much like slaves were), offering the best regulations possible for that era, or is what was said intended to be understood as containing transcendent, enduring principles? I’m not settled out one way or another on this one – yet.
Many arguments pro and con have been offered in answer to my question. Two things I am pretty sure of is that Jesus’ relationship to the apostles fits into the equation and my 53 years of marital experience also fits into it. Regarding the former, Jesus was the Master, as God in the flesh, but he led his relationships with the apostles in a clearly discernable direction. His example shows us that all roles and relationships in God’s family are designed to move toward deeper friendships, shared responsibilities and equality through common purposes.
What Jesus taught about leadership is essential to understanding all roles and relationships in the church. Leadership is essential and followership is equally essential – no organization of any type can flourish well without both. But do we really understand the difference between spiritual leadership and worldly leadership? Given the fact that our movement was led in many of its early years by a military style leader, that question must be asked and answered. Listen to Jesus:
Mark 10:42-45 — “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Broadly speaking, authority is of two basic types: position only authority (as in “I’m the boss around here!”) and influence authority. Influence authority can be divided into two parts also, that of knowledge (expertise) and relational influence. We go to the doctor and do just about anything they (I wrote “he” at first!) say, not because they have any positional authority over us at all, but because we trust their knowledge, training and experience. Outside of professional fields, we are more likely to trust the advice of a close friend than the advice of someone we just met at a bus stop.
In the church, authority should never be positional only, although sometimes positional authority is needed in combination with influence authority. For example, someone has to set our schedules for spiritual group activities, but even those decisions are best made by a leadership team rather than one individual. My books, “Golden Rule Leadership” (co-authored with Wyndham Shaw) and “Dynamic Leadership” give ample attention to team leadership principles.
In the church, authority in leadership is mainly influence authority and as such, moves toward those deepened relationships, shared responsibilities and equality as family members working together for shared purposes. Jesus modeled this kind of leadership perfectly. Note his words and actions in John 13 and John 15.
John 13:13 – “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” (note that he said this right after washing the disciples’ feet)
John 15:15 – “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
No Stumbling Blocks Allowed!
If the cultural setting of the first century helped determine the role of women, should the cultural setting of the 21st century do the same? In other words, if some are disturbed by a re-examination of the women’s role and the idea of change in our practices, should not that cause us to back off of the subject and let well enough alone? While the answer to questions like this one may be “yes” at times, the answer is not a simple one.
Generational differences have to be considered, and how the younger generations view women’s roles is far different than how those of the older generations generally do. Holding on to traditions is another consideration, and it is a fact that those who tend to be traditionalists are the older ones who don’t see their traditionalism clearly, if at all. A related sad fact is that aging all too often (not always) ends up with those who were once new wine, breaking old wineskins, now having become old wineskins themselves – but they don’t see it.
Don’t suppose that the younger generations in our churches don’t see this clearly in us, and don’t suppose that it doesn’t present a real challenge to them! Those of us who have traveled a lot and are prone to ask probing questions of the younger generations will tell you the same things. Some of their peers are leaving the church, feeling that they don’t have a voice. Even those on the ministry staff often share similar feelings but are reluctant to voice their real concerns. They do seem comfortable voicing them to me, perhaps because they know I am gung-ho about changing anything personally that will help me be more like Jesus and that will help others do the same. They will also tell you that some young men and young women are refusing to become a part of our fellowship because they think we are out of touch, and the women’s role is one of the main issues behind their conclusions.
So the End Justifies the Means?
Some of you are thinking about now that I am suggesting that being open to changing our ideas and practices to attract more people to our churches justifies compromising the Scriptures. I have zero intention of changing the Bible’s teaching to fit our society, but I have every intention of changing our traditions to fit the Bible’s teaching. At present, I am teaching a five lesson midweek series in my home region in Dallas on “hot topics.” One is about relationships and includes some of what I have in this article regarding male/female role relationships. Another lesson is about alcohol, drugs (with marijuana being legalized in more and more places) and sex. What I will teach will be clear (and thus offensive) to some, particularly when using Romans 1 to address sex outside marriage and homosexuality. The final lesson will be about conversion, and yes, there will be water in the plan – taught strongly and unapologetically.
That being said, I am advocating what Paul said (and practiced) about adapting to save as many as possible, for that principle fits all generations, times and places.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
Adaptations to cultural changes should be calculated carefully and knee-jerk reactions avoided. We shouldn’t be the first to institute changes that might be disturbing to the older generations, but we certainly should not be the last. Above all, we should be open to reconsidering anything from a biblical perspective that might make us more relatable to those we are trying to win for Christ.
Yes, I know that this subject and this article are disturbing to some. And I know that through Paul, Jesus taught that we shouldn’t cause the weak to stumble (lose their faith). But both Jesus and Paul caused many to grumble (and the difference between the two is huge)! Traditions and truths may or may not coincide, and when they don’t, viewing them as though they do was strongly denounced by Jesus in his earthly ministry. Some of our traditions are based on Scripture and some are not. Some are helpful and some are not. Whatever else may be said, a continuing pursuit of truth is at the very heart of the definition of a disciple – a learner!
A Final Plea
As I said near the beginning of the article, when I enter a discussion of the male/female roles in the church, I do so with some sense of fear and trepidation. Therefore, I humbly request of you several things. One, please understand that my critiques of us all (me included) are aimed at helping us become more like Jesus and like Paul, who did all they could to relate to and influence the masses for God. I am a fellow sinner, in need of much patience and grace from both God and my spiritual family. Two, please understand that I am not offering this article as the final word on the subject. Far from it. This is a complex topic and a controversial one. I am just requesting that we take it out of the closet and expose it to the invigorating light of renewed biblical investigation. Three, please understand that we are a family and that we must view and treat each other as dearly loved family members. All members of any family do not always agree on everything that affects them. We simply must be able to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
For sure I’m not implying that anyone who holds a different position or conviction on this topic than I do is a chauvinist or an oppressor of women, but those elements can be present to an appreciable degree in the church without our even realizing it. I keep using the term “systemic” because it best describes having some sexist underpinnings in our thinking without being conscious of it. I’m talking about all of us males, including me. When I wrote the section about influence authority via expertise, I used the example of our near certainty to follow a doctor’s orders in spite of the fact that they have neither positional nor relational authority in our lives. When describing that example, I used the male pronoun four times without even thinking about it (until I re-read it). I just used it again in writing this very paragraph but caught it and changed it! And yet in the past year, I’ve been treated by several female doctors, one of whom I trusted enough to cut me open and do hernia repair surgery. Even though our unconscious sexism is absent of evil intent, we may still make our sisters feel disrespected and marginalized. Regardless of where our deeper studies about these roles lead us in practice (which will vary as it does already), we are still brothers and sisters trying to be the best kids to our Father and each other that we can be. So, let the digging deeper process begin. That is all I am pleading for here.
The best closing verse that came to my mind is the following one, and it encapsulates the elements of my final plea quite well. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). God, please be our “Ezer,” for we need much help as your feeble children! We know that you describe yourself as both mother and father at times, and we long for all of your loving care and guidance, especially when our spirituality might be tested!
I was exposed to the now popular futurist teaching as a young person and accepted it as being true for many years. I did not know an alternative was available, and being biblically ignorant, saw no reason to question what I was taught. However, I did not like the impact it had on the leaders who taught it. They often seemed to be caught up in it to the point that they lost perspective of the average person’s needs for practical help in trying to live a spiritual life in a pagan society. They were more intrigued by trying to figure out dates and events of the end times than about how the world could be evangelized for Christ. My present opinion is that people have become materialistic to the point that they cannot envision anything good apart from this earth, including heaven! Also, the futurist teaching appeals to the emotions because of its “mysterious” elements, and many people are looking for mystical fancy rather than biblical fact.
The modern “end-times” prophets obviously focus much on their interpretation of biblical prophecy in both Old and New Testaments. Some groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have set many dates for the return of Christ, and once these dates had passed, they spiritualized the “return” in some way in order to save face. The apocalyptic style of the Book of Revelation has especially been twisted it into some bizarre doctrines. For example, the JWs interpret the 144,000 of Revelation 7 and 14 as being literally descriptive of an exact number of highly spiritual people who will go to heaven (which, by their own admission, does not include most of the Witnesses!). All of the end-times folks also take the “1000 year reign” mentioned in Revelation 20 as being literal, and assume much about that passage that is not even mentioned there – such as Christ being the one reigning. I will include more on numerology later on in the article.
The idea that Christ will reign on earth as a physical king is a widespread belief that crosses nearly all denominational lines. Not all groups believe exactly the same things about it, but the general outline they all accept. This system of interpretation, usually called “premillennialism,” was once rejected by many religious groups who have now come to accept it. The reasons for the current acceptance of the doctrine are not biblical ones, as we shall show. The doctrine of premillennialism, briefly stated, is the view that Christ will come back to earth at some future point and reign for a literal thousand years. A large segment who hold this view believe that, seven years before this return, the righteous will experience a rapture (catching up) from the earth while those left on earth will experience a great tribulation. The concept of such an earthly reign supposedly finds its foundation in Revelation 20:1-10. But in approaching this or other difficult passages, several fundamental rules of interpretation need to be kept in mind.
- Truth does not contradict itself. If two verses seem to do so, there is either a misunderstanding of one of the verses, or possibly both of them.
- Doctrine cannot be based on difficult passages without due consideration of less difficult passages on the same subject. To establish a theory on symbolic passages forces you to completely ignore literal passages which contradict it, and also forces you to apply figurative interpretation to obviously literal Scriptures.
- One does not have to know exactly what a difficult passage means in order to know what it does not mean. For example, a person could be unsure of the exact interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:29, but at the same time, be absolutely sure that it does not teach proxy baptism for the physically dead. Too many plain passages render that explanation impossible. In a similar way, one could be somewhat uncertain of the precise meaning of some of the symbolism in Revelation, while rejecting the doctrine of premillennialism itself.
When I began to study the Bible in depth on premillennialism, I soon saw the vast inconsistencies in the teaching. I have read many writings on all sides of the issue, and have no doubt that my earlier indoctrination in premillennialism was not correct. Exciting it was, but accurate it was not! This view removes the book from its original setting of Christians being persecuted and killed in the early centuries of the church. What comfort would a “twenty-first century newspaper” type of prophecy bring to people being killed for their faith? Such an approach is filled with distortions of Scripture and fanciful interpretations cooked with a “dash” of Ezekiel, a “shake” of Daniel, “scoops” of Revelation and “pinches” from other New Testament books. In spite of its popularity, the view has little to commend it from a biblical perspective and many reasons to reject it.
Important Principles in Interpreting Revelation
To begin, God would not include a book in his word that could not be understood. To do so would be contrary to the very purpose of Scripture (Ephesians 3:2–5). Revelation, properly viewed, is an incredible book of impact. Because of its style and content, it is often called the “grand finale” of the Bible. Revelation’s literary structure, beautiful imagery, majestic visions, mysterious symbols and dramatic presentation of eternal truths make this book distinctive from all other books of the Bible.
“Revelation” is the English translation of the Greek word apokalupsis, meaning “to reveal or uncover that which has been hidden.” Revelation is classified as “apocalyptic” literature by scholars. Such literature was popular for about 200 years before Christ and for about 100 years after him. It has the following characteristics:
- It addresses those undergoing some form of persecution.
- It addresses the reader in the nuances and style of the language and time period in which it is written.
- It is dramatic and highly symbolic (expressed in visions and symbols).
- It is sometimes predictive, although the basic message is focused
The book of Revelation is similar to parts of Old Testament prophetic books such as Ezekiel and Daniel. In fact, much of Revelation cannot be understood without a basic knowledge of the Old Testament and its phraseology. But this relationship should not cause us to think that Revelation is the fulfillment of OT prophecy. Rather, it uses a similar style to describe the ultimate downfall of heathen nations and the exaltation of God’s kingdom. Similar symbols may be used in the OT books, but they are describing very different events – events separated by hundreds of years.
Apocalyptic language is used to create a dramatic effect. It appeals to the imagination more than the intellect. In times of persecution, those who are suffering need inspiration from hearing about God’s conclusive triumph over evil far more than academic pronouncements of doctrine. With this in mind, understanding symbolic language is much like understanding parables – get the main points and avoid over-analyzing the details. If more commentary writers and theologians followed this approach, sensationalistic interpretations would be greatly reduced, thus limiting the abounding confusion about Revelation.
No book in the Bible has resulted in more contradictory interpretations than the book of Revelation. It is likely that more false ideologies have arisen from a misunderstanding of this book than from any other portion of the Scriptures. In studying such a book, we would be better off to first consider what it does not teach rather than what it does teach! One rule must be remembered when studying any book in the Bible, namely that an easily understood passage must not be explained by a difficult or symbolic passage. We must let the “easy” passage interpret the “difficult” one. Therefore, Revelation should be studied in close harmony with the rest of the Scriptures.
The Use of Numbers in Revelation
I will use a section of my book, Prepared To Answer, that addressed the prophetic teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to clarify how numbers are to be viewed as symbolic and not literal. Most of the images in Revelation are also to be viewed as symbolic, since that is the very nature of the book. The explanation of numerology regarding the teachings of the JW’s will then help us understand Revelation 20 better.
To the Jewish mind, numerology was very important. Many numbers had well-defined meanings, and they conveyed spiritual lessons. For example, the number “1” carried the idea of unity. Think of the series of “ones” in Ephesians 4:4-6. The number “2” carried the idea of strengthening. Jesus sent out his early preachers two by two. Revelation 11:3 mentions God’s two witnesses. Then, the number “3” was the divine number (Father, Son and Spirit). Next, “4” was the cosmic or world number. In Revelation 7:1, you find four angels, four corners of the earth and the four winds of heaven.
Combine the divine number and the world number and you get “7,” the number of perfection. Thus, in Revelation 4:5, the seven spirits most likely refer to the Holy Spirit in his perfection. The number “6” was an evil, sinister number because it fell short of the perfect number. In America, many of our hotels do not designate a 13th floor. In that Jewish setting, they would not have had a designated sixth floor. The “666” of Revelation 13:18 carries with it the idea of evil and failure. The next significant number was “10,” which signified completeness (all fingers or all toes). You find this number often in the Revelation. A multiple of that number would be 1,000, denoting ultimate completeness. The 1,000 years in Revelation 20 show this kind of completeness, as a look at the references mentioned earlier will demonstrate.
The number of organized religion was “12,” calling to mind the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In Revelation 7, the twelve tribes are connected to John’s mention of the 144,000. If you take the organized religion number, multiply it by itself, and then multiply it by 1,000, the number of ultimate completeness, you come up with 144,000. Therefore, if you understood the way that numbers were used symbolically, you would expect this number to signify the ultimate number of a religious group. And we will see that this is precisely what is being done in Revelation 7. Finally, the other key number in Revelation is “3 1/2,” found as three-and-a-half years, forty-two months, 1,260 days, and from Daniel, a time, times and a half a time. This number, in whatever form, symbolized the period of persecution itself, an unstable time, but one with an end to it.
What about the 144,000?
With this explanation in mind, let’s look at the passages in Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5. A careful consideration of how they are misapplied by the JW’s will help us see the fallacy of trying to make numbers (or other symbols) literal.
 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000,
 from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,
 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,
 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000 (Revelation 7:4-8).
 Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.  And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.  And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.  These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.  No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless (Revelation 14:1-5).
In chapter 7, the 144,000 are used to represent the church during the time of persecution. Earlier in this chapter, all of them were “sealed,” showing God’s protection of them. See Ezekiel 9:4 for this usage. Since the persecutors were often Jews, or were aided by Jews, it should be obvious that the twelve tribes were not literally the twelve tribes of the Jews. The ones being sealed, or being guaranteed God’s protection, were the Christians, those who were now a part of the new Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). When you look closely at the listing of these tribes, it becomes even more obvious that the list has been “spiritualized.” For example, the fourth tribe (Judah) is mentioned first, because that was the tribe out of which Jesus came (Genesis 49:10).
Also, we find Levi in the list, although that tribe was not normally listed, because they did not inherit a land area in the OT. But, since all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9), Levi here is to be identified with spiritual Israel, the church. Furthermore, Dan and Ephraim were excluded from the list, because Dan and Bethel (in Ephraim) were centers of calf worship under King Jeroboam. Therefore, they were excluded here. Finally, Joseph’s name is added, even though, in the OT, his sons were the tribes listed and not Joseph himself. But to the Bible reader, this name has only good connotations.
After the 144,000 are thus described in chapter 7, the next section (verses 9-17) goes on to talk about a great multitude that no one could count. This great multitude was composed of those who “have come out of the great tribulation” and are now before the throne of God (verses 14-15). Therefore, the 144,000 showed the church on earth during the persecution, and the symbolism taught that God knew every one of them and would protect them spiritually, even if they had to die physically. Therefore, the great multitude did not need to be counted, because they had passed from time to eternity. The lesson of the chapter was that God would be with them and ultimately get them to heaven.
In Revelation 14, we simply find a description of Christians, the 144,000 (all of the redeemed). They were not defiled with women (literally, virgins), showing spiritual purity (2 Corinthians 11:2) as opposed to spiritual adultery through idol worship (Jeremiah 3:6; James 4:4). They followed the Lamb by keeping his words (John 10:4-5). They were purchased by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28). As such, they were the first-fruits to God. Just as the first of all physical harvests was to be set apart for God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), Christians are likewise set apart for the service of God (James 1:18). No lie was found in their mouths, but lying was one of the chief characteristics of pagan Rome and emperor worshippers (see Revelation 21:8).
Now, once we understand biblically who the 144,000 actually are, what should we say about the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation? Simply this: if they insist on making the 144,000 a literal number, then you insist on making their description literal. When you do that, the 144,000 would have to all be Jewish (from the twelve tribes), and they would have to be male virgins (had not defiled themselves with women). No Witness would agree to those things, but if the passage is to be taken literally, these points would have to be accepted, because the wording itself is quite clear.
What About Revelation 20?
The actual examination of Revelation 20 reveals some important facts: first, the text does not mention a number of things that people assume are taught there. The second coming of Christ is not mentioned. Christ is not mentioned as being on earth. No mention is made of anyone reigning on earth. A bodily resurrection is not mentioned; and finally, no one living in modern times is mentioned in connection with this 1,000 year reign. The persecuted of the early church are the ones who sit on thrones and reign with Christ. How can a passage which mentions none of these things be said to teach all of them?
Second, this passage is full of figurative symbolic language. If we insist on making the 1,000 years literal, why are not the key to the abyss, the great chain, the beast, etc. also literal? Actually, the Book of Revelation employs apocalyptic language, as it portrays (by means of symbols) the victory of God’s persecuted people over the Roman Empire. This type of writing was well understood in its day, although it may well be unfamiliar and strange to people today. The book dramatizes the victory of good over evil to bring hope to the persecuted saints of the first century. If the book really taught what many people advocate, it would have been of scarce comfort to those in the early church who were dying for their faith!
Now to a brief explanation of the passage: the binding of Satan (verse 2) was to stop him from deceiving the nations (verse 3). The text does not suggest that he would be tied in such a way as to be totally inactive (1 Peter 5:8). The nations as a whole had been deceived into emperor worship (see chapter 13:11-18), but the binding of Satan would limit this blasphemy for a thousand years (symbolic of a long period – see Deuteronomy 7:9; Job 9:3; Psalm 50:10, 90:4).
In verses 4-6, the persecuted Christians in the early church are promised a victory. Their cause looked as if it had been defeated, but here God assures them that Christianity would be vindicated. Their cause would be raised from the dust of defeat into a resurrection of victory. The souls under the altar (6:9) are now elevated to thrones as their cry has been heard and answered. See Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Isaiah 26:13-19 for the idea of a resurrection of a cause in victory. Revelation 20:5 calls this the “first resurrection” to avoid confusion with the general bodily resurrection at the end of time (1 Corinthians 15).
“The rest of the dead” in the first part of verse 5 (which is a parenthetical statement) are the non-Christians, the persecutors. Their cause lies in defeat for a long time-period (1,000 years symbolizes this period), but it will briefly arise at some future date (verses 7-10). Fortunately, this renewed deception of the nations is short lived, as Christ brings his judgment upon the wicked (verses 9-15).
Although this explanation seems logical to me, I claim no infallibility in my interpretation. The passage is a difficult one, and dogmatism is not urged in such cases. However, in spite of how Revelation 20 is to be explained in its various details, it assuredly does not teach the doctrine of premillennialism.
The Reign of Christ
The premillennialists claim that Jesus will not begin his reign until the time of his return (second coming). He will then reign on a literal throne in a literal Jerusalem for a literal one thousand years. When this concept is examined in light of Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah and its New Testament fulfillment, the idea is shown to be false. Zechariah 6:12-13 is one of the key passages disproving the validity of premillennialism. For clarity, we will quote from the more literal New American Standard Bible (NASB):
Then say to him, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the LORD.
Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.’”
The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus built his church, and that his church is God’s temple (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:11, 16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22). Now look back at the Zechariah passage in light of the church being the temple of God.
Christ would sit on his throne (Zechariah 6:13), and Acts 2:1, 32-35 says that he began occupying that throne on the Day of Pentecost when the church was established. He was to be a priest on his throne (Zechariah 6:13), and he is a priest now (Hebrews 4:14). This Branch was to rule on his throne while sitting (Zechariah 6:13), and he began sitting on this throne nearly two thousand years ago (Acts 2:32-35). Therefore, he is ruling on his throne now. Since he was said to be a priest on his throne, and he is a priest in heaven (Hebrews 4:14), his throne must be in heaven. In fact, he cannot be priest on earth, for Hebrews 8:4 says, “If he were on earth, he would not be a priest.” Therefore, his throne cannot be on earth.
Psalm 110:1, 4 also speaks of Christ ruling as a priest. In this case, his rule will last until his enemies are conquered. In 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 the Bible says, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Therefore, Jesus is reigning now and will continue to do so until the resurrection of the dead, at which point he will cease to reign over the Messianic kingdom as heaven begins. This truth is exactly opposite to what the premillennial doctrine teaches. They say he will begin reigning at his return, and Paul says he will cease! It should be mentioned that as a part of Deity, he reigns over heaven and all of its subjects, which includes all of the redeemed from all ages.
It should be obvious that Jesus is reigning in his spiritual kingdom now. In his earthly ministry he claimed that the kingdom was near, with a fulfillment of prophecy in mind (Daniel 2:44; Mark 1:15; Hebrews 12:28). This kingdom would come in the lifetime of some of the apostles and it would come with power (Mark 9:1). Power came when the Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). Therefore, the kingdom of the prophesied New Covenant was established on the day of Pentecost (although it was present in its preparatory phase when the King himself was present during his earthly ministry). After this time, the kingdom is spoken of as a present reality (Colossians 1:13; 4:11; Revelation 1:6). Furthermore, the kingdom is inseparably connected with the church in Matthew 16:18-19. Any future view of the kingdom is of necessity referring to the heavenly state after the church has been delivered up to the Father by Christ (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The Place of the Nation of Israel
The common “end time” prophets typically place a good deal of emphasis on the role of the present nation of Israel. However, such an emphasis can easily be shown to be mistaken. One of the first questions needing an answer is this: Will there be a restoration of Israel in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy? The answer is negative, for several reasons.
- Christ is already on David’s throne (Acts 2:30-33).
- The tent of David has been rebuilt (Acts 15:14-17). The saving of the Gentiles is in fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12, according to James, the Lord’s brother. The argument in Acts 15 is clearly that the tent was to be rebuilt before the Gentiles were to “seek the Lord.” Therefore, either the tent here is spiritual in nature (the church), or Gentiles are yet in their sins and the Great Commission is nullified!
- God’s promises to Israel concerning the land inheritance have all been fulfilled (Joshua 23:14). Notice that the boundaries God specified to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 were reached by the time 1 Kings 4:21 and 2 Chronicles 9:26 were written.
- God said, through Jeremiah, that Israel could not be made whole again (Jeremiah 19:11).
- Jesus promised that the kingdom would be taken away from the Jews (Matthew 21:33-43).
- The last state of the Jews would be worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45).
- God’s special people are spiritual Jews (Christians) and not physical ones (Romans 2:28-29; 9:6; Galatians 3:26-29; Philippians 3:3). Philippians 3:2-3 could not state the point any more directly nor bluntly, as Paul contrasts the physical and spiritual “Jews”: “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”
But What About Romans 11:25-26?
Does it not clearly state, “And so all Israel will be saved?” The larger context of the passage begins back in Romans 11:11. After establishing the fact that most physical Jews had always rejected God, Paul moves on to show how God intended to use even their wrong choices (Romans 11:11-24). Israel’s wrong choices and subsequent rejection has ended up being a blessing to the Gentiles. They had Jesus crucified, making salvation available. They drove Christians out of Jerusalem, which resulted in the Gentiles being able to hear the gospel. They rejected the message in each city to which the early missionaries preached, after which they preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). However, if the Jew’s rejection of the gospel ended up blessing the world, then how much more their acceptance would do for the world (Romans 11:15)!
Next, Paul expresses hope that the Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom will provoke the Jews to envy, causing them to reconsider the message of Christ (Romans 11:13-14). This section concludes with a warning to the Gentiles not to be prideful and self-righteous. They had not been a part of the olive root (Judaism) in the first place; they had been merely grafted in by the grace of God. The Jews had been cut off because of their faithless rejection of Christ, but they can be grafted back in again if they turn to Jesus in faith. The means of how they might be motivated to respond in this way is discussed in the remainder of the chapter (Romans 11:25-36).
Israel’s hardening is stated to be only “in part” until the “full number” of Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25). Since it is partial, it has the possibility of being reversed. The key to a reversal is the coming in of the “full number of Gentiles.” Paul likely was referring to the completion of his own ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), resulting in more and more Gentiles in the church all over the world. In Romans 15:24, we find that his missionary plans were far from completion, for he planned to go all the way to Spain. Once this larger Gentile inclusion had occurred, all Israel could be saved in the sense being discussed in this context.
The word “so” in Romans 11:26 is from the Greek houtos, an adverb of manner, meaning “in this way.” “In this way” refers back to the envy-provoking process mentioned in Romans 11:13-14. (Paul refers to the same idea again in Romans 11:31). Therefore, when the Jews saw the growing number of Gentiles in the church of Jesus Christ, and the blessings from God that they were enjoying, those with good hearts would be envious enough to humble out and reconsider. In this way, they would be saved. The “all Israel” refers to those whose hearts would allow them to become humble and reconsider. It could not refer to every last Israelite coming to Christ at some future point – for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the “narrow road” will never be chosen by a majority from any nation, race, or population group (Matthew 7:13-14). This was true of the Jews even during their heyday, as the early part of Romans 11 establishes forcefully. Two, Paul had already expressed his hope that some would turn to Christ by being provoked to envy (Romans 11:14). Three, even if some future generation of Jews in the majority were to accept Christ, what comfort would that be to the scores of generations that had already died lost? Centuries have passed in which millions of Jews have rejected Christ and been lost as a result.
The key idea of “all Israel” being saved is that of hopeful potential, much like Jesus expressed: “I…will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added) and “By this all men will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35, emphasis added). Note that the quote in Romans 11:26-27 refers to salvation in Christ, which became available at the cross and will continue to be available to anyone who will accept the gospel in faith. The only plan of salvation that God has and will have to the end of time is this plan, which must be accepted individually! (See Acts 4:8-12.) He still loves the rejecting Jews and desires to save them, for his promises made to the patriarchs still stand. But his salvation can be based on nothing less than the blood of Christ accepted by bowing our hearts and knees to his lordship.
The Second Coming of Christ
Our next consideration involves the second coming of Christ. When he comes, there will be only one bodily resurrection of the dead as good and bad are raised simultaneously to be judged (John 5:28-29). All nations will be gathered for this great day (Matthew 25:31-34). Note that this is a judgment of every person within all nations, not a judgment of entire nations as nations, as some premillennialists claim. (Compare the wording of 25:32 with Matthew 28:19 in this regard.)
As stated in the first chapter of this book, there simply cannot be two separate bodily resurrections. If the righteous are raised on the “last day” (John 6:40), and the unrighteous are judged on the “last day” (John 12:48), both must occur at the time. We must allow the last day to really be the last day! When the last trumpet sounds, the dead are raised and the living are changed – in the twinkling of an eye, no less (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). If the wicked are raised a thousand years later, they will not be awakened by the last trumpet, for it will have already sounded! When it does sound, the physical universe will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:10-12; Revelation 21:1). Note that the OT passages that speak of the earth remaining “forever” mean only that it is “age-lasting.” Ordinances such as circumcision and the Levitical priesthood with its sacrifices are also called “everlasting,” but they are simply age-lasting (which in that case was the Mosaic Age.) See in chapter 13 of my book, Prepared To Answer, the related discussion under the heading, “The Sabbath, a Perpetual Covenant?”
Even the “proof text” for the premillennialist view of the rapture falls far short of actually teaching it:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, emphasis added)
What about the passage would make anyone look for a rapture of the righteous to heaven for seven years, followed by a return to earth for a thousand years? The explanation seems simple enough – we will go to be with the Lord forever, rather than him coming to be with us on the earth. The futurists want him to come and be with them on our little planet, but Jesus wants his children to be with him in his amazing heaven.
Does It Really Matter How We View the End-Times?
A final consideration might be a look at the real dangers of the premillennial view. Surely no one would argue that salvation is based on a perfect understanding of biblical prophecy! However, accepting the premillennial theories has some serious implications.
- Premillennial theory denies that Christ is reigning now, and therefore denies God’s eternal purpose in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11).
- It contradicts every passage that speaks of this present period as the last days (Acts 2:15-17; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Peter 1:20).
- It makes Jesus false to his promises when he said that the kingdom was near (Mark 1:15).
- It alternates between Judaism and Christianity by reviving the OT sacrificial system during the thousand-year reign. However, that old covenant Jesus nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15).
- It demotes Christ from the throne of his majesty to the earth, his footstool (Psalm 110:1).
- It denies that Amos 9:11–12 is fulfilled and thus denies salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 15:14-17).
- It is the same mistake that the first century Jews made by expecting an earthly kingdom that was political in nature.
Paul said in Philippians 1:23 that he wanted to go be with the Lord, but the premillennialists in essence say, “Lord, you come be with us; we like it here.” Jesus makes it plain in John 14:1-3 that eternal rewards have absolutely nothing to do with this earth:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”`