Election Explained

Every new-comer to the Bible will stumble across an inconspicuous little word translated as “elect” or “chosen” in the English text. I find the word ‘elect’ to be a rather foreign word to my vocabulary. As I thought about it, other words such as “presidential elections” and thoughts of voting sprang to mind. I’ll admit that the way the New Testament uses the word ‘elect’ took me quite some getting used to. Hopefully this article can aid you in your understanding of it and how your own election can be confirmed.

There are three ways in which the word “elect” (in Greek – “eklegó”) is used:

  1. God chose certain men in the Bible to be Covenant Representatives (Eg Abraham, Noah, Jesus)
  2. God chose a nation through whom he would bless the others
  3. God chose certain people to fulfil certain tasks

So whenever we come across this word in the text we must be careful to ascertain which use it is being put to. Many people have caused themselves a great deal of confusion by inferring the wrong sense of the word in a text that is speaking about something quite different.

The covenant community – a holy nation

In the old covenant between God and the nation of Israel, God said,

“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples of the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”  Deut 14:2

The natural question arising from this statement is – why was Israel a “chosen people” and so special to God? The very next verse in Deuteronomy provides the answer –

“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers… he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”

So it becomes evident that God’s love and special attention toward his covenant people was a consequence of his covenant with their forefathers, namely: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because these men found favour in his  sight, God chose them to be the fathers of his chosen family; which later grew into a nation.

This is made very explicit in the wording of God’s promise to Abraham –

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Gen 17

In this way Abraham became a Covenant Representative. Anyone who was a descendant of Abraham and was circumcised according to the sign of the covenant could legitimately be called a member of the covenantal community.

We find that God would elect one of the male descendants in each successive generation to be the next Covenant Representative. This succession would ordinarily pass down to the eldest son in the family (referred to as ‘primogeniture’ in theology). God did, however, sometimes elect another of the sons to receive this responsibility. Paul describes an example of this unconventional election in Rom 9,

“Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”

After this kind of election, God would reveal himself to the man and renew the covenant with his new Covenant Representative. An example of this can be found when God renewed the covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac –

“And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.” Gen 12:2,3

The new Covenant Community

In the New Testament we find the same covenantal language (as is hopefully now becoming familiar) that is used in the old. In a striking parallel with the covenantal language used in Deuteronomy, we read in the New Testament,

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Pet 2:9

So what then is the new Covenant Community’s claim to the special title of “Chosen People”? It is on the basis of Jesus, of whom it is written –

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations… In his name the nations will put their hope.” Is 42:1-4

 In Luke 9:35 the Father proclaimed from heaven, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” Earlier I asked the question – on what basis did God choose Israel to be his people? The answer that scripture gives for them is the same answer that now applies to us, “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefather/s.” Jesus is now God’s chosen Covenant Representative and so God makes his new covenant with him and with all his descendants in a manner corresponding directly with the covenant made with Abraham.

Many Jews took offense at this because it seemed as though the covenantal promise which God had made to Abraham and his descendants was now nullified. Does this mean that the descendents of Abraham are no longer his Chosen People? Paul addresses this question directly in Rom 9:6-8,

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring”

Many Jews had neglected the fact that their righteousness in God’s sight was not solely on the basis of their biological descent and the accompanying sign of circumcision. They needed reminding that God’s covenant depends on faith as much as outward signs of fidelity. Paul illuminates this potently in Rom 4:16,

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all”

The model of the covenantal community represented by the holy nation of Israel through the call of Abraham is a wonderful device which God uses to explain the nature of the kingdom and also finds a surprising fulfillment in Christ – the Father of the called out community in the New Covenant. Whereas a “child of Abraham” was synonymous with election in the Old Covenant, being a “child of God through faith in Christ” (Gal 3:26) is synonymous with election in the new.

In another surprising turn of events, we find in the New Testament that this was God’s plan from before the creation of the world!

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world… In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” Eph 1:3-5

Through God’s purpose in election he wanted it that Jesus would be the Father of his holy nation. Just as Israel was chosen “in Abraham”, God wanted for the new Covenant Community to be chosen “in Christ”. Because Jesus found favour in the Father’s eyes, a blessing was pronounced on Him and his children, as it says in Heb 2:13,

“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

And again in Gal 3:14,

in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

The practical application of this for any Christian cannot be over-emphasized. If we want to be included in and remain a part of God’s elect it is vitally important that we remain in Jesus. Jesus put it this way,

“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are… burned” John 15:5,6

A holy temple

God not only elected a nation and certain men for his purpose, he chose for himself a house as well. The temple of God was no ordinary building, which is why God said this about it,

I have chosen and sanctified this house, that my name may be there forever: and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.” 2 Chr 7:16

As such, much attention was given to the process which it underwent to sanctify it and make it a suitable place for the Most High to dwell. Moreover, it was not a building which people chose for its special purpose, it was a house which God chose and sanctified. As we read earlier about God’s holy nation which were chosen in Christ before the creation of the world, God speaks again about his plans for his holy temple even before the creation of the world –

He [Jesus] was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” 1 Pet 1:20

Not only so but God’s ultimate plan was not a temple made of ordinary stones but a temple made of living stones, with Jesus as its corner stone –

“As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Pet 2:4

 Our calling as a living temple is fulfilled by us as we “come to him, the living Stone”. As we come to Christ who is chosen as the “living Stone” then “[we] also, like living stones, are built into a spiritual house”.

A holy priesthood

Of course, becoming a “holy priesthood” is no small feat either. Saul lost his kingdom because he falsely assumed this high calling and Korah’s rebellion met a swift and violent end as the earth opened up and swallowed them for grasping at this priesthood position illegitimately. Aaron was “chosen” to be a priest before the Lord (Ex 28:1) and it was only his direct descendants which could serve God in this unique capacity. Moreover, they were consecrated and sanctified by anointing with oil, without which they would be struck dead as they entered God’s presence. In order for us under the New Testament to pick up this priestly mantle and begin to offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” we must first be reborn into the priestly line of Christ who was “chosen” to be our High Priest. After that we need the sanctifying oil of the Holy Spirit to make us fit for service in this holy calling.

Chosen for a specific task

When the scriptures speak of election they may also be using the word with reference to a particular service that God requires of the person. However, it is important to note that this is not a reliable indication of their eternal election as children of God. One very prominent example of this kind of election is in Acts 9:15 regarding Paul,

“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.”

In the case of Paul it is reasonable to conclude that this election included his election in Christ for salvation, but other examples in the New Testament demonstrate that this was not always so. Of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus we read,

“Then Jesus replied, ‘Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!’” John 6:70

These men were chosen for the unique task of establishing the Church of Christ on the earth, and yet Judas was not included in the elect of Christ for salvation (John 17:12).

There are many more examples from the Old Testament of this kind of election. For example, some of the Judges in Israel were chosen to be deliverers of Israel from her enemies. Men like Samson (who broke all his Nazirite vows and died as a slave of the Philistines) and Jephthah (who uttered a rash vow and sacrificed his own daughter) were used mightily in the purposes of God but big question marks remain about their eternal salvation.

Other examples from the Old Testament are the kings of foreign nations. We read of Cyrus king of Persia,

“He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.”‘ Is 44:28

Other foreign kings were conspicuously evil and yet chosen by God as instruments of judgement. For example God says of the king of Babylon –

“You are my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms” Jer 51:20

Making your election sure

Having now clarified the different kinds of election that are demonstrated in scripture, I am going to return to the topic of election for salvation and what we can do to make it secure. It is abundantly clear that in the world today there are very many (the majority?) of people who are not God’s elect. At this point in the reading I hope it is self-evident that this is not God’s fault. Our election is not individual, it is corporate. Christ is God’s Covenant Representative, He is the new Abraham, if we are in Him we are chosen. All that anyone need do to be included in God’s holy nation is become a “child of God through faith in Christ” – be “born again”. God has made no secret of his desire that “all men should be saved”. In fact he so loved everyone in the world that he gave his only son that whoever should believe in him could be saved (John 3:16). So why is it that so many people do not go on to receive eternal life? The scripture gives several indications of why some people are never included amongst God’s elect and others, once they get in, do not remain so:

  1. They have no interest in God’s kingdom

In the parable of the banquet (Luke 14, Mat 22), those who were initially invited had other things that interested them more (eg “I have bought a field”) and so they turned down the invitation. God said of Israel,

“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” Rom 10:21

  1. They do not receive sight because they think they can see:

The sin of self-righteousness is a sin which kept many from salvation in Jesus’ day. He said to the Pharisees that they were blind because “now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41) In another common phrase he expresses a similar sentiment “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)

  1. They have no desire to glorify the Giver of the gifts

Jesus told the parable of those who were made tenants of a vineyard but refused to share the harvest with the owner of the land. They treated the vineyard as though it were of their own making. The parable of the prodigal son gives the same message, a people who delight in the gift of life but do not wish to partake in the giver of life.

  1. They have no desire for righteousness

The promise of Jesus is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mat 5:6) The beginning of the Gospel of John says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

  1. They assume incorrectly that they are saved

In the same parable of the wedding banquet (Mat 22), a man is found to be at the wedding but is not wearing the appropriate wedding clothes. He responded to the invitation but he neglected to appropriate the righteousness of Christ. We learn more about where the correct clothing can be found in Rev 3:18,

“I counsel you to buy from Me gold purified by fire, so that you may be rich; and white clothing, so that you may be clothed, and so that the shame of your nakedness does not appear.”

  1. They become weary in doing good

“Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 2 Pet 1:10

“These things” refers to the fruitful life described in the previous verse: “goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love”. The gospel should produce in us both faith and fruitfulness, it is not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake. A faith that produces fruit is “sure” but a faith that is not accompanied by a fruitful life is in danger of falling from the company of the elect.

  1. They shrink back from faith

“‘But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, I will take no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Heb 10:38,39

If we turn back in fear after we are confronted with the persecutions and troubles that come because of the Word of God, we risk losing the reward of salvation that is promised to the faithful.

Perhaps that is why it is the “good and faithful” servant that is rewarded and inherits the kingdom with Christ. Believing in Christ secures our entry into the company of the elect but it is an enduring faith that withstands the fiery trials of life that is required. While faith is essential to our salvation, it is not the most important agent. Through faith we access the precious gift of grace. It is not our faith that saves us but the grace of God extended to us in Christ. By faith we abide in the life-sustaining stem of Christ and bear fruit that pleases God. Our hope is not in our ability to “abide”, our hope is that

“he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil 1:6

Killing the Canaanites

canaanites

There is a very natural question that arises in the 21st century mind when we read the account in the Old Testament of the Israelites taking the promised land – “What about the poor Canaanites who were living there?” The question is inflamed even further when we read not only that they were dispossessed of their land but “devoted to destruction” (Deut 7). The Hebrew word used here is charam, meaning “to curse, annihilate, or destroy.” Why would God devote these people to complete annihilation?

I have heard many different men trying to explain this unfortunate episode in the history of Israel. There are two phrases that you will commonly hear being used in these discussions: hyperbole and accommodation. I’ll explain what is meant by them and also try and give what I think is a more biblical rational.

Upon reading a verse like Deut 7:2:

“and when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them”

some commentators will interpret the language as hyperbole (meaning it is exaggerated and not to be taken literally). Evidence that is given for this interpretation is that in many of the towns the residents were not all put to death. They argue that this is the language of conquest and so the violence is exaggerated and comparable to the kind of language other military conquerors would use.

Another interpretative lens that is applied is that of God’s “accommodating” nature. That is to say that God reveals himself to us and interacts with us at a level which is comprehensible to us in our finite, language-bound, culture-bound minds. In the same way that a father may use baby talk and play horse-horse in order to relate to his toddler son, God accommodates himself to us and interacts with us in ways which are meaningful to us. So in the context of Israel, the nations around them grew in prominence and power through military conquest. The thinking goes that God blessed Israel in a way that they interpreted “blessing” which was to conquer other nations even though God himself did not approve of such a mindset.

While there may be some basis for truth in these arguments I believe there is a much more pertinent aspect to the nature of God’s character that I feel these arguments neglect. There is an underlying assumption that permeates much of the discussion on this topic that can be quite misleading and even tarnish the true nature of God, which is that God loves all mankind and it has always been this way. God has never discriminated against people based on their ethnicity, it is only on the basis of morality that God discriminates.

God makes his reason for destroying the residents of Canaan quite clear in Leviticus chapter 18 –

 “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled.  Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” (lev 18:24-28)

What offended God about these people was not that they were “in the way” of his purposes for Israel or that God blessed Israel but cursed every other nation simply because they were “other”. It was through the Torah that God revealed his definition of evil to Israel but that did not excuse other nations from committing the same evils.

There is a very important truth here that is perhaps lost on the modern reader – God hates evil wherever it be found. When Israel went on later to commit the same sins as the nations before them they were judged according to the measure of their sins as well. For Israel this resulted in the Assyrian exile and Judah went into exile in Babylon. The same word ‘charam’ is applied to Israelites guilty of idolatry and even though the penalty was not always meted out according to the law, God’s judgement surely followed in one form or another. God’s judgement on an evil nation could be anything from crop failure, drought or famine to more serious judgements of terminal illnesses, plagues and conquest.

What relevance does this revelation of God have for us today? Did Jesus even reveal the same God? We know from scripture that God is good and he does not change. By virtue of this fact he cannot abide evil. Through his son Jesus, God has made a way for our evil to be atoned for (through the substitutionary death of Jesus) and for us to be filled with his spirit and thereby slowly transformed from the inside out, from evil to good. Jesus explained it like this,

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)

Through our rejection of God and his morality we have invited the pain that defines our world today. The good news is that God is patient in delaying his final and ultimate judgement, he was at that time and he still is in our time. God said to Israel in Gen 15:16 regarding the Canaanites “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” His will is repentance and reconciliation before it is judgement. In his mercy God has given humans an opportunity to take his offer of salvation extended through Jesus. The promise is that one day he will make all things new and it will be a kingdom populated by those who have been ‘born again’ by his spirit,  a world free of evil and judgement.

Who Changed My NIV?!

A little while back there were some Facebook posts doing the rounds about the revised NIV (2011) which made some pretty serious accusations. Some of the accusations were:

  1. Its publisher – Zondervan, is owned by Harper Collins which also publishes the Satanic Bible.
  2. It has removed 45 complete verses from its revision.
  3. There is an agenda to alter the Bible because it is the word of God.

To add further fuel to the flames there have been other accusations that the new ‘gender-neutral’ translating ethos is a result of the secular humanistic agenda to alter biblical teaching on gender identities.

So should we be worried about our trusty ol NIV Bible? What does this all mean? Well I think these questions are well worth answering if only to learn a bit about what goes into publishing a Bible and what makes all the versions so different.

Is there a conspiracy?

Not all the questions raised warrant equal attention because some are easily explained. For starters, Zondervan is published by Harper Collins but not owned by it. The NIV panel of Bible translators (CBT) represents a wide spectrum of churches and denominations and is independent of Harper Collins. Moreover it is made up of people who truly have a love for God and his word, they are hardly candidates for a conspiracy to maliciously alter the Bible!

The missing verses

The so called ‘missing verses’ are a bone of contention for those peculiar Bible readers who have a strong sentimental attachment to the old Authorised King James Version. What is not commonly known is that this KJV, although an excellent publication for its time, relied on the Textus Receptus as its Greek manuscript which was later revealed to be a rather hurried Greek publication. The Textus Receptus later fell out of favour with Bible translators and was replaced with more reliable and accurate Greek texts (such as the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament in 1881.) In other words the ‘missing verses’ are not in modern translations of the Bible (such as the ESV and NASB) because they were never in the most reliable manuscripts to start with. Many of these verses are added in the footnotes to indicate that they are in the less favoured manuscripts (eg Mat 17:21).

Translation styles

The question around ‘gender-neutral’ translation policies is not so simply dealt with because it speaks right to the heart of what translation principles or goals a particular team of translators operate according to. Bible translators have two important considerations when they are translating into English: (1) it needs to accurately translate each word using a good English equivalent and (2) it needs to communicate its meaning in the kind of English that is contemporary for the modern reader. If you had to punch a page of Biblical Greek into Google translate the result might very well be an accurate, word for word translation but it will probably be in horrible English! Different translations are on different points of the spectrum between a “word for word” translation (literal) on the one hand, and a “thought for thought” translation (dynamic equivalent) on the other. NIV has always been more on the dynamic equivalent side of the spectrum. That is not a bad thing, by the way, but this principal in translation will have a bearing on our consideration of the latest version of the NIV, as we will see.

Contemporary language

At the mere mention of the phrase “gender-neutral language” I know that most evangelicals have and still do get a bit antsy because it immediately calls to our minds all the unpleasantness of attacks in modern times on godly gender distinctions.  Is this yet another influence of the Feminist agenda? It would seem the motivation that NIV are giving for the introduction of “gender neutral” language is less an issue of ideology and more about modern day language use. On their website it says:

“As part of the review of gender language promised at the announcement of the latest update to the NIV on September 1, 2009, the Committee on Bible Translation sought to remove some of this subjectivity by enlisting the help of experts. The committee initiated a relationship with Collins Dictionaries to use the Collins Bank of English, one of the world’s foremost English language research tools, to conduct a major new study of changes in gender language. The Bank of English is a database of more than 4.4 billion words drawn from text publications and spoken-word recordings from all over the world.” (Biblica)

Their argument is that they aim to translate the Bible, and specifically the “gender language” contained in it, “in forms of language that modern English speakers find natural and easy to comprehend.” Remember that this represents their “thought for thought” style of translation in that if a text says “him” but the “meaning” or “thought” behind the word used essentially means “him and her” then a more gender-inclusive translation does not violate their principles in translation. This would not be true if a translator was aiming for a literal translation. Their argument is that in modern English we don’t speak as much using the generic “he” or “him” to represent both men and women any more and so we need a translation that reflects this modern language use.

The second layer of interpretation

The question is, by going gender neutral, have they accurately conveyed the meaning of the text? If for example the text literally says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” and we translate this “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault” have we conveyed the essential meaning of this verse? Is it only men that sin against us? Surely Jesus was not excluding the women in this?

What is important about this question is that it is not a question of finding good English words which are equivalent in meaning to those in the Greek manuscript. This question involves a second layer of interpretation. It is the translator wanting to make the language of Jesus more accessible to the contemporary reader. Let me give another example of this second layer of interpretation from another translation:

Isaiah 46:12,13

“Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.” ESV

“Listen to me, you stubborn people who are so far from doing right. For I am ready to set things right, not in the distant future, but right now! I am ready to save Jerusalem and show my glory to Israel.” NLT

In this verse the NLT (a dynamic equivalent translation) renders “righteousness” in the first instance as “doing right” and in the second “to set things right”. The translator has chosen to replace the word “righteousness” (which is the accurate English equivalent) with other words because “righteousness” is a word which needs some explaining for the modern English speaker. Offering a translation like “to set things right” makes the language more accessible because the translator has done a bit of exegetical work and chosen a particular meaning of the word “righteousness” to fit the context. He has done the same with “I am ready to save Jerusalem”. Of course the benefit of an easier-to-read text comes with the disadvantage of having less breadth of meaning for a rich word like righteousness which could have many other applications as well. So there is a cost to this kind of translation. The same applies to the 2011 NIV, the gender inclusive language makes the text more accessible but the second layer of interpretation makes a few texts which originally had a “he” and were actually messianic references become a bit obscure in the revised translation (an example of this is in Heb 2).

Applications

Sometimes it is really refreshing to read a Bible translation that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. My favourite ‘easy reader’ is the NLT. I often use it when I’m reading poetic books in the Bible, like the Psalms, where the language is colourful and rich. I wouldn’t do a word study using this Bible because it is not a very accurate translation but it keeps things fresh and very down-to-earth.

Other times I want a portable little reference Bible to take with me to church or homegroup. It doesn’t need to be textually precise so much as something that will flow easily as I read it to a group. For this I would probably take my green little NIV (2011).

At other times I’m sitting in my study with all my study resources spread over my desk and I am picking scriptures apart and really chewing on every word as I cross reference it and do Greek root studies. For this I am going to need a literal translation. Maybe my ESV study Bible, a Greek lexicon or an NASB.

A question like “which Bible is the best Bible?” is not helpful unless you know what you are going to use the Bible for. An easy reader is great for new believers and for when you are wanting to read a lot of text without stumbling over big words. The caution is that those big words are very rich in meaning and at some point you will need to dig a little deeper. This requires you to do some interpretive work of your own and can take a little time. But hey, the Bible is our “food” after all and when it comes to the fine cuisine offered in the banquet of scripture, why rush?

My Beers and my Bro’s

beers in painting

I remember not so long ago drinking beer was for men with boeps watching rukby and wine was for the la-dee-da folks in Constantia. Now we have artsy men with tight jeans and twirly moustaches sipping craft beers at trendy joints all over town! With an ever changing drinking culture all around us, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at how kingdom culture should look as well. What does the Bible have to say about drinking?

Scripture seems more often to speak about how much we drink than whether we can or should drink alcohol as Christians (Prov 23:20, 1 Tim 3:8, Eph 5:18). In the early church we find that alcohol was quite regularly taken by Christians without too much noise made about it. In fact we are even told that “The Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Mat 11:19) If Jesus drank then I think we can safely say that it is ok for us to do so as well, but are there times when it is not OK for a Christian to drink?

Unfortunately this is the question that many Christians neglect. Paul speaks quite a bit in different contexts about how to make use of our freedoms as believers in a way that is also loving toward others.

Causing others to sin

One example of this was in Corinth. The contention was that some of the meat in Corinth was offered to idols in their pagan worship and afterwards sold on the meat market, so some Christians did not feel liberty in the Spirit to eat any meat sold at the market. Others, like Paul, felt that it was fine to eat meat unless it was made obvious that a particular portion of meat had been offered to idols.

What about drinking? Well, some Christian’s believe that although the Scriptures allow for believers to drink alcohol they do not personally feel free to do so. This could be because they strongly associate drinking with their life before Christ when they did so many things that they are now ashamed of. Even as a Christian they may still feel the pull of alcohol and so they would rather stay well clear of the temptation and not drink at all.

So how did Paul resolve the situation where some Christians felt that eating meat would be sinful and others did not? Well, Paul says,

“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak… Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

So if by my drinking alcohol I cause my “weaker” brother to join me in drinking then I have actually sinned against Christ! Which is why Paul says in Romans, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Rom 14:21

A blameless life

Here is something else to consider – when we are sharing the gospel with others we should,

“do it with gentleness and respect,  having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”1 pet 3:15,16

When I finished Matric, all the students arranged to meet at Blue Peter and celebrate. Most of the students were drinking quite heavily because it was a celebration and they wanted to feel festive. I only had a light beer but nevertheless we were all laughing and joking and later in the afternoon one of the students saw how cheerful I was and said, “You look like you’ve had a couple?!” My heart just sank! In their minds my friends had probably framed me as a “joller” and I could no longer be a confident witness of Christ.

We’ve already learned from Paul that it is not hypocritical to surrender certain “freedoms” that we have in Christ out of concern for others. In fact that is what true love often looks like! We may feel righteous before God because we drink in moderation, but if unbelievers (who are not counting your drinks) think of you as someone who is just as lost in sin as they are then your witness about a Saviour who transforms lives will be wasted on them.

Merrymaker

For some people, a party is not a party without alcohol, it is their merrymaker. We are told not to be drunk on wine but rather to be filled with the Holy Spirit who is the genuine joy-bringer. If unbelievers come to our parties and see us drinking alcohol, I would forgive them for assuming that we are drinking for the same reason that they do! I was once at a birthday party where only a small contingent of unbelieving friends was drinking. Towards the end of the evening they were drunk but we, the non-drinking Christians, were having way more fun and laughter. What a powerful demonstration of the Spirit’s life!

 In the life of a healthy Christian, alcohol can be enjoyed as one of God’s many blessings. In the hands of a person who does not have the life of the Holy Spirit, alcohol can be a destructive force – breaking marriages, separating families, eroding moral judgment leading to debauched living. It’s a very weak substitute in a life devoid of meaning that reinforces harmful cycles of denial.

Living as sons of light is so much more than keeping all the rules so that one day I can go to heaven, it’s loving others the way that Jesus does. This does not mean that drinking alcohol is necessarily an unloving thing to do but it should help to guide our decisions about where and when we do it. So the next time you’re about to post a pic on Facebook of you and your bro’s knocking back a few cold ones, take time to consider what the loving thing to do is.

How are women saved by child-bearing?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been perplexed by this verse in 1 tim 2:15, “Women, however, will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” In trying to interpret the meaning of these words we instinctively hold firm to what we absolutely know to be true, which is that we are all saved by faith and not childbearing or any other particular action. So what ever could Paul mean by this statement? Well I probably never would have made sense of it if I hadn’t done some reading by a very studious fellow called Andreas Kostenberger in a book called Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9–15.

To summarize his view and to add my own thoughts, this statement is a figure of speech called synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole, so that “childbearing” is a uniquely feminine function which is being used here to represent femininity. This whole passage is answering the question, “How can women today avoid the mistake made by Eve?” (I’m quoting from http://www.biblicalfoundations.org/will-women-be-saved-by-childbearing/) and his answer to the question is “by adhering to their God-ordained role related to family and the home.” So this whole passage is addressed to women and it is instructing them on how to live out their faith in a way which honours God. Simple.

This I knew, but what still perplexed me was, ‘why childbearing?’ Yesterday I was doing some shopping, waiting at the till, perusing the magazine covers at my side and I recoiled in horror at a caption attached to a picture on one of them. There was a picture of a man in the classic pose of a woman with child, his hands covering his naked “breasts” and a conspicuous bulge indicating that he was pregnant. It was clearly a work of Photoshop and it was a strangely disturbing sight even before I read the foreboding caption which read, “How far away are we?” The caption was referencing an article about how far scientific experimentation is in making male pregnancy possible. I was (and am) deeply disturbed by the notion and the image. In processing my thoughts I was trying to discern why the thought seemed so revolting to me, and then I recalled this verse from Timothy!

Childbearing is so uniquely feminine that the thought of a man giving birth is shocking and unsettling, which is why it is so aptly chosen to be the womanly function which represents femininity in this verse. Paul’s message seems to say to us that in the same way that childbearing is so obviously associated with females, we should also associate the behaviour which he describes with Godly femininity. In case you (as a female) feel unnecessarily singled out with this message, he includes instructions only for men, “I desire then that in every place the men should…” Check it out for yourself. Read the whole passage now and see if it doesn’t make more sense!

Jesus and Racism

 Call me naïve but I am completely sold on the idea that Christ is still the best solution for the present day issues that seem to assail us as citizens of this country that we love. Wait… Before you heap a load of dirty laundry on my stalwart Christian head and bemoan all the evils committed in the name of my cherished religion, I’d like to begin with a happy memory. It is a memory etched as far back in the recesses of my mind as 20 years will take me (1995). I was in a jam-packed café in Durban CBD watching on TV as Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandela embraced in the middle of a rugby stadium filled with impassioned Springbok fans celebrating their victory of the world cup. Only a South African could have appreciated what it meant for a black struggle veteran (Mandela) to be sharing in the joy of that victory with an Afrikaans rugby player. It was a miracle.

When we refer to the “the South African miracle” I have no doubt that most people use the word “miracle” euphemistically, but it is a good choice of a word all the same. What happened in 1994 with the transition from the oppressively racist rule exercised by a privileged minority to a democratically elected multi-racial new government was nothing less. Thousands of South African’s stood together in prayer for peace, and God answered. As wonderful as that was (and I think we would do well to marvel at that miracle more often) isn’t there even more that Christ can do in South Africa than avert civil war when the Christian’s scramble together to pray? And don’t Christians have more to do to bring this change in South Africa than pray?

Christ has the power to transform race-relations in a manner which is unique to God himself. I have experienced this transformation personally and I think it’ll be helpful to speak from the context of my marriage. As you may know, I married inter-racially. Marrying Zandi was a very big decision for me but that was for all the usual reasons. Her being black wasn’t one of them (although if I’m honest, lobola did come into my financial considerations…) It only occurred to me how unusual it is to marry cross-culturally in South Africa afterwards, as I have experienced the varied and surprising responses of other South Africans when they meet my wife and I together. Maybe you were one of the perplexed onlookers? If so then you are quite clearly a racist.

I have since thought long and hard about how Christ brought about this “new normal” in us. I am not suggesting that I was at one time a raging racist and that when I prayed God made me colour-blind. I think God’s kingdom often comes more gently than that. Our children will hear racist talk from others, but in our own homes they must see something different. As a child whenever we discussed racism as a family it was spoken of as something unloving and un-Christ-like. More than that, people in our church family who were browner than us were no less family because of it, they were around our dinner table as much as any other. As a consequence of this it is when I encounter racism that I am surprised and dismayed, not the reverse.

It’s more than race though. I think it’s the things that make us different from each other as people which have great potential to divide us. This is the crux of the matter and it is on this point that I must be vulnerable and share my own short-comings. Sometimes as I travel down the street or look out of my apartment window and I see a man with scraggly hair and smelly, tattered clothing rummaging through the bins and eating whatever tossed away food that he chances upon, I look into his puffy, sun-burned face and see the wildness in his eyes and for a brief moment I am revolted and scared and I think of myself as more valuable and more important than he is. After a few moments I become aware of what I have done and I am ashamed. God’s Spirit reminds me that I am looking at a brother. I am looking at a man created by God with infinite loving care and finesse. Immediately I repent towards God and something wonderful begins to happen. My heart fills with love and compassion and I begin to think of how things could be and should be and I am grateful that I am thinking as Christ does once again.

This is the power of Christ for change in our societies. It is when I as a child of God am able to recognize the infinite worth and beauty in someone so different to me not because they are familiar or because I understand what it is like to be them or to be in their culture but because I recognize a fellow child of God. I attribute worth to people who are different to me because God has declared that they are valuable to Him.

That is not to say people will not and do not use religion to justify their own prejudice. However, whatever masqueraders have gone about inflicting violence and spewing hatred in the name of God have failed to recognize that we are all descendants of the same two parents and we are all made in the image of God – with no distinction. We are all saved through the sacrificial death of Christ and ransomed to spend an eternity in heaven as one giant mixed family. There is no zoning according to the Group Areas Act in heaven, just one massive house with many rooms.

As Christians we have much work to do in our country which is increasingly being torn apart at its racial seams. There are dark under-currents of hatred brewing. Our task is more simple than it might seem. We need to pray. We need to pray for strong leaders to rise again who exemplify the kind of Christ-like love that Madiba displayed. More than that we need to pray for our own hearts to be transformed in the way we value people who we don’t yet understand. We need to be radical in our repentance when we allow fear to motivate our actions toward others rather than the love of our heavenly Father. I am very encouraged at how often Church is a place of true family but I am pressed by the urgency that, now more than ever, we need to truly represent heaven on earth in the way that we relate to our brothers and sisters no matter our socio-economic, racial, cultural or whatever other differences we may have.

Why are there so many religious people in the world?

religions

religions

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who had a very different outlook on life to yourself, maybe an atheist or somebody of a different religion and wondered, ‘What makes me so sure that I am right?’ After all there are so many belief systems in the world, who’s to say that any of us are right? A closely related question to the one I am asking is, ‘Why are there so many religions in the world?’ I don’t believe that the answer to both questions are the same. The reasons that men begin religions are different to the reasons people have for following them.

I’d like to put my thoughts to you as answers to a series of questions because that is how this post originated – from an email conversation. These “thoughts” of mine are the product of several studies and interviews I have done with people of different worldviews (systems of belief).

1. Do followers of every religion claim that God has revealed himself to them in some special way?

I think that maybe in a very general sense they would. In the sense that they would believe that God has revealed himself through some prophet long ago. However this is very different to having a personal and ongoing relationship with God. For example, Muslims would attest to the fact that God revealed himself through Mohamed, but how many do you hear enthusing about an ongoing, dynamic and personal relationship with Allah which they enjoy every day? In my own experience with Muslim friends and colleagues, I have not heard much of it.

Even if I think of Christianity in my own church, everybody has their own reason for calling themselves religious. I myself was in Church for most of my life mostly because I trusted my parents to be right about the religion of their choice not because God had revealed himself in any special way to me. Now I am speaking about Christianity which I believe to be the one true religion and yet many (even most?) followers do not believe because of personal, divine revelation.

2. Was religion ever founded on true faith?

From biographical accounts it does seem to me that the founders of many mainline religions had some kind of special revelation. Apart from the mind science religions, which are more philosophy than theology (like Buddism), many religions were founded by individuals who definitely had some kind of spiritual experience. If I read the stories of the encounters that Mohamed had with an angel, for example (recorded in the Hadith), I am convinced that he had some very real spiritual encounters. What remains unclear is what kind of spiritual being this really was and whether it should be trusted. These founders of religions sincerely believed that their doctrines were divinely inspired. This is what I mean by “true faith”. They may have been sincerely wrong but they believed what they taught wholeheartedly.

3. If not faith, what keeps people in religion?

My argument here is that most followers of religion don’t have the kind of solid conviction or “true faith” that the founders of those religions had. And yet many millions of religious folks go on following. Why is that? I believe that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that people find a kind of comfort in religion. The fact that so many people around the world (the majority of people?) practice some kind of religion is a testimony to me that it is innate in us to seek out the maker of our universe and try to reconcile with him and even communicate with Him. The Bible makes no attempt to prove that God exists, it takes this as a basic assumption because of the nature of the creation that we live in. I have found in speaking with Muslims that they gain a kind of peace when they pray to Allah. I think that this is a result of the nature of man who has been made to depend on and commune with God. When we do this, even to a false God, something is satisfied in us that can only be satisfied in religion.

4. What role does religion play in morality?

Another role that religions play in many people’s lives is appeasing their conscience. We all do bad things that we live to regret and along with the regret comes a fear that some god watching over us will punish us for our wrong doing. Most religions propose a means of performing some kind of penance in order to appease God and clear the conscience. I think that after performing these different forms of penance, many who are religious in some way achieve a kind of relief from the burden on their souls. A negative spin-off of religion that can result is an elevated sense of self-righteousness

5. Where does worship come from?

It is always quite striking to me how easily worship comes from humans. At music gigs you will frequently find people striking the exact same pose as we do in church. I believe it is intrinsic in us to worship the things that we value highly or esteem, whether it be celebrities, royalties or the woman of our dreams. In this, religion fulfils yet another function. Worshiping an unseen god, or even a carved out idol comes very naturally.

I believe it is a false dilemna to try and decide whether to worship God or not. The real choice is what I am going to worship. The Bible speaks in these terms and describes various excesses (whether it be gluttony, greed or sex) as idolatry for this reason.

6. How does community shape religion?

Religion provides a sense of community which is sometimes hard to find elsewhere. I think the close-knit bond that religion provides is something that keeps most people in religion. People find family, friendships and even their spouses in these communities. I know that in Islam, Judaism and in many Christian cults there is also the looming threat that if a member should renounce their faith they will be excommunicated from the community. But community shapes religion in positive ways too. It’s a huge boost to the weaker believer when he is surrounded by people who believe. Where his/her faith may fail it is possible to ride the coat-tails of the community of faith.

7. Doesn’t the vast number of people in different religions prove that religion is a delusion?

There is an argument that goes something like: since there are X million people in this religion and Y million people in that religion and seeing as they all believe different things and can’t all possibly be right,  can’t we Dawkins shirtconclude that people who claim their god to be real are just deluded in general? Well I have been trying to show in this article that following a religion is not simply a matter of belief. Which is why this numbers game is not true to the facts. If I had to apply the same logic I could say – “There are 50 million people in the world who wear genuine Nike shoes. There are 40 million other people who unwittingly wear fake Nike shoes imported from China and a further 30 million who knowingly wear fake Nike shoes from Japan. From these numbers we conclude that genuine Nike shoes do not exist and that people should stop wearing any shoes with the brand “Nike” on it.” The huge numbers of religious people following different religions does not change the fact that there is still one true religion in which people can reconcile and come into meaningful relationship with God. 

8. Is religion truly worth our while?

I have given several reasons why I think people are quite content to remain within the religious fold and not bother too much with the truth of their religion’s claims about itself. Whatever the case, it is most certainly not the majority who hold to their religious beliefs because of some profound religious experience or divine revelation. So the question begs an answer – Is the peace, morality, worship and community provided by religion reason enough for us to keep following blindly?

Well I can’t answer for you, but for me it most certainly is not enough that religion might make me feel better. It is not enough for me that some prophet named Jesus, Mohammed, Budda or any other spiritual guru walked the earth and had some profound spiritual experience. What appeals to me is Jesus’ promise to us that “because I live you will live too”. He said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” He promised us the kind of relationship with God that he himself had. He came not only to give us a set of rules to live by but a way of living in perfect union and relationship with God. I have found the promises of Jesus to be true. It works. I have not simply found another religion, I have found profound relationship, the kind that Jesus promised and it is wonderful.