Alcohol (Every Verse Bible study) – Part 3

The Defiled Conscience Principle
Some Christians oppose moderate alcohol consumption, even though they admit that the Bible allows it. They have one card up their collective sleeve that robs us of the freedoms that God lets us enjoy. I call it the Defiled Conscience Principle.
It’s based, in part, on a verse that has become one of the most distorted and misused in the Scriptures. We need to pay special attention to it, and its related verses, by examining its context at length. Here it is:

Romans 14:21, “It is not good to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which by which your brother stumble.”
Context & Analysis: At first glance, when taken out of context, this verse appears to instruct us to refrain from doing anything that might lead a fellow Christian to sin, and that makes sense. Leading others to sin (stumble) is a sin in itself, as Jesus said, “…whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea [Matthew 18:6].” Yet we know that the law permits eating meat and drinking wine. To understand how it could have led some Christians to sin, we must examine this verse’s historical context.
Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 discuss the issue of whether or not Christians were permitted to eat meat that might have been offered to an idol (a Greek or Roman god). Some Christians ate meat while others abstained from it. Paul explains in Romans 14 that both approaches are fine, as long as God receives proper thanks. Before the writing of Romans, however, Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 (which was written before Romans) addressed the same issue:

Acts 15:28-29, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourself free from these things, you will do well.”
Context & Analysis: These verses are the last part of a letter that Jesus’ Apostles sent to the early churches. This letter was written at the Council of Jerusalem, where the Apostles, including Paul, assembled to resolve debated issues within the church. The big debate was over whether or not non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians had to be circumcised, as the Jews had always been. The Holy Spirit showed the Apostles that circumcision was unnecessary.
The Apostles explain in this letter that their intent was to burden the Gentile converts with nothing more than essential practices. The practices from which they had to abstain were not random or unrelated. All practices forbidden by verses 28 & 29 were elements of the Greco-Roman worship services. The Gentile-Christians had, of course, converted from the Greco-Roman polytheistic religions, in which they worshipped such gods as Zeus, Mars, Aphrodite, and Apollo. Their worship rituals consisted of killing animals by means of strangling, drinking their blood, eating their meat, getting drunk on wine (thus, the mention of wine in Romans 14:21), and having sex with temple prostitutes, all while worshipping the statue of one of these man-made gods.
Why were these practices forbidden for those who converted to Christianity? The reason is obvious: Gentile converts who participated in these practices might have communed with their former gods by doing so and been tempted to return to them. Even if they didn’t fall away from the Christian faith entirely, they would have violated the first and greatest commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”

1 Corinthians 8:4-5, “Therefore, concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and lords, yet for us, there is but one God…”
Analysis: Paul begins by saying that these Roman and Greek gods are imaginary; but even if they are real, they’re not the true God of the universe. Eating meat sacrificed to these fake gods had no spiritual effect. Christians were permitted to eat this meat as long as they didn’t do it as an act of worship.
Despite the Jerusalem Council’s orders for Gentile converts to abstain from meat offered to idols, Paul (and maybe some other Christian leaders) had apparently allowed Christians to do defy those orders. As he learned of the resulting damage to the Corinthian church, however, he may have realized that allowing meat consumption was a mistake. Remember, only Jesus was without sin. The rest of us, even the Apostle Paul, make mistakes.

1 Corinthians 8:7, “However, not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.”
Context & Analysis: When people ate meat from a sacrifice in a Roman temple, they did so at a table that included a setting for the god whom they worshipped (3). In their minds, the god was with them at the table and nowhere else in the universe. Remember, they were polytheistic, so they didn’t believe in an omnipresent god who was everywhere at the same time. They were likely overwhelmed with a sense of their god’s presence more than many of us are, since we believe that God is everywhere when we worship Him.
Meat was a key element of the worship experience, because Romans rarely ate meat outside the temple, since they had no means of preserving it. Whatever meat they ate had to be fresh, and the easiest place to find fresh meat was at the temple (that’s why Christians went to the temples; they certainly didn’t go to worship). Therefore, whenever they ate meat, regardless of whether or not it had been sacrificed to a Greco-Roman god, they communed with their gods in their hearts and minds.
To compare this experience to something we encounter today, let’s consider Holy Communion. Many of us Christians have practiced it our entire lives and have had powerful worship experiences doing so. Imagine going to a non-Christian function, such a company picnic, and being served wine/grape juice in a tiny, clear plastic cup along with a little square of bread no longer than an inch. Where would your mind go at that point? Could you eat it without feeling a connection to Christ or feeling as though it’s necessary to commune with Him at that moment? Many of us could not eat that bread and drink from that little cup without communing with God in our hearts. Likewise, those who had converted from Greco-Roman polytheism to Christianity could not eat meat without communing with their former gods in their hearts.

1 Corinthians 8:9-11, “But take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge, he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.”
Context & Analysis: This verse is a big favorite of anti-alcohol Christians. They take verse 10 and make substitutions by saying, “If someone sees you in a place that serves alcohol, even if you’re just having a soda, they may be encouraged to drink alcohol, and thus sin against their conscience.” So they not only forbid the drinking of alcohol, but with this analogy, they prohibit Christians from going out dancing, singing karaoke, playing pool, or doing a number of other innocent activities that take place where alcohol is served. By ignoring the original context and intentions of these verses, many Christians lay burdens upon other Christians that greatly exceed those imposed by the Bible.
Some Christians assume that these verses tell us to do nothing with which other Christians may disagree, because those Christians might be tempted to go against their beliefs and imitate us. This assumption is far-fetched. The chances of an anti-alcohol Christian changing his or her behavior based on seeing another Christian drink alcohol are incredibly slim. First of all, anti-alcohol Christians are unlikely to be found in a place that serves alcohol, since they don’t believe it’s okay to be there, so they’re unlikely to see other Christians drink. And even if they did, they’d be more likely to pass judgment on that person as a lesser Christian than they would be to follow that person’s lead. Also, most anti-alcohol Christians feel so strongly about their anti-alcohol beliefs that they’re unlikely to be swayed, regardless of what examples or contrary evidence are set before them.
In verse 9, Paul contrasts the freedom of those who are strong in faith with the temptation of those who are weak in faith. Notice here that the strong-in-faith are the can-do Christians, and the weak-in faith are the can’t-do Christians. The experienced Christians, mentored by Jesus’ own disciples, who know what the Gospel is all about, have the fewest rules to follow. They know it’s okay to eat meat. But the new converts, who may be easily led astray, feel that they have to abstain from it. Nonetheless, Paul tells the strong-in-faith to make sacrifices for the weak-in-faith, because the weak-in-faith are more likely to fall away.
Today, many churches take the opposite approach: The supposedly strong-in-faith, the leaders of the religious establishment, are the can’t-do Christians who show no mercy on the weak-in-faith—the new (and often young) believers. The strong-in-faith heap loads of man-made restrictions on the weak-in-faith, until the weak-in-faith fall away and are, therefore, “ruined,” as Paul describes in verse 11. When young adult Christians are prohibited from dancing, singing karaoke, etc, because of where alcohol is served, and all they get to do is go to prayer night, many of them fall away. They have too much energy to spend all of their free time sitting in church, sitting in Bible studies, sitting in prayer meetings, sitting and reading the Bible, sitting while talking about the Bible, etc.
Those who are strong-in-faith might argue that young Christians need not have fun, because if their faith is strong enough, they’ll realize that Jesus is all they need. This mentality burdens the weak-in-faith by holding them to the standards of the strong-in-faith, just like the Corinthian church leaders pressured the weak-in-faith to live up to their standards and eat meat without faith-damaging results. Today, the strong-in-faith need to realize that today’s weak-in-faith may fall away as a result of ultra-high standards, just like the Corinthian weak-in-faith did.

1 Corinthians 8:12-13, “And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.”
Context & Analysis: Many anti-alcohol Christians use this verse to say that Christians may never drink alcohol, because doing so might cause other Christians to stumble and wound their consciences. This misinterpretation results from the fact that we take the words “stumble” and “wound” too lightly. They refer not to a little trip or scrape, but to something far more serious. Here, the weak-in-faith stumble and wound their consciences by communing with their former gods in their hearts when eating meat—an outright violation of the 1st Commandment. God make it clear throughout the Bible that He hates when we worship other gods. So the stumble here is not just a little trip, but a fall causing serious injury that jeopardizes the eternal life of a new believer.
The seriousness of this scenario lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from the minor issue of whether or not it’s okay to drink alcohol. These Bible quotes have nothing to do with feeling a little guilty about doing something that we used to think was wrong but now believe is right.

1 Corinthians 10:23-24, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”
Context & Analysis: Paul again discusses the issue of eating meat offered to idols. This quote reiterates Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Some Christians use this verse to claim that any neutral activity is forbidden. In other words, if drinking alcohol neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, it’s a sin. If listening to secular music neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, it’s a sin. However, I have never seen a Christian apply this verse universally. If changing from glasses to contact lenses neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, is that a sin? If cutting the lawn neither helps nor hurts one’s faith, is that a sin? Of course not! There are plenty of neutral activities which we engage in on a daily basis, and God permits them. This verse does not prohibit engagement in sin-free activities. It prohibits the seeking of our own pleasure at the expense of someone else’s well-being.
When Paul writes, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable,” he means that some behaviors not forbidden by God’s law can seriously endanger someone else’s faith. Eating meat was one of these, as were lawsuits. In 1 Corinthians 6:7, Paul charges, “Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” Lawsuits were legal, but they destroyed relationships within the church and demonstrated to the outside world that Christians could not live in harmony. Unlike lawsuits, moderate alcohol consumption harms nobody’s faith or physical well-being.
These common misinterpretations of verses in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10 and Romans 14 (which I did not quote because it really ads nothing more to this issue, but feel free to open your Bible and read it) lead us astray when we are merely Bible-based rather than thoroughly biblical. But when we examine the other 34 alcohol passages, as we already have, we won’t make the mistake of building a theology out of this one example, which isn’t even about alcohol to begin with.

Universal Application
While many Christians employ the Defiled Conscience Principle when opposing alcohol consumption, no Christian applies it universally. With the many denominations and the differing beliefs among Christians today, it’s impossible to avoid practicing something that other Christians believe to be wrong.
For example, the Church of Christ denomination refuses to incorporate musical instruments into their worship services. If that’s the case, then all churches who promote the Defiled Conscience Principle when denouncing alcohol consumption should also abstain from using musical instruments in worship services. Otherwise, people from the Church of Christ might visit a church that uses musical instruments and be tempted to participate in a worship service that includes them. By participating, they defile their consciences by doing something that they had always believed to be wrong.
Here’s another example: some Christians believe it’s wrong for a woman to wear pants or shorts, and that women of all ages must wear a dress or skirt. Many anti-alcohol Christians, however, have no problem with women wearing pants or shorts. So if anti-alcohol Christian women were to apply the Defiled Conscience Principle universally, they would refrain from wearing pants or shorts, because women who think it’s a sin to wear them might be encouraged by their example and do the same. They would then sin against their consciences by doing what they had always believed to be wrong.
Don’t look at these examples and decide that you must now avoid all practices that others believe to be sinful. Before doing that, consider the example that Jesus set: Jesus was without sin, and yet He never preached or practiced the Defiled Conscience Principle. For example, Jesus openly ate without first washing His hands, as we discussed in Christian Freedom study. Was Jesus concerned that people who had grown up under the influence of the Pharisees, who had always believed that eating with unwashed hands was a sin, would be encouraged to follow His example and sin against their consciences by doing so? Of course not! Jesus was concerned with separating the Word of God from the rules of man so that God’s people could live in truth and freedom. Jesus also defied the Defiled Conscience Principle when He did good works on the Sabbath, picked grain on the Sabbath, drank wine, and befriended known sinners. By this we know that the Defiled Conscience Principle is not required by God. If it were, then Jesus would have been a sinner by defying it.
Martin Luther could not have launched the Protestant Reformation if he had obeyed the Defiled Conscience Principle. When his followers first repented of their sins directly to God, rather than through a priest, refused to pay indulgences to the church, and left the Roman Catholic Church altogether, most of them probably felt a little tweak of their consciences, because they practiced something they were raised to believe was wrong. They probably had second thoughts and wrestled with whether or not to break away from the non-biblical ways of the Roman Catholic Church. Had Luther been concerned with matters of conscience, the church could not have advanced in the direction of God’s will.
The same is true today. If we apply the Defiled Conscience Principle to all things, we can never remove man-made religious rules from the church, because any time we turn Christians from the false doctrines of men to the truth of God, some of them will feel guilty when embracing freedoms that they once thought were sins. That’s okay, however, because God wants us to be free. It’s those who wish to keep us in chains who misapply the Defiled Conscience Principle to issues for which it was never intended.

Non-biblical anti-alcohol arguments

Temptation of Alcoholics
Some Christians say we should avoid alcohol, because former alcoholics might see us drinking it, be inspired to drink it themselves, and then struggle with their addiction all over again. If we were to apply this principle universally, we would refuse to serve doughnuts and other sweets in Sunday school classes, because type II diabetics might be encouraged to eat them and suffer further complications to their health. We would have to abstain from peanuts too, because someone with a peanut allergy might see us eating them and be inspired to do so themselves, and then die from their allergic reaction. These examples sound preposterous, because they are—just like the idea that an alcoholic might return to alcoholism if we drink alcohol. It’s a fact of life that alcoholics, diabetics, and food allergy sufferers realize that they cannot eat and drink everything that other people do. We do not sin by enjoying food or drink that somebody else might not be able to have.

Alcohol is a Drug
Some people argue that alcohol consumption is a sin because alcohol is a drug. If that’s the case, then churches had better stop making coffee available at Sunday school classes, because caffeine is a drug too. Fortunately, we don’t have to junk our coffee-makers, because the Bible never opposes drugs. We have numerous drugs in our society, and only a small percentage of them are illegal. The rest of them are on the shelves at the grocery store or behind the counter at the pharmacy. Both legal and illegal drugs are harmful if abused. However, most of these drugs, including alcohol, have health benefits when used in moderation.

Alcohol is addictive
Some people argue that alcohol is addictive. But as drugs go, it’s hardly addictive at all. I’ve never known of a moderate drinker who became an alcoholic. It’s the long-time alcohol abusers who do that. Research has shown that people must abuse alcohol for more than 5 years to become physically addicted to it (2). In fact, I’ve known quite a few people who abused alcohol in college and beyond, and none of them had trouble reducing or eliminating their drinking if they did so by the age of 30. So alcohol’s minimally addictive nature is no cause for concern for those of us who obey the Bible by drinking it moderately.

Some People have a Genetic Tendency toward Alcoholism
Some might say that alcoholism is hereditary, and nobody should taste alcohol, because those with a genetic disposition toward alcoholism will be hooked on it when they do. However, recent research suggests that this genetic tendency does not create an unusually high craving for alcohol like an addicted smoker might have for a cigarette, but that it minimizes the negative effects of alcohol abuse, such as hangovers (4). So it’s just the allure of pleasure with no pain that leads to alcohol abuse, not a genetic disposition toward instant addiction. It’s no different than my temptation to eat a whole bag of jalapeño potato chips everyday. If we want to maintain or achieve good health, we have to know when to say when.
Christians who drink alcohol moderately face no risk of addiction. Further minimizing this risk is the fact that we Christians have a purpose in life. Most alcohol abusers live for the pleasure of the moment, because they have nothing else to live for. If they stopped partying, their lives would be empty. Today, we see this more than ever as the media spotlights wealthy people who live the wild life because they have no goals. They have everything they could want or need, and they have no desire to be a positive force in the world, because they have no Christian ethics. But we Christians have so much purpose in our lives that we should have no time to abuse alcohol. Also, if we seek to obey God, we will heed the 22 Bible verses opposing alcohol abuse.

Why?
It’s worth asking why God, who hates alcohol abuse, allows His people to drink alcoholic beverages at all. The Bible provides no answer to this question, and we should be content in trusting God’s decision. But the answer may very well be that God’s approach simply works best.
It’s likely that the United States’ alcohol abuse problem is the result of its anti-alcohol history. Less than one hundred years ago, alcohol was strictly forbidden in the United States. And yet, less than a century later, alcoholism in the U.S. is an epidemic. Contrast that to Israel’s and Italy’s alcoholism rates, which are among the lowest in the world (5). Both of these countries take the scriptural approach to alcohol consumption, because Italy is Roman Catholic and Israel is Jewish. Their cultures tolerate the consumption of alcohol with meals and in religious services, but oppose its abuse. They are proof that God’s approach works. America’s high alcoholism rates are proof that prohibition fails.
There may be a psychological reason that explains why the biblical approach works and prohibition fails. I call it the Forbidden Fruit Syndrome. Just as Adam and Eve thought the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden must have been something special, many Christians, raised in anti-alcohol households, feel the same way about alcohol. When parents teach that alcohol consumption is a big deal, whether it’s a great big deal or a terrible big deal, it becomes a big deal in the minds of their children. While some of these children choose to never taste alcohol, others succumb to the allure of the forbidden fruit and are controlled by it, because it was such a big deal in their minds all along.
Compare this to the household in which I grew up. My parents rarely talked about alcohol. They would buy a bottle of wine for New Year’s Eve, drink half of it, and let it sit in the back of the refrigerator until the next New Year’s Eve, when they would finish it. The message that my sisters and I received was that alcohol was no big deal. Our parents even let us have some wine, so we could see for ourselves that it was no big deal. While I’m not a child psychologist, I believe that my parents’ approach toward alcohol is the best approach. If parents glorify or condemn alcohol, they run a greater risk of their children becoming alcoholics, because they make alcohol consumption a big deal in their children’s minds.
Another reason for America’s high level of alcohol abuse is the church’s failure to promote moderate drinking. In the eyes of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist church, we sin whether we drink two ounces of wine or chug a gallon of beer, because once we fall off the purity wagon into the abyss of sin, the degree to which we sin is irrelevant. To them, a person cannot drink moderately and be in good relationship with God. So when many Christians drink, they have no reason to exercise self-control, since they believe they are already in sin.

Designed for Alcohol
It may be that God allows alcohol consumption because He designed humans to ingest it. I can’t help but think back to the mulberry tree my parents had while I was growing up. As I approached the tree, I saw mulberries in varying degrees of ripeness. If I ate one that was too light in color, it would be sour and bitter, because it wasn’t ripe yet. If I ate one that had reached a solid shade of purple, it would taste just right, because it was ripe. However, if I ate one that had a dark purple color, it would taste like wine, because it was too ripe and had started to ferment.
Few people today experience what I experienced, because they go to the grocery store and pick out the best fruit. If the fruit is too ripe when they attempt to eat it, they throw it away. Throughout history, however, humans haven’t had this luxury, because food was scarce. Avoiding starvation has been one of mankind’s greatest challenges. So people had to eat whatever fruit was available, not just perfect fruit. By eating fruit that was a little too ripe, they ingested alcohol that resulted from fermentation. A significant percentage of the fruit and fruit juice consumed by humans throughout history has contained alcohol.
God designed us to benefit from a diet that included fermented fruit. How do we know this? We know it from the overwhelming number of studies revealing that moderate drinkers have a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. I won’t bore you with overwhelming evidence, but here are three examples:
• “A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study asserts that ‘The totality of evidence on moderate alcohol and CHD (coronary heart disease) supports a judgment of a cause-effect relationship…there are cardio-protective benefits associated with responsible, moderate alcohol intake.’”
• “The Harvard Health Professionals Follow-Up Study of over 44,000 males found moderate alcohol consumption to be associated with a 37% reduction in coronary disease.”
• “A recent study published in the American Heart Association’s journal found abstainers’ risk of stroke to be twice that of moderate drinkers.” (6)
By these few examples, we see that moderate drinking is the healthiest approach to alcohol consumption. Isn’t it amazing how these medical studies perfectly align with the biblical approach to drinking? God knows what’s best for us, after all! The man-made religious requirement of total abstinence from alcohol is damaging to our health. So if we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” perhaps we should recommend moderate alcohol consumption to our neighbors, not abstinence.
Bibliography

1. Prof. David J. Hanson, PhD, Puritans to Prohibition (Potsdam, NY: 1997-2007) http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/FunFacts/PuritansToProhibition.html

2. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism

3. The Roman Empire in the First Century, (Washington, D.C.: Devillier Donovan Enterprises, 2006)
http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/worship.html

4. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism

5. Encyclopedia Britannica Online (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.2008) http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-251753/alcoholism

6. Prof. David J. Hanson, PhD, Alcohol and Health, (Potsdam, NY: 1997-2007)
http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/AlcoholAndHealth.html

Baptism (Bible Study) – Part 1

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)

(All quotes from the NRSV. Personal pronouns referring to divinity are not capitalized per this translation)

Must we be baptized to get into heaven? If so, must we be dunked under water, or is it okay to have water sprinkled on our heads? Should we have our children baptized as infants, or must we wait until they reach adulthood and let them choose to be baptized?
If we are to learn the answers to these questions, we must consult the Bible. And we must examine every baptism verse in the Bible. Don’t assume, however, that doing so will clear up all confusion over the issue. There’s a reason it exists.

Matthew 3:6-10, “…and they were baptized by him [John the Baptist] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume and say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Context: After the Bible tells the story of Jesus’ birth, it leads into the story of His ministry by telling of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus. See a repeat of this conversation in Luke 3:7-10.
Analysis: According to John the Baptists’ warning to the Pharisees, bearing fruit worthy of repentance is a key to baptism. Therefore, repentance is a key to baptism. Baptism by itself is worthless. It’s not for those who refuse to turn from their sinful ways. Before we may partake of a baptism acceptable to God, we must first renounce our sin and intend to obey God’s will as revealed throughout the Bible.
The Pharisees are an interesting example of people unacceptable for baptism, since they were the religious leaders of their day. They were the rule enforcers who fasted and tithed while refraining from drinking and adultery. They would have exceeded the standards of righteousness in the eyes of many of today’s devout, Evangelical Christians. Where they sinned so greatly, however, was in their arrogance, judgmentalism, and mercilessness—attitudes that run rampant among today’s devout Evangelicals.

Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Context: John speaks to those who have come to him to be baptized.
Analysis: Again, John associates water baptism with repentance. He then speaks of a second baptism that can only come from Jesus: the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
Of course, the “fire” is not a literal fire. Rather, it is a term used to symbolize the power, majesty, and intensity of the Holy Spirit we receive.
Notice that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which comes from Jesus, is separate from the baptism of repentance, which comes from John the Baptist. While it’s possible for both to happen simultaneously, it’s not necessary that they do. Today, many Christians believe that we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, but this quote provides no indication of that.

Matthew 3:13-17, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Context: The Bible’s introduction of John the Baptist leads right into the story of his baptism of Jesus.
Analysis: Despite what I said in the analysis of Matthew 3:11, here we have an example of a baptism followed immediately by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. What we don’t know is whether or not Jesus is receiving the Holy Spirit for the first time or whether the Holy Spirit descends upon Him as a display of God’s approval, even though Jesus already possesses the Holy Spirit.
Most Christians would agree with the latter interpretation, because they believe in the Trinity to the extent that Jesus is God in the flesh and, therefore, cannot be separated from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Context: This quote is known to many as the Great Commission, in which Jesus, after His resurrection, instructs His disciples to spread the gospel to the world.
Analysis: Are we to baptize entire nations and make disciples of them, or are we to baptize individuals from all nations?
Most of us today would probably choose the latter interpretation. However, when the nations of Europe converted to Christianity in the early Middle Ages, many of them did force baptism upon entire nations of people. The mentality in those days was that an entire society had to hold the same religious belief. Therefore, Christianity was not an individual choice but a national mandate. Baptism was a part of that mandate.
This national religion mentality continued until the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and other fighting among Christians defeated the will of those who insisted upon a single theology for an entire nation. Out of their religious war fatigue came the concept of denominations – the idea that people with differing Christian beliefs could live together in a community. The denominational structure relied upon personal choice and made it a driving force in Christianity, like it was in the early days of the church.
Of course, most people in recent centuries remained in the denominations of their families and perceived themselves to be Christians because they belonged to a Christian church. In the past couple centuries, however, Evangelical Christianity has popularized the notion of faith-in-Christ being a personal choice that has nothing to do with church membership or having grown up in a church. The personal choice to be baptized then accompanies this personal choice of faith in Christ. That’s why many of us today see this verse as a requirement to spread the gospel to people of all nations rather than as a requirement to force entire nations to be baptized.

Mark 1:4-8, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”
Context: The first chapter of Mark parallels the third chapter of Matthew, telling the story of John the Baptist.
Analysis: Again, in verse 8, we see that John’s water baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This verse lends additional support to the inseparability of baptism and repentance.
When the Bible says that “all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him,” it doesn’t literally mean every single person in the city was baptized by him. In fact, many religious leaders opposed John’s ministry. It’s common for the Bible to use the word all to mean many or all kinds. For example, this verse may indicate that people from all walks of life came to John for baptism. Or it may simply mean that a great number of people came out to him – so many that it seemed like all the people.
It’s interesting to note that this quote says the people came out to John “confessing their sins.” This is something we don’t practice today. It’s easy to see why we don’t. It would be embarrassing for most of us to confess our greatest wrongs in front of those witnessing our baptism. Naturally, many of us would hold back our darkest secrets. However, it’s inspiring to see that those baptized by John were so repentant that they didn’t care if everyone knew about their past sins.

Mark 16:16, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”
Context: Jesus sends the disciples out into the world to spread the gospel. He follows these words with descriptions of signs believers will share, such as picking up serpents and drinking poison without harm.
Analysis: Baptists and other Christians who insist that adult baptism is necessary to obtain eternal life quote this verse more than any other to support their belief. Most Christians, when asked to give the biblical requirements for salvation, quote verses instructing us to believe in Christ. But this verse adds a second requirement to believing in Christ—baptism.
However, if we read the last part of this verse, it says that “the one who does not believe will be condemned.” It does not say that the one who fails to be baptized will be condemned. Therefore, we must conclude that this verse fails to damn the unbaptized.
What hurts this verse’s credibility most, however, is that the earliest New Testament manuscripts do not contain verses 9-20. Apparently, these verses were tacked on to the end of Mark a couple centuries after it was written. Today, most Bible’s include these verses for tradition’s sake, but they sometimes go as far as to separate it from the rest of Mark, so that people think twice before taking these verses as the Word of God. Therefore, it’s best that we not use verse 16 as the foundation of our baptism theology.

Luke 3:3-6, “He [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all the flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’”
Context: Like Matthew and Mark, Luke also tells the story of John the Baptist.
Analysis: Yet again, repentance and baptism are intertwined. This quote, however, calls this a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It shouldn’t alarm most of us that repentance is for the forgiveness of sins; nonetheless, this is the first verse to define repentance in this manner. Some might argue, however, that this passage implies that baptism is also needed for the forgiveness of sins.
The prophecy from Isaiah gives us added understanding of the purpose of baptism. It exists to “prepare the way of the Lord.” For years, I understood this to mean that John the Baptist had to begin his ministry first so that Jesus could then be baptized by him. However, this passage may also mean that a baptism of repentance prepares us to receive Jesus. Naturally, most of us choose to submit to Jesus before we are baptized. But to know Him intimately, we need a baptism of repentance to lead the way.

Luke 7:28-30, “‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)”
Context: Jesus speaks to a crowd about John the Baptist. He goes on to explain how both His and John’s ministries were rejected by the religious leaders of the day.
Analysis: Here we have proof that not “all” people in Jerusalem were baptized by John, because many of the Pharisees and lawyers resided in Jerusalem, yet this passage says most of them refused to be baptized by him.
Luke goes out of his way to tell us that the violent, thieving tax collectors, who were seen in the eyes of the people and the religious leaders as most evil of all, received John’s baptism of repentance, but the religious leaders were too arrogant over their righteousness and spiritual knowledge to allow themselves baptized by a simple man from the wilderness.

Luke 12:49-50, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Context: Appears to be unrelated to quotes which precede and follow it.
Analysis: At this point, Jesus had already been baptized by John. Here he uses the word baptism as a metaphor for His trial and crucifixion. We will learn later how baptism symbolizes our being buried with Christ in earthly death and being resurrected in new life.

John 1:24-27, “Now they had been sent by the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’”
Context: John the Baptist is questioned about his identity before baptizing Jesus.
Analysis: The Pharisees wanted to know by whose authority John baptized others. In their eyes, John had to be someone special, someone they respected, or someone who had credentials, in order to carry out God’s work. John answered by telling not who he was, but the purpose of his baptism. He then pointed to Jesus as the authority for his ministry, but this answer failed to satisfy the Pharisees, since they saw Jesus as a nobody, too.

John 1:31, 33, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel…I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
Context: John the Baptists testifies about his experience baptizing Jesus.
Analysis: How did baptism begin? It all started with a revelation from God to John the Baptist. He received no human instruction to baptize. It wasn’t Jesus’ who told him to baptize. Nonetheless, God worked His revelation to John together with His plan for Jesus’ ministry.
It’s interesting to think about the fact that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus after baptism. This seems to imply that Jesus didn’t possess the Holy Spirit until this point in time, but that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were one throughout His ministry. This passage alone could spark hours of conversation about exactly how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another and work together. But I’m not going to get into all of that, because it’s a subject that none of us in this world can fully understand, and because our understanding of it has no impact on how we live our daily lives.

Baptism (Bible Study) – Part 2

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

 

John 3:22-24, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized…”
Context: This famous chapter explains what it means to be born again or born anew.
Analysis: This verse seems to say that Jesus baptized others. For some reason, it seems odd that Jesus would baptize people directly. Who should be so privileged that the Son of God himself would baptize them? Wouldn’t everybody rush to Jesus rather than the others for baptism? Then again, at this point, people may not have realized that Jesus was the Messiah. They may have thought He was on the same level as John the Baptist.

John 4:1-3, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee.”
Context: Jesus then goes on to speak with the woman at Jacob’s well.
Analysis: This verse seems to say that Jesus did not baptize people personally. Either way, it probably doesn’t matter too much.
We see from this verse and others that baptism was a huge part of both Jesus’ and John the Baptists’ ministries. This public expression of repentance and faith had its dangers, as it drew the attention of the disapproving leaders of the religious establishment. Then again, public expressions of Christian faith have been dangerous at many times throughout history. That may be part of why it’s so important that baptism be public. Taking such a risk is evidence of just how committed we are to Christ. If we refuse to express our faith publicly out of fear of the reaction of others, then we probably don’t have much faith.

Acts 1:4-5, “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit many days from now.’”
Context: Luke opens Acts by picking up where the Gospels left off.
Analysis: Here, Jesus foretells the coming of the Pentecost. As we saw early in the Gospels, John foretold how his baptism would pave the way for Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit. Here, the fulfillment of that promise is just days away.

Acts 2:38, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord God calls to him.”
Context: Peter speaks to the crowd on the original day of Pentecost.
Analysis: Yet again, the repentance comes first, and then the baptism. According to Peter, this baptism is to be in the name of Christ. Why repent and be baptized in the name of Christ? “…so that your sins will be forgiven…” Here’s the big question: Are we forgiven because we repent in Christ’s name, or are we forgiven because we repent and are baptized in Christ’s name? In other words, do we have to do both to be forgiven?
Of course, Peter goes on to say that those who do these things will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That prompts the question: Must we first repent and be baptized before we can receive the Holy Spirit, or do we receive the Holy Spirit simply for believing in Christ, as many have said we do?
Notice that I’m not answering any of these questions. We have to look at the remaining baptism verses in the Bible before we can come to a conclusion.

Then Peter says that this promise is also for the children of those at Pentecost, as well as for those who are far away. This promise for the children tempts us to think that our repentance and baptism might cover our children as well as us, and that they don’t even have to repent and be baptized to be forgiven. However, the fact that Peter goes on to say that this promise is also for those who are far away negates this thinking, because it makes no sense that repentance and baptism of one person would cover random people thousands of miles away. Peter is saying nothing more than that his words to the crowd don’t just apply to them, but to all people.

Acts 8:13, “Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
Context: Simon was a popular magician who dazzled the people with his magic.
Analysis: There’s not much to analyze about baptism here. It’s simply another example of baptism following belief in Christ.

Acts 8:14-17, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”
Context: In verse 18, Simon the magician tries to buy the gifts of the Holy Spirit from Peter and John and receives a strong rebuke.
Analysis: This passage delivers a blow to those who say that we receive the Holy Spirit immediately upon believing in Christ, because these Samaritans did not receive the Holy Sprit after believing. Also, they didn’t receive it immediately after baptism like Jesus or the people at Pentecost did. Does this mean that some who believe and are baptized never receive the Holy Spirit? Would these Samaritans have never received it had Peter and John never laid hands on them?

To answer these questions thoroughly, we would have to get into a deep discussion about the Holy Spirit. Contrary to popular theology, it’s possible that different people have different amounts of the Holy Spirit at different times. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit comes and goes for people like Saul and Samson. Whenever Samson did something miraculous, it was because the Holy Spirit entered Him. Most theology today says the Holy Spirit that we Christians possess is constant. But it may be that all of us have enough of the Holy Spirit to believe in Christ, but that there are times that we receive heavy doses of the Holy Spirit in order to experience God’s power or to carry out His will.

Acts 8:36-38, “As they [Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch] were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.”
Context: The Holy Spirit directs Philip to the eunuch just as he puzzled over a biblical text.
Analysis: As holy as baptism is, it doesn’t require any special kind of water. Many churches use so-called holy water. But Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch used the closest water available. Water is water. It all works the same. God has no desire to make us go through pointless, tedious rituals to acquire special water for baptism.

Acts 9:18, “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.”
Context: The scales mentioned here covered Paul’s eyes after he had been blinded by the light during his conversion experience. Ananias then cane to him and baptized him.
Analysis: This passage gives us a sense of urgency in baptism, because Paul is baptized before he even bothers to eat. He’s weak from malnutrition (or from being struck down by God), yet his baptism is so urgent that he puts off eating so that he may be baptized first. Wow!
All of the baptisms we find in the Bible appear to occur the same day that a person comes to faith in Christ. Nowhere in the Bible is a believer’s baptism planned in advance, as baptisms are today. Biblical baptisms all appear to be spontaneous; they’re the equivalent of an alter call and baptism all-in-one.
Must we follow this same format for baptism today? It’s difficult to say. We can argue that we must conduct ourselves in the same manner as the early church, but the Bible never requires us to emulate the early church or anyone else (except for Jesus) in the Bible. It only requires us to follow the commands of God.
It’s possible that the disciples conducted same day baptisms because they were on the move and didn’t have churches established for people to come back to. Also, there were so many people coming to Christ simultaneously that scheduling everyone’s baptisms for the future would have been a nightmare. These scheduling difficulties may have discouraged new believers from being baptized. The disciples may have decided that the best time to baptize new believers was when they were right in front of them.
Would it really make any difference if we replaced pre-planned baptisms with same-day baptisms? Are pre-planned baptisms more effective than spontaneous ones? Would same-day baptisms discourage people from confessing Christ because they didn’t bring their swimsuits (it’s not like they knew they were going to believe in Jesus that day)? Of course, new believers in Jesus’ day didn’t bring swimsuits; they just went home in wet clothes. If we switch to same-day baptisms, it might all be pointless and discouraging to those who would believe in Christ and be baptized. Then again, maybe same-day baptisms are what God prefers. I can’t give a definitive answer on this one, but it’s an idea worth kicking around.

Acts 10:44-48, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing theses people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
Context: Despite Jesus’ earlier teachings, His twelve disciples still believed that He had come only for the salvation of the Jews and not for people of other nations and religions. Through a vision, God led Peter to Cornelius, a Gentile, who received the Holy Spirit out of faith in Christ, just like the Jewish Christians did.
Analysis: So much for the idea that we must first be baptized in order to receive the Holy Spirit. These Gentiles not only received the Holy Spirit before baptism, but they received a heavy dose of it, speaking in tongues, etc.
It was necessary, in this instance, for the Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit in dramatic fashion as a sign to Peter that God had chosen them as Christians. Peter and the other disciples had believed up to this point that Jesus had come only for the Jews. The Gentiles speaking in tongues proved to him that Christianity was for people of all races and nations. Peter and the other disciples needed to understand this so that they would spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire, rather than stay in Judea to preach it, as they had intended to do up to this point in time.

Acts 16:14-15, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
Context: Paul and his counterparts travel from place to place on a missionary journey.
Analysis: Notice that Lydia’s household is baptized with her. This most likely means her children were baptized. What we don’t know is whether her children chose to believe in Jesus, or whether they were baptized because of their mother’s faith.
It’s possible that baptism may have been like circumcision in this regard. When a person committed to God’s Old Testament covenant, he had all of his sons circumcised as well as himself. Circumcision was a symbol of that particular covenant with God. In the New Testament, circumcision was no longer required, but baptism became the symbol of the New Testament covenant. Everyone who believed in Jesus was baptized as a symbol of that belief and covenant with God through Christ.
Since the descendants of Old Testament believers were circumcised as a result of their fathers’ decisions of faith, could it be that the descendants of New Testament believers were baptized as a result of their parents’ decisions of faith, too? If they were, were they baptized again as adults despite having already been baptized as children? Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t answer these questions.

Baptism (Bible Study) – Part 3

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

Acts 16:30-33, “Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay.”
Context: When an earthquake frees Paul and Silas from prison, they decide to convert the jailer and return to prison rather than run for their freedom, which would have left the jailer responsible and likely punished by death.
Analysis: The words, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” indicate that even salvation covers the children of a believer. This message is contrary to modern theology which says that salvation can only result from a personal decision of faith. To explore this conundrum further, we’d have to examine every salvation verse in the Bible. But this study is about baptism, not salvation, so we’ll just have to move on.
Here we see that Paul and Silas shared the gospel with the entire household, so this leads us to conclude that all who were old enough to understand it chose to believe and be baptized. However, we don’t know for a fact that everyone in the household believed. It may be that only some believed, but all were baptized as a symbol of their father’s covenant with God through Christ.
Let’s imagine that there were seven people in the jailer’s household and seven people in Lydia’s household. What are the odds that all fourteen of them instantly made a personal decision to convert to Christianity? It’s much more likely that some of them didn’t believe than that all of them believed. However, unanimous belief is certainly possible.

These stories of Lydia and the jailer may indicate that infant baptism is God’s will and that we need not be baptized as adults if we were baptized as children. Everyone else baptized in Acts did so out of a personal decision of faith, because none of them had been raised as Christians, since Christianity was brand new.
Since the book of Acts covers a period of only a few decades, it never shows us how baptism worked for children born to someone who was already a believer. Even the stories of Lydia and the jailer only tell us of existing children. What would have happened had either of these families bore more children later? Would they have been baptized as a symbol of their parents’ covenant? Or would they have waited until making a personal decision of faith later in life to be baptized? Unfortunately, while many of us have strong opinions on this, none of us can say for sure.

Acts 18:8, “Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”
Context: Paul preaches the gospel in Corinth.
Analysis: Here we see an entire household believing in Christ, despite the odds against everyone believing with no dissenters. Should we, as a result of their belief, assume that Lydia’s and the jailer’s families all believed in the same manner? Or should we conclude that since Acts 18:8 specifies that the whole household believed, while Acts 16 does not, that only Crispus’ entire household believed, not Lydia’s and the jailer’s households?

Acts 19:1-7, While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophecied—altogether there were about twelve of them.”
Context: The story pretty much tells it.
Analysis: Here we find the Bible’s first double baptism. The first was a baptism of repentance from John the Baptist, and it looked forward to Christ. The second was apparently nothing more than a baptism in Christ’s name, since these Corinthians had already repented when baptized by John.
It wasn’t until these Corinthians believed in Jesus and were baptized in His name that they received the Holy Spirit—more evidence that a person may only receive the Holy Spirit after believing in Jesus.

Acts 22:16, “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”
Context: Paul recounts the story of his conversion and how he came to be baptized.
Analysis: This is the only biblical instance in which baptism is said to wash away sin. This wording makes it sound as though sin remains if we are not baptized. Those who insist that baptism is a requirement for salvation probably love this verse. But is it enough to prove their point? Or are the words, “have your sins washed away,” nothing more than symbolic of God’s forgiveness of those who repent in Jesus’ name?

Romans 6:1-8, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin would be destroyed, and we might no longer be a slave to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.”
Context: Paul explains how we are not to abuse God’s grace by choosing to sin. We are to avoid sin, since we died to it when we submitted to Christ and symbolized the commitment in baptism.
Analysis: Those who insist on baptism by submersion (dunking) rely on these verses for support, because these verses imply that being under water is similar to being underground in burial. This watery burial is symbolic of our dying to our old sinful ways.
These verses also support Baptist theology by saying that we are buried with Christ in death in order to then “walk in newness of life.” This newness of life is eternal life. Does this mean that we must be “buried with Him by baptism into death” in order to “walk in the newness of life?” Or does it mean that baptism is symbolic of our repentance in which we die to our old ways and “walk in the newness of life” in Christ?

1 Corinthians 1:12-15, 17, “What I mean is each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name…For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Context: Paul expresses concern over Christians dividing over which early church leader they favored.
Analysis: In the early Middle Ages, church leaders debated over whether the credibility of a sacrament, such as baptism or marriage, was dependent upon the person who performed it. For example, if a priest was caught in adultery, did that nullify all of the baptisms he had performed?
Few of us today would answer, “Yes.” to that question. And this Bible quote, to some extent, supports our view. Paul indicates that it doesn’t matter who performs the baptism, because everyone is baptized into the name of Christ and nobody else.

1 Corinthians 10:1-4, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.
Context: Paul warns Christians to avoid the sinful ways of the Israelites who rebelled against God by worshipping the golden calf.
Analysis: Since baptism didn’t exist in the Old Testament, the Israelites were not literally baptized into Moses. This terminology must be symbolic of their covenant with God through Moses, which looked forward to the covenant that God’s people would one day have with God through Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:29, “Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”
Context: Paul refutes those in and around the church who claim there’s no resurrection of the dead.
Analysis: The practice of being baptized for those already dead is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible and is inconsistent with modern-day salvation theology. It suggests that we can accept Christ and be baptized in the name of those who never had the opportunity to accept Him. Let’s not forget, however, that these dead folks never had an opportunity to hear of Christ, so their situation differs from ours today. Most people who pass away in our culture had a chance to choose Jesus when they were alive.
Some say that these people received baptism for those who believed but died before they could be baptized. This is unlikely, however, since all biblical baptisms appear to take place the day of conversion.
It’s worth asking why people would bother to be baptized on behalf of those who passed. Since Paul explains that doing so would be pointless if there were no such thing as resurrection, we must conclude that they were baptized so that the dead could be resurrected, and that these deceased people could not have been resurrected without these acts of baptism. Therefore, these verses lend further support to the Baptist view that baptism is necessary for salvation.
To delve into this issue further would lead us into salvation theology more than it would baptism theology, so I’ll stop here.

Ephesians 2:12-13, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision on Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Context: Paul goes on to warn of giving into man-made religious rules that burden the believer but miss the point of Christianity altogether.
Analysis: This passage is the foundation for the idea that baptism replaces circumcision as a symbol of our covenant with God. Our circumcision is no longer a physical one, but a spiritual one, that is now symbolized by the physical act of baptism. Through this baptism, we die to our old selves and are resurrected by God as new creatures in Christ. This is not a resurrection that occurs after the death of our earthly bodies; rather, it is a spiritual resurrection during this life, in which we are reunited with God in a new relationship, reversing the separation between God and man that resulted from Adam’s fall. After our earthly lives end, then God will literally resurrect our bodies, just like He resurrected Jesus.

1 Corinthians 18:18-21, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
Context: Peter encourages Christians to be willing to suffer for having done good rather than for having done bad.
Analysis: The words, “And baptism…now saves you,” gives us our fifth verse that indicates baptism is required for salvation. The other four verses were found in Mark 16, Acts 22, Romans 6, and 1 Corinthians 15. That’s more support for Baptist theology than I expected. Conducting this study has made me more of a Baptist that I was before. The Bible proves that baptism is a must for every Christian.
However, I’m still uncertain about whether to baptize children as a symbol of the covenant, and whether these children should be baptized of their own accord as adults. Since the Bible leaves us hanging on this issue, it mustn’t be important that we understand it perfectly.
My personal recommendation is to do both. I’ve noticed, just from people I’ve known in my life, that those baptized as children tend to stray less from God than those who aren’t, even if those who aren’t are children of devout Christians. Some might argue that we shouldn’t have two baptisms in a lifetime, but I’ve yet to see what harm it does. I’ve known numerous people, including myself, who did both, and we seem to have turned out just fine. There’s no biblical indication that the second baptism reverses the first.
As we conclude this study, you may find yourself disappointed. Most Every-Verse method studies give us clear answers. But this one gave us few of those. That’s why there’s so much confusion and disagreement over baptism today. Nonetheless, you now have a better understanding of what the whole Bible says about baptism, and that’s never a bad thing.

Birth Control (Bible Study)

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
(All Bible quotes from the New Revised Standard Version)
(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)

This debate is much more heated among Roman Catholics than it is Protestants. However, it affects so many lives that it’s worth examining.
While most Protestants seek to establish their beliefs based only on what the Bible says (although we don’t always succeed in doing that), Roman Catholics seek to establish their beliefs by a combination of the Bible, church traditions, and the authority of church leadership, which they believe expresses the voice of God.
The Roman Catholic stance is that Birth Control is a sin. What leads them to this conviction? One might expect Catholics to claim that church leadership has received special revelation from God that birth control is forbidden. Such a claim would be difficult to disprove. How can any of us know what God tells the pope in private? Surprisingly, however, the arguments we hear from Roman Catholic leadership usually cite the Bible. And it all boils down to two Bible quotes. Here they are:

Genesis 38:8-10, “Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go into your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, so He took his life also.”
Context: Onan’s brother Er had just died. In ancient Israel, when a man died childless, his brother could impregnate his widow and the offspring would count as the child of the deceased man, not as the child of the brother who was the biological father. The purpose of this was so there would be someone to carry on the family name and inherit the land. Also, having an heir would then allow the widow to remain on family lands. Without an heir, she was left homeless, or, if she was lucky and her father was living and willing to receive her, she could go back to her father.
Land in Israel was divided among a man’s male children, and then further divided among the next generation, and so on. As for daughters, they married into a family and lived on the lands of their husbands. Fathers were eager to give away their daughters in marriage, because in a male-dominated world where women struggled to survive on their own, fathers had to provide for their daughters throughout adulthood, which was a considerable expense.
Analysis: This story is frequently quoted as the biblical prohibition of birth control, because God strikes Onan dead after he pulled out and “wasted his seed on the ground” in order to prevent pregnancy.
But is the technicality of practicing birth control the real reason God was displeased? Or were there other sins of Onan’s that, unlike birth control, actually violated God’s laws expressed throughout the Bible?
Let’s count Onan’s sins:
First, Onan disobeyed his father’s command—a command that was intended to be for the good of the family. So he angered God by failing to honor his father.
Second, Onan pulled out because he was envious that the child would not be his. Numerous verses throughout the Bible condemn envy.
Third, Onan hated his brother. We see throughout the Old Testament that having descendants was of utmost importance to the Israelites. Had Onan loved his brother, he would have wanted to provide a descendant for him. But Onan failed to love his brother as himself and thus angered God.
Fourth, Onan took sexual advantage of his brother’s widow. He used her for sexual pleasure without her permission. She was willing to have sex with him for the sake of having offspring, not for pleasure’s sake.
Fifth, Onan lied! He had agreed to obey his father’s command. He, his father, and his deceased brother’s widow were all of the same understanding that he would attempt to provide offspring for his deceased brother. In the end, however, Onan broke his vow. He lied. And the Bible opposes lying and deception on over thirty counts.
Sixth, Onan demonstrated disregard for the well-being of his brother’s widow. Imagine what she went through. She was willing to have sex with Onan so that she might have a child. This child would be the descendant that she and her deceased husband, whom she loved and missed, had always dreamed of. Also, by having this child, she would get to remain in her home and enjoy the land upon which she and her deceased husband had been living. Not only may the land have held sentimental value for her, but being unable to stay could have meant homelessness for her (although she was able to return to her father, according to the Bible).
So as Onan came into her, she felt great hope that her and her deceased husband’s dreams were about to come true. Imagine the horror and the hurt when she learned that Onan had only come to take sexual advantage of her, that her dreams were forever crushed, and that her worst fears had become reality.
When we examine these great sins of Onan, it’s no wonder that God struck him down. What is a wonder, however, is that so many people, including the Roman Catholic Church, overlook these sins and conclude that God killed Onan for the technicality of practicing birth control. Had this story been of God punishing a man and his wife for practicing birth control because they couldn’t afford anymore kids, the Roman Catholic view would make sense. But the Bible contains no such story.

Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the ground.’”
Context: God creates the human race and tells the humans to reproduce.
Analysis: Like any species that’s small in number, its best chance for survival is to grow in size. If only a few beings of a given species exist, it won’t take much to wipe them out. But if a species numbers in the thousands or millions, extinction becomes an improbability. God wanted the human race to succeed and populate the whole earth and have dominion over wildlife. God got His wish. We’ve succeeded in doing His will as expressed in this verse.
However, now that we’ve succeeded in filling the earth, we’ve gotten so good at it that we now face a whole new set of challenges. I revealed in the creationism study that the human race has nearly quadrupled in size over the last century. That means that we’ll have 100 billion people on earth by the year 2200 if we continue at our current pace. These humans will occupy 20 times more land than they do now, leaving far less room to grow food. Yet the need for food will be 20 times greater than it is today.
Over the coming centuries, billions will starve, while wars and disease run rampant as a result of the food shortage. This was not God’s intent when He instructed humans to multiply. He intended good, not harm. His mandate worked for the good of the human race for thousands of years, but now the situation is drastically different. Is God so inflexible that he won’t make a change for our benefit? Is He more concerned with us upholding His original command than He is with the well-being of the human race?
If that were the nature of God, then He would never have altered the Old Testament covenant expressed in the Mosaic Law by giving the world a Savior through whom our sins may be forgiven. He would have just stuck with the original plan, never changing for the good of His people. But God proved to be flexible, because He cares about people.
Birth control is the one solution that can save billions of humans from a dreadful future. God is flexible and caring enough to allow this invention to change the direction of population growth. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church leadership is not.
Is their ruling consistent with God’s desire to reduce suffering in the world and His love for the human race?
It is not.
Rather, it is the epitome of religious oppression: a non-biblical, man-made religious rule that adds to human misery, rather than decreasing it as God’s laws are designed to do.

Erroneous Arguments Opposing Birth Control

The Bible never says that birth control is a sin, because the Israelites already knew it was wrong, totally avoided it, and, therefore, didn’t need to be told about it:
Leviticus 18:23 says, “Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled by it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion.”
Are we to believe that the Israelites instinctively knew that birth control was unnatural and a sin, but had no idea that sex with animals was unnatural and a sin? If God had to tell people not to have sex with animals, then it’s safe to conclude that God mentioned all sins in the biblical law. If there was any chance at all that people might commit a given sin, God addressed it.

The death penalty was not the biblically prescribed penalty for a brother refusing to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife; therefore, God must have killed Onan because he practiced birth control.
Indeed, the Bible did not require the death penalty for refusing to impregnate your deceased brother’s wife. Let’s think about why this might be. Perhaps it’s because a man might have no sexual attraction to his brother’s wife and would then be unable to perform? In fact, if he has the death penalty hanging over his head, that would really make it difficult to perform—talk about pressure! Putting a man to death because he’s unable to become sexually aroused by a given woman is inconsistent with the love of God.
But that does not describe Onan’s situation. He was very much attracted to his deceased brother’s wife, so he had no excuse for refusing to provide offspring, especially once he started having sex with her. The fact that Onan had sex with her changed everything. At that point, this situation became nothing like that of a man who had no sexual attraction to his deceased brother’s wife.

The fact that the Bible uses the words, “wasted his seed,” to describe Onan’s sin means that it’s a sin to let sperm go to waste.
If that’s the case, then all men are guilty, because the body makes sperm on a daily basis. That sperm is then replaced with new sperm every few days. So the sperm situation is one of use-it-or-lose-it. Abstinence wastes sperm too, and even sexually active married men fail to use all of the sperm their bodies make.
However, the ancient Israelites were unaware of these realities of human anatomy. They probably assumed that the body contained a limited amount of sperm that could not be replaced once leaving the body. To them, sperm that fell outside the female body was wasted; therefore, their language reflected that belief.

Birth control interferes with God’s plan, because humans he intended to use for His purposes will never be born.
This argument underestimates the power of God. We see throughout the Bible that all of God’s plans come true. Never does it mention even one instance in which a person’s action, even if it was murder, interfered with God’s plan. While none of us knows exactly how He does it, God is able to work our deeds together with His plans.
If our actions got in the way, all of God’s plans would fail. Even if we didn’t use birth control, our choices of who to marry or when to have sex would interfere with God’s plans for a person yet to be born. God knows what we’re going to do, including our use of birth control, and our actions are already a part of His plan.

Sex is for procreation only
This argument has grown in popularity in recent years due to opposition to homosexuality. The idea is that any sexual activity that fails to result in a chance of pregnancy is a sin, whether it be birth control, masturbation, homosexuality, or sex with animals.
This is a nice and tidy theology. It can even be beautiful in that it promotes the belief that life is such a wonderful thing that God wants every sperm cell to be used to create it.
The problem with this theology (aside from arguments I’ve already made) is that the Bible never states it. Also, the Bible never states that it’s a sin for a man to have sex with his wife when she’s pregnant—a time when she’s unable to conceive. Nor does the Roman Catholic church say (to the best of my knowledge) that it’s a sin to have sex with a woman who has had a hysterectomy and, therefore, can no longer produce children. If sex were only for procreation, it would be a sin in these scenarios, too.
The Bible is a big book with lots of rules. If birth control, masturbation, and sex with pregnant women were sins, the Bible would say so. But since the Bible doesn’t, the Roman Catholic belief that sex is only for procreation falls apart due to lack of biblical support.

Fasting (Bible Study)

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

(All Bible quotes from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted)
(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)

 

Fasting isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Buddhists, Muslims, Native Americans and people of many other faiths engage in fasting and have done so throughout history. Due to its prevalence worldwide, it’s easy for Christian fasting to resemble the fasting of other religions, both in the way we do it and in our attitudes toward it.
The following study, which examines every fasting passage in the Bible, will surprise most readers. Church teachings about fasting (which, of course, differ from church to church) rarely align with God’s attitudes toward fasting as revealed throughout the Bible. Most churches build their fasting theology around just a few passages while ignoring what the entire Bible has to say about it.
What makes this study so important is that our understanding of God’s attitude toward fasting is key to our understanding of His attitude toward us. If we misunderstand what fasting is all about, we understand what Christianity is all about.

Exodus 34:28, “He [Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”
Context: God had Moses write the law on tablets.
Deuteronomy 9:18, “Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin you had committed, provoking the Lord by doing what was evil in his sight.” (The NRSV does not capitalize personal pronouns referring to God or Jesus; therefore, I avoid capitalizing them when quoting the NRSV.)
Context: Moses speaks at length to the Israelites throughout early Deuteronomy. Here, he describes how he pleaded for God to not destroy the Israelites.
Analysis: This is unlike any fasting we do today. The only way to survive a fast of both food and water for 40 days is by being sustained by God. Therefore, it’s difficult to let these passages to influence our behavior.

Judges 20:26, “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the Lord; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the Lord.”
Context: The Israelites lose 18,000 men in a battle to the Benjaminites.
Analysis: At an unknown point in history, fasting worked its way into Israelite culture. Since God had never commanded it up to this point in time, the Israelites must have adopted it from neighboring civilizations. Some will say that God commanded fasting on the Day of Atonement, but the instructions for that occasion in Leviticus 16 mention no such thing. The Israelites may have chosen to incorporate it into the Day of Atonement, but God never required them to.
In this example, the Israelites fasted out of mourning after suffering heavy loss of life in a battle. Mourning for the dead often included fasting in the ancient Near East. We no longer practice this bereavement ritual today. So we must be careful not to equate this fasting with religious fasting.

1 Samuel 7:6, “So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.”
Context: Samuel had told the Israelites to destroy their idols from foreign religions and they obeyed. They followed the act with this fast.
Analysis: Here we see the first Old Testament example of fasting as a form of penance. It appears to have been done as a demonstration of remorse or as a means of staving off God’s judgment.
We must ask ourselves, however, whether we need to fast to repent since Jesus’ sacrifice stave’s of God’s judgment for us. We know that we no longer need to make sacrifices to receive God’s forgiveness, so makes no sense to fast to receive His forgiveness. Some might argue that we should fast as a sign that we’re sorry, but one would have to think that the New Testament would mention such a requirement since it contains lots of passages explaining repentance and forgiveness.

1 Samuel 31:13, “Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”
Context: These bones were those of King Saul, who had just been killed by the Philistines.
Analysis: The Israelites fasted not only when mourning the death of loved ones, but also when mourning the death of kings. Again, this is not a religious fast.

2 Samuel 12:22-23, “He [King David] said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.” But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’”
Context: Through the prophet Nathan, God informed King David that the child born of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba would die. This was God’s discipline, not only for David’s adultery, but also for his murder of Bathsheba’s husband. As the child was sick and dying, David fasted in an attempt to change God’s mind.
Analysis: David gives us the first biblical explanation for fasting: to persuade God. Did it work? No. God administered His discipline of David according to plan, despite David’s attempts to change His mind.
David’s fasting resulted from his own thinking, not from the command of God. Some Christians say that we must follow David’s example and fast, because he was a hero of the Old Testament. But no Bible verses tell us to do that. They only tell us to obey God’s commands.
Nonetheless, from this passage we learn yet another inappropriate reason for fasting—attempting to persuade God to change His mind.

Ezra 8:21, 23, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from Him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions… So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”
Context: The prophet Ezra prepares to lead people from Babylon back to Judah, once the Babylonian exile had come to an end.
Analysis: Ezra combines fasting with prayer to ask God for guidance and protection on a journey. Apparently, the Israelites had developed a belief that fasting made prayer more effective. In this case, the prayer was effective, but we have no way of determining whether or not the fasting was a factor in God’s decision to protect them.

Ezra 10:6, “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God, and went to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night. He did not eat bread or drink water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles.”
Context: God had repeatedly instructed the Jews not to marry people from other nations and religions, but many of them had disobeyed. Ezra was greatly upset by this.
Analysis: This verse informs us that mourning was the reason for this fast. It was not done as a religious ritual. Notice also that this fast, along with some other biblical fasts, includes abstinence from water, something that few Christians incorporate into their fasts today.

Nehemiah 1:4, “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
Context: Nehemiah heard of Jerusalem’s destruction in the preceding verses.
Analysis: Once again, fasting is added to prayer as a means of increasing its effectiveness. Mourning may be a reason for the fast as well, since Nehemiah is greatly distressed by the news of his homeland’s destruction.

Nehemiah 9:1, “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth and with earth on their heads.”
Context: The Israelites spent a day listening to the reading of the Book of the Law, worshipping and confessing their sins before God.
Analysis: Some Christians insist that we fast because the ancient Israelites practiced it. But unlike the fasting practiced by today’s Christians, Old Testament fasting included the wearing of sackcloth and ashes (or in this case, dirt). If we fast because we believe that we are to behave as the ancient Israelites did, then we also should wear sackcloth and ashes like they did.
The purpose of the Israelites wearing of sackcloth and dirt was to inflict humiliation upon themselves. It, along with fasting, was an act of self-imposed suffering intended to appease God. Such self-imposed suffering through fasting and other acts has been common in many other religions as well.

Isaiah 58:3, “‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”
Context: Isaiah prophecies against Judah. The questions asked here represent the complaints of the people. The final sentence is God’s response.
Analysis: In Isaiah 58, God speaks on the issue of fasting for the first time. He does not command it, as many Christians might expect. Rather, He questions it and downplays its importance. He implies in verse 3 that the Jews’ priorities are out of line. Their fasting fails to gain His favor, because they continue in selfishness and oppression of the poor as they fast.

Isaiah 58:5, “Is this a fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
Analysis: A paraphrase of this verse: “Did I tell you to fast and look pathetic? Why should I be pleased by your self-imposed suffering?” Just as God grew weary of His people’s animal sacrifices (even though He had commanded them in the Mosaic Law) as they continued in sin, He was unimpressed with their man-made sacrifice of humiliation and self-imposed suffering through fasting.

Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
Analysis: God is far more impressed when we love others than when we deny ourselves food. In the study on Greed and Oppression of the Poor, I reveal how far we fall short of satisfying God’s commands to feed the hungry and stop oppressing the poor. Since we fail in this way, should we even bother to fast? If God desires us to fast at all, He desires it far less than He desires that we obey His commandments and help those in need. The fasting that we Christians do today is likely nullified by our selfishness and disregard for the poor.

Joel 1:14, “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”
Context: Joel prophecies impending judgment upon God’s people.
Analysis: Like Ezra and Nehemiah, Joel orders a fast. Some might say that these fasts were from God since prophets ordered them. But we must remember that prophets spoke of their own accord, too. Not every word they said was from God. Had the order to fast been preceded by the common Old Testament phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” then we’d have to conclude that they were God’s orders.

Joel 2:12, 15, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning… Blow a trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.”
Analysis: Here we have God’s only instruction to fast in the Bible. This particular fast (as well as the one in Joel 1:14) was part of a “solemn assembly” in which the Jews gathered to mourn and fast over the suffering that was prophesied to come upon them. Therefore, this fast was an act of mourning rather than an element of worship. The purpose of most fasting in Protestant churches today is not as an act of mourning, and is, therefore, inconsistent with the purposes of Old Testament fasting.
Notice also that this fast appears to be an isolated event rather than a regular practice. God never instructs anyone to fast as a part of their religious routine.

Jonah 3:7-10, “Then he had proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no heard or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; He may turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.’ When God saw what they did, and how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Context: After surviving in the digestive system of a great fish, Jonah obeyed God and preached repentance to the enemy city of Nineveh, and its inhabitants repented of their sins.
Analysis: These verses give us the reason for this fast in the words, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; He may turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” In this story, God changes His mind, but He probably does so because the people of Nineveh turned away from their evil ways (as the verse says), not because they and their animals fasted.
Some Christians today argue that we should fast as a sign that we are sorry for our sin, much like the Ninevites do here. If it weren’t for Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross, they might have a point. The Old Testament covenant, which was given by God, required that animals be sacrificed in order for sins to be forgiven. Fasting was a sacrifice of a different sort that originated from human minds instead of from God’s commands. Once Jesus became the perfect sacrifice for our sins, however, God’s people no longer had to make animal sacrifices (which never fully atoned for human sin anyway, because animals were not created in God’s image and, therefore, were not of the same value in God’s eyes). Whether God’s people sacrificed animals or their freedom to eat (fasting), these sacrifices have become worthless before God, because Jesus’ sacrifice covers all of our sins, since He, as the Son of God, is of greater value than any human.

Zechariah 7:5-6, “Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for Me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?”
Context: The Jews, after returning from exile in Babylon, inquired of God whether or not they were to fast as they had in Babylon. Through Zechariah, God replied that they were to no longer fast as they had, but were to conduct themselves properly instead.
Analysis: God indicates that our fasting is for our own benefit and does Him no good, just as our eating and drinking does Him no good.
I’ve known Christians to say that fasting makes them feel closer to God—that every time they experience hunger, they think of Him. If you are one of these Christians, I say this: Fast all you like! It’s not a sin to do so. If it works for you, that’s great! Just don’t kid yourself into thinking that God gets something out of it. He’s far more impressed with you when you follow His commandments and reach out to others in Christ’s love than He is when you fast.
I’ve heard others say that fasting removes toxins from the body and is good for one’s health. If that’s the case, then go ahead and fast! Nothing in the Bible says fasting is a sin. We’re all free to do it if we please. If you love to fast, do so. If you hate to fast, then why burden yourself? You benefit neither yourself nor God with self-imposed suffering.

Zechariah 8:18-19, “The word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace.”
Context: God promises blessing on the Jews upon their return from exile in Babylon.
Analysis: Here we have the loving nature of God revealed! God replaces the fasts with festivals that likely included feasting. He wants us to enjoy life, not to suffer unnecessarily by denying ourselves food. Unfortunately, I’ve never heard a pastor or Bible study teacher quote either this passage or Isaiah 58 when addressing fasting. We only ever hear one side of the argument when it comes to whether or not to fast.

Matthew 4:1-3, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”
Luke 4:1-3, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, He was famished. The devil said to Him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’”
Context: Jesus had just been baptized by John the Baptist at the end of chapter 3. Before Jesus could begin His ministry, He had to withstand this great temptation.
Analysis: Many Christians make the mistake of believing that Jesus fasts in this story as a means of gaining strength from God so that He may endure the temptation to come. This belief is in error, because Jesus is the Son of God and has total access to God’s strength without having to fast to obtain it.
The purpose of this fast was to increase the temptation. Had Jesus just eaten before the temptation, He might have responded to Satan by saying, “No thanks. I’m full. I can’t even look at a loaf of bread right now.” But, as the Scriptures say, Jesus “was famished.” His hunger made the temptation much more meaningful than if He had been satisfied.
In most situations, we should try to follow Jesus’ example, but this fast is a rare exception to that rule. Jesus, knowing that He would pass the test of temptation, increased the amount of temptation He faced in order to prove that He was the Son of God. We should never try to increase our own temptation for the obvious reason that we may fail and sin as a result, so we should never emulate Jesus’ 40-day fast.

Matthew 6:16-18, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you that they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Context: This quote is of Jesus as He gives the Sermon on the Mount. It is the third of three examples that Jesus uses to show that we should not flaunt our piety in order to impress others.
Analysis: This is it—the one Bible verse upon which all fasting promotion is based. Those who insist that we fast say, “Jesus says, ‘When you fast,’ not, ‘If you fast.’”
As I stated in the Every-Verse Method Introduction, we must be careful not to build theologies out of isolated verses, because we may have an improper translation, an unoriginal quote, an inexact quote, or a misunderstanding of context. Here, we can’t prove whether or not we have an improper translation or unoriginal quote, but the possibility for either always exists.
We do know that the Gospels use inexact quotes which vary in wording from Gospel to Gospel, but keep the point of the message intact. This quote from Matthew 6 is absent in the other Gospels, so we cannot compare wording. However, the point of the message, which Jesus conveys with two other examples in this chapter, is that we are not to flaunt our devotion to God so that others may be impressed by it. The focus of this message is pride, not fasting.
As for the context, it’s likely that the recipients of this message, Jesus’ disciples, grew up under the influence of the Pharisees. Since they fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), and they loved to display their devotion to God in front of others, it’s likely that Jesus speaks of them in this quote. He uses the words, “Whenever you fast,” because He’s addressing people who had fasted regularly.
If those who use this verse to insist that we fast are to be consistent in hanging on every word of every quote, then they must refrain from public prayer, because Jesus says in verse 6 of this very same chapter, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Unlike the words, “Whenever you fast,” this verse is a command, because Jesus instructs the people to pray in secret. Yet I know of few Christians who refuse to pray in church services or Bible studies out of obedience to this verse. If they were to do so, they would not defy the Bible, because it neither commands us to pray in groups nor does it give examples of Jesus and His disciples joining together in group prayer.
Most Christians will argue that Jesus uses this private prayer command to discourage showing off our faith, and that He doesn’t intend to forbid group prayer by it. Since nothing else in the Bible forbids group prayer, I’m fine with that argument. In fact, it’s the same argument that I apply to the issue of fasting: Jesus uses the example of fasting to discourage showing off; He is not requiring us to fast.

Matthew 9:14-15, “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’”
Mark 2:18-20, “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples fast and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”
Luke 5:33-35, “Then they said to him, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’”
Context: In all three Gospels, this story appears to be unrelated to those surrounding it.
Analysis: Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny the claim that His disciples don’t fast. Therefore, we may conclude that they did not fast during His ministry. For many years, I assumed that they fasted regularly after His crucifixion, because Jesus says in these quotes that they will fast when He is gone. But, according to Matthew 9:15 (see above), the fasting of which He speaks is one of mourning like when a bridegroom is taken away. The disciples likely fasted as they mourned His crucifixion, but that fasting came to an abrupt end when they met Him in His resurrected state.
The Bible never records any of Jesus’ twelve disciples fasting. Neither do they recommend, nor even discuss, fasting in Acts or in any of their Epistles.

Acts 13:2-3, “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid hands on them and sent them off.”
Context: Paul, who is called Saul for the last time in this verse, is sent by the Holy Spirit on his first missionary journey, and he takes Barnabas with him.
Acts 14:23, “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.”
Context: After successful preaching in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, Paul and Barnabas return to these cities to establish church leadership in each.
Analysis: Having been a former Pharisee, fasting was a way of life for Paul, so he continued to fast after becoming a Christian. Unlike most early Christians who were converted by Jesus’ disciples and their followers, Paul was converted to Christianity through a miraculous vision (Acts 9) and was taught the gospel by revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:12). We cannot assume that He was taught all spiritual knowledge, but that He was taught the gospel. So he may not have realized that fasting was unnecessary, or he may have realized it but continued to do it because he enjoyed it.
Once Paul meets Jesus’ disciples at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the Bible never again records Paul or any other Christians fasting. He may have learned from the disciples that Jesus never required it. At that point he either stopped fasting or, at least, stopped instructing others to fast. In fact, the last 22 books of the Bible, many of which were written by him, make no mention of fasting.

Why Fast?
So what have all of the Bible’s fasting verses taught us?
First, we learned that much of the fasting was not for religious purposes, but was for bereavement or mourning purposes.
Second, we learn that Old Testament fasting was not a regular religious ritual. Fasts only occurred under special circumstances. It wasn’t until the centuries approaching Jesus’ day that the Pharisees made it part of the weekly grind.
Third, we learned that fasting fails to influence God. It can’t change His mind, stave off His judgment, earn His forgiveness, impress Him, or benefit Him.
Fourth, we learned that fasting can be abused, defying God’s will. We should never use it to impose suffering on ourselves, increase temptation, manipulate God, or show off how righteous we are.
So if all of these reasons for fasting are inappropriate, what’s a good reason to fast?
Some will argue that fasting is necessary for development of spiritual discipline. In other words, if we can avoid eating when hungry, we will then be able to avoid sinning when tempted. Paul opposes this idea in Colossians 2:20-23, when he says, “Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with the use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence [‘no value against fleshly indulgence’ in the NASB].”
We cannot prove that Paul speaks of fasting here, but it’s hard to believe that he would use a phrase like “severe treatment of the body” to describe abstinence from pork or some other food that could easily be replaced with a different food. Paul makes it clear that rules and practices involving denial of food are ineffective in preventing sinful behavior, are man-made, and result only in unnecessary suffering. Fasting didn’t keep the Pharisees from sinning (see the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer in Luke 18:9-14); neither will it keep us from it.
The reason fasting is ineffective in preventing sin is that the psychologies behind fasting and sinning differ. When we fast, we give up something good temporarily. With regard to sin, we are to give up something evil permanently. If you’re fasting, and good food tempts you to break the fast, you can resist the temptation by telling yourself that you may have that food many times over when the fast ends. But when presented with an opportunity to sin, you cannot tell yourself that you may indulge in that sin later, because we’re called to put it off forever.
In fact, some sinful temptations are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. For example, if a man is tempted by an amazingly attractive woman, he may reason to himself that he may never have another opportunity like this one if he refuses her advances. Or a man might be tempted to steal money from his corporation or church in a manner that’s unlikely to be detected by anyone else. Heightening this man’s temptation is the knowledge that he’s unlikely to ever have such an opportunity to easily obtain riches again. This temptation is far greater than that of eating while fasting, since we know that we will eat regularly when the fast is over.
Others argue that we should fast, because when we do, we deny ourselves and carry our own crosses as Jesus required of us. I agree that we are to deny ourselves and take up our own crosses. But we must do it like Jesus did. Did Jesus say, “Hey everybody, can you come nail me to this cross? I need to inflict suffering upon myself, because that makes God happy.” No, Jesus simply focused on fulfilling God’s purpose for Him. His ministry sometimes forced Him to have no place to lay His head, and ultimately, He was killed for doing what was right. Likewise, we Christians often have to make sacrifices, giving up money, popularity, etc., in order to carry out God’s will. But we need not give up anything or inflict suffering upon ourselves pointlessly, because Jesus never took up His cross in this manner during His ministry.
Yet another argument in favor of fasting is that we hear God’s voice better when doing so. Most religions throughout history have shared this belief. But the Bible never states that we hear God’s voice better when fasting. The idea that fasting helps you hear God’s voice comes from people who fasted so long (sometimes without water) that they starved their brain and hallucinated and then “saw God” in their hallucination. It’s not much different than taking LSD in order to see God.
Again, why fast? Based on what the Bible teaches us, it’s hard to come up with a good religious reason to do so. The best one I’ve heard is, “Fasting makes me feel closer to God.” If that’s how you feel, by all means, go ahead and fast all you want. You may even encourage others to give it a try. But don’t guilt people into fasting by making them think it’s required by God, because such an argument is a lie, and it may do more harm than good by placing too heavy of a burden on those who find no value in fasting.

God’s Will for Your Life (Bible Study) – Part 1

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
(All verses taken from the NASB, unless otherwise noted)
(Copyright © 2009 by K. Scott Schaeffer)

“How do I know God’s will for my life?”

For teenage and college-aged Christians, no question arises more frequently. As young people look toward their futures, they want direction. And young Christians have the right idea by looking to God for that direction.
This question gets asked more often than it should, however, because few people can provide a sufficient answer to it. Therefore, young Christians keep asking it. The most common answers anyone gives are, “Pray to God and listen quietly for His answer. If you’re not hearing God’s voice, you’re not listening hard enough,” or, “God isn’t listening to you because you have sin in your life. You have to eliminate all of your sin in order to hear His voice.” These answers have many Christians going out of their minds, because they try their best to follow this advice, yet they remain confused about God’s will for their lives.
Adding to the frequency of this question’s utterance is the fact that its asking is often commanded. Many pastors and youth leaders tell their followers, “You must find out God’s will for your life!” They follow with the warning, “If you don’t, you’ll miss out on the wonderful journey God has for you.”
Nobody wants to miss out on something wonderful, so the curiosity about God’s will becomes an urgent crisis—a need to know His will before it’s too late. An inability to figure out God’s plan could lead to a disastrous life followed by an encounter with an angry Maker on Judgment Day. Wow! Talk about pressure!
How do many young Christians respond to this pressure? By grasping at straws. They pray for God to reveal His will for their lives, and, within a short time, they have an answer. Unfortunately, the answer rarely becomes reality. In fact, many believers find themselves pursuing a different path in a matter of only a few months.
Back in my college days, I knew a couple Christian men who had a tremendous heart for God and desperately sought His will. What did they find? A call to become missionaries to China. One of them told me all about this calling with great enthusiasm. Six months later, I spoke to that same man again.

I asked him, “When are you going to China?’
He said, “What?”
I said, “Weren’t you and your friend called to become missionaries to China?”
He replied, “Oh, that. That’s ancient history. God wasn’t really calling us. In fact, my friend and I don’t even talk to each other anymore. It’s funny you remembered that. I had forgotten all about it.”
My friend wasn’t the only person I knew who was misguided about God’s will for his life. Another person, who I often refer to as “me,” made a similar mistake. When I first arrived at Belmont University as a Music Business major in the fall of 1990, a former president of Belmont’s Baptist Student Union insisted that we young Christians figure out God’s will for our lives ASAP.
Of course, I focused on this task immediately. After a couple days of prayer and deep thought, I concluded that God wanted me to be a successful performer in the music business who then spread the gospel through my fame. This was quite a coincidence, since I already desired to be a rock star. God’s will and my will matched!

So have you heard my songs on the radio yet?
No?
Do you know why?
Because I never came anywhere close to becoming a rock star!

I fell for the common lie that circulates among young Christians that if you pray over God’s will, and you have a desire to do something, that it must be God’s desire for you to do that very thing, because God gives you your desires for a reason. However, we are about to find that the Bible never says this.
The moral of these stories is that we’re often mislead about God’s will for our lives, because we go about seeking it the wrong way and sometimes have the wrong motives when doing so. The only way we can find it is to seek it the proper manner.
How do we do that? A good start would be to examine everything the Bible says about God’s will.

Genesis: 12:1, “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.’” [All verses from the NASB unless otherwise noted].
Context: The 11 chapters preceding these provide a quick overview of many generations; but here, the Bible slows down and gives us a detailed look at God’s relationship with Abraham, because it is through Abraham that God initiates the process of building Himself a nation.
Analysis: This story of Abraham makes no mention of the term, God’s will. But it paints the kind of picture that comes to many Christians’ minds when we think of what it means to know God’s will.
Many of us long for an experience just like this one, where God speaks to us in an audible voice and gives us a task for the present, as well as a direction for our personal future. When we try to obey biblical commands that tell us to know and obey God’s will, this is what we aim for. We want Him to tell us in plain words what He wants us to do, and why He wants us to do it.
Unfortunately, occurrences like these are incredibly rare. Therefore, many of us become frustrated in seeking God’s will. Out of our impatience, we often try to force it. We do so by praying to God to tell us His will, and then we assume that the desires we have thereafter must be from Him. The sad reality is that these desires are often nothing more than our own desires; they’re not God’s desires at all.
Why do we want God to work through us in this manner? Sometimes we desire a command like Abraham’s out of our pride, because we want to feel as though we are more important than others. We know that God instructs few people in this manner, and that we will feel special if God addresses us like He addressed some of the Bible’s greatest heroes.
Sometimes we desire instructions like this one, because they are easy to follow and have guaranteed positive results. We hate to be confused over what to do next, and we hate the vague uncertainty of the future. We want God to tell us what decision to make and to assure us a future as great as we had ever hoped for.

Genesis 25:22-23, “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If it is so, then why am I this way?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your body; the one people shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.’”
Context: Isaac’s wife Rebekah prepares to give birth to Jacob & Esau.
Analysis: Again, most of us dream of having God reveal a plan this spectacular to us with spoken words. Imagine God telling you that He plans to make a nation out of both your children. During their childhood years, you wouldn’t even have to worry about them running onto the road or sticking a fork in an outlet, because God’s plan would see them through to child-bearing years safely. It would take all of the worry out of being a parent.
Of course, imagine the pride that many of us would have, too, because God chose us out of all people for this special assignment. Unfortunately, pride is sin according to numerous Bible verses.
On the other hand, imagine the love we would feel from God because He chose us for this task. Feeling God’s love isn’t sin. But we shouldn’t have to have a miraculous personal plan revealed to us in order to feel it. The fact that God chose us at the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) to be His children and have eternal life should be enough for us to feel His love. Also, we should not feel His love any less because His plan for us may not be as grand or romantic in our opinion as the plans revealed to the heroes of the Bible.
Unlike Abraham, Rebekah voiced a concern to God, and He eased her mind by telling her what was going on. How many times do we wish that God would ease our concerns by telling us what He plans to do? Many of us pray for God’s direction, not because we want to do what He wants, but because we want to eliminate any concerns we might have about an uncertain future.

Exodus: 18:15-16, “And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God (“seek God’s will” in the NIV). When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and His neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and His laws.’”
Context: Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, expresses concern over Moses’ heavy work schedule. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic Law have not yet been given at this point (that happens in chapter 20), so the people have to inquire of God through Moses as to how to behave. Moses reveals the will of God by making “known the statutes of God and His Laws.”
Analysis: This is the Bible’s first example of someone seeking God’s will. Abraham did not seek God; God approached him. And Rebekah simply asked what was going on; she did not ask for direction.
There’s one big difference between the Israelites’ pursuit of God’s will and our pursuit of it: Here, the Israelites had not yet received God’s law. That’s why Moses was so overwhelmed with requests. We, on the other hand, have God’s law revealed to us in the Bible.
Unfortunately, many of us fail to examine these biblical laws when seeking God’s will. Instead, we pray for God’s guidance and then rely on gut feeling for the answer. Or we ask our pastor for guidance—a solution better than relying on gut feeling, but still less reliable than knowing the Bible.
Sometimes, it’s as if the Bible is the last place we want to look to find God’s will. This is especially true for charismatic Christians who indulge in the emotional spirituality of the faith, but avoid examining the Bible with the mind. In fact, some of these churches tell their members that it’s a sin to study the Bible with their minds, and that they may only study it through the Holy Spirit. Of course, guess who has the Holy Spirit? The church leadership. This theology is nothing more than a tactic to keep congregations from questioning the church’s non-biblical and anti-biblical rules, beliefs, and practices.

Joshua 9:14, “So the men of Israel [‘leaders’ in the NRSV] took some of their provisions, and did not ask the counsel of the Lord.”
Context: The Gibeonites, having seen the military might of the young nation of Israel, tricked Israel’s leaders into making a treaty of peace with them, so they wouldn’t be destroyed.
Analysis: The nation of Israel was a theocracy in which its leaders were to inquire of God before making a decision. They were to either inquire of God directly, through a prophet, or by doing the ancient equivalent of flipping a coin (i.e.: casting lots). When the Israelites failed to seek the Lord’s guidance, bad things happened, as is the case in this story.
I will not include in this study every instance in which Israel’s leaders inquire of the Lord on the nation’s behalf, because we cannot assume that God’s requirements for individuals are the same as His requirements for His nation. Therefore, going forward, I will only cover verses that reveal God’s will for our personal lives.

1 Chronicles 10:13-14, “So Saul died for his trespass that he committed against the Lord, because of the word of the Lord which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the Lord. Therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse.”
Context: Saul, the first king of Israel, died. He had turned away from God during His reign.
Analysis: Again, this verse focuses on Israel’s king seeking guidance for the nation. Nonetheless, this verse applies to us, too, because it shows the dangers of seeking council from the dead through mediums and spiritists.
Why does God forbid such a thing? Is He so hungry for attention that He doesn’t want us talking to other spiritual beings? That’s not the reason at all. No spirit or deceased person can advise us as well as God can, and none of them know the totality of God’s plans. Even more worrisome is that many channeled spirits are evil (I won’t say that all of them are, because Saul had a medium channel Samuel in 1 Samuel, chapter 28, and Samuel was righteous in God’s sight), so they might guide us into committing evil and hurting others.

Jeremiah 10:21, “For the shepherds have become stupid, and have not sought [‘do not inquire of’ in the NRSV] the Lord; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.”
Context: Jeremiah prophecies against the house of Israel.
Analysis: This may be the first verse to criticize individuals for not seeking the Lord’s guidance. However, it’s more likely that this prophecy uses the word, “shepherds,” to denote Jewish leadership. Notice that the word, “flock,” is singular, implying that the shepherds share a common flock, rather than each having a flock of his own. It’s the nation’s leaders who share a common flock; whereas, shepherds tend to individually own flocks.
According to this verse, failure to seek the Lord’s guidance brings about a negative result: lack of prosperity. God wants us to enjoy life. When we seek and follow His guidance, we find happiness; when don’t, we’re left searching.

Zephaniah 1:6, “…those who have turned back from following the Lord, and those who have not sought the Lord or inquired of Him.”
Context: God says that He will destroy Judah and Jerusalem (which fell to Babylon in 586 B.C.) and lists the types of people He will punish.
Analysis: This verse appears to be about those who turned away from the Lord altogether. Nonetheless, this verse assumes that those who follow the Lord seek Him and inquire of Him.

Many of us Christians today claim to follow God but rarely seek out His will. Instead, we use Him to support our personal agendas. Sometimes, we find ways to twist solitary Bible verses so that they appear to support our political or religious beliefs. Other times, we think of God as someone who smiles on everything that we do; therefore, we never change our ways to match His will. When we fail to seek His will, we fail to follow Him altogether.

Matthew 12:50, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
Context: Here, someone had told Jesus, as He spoke to a crowd of people, that His family was waiting for Him. These quotes are Jesus’ response.
Analysis: Do you want to be close to Jesus? So close that He feels like family? If so, these quotes direct you toward achieving your objective.
Of course, at this point, we have yet to find out what this “will” is. This verse may be giving us a hint, however, as it ties family and God’s will together. Will obeying God’s will turn us all into a close-knit family?

Matthew 26:39, “And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Context: Jesus prays to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. He dreads going to the cross where He will bear the punishment for our sins.
Analysis: This is the only example in the entire Bible of someone ending a prayer with the words, “not as I will, but what Thou wilt” or, “not my will but Yours be done.”
These words have inspired many Christians to end prayers in the same manner. This gesture is noble, but is it really how God wants us to pray?
No other prayers in the Bible end in this manner, not David’s prayers, not Moses’ prayers, not any of the Psalms. The reason for the difference between their prayers and Jesus’ prayer is that Jesus, being the Son of God, already knew God’s plan. He knew God sent Him into our world to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He knew He had to die on the cross. His prayer was both an expression of dread and a last minute check to be sure there wasn’t a less painful way for Him to save us from God’s wrath on Judgment Day.
When we pray, on the other hand, we don’t know God’s plan as Jesus did, and we don’t know how God might respond. When we end a prayer by saying, “not my will but Yours be done,” that’s the same as saying, “Never mind what I just prayed; go ahead and do what You were going to do anyway.” We show a total lack of faith that God will fulfill our prayer requests, and thus we fall short of Jesus’ encouragement to “have faith and do not doubt (Matthew 21:21 – also see Luke 17:6).”
It’s good to acknowledge that God’s plan is of greater importance than our desires, but we underestimate God’s ability to work our prayers into His plans. We give up too easily when we pray. If Moses would have said, “Not my will, but Your will be done,” when pleading for God not to destroy the Israelites in Numbers 14, the rest of Judeo-Christian history may have never happened. So while Jesus may have negated His prayer because He already knew God’s plan, that doesn’t mean that God requires us to do the same.
Notice that I said Jesus already knew God’s “plan.” In this quote, that’s the definition of God’s will. However, in verses to come, we will find other definitions for God’s will.

John 6:40, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
Context: Jesus explains how He is the bread of life.
Analysis: This is the first place in which the Bible spells out a definition of God’s will. This will is not a plan for an individual’s life, but a desire for all who believe in Jesus to have eternal life. It’s a plan of God’s that’s sure to happen.
The certainty of this plan becoming reality is not unique in the Bible. The Bible contains numerous prophecies, etc, that have come true and others that will be fulfilled in the future. All of God’s plans recorded in the Bible succeed. None of them have ever failed. Neither does the Bible give us a single example of a person thwarting God’s plans, whether it be intentionally or by mistake. Even when Satan schemed to kill the Son of God, God worked that scheme into His plan for the redemption of His people.
It’s important that we understand the certainty of God’s plans coming to pass. Many Christians worry that God’s plans will fail if they don’t figure them out and make them happen. That worry in unnecessary. God’s plans will happen.

John 7:17, “If any man is willing to do His will, He shall know of the teacher, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.”
Context: While at a feast, the Jews expressed wonder at how Jesus could teach without having the proper religious education. Verse 17 is part of Jesus’ answer.
Analysis: One who “is willing to do His will” is someone who commits himself (or herself) to God and places God’s desires above his (or her) own. For any of us to do this, we must first learn what God desires. The big question is, “How do we learn what God’s desires are?”
Jesus says here that anyone who seeks to do God’s will is certain to recognize that His teachings are from God and not from men. Perhaps, those who seek it are God’s chosen people and God simply gives them a gut feeling that Jesus’ words are truth. Or it may be that God’s will itself—for those able to discover it—reveals whether or not Jesus’ teachings are true.

Acts 16:7, “When they had come to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them….”
Context: Paul and his companions pass through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) en route to Macedonia on Paul’s second missionary journey.
Analysis: Here’s a biblical example of how God’s plans happen no matter what we do. Even though Paul headed toward a place where God did not intend for him to go, God steered him in another direction.
Was Paul concerned that He almost missed out on God’s plan for him? Was Paul even repentant of the fact that He had not figured out God’s plan ahead of time? The answer to both questions is “no.” Paul was content to let God guide him, and he was never worried that God’s plans for him would fail. Therefore, we should rest assured that God will steer us in the right direction, regardless of whether we figure out His plans or not.

Acts 21:4, “And after looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.”
Acts 21:14, “And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The will of God be done.’”
Context: As Paul prepares to go to Jerusalem, other Christians, including Jesus’ disciples, begged him not to go, because they expected him to be arrested or killed. Even the prophet Agabus foretold Paul’s imprisonment. Nonetheless, Paul insisted upon traveling to Jerusalem, because He possessed a greater desire to do God’s work than to ensure his own safety.
Analysis: These verses are interesting in that verse 4 says that “through the Spirit” they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and then verse 14 says that they decided to let the Lord’s will be done. At first glance, these verses seem to say that the Holy Spirit opposed God’s will. What’s more likely is that these Christians knew through the Holy Spirit that something bad would happen to Paul if he went to Jerusalem. (They were right. Paul would go on to be imprisoned there.) While they feared for Paul’s well being, God, on the other hand, planned to spread the Gospel through the events of Paul’s journey.

Acts 22:14, “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One and to hear and utterance from His mouth [“own voice” in the NRSV].’”
Context: Paul recalls his conversion experience in which Ananias informed him of God’s intentions.
Analysis: Is this will a general will that applies to all people, or is it a plan for Paul’s life? It could be either, but since Paul says in Galatians 1 that he received the gospel through revelation, it’s more likely that he speaks of that revelation, which God revealed to him with “His own voice”. Fortunately for us, Paul recorded this gospel and other revelations in letters to churches (the Epistles), and these letters are now in our Bibles, so we need not look anywhere else to experience Paul’s revelation.

God’s Will for Your Life (Bible Study) – Part 2

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]

 

Romans 1:9-10, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His Son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request, if perhaps now at last by the will of God I may succeed in coming to you.”
Context: Paul greets the Roman Christians in the first chapter of his letter to them. His desire to visit them probably stems from a combination of wanting to strengthen their relationships with God and wanting to visit brothers in Christ whom he cares about.
Analysis: Here, the “will of God” represents the means by which Paul was to visit His Roman brethren in Christ. In prayer, Paul effectively asked God to include his request in His plan. Paul understood, as Moses did, that God can integrate our prayer requests with His plan for our lives and for the world.

Romans 2:17-18, 21, “But if bear the name ‘Jew,’ and rely upon the Law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law…you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?”
Context: Paul opposes judgmentalism.
Analysis: The will of which Paul writes in this passage represents that which is revealed in the Old Testament Law. The Jews were nuts about the Scriptures and were proud to know them well. Unfortunately, despite such great knowledge, they had a tendency to miss the point of the Scriptures.
Nonetheless, we, too, are required to know God’s will as revealed in the Bible. God’s biblical will applies to all of us. It’s a general will. If you want to know God’s will, you must go to the Bible to find it. That’s not to say God doesn’t have specific tasks for you to carry out that don’t apply to others, but 99% of what you need to know is found in the Bible.

Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Context: Paul urges the Christians to live a life pleasing to God.
Analysis: This verse gives us another definition of “the will of God:” all that is good, acceptable, and perfect. Where do we go to learn what is good, acceptable, and perfect? The Bible. The Old Testament Law, the prophets, the writings (like Proverbs), the words of Jesus, and the letters of the Apostles, all contain revelation of what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
We can’t learn all of these things by simply praying and then obeying the gut feeling that follows. There are too many issues for us to take this approach. We’d have to pray for God’s direction on each and every issue, but we wouldn’t even know what questions to ask without the Bible’s guidance as to which issues are important. The only way to learn what is good, acceptable, and perfect, is by reading, studying, and knowing the Bible.

Ephesians 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….”
Context: Ephesians, chapter 1, is known for being the chapter that gives the most support for the theology of pre-destination: the idea that God chose us (those who are Christians) to be Christians before the human race ever began. Even though it feels to us that we are choosing God, it’s actually God who places the desire to worship Him in our hearts.
Analysis: Not only does Paul credit God for choosing him to be a Christian, but Paul credits God for choosing him to be an Apostle of Christ. How did Paul learn of God’s will for him? Well, Paul didn’t exactly seek out God’s will through his own efforts. Instead, God converted him by means of a miraculous vision on the road to Damascus (see Acts, chapter 9) and then led him to a man named Ananias for instruction.
Of course, most of us will never see a vision from heaven that knocks us to the ground, so our best bet for learning God’s will is studying the Bible.

Ephesians 1:11, “In Him [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will [‘accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will’ in the NRSV], to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
Context: Ephesians 1 is well-known for Paul’s explanation of predestination in which all Christians were chosen to be Christians by God before the world was created.
Analysis: Notice that God “accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will.” That means He never fails to accomplish anything He wills; all things He wants to accomplish come to be; and everything He accomplishes matches His will. In summary: God’s plans happen no matter what. There’s no mistake we can make that will interfere with them. God has already taken all of our actions and prayers into account when determining His plan for history.
So what about the warning that if we don’t figure out God’s will for our lives that we will miss out on the wonderful journey that awaits us? It’s a lie! We will never miss out on God’s plans for us, because His plans can never be thwarted. It’s arrogant to think that we are powerful enough to ruin God’s plans. Are we more powerful than God? He is in total control, and He never loses that control for even the slightest instant.

1 Thessalonians 3:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality…”
Context: Paul reminds the Thessalonians to continue following the instructions he had given them in person.
Analysis: Again, we see here a general will of God that applies to all Christians. To be sanctified is to become more like Christ. We do this by obeying the rules of the Bible, which apply to all people.

1 Timothy 2:3, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Context: Paul gives Timothy instructions on how to govern a church, and urges Christians to pray for kings and others in authority.
Analysis: For those who oppose pre-destination theology, they find support for their beliefs in this verse. Because if God desires that everyone be saved, and yet most of them are not, then how can He be in control their choices to become Christians?

I was once told, however, that all doesn’t always mean all; but that it means all kinds about 75% of the time it’s used. Over the years, I have found this to be true. Paul speaks of praying for government leadership in the preceding verses. He is speaking of multiple nations and leaders. He says that God wants people from all of these nations to be saved, not just Jews, not just Romans. He desires salvation for all kinds of people, not for every man or person in the world.

James 4:15, “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’”
Context: In verses 13-17, James warns the Christians not to assume what will happen in the future, because God controls it.
Analysis: Now we’re back to God’s will representing His specific plans for our lives. Again, James warns that we cannot control even our short-term plans. Everything we plan is subject to God’s approval. That doesn’t mean God won’t let us sin if we plan to, although sometimes He doesn’t. God gives us free will, but sometimes gets in the way of us falling too deeply into sin, especially if we pray for His protection from our sinful ways.

1 Peter 2:15, “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
Context: Peter tells Christians to obey the secular governing authorities.
Analysis: “Doing right” is following all of the Bible’s commands. Following them has numerous positive effects, one of which is that nobody has a legitimate reason to accuse us of being unlawful. This was important for early Christians, because they didn’t want to invite unnecessary persecution. Persecution would come at times, but Christians were never called to do anything that would provoke or increase it.

1 Peter 3:17, “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
1 Peter 4:19, “Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
Context: Peter encourages Christians to be willing to suffer for living the Christian life, much like Christ suffered by remaining steadfast in righteousness.
Analysis: The phrase, “if God should will it [our suffering] so,” tells us that suffering should be of God’s will, but never of our own will.
While you might think it preposterous that anyone would impose suffering upon themselves, many Christians do. They believe that God is happy when we suffer, and they say we must deny ourselves and take up our own cross as Jesus did. They are correct about taking up our own crosses as Jesus did, because Jesus instructed us to do so in Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23.
Remember, however, that Jesus did not seek out a cross and ask people to nail Him to it so He could suffer for God; He was crucified simply for doing what was right—carrying out His ministry. 1 Peter 3:17 tells us that we, too, must do what’s right, but like Jesus, we should only suffer for it if we have to. We must be willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, but we should not force suffering upon ourselves needlessly. That’s what the other religions of the world are all about. Christianity is so much better than that!

(For more on the anti-Christian nature of self-imposed suffering, read the Christian Freedom study.)

1 Peter 4:2, “…live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men [‘human desires’ in the NRSV], but for the will of God.”
Context: Peter inspires believers to be willing to suffer for Christ and no longer live sinfully like they had in the past.
Analysis: In the Bible, what’s the opposite of “human desires?” God’s desires! In other words, God’s will. We find biblical examples of human desires in Galatians 5:19-21. They are “…immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing…” And what does Galatians 5:22-23 say are God’s desires? They are “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”
Here, again, we have God’s will for our lives revealed to us by the Bible.
Having examined all Bible verses addressing God’s will, we’ve found the source of confusion over it: the fact that God’s will has two primary definitions. The first definition is God’s plan. The second definition is God’s law. The first is a specific, personal will. The second is a general will, which is the same for all Christians.
The Bible verses that command us to know God’s will instruct us to know His general will for all of us. They do not tell us to figure out His plan for our personal future. And nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to figure out God’s plan for our entire lives.
While some might argue that life is short, there’s a sense in which life is long, too. A lot can happen in a lifetime. For some of us, it’s as though we live several different lives in one lifetime. Those of us who have been around for awhile can look back on our lives and see how God has led us in directions we never could have expected or even understood during our early adult years. God doesn’t require that we memorize the map to the long and winding road we are to travel. God knows the way, and He will see us through to the finish, because His plans never fail.
While the Bible never requires us as individuals to inquire of God about personal direction like the leaders of Israel had to, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Why not check with God first before making any important decision? (Decisions over insignificant things like what to eat for breakfast and what to wear should not be brought before God, because Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.”) If God chooses to reveal direction to us, whether it comes by an angel, vision, burning bush, or a set of circumstances that make our decision easier, then we experience God’s involvement in our lives. If God remains silent, don’t worry; just make sure that your decision aligns with God’s general will that’s revealed throughout the Bible.
When seeking God’s will, we must place His general will for all Christians ahead of His specific plan for our lives. Imagine taking a class in school that’s crucial to your career. Throughout the semester, you fail to do your assignments, perform poorly on tests, and fail to participate in class. Toward the end of the semester, the professor informs the class that he has a special opportunity for a student to work on a project with a professional who is established and well-connected in your field of study. You enthusiastically volunteer in hopes of being catapulted into a successful career. Should the professor choose you—the one who failed to do what was required of everybody? The professor will most certainly not choose you. He will choose someone who has excelled at fulfilling the basic requirements.
This is not to say that God isn’t free to choose an underachiever for a special task. God may do whatever He wants. Nonetheless, our focus is to be on the primary assignment that all Christians must complete: knowing God’s will and adhering to it as commanded in the Bible. God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures is necessary “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work [2 Timothy 3:16-17].” Without these essentials, we are unequipped to carry out God’s will for our personal lives. So if you’re worried about missing out on a wonderful journey planned by God, then get to work on knowing and doing God’s will as revealed in the Bible.
Don’t just study the New Testament, either. Keep in mind that Paul spoke of the Old Testament Scriptures when he wrote verses 16 and 17 to first century Christians (the New Testament had not yet come together at this time). We may not overlook the Old Testament. Contrary to popular Christian belief, the New Testament is a supplement to the Old Testament, not a replacement for it. We can’t ignore it because Paul failed to re-write it in the Epistles and because Jesus failed to recite it in the Gospels. Both of them chose not to reiterate it, because early Christians understood the importance of the Old Testament law and knew it well.

Why doesn’t God expect us to figure out His plan for our entire lives? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that we would let our misconceptions about what God’s plans might look like interfere with seeing God’s plans clearly. For example, we live in a romantic age. I’m not talking about dating and marriage; I’m talking about literary romanticism. Most of us have big dreams of getting out there and living a spectacular fairy tale life, like we would see in a movie packed with inspiring heroism and narrow escapes.
While we are certain to have some powerful experiences in carrying out God’s plans, the plans He has for us are often not grand from our point of view. A Christian might imagine that God will want him to become a famous Christian rock star, when God’s true plan for him may be to befriend a person who’s unpopular and down on his luck. God may then want him to be a good representative of Christ in the workplace, so that a co-worker will be open to becoming a Christian when the timing is right, years down the road. Later in life, we may look back on these experiences and know God’s power through them, even though they were never experiences we would have foreseen as wonderful.
Not only do we over-romanticize God’s plans, we tend to limit them to what we deem to be important. For example, in America, we are very career focused, because we have a historically high number of career choices available to us. Throughout history, however, peoples’ options were limited. Most people had little choice but to do what their parents did. God still worked great plans for those peoples’ lives, even though their careers had little to do with their duties to God. Today, in trying to figure out God’s plans for our lives, we tend to focus too much on careers and not enough on the little opportunities around us that just might make all the difference in light of eternity.

The final reason that we’re not required to foreknow God’s plans for our entire lives is that we simply can’t see the all of the long and winding road that lies before us from where we stand. Take this website for example. Could I have known back in 1990, at Belmont University, when trying to determine God’s plan for my life, that God wanted me to someday minister to people through a website? Websites didn’t exist in 1990! Neither were my talents and passions in writing. They were in music. I loved music, wanted to commit my life to it, and had developed some talent (although not much) around it. Meanwhile, I dreaded writing, wasn’t very good at it, and considered English to be my least favorite subject. Also, I was a semester away from experiencing word processing for the first time. Would I have looked forward to writing so extensively using nothing but a typewriter, where if I wanted to change something, I would have had to type the page all over again? Christian writing was the furthest thing from my mind. Yet God ultimately led me down an unforeseeable, yet amazing, path to doing just that.
While we are called to use our talents to serve God, we must take care not to limit ourselves to our talents. I once met a woman who told me that God’s call for her was the Christian music business (I heard that one a lot in Nashville), and that she refused to do anything else but that. She complained to me how her former pastor had encouraged her to teach Sunday school, and she replied to him that doing so was not her calling, only the music business was. She may have been right in that Sunday school was not the appropriate ministry for her. Nonetheless, I sensed a reluctance to remain open to where God would lead her.
Not to be self-focused, but as I look at my journey (it’s the one I know best, since I have been present for the whole thing), I realize that I never would have expected my sales career to figure into ministry plans, because I initially lacked natural talent in sales; I was terrible at it. But that’s exactly why God placed me there. My people skills were pathetic. Only out of a need to survive did I improve them over many years of working in sales.
In the corporate sales world, I faced a lot of temptation to deceive potential customers. It was the norm for sales reps and their employers to do so. This experience proved invaluable when I wrote my study on Greed & Oppression of the Poor on the Essentials page. A pastor who majors in religion, goes straight to seminary, and then goes straight into the ministry, could never relay the same message, because he has never experienced the harsh realities of the corporate sales world like I did.
When trying to determine God’s plan for my life in 1990, it was inconceivable to me that God would use things I did poorly, like writing and sales, to train me for it. I could only imagine back then that He would use my passion for music in His plan, because the music business was where I envisioned my future at the time.

Seeing the long and winding road in God’s plan from the present all the way to the end of our lives is nearly impossible. That’s why God never requires us to see it. He only requires that we learn His will as revealed in the Bible, and that we seek His guidance on the decisions we must make in the immediate future. We need not worry about the more distant future, however, because God’s plans never fail.

Christian Freedom (Bible Study) – Part 1

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophecy of you saying,
This people honors me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Matthew 15:7-9)

These were the words of Jesus as He responded to the Pharisees, a sect of elite religious leaders in His day. They had just accused Him and His disciples of sinning by not washing their hands before eating. Knowing that the Scriptures (which we now call the Old Testament) promoted no such rule, Jesus used the last line of this quote to accuse the Pharisees of favoring man-made religious rules over the laws of God recorded in the Scriptures.
Jesus’ accusation would have been of little significance had the Pharisees taken the Scriptures lightly. Had that been the case, the Pharisees might have responded by saying that the Scriptures were of little importance, because God spoke directly through their leaders. In reality, however, the Pharisees were obsessed with the Scriptures. They believed them to be the authoritative word of God, and they claimed total adherence to them. When Jesus alerted the Pharisees to their hypocrisy of favoring man-made religious rules over the Scriptures they cherished, they were furious.

The Origin of Man-Made Religious Rules
As we look back upon this encounter, we wonder how the Pharisees could have opposed God’s will despite their love for the Scriptures. Most of us think that the Pharisees were just a bunch of silly Jews, hell-bent on evil, feeling nothing but hatred for God. And we think that if we had been in Judea during the time of Jesus’ ministry, we would have been nothing like the Pharisees and forsaken their man-made rules in favor of Jesus’ truth.
Before we write off the Pharisees as a group of people with which we have nothing in common, let’s take a closer look at their situation. First, let’s examine how the man-made sin of eating with unwashed hands originated.
Did one Pharisee say to the other, “Hey, let’s do something evil that will make God angry?”
And then the other Pharisee replied, “I got an idea. Let’s create a rule requiring the washing of hands before eating and tell people that they sin against God by not following it. That will really make God mad!”
It’s unlikely that this rule was created with these intentions. These man-made rules came about in an entirely different manner.
The belief that it was a sin to eat with unwashed hands (as well as other man-made beliefs) had developed between the time of the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.) and the time of Jesus (4-6 B.C. – A.D. 29).
Prior to the Babylonian exile, God had trouble keeping the horses in the barn, as the Israelites continually ran away from Him to pursue other gods—a direct violation of the First Commandment, which prohibited the worship of any god other than God himself. God then used the Babylonians to discipline the Jews by conquering their land (then called Judah) and sending them into exile for approximately 70 years. After the 70 years were completed, God had Cyrus, king of Persia, conquer Babylon and return the Jews to their homeland.
The Jews learned their lesson. Over time, groups like the Pharisees formed and determined that they would do everything within their power to keep God’s anger from crushing Judah (called Judea in Jesus’ day) again. The Pharisees hated sin and hoped to eliminate it. They not only opposed sinful behavior, but they ultimately developed new rules to keep people from coming anywhere close to it.
One of the sins they sought to avoid was that of eating unclean animals. God had declared through the law given by Moses (approx. 1400-1500 B.C.) that certain circumstances made people unclean for religious ceremonies and that certain animals were unclean and could not be eaten. Since the Pharisees wanted to play it safe and keep people as far away from committing this sin as possible, they created a rule requiring the washing of hands before eating.
The Pharisees were aware of the possibility that a person’s hands might touch an object, such as a piece of wood, that an unclean animal might have brushed against at an earlier time, leaving dead skin, hair, blood, etc. on it; and through the touching of the object, these elements might attach to the person’s hand. While eating, these elements then passed from hand to food to mouth, so that upon consumption of the food, elements from an unclean animal would be ingested, thus breaking God’s law prohibiting the eating of unclean animals. By washing hands before eating, the possibility of unintentionally ingesting unclean animal residue that resided on one’s fingertips was eliminated, and the breaking of God’s law avoided.
The Pharisees wanted to absolutely eliminate any possibility of even the most insignificant sin being committed. They were just like many modern-day devout Christians—totally committed to the avoidance of doing anything that might offend God.
I’m sure the Pharisees, who were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, had expected to receive a congratulatory pat on the back from Him for extending the law to ensure that God’s people came nowhere near committing sin. After all, God is always in favor of more rules, right? The more we can’t do, the happier He is!
Wrong.
Jesus informed the Pharisees that they were acting in opposition to God’s will when they preached that eating with unwashed hands was a sin. In fact, Jesus and His disciples openly and publicly broke this man-made religious rule. This wasn’t the only man-made doctrine that Jesus publicly violated. Jesus healed on the Sabbath day—a day in which doing any significant amount of work was forbidden (Mark 3:1-6). He picked grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath day (Mark 2:23-28). He drank wine and was accused of being a drunkard for it (Luke 7:34). He and His disciples did not fast during His ministry (Matthew 9:14-15); so the Pharisees, who fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), accused Jesus of being a glutton for not fasting, and possibly for attending feasts (Luke 7:34). And Jesus ate with people who were known to be sinful, in a society where eating with someone was a sign of friendship and where the righteous were not to befriend the sinful (Luke 15:1-7). The Pharisees opposed Jesus in all these things, because He violated their man-made religious rules.
There’s no doubt about it—Jesus hated man-made religious rules. He went out of His way to challenge them. He wanted us to be free of unnecessary religious restrictions. He even said of the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them [Matthew 23:4].” These heavy loads of which Jesus spoke were not physically heavy. It was not as if the Pharisees ran construction crews and made people carry large loads of bricks. Jesus was speaking of the spiritual burden imposed by the Pharisees: so many unbearable rules that even the Pharisees themselves could not adhere to them. That’s one of the reasons Jesus called them hypocrites.

God’s opposition to the burden of man-made rules
Why would God, whom Jesus represented when He spoke, want to limit the number of rules we have to follow? Why is God so offended when we add more rules to His rules? Matthew 23:13-14 gives us the answer: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (NRSV)
How could it be that these Pharisees, who tried to keep everyone from doing anything that might have led to sin, were actually keeping people out of the kingdom of heaven?
Is it because they told people to follow the laws that God gave through Moses? No, these laws were required by God.
Is it because the Pharisees taught legalism (some Protestants define legalism as trying to earn one’s own salvation by doing the works of the law rather than by placing faith in Christ)? No, legalism was the only option at the time, because Jesus had not yet made His sacrifice on the cross when He made this statement.
Here’s how the Pharisees locked people out of heaven: the Pharisees’ numerous man-made rules created such a burden on the worshipers of God that they drove God’s people away from Him and distracted them from performing His will.
That’s a thought we Christians rarely have today. It’s worth repeating: man-made religious rules drive us away from God and distract us from doing His will.
How do they drive us away from God? By making the Christian life unrealistically difficult. Christianity is tough enough to follow as it is. Biblical rules are hard to obey, because we must control our selfish desires so as not to harm others. How many people fail to follow Christ because the man-made rules added to Christianity make the Christian life twice as difficult as it has to be? I’ve known numerous people who have refused to even consider becoming a Christian because of a non-biblical rule or belief that they thought they would have to adhere to if they converted.
How many others follow Christ, but leave the Church after collapsing under the weight of man-made rules imposed by Christian leaders? I’ve known Christians to leave due to their church’s restraints on who they could associate with, or what kind of music they could listen to, or where they could go on Friday night, etc.
How do man-made religious rules distract us from doing God’s will? They divert our mental and physical energy away from it. Every minute that a preacher spends proclaiming a non-biblical rule is a minute that could be used to proclaim the will of God. Every ounce of effort devoted to obeying man-made religious rules is an ounce of effort that could be devoted to serving the will of God. Christians who focus on these non-biblical rules think they are doing right before God when, in reality, they have no idea how far from God’s will their behavior really is.
Many Christians are distracted from doing God’s will, because they’ve been driven into deep spiritual depression. I know this from my own experiences.
Why was I so depressed?
Because, I felt enormous guilt for not being able to live up to the standards of the church.
What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that those rules that oppressed my soul were man-made! I would have loved and served God, rather than resenting and turning away from Him, if only I had known the freedom that God intended for me.
When we add man-made rules to God’s rules and promote those rules as God’s law, we imitate the Pharisees. We, too, become guilty of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven. We keep people from ever considering the faith, drive out those who attend our churches; and for those who stay in the church, we minimize their effectiveness by distracting them from the biblical will of God.

The Greatest Commandment
What is the biblical will of God? To provide a thorough answer to this question, I’d have to quote every law and instruction in the Bible, and that would take up quite a bit of space. Fortunately, Jesus summed it up in Matthew 22:34-40: “But when the Pharisees heard that He [Jesus] had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole law and the Prophets.’”
The first commandment, to love God with all your heart, is fairly simple to apply to daily life. It requires few actions, but does require us to be fully committed to Him and only Him―to love Him, adore Him, admire Him, etc. The actions resulting from our love for God are worship, prayer, and taking time to appreciate all that He has done for us and has done in the universe.
The second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, is where most of the rules come into play. (Notice that Jesus volunteered this commandment, even though the lawyer had not asked Him for the two greatest commandments. Jesus did this because it’s every bit as important as the first one).God created a human race that He loves. He hates it when we cause each other to suffer. That’s why Jesus says, in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me,” and in verse 45, He says, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” When we love others, we love God; when we hurt others, we offend God.
God originally desired for us a society of love and happiness. If all people obeyed every biblical law perfectly, we would never suffer from the actions of others, and life would be great. Even God’s sex and marriage laws exist for the purpose of protecting others from the harmful effects of our selfishness. If all people obeyed them perfectly, none of us would contract sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers wouldn’t struggle to raise their children by themselves, men wouldn’t be forced to pay child support for kids they rarely get to see, and children wouldn’t grow up lacking family support. Many life-ruining events result from our disobedience to God’s sex and marriage laws, and God wishes to spare us from these painful experiences. Contrary to what some Christians have said, God didn’t create AIDS to punish homosexuals; He prohibited homosexual sex so that nobody would get AIDS!
The most remarkable verse of Jesus’ quote is the last one, “On these two commandments depend the whole law and the Prophets.” Jesus meant that all the rules in the Bible, from the Old Testament law, to the sayings of the prophets, to the quotes from Jesus, to the letters of the Apostles, exist solely for the purpose of protecting our fellow humans from any harm that we might bring their way, or exist for the purpose of loving God. Jesus omits the third option here: that God makes pointless rules because He’s a picky, demanding, selfish god who doesn’t care how much we have to suffer to make Him happy.
Every rule from God serves a practical purpose. We are not required to follow pointless, oppressive rules as a means of proving to God that we are worthy of His forgiveness. The people of the Old Testament had to do that, as they were required to follow numerous ritualistic rules in order to atone for sins. These rules were often tedious, but they were necessary in earning forgiveness from God. Fortunately for us, atonement rituals are unnecessary, since Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross atones for our sins if we believe in Him. Therefore, every rule from God exists so that we may love Him and love others as we love ourselves.
The Greatest Commandment is not an isolated verse like those that often lead us astray when taken out of biblical context. It appears eight times in the Bible. Here are the remaining seven:

Mark 12:28-31, “And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘What commandment is the foremost of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
Context: The scribe responds by agreeing with Jesus and stating that loving God and others is far greater than observing such routines as offering sacrifices. We cannot be certain whether this discussion is the same one recorded in Matthew 22.

Luke 10:25-29, “And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered and said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Context: This quote is sandwiched between the story of Jesus sending out 70 people to spread the Gospel and the parable of the Good Samaritan. It appears to describe a third instance in which Jesus emphasizes the Greatest Commandment.
Analysis: Jesus ties the Greatest Commandment to salvation, because it represents the core of the Christian life. If we fail to love God and others, we are probably not saved.

Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate your fellow countrymen in your heart; you shall surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people. But you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”
Context: These verses are included in a listing of miscellaneous laws.
Analysis: This is the Bible’s original “love your neighbor” verse. Notice that the first line addresses hatred in one’s heart and that these verses do not promote tedious rules as a way of loving others.

Matthew 7:12, “Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the law and the Prophets.”
Context: This quote is from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It follows His statement that God will give good things to those who ask Him.
Analysis: Here Jesus encourages us to imagine ourselves in the place of others. When we do so, we place the interests of others on the same level as our own, and thus love our neighbors as ourselves.

Romans 13:8, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.”
Context: The verses leading up to these address obedience to the government, and the verses that follow create a sense of urgency for the Roman believers.
Analysis: Jesus’ claim that the law and the prophets were summed up in loving God and others was no misprint or misinterpretation. In these verses, the Apostle Paul supports the same concept. The Apostles never indicate that the law exists for any other purpose or for no purpose at all.

Galatians 5:13-15, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.”
Context: In this chapter, Paul addresses the issue of circumcision as well as the quarreling among the church members over it.
Analysis: Paul probably omitted the purpose of loving God here, because so few laws specifically address it.
Almost all laws address our relationships with each other. Paul made it clear to the Galatians that the laws exist for the primary purpose of loving others. In other words, the “whole law”—every law—exists for one another’s benefit.
Knowing that the entire law is to make us love our neighbors as ourselves, we can conclude that this law is created for our well-being, not for God’s. So the principle that Jesus applies to the Sabbath when He says, “…The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath [Mark 2:27-28],” applies to the entire law. When Jesus said this, He was correcting the Pharisees’ erroneous belief that the purpose of the Sabbath was to make us sacrifice our freedom to please God.
Jesus lends further support to this theology in Matthew 12:7-8, when He says to the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice.…’” Again, God wasn’t looking for us to “sacrifice” our enjoyment, freedom, etc. by observing strict Sabbath rules. Rather, He created the Sabbath out of His “compassion” for us.
This can be said of all of God’s law. God takes no pleasure in limiting our activities. He takes offense, however, when we hurt each other. Obedience to the law benefits God in that He is pleased when we forsake selfish desires in order to ease or prevent the suffering of others.
There’s a reason that Jesus refers to God as our “Father.” Just like any caring parent, He wants His children to treat each other well and to have a loving relationship with Him. The purpose of the law is really that simple.

James 2:8, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.”
Context: James warns Christians against favoring the rich over the poor.
Analysis: James lends addition biblical support to the Greatest Commandment. But like Paul, he does not mention loving “God with all of your heart” since nearly all laws address our relationships with others.

Having to worry about nothing more than loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are now free from the burdens and distractions of man-made religious laws, thanks to Jesus. As we encounter man-made rules throughout this website, ask yourself how they result in better loving our neighbors. I assure you that you will not find one man-made Christian rule, practice, or belief that is designed to love or protect other people. Man-made rules serve no other purpose than to distract us from God’s will and drive us away from Him completely.

Christian Freedom (Bible Study) – Part 2

[To read this study in its entirety, please go to the Bible Studies page on this website and download the PDF.]
Freedom in Christ
We often hear Christians use the phrase freedom in Christ, but not to speak of the freedoms we have examined thus far: the freedom from having to obey man-made laws and the freedom from the ill effects of each other’s sins. Instead, they refer to either freedom from sin or freedom from the law. That’s because the word freedom is most often used in the New Testament to describe these aspects of the Christian life. Using the Every-Verse Method, let’s examine the concept of freedom (sometimes translated as “liberty”) in Christ as it occurs throughout the New Testament.

Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my load is light.”
Context: This quote appears to be unrelated to the preceding passage directed toward unrepentant cities or to the Sabbath day issues which follow.
Analysis: Just as the burdens imposed by the Pharisees were not physical but spiritual, the rest which Jesus promises is spiritual as well. He is not offering freedom from manual labor, nor is He promising rest in heaven. His easy yoke is one which is free of man-made religious rules.

Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden.”
Context: Jesus opens a speech in a synagogue with a quote from Isaiah, the prophet, and uses this verse to speak of Himself as He says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Analysis: “To set free those who are downtrodden” cannot refer to monetary oppression or slavery, since Jesus’ ministry was not an economic one. When an economically impoverished person becomes a Christian, their poverty does not disappear. The freedom here has to be spiritual.

John 8:31-36, “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. If, therefore, the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.’”
Context: Jesus addresses Jews who had not believed Him and who questioned how He could make them free when they had never been slaves.
Analysis: This is the first Bible verse in which Jesus speaks of freedom from sin. God’s rules are not only for the sake of those we may hurt, but some are for our own good, as well. We all know the destructive power of addictions, but other sins, like pride, vengeance, and overall selfishness also diminish our freedom. In Christ, we are free from being controlled by sin, because we are now controlled by the Holy Spirit, who we receive as believers in Jesus.

Acts 15:28-29, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourself free from these things, you will do well.”
Context: As the Apostles meet at the Council of Jerusalem, they decide to avoid laying unnecessary burdens upon the Gentile (non-Jewish) converts. The greatest of these is circumcision, which had been required for the Jews since the days of Abraham.
Analysis: Here the Holy Spirit frees the Gentile converts from pointless man-made rules, and He even frees them from having to be circumcised, as the Old Testament required. The only acts forbidden in this quote were the worship service rituals of the Greco-Roman religion from which the Gentile believers had converted. The Gentile Christians were given this freedom for the sake of growing the church. Had circumcision been required, Christianity may not have spread as successfully as it did throughout the Roman Empire.

Romans 6:7, “…for he who has died is free from sin.”
Romans 6:18, “And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
Romans 6:22, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”
Context: The Apostle Paul describes how Christians are to die to sin and live for Christ.
Analysis: A few verses later, in verse 14, Paul summarizes by stating, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” Sin is not to control us. God is.

Romans 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
Context: The Apostle Paul explains the difference between being under the law and under control of the flesh, versus living life through the Holy Spirit and through the grace of Christ.
Analysis: This is the first Bible verse that speaks of freedom from the law. We are free from having to live up to the impossible standards of the Old Testament law, which no person can perfectly obey. Therefore, we are justified by believing in Jesus rather than by earning points before God through obedience to the law.

1 Corinthians 8:9, “But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Context: Paul addresses a church controversy regarding the eating of meat that had been offered in sacrificial ceremonies to Roman or Greek gods.
Analysis: This verse implies that Paul (and perhaps other Apostles) had been preaching a message of freedom from man-made rules. This freedom was apparently extended to defy the command in Acts 15:28-29 (see above) to abstain from meat that had been sacrificed to idols. A problem resulted, which I will explore in the Alcohol study.

1 Corinthians 10:28-30, “But if anyone should say to you, ‘This meat is sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s, for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?”
Context: Once again, Paul discusses meat offered to idols.
Analysis: Apparently, some Christians were slandering others who ate meat that had been offered to idols. Paul argues that nobody has the right to pass judgment on another person’s freedom.

2 Corinthians 3:15-17, “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Context: Paul again compares the letter of the law given through Moses in the Old Testament to the grace of the new covenant given through Jesus Christ.
Analysis: The liberty to which Paul refers is our freedom from having to live or die by the letter of the Mosaic Law, now that we are covered by Christ’s sacrifice and the grace that goes with it.

Galatians 2:4, “But it was because of the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.”
Context: Paul describes his involvement in the council at Jerusalem in which the Apostles decided that Gentile (non-Jewish) converts could remain uncircumcised upon becoming Christians.
Analysis: The liberty to which Paul refers is the freedom from the ritual of circumcision that had subjected the Jews to the letter of the Old Testament law. Under Christ, this ritual no longer needed to be followed, because Jesus brought about a new covenant, the sign of which was baptism rather than circumcision.

Galatians 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”
Context: Paul continues to address the circumcision issue.
Analysis: Paul promotes freedom as a central theme in Christianity. It’s one of the main reasons Christ came to earth. According to this verse, Christ not only set us free, but He came to earth with the intent to do so. He set us free for no other reason than that God desires to us to be free. Thanks to this freedom, we no longer need to obsess over every little possibility that we might sin. The Old Testament law still applies to us (“How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Romans 6:2), but we no longer have to be perfect in it to be saved from God’s wrath on Judgment Day. The Jews, who were under the burden of the Old Testament law, had to worry over such things. That’s why the Pharisees added so many man-made rules to God’s law. But we are free from the bondage of the man-made rules, thanks to Jesus.

James 1:25, “But the one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become an effectual hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.”
Context: James calls Christians to perform God’s will and not merely listen to good preaching.
Analysis: The “perfect law, the law of liberty” is consistent with Paul’s theology of being free from the law through Christ.

Hebrews 2:14-15, “Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver [‘free’ in the NRSV] those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all of their lives.”
Context: The writer explains how Jesus was rendered lower than angels by coming to earth and then became our high priest, “to make propitiation for the sins of the people [verse 17].”
Analysis: What does it mean to be “subject to slavery” due to “fear of death?” Since everybody on earth dies sooner or later, this verse cannot address death on earth. It can only address eternal death. How are we then “subject to slavery” by fearing eternal death? We are enslaved by barely being able to move without chancing sin. James 2:10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” And we know from Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.” So if committing one sin leads to eternal death, then anyone aspiring to eternal life must be paralyzed with fear, knowing that they can’t screw up even once. But thanks to Jesus bearing that punishment for us through His death on the cross, our sins no longer bring about eternal death if we believe in Him. Since that is the case, we no longer have to fear sin and no longer have to follow man-made rules designed to keep us from sin.

1 Peter 2:16, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”
Context: Peter urges Christians to submit to the authority of the government and to others who hold earthly authority over them.
Analysis: Even though Christians are free from man-made religious rules, they are still to obey the government and other earthly authority in order to set a good example.