Will Jesus’ return be an event that no one sees? Maybe not! – Matthew 24 and Luke 21

Jesus discourse about the end times – A Tale of Two Questions – Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28

Why I think Jesus returns only once and when He does that everyone sees Him.

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible)

I’ve always been intrigued by the various views regarding the end times. At one point I held to the one that Christians will someday be whisked into the sky during an event called the Rapture and that what follows will be a seven-year period of tribulation for those left behind. But over the years as I’ve studied what Scripture actually has to say about the end times, I’ve concluded that Christians will for the most part not be spared from the troubles the Bible says will characterize the end times and that will occur before Jesus returns. I also believe that Jesus will return only once, that when He does that it will be visible to everyone, and that what follows will result in immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared.

I will not be able to explain in one article how I came to this conclusion. What I intend to do in this and subsequent ones is to note some of the passages that affected my viewpoint regarding the end times and how I understand them now. I am going to begin with Jesus’ discourse regarding the end times in Matthew 24:1-30 and its parallel account in Luke 21:5-28.

Where it took place and what Jesus’ disciples wanted to know

Among the first things one should note when discussing Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 is are the event recorded took place and what concerns Jesus’ disciples may have had at that time.

Here’s is what Matthew wrote about this:

1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:1-3) 

Here is what Luke wrote:

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” (Luke 21:5-7) 

Jesus was apparently with His disciples either near the temple in Jerusalem or on the Mount of Olives overlooking it when this event took place. As they gazed upon the temple, Jesus said that at some point not one stone of the temple would be left on another; at some time in the future, the walls of the temple would be torn down.

The disciples then asked two questions. According to Matthew the first was, “When will this happen?” and the second, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” According to Luke the first was, “When will these things happen?” and the second, “What will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

How these two questions are understood greatly affects how the passages are interpreted. The mistake I believe many make in this respect is to combine the two into one and to conclude that they are referring to the same event – to conclude that the only thing the disciples were concerned about at that time was Jesus’ return and what would happen prior to it and the end times.

It’s my opinion that the disciples’ questions were in regards to two separate and distinct events. Jesus had just informed them that the temple walls would one day be torn down. One thing His disciples wanted to know was when this, the destruction of the temple, was going to take place and what would be the signs that it was about to occur. But they also had some concerns about the end times and wanted to know what signs would precede it and Jesus’ return.

It seems to me that what follows in both accounts is Jesus’ answers to these two questions: the first, when was the temple going to be destroyed and the second, the signs that would precede His return. In order to understand Jesus’ answers to these two questions, one must first determine which portions of His response were directed towards each one.

The chronology of the events prophesied 

What makes understanding of Jesus’ response to the two questions challenging is that Matthew and Luke do not provide His answers in the same order. Here’s is Matthew’s version:

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. 

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. (Matthew 24:4-21) 

This is the order of events in Matthew’s account:

  • There will be a day when many will come who claim to be the Messiah.
  • There will be wars, famines, and earthquakes.
  • Those who follow Jesus will be persecuted. Some will deny Him.
  • Those who stand firm to the end will be saved.
  • The Gospel will be preached to all the nations. Then the end will come.
  • An abomination will occur that fulfills a prophecy in Daniel regarding the destruction of the temple.
  • When this occurs, those in Judea should flee to the mountains, for what follows will be dreadful.

Here is Luke’s version:

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”  

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life. 

20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:8-24)

This is Luke’s order of events:

  • There will come a day when many will claim to be Jesus or that the end is near.
  • There will be wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences. These are not the signs of the end.
  • Before this, they (Jesus’ disciples) would be persecuted, imprisoned, and brought before kings and governors.
  • This would result in opportunities for them to testify about Jesus.
  • They would be betrayed and the world would hate them because of Jesus.
  • If they stood firm to the end, they would be saved.
  • When they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies, they would know that its desolation is near.
  • When they witnessed this, they should flee to the mountains, for what followed would be dreadful.
  • Many would fall by the sword. Others would be taken prisoner.
  • Jerusalem would remain trampled until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled.

One important difference in the two accounts is Luke’s insertion of the phrase “Before this” after mentioning the proliferation of false messiahs, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, wars, and other fearful events. It seems to me that Jesus was telling His disciples in Luke 21:12-24 what was going to happen to them before the terrible events in Luke 21:8-11 occurred. 

What actually happened  

What’s interesting is that nearly everything Jesus said would happen to His disciples in Luke 12:12-17 actually occurred in the lifetime of some of those listening to Him as well as to some of them personally. The book of Acts records this. Here are some examples:

  • Some were seized (vs. 12) – (Peter: Acts 12:3; Paul and Silas: Acts 16:19)
  • Some were persecuted (vs. 12) – (The apostles: Acts 5:17-42; believers in Jerusalem: Acts 8:1)
  • Some were put in prison (vs. 12) – (Peter: Acts 12:4; Paul: Acts 21:33)
  • Some had the opportunity to speak to kings and governors about Jesus (vs. 12) – (Paul: Acts 24:24, 26:1)
  • Some were killed (vs. 16) – (Stephen: Acts 7:54-60; James: Acts 12:3)
  • Some were hated because of their testimony regarding Jesus (vs. 17) – (Stephen: Acts 7; Paul: Acts 19:23-41)

I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke noted what Jesus said regarding what was going to happen to some of those listening to Him. Since he wrote the book of Acts and as well as the gospel that bears his name, it may have been his intent to show in his accounts in Acts of the apostles’ evangelistic endeavors how their efforts  fulfilled the prophecies he recorded in Luke 21 regarding what lay ahead of them. If this is true, then these prophecies have already been fulfilled.

I believe that the prophecies recorded in Luke 21:20-24 regarding the destruction of the temple have been fulfilled as well, perhaps in 70 A.D., in the middle of a seven-year period beginning in 66 A.D. and ending in 73 A.D. Here is a short chronology of that period:

  • 66 A.D. – Some Jews in Judea staged a revolt against the Romans.
  • 67 A.D. – Roman armies commanded by Vespasian invaded Galilee.
  • 70 A.D. – Roman armies under Titus besieged Jerusalem. The siege lasted 7 months.
  • 70 A.D. – 960 Jews took refuge on Masada, a mountain south of the Dead Sea
  • 70 A.D. – The Romans entered the temple, desecrated its holy spots, and raised a banner at the corner of it.
  • 70 A.D. – Jerusalem was destroyed. The walls of the temple were torn down and rest burned.
  • 72 A.D. – The Romans began building a siege ramp at Masada so they could breach its walls.
  • 73 A.D. – The Romans broke into Masada and found that most the Jews had chosen death over captivity.

Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, described in his writings the extent of suffering those living in Jerusalem experienced during its 7-month siege. He noted that because there was no food that some resorted to eating belts and shoes and other things that even animals wouldn’t consume. He mentioned one woman who was so hungry that she killed and ate her own child. Josephus claimed that 1.1 million died during the siege, mostly Jews, mostly through starvation, and that nearly 100,000 were taken into captivity. Some of those living in those days seemed to have heeded Jesus advice to flee to the mountains when they saw the Roman armies outside the walls of Jerusalem.

It should be noted that Jerusalem has remained in the hands of Gentiles either wholly or in part since its destruction in 70 A.D. This could be a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the city would be trampled by the Gentiles until their time comes to an end (Luke 21:24).

The Link between Matthew 24 and Daniel 9 

Matthew noted in these verses Jesus’ statement that the destruction of the temple would be a fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy regarding its demise:

14 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 15 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:14-15). 

This is the prophecy I believe Jesus was referring to when He said this:

24 “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. 

25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” (Daniel 9:24-27). 

The above passage in Daniel is often cited by those who believe that there is one remaining week of years in the “seventy-sevens” of years that are yet to be fulfilled –  a seven-year period of tribulation preceded by the Rapture of the Church. But if the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. fulfills Jesus’ prophecy regarding its demise, then it fulfills as well the prophecy in Daniel 9 regarding its destruction. If this is so, then no seven-year period in the “seventy-sevens” of years remains to be fulfilled.

I hope to be able to discuss some of the implications of this understanding of Daniel 9 in another article.

What comes after the destruction of the temple

It seems to me that all the events that Luke indicated were to happen before the terrible events recorded in Luke 21:8-11 have already taken place including the destruction of the temple. But there are some things that I believe both Matthew and Luke indicate will happen after the events Luke noted are “before this.” Here is Matthew’s account of these.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. 

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’” (Matthew 24:22-29) 

Here is Luke’s account:

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Luke 21:25-26)

One of the challenges in comparing these two passages is understanding how they relate to what precedes them. It seems to me that Luke 21:25-26 was meant to follow Luke 21:8-11 chronologically. After inserting a statement recorded in Luke 21:12-24 about what would occur in the disciples’ immediate future including what was going to happen to the temple, it seems to me that Luke returned to the question of what the signs of the end and of the return of Jesus would be, noting that there would be indications in the heavens and on earth that the very structure of nature was falling apart, signs that would terrify those living in those days.

Understanding the sequence of events in Matthew 24 is a bit more challenging and is hindered by how various translations combine the verses into paragraphs. I believe that Matthew 24:22 should be combined with Matthew 24:15-21 and that what Jesus was saying that if the days when the city and temple were being destroyed weren’t shortened that no one would have survived. Matthew 24:23 then returns to what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 24:4-14, the signs of His imminent return, noting the rise of false messiahs (which Luke recorded earlier in his account) and the terror caused by the increasing amount of turmoil in the heavens.

It may seem when considering this that Luke and Matthew were recording different chronologies of the same events. But it seems to me that both accounts start and end with the events that will precede Jesus’ return and then insert in between these prophecies regarding what was going to happen in the near future of those listening to Him and how they should respond when those events occurred.

Jesus returns only once. And its visible to everyone.

Jesus concluded by describing what was going to happen when He does return. Here is the beginning of what Matthew had to say about this:

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (Matthew 24:30). 

Here’s is what Luke began his account of this with:

27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:27)

Both Matthew and Luke note that when Jesus returns that He will come in a cloud and that when this happens, it will be visible to everyone. Neither writer supports the concept of a secret return where followers of Christ suddenly disappear with no understanding by those left behind of what has taken place. All people of the earth see Jesus’ return; all will mourn as a consequence of it.

One other thing worthy of note in Matthew’s account is that Jesus only returns once and that when He does, it is followed by immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared. The remaining verses in Matthew 24 and the parables in Matthew 25 provide some insights regarding what that something is and what the consequences to those unprepared will be. What those consequences are may be one of the causes of the mourning noted in Matthew 24:30.

I’ll discuss that topic when I address the remaining verses in Matthew 24 and the parables in Matthew 25 in another article.

Summary

I believe that Jesus was addressing two questions in Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28. The first was, “When will the temple be destroyed and what will be the signs that it is about to occur?” The second was, “What will be the signs that the end is near and that your return is imminent?”

I believe that Jesus’ answers to these two questions is best understood by comparing Matthew 24 with its parallel account in Luke 21.

I believe that Jesus’ answer to the first question was that the destruction of the temple would be preceded by Jerusalem being surrounded by an army and that when His followers saw this happening that they should flee to the mountains. I believe this prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.

I believe that Jesus’ response to the second question was that He would return sometime in the distant future after times of war, famine, earthquakes, and other terrible events.

I believe that Jesus was warning those listening to Him at that time that some of them would be persecuted, imprisoned, or  killed.

I believe that Jesus was saying that He will return only once and that when He does, it will visible to everyone. And, as I’ll note in a future article, His return will be followed by immediate and dire consequences for those unprepared.

That is my understanding of Matthew 24:1-30 and Luke 21:5-28 as I see it today.

School Shootings: What Would Jesus Do?

I wrote this op-ed short while ago in response to some of the recent school shootings. It was published in the Longmont, Colorado Times-Call under this title: “What would Jesus do about School Shootings?”

************************************************************************************

When facing a particularly daunting problem a number of years ago, someone suggested that I consider what Jesus would do and then do that thing. As I think about the most recent school shootings, I’m left wondering, “What would Jesus do?”

One thing for certain is that the solutions we are currently pursuing, passing more measures to restrict access to guns or putting more money into mental-health resources, will have limited effect. No rational person believes that doing these things will eliminate the problem of gun-violence entirely. Most recognize that the mayhem occurring in our schools, on our streets, and in other places in the world is a symptom of a deeper problem. There is something broken inside of us. And if we don’t do something to address that, some will respond to their brokenness with violent acts.

Jesus wants to fix what is broken inside of us. But to come into a relationship with Jesus where this is possible, we have to acknowledge our need for Him; we have to admit that we can’t fix ourselves and that we all are in need of redemption.

This message of redemption has somehow gotten lost in our current “politically correct” society. We discourage public expressions of faith in Jesus and belittle those who speak about Him; we try to silence those who contend that the moral standards established by God and documented in the Bible are both good and right; we tell those who want to pray in public that doing so is forbidden if it could offend someone else; we discount those who say that death is not the end and that an eternal world exists where there are no tears, no pain, no sorrow, and no suffering. Then we wonder why those who feel they have no hope sometimes respond by taking their life or the lives of others.

When I think of this, I’m reminded of how the writer of Psalm 121 in the Bible responded when he was facing a problem He couldn’t resolve. We don’t know what the problem was. But it was a pretty big deal. The writer didn’t throw up in arms in despair however. Instead, he turned his heart towards God and said, “I lift up my eyes to the hills — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

After Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem so that God could dwell in the midst of His people, God said that if the people abandoned Him, the consequences would not be good. God then made this promise: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)”

It seems to me that we are facing a plague of violence in our land. The locusts attacking us may not be insects in our fields but could be bullets coming from guns. What would Jesus do about this? I think He would pray for us. But I believe that He would also remind us that it’s our brokenness – our sin – that is the issue that He is the only one that can fix this.

If this is what Jesus would do, then maybe we should do the same, first by admitting our own brokenness and need for spiritual healing; second, by turning our hearts to the One who promised to save us; and third, by telling those who are hurting that they are not alone – that God does exist and through Jesus has provided a means for redemption from the things that are tearing us apart inside.

When we do what Jesus would do and what He tells us to do, then perhaps He will hear our prayers and heal our land.

The Church may not be the Bride of Christ – Revelation 19:6-9

6 “Hallelujah!” For our Lord God Almighty reigns 7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) 9 Then the angel said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’” And he added, “These are the true words of God. (Revelation 19:6-9, NIV)”

For years I’ve been told by various pastors and teachers that in the above passage, the Bride of Christ – the wife of the Lamb – is the Church. The picture they sometimes present when doing so is a wedding where Jesus, the Bridegroom, is waiting anxiously at an altar for His Bride, the Church, a bride clothed in white, walking towards her future husband. It’s been explained that this is a metaphor of how much Jesus longs for the day when the Church – all those who have made a commitment to follow Jesus – has perfect fellowship with Him, something that will occur only in the end-times when believers are unencumbered by the trials, travails, and temptations of this world.

I used to believe that this was true – that the Bride of Christ is the Church.  What caused me to question this were these verses:

2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (Revelation 21:2, NIV).

 9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:9-14, NIV)”

What struck me about these verses is how “un-church-like” they were. For the most part, they include symbols more commonly associated with the Jews – the Israelites – than with the Church. Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish nation and the city where a temple was built so that God could dwell in the midst of His chosen people; the names written on the gates of the city are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel; and though the twelve apostles whose names are written on the foundations of the wall were among the early leaders of the Church, all twelve of them were Jews, and their initial converts were almost entirely from the people of Israel. Nothing in these verses has a “Gentile” flavor to it, and nothing in them explicitly refers to the Church.

And so, who is the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb”? Is it the Church?  Or could it be someone else?

Jesus does have a Bride

The first thing to establish is that Jesus does or will have a Bride. The verses in Revelation 19:6-9 and 21:9-14 noted above support this. So does the following:

28 “You yourselves can testify that I [John the baptist] said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine and is now complete. (John 3:28-29, NIV)”

John was acknowledging in the above that though Jesus is a Bridegroom that he, John, was not His Bride but instead was a friend of the Bridegroom.

Here’s another passage that supports this:

14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him [Jesus], “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-15, NIV)”

This passage not only identifies Jesus as a Bridegroom, it also indicates that there will be others attending His wedding as well, others described as “guests of the bridegroom.” The passage then tells us who these guests are; they are or will be His disciples – those who are followers of Jesus.

But the question for us is not if Jesus will be a Bridegroom but is instead if He is, who will His Bride be?

Is the Church the Bride of Christ?

There are verses in the New Testament that suggest that the Church could be the Bride of Christ. Here is a passage that is frequently cited to support this:

 21 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.                25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:21-27, NIV).

 Here’s another:

2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough … (2 Corinthians 11:2-4, NIV)

Although these verses seem to be describing Jesus as husband and the Church as His wife, none of them explicitly state that this is so. It seems to me that Paul is simply describing in Ephesians 5:21-27 how husbands and wives should treat each other; it is not saying that the marriage of a man and woman is a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. And though Paul does use the word “husband” in 2 Corinthians 11:2 to describe what a believer’s relationship with Jesus ought to be like, his purpose in doing so was to voice his fear that some were being led astray by false teachers preaching a different Jesus or a different Gospel.

There are in fact no verses in the Bible that actually say, “The Church is the Bride of Christ.” This association comes from commentators and teachers, not from the actual words of Scripture.  It is not explicit; it is inferred. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid. It could be true even if not explicitly stated.  But it does present some problems if it is so. Consider these verses for example:

  • Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV).
  • And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV).

These verses state  that the Church is the Body of Christ. But if this is so, then how can the Church also be the Bride of Christ? It seems to me that the Church cannot be both; it is either one or the other. In this case, I lean towards the association that is explicitly stated rather than the one that is inferred.

But there is another problem with concluding that the Church is the Bride of Christ.  I noted these verses earlier:

7 “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints). (Revelation 19:7-8, NIV)”

To conclude that the Bride in this passage is the Church requires one to also conclude that believers aren’t yet ready to be received by Jesus and that something else has to be done to make the Church acceptable to Him before the wedding – that some “righteous acts” (vs. 8) are required for the Church to be made complete. But this would be in conflict with what is found in this passage:

8 For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).

If some acts of righteousness need to be performed in order for the Church to be ready to be presented to Jesus, then its relationship with Him is no longer based on faith alone. If however the Church’s relationship with Jesus is based entirely on faith but works are required to make the Bride ready for her Bridegroom, then the Bride of Christ cannot be the Church; it has to be someone else.

Could Israel be the Bride of Christ?

There is a much stronger case that the Bride of Christ is the people of Israel. Their relationship with God is compared frequently in Scripture to the one between a husband a wife. Consider these for example:

  • For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is His name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the god of all the earth (Isaiah 54:5-6, NIV).
  • “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you — one from a town and two from a clan — and bring you to Zion. (Jeremiah 3:14, NIV)”
  • No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate, but you will be called Hephzibah [which means “my delight is in her”], and your land Beulah [which means “married”]; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:4-5, NIV).
  • I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hosea 2:19-20, NIV)”
  • “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, ”when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,“ declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord., “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, NIV)”

If you look up these verses and note their context, you’ll find that they are referring in some cases to God’ past relationship with Israel and in others to His future relationship with them following a time when they have fallen away from Him. They suggest that God did have and perhaps always has had a relationship with Israel that is similar to the relationship between a husband and wife. And even though Israel frequently committed spiritual adultery by serving other gods, there is no indication in Scripture that God ever divorced the nation of Israel or its people or that He ever will. God promised that He would always remain faithful to Israel even if the people of Israel were unfaithful to Him.

God’s promise in this regards is confirmed in the following passage:

35 This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord Almighty is his name: 36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,“ declares the Lord, ”will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” 37 This is what the Lord says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,“ declares the Lord (Jeremiah 31:35-37). 

What’s interesting is that the writer of Hebrews quotes from portions of Jeremiah 31:31-34 when describing the effects of Jesus’ sacrificial death:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”17 Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” 18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:16-18, NIV). 

And so, who is at the wedding?

Based on what I’ve noted above, It seems to me that it is the people of Israel and not believers in the Church who are the Bride of Christ.  If this is so, then the celebration described in Revelation 19:6-9 could be the result of the joy Jesus and the guests at His wedding express when the people of Israel finally acknowledge Jesus as their Savior.

Where is the Church in this? If it is the not the Bride of Christ, is it at the wedding supper of the Lamb at all?  I believe that it is. But instead of the Church being the Bride of Christ, I believe based verses noted earlier that the Church is either the Friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:28-29) or one of His guests (Matthew 9:14-15).

I believe that Jesus – the Lamb at the wedding supper in Revelation 19:6-9 and the Bridegroom mentioned in other passages – is patiently waiting for the arrival the Bride promised to Him centuries ago – a Bride that has to be made ready for Him but who will someday be clothed in white, fully prepared to be received into the arms of the One who has always longed to have a relationship with her.

As I see it today, that Bride – the Bride of Christ – is the people of Israel.

(For another article  regarding on my views of Israel, check out my post titled “Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?”)

The Mark of the Beast may be an issue only for Christians – Revelation 13:11-17

11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon … 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refuse to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. (Revelation 13: 11, 15-17, NIV)

What I have to say in the following post about the Mark of the Beast is not traditional; it will be controversial; it will be disputed.  And when you get done reading what I have to say about it, you may even consider me to be a heretic. For I believe that the Mark of the Beast can have little if any effect on non-believers; I believe it is something that can only affect Christians. I also don’t believe that it’s a physical mark; I believe it is symbolic of something less tangible but much more perilous, especially for those who have put their faith in Jesus.

I hope that you will read my justification for this conclusion. For if my understanding of the Mark of the Beast is correct, it has profound implications for Christians today who are living in the midst of increasing amounts of opposition because of what they believe about Jesus.

The Traditional View – It is a Literal or Physical Mark

Over the years there has been lots of speculation regarding Revelation 13:11-17 and what the Mark of the Beast might possibly be. Many have speculated that it could be some kind of physical indication that a person has given their sole allegiance to a world power whose goal it is to supplant Christ – a literal mark that indicates that one has made a commitment to worship the antichrist for example. Some believe that it could be a microchip or some other electronic device that is embedded in a person’s arm or head to distinguish between those who are followers of this antichrist from those who are not. At some point everyone’s economic and physical welfare will be based on their allegiance to this antichrist, and their willingness to accept its mark will prove that they are loyal to him or the power he represents.

But is the Mark of the Beast meant to be understood as a literal or physical mark? Or is symbolic of something? Could it for example be a symbol of a change in the condition of a person’s heart and if so, whose heart?

A Non-Traditional View – It is Symbolic of Something

One thing that needs to be noted about Revelation 13 as well as all of the book of Revelation is its widespread use of symbolic language. For the most part, John was not being shown actual images of future events; he was seeing symbolic representations of them.

Consider for example these images recorded in Revelation 13:1-17:

  • A beast comes out of the sea. It has ten horns and seven heads (vs. 1).
  • The beast looks like a leopard but has feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion (vs 2).
  • One of its heads has a fatal wound that is healed (vs 3).
  • The dragon (Satan – vs. 12:9) is worshiped because he gave authority to the beast (vs. 4).
  • The beast is given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them (vs. 7).
  • All whose names are not written in the book of life worship the beast (vs. 8).
  • Another beast comes out of the earth. He has two horns and speaks like a dragon (vs. 11).
  • The second beast has the same authority as the first (vs. 12).
  • The second beast sets up an image to honor the first beast (vs. 14).
  • The image is given breath. Those who refuse to worship it are killed (vs. 15).
  • No-one can buy or sell unless they receive a mark on their right hand or forehead (vs. 16-17).

Most if not all of these images symbolize something.  I don’t believe for example that an actual beast will arise from the ocean that has ten horns and seven heads and that people will fall down and worship it. This image is meant to be symbolic. Perhaps it represents a world power or an individual who will rule in the last days. The same can be said regarding the second beast; it too is symbolic of something. By association, shouldn’t the Mark of the Beast be considered equally symbolic?

The issue here is being consistent in how we treat associated elements in Scripture. If we know for example that A is symbolic of something and that A and B are meant to be treated the same, then B is symbolic as well. “Beast” in the phrase “the Mark of the Beast” is typically interpreted as being symbolic of something or someone. To be consistent, shouldn’t its mark be understood the same way? Shouldn’t it be interpreted as being symbolic of something as well?  Another way to put this is if the beast in the passage is not meant to be interpreted as an actual beast, then to be consistent, its mark should not be interpreted as an actual mark.

And so, if the Mark of the Beast is not a literal or physical mark, then what is it symbolic of? And who will it affect? To get some understanding of that, we’ll turn to the book of Ezekiel.

The Mark of the Angel

1 Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring the guards of the city here, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2 And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. with them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.

3 Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” 5 As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. 6 Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.” (Ezekiel 9:1-6, NIV)

Ezekiel was given this vision during the decline of Israel’s relationship with God, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. When I stumbled across it a number of years ago, I was stunned by how it mirrored what is recorded in Revelation 13:11-17.

Ezekiel 8 gives a glimpse of how bad things were in those days. Here’s a bit of what God said about the leaders of the Israelites:

12 “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” (Ezekiel 8:12-13, NIV)

I recommend reading Ezekiel 8 and Ezekiel 9 if you want a better understanding of what was happening in those days and how God was going to respond.  Here are a few things I’d like to note:

  • The primary issue was idolatry. The Israelites were giving themselves over to idols rather than worshiping God alone.
  • God said that the result of the Israelites’ detestable behavior would be the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of their lives. Only those who grieved and lamented over the Israelites’ despicable behavior would be spared.
  • Prior to God pouring out His wrath on the Israelites and the city, He said that a “man clothed in linen” would put a mark on the forehead of all those who were to be spared.

I do not believe that the marking referenced above, one I call “the Mark of the Angel,” should be interpreted as a literal marking. I don’t believe that an angel actually walked through Jerusalem and physically marked those who had remained faithful to God; the text doesn’t compel us to understand it that way nor does history support that this is what actually took place. It seems to me that the Mark of the Angel is a symbolic representation of a separation that was going to take place – a demarcation – between those who had stayed faithful to God and those who hadn’t.

Note that the Mark of the Angel had nothing to do with those who were not Israelites. God’s dispute was not with non-Israelites. His wrath was aimed only at those among His chosen people who had decided not to remain faithful to Him.

Could it be that the Mark of the Beast is similar to the Mark of the Angel in its symbolic nature as well as in whom it affects? Before addressing that, it’s important to look at what comes both before and after Revelation 13:11-17.

An Epic Battle

Genesis 1-3 describes what things were like in the beginning.

In the beginning, God had an intimate and personal relationship with mankind. Genesis 3:8 says that God actually walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But when Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan and then sinned by eating fruit from the forbidden tree, that relationship was torn apart.

Here are some things God said would happen as a result Satan’s treachery and Adam and Eve’s disobedience:

14 “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman and your offspring and hers; he will crush you head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:1-15, NIV)

The one being cursed in verse 14 is Satan. It could be that the enmity between Satan and the woman noted in verse 15 is a prophecy that Satan and his minions would be at war from that point on with all of mankind; or it could be talking about the ongoing war that was going to take place between Satan and Jesus, the supernatural seed of women. But eventually “he”, Jesus, will decisively crush Satan even though Satan might have some limited victories in the meantime.

It’s possible that the images in Revelation 12 are providing more details on the conflict prophesied in Genesis 3:14-15. I recommend reading all of Revelation 12 so that you have a good handle on what some of these images are. Here are some things I’d like to note about them:

  • A pregnant woman is on the verge of giving birth to a child (vs. 2).
  • A dragon, who symbolizes Satan (vs. 9), wants to devour the child after it’s born (vs. 4).
  • The woman gives birth to a male child “who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (vs. 5)”
  • The woman and her child flee to the desert for 3 ½ years to escape from the dragon (vs. 13-16).
  • The dragon is enraged, perhaps because it was unable to kill the child (vs. 17).
  • The dragon decides to wage war against “those who obey God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (vs. 17)”

It could be that Revelation 12 is describing in symbolic language some things about Jesus’ life as well as the history of the Israelites as a whole. For example, some of the attempts to annihilate the Israelites prior to the first century (Pharaoh in Exodus 1 for example and Haman in Esther 3) could have been sparked by Satan’s impassioned desire to prevent the birth of Jesus. Herod’s command to kill all the males two years or younger in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:16) could have been an attempt by Satan to “devour the child” after Jesus’ birth. And when the empty tomb proved that Satan’s plans to prevent the birth of Jesus or kill Him afterwards had failed, could it be that Satan simply changed his game plan and began targeting Christians in the hope that He could keep the truth about Jesus hidden or cause it to be discredited?  Revelation 13:1-17 may in fact be describing the war that Satan has declared against Christians and what he’s trying to accomplish by doing so.

I want to point out something that comes after Revelation 13:11-17 that also needs to be taken into consideration.

The Final Judgment

8 A second angel followed and said, “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” 9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.” (Revelation 14:9-12, NIV)

This passage seems to be describing the final judgment, perhaps the same separation of “sheep” from “goats” recorded in Matthew 25:31-46. Most would conclude that there are only two groups this passage is referring to – the saved and the unsaved, believers and unbelievers. But I contend that Revelation 14:9-12 is actually referring to three groups. There are those who drink the wine of Babylon’s adulteries and by implication end up experiencing the result of God’s wrath; there are those who worship the beast or receive its mark resulting in them drinking from the wine of God’s fury as well; and there are saints who have remained faithful to Jesus.

It seems to me that the first of these three groups is unbelievers – those who when given the opportunity to follow Jesus didn’t “Fear God and give him the glory” or who didn’t “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (vs. 14:7). The third group is Christians who have remained faithful to Jesus. But then who is included in the second group?  I contend that it is Christians who have not remained faithful to Jesus – Christians who perhaps have not persevered in the midst of persecution – those who in the face of economic or physical threats deny knowing Jesus.

Christians believe that if you haven’t put your trust in Jesus – if you are an unbeliever – that you will not spend eternity with Him. It won’t matter if an unbeliever worships the beast or receives its mark; this will have no effect on their eternal destination. It will be their unbelief that is the issue, not whom they worship instead of Jesus. It seems to me that the only ones that can be affected by worshiping the beast or receiving its mark are therefore those who are followers of Jesus.

Here’s a passage that seems to share a similar sentiment:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away … 7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:1, 7-8, NIV)

Although this passage seems to be describing multiple groupings of people, I believe that they can be put into three groups.

The first group is unbelievers who have no relationship with Jesus – those who have never put their trust in Him. These are referenced explicitly in verse 8; it is “the unbelieving”.

The second group is Christians who have “overcome” (vs. 7), perhaps by persevering to the end or as Paul put it, finishing the race (2 Timothy 4:7). I believe this is the same group described in Revelation 14:12; it is Christians who have endured by obeying God’s commands and remaining faithful to Jesus to the end, perhaps in the midst of the threats described in Revelation 13:1-17.

The third group is those described as cowards, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters, and liars (vs. 8).  I don’t believe this is referring to unbelievers as they are mentioned elsewhere in the verse. And, as noted earlier, it is an unbeliever’s unbelief and not their lifestyle that separates them from God. There is no need to clarify this further my adding a list of what God considers despicable. If you are lost, you are lost. Being among those who do any of the other things mentioned in the passage doesn’t make one more lost than someone who isn’t. I believe that this list of abhorrent behaviors was meant to warn Christians that if they embrace behavior that is more indicative of the unsaved than the saved that they may suffer the same fate.

And it could be that the reference to those who are cowardly is referring to Christians who in the midst of threats to their economic or physical welfare deny knowing Jesus.

What this has to do with us

In the days of Nero, Christians facing lions in the arenas could sometimes get spared if they simply denied knowing Jesus. Christians today facing similar physical or economic threats because of their faith in Jesus are often given similar ways out; if they want to avoid ridicule, opposition, or persecution, all they have to do is to remain silent about what they believe about Jesus or deny that they are followers of Him. Could it be that this is what receiving the Mark of the Beast is meant to symbolize? Could it be something that can only affect Christians and that separates those who have remained faithful to Jesus from those who haven’t?

If this is so, than the Mark of the Beast is something that has existed in our world ever since the day that Jesus walked the earth and continues to be a threat for Christians living in our world today.

That is how I see it today.

 

 

Not every prayer offered in faith will be effective, but which ones always will – James 5:15

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-16)

I have had some concerns about the meaning of the above verses for years. It seems that they saying that if you are physically ill and are not getting better that you will get healed if you call in the elders to pray for you and they anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer must be offered in faith of course which means praying without doubting that God will answer those prayers. And those who are doing the praying must be righteous, for it is seems that it is only the prayer of the righteous that is powerful and effective.

Although I do like the sentiment that if I pray hard enough or have enough faith or have achieved just the right amount of righteousness that my prayers for physical healing will be answered, I do have some questions about this understanding of the passage. For example, how fervently do I need to pray? How much faith is required? How righteous do I or the others praying need to be? And if my prayers for physical healing aren’t answered, does that mean that I wasn’t praying hard enough or that my faith was not strong enough or that I wasn’t righteous enough?

What I’ve also noted over the years is that some who pray for physical healing are healed even though they have doubts that they will or aren’t as righteous as God desires; that some who are godly and who have bucket loads of faith aren’t healed even though they pray with full confidence that their request will be honored by God; and some who are ungodly or who don’t pray at all are often healed of their ailments anyway. It seems to me that getting healed physically frequently has little to do with our faith or lack thereof, to our personal righteousness or the absence of it, to how fervently we pray, or to whether or not we ask others to pray for us or to anoint us with oil.

And so what exactly are these verses promising when they say that a prayer offered in faith will make a sick person well? Are they promising that if we pray with an appropriate amount of faith or righteousness that we will be healed from whatever ails us physically? Or are they promising a different kind of healing from a different type of ailment?

Clue #1 – What Follows “Therefore”

 One clue to what these verses are promising is found in the portion that follows the word “therefore”:

Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (vs. 16)

Note that the promise of being healed in this verse is conditional. What is required is mutual confession of sin and praying for one another. This suggests that the sickness the person is experiencing has something to do with their personal sin. This could mean that what ails them physically is a direct result of sin in their life and that they won’t be physically healed until their spiritual problem – their sin issue – has been addressed. But it could be that James was not talking about physical healing at all but instead was addressing how to get healed from what ails someone spiritually.

One thing to note in this respect is that James never mentions physical healing specifically in these verses. He simply mentions healing in general without indicating what type of healing he was addressing. Although James could have been talking about how to get healed from a physical ailment, it could just as well be that he was addressing how to get healed from a spiritual one.

Clue #2 – What the Trouble Is

Another clue in identifying what type of sickness James was addressing and what type of healing is being promised is to note what precedes the verses that talk about “a prayer of faith” and “the prayer of a righteous man”. Here’s what comes before these verses:

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. (vs. 13)

Although “any one of you in trouble” could be interpreted as “anyone suffering from a physical ailment” or “anyone happy” could be understood as “anyone glad they are not”, it seems to me that James was referring to a different kind of trouble and a different source of happiness. If “trouble” in verse 13 is meant to be linked to what follows the word “therefore” in verse 16, then this person’s trouble may have something to do their spiritual condition. If that condition is healthy, they should praise the Lord for it. If not, then they need to pray to be healed from what is causing them to be sick spiritually. And if their prayers for spiritual healing are ineffective, then:

He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. (vs. 14)

And then follow this instruction:

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other. (vs. 16)

Connecting “trouble” in verse 13 with “confess your sins” in verse 16 provides a significant clue about the type of sickness James was addressing. What follows verses 13-16 must also be taken into consideration however if one wants to have a better understanding of what kind of sickness James was talking about and what type of healing is being promised.

Clue #3 – Elijah’s Prayer

James followed verses 13-16 with an example of a prayer offered by a righteous man and what it accomplished. That man was the prophet Elijah. Here’s is what James said about him:

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)

It may seem at first glance that Elijah was praying about the weather and by noting this James was simply reinforcing that if you are righteous and have faith that your prayers, like those of Elijah, will most assuredly be answered. But there is much more to this incident than what James noted. The entire chronology is recorded in 1 Kings 16:29 thru 1 Kings 18:46. Here are some highlights of this:

  • Ahab, the king of Israel, provoked the anger of the Lord by serving Baal, setting up an altar for Baal in the temple, and doing “more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. (16:29-33)”
  • In response to this evil, Elijah said, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither rain in the next few years except at my word. (17:1)”
  • The drought continued for three and a half years. At the end of this period God told Elijah to present himself to Ahab (18:1). Elijah did so.
  • Elijah then told Ahab that it was his disobedience of God that was the cause of the troubles Israel was experiencing. He also told Ahab and the Israelites that they needed to make a choice on whom they were going to worship; they had to choose either God or Baal (18:18-21).
  • The people did not respond; they remained silent (vs. 18:21).­
  • Elijah then set up a contest on Mount Carmel between the priests of Baal and himself to prove whose god was strongest – whose god was real. Elijah showed through what took place that Baal was powerless – that he didn’t exist at all –  and that the Lord God is in only God (18:22-38).
  • Upon seeing what happened on the mountain, the people “fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord — he is God! The Lord — he is God! (18:39).”
  • Following this act of contrition and repentance, Elijah said that the rains would return. And they did (18:41-45).

Note that the troubles the Israelites experienced were a direct result of sin and it wasn’t until they repented that their troubles ceased. Could it be that this is the type of trouble James was referring do when he asked, “Is any one of you in trouble?” Could it be that how the Israelites responded to their troubles – by contrition and repentance – is the action James was instructing believers to take when they are experiencing similar troubles – that they need to “confess their sins to each other and pray for one another”? 

Clue #4 – James’ Conclusion

Here’s how James concluded:

My brothers, if one of should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20) 

These verses describe a situation where a sinner who has wandered from the truth is turned back from the error of his way by a brother and as a result is saved from death and a multitude of other sins. Could this be further clarification of the type of trouble James mentioned in verse 13 and what to do about it? Could the troubles the Israelites experienced due to their sin and what it took to remedy this be an illustration of this in verses 17-18? Could the one who restores the brother in verse 19 be one of the elders the troubled person asks to pray for him in verse 14 or one of those this person confesses his sins to in verse 16?

Clue #5 – The Whole Context of James

One last thing worthy of note is the entire tone and context of the book of James. James was writing to believers who didn’t seem to understand that their faith needed to be evidenced by works. James then described what some of those works ought to be. When James did this, he didn’t say, “You need to have more faith,” or, “You need a better relationship with God.” What James did say is that how we speak and act provides evidence of what we believe. And if our faith doesn’t result in what ought to characterize a healthy relationship with God, then something is wrong with it; it is useless and ineffective; it is dead (James 2:26). It seems to me that the entire book of James is about what one needs to do to avoid being spiritually ineffective. And if our ineffectiveness is the result of being spiritually sick, maybe it’s time to call in someone who can be of help in turning us away from the error of our ways so that we don’t continue to wander away from the truth and fall into additional sin.

What prayers offered in faith will always be effective

And so, what prayers offered in faith will always be effective? I believe it is prayers for spiritual healing. If we are spiritually sick and have a sincere desire to be brought back into a healthy and fruitful relationship with God, and if we then do what James instructs us to do – if confess our sins to one another and ask others to pray for us – God promises that He will forgive ours sins and heal us from what ails us spiritually.

That’s my understanding of these verses, at least as I see it today.

Is our misunderstanding of the 1st amendment, the one dealing with freedom of speech, contributing to school shootings?

(I wrote this following the recent school shooting in Florida. It was published in the Longmont Times-call on February 25, 2018 under the title, “Addressing gun violence with a better understanding of freedom of religion.”)

In the aftermath of the latest school shooting, there will undoubtedly be lots of discussion about the second amendment, the one that has to do with our right to bear arms. But though finding reasonable ways to keep guns out the hands of those inclined to violence may be helpful, it doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem. Ultimately the root problem is not having too many guns or having easy access to them; it is our failure to help people like Nicholas Cruz to find more constructive ways to deal with their internal struggles.

I believe that our misunderstanding and subsequent misapplication of the first amendment contributes to this failure. This amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The original intent of this amendment was to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion while preserving the rights of citizens to express their own views about God freely – to have the freedom of religion. This amendment has been interpreted in recent decades however as an imperative to keep religion totally separate from government – to keep government free from religion – by removing all references to God, the Bible, and religion from our public venues.

I believe that our efforts to interpret and apply the first amendment in this fashion has done more harm than good. For one thing, it inadvertently communicates to those who may know little about God that He doesn’t exist, or if He does that He doesn’t care about our troubles, or that it doesn’t matter what we believe about Him. In an environment like this where expressions of faith are discouraged rather than applauded, people like Cruz who may be struggling with a myriad of internal conflicts are left with the notion that they have few alternatives for dealing with their inner turmoil other than to express their anger or frustration in destructive ways.

The Bible and its expression through the Christian faith has much to offer in this respect. It teaches that we are all broken people who pretty much can’t fix ourselves. It reminds us that God did something to remedy this and that when His Son Jesus was crucified, He provided a path to both personal and spiritual redemption. It promises that we can find true peace and joy by having a personal relationship with Jesus and that even in our darkest moments He will always love us and remain with us. It also communicates that there are significant consequences, some of them eternal, for those who refuse to acknowledge their need for Him or who give into their inclination towards violence or evil.

I don’t know if Cruz ever heard this message or if he did, how he responded to it. But if encouraging expressions of faith like this in our public places could have motivated him or others like him to consider making a different and better choice in dealing with their inner turmoil, wouldn’t it be worth it even if some may have been offended by hearing that message?

Maybe it’s time to change our understanding and application of the first amendment so that there are more opportunities for people to hear about the redemptive work of Jesus, even if it results in increased expressions of faith in our public spaces.

Is My Old Self Really Gone? – 2 Corinthians 5:17

One of the verses that has troubled me for a long time is this one: 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has    come (2 Corinthians 5:17)!”

Although I like the sentiment of this verse – that having a relationship with Christ can be so transforming that we no longer have a desire to do what displeases God – that our old sinful self is truly dead and gone – in reality I continue to struggle to do what is right in God’s eyes. And that troubles me. I identify more with Paul in this respect when he wrote,

“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death. (Romans 7:21-24)” 

In sharp contrast to what he said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, it seems that Paul was saying in Romans 7:21-24 that his sinful self wasn’t gone at all and that his desire to do what God says is right was constantly at war with something inside him that desired to do what is sinful.

Some attempt to reconcile Paul’s statement in Romans 7:21-24 with what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 by concluding that what he was describing in Romans 7 was his struggle with sin prior to making a commitment to follow Jesus. But there is no indication in Romans that what Paul was talking about in Romans 7:21-24 was his life before becoming a Christian. In context, it seems to me that he was describing something he was experiencing at the time he was writing to the believers in Rome.  If this is so, then Paul was saying that he continued to struggle to do what is right in God’s eyes even after putting his trust in Jesus.

But if Christians today struggle to do the same – if they struggle as well to do what is right in God’s eyes even though they’ve made a commitment to follow Jesus – then how do we make sense of the statement Paul made in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that the old is gone – that it has passed away?

What It Is There For 

One help in unlocking the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is noting that Paul began the verse with “therefore” and then asking what it is “there for”. What it seems to indicate is that this verse is tied intrinsically with what precedes it and that the verse can’t be properly understood without taking into consideration what comes before it.

Here’s a bit of what comes before:

 “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ this way, we do so no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:14-16)” 

What Paul seemed to be describing in these verses are some things that ought to be different as a result of our relationship with Jesus. One thing that ought to be different is whom or what we are living for. Because Christ died for us, we should no longer be living for ourselves but instead should be living for Him. Another thing that should be different is how we view others as well as ourselves. Paul said, “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (vs. 16).”

And so what should be different in how we view others? To answer that we need to take a look at what comes after 2 Corinthians 5:17.

What Follows Is Important

Noting what follows 2 Corinthian 5:17 is just as important as noting what precedes it if we want to fully understand what Paul was trying to tell us in this verse.  Here is a bit of what comes after it:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (vs. 18-21)” 

Note that the word “reconciliation” or a form of it is used five times in these verses. I have underlined them. This indicates that the central theme of 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 probably has something to do with reconciliation. In context, the issue seems to be what reconciles us to God and what the effect of that should be.

Paul said that because of Christ’s death, God no longer counts our sins against us (vs. 19). This does not mean that God actually remove our sin nature from us. But by making Him who had no sin become sin for us (vs. 21), God removed the issue of sin so that we are no longer separated from Him because of it.

Paul explained what we should do in response to this. First, we need to “be reconciled to God” (vs. 20). One way we can do this is by coming into His presence with confidence that in spite of our sin God accepts us just as we are – just as if were new creatures where the old is gone. Second, Paul said that we are to be ambassadors who are committed to sharing God’s message of reconciliation with others, perhaps by telling those who are lost or who don’t understand the extent of God’s grace that Jesus did what was required to forgive them for all their sins so they can have a personal relationship with Him.

Based on what becomes before and after 2 Corinthians 5:17, I believe it is describing what ought to be different in how we view those who have made a decision to trust their lives and their salvation to Jesus, including how we view ourselves. Although a person who follows Christ may sin or may continue to have a desire to do so, the fact that they do should not cloud how we view them. Paul was saying that we should see those who follow Christ in the same way that God sees them by not counting their sins against them – by seeing them as new creatures where the old has passed away.

There No Condemnation For Those Who Are in Christ

After describing his personal struggles with sin in Romans 7:21-24, Paul said this:

”Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)” 

This  is similar to the point I believe Paul was making in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. Although Paul found himself frequently desiring to do what displeased God, because Jesus died for his sins, he knew that he was no longer under condemnation for them. And because God no longer held his sins against him, he was inclined to offer the same hand of reconciliation to others that God had extended to him by not counting others’ sins against them, just as if their old sinful ways were gone.

That’s my understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17, at least as I see it today.