Who are the rightful heirs of the land of Israel?

My response to Stephen Sizer’s article, “Bible Prophecy – Promised Return of Impending Exile,”  regarding the return of the Jews to Israel.

By Dick Lentz

A number of years ago I read an article written by Stephen Sizer, a former vicar of the Anglican Church in England, regarding Christian Zionism. Christian Zionists believe that the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 is a direct fulfillment of Bible prophecy and that the tensions we are witnessing that region today can be attributed to this and other end time prophecies regarding Israel. Sizer who is known for his opposition to Christian Zionism believes that what is happening in Israel has little if anything to do with Bible prophecy.

The following are some statements Sizer made regarding this and my response to them. The page numbers refer to an article Sizer wrote regarding Christian Zionism that was published by the Christian Research Journal in 2006. A copy of his article can be found at the link above.

 A growing number of Christians…are left uneasy about the idea that God would bring the Jews back to Palestine while they are in unbelief since that is why they were exiled from it in the first place. (Page 35)

Here are some passages in the Bible that bear on this:

  1. God’s covenant with Abraham, the “Abrahamic covenant”, which included a promise that they would be given the land in and surrounding modern day Israel, was unconditional (Genesis 15). God asked Abraham to split a calf in two and to let its blood run down a channel between the two halves. In those days two parties making a covenant in this fashion would walk through the blood shed by the calf signifying that if either broke the covenant, the other could do to one violating the covenant what had been done to the calf. In Genesis 15:17, God, symbolized by a smoking pot, was the only one who passed between the halves signifying that He alone was responsible for upholding the covenant.
  1. God’s covenant with Abraham was never revoked. Galatians 3:17-18 says, “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise, but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”
  1. Another covenant was introduced through Moses. It is referred to as the “Sinaic covenant” as it was at Mount Sinai where it was given and confirmed. The Sinaic covenant was conditional. The Israelites had to obey the laws of God to reap its rewards. It is impossible to obey every aspect of God’s laws however. Jesus did something to remedy this. When He was crucified, the law was symbolically nailed to the Cross negating the power it and the Sinaic covenant, the Old Covenant, had to condemn people of sin (Colossians 2:13-15). The Sinaic covenant was replaced by a new covenant based on faith (Ephesians 2:8).
  1. One effect of the New Covenant is that that the Jews were no longer going to be held accountable collectively for their sin. Confirmation of this can be found in Jeremiah 31:27-37. Once the New Covenant was in effect, judgment for national sin would cease and “instead, everyone will die for his own sin” (vs. 30). When speaking about the effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death, the writer of Hebrews drew from this passage when he said, “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 … Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more (Hebrews 10:16-17 and Jeremiah 31:33-34).”
  1. Zechariah said that the Jews would experience a time when they would no longer be under collective judgment for their sin (Zechariah 3). Speaking for God, Zechariah said, “I will remove the sin of this land in a single day (3:9).” This “single day” seems in context to be referring to the day that Jesus was crucified.
  1. God did not bring the Jews back to the land of Israel for their sake or because they were good. God did it for His sake (Ezekiel 36). Ezekiel 37 describes the return of both Israel and Judah, the names of the northern and southern kingdoms after Israel split into two nations following the death of Solomon, to the land of Israel. In the process the “two sticks” become one once again (37:15-17). In describing this, Ezekiel speaking for God said, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my name which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among them. Then these nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes (36:22-23).” What God does to restore the Israelites to the land of Israel has more to do with Him then with them. He promised He would restore them to the land in spite of their disobedience so that He could be glorified.
  1. Zechariah prophesies that its opposition to the Jews after they’ve returned to Israel that ultimately leads to their collective spiritual redemption. Zechariah 12 describes a day when the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem are surrounded by those who want to destroy them and God miraculously saves them by destroying their enemies. When the Jews see that their victory has come from God, they end up mourning “the one whom they have pierced (12:10).” This may be the event Jesus had in mind when He wept on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem a few days before His crucifixion and said, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matthew. 23:37-39).’”

I believe that the Jews as a nation were forgiven when Jesus died on the Cross, perhaps at the moment when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).” Although the suffering they’ve experienced since then could be due to their collective disbelief, I believe that what they’ve experienced is simply an extension of Satan’s continued efforts to undermine the work of God by destroying the ones God has chosen to represent Him. I believe that the Jews’ return to the land of Israel is part of God’s plan to reveal His nature to the world through the way He fulfills His covenant with Abraham. It also may be the beginning of God’s final efforts to redeem the Jews individually and corporately.

The covenant was primarily relational, not material (page 36)

It’s unclear when Sizer makes this claim if he is referring to the Abrahamic covenant or the Sinaic one. The covenant with Moses, the Sinaic one, does have material and relational aspects to it. The Jews had to be obedient to God in order to reap its benefits. But as pointed out earlier, this covenant was revoked when Jesus was crucified and it was symbolically nailed to the Cross (Colossians 2:14). There is no biblical evidence that the Abrahamic covenant was ever revoked. It was unconditional and depended on God’s character alone.

This does not mean that the Abrahamic covenant does not have some relational aspects to. But some of it is clearly material. God promised to give the land of Israel to the Jews as an eternal possession, and God said that if He doesn’t fulfill His promises that He is not God.

God stipulated through blessings and curses that repentance is always a condition of return (page 38)

Leviticus 26 does state that Israel would face exile if they refused to obey God (vs. 27-35). Daniel drew from portions of Leviticus 26:40-45 in a prayer he made on the Jews’s behalf when they were living in exile in Babylon (Daniel 9:1-19). Daniel understood that their  exile was going to last 70 years and near the end of this period asked for God to forgive his people.

God responded by telling Daniel that the Jews’ guilt for their transgressions would be removed but that it would take 490 years (seventy weeks of seven) “to atone for wickedness [and] to bring in everlasting righteousness (Daniel 9:24).” The beginning point of this time frame was “the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (9:25),” an event that occurred in 453 B.C. when Cyrus gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem so the city could be rebuilt (Nehemiah 1-2). 490 years after this would be 36 A.D. Most scholars agree that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime between 30 and 36 A.D. It was at this point that both Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10 indicate that the nation as a whole would no longer be held accountable for its sin. Somewhere in this time frame or shortly afterwards could be the end of the 490-year period Daniel prophesied about.

Also, as noted earlier, the conditions described in Leviticus 26 are part of the Sinaic covenant and this covenant was canceled on the Cross (Colossians 2:13-15). Since the Sinaic covenant is no longer in effect, there is no longer any conditions the Jews have or had to meet in order to return to the land of Israel.

It is no longer appropriate to describe the Jews as God’s “chosen people” (page 39)

 Paul addresses this in Romans 9-11. Here’s a bit of what he said:

  1. Speaking for God he said, “All day long, I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” (10:21)
  1. “Did God reject his people? By no means … God did not reject his people.” (11:1,2)
  1. “All Israel will be saved. The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (11:26-27)
  1. “As far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (11:28-29)

One thing that is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments is God’s unconditional commitment to fulfill the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Jeremiah 31:35-36 says this, “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight, declares the Lord, will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” It’s as if God was saying, “If I don’t do what I’ve said I’m going to do for the children of Abraham, then I’m not God.”

Through the New Covenant, the exalted Christ rules sovereign over the entire world, from the heavenly Jerusalem. (Page 40) 

Sizer suggests that the Jews were never given an unconditional promise of a physical kingdom and that passages describing Christ’s eternal reign over one need to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally. But if references regarding the future Jerusalem and the eternal throne of Christ are figurative rather than literal – if they are only heavenly places and not real ones – then how do we make sense of the following verses?

  1. “The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven which said, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 11:15).”
  1. “I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it…Then the Lord will go out and fight against these nations…On that day there will be no light, no cold, no frost… On that day, living water will flow out from Jerusalem…[and] The lord will be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:1-9).”

There are numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments that connect the coming of a messiah or the return of Jesus with a throne and a reign on earth. Although some of these could be interpreted figuratively, most cannot without significantly changing the context in which these promises were given. In addition, many don’t seem to fit events that have already occurred but seem to be referring to ones that happen in the future.

Jesus’ disciples were looking forward to the day when the kingdom God promised to the Israelites would be restored (Luke 24).  Many followed Jesus hoping that He was the one who would establish that kingdom. Their concept about this kingdom was not wrong. They just didn’t understand its timing. Isaiah prophesied about a time when God would sacrifice a lamb in order to forgive the sins of mankind (Isaiah 53). Jesus was that lamb. He was “the lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus’ disciples didn’t initially understand that this sacrifice must take place first. But their error doesn’t invalidate God’s promise that the Israelites would one day have a physical kingdom overseen by an actual ruler sitting on a real throne.

Why it Matters 

Speaking to Abraham God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse (Genesis 12:3).” I believe that this is a declaration by God that it matters how we respond to the promises He made to Abraham and his descendants. Believing that the Jews were given all of the land of Israel should not result in turning a blind eye towards what they’ve done to protect themselves if what they’ve done is unjust. But it should give us a better understanding from a biblical perspective of what’s happening in that region of the world and perhaps more important, why it’s happening.

That is as I see it today.

 

They are not Sunday School classes. They are “Small Churches”

The value of defining our Sunday School classes as small churches.

By Dick Lentz

In the 1980’s,  I helped re-organize the adult Sunday School department at Fair Oaks Baptist Church in Walnut Creek, California into what we called “Small Churches.” Instead of adults attending classes oriented around a topic or teacher of interest, we asked leaders and members to see each group as a “small church” headed by a pastor-teacher whose goal it was to equip members for the work of a church. This same concept was adopted by Calvary Church in Longmont beginning in 1993. Calvary called these groups “flocks” instead of “small churches” and called the leaders “shepherds” instead of “pastor-teachers.” I became a flock-leader at Calvary in 1994 and still serve in that capacity today.

This paper, written in the late 1980’s as a result of the changes at Fair Oaks, describes both the philosophy and the value of “Small Churches.”

The Value of Small Churches

One upright man among a thousand, but no upright woman. Can that really be? – Ecclesiastes 7:28

Solomon’s regret over not stopping at one.

By Dick Lentz

“While I was still searching but not finding — I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them (Ecclesiastes 7:28, NIV).”

I’ve got to admit that the above verse may be one of the most perplexing in the entire Bible. On the surface it appears that Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, was comparing men with women and that though he could find at least one upright or righteous man among a thousand men, he could not find even one upright woman among that same number of women. I’ve even heard a number of sermons over the years that were consistent with this understanding of the passage;  that men are somehow more upright than women, perhaps because it was Eve who was first tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden.

I believe this understanding of the passage is flawed, that it results from a misunderstanding of the context in which it was written, and that taking into consideration Solomon’s background may give us a better understanding of what this verse means.

Solomon’s Thousand Wives

The first thing to note is that Solomon seems to have had at least one woman in his life who he deeply loved and respected. The Song of Songs, probably written by Solomon early in his life, is a vivid and wonderful expression of the longing he felt for this one woman.  Although we don’t know who this woman was, she could have been the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). What is apparent is that Solomon had a very high opinion this woman and was totally enamored by her beauty and her charms.

The problem that Solomon may have had with regards to women is that he was not satisfied with having just one in his life. He eventually had a harem that totaled one thousand. 1 Kings 11:1-6 gives some details regarding this and what happened because of it:

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women beside Pharaoh’s daughter — Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. 

1 Kings 11:11 describes God’s response:

So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.” 

Who then was Solomon referring to then when he said, “I found one upright man among a thousand?” I believe he was referring to himself. I don’t think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand men,” however.  I think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand women.” If this is so, then the women he was referring to were most likely the thousand he’d gathered into his harem. And it appears according to I Kings 11 that none of them, including the daughter of Pharaoh, worshipped God.

An Upright Man who Lost His Focus

What then does upright mean in this context? The mistake I believe many make at this point is bringing a New Testament understanding of uprightness into the passage and equating upright with being righteous. This can lead to concluding that the passage is talking about a righteous man who was unable to find a righteous woman. But I think that in the context of Ecclesiastes that being upright has more to do with where a  person decides to look for wisdom regarding how best to live life “under the sun (Eccl. 1:3),” and not the result of that decision.  Solomon was an upright man in the sense that he looked upwards to God for wisdom and guidance, at least early in his life. The same could not be said to be true regarding the thousand women he gathered into his harem. It seems that none of them was upright in their spiritual lives, not in the same sense that Solomon was or should have been. All of them worshipped other gods.

1 Kings 11:4 notes the influence that Solomon’s thousand wives had on his own spiritual focus:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 

Solomon may have been sharing his feelings about this in Ecclesiastes 7:25-26:

So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.

If this verse is referring to how Solomon felt about his decision to have so many women in his harem, then he found the results to be more bitter than death, used words like stupid, madness, and folly to characterize his choice, and acknowledged that these women  became snares, traps, and chains

Solomon may have been an upright man at one point in his life. But because of his decision to have so many wives, he lost his upward focus and his heart turned to other gods.

Solomon concluded this portion of Ecclesiastes with these words:

This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes (Eccl. 7:29). 

If Solomon is referring to himself in this verse, what he’s noting is that his life was characterized at one time by an upward or upright focus but that eventually he quit relying on God’s advice and instead followed his own schemes, a decision he came to regret.

A Better Choice

What would Solomon have done differently if he had an opportunity for a do-over in this area of his life?  I think he would have stopped at one. A clue to this is may be found in the advice he gave in Ecclesiastes 9:9:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you live, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun.

He also advised this is Proverbs 5:18-19:

May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, and a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. 

The focus of Ecclesiastes 9:9 is what do to when you feel that life is meaningless. The focus of Proverbs 5:18-19 is what to do if you are attracted to the charms of a person other than your own spouse. Both have the same message. They are urging men and women who are married to be satisfied with the spouse they have and to quit looking elsewhere for fulfillment in this area of their lives.

As we grow older and our lives, bodies, and circumstances change, we need to adapt to those changes and reject the notion that “changing models” or “adding to the harem” is somehow better than living in a committed and meaningful way with the spouse we already have.

That’s my understanding of this passage and its implications, at least as I see it today.

Are you presuming to be a teacher? – James 3:1

Ways you may already be teaching and why you need to be careful if you are!

By Dick Lentz

While attending a small group Bible study a number of years ago, I became concerned when one of the participants started defending an interpretation of a passage that I knew was very different than the writer’s original intent. I don’t recall what the specific verse was or what he was saying about it at the time. But I noted that several in the group seemed to be persuaded by his arguments even though the content of what he was sharing may have been biblically weak, perhaps because of the skill in which he articulated his viewpoint. After the study I cautioned my friend that he needed to be careful about what he shared as others could be influenced by what he said. I then quoted this verse to support my advice to him:

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV).”

My friend responded by saying that since this verse is addressing only those who are in an official position of a pastor or teacher and that he was neither, it didn’t apply to him. Our pastor seemed to support my friend’s conclusion regarding this passage when his sermon some time later focused on this same passage and the pastor said, “Since most of you aren’t teachers, I guess this verse has little to do with you.”

This may be too limiting.

I think that my friend’s understanding of this verse as well as my pastor’s, that it applies only to those who feel called to teach or are in an official position of a pastor or teacher, is too limiting. I believe that this verse is actually addressing anyone who presumes to teach in any fashion, and it seems that there are a lot of situations where we do this without being in the actual position of a teacher.

One of those situations is in parenting. Consider for example these verses:

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road when you lie down and when you get up (Deut. 11:18,19).”

In this passage, God is commanding parents to make the spiritual nurturing of their children a full-time profession. Parents do this first by embracing God’s Word in their own hearts and minds and then by teaching it through their lives and their words. Parents may not feel called to be teachers in this context but God says that they are.

Parents are not the only ones called to teach. Jesus said that all Christians are supposed to be teachers. An example of this is  found in the instructions Jesus gave His disciples prior to His ascension to heaven:

”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:18-20).”

This command is part of what some call, “The Great Commission.” God is asking all those who have made a commitment to Jesus to teach others the importance of obeying Him. Being a teacher in this respect is not an option. It’s an obligation.

A similar sentiment is found in this verse:

“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food (Hebrews 5:12).”

I believe that the writer of Hebrews was voicing in this verse his disappointment that some Christians had not matured enough spiritually to become the teachers God wanted them to be. The implication of this verse is that all Christians are called to teach what God says is true. The Christians the writer was addressing were apparently faltering in this role, perhaps because they themselves didn’t understand what is true from God’s perspective.

It ignores the context of the passage.

Pointing out areas where we are all called to be teachers doesn’t explain the full implications of James 3:1, however. The stumbling block in understanding this verse may be the phrase, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.” Expanding the application of this verse to include situations where we are commanded to teach doesn’t address circumstances where we aren’t commanded to teach but are presuming to do so anyway. It also ignores the content of the next eleven verses which have little to do with teaching in general but instead are noting the effect of our words. Here are those verses:

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

The focus of James 3:2-12 is on the danger of not weighing our words carefully and how harmful what we say can be to ourselves as well as to others. It’s warning about the damage that can be caused by a tongue that is out of control.

The effects of an uncontrolled tongue include the following:

  • It can reveal an area of life the speaker is stumbling in themselves, a part of their lives they are not able to keep under control.
  • Just like a rudder on a ship, it can affect the direction a person takes, whether that be for better or for worse.
  • Just like a forest fire that is started by small spark, it (an uncontrolled tongue) , though being very small, can cause great damage.
  • It reveals what is in one’s heart, and some of what is found there is not good.

It seems to me that all of James 3:1-12 including the first verse is addressing those who don’t weigh their words carefully and who tend to say what they want and to speak their minds without considering the consequences. It’s warning those who think they are off the hook because they aren’t in the official role of a pastor or teacher that they won’t get a “Get out of jail free” card if they speak rashly and what they say harms others or leads someone astray.

Be careful about every word you utter.

I believe that we presume to be a teacher anytime we share an opinion and that opinion has the potential of influencing someone else’s thinking or to affect their actions. And I cannot think of very many times when what we say cannot have an effect on someone else  Nothing we say can truly be considered trivial or inconsequential. Nearly all our words can affect what people think, can alter how others act, and can change what people feel about themselves, about others, and about God.

It seems to me that this verse is saying that we need to be careful about every word we utter and that we won’t get off the hook or get a free pass simply because we’re not in the official role of a teacher or a pastor.

That’s my understanding of this passage, at least as I see it today.

Train up a child according to his way – But whose way is “his” way? – Proverbs 22:6

What does it mean to train up a child according to his way?

By Dick Lentz

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6, NIV).”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the above verse quoted in church services during the dedication of someone’s child. And as I’ve heard it explained, “the way he should go” means, “The Lord’s way,” and that what God is promising is that if a parent raises a child according to the ways of the Lord that the child will continue to follow those ways when they become an adult.

This understanding of the verse seems to make sense when you note how it is footnoted in the New American Standard translation of the Bible. This version indicates that the “way he should go” literally means, “according to his way.”  If one substitutes the second phrase for  the first, the verse would read,

“Train a child according to his way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

The predominant conclusion among those who quote this verse with this understanding of it seems to be that “his way” means “God’s way” and that if we teach a child to follow God’s commandments and the ways of His wisdom when that child is young, when that child becomes an adult they will not turn away from those ways.

Is this a guarantee that if a child is raised right that they will pursue what’s right?

I used to think this was a pretty terrific promise. What parent would not want to know that they could ensure their child’s future spiritual health by teaching them the ways of God’s wisdom and exhorting them to follow His commandments.  This presumes of course that children simply need to be pointed in the right direction and that once they understand it and know its benefits will embrace it. Seems like a pretty good principle of parenting: teach what is right in God’s eyes and what follows will be a lifetime of obedience to Him.

Over the years I noted, however, that there is a huge gap between what is happening in the lives of the children of Christian parents and what some conclude this verse means; that if we parent right our children will follow what’s right when they grow older. Time after time I saw parents raise their children according to what they deemed to be sound biblical principles only to see those children abandon God’s ways when those children reached adulthood. I also observed that Christians who raised multiple children didn’t always have the same outcome even though they seemingly raised all their children according to God’s wise advice. One child might end up following the ways of the Lord when they became an adult, for example, while the other or others might choose a more worldly path. Godly parents who seemingly did everything right might not even have one child who stayed in a relationship with God into adulthood. It seemed that good Christian parenting no matter how much focused on what’s right in God’s eyes didn’t guarantee that a child would continue to be obedient to God when that child reached adulthood.

Treating this verse as a promise that if a child is trained according to the Lord’s ways that when that child grows old they’ll keep following those ways didn’t stand the test of reality. Although some might attribute bad results in this regard to bad parenting,  I suspected that it was my understanding of Proverbs 22:6 that was flawed.

Does “His way” mean “the Lord’s Way”? 

I then began thinking about the significance of the word “his” in “according to his way.” Since “his” is a pronoun, it has to have an antecedent; a noun it refers to. The general rule of thumb is that the antecedent for a pronoun is the closest noun in the same sentence or paragraph. The problem when assuming that the antecedent for “his” is “God” or “the Lord” is that neither is mentioned in this verse. There are references to “the Lord” in other verses in the chapter but these have no textual connection to Proverbs 22:6. The implication of this is that “his way” cannot be accurately interpreted “the Lord’s way.” It’s more likely therefore that “his way” is “the child’s way” since “child” is the only personal noun referenced in the verse.

If “his way” really means  “the child’s way,” then the passage would more accurately be translated, 

“Train up a child according to the child’s way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

What if “his way” really means “the child’s way”?

If this is the correct translation of the verse, if “his way” is really “the child’s way,” then it may be telling parents that if they train up a child according to the child’s natural inclinations that when that child grows old they will keep on living according to those inclinations.

In order to understand the implications of this, it’s important to understand what a child’s natural inclinations are. According to the Apostle Paul,

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10,11).”

Paul said that no one inherently does what is good. Nobody is naturally inclined to be obedient to God. This includes children. So what happens if you let a child be themselves? If they have the choice between doing what is right in God’s eyes or pursuing what’s wrong, will they automatically embrace the good and forgo the bad? I suspect that if a child is raised according to what they are naturally inclined to do and those inclinations are wrong in God’s eyes that they’ll continue to live that way well into adulthood.

Many if not most children seem to have an abundance of good qualities, however. Whether these are caught, taught, or are innate is a subject for debate. But regardless of how a child has acquired these positive traits, what happens if those traits are nurtured? If children are raised according to their positive character traits whether they acquired or inherent, will they continue to embrace them when they become adults?  I suspect that they will.

Children also have natural talents and gifts. These as well as other paths they choose in life may have very little to do with right or wrong. They simply represent traits and desires that make them different from others, including their parents. If parents encourage their children to pursue and develop interests and abilities that are inherent within them, ones that may be neutral in God’s,  will that child continue to pursue those interests  when they become adults?  Once again, I believe that they will.

Could this verse be both a warning and a promise?

If this verse means that when you train up a child according to the child’s way that when they grow old they won’t depart from it, then it could therefore be both a warning and a promise. It could be warning parents not to give into every whim a child has as many of these whims represent ungodly tendencies, ones a child will continue to pursue if not corrected early in their lives. It could also be a promise that when a child’s exhibits positive traits and gifts and these are nurtured and developed that these will continue to be a big part of the child’s life as well when they become adults.

That’s my understanding of Proverbs 22:6, at least as I see it today.

What the two or three coming together in Jesus’ name must do if they want Jesus to be with them – Matthew 18:20

When two or three are gathered in His name, what Jesus said they should be doing.

By Dick Lentz

I’ve always been a bit bothered but what some people say that Matthew 18:20 means, a verse that reads,

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (NIV).”

My first exposure to this verse occurred nearly four decades ago. I was involved in a ministry to servicemen at the time and every Sunday the leaders of the ministry would gather as a group in our small prayer room to pray for the ministry and for each other. There were typically about ten to fifteen of us who gathered for prayer and the head of the ministry, our pastor, would invariably begin our prayer time by quoting this verse from Matthew and then reminding us that we could pray with confidence knowing that Jesus was in our midst.

Is this about praying in groups?

At first I thought this was pretty neat. Jesus was with us as we prayed and that was a pretty big deal. And why was He with us? According to our pastor, it was because we were gathered as a group praying in Jesus’ name. But at some point I began to question how our pastor was using this verse. It seemed that he was saying that because we were praying in a group that our prayers had more power than if we were praying for the same things individually. “if Jesus is only around when I’m praying in a group,” I thought as I considered this, “where is He the rest of the time? And if Jesus bestows some special blessing on those participating in sessions of group prayer, does that mean that when I pray alone that my prayers are less effective or that Jesus might not even be with me?”

I then remembered that Jesus said this regarding personal prayer:

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done is secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).”

This verse seemed to indicate that when I prayed, I ought to find a private place where I could commune with God and that I could expect to be rewarded for doing so. This contradicted what our pastor was saying; that it’s when we pray as a group that we are assured of Jesus’ presence and any special blessings that come with it.

Is this about church discipline?

I came to a different understanding of what Matthew 18:20 means a number of years later when I went to a Christian conference on how to resolve interpersonal conflicts and heard the speaker explain what he thought the context of this verse was. He said that it was intended to be the capstone of a set of instructions given in Matthew 18:15-17 regarding how to deal with individuals in our churches who have sinned against us. These verses read,

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, threat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

The speaker said that if a brother in Christ sins against us, we are first to try to resolve it privately. If that doesn’t work, we should bring in one or two others who can confirm that this person sinned and are willing to confront that person with their sin. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the person should be brought before the entire church and the issue explained so that the whole assembly can confirm who is at fault. If the errant party still refuses to repent, they should be asked to leave the church. The congregation is then to have nothing to do with the one who sinned. They are to treat this person like a non-believer, a pagan, or like tax collectors, who were hated by the Jews in Jesus’ day. The speaker concluded by saying that when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to confront a brother with his sin, that is where Jesus will be, overseeing and endorsing a process that could result in throwing an unrepentant sinner out of the church.

Is this about forgiving others?

I initially thought that what this speaker said about Matthew 18:20 made sense. I had even seen it become the written policy of some congregations if they found a need to discipline a member of their church. But I was a bit troubled by this understanding of the passage. For one thing, when I did see it applied this way, it rarely if ever resulted in the person repenting. It just humiliated them. It seemed to contract Paul’s statement in Romans 2:4 as well, a verse that says that it’s God’s kindness that leads sinners to repentance, not His harsh treatment of them. It also failed to take into consideration Peter’s question following Jesus’ instructions,

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times (Matthew 18:21)?”

Peter seemed to be responding directly to Jesus guidance regarding how to deal with a brother who has sinned against a fellow believer. If this is so, then the outcome if that person refuses to repent is not to sever our relationship with them or to ostracize them but is to forgive them. Perhaps it’s when we’re willing to forgive a brother for his sins even if he refuses to repent where we’ll find Jesus in our midst blessing what we’re doing.

Is this about protecting the rights of the accused?

As I thought about this a bit more, I began to think that Jesus’ statement that He is with us when we’re dealing with the sins of a brother could be more of a warning than the endorsement of a process for confronting and disciplining those who have sinned. What Jesus may have been saying is that we need to tread lightly if our brother has sinned against us and we think we need to confront them with their sin. Matthew 18:15 indicates that this needs to initially be done discretely.The purpose of involving more people in the process is not to increase the number accusing the errant party, however, but is perhaps to make sure we’re on firm footing when doing so.

This makes sense when you consider Jesus’ reference in verse 16 to a principle established at the time of Moses; that when accusing a brother of something, it must be confirmed by two witnesses. According to instructions given to Moses by God, no one could be put to death for murder on the word of one witness alone (Numbers 35:30) and no one could be convicted of any crime or offense unless at least two witnesses confirmed it (Deuteronomy 19:15). The purpose of this was to protect people from unsubstantiated accusations against them. The passage in Deuteronomy continues in verses 16-21 by describing a process of escalation, one very similar to the one Jesus proposed, where the matter could be taken before the priests and judges in office at the time. The purpose of this was make sure that the accuser was telling the truth, however, not to lay further blame on the accused. If it was found that the one making the accusation was lying, those judging the issue were told,

“Do to him [the accuser] as he intended to do to his brother [the accused]. You must purge the evil from among you (vs. 19).”

What was evil in this context was not what the accused may have done but instead was making an unsubstantiated accusation.

By referring to this principle in Matthew 18:16, Jesus may have been warning those who feel compelled to confront a brother with his sin that Jesus will be there in their midst making sure that the rights of the accused are protected. Those who are guilty of falsely accusing a brother of sin or who do so without adequate evidence will not get Jesus’ approval for their actions and could face His condemnation.

Is this about seeking and restoring the lost?

I still felt that didn’t have a complete understanding of the context of Matthew 18:20, however. I understood that I needed to be on firm ground if I felt the need to accuse a brother in Christ of sin. But with what attitude did I need to approach this?

I thought I found the answer to this in verses further back in the chapter:

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost (Matthew 18:12-14).”

If the lost in this passage includes those who have sinned against us, then Jesus may be telling us that our goal in confronting them is not to beat them up emotionally or spiritually for what they’ve done wrong or to cut them off from the flock (our churches) if they wander away. It is to continually look for ways to bring them back into fellowship with the rest of the flock. Perhaps that is where Jesus is, in those situations where we know a brother has sinned and choose a path that restores them to fellowship rather than one that drives them away.

Is this about unlimited and unconditional forgiveness?

This understanding of Matthew 18:20, that its context could be how to restore a brother who has sinned against us and the importance of forgiving them, is consistent with the parable of the unmerciful servant that follows in Matthew 18:21-35.

This passage begins with Peter asking how often he needed to forgive a brother who sinned against him. Jesus responded by saying,

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (vs. 22).”

I don’t believe that Jesus was giving Peter a fixed number of times that he was required to forgiven someone and that when Peter had forgiven that person that many times, he could quit doing so. It’s more likely that Jesus was saying that our forgiveness of others should be limitless.

Jesus then told the story of servant who owed his master ten thousand talents, a sum equivalent today to millions of dollars. His master threatened to throw the servant and his family in jail until the debt was repaid. The servant begged to be given more time to repay the debt and his master took pity on him and canceled the entire debt.

Later, the servant encountered someone who owed him 100 denarii, equivalent today to just a few dollars. The servant grabbed and choked the one who owed him so little and demanded that the debt be repaid. The debtor asked for patience, much like the servant asked of his master, but instead of getting pity from the servant was thrown in prison. When the master heard how unforgiving the servant had been after being shown such great mercy,

“In anger, … [he] turned him [the servant] over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed (vs. 34).”

Jesus concluded with these words,

“This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (vs. 35).”

That almost put the icing on the cake in terms of my understanding of this passage. Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to forgive others to the same extent that they’ve been forgiven, that is where Jesus will be.

Is this about treating pagans, tax collectors, and sinners the way that Jesus treated them?

If this is what the passage is about, forgiving others to the same extent that we’ve been forgiven, then what did Jesus mean when He said,

“If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).”

I continued to struggle with this final piece of the puzzle until I remembered how Jesus treated pagans, sinners, and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t cut himself off from them but instead deliberately sought ways to connect with them. When Jesus traveled to Jericho for example, He chose to stay at the home of a Zacchaeus, a Jew who was collecting taxes on behalf of the hated Romans (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus reminded those who objected to this that,

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (vs. 10).”

Jesus also invited Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His twelve disciples (Matthew 9:9-12). Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for doing so as well as for socializing in general with tax collectors and others the Pharisees considered “sinners” (vs. 11). The Pharisees eventually labeled Jesus as a friend of tax collectors and “sinners” (Matthew 11:19), a label Jesus willingly and gladly embraced. Jesus told those accusing Him of hanging out with the “wrong” people that,

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:12-13).”

I suspect that Matthew had Jesus’ treatment of tax collectors and “sinners” in mind when he heard and later wrote that we’re to treat those who sin in the same way that Jesus treated them.

When is Jesus in our midst?

Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to drive them away or to keep some space between “them” and “us”. He sought out the sinners, pagans, and tax collectors of His day and tried to connect with them. He showed them the way to the Kingdom of God not by beating them up emotionally or spiritually but by loving them and spending time with them. He socialized with those His religious culture rejected, forgave these “rejects” for their sin and tried to draw them into a relationship with Him so they could benefit from His love and forgiveness.

I believe that it’s when we treat those who have sinned against us in the same way that Jesus treated the pagans, sinners, and the tax collectors of His day that we’ll find Jesus in our midst.

That’s my understanding of Matthew 18:20, at least as I see it today.