What Has Happened to Me Has Really Served to Advance the Gospel

I saw a Christmas ornament advertised online today: a dumpster fire with 2020 written on it. 2020 has been a year filled with difficulty, frustration, tension, and sorrow, to the point where people are apt to say that they are “over it.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said something incredible, especially when you consider the circumstances in which he wrote it:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

This statement is particularly surprising when you consider what things Paul is referring to here that had happened to him:

What Had Happened to Paul?

When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was being held as a prisoner in Rome.

Prior to his arrest, Paul had spent years traveling around the Roman Empire as missionary: preaching the gospel and starting churches, and training others to do the same. But then, some people who wanted to hinder Paul’s work and hinder the spread of the gospel, started spreading fake news that Paul was an anti-government revolutionary. As a result, Paul was arrested.

While under arrest, Paul was no longer able to travel the world to advance the gospel. Because of corruption in the judicial system, Paul was left in prison for several years, until he appealed his case to the Roman supreme court, which is how he came to be in Rome at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and chained to Roman soldiers 24 hours a day.

With those details in mind, consider again what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

The things which had happened to Paul were:

  • The loss of his freedom
  • False accusations
  • Suffering at the hands of corrupt officials.

It would be easy to look at those circumstances and conclude that these things which had happened to Paul were preventing him from advancing the gospel, but Paul says, “No. Everything that has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

Being under house arrest had obvious limitations, but it also afforded Paul some unique opportunities.

One of those opportunities was: down time, and Paul used that time to pen four letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which are now part of our New Testament canon, and for the past two millennia have been used by God to bring encouragement and instruction to those who read them.

Another unique opportunity this situation gave him, was that Paul was chained to members of Caesar Nero’s Imperial Guard for 24 hours a day, the soldiers being changed out on shifts. Rather than seeing himself as restrained, however, Paul viewed this as an evangelist’s dream! It wasn’t that he was chained to soldiers, Paul thought, but those soldiers were chained to him! For hours at a time, he had a soldier’s undivided attention, and when their time was up, a new soldier would be brought in and chained to him. Paul viewed himself as a missionary to those people in that place. I imagine Paul’s biggest struggle must have been finding time to sleep because he was so excited to make new friends and tell them about Jesus.

Some of these guards, Paul tells us, were becoming Christians. If Paul had not been in custody, but had rather knocked on the door of Caesar’s Palace and said, “Hi, I’m Paul, I’d like to talk to you about your sins and convert you to Christianity,” they would have slammed the door in his face, but because of what happened to him: the injustice, the slander, and the corruption, Paul now had unique opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel which he could not have had otherwise.

Paul was able to see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity, and he wanted his readers to develop that mindset as well.

Paul’s Mindset In Our Situation

The events of this past year have been difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, from the pandemic, to the racial and political tensions, the economic hardships, the isolation, and the online fatigue. But how would the Apostle Paul have looked at this situation, and how would he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have encouraged us to view these circumstances? Would it not be to view them through the eyes of faith, knowing that all of these difficulties have presented us with unique opportunities for the furtherance of the gospel, and that “what has happened has really served the furtherance of the gospel”?

God has placed us who are believers here for such a time as this. May we be faithful to steward this great gospel message in a world that needs it, and may we see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity for the furtherance of the gospel.

The Blessings of the Exile

London: The Modern Babylon — Films We Like

Unbelievable News

Through the prophet Habakkuk, God spoke to the people of Judah, telling them this:

“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.”

Habakkuk 1:5

But what exactly would this thing be that God was going to do, which was so incredible that people wouldn’t have believed it even if they were told? The very next verse reveals the answer:

For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.

Habakkuk 1:6

The Chaldeans are also known as the Babylonians. What God was telling the people through Habakkuk was that He was going to raise up the Babylonian Empire to bring judgment on both the Assyrians and… upon Jerusalem!

The result of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem would be that the Temple would be destroyed and the people of Judah would be carried off into exile for an entire generation.

The idea that God would allow a wicked nation like Babylon to attack and destroy Jerusalem was inconceivable to the people of Judah; it was the kind of news that was so incredible that they wouldn’t have believed even if someone told them!

After all, they were the people of God! Didn’t God love them? Then why would he let this wicked nation to attack them, defeat them, destroy the Temple, and carry them off into exile, making them slaves and subjects who lived as minorities under pagan rulers?

The Unexpected Blessings of the Exile

But perhaps even more difficult to believe, would have been the fact that in many ways, though the exile was painful, it would end up being one of the best things that ever happened to the people of Israel.

The destruction of the Temple and exile in Babylon were their greatest fears, and what God was telling them was that their greatest fears were going to become reality. The people of Israel assumed that because they were God’s chosen people, God would never let anything like that happen to them, and yet He did.

It begs the question: if God loved them, why would He let this happen to them?

The answer is: God intended to use this to accomplish good things in their lives that wouldn’t happen any other way.

In Hebrews 12, God tells us that as a loving father, he disciplines His children. He does this not in spite of His love for us, but because of His love for us!

Here are some of the blessings that Israel experienced in exile:

  • The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were reunited (because Babylon conquered Assyria), and they would come out of the exile as a united nation once again.
  • Many of the people turned back to God and forsook the worship of idols, which had long plagued them as a people.
  • A new form of worship was born: because they were cut off from the Temple, the Jewish people began gathering together in Synagogues, where they would study the Scriptures and pray.

Synagogues developed during the exile, and the Jewish people brought them back home with them and continued them after the exile and after the rebuilding of the Temple. Prior to the exile, the people of Israel had a relatively weak relationship with the Scriptures. Consider the fact that when King Josiah found a copy of the Scriptures in the Temple during the renovation, it was the only known copy, and no one had seen it in many years!

Because of the exile, and fueled by the lack of a Temple, the people began regularly studying the Word of God in Babylon, and as they became familiar with it, their hearts were being prepared for the coming of Jesus in the years to come.

The exile was the people’s greatest fear, it was a form of chastisement from God, but ultimately it was one of the best things that ever happened to the people of Israel.

More Than Conquerors

The idea of being in exile was considered by the early Christians to be a good picture of what it means to be a Christian: we are a minority group living in a place that is not our home, and in this place we experience hardships.

As Paul wrote to the Philippians: to be a Christian is to live on Earth, but to have your primary citizenship and identity rooted in Heaven. And yet, as foreigners and sojourners in this world, we understand that God has us here for a purpose.

Just as the exile and the destruction of Jerusalem were the greatest fears of the people of Judah, we might have things in our lives that we consider to be our greatest fears: whether on a social or a personal level. Yet what we learn from Israel’s exile and the realization of their greatest fears, is that God uses even terrible and painful things to accomplish beautiful things in and through our lives.

This is what it means in Romans 8:37 when Paul says that in Christ we are “more than conquerors”: it means that because of what Jesus did for us to redeem us and make us children of God, the worst things that could ever happen to us in this life are also the best things that can ever happen to us! And if that’s the case, then you have absolutely nothing to fear!

Trials and difficulties will be used by God for your good and for His purposes. Hardships will draw you closer to Him. Death will literally bring you to Him. All the worst things that can possibly happen to you, in Christ, are also the best things that can ever happen to you – because of God’s love for you and commitment to you. In him, you are bulletproof! You are more than a conqueror through Him who loved you!

That is very good news that can fill us with confidence, that no matter what comes our way in this life, we can face it boldly and without fear, knowing that we are here in this place for a short time, with a mission from God to carry out with however much time we have left: to be representatives of His Kingdom and messengers of the good news of what Jesus has done to save souls from this present darkness unto eternal life.

Reader Questions: End Times and Bible Translation

Last year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received the following questions:

How Do I Watch Your Church Services Live Online?

To livestream services from White Fields Church, the best option is to subscribe to our YouTube channel: White Fields Church YouTube channel. Two of our services are livestreamed, at 9:30 & 11:00 AM on Sundays, and if you click the bell to receive notifications, it will alert you when we go live.

Which Bible Translation is Closest to the Original Biblical Writings, and Why?

Specifically this reader asked me to rank the New Living Translation, English Standard Version, New International Version, & New King James Version.

There are two main factors that go into determining which Bible translation would be closest to the original Biblical writings:

  1. Source documents
  2. Accurate translation of the text

For this reason my ranking would be the following:

  1. English Standard Version (ESV)
  2. New International Version (NIV)
  3. New King James Version (NKJV)
  4. New Living Translation (NLT)

This is not a matter of readability, or preference about the use of language. The ESV, NIV, and NLT all use the same source documents, which use older manuscripts and more manuscripts than those used in the NKJV. The NKJV is mostly the King James Version updated for modern English vernacular, but it uses the same source documents. Those source documents are based on a set of manuscripts compiled in the 1500’s. Since that time, we have been able to gather more and older source documents, which means greater accuracy towards the original text.

The other issue with translation is the literal versus vernacular continuum, and the New Living Translation looses much of the literal meaning of the text in its attempt to be readable in modern English, in my opinion.

I have gone into more detail on Bible translation in a mini-series I did on this blog a few years ago, and I would refer you to that for further reading. In this series I addressed how translation works, the controversial 2011 NIV translation, and the question of whether new translations remove verses:

  1. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1
  2. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible
  3. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

Is the “Rapture” Biblical?

The “rapture” is the belief that believers, who are alive at some point in time when it takes place, will be “caught up” to God from Earth while still alive.

This is a Biblical teaching, taught by Jesus in Matthew 24:

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 

Matthew 24:40-41

And by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

Furthermore, I believe that in Revelation 4, what John experienced was a “preview” of the rapture:

After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 

Revelation 4:1-2

The question is not so much if the rapture is Biblical, but when it will take place. Will it take place before the “Great Tribulation” (the time of great trouble described in Revelation and elsewhere where God will bring judgment upon the Earth, with the opportunity for people to still repent and be saved), whether it will happen in the middle, or whether it will happen at the end, or that the rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus will happen at the same time.

My view is that the rapture will take place prior to the wrath of God being poured out in temporal judgment on the Earth, in other words: before the tribulation. The reason for this is because there is a pattern throughout the Bible showing that when God brings judgment upon the Earth, he removes the righteous.

Before God judged the world in Noah’s time (which the coming judgment is compared to 1 Peter 3), God spared righteous Noah from the flood. When God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, he removed “righteous” Lot. When God judged Egypt, he made a way for the Israelites to be spared from the judgment.

Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! 

Genesis 18:25

If we have been declared righteous through faith in the completed work of Jesus on our behalf, then we are counted in this category, not because of any merit of our own, but by Christ’s merit accounted to us.

This assumes, by the way, a futurist view of Revelation, which I can address later on if you’d like.

Can you Recommend a “Down to Earth” End Times Study?

I would recommend Chuck Smith’s The Final Act. Pastor Chuck has a great way of making things simple and clear, which is helpful on a topic like this.

Thank you for the questions! 

For any further questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Should Christians Be Concerned About the COVID Vaccine?

With COVID cases and deaths surging around the world, several vaccines are ready to be released to the public. Moderna and Pfizer have developed vaccines in the US with the help of Operation Warp Speed, another vaccine has been developed at Oxford University, and still others are in the works in China.

Even if these vaccines are effective, many Christians are wondering if they are safe and/or ethical. For example, for those who work in the medical field, the vaccine will be mandatory. Other workplaces may ask their employees to get it as well. Can Christians take the vaccine in good conscience?

Earlier this year, I wrote a post titled “Could the Mark of the Beast be Transmitted Through a Coronavirus Vaccine?”, but other questions still exist, such as whether RNA vaccines change a person’s DNA, or whether these vaccines use cell lines taken from babies killed in abortion.

World News (a Christian news outlet) podcast had a great episode this week, in which they interviewed Dr. Charles Horton, a Christian doctor, who responded to the key concerns related to Christians taking a COVID vaccine. The audio clip is embedded below, but here are a few of the key issues:

Do RNA vaccines change a person’s DNA?

The concern here is that an RNA vaccine (which the current COVID vaccines are), cause a change in your DNA. To change a person’s DNA, this argument goes, is to change who a person is and how they were created by God, and is therefore possibly an affront against God, and a potentially dangerous prospect, that a person could be forever changed in their DNA by taking such a vaccine.

Here is Dr. Horton’s response:

DNA is the language in which God writes each person’s genetic code. Cells don’t make proteins directly from DNA, though. First they transcribe it to what’s called mRNA, for messenger RNA, and then they make proteins from the messenger RNA.

If you remember vinyl records—I know I’m dating myself here—DNA is like the aluminum master disc that they made with a lathe. Now, when you transcribe it to mRNA, it’s like making a vinyl record from that aluminum master disc. Using that information, then, to make proteins is like putting the record on a turntable and playing it. Here, we’re dealing with mRNA and leaving DNA out of it—so we can play the record, but you can’t make more copies of it. And that’s relevant here because it’s not changing your body’s genetic code, which is your DNA. It’s giving a new transcript. It’s sort of putting a different record in the player, if you will. And then when that RNA is gone, it’s gone. 

Changes to patients’ genetic code are one problem we don’t need to worry about.

Do These Vaccines Use Cell Lines Taken from Aborted Babies?

This is an ethical question for Christians. Here is Dr. Horton’s answer:

One of the unique things about non-replicating mRNA vaccines is they actually don’t have to use cell lines at all, whether ethically sourced or not. And according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, both of the leading mRNA vaccines—the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech one—are indeed produced without cell lines.

I do have to note here that the news is not as good for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson ones, which do use those unethical cell lines.

Incidentally, Sanofi/GSK and Novavax are also OK—according to the list that Charlotte Lozier Institute publishes. They use a cell line called Sf9, which is derived from insects. As far as inactivated vaccines, listeners in the U.S. aren’t likely to see those. They’re from China. But apparently all three of those use a cell line from monkeys—so our listeners overseas can keep that in mind.

Could This Vaccine Be Unsafe Because It has been Rushed?

Dr. Horton explains that vaccine makers have used the mRNA process before in the lab for a long time, but it has never been used in a market drug before. He goes on to say:

A lot of this relates to how the time frame for vaccine development had always worked up until now: things happen slowly and over a course of years. 

One of the advantages, though, of RNA vaccine technology is if this works, it will allow future vaccine development to happen much more quickly, and it would let us respond to future threats in a much more timely fashion. 

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide if you will take this vaccine when it becomes available, but hopefully this answers some of your questions about these issues and possible concerns.

Here is the audio of the interview:

Project Greatest Gift 2020: A Ministry to Kids in Kinship Care in Northern Colorado

This week I sat down with Christine Appel to discuss the history of Project Greatest Gift, a home-grown ministry that serves kids in kinship and foster care in northern Colorado at Christmastime.

Every year during the month of November, we partner with the Health and Human Services departments of Weld, Adams, and Boulder Counties to provide for children and families in the kinship and foster care systems.

In this interview, Christine tells the story of how Project Greatest Gift got started, the vision behind it, and how God has used it over the past few years.

Importantly, we also discuss what is different this year in 2020, as Project Greatest Gift expands to an online platform.

Check out: projectgreatestgift.org

Cancel Culture, Sarah Silverman, and the Hope of Redemption

Sarah Silverman — Armchair Expert

Years ago I was telling my dad about the moral failure of a high profile Christian leader which had disqualified him from ministry. I concluded the story by saying something to the effect of: “Well, I guess he showed his true colors.”

My dad’s response was: “What if that’s not who he is at the core, but a mistake that he made?”

There I was, judging this man based on one of his worst moments, and saying: “That is who he IS!” My dad was willing to say that while what this man did was wrong, he should be given the opportunity for redemption rather than being forever dismissed and defined by his worst moment.

This isn’t to say that people are not sinners or that sinful actions are justifiable, or can just be chalked up as an “oops” that doesn’t count against us. No.

And yet: What do we do with sinners? Do we write them off and condemn them, standing upon their fallen frames in order to make ourselves appear that much taller? Or do we believe that redemption is possible and desire to see it take place?

I don’t pay much attention to Sarah Silverman, but I stumbled upon this clip of her talking about cancel culture and how it labels people as irredeemable. She makes a great point: Don’t we want to see people change? If so, we should encourage and celebrate transformation rather than self-righteously writing off people forever who have made mistakes.

This is what made Jesus so incredible: he showed love to those whom his society considered irredeemable: prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners. Far from affirming their sins, he offered them redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny.

Here is the clip from Sarah Silverman:

Sarah is not a Christian, but she is touching on something that is core to Christianity.

May we as the church be those who champion redemption, who provide a place where people are loved and are shown that they are not irredeemable because of Jesus!

In him, fallen people like us have had our sins dealt with before God, and therefore we can receive forgiveness, redemption, a new identity, and a new destiny. That’s good news.

Reader Questions: With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle, Bible Commentary Recommendations, & the Trinity in Heaven

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

The following questions were recently submitted:

With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?

In Genesis 31:22-32, who did Jacob wrestle with: the Angel of the Lord? Archangel Phanuel? Or ???

In Genesis 31, we read that Jacob was about to meet with his brother Esau and he was greatly afraid, assuming that Esau wanted to kill him. The night before their meeting, Jacob ventures off alone into the wilderness, and there encounters a man with whom he ends up wrestling until daybreak. The man touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, but Jacob refuses to release his grasp on the man unless the man agrees to bless him.

The man consents to blessing Jacob, and changes his name from Jacob (conniving) to Israel (wrestles with God).

Jacob then calls this place Peniel, which means ‘the face of God,’ and says: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been spared.’

So, let’s take stock: Jacob wrestled with a man, but then he claimed that the man he wrestled with was God, and that he had seen God face to face, yet he had not died.

Who did Jacob wrestle with? He wrestled with a man, who is also God… There is only one such man: the Divine Son, the second person of the Trinity: Jesus.

This story in Genesis 31 is one of many Christophanies in the Old Testament: appearances of Jesus before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has existed since eternity past, that he is God, and that he is distinct from the Father, who is also God. We are told that no one has ever seen God the Father, but the Divine Son has made him known. We are told in Colossians that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God.’

In other words: when we see God in human form, we are seeing an appearance of God the Son, i.e. Jesus before he came as a baby in Bethlehem.

As for the ‘Archangel Phanuel’: Phanuel is a form of transliteration of Peniel, which means ‘the face of God.’ The ‘Archangel Peniel’ is only mentioned in an apocryphal book called the Book of Enoch, which has never been considered Holy Scripture, neither by the Jews nor the Christians. We have no substantial reason to believe in the existence of any archangel by that name, as the inspired authority of the Book of Enoch is dubious and suspect. The reason Jacob called the place Peniel is because he understood that he had come face to face with God.

Bible Commentary Recommendations

Which Bible commentary is the closest to the word of God: Life Application Bible Commentary or the Bible Knowledge Commentary. Would you have a recommendation?

I’m not very familiar with the Life Application Bible Commentary, but I do know the Bible Knowledge Commentary, and I think it is quite good. My top recommendation for a commentary series would be the New International Commentary of the Old and New Testaments. The Word Biblical Commentary is also quite good.

Will We See the Trinity in Heaven?

When we get to haven will we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, with Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. Please explain.

I believe the answer to this question is: Yes, we will see the three persons of the Godhead as separate persons. For example, in Revelation, John sees Jesus as separate from the Father several times. What is not clear is if we will ‘see’ the Holy Spirit, since I can’t think of any instance in the Bible when the Holy Spirit is seen.

The best, most concise summary of what Christians believe about the Trinity, the triune God revealed to us in the Bible, is found in the Athanasian Creed:

This is the [universal Christian] faith:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has.
The Father is uncreated,
the Son is uncreated,
the Holy Spirit is uncreated.

The Father is immeasurable,
the Son is immeasurable,
the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.

The Father is eternal,
the Son is eternal,
the Holy Spirit is eternal.

And yet there are not three eternal beings;
there is but one eternal being.
So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings;
there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty,
the Son is almighty,
the Holy Spirit is almighty.
Yet there are not three almighty beings;
there is but one almighty being.

Thus the Father is God,
the Son is God,
the Holy Spirit is God.
Yet there are not three gods;
there is but one God.

Thus the Father is Lord,
the Son is Lord,
the Holy Spirit is Lord.
Yet there are not three lords;
there is but one Lord.

Athanasian Creed

The creed goes on and it worth reading, but the point is that the three persons of the Godhead are not only functionally distinct, but are ontologically distinct. This means that just as they have been distinct from eternity past, they will be distinct from eternity future, although they are persons of the one God.

Thank you for the questions! 

For any further questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Are Natural Disasters and Pandemics the Judgement of God?

Taken Oct 17, 2020 from Longmont looking west at the Calwood fire burning along US 36.

2020 has been a wild ride! It feels like there’s a new surprise around every corner, and none of them are fun!

This year we’ve had the coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, political and social crises, and environmental crises in the form of devastating fires in the western United States and hurricanes in the southern US.

Several people have asked me whether these fire are the judgment of God upon our society, or whether they are instead the work of the Devil.

God’s Judgment in the Bible Through Natural Means

This is an interesting question, because there are times in the Bible when we read about things which seem to be natural phenomena, but the Bible tells us they were acts of God for the purpose of judgment.

Examples of this would include: the great flood in the time of Noah, the earth opening up and swallowing the sons of Korah (sounds a lot like a sinkhole!) in Numbers 16, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 (the site of the Dead Sea, often thought to be the result of a meteor striking the Earth), or Gehazi being struck with leprosy in 2 Kings 5.

The Bible Gives Us Something We Don’t Have In Our Time

What we have in the Bible is not just a sterile account of historical events, but rather an authoritative theological interpretation of historical events. In other words: floods happen all the time, but this flood was the judgment of God. Not every sinkhole is the judgment of God, but this one was!

These theological interpretations were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the writers of Scripture. The question is: how can we know whether current events are God’s judgment or not?

When an earthquake or a tsunami strikes, or when forest fires rage, it would be presumptuous for us to declare that they are the judgment of God, because we simply don’t have the same authoritative insight or theological interpretation that was given to the writers of Scripture.

Further Considerations: A Fallen World and a Natural Ecosystem

When sin came into the world, it not only affected us human beings, it affected all of creation. There are things about nature which are broken, harsh and cruel.

Here in Colorado, for example, fire is a natural part of our ecosystem. There are certain pine cones which only open in the heat of fire, and pine forests often need fire in order to clean up the undergrowth and fallen debris and replant themselves. It’s how the ecosystem works, and there have been fires here since long before humans inhabited this area in the way we do now.

In other words: we moved to an area where wildfires are part of the ecosystem… so it probably shouldn’t surprise us when there are fires!

We look forward to the New Heavens and the New Earth, where things will be the way they were meant to be, the way they are supposed to be: where there is no more destruction by fire and no more disease, pestilence, and the like.

What Jesus Said About This: The Tower of Siloam

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus was talking to some people about some current events which included the suffering and death of people in their community. One instance included a tower, the Tower of Siloam, which stood in Jerusalem, but had collapsed and killed 18 people.

People were asking whether the collapse of this tower, killing these 18 people, had been the judgment of God upon them. Check out Jesus’ response:

Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Luke 13:4-5

Jesus told these people, “No, this wasn’t the judgment of God.” Apparently, in our imperfect, fallen world, sometimes towers are built poorly and materials collapse, or the ground shifts, and structures sometimes collapse. Sadly, sometimes people die in accidents, or of illnesses, or of other reasons.

But, although this was not the judgment of God, Jesus warned those people that they should take heed in light of this event, and let this be something which causes them to repent and turn to God in humble faith, lest they also perish.

Regarding the fires raging in the United States, COVID-19, and the other difficulties facing the world right now: Is this the judgment of God? Maybe. Or maybe not. We can’t be sure. But we can be sure of this: these events should certainly cause you to turn to the Lord in prayer and repentance, and if we don’t repent then we will perish in something much worse than wildfire or COVID-19: the judgment of our souls.

One thing is for sure: God wants to use these events to cause us to turn to him. May we do so without delay. If we do, the hope of the gospel is not only the salvation of our souls, but the redemption of our lives, and a relationship with God.

Is the “Baptism in the Spirit” the Same as Being “Filled” With the Holy Spirit? Yes and No. Here’s Why.

A question I am frequently asked is if there is a difference between the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. Are they two different words which describe the same thing? The answer is: in some cases ‘Yes,’ and in other cases ‘No.’

Let me explain:

Understanding the Three Relationships the Holy Spirit Has with People

Throughout the Bible, we can see three distinct relationships which the Holy Spirit has with people. I would say that there are no less than these three, and no more than these three.

However, there are various terms and phrases which are used by the biblical authors to describe these relationships, and here’s what leads to confusion: some of the biblical authors use the same words to describe different relationships!

And yet, by looking at the context and the meaning of what the authors are describing (by the inspiration of the Spirit), we can see that three distinct relationships with the Holy Spirit are described in the Bible.

These three relationships can be easily remembered by connecting them to three simple prepositions: With, Upon, and In.

With – Conviction. (All People)

The Holy Spirit is WITH all people, bringing conviction about 3 things: sin, righteousness, and judgment.

In the Gospel of John chapters 14 &16, Jesus tells his disciples (at the Last Supper) that he is going away, but he will send the Spirit. Then he tells them about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

Jesus then tells them that the work of the Spirit with people is that he brings conviction about sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Spirit speaks to people, to bring conviction that they have sinned, that God is righteous (and they have fallen short of his righteousness), and that a day is coming when God will judge the world, i.e. they will have to stand before him in judgment because they have fallen short.

In other words: the work of the Holy Spirit in the world with all people, is that he is bringing conviction of sin and the need for a Savior.

In Genesis 6, God says that his Spirit will not always strive with humankind. In other words, the Spirit is striving with people, to bring about conviction of sin which will lead to repentance in some cases, or a hardening of hearts in other cases.

What this means is that God’s Spirit is speaking to people’s hearts in the deepest jungles, in closed countries, as well as to the hearts of your loved ones. It is possible to harden your heart to the voice of the Spirit, as we are told in Hebrews 4:7, among other places.

The ultimate rejection of the work of the Spirit in this way is what constitutes the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: rejecting the work of the Spirit to bring conviction leading to repentance and embracing the Savior.

Upon – Empowerment. (Some People)

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see a second relationship with the Holy Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit empowers people to fulfill particular callings that God has put on their lives.

Sometimes this empowerment manifests itself in supernatural gifts, such as with Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or with the charismatic gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14.

This empowerment is often described by the term “upon” in the Old Testament, and in some places in the New Testament:

“And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon [Samson]” (Judges 14:9)

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This empowering relationship was described by the anointing with oil of priests, kings, and prophets in the Old Testament. The oil symbolized the empowering of God to fulfill a calling he has put upon our lives.

It seems that this empowering is sometimes given by God to people who are not believers, and who do not have saving faith. Example of this might be King Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52, who prophesied that Jesus would be killed in order to die for the nation. Furthermore, talking about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, Paul seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 13 that it is possible to exercise spiritual gifts and not be a Christian! Jesus himself says that some people who cast out demons will not go to heaven (Matthew 7:22-23)

Furthermore, the word Messiah (anointed one) carries with it the connotation that the Spirit is upon this one, to empower him to carry out a unique mission from God: to atone for sin and bring salvation to the world. This is why Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4 in Nazareth when he announced that he was Messiah, says:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound

Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4 by Jesus and applied to himself

This is an important distinction from the next relationship with the Holy Spirit, and I will explain why it is so important as we go on.

In – Indwelling. (Those who have been born again through faith in Jesus)

Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit had been with them, but would soon be in them (John 14:16-17).

This indwelling of the Holy Spirit was something which was prophesied and predicted, but which never happened until after Jesus had died and risen from the grave.

In Ezekiel 37, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, telling the people about a future day when he would place his Spirit inside of his people.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13-144:30, and 2 Corinthians 1:225:5 that when we put our faith in Jesus, and believe the gospel, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that we have been redeemed by God, and he see us through until our redemption is complete.

The Spirit within us sanctifies us, guides us, teaches us, reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 16:13-15).

It is incorrect to say, as some do, that “God is within all of us.” What the Bible teaches is that God’s Spirit is only within those who have placed their faith in Jesus and been redeemed by Him.

Where these distinctions bring clarity

These distinctions bring clarity to some things, for example: in Psalm 51, David, having sinned with Bathsheeba, prays: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”

Without making these clear distinctions in relationship, we might draw the conclusion that if we sin, we are in danger of God removing his Holy Spirit from us who are believers. And since Romans 8:9 says:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Romans 8:9

We might then conclude that we are in danger of losing our salvation if we sin, since God might remove his Spirit from us. However, it is important to remember that David had the Spirit with him (bringing conviction), and he had the Spirit upon him (as King to fulfill his calling).

David was not, therefore, worried about losing the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but rather the convicting and comforting presence of the Spirit, and/or the empowering power of the Spirit in his life.

Furthermore, it helps us understand how people like Saul, in the Old Testament, were able to do things by the Spirit of God upon them, and yet it seems that they were not amongst those Old Testament saints who died in saving faith (cf. Hebrews 11).

Where it gets confusing: Luke and Paul use the same words to mean different things

Here’s where it gets interesting and here is the source of some of the confusion on this topic: Luke and Paul use the same terms to mean different things in their respective writings!

Luke, in his writings (Gospel of Luke & Acts of the Apostles), talks a lot about the Spirit, but he does so exclusively in regard to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, look into it: there is no direct reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Luke or Acts.

Paul, on the other hand, focuses mostly on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

So, when Luke talks about the disciples being filled with the Spirit of God in Acts, he is talking about empowerment, not indwelling. This is clear from the context, but it is also clear from other clues. A great example of this is how it says in Luke 1 that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Spirit” from birth. This filling cannot be understood as the indwelling of the Spirit, since: 1) John could not have trusted in the gospel before hearing it and understanding it (see Ephesians 1:13), and 2) since Jesus had not yet accomplished his saving work through his life, death, and resurrection.

Furthermore, it is important to note that in John 20, after his resurrection but prior to his ascension, Jesus imparted the Holy Spirit to his disciples:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:22

And yet (and this is important!), prior to his ascension, he told those same disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them to cloth them with power from on high, to empower them to carry out the mission he had given them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).

The Holy Spirit then came upon them on the day of Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ ascension.

So we see that the imparting of the Holy Spirit by Jesus in John 20 prior to his ascension was for them to receive the Spirit indwelling them, but the coming upon of the Spirit in Acts 2 was a separate event for the purpose of empowering them.

For these empowering events, Luke uses the terms “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “baptized with the Holy Spirit” interchangeably. Paul, on the other hand, uses the term “filled” with the Holy Spirit to speak of the indwelling work of the Spirit. The meanings of the two uses of the word “filled” are clear from their contexts and what they describe the Spirit doing in each case.

It is in this way, therefore, that Luke can describe believers being filled with, or baptized with, the Holy Spirit multiple times, such as in Acts 4, where people who are already believers receive a fresh filling of the Spirit, leading to even more boldness. The key here is that while they already have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, there is apparently need for fresh fillings of the Spirit for empowerment. Thus, to sing songs in which we ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us is acceptable and right, as long as we understand that we are asking for empowerment from God’s Spirit, not sealing by God’s Spirit.

Hopefully this explanation helps you as you read the Bible, seek the Lord, pray, worship, and serve!

Annihilationism & Hell: Is Every Soul Eternal?

Recently a friend reached out to me with some questions regarding “annihilationism” and “conditional immortality.”

Will Every Soul Live Forever, or is Immortality Conditional?

One of the key questions in this discussion is this: Although the Bible clearly teaches the promise of eternal life for those who have been redeemed by Jesus, does the Bible teach eternal death for those who die in their sins?

“Conditional immortality” is the term given to the belief that the souls of those who die apart from redemption in Jesus will not go on living forever. They believe that immortality is conditional, meaning that only the souls of those who put their faith in Jesus will live forever, but not the souls of those who do not.

The central argument for conditional immortality in the Bible comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 22, which talk about the Tree of Life, which was present in the Garden of Eden and will be present again in the New Jerusalem. In Genesis 3 we are told that the people were cut off from it, lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state. The idea is that if the Tree of Life is in the New Jerusalem (Heaven), it provides people with eternal life, but to be cut off from Heaven is therefore to be cut off from the source of eternal life.

Conditional immortality is also related to the idea of “annihilationism”

Annihilationism or Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT)?

Annihilationism is the belief that unredeemed souls will be “annihilated,” i.e. snuffed out in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:15) and cease to exist for all eternity. Seventh Day Adventists in particular argue that since Hebrews 12:29 says that God is a “consuming fire,” those who have not been justified and sanctified through Christ will be consumed by his presence and cease to exist.

In contrast to this is the traditional belief about Hell, held by the Church Fathers and the majority of Christians throughout history, that Hell is eternal conscious torment (ECT).

The key arguments against the ECT view of Hell, and in favor of annihilationism are two-fold:

  1. An eternity of punishment for sins committed in a finite lifetime seems unfair, i.e. “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime”
  2. The view of Hell as eternal conscious torment is not Biblical, but is imported from outside philosophies.
    • The ECT view is often blamed on Platonism, or Hellenism more generally, or from medieval assumptions influenced by writings like Dante’s Inferno

Rather than unquestioningly accepting these claims, we should examine if what they claim is true.

What Did Jesus Say About Hell?

Some might find it surprising that most of our understanding about Hell from the Bible does not come from the Old Testament, but from the words of Jesus.

13% of Jesus’ teaching and half of his parables were about Hell, judgment, and the wrath of God.

What that means is that Hell is not a peripheral issue, but is a major theme of Jesus’ teachings. If you claim that Jesus was a good teacher, you have to deal with the issue of what he taught about Hell.

Examining Jesus’ teachings, we find that the view of Hell as eternal, conscious torment was not a later addition to Christianity in the Middle Ages, nor the influence of Platonism or Hellenism, but rather people who simply accept the words of Jesus at face value.

Here are some examples of what he said:

  • Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt. 25:41)
  • And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46)
  • [but some] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (Matt. 8:12)
  • And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
    • Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 66:24

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who suffered in Hell after his life on Earth ended, which means that his soul was not snuffed out when he died, but continued living.

Because of the simple clarity of these verses, the great majority of Christians throughout history have accepted that the teaching of the Bible is that Hell is eternal, conscious torment.

Eternal Separation from God

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the Apostle Paul describes Hell in this way:

those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

2 Thessalonians 1:9

Once again, we see an example of the eternality of the destruction which will be suffered by those who do not know God and who reject the gospel.

Rather than being unkind or heartless, these messages are written to those who are alive so that they can turn from their ways and be saved. As Ezekiel 33:11 says:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?

Ezekiel 33:11

It is the heart of a loving God that warns and pleads, knowing the gravity of what is at stake. It is because God cared so much that he came to this Earth to give his life, that people might be saved.

A Message from Beyond the Grave

In the Gospel of Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who died and suffered torment in Hades. Jesus shares that this man longed to be able to send a warning to his family members who were still alive that they should not make the mistake that he did, of not trusting in and walking with God.

For those who are alive, this is a very important story because it helps us to understand the urgency of responding to the gospel and receiving the gift of salvation and life that is extended to us in Jesus.

Unjust Punishment?

The question still remains as to whether it is fair for Hell to be eternal, since life on Earth is finite.

Here 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is helpful, which tells us that the essence of Hell is separation from God and his glory.

Since God is the source of beauty, life, joy, peace, and goodness – to be separated from God and his glory is to be cut off from those things for eternity. In other words: what makes Hell hellish, is that God is not there. What makes Heaven heavenly, is that God is there.

Furthermore, since Hell is the destiny of those who have rejected the grace of God and relationship with him, and have essentially pushed God away or turned their back on Him, Hell is the final culmination of them getting what they wanted in their lifetime.

In Genesis 6:3, God says something very serious: “My Spirit will not always contend (or strive) with man.” If a person continually rejects the offer of God’s grace and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the time will come when God will give them what they insisted upon, forever: life apart from God. This giving people over to their ungodly desires is the essence of God’s judgment (see Romans 1:18-31).

Hope Beyond the Grave

Faithful Christian teachers in history, such as John Stott, have believed in annihilationism, but this view has always been a minority viewpoint, mostly because it seems to contradict the straightforward teachings of Jesus.

What we do know is that the message of the gospel is truly good news, and that there is an urgency to this gospel because of the reality of Hell.