Hermeneutics: How Do We Correctly Interpret What the Bible Says?

This week’s episode of the Theology for the People podcast is a discussion I had with pastors Benjamin Morrison and Craig Babcock on the topic of hermeneutics and Biblical interpretation.

Hermeneutics is the method by which we interpret communication, particularly texts. Legal hermeneutics, for example, is the study of how laws, or the constitution for example, are to be understood and put into practice.

Biblical hermeneutics is all about how to correctly interpret the Bible, so that we can be doers of the Word, not hearers only.

The reason hermeneutics is worth considering is because different people, reading the same Bible, can come to differing conclusions about what it means. The reason that happens is an issue of theological method (see: Theological Method: Sources of Theology and Why People Arrive at Different Conclusions About Matters of Faith & the Bible) and hermeneutics.

It must be said that not all hermeneutics are equally valid. Some hermeneutics are better than others. Sometimes we even intentionally use a hermeneutics in order to properly interpret something, as we do with “Christ-centered hermeneutics” – in which we intentionally read all of Scripture as pointing to Jesus, which we do because Jesus himself told us that this was the proper way to read and interpret the Old Testament Scriptures (see Luke 24:44-48).

Other examples of good hermeneutics would be “biblical hermeneutics,” in which read the Bible understanding all of the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, meaning that each individual part of the Bible should be understood in light of what the rest of the Bible says. We might intentionally choose to read the gospels through a Jewish lens, seeking to put ourselves sin their shoes in order to understand the things that happened or were said.

Oftentimes, however, our hermeneutics are not intentional, and we may not be aware of them, and they do impact how we interpret and understand what the Bible says. How then can we become aware of the hermeneutics we’re unintentionally using so that we can determine if they are good or not?

In this episode we discuss this and other questions surrounding the topic of hermeneutics. You can listen here or in the embedded player below.

Hermeneutics: How Do We Correctly Interpret What the Bible Says? – with Benjamin Morrison & Craig Babcock Theology for the People

In this episode Nick Cady and special co-host Craig Babcock speak with Benjamin Morrison, lead pastor of Calvary Chapel Svitlovodsk, Ukraine and coordinator for City to City Ukraine, about the topic of hermeneutics: the interpretation of texts, particularly the Bible. Hermeneutics and biblical interpretation is the focus of Ben's masters studies at London School of Theology, Nick's alma mater.  What is hermeneutics, and why is it important? Can't we just read the Bible without having to worry about interpretation? As Ben shows us, everyone who reads the Bible has a hermeneutics and we are all interpreters, the question is: are you a good and faithful interpreter of the biblical text? If, as Ben points out, not all hermeneutics are equally good, then how can we determine which ones are better than others and how do we identify our own hermeneutics in order to examine whether they are good or not? We discuss these questions in this episode.

The Heavenly Audience: What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?

Recently this question was submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

Based on your knowledge of activity in Heaven what was going on in Heaven prior to the crucifixion and how did it change, if at all after Jesus resurrection? For example, was there joy in the presence of angels over sinners repenting before Jesus died and rose??

Interesting question! Here are my thoughts:

The Sons of God Shouted for Joy

In the Book of Job, when God speaks, God challenges Job by saying this:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Job 38:4-7

The “sons of God” mentioned here is a reference to the angels. What this is telling us is that at the creation, the angels were “the audience” who watched and cheered as God created the universe.

The Heavenly Audience

This theme of the angels being an audience, watching the things which happen on Earth, is carried through the Bible.

At the beginning of the Book of Job, we read about Satan asking for permission from God to afflict someone. The picture we get from that scene is that those in Heaven are aware and attentive to the happenings of people on Earth.

Not only are those in Heaven aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, they seem to be emotionally invested in what is happening on Earth. For example, in Revelation 5, we read that when no one was found who could open the seal, there was weeping in Heaven until it was revealed that the Lamb was worthy to do so.

The whole picture of Revelation is that John the Apostle gets a preview of Heaven. Starting in chapter 4, John is caught up to Heaven, and what he describes is how, from that vantage point, he joins the angels in watching the happenings down below on Earth. The picture, therefore, is of Heaven being aware of and attentive to, as well as emotionally invested in, the happenings here on Earth.

The Stadium and Those in the Stands

In Hebrews 12:1 we read:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

Hebrews 12:1

The picture the writer is painting here is that of a stadium, and Greco-Roman competitions, such as the Olympics. He describes life as being a race, a theme which Paul also discusses, using similar language drawing from Greco-Roman athletic competitions.

But here the writer highlights a particularly interesting aspect of those competitions: as we run this race, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The “witnesses” are those who were mentioned in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11, where we are told about those who preceded us in the faith – the “Old Testament saints,” as they have been called.

The image the writer is invoking is that of a stadium, in which the stands all around us are full of those who have preceded us in the faith, and who are now “cheering us on” as we run the race that is set before us.

The Angels and the Saints

What we are left with, therefore, are two groups: the angels and the saints. Both groups are apparently aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, and are rooting for us and eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises.

What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?

The word angel literally means “messenger” in Greek, and this aligns with what the Bible tells us about angels; that they are “ministering spirits.” It would seem that the angels have been and still are aware, attentive to, and emotionally engaged in what is happening on Earth.

Thus, to answer your question, I do think there was joy in the presence of the angels over sinners repenting – prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The one thing which changed when Jesus died and resurrected, is that those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemption of their souls were released from Sheol and taken to be in God’s presence.

I have written a detailed explanation of this here: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

So, what changed is that from that point, not only the angels, but those who had died in faith were brought into Heaven.

Thanks for the great question, and God bless you!

Reader Questions: Why Was Eli Judged for the Sins of His Sons?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

In regard to God’s treatment of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4, I’ve always been disturbed that Eli was included in judgement because of his sons.

1. Aaron was not condemned to death because his sons offered “strange’ fire.
2. Eli raised Samuel to be an upright man of God; he must’ve done something right.

I know that perhaps Eli’s heart was not right with God as the text does not elaborate and it does not say that he asked for forgiveness or repented. His admonition of Hannah for being drunk may also reflect that he did not possess the compassion and empathy that reflects God’s character in his servants. Still, I was hoping you might point to other portions of the Bible that explains Eli’s punishment more effectively rather than trying to “read between the lines” and dangerously make up what’s not written.

Still, this has always made me ask if my heart is in the right place and whether or not my faith in Jesus’ redemption is truly “genuine enough”

For those who might need a refresher on the story, Eli was the high priest at the time recorded in the beginning of 1 Samuel. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, served as priests in the temple, but they were corrupt, stealing, embezzling, and committing acts of sexual immorality by abusing their positions of power with women who came to the Tabernacle to worship. As a result of their actions, not only was the Tabernacle profaned, but people avoided coming to worship because of the presence of these wicked priests.

The reason for God’s judgment on Eli is outlined in 1 Samuel 2:27-29, in which a prophet tells Eli that he is going to be judged for the sins of his sons because he did not do enough to stop them from doing these acts. In 1 Samuel 2:29, God states that Eli honored his sons more than he honored God, and it is for this sin that Eli is being judged. Although Eli had scolded them, he did not do anything besides talking to them. Eli’s responsibility is two-fold, since he was both their father and their boss – as high priest. Eli should have fired his sons or carried out some sort of disciplinary action, and it is for this reason of allowing these things to take place and not doing anything about it, that Eli received God’s judgment.

I’ll never forget that one of my mentors fired his own son in law over an act of impropriety in the church. It must have made for a very awkward Thanksgiving, but at least he was not following in the sin of Eli.

Two Important Thoughts About Judgment: Temporal Judgments and the Mercy of God

It is worth noting that the removal of both the priesthood from Eli and his life were temporal judgments, rather than eternal or spiritual judgments upon his soul. I think it is likely that Eli, recognizing his shortcomings and sins, and knowing the promise of God to send a savior to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), he would have cast himself upon God’s mercy and received forgiveness. Temporal judgments, in other words, do not preclude eternal salvation.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the very nature of justice is that it entails getting what is deserved. Mercy, on the other hand, is not getting the judgment that is deserved. So, for God to judge Eli for his failure to lead well as high priest, is fair. On the other hand, when God chooses to give mercy, such as in the case of Aaron, that is His prerogative. As Paul puts it in Romans 9:18: “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy.” Mercy is never deserved, nor can it be demanded or expected. God reserves this right, and does so for His purposes, which we may never fully know on this side of eternity.

Knowing this helps us understand both the reasons why sometimes God doesn’t save us from the consequences of our sins even when He forgives us of them, and it helps us marvel all the more at the undeserved grace and mercy of God towards us!

Thank you for the question, and God bless you!

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.

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!

Reader Questions: Christians and the Sabbath

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

This question was recently submitted:

The commandments were written by the hand of God and the 4th directs us to keep the Sabbath holy. No one has the authority to set aside or alter any of God’s laws. Please explain with reference to the Bible. I know we are saved by grace and not works and that no one can keep the Ten Commandments but our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s Laws Fall Into Three Categories

The 613 Old Testament laws fall into three different categories, and are treated differently in the New Testament. The three categories are:

  • Civil Laws
  • Ceremonial Laws
  • Moral laws

For the people of Israel, all three types of laws were blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. But in the New Testament, by the time of Jesus, Israel was no longer a theocratic nation-state, but was an occupied territory ruled by the Roman Empire. As such, they had to follow the laws of Rome, which in some cases contradicted their Jewish law, such as in the case of capital punishment: Roman law forbade the Jews from carrying out capital punishment against those who broke the Old Testament laws. Only the Romans were allowed to carry out capital punishment. This created a conflict for the Jews, much in the same way that Muslims in Western countries struggle with their inability to live by Sharia law.

The Ceremonial Laws, we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews, all foreshadowed and pointed forward to Jesus, and were fulfilled by Him and in Him.

The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, the moral laws reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither does His moral standard. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws of the Old Testament, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them (see Matthew 5:21-48).

In the 10 Commandments, what makes the 4th Commandment unique is that it is the only one which is a ceremonial law.

The Shadows and the Substance

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Colossians 2:16-17

What the Apostle Paul is telling us here is that the Sabbath is an example of something which foreshadows Jesus.

Imagine if you went out of town for an extended trip, and when you came back, your wife came running out to meet you, but rather than embracing you, she threw herself on the ground and started kissing your shadow. That would be strange, since you – the actual substance – are standing right there!

Or imagine if you were sitting on the couch next to your wife, but rather than embracing you, she instead hugged a photograph of you.

This, Paul is saying, is what it is like when we focus on the shadows rather than the substance, now that He (Jesus) has come.

The Principle and The Purpose

As mentioned previously, the Book of Hebrews shows us how all of the ceremonial aspects of Judaism foreshadowed Jesus and were fulfilled in Jesus. Hebrews 3 & 4 address the Sabbath rest.

The essence of what it says in Hebrews 3-4 is that both the Sabbath day rest and the rest of the Promised Land were not ends in themselves, but pointed forward to the true rest of God which is found in Jesus. Thus, the purpose of the Sabbath is to point us to Jesus, in whom we rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves before God.

However, there still remains the issue of a “Sabbath principle”: the idea that it is wise and good for us to take a break from our work, and set aside a day dedicated to physical rest and Spiritual enrichment.

It is important to note that for Christians, Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath.” For a discussion of the significance of Christian worship on Sundays, see these articles:

In summary: the message of the New Testament is that what it means to truly honor the Sabbath is to embrace the gospel and enter into the ultimate rest in Jesus, to which the Sabbath points. Jesus and the salvation He came to provide is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, and honoring the Sabbath means embracing that salvation by faith and living in it.

Thank you for the question!

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.

Reader Questions: Was Jesus’ Promise in John 1:51 Ever Fulfilled?

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

This question recently came in:

In John 1:51, Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Was this ever fulfilled? If so, when?

That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer!

The passage you’re referring to is in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus called Philip, and then Philip went and told his friend Nathanael that “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could be from Nazareth, to which Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus to see for himself.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he greeted him in a way that implied that Jesus already knew him. When Nathanael asked how Jesus already knew him, Jesus replied: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Some scholars say that it was traditional for Jewish people to sit under a fig tree to read the Scriptures, but whatever happened with Nathanael under the fig tree must have been something so personal, and so private that Nathaniel was sure no one could have possibly seen or heard him. The fact that Jesus knew about it was enough to convince Nathaniel right there on the spot that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he immediately responded by saying: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This brings us to the text in question.

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:50-51

If you look for a story in the gospels in which this happened, you won’t find one. The closest events you will find to this are:

  • Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke from Heaven declaring that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glorified state, and he appeared with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from Heaven which told Peter: “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
  • Jesus’ ascension, when he was caught up to Heaven.

However, while these examples include the heavens being opened, none of them include angels, much less Nathanael or anyone else seeing the angels ascending and descending on Jesus.

So, does that mean that Jesus’ promise to Nathanael was not fulfilled?

No. Rather, to expect this to be the promise of a literal vision of angels is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying, which is actually more significant than promising a vision of angels.

Jacob’s Ladder

When Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus is making reference to a story from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was on the run from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him. One night while Jacob was sleeping in a field, with a rock for a pillow, God appeared to him in a vision as he slept.

In this vision, Jacob saw the heavens opened up and a ladder, or a bridge, spanning the gap between Heaven and Earth, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

You might remember that the people of Babel, in Genesis 11, had tried to “build a tower with its top reaching to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves. They had sought to span the gap between Heaven and Earth through their own strength, endeavors, and intellect – and they failed.

What Jacob saw in his vision, was that God alone can span the gap between Heaven and Earth. Whereas we are incapable of reaching Heaven by our own works, God has come down to us from Heaven, in order to lift us up into relationship with Him and eternal life.

If Jacob was in fact reading the Scriptures under the fig tree, could it be that this is the exact passage that Nathanael had been reading, and Jesus was interpreting it for him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a Person

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael in John 1:51 is that HE is Jacob’s ladder! He is the bridge that spans the gap between Heaven and Earth that God pictured to Jacob in that vision! It is in Him that God has come from Heaven to Earth in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to lift us up into relationship with Him and give us eternal life.

Jesus is saying that He has come not just to point the way to Heaven, but to be the way to Heaven.

Now, you might be tempted to think: If it’s a ladder, that means I must need to climb as high as I can, and if I’m strong enough, and if I’ve got enough stamina to make it all the way, then I can reach God. But that’s not the idea behind this ladder. Listen to what Paul the Apostle has to say in Romans ch 10:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Romans 10:6-9

In other words: the message of the Gospel is not that you have to climb your way up to God, but that God has come down to you! This ladder is not the ladder by which we ascend to God – but rather the ladder by which God has come down to us, to lift us up to Himself.

Jesus is telling Nathanael, and us, in John 1:51 that Jacob’s ladder is a person, and that person is Him! What good news!

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

The Number of the Beast and Solomon

In my recent post, I answered some questions about what the “Mark of the Beast” is: Reader Questions: Could the Mark of the Beast Be Transmitted Through a COVID-19 Vaccine?

This past Sunday I taught through 1 Kings 9-10 in our Desiring the Kingdom series. You can watch or listen to that message here.

In that study, we read 1 Kings 10:14, which says:

Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold…

1 Kings 10:14

This is the only time this number, 666, appears in the Bible other than in Revelation 13:18, where we read about the beast who rises from the earth and it says:

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.

Revelation 13:18

Is this just a coincidence or is there some significance to this number having been used to describe Solomon’s annual income?

Pastor Mike and I discuss that question in this week’s Sermon Extra video:

Augustine on Ambition

Should Christians be “ambitious”? Is “ambition” the opposite of humility?

Augustine of Hippo, the African bishop from the 4th and 5th Century has a take on ambition which might surprise you.

The Opposite of Ambition is Not Humility

According to Augustine, “the opposite of ambition is not humility, it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.”

We sometimes like to comfort ourselves by imagining that the ambitious are prideful and arrogant so that those of us who never wish and never aspire, who never launch out into the deep, get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility, but this is just a thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness.

James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Interestingly, Augustine’s view on ambition is that “playing it safe” and not taking risks is not actually an expression of humility like many may assume, but is often based in pride and a fear of other people thinking less of you if you were to fail.

In James K.A. Smith‘s recent book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, he tells the story of Augustine’s journey from provincial North Africa to Carthage, and from there to Rome and Milan, originally as a rhetoric teacher, not as a priest. It was Augustine’s ambition which originally led him from his birthplace to these places, but in Milan his friendship with Ambrose, bishop of Milan, changed his life and led him to pursue a relationship with God which led to him stepping into vocational ministry for the rest of his life.

See also: Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Smith argues that Augustine never stopped being ambition after giving his life to the Lord. What changed was his goal, the aim of his ambition.

The Ultimate Ambition

According to Smith, the Augustinian question when it comes to ambition is: “Whom and what do I love when I am being ambitious?”

The goal, he would argue, is not to be devoid of ambition, but rather to live a life which has “friendship with God” as its supreme ambition.

This is the only ambition, Smith points out, which comes with a guarantee of success and ultimate security! (“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8)

Solomon and the True End of Ambition

Augustine challenges us to ask, What if buried in your ambition to succeed in business, academics, sports, and other pursuits, is a desire for something else, something more – which is found in God himself?

Currently at White Fields we are studying through the life of Solomon in 1 Kings. Solomon was an ambitious person; he asked God for wisdom so that he could govern the nation well, and he succeeded both in making the nation wealthy and powerful, but also in becoming wealthy and powerful himself.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells the story of his ambition; he acquired many lovers, much money, incredible power, extensive knowledge, as well as exotic animals, parties and entertainment. And yet, in the end, he found all of it to be empty and ultimately unfulfilling. None of it did for him what he had expected it would.

In the end, Solomon comes to the realization that buried in his ambition was ultimately the desire for God himself, and what could only God can give.

Solomon’s conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is a cliff-hanger, because Solomon says that the chief end of humanity is to keep God’s commandments (in order to be in relationship with Him). The only problem of course, is that Solomon failed to keep God’s commandments — and so have we! What is needed therefore, is one who can reconcile us to God by somehow bridging the gap created by our shortcomings and sins. The good news of the gospel is that this person has come, and his name is Jesus!

Because of Jesus, our ambition can find its ultimate desire, and can be redirected into areas which are secure and eternally meaningful: relationship with God, and participation in His mission to bring the truth of his love and grace to the world!

May God help us to avoid the false humility which is based in fear and pride, and be ambitious for Him!

New Sermon Series: Desiring the Kingdom

For a long time I have wanted to study the books of 1 & 2 Kings with our church.

These are historical books which tell the history of the nation of Israel after the time of King David, beginning with the “Golden Age” of King Solomon, and following the downward spiral that began with his apostasy, followed by the division of the people into two rival kingdoms, and their subsequent apostasies and exiles in Assyria and Babylon.

This history is, on the one hand tragic, and on the other hand full of hope. One of the great “narrative plot lines” that runs throughout the Bible is that of the desire for a king and a kingdom.

While on the one hand these books show us how even the best people are merely people at best, we are constantly reminded of and pointed to the promised Eternal Kingdom and its coming King: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He alone remains as the sole hero of the stories in these books!

Through the failed kings of Israel and Judah, we are reminded of our desire for a kingdom and a king, and the ever-increasing realization that what we desire will be fulfilled in Jesus and His Kingdom.

I invite you to join us on this journey through 1-2 Kings online on the White Fields YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as on our website: whitefieldschurch.com