Love or Charity?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 20, 2017 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A church member writes and asks this question about 1 Corinthians 13–the famous ‘love’ chapter of the Bible:

I am studying 1 Corinthians 13:4-11 and I see that the King James Version uses the word “charity”, but the New King James Version and many other translations uses the word “love”.  Is “love” the accurate word?   And verse 10 says, “But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.”  Is this referring to Jesus?

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Dear friend,

‘Charity’, as it’s being used in the King James Version, is an archaic word–one that no longer has the same meaning or that is used in the same way today as it was 400 years ago.  But yes; the word means “love”.  But it speaks of a specific understanding of love.

It’s the translation of the Greek word agape; which refers to love or benevolence or good-will.  I like to think of it as a good word to use to understand Paul’s meaning–rather than “love” in general–because it helps distinguishes “love” in the sense of self-sacrificial giving for the good of another from “love” as a mere emotion or a passion.  In a sense, you can get a good idea of what kind of “love” (or “charity”) Paul was talking about by the things that 1 Corinthians describes it as doing.  Far more than an emotion, it clearly speaks of a self-sacrificial action.

As far as what verse 10 refers to, I don’t necessarily believe it is speaking of Jesus Himself.  He, of course, is the perfect example of love; and I think that this verse does look ahead to His coming for its fulfillment.  But I think that “the perfect” (to teleios; the thing brought to completion, or fully realized, or fully accomplished) refers, in this context, to what happens at the time of His coming–when the goal of His work in us, through giving us spiritual gifts, is brought to completion.  Dr. Gordon Fee wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “At the coming of Christ the final purpose of God’s saving work in Christ will have been reached; at that point those gifts now necessary for the building up of the church in the present age will disappear, because ‘the complete’ will have come” (p. 646).

I think “the perfect” which is to come is speaking, in a way, of what Paul wrote about in Philippians 1:6; “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ …”  “The perfect” is the state of completion of all that Jesus died to bring about in us, and of all that the spiritual gifts were temporarily given to bring about in us.  It seems to me that the New Living Translation has captured the true meaning of this verse very well: “Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.  Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals little!  But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear.”

What a wonderful thing that–of all the things that will last–”love” or “charity” (agape) is the greatest.

Blessings,
Pastor Greg

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To Fast or Not To Fast?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 14, 2017 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A member of our church writes:

“Lately, God has been walking with me on a new journey and I’m learning a lot, and fasting is something I’d like to know more about. … Do you fast?  Is it true that you can fast food but still drink liquid during the fast?  Can you fast things like TV and the Internet?”

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Dear friend:

Yes; I have fasted on a few occasions.  Although some Christians fast at regular times, I have not established such a pattern—except during brief periods of my life.  My times of fasting have most often been only occasional—and usually tied to a specific purpose (perhaps because something serious is going on in my life that I am appealing to God for; or as part of a community fast for prayer for our nation or our city).  I’ll admit that it’s not something I completely understand; but I have found that—like a lot of things in our walk with Christ that I may not fully understand—I understand it much better when I obey God’s call and do it.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word most often used for ‘fasting’ is ṣûm, which, according to Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, means “to cover over (the mouth)”; and figuratively, this would mean “to abstain from food”.  The Greek word used in the New Testament is nēsteia; and it’s a word that is formed by putting a negation in front of the word “to eat” (esthio).  It means “a voluntary abstinence from eating”.

In the Bible, fasting is often associated with deep and intense prayers of petition and entreaty to God—and very often with weeping and mourning.  In reading through the Bible, you’ll sometimes find that ‘fasting’ became a sort of ritual that was done without genuine sincerity of heart; and this was very displeasing to God.  In Zechariah 7:5, for example, God rebuked the people of Israel for this; telling the prophet Zechariah, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?’”  Jesus also warned against such phony displays of fasting: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).

But there are also examples of sincere fasting—usually associated with prayer for such things as God’s leading in important decisions (such as in Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23), or at important milestones of life (Daniel 9:1-3), or for petitions for important needs (Ezra 8:21-23).  Jesus, of course, is our greatest example.  He fasted at the beginning of His earthly ministry for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-12).

I can’t really speak too much to the idea of ‘fasting’ for health reasons.  The Bible doesn’t seem to address that.  But it seems to me that, for spiritual reasons, it’s a way of saying ‘no’ to the cravings of the body in order (1) to bring the body under discipline (see 1 Corinthians 9:27), and (2) to set one’s time and attention apart from other things and focus on God.  When I fast, I am not taking my time to make a meal; and I am thus able to give that time and attention to the Lord in prayer—either alone or with others.  Sometimes, the growling of the belly reminds me that I have something of more important spiritual value to do right then than eating; and it reminds me that the Lord is my Master–and not my belly.  (And I have heard from experienced ‘fasters’ that relieving the body for a time from the truly hard work of digestion actually helps clear the mind for the purposes of prayer and spiritual reflection.)

I believe, however, that it doesn’t have to just be food.  It can be some of the other things that you mentioned—unessential things that might take up our time when we really ought to concentrate on God’s purposes for us.  An interesting example—although I believe it ought to only be used very carefully—is found 1 Corinthians 7:5; where Paul writes to married couples in regard to marital intimacy and says, “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”  In a very interesting Old Testament passage—in Isaiah 58—God rebuked the people of Israel for engaging in a fast of food while at the same time exploiting people.  He told them;

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’” (Isaiah 58:6-9).

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If you choose to fast for spiritual reasons, I would suggest that you establish a reason for doing so first.  Come to God with a purpose for it; saying to Him, “Lord, I feel led before you to skip a meal tonight [or for however long], and bring some important things before you in prayer.”  (Of course, if you fast, you shouldn’t ever excuse yourself from the normal responsibilities of providing necessary care for others—unless that is mutually agreed.  And you shouldn’t advertise that you’re fasting, but rather keep it private and personal.)  I think the same would apply if you choose to ‘fast’ from something else other than food.  And I think you should set some kind of time limit to it.  Fasting for a specific purpose may—by necessity—naturally establish such a time limit.

I have also heard experienced ‘fasters’ of food say that drinking a little water or diluted fruit juice is a good idea.  (Dehydration is dangerous; and I don’t believe that would be God’s will in a fast.  You can go a long time without food, but not without water.)

I hope some of these thoughts help.  Blessings.
Pastor Greg

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Renouncing Faith?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on September 2, 2015 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website Malaysia writes:

Dear pastor, our church had a split over this: ‘Can a ‘born again’ Christian renounce his/her faith?”  Answers like, “He had not been saved in the first place”, seems unsatisfactory to me.  Please help.

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Dear friend,

Thank you for writing.  I can’t tell you enough what an encouragement it is to know that our church’s website can be a blessing to someone from such a far distance away.  It reminds me of how wonderful it will be when all of us who love Jesus will be all together in the Father’s house–no longer separated by oceans and continents, or by cultures, or even by centuries!

I really appreciate your question.  I can see from your note that it’s a very important question–one that has, to some degree, caused harm to the church in which you fellowship.  I am sorry to hear that.  I will do my best to offer my thoughts–and I hope it will help.

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I suppose a good way to answer your question would be by asking another one: Upon whom does our salvation ultimately depend?  Does it ultimately depend upon us or upon God?  The answer to that question makes all the difference.

If my salvation–my truly being “born again” in Christ–depended ultimately upon my choice or my faithfulness, then I would have to say that I certainly could renounce my faith and be lost to God.  And I have to be careful in how I state that question; because I believe there is–without question–a part that I play in my salvation.  The Bible tells us, “Believe on the Lord jesus Christ, and you will be saved . . .” (Acts 16:31); and promises that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  So, clearly I have a part to play; and without question, my salvation requires that I place a sincere faith in Jesus Christ, believe on Him, and turn from my sins.

But while I have a part to play in my slavation, I would not say that my salvation depended “ultimately” upon my choice.  The part that I play is not the thing that comes first.  Long before I would have ever made the choice would be the gracious choice of God to choose me for salvation.

Jesus once said,

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.  This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.  And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:37-40).

Note that those who come to Jesus were first given to Him by the Father.  And in another passage, He said,

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.  And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.  My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-28).

Anyone who is truly “born again” is not spiritually born because they chose to be born–just as no one can be born physically because they chose to be.  Our “rebirth” in Christ–or as theologians often call it, our “regeneration”–is not a thing that we do, but is something that only God does.  He “gives us” to Jesus, and then gives us life, so that we come to Him by faith.  God the Father does this as a work of His grace.  In Ephesians 2, Paul told us;

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:4-9).

That is the part that God plays–the “first part”, if you will.  And then, my part–the part where I believe on Jesus, place my faith in Him, and turn from my sins–comes only because God first did His part, and helps me to do my part.

So; I would say that because my salvation does not depend “ultimately” upon the part I play in it, then I can not ultimately do anything to be lost to God.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; that doesn’t mean that a truly “born-again” Christian can’t–for a time–wander away and be unfaitful to to the Lord.  You are probably like me, and can think of many cases where that has happened.  It’s sad when it happens, too; because those who wander away bring a great deal of shame and hurt upon their lives.  It’s always good to work hard to bring such a wanderer back.  As James has written;

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

But I would not say that a truly “born-again” wanderer will ever wander in such a way as to be completely lost.  I would say that he or she will ultimately return.  This touches on a doctrine that theologians refer to as “the preserverance of the saints”.  It again is something that has its basis in what God does–not in what we do.  He Himself keeps (that is “preserves”) those who belong to Him in salvation.  Like Jesus said in the passage I’ve already quoted: “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing”–even though a sincere believer (just like Peter once did) might wander away from the Lord for a time.

A great assurance of this work of God is the fact that the Holy Spirit abides in every truly born-again believer in Jesus.  As Paul wrote,

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:13-14).

A believer may wander; but the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit guarantees that such a believer cannot wander far, and that he or she will ultimately repent and be restored.  Our salvation is God’s work–and He personally guarantees all His work!

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Now; how do we handle this in a practical way?  What do we do with those who wander away; and who we wonder whether or not they are truly saved?

I have found it helpful not to make too decisive a judgment call on professing Christians who wander.  I can warn them that they are wandering, and that they are living in denial of their profession.  I can watch their lives to see whether or not they are sincerely repenting of sin.  I can examine their beliefs to see if they truly profess the truth about Jesus, and can confront error when I see it.  I can watch to see whether or not they unite themselves in fellowship with other genuine believers.  But in the end, I cannot know for certain the true spiritual state of anyone who wanders.  I would have to wait to see whether or not they eventually repent, and return to Him in the end.  And in some cases, it could be that they may repent with their dying breath and make things right with the Lord–and do so without my knowing it.  In that case, I will only know their true condition when I see them in heaven.

But that’s what I do in practice.  In terms of my grasp of the truth, however, I always keep in my mind the promise from God’s word that no truly “born-again” believer in Jesus will ever ultimately be lost to Him.  And that’s because our salvation does not depend ultimately on our choice or on our efforts, but ultimately on God’s grace and saving power.

This may not answer all your questions, but I hope it helps at least a little.  Blessings in Christ!

Pastor Greg

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Bible Translations

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on November 12, 2013 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

Question:

With all the different bibles out there, how do you discern the meanings of the verses from one to the other? I’ve noticed some of the verses are condensed or paraphrased older bible verses. They don’t mean the same thing a lot of times. Help!

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Dear Friend,

Thanks for writing. What I believe you’re asking about is why it is that a verse in one translation can sometimes seem quite different from the same verse in another translation. This is a great question; and it’s something that a lot of folks wonder about.

Let me affirm at the outset that you can absolutely trust almost all of the more popular translations of the Bible—NIV, ESV, NASB, NKJV (and the KJV), the Holman CSB, the NLB, RSV. The scholarship behind each of these is sound and reliable. There are differences between them in some points, of course; but in my opinion, these differences are not so great as to put the main themes of the Christian faith into any doubt whatsoever. They come about, not because of an imperfection in God’s word, but because of the limitations of the translators. And I would even argue that the differences are helpful to know about. When we compare different translations and see the differences in a particular verse, (1) that can help us to know that the verse in the original language may have been difficult to translate—and that it requires special care in our interpretation and application; and (2) it can add to our understanding of how that verse might be understood. In the church family were I fellowship, I really like it when—in our Bible Study groups—we share from different translations. It adds greatly to our insights together.

* * * * * * * * * *

But how do you sort through those differences and get to the best and most accurate meaning of that verse? I mentioned the limitations of the translators; and there are several that they have to overcome.

(1) There’s the limitation of the ‘time and culture barrier’. Each translation has to take what was said in the past—two to three thousand years in the past; and often in very different cultural contexts than our own—and translate the original words into words that have meaning to people in our own time today. It’s not usually hard for scholars to understand what was meant back then; but it’s often very hard to transfer that same meaning completely into modern forms and ideas.

(2) There’s the limitation of the ‘translator barrier’. Each translation is—to some degree—an interpretation on the part of the translator. Some Bible translations self-consciously rely more heavily on the interpretive element—such a the NIV or the CSB or the NLB. They have adopted a translation philosophy called ‘dynamic equivalency’—that is, they try to reproduce in the modern reader the same experience that the original reader would have had in reading the same verse. Others rely very heavily on an accuracy of language—such as the NKJV (and the KJV), or the NASB, or the ESV, or the RSV. These have adopted a ‘word-for-word’ translation philosophy—that is, they try to reproduce the the meaning of each word in the original language into its closest equivalent in English. Often, the theological commitments of the translators can’t help but show up in their work. One of the most famous examples is how in Romans 7 the word “flesh” (in the NKJV for example) is translated “sinful nature” in the NIV. This was largely a theological decision on the part of the translators of the NIV—one that may or may not be a good one, depending on your theological commitments.

(3) There’s also the limitation of the ‘language’ barrier. The words in the original language are always the same; but the ability to translate those words into modern English can be challenging. There might be several English words that would do the job—but which word is the best one? The translators have to make a choice as best they can—and different translators may settle on different choices. And sometimes, English language itself changes—and so an English word that worked well in one generation might not work so well in another. 1 Corinthians 16:13 in the KJV says “quit you like men”—which makes absolutely no sense to us today. The NIV gets the meaning accurately when it translates it “be men of courage”. But what a problem! What would have communicated ‘courage’ to the reader of the Bible four-hundred years ago sounds like a call to be ‘quiters’ today.

(4) And finally, there’s the limitation of the ‘texual criticism’ barrier. Over the past two-and-a-half centuries, a great deal of work has been done by scholars in catagorizing the differences that show up in different copies that were made of the original text—and in sorting through those differences in such a way as to arrive at what was most likely the original meaning. But some sets of translations were based on a certain groups of copies of the ancient text, and other translations were based on other groups of copies. Don’t let this alarm you; because these different groups of copies are in remarkable agreement with each other. But there are some differences between them in minor points. (Most of the main translations I mentioned above will tell you what those differences are in the footnotes.)

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So; to answer your question, one of the things that you need to do is to be aware of why there appears to be differences between the translations. Don’t be bothered by them; because they aren’t exposing some fault in the original text of Scripture. Rather, they are showing us that there are obvious limitations that all human translators are under. (And as I said, I think these difference can actually be very helpful in adding to our understanding of what the Bible says.)

There are a couple of ways that you can help yourself with these differences, though. First, I would make use of an ‘interlinier’ Bible. This is a copy of the Bible that has the English translation interfaced with the original language—Hebrew for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. You can usually find bound copies of this in a Bible book store; but an on-line version of this can be found on the Internet (http://biblehub.com/interlinear/ is an example). This helps you compare the English translation with what it says in the original language; so that when you see the differences in the English translations, you can compare those differences with what the original text says.

Another big help would be to make use of Bible commentaries. There are commentaries that are what you might call “devotional”—that is, that ‘preach’ to you and feed your soul. But there are also commentaries that are what are called “critical”—not in the sense that they criticize what is said, but rather that help you understand the different interpretational issues and offer sound solutions to understanding the differences. I feel both types of commentaries are important to use. Again, you can find these in a book store; but more and more of them are becoming available on the Internet. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/ provides a variety of different options. Another good resource is http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/.)

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Whenever you see those differences, I hope you won’t let yourself be discouraged or too frustrated by them. Rather, I hope they will encourage you to find out why the differences are there. I believe that if you do so—and if you always pray and ask for God’s help in studying His word—you’ll find your understanding of Scripture expand and become very fruitful.

I hope this helps.

Blessings!

Pastor Greg

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New Things

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on September 5, 2012 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website writes:

How does Isaiah 43:19 relate to us today?

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Dear friend,

Thanks for writing and visiting our website. Thanks also for your question. I’ll do my best.

The verse you’ve mentioned—as it is in the New King James Version—says, “Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” This was a specific word of prophecy that God gave to the people of (more accurately, to Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel) concerning their captivity in Babylon.

Much of the surrounding passages concern God’s promise to show His greatness to them by mightily delivering them from their captivity in Babylon and bringing them back to their homeland after their 70 years of captivity. One of the most remarkable promises concerning this is in Isaiah 45:1-7. About 150 years after these words where spoken, and after the people of Israel had been in captivity for seventy years, God raised up the Media-Persian kingdom to assume world dominance, and conquer Babylon in just one night in 539 B.C. (The story of the fall of Babylon is told to us in Daniel 5.) And the conquering Persian king, Cyrus, ordered the Jewish people to return to their land, and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. (You can read about this command from Cyrus in Ezra 1.) He himself provided all that was needed for this rebuilding project from his own treasury! It was a great miracle; and it happened just as God promised. Isaiah writes,

“Thus says the LORD to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut; I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and cut the bars of iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that I, the LORD, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel. For Jacob My servant’s sake, and Israel My elect, I have even called you by your name; I have named you, though you have not known Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; there is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is none beside Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the LORD, do all these things’” (45:1-7).

The “road in the wilderness” and the “rivers in the desert” are figures of speech that describe the deliverance and return of His people to their homeland in ways that no human effort could have predicted or brought about. Nothing would hinder their return. This is the “new thing” God would do; and truly afterwards, the people of Israel would know that it was God who did it.

* * * * * * * * * *

But I think that there’s a figurative application to Christians today. It reminds us that God is able to bring about His glory in the lives of those who trust in Him—and their good—in ways that seem humanly impossible.

Perhaps you remember the story of the rich young ruler that came to Jesus. He wanted to know how he could “earn” his way to heaven by his good works. Mark 10:23-27 tells us the story. When he went away, we’re told,

“Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible’” (Mark 10:23-27).

That last verse really says it all—that what is impossible for men is not impossible with God; because “with God all things are possible.” Truly, nothing is too hard for Him—not even our salvation.

I think that’s a great New Testament passage to compare with Isaiah 43:19. When a “new thing” is needed, God is able to say, “Behold, I will do a new thing, now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it?” If He is able to even bring His captive people out of their bondage in Babylon—doing so through the man He called out by name 150 years before he was born; and at the exact time He said that He would—then is anything to hard for Him to do? It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that—in Revelation 21:5, at the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, and at the descent of the New Jerusalem—God says, “Behold, I make all things new”?

I hope this helps. May you be blessed in Christ by the God of “new things”.

Pastor Greg

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Ascension

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on August 21, 2012 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A member of Bethany Bible church asks:

If Jesus the only person who went up to heaven—or if there were other people who went to heaven before Him. John 3:13 seems to be saying that nobody went to heaven except Jesus. But what about Enoch and Elijah?

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Dear friend,

The actual quote from John 3:13 reads this way: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (New King James Version). The larger issue in this verse seems clear enough—which, in the surrounding context, is how the “new birth” is accomplished (see vv. 1-8). But there’s a difference of opinion between those who believe that these are the words of the Lord Jesus Himself from John 3, and those who believe that they are a part of John’s commentary on Jesus’ words. That difference of opinion makes a big difference in how your question would be answered.

Some say that these are the words of the Lord Jesus Himself; and so, some translations carry the ‘quote marks’ on from verse 12 as if Jesus spoke them. If that’s the case, then when Jesus spoke them, He had not yet physically “ascended”. This word “ascended” goes together with the phrase “came down from”; and if you take one of them literally, you can’t take the other figuratively. You need to treat them the same. And so; if Jesus is using the word “ascended” figuratively (since He had not yet “ascended” as He would after His resurrection), then we should understand both figuratively. One way to take this, then, is to see “heaven” as not a reference to a “place” as much as to a “state”. “Heaven” would be a way of describing a unique communion with God the Father that gives perfect knowledge of spiritual realities—much like what Jesus said in Matthew 11:27, “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” This would fit the context well; because in verses 10-12, Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus about his ignorance of the spiritual realities of salvation—which He called “heavenly things” as opposed to “earthly things” (v. 12). If that’s the case, Jesus would be saying that no other person has ever entered into such deep communion with the heavenly Father—a communion so deep as to have a perfect knowledge of spiritual realities regarding the ‘new birth—but only Jesus the Son; who had first dwelt eternally with the Father and enjoyed perfect communion with Him, and then came to the earth and walked in the world of humanity in order to tell these things to us.

Others point out that the phrase at the end of this verse—”who is in heaven”—is not found in all the Greek texts. Some of our English translations, in fact, leave them out of the text and put them in the margin. But if they are legitimately a part of the text—and were expressing the idea that Jesus was, right then, in heaven—then it would show that these are the words of John and not of Jesus. And if that’s the case, then John was saying that no one “ascended” to heaven (literally), but He who first “came down from” heaven (literally)—specifying “the Son of Man who is [right then] in heaven”. This too would fit the context; because it would be like what Jesus said to Nathanael in 1:51; “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

It probably doesn’t help you much that I offer two different interpretations. I believe that a good case can be made that either of them are legitimate. But I also believe that, whichever interpretation one embraces, the intended point remains the same. No one can reach up to heaven from earth. Our need is such that God must reach down to us in mercy—which He has done by sending His Son. You were right to point out that Enoch and Elijah both appear to have ascended to heaven without dying. But neither of them “came down from” heaven in order to tell us truth from God or show us the way to salvation. Only Jesus did. I believe that we can take Romans 10:6-10 in the light of all this: “But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) 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 which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”

Thanks for a great question.

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