Friday, 26 July 2013

New Testament "Believers"

     The New Testament was initially written in a language that is generally more expressive than English tends to be, and sometimes our English versions do not fully convey the depth or the clarity communicated in the original Greek text. This is not always a weakness of translation as much as a limitation of the English language itself.
     One of these translational challenges concerns the pisteuō word group. The standard rendering of the verbal form in most English versions is simply “believe,” which effectively limits the sense to an intellectual assent to a perceived fact. It fails to communicate, however, the wider range of nuances the term would normally express to a Greek speaker in the Hellenistic world.   
     The verb pisteuō has various shades of meaning, including the following: to believe in or be convinced of something (Acts 13:12; 1 John 4:16), give credence to (Luke 1:20; John 2:22), have confidence in (Matthew 8:13; 9:28; 21:22), be assured of (John 9:18; Acts 9:26; Romans 14:2), accept either tentatively (1 Corinthians 11:18) or without doubt (John 5:38, 46), assent with conviction (Romans 10:10) or without conviction (James 2:19b), trust in and/or rely on (John 6:29; 8:31; 2 Timothy 1:12), and entrust to (Romans 3:2; Galatians 2:7). Even though the same Greek word appears in all of these passages, it is clearly not employed in the same way and its usage must therefore be determined by the context.     
     Closely related to the verbal form is the articular participle ho pisteuōn. Although typically rendered “he who believes” (denoting one’s mental assimilation), the expression is more precisely translated “the believing one” (identifying who the person is). In other words, the participial form describes more than just someone who has accepted something in his heart. It categorizes a person who is receptive to the will of God, with the attendant requisites of commitment and obedience.
     Consider John 3:16 as an example. Does this frequently acclaimed “golden text of the Bible” include or exclude an obedient response to the Lord? The passage reads in English: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). It is not uncommon in today’s religious environment to hear this verse cited in an attempt to establish the widely held Protestant doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” and to further discount the essentiality of associated acts such as baptism. However, is it legitimate to separate a single verse from its context in order to constitute one’s entire system of faith? 
     If we take the time to read the whole paragraph (of which verse 16 is only a small part), it is hard to divorce obedience, including baptism, from the discussion. Jesus had already stated in verse 5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There is a twofold condition here for entering God’s kingdom, and the very next reference to water in this chapter is in relation to baptism (v. 23). Moreover, if we keep reading beyond verse 16, we see that the same Jesus, speaking to the same person, goes on to affirm in verse 21: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God” (emp. added KLM). Is fulfilling the divine will contingent upon merely believing without doing, or is saving faith inclusive of an active, obedient response? By reading the Lord’s entire discourse, the answer is clear.
     The statement in John 3:16 does not actually employ the verbal form “believe” (as in most English translations) but rather the articular participial form: “all the believing ones in him.” The focus here is not on what these believing ones have done (as in v. 21) but rather on who they are in relation to where they are. They are believers, as opposed to the unbelieving world, viewed within the redemptive sphere of God’s Son (compare Galatians 3:26-27).
     Further, if one is willing to read even more of the text, John goes on to declare at the end of the same chapter: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (v. 36). Although some English versions fail to disclose this fundamental distinction, the contrast here is between the believer (literally “the believing one [who is] in the Son”) and the one who does not obey (literally “the one disobeying the Son”). Note that believing and obeying are not mutually exclusive in the Bible but are inseparably linked.
     Elsewhere in the New Testament this teaching is equally clear. In Acts 2:44 those simply described as “all the believing ones” are in fact the penitent baptized believers of verses 37-41. Obviously these so-called “believers” had done more than just “believe” in their hearts. Their internal acceptance of the truth was accompanied by and demonstrated through outward, observable action. 
     Who are “the believing ones” in Hebrews 4:3 who enter the heavenly rest? They are contrasted with those who are characterized by disobedience (vv. 6, 11). In fact, since “unbelief” and “disobeying” are synonymous in the context of this discussion (see 3:18-19), it follows that saving faith, as biblically defined, is more than a mere intellectual acquiescence to something but also entails one’s active compliance to the Lord’s directives (compare chap. 11; also James 2:14-26).
     Biblical faith is no more devoid of associated action than the Bible’s recurring emphasis on obedience can be understood apart from faith (see Romans 1:5; 6:16, 17; 15:18; 16:19, 26; 2 Corinthians 10:5, 6; Galatians 5:6; etc.). The concept of “believers” in the New Testament is indicative of much more than what these persons have done, i.e., they have done more than just believe. Rather, the descriptive terminology signifies who Christians are as distinct from the unbelievers who resist God and reject his will (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:22; 1 Peter 2:7; 1 John 5:10). In other words, believers are those who have accepted and obeyed the gospel and continue to faithfully adhere to the teachings of Christ – citizens of God’s kingdom and members of the household of faith. 
--Kevin L. Moore

First appearing in the Gospel Advocate 152.8 (2010): 26-27. 

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Friday, 19 July 2013

"Tempted as we are, yet without sin"

     While the importance of Christ’s deity must never be downplayed, the fact remains that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14 NKJV) and the overwhelming emphasis of Scripture appears to be on this aspect of his nature.  Jesus is explicitly referred to as “man” no less than thirty-six times in the New Testament, and the designation “son of man” is applied to him an impressive eighty-two times (all but two of which are self-descriptions).  The humanity of our Lord is one of the most significant yet often underappreciated doctrines of the Bible.
     The Hebrews epistle explains that Christ’s brotherhood with man was necessary in order for him to suffer and die for our sins, as well as to help in the human plight, to be a merciful and faithful High Priest, and to sympathize with our struggles, trials, and weaknesses (2:9-18).  But to what extent was he willing to take on our frail human form?  The writer of Hebrews uses the expression kata panta (2:17), “in all things” (NKJV) or “in every respect” (ESV).  The implication is that Jesus, as a result of his incarnation, had no undue advantage over the rest of mankind.  This is emphasized further in 4:15, which states: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points [kata panta] tempted as we are . . .”  
     To be tempted is to be enticed to sin.  If it were not possible for Christ to have sinned,

Friday, 12 July 2013

Matthias: the Forgotten Apostle

     Matthias is first introduced in the biblical record in Acts 1:15-26, where he is gathered with about 120 believers in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension and before the Day of Pentecost. He had been a devoted follower of Jesus since the time of John the baptizer’s ministry and was an eyewitness of the risen Lord. The 4th-century historian Eusebius, based on sources available to him at the time (Eccl. Hist. 1.12.3), affirms that Matthias was among the seventy disciples of Luke 10:1-17.
     Long before Matthias is explicitly named, however, God had spoken of him through the prophet David. In view of the tragic demise of the apostle Judas, the divine will declared: “let another take his office” (Psalm 109:8 NKJV). The disciples had no way of knowing to which of their number this prophecy applied, but the Lord made it clear by selecting Matthias who was then “numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:20-26). Although this is the last time Matthias is mentioned by name in scripture, it is not the last time he is mentioned. From this point onward, in the recorded history of the early church, whenever we read of “the apostles” collectively, Matthias is almost certainly included. 
     He was present with his eleven comrades on the Day of Pentecost as they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and miraculously preached to foreign visitors in various languages (Acts 2:1-11). Matthias stood alongside Peter as the gospel was proclaimed (v. 14) and was among those asked by the convicted listeners, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). When about 3,000 souls responded to the gospel invitation on this occasion (v. 41), Matthias would have been available to assist with the baptisms. He and his fellow apostles
continued teaching these new converts and evangelizing the lost, confirming the divine message with miraculous signs (vv. 42-43). 
     In the face of opposition from Jewish authorities, Matthias was involved in the fervent prayer session where he and his companions dutifully prayed for boldness to speak God’s word, receiving an immediate answer to their selfless request (Acts 4:23-31). With great power he bore testimony of the resurrected Christ whom he had personally seen (v. 33). He also helped distribute benevolent aid among the needy and even participated in giving the nickname to the one we affectionately remember as “Barnabas” (vv. 34-37).
     The word of God successfully spread through the evangelistic efforts of Matthias and his co-workers, leading to their eventual arrest and incarceration by antagonistic Jewish leaders (Acts 5:12-18). Having been freed by an angel of the Lord, they went right back to preaching the gospel, only to be arrested again the next day and brought to trial (vv. 19-26). When sternly ordered not to teach anymore in the name of Jesus, Matthias joined his apostolic colleagues in responding: “We ought to obey God rather than men,” followed by a brief summation of the gospel message (vv. 29-32). Matthias came close to losing his life that day (v. 33), but in the end he and his associates were beaten, threatened, and then released (v. 40). 
     The Greek word used to describe this beating is a term that literally means to “flay” or “skin” (BAGD 175). According to Jewish law, the lashing was not to exceed forty blows (Deuteronomy 25:1-3), although for fear of miscounting and inadvertently transgressing the letter of the law, the rabbis limited the number to thirty-nine. Jews in the first century AD tended to inflict the maximum penalty (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24). The offender was held flat on the ground by his hands and feet, and the beating was typically administered to the back with a wooden rod (Proverbs 10:13; 19:29; 26:3), although sometimes a whip of twisted strips of leather was employed (see C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the OT 3:421).
     What effect did this horrific experience have on Matthias and his companions? “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42). Matthias carried on his faithful service of prayer and ministry of the word (6:4), even in the face of bitter persecution (8:1, 14; 9:1; 12:1). He was also involved in conflict resolution in the Jerusalem church (6:1-7; 15:6). 
     When Paul of Tarsus returned to Jerusalem in the spring of 57, he met with James and the elders instead of the apostles (Acts 21:18). This suggests that sometime between 50 and 57 Matthias left Jerusalem to carry out his ministry elsewhere, taking along his believing wife (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5). According to tradition, he went on to spread the gospel in Judea, Cappadocia, and/or Ethiopia. Like the other apostles, he continued to face many dangers and hardships, risking his life to proclaim the good news to a lost and dying world. He endured hunger, thirst, lack of clothing, beatings, and homelessness, and not receiving the financial assistance he deserved, he worked with his own hands to support himself and his family (1 Corinthians 4:9-12; cf. 9:4-14). He was reviled, persecuted, defamed, and regarded “as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). While traditions about him vary, they consistently affirm that Matthias ultimately suffered death as a martyr.
     Lest we persist in overlooking the significant contribution of this great hero of faith, remember that Matthias, through his faithful apostolic ministry, played a crucial role in laying the foundation of the Lord’s church to which we are now privileged to belong (Ephesians 2:19–3:5). Though he never sought his own glory, this brief article is a humble attempt to give honor to a dedicated servant of Christ to whom honor is unquestionably due (Romans 13:7).
--Kevin L. Moore

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Female Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Part 5 of 5): Summary, Application, and Conclusion

     For many, the difficulty in interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 seems to rest on two underlying assumptions: (1) if what Paul has written is taken at face value, it cannot be harmonized with the context; and (2) if the context is considered, what Paul has written cannot be taken at face value. Thus the passage has a long history of being modified (distorted) by well-intentioned translators and interpreters, while the apostle’s original purpose remains aloof. However, the inspired text does not need additions or alterations for a reasonable and consistent understanding of it to be attained.
     Precise knowledge of the occasion which prompted Paul’s directives is unavailable to modern exegetes. The best we can do is to reconstruct, as closely as possible, a scenario that is consistent with the information provided by the passage itself and its surrounding context. The popular conjecture that the women at Corinth were engaged in a defiant emancipation movement, casting off their head-coverings and flaunting their independence, is untenable. Nothing in Paul’s discourse, or anywhere else in the New Testament, warrants this supposition.
     The Christian ladies at Corinth were probably meeting in private homes to pray and/or prophesy. Gatherings restricted to females (inclusive of children) would have been the only settings in which they could legitimately exercise their gifts and fulfill certain ministries (cf. 14:34-35; Titus 2:3-4). Some of these women might have questioned the necessity of wearing headdresses in the home, especially when no men were present. Should they have the right to uncover their heads in these situations? If others reacted against this notion and sought to bind the head-covering in every circumstance as a matter of faith and religious law, the resulting conflict needed the wise counsel of the apostle Paul.
     On one hand, should women be denied the right to decide in matters of personal expediency, and should a man-made tradition be sanctioned as a matter of objective faith? On the other hand, should the more sensitive and conscientious brethren be dismissed, with the potential of weaker Christians being caused to stumble (cf. 8:9-13) and unbelievers being offended or left with the wrong impression (cf. 10:23-32)?
     Paul does not formulate a rule they had to follow but offers a few reasonable premises and then calls on them to make their own decision. Female submissiveness is according to God’s design, so a Christian ought to be careful not to do something that might give the impression that this arrangement is being disrespected or ignored. In ancient Corinth men were not expected to routinely cover their heads, with the opposite applying to the opposite gender. A Christian woman, therefore, in her demeanor and appearance, especially when engaged in religious activity, should modestly reflect her God-given submissive role.
     At the same time, she ought to have freedom over her head and be trusted to use it responsibly. In the Lord neither man nor woman is independent of the other, and all things are from God. You [Corinthians] must decide among yourselves, already knowing what is proper. But if it is going to generate strife, be aware that “we do not have such a custom,”1 i.e. this is not a religious mandate. As a social convention it should not be an issue that causes disputes among brethren.
     This passage makes more sense when read through mid-first-century Corinthian glasses. For example, Paul goes on to say to the very same readership, “greet one another with a sacred kiss” (16:20b). Does this mean that modern-day Christians in western cultures ought to be kissing each other as the divinely ordained mode of interaction? We understand that the apostle is not initiating a new and distinct form of greeting for all churches of all times. He is simply regulating the customary kiss-greeting already practiced by his mid-first-century Corinthian audience. In other words, when they greet one another in the conventional way, they are to make sure it is done in a sacred manner for a holy purpose.
     The conscientious Bible student will begin his/her investigation of any biblical text by considering what the inspired writer was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they would have understood the message in the context in which it was first communicated. When this is the preliminary focus, one is in a much better position to correctly interpret and apply the sacred writings as they were intended (see Biblical Interpretation: Asking the Right Questions).
     The question is not whether Paul’s teachings should be applied today, but rather how the directives and underlying principles should be understood and observed. For example, to dress modestly is a biblical principle, but how does it apply? In 1st-century Ephesus is was applied by women not wearing braided hair or expensive jewelry and clothing (1 Timothy 2:9). In 19th-century Europe it was applied by ladies not wearing skirts above their ankles. In 21st-century Saudi Arabia it is applied by women not exposing their hair or faces. Just because braided hair no longer betokens immodesty in most cultures today, the underlying principle is still valid.
     Seeing that the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 involves culturally relevant symbols, other means which sustain the same principles may be acceptable in different historical and cultural settings (akin to the kiss-greeting, feet washing, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, etc.).2 The enduring principles include (1) God’s hierarchical arrangement = God-Christ-man-woman, (2) consistency of Christian behavior, (3) the sanctity of spiritual service kept separate from anything shameful, (4) Christian freedom and responsibility, (5) natural gender distinctions, (6) divinely appointed gender roles, (7) Christian demeanor involving purity and decency, and (8) living in harmony with customs that are right within themselves.
     The means of expressing these principles in mid-first-century Corinth involved women having long hair and covering their heads, with the opposite applying to men. While the principles remain relevant today, the symbols do not, unless one’s cultural conventions are similar to those of the original addressees. It is a mistake to wrest a local directive from the circumstance in which it was given and transform it into a universal decree.3
     In societies where being unveiled is not “one and the same [thing] as the one having been shaved,” it would seem that the appeal to “let her continue to have her [head] covered” would not be directly applicable. Where else would a conditional pronouncement be obligatory when the condition was no longer true? “While the logical conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing is that it is not necessary for women to wear a hat or other head-covering, Christian women, nevertheless, in their dress and behavior will always comply with the accepted conventions consistent with decorum.”4
     What about those who wish to bind the precise details of this passage and insist that ladies cover their heads in worship assemblies today? An initial response is one of consistency. Where in this passage is the wearing of a headdress restricted to the corporate worship assembly? If the headdress symbolizes modesty and submission, should not modesty and submission be manifested outside the assembly as well?     
     The meaning of the head-covering was clear to those living in ancient Corinth, but the same is not true for those living in 21st-century western societies. Seeing that Paul is appealing to social disgrace and shame, collective judgment and propriety, and cultural normalcy, the enforcement of the head-covering in cultures where such is not the norm would reverse the purpose of these directives. God’s people are most certainly to be different from the world, yet we are not totally divorced from our environment. Granted, secular society does not set the standard for what is right, but at least in some circumstances it can help define what is improper and offensive.
     If a Christian woman chooses to wear a head-covering today, she has the right to do so. If a Christian woman chooses not to cover her head, if it is not expected in her culture, she has the right not to do so. The wearing or not wearing of a head-covering is a matter of personal liberty and is not a collective work of the church. If one woman is veiled in an assembly and another is not, neither affects the activity of the other. Both are individually responsible before God.
     Brethren who differ on this matter can still work and worship together, as long as proper attitudes are manifested, opinions are not bound, and consciences are not violated. “There are some issues over which brethren may disagree without any break in fellowship, and wise Christians generally recognize this” (W. Jackson, A Sign of Authority 21).
     Every woman who exhibits a sincere desire to please the Lord and humbly fulfills her divinely ordained role deserves utmost admiration and respect. May all who approach this passage of scripture do so with humility and reverence, avoiding extremes, and seeking to comprehend and obey its timeless message.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations in English are the author's own translation.
     2 While the head-covering no longer expresses the same symbolism that it once did, this alone is not sufficient grounds for rejecting it. After all, the symbolism of baptism and the Lord's Supper requires instruction for the meaning to be understood. But unlike baptism and the Lord's Supper, the significance of women covering or uncovering their heads was already established in ancient eastern societies. Paul is not telling ladies to cover their heads. His arguments concern women, who ordinarily cover their heads, not removing the coverings while praying or prophesying.
     3 Cf. L. Morris, First Corinthians 156. “It seems that Paul was asking the Corinthians to follow a normal cultural practice that in that day reflected an understanding that God has created men and women to function in different roles. As long as men and women today are not communicating by their dress that the creative order and distinctions are done away, they are being obedient to this passage” (K. T. Wilson, “Should Women Wear Headcoverings?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 [Oct.–Dec. 1991]: 461).
     4 W. J. Martin, “I Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretaion,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel. Eds. W. W. Gasque and R. P. Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970): 239 n. 3.

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