The Good Book Blog

The Good Book Blog

The Good Book Blog is the faculty blog of Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. Representing the diverse areas of specialty within the seminary, but bound by a common commitment to biblical authority, the blog seeks to engage with important topics in biblical studies, theology, philosophy, spiritual formation and Christian education. The Good Book Blog is a resource for anyone seeking solid biblical scholarship that engages contemporary ideas from a decidedly evangelical perspective. 

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2 Striking Truths about the Last Supper

By Joy Mosbarger

Most of us are familiar with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper—or at least with some of those words. When we celebrate communion together, we regularly hear “this is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Recently, however, I read through Luke 22, which includes the Last Supper and the events surrounding it. In addition to these familiar words from the Last Supper, I was struck by some of the other words spoken by Jesus on this momentous occasion.

After Jesus and the disciples settled together around the Passover table, the first words Jesus spoke were these: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). As he faces a time of unimaginably intense suffering in his life, Jesus has a deep and powerful longing to be with his disciples. Though Jesus clearly needed to be with his Father as he approached the suffering that was to come (vv. 41-44), he also seems to have felt a need to be with his disciples—his closest earthly, human friends. Jesus’ profound yearning to be with his disciples at this darkest, most difficult place in his life is quite remarkable.

This desire is even more remarkable when considering the major imperfections of the disciples, which are on display for all to see in the events following the Last Supper in Luke 22. Their immediate reaction to Jesus’ disclosure of his imminent suffering is not sympathy, but a discussion of which one of them is going to betray Jesus (v. 23). This is immediately followed by a dispute that arose among them as to which of them should be considered to be the greatest (vv. 24-30). He later asks them to pray that they might not enter into temptation while he is alone in prayer with the Father. Instead, they fall asleep (vv. 39-46). Judas betrays him (vv. 47-48), and Peter denies him (vv. 54-62). Their actions do not reveal the disciples as being intent on encouraging and strengthening a friend in a time of great need. Yet in spite of the disciples’ human frailties and failures, of which Jesus was well aware, he still earnestly desired to be with them at this horrendously grueling point in his life.

There are two truths in particular from this narrative in Luke 22 that I find most striking and extraordinary. First, Jesus loved his disciples as they were and strongly desired to be with them. It is obvious that the disciples needed Jesus in profound ways. Yet, on some level, Jesus “needed” the disciples—or at least he wanted them with him in this place of deep struggle and pain. And he didn’t want to be with them because of the depth of their maturity; rather, he longed to be with them with all their flaws and defects because he knew that they (except maybe Judas) loved him to the degree that they were capable of doing so. I find it immensely comforting and quite astounding to know that Jesus actually wants to be with me with all my imperfections and weaknesses—because I have a lot of them.

Second, though the disciples were with Jesus in this place of deep anguish, they didn’t really hear what he had to say. They were more focused on themselves and what they perceived as their needs. They seemed to be more worried about which of them would betray Jesus rather than the fact that Jesus was going to be betrayed. During their last hours with the greatest human being who ever lived, they were arguing about which of them was the greatest. When Jesus asked them to pray while he was alone with the Father, they fell asleep. With momentous events of eternal consequence taking place around them and in the presence of the one at the center of these events, the disciples seem to be missing the significance of Jesus’ words and the privilege of Jesus’ presence.

It saddens me to realize that often I am welcomed into the presence of Jesus, who earnestly desires to be with me, and all I can do is think about and talk about me. I miss what he is saying and doing, which is of much greater, deeper, and lasting significance than what I am saying and doing. Jesus gave his body for me and poured out his blood for me; he willingly sacrificed all for me. Shouldn’t that motivate me to recognize the eternal, incalculable value of reveling in the privilege of enjoying his presence and closely watching for what he is saying and doing while I am with him?

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

4 Essential Truths We Must Learn from the Transfiguration

By Dave Talley

In Mark 9:1–13 we read about an unparalleled event in the Bible. It is absolutely amazing to let our imaginations wander to consider what the disciples actually witnessed. What a moment it must have been. But what does it actually mean to us? What can we learn from this event?

We are at a point in Jesus’ ministry where he is beginning to make it clear that he will suffer. His first plain teaching on this subject is found in 8:31 after the disciples, via Peter’s voice, have correctly identified him as the Messiah, the Son of God. Immediately, Jesus provides them the details of what will soon happen to the Messiah, and it does not correlate with their expectations of Messiah. They understand that the Messiah will usher in the kingdom. The way he eventually enters Jerusalem to the crowds shouting, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” is what they expected. The way he ultimately exits Jerusalem through his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven was beyond their comprehension and not what they expected.

So, when Jesus tells them plainly that he is going to die, be buried, and rise again (Mark 8:31), Peter rebukes him (8:32–33). Soon, Jesus repeats this same teaching to them partially in 9:12 and fully in 9:31. This time the disciples are quiet because they were afraid to ask questions (9:32). They are having difficulty fully understanding what Jesus is telling them. This struggle will continue for them for the most part until the day of Pentecost. From that point on, their sermons make it clear that they fully understand what Jesus had been trying to tell them.

In the midst of this early struggle in Mark 8:31 and 9:12/31, God gives them “something to hold onto.” He comes down in his glory. They see Jesus transformed into his divine glory, and they hear the Father thunder from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” The disciples are struggling with what Jesus is saying, so God shows up to remove any doubt. Eventually, this “something to hold onto” will take firm root in their hearts. Peter states in 2 Peter 1:16–21:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Peter clearly had received “something to hold onto,” only it took awhile for him to fully get a hold of it. Until he and the others fully grasp what Jesus is trying to teach them, they will have many struggles of doubt and fear. However in the end, each of them except for John are martyred. They die for what they come to believe.

What really stands out to me in this story is that God gives them “something to hold onto.” He knows that they need something. He knows that they are in struggle, so he pushes back the veil of heaven and provides them with a glimpse of his glory and a reminder of his eternal purposes. This demonstrates that Jesus’ suffering is not incompatible with his glory. The work of Moses and Elijah is continuing to move forward in Jesus. God is making a way for people to be in eternal relationship with him. That is the larger story of which Peter, the disciples, and even us today, are a part.

So what does this have to do with us? I think that there are several lessons we can learn from this scene in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Consider these truths:

TRUTH #1: As we follow Jesus, he will prepare us to face the next situation in our lives. He is the great I AM who is for us and will be with us.

In the same way that he was preparing the disciples for what was going to happen in their lives, even though they were not able to fully grasp it, Jesus is constantly preparing us for what is in the days before us. He will give us “something to hold onto” as well.

TRUTH #2: As we follow Jesus into our unknown future, it would benefit us to also “listen to him.” His words are for us.

The disciples had preconceived notions of how their future, and that of Jesus, was to unfold, but they needed to place their hopes and expectations in Jesus. We must also put aside our preconceived notions and put our hope in Jesus. We need to listen to him. Today we listen to him by reading our Bibles and resting in the truth of his word. Peter, who witnessed the transfiguration stated, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21). We might like God to show up in his glory in our backyard, but Peter claims that what we have is “the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” Listen to his word.

TRUTH #3: Life is bigger than what our eyes can see.

The disciples were no doubt going through the busyness of life and forgetting that God was at work in the world accomplishing his purposes. They could easily live AS IF GOD IS NOT. So, God steps in and gives them a big reminder that there is more going on than meets the eye. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus have a little chat about what God is going to do in Jerusalem through Jesus. This moment served as a reminder to the disciples to live AS IF GOD IS. They needed to abandon their little petty life agendas and turn their attention toward the greater work that God is doing. We must also honestly pay attention to our own lives. We can be prayer-less, full of anxiety, despairing, looking to created things to bring us life, angry at being wronged or not appreciated, frustrated, lacking faith, etc. We can be living AS IF GOD IS NOT. Despite what events happen in this world, Jesus is still in his glory, seated at the right hand of our Father, and he is moving everything forward to accomplish his purposes. Let’s live AS IF GOD IS. Let’s live in light of the bigger story.

TRUTH #4: This glimpse of Jesus in the transfiguration reminds us that this world is not our final home.

In the same way that eternal God’s glory breaks into the kingdom of this world and Jesus is transfigured for just a moment, one day the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord. But not yet. Now, this world is fallen. We face disease. We face death. We live in the throes of sin and feel the effects of it daily. We sin and we are sinned against. There is pain and suffering and sorrow. One day, there will be more, and we are to live with this in mind. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

So, in the days ahead, let’s live with glory in view. God has given us “something to hold onto” as we await the soon return of Jesus. May you be encouraged by being reminded of the bigger picture of what God is doing and may you remain faithful and focused until he completes his purposes and the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Questions about Hell: What Does the Bible Say?

By John McKinley

IV. Addendum: An array of the biblical teaching on hell (ESV)

Isaiah 66:22-24 || Mark 9:48

24 And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.                  

Daniel 12:1-3

2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Matthew 3:11-12 || Luke 3:15-18

12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Matthew 5:21-22

22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:27-30 || 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-48

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 7:13, 21-23 || Luke 6:46; 13:25-27

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 8:11-12 || Luke 13:28-29

11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 10:28 || Luke 12:4-5

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 11:20-24

23… you, Capernaum… will be brought down to Hades…24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.

Matthew 13:36-43

 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Matthew 13:47-50

49 So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 22:1-14

13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 23:15, 33

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.... You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 

Matthew 24:36-51 || Luke 12:46

50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:14-30 || Luke 19:27

30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25:31-46

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Luke 12:35-49 || Matt 24:42-51

47 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.

Luke 16:19-31

22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’

John 3:16-21

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

John 3:36

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.

John 5:28-29

28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

John 8:21-30

21 So he said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.”

24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”

Romans 2:1-11, cf. 1:18; 3:5-6; 5:8-10; 9:22-24; Eph 2:3; 5:5-7; Col 3:5-7; 1 Th 1:9-10

5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

Romans 9:3

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Colossians 3:25; cf. 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Tim 5:24; Rom 12:19

For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might

Hebrews 6:1-3

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ … 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

2 Peter 2:1-22

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction [katastrophe: harm, ruin, destruction; an overthrowing, see 2 Tim 2:14], making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment

12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing.

17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.

Jude 3-13, 23

5 Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. 6 And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

…[these people are like] 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

23 save others by snatching them out of the fire

Revelation 6:12-17

15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Revelation 14:9-11

9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

Revelation 19:20

20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived.... These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

Revelation 20:10-15

10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:1-27

8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Revelation 22:13-15

15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Questions about Hell: The Conquest of Sin?

By John McKinley

A recent article by Shawn Bawulski in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 2013) helpfully restates an interpretation of hell known as reconciliationism (“Reconciliationism, A Better View of Hell: Reconciliationism and Eternal Punishment”). This is not universalism. At final judgment, all evildoers will be reconciled to God’s purposes in the sense that they will be subdued, conquered, and stopped from hostility and resistance to God. By contrast, believers have already surrendered to Jesus voluntarily. Nonbelievers will finally bow to Jesus because no other option is available to them when he confronts them at the final judgment.

Passages such as Philippians 2:10-11 (“every knee will bow”) tell a crushing defeat of all God’s enemies. Ephesians 1:10 has all things “in heaven and earth” united to God through Christ. Colossians 1:20 uses the term “reconciled” comprehensively in a way that cannot mean “saved” or restored to relationship with God. We can understand the meaning to be put back in place as a creature made to honor the Creator. All things are ruled by God, but at present God permits defiance as it suits his purposes. We look forward to the end of anything violating God’s rule.

Recent proponents of this view during the last decade are Henri Blocher, Andy Saville, Bawluski, and Stephen Williams. Saville notes that a handful of theologians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century argued for the view as well (including James Orr, contributor to The Fundamentals). While the relative novelty of the view might make us suspicious about it, I think that it has solid biblical and theological merits to commend it.

An important contribution in this view is how we should understand the reconciling and uniting spoken of in these passages. Proponents suggest that at final judgment, evildoers will be stripped of the power to continue resisting God. Their illusions about themselves, their sin, and God will be eliminated. For the first time, they know the full weight of their sin, and then go into everlasting despair and self-contempt with that knowledge.

It is traditional (such as with Shedd) to explain the everlasting duration of punishment in hell as due to continued sinning by the people there. While being punished for sins during their earthly lifetime, they continue to hate God and incur more penalties. Critics of the conservative view of hell (everlasting conscious punishment) have pointed to this claim of continuing sin as an inappropriate cosmic dualism. The New Creation is a permanent outpost of good, and hell continues to be the camp of those who hate God and curse him forever. God’s creation never gets over sin. Evildoers who continue to revile God are not reconciled to his justice since by their continuing sin and hatred of God they defy it.

The conquest of sin is a vision that makes sense of the “reconciled” and “unite” passages without taking them in a universalistic way and sets aside the cosmic dualism problem. God defeats sin absolutely, for all time and everywhere. God would do this by stripping evildoers of the power to continue defying God. Use your freedom properly, or lose it. By comparison, our justice system works this way with respect to some freedoms by incarcerating criminals. There seems to be no biblical or theological requirement that God maintains the freedom of evildoers to sin after final judgment. By comparison, most people admit that resurrected believers will be fulfilled in their freedom so as not to be capable of sin any longer (since death is no more, and death is the consequence for sin, thus sin is no more).

Perhaps Mark 4:25 can be read along with this guess at the stripping evildoers of the freedom to sin. Jesus says, "For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." (NASB) 

I think we can imagine evildoers in hell as having been broken from their lifelong defiance of God and having suppressed the truth about God and their sin. They admit that they are wrong, and God is right. They confess that they are getting what they fully deserve in exclusion from all goods and whatever they are suffering as punishment for their guilt. Their condition is irreversible, so regret at this point is not a repentance and faith to receive forgiveness. Knowing there is no hope is part of the horror.

This explanation allows us to affirm that evildoers have value for God. For God, people in hell will continually honor him as the righteous Judge (in parallel to the way people in the new creation will honor him as the gracious Savior). Evildoers will continue to have purpose and value as God’s image bearers who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. They continue to live with created dignity by the way God holds them accountable for their evil actions. Their choices are important. Their freedom was real. Hell is God’s way of holding them responsible for the tremendous gifts of freedom that he created for them. Perhaps this is a manifestation of God’s love to maintain their dignity as vanquished criminals who suffer for their deeds.

By comparison, annihilationism entails that evildoers are worthless to God, mistakes that were a temporary blight on creation. God extinguishes them forever because he has nothing left that he can do with them for any purpose or value. Universalism ultimately overturns creaturely freedom by absolute inclusion of all people in saving relationship with God. By contrast, the traditional view of hell affirms creaturely freedom to have made important choices with durable consequences for enjoyment or pain. This is the terrible magnitude of freedom.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Questions about Hell: Degrees of Punishment?

By John McKinley

Following on my earlier post on the metaphorical language used for naming and describing the punishment of hell, this post explores the doctrine of degrees of punishment. The basic idea is that the Bible seems to say that all evildoers will suffer the same hell for their sins, but God's perfect justice means that worse criminals will suffer worse punishments for their crimes. This is not torture or exacting pain as somehow accomplishing something for God, as if God were a fiendish tormentor. But then what is it?

II. The Doctrine of Degrees of Punishment

All evildoers go to hell, without exception. God’s perfect justice is that hell will be worse for some than others. (There is a parallel to the doctrine of rewards in heaven.) This idea may be surprising. We are not to imagine that God is a torturer who somehow gets something out of punishing evildoers. But we are to take seriously the parable in Luke 12:42-48 in which Jesus compares the punishments of two servants who both deserve “a beating” for their misdeeds. Jesus distinguishes between the servant who knew the master’s will, and the other servant who did not. Knowing more brings “a severe beating” while knowing less brings “a lesser beating.”

This distinction of punishments according to differences of what people did and of their knowledge and opportunities corresponds to the teaching that there are differences in the rewards in heaven. All believers will receive the same inheritance of everlasting life and joy to live with God forever. Some distinction will be rewarded according to faithfulness during this life, as in the parable of the talents, and the command to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Most likely, the experience of reward will subjective, not as the basis for comparison, sadness, envy, or pride. The doctrine of degrees of rewards is a motivator: how people make choices here, on earth, have long-term positive consequences for living in the new earth, beyond just getting there and avoiding hell.

Similarly, the doctrine of differing degrees of punishments corresponds to God’s perfect justice so that, for example, Adolf Hitler and his servants will suffer differently according to their deeds. Oliver Crisp has compared this to the punishments of two prisoners, both with life sentences (“Divine Retribution: A Defence,” Sophia 42: 2 [2003], 35–52). One is a forger, and he has a life sentence. Part of his punishment is to do hard labor of busting up rocks for one day each month, as fits his nonviolent crime. The other prisoner, a murderer, also has a life sentence, but, as suits his crime, he must do hard labor every other day. Both are in prison, but it is worse for the worse criminal. All evildoers will be incarcerated in hell, but it will be worse for some than others, according to their deeds.

I doubt that the punishments are some form of active torture from God’s side. I think they suffer because of their guilt; the guilt is what causes them pain in the presence of a righteous God. The Bible uses terms such as “torment” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Of course the picture is of a horrible experience. I think that the punishments are at least partly the direct pain due to knowing one’s specific guilt for sins. At final judgment, all things are exposed (Henri Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed. N. M. de S. Cameron [Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992]). For evildoers, this means a stripping away of all the illusions about God and their sin. The truth they long suppressed will overturn them. Their crimes will be exposed in fullness. They will acknowledge God’s rightness, and their own wretchedness. All evildoers, the devil included, will bow to Jesus and admit that he is the Lord.

Going out from the final judgment, the burden upon them is their full knowledge of guilt for all their sins. I imagine that they will have no way to avoid this truth or to pretend that they have not actually been so wrong as to hate God and his ways as much as they have. This is a constant and inescapable burden of knowing, “I am guilty of horrible things! God has been good to me in innumerable ways, but I have repaid him with only evil! I have caused incalculable pain to all the people in my life. I am ashamed. I have only contempt for myself. I know I will find no comfort ever.”

This final and everlasting self-knowledge may correspond to the differences of degrees in punishments. Hitler must live with the full knowledge of what he has done. This is an exact repayment of justice against him for his deeds, as God promises (Col 3:25). Being guilty, and knowing it fully, causes an internal burn and suffering in the presence of God (cf. Rev 14:10, they suffer in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb). God is not the problem; the evildoer’s guilt is the problem. This may be a bit like what Professor Quirrell suffers in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry, who is imbued with his mother’s self-sacrificial love like a protective spell, lays a hand on Quirrell, who is carrying the spirit of Voldemort. Voldemort and his host cannot stand love; they are bent on malice. Harry’s mother’s love causes great pain to Quirrell. Love is not the problem; hatred of love is.

Similarly, C.S. Lewis suggested in The Great Divorce that the realities of heaven are unappealing to people who are not fit to be there because of their selfishness. The values of self-surrender, empathy, humility, and self-sacrifice as love for others are abhorrent to the unconverted evildoer. God’s goodness is not appreciated, but felt as pain to the one who hates God and his goods. In this way, the punishment of hell is both the separation from God’s goods, and the immersion into one’s own guilt and selfishness. Sanity is preserved (being crazy is no escape from punishment). Clarity of vision about one’s guilt and God’s righteousness are constantly in view. The presence of an omnipresent God in hell is felt horribly as pain for the one who has only guilt. This is pain commensurate with one’s deeds, and it causes great weeping and gnashing of teeth in self-contempt. Forever.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

Questions about Hell: Is It a Literal Fire? Or Worse?

By John McKinley

Many mistaken ideas about hell have infected the church’s thinking, which further clutters our discourse about hell (such as: hell is a torture chamber where the devil and demons are tormenting humans, the devil rules in hell, hell is the absolute absence from God’s omnipresence, universalism, annihilationism, and purgatory).

Hell is a hard topic, and it’s hard to spend time thinking carefully about hard topics. Clearly, God wants us to think about it (and heaven), or else he would not have revealed it to us in so much description. What I set out here are three topics in the doctrine that may help resolve some of the difficulty we have in thinking about hell.

I. Metaphorical Language for Hell

The Bible uses vivid, horrible, and fearsome language in descriptions of the punishment people will suffer in hell. Prominent are statements about fire and burning, with the associated anguish and torment that we can imagine would go along with being burned continually.

I think it’s at least questionable if the descriptions of hell are not actual, but metaphorical. The imagery points to the reality, but not in a scientific reporting way we might expect of revelation on an important topic. Everyone knows what it is like to be burned with fire. Based on that memory of experiencing temporary hot pain, we can easily imagine the greater horror of being immersed in a lake of hot flame forever. With that pain in mind, I think the Bible leads us to conclude that hell is even worse than that. The terms given to us are from our experience to reveal further what we cannot be told in terms that we readily understand. Hell is not of this world.

I think there are three good reasons to take the descriptions of hell as metaphorical starting points revealing something much worse than the reality of actual flames and a lake of fire. This is not an air-conditioning of hell, as one prominent theologian has warned. This is to say that the revelation is figuratively accurate.

Metaphorical Names for Hell

The names for hell (Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, Gehenna, the second death) are all metaphorical. Sheol is the grave, a term that makes reference to ongoing existence of dead people by reference to the grave where their bodies remain. Hades is a name for the mythological location of the underworld, used in the NT to refer to the actual realm that is beyond this world of the living. Tartarus (only in 2 Peter 2:4), according to Greek mythology, is the place within Hades where the wicked suffer punishment. Tartarus is metaphorical for the actual punishment evildoers will suffer in God’s justice.

Gehenna is metaphorical reference to the actual place of punishment by using a term from the world of the living, the Hinnom Valley, where Israelites sacrificed their children in the detestable worship of Molech (just outside the city of Jerusalem). The reference of Gehenna is to shame, contempt, and pain in the netherworld, not merely to the Jerusalem garbage dump. Gehenna is used 13 times in the New Testament, usually translated as “hell.”

Finally, hell is identified as “the second death” in Revelation 20. By comparison with other ways death is used in the Bible, we can put this together as the loss and separation from all goods in this life irreversibly. Biological death is a separation of the spirit (or soul) from the body, and loss of ability to live on earth without the body. Spiritual death is clear in Ephesians 2:1-3 (”you were dead in the trespasses and sins”) as the loss of access to God and separation from the goods and freedoms that he alone provides. God warned of this consequence for sin in Genesis 2. Adam and Eve hid from God, blamed each other, and then were thrust out of the place of blessing, separated from the tree of life. Accordingly, hell as the second death is best understood as a permanent loss of opportunities and goods to be had from God because the evildoer is cast out and excluded from the kingdom of the new creation.

Metaphorical Descriptions of Hell

The descriptions of hell, if taken to be actual realities, seem to be incompatible with each other (fire, with its light, is together with darkness) and are obviously unreal (fire that does not stop, a worm that does not die). These point beyond themselves to worse things than being immersed in a lake of fire. Sulfur is mentioned to tell the high intensity of heat (as compared to low-heat from the flame of candle wax). The repeated ideas throughout the varied descriptions are pain, punishment, suffering, torment, and anguish. While I expect there is a significant physical aspect to the pain of hell, I expect that the internal burn is the worst part. (See my next post for this question.)

The fiery description of God’s punishments of evildoers in hell fits with the way that God is frequently described metaphorically in the Bible as “a consuming fire” and his anger is likened to heat and fire. Several times God does mete out punishment to people on earth by actually burning them (as with Sodom), but this is not the final punishment of hell to pay later. That people were burned to death by God was a sign to Israel that worse is to come for evildoers who do not repent, much like Jesus’ greater-than statements in Luke 13:1-6. He points to the death that some experienced by the hand of Pilate’s soldiers and by a falling tower as a sharp warning of worse peril to come.

Hell for Jesus and the Devil

We have the problem of being able to say that Jesus suffered hell at the cross, without flames, and that the devil, a spiritual being, will also suffer the punishment of hell’s flames. Neither can be true if we hold to descriptions as actual instead of metaphorical revelation of a horrible internal burn. The crucifixion certainly gives an external, physical pain. The three hours of unnatural darkness indicates something worse that brought his early death (hell was brought to him there, while on the cross). It seems best to think that the descriptions in all their horror point beyond the actual flame and sulfur to something worse that we can barely imagine: absolute banishment from God’s goods, unending suffering and anguish, and the certainty of no relief.

Related to these metaphorical descriptions of hell is the hyperbole Jesus uses to urge people to do everything necessary to avoid hell—even to the point of cutting off one’s hand or foot, or gouging out an eye. All these things are told so that we may flee hell while an opportunity of surrender to God remains open. We are urged to take hell as seriously as possible so that we may warn others of their impending peril should they not repent. This is not an acceptable message today, but that doesn’t make hell any less real or important for us to consider.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

5 Ways to Know if Someone is “Free from the Love of Money”

By Kenneth Berding

One of the qualifications for an overseer/elder/pastor (all the same office in the Bible) is that he be “free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). Now, suppose that you are on an elder board and seeking to know whether a new candidate for the office is, in fact, free from the love of money. How can you figure it out? Here are five useful diagnostic questions.

The most natural way to answer the question of whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is free from the love of money is to turn one page to the right in your Bible and observe what the Apostle Paul writes about a Christian’s relationship to money in 1 Timothy 6, including the all-too-common problem of money-loving. From that chapter, we can derive the following questions to use when we are trying to ascertain whether an overseer is or is not free from the love of money. Here are five useful questions:

1.  Is contentment evident in his life? 1 Timothy 6:6–8 says, “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.”

2.  Does he aspire to be rich? 1 Timothy 6:9–10 says, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

3.  Does he evidence conceit? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited …”

4.  When in a difficult situation, does he seem to fix his hope on God or on his wealth to resolve his problem? 1 Timothy 6:17 says, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to… fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”

5.  Is there evidence of generosity? 1 Timothy 6:18–19 says, “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

These five diagnostic questions will help you ascertain whether an overseer or candidate for overseer is or is not free from the love of money.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

7 “Churchy” Words and the Need for Clarity

By John McKinley

Occasionally I find myself in a conversation with a non-Christian friend. Sometimes, I have to pay close attention to the language I use if the talk turns to things related to God and ultimate reality. I do the same when I talk to my children about Bible things. I want to be understood, but the normal Christian terms are a foreign language to many people, Christians included. The terms are difficult to use when they don’t communicate.

We are moving in the West further along this path as a post-Christian culture. No longer are Christian terms and biblical concepts commonplace. Most people are not familiar with the story of Job, or Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. It is ironic that so many Americans claim to be Christians, attend churches, and value the Bible while so few are able to recount the Ten Commandments. Things have changed; meanings that once were common in the culture have become rare in the minds of many people.

The shrinking of biblical and theological knowledge in the American culture has also occurred in evangelical churches. Whatever the level of Bible reading and meditation was in earlier generations before now, it seems that the current levels are low. This means that we retain culturally the frameworks and vocabulary of Christianity while having lost touch with their substance. In other words, people can still talk like Christians as in a masquerade (but they don’t know they’re in costume). Newer Christians can even adopt the language of mature experience with God, though they have not been there personally.

English Bible translations have unintentionally helped to drive a wedge between Christian substance and the language of everyday conversation and thought. I find myself frequently having to adjust words and insert definitional phrases for words that I’m pretty sure my children don’t understand when we read the Bible. Certainly we must continue to use large words that carry theological weight: propitiation, justification, atonement, righteousness, regeneration, trinity, incarnation, and redemption (among others I can’t think of right now). Each of these stands for a definite doctrinal teaching of the Bible that must be explained, grasped, and repeated using special terminology. I don’t think that other terms will do for describing these realities of salvation and God.

The terms that are distinctly religious but don’t seem to communicate any longer are a distinct category that causes me concern. These words are repeated in Christian songs and discourse regularly. Many times I stop and ask myself what the term really means. I ask students what they mean when they say, for example, “It’s for God’s glory.” I reply: “What do you mean by glory?” They don’t have a clue. They really mean that that the event or decision in question somehow serves God’s purposes. If so, then let’s just say that. My concern is that we have settled for using as jargon the Christian terminology because it seems rightly religious, not because we understand or intend the actual meanings these terms stand for.

My list of seven troublesome words and brief explanations is below, with suggested alternatives. Feel free to consider them for yourself and wonder about the continuing usefulness of these terms that most non-Christians have no idea what we’re talking about. Many Christians are foggy on the meaning as well. This is an appeal for clarity in our communication.

1. Exalt, exalted

I had an idea of this, but I had to confirm it with the dictionary. Why? Because people don’t use “exalt” in conversation about anything unless they are talking about a biblical passage or some topic close to a Christian activity. The word is a strong verb, but the coincidence of using it only for religious talk makes it seem like a religious term. Use of terms in a religious way drives a separation between “normal life” and our thoughts and actions as Christians. Instead of using “exalt” in our songs just because the Bible translations use it, we may do better to say “lift up” or “honor” because these are commonly understandable terms for the same idea “exalt” functions today.

2. Bless, blessed, blessing

I love the idea. The English word comes from blood, as in consecration through sacrifice. In different contexts the meaning may be “happiness” or “to please” or blessings that are “good things.” Is “blessed” different from the normal condition of “happy”? Only Christians use the word because there is a religious background to it in biblical translation. Webster’s Dictionary opened my eyes to the levels of meaning I had no idea about with this word: “1. to make or declare holy by a spoken formula or a sign; hallow; consecrate; 2. to ask divine favor for; 3. to favor or endow; 4. to make happy or prosperous; gladden; 6. to praise or glorify”; etc. We may need to use rich phrases instead of the shorthand of one word: “I want to please God,” “God has done so much good for me,” “God has filled up my satisfaction,” “I desire the best for her,” “May God care for you today.” (Incidentally, the word we have reduced to “bye” and “goodbye” came from the richer “God be with you.”)

3. Glory, glorify

The term is all over the Bible, our songs, our conversation. The OT term has the idea of “to be heavy,” as in the weightiness of God’s love and demonstration of his power. The NT term has ideas of “shining light, splendor, honor, praise, to show the truth.” It’s often similar to praise, but praise is usually done about someone else, while “glorify” is something God may demonstrate about Himself by doing something grand. As substitutes, I suggest we can say: “When God’s people make sacrifices, it shows the truth about God, that He is worthy of these sacrifices,” “They saw the truth about Jesus when He was transfigured.”

4. Behold

I don’t think I’ve ever said this word except when reading aloud the biblical text. I think it means “Look!” or “Here” in most cases. Why don’t we just say that, or “pay attention!” “Look at this!”

5. Grace

In biblical usage grace is related to “gift,” both in the undeserved favor we have with God because of Jesus (including forgiveness and righteousness), and the unearned empowerment of God’s presence and action in our lives. Grace is sometimes an operative power (a veiled reference to the Holy Spirit). Grace is mostly a work of God towards us, and not so much a work we do towards others. Sadly, Christians seem to use “grace” in the way the culture has taken over the term to mean, “let me slide here.” Banks offer a “grace period.” I would prefer that we retrieve the biblical meaning of “grace” and separate this usage from merely “forgiveness” or “give me a break here” or “love” that the term has come to mean.

6. Sin, sinful, sinners

I saw a fingernail polish label “Sinful Colors” and realized how empty the term sin has become for our culture. Some Christians are still uncomfortable with the term, so they talk of their “sins” as “mistakes” or they say, “I messed up.” When I thought about everyday language that fit what the Bible actually means by “sin” I settled on “failure” and “crime.” Both of these alternative terms make sense to non-Christians and Christians alike. Since we are a culture that is far removed from target-metaphors drawn from spears, slings, and archery, maybe it’s time for an update. Our “sins” are crimes against God and other people. We have a rap sheet that makes us felons before God (if we are apart from Jesus). I like crimes because the term has revulsion to it. It’s also less easy to label lying as a “little crime” the way we might do with saying “little sins” as in the term peccadillos. No, when I lied, I committed a crime; I am a criminal. I think everyone understands that severity better than the terms “sinner” and “sinful” that are mostly religious (and meaningless to many people).

7. Holy, holiness

I love the terms. I think the concept is really large in the Bible and theology, much bigger than what most of us intend when we throw the term around in songs and aspirations. I think we usually intend the idea of “moral purity” when Christians say “holy.” As with other terms on my list, holy probably conveys little or no meaning to the non-Christian. The concept is based on the absolute otherness, uniqueness, and separateness of God from us in all ways. Being the Holy One, God is the only one who is God. God’s otherness and differentness includes separation and purity from evil. The way we use holy, in my limited observations of songs and discourse, rarely fits the biblical usage. I say we retrieve the fullness of the biblical meaning and intend that. Otherwise, when we mean to say “morally pure,” we could just say “righteous” or “good” or “morally pure.” Holy means so much more than what we intend by it; we risk cheapening the concept through casual and slipshod usage.

That’s my list of seven terms that I think need closer attention in how we use them. I appeal for the sake of non-Christians, and for newer Christians. Let not the jargon sweep us away. Additional terms are discipleship, sovereign, praise, hallelujah, hosanna, free will, and headship.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

5 Signs That Someone is Open to the Gospel

By Mick Boersma

Well, tax time has come and gone—again. After spending a few weeks collecting and organizing documentation, I sent everything along to my tax guy and he did the rest. Yes, I pay for tax preparation. It’s the best two hundred bucks I spend all year.

While sometimes vexing, this annual exercise reminds me of one of Jesus’ early followers—a man that few (if any) would have identified as open to the good news of salvation. I speak, of course, about Zaccheus. Tax gatherer for the Romans, address Jericho. A man working for an occupying force Israelites hated, collecting its taxes while free to extort additional money for personal gain.

When you think of unbelievers you know, I imagine you see some of them as more “open” to the gospel than others. Whether we realize it or not, we often profile people as to their potential for faith. Appearances, careers, affiliations, social habits – these and other factors lead us to make assumptions about people. Zaccheus stands as one of those unlikely converts whose conversion represents the amazing love and mercy of our Lord.

That said, in retrospect, I think we can see some signs he might have been ripe for the gospel as we encounter his story in Luke 19:1–10.

He had what the world offered—he was rich (v. 2)

As the chief tax gatherer at a key trading intersection like Jericho, Zaccheus had it made. Taxes on the huge amount of goods that flowed through this ancient gateway to all points east, west, north, and south brought much wealth to Rome, and a goodly sum to tax collectors who were allowed to make their living by padding the books. This guy had money, something the world says will fulfill you.

By God’s mercy, I was raised by parents who were not enslaved to money. But my dad would sometimes say, with a grin, “Money isn’t everything, but it’s way ahead of whatever is in second place.” Like my dad, Zaccheus hungered for more. That’s one reason he was trying to see Jesus, a man who had no earthly goods, but spoke the words of eternal life. Indeed, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10).

Who do you know is financially wealthy? Yes, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, but it can and does happen! Riches will not satisfy, and many who are so blessed are ripe for true riches in Christ Jesus.

He recognized his limitations—he was short (v. 3)

He climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus over the crowd. In my view, this portrays Zaccheus as an honest man, willing to endure the indignity of scaling a tree for a look at a man whose message focused on sin, forgiveness and true life. He was no King Saul, who stood a head above everyone else and had that kingly “look.”

I get a bit weary of the “if only we could get the team captain saved” evangelism thing. Certainly, the Lord God is not influenced by looks in his salvific work (1 Sam. 16:7), but I believe there is a subtle tendency for us to view weakness or limitation in others in a negative light. We want our salvation “trophies” to be stellar specimens of beauty and prowess. And in this light comes Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers, some of whom undoubtedly were a bit full of themselves:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:26–28)

He persisted in his search—he was a true seeker (vv. 3, 4)

The text says, “he was trying to see who Jesus was,” a verb in the imperfect tense, denoting a continual process of pursuit. As well, he “ran on ahead” and “climbed into a tree” in order to get a glimpse of the Savior. Here is a man who is not easily dissuaded from his goal—to encounter the Son of God. This is how people act when they are sincere in their quest.

I know how he felt, albeit in the context of courting my wonderful wife, Rolane. We had been casual friends for some time, but once I realized she was the “one for me,” I went into the imperfect tense. Eight weeks after our first date I proposed marriage, and three days later she succumbed to my charming pursuits. When you genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with someone, you don’t let anything stop you. You’ll even run ahead and climb a tree.

Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” We should look for those whose interest in things eternal continues to surface. We might be looking at a future brother or sister.

He freely acknowledged his need—he was a sinner (vv. 5–8)

Because of their complicity with Rome and tendency to extort, Jewish laws (Mishnah) said that it was perfectly permissible to lie to tax collectors to protect ones property. I would imagine many who knew Zaccheus had little trouble identifying him as a sinner.

The great part of this story is that Zaccheus agrees! One gets the impression he is laboring under some guilt, as he offers to give half his wealth to the poor and return four-fold any amount he has fraudulently assessed from others. His spirit is sensitive to the sinfulness within him, something he did not manufacture on his own. This was from the Holy Spirit, whose work is to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

Only through the conviction of the Spirit will a person submit to Jesus Christ. Thinking there is a certain people profile that suits the Spirit better than another for conviction of sin is tacitly unbiblical and foolish. His love saves all sorts, something we readily see when we look into the mirror. Great is his mercy!

He embraced the forgiveness of Christ—he was sincere (vv. 9, 10)

Zaccheus’ heart was genuine, otherwise Jesus would not have gone to his house, nor would he have said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” This went down hard for the grumblers of verse 7 (most likely Pharisees), as they saw Jewish tax collectors as having forfeited their rights as Abraham’s offspring. But Jesus was not talking about genealogy. He was speaking of faith, the faith that makes all who believe, both Jew and Greek, descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:16).

We can gather from how Jesus responded to this man that Zaccheus made good on the money he stole, and showed true repentance by giving to the poor. He was genuine in his desire to deal with the sin that had produced guilt and a lack of joy in his life.

As we continue to love the brethren and share the hope that is within us to others, we do well to remember our brother Zaccheus. A rich, short, seeking sinner who sincerely received the love of God through Jesus Christ. May the Spirit open our eyes to the unlikely candidates for salvation all around us. For so, once, were all of us.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.

The Fourth Missionary Journey: What Happened to Paul after Acts?

By Kenneth Berding

“Paul’s fourth missionary journey? I thought he went on three missionary journeys!” Yes, according to Acts, Paul embarked on three missionary journeys. Then he was imprisoned in Palestine for a couple years, transported under guard via ship to Rome (a journey that included a shipwreck on Malta), and spent a couple more years under house arrest in Rome. End of story? No. That is where the book of Acts ends, but it is not the end of the story. There are enough biblical and historical hints floating around to allow us to reconstruct some of what happened next. As a result of such a reconstruction, perhaps we ought to start talking about Paul’s fourth missionary journey.[1]

There are good reasons for every item included below. The order, however, is somewhat uncertain. But I will place the events of Paul’s fourth missionary journey in the sequence I find most plausible.

  • Paul appeared before Nero some time during his house arrest in Rome. (God had promised Paul in a vision in Acts 27:24 that he would stand before Caesar.)
  • Paul was released by Nero. (You see Paul expecting to be released in Philemon 22, and perhaps in Philippians 1:19–26. The early church historian Eusebius writing about AD 325 supported this with his claim that Paul’s martyrdom was not during the period described in the book of Acts, see H.E. 2.22.6).
  • Paul had planned to visit Philemon (Philemon 22). But since Colossae was the opposite direction from Spain, and since we have some reason to believe that Paul traveled to Spain right after Rome, my guess is that Paul decided to forgo the visit to Philemon until after he completed his mission to Spain.
  • So, Paul traveled to Spain. Such a ministry trip had been part of his original plan way back when he wrote Romans five or more years before (Romans 15:22–29). Clement, writing around AD 95 in Rome, tells us that after Paul “had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West” (see 1 Clement 5.5–7). The “farthest limits of the West” in the mind of a Roman could occasionally refer to Gaul or Britain, but usually meant Spain. Would a church leader in Rome, writing only 30 years after Paul’s martyrdom in Rome have made a historical mistake about Paul traveling to Spain? It is far better from the standpoint of historiography to assume that Paul did, in fact, travel to Spain and minister there. (Compare also the Acts of Peter and the Muratorian Fragment, both possibly composed toward the end of the second century, and both of which also affirm a journey to Spain by Paul).
  • We cannot know for certain, but based upon Paul’s former plans (Romans 15:22–29), as well as because of the distance of Spain from Rome (4–10? days by ship), Paul probably stayed some time in Spain preaching and teaching.
  • Perhaps on his return from Spain, Paul sailed to the island of Crete where he engaged in ministry alongside Titus. When Paul departed Crete, he left Titus to appoint elders in the cities that held believing communities, some of which were probably planted by Paul and Titus (Titus 1:5).
  • The order of events after this gets increasingly difficult. I would suggest that after Crete, Paul traveled to Ephesus where Timothy was serving. During Paul’s time in Ephesus, the following events occurred: 1) Paul encountered strong opposition from someone named Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14), 2) he faced a large-scale falling out with believers in Asia, including Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Timothy 1:15), 3) he received help and encouragement from Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18), and 4) he urged Timothy to remain in Ephesus to correct false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3). It may be that Paul also followed through on his previously stated intention to visit Philemon in Colossae (Philemon 22). On this last point, there is no way to know.
  • After this, I think everything else may have happened in fairly rapid succession without any long stays anywhere. Paul left Ephesus with the intention of traveling to Macedonia (1 Timothy 1:3). But before Paul traveled to Macedonia, he wanted to visit Miletus for some reason, and so he (walked? took a ship?) south with Trophimus to the nearby port of Miletus. Trophimus unfortunately became too sick to travel any further (2 Timothy 4:20—at the time he wrote these words, Paul apparently still didn’t know what had become of Trophimus). Paul thus left Trophimus behind in Miletus when he booked passage (I’m assuming he traveled by sea) on a ship heading north toward Macedonia. The ship would have stopped at Troas, so Paul left some things there with Carpus, including his cloak and books (2 Timothy 4:13). Since Paul left his cloak, we may infer that it was summer or nearing summer.
  • We know almost nothing about his time in Macedonia, but, as with his previous visit there at the end of his third missionary journey, he likely worked his way through Macedonia, ministering and visiting with believers in places such as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, and eventually made his way down to Corinth. Somewhere along the journey either in Macedonia or Achaia, he started planning his winter months in the warmer city of Nicopolis on the west coast of Achaia (Titus 3:12). Paul wrote a letter to Titus (Titus 3:12), and perhaps his first letter to Timothy, while making plans to winter in Nicopolis. Corinth would have been the ideal place from which to send a letter to Crete (Titus) and a letter to Ephesus (1 Timothy), so my guess is that these letters were sent from Corinth. Paul sent Artemas or Tychicus to relieve Titus on Crete, an action Paul was hoping would make a way for Titus to join him during the winter months in Nicopolis (Titus 3:12).
  • Paul left Erastus in Corinth (2 Timothy 4:20; Erastus was anyway from Corinth, see Romans 16:23) and headed north and west toward Nicopolis, where he hoped Titus would join him.
  • Now, we really don’t have any idea where Paul was arrested. If the order of events after Crete are moved around on the timeline above (and even the placement of Crete on the timeline is not certain), Paul could have been arrested in any of the following: Ephesus, Troas, one of the cities of Macedonia, or Nicopolis. My suggestion is Nicopolis, since it comes at the end of all the other pieces of information I have tried to piece together. If he was, in fact, arrested soon after he arrived at Nicopolis as winter was setting in, this would explain how Paul found himself in prison in winter in Rome (2 Timothy 4:13, 21).

Thus ends Paul’s fourth missionary journey. Included in the journey is a mission to Spain, ministry on the island of Crete, ministry in Ephesus, stops at Miletus, Troas, various cities in Macedonia, Corinth, and probably Nicopolis.

What about after Paul’s final arrest?

After Paul’s arrest, he was taken to Rome and imprisoned, not in a house as during his former internment, but probably in the notorious and cold (2 Timothy 4:13, 21) Mamertine Prison around the time that Nero started to unleash a horrific wave of persecution against Christians in Rome. During his time in prison, Paul was visited by Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16–17), abandoned by many Christians as he faced trial (2 Timothy 4:16), deserted by Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), but still somehow found a way to write a second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy). Paul was aided by the physician Luke, who sought to attend to his needs (2 Timothy 4:11).

Paul is believed to have been beheaded—rather than thrown to the wild beasts or killed in some other inhumane way—because he was a Roman citizen.

[1] This reconstruction assumes the Pauline authorship and accuracy of the Pastoral Letters: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.


God is Back!

By Joe Hellerman

Maybe you didn’t know that he was gone. He was. The prophet Ezekiel saw it all in a vision. God abandoned his temple during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth-century BC:

Ezekiel 10:18 — Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim.

Ezekiel 11:22–23 — Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.

God left. But now God is back. And his name is Jesus.

Several Sundays ago I read Mark 1:14–15 to my congregation:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

I then asked:

“What does Jesus mean here by ‘the gospel’”?

Audience participation is not uncommon at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and, when all was said and done, we unpacked “the gospel” in Mark 1:14–15 as follows:

“God is holy. We are sinful. God sent Jesus to die for our sins, so that we can be reconciled to God and be with him for all eternity.”

This is all very orthodox. And it is completely biblical. But this definition of “the gospel” makes little sense in the context of Mark 1.

Imagine that you are living in Galilee when Jesus begins his public ministry with the proclamation cited in Mark 1:14–15 above. He has said nothing about the cross. He is still very much alive. Jesus has yet to die for anyone’s sins.

Could Jesus really have expected his early Galilean audience to understand “gospel” in the ways it was understood by his inspired interpreters (Paul, Peter, John, etc.) after his death, burial, and resurrection? I think not.

What, then, does Jesus mean by “the gospel”?

Simple! The “good news” in Mark 1:14–15 is that God is back!

We saw in Ezekiel that Yahweh had left Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity. Sadly, he did not return when the Jews rebuilt their temple upon return from exile.

Back in Exodus the Bible informs us that “The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” that the Israelites built in the wilderness (40:33). God’s glory also “filled the house of the LORD”—the first temple—that Solomon later built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10). We read of no such manifestation of the presence of God’s glory when the second temple was dedicated in 516 BC (Ezra 6:15–16).

If the story of God and his people had ended there, it would have been real bad news. But the prophet Ezekiel had another vision. He saw a future day when God would return to his people:

“the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east… the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east… and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple” (Ezekiel 43:2–5).

God is gone. But he’ll be back. Someday Yahweh will return to Zion.

Do you think this qualifies as “good news”? The prophet Isaiah certainly thought so:

How beautiful upon the mountains

                         are the feet of him who brings good news,

        who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

                         who publishes salvation,

                         who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

       The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;

                         together they sing for joy;

        for eye to eye they see

                         the return of the LORD to Zion.

(Isaiah 52:7–8)

“The gospel according to Isaiah” is that Yahweh will return to reign from Zion. And this is exactly what Jesus is describing in Mark 1:15:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

First, it is important to know that the word translated “kingdom” is a dynamic expression referring to the exercise of God’s royal authority—not a static term referring to a realm (or a people) over which a king rules. “Kingdom of God” would be better rendered “reign/rule of God.”

What Jesus is proclaiming in Mark 1:15 is that Yahweh has now returned to Zion to reign over his people—just as he had promised through the prophet Isaiah.

God is back. And his name is Jesus.

If you remain unconvinced by the above interpretation of “gospel” in Mark 1:15, consider another of Isaiah’s predictions of the return of Yahweh to Zion (Isaiah 40:3–5):

3               A voice cries:

                   “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

                                     make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4                Every valley shall be lifted up,

                                    and every mountain and hill be made low;

                   the uneven ground shall become level,

                                    and the rough places a plain.

5                And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

                                    and all flesh shall see it together,

                                     for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Look back at Ezekiel and notice that when God left the temple he headed towards “the east side of the city” (11:23). Ezekiel saw that the glory of the Lord would one day return “from the east” (43:2). It is not insignificant that “the wilderness”/“desert” that Isaiah describes above lies east of Jerusalem. Isaiah 40:3–5 thus predicts the same event as Ezekiel 43 and Isaiah 52:7–8: Yahweh will return to Zion to reign over his people.

This is precisely what Mark—writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God—understood to be happening when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee. Notice how Mark unpacks what he calls “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) as he proceeds to introduce his Gospel in the next two verses:

2               As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

                   “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,

                                    who will prepare your way,

3                the voice of one crying in the wilderness:

                                     ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

                                    make his paths straight,’”

Look familiar? It should. This is the passage from Isaiah 40 that I cited above.

The “good news” in Mark 1 is that Yahweh has returned to Zion.

Perhaps you are concerned that I have essentially removed the idea of substitutionary atonement from “the gospel” in Mark 1. Well, in a sense, yes, I have. But not entirely.

One could effectively argue that the atonement is implied in the passage, since the purification of the remnant was included in the promise that Yahweh would one day return to Zion. Indeed, this very aspect of the return of Yahweh appears in the immediate context of the text from Isaiah that Mark quotes (see Isaiah 40:1–2).

But to be fair, yes, I have left the details surrounding the sin-bearing aspect of Jesus’ ministry elsewhere in the New Testament, where they rightly belong.

Like many words, gospel has different nuances depending on the context in which it occurs. We set ourselves up for trouble when we assume that what Jesus meant by “gospel” in 27 AD is the same as what Paul meant decades later. Reminding ourselves that “gospel” is not a technical term for “substitutionary atonement,” but, rather, a general term meaning “good news,” helps us to see this. “Good news” comes in a variety of packages.

As it turns out, Mark 1:14–15, properly interpreted, proves to be even more theological robust than would otherwise be the case. By the way in which he frames his introduction, Mark essentially identifies the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the return of Yahweh to Zion. This “Jesus = Yahweh” connection constitutes a powerful argument for the deity of Christ.

God is back. And his name is Jesus.

This was real “good news” to first-century Jews.

It remains real “good news” to every one of us today who are willing to say YES to the reign of God in our lives, who “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.


Practicing the Presence of God... Like Nehemiah

by Ken Berding

I recently discovered something about Nehemiah that I had never noticed before. There are lots of hints in the biblical book that bears his name that Nehemiah was a person who lived with an ongoing awareness of the presence of the Lord, and who highly valued the importance of communion with God.

Nehemiah is constantly praying:

In Nehemiah 1:4 after learning about the disrepair of the city of Jerusalem, he writes: “I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” In Nehemiah 1:5-10 he records his heart-felt prayer in which he asks God to act on behalf of the city of Jerusalem.

In Nehemiah 2:4 when King Artaxerxes probes Nehemiah about his sadness, Nehemiah shoots up a quick prayer to God for help before answering. He writes: “I prayed to the God of heaven.”  (I have referred to this specific type of prayer as a “Nehemiah prayer” for years.)

In Nehemiah 4:4-5 Nehemiah prays about the insults being hurled at God’s people who are trying to rebuild the wall by those who oppose them: “Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity…”

In Nehemiah 4:9 when enemies conspire to attack, Nehemiah parenthetically notes: “So we prayed to our God…”

In Nehemiah 5:19, and four other times toward the end of the book (Nehemiah 13:14-31), Nehemiah asks the Lord to remember him for all that he did for the people.

In Nehemiah 6:9 Nehemiah asks God for strength when facing opposition:  “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.”

In Nehemiah 6:14 Nehemiah expresses to the Lord his fears about those who wanted to harm him: “Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were trying to frighten me.”

There are also two clear examples where it goes in the other direction. Nehemiah twice comments about God putting something into his heart or mind:

In Nehemiah 2:12: “I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem.”

In Nehemiah 7:5: “Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogies.”

When viewed together, these snippets reveal that Nehemiah was someone who deeply valued the importance of ongoing prayer and who was receptive to the guiding hand of God.

For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.