The Outlaw Bible Student | Studies on the Fringe of Christianity
My name is Raymond Hermann, an ordained Christian minister. You will find many articles uploaded that are serious in-depth studies on religious-related topics. Many topics could be either controversial or adult in nature. I do like the offbeat, uneasy, and unconventional topics and I like the strange and curious things in the bible that sometimes get passed over rather quickly in a pastor’s..
The answer to the title of this essay is, yes! Jesus was dead for a full three days and three nights, and that fact can be established from Jesus’ own words. The Bible tells the story of a time the Pharisees, who had accused Jesus of collusion with the devil, asked him for a sign from a source other than just his own words—one that clearly originated with God—to prove he was who he said he was. So Jesus referenced the story of Jonah to his own pending burial and resurrection. Showing that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites to repent,1 the Son of Man would be the same to the current generation.
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (Matthew 12:39-41, ESV).2
As explained in a well-known Bible commentary, “Jonah’s case was analogous to this, as being a signal judgment of God, reversed in three days, and followed by a glorious mission to the Gentiles. The expression ‘in the heart of the earth,’ suggested by the expression of Jonah with respect to the sea [see: Jonah 2:3, YLT] . . . means simply the grave, but this considered as the most emphatic expression of real and total entombment.”3 Jesus’ statement makes it evident that ‘three days and three nights’ is an established biblical truth.
But if this is true, why do most Christian religions suggest Jesus died on Friday afternoon (Good Friday) and was raised from the dead on Sunday (Easter) morning, for that is only a day and a half span of time? Think about it! Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon is one day and Saturday afternoon to early Sunday morning is only a half day. That is not what Jesus said would happen.
Many people believe this error to be a deceptive or political decision by the early Church to manipulate the Christian people, while others think it may have started as an error of understanding. Whatever the reason for the error, it is not the only one concerning the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible plainly indicates neither the day of the week for Christ’s death, nor the time of day for his resurrection, so how can we resolve these problems?
Jews kept time differently.
Unlike days on our secular calendar, which begin and end at midnight, the Jews follow God’s creation of darkness before light. Since God established night first, the Jewish day begins in the evening and continues until the next evening — nightfall to nightfall.4 “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5, NRSV).5 Generally, the evening, and a new date, begins about 6:00 p.m. Morning begins about 6:00 a.m. Remember this: evening before morning.
Of course, at that time, A.M. or P.M. indicators were not used for morning and evening, but time was called by “watches” and “hours.” At night, “First Watch” was sunset to 9:00 p.m. and “Second Watch” was 9:00 p.m. to midnight, and etc. In day time, “First Hour” was dawn to 8:00 a.m. and “Second Hour” was 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., and etc. Even the months were counted differently in Jewish culture, using the moon phases for guidance. Holidays seem to roam around on the Jewish calendar, whereas most stay static on ours.
We will touch lightly on the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection for this short study, but the full story should be read for proper context. The more comprehensive accounts can be found at: Matthew 26:14—28:15; Mark 14:10—Mark 16:18, Luke 22:3—24:12, John 13:36—20:10.
According to the book of Mark, Jesus was placed on the cross6 early in the day: “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him” (Mark 15:25). His death came mid-afternoon, just a few hours before the day ended: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice . . . Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:34 & 15:37).
The body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb just prior to the beginning of the new day: “When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath . . . a respected member of the council . . . went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:42–43).
“Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:53–56).
The Bible doesn’t mention the day or time of resurrection, but does mention the day that it was first realized Jesus had been raised. “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body” (Luke 24:1–3). We may conclude that this day must have been Sunday, because it was the ‘first day of the week’ for Jews, but remember that the first day of the week began the previous evening at 6:00 p.m.
Is there is a problem here?
Using the above scripture, Jesus was placed in the tomb the day before the Sabbath (day of rest), and then on the first day of the week (Sunday) he was found missing from the tomb. Isn’t the Sabbath a Saturday? So, does that prove he was in the grave for only one day and a half?
No! If you are a Jew, you will understand, if a Christian, then probably not. There were two Sabbaths that week, because it was also the time of Passover. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was celebrated over a seven-day period, had its own Sabbath day. At the time of Jesus’ death, the high Sabbath of Passover (or of Unleavened Bread) was Thursday, and should not to be confused with the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday.
Although the Jewish calendar varies from our secular calendar, at the time Jesus died,7 this is how the events unfolded. On Wednesday evening (after sundown Tuesday), Jesus ate his Last Supper8 (Matthew 26:17-19; Luke 26:1-20). Later that evening, he was captured, then brought to Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2) and was crucified in the morning (still on Wednesday). He died later in the afternoon (still on Wednesday). To keep his dead body from remaining upon the cross on a sabbath day, it had to be removed (John 19:31) without delay (still on Wednesday).9 Jesus was then placed in a tomb prior to sundown. All this happened during one single 24-hour day, the Hebrew’s Wednesday (sundown Tuesday to sundown Wednesday—remember, evening before morning); Thursday was Passover day (beginning at sundown Wednesday).
Okay, let’s get this straight. Jesus was laid in the tomb and remained there for three days and three nights: (1) Thursday (sundown Wed. to sundown Thurs.), (2) Friday (sundown Thurs. to sundown Fri.), and (3) Saturday (sundown Fri. to sundown Sat.). He was resurrected sometime after sundown Saturday (the new Sunday night) and early Sunday morning when the women arrived to apply the spices and ointments, but found his body missing.
The common modern belief of Jesus being crucified on Good Friday and then resurrected on Easter Sunday morning is incorrect. The evidence proves that Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon, placed in his tomb at the very beginning of Thursday and was resurrected sometime after sundown Saturday, and then discovered missing from the tomb on Sunday morning; that time period includes a full three days and three nights, just as stated by Jesus beforehand.
The day Jesus died. The Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which typically falls in March or April of the Gregorian calendar. Passover is a spring festival, so the 15th day of Nisan typically begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox.
“Passover,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 25 January 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover
Note: Many people call the Last Supper as Jesus’ Passover meal, but some claim it was not, because it was eaten the day before Passover. One author, Ted Montgomery, gave a great response to this thought: “There does appear to be some historical confirmation that some Jews ate the Passover meal on 14 Nisan, while others ate it on 15 Nisan. Jesus ate the meal with His disciples on 14 Nisan (one night earlier than the majority of other Jews would eat the official Passover meal) simply because He would not be alive to eat it the following night. He really did not have a choice to do it at the regular time. Otherwise, He could not have been crucified at the same time as the other Passover lambs were slaughtered, at mid-afternoon on 14 Nisan. That is when Christ, our Passover lamb, was sacrificed.”
Montgomery, Ted M., “How could Jesus and His disciples have eaten a Passover meal on Wednesday night?” (TedMontgomery.com, retrieved 8 March 2019), http://tedmontgomery.com/bblovrvw/emails/lambforLastSupper.html
Note: Corpses of the crucified were typically left on the crosses to decompose and be eaten by animals, but Jews were generally allowed to remove the body after death for burial.
“Crucifixion,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 22 February 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion
People had only one name, during Biblical times. To distinguish between people of the same name, a description was often used. Jesus was a common Jewish name in Judea, so our Savior was called ‘The Nazarene’, after the city in which he lived.1 Likewise, the Mary of this study was from the town of Magdala2 and she was called ‘The Magdalene’, hence she became Mary Magdalene.
There isn’t any record of her parentage, marital statue, age, or home obligations, but because she later helped finance Jesus’ ministry, she is assumed to have had some wealth. Some people believe she was a sinner—a harlot. The idea that she was a sinner has no real support and is suggested by various writers only from vague and circumstantial evidence. Ideas, such as the only way an unmarried, un-widowed, childless woman at that time could have access to a lot of money was through prostitution, are pure speculation.
Magdala ruins on shore of Sea of Galilee, 1900
The primary source of Jewish religious law, the Talmud, indicates that the city of Magdala had an unsavory reputation and, because of immorality, was destroyed by the Romans.3 Also, in the Bible (Luke 7:37–8:2), Luke’s first reference of Mary follows the story of the unnamed woman sinner. It was from these references that “the idea developed that Mary was a prostitute, but there is not a shred of genuine evidence to suggest such a bad reputation.”4 In fact, the idea of demonizing her as a sinner seems like a patriarchal agenda of the growing organized Church in the first century and later, to counter the view of her as a powerful Christian leader.5 After all, it was thought, women were supposed to be subordinate to men, not equal to them!
“At some point, Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from Luke’s gospel ([Luke] 7:36-50) both of whom wash Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made this assumption official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant saint.”6 That announcement presented a powerful image of redemption, which could have been used to bring sinners into the church, or for some political purpose.
Whatever the reason, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t withdraw its unjust opinion of Mary Magdalene until 1969. But for hundreds of years, they brought in money from their sanctuaries for reformed prostitutes and pregnant unmarried women, most notably during the 18th to the late 20th centuries, that were called Magdalene asylums, institutions, and laundries.7
In our present time, from novels and movies, Mary Magdalene’s image has been continually twisted, distorted, and renounced, so there is a continued convoluted image presented for this important biblical person. Even more damage to her personality, as well as that of Jesus, comes from such books as Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed (1996), and The Da Vinci Code (2003), which suggest that Mary was the wife of Jesus.8
The Real Mary of Magdala
The Bible mentions Mary Magdalene twelve times in the New Testament. Eight of those times was when associated with other women, where she heads the list, implying that she was a leader of the female followers of Jesus.
Even as a woman of superior standing and affluent circumstances, she came to Jesus’ attention for having been possessed by seven demons, of which our savior cured her.9 An article in Smithsonian Magazine states “the seven demons, as applied to her, indicates an ailment (not necessarily possession) of a certain severity” and a New Testament scholar and historian, Bart Ehrman, “contends that the number seven may be merely symbolic, since, in Jewish tradition, seven was the number of completion . . . .”10 Whether her ailment was physical, emotional, psychological, or real demonic possession, the healing she received from Jesus must have impressed her greatly to make her so devoted to him.
Not only did Mary follow Jesus, she was also present when Pontius Pilate sentenced him to death, when he was led to Calvary and crucified, when he was buried in the tomb, and when he was resurrected. This woman was the only disciple present at all these events which led to the movement that transformed the world.
It is not just in canonical New Testament scripture that Mary of Magdala is described, but there is mention in several New Testament apocryphal books, as well. The Gospel of Philip depicts her as being closer to Jesus than any other disciple, calling her Jesus’ koinonos (Greek: κοινωνός) which can metaphorically mean a close friend, a spiritual or business partner, or a companion in faith.11
In the Gospel of Mary (written about her, but not by her), “Mary Magdalene is framed as the only disciple who truly understands Jesus’ spiritual message, which puts her in direct conflict with the apostle Peter. Mary describes to the other apostles a vision she has had of Jesus following his death. Peter grows hostile, asking why Jesus would especially grant Mary — a woman — a vision.”12 But Jesus is well-known for his radical treatment of women. An article in Christian History magazine stated the following.
The world Jesus entered largely discriminated against women. He rejected the false criteria upon which the double standard was built. He measured men and women by the same standards, the inner qualities of character and not by such accidents of birth as ethnic or sexual differences. He affirmed women by His manner, example, and teaching.
Jesus included women where Jewish piety largely excluded them. Women were excluded from participation in synagogue worship, restricted to a spectator role, and forbidden to enter the Temple beyond the Court of the Women. A woman was not to touch the Scriptures, lest she defile them. A man was not to talk much with a woman, even his wife. Talk with a woman in public was yet more restrictive.
Jesus brushed aside all such discrimination. He astonished His disciples by talking openly with “a woman” at Jacob’s well (John 4:27). His dearest friends included Mary, Martha and Mary Magdalene. There were many women who ministered to (or with) Him, following Him from Galilee to Golgotha (Mark 15:41).13
We don’t know what happened to Mary in her later life, but according to Eastern tradition, “she accompanied St. John the Evangelist to Ephesus (near modern Selçuk, Turkey), where she died and was buried. French tradition spuriously claims that she evangelized Provence (now southeastern France) and spent her last 30 years in an Alpine cavern. Medieval legend relates that she was John’s wife.”14 Although Mary Magdalene has been portrayed throughout history in a number of ways, we can be assured that she was a crucial witness, disciple, and spiritual leader in the Christian movement that changed the world.
The Bible scholar Robert Baker Girdlestone was accurate when he stated, “The difficulty of the translator usually begins with the name of God . . . it has caused perplexity, if not dissension, in the case of many new translations.”1 This dilemma is caused by many problems inherent to the Hebrew language and the facts that it contains no written vowels, “is read from right to left . . . [and] each character of the text and its attendant symbols are read from top to bottom.”2 Also, early Hebrew writers had a fear of expressing God’s name in disrespect, so they often substituted different words relating to his position or status.
There were a great number of gods worshiped in the ancient world, so there are many words used in original Bible manuscripts which translate to the English “god.” The Greek language also has some problems, but not as many as that of the Hebrew. Most of the words for a deity, mentioned in the Bible, are all common nouns which can also mean “great” or “mighty” or “ruler.”
If all this sounds confusing, that is because it is! This article is merely an overview of a rather complicated subject, but that is unavoidable, unfortunately. At least you will understand why different versions of the Bible vary so much. You will find a wealth of detailed information, concerning this complex subject, in the references and notes at the end of the article. But, let us move on and figure out how to discern one god from another. We will examine usage in the Old Testament, first.
The Old Testament: Hebrew Scriptures
In Hebrew scripture, there are seven words in reference to God: Tetragrammaton (YHWH or Adonai), El, Eloah, Elohim, Shaddai, Ehyeh, and Tzevaot.3 A few other words are used, but only as description or titles. The name most often used for God is the Tetragrammaton4 (YHWH), transliterated5 Yahweh (or Jehovah) and it appears more than 6,800 times. A scholar said, “Yahweh, then, is the name par excellence of Israel’s God,”6 because the words “god” or “lord” can also be applied to other uses.
While many Bible translators and academics prefer Yahweh, the most commonly used English pronunciation in the recent past has generally been Jehovah. “That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth” (Psalms 83:18, KJV). The Jerusalem Bible is a modern English translation which employs the name Yahweh throughout the Old Testament. It translates this verse differently: “Let them know this: you alone bear the name Yahweh, Most High over the whole world” (Psalms 83:18, TJB). It should be noted that most modern translations just use the word LORD in this scripture.
There is another form of the name Jehovah, a shorter form, Jah or Yah, which occurs a few times. One example is in Exodus 17:16, “a hand is on the throne of Jah” (YLT), but most translators have rendered it LORD; it is also found a few times in Isaiah, and also in the Psalms. We are familiar with it in the expression Hallelujah, meaning ‘Praise Jah,’ and also in compound names such as Elijah7 and others.
In many cases, some mortal men are considered gods. Moses was called a god: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet’” (Exodus 7:1).8 The Hebrew shows that LORD means Yahweh, and God means god in the ordinary sense.9 And in the first book of the Bible, Abraham is called lord: “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us” (Genesis 23:6). In this case, lord comes from a word meaning chief, governor, or ruler. Notice the spelling in these verses. If you notice “LORD” you can be sure it only refers to God Almighty. LORD in all capital letters refers to Yahweh, while lord in small letters (or upper & lowercase [Lord]), can refer to a leader or important person only.
Angels — those Messengers of God — are also called gods. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them [humans] a little lower than God [angels],10 and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:4, 5). The word God, as used here, refers to angels (elohim, plural in the ordinary sense). Another version gives a better understanding: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than angels and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:4, 5 NIV).
Even the princes of Egypt are referred to as gods: “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Exodus 12:12).
The New Testament: Greek Scriptures
“In the New Testament, Theos, Kyrios, and Patēr11 are the essential names”12 of God. In three scriptures, Abba13 is also used. Interesting, too, is the fact that, in Greek scripture, the Tetragrammaton is generally not used; the word used in quoting Hebrew scripture containing the Tetragrammaton in the New Testament is Kyrios, and, generally, Jesus is also referred to by that word. “The use of Kyrios in the New Testament has been the subject of debate among modern scholars, and . . . based on the Septuagint usage, the designation is intended to assign to Jesus the Old testament attributes of God.”14 Also, it is a “fact that first-century Greek translations of the O.T. did not use Kyrios as a translation for Yahweh.”15 To add to the confusion, there were sometimes other less special uses of this word. One example is that “in Classical Athens, the word kyrios referred to the head of the household, who was responsible for his wife, children, and any unmarried female relatives.”16 These facts, as you can imagine, create somewhat of a problem in translation from the Greek language.
A few Bible translations have taken the liberty to substitute Jehovah or Yahweh where Kyrios – as referring to God Almighty — appears in the New Testament. Most notable is the Bible used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, although there are other non-affiliated publishers and sects that have done the same (see References and Notes at end of article for more examples).17 Doing so, at least illustrates where God’s real name probably should appear in Greek scripture.
In the New Testament, the Greek word most translated for god is theos, however it is important to point-out that this word is also a common noun applied to all types of gods, and this is easy to understand, considering the polytheism of the Greeks. Even Jesus made mention of mortal men being called gods. Jesus said, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled — can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:34–36).
Even Satan is called a god in the New Testament: “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The ruler Herod, along with many others, is also called a god: “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal’” (Acts 12:21–22).
As you have read, there are many problems in translating from the original Bible languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek [and all their variations] into English. It is no wonder that discerning where the name of God Almighty appears is difficult. I guess you can say that Yahweh did an excellent job when he confused the languages during the Tower of Babel debacle.
This study is but a small peek into this very complex problem. Having a dictionary of Hebrew and Greek words is, by far, the best approach to seriously studying the Bible, but here are a few basic rules you can use to better understand what scripture is saying.
In the Old Testament, the name of God (the Tetragrammaton) is not a common term like god, but is a proper and personal name for God and is not applied to any other being in the Bible. Although some Bible translations use a form of God’s real name (YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah), most translate the Tetragrammaton as LORD or GOD. It is easy, however, to locate where God’s real name should appear in most of the common translations, because the words, LORD and GOD, are printed in small capital letters in those places.
In the New Testament, when passages from the Old Testament are quoted, in which the Tetragrammaton appears, most translators use LORD in small caps. When Jesus spoke of God Almighty, he sometimes referred to him as Father or Abba (Aramaic language). When you see this, you will know that they are referring to Yahweh. Other places, when Kyrios or God or Lord is used, it is often hard to figure whether it is in reference to Yahweh or Jesus; this is where extra study tools come in handy.
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Girdlestone, Robert Baker, Synonyms of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1897) p. 18.
Unger, Merrill F. and White, William, (Eds.), Nelson’s Expository Dictionary of the Old Testament, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980), p. xiv.
“Names of God in Judaism,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., June, 24 2017), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_God_in_Judaism
Note: Tetragrammaton (whether written YHWH or Adonai), El (“God”), Eloah (“God”), Elohim (“Gods”), Shaddai (“God Almighty”), Ehyeh, and Tzevaot (“[of] Hosts”)
Tetragrammaton, Hebrew יהוה (letters: Yod-Hei-Vav-Hei).
Note: There are several transliterations/translations for this word for God: Yahweh (YHWH), Jehovah or Jahveh (JHVH), Yahveh (YHJH), and Adonai or Elohim (which are sometimes used as substitutions for the tetragrammaton) are but some examples. In scholarly work, Yahweh seems to be the current preference in the Hebrew scriptures, as it is thought to be the most accurate transliteration, but Jehovah is fairly common, too. In Greek, kuriŏs (Strong’s G2962) translated as: supreme in authority, God, Lord, master, is usually printed as Lord or LORD. Or, thĕŏs (Strong’s G2316) translated as: supreme, Divinity God, god [-ly, -ward], is usually printed as Lord or God.
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
Note: Translated is taking text from one language and converting it into another; transliterated is taking text from one language and rewriting it to make it more understandable. (This is a very simple explanation of a complex topic.)
Van Groningen, Gerard, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 1, p. 884.
Strong’s: H3050, יָהּ Yâhh, yaw, and means the same as Jah, the sacred name:— Jah, the LORD (Jehovah), also in names ending in “-iah,” “-jah.”
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
LORD, (Strong’s H3068), יְהוָֹה Jehovah. God, (Strong’s H430), אֱֱלֹהִים (ĕlôhı̂ym) applied as a superlative, such as Godly, great, mighty.
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
Bracket inserts of “humans” and “angels” added for clarification.
Patēr: πατήρ (i.e. Father, in Greek)
Berkhof, Louis, Manual Of Christian Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Williams B. Eedmans Publishing Company, 1939) pp. 19-20.
Abba, in reference to Yahweh, is used in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, and Galatians 4:6.
Some publishers have used the Hebrew name for God (Yahweh or Jehovah) in the New Testament: Archbishop Newcome’s New Translation by William Newcome (1809); Emphatic Diaglott by Benjamin Wilson (1864); American Revised Version (also known as Revised Version, Standard American Edition) by Thomas Nelson & Sons (1901); Sacred Scriptures Bethel Edition by Assemblies of Yahweh (1981); Original Aramaic Bible in Plain English by David Bauscher (2010); Divine Name King James Bible by Divine Name Publishers (2011); The New World Translation by Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (2013); The Scriptures by Institute for Scripture Research (2009) has gone a step further by using the Hebrew characters rather than any English rendering for both God and his Son.
I’ve tried to write this article several times, over the last couple of years, and always ended up putting it aside “until later.” Even this time I started to repeat my frustration, realizing that even a few thousand words could not explain this subject properly, but I persevered by believing what scant information I could present here, although not complete, could be a starting point for those wishing more accurate knowledge.
The reasons that this isn’t an easy subject to write about are many; what is written in the original languages is confusing, what has been translated into the different versions is contradictory, and there are far too many differing opinions and theories among various church organizations, bible commentators, and research academics. And everybody thinks they are right and everybody else is wrong. Go figure! If the soul is all that important, one would think that this concept would be explained throughly and precisely in the Bible, but it is not.
Of course, if humankind did not die, we would not be worried about our soul or spirit having a life after death. God created Adam and Eve to live forever, but because they didn’t keep God’s commandment, we die.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15–17, ESV).
Most Christians, and many who are not Christians, believe in a soul, so if we really have one, where did it come from? Some say it is given to us by God. Some say it is passed to us by a parent or parents. Some even say it is transferred to us from a donor after their death. These thoughts create more questions. Is the soul mortal or immortal? Is it spirit or part of the body or composed of some other substance? Or, is “soul” just another word for something else and if so, what is it?
What we will do is examine various Judeo-Christian faiths and what some specialists say, as well as what the Bible says, and then present a thin overview of this soul and spirit conundrum. And I’ll add a personal thought or two or more, so just pick and choose what you find comfortable, I guess — that seems like what others are doing.
Does it really matter what we think? Maybe — maybe not. If you fully live your life as God wants you to, then you will get your reward, even if you do not fully understand all the finer details of this subject, so in that case, it doesn’t matter. But, for some people, knowing the finer details of this soul “thing” in relation to God’s creation of humankind could shift your focus to living your life for him; then it will matter. You decide.
What do the churches say?
Protestants, although generally believing in the soul, have varying beliefs in where they come from and if they are mortal or not. Two ideas are most popular. One is that God individually creates each soul and although it is within our body, it is considered separate from the body. The other is that God has already created all the souls and just selects one at the conception of a new human.1 (Forgive me, but this one gives me a silly mental image of a warehouse with bins stuffed with various souls and worker-angels rummaging through them to find a proper one for each new human conception. I also imagine they keep very busy.)
As for what happens after death, there are two primary ideas about that, too. “Some, following [John] Calvin, believe in the immortality of the soul and conscious existence after death, while others, following [Martin] Luther, believe in the mortality of the soul and unconscious ‘sleep’ until the resurrection of the dead.” Several newer religions, like Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, also believe, as Luther, that the soul is mortal but there is unconscious sleeping until the coming resurrection.2
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believes that “the soul is the union of a pre-existing, God-made spirit and a temporal body, which is formed by physical conception on earth. After death, the spirit continues to live and progress in the Spirit world until the resurrection, when it is reunited with the body that once housed it.” Catholics teach that the soul is created immediately when needed and is immortal, therefore both living and conscience after death. In Judaism the soul was believed to be given by God to Adam as mentioned in Genesis 2:7.3 Jews are unclear about the soul after death, and various sects have varying ideas.
New Age religions (e.g., Theosophy) tend to bypass the Bible and use philosophical thinkers’ ideas explaining that the soul is “the field of our psychological activity (thinking, emotions, memory, desires, will, and so on) as well as of the so-called paranormal or psychic phenomena (extrasensory perception, out-of-body experiences, etc.).” They believe the soul is not the highest, but a middle dimension of human beings, where the highest is the “spirit” which is the real “self” of a person.4
As for scientific opinions, they don’t much exist. There is no evidence, say most scientists, for the existence of any kind of soul in the traditional sense.5 There was, however, one physician who hypothesized that a soul had a physical weight and proceeded to prove his point. In a study published in 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall in Massachusetts attempted to measure the weight lost by a human when the soul departed the body. Of his six subjects, only a couple produced results. “Despite its rejection within the scientific community, MacDougall’s experiment popularized the concept that the soul has weight, and specifically that it weighs 21 grams.”6
What does the Bible say?
“There are no direct references in the Bible to the origin of the soul, its physical nature, or its relation to the body.”7 The Bible does state that the soul is not everlasting — “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, NKJV). In fact, the term “immortal soul” is in neither the Old Testament, nor the New Testament of the Bible.
The two words translated as soul in the Bible are the Hebrew nephesh and the Greek psuchē and can refer to people, animals, or the lives of people and animals.8 Basically, the Hebrew view of life and soul was merged and anything after death was rather indistinct, because they had a difficult time understanding how a person could exist without a body. “In the Old Testament the soul signifies that which is vital to man in the broadest sense [and] in a narrower sense the soul denotes man in his varied emotions and inner powers.”9 Sometimes, the word soul can take on an ambiguous structure of meanings.
In some ways, the soul in the New Testament has a range of meanings similar to that of the Old Testament, so it can also indicate emotions or passions. Sometimes the New Testament “uses ‘soul’ (psuchē) in a manner interchangeable with ‘spirit’ (pneuma).”10
A scholar writing in A Dictionary of the Bible said that throughout the Bible, ‘soul’ is “simply the equivalent of ‘life’ embodied in living creatures. In the earlier usage of the OT it has no reference to the later philosophical meaning—the animating principle, still less to the idea of an ‘immaterial nature’ which will survive the body. ‘A living soul’ in Genesis and other records is simply an ‘animated being,’ and the word is applied equally to the lower animals and to man.”11
The Soul Dies—the Spirit Lives
If the soul dies, why do so many Christian sects imply that it doesn’t? Could it be, that “soul” sometimes gets confused with “spirit?” One scholar stated the problem this way, “Methodius [theologian 815–885] says God breathes into man the soul, whereas others say it is produced by the mother’s or father’s soul, and Lactantius [author 250 – 325] says neither is correct, the soul is produced by both mother and father but not from their souls. And the theories go on. There are two kinds of spirit, one called the soul and another greater than the soul . . . the soul is mortal, but not the spirit.”12
The Bible says the soul dies with its human body (Ezekiel 18:4), but also says that upon death “then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NKJV). This does suggest that the soul and spirit are two different things.
Scholar Carl Schultz wrote, “Man returns to the ground from whence he came. While the body returns to dust, the spirit returns to God. Minimally, the spirit can be seen as the breath of life—the animation of the body provided by God. Note that man has no control over the departure of the spirit. God gave and he has the power to remove the spirit . . . While the body is mortal, the spirit is immortal.”13
If this is all true, than what happens to our spirit after we die? Jesus delivered detailed information about the future of humankind, including the future of those who have already died or will die. The entire Bible, in fact, unfolds God’s plan to restore the earth to its condition before the fall of humankind when sin entered the world in that garden he created in Eden. Before that tragic transgression of God’s command, humankind was not going to die.
Are we (or our spirit) going to heaven when we die? Or, hell? Or, neither? The Bible says we will die; it also says our soul will die, but it says our spirit will not, so let’s try to sort this out. To reach a logical answer, we must introduce something churches aren’t talking about very much any more — a resurrection. Many pastors in modern churches talk so much about a rapture (that word, by the way, isn’t mentioned in the Bible), that they skip over the fact of a resurrection (which IS in the Bible).
It is true that the churches do speak of the resurrection of Jesus Christ around Easter, but quickly skim over (or sometimes even fail to mention) is of a resurrection will be for everyone. That is the core idea behind God’s plan as outlined in his Holy Bible. A restoration of this current world will take place, into that which was crafted before sin arrived, and this restitution includes a resurrection of humankind into a new world without sin. (A study about this topic and the mechanics behind it is listed in References at the end of this article.)14
Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets (Acts 3:19–21, NRSV).
The word “refreshing” is the Greek anapsyxis and refers to rejuvenation.15 The word “restoration” is the Greek apokatastasis and means “restitution.”16 By using these translations of those two words in the above scripture, it would explain that the “times of refreshing” will come from Jesus, which is the same as the “time of universal restitution” announced by God long ago. I’m not suggesting that scripture wording should be changed, but there are already a variety of different thoughts expressed with these verses throughout the translations available today.
Now, since we have introduced the resurrection into our study of souls and spirits, let us now examine Jesus’ rationale on death. The best example is the account about his close friend, Lazarus of Bethany who was ill (read the full story at John 11:1–44). Jesus said to his disciples:
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (John 11:11–15, ESV).
By the time Jesus got to Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. He told Lazarus’ sister, Martha:
“Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:39–44, ESV).
Notice that at first, Jesus only indicated to his disciples that Lazarus was asleep and when they did not understand, he then flatly stated that Lazarus was dead. The reason this expression was used was because when one dies, to God they are only “sleeping in death.” It is an incidental hiatus from life, a mere temporary condition. It is interesting, too, that upon returning to life, Lazarus did not give any indication of his experiences during those four days of being dead, as would be expected if his soul or spirit or anything else lived and went somewhere else. This would indicate the truth of what is written in Ecclesiastes chapter 9. “The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing . . . For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:5; 9:10, NIV).
So, since we have already established that the spirit does not die, but goes back to God, how do we establish the logic of a belief in a future life, one that comes later, after the future resurrection? If the spirit is what makes a human a person and it were given to us by God, it stands to reason that God can keep and store the information or data pertaining to this spirit, intact but in a suspended state, until a future body can be provided during the resurrection.
We go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning and it should be much the same during our sleep in death. Upon being awakened, we probably won’t even realize how much time has passed — a few hours or a few millennia. There would be no memory of time during that life-suspended state.
Is this idea a little too “far out” for you?
I know that this sounds like the plot of a science fiction story, but look at today’s technologies and what new things are coming down the pike to our very own lives in the very near future: life extension, gene tweaking, uploading and downloading information to and from the brain, communication through our minds, and so much more. These technologies are being researched and planned by humans right now; think of how much more can be done by God, who created this universe. Storing a person’s life as data is much easier to believe today than it was just fifty years ago.
The spirit of man is the permanent recording or data program that preserves all that a person is. It contains our personal identity although it does not consist of any material substance. More than one hundred years ago a foresightful author, Joseph Exell, stated, “Is there not a higher nature in man which is not subject to the law of the conservation of energy, and of which physical science knows absolutely nothing? And is there not, therefore, reason for believing that the death of the body, which is under physical law, is not the death of the higher nature, which is not under physical law; that the spirit of man may continue to exist after the body has ceased to exist?”17
And concerning Ecclesiastes 3:21, “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth” (NRSV), a scholar once explained, “The spirit of man that ascends, it belongeth to on high; but the spirit of the beast that descends, it belongeth to below, even to the earth.” Their destinations differ.18
In Genesis it says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils: “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NRSV). The Hebrew word for “breath” can be translated as “spirit.”19 Commentator Carl Schultz said, “Only into man’s nostrils did God breathe the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). This allows for the return of man’s spirit [upward] to God at death.”20
The Bible shows that “soul” and “spirit” are two different things and although the soul dies with the body, the spirit continues in a sleep state — as a static unconscious copy of our life up to the point of death. Upon the promised resurrection, this copied data set will be introduced into our new body (generated as a duplicate of the original) and we will live in a renewed world without the influence of sin, where we will be given the chance to grow into perfection right here on earth.
Will there be anyone that really goes to heaven? By this question, one usually means will there be anyone who will live with God in a spiritual form in our Creator’s realm? Possibly! The Bible does mention two resurrections, but they don’t share the same fate. This treatise is very long already, so that study will have to wait for another time.
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References & Notes
Souls being pre-existent and prepared before the foundation of the world – explicit statement from the Apocrypha Slavonic Book of Enoch (xxiii, 5).
Singer, Isidore, (Ed.), The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes, (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), p. 472.
Singer, Isidore, (Ed.), The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), pp. 472–473.
A) nephesh – Durst, Dennis, “Soul,” John D. Barry et al., (Ed.) The Lexham Bible Dictionary, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
B) psuchē (Greek #5590) – Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
Note: In the New Testament often translated as “life” in some translations (Mark 10:45; Acts 20:24; Rev 12:11); in the Old Testament major usages communicate: 1) indicate meanings of desire (Ps 25:1; 42:2), 2) personal or individual being (Gen 12:5; Lev 2:1), 3) a conscious self (Lev 11:44–45), 4) emotional state (Gen 26:35; Job 21:4; Eccl 7:9).
Elwell, Walter A. and Beitzel, Barry J., “Soul,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 2, pp. 1987-1988.
Brand, Chad and Smith, Fred, “Soul,” Charles Draper et al. (Ed.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 1522.
Laidlaw, John, “SOUL,” (Ed.) James Hastings et al., A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner’s Sons; T. & T. Clark, 1911–1912), p. 608.
Bercot, David W., (Ed.), “Soul,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), p. 627.
Schultz, Carl, “Ecclesiastes,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, pp. 450–451.
Barry, John D. et al., Faithlife Study Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ac 3:20–21.
Strong’s Greek #403: reconstitution — restitution
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
Exell, Joseph S., The Biblical Illustrator: Romans, (New York; Toronto; London: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d. [about 1905], pp. 676–677.
Jamieson, Robert, Fausset, A. R., and Brown, David, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), vol. 1, pp. 406–407.
נְשָ?מָה breath — spirit of man
Whitaker, Richard et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, Based on the Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius, (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906).
Schultz, Carl, “Ecclesiastes,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 440.
The New Testament book of Ephesians was written to the Christians in Ephesus and explains what the Christian Church is and how its members should behave. Most commentators credit the apostle Paul with authorship, but there is some debate about that. And although many dates have been given, it was probably written between 60–63 A.D. while Paul was in prison. (See notes at the end of article for more information about the ancient city of Ephesus.)1
The apostle Paul wanted to explain how Christians should live their lives to honor God and explains this by relating the new Church to the structure of the human family in the culture and times of his writing. As an example, he uses a family metaphor to illustrate the relation of Christ and the Church to that of husband and wife in marriage. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NRSV).2
In perfection one should mirror the other, but in an imperfect world, especially today, any submission to another person includes a fear of being manipulated or mistreated, but there is no such fear with Christ, as his authority is tender guidance, not raw dominance.3 That is the way it will be in the real “new world order” yet to come.
Probably the most controversial verse of this book is verse 5:22 about wives being in subjection to their husbands, but that analysis must wait for another time, because this study will be about the more mysterious verses in Ephesians chapter 6 where, when closing his letter, he states the following.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:10–12).
Enemies of our faith
To keep the Christian Church pure and holy and to get along with each other, we must know what we face and be properly equipped to fight against the enemies of our faith. What we face and how we do battle is very important, but most people skim over these verses without appropriate thought or knowledge. ‘Wiles of the devil’ means his tricks to deceive (devious, cunning, lure, entice)4 and “is an apt description of his modus operandi.” Deception is his most effective tool and it forged the core of his attack on Adam and Eve which led humankind astray.5
Many ancient Jews thought that a belief in Satan was superstition, and today many think of Satan only as a figure of speech or imaginary figment for blame when things go wrong or when we find ourselves involved in morally wrong behavior. During my youth there was a popular comedian named Flip Wilson6 who, when caught doing something wrong, would always say, “The devil made me do it.” (See notes at the end of this article for a short comedy video on this theme.)7 But Jesus Christ knew the devil was no figure of speech, no superstition, no jest, no make-believe creature, because he knew him, had seen him, and debated with him. Jesus recognized Satan as the prince of the powerful force of evil.
The New Testament presents Satan as real, not just some obsolete Jewish superstition and Paul impresses this certainty in the minds of the new Christians, so they will know who is the enemy. The apostle then follows this information with a detailed description of what the devil is and is not, his organization, the powers he has, and where he lives.8
In explaining what it is we face, Paul is very specific. It is not a struggle against other humans, but one against spirits. Flesh and blood foes are just mere tools of evil, the real foe lurks behind humans; the real foe is Satan himself.9 This is a spiritual war against a devious, wicked, and ruthless enemy. This war between God and Satan is in every part of the cosmos, both on earth, as well as in heaven. And now in this new age, because we model our lives after Jesus Christ and belong to him, it becomes our war as well. Satan will try to draw us away from our righteous path and if he can’t, he will harass us, impede our way, try to render us less faithful, and less serviceable to the kingdom of Christ. And Satan is not alone; he has ample help. A Bible commentator wrote the following.
In [Ephesians 6] verse 12 there is called up before us an imposing array of spiritual powers. They are “the angels of the devil,” whom Jesus set in contrast with the angels of God that surround and serve the Son of man (Matt. 25:41). These unhappy beings are, again, identified with the “demons,” or “unclean spirits,” having Satan for their “prince,” whom our Lord expelled wherever He found them infesting the bodies of men. They are represented in the New Testament as fallen beings, expelled from a “principality” and “habitation of their own” (Jude 6) which they once enjoyed, and reserved for the dreadful punishment which Christ calls “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” They are here entitled principalities and powers (or dominions), after the same style as the angels of God, to whose ranks, as we are almost compelled to suppose, these apostates once belonged.10
Satan and his cohorts, as well as the places from which they came and those places they currently inhabit, are invisible to us, but just because they are unseen does not mean that they are not real. X-rays, radio waves, and wi-fi signals are all unseen, but real. Many colors, which other animals can see (e.g., infrared, ultraviolet) are unseen by humans, but they are all real. Gravity and magnetic attraction are unseen, but they are real. Electricity and energy radiation are unseen, but real. You get the idea. Likewise, the following things are real, too: Satan and his angels, demons, unclean spirits, evil authorities, and cosmic powers. And these locations are real as well: other principalities, other habitations, other dominions, and other realms or dimensions. These are the things Paul speaks about in Ephesians 6:12.
How to protect ourselves
Jesus had wrestled and waged war with the devil and he had won, but as imperfect humans, we cannot win unless we have help, so Paul gave instruction because he knew we must be aware and prepared. Paul recognized the unseen powers and influences at work in the world’s human rulers and institutions. He saw the Ephesians bondage through the use of occult, astrology, magic, and spiritism. Removing Satanic and demonic items from the home is a good start and the Ephesians did so, as stated in the book of Acts.11 “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:18-19, ESV).
The apostle says, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13), and then describes the various pieces of Christian armor as though he is equipping a soldier for battle.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17).
Without this armor we will be defeated by the devil and his army, but our battle is mostly defensive — we are not to be out searching for Satan and mounting an attack, but just to stand our ground. “The armor is to put a stop to the power of demonic agenda over us . . . the armor of God is to enable us to bolt and bar the doors of our spiritual lives.”12 Their sphere of activity is in the heavenly realms and is trying to rob Christians of their spiritual blessings that God has given them.13
Although mostly defensive, there are two offensive weapons included, prayer and the sword of the Spirit (the Holy Bible), both to be used to fight back if we are ourselves directly attacked.14 Having enlisted his readers under the right leader (Jesus) to fight the right war (against evil) with the right equipment (armor of God), Paul now tells them what the right maneuvers should be. “They are to pray at all times under the direction of the Spirit (who knows what to pray for), and they are to keep themselves diligently alert in prayer and petition on behalf of other believers in the common struggle.”15
So, keep watch over our brothers and sisters, as well as ourselves, because this spiritual conflict is real. Stand firm in the faith, for our enemy intends to disrupt the entire Christian family and render us ineffective.
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References & Notes
Note: Ephesus ruins are near Selçuk in Izmir Province, Turkey, about 680 km (422.5 miles) from Istanbul. The location of the old Ephesus city was most probably near the coast of the Aegean Sea 2000 years ago, and is today situated 8 km (5 miles) from archaeological excavations where it is known as the ‘Turkey Ephesus City Ruins.’ For more about the ancient city, see link.
“Ephesus,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 14 February 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephesus
There is a biblical interpretation system, called dispensationalism, that identifies basic time periods or historical ages in which God dispensed methods of organization, law, and government to humankind. A popular Bible dictionary indicates that the word dispensation comes from the Greek oikonomia which means “management” and the first definition listed is “the method or scheme according to which God carries out his purposes.”1
So, basically, dispensationalism is a specialized study process for organizing and charting how God historically dealt with humankind. “These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them, man is reconciled to God in only one way . . . although the divine revelation unfolds progressively, the deposit of truth in earlier time-periods is not discarded, rather it is cumulative.”2
Throughout history, different authors have indicated varying schemes for dispensations, but most use a system modified and popularized by Cyrus Scofield in the early 20th century. Scofield stated that “a dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.”3 It is not doctrine, dogma, or religious tenet – it is just a tool to help with organization and interpretation.
Today, dispensationalism comes in many “flavors” dispensed by various Christian authors and groups, including the adding of all types of specific beliefs, like varying rapture ideas: pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation concepts. Some Christian leaders and churches debate between what they call classic dispensationists and progressive dispensationists; some say there are four dispensations, some that there are five, and some say seven or eight. Some theologians differ on which verses to include in a particular dispensation. And then, some declare precise and/or elaborate schemes that they call a dispensational theology. And the list goes on.
This conservative author considers there are benefits to approaching Bible study using a basic structured dispensational concept without including all the extra baggage added by an assortment of Christian visionaries over the past 100 plus years. The basic system used in this study is dividing the Bible into eight periods in which God deals with humankind in different ways. This discourse will not include all the details of each period, but a scant overview. It is assumed that the reader has a basic biblical knowledge of the time periods and the expanse of stories that accompany them.
The Dispensation of Innocence: Creation to the Fall of Man
First is the “Dispensation of Innocence” and covers Genesis 1:26–3:7 and it involves how God dealt with his new human creatures from their creation to the moment of losing their innocence. This period of time could, very well, also be called the Eden period, as it involved the elementary God-given rule dispensed to Adam and Eve while living in the garden of Eden.
Although some authors disagree, innocence is really an accurate description. Adam and Eve were naive and guiltless, so their condition matched the definition of innocence. Their stewardship was to take care of the garden and obey a simple law that God dispensed: don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Adam was fully at fault for their failure, even though Eve was the one deceived and who first ate the fruit. Adam was given that simple law, along with the responsibilities of tilling the ground, before Eve was created (Genesis 2:15–17). Eve was his helper, his counterpart for which he was responsible. Basically, the only rule involved was that they obey God. That primary responsibility, it turned out, was too much for them to handle. In speaking to Adam, Eve, and the serpent, God gave grievous punishments to them. For the humans, great hardship and death would be upon them and their descendants, but there was also a hint that all would work out in the end (Genesis 3:15).
The Dispensation of Conscience: Fall of Man Through the Flood
Second is the “Dispensation of Conscience.” This time covers Genesis 3:8–8:14 and is sometimes called the antediluvian period, because it dealt with God’s administration after being removed from the garden in Eden to the time of the flood. Humankind had obtained its awareness of good and evil, as a result of eating the forbidden fruit and learned, as well, that there are consequences attached to their choices. Now a test period is established to see if humankind would use their conscience to make proper decisions. The idea for that was simple: to do only good.
In Genesis chapter four, Cain and Abel, two sons of Adam and Eve, brought offerings to the Lord. Cain’s offering was part of his crop, whereas Abel’s gift was the best portion of “the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected” (Genesis 4:3–5, NLT). Cain was jealous and killed his brother. So, murder began as a consequence of humankind’s rebellion against God’s rule. Cain built a city that was godless and filled with violence. Humankind had failed again. Evil filled the world by the time Noah arrived and, through him, God devised a way to cleanse the earth and give humankind a fresh start.
The Dispensation of Civil Government: After the Flood
Next is the “Dispensation of Civil Government” and covers the span of time as recorded in Genesis 8:15–11:9, starting immediately after the flood event and ends with the tower of Babel fiasco. During this time period, God dispenses instructions to multiply and fill the earth, and the right to rule over others, administer capital punishment, and to use animals, which now fear humans, as a source of food. God continues instructing with emphasis on blood, giving more direction than the simple required sacrifice that appeared in the last dispensation. He also promised to never flood the earth again and gave the rainbow as a symbol of that promise (Genesis 9:1–17). The rules and laws applied in the previous dispensations did not disappear, but continued under this new strategy, as it was with all new dispensations.
Instead of filling the earth, humankind decided to group together and build a large city and tower in Babel. Once again, humankind didn’t fair very well with their choices, so God sent judgement by the confusion of languages forcing them to scatter over the face of the earth.
The Dispensation of Promise: Patriarchal Rule
Now we enter the fourth period, the “Dispensation of Promise” (promise to Abraham). Genesis 11:10–Exodus 18:27 could also be called a dispensation of patriarchal rule, because God moves from a direct governing relationship with his creation, to one where he relates to the population indirectly through one family line.
God dealt graciously with Abraham and his descendants and made a covenant (Genesis 15). God promised Abraham that he would bless him, make his name great, protect him, and give him land. The promise included that he would be guaranteed many descendants and be the father of many nations. Furthermore, humankind’s redeemer would come through his bloodline.
A lot happens during this period of time, including the stories of God changing Abraham’s name,4 Sodom and Gomorrah, the beginning of the Arab race, and God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It follows with the birth and earlier life of Moses — when he was born and how he dealt with Pharaoh and then the escape from Egypt, including the time in the wilderness. In this new dispensation, humankind needed to learn that God’s promise was an incentive to do good. Humankind failed, once again. Get the idea — know where this is going? This period ends when God summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai.
The Dispensation of Law: The Mosaic Period
The fifth is the “Dispensation of Law,” or the Mosaic period, when God establishes specific laws for which people were responsible for obeying. The Bible records this long period at Exodus 20–Acts 1, which includes everything of the remaining old testament books as well as the Gospels.
Although there were more than 600 laws given to Moses by God, which cover all modes of living, the nucleus of the Mosaic Law was the decalogue written by God, on tablets of stone at Mount Sinai, early in this period. Those ten commandments consisted of some rules concerning their relationship with God and some rules concerning relationships between people. These laws were a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel and imposed penalties if they were broken. This was a new way to administer to his people and gave structure to society and provided for a better relationship between them. The commandments would be beneficial to anyone, but God was now dealing, specifically, with his chosen people, Israel, and they were responsible for following them all.
Of course, more failure was the result. Moses didn’t even get away from Mount Sinai before the people started to ignore the laws and, as a result, God’s judgement was brought upon Israel. And Israel failed over and over again which brought punishment upon them. Most notable was the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, and the Greek and Roman oppression.
Blood sacrifice was amplified throughout this dispensation, ending with Christ’s crucifixion, which was a rejection by the Jews of its Messiah. Humankind failed this dispensation, too.
The Dispensation of Grace: The Church Period
The sixth age brings the “Dispensation of Grace” — this present dispensation — which records how humankind’s newest responsibility is to accept God’s free gift of justification (through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ) and is recorded in Acts 2–Revelation 19:21. This period is from shortly after Jesus’s death to his second coming and toward the end of the dispensation, when the tribulations will occur. Some people refer to this time as the Church age because it also covers the creation, expansion, and maturing of the Christian Church and illustrates how they behaved. This dispensation of grace was presented to the apostle Paul to disseminate (Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 1:25-27) and he did so, far and wide, with several missionary journeys.
“God in his wisdom had determined that Paul would be ‘my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’ (Acts 9:15-16, NIV). The evidence is clear: Paul was obedient to the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19), and his ministry made possible the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.”5
This current period will fail, too, because the majority have not, do not, will not accept this free gift and will be judged accordingly. Current events give us an indication of how close we are to the close of this age, and some alive on earth now may witness the outcome from this dispensation.
The Dispensation of the Millennium: Reign of Jesus Christ
The seventh age will be the “Dispensation of the Millennium” and starts after Satan is bound for a thousand years. That starts the long expected millennial reign of Christ which begins at Revelation 20:1–6.
That age will bring about a righteous rule during the theocratic reign of Christ and provide a final fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and a full restitution of what was lost in the garden of Eden. During this time, Satan will be bound and war will be eradicated. We will live longer, food will be abundant, and our climate will be restrained. The first resurrection will occur during this time, when the saints of Christ come alive and reign with him for the duration of the millennium. Even after living during the wonderful conditions of the seventh dispensation, with no influence from Satan and a thousand years to get their act together, it is expected that some will not survive when Satan is released, again.
The Final Dispensation: New Eternal State
John’s vision in Revelation 20:7,8 states that after the thousand years, Satan will be released and return to deceive the nations. That will be similar to the situation that occurred in the garden of Eden, when Satan deceived Eve. This time, humankind will have experienced all forms of government and, hopefully, learned that they need rule from a perfect King to obtain a perfect life, and they must choose this path of their own free will.
The end of the Bible tells of Satan gathering forces to do battle with God’s people. “He will go out to deceive the nations—called Gog and Magog—in every corner of the earth. He will gather them together for battle—a mighty army, as numberless as sand along the seashore. And I saw them as they went up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded God’s people and the beloved city. But fire from heaven came down on the attacking armies and consumed them. Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:8–10, NLT).
Finally, the dead will be judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave will be thrown in the lake of fire along with all those whose name was not found in the Book of Life. After this, there will be a real new world order, one that is under the full administration of Jesus and one will last forever.
There are many approaches to studying the Bible. This author hopes that the dispensational approach will be a useful tool in understanding how God has administered to his chosen people and how the Church, through testing our faith, is in need of divine leadership. It is a structured and systematic study for explaining God’s relationship with us as his plan unfolds and comes to a conclusion with a restitution of all things lost when sin entered the world.
The patriarch of the three Abrahamic religions is the prophet Abraham, from which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim a shared ancestry. This story about him begins in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1900 BC), when Abram (Abraham’s name before God changed it) was called by God to become the original founding father of his people.1
Most Christian Bible studies focus only on Abraham and his son Isaac and how that bloodline leads to Jesus Christ, but this study will focus on his first son, Ishmael, for it is through him that the Arab people and eventually Islam began. The story of Abram, including the birth of his sons, spans Genesis 15 – Genesis 22 and these chapters should be read for proper context, but here is a summary of the important details for our study.
God appeared to Abram in a vision and told him his reward for being a righteous man would be great. When Abram sadly stated the fact he had no children to pass on this reward, God said that he would provide a child, then had him look up at the night sky and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars . . . so shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).2
After ten years pass, and still childless, Abram’s wife, Sarai, began to doubt God’s promise. She assumed God was preventing her from becoming pregnant, so she took it upon herself to make an arrangement to give Hagar, her Egyptian handmaid, to her husband. During that time and place, it was a custom that when a wife failed to produce an heir for her husband, she could provide him a concubine for that purpose, although under that arrangement, any son born of the union of husband and concubine was considered the child of the mother, not the father.3
Hagar did conceive and, by way of an angelic message, was told her offspring would be great in number. She was told, “you shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael . . . he shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (Genesis 16:11–12). When Ishmael was born, Abram was 86 years old.
About 13 years later, when Abram was 99 years old and his wife Sarai was 90, God appeared to him again and told him several things: his name was being changed to Abraham, his wife’s name was being changed to Sarah, and Sarah would bear a child whose name was to be Isaac. And God made a promise to Abraham and his offspring, to give them all the land of Canaan forever, and he would be their God (Genesis 17:8). In return for this promise, and to be a visual sign of the covenant, God said, “Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old” (Genesis 17:12). Concerning Sarah he said, “I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations, [and] kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17:16).
In due time, Sarah had her child and he grew and was weaned at about three years of age. Later she saw her son, Isaac, with Hagar’s son, Ishmael, “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac” (Genesis 21:9). When this happened, she demanded of Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).
Why was she so furious that Ishmael was playing with Isaac? Was it jealousy or was there another reason for her angry response? It would seem that just playing with her son would not have been anything unusual. The word “playing”4 in verse 21:9 has been translated in different ways in various Bible versions,5 (e.g., mocking, laughing at, make sport, or making fun of) and could even be “fondling,” as indicated in a well-known Bible encyclopedia,6 and a popular Bible lexicon implies it can even suggest “conjugal caresses.”7 The Bible is filled with euphemisms, those inoffensive expressions which are substituted for one that is considered offensive, so we must ask if that is the case here. Was Ishmael molesting Isaac?
Even the Apostle Paul implied harassment of Isaac.
In the New Testament, as the Apostle Paul was explaining an allegory of Hagar and Sarah, he states that Isaac and Ishmael were not engaged in just some harmless play,8 when he said, “Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also” (Galatians 4:28–29). Using the word “persecuted” is quite a bit different than just “playing.”
Although Sarah’s demand was heartrending to Abraham, God told him, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:12–13). So, Abraham sent them away and Hagar and Ishmael went to live in the Paran wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula where Ishmael became an expert hunter. His mother found him an Egyptian woman for a wife and he became the father of the Ishmaelites,9 from whom the Arab people began10 and from which eventually came the Islamic religion.
Even though the importance of Ishmael’s place in history is extensive (the great Arab nation), there is not a whole lot more later said about him in the Bible, except for a few scant facts. Genesis 25:9 indicates that when Abraham died, both Ishmael and Isaac together buried him. Ishmael’s genealogy is listed in Genesis 25:12–18, as well as his life span (137 years). Also the Bible records, in Genesis 28:9, that Isaac’s son, Esau, married one of Ishmael’s daughters.
Now remember, before Ishmael was born, an angel told Hagar that her son would be “…a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (Genesis 16:12). A well-known reference work states the following concerning this verse.
“The wild-ass is a wayward, intractable creature, whose home is the prairie…Ishmael, like many of the other characters in [Genesis], is an impersonation of his descendants; and…here a true and picturesque description…of the life led by them to the present day: now, as ever, they are the free and independent sons of the desert, owning no authority save that of their own chief, reckless of life, if occasion demands it, ever ready to plunder the hapless traveller who ventures without permission within their domain.”11
Author Herbert Lockyer wrote, “The casting out of Ishmael has been productive of bitter fruit, surviving in the religion of Mohammed. The wild hearts beat on in bosoms of those who form the Arab world. Little did Sarah know when she persuaded Abraham to take Hagar that she was originating a rivalry which has run in the keenest strife through the ages, and which oceans of blood have not stopped.”12
Much, Much Later
Jews originated as an ethnic and religious group in the Middle East during the second millennium B.C.,13 and much later the first Christians evolved from the influence of Jesus of Nazareth during the first century A.D. Now fast forward again to 610 A.D. and we find a new religion emerging among the Arab people (that great nation promised through Ishmael). This religion is called Islam. Many sources state that Islam means “peace”, but the truth is that it means “surrender” or “submission.” However, in an entirely religious context the word Islam could mean the surrendering of one’s will in an effort to achieve peace.14
Islam was preached by Mohammed,15 who considered himself the final prophet of God. In 607, Mohammed stated that he began receiving revelations through visions from the archangel Gabriel, and these revelations made up the religious text of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. “Mohammed created a religion fashioned after Judaism, about which he had a moderate knowledge.”16
In the Islamic version of the Abraham story, it was through Ishmael, not Isaac, that God’s people would receive all the land of Canaan, and give rise to many nations and kings. Mohammed had tried to convert the Jewish people to his way of thinking, but they refused and that caused a great hatred to develop. “Mohammed never got over his anger, humiliation, and rejection by ‘the people of the book’17 and fought battles with them. He went to his grave tormented and obsessed that some Jews were still alive. On his deathbed, Mohammed entrusted Muslims to kill Jews wherever they found them, which made this a ‘holy commandment’ that no Muslim can reject.”18
The Arab people continued to became Muslims and, by the time Muhammad died in the year 632, most of western Arabia was Muslim. Within two more years, the entire peninsula was mostly consolidated into the Islamic faith and by 638, the Christian cities of Syria and Palestine, including the prized city of Jerusalem, fell to the Arabs through war.19 Just for the record — to be correctly used — “Islam” or “Islamic” should only describe the religion and its subsequent cultural ideas, whereas “Muslim” should only be used to describe the followers of the religion of Islam.20
The Islamic movement continued to grow and, eventually, became a major religion. By the time the Crusades began, Islam had spread across North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea to the Iberian Peninsula, and the nomadic lands bordering the southern boundary of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. And despite its rapid spread, it was far from being a truly united force.21 There were widespread disagreements and violence with the Christian nations, as well as among other Arab people and, of course, the Jews. This Muslim bitterness was just like the description of the person from whom the Arabs descended, as written in Genesis 16:12.
This study has more details about Ishmael than one previously written about this subject, some time ago. However the original article has more information concerning reasons for the Crusades, and about Muslim pirates and their attacks on Americans as far back as the 18th and 19th centuries; see the listing in “References & Notes” below.22
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (above, #1), vol. 1, p. 913.
Strong’s Hebrew word #6711. צָחַק tsâchaq; a prim. root; to laugh outright (in merriment or scorn); by impl. to sport:— laugh, mock, play, make sport
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
Note about Genesis 21:9 – ‘playing’ (NRSV), ‘laughing’ (ESV), ‘scoffing’ (NKJV), ‘making fun of’ (NLT), ‘poking fun at’ (TM [The Message translation]), ‘mocking’ (TS [The Scriptures translation]).
Elwell, Walter A., (ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 1, p. 1053.
Whitaker, Richard, et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, [based on the Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius], (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906).
Hamilton, Victor P., “Genesis,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 24.
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (above, #6), vol. 1, p. 914.
Driver, Samuel Rolles, “ISHMAEL,” A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, James Hastings, et al., (eds.), (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner’s Sons; T. & T. Clark, 1911–1912), vol. 2, p. 503.
Lockyer, Herbert, All the Men of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 160.
Scientists have said that early humans swung from trees a couple of million years ago and they now indicate that this theory has been confirmed, according to a recent article in the journal PaleoAnthropology.
Fossils of Australopithecus sediba, discovered in South Africa, had fueled a scientific debate for the last 10 years, but “now researchers have established that they are closely linked to the Homo genus.” They claim this is proof of a bridge between species of early humans and their predecessors.1
Researchers/authors Scott Williams, Jeremy Desilva, and Darryl De Ruiter analyzed two partial skeletons and published their results in late fall of 2018. An area in South Africa, known as the “Cradle of Humankind,” is where the original discovery was made in a pit in Malapa, near Johannesburg. The first fossil was found back in 2008 by accident, when a nine-year-old boy, Matthew Berger, was walking his dog and stumbled over something partially buried in the ground. Additional fossils were recovered during the period of 2008-2018. Their studies include focus on body size and proportions and suggest approximate weight of 35 kg (77.2 lbs). Further details can be obtained from the official scientific publication (see notes).2
What about God, the Bible, and Creation?
The authors of this research have provided a disclaimer within their study. “While the authors of the manuscripts presented in this description of the Malapa remains have spent the last decade studying these fossils, and deliver an honest assessment and interpretation of this material, ours is not the last word. Nor do we expect our colleagues to simply believe what we have written, as science is rooted in evidence, not belief. We therefore invite our colleagues to study the material for themselves and to test the many hypotheses we have presented in these pages.”3
The evolution-creation controversy has been going on since the middle of the 19th century. Even though evolution is just a theory, the scientific community has accepted it as a fact and the creation view is considered pseudoscience. Of course, that does not add much weight to philosophical or theological opinions and views.
Author Henry Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research, reminds us that humankind began with the first man and woman being crafted as unique creations by God and should not be compared with animals, but contrasted with them. “The widespread belief that people evolved from apelike ancestors is not only refuted by Scripture but also by all the facts of science.” Previous to this new find, Morris had said, “that true humans (with a truly human skull, erect posture, etc.) existed at least as early as Australopithecus, Homo erectus, and all others that had previously been considered candidates for the transition between apes (or apelike creatures) and people. So far as the actual fossil evidence shows, man has always been man and the ape has always been an ape, exactly as the Bible teaches.”4
So, we have here two opinions, each at an opposite end of the evolution-creation debate. Which is truth? Or is there room for a logical middle ground? I’ve talked with several Christian academics whose ideas fall somewhere between these two polls of thought. Probably the most popular thought being that God took the highest form of animal life and genetically modified it to create his first human. That idea probably raises more questions than answers.
“According to a 2014 Gallup survey, ‘More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.’ A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found ‘that while 37% of those older than 65 thought that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, only 21% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed.’”5 If you have ideas or suggestions, or any other comment, we would be happy to hear from you.
In a restaurant a few days ago, I overheard a small group of people discussing the account in the Gospels, when Jesus confronted a Canaanite woman. What really caught my attention though, was when one person said, “I don’t think Jesus should have made such a mean racist comment to someone asking him for help.”
What I found even more interesting was that someone was actually accusing Jesus of an inappropriate response without any investigation of the reasons behind it. Wasn’t that an infraction of Jesus’ own advice? “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).1 So, this short study is about the discussion Jesus had with the woman asking for his help.
This is the story outline. Jesus leaves Israel and heads north toward the border of Tyre and Sidon, two great Phoenician seaports. As he enters that pagan territory, he was hoping not to be recognized, only because he needed a place to rest for a while before continuing his work. Upon entering a house, Jesus was recognized by a Gentile woman who approached shouting for help. This Syrophoenician2 woman had a demon-possessed daughter and she begged Jesus to cast out this unclean spirit. We don’t know much about the child; she wasn’t even present, but at home in bed. It may have been a demon or it may have been some mental health problem or maybe a neurological disease causing seizures. It was not the child’s problem that is important here, but the way the situation was handled by Jesus and what future meaning was inferred by his actions.
The biblical account of this story is in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, but there are some detail variations, so our study will pertain to both of the accounts below.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Notice that Jesus did not answer her immediately and when he did, he refused her request by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, and begged again, “Lord, help me.” His response was, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Basically, Jesus explained that his ministry is only for the Israelites. As scholar Andrew Knowles states, “He teases her with a racial taunt, that the Israelites are God’s children and the Gentiles mere dogs.”3
Now, one may think that the answer given to the woman was definitely not one of grace. It might seem that stern words were spoken, and that his kindness was only for the Jews. So, was it true that Jesus felt his kindness and miracles were only for Jews (God’s children) who, especially their leaders, had no gratitude, and not for the dogs (Gentiles), many of whom did appreciate him?4
It’s not what you think.
It must be noted that the term “dogs” used in this conversation is not the normal larger, wild, vile, scavenger animals living as strays outside the home and thought of as next to worthless. The Greek word used here is a derivative which means “puppy” or small pet dog that lives with the occupants inside the house (see note),5 so the comparison Jesus used as an example was blunt, but was not as displeasing as many people first view it.
Although this woman was not a Jew, she was knowledgeable and had great hope in Jesus. “She acknowledges Jesus’ messianic status and his ability to cure her daughter. Faith is further evident in her persistence. Nothing dissuades her, neither her knowledge that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, nor his initial silence, nor the disciples’ efforts to get rid of her, nor Jesus’ statement of purpose.”6
Even though it first appears that he treated this woman with unjust cruelness, Jesus was using this opportunity to test her faith. Jesus’ recorded life proves that he was not a cruel, nasty person, so why would he be so in this situation. I surmise he respected this bold woman who didn’t flinch in the encounter.
Some commentators imply Jesus was merely mocking religious leaders with satirical mimicry. Biblical professor and writer Royce Gruenler, said, “. . . the woman responds with wit and tenacity to Jesus’ ironic parody of Jewish exclusivism”7 and biblical scholar, Frederick Bruce, in one of his books, says the following about Jesus’ message to the woman:
“. . . what if there was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, as much as to say, ‘You know what we Jews are supposed to think of you Gentiles: do you think it is right for you to come and ask for a share in the healing which I have come to impart to Jews?’ The written record can preserve the spoken words; it cannot convey the tone of voice in which they were said. Maybe the tone of voice encouraged the woman to persevere.”8
And persevere she did. The woman was smart and quick and realizes her position. She did not feel insulted; she neatly turned what Jesus said to her advantage.9 Seeing herself not as a child in the family (of Israel) and eligible for the choicest morsels, she imagined herself as a household dog (a Gentile) eligible to receive crumbs that might fall under the master’s table as the children (of God) ate. She had the faith that just one crumb of power and grace could cast the devil out of her daughter. She only asked that this small blessing be extended to her in this time of need, nothing more. “This Gentile woman’s faith contrasted with Israel’s leaders who were rejecting Jesus.” Because of such great faith — the kind he was looking for in Israel — he granted her request without even going to see the child.10 “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:28).
In healing the daughter, Jesus demonstrates the compassion shown to all and reveals himself as a savior for the Gentiles, too. Jesus found great faith in this daughter of an accused race and established that the hunger of the Gentile is not forbidden. This was a preview of the spirit to be demonstrated in the Acts of the Apostles.11
There are things we learned here that we can use in our own lives. Have faith. If you sincerely need God’s help, ask for it — even if you do not attend a regular church or feel you are not deserving of his grace. If you get only silence, then ask again. If you don’t get the answer that you need, persist. It is worth waiting for an answer to your prayers; God may be testing your faith.
Syrophoenician: a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria.
“Merriam-Webster Dictionary,” (Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Wester, Inc., 2015), http://www.Merriam-Webster.com
Note: also called Canaanite, in Matthew 15:22 – centuries before, this area’s inhabitants were called Canaanites.
Knowles, Andrew, (ed.), The Bible Guide, [1st Augsburg Books edition], (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), p. 424.
Chadwick, G. A., “The Gospel According to St. Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible: Jeremiah to Mark, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, (Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton Co., 1903), [Expositor’s Bible, vol. 4], p. 862.
Strong’s Greek word #2952. κυνάριον kunariŏn; a puppy:— dog. neut. of a presumed derivative of #2965 [which means like a “hound” dog].
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
Chamblin, J. Knox, “Matthew,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), [Baker Reference Library], v. 3, p. 741.
Gruenler, Royce Gordon, “Mark,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), [Baker Reference Library], v. 3, p. 779.
Bruce, F. F., The Hard Sayings of Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 111.
Lane, William L., The Gospel According to Mark, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), [The New International Commentary of the New Testament, v. 2], p. 263.
Barbieri, Jr., Louis A., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 55-56.
Chadwick, G. A., “The Gospel According to St. Mark,” in The Expositor’s Bible: Jeremiah to Mark, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, (Hartford, CT: S.S. Scranton Co., 1903), [Expositor’s Bible, vol. 4], p. 862.
Do you believe in ghosts? According to the Huffington Post, nearly half of Americans do. A HuffPost poll “shows that 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, or that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations.”1 In the U.K., 52 percent of respondents indicated that they believed in ghosts, and that belief is even more widespread in much of Asia.2
Even among Christians in the United States, the numbers are high, too. “More than one in three feel they’ve been in contact with the dead, whether that’s through a ghost, a psychic or other means. Among white evangelical Christians, that number is at 20 percent; it’s higher still among white mainline Protestants (29 percent), black Protestants (37) and white Catholics (35)” according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.3 So what is going on? Are ghosts real? And what, exactly, are ghosts anyway?
“Ghost” is an old Saxon word meaning soul or spirit and is a translation of the Hebrew nephesh and the Greek pneuma. Both mean breath, life, spirit, etc. and the expression “to give up the ghost” means to die.4 For a lot of people, the only knowledge they have about ghosts and spirits are what they have read in novels or seen in movies and on television, but there is much concerning this topic mentioned in the Bible, too, as we will see.
What does the Bible say about contacting spirits?
To most people, ghosts and spirits are terms that are used interchangeably and refer to the soul or spirit of a deceased person that has not, as yet, crossed over to their final destination — heaven or hell. But to most knowledgeable Christians, a spirit or ghost “is not a dead human, but rather a demonic spirit intent on deceiving living humans.” All protestant denominations basically agree that any spirit not of God should not be entertained and that demonic spirits can and will pretend to be friendly, helpful, and righteous benefactors.5 The Bible actually warns us of this by stating, “. . . Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14–15, NIV).
It should be noted that nowhere in the Bible is it implied that physical death is a transition from a material existence to the spiritual plane,6 so speaking to deceased spirits or ghosts is not possible. The only thing that is certain is that everyone dies in the end. Everyone shares the same fate; the dead have nothing—no passion and no power.7 Ecclesiastes states, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).8
There is no detailed description of an immediate afterlife in the Old Testament, so evidence of life after death is open to interpretation. But what is often implied in the Bible is the comparison of death to sleeping — and there is also reference to a hope in a resurrection from this sleep of death. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever . . . But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days” (Daniel 12:22-3, 13). And in the New Testament, even Jesus referred to his dead friend Lazarus as sleeping when he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11).
Like the resurrection of Lazarus (and later that of Jesus, himself), Christians can believe that the bodies buried in graves will one day be raised to life. This is a promised hope as Jesus said, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28–29).
So, who are the demonic spirits that people contact?
Angels are creatures created by God, just as are humans, but long, long ago many angels decided to rebel against the Almighty’s sovereignty and were expelled from heaven. Although the term “fallen angels” does not appear in the Bible, it is used as a description for those rebellious creatures led by Satan. He and his associates are trying to usurp God’s rule so they do their best to turn human’s alliance away from God and toward Satan. It is known that they will use deceptions, tricks, and lies to accomplish their goals.
It was not long after the creation of the first human couple that Satan deceived Eve to go against God’s one simple law. That is why Satan the devil was called the “father of lies” by Jesus when he was speaking to the Jewish leaders who were trying to convict him. “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
The event in the Garden of Eden started a war between good and evil among humans — between God’s way and Satan’s way — and, although it will end in the not too distant future,9 this struggle is still going on today. So, Satan and his fallen angels still exist and live in another dimension (or realm) which is invisible to us, but they have the ability to manifest a visible presence when it is to their advantage. They can also speak to you, or speak through you, if you grant them that opportunity. They can entice you, delude you, influence you, and control you if you allow them.
If you see or hear a spirit or ghost, what you experience may be real, “but they are not angels from God or our dead loved ones. They are fallen angels trying to deceive us.” God does have angels to guide and protect us, but they don’t hurt us, trick us, or lie to us.10 If you live by God’s rules, there is biblical assurance of God’s protection by angels as the following verse pledges.
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
No evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. (Psalm 91:8)
Throughout history, people have not listened to God’s warnings.
In Genesis chapter 15, God makes a promise to Abraham to give all his descendants the “Land of Milk and Honey.” This “Promised Land” was territory extending from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates river.11 Just before Moses’ death and the Israelites were to enter the Promised Land, Moses gave a sermon including God’s laws by which they must live when entering the land of their inheritance. The Israelites always had a hard time obeying God’s laws, so Moses knew that the Canaanite pagan magic and other occult practices in the new land would prove tempting.12
Basically, Moses indicates that God would now reveal himself through a prophet, instead of directly, so he would raise up a prophet like Moses and the prophet would have divine authority. The purpose of this new communicative arrangement is to guard Israel from the detestable religious practices of her neighboring pagan people. By way of this new system, their future would be guided by God, through a prophet. God’s people are to have patience and wait upon God’s initiative of revelation through a prophet, not through other non-Godly pagan sources.13 The following is part of his preaching.
No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so. (Deuteronomy 18:10-14)
All these pagan practices are still found in our modern world, either as listed above or by some other New Age names; they have never disappeared. Understand that God is not saying these practices do not produce results, only that they are forbidden for his chosen people, because the spirits contacted, the answers they present, the decisions they make, the guidance or predictions they announce are not from God. All these detestable methods to seek guidance are Satan’s tools for the destruction of the human society. Although there are nine pagan occult practices listed in the scripture above, our study will continue to focus only upon those that seek to communicate with ghosts, spirits, or souls of the dead.
How do channelers, mediums, and spiritists contact ghosts?
One of the New Age terms is “channeling” which describes a method which has existed since antiquity and throughout the ages was called many things, including mediumship and spiritism. Although many people, through ignorance, claim the ability to channel, the real art is through practice of Eastern meditation. “This mildly altered state of consciousness enables the channeler to psychically perceive spirit messages . . . Experienced mediums can enter into a trance state whereby the spirit entity takes direct control over the medium’s voice, speaking through it in an accent quite distinct from the medium’s normal mode of speech.” The medium or channeler or spiritist may have a vision and see the spirit in a visible form.14 Sometimes devices are incorporated, like a Ouija board or some modern electronic component. The purpose is to mediate communication between spirits of the dead and living human beings. The Bible gives specific instructions concerning channeling, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them” (Leviticus 19:31, NIV).
What can we do to protect ourselves from Satan’s influence?
You do not have to be frightened of Satan and his imitations of the dead. For your own safety, stay away from all satanic activities such as séances, Ouija boards, and other activities of spiritism. Satan cannot read our minds, but he is very good at reading our body language, studying our traits, and is expert at influencing what we think. These are methods in his spiritual war chest that he uses to lead us to evil.
Theologian Andrew Knowles wrote that the Apostle Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians explaining about this spiritual war being waged. “This war is being fought between God and Satan in every part of the cosmos, in heaven and on earth. Jesus wrestled with the devil when he was tempted to doubt his identity and misuse his power. He waged war against the devil when he cast out evil spirits. He told power-hungry and hypocritical religious leaders that they were the devil’s children. Paul also sees the forces of darkness at work in the world. He detects Satan’s influence where human rulers are cruel tyrants and human institutions are corrupt and self-serving.”15 Paul wrote the following so we can resist Satan’s methods.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:11–12, ESV)
In the First Letter of Peter to various churches, he advises, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Or, as The Message Bible version puts it, “Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping.”16 This is good advice.