The Words of God
--From James A. Scarborough, The Steppingstones (Merigold, MS: Merigold Spiritual Center, 1987) 38-71.
The religious beliefs of countless Christians are based primarily upon English translations of the Scriptures. It is a matter of importance, then, to see if this foundation is an accurate reflection of the earliest documents. To this end we will look briefly at some of the difficulties involved in the translation process. We will look at pitfalls involved with the brevity of translations, idioms, word-for-word equivalents, and intentional ambiguity. It will not be necessary to deal with differences in grammar, tense, syntax, and so on.
A student of the Scriptures is necessarily a student of words. It is not possible for the seeker to find the full richness conveyed by the Scriptural accounts unless he first discovers the meanings of the words used. We are not referring to the English words, but to the words used in the original languages.
In the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, for example, one frequently finds a Greek word which requires an English sentence, or even a paragraph, to bring out its meaning. Since Biblical translations are held to a minimum of words, much meaning can be lost. At times, then, a translation may be brief to the point of obscuring the full meaning. A verse illustrating this states that it is God's intention "to sum up" all things in Christ (Eph 1:10 NAS). One finds that the word briefly translated as "to sum up" means "to bring back to, and to gather around, the main point." A Greek preposition used therein points back to a previous condition where no separation existed (Vincent, Vol. III). This verse carries the implication that at some point in prehistory we were not separated from Christ, but that a separation occurred and a reunification with Christ is Divinely willed. The richness of meaning of this verse is sacrificed by the brevity of the translation. Translations with brevity in mind inevitably leave out some of the meaning and alter some of the rest.
Let us turn now to the challenge of making a word-for-word translation. Upon comparing one language with another one finds that the meanings of words and the mental images they evoke seldom correspond exactly. Accordingly, it is often not a simple task for a translator to render a New Testament phrase in Koine Greek (an amalgam of Greek dialects, during the time of the Roman Empire, that replaced classical Greek) into an English phrase having exactly the same meaning. The task is made even more difficult if the Greek word is thought to have a special meaning in the New Testament different from its meaning everywhere else in the Greek language. This remarkable supposition invites previously held doctrinal beliefs to enter into the translation of the documents from which those very beliefs are alleged to have come, a kind of circular illogic which renders the beliefs unreliable.
Be that as it may, let us briefly illustrate the difficulty posed by the word-for-word process with an exercise in translating a fictitious foreign language. Suppose we find the phrase "ha rennt" and that we consult a bilingual dictionary for the meanings of these words. We find that "ha" means either "it" or "he" in English, and that "rennt" may mean any of the following: "run, jog, sprint, lope, trot." Depending upon the pronoun chosen ("it" or "he") and the verb chosen, we arrive at ten possible translations of "ha rennt," such as "it runs," "he sprints," and so on. The point is simply this: there is no one-to-one correspondence between words of one language and another. Accordingly, no word-for-word translation of a Bible can exist. It is not even a theoretical possibility.
It is difficult to understand how a person with a knowledge of two languages can claim a word-for-word translation of the Bible exists when, on the one hand, no word-for-word translation is possible. A word-for-word translation is an impossibility. It cannot exist.
A translation is, at best, meaning-for-meaning, not the fictitious word-for-word. In order to accomplish such a translation, however, the translator must know the meaning of the writings. This is particularly difficult when the meanings of the words are not clearly known. The exact meaning of a great many Greek and Hebrew words is conjectural. Meanings are deduced based on the theological beliefs of the translators, or on the context in which the words are found, or upon related words from similar roots. It sometimes happens that there is no single English word which represents an adequate translation. Let us look at a passage from the writings of Paul to illustrate this point.
"For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked" (II Cor 5:1-3 NAS).
What is the meaning of this passage? What is the meaning of this strange reference Paul makes to nakedness? The passage becomes clear upon learning that the word translated as "naked" means "without a physical body." The word was used by Greek writers referring to disembodied spirits (Vincent, Vol. III). Paul is simply stating that, after our struggles in the physical body (tent, house) are finished, we shall have a spirit body (building, house, dwelling) eternal in the heavens.
In addition to the language problems mentioned so far, another problem is that languages have great numbers of phrases which do not mean what they literally say. Such phrases are called idioms. Idioms require, for their accurate translation, a virtual day-to-day speaking knowledge of the languages and an intimate knowledge of the culture. As such, they represent special difficulties for the translator. As a modern example, we find the phrase vor drei Jahre in German would be literally translated as "before, or, in front of three years." The corresponding idiom in French is il y a trois ans, literally translated as "it there has been three years." Neither the French nor the German idioms translate literally into meaningful English, but both translate into the English idiomatic equivalent "three years ago." This sort of problem gave rise to the incorrect translation of Paul's ascent into Heaven as being "above fourteen years ago" (II Cor 12:2), as the Greek idiom was not understood at the time of the King James translation (Vincent, Vol. III).
It is quite clear at this point in the discussion that language is a tricky business. (Is it a business? Does it have the intention to trick?). But let us not go overboard. (Do we have permission to climb over the side of the ship into the water?). A great deal of human judgment and experience enters into making a translation. It is not a mathematically precise endeavor. The translator must make many choices and, by virtue of these choices, the translator is, to a greater or lesser extent, also an interpreter. All Bible translations are, therefore, interpretations of the manuscripts from which they were derived. Translation includes interpretation. Such is the nature of languages.
Quite naturally, the honest and conscientious scholars who have labored on Biblical translation have exhausted every avenue to ensure that their translations are as accurate as possible under the circumstances. It is, nevertheless, not surprising that different versions of the Bible can differ markedly in the doctrines they will support. Owing to the human judgment involved in the translation process and in the selection of suitable early documents as reference points, it is not difficult to find places where different versions of the Bible support opposing views of doctrine with the same verse. Such a situation occurs in the book of Luke, in which it is related that a woman exclaimed to Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts at which You nursed" (Luke 11:27 NAS). Jesus is reported to have replied, "Yea" (Luke 11:28 AKJ), "On the contrary" (NAS), "Rather" (NIV), "No" (NEB, GNT). This remarkable selection of responses allows each reader to find justification for his view of Mary, the mother of Jesus, by choosing the translation that agrees with his bias. Christ's true meaning is obscured here.
We have taken a glimpse at some of the problems and difficulties faced by translators due to idioms, the quest for brevity, and the lack of word-for-word correspondences between languages. Each of these aspects introduces errors or, at the very least, inaccuracies into the translation. We have seen that word-for-word translations do not exist and that translation includes a degree of interpretation. It is remarkable that the various translations are sometimes as similar as they are.
Nevertheless, there are considerable portions of the Bibles which remain obscure despite the skill of the translators. Certain of these passages were not intended to be understood, at least not until the end of the age. In particular, parts of the Old Testament relating to the end times and to the eventual fates of Israel and Judah were often given in symbolic or otherwise confusing language. The express purpose for this was so that the prophecies would not be understood until after they had been fulfilled, and “then shall you know that I am the Lord” (Isa 49:23 and others). Many of the Old Testament books, especially those of Ezekiel, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel, contain intentionally obscure passages, while in the New Testament, the book of Revelation is the outstanding example of obscurity. Quite apart from any problems due to faulty translations or flawed manuscripts, we have no hope of understanding passages which God intended to keep veiled until the end, unless we are, in fact, in those final days. Then, He said, we shall understand them (Jer 23:20, 30:24; Dan 12:9).
Christ further hid the meaning of many of His teachings from the masses. He did this by speaking in parables. When asked why He spoke to the crowds in parables, Christ explained that God had not yet granted them the privilege of understanding the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven (see Matt 13:10-16). They were to hear, but not understand, and to seem but not perceive, as prophesied through Isaiah (see Isa 6:9-10). At the same time, Christ took His true followers aside and explained the parables to them, His disciples having been granted the blessing of that knowledge by the Father (see Matt 13:36-52, 15:15-20; Mark 4:10-12, 4:34). We see here that truth is a precious gift from God, the benefit of which He does not allow His enemies. Indeed, no one is even drawn to Christ as the source of truth unless it is first granted to him by the Father (see John 6:65).
Whatever the various Divine reasons may be for this, at least one of them is clear: the truth carries with it the power to escape from Satan’s deceptions. The most effective weapon at the adversary’s disposal is the mixture of truth and error, whereby humans are denied knowledge of their true identity and of the purpose of their existence. We then vacillate between one set of doctrines inspired by demons (see 1 Tim 4:6), and another. Thus, deluded by Satan’s deceits, we erring pilgrims often fail to find a strong faith in God. We frequently give up the search for God altogether and live as the He did not exist. The freedom and power to escape from our spiritual ignorance into the light, and to escape from Earth itself into Heaven, are the inheritance of each child of God if he or she will but open his mind to receive. Then shall they realize the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to those who are truly His disciples, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32 NAS). Let us now turn our attention to the meaning of a small selection of words upon which Christian beliefs are based.
Love and Fear
Throughout the Old Testament, we find repeated admonitions to fear God. These warnings have worked their way into our language in the form of the complimentary description, “a God-fearing man.” How can we reconcile instructions to fear God with the many other Biblical instructions to love God? We cannot both love and fear a person at the same time, since these sentiments are mutually antagonistic. The one prohibits the other. This is pointed out in the New Testament where it says, “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (I John 4:18 NAS).
Fear of God centers around fear of punishment. As such it is a deadly weapon for weakening the faith of God’s children by contaminating their love for Him with fear. Should a small child fear his earthly father? It would be a sick and neurotic family in which a child would be afraid of impending torture from his father if he did something wrong. Yet, we are led to believe this of our heavenly Father, although He has said, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15 NAS).
Fear of God makes no sense at all. This reaction is based on faulty translations. It owes its origination to the infiltration of false teachings in the earliest days of the church. As that time, false prophets and false teachers were at large, even before the Apostles had died. The Scriptures abound with warnings against these false teachings. Nevertheless, controversies raged. Doctrinal beliefs were sometimes established according to which warring faction had the greater force. It was in this historical setting that our basic doctrines crystallized. Scripture verses were translated, sometimes falsified, occasionally manufactured, and, above all, interpreted in such a way as to substantiate the doctrines held by the organized church in power at the time. Essentially these same beliefs are held by almost all denominations today. The great majority of movements that emerged from the Reformation some five hundred years ago—Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Quaker—retained the beliefs of the formative second-to-fourth century church. One of the insidious translations perpetuated from those days is the word “fear” in the Old and New Testaments. This was further used in the King James version and persists today.
Let us look at a sampling of verses containing the Hebrew word translated as “fear.”
“Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in His ways” (Psa 128:1).
“And in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple” (Psa 5:7).
“Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psa 111:10 NAS; Prov 9:10).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7 NAS).
In these cases, the word translated “fear” should have been translated as “reverent love.” Some Bibles do in fact mention in the margins this other meaning of the Hebrew word, giving alternate meanings of it as, variously, “reverence,” “deep love,” “awe,” or “honor.” Notice the vast difference in the previous verses when the corrected translation is used:
“Blessed is he that honors the Lord and walketh in His ways” (Psa 128:1).
“And in reverent awe and love will I worship toward thy holy temple” (Psa 5:7).
“Love God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13).
“Reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psa 111:10; Prov 9:10).
“The love of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).
There are certain places where the word “fear” really means fear, but not when applied to our relationship to God. In the following two passages, the translation “fear” appears to be the correct rendering:
“A wise man feareth, and departeth from evil; but the fool rageth, and is confident” (Prov 14:16).
“But whoso hearkeneth unto Me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil” (Prov 1:33).
The instructions are quite clear. The Old and New Testaments agree on our recommended attitude toward God. It is to love Him without fear (see Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37-40; John 15:12; Heb 4:16; I John 4:7-8). This attitude of utter confident in the love of our Father for us is necessary if we wish to learn. It is not truly a compliment at all to be called a “God-fearing man.”
Can we learn new things about the workings of God if we are paralyzed by the fear that we might inadvertently make some error in doctrine? Should we be in fear of Divine vengeance if we err? To answer that question again, let us look at what the Lord actually did to people who believed and acted wrongly.
One thief on the cross cursed and ridiculed Jesus, the other changed his mind at the last moment. Jesus accepted his change of heart immediately and responded to him, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Christ did not condemn the woman caught in adultery who was brought before Him for condemnation. Neither did He scold her. He simply forgave her and sent her on her way with the admonition to sin no more.
Paul had zealously persecuted early Christians. When Jesus appear to Paul, He did not even scold him, but simply asked, “Paul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4). Paul later explained that he was used by Christ as an apostle despite his previous sins, because he had acted out of ignorance (I Tim 1:12-13).
As a final example, consider Christ’s attitude toward His tormentors while He was being crucified. It was not vengeance, not hate. It was love. He said, “Father, forgive them,” and added a reason, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24 NAS).
In conclusion, we see that there is absolutely no reason for an honest seeker of the truth to be afraid of anything. This fear is simply a lack of trust in God’s love. This conclusion is important, because we cannot grow in knowledge of we are bound by fear to previously held beliefs which might be incorrect.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Tim 1:7). Therefore, if we feel fear, we may be sure that its source is not God, but the evil one. We shall proceed in this spirit.
Spirit and Soul
“For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (II Tim 1:7 NAS). This translation refers to “a spirit” in contrast to “the spirit” quoted earlier. It is not made clear whether there is only on such spirit or many. The following translation suggests many such spirits exist: “For the spirit that God gave us is no craven spirit, but one to inspire strength, love, and self-discipline” (II Tim 1:7 NEB). It is apparent in this rendering that God has sent a spirit entity whose purpose is to inspire strength, love, and self-discipline, not one of the lower spirits who inspire fear or timidity. In particular, we notice that the spirit is a thinking, acting entity in the service of God. It is not a mere mood or attitude in the mind of man, but a real entity existing outside of our minds. The word “spirit” “is never used in the New Testament of temper or disposition” (Vincent, Vol. III, p. 387).
If the spirit entity was sent by the Lord, it may be called “the Spirit of the Lord.” This does not refer to the Lord Himself, Who is indeed a Spirit, but to one of the many spirits in His service. “By the Spirit of the Lord” (II Cor 3:18) is better translated as “from the Lord the Spirit.” The Greek structure used here indicates the spirit proceeded from the Lord (Vincent, Vol. III, p. 310). In the same way, “the Spirit of God” refers not to God, Who is Himself a Spirit, but to another spirit belonging to, or in the service of, God. The phrase “of God” refers to belonging to God as God’s property (Vincent, Vol. III, p. 312). The activity of spirits sent from God is indicated by: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God” (I Cor 2:12 NAS).
It becomes apparent that God is active among His children by many spirits of God, or angels (see Heb 1:14), who serve as His agents. They brought instruction and guidance from above and were instrumental in teaching the early church and the Apostles. “Also be eager, of course, to enter into communication with God’s spirits. Above all, strive to become instruments through which God’s spirits speak to you in your mother tongue” (I Cor 14:1 GNT).
Spirits from God served as teachers who brought the truth to mankind. “For to us God revealed them through the Spirit” (I Cor 2:10 NAS). “Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (I Cor 2:11 NAS). Paul taught in words taught to him by these spirits: “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit” (I Cor 2:13 NAS). The literal meaning here is that the words were “communicated by a living Spirit” (Vincent, Vol III, p. 197).
John makes it clear that “the Spirit of God” refers to any one of the multitudes of spirits sent from God. “Beloved, do not believe EVERY spirit, but test the SPIRITS to see whether THEY are from God” (I John 4:1 NAS) (em add). Notice the plurality of spirits from God. “By this you know THE Spirit of God: EVERY spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (I John 4:2 NAS) (em add). Hence, “THE Spirit of God” is “EVERY spirit” which is sent from Him. Paul makes the same point when he writes of “the ability to distinguish between spirits” (I Cor 12:10 NIV), and he identifies any spirit who declares Jesus is Lord as “the Spirit of God,” or “the Holy Spirit” (I Cor 12:3 NIV) or “the Holy Ghost” (AKJ). Indeed, the Greek text of I Cor 12:3 actually reads “a spirit of God” and “a holy spirit,” indicating one of many such spirits (see also I Cor 14:12, “since you are eager for spirits, seek an abundance of them for building up the church” [NAB]).
A spirit from God is a holy spirit in contrast to the unholy spirits sent from Satan. This was expressed by a Holy Spirit with great clarity to Pastor Greber:
Whenever the original Greek texts read ‘a’ spirit, one of many is meant. You therefore distort the meaning entirely by substituting: ‘the’ holy spirit . . . This does not mean that there is only one spirit of each kind, but is merely an instance in which the singular is employed in place of the plural. You have the same usage in your modern languages, for when you say to a sick person: ‘I will get the doctor,’ you do not mean to imply that there is only one physician in the world, and when you speak of the farmer having had a prosperous year, you are referring to all farmers collectively. So, too, you use the terms: ‘the’ workman, ‘the’ lawyer, ‘the’ artist, you mean all those who are engaged in the respective callings.
When, therefore, Christ says: ‘I will send the spirit of truth,’ He means the spirits of truth, for as you already know, the Divine spirits are assigned to various callings according to their respective tasks. There are spirits of protection, spirits of battle, spirits of strength, spirits of wisdom, and innumerable others. A spirit of truth has tasks of a very different nature to perform than has a spirit of Michael’s legions, and hence possesses different qualifications. Neither one can take over the work of the other. Every spirit has its definite calling, and is gifted accordingly. Similarly, Lucifer has marshalled his hosts according to their specific work. He, too, has his fighting forces, his spirits of lying, of despondency, of avarice, pride, envy, revenge, lust, and of every other vice. The different kinds of spirits, good or bad, are specialists in their various callings and are well qualified to influence those on whom they work, either for good or for evil within their respective provinces (Greber, p. 371).
When the Bibles refer to one spirit, they need to be understood in this sense. For example, when it is said that, “There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph 4:4), we know that there is not literally one body—each of us has our own—any more than there is literally on spirit. Both expressions are figurative, expressing the unity of believers and of God’s spirits. In the same way, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:13 NAS) does not literally refer to one spirit entity any more than it refers to one literal fleshly body inhabited by all Christians together (see I Cor 12:14). Thus, “the Spirit” and “one Spirit” sometimes refer to the entire plurality of spirits serving God.
According to the Scriptures, spirits sent from God communicated to the early church for the purpose of edifying the congregation. It is instructive to read expanded translations of some of the references made to spirit communication.
“Thus also, as for yourselves, since you are those who are most eagerly desirous of spirits (spiritual powers), by desiring them in order that you may abound in them with a view to the building up of the local assembly” (I Cor 14:12, Wuest). Wuest erroneously inserts his interpretation “spiritual powers” here.
Part of the truth is translated away in, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church” (I Cor 14:12 NAS). Truth is restored by observing that the word translated “spiritual gifts” is literally “spirits” (Greek = pneumtōn): “Paul treats the different spiritual manifestations as if they represented a variety of spirits. To an observer of the unseemly revelries it would appear as if not one spirit, but different spirits, were the object of their zeal” (Vincent, p. 269). Some English versions do translate with the term “spirits”: “So with yourselves: since you strive eagerly for spirits, seek to have an abundance of them for building up the church” (I Cor 14:12 NAB). This rendition comes closest to the Greek text and to Paul’s apparent meaning.
There remains the problem referred to in Corinthians (I Cor 12:10) of “distinguishing between the different prophetic utterances, whether they proceed from true or false spirits” (Vincent, p. 256). The popular Biblical translations lose much of the meaning of the tests for discerning spirits. Therefore, we quote from two lesser-known but more complete translations:
Dearly-loved ones, stop believing every spirit. But put the spirits to the test for the purpose of approving them, and finding that they meet the specifications laid down, put your approval upon them, because many false prophets are gone out into the world. In this you know experientially the Spirit of God. Every spirit who agrees that Jesus Christ in the sphere of the flesh is come, is of God; and every spirit who does not confess this aforementioned Jesus [agree to the above teaching concerning Him], is not of God (I John 4:1-3, Wuest, In These Last Days, pp. 160-161).
With respect to spirit-communication, brothers, I wish you to have a clear understanding. You know that at the time when you were still heathens you entered into communication with the hideous spirits of the abyss as often as you were impelled to do so. I will therefore give you a rule by which you can distinguish between the spirits: No spirit from God who speaks through a medium will call Jesus accursed; and no spirit can speak of Jesus as his lord unless he belongs to the holy spirits (I Cor 12:1-3 GNT).
The word “spiritual” has the Scriptural meaning “of, or pertaining to, spirits.” When Paul writes of a spiritual body the means precisely that: the body of a spirit. Today, “spiritual” is more likely to be used in the sense of “religious” or “saintly.” Such current meanings, if projected into the New Testament translations, gravely distort certain passages.
At this point we have begun to recover some of the meanings in the Scriptures which were lost or obscured by our misunderstanding of the literal meaning of “spirit” as a real entity rather than an emotion. Unfortunately, the English language has numerous idioms involving “spirit,” such as “in good spirits,” “in high spirits,” “in a spirit of cooperation,” “a high-spirited horse,” “ran a spirited race,” and others. These phrases are used to refer to moods, attitudes, and emotions. They mislead the mind when we attempt to read the equivalent phrase in the Bibles in that way. It is worth remembering that the English language did not exist then. We cannot take the current popular usage of such words and impute their meanings into the New Testament. Let us instead take the Gospel words with their original meanings and so understand the good news in the spirit in which it was given.
The soul is distinguished from the spirit in certain places, such as Hebrews (Heb 4:12 NAS). However, it is not defined. Human authors often characterize the soul as the source of the will and the seat of feelings, desires, affections, and memory. The soul may also be thought of as that power flowing through a spirit which animates it and powers its thought and memory. In any case, the spirit much necessarily contain a soul by virtue of its existence. Hence, spirit and soul are inseparable, and we need make no further distinction between them in our discussions. Where one is, there is the other.
When Christ related a parable of a rich man in which God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20 NAS), the spirit of the man was also required of him, the soul being in the spirit body. We lose no meaning by exchanging the words “soul” and “spirit” here. Since the soul resides in the spirit and animates the spirit, the spirit always continues to live even though the human dies.
Life and Death
The words “life” and “death” are used with two primary meanings in Biblical writings. They sometimes mean physical life and physical death in the same way they are used in everyday speech. Probably more often, however, they refer to spiritual life and spiritual death, especially when used by Paul in his Epistles.
Physical life is simply the condition in which the spirit of the person is in the physical (carne) body. Physical death is the departure of the spirit from the physical body.
In the moments before the physical death of Christ, He uttered His last words, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34), or, “It is finished” (John 19:30 NAS), or, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit” (Luke 23:46 NAS). Although the Gospel writers disagree about His words, they do agree that He quickly thereafter “breathed His last” (Mark 15:34; Luke 23:46 NAS) and at that instant released is spirit (Matt 27:50; John 19:30) from His physical body. Physical life ended when His Spirit departed from His body. Nevertheless, Christ continued to exist as a Spirit.
Paul referred to physical death as departing from the physical body (Phil 1:22-23) and Peter wrote of it as “laying aside my earthly dwelling” (II Pet 1:14 NAS). As Stephen was being stoned to death, he cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59 NAS) and his spirit left his body permanently. In the cases of Paul, Peter, and Stephen, their spirits continued to exist after leaving the body. Similarly, the spirits named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were continuing to exist in Heaven although their bodies were buried in the desert (Mark 12:26-27; Luke 20:37-38). When a certain beggar died, he was carried, as a spirit, by the angels (spirit agents) to be with Abraham (a spirit) in Heaven (God’s spirit-world) (see Luke 16:22).
Physical life is simply that state in which the spirit is housed in the physical body. When Christ caused the daughter of Jairus to be raised from the physically dead, He commanded, “Child, arise. And her spirit returned, and she rose up immediately” (Luke 8:54-55 NAS) or, “In an instant her spirit returned into her body and she stood up” (Luke 8:55 GNT). Quite obviously her spirit had not ceased to exist. It was simply no longer in her body to animate it. We are not told from whence her spirit returned, only that she did.
The same phenomenon is reported in modern times, albeit without the visible presence of Christ. Many people have experienced brief periods of physical death and report having been fully aware in spirit of their continued existence. Such events are commonly referred to as “near-death experiences” or “out-of-body experiences.” These experiences are consistent with the Scriptural accounts, which tell us that they do in fact happen, but which do not necessarily tell us what the people experienced while absent from the body. We will return to this topic in a later chapter. At this point, we reiterate that physical life occurs when the human spirit is in the body; physical death occurs when the spirit leaves the body but continues to exist. Physical death does not imply that the spirit, or soul, is extinguished.
Spiritual life and spiritual death are quite a different matter. Neither term has any reference to continued existence or nonexistence, to physical life or physical death. The terms refer, instead, to the relationship which a spirit has chosen between himself and God.
Every spirit is free to choose between Christ and Lucifer as his leader. If the choice is in favor of God through Christ, the person is said to be spiritually alive. The opposite choice is spiritual death. Spiritual death carries the idea of estrangement from God, separation from God, or divorcement from God, in much the same way as we use those terms in describing a marriage. The demonstration of the choice so made lies in the person’s subsequent behavior. “You are slaves to the one whom you obey” (Rom 6:16 NIV). “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17 NAS). Those people who have received Christ’s message and believed it have “passed out of death into life” (John 5:24 NAS).
Paul wrote to Timothy that Jesus Christ had abolished death and brought life (II Tim 1:10), yet both Paul and Timothy were later deceased. Their deaths were only physical deaths, which Christ did not abolish. He abolished spiritual death, estrangement from God, and brought spiritual life, union with God, eventually to occur in His realm of Heaven. The continued existence of the spirit is not at issue here.
In the same vein, it is reported that God said to Adam and Eve, “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17 NAS). This verse is usually taken to mean that man would have physically lived forever had he not sinned. This interpretation appears to originate in man’s age-old fear of physical death and his ignorance of the continued existence of his spirit. If this interpretation were true, then we would be required to believe that God placed His children on Earth, Satan’s realm, with the intention of leaving us here forever, provided we lived perfect lives. This grotesque distortion of God’s plan is removed when we realize that God spoke of spiritual death, exile from Him, and not physical death.
That God was speaking of spiritual death is further borne out by the fact that Adam is reported to have lived perhaps nine hundred more years, although it was emphatically stated that “IN THAT DAY . . . thou shalt surely die” (em add). That He meant spiritual death (divorcement from God) is an unmistakable conclusion, since Adam, physically alive, was immediately exiled from Eden. Mankind was exiled from Eden until One would eventually come Who could reconcile the estranged parties, God and man. Genesis 2:17 could perhaps be translated more clearly as: “In the day that you eat of it, you will most assuredly be divorced from God.”
Spiritual life and death are the issue in “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Cor 15:22 NIV). The meaning is that “as by following the example of Adam all have been divorced from God, in the same way by following Christ all shall be reconciled and reunited with God.” There is no suggestion that Adam’s descendants are to be punished for any mistakes other than their own. An entire chapter in Ezekiel is devoted to driving home the point that each person is responsible for his own acts (Ezekiel 18).
Christ is He “that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). Compare with another translation, “Thus He was to be enabled to suffer the death of the body is order to wrest the power from him who rules over the spiritually dead, namely, the devil” (Heb 2:14 GNT).
Similarly, we find, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov 14:12). An alternate translation could be: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the result of following it is alienation from God.” When Moses “placed life and death” before the Hebrews and urged them to choose life (Deut 30:19), he was not speaking of physical life, which they already had, nor of physically death, which they were all destined to face regardless. Moses was placing before them the choice between allegiance to God or alienation from God, “the blessing and the curse” (Deut 30:19 NAS). The choice was between spiritual life and spiritual death.
It sometimes happens that both the spiritual and physical sense of life and death are mixed in the same quotation. Paul wrote that “she who givers herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives” (I Tim 5:6 NAS), which is to say that she is spiritually dead, or divorced from God, at the same time she is physically alive. She is one of the spiritually dead who is left to bury the physically dead, as in “let the dead bury their dead” (Matt 8:22). On occasion “dead” may also indicate unresponsiveness, as in being dead to sins (Rom 6:11; I Pet 2:24).
In a few instances, Life and Death are proper names for Christ and Lucifer, respectively. “And death and Hades delivered up the dead which were in them” (Rev 20:13 NAS) could be worded: “and Death [Satan] and Hell freed the spiritually dead who were in them.” Similarly, “and death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” may be read as “the Prince of Death and his subjects were thrown into the lake fire” (Rev 20:14 GNT).
The cause of spiritual death is the inherent nature of man. We are estranged from God to the extent that our individual natures differ from His nature, which in its very essence is love. “God is love; and he who continues in love remains united with God, and God with him [spiritual life]” (I John 4:16 GNT) (em add). Departures we make from behavior based on love result in our alienation from God. Such departures are collectively called “sin.” “The soul who sins will die [be separated from God and His realm but continue to exist]” (Ezek 18:4 NAS) (em add).
The consequences of sin are so great that we would do well to understand what the word means. Sin, in its various aspects, is represented by nine different Greek words in the New Testament. At times, the words are translated as “sin,” “transgression,” or “offense.” Some of the meanings are far more delicate and subtle than the obvious sins of murder, theft, and wanton lust.
We list here some of the possible meanings abstracted from Wuest (Studies in the Vocabulary of the New Testament). The full implications of the words are not given in this listing, as it is intended more as an overview than as a lexicon of the Greek.
Missing the Mark. The most common word used. As an archer. As a soldier who hurls his spear and misses the enemy.
Failing to Attain in a Field of Endeavor. As of a musician whose skills were not adequate for the performance he gave.
Failing to Hear. Hearing amiss. Inattentive or careless hearing of God’s words.
Acting in Violation of the Law. Lawless. Without order. Breaking a known rule of life. Overstepping known bounds.
Falling Away from the Truth. Deviating from righteousness.
Falling Short of Doing Our Full Duty.
Failing to Carry Out a Command. Includes unintentional errors. Includes not knowing about the error.
Erring Through Ignorance. By not knowing the right way, or by not understanding.
In the light of this listing, it is little wonder that no person has ever lived without transgression. Furthermore, it is obvious that there is a wide range in the degree of seriousness of the errors. They range from murder, blasphemy, and premeditated evil to errors committed in ignorance of the truth or committed in ignorance of their commission. Paul refers to these latter errors when he says, “I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief” (I Tim 1:13 NAS). Christ spoke sternly to the prideful and arrogant hypocrites (Luke 13:15), who, with premeditated intent, confronted Him (Luke 12:56, 13:15). John the Baptist had called them “vipers” (Matt 3:7), and Christ called them “tombs” (Matt 23:27 NAS). On the other hand, Christ freely forgave those very ones who crucified Him in their ignorance: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24 NAS).
Separation from God entered the world due to sine and extended upon all men, for all have erred in one degree or another (Rom 5:12). Nevertheless, “the gift of God is eternal life [reunion with Him] through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23) (em add).
The guilt men often carry due to their mistakes is itself a mistake, forgiveness having been promised by God upon confession and a change of heart (I John 1:9). The man who confesses his errors and works to correct his behavior, yet who still carries guilt, certainly fails to correctly hear God’s words, and falls away from the truth, perhaps out of ignorance. These conditions are among those listed as aspects of sin. Guilt therefore has no place in the heart of a completed Christian. Neither does a companion of guilt: fear.
Fear surely misses the mark. Perhaps the most frequent command in the entire Bible is to have no fear. If the fear is fear of God, then it misses the mark badly, indeed.
Sin is often thought of as violation of nay of the Ten Commandments. However, in the New Testament words we find a much broader scope to the nature of our errors.
The warnings against sin are not God’s efforts to force His preferences on His children. God certainly has the sheer power to have done that at any time. Instead, His commandments are guidelines for teaching us how to live in harmony with others, a necessity if we are eventually to dwell in the heavenly realms without introducing disharmony. We are in training, in preparation for our future life. Sin, therefore, seems to be any act that either eventually or immediately harms another soul, even including the act of withholding a good deed when it is within our power to perform it. In general, any act contrary to God’s law of love may be viewed as some degree or other of sin. This concept apparently includes all of the Old Testament and New Testament instructions. Christ summarized all of these Scriptural instructions in His commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37 NAS), and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:38 NAS). “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28 NAS). According to Him, the entire Scripture hinges on these commandments (Matt 22:40).
Parenthetically, let us remember that the love taught by Christ may or may not involve romantic love, affectionate behavior, warm feelings, or nice sensations. These may well be present, but they are not the proof of our love. The proof is first our thought, “for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov 23:7), and, secondly, in how we act upon those thoughts. The one who keeps Christ’s commandments, “he it is who loves Me” (John 14:21 NAS).
By way of analogy, we compare a person to a radio. Just as the radio can be tuned to various stations, so, too, can the person be in attunement with various spirit influences. Let us suppose that at the low frequencies on the left end of the radio dial we pick up Satan and his cohorts, while at the highest frequencies on the extreme right hand end we are in tune with God and His spirits. The more like Christ we become in our thoughts, the higher the frequencies we are attuned to, and the greater our access to His power and wisdom. The method of attunement is conscious unselfish love for God and our neighbor. The more we err and the more we think sinfully, the lower the frequencies we receive. The stations we receive most clearly are then on the far left side of the dial. We then hear Christ’s message faintly, if at all, and with much static. Satan, however, comes in clearly. Thus, insofar as our natures differ from that of Christ, we are out of tune with Him. The task of raising our frequency is left up to us with the help of His spirits.
Returning to the subject of sin, let us note that the sin of apostasy is in a category by itself. Apostasy refers to the abandonment or total desertion to God and His teachings. Quite naturally, if one voluntarily separates himself from God, he is then spiritually dead by the very definition of the term. Thus, the sin of apostasy is the “sine unto [spiritual] death.” The New Testament distinguishes between this sin and the errors of God’s faithful, errors committed out of human weakness. John contrasted sin unto death and sin not unto death. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death” (I John 5:16-17 NAS). At first reading it might strike us as incomprehensible that we need not even pray for those who have committed a sin unto death.
The sense of these words can be explained by the example of a person who has taken an oath of allegiance as a citizen in our country. If he breaks the laws, he may be duly punished, but he does not lose his citizenship thereby. Although disciplined, he still remains a citizen under the jurisdiction of this chosen government. If, however, our country is at war with another nation, and he deserts to the warring nation and joins with them, he loses his original citizenship. He is, from our point of view, essentially dead. He has committed the “sin unto death.” No amount of pleading addressed to our government can help him, since he is no longer under its jurisdiction. He is subject to the ruler of the hostile nation to whom he transferred his allegiance. Applying this example to our relationship toward Christ, we acknowledge that we are citizens under His dominion, even if we daily commit trespasses and are duly chastened for them. Despite that, we do not cease to be His subjects. On the other hand, if we reject God by abandoning our belief in Him, or by living as though He did not exist, then we become guilty of desertion to the enemy in time of war. In His words, we would have committed the “sin unto death.”
A final point is that the transgressions we have committed do not disqualify us for Heaven. We will never be flawless, for even the angels in Heaven err (Job 4:18 NAS). On the other hand, we can be, and probably must be, much better spirits than we are. It is not the stumbling and falling of those who believe in God and seek to please Him that bring forth spiritual death. The stumbling is through human weakness, and the falls are suffered on the road back to God. Just as our own children struggle to learn to walk, God’s older children must struggle to learn to “walk in the spirit.” It is this learning which is the process leading to salvation.
Saved and Lost
“An if it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner?” (I Pet 4:18 NAS). Countless words have addressed this question and the problem of how to attain salvation. Opinions and interpretations regarding the steps leading to salvation vary from church to church. Nevertheless, one of the points on which they agree is that salvation is a free gift from God. “It is to His grace alone that you owe your salvation after having adopted the faith. Your salvation is not what you deserve, then, but purely a gift of God. It is not the reward for your deeds, so that no one can boast of his salvation” (Eph 2:8-9). Opinions diverge quickly past this point.
Faith in Christ is necessary if one is to be saved. In the words of Paul and Silas, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31 NAS). This verse indicates salvation in the future tense, “you shall be saved,” as something eventually resulting from trust in Christ. In the same way, Luke quote Isaiah when writing that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6 NAS). The reference is again to a future result in the verse: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right [the power, AKJ] to become children of God” (John 1:12 NIV). What does “all flesh” refer to here? Does it include all living things made of flesh, both human beings and animals? And what does it mean that “all flesh shall see salvation”? That salvation occurs while “in the flesh” as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim? Or that those spirits who are enmeshed in the flesh shall one day enter into salvation, i.e., into heaven in their spirit bodies?
These verses do not suggest salvation is an immediate consequence of believing in Christ. Something is also required in the way of behavior. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11 NAS).
Although good deeds are not sufficient to wind entry into Heaven for us (Eph 2:8-9), they are at the same time necessary. “Faith without works is dead [separated from God]” (James 2:20) (em add). “You see that a man is justified [put right] by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24) (em add), or, more forcefully, “You see, then, that man pleases God with good deeds and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 GNT), although without faith it is impossible to please God (see Heb 11:6). The salvation process begins with accepting God through Christ, and continues by faith in Him evidenced by our deeds. As a result, our human way of thinking grows little by little into agreement with the nature of God. We achieve spiritual life thereby.
The final result of salvation and reunion with God is truly a free gift of God, but He requires from us our best efforts to learn the lessons He teaches and to pass the tests He administers. Our eventual purification is then assured. “And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’” (Zech 13:9 NAS). The fire may grow hot indeed, but the refining produces purified spirits. Peter instructs us to rejoice at being tested by the fire of adversity (I Pet 1:6-7), because later on it produces “the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (I Pet 1:9 NAS), “a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Pet 1:5 NAS).
The instructions from Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12 NAS) can be written as “work through your purification process on the way home to God with reverent awe and the trembling which may accompany it,” and, he adds, “for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil 2:13 NAS).
Above all, we strive to learn love and shun fear. As previously pointed out, Christ summarized the Old Testament commandments as the commandment to love. Peter stressed the fundamental importance of love, in view of our erring natures, when he wrote, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (I Pet 4:8 NAS). Paul wrote to the faithful that the real “goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim 1:5 NAS). The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians explains at length that love is the spiritual gift of greatest value, to be sought above all others. Such love reconciles us through Christ to God’s ways of thinking, defeating spiritual death and resulting in salvation.
We see, then, that salvation is presented in the Scriptures as a process, rather than as an immediate reward. Salvation is through the Savior, Whose victory won for us our release from spiritual death.
One may well wonder about the fate of people who refuse to learn God’s lessons, but who believe in Christ. Are they ready for Heaven? One also wonders about the end in store for those who refuse to accept Christ until shortly before death. How can they be purified, seeing they have so little time remaining? But what about the criminal on the cross who changed his mind about Christ the moment before his death? Was he not promised by Christ to be with Him in Paradise on “that very day”? What about newborns and children who have not lived long enough to learn right from wrong or even anything about God and Christ? The answers to these questions will become clear in later chapters.
The parable of the prodigal son is a Biblical example illustrating, among other things, salvation. The younger son took his share of the father’s wealth and left home. He abandoned his father’s house and jurisdiction and began living according to his own tastes. The son eventually squandered everything and came to ruin. Realizing that his own will was the cause of his wretched state, the son changed his attitude and set out on the road home. While he was still far away, his father ran to greet him. His father accepted his repentance with a homecoming feast, saying, “for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found [saved, recovered]” (Luke 15:24 NAS) (em add). Rephrased, this passage reads, “for this son of mine was alienated from me, and has come to be reconciled with me again; he was wandering away, and had been received back into my home.” This parable vividly illustrates the common Biblical meanings of “life” and “death” as they describe our relationship with the heavenly Father. The parable further illustrates the salvation of the son as the homecoming of one who has learned from his errors and has changed his way of thinking. The son came to his senses on his own and freely desired to return to his loving father’s house. In the same way, we set out on the homeward trek to our heavenly Father, enduring hardships, lessons, and tests along the way, but knowing that, at last, we shall be made fit to reenter His house. This is the process called salvation.
The son was said to be lost. Here, again, we have the familiar problem of a translation not having the same meaning as the original word. To the modern reader, a person is lost if we cannot locate him. That meaning is rarely the Biblical usage. On the contrary, the father of the prodigal may well have known where his son was at all times. We are not told that the son was lost in the usual sense. Instead, he was lost in the sense of having left his father’s domain and of having gone astray. It is the leaving and the going astray which are at issue here, not the knowledge of the whereabouts of the son.
We use “lost” in a variety of senses today. We may have lost track of time or have lost our place in a book. Perhaps our team lost a game. But all is not lost, for we still know where to find the time, our place in a book, or the game. We still know where they are. Similarly, a “lost” sinner has a known location, and “lost” Israel was taken to a known place. But the sinner and Israel both wandered away from God, as the prodigal left his own father. In that sense, they were “lost.”
Christ said of His followers, “Those that Thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12). The son of perdition, Judas Iscariot, did in fact stray from God and Christ, but his whereabouts were known.
“My people have become lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer 50:6 NAS). Nevertheless, the Lord said, “I will see [come for] the lost, and bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick” (Ezek 34:16 NAS) (em add). Many years later, He had no trouble finding His sheep, for He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24 NAS). “For the Son of Man has come to save [cleanse and call home, restore to spiritual life] that which was last [wandered away from God, spiritually dead]” (Matt 18:11; Luke 19:9 NAS) (em add). “For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd” (I Pet 2:25 NAS).
In summary, the term “lost” means virtually the same thing as “spiritual dead,” and “the lost” the same as “the dead.” Opposite in meaning to “lost” is “saved,” “the saved” being those spiritually alive souls who are undergoing salvation, the purification process, with the assured end result of continued existence in the realm of Christ.
The humans God intended to us as His instruments for spreading His truth on Earth were the tribes collectively known as Israel. They were selected and set apart for the task of bringing salvation and spiritual life to all nations. Unfortunately, these “chosen people” strayed from obedience to His commandments and become lost. But their whereabouts were known.
Israelites and Jews
The process of salvation required human instruments to serve God in this earthly realm. For that service, He selected the descendants of Jacob, by way of keeping His promise to Abraham and others. “For you are a holy [set apart unto God] people to the Lord your God, the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession [special treasure, NAS] out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which he swore to your forefathers” (Deut 7:6-7 NAS) (em add). God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Israel’s descendants then became known as Israelites, or simply as Israel.
The promises made to the man Israel were passed down to the nation, Israel, which sprang from him (Deut 10:15). The nation was always to be a special instrument of God, “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:5), to serve “as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6 NAS), to remove spiritual blindness and bring freedom to Satan’s captives (Isa 42:7). “‘You are my witnesses’ declares the Lord, ‘And my servant whom I have chosen’” (Isa 43:10 NAS). The “chosen people” were chosen to carry out a specific mission. Should they faithfully follow God, they would receive, as a consequence of their faithfulness, great material possessions, good health, protection, and other blessings. However, these gifts were secondary to the purpose for which they were chosen.
Israel’s obedience to God waivered for several centuries. The Israelites as a whole were unable, or unwilling, to retain faith in God. They were called dead and blind (Isa 42:18-19) when David was king, and were still that way when Christ came much later.
Internal strife led to a division of the nation soon after the days of David and Solomon. Of the twelve tribes descended from the twelve sons of Jacob-Israel, ten rebelled and retained the name Israel. This new kingdom of Israel contained not only the ten tribes and their territories, but may of the people from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The remaining portions of Judah and Benjamin became known as Judah. Israel, the new kingdom, strayed from God and was therefore “lost.” Eventually, God divorced these lost tribes (Jer 3:8) and gave them over into the hands of the Assyrians. The Assyrians conquered and deported these tribes from their homelands. They then repopulated the Israelite cities with new people, who late became known as Samaritans. We have here the origin of the phrase, “the lost tribes of Israel.”
Although the English word “lost” misleads many readers into thinking that the location of the tribes was unknown, such is not the case. Both biblical and archaeological records tell us where they were taken. Their surviving brethren, the nations of Judah in Jerusalem, knew quite well where they were. Ezekiel was even sent to the exiles (Ezek 1:1, 2:3, 3:1). The Lord said to Ezekiel, “Go to the house of Israel and speak My words to them” (Ezek 3:4 NAS). The Lord continued with, “Go to the exiles, to the sons of your people, and speak to them and tell them, whether they listen or not, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezek 3:11 NAS), and the spirit from God took Ezekiel to the exiles (Ezek 3:12-15).
A portion of the tribe of Judah, in addition to some of those of Benjamin and Levi, remained unconquered in their territory in and around Jerusalem. There were collectively known as “Judah.” At that point in history, the Biblical record shows a growing distinction between Judah and the exiled Israel, but on occasion the term “Israel” is used to mean the entire nation before it was divided. To further confuse matters, those of Judah finally came to view themselves as the survivors of the original clans of Jacob-Israel, adding yet a third usage of the term “Israel” by applying it to themselves.
Judah proved more faithless than exiled Israel. Little more than a hundred years passed after Israel’s exile when the Lord gave Judah over the Babylonians. When some of the Judahites finally returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and began rebuilding the temple, they were sometimes called by the shortened name “Jews.” At that time, several centuries before Christ, a Jew was a returning captive from Babylon. Earlier still, he was a person from the southern half of the divided kingdom of Israel. In the earliest times, he was, in the literal sense, simply a descendent of the man Judah, or a member of the tribe of that name. The point is this: a Jew, or Judahite, is from a tribe of Israel and is therefore an Israelite. In contrast, an Israelite may or may not be a Jew, because he may or may not be descended from Judah. This distinction is relevant for understanding the older prophecies regarding Judah and Israel.
Later, by the time of Christ, the term “Jew” frequently referred to religious persuasion as it does today, rather than bloodline. Those people who worshipped God with the beliefs we can call “Judaism” could be called “Jews,” thus adding another meaning to the word with additional confusion resulting.
For example, Abraham was not a Jew, for he did not descend for Judah, who was not yet born. At the same time, Abraham worshipped the one true God worshipped by the later Judahites. Joseph, the brother of Judah, was therefore not a Jew in the former sense (he was not a descendant of Judah), but was one in the latter sense (worship of the God of the Judahites). The Israelites were not Jews in the former sense, but were in the latter. A present-day convert to Judaism may be neither an Israelite nor a Judahite, but still become a Jew, if he inwardly becomes one (Rom 2:29). Paul was a Jews of Tarsus, according to his religious faith, but was of the tribe of Benjamin instead of Judah (Rom 11:1).
Names and designations change their meanings over periods of time. The biblical record was written over a long period of time. It is little wonder that interpretations of prophecies concerning Judah, the Jews, and Israel vary widely.
Israel never returned from the Assyrian deportation. The “chosen people” spread among the nations and ceased to exist as an Israelite nation. Judah, or at least a portion of it, returned from the Babylonian captivity and assumed the role of all of Israel. The Judahite fraction of the “chosen people” was utterly destroyed by the Romans a few decades after Christ. It would appear, then, that God had no group of people remaining on Earth who could serve as His chosen ones, to be a light and witness unto the nations.
Who would obey the laws of God of Israel and follow Israel’s Messiah when He came? Who could be set apart from the world to serve Him?
Saints and the Church
Apostate Israel fell to the Assyrian invaders. The descendants of Jacob went as captives to lands north and west of their homeland in the Palestine area. They later escaped by the hundreds of thousands, according to ancient Assyrian records, and fled northward and westward. Some were joined later by a few of the Judahites captured by the Babylonians. Most of these Israelites continued northward and westward into all of Europe. Generations later, they had spread into all the countries of Galatia, Greece, Gaul (France), Iberia (Spain), Italy, Germany, and the British Isles. A small percentage of these people had returned to Palestine and lived there as Jews under Roman rule when the Messiah of Israel was incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth.
Many of the fugitives knew of their heritage as a special people of God. Many retained faith in Him during their centuries in exile. But most, perhaps, lost their heritage, their language, and their special identity, as generations of exile passed. Nevertheless, God kept track of the identities and locations of His sheep who had spiritually wandered ways and who been physically dispersed. The house of Israel was scattered among all nations “as grain is shaken in a sieve, but not a kernel will to the ground” (Amos 9:9 NAS).
The Messiah (Hebrew = meshiach), or the Christ (Greek = christos), came for His people who had deserted God (“the lost”). He called upon them to follow Him on the road He opened back to the Father. Those who followed Him would be “the saved.” “And it will come about that, in the place where it is said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it will be said to them, ‘You are the sons of the living God’” (Hosea 1:10 NAS).
Some of the Jews of Jerusalem followed the way of Christ, especially after His resurrection. Those people can be identified as “the good figs” (Jer 24) of the house of Judah, of whom it was written that they were to be His people, “and I will be their God” (Jer 24:7 NAS). The greater portion of the Jews rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah, thereby becoming those “bad figs” (Jer 24) who would become “a terror and an evil for all the kingdoms of the earth, as a reproach, a taunt and a curse in all places where I shall scatter them” (Jer 24:9 NAS). This terrible prophecy never applied to the main body of Israelites, whose location and identity became unknown even to themselves, but only to a portion of the Judahites. That particular portion of the house of Judah suffered the fulfillment, less than fifty years after Christ’s ascension, of the words: “And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed from the land which I gave them and their forefathers” (Jer 24:10 NAS).
It would appear, then, that Israel’s Messiah had no one to serve as His chose servants, His chosen people. On the one hand, the Lord has referred to the Israelites Moses led out of Egypt as His only specially selected agents: “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2 NAS). On the other hand, He had divorced His original bride (Jer 3:14), Israel, because of her unfaithfulness (Jer 3:8-20). His chosen ones cannot be the Jews who rose up against Him, for to them it was given that “you will leave your name for a curse to My chose ones, and the Lord God will slay you. But my servants will be called by another name” (Isa 65:15 NAS). This verse draws a stark contrast between the Jews and the chosen people, who will necessarily be called by some other name. In other words, those Jews were to be a curse to His chosen people, a people who were to be called by a different name, a name other than “Jews” or “chosen people.” Yet, the Lord had promised to call out His witnesses from among the Israelites, to “purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14 NAS).
Christ identified Himself as the good shepherd (John 10:1-21) Who had been sent only to the lost (apostate) sheep of the house of Israel. “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24 NAS). To these same sheep He later sent the Apostles: “God to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6 NAS). And so, they went. Early church traditions hold that Thomas went to India; James to Spain; Peter and Paul to Britain, among other places; Joseph of Arimathea to Gaul and Britain in company with Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, and others; and so on. The traditions of different churches place various disciples of Christ in many places throughout Europe and the Near East. The travels of Paul, as recorded in part of the New Testament, are perhaps the best known of the travels of the first missionaries. The book of James is addressed “to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (Jas 1:1 NAS), not to the Jews of Palestine. We see that the good news of the kingdom of God was sent not only to Jerusalem, but also to those very places where the dispersed tribes of Israel were to be found. From those places, Christ’s disciples recruited followers for their Teacher.
In this manner did Christ call out His chosen ones from among the places where the descendants of the Israelites had settled. These converts were known as the “called out ones,” from the Greek term ekklēsia (ek, “out of,” and klēsia is from the verb kaleō, “to call”), a term translated into English as “church.” The church has the mission of serving as witnesses of God, of being lights to the world, and of bringing salvation by carrying His gospel, the New-Testament description of the “called out ones” paralleling the Old-Testament description of the chosen people. The church is, therefore, the great congregation of human spirits loyal to God under the rule of Christ. Whoever is in allegiance to His rule belongs to His church. The membership has nothing to do with worldly churches and manmade denominations, but rather refers to allegiance to Christ, for Whom “God has put everything under his rule and has made him the supreme head of the church” (Eph 1:22 GNT). His church is a church of the spirit, which knows of no priesthood or clergy, nor of any supreme earthly head. Among His church are people from every creed in the world.
The collection of chosen people, those “called out ones” for God, are called the church. The individuals comprising this church are “set apart ones,” “consecrated one,” or “selected ones,” those terms being the meaning conveyed by the Greek word hagios, “holy,” and the Latin word santos, “saint/holy.” Accordingly, a saint is simply a person who is set apart from the worldly order to render service to God through Christ. The saint is necessarily, from the meaning of the word, a member of Christ’s congregation, His church, whether or not he subscribes to any manmade creed.
There is no reference in the Scriptures authorizing the manmade honor of Sainthood. The custom of awarding this accolade is entirely manmade, God being no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9). While we may rightly honor the faith and devotion of Peter, Paul, Mary, John, and many others, we at times mislead other followers of Christ by awarding the title of “Saint.” These other Christians, however imperfect, are themselves “saints” in the Biblical meaning of the term. And all Christians are members of His “church” in the Biblical meaning of that word, despite differences in their beliefs and denominations.
The saints composing the church are chosen for special service in the world. Specific aspects of their mission have already been mentioned. Their mission, in its most general terms, is to serve as God’s visible agents in preparing the hearts of mankind for the coming of the kingdom of God. This was the same mission entrusted to ancient Israel. In the fullness of time, “all Israel will be saved, just as it is written” (Rome 11:26 NAS).
The Last Days
The church has been chosen and called out by Christ to serve as His visible agents in the earthly realm. The saints of the church are assisted at every step by Christ’s invisible agents from the spirit realm, the Holy spirits sent from God (I John 4:1-2), who are sent to minister to the heirs of His salvation (Heb 1:13-14). The heirs are “the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance” (Psa 33:12 NAS), not a nation in the usual political sense, but in the spiritual sense of a collection of followers of Christ from many nationalities and denominations.
Upon completion of the mission of the church, the gospel will have been distributed to all parts of the globe. Israel will have been regathered from among the nations. Other predicted events, such as wars and famines, will have come to pass. The stage will then be set for the establishment of the rule of Christ on Earth. The coming of the kingdom of God and the return of Christ are mentioned some three hundred times or more in the New Testament alone (Matt 24:30; Mark 13:26; Luke 17:24; John 14:3; I Thess 4:16; Jas 5:7; I Pet 5:4; Jude 4). The Apostles and early Christians believed His return was imminent (Heb 10:37-38). Local groups or believers, “churches” in the common sense, have believed it and taught it for a great many years. But He has not yet returned.
Obviously, it is easier for men to understand Biblical prophecy after it has happened than before. Even the prophets and Apostles encountered this same difficulty. Peter implies (I Pet 1:10-13) that they searched the Holy writings in vain to discover what would happen before the millennial kingdom. Likewise, earnest students search the Scriptures today and arrive at an array of differing conclusions regarding the events of the end times. Yet there are many points of agreement.
It is usually agreed that the return of the Lord will be a public phenomenon: “and every eye shall see Him” (Rev 1:7 NAS). We are not told whether every eye will see Him simultaneously, as is usually assumed, or whether they will see Him over a period of time. Nor are we told the exact time to expect Him (Matt 24:36-42), since even He did not know the time when He spoke of His return. Since the event could occur at any time (Matt 25:13), and it will be sudden and unannounced (I Thess 5:2-3), we are instructed to be in a state of readiness (Matt 24:44).
Although the exact timing is unknown, certain events mentioned earlier must first occur in order to set the stage. Some of these events are catastrophic. The famous Battle of Armageddon is one. Another is the chaos in the sky when the elements melt with extreme heat (II Pet 3:10-13). We are sometimes led by these predictions to expect the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. But there is a contradiction here. The world cannot end and, at the same time, have the kingdom of God established on it.
The contradiction is resolved by discarding the inaccurate translation of “world.” More modern translations say that we look not for the end of the Earth itself, but for the end of an age, of a period of history, of a world order. Biblical references to a new Heaven and a new Earth can have several meanings other than the total removal of the planet Earth. We therefore look for the end of a period of time of waiting.
The two-thousand year waiting period will approach its end accompanied by further revelations on the plan of salvation, things “ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Pet 1:5). The meanings of many Scriptural passages sealed up until the time of the end (Dan 12:4) will become clear. Demonic and supernatural activity will greatly increase (I Tim 4:1; Rev 9:1-12). Toward the end of the age we can expect that “perilous times shall come” (II Tim 3:1 NAS).
It is this setting that we find ourselves. We are in a time when we have only a partial understanding of the Scriptures, and little or no awareness of the Laws of nature (of God) applying to the spiritual realm. One believer speaks in tongues with the blessing of his fellows, while another group teaches that all such things are Satanic. Still another group has not thought about it. People report having died for a few minutes, have seen departed loved ones or others, and having been sent back to their bodies. On occasion, Christians say these people are blessed by a gift from God, while other Christians claim that the forces of the Deceiver are at work. The same opposition of opinions can be found on many matters now taking place. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Is spiritism valid? Do miracle healings occur?
In our poverty of spiritual knowledge, we find ourselves unprepared to discern which forces are at work in the marvelous occurrences of today. We are in a similar position to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees who, by their incomplete and faulty understanding of what they read, failed to recognize that Jesus was, in fact, their Messiah. They then crucified Christ. Could not we also be blind to the fulfillment of prophecies in our own time?
We are at a time when marvelous things occur but are rejected as evil due to our misunderstandings. It may be that we, along with those who rejected Christ on His first visit, cannot recognize the signs of the times as being Divinely given. If so, then we would profit greatly from more knowledge of the nature of God’s creation and of ourselves.
Greber, Johannes. Communication with the Spirit Word of God.
Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. III, The Epistles of Paul.
Wuest, Kenneth S. In These Last Days: Studies in the Greek Text of II Peter, I, II, III John and Jude for the English Reader.
Wuest, Kenneth S. The New Testament, An Expanding Translation.