God is routinely accused of undervaluing life. Sometimes this is because of the untold number of people killed in the flood in Genesis 7. Of course, since the chief reason given was that “the earth was filled with violence” (Ge 6.11) and God wished to put a stop to it, it’s clear that between mankind and God, he was the one to value life more highly, and he was willing to take an extreme course in order to salvage it before it destroyed itself. A less extreme gripe with God’s rules is that he tolerated slavery under the Law of Moses, which pretty much everyone today recognizes as an affront to human life and dignity. Of course, they won’t mention that God imposed tight restrictions on treatment of slaves, or that they were to use it mostly as a social safety net for those who couldn’t otherwise provide for themselves. He commanded,
“he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you...” (Deuteronomy 15.12-15)
Who cares more: God, or the person who, with the benefit of centuries of historical hindsight and nothing to lose, proclaims, “I would definitely have been an abolitionist, if I’d lived during the time of slavery”?
Those who pass judgment on God in this way are deeply confused. They understand that life is precious, but they don’t realize how they came to know this. They didn’t reach that conclusion on their own; it was told to them, indirectly of course, by God.
Many examples demonstrate that this idea did not come from man. One is Herod’s massacre of the innocents. The wise men, whom he’d sent to find the baby they predicted would be king of the Jews, were warned not to report back to Herod, so they skipped Jerusalem and went back home.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2.16)
The truthfulness of this account is questioned, or outright denied by many, who are happy to assert that it never happened, mostly on the grounds that no other contemporary source mentions it. So? It would hardly be the only historical event for which we have only one witness. Why, then, have they decided it isn’t true? Because it’s just too awful! Surely no one would actually commit such a horrible act, and if they did, the public outcry would be enormous, and some trace of that would survive! Since it doesn’t (so the reasoning goes) it must be made up.
However, it’s not that simple. It’s true that no obvious archaeological evidence has been found to corroborate Matthew’s account. It’s also true that no other contemporary author whose work survives mentioned this heinous crime. To conclude from this that it didn’t happen, however, is laughably naïve. To begin with, the numbers involved here are tiny. The population of Bethlehem at the time was about 1,000 at the most. Based on typical population distributions, we’d expect about 2.5% of the population to be under the age of 2, about 25 kids. Of these, about half would be male, so our very rough estimate is 12 or 13 boys who fit the criteria. Considering that more than a quarter of all babies died before reaching a year old, and a further 20% or so died before the age of 15, it’s not as if a dozen small bodies, not necessarily buried together or with any tell-tale signs of their cause or time of death, would stand out among the archaeological excavations, even if any of them were located. At the risk of sounding callous, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Then there’s Herod’s moral character, or lack thereof. Just for starters, he had his favorite wife and three of his favorite sons executed for dubious reasons. This guy was not nice. Does that mean his soldiers would have carried out the order, if he gave it? Well, this leads into the most important fact to recognize: infants were killed fairly often in the ancient world. Reading through the works of Josephus, about these very same people during the very same time period, in the very same region, one notices the nauseating regularity with which armed men slaughtered women and children—including infants—after a successful siege.
In the modern world, and even without straying into the topic of abortion, the massacre of innocents is not unheard of. The most glaring example would be the roughly 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the holocaust, but because “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” (Ge 8.21), that’s just one instance among many.
Mankind does not value life so highly, after all. God, through his law, his judgments, and his Son, has taught us that we should. Let’s accept his instruction, and then show him some respect, rather than finding fault in his own application of the principles he’s taught us. He told man long ago, in Genesis 9.5,
“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.”
There are plenty of common mistakes people make when they read the Bible. One of them is to make the unwarranted assumption that God approves of everything that appears in it. On the most basic level, this is easy to disprove—no one would seriously suggest that Satan’s lie in Genesis 3.4, “You will not surely die,” has God’s approval. It’s a direct contradiction of what God had just said in the previous chapter, and is used to tempt Eve into sin. Yet, there it is, in the Bible. It’s easy enough to avoid this pitfall where Satan is directly involved, but what about when the actions are performed by men and women throughout the whole book, many of whom belong to God’s chosen people?
Often the text tells us whether God approves. Cain and Abel provide an easy example: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Ge 4.4-5). But in the absence of such a clearly stated judgement, often readers get the wrong idea. For example, due to God’s general approval of people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they may assume everything these men did had God’s approval, unless it is clearly stated otherwise. Nowhere in the text does God mention to Jacob that his acquisition of four wives is a problem. Does that mean God is approves of polygamy? Of course not! To begin with, the pattern he clearly established with Adam and Eve was monogamy. God gave occasional hints that it was wrong, whether by his words (Ge 17.18-19, 21.12) or by the volatile family dynamics that resulted (like Joseph being sold into slavery by his half-brothers), but didn’t choose to focus on it at that time. Yet, it was wrong then, and is wrong today.
Jumping forward in the story, we come across Gideon. This unlikely and unambitious judge of Israel did a lot to clean up his nation, in terms of their oppression at the hands of their neighbors, their departure from worshipping God, and even their own internal divisions. He even shunned the great power the Israelites offered him—after saving the nation, he said, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Jdg 8.23). This is a truly rare occurrence, and the decision speaks well of Gideon. Yet, he did accept payment for his services to the nation, and while that was certainly justified, what did he do with the gold they willingly gave him? It was worth roughly a million dollars, in today’s money and at today’s prices, and that sum would go much, much farther in daily life in such an agrarian—and comparatively primitive—society. He’d be set for life, including a substantial amount to pass down to his (many) sons. Instead, he turned the whole collection into an ephod—this isn’t exactly an idol, and could have been perfectly harmless, but we’re told very briefly that it “became a snare to Gideon” because the people worshiped it as an idol (Jdg 8.27). How exactly did this “snare” him? We’re not told. But it’s an indicator that, even if the initial action was acceptable, the way Gideon handled what followed did not meet with God’s approval.
Let’s consider another example in the book of Judges, this time one of the roughest stories in the whole Bible. When the men of Gibeah demand access to a visiting Levite in order to sodomize him, it’s not difficult to figure out who are the bad guys in this story. This leaves us to assume that the people under siege inside the house are the good guys, but just two verses later, the master of the house tells the predators outside,
here are my virgin daughter and [my guest’s] concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing. (Judges 19.24)
Most readers are probably still horrified at this suggestion, but often come away with the impression that, since this is coming from one of the good guys, his suggestion is somehow a more acceptable alternative to what the bad guys were planning. When we step back for a moment and assess the whole situation, it quickly becomes obvious that raping a woman is no less serious an offense than raping a man. They’re equally despicable, and suddenly it seems the story isn’t about the good guys and bad guys, but about the bad guys and the worse guys!
This doesn’t mean that everyone in the Bible is vile and depraved; it means they’re people, just like the people in the world today. Yet, we tend to think of them as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown,” to borrow from Genesis 6.4. Instead of attributing physical prowess to them, we attribute moral prowess, and that’s not accurate, or fair. These people were guilty of sins, including truly horrible ones.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore their achievements, or the relationships they cultivated with God—recognition of their faults isn’t an excuse to assert our own moral superiority. Rather, it shows that the problems we face today are not new, and reminds us that God still uses and even loves seriously flawed people. That’s good news for us, because we have many flaws of our own. Of course, you shouldn’t imitate the faults of these “mighty men.” Instead, you should take advantage of redemption in Christ, and let him take even someone as sinful as you, cleanse you, and use you to accomplish important work for his kingdom.
The Bible tells us we ought to help those in need, both in the Old Testament moral principles (e.g. De 24.20-22) and in several notes in the New Testament, perhaps most clearly in James 1.27:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
In this verse, James makes it clear he’s not talking about the church as a body taking care of orphans and widows, because the next phrase is “keep oneself unstained from the world.” It’s an individual mandate, and while the church is made up of individuals, there’s a difference between individuals making their own choices to do good deeds, and the church doing it on their behalf.
Sometimes we see Christians in the New Testament making contributions, and churches sending money to other churches for this sort of purpose (e.g. Ac 11.27-30, 1Co 16.1-3, 2Co 8.1-4, 9.1-12, Ro 15.25-28). We also see individual Christians contributing to this sort of work locally (Ac 2.44-45, 4.34-37). However, we never see churches sending money to outside organizations. If he saw these practices today, Paul might ask, as he did in 1 Corinthians 6.4, “why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” That passage concerns a different matter, lawsuits, but it’s a similar instance of taking something that the church should handle itself, and putting in the hands of outsiders.
Furthermore, a feature common to practically all of the passages in the New Testament that concern the church’s money is this: “for the saints.” This phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 16.1 and 2 Corinthians 9.1, while in 2 Corinthians 8.4 it’s “the relief of the saints,” and “aid to the saints” in Romans 15.25. In Acts 11.29 it’s “relief to the brothers,” and the passages in Acts 2 and Acts 4, noted above, are both clearly about the distribution of money and other help to members of the church. It’s the same for the service of the widows in Acts 6, and Paul’s instructions that the church should help support elders and destitute widows in 1 Timothy 5 also pertain to members of the church, and so do the many passages that say the church ought to finance its ministers—preachers, teachers, and evangelists—when needed.
But while there are numerous indications that individual Christians ought to perform acts of charity, even to outsiders (e.g. Mt 5.42, Mt 19.21, Lk 6.34, Ro 12.20, Ep 4.28, 1Ti 6.18, He 13.16), there is not a single instruction or example in the New Testament to the effect that the church should provide financial assistance to outsiders. On the contrary, Peter explicitly denied this to a needy man who was not a Christian:
Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3.3-6)
This passage comes just after we’re told that the first crop of Christians took care of each other financially. As an apostle Peter surely has access to the church’s funds, but he doesn’t share with them with this outsider—he focuses on the church’s real ministry to the world, which is sharing the gospel, and gives him a much greater gift—the message preached to him and the crowd for the rest of the chapter, and backed up by a miracle, a gift of healing from Jesus himself.
The idea of the church supporting outside organizations, or even making direct payments to needy outsiders, is not one found in the Bible. It’s our duty as individuals to be generous even with non-Christians, but the church has a more important role in proclaiming Christ. The aim is to save their souls, not just their bodies.
Sadly, this issue divided the church in the mid- to late-20th century, with those on the more conservative side of things labeling the practice “institutionalism.” Labels like this one often do plenty of harm themselves, because they discourage consideration of the real moral dilemma involved, and instead encourage tribalism and the write-off of anyone who disagrees. It turns into sectarianism, a practice Jesus condemns in Luke 9.49-50, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.10-17. The Jews in the first century were divided into sects, and throughout Acts, Luke labels them αἱρέσεις-haireseis-“divisions.” We even learn (in Ac 24.5, 24.14, and 28.22) that Jewish outsiders considered Christians to be just another αἵρεσις-hairesis at first. It’s not too difficult to see how this term evolved into our modern English word, “heresy.”
Unfortunately, most members of congregations on the more liberal side don’t see the problem, let alone see it as a “heresy.” They usually have no idea there’s controversy over the practice, and see it as an important aspect of both their service to their communities, and their outreach efforts, since it doubles as advertising. But that doesn’t make it right. There ought not to be divisions in the church. But as God told the Israelites among the first set of laws at Sinai, “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil” (Ex 23.2).
Those who study eschatology—doctrines about end of the world—eventually hear the term, Rapture. This is a relatively recent innovation in Christianity, which isn’t a strong endorsement. It’s usually tied to the Tribulation, another loaded term.
The basic idea is that at some point in the future, God will take away the faithful from earth and leave the wicked to suffer plagues, wars, natural disasters, and the like. After this tribulation, so it goes, Christ will return to earth and (depending on whom you ask) establish his 1000-year reign. Where did all of this originate? The word rapture doesn’t appear in your English Bible. It comes from a Latin word, rapio, which occurs several times in the Latin Bible used by the Catholic church. This was the translation of the Greek word ἁρπάζω-harpazo-snatch, which appears in the following passage:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4.16-17)
“Caught up,” translates the word in question, which worked its way through Latin and into English as “rapture.” For “tribulation,” we must look elsewhere. The word appears many times in the Bible, but two passages lead some people to expect a Tribulation (with a capital T!) as part of a series of events surrounding the end of the world.
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24.29-31)
When Jesus mentions the gathering of the elect from the four winds, it sounds similar to the catching up of Christians alive and dead to meet him in the air. Revelation contributes to the puzzle:
And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.” (Revelation 7.14-15)
That description sounds like heaven, and the ones with washed robes sound like faithful Christians. However, there are also problems with the timing of all these predicted events, and especially with the most common version of the Rapture doctrine, which states that the faithful are to be taken away before the Tribulation occurs.
Paul describes the resurrection of dead Christians again in a later letter, and there’s little or no time for the kind of shenanigans we’ve been dreaming up:
so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15.22-24)
This is explicitly about “the end,” and it includes no Rapture or Tribulation; only a resurrection followed by destruction.
In Matthew 24, however, just after the passage we considered, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v34). Furthermore, Revelation contains many reminders that the events described in that book would come “soon” (2.16, 3.11, 22.6, 22.7, 22.12, 22.20). There are surely elements of both Matthew 24 and the visions of Revelation that pertain to Christ’s second coming and the end of the world, but they’re primarily about events within the lifetimes and foreseeable futures of their immediate audiences. The first is about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 AD, just 40 years after Jesus made his predictions. The visions of Revelation mostly refer to the persecutions early Christians would have to endure from the Roman state and populace, as well as some of the ways God would bring them victoriously through and dispense justice.
Those are the same sorts of predictions he made through Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah regarding the restoration of Israel to its land and nationhood—often using the very same words! When we read further predictions under the new covenant, it’s silly to jump to the conclusion that it’s about the end of the world. He’s told us very clearly a little about what to expect there, and we can find it in 1Th 4.13-5.11, 1 Co 15.20-28, and 2Pe 3.8-13.
People often see in their bibles what they want to see, or what they expect to see. Most of them have not spent enough time in the Old Testament prophets to appreciate how God talks about his intervention in earthy affairs. Too many allow pop-culture to exert influence in their interpretation of God’s word. Don’t be distracted by such silliness. Instead, focus on being ready for his coming, no matter how you expect that day to look.
One of the parables found in Matthew 13 is the shortest of all Jesus’ parables recorded for us in the Gospels. It has some competition later in the same chapter—the parable of the hidden treasure in verse 44 is just 30 words long in the original Greek, and the parable of the pearl of great value in verse 45 is only 25 words. But at just 20 words long in Greek (or 21 in Luke 13.20-21), the parable of the leaven easily wins the title:
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13.33)
Yet, for how short it is, this parable is surprisingly complex to interpret. The reason Jesus spoke in parables was that the common people, if they really wanted to, could understand important spiritual truths brought out from everyday, physical matters. Yet the common people seldom use leaven any more, and so we’re starting at a disadvantage.
It’s a surprise to see Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to leaven at all, since from the time before the Israelites were even a real nation, God had used this substance as a symbol of corruption and unholiness, and it carried over into the New Testament as well. When God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, they ate unleavened bread. A practical reason is given:
And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12.39)
Yet, it clearly wasn’t only due to the hurried nature of their departure; God had actively planned and prepared not just for the exodus, but for this feast and the attending analogy of leaven and corruption. Just before the exodus, on that very night, Israel observed the first Passover, and among the careful instructions God gave them about the meal they were to share was this one: “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Ex 12.8). Just after this, he told Moses that this was to be the beginning of a yearly memorial, saying in verse 15,
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”
Clearly, he means business. Leaven was prohibited from their sacrifices as well—not just during Passover week, but forever. “No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven” (Le 2.11).
In the Old Testament, God more or less leaves it up to his people to infer the analogy between leaven and uncleanness. Just as nothing ceremonially unclean was permitted in God’s presence—death, decay, disease, filth, and such things—leaven was also excluded. But Jesus makes the connection clearer when he says, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mt 16.11). In the next verse, Matthew helpfully explains that Jesus meant their teaching, which is a corruption that pervades the entire nation. Going even farther than this, Paul tells the Christians at Corinth that they “really are unleavened” (1Co 5.7), and then goes on to describe “the leaven of malice and evil,” in contrast to “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (v8). He makes a similar point in Galatians 5.9.
Yet, here we have Jesus saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven,” and we are understandably confused. It doesn’t help that, as noted above, the common people in general don’t use leaven anymore. We harvest our bread from its natural habitat, the supermarket, and if for some strange reason we desire to play around with the chore of making it ourselves, we buy a packet of yeast to add to the dough. But before that sort of approach became possible starting in the late 18th century, those who made bread—which is to say, everyone—had to keep a leaven on hand at all times. This was a small amount of continuously fermenting dough, and would be mixed in with the other ingredients—generally just flour, water, oil, and salt—and allowed to rise. Then, while most of the dough was baked, a little would be kept back, and perhaps fed some more flour and water. It was now the leaven, and would be used to start the next batch, of which another portion would be saved. This process can go on indefinitely, and is still occasionally seen in the sourdough starters that some bakers like to use and even share with their friends.
Jesus’ point, then, is not just that the kingdom of heaven spreads out to fill the whole earth. His point is that this very process strengthens it, and it’s never used up, even when mixed into nearly 50 pounds of flour (the quantity in the parable), because it’s not an exhaustible resource. It’s alive, and when it spreads to another part of the world or another segment of the population, it’s not diluted or weakened. Instead, it breeds new life, and any portion of it can serve to continue the spread of God’s kingdom, farther and farther. It always starts small, and like the tiny mustard seed in the parable right before this one (Mt 13.31), it’s easy to underestimate. Don’t misjudge it! Don’t try to save it for fear of running out. Let it do its work in you and your immediate vicinity, and then spread it around as much as you can!