It has recently come to my attention that some among us are now advocating that the “new heavens and a new earth” of which Peter speaks is going to be a reworking or remodeling of the present heavens and earth. This is not damnable heresy, but it is certainly an unnecessary mistake in interpretation of Scripture. There is, in my judgment, simply no reason to draw such an erroneous conclusion. Peter said, “But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13). Are we really to expect a merely renovated atmosphere? I would offer the following points to support the denial of such an idea.
First, Peter’s language is not the concept of mere renovation. His language is that of ruin rather than repair. His is the language of destruction and not merely that of modification or alteration or remodeling in order to improve something or to restore to it to a better condition. In the context Peter had already declared that “the heavens that now are, and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (v. 7). “The same word” which has stored up our present heavens and earth for fire is the word by which the heavens and earth were originally made (v. 5). Too, that existing world once “perished” by being overflowed with water (v. 6). Thus, the original heavens and earth were not annihilated but perished temporarily due to the flood.
In contrast to what had earlier occurred in the days of Noah, Peter now discusses the end of the world. There will certainly be similarities between what happened in the days of Noah and what will happen when the Lord returns. The Lord spoke of this (cf. Matthew 24:36-44). But one striking difference will be that in the days of Noah, there was a divine interruption of earthly affairs. When the Lord comes there will be a termination not only of life’s affairs but of the atmosphere in which those affairs where carried on. He says that “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements (or heavenly bodies, ASV) shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (v. 10). Again, in verse 12 he declares that “the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.” So, both the present heavens and earth shall be burned up, dissolved, melted. Rather than the heavens and earth experiencing a temporary interruption by water (as in the days of Noah), the second time the universe experiences a universal calamity, it will be a destruction by fire, and it will be permanent.
Peter does not say that the heavens that now are and the earth that now is will undergo renovation. They are both to be destroyed. Destruction is not repair. The words “will pass away” come from one Greek word, a derivative of “parerkomai” which has various meanings, the context indicating which meaning is appropriate. It means such things as “to pass beside, pass along, pass by…to pass, elapse, as time…to pass away, be removed…met. To pass away, disappear, vanish, perish…” (Harper, 308). The words “will be dissolved” come from one word, “luo,” which also has various meanings. The context will have to determine which meaning fits what is being discussed. The word means, “to loosen, unbind, unfasten…to loose, untie…to disengage…to set free, set at liberty…to break…to break up, dismiss…to destroy, demolish; met. To infringe…to make void, nullify…” (Harper, 255). The words “burned up” are from a word indicating “discovery.” The ASV has in the footnote, “The most ancient manuscripts read discovered.” Thus, every element or piece or part of the existing universe will be located and affected; each part of everything will experience whatever is to occur. The words “shall melt” (v. 12) come from a word which means, “to dissolve, render liquid; pass. To be liquefied, melt” (Harper, 403). So, every solid substance will lose its form. The heavens will be destroyed or removed, and all heavenly bodies within that atmosphere will melt. Since the heavens will be destroyed or pass away, the “melting” of the heavenly bodies would suggest the first stage of the annihilation of the heavenly bodies. The solids become liquids on their way out of existence as they are set on fire. They will burn up until finally nothing of them is left.
Peter’s language is not suggestive of divine improvement of the current condition of the universe. The language itself indicates complete ruin.
Second, the writer of Hebrews informs us that God is different from the present universe in that God continues while the current universe does not (Hebrew 1:10-12). Notice, please, in reading the passage that the writer quotes from Psalm 102. Notice these points from Psalm 102:25-27:
(1) Of old God laid the foundation of the earth;
(2) The heavens are the work of his hands;
(3) The heavens and earth shall perish;
(4) God shall endure;
(5) God is the same;
(6) His years have no end.
So, unlike God whose existence is eternal, the universe shall perish in the sense that it shall not endure. It will not remain the same in its continuance; it will have an end in contrast to God who will not! If one takes the position that the physical universe is simply renovated, then he is saying that the current universe does continue even though in a modified form. But to say it continues at all is to contradict Scripture!
Third, if one interprets “new heavens and a new earth” to be physical, then he is falling into a carnalization of our eternal reward. It is the same old interpretive mistake that the Jews made in their failure to understand their prophets with regard to the nature of the kingdom. Prophets used figurative language at times to indicate something spiritual about the kingdom. But, the language itself drew from physical things. Consider for example that Isaiah predicted that a descendant of Jesse would bring about circumstances wherein “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.”
Now, any Jew who read that passage and concluded that these physical images were about physical things so that God was actually saying that the animosity between prey and predator would cease and that the time was coming in which beasts like wolves and leopards would no longer be a danger to humans (including children) would be missing the point entirely! It would be like someone in the Lord’s day not grasping the meaning of the Lord’s parables though each one entailed physical images. Isaiah was speaking of the peace that would obtain in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. After providing the striking imagery of the wolves and leopards, etc., Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” So, Isaiah explained the significance of the language. It was not to be interpreted as a physical condition on earth, but rather as a spiritual condition that would be brought about by God and which would exist in his kingdom. The language is beautiful in that it is a figurative and poetical description of the peace and harmony that the gospel of Christ was to produce. The “new heavens and a new earth” are not physical parts of this created universe, but the language of Peter in context is indicative of a completely new kind of environment for all the redeemed.
In John 6:15, some Jews were about to attempt to force Jesus into the acceptance of kingship in an earthly kingdom, and they did this because they did not understand the spiritual nature of the kingdom he was about to establish. They later crucified him for the same reason (Acts 13:27). Peter’s use of the words “new heavens and a new earth” are indeed figurative but suggestive of a new atmosphere in which only righteousness dwells. The Bible had begun in reference to God’s creation of “the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Peter says these will cease to exist, but we will have a proper habitation suitable to our new condition which will be superior to anything physical.
Fourth, God has always suited bodies to their environment. In Genesis 1 God made grass, herbs, trees to live on land (v. 11-12), he located certain species to live in water and certain ones on earth to be able to fly in air (v. 20-21), and land animals (v. 24-25). Man’s body was taken from dust, and that body suited man to his physical environment (Genesis 2:7). But that body was never intended for heaven (Genesis 3:22; Ecclesiastes 12:7; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58).
Fifth, specifically Paul informs us that the resurrection body is not of the earth or “earthy” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). If the resurrection body is not of the earth or physical, then the atmosphere in which it will dwell will not be physical either. Paul says that Christians will bear the image of the heavenly as they previously bore the image of the earthly (v. 46-49). No longer bearing an earthly image, their habitation will be non-physical. Any attempt to make Peter’s language imply a physical or even partly physical environment puts Peter into contradiction with Paul. Physical death forever puts any man beyond physical experience (cf. Matthew 22:29-33). The resurrection body is spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:50-58), and the universal judgment will take place after this universe is history (Revelation 20:11).
Sixth, if when the Lord returns we are going to be able to see him “even as he is,” John says we will have to be like him (1 John 3:2). The glorification of the Lord’s human body is something we will have to experience ourselves in order to be in his company. We will no longer have any physical body. That was lost in death or in translation of our form (James 2:26; 1 Corinthians 15:51). The resurrection body has no physical parts, and, therefore, is in need of no physical environment. When mortality puts on immortality and the corruptible puts on incorruption, our victory is finalized (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Our victory is not experienced in a physical body but in a metaphysical or spiritual or heavenly one.
Seventh, if the redeemed are going to be with Christ in eternity, we are going to have to leave this universe behind, even any alleged restored version of it. In John 17, Jesus in the shadow of the cross prays to the Father. Relevant to our discussion is the fact that Jesus in the prayer makes several important points concerning glory and the world and pre-world. Notice that he mentions that he glorified the Father on earth, having accomplished up to that point all he was assigned to do (v. 4). Too, he wants the Father to glorify him with the glory Jesus earlier had with the Father before the creation of the world (v. 5). Jesus wants to go back to that condition and that glory. Now, in verse 11, knowing that his work on earth is almost over, he says, “And I am no more in the world, and these are in the world, and I come to thee.” At his ascension, Jesus not only left the earth (Acts 1:10-11), but he left the world! In John 17:13, he says to the Father, “But now I come to thee…”.
Now, notice verse 24, “Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” Before creation, the One God had compartmentalized himself into three manifestations (Genesis 1:1-2, 26-27; Isaiah 64:8; John 1:1-2—Father, Word, Holy Spirit). And in his prayer, the Lord expresses his desire that his disciples see him in his glory, the same glory that he had before the creation of this world. If we would experience that glory, we have to leave this world behind. A refreshed or renovated universe is not good enough! Jesus went back to glory that predated this universe. Anyone remaining in a merely improved physical world will not be experiencing the Lord’s glory at all.
Eighth, I close by merely listing several arguments that might be helpful.
- If (1) a person’s first resurrection takes place within the environment of the physical heavens and earth, and if (2) the second death hath no power over those who experience the first resurrection, and if (3) the second death is metaphysical or spiritual and eternal, then the new heavens and new earth are metaphysical or spiritual and eternal.
- (1) A person’s first resurrection takes place within the environment of the physical heavens and earth (Revelation 21:6; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 6:3-4), and (2) The second death hath no power over those who experience the first resurrection (Revelation 21:6), and (3) The second death is metaphysical or spiritual and eternal (Revelation 21:6; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28-29).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are metaphysical or spiritual and eternal.
- If (1) there is no place for the physical heaven and physical earth by the time of universal judgment, and if (2) “the lake of fire” is no part of this physical universe, then the new heavens and a new earth are no part of this physical universe either.
- (1) There is no place for the physical heaven and physical earth by the time of universal judgment (Revelation 20:11), and (2) “The lake of fire” is no part of this physical universe (Revelation 20:11, 14, 15).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are no part of this physical universe either.
- If the resurrected body is not physical, then the new heaven and a new earth where the body will eternally reside cannot be physical either.
- The resurrected body is not physical (1 Corinthians 15:2-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
- Then, the new heaven and a new earth where the body will eternally reside cannot be physical either.
- If the new heavens and a new earth are physical or even partly physical, they cannot be eternal.
- But it is false to say that the new heavens and a new earth cannot be eternal (2 Peter 3:10-13; Hebrews 1:10-12; Revelation 22:5).
- Therefore, it is false to say that the new heavens and a new earth are physical or even partly physical.
- If (1) the Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, and if (2) the kingdom was established within this world, and if (3) this world is going to be burned up, and if (4) there will be no place for this world by the time of the universal judgment, then the new heavens and a new earth are not of this world.
- (1) The Lord’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and (2) The kingdom was established within this world (Mark 9:1; Acts 2:1-4; Joel 2:28ff.), and (3) This world is going to be burned up (2 Peter. 3:10), and (4) There will be no place for this world by the time of the universal judgment (Revelation 20:11).
- Then, the new heavens and a new earth are not of this world.
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We all think about the past. We can do this to a great degree because of memory. We remember things that occurred in our personal experience. However, much of what we think about and talk about regarding the past has to do with things that did not come within our range of personal experience. Most of history that we study is in this classification of information. We do not remember these facts or alleged facts because we were never exposed to them in the first place. But in studying history, we come to learn and to know of things that we could not know about otherwise. The study of history is an enormously important branch of inquiry. The study of history is the key to our contact with most of what has happened in the past, since our experience with what is now the “past” is very limited.
At times more information regarding claims made about the past leads to correction of the historical record. And this is as it must be. If historians make mistakes or assume things or allege things that were not supported by actual evidence, then when further search leads to a correction of mistakes earlier made, we have an improved account. This is progress in the acquiring of truth from the past or a coming to knowledge with regard to what actually happened.
But sometimes, men begin to “rewrite” history. That is, instead of researching material and recording “facts as they are,” they insert into their writing of “history” views that they have not actually found in the material that they are studying, but rather they insert an “angle of perspective” that they already hold for which they are in search of support. Some men in looking at the past even go so far as to claim that we cannot really have any objective view of the past. Their claim is that it is impossible for us to really “get to the truth” of something long ago done, so that it is impossible for any person to have an objective look or view of the past. I remember in one of our debates years ago saying to the audience regarding my opponent at the time that he had no literary past. The way that he was looking at history prohibited him from having knowledge of the past. You cannot use the past against or even in behalf of the present if there is no objective knowledge of the past.
Must a person be personally present in order to have knowledge of a certain thing or event? No. We know a lot of things without being personally present when these things occurred because others testify or provide evidence to us of these things. This is knowledge by the testimony of other persons. Too, we have “testimony” by empirical data. When non-literary items are discovered such as pictures or pottery, etc., these become useful “witnesses” to us of things gone by.
To benefit from the past, we must not “play games” with the past. I used to asked my students, “How long must I be dead before my having been here becomes a matter of mere probability?” In one sense, such a question may at first seem silly. But at times positions are taken with regard to the impossibility of knowledge of the past that imply that the passing of time does render knowledge of the past impossible. But, if the present can be known (and this article is not proof of knowledge as such, though we have provided that proof in other articles), is there something about the past that makes it impossible for us to know absolutely and certainly something about it? Does the passing of time make it impossible for information once current to be recovered? Think of these classifications of the relationship that can exist between past information and us:
- Possibility (knowledge that is possible to have now, but not yet discovered so that this information remains non-knowable).
- Impossibility (knowledge that it is impossible to have of the past because no record was left so that this information is also non-knowable).
- Probability (certain information found leads us to draw a tentative conclusion, a conclusion that is bolstered by some evidence but which is not definite or conclusive; as things stand, this is yet non-knowable).
- Improbability (certain information found leads us to draw a tentative conclusion, a conclusion that is bolstered by some evidence, but the evidence is not sufficient to lead to a definite conclusion, though it does suggest that something likely did not happen at all; this intellectual conclusion of “unlikeliness” or “improbability” remains yet non-knowable).
- Falsifiability (certain information makes it necessary to draw the conclusion that something did not happen or was not the case in the past, which would entail any information found that conclusively proves that something did not occur or was not the case; falsifiability, unlike the other categories already listed is a matter of knowability rather than non-knowability).
- Verifiability (enough information is gathered and is of such a content as to make certain positive knowledge claims possible and actual).
Let us think, for a moment, about the status of the claim that a man makes when he suggests to us that none of us can actually know for sure anything in the past. What is he saying? He is saying that the past is “off limits” to human cognition or understanding. It is a category of information that is simply not available to us for comprehension. But what has he himself done in making such a claim? He has attempted to declare that he knows for sure that there is one thing about the past that he knows! It is one grand, summation point that he seeks to make, to be sure, but it is something about the past, after all! Furthermore, he is either saying something about the past or he is saying nothing about the past. He is certainly trying to say something about the past as we see in the formulation of his claim. He is attempting to enlighten us about our relationship to the past. And if he is saying something about the past (and he is), then he contradicts his own claim in the making of the statement that he makes. And affirming a logical contradiction is, in effect, the making of an irrational claim. It makes no sense! The claimant refutes himself in his own claim by affirming and denying the same thing. It is like this regarding the claimant: I know one thing about the past, and that is that none of us can know anything about the past! But if none of us can know anything about the past, then the claimant cannot know that none of us can know anything about the past.
Furthermore, if none of us can know that none of us can know anything about the past, then it is at least possible that one of us can know something or at least one thing about the past. And if we can know one thing about the past, perhaps there are other things about the past that we can know as well. Who can possibly prove that only one thing about the past can be known for sure?
It also needs to be noted that the very concepts of “improvement” or “correction” or “modification” with regard to the past in the rewriting of historical accounts entail the idea of actual historical fact and objective and absolute truth. Something either happened or it did not happen. Something is either the case, or it is not the case. And in both situations, just as the “fact” is not affected by the historian’s own point of view (any subjective bias or preference), so the “truth” about it is not affected by his own point of view either. The historian may or may not yet understand the fact, but if the fact is somehow revealed from the past, there is then a “record” of it, and if the historian comes into intellectual contact with the record of it, he is getting to the “truth” regarding the fact. And when he reveals that “truth” to the rest of us in speech or in writing, he is testifying to us with regard to what he has come to know about the past.
But every time that an historian attempts to “improve” the historical record in further research, the very idea of doing so implies the assumption that there is known improvement to be made. But if it is understood that known improvement can currently be made by the historian in the writing of history (writing about the past), then it is being implied that there is absolute and objective truth about past facts that can be objectively and absolutely currently known before the writing of the “improved” history can be made.
Let us give an illustration that might help us here. Let me suggest that I now say: “I like horses.” Now, there. I said it. That claim is already a part of history (the past). Now let us in analyzing that claim note that (1) if I presently say something that is the truth, and if (2) the truth is the unchangeable truth unaffected by any subjective viewpoint, and if (3) the present in which the truth is spoken (assuming I told the truth about my liking horses) now becomes the past, I can now accurately say something in this present moment about what I just said in the past moment. The movement of time that “carried” my claim from present to past did not affect its status as a claim, and my current or present relationship to the claim earlier made is one that allows me to know something about what I earlier said. In this case, I remember what I said.
But, as earlier mentioned, most of what we learn from history is not like that. We are having to deal with facts found and statements made by others. This makes the discovering of truth with regard to claimed facts and claimed truths more complicated, but it does not make the effort impossible. I am simply further removed, intellectually speaking, from the facts and truths that I seek, and I cannot use memory to locate them. The situation as it is means that care, much care, must be taken in attempting to contact the past. I must rely on something found outside my own experience but now located.
This is all very important because the past or at least some of the past can be enormously important to people presently alive. In the preface to his insightful and extraordinarily sobering 1973 book, The Gulag Archipelago, the Russian author, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, in revealing to the world the horror of communism, related the following:
By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open. But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.” But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” (p. x)
There are too many Americans today who are completely out of touch with the cruelty and danger of communism. So many of our young people now have been indoctrinated with lies about our past and that of some other cultures. In her excellent and informative book, Debunking Howard Zinn, Mary Grabar has done a great service in showing how, or at least partially how, America is now being subverted by so many of our own citizens. Why is it that so many young people now hate their own country? The subtitle of the book is “Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America.” Howard Zinn wrote a book entitled A People’s History of the United States. And on page 25, Grabar in her own book writes, “According to Zinn, there’s no such thing as objective history, anyway: ‘the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released in a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.’” And by his own distortion of history, evidently Zinn has been successful in influencing thousands and thousands of our own young people whose current worldview entails a distorted view of America’s past that has now erupted even into violent destruction of the symbols of our past.
The Bible’s own view is that it is possible to know the past and to learn from it. Before leaving this earth, Moses told his people, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee” (Deut. 32:7). Over and over in the book of Judges, we read of the sad history of Israel who as a nation moved through repeated cycles entailing national tragedy and misery for over three hundred years because the people kept on neglecting to learn the lessons of history. May God have mercy on our own forgetful and troubled land.
Most of the readers will likely remember being involved in situations where some sort of serious accident has occurred which involved a dear loved one. Or perhaps it was a sickness or a heart attack or a stroke. Maybe you followed the ambulance to the hospital, and in the waiting room, you anxiously awaited a report of the condition of the loved one. You may have spent anxious moments at the hospital waiting for word from the doctors. Or you may have stayed in the ICU room day after day hoping your loved one would completely recover.
Scene One: Let us imagine an automobile accident in which a husband and wife are involved. Let us say that the accident was terrible, but that somehow though the husband was severely injured, the wife experienced only minor injuries. For days the husband lingers near death, but the wife is prayerful and hopeful and remains at his side or at least close at hand. But finally, the doctor brings to her the sad message: “He didn’t make it.” Oh the crying, the loss, the horrible, horrible sorrow that fills the heart of the mate now left behind! Most of us can identify with such an event which produces so much heartache in the souls of those who must now carry on. We soothe ourselves in the sacred promises of a most loving God who knows all and who has told us that in every situation, we simply must trust him (Prov. 3:5, 6). The word has to be circulated, and other kinfolk and acquaintances are informed of that sobering truth: “He didn’t make it.”
Scene Two: But now in our imagined scenario, we see the recently departed husband in Hades, the realm of the dead. By the grace of God, he has arrived in Paradise where the righteous dead go to await the end of the world and the resurrection (Luke 16:19-31; 23:43; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The angels have carried him to a section of that domain where those he knows are waiting. He immediately recognizes some of his kinfolk who preceded him in death, some having died just a few weeks ago. Also, he sees members of his own congregation, some who died years ago. My, what greetings! The conversation is lively and wonderful as memories are evoked in the hearts of all as they ponder days gone by back on the earth. He sees some who now look so good, and he remembers how they looked in the midst of malady during their last days on the earth. What an improvement! Everyone is healthy in mind and body. There is no disease, no surgery scars, and no painful facial expressions. There is nothing that would indicate problem or distress in any form.
After the initial welcome and the first words of joy expressed by those who are so very glad to see him finally once again, he begins to express himself as to his impression of his new habitation. “I knew from what the Bible said that Paradise would be a wonderful place. But I could not in my wildest imaginations ever have pictured exactly the feeling of satisfaction, peace, and joy that I now do,” he explains.
One of his relatives asks him how it is that he, not yet an old man, got to come to Paradise when he did. So, he begins to explain about the car wreck. He can’t relate very many of the details of the accident because he simply doesn’t remember much about what really happened. He must have lost consciousness at the moment of impact. He does, however, barely remember hearing voices at some point. Maybe it was while he was still in the car or maybe in the ambulance or maybe even in the hospital. People seemed to be discussing his condition. Some were hopeful; others not. Frank statements were made. By whom he’s not sure. But he does remember that someone, a woman, seemed to be softly praying. The words were said very close to his ear. She must have been bent over him, and he remembers that the prayer was so sincere, so desperate, and he now recalls that though he can’t remember most of the prayer, he does remember the final words. The voice trembled, as the woman cried: “Let thy will be done.”
Just then at that point of his account, a kinsman who knew him and his wife very well back on the earth, upon hearing about a woman praying near him, suggests to his recently arrived kinsman that the voice must have been that of his wonderful wife. He asks whether or not she was in the car when the accident occurred. “Yes, she was,” he remembers. “Was she hurt?” “Yes, she was,” he recalls. He begins to reflect upon those moments just prior to his bodily release, and he remembers briefly seeing his wife in an ever so temporary moment of consciousness. She was battered and bruised, but she did not look seriously hurt at all. He ponders the thought: she lived; I died. “Is she here somewhere?” his kinsman inquires. And as he looks out on the faces of those waiting for his response, he replies, “No, she didn’t make it.”
In John 15:22-24 Jesus referred to the fact that the Jews had no excuse for their sin of rejecting him because of his words that he had spoken to them. He also referred to the fact that their rejection of him was in spite of the fact that he had done works which none other did. Let us briefly consider in what way his works were unlike those of any others.
First, we need to consider the amount of the works that Jesus did. Peter would later describe Jesus as one anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and with power, and one who went about doing good (Acts 10:38). His life was a constant display of divine power in behalf of needy men. Near the end of his first book, John would say, “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30), thus indicating that a complete record of all the miracles of the Lord was not being recorded in spite of the fact that a record of a lot of them is recorded. And in an obvious hyperbolic statement at the end of this book, John said, “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). No one performed the amount of miracles that Jesus did.
Second, we need to consider the variety of the works that Jesus did. Think of the kind of miracles that he performed. Jesus, himself, once referred to the partial variety when he said, “Go tell John the things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up” (Matt. 11:4-5). Matthew tells us that along with the Lord’s teaching and preaching, there was the “healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people” (Matt. 11:23). The Lord’s power was amazing. He did not even have to be present at the site where his miraculous power was activated (Matt. 8:5-13). And in addition to dealing with bodily sickness and infirmity, the Lord’s power was used to terminate a storm at sea (Mark 4:35-41), to walk on water (Matt. 14:22-33), to wither a tree (Matt. 21:18-19), to instantly increase food supply (John 6:1-14), and even to raise the dead (John 11:1-44)! Such an array of power the world had never seen!
Third, we need to consider the degree of the works that Jesus did. Of course, in one sense, it would seem that the raising of the dead would be the extreme measure of power displayed by Jesus or others. But, just here, however, I am concerned about the Lord’s activity regarding demons. The Lord’s compassion regarding human distress is evidenced in several specific instances of divine cure involving the casting out of demons, a specific kind of malady evidently providentially arranged for the express purpose of demonstrating in the first century the power of God over the power of Satan, and, thus, the power of light over darkness, and the power of truth over error. It seems that God arranged for a unique kind of confrontation between his own power and that of the devil in order to further convince men in the first century of the credentials of the Christ and truth of the gospel. Demon possession was a horrible thing causing tremendous distress and/or the loss of one’s freedom (cf. Mark 9:22; Matt. 8:28-34) in response to which even some of those not able to overcome the demons on occasion attempted to do so anyway (Matt. 12:27; Acts 19:13-16). Demons were responsible agents who knew who Christ was and who knew of their eventual destiny, and divine power easily disposed of them (Matt. 8:28-29; Acts 16:16-18).
Fourth, we need to consider the reason for the works that Jesus did. Jesus said that the very works that the Father had given him to accomplish bore witness to the fact that the Father had sent him (John 5:36). The writer, John, declared that the reason for the inclusion in his first book of the record of some of the Lord’s miracles was so that “ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name” (John 20:31). This was a part of the uniqueness of the Lord’s miracles when compared to the miracles performed by others before him and by others after him. No mere man’s miracles had ever been utilized to support the personal claim for the divinity of the person performing the miracle. Never! This sets the Lord’s miracles apart even from those of the apostles. The “signs of the apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12) set the apostles apart from everyone else who in the first century had miracle working power (cf. 1 Cor. 12:4-11), but the Lord’s miracles were used to prove that he was God in flesh!
Fifth and finally, we need to consider the climax of the works that Jesus did. The Lord once expressed the profound truth that he had received “commandment” from the Father regarding his right to lay down his life and to take it up again (John 10:17-18). This is an astonishing revelation. When Jesus died he did not die by physical exhaustion. Before releasing his spirit, he cried with a loud voice, something impossible for a person worn out to do (Matt. 27:50). No one simply took his life from him as Peter on Pentecost declared (Acts 2:23). Jesus surrendered his life on his own in the midst of an attempt by others to take it from him. He laid down his own life. But then, by the commandment of God, Jesus had the right to take it again. In fact, Jesus had said that the Father loved him because of this situation: he was going to lay down his life so that he might take it again (John 10:17)! No one ever in the history of the raised dead had ever by their own authority come forth from the grave. But Jesus did!
Paul would later write to the Roman brethren that by the resurrection of Christ, in a special sense God declared him to be his own Son. Speaking of Jesus, Paul wrote, “who was declared the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The Lord’s own resurrection was the product of power and of his own holiness. Having known no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), he was able to overcome the grave (Heb. 2:14-15; Rom. 4:25). In a sense, this was the climax to all the other miracles he had performed.
The only faith that saves is the faith that obeys (James 2:26; Heb. 5:8-9). Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Jesus said that love would demonstrate itself by keeping his commandments (John 14:15) and that his friends were those who did that very thing (John15:14). Solomon in the long ago concluded that the whole of life was in fearing God and keeping his commandments (Eccl. 12:13-14). Anyone today who undermines the concept of keeping divine commandments does so to his own peril. But notice that we can only keep divine commandments if—
- There is a commander. The eternal God and creator of everything other than himself is in position to exact from humans what he wishes. In the three divine religions of which we read in Scripture (Gentile-ism, Judaism, Christianity), God obligates according to his holy and perfect will. Today, since the last will and testament of Jesus Christ is in effect, we are to listen to him (Matt. 17:5; Heb. 9:15-17; 12:25; 2 John 9-11). Anyone who would approach God today must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him (Heb. 11:6; 4:16; 7:25).
- There are commands. Unfortunately, many have misconstrued the notion of salvation by grace to mean that there is complete exclusion of the requirement for obedience. There can only be obedience to commands, and if there are no commands, there can be no obedience. And if salvation by grace excludes commands, then obedience is not required. Some brethren take passages on grace to mean this very thing. For example, in Rom. 6:14 Paul wrote, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.” Notice that Paul said that sin would not have “dominion” over a Christian, for a Christian stood under grace while Jews in the previous divine regime stood under law. John wrote, “For the law was given through Moses; ‘the’ grace and ‘the’ truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Paul in Rom. 6 did not say that Christians had no law but that law itself could not hold sway over them because of the grace they had received. They surely had obligation and where there is obligation there is law, but Christians were not under the law of Moses (the contrast between law [which killed] and grace [which made alive] is elaborated in Rom. 7 and 8). Sin cannot dominate the life of a Christian because of the grace made available by the law (gospel) itself. Paul had in Rom. 6:1 earlier raised the question, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” Of course, the answer was “no.” But the question is absurd if there is no law, for if there is no law, one could not commit sin, much less continue in it.
- We do know where to find them. We cannot obey the commands if we do not know where the commands are located. Where should a man go in order to find his obligations to God? First, he looks at his own conscience which declares to him the significant moral difference between right and wrong. Furthermore, his conscience convicts him of guilt when he violates it. He sees, or should see, that his own conscience is guiding him to find the source of it who is also the Creator of all. Paul told the Athenians that man was made to look for God who is not far from any man (Acts 17:27-28). Paul also told the Athenians that they (and we) would be judged by Jesus (Acts 17:30-31). Jesus had once said that anyone who rejected his sayings would by the Lord’s word be judged in the last day (John 12:48). If the word of Christ is the judge, and that word is the equivalent of his last will and testament (our New Testament), then men today will be judged by the New Testament. That is where we find our current obligations imposed on us by God. That new testament (or covenant) is now in force (Heb. 9:15-28).
- We do know what they are. One could conceivably recognize that the New Testament is the will of God operative today without really ever learning much about the contents of that will. He might never be serious in study so as to survey the scene to find his duty. The New Testament contains facts, promises, obligations. If a man would know what to do to be saved (Acts 2:37; 16:30), he must study and find divine answer to that question and accept no mere man’s conflicting answer to counter what God has said. Since the answer to the question is given in various pieces and places in Scripture, he must be diligent in his search to know all that he must do to become a Christian and to remain a faithful one. Can a man know “all” he must do to become a Christian? Indeed, he must know all. Can a man know all the principles to which he must submit in order to remain a faithful one? Of course. How can a man remain faithful if he does not know how to do so? Jesus promised that the knowledge of truth which would provide spiritual freedom would be accessible to those who would abide in his word (John 8:31-32). Christians today who deny the knowability of truth (that is, they deny that we can be certain about it) do not believe what the Lord taught about it.
- We have the right attitude toward them. Can a man obey a command of God without proper regard for or respect for the command? Can a man say, in effect, “Well, I’ll do it, but I don’t like it”? We might recall that Naaman had to put aside his anger before he would do what God’s prophet instructed him to do (2 Kings 5:8-14). Would not an honest sinner welcome the information regarding his duty to God? Is it possible for a practicing sinner to become a Christian while not loving God and not welcoming the saving information he has learned? Paul informs us that godly sorrow that produces repentance brings no regret (2 Cor. 7:10). Furthermore, if faithful Christians find grief, they do not locate it in the commandments of God (1 John 5:1-3).
- They mean what they did when first given. The duties imposed on all men today through the law of Christ are the same permanent obligations which rested on the first century church. We are far removed in time from that period in which the first obligations were preached to the whole world. The divinely given duty to take the gospel to the world was given to the apostles (Matt. 28:18-20). In thirty years they accomplished that noble and necessary assignment that once and for all changed human amenability from Gentile-ism and Judaism to the gospel (Col. 1:23; Mark 16:19-20). And the same obligations that were preached to sinners and saints still reside in God’s book, binding on men today our duty to God. The warning was early on given not to go against the gospel that was revealed (Gal. 1:6-10). The apostles’ doctrine or teaching (Acts 2:42) was the gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Gal. 1:7). The pattern was and remains set regarding obligations (2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 8:5). No one has the authority to change them. They are not fluid in nature. And translation does not alter human obligation.
- We have inherent capacity to obey. There are those who still maintain that a sinner cannot on his own make any move toward God, but that he must wait on divine help in order to get to repentance. The Bible simply does not teach this unholy doctrine. We simply cannot move from sinner status to saint status without utilizing our will to make the move. Do we want to do the right thing? Do we want to obey God? If we do, can we obey the gospel? If damnation is pronounced on all who sin and who do not obey the gospel, then either we can obey that gospel or God does not want us all to be saved. Damnation is pronounced against all sinners who obey not the gospel (2 Thess. 1:7-10), and yet God wants all men to be saved (2 Pet. 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). Then, it follows that there is an inherent capacity within the sinner to learn and obey the gospel. He can come to faith, repent of his sins, confess his faith, and be baptized into Christ (John 8:24; Luke 13:3; Matt. 10:31-32; Mark 16:15-16). And every Christian (one in whom the Holy Spirit now dwells per Rom. 8:9-11) has divine help within that helps him to hold sin down (Rom. 8:14) in the production of Spirit fruit (Gal. 5:22-24).
The Psalmist’s plight is dire in chapter seventy-three. Even though “God is good to Israel” (v. 1, ESV), the writer’s “feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2). Spiritual catastrophe has come too close for comfort. How? The Psalmist has begun to envy the wicked (v. 3-12), who are “always at ease” and “increase in riches.” His thinking grows so skewed he begins to ponder that “in vain have I kept my heart clean” (v. 13). Surveying the scene of prospering sinners is leading him toward the conclusion that serving God is not worth the effort.
Trying to figure out why the wicked are blessed “seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16), that is, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (v. 17). Thankfully, a more accurate perspective sets in. The writer realizes that the apparent success of evil is fleeting, and that God will “set them in slippery places” and “make them fall to ruin” (v. 18). The unrighteous will be “destroyed in a moment” disappearing swiftly as “a dream when one awakes” (v. 20).
Then the Psalmist gets brutally honest about his own bad behavior. He humbly confesses to God that “my soul was embittered” (v. 21), and that “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you” (v. 22). But, in spite of the author’s shortcomings, God is still holding onto his hand (v. 23). His salvation will be God’s doing, in spite of the writer’s painful flaws.
At this point the Psalmist pens a striking passage (v. 24-26):
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Compared to the New Testament (which is rife with discussions of the afterlife), Old Testament passages teaching the soul’s immortality seem few and far between (there are several scattered verses, but they will not be considered here). What does the Psalmist mean by asserting, “and afterward you will receive me to glory”? Since God is “in heaven,” and the Psalmist desires “nothing on earth” (v. 25), to be received “to glory” is an apparent reference to heaven. This is reinforced by the writer’s statement that “My flesh and my heart may fail” (v. 26)—evidently referring to the eventual death of his physical body. Nevertheless, after he has been guided with divine counsel (v. 24), and after his flesh fails (v. 26), he will be received “to glory” (v. 24) because God is “in heaven” and nothing remains “on earth” to be desired (v. 25). This hopeful outlook is possible only because, with flesh failing, “God is the strength of my heart…forever” (v. 26).
Could Psalm 73:24 be a bold Old Testament claim on the soul’s immortality and eternal destiny? On this Scripture Keil and Delitzsch comment that, even though the “heavenly triumph of the church” had not yet been foretold, faith in God “had already a transparent depth which penetrated beyond Hades into an eternal life…It is just this that is also the nerve of the proof of the resurrection of the dead which Jesus advances in opposition to the Sadducees (Matt. 22:32)” (Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pp. 493-494). Craig C. Broyles notes, “If verse 24 does point to some kind of resurrection, it is interesting to note how the writer arrived at this conclusion. He did so not by virtue of a supposed immortality of the soul but by virtue of God himself and the kind of relationship he establishes. Because ‘God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (v. 26), I shall therefore live on with God’” (New International Biblical Commentary on Psalms, pp. 304-305). It is worth observing that the Hebrew verb for “you will receive” in v. 24 is “identical to that found in Psalm 49:15 (‘But God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself’) and Genesis 5:24 (‘Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away’), both of which seem to point to a divine act that transcends death” (ibid., p. 304). The Pulpit Commentary weighs in by quoting a professor who remarked about Psalm 73:24 that “the poet has that religious intuition which forms the kernel of the hope of immortality” (vol. VIII, p. 72).
The New Testament leaves Christians in no doubt about the afterlife, judgment, heaven and hell. But we need not think that people in Old Testament times had no clue about the soul. They had far less information than we, but God made sure they still had access to certain spiritual truths, including Psalm 73:24 and “the kernel of the hope of immortality.”
The Bible offers plenty of passages that bespeak the sovereignty of God and his complete management of human affairs. After all, why would God make man in his image and then leave him unattended? I think, however, that the attention divinely given to our affairs on earth is far, far more extensive and encompassing than many of us Bible students have in the past realized. God is not simply an occasional visitor or infrequent penetrator into man’s affairs. It is only by constant involvement that God could control the history that is recorded in Scripture. And it is only by constant involvement that God today moves history to his glory and to the good of his family. If the prayers of the righteous avail much, then God is very, very involved in our lives and what affects them. Divine intervention in the past at times entailed the miraculous; today it entails the supernatural non-miraculous. But divine intervention is an essential feature of our situation on this earth.
Scripture assures us that God calls the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), and he calls the things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17). He never lies (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2), and yet in the ultimate sense of control, God claims to be the One who deceives the deceived prophet (Ezek. 14:9). He arranged the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in order that God’s name “might be published abroad in the earth” (Rom. 9: 17). No one can come close to the management of life’s affairs! And we must remember that man is not the center of reality. God is! “The Lord hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4). How God can mix his determinate counsel and foreknowledge with man’s free will only he knows. But he does know, and he does do that very thing, including his use of evil men (Acts 2:23; Amos 3:6; Isa. 45:7). Let us briefly notice a short summation of his governance in the affairs of any given man.
God governs the WOMB. This is indeed a most fascinating thought. According to Scripture God is the One who decides who is conceived. Those that are conceived, God knows beforehand (Isa. 49:1, 5; Jer. 1:5). God controls barrenness. You might recall that on one interesting occasion God “had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech” (Gen. 20:18). Sarah’s barrenness was of divine design in order that in time she would become the mother to a child of promise in her older years (Rom. 4:19; Heb. 11:11). In fact, Paul says that while Ishmael was born “after the flesh,” Isaac was born “through the promise” (Gal. 4:23). And the definite article “the” is there in the Greek text. And Hannah became the mother of Samuel although earlier “the Lord had shut up her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5, 20).
The degree of the divine control of the womb comes down to a consideration of a single question: Does natural law determine conception in the sense that when natural law is in effect it “triggers” or necessitates human conception, or is it the case that God’s supernatural law governs natural law in procreation? In other words, is God’s power limited by human free will, or is human free will limited by divine power? Which is always the superior force: natural law or supernatural law? According to Hebrews 12:9, God is the father of our spirits. No human being is conceived unless God sends Holy Spirit to join human flesh! God controls natural law; he is not controlled by it. This is ultimately why abortion upon demand is wrong. Such would be the malicious taking of a life that God produced. God could have prevented the conception by simply not sending Holy Spirit. Human spirit comes from Holy Spirit (Mal. 2:14-15). And if God doesn’t send it to the womb, no child is conceived. Divine governance is extreme. If God knows when a sparrow falls and how many hairs are on each man’s head (Matt. 10:29-30), he certainly knows when and why he sends Spirit to flesh to form a human and when and why he does not do so.
God governs the ROOM. And just here by “room” I mean the space or the area or the atmosphere in which human lives operate. This is the place where we make our decisions as pilgrims and sojourners on the earth. Our choices are somehow attached to our will, and our will is a part of our rational and emotional makeup. Jesus once declared that salvation was determined by a man’s will (John 7:17). Salvation is not simply a matter of intellectual elevation. Rather, it is a matter of character and whether or not someone wants to do right and be right. And no one can ultimately want to do the right thing while having a heart that would reject the truth that demands the right thing (2 Thess. 2:10). There is a degree of trust that I must essentially have in myself as a truth searcher (Acts 17:26-28). But I know that my human capacity is inferior to God’s divine capacity when I personally come to the realization of his existence, and so when I find him, I trust him. The writer of Proverbs wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). Here there is a definite line drawn between finally trusting in myself or in trusting God. But why should any man acknowledge God with regard to all of that man’s ways?
It is so because any man can see only so much. And it is not very much at all. That is why Jeremiah told us long ago, “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his own steps” (Jer. 10:23). It is in man to search for God and to find him (Acts 17:27), and it is in man that when he finds him he begins to lean on him. And when we lean on him, we are declaring the recognition of our need. We do need help in large amounts and all the time in all places! And the writer of Proverbs says that God will direct the paths of his people. Here our prayers and his paths intersect. The Proverbs writer also says, “Man’s goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way?” (Prov. 20:24). There is altogether too much for one man to comprehend regarding his own situation: (1) why he was allowed to be conceived in the first place, (2) why his conception entailed the two people who became his father and mother, (3) how that genetic mix contributed to the personality that he could and would in time have, (4) why he has a specific ethnicity, sex, and inherent capacity that he has, (5) how he arrived at the current point and place in his life—his present situation, and (6) how it is that he is currently making a personal contribution to the accomplishing of the Lord’s will either on the good side or on the evil one. This is TOO MUCH for any of us to know. It is one reason why we always should say with Christ, “Let thy will be done.” God controls the room!
God governs the TOMB. James warns us about depending on tomorrow. So far, every tomorrow that we thought was coming has, in fact, come. But the next one may not. And the arrival of the previous ones was not because it was guaranteed. We simply have no divine promise of more time on earth (Jas. 4:13-17). James reminds us that we do not know what will happen tomorrow even if it does come. We are completely dependent on God for the preservation of our earthly lives. In verse 15 James says, “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall both live, and do this or that.” Did you notice that James by inspiration declared that our continuation in life or the termination of our earthly life is a matter of divine will. There is no way to get around the fact that if a man is still alive on the earth, it is because God has allowed his life to continue. And when, for reasons some of which are known only to God, a given man dies, we have to conclude that there is a sense in which God was willing for that man to die. Not all death cases are the same, but there is an identical truth respecting all of them. Given all relevant factors involved in God’s will for human living and dying, God did not choose to allow that life to continue. Each life reaches its final earthly appointment (Heb. 9:27). According to James, we live by permission. According to the writer of Hebrews, we die by appointment. I am glad that regarding my forthcoming death, I do not know when, where, or how it will come. But I do know, unless the Lord comes first (1 Thess. 4:13-18), I am fast approaching it.
On Paul’s second evangelistic tour, he and Silas came to Thessalonica, and for three Sabbath days he reasoned with certain Jews in their synagogue. Some Jews were persuaded, and some were not. Later, those who were not persuaded stirred up trouble because of their jealousy. A crowd gathered, an uproar ensued, and the attempt was made to find Paul and Silas, but it failed. However, Jason and some other brethren were dragged before the rulers of Thessalonica, and the accusation was made: “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; whom Jason hath received: and these all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).
Years and years ago we were taught that the church ought to “turn the world upside down.” The idea at the time seemed good, and the expression could be found in Scripture. And it was an expression that could certainly motivate evangelism. After all, part of the New Testament pattern involved evangelism, didn’t it? So, it seemed to me as a young preacher that our people ought to be doing what the first century saints were doing in turning the world upside down! Many years have passed now since I first heard the “encouraging words” that in confronting the world, we ought to turn it upside down.
It is clearer now, however. The expression is certainly found in Scripture, but it is no part of the pattern of New Testament evangelism. The expression was taken out of its context and unfortunately misapplied to the church. We did ourselves no service in this interpretive mistake.
Think about it: the statement comes from the enemies of the gospel. Sometimes wicked men did tell the truth, however, that was recorded (cf. John 9:3; cf. Prov. 28:9; Mark 7:37). But sometimes they expressed error (John 9:34). So, how can we tell whether the expression is accurate or not here in Acts 17? Were Paul and Silas attempting to turn the world upside down? No. They were trying to spread the gospel for sure, and Paul had a particular assignment to do that very thing (Acts 9:15-16; 1 Cor. 9:15-18). But the assignment did not and could not entail the planned and purposed cause of social disruption. Never!
Remember that any inevitable but sinful fallout of doing good is not the fault (much less the credit) of someone’s obeying God. Was it Jesus’ fault that some Jews fell over him (Isaiah 8:14; Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6-8)? No. Is Jesus to be blamed for their sin? No. Is he to be credited with their sin? Of course not.
Jesus encouraged his disciples to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). He himself in his ministry, while attempting to make his message known, did so without trying to stir up trouble or to evoke hostility (Matt. 12:19-20). If we would follow in his steps regarding preaching and teaching, we would also—while trying to circulate the message—try hard not to cause social disruption and invite hostility, resentment, and rejection. We need to be “as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 5:16). And we are never to impose ourselves on others (Matt. 7:6). Whatever happened to “the golden rule” as applied to evangelism (Matt.7:12)? Is this an area where the rule doesn’t apply? Of course not.
Paul did not encourage the riot scene in Ephesus (Acts 19). We can’t blame him for it, either. Jesus had once told his apostles on the “limited commission” to the Jews to shake the dust from their feet when it became apparent that a city did not want the truth preached there (Matt. 10:14). Paul himself practiced this (Acts 13:51). And for public abuse, humiliation, and persecution, Paul did desire an apology from those who abused him (Acts 16:37). But, even in this, he did not attempt to create a scene. On one occasion, after being beaten to or near death, he returned to the city out of which he was taken, but Luke does not tell us why (Acts 14:19-20). Later, Paul was arrested (Acts 21), and before governor Felix denied the charge that he was an insurrectionist or stirring up a crowd (Acts 24:5-13). This was not his mission. It is not ours either. We all really know this, I think, but we sometimes face the fact that our practice is not the same as the principle we preach (like continually telling ourselves that we need to turn the world upside down). We either need to change our practice (and try to cause trouble) or change our principle (that is an encouragement to the causing of trouble)!
Sometimes we preachers have created false impressions because our own impressions were based on ignorance rather than truth. It is a confession I make. All honest preachers are in the same situation I am in, too. At times we have fostered a kind of obligation based on our faulty “understanding” of that alleged and supposed obligation. Trying to encourage brethren to turn the world upside down was one of those.
The picture in the New Testament of the life of any faithful Christian—including preachers—is a life of quietness and peace (1 Tim. 2:1-4)! According to Paul, it is social peace that is conducive to the spread of truth—not riot or turbulence or agitated resistance. So, why would we ever think that the intentional effort to stir up trouble (turn the world upside down) would be Scriptural? Even in the days when the “great commission” was in effect and being carried out, our brethren were still being taught by inspired men to be ambitious to be quiet, to take care of their own business, and to do their own work so as to produce the best effect in community (1 Thess. 4:11-12). Such an obligation was never intended to be an impediment to preaching and teaching the gospel, however (1 Thess. 1:7-8). These two passages from 1 Thessalonians show us that the brethren in the first century were involved in the spreading of the gospel without attempting to cause upheaval in the community and the world. Should error be exposed with truth? Of course (1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:11). Should sin be identified and condemned? Yes (Eph. 5:7-12). However, as the local church supports the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), we at the very same time do so while trying to be at peace with all men as much as possible (Rom. 12:17-18). We are not under obligation to make men angry. If they get mad at us, let it never be a fact that we tried to provoke such.
Honorable controversy (public debate) is, in my judgment, one way of helping people to understand more truth, but I do not ever plan on being a part of a mere fuss or wrangle, and certainly not a violent dispute. In our public services of the church, we still support the truth in our communities. It is not our fault when others do not come because they do not want truth. Men still know how to find the grocery store, the post office, and the hospital. They can find us, too. But, in TV programs, information sent out through the mail, newspaper articles, etc., we can still try to keep truth before a public, interested or not, without imposing ourselves on them. And in other cultures, we can do even more because of their interest in the gospel which is so new to them. Some efforts at evangelism will work in some cultures that will not work in others. But regardless of culture, it is never right to try to cause trouble. We can contend for the faith (Jude 3), and we need always to be ready to give articulated defense of our hope (1 Pet. 3:15), but we do all in love (1 Cor. 16:14). And even when the method for the moment must be sharper (1 Cor. 4:21), the motivation is still to be one of love, and never to be the willed desire that a scene is stirred up.
Finally, remember, it is God who ultimately controls evangelism. He is the only one who can open and close the doors (Rev. 3:7). Only God knows when and where and how the gospel is best spread (Acts 16:6-10).