Posted in Church History, Doctrine, New Testament

We Have Overlooked the Transition Era

It is unfortunate and somewhat strange that we have as a people, generally speaking, overlooked the transition period that began with John (Luke 16:16) and ended when the gospel was made available to the whole world (Colossians 1:6, 23). We have studied the book of Acts as though the events were transpiring today.

When we look at the world today, we see sinners. And we see sinners that are amenable to the gospel of Christ. But we study the book of Acts as though the world of the first century was like our world today. And this is a colossal interpretive blunder that our brotherhood has made for years.

The world of the first century entailed four classes of people: righteous Jews, unrighteous Jews, righteous Gentiles, and unrighteous Gentiles none of whom were amenable to the gospel of Christ before Pentecost of Acts 2. When I was growing up, brethren usually believed that all Jews became amenable to the gospel on Pentecost and that all Gentiles became amenable to the gospel in Acts 10. This was another almost unbelievable error! It is certainly true that some Jews became amenable to the gospel on Pentecost. It is even true that some Jews became amenable to John’s baptism prior to Pentecost (Luke 16:16; Mark 1:4; Matthew 3:1-12). It is not true that all Gentiles became amenable to the gospel in Acts 10, even though it certainly is true that some of them did when Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius, his household, and his friends who lived near him.

God had a way for Jews and Gentiles to be saved prior to Acts 2! What we usually called “Patriarchy” (Gentile-ism) and Judaism were God’s divine arrangements for both classes of men whereby they could be saved prior to divine amenability change (Romans 2:14-15). That means that the book of Acts covers history when the gospel, for the first time, goes to Jews and Gentiles. Some of the Jews were good people, and some were not. Some of the Gentiles were good people, and some were not. If the good Jews and good Gentiles had died in the first century prior to the gospel’s being made available to them, they would have gone to paradise.

This explains Luke’s language in Acts. As the apostles took the gospel to the whole world, they found plenty of sinners for sure. In fact, more of the cases of kingdom entry recorded in Acts were of sinners. However, some cases of kingdom entry entail non-convert cases. That is, these cases were Jews and Gentiles already in a saved condition but who were required to become responsible to the gospel as it reached them. As the gospel reached each man, he was under divine obligation to submit to the truth and enter the kingdom, and every case of kingdom entry in Acts is in complete harmony with the Lord’s words to Nicodemus in John 3:3-5.

It took thirty years of preaching and teaching for all men to become amenable to the gospel of Christ, and no man became amenable to it without God’s making the gospel accessible to him! And that changing amenability required inspiration (1 Corinthians 2:12-13), miraculous signs (Mark 16:19-20), and miraculous providence (Acts 16:6-10; 21:10-14). The work of changing amenability began and continued for years prior to the first written New Testament book which appeared in the early 50’s. For about twenty years, the gospel was preached, congregations established, and these congregations were stabilized by miraculous gifts in the early church (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). The first century world was not like ours when it comes to amenability. The Jews and Gentiles were, as classes of people, amenable to a divinely arranged system of salvation prior to the preaching of the gospel. That is not true today since the gospel once and for all changed human amenability as it was preached to all the world in the first century.

Posted in Baptism, Doctrine, New Testament

Abusing Cornelius

Members of the Lord’s church have in Bible class abused Cornelius time and time again. And, too, he undergoes false accusation as well in sermons. How many times have you listened to someone trying to explain (1) how Cornelius received the Holy Spirit while (2) being a sinner? Imagine, the Holy Spirit entering the heart of someone presently practicing sin and thus bound for hell!

It is absurd. Cornelius was no sinner. How many times does Luke have to describe Cornelius for us until we finally admit his righteousness? See Acts 10: 2, 4, 15, 22, 28, 31, 35. Luke made seven attempts to describe Cornelius for us so that we would see that he was a righteous Gentile when the gospel reached him. How could he be? He was answerable to God through “Gentile-ism” or “Patriarchy” or “moral law-ism” (Romans 2:14-15). Remember the then Bible (law of Moses) had been given to Jews only (Psalm 147:19-20). The Gentiles up into the first century were answerable to God through moral law only. Had Cornelius died the day before Peter came to his house, he would have been bound for glory. Cornelius was a righteous Gentile just as much as Abraham in his own day had been.

Yes, but an objector replies that I am forgetting that Peter preached to him words whereby he would be saved (Acts 11:14). Indeed, but the salvation he received is not what most of us have taken it to be. He was saved in that he was delivered from “Patriarchy” which no longer for him would be operative as the divinely arranged system of religion for his people. Brother A. J. Freed, like most of us in the past, did not understand Holy Spirit baptism, but he did understand Cornelius’ condition. He correctly denied that Cornelius was an alien sinner, and he wrote, “He is told words by which he is saved from the sinking ship of patriarchy” (Sermons, Chapel Talks, and Debates). Amen! When the apostles, following Peter’s explanation of what happened at the house of Cornelius, concluded, “Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), that was a summation statement regarding the general condition of the Gentile camp which was usually one of sin (cf. Acts 17:30-31). It was not a description of Cornelius, his household, nor his friends. This is proved by Luke’s description of Cornelius and by the fact that Cornelius and the other Gentiles with him were baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15; 15:8). The first Gentiles to enter the kingdom were already living up to their spiritual obligations before the gospel reached them. Therefore, they were in a clean spiritual condition which allowed the Holy Spirit to enter them. After that they submitted to water baptism (Acts 10:47-48), but it was not for remission of sins in their case. It was, however, as per the words of Jesus in John 3:3-5, an absolute requirement (as was Holy Spirit baptism) to kingdom entry!

If, dear reader, you think I am abusing the word “saved” as applied to Cornelius (Acts 11:14), remember that we have to consider biblical words in their contextual use. Noah’s family was also “saved,” and it was even a salvation through water, but it was not salvation from sin (1 Peter 3:20). According to Paul, the unbelieving mate is “sanctified” in the believing mate, but the sanctification has nothing to do with the unbeliever’s salvation (1 Corinthians 7:15). We cannot impose a presupposed definition gleaned from other contexts onto a word in its own context that forbids the application of the presupposed definition. We have sadly done this in Acts 11:14, and abused Cornelius unmercifully!

Posted in Baptism, Doctrine, New Testament, Salvation

How could we miss it so badly?

What we in the churches of Christ have done to Acts 1:5-8 is almost unbelievable. Of course, we simply accepted what was handed down from a generation of brethren who had been taught wrongly on the passage as well. And we thought the way we handled the passage was true to Bible teaching on the Holy Spirit in other passages, and our inherited view kept us from endorsing modern day miracles. It is hard to imagine now in the year 2020 that we could miss the correct interpretation of that passage so terribly.

How did we miss it so horrendously? (1) We took the baptism of the Holy Spirit to be miraculous and temporary, and (2) we took the “great commission” to be permanent and obligatory! And each interpretation is wrong.

Since the words of Jesus to Nicodemus were spoken in John 3:3-5, there has been only one way into the kingdom. I have had debate opponents admit this. Well, how did the first entrants enter the kingdom? If you look at Acts 1 and 2, you will find that the first disciples including the apostles entered the kingdom having already been baptized with John’s water only baptism for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Luke 7:29-30) when they were baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). How did the apostles enter the kingdom in Acts 2? They had already been baptized in water for the remission of their sins which is baptism into the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12, 16; Acts 19:15). But they did not enter the kingdom until they were baptized in the Spirit (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4), which is baptism into the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). Their kingdom entry entailed baptism in both water and Holy Spirit which is the one baptism of John 3:3-5 and Ephesians 4:5. If you and I entered the kingdom, we came in just as the apostles did. There has never been any other way into it. Their water only baptism was not enough to propel them into the church. When we concluded that Holy Spirit immersion was a miracle, we made a horrible mistake! The Greek grammar of Acts 1:8 shows that the power came “after” the coming of the Spirit, so that it did not come (1) before the Spirit came, and neither did it come (2) at the same time that the Spirit came.

Too, in our wrong handling of Acts 1:5-8, we concluded that the so-called “great commission” (to distinguish it from the “limited commission” of Matthew 10) was permanent and obligatory. Our false conception of the passage has over many years created (1) imbalanced preaching, (2) a great sense of spiritual insecurity, and (3) guilt-evangelism! Elsewhere on this site is an article, “The Great Commission Has Been Fulfilled,” that provides in-depth analysis of this point. The “great commission” was an assignment given to the apostles only (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47), divinely managed to its completion (Acts 16:6-10; Colossians 1:6, 23), and entailed inspired preaching and miraculous signs (Mark 16:19-20; 1 Corinthians 2:12-13). This was God’s way of changing human amenability once and for all. The Gentiles were brought out from under their obligation to moral law only (cf. Romans 2:14-15; Acts 10), and the Jews were brought out from under their obligation to the Mosaic law which legally had died at the cross (Colossians 2:14). The announcement of (1) the passing of past obligation and (1) the creation of new obligation to Christ was made over a period of thirty years. The apostles and other brethren were involved, but only the apostles were given the specific assignment to see that the gospel went throughout the world. No other Christian ever evangelized because an apostle told him that he, too, was under the assignment of the “great commission”. While many helped in the work, only the apostles would stand before God as responsible to see that that assignment was carried out. The apostles alone were Christ’s ambassadors, a select group, who had been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20; 12:12; Acts 10:40-43; 22:15; 26:16).

If we today were successful in carrying the gospel to every creature in the world, we still would not be “fulfilling” the “great commission” because we cannot now accomplish what its completion in the first century did. All men by it were made answerable to Christ (Acts 17:30-31). All men still are, whether we preach or not. Today our evangelism in based on the “great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-40) rather than the “great commission.”

Posted in Expository, New Testament

“Clouds Without Water”

[Note: This piece by Glenn Jobe is especially apropos in light of the recently concluded Deaver-Simons Debate, wherein Simons constantly equated clouds and water in his effort to undermine there being two elements in the Israelites’ baptism in 1 Cor. 10:1-2 (“in the cloud and in the sea”). Simons was driven to affirm “cloud” and “sea” are identical, since he refused to admit two elements in baptism in John 3:5. –Weylan Deaver]

 

By Glenn A. Jobe

Jude writes of certain men whom he terms “clouds without water” (verse 12). We usually associate clouds with water vapor. What did inspired Jude have in mind when he wrote of clouds without water? Let’s see if we may gain understanding by considering this strange expression within the context of Jude.

Jude states the reason for writing his short epistle: …I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (verse 3). He next explains why his readers must contend earnestly for the faith: For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 4).

Note that Jude tags these false teachers “ungodly men.” “Ungodly” (asebēs, ἀσεβεῖς) means “godless, impious.” Thayer adds, “destitute of reverential awe towards God, contemning God, impious.” W.E. Vine comments, “…without reverence for God, not merely irreligious, but acting in contravention of God’s demands, Rom. 4:5; 5:6; I Tim. 1:9; I Pet. 4:18; 2 Pet. 2:5 (v. 6 in some mss.); 3:7; Jude 4, 15 (twice).”

In the illustrations that follow, Jude takes the reader through the wilderness wanderings, the rebellion of angels, Sodom and Gomorrah, the contention over the body of Moses, the way of Cain and Balaam, and the rebellion of Korah (verses 5-11). Each of these events produces images that are pregnant with meaning in Jewish minds.

In verses 12-18 Jude pictures these ungodly men both by their conduct and by names he assigns to them. Since the title of this article is “Clouds Without Water,” let us list the names that Jude offers. According to Jude these ungodly or godless men are: (1) like brute beasts, (2) spots in your love feasts, (3) clouds without water, (4) late autumn trees without fruit, (5) raging waves of the sea, (6) wandering stars, (7) grumblers, (8) complainers, (9) mockers, and (10) sensual (i.e., fleshly, ψυχικοί; e.g. Jas. 3:15) persons. Jude then concludes the list in verse 19 before he begins his final exhortation in verse 20 with the indictment, “not having the Spirit.” Each of these offenses is the result of the Spirit being absent in these men.

So, what are “clouds without water? Again the language triggers multiple Old Testament images. God appeared to His people in a cloud on several occasions, including throughout the wilderness wanderings (Exod. 13:21; 14:19-20). This is the first illustration Jude offers (verse 5). God was not a cloud but He was in the cloud (Num. 11:25; 12:5). The cloud was the means by which God spoke to Moses face to face (Exod. 33:11; Num. 14:14). Without the actual presence of God on these occasions, the cloud was meaningless to Israelites.

Jude calls these godless men “clouds.” But why is their condition tagged “clouds without water”? God’s presence (Spirit) is not in them. They are clouds without God, or as Jude expresses their situation, “having not the Spirit” (verse 19). No living water flows forth from these waterless clouds unto eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:37-39; cf. Isa. 44:3, 4).

Posted in Expository, New Testament

Who is the one who is sick and is healed in James 5:14-16?

By Glenn A. Jobe

14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:14-16, NKJV).

Introduction:

The question before us is how do we go about identifying the one who James says is sick and is healed after prayer is offered on his behalf. Two prominent views are offered. James has in mind either a person who is sick physically or is sick spiritually. In order to answer this question we will look at three lines of evidence: (1) the words that James chooses to use, (2) the immediate context, and (3) what other New Testament scriptures may shed light on the subject.

WHAT DID JAMES MEAN BY “SICK”?

Two different Greek words are translated “sick” in James 5:14-15. The first word employed by James is the most common word for “sick” (astheneō) in the New Testament which, as a verb, occurs 36 times and another 24 times as a noun (asthenia). Most often astheneō and asthenia refer to physical illnesses, but not always. Sometimes they refer to spiritual weaknesses.

The Spirit helps saints in prayer with their weakness or infirmity (asthenia) (Rom. 8:26), for they know not how to pray as they ought and the Spirit makes intercessions.

In 1 Corinthians 2:3 Paul said that he was with the Corinthians in weakness (asthenia):  I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.” Yet he received his strength and power from God (2:5). A popular view of 1 Corinthians 2:3 is that “weakness” refers to physical sickness which resulted in Paul’s being “in fear, and in much trembling.” If so, we might have the same situation here as in James 5:14-15 where the first “sick” (asthenia) refers to physical illness (5:14) and the second “sick” (kamnō) refers to a spiritual condition. However, I rather think that the three words in 1 Corinthians 3:2 form a triad, each expressing a condition of its own: weakness, fear, trembling. Jesus taught that we are to support the weak (asthenia) (Acts 20:35) which is followed by the axiom, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Saints may be weak in their spiritual constitution for they may be weak in faith (Rom. 14:1,2), may be caused to stumble, or “be made weak” (Rom. 14:21). See also 1 Corinthians 8:9-12. On the other hand, Abraham was not weak (astheneō) in faith (Rom. 4:19).

Weakness or infirmity (asthenia) was also associated with the Old Testament High Priest (Heb. 4:15) who nevertheless could “have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness” (asthenia) (Heb. 5:2).

Noteworthy is that James makes no mention of physical sickness elsewhere in the book. Prior to James 5, there is no allusion to the issue of physical sickness. Thus there are many New Testament references to “sickness,” “infirmity”, or “weakness” that refer to a spiritual condition and not to a physical one. The subject and the immediate context must determine what is intended.

The second word employed by James for “sick” is kamnō which appears only in James 5:15, Hebrews 12:3, and Revelation 2:3. In Hebrews 12:3 kamnō is rendered “weary”: “ For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The NASB, MLB (Berkeley Version) and ASV also read “weary.” The NEB has “faint”, SEB “get tired.” I found no translation that translates this word “sick” in Hebrews 12:3, though sick is considered a secondary meaning according to Arndt and Gingrich (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). Revelation 2:3 is rendered “fainted” in the KJV, but “weary” in the NKJV, ASV and NASB: “and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” This is in perfect harmony with James 5! So, the primary meaning of kamnō is weary or faint. This is the meaning in Hebrews 12:3 and most certainly it has the same meaning in James 5.

James writes to saints who had become weary and discouraged while their faith was being tried. This theme begins in the second verse of the book and continues through to the end of James: 2  My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3  knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4  But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (Jas. 1:2-4). Verse 3 is the key verse in the book: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” James’ message is that saints will be tried but they are not to lose heart.

The testing of faith is the theme of the book as is evident when one considers a simple outline of the book (prepared by Jackie M. Stearsman [June 1977]).

  1. Faith is Tempered and Tested by Trials and Temptations (1:2-18).
  2. Faith Is Tested by the Word of God (1:19-27).
  3. Faith Is Tested by Social Classifications in Society (2:1-13).
  4. Faith Is Tested by Works (2:14-26).
  5. Faith Is Tested by the Use of the Tongue (3:1-18).
  6. Faith Is Tested by the World (4:1—5:12).
  7. Faith Is Tested by Suffering, Joy, “Sickness” (i.e., weariness; GAJ), Sin, and Compassion for an Erring Brother (5:13-20).

The other word that is at times rendered “sick” in the New Testament (but not in James) is sunechō which describes a situation more in the sense of being held by something (12 times it appears).

WHAT DID JAMES MEAN BY “HEALED”?

The second word for our consideration is “healed” (iaomai) which also can be understood from either a physical or spiritual context. Passages that reflect a physical understanding are obvious and numerous.

Among many scriptures that have a spiritual or emotional meaning to the word include the following: (1) Matthew 13:15 – “‘For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’” This quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 is repeated in Acts 28:27. (2) Jesus was sent to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18). (3) Peter summarized Jesus ministry by noting that Jesus healed those who were oppressed (Acts 10:38). (4) Hebrews 12:12-13 expresses the need to restore spiritual vitality. (5) We are healed (from sin) by Jesus’ stripes (1 Pet. 2:24).

At the conclusion of this study we will see that the context of James 5:14-16 demands a spiritual healing of the sick.

WHAT DOES THE REMOTE CONTEXT TEACH?

As one considers the immediate context of James 5, he notices that some obvious difficulties arise if sickness and healing are physical in nature. The usual explanation among us is that during the early days of the church, when miracles were still operative, that if one called upon the elders of the church, prayer and the anointing of oil healed the physically ill. Yet, note carefully the text: 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”

The words that are underlined in the above text should expose the obvious problem if “sick” assumes the physically sick. James does not say that the sick might be healed or even improve; he says the sick will be healed, be saved and be forgiven. At times during the Lord’s public ministry Jesus’ own apostles could not perform miracles due to their own lack of faith (e.g. the epileptic boy of Matt. 17:14-21).

In 2 Timothy 4:20 we learn that Paul found it necessary to leave one of his traveling companions, Trophimus, in Miletus sick (Acts 20:4). Yet Paul had called for the Ephesian elders to meet him there (Acts 20:17). If for some reason Paul could not heal Trophimus, surely these elders could and would have if they had the ability to do so. But they did not. Apparently those who had the gift of healing (as per Paul) could not utilize the gift as they desired. Yet, the sick who are healed in James 5 are done so unequivocally.

Conclusion:

So what is James telling us about the sick who are healed in relation to elders and prayer?

First, we saw that James explained why trials and temptations have come to the recipients of his epistle. They are for the testing of their faith in order that they develop patience (Jas. 1:2-4).

Second, we saw that faith is tested in at least seven ways (see the outline).

Third, we saw that some saints may be weak and grow weary but the prayer of faith will save the sick (the spiritually despondent) and raise him up.

Fourth, in addition to this (and is often overlooked), IF he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. We need to recognize that a person may be weak in faith and not sin; but then again, if he does, he will be forgiven (guaranteed!).

Fifth, everything in the immediate context (Jas 5:14-16) suggests to us a spiritual malady, not a physical one: (1) suffering, (2) cheerful, (3) sin, (4) forgiveness.

Sixth, the closing verses reinforce this theme: 19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20). This is not the introduction of a new subject—it is the conclusion of the present one.

ADDENDUM: WHAT ABOUT THE OIL IN JAMES 5:14?

I thought about mentioning the oil in the article but was trying to focus more on the context to get to the proper hermeneutical approach. One thing that I did not develop was the word “suffering” in verse 13. The word for “suffering” is kakopatheō, and besides here, it is only found in 2 Timothy 2:3, 9 and 4:5 in the New Testament. It is enlightening to read the immediate context of these three verses for it is very similar to that of James 5. The word “suffering”, too, must be considered within the theme of the Book of James.

When it comes to reproaches to the name of Christ, not all suffering is to be considered negative. Saints will view suffering differently, according to the strength of their faith. Obviously one sees the need to pray during suffering. But can suffering be taken cheerfully? Yes, it can for those with strong faith. Paul and Silas were both praying and singing in the jail at Philippi (Acts 16:25). Peter and the other apostles left the Jewish council “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for His name” (Acts 5:41).

So, what role does oil play in James 5:14? The “healing” and “saving” of the “sick” is not attributed to oil—it is attributed to the prayer of faith, which suggests once again that this is not physical sickness. When has the anointing of oil been the treatment for the physically sick? Cuts, scrapes and burns may be treated with oil (e.g. Luke 10:34) but not sickness.

Elders administered oil to comfort the sufferer. This is the same thought expressed by David in Psalm 23:5, You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.” God did not anoint David’s head literally with oil. David said the Lord comforted his soul as oil soothes the body. David also suffered wrongfully at the hands of his “enemies.”

So, the practice of elders anointing the sufferer with oil was an expression of well-being and comfort. It is an expression of joy, even as experienced by the apostles in Acts 5:41. Elders in the first century church likely anointed the head of the sufferer with oil literally as they sought to comfort and reassure his troubled soul. Perhaps in our culture the same concern could be expressed in other ways.

Sadly, in our present existence as non-sufferers for the cause of Christ, both the expression and experience of this joy escapes us. I believe James 5:14-15 reveals to us a major function of elders in the church which we have failed to comprehend: elders are to encourage the weak and faint-hearted (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14). When we erroneously ascribe the word “sick” in James 5 to physical ailments, explain that the healing was miraculous, and thus dismiss these verses by declaring that they are non-applicable today, we rob members of the church of a beautiful blessing from their leaders.

Posted in Expository, New Testament

They Asked Him a Question (Matt. 22:23-33)

By Weylan Deaver

One day Sadducees brought Jesus what they considered an unanswerable dilemma. They might have sprung their trap had they not been in error, and had they been dealing with someone other than Jesus. As it happened, they failed spectacularly and were, themselves, put to silence. It is recorded in Matthew 22:23-33 (also Mark 12, Luke 20).

One hallmark heresy of the Sadducees was denial of the resurrection. They asked Jesus a question stemming from their custom of a dead man’s brother marrying the widow of the deceased in order to raise children to carry on the name of the deceased. They describe a married couple without children. The husband dies and his brother marries the widow, but they have no children. That husband dies and a third brother marries the woman twice widowed. The scenario grows more far-fetched with the telling, with all seven brothers marrying the same woman, all seven dying, followed by the widow’s death. The question for Jesus is: “Whose wife is she in the resurrection?” It would seem the Sadducees have put Jesus in the position either of affirming an absurd marriage of seven husbands to one wife simultaneously on the other side of death, or that some marriage ties survive death while others do not. The other option is to deny the reality of resurrection, which is what the Sadducees did.

Interestingly, their hypothetical could have accomplished the same thing with only two dead husbands instead of seven. But, opposing the Lord, they knew neither where to start nor when to stop. Jesus stopped them in their tracks with his rebuke. He said the Sadducees were wrong. He said they did not know their Bible, and they did not know God’s power. He said marriage does not apply in the resurrection since people will be like angels (i.e. not married).

Then, Jesus took it further by falsifying the Sadducee’s denial of resurrection. When they read in Exodus 3:6 about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they should have understood God as God of the living—not the dead. And, since Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had died long before God spoke those words to Moses, the Sadducees should have inferred that the spirits of the patriarchs were still alive, and, thus, had no trouble accepting the concept of resurrection from the dead. Consider several observations from this account.

First, Jesus was never silenced by intimidation. He boldly told the Sadducees, “you are wrong” (v. 29). Are we willing to say what needs saying, even in the face of spiritual enemies?

Second, we must know God’s pen and God’s power (v. 29). Ignorance of the Scriptures always puts one in error. People who claim to believe the Bible, but who don’t even understand the Bible, are modern day Sadducees.

Third, marriage is an earth-bound institution (v. 30). Like our mortal bodies, marriage does not survive the grave. The Sadducees mistakenly assumed that, if resurrection were real, things after it must be the same as things before it. They did not anticipate Jesus’ answer: In the resurrection, things are very different. And, that answer destroyed the Sadducees attempted dilemma.

Fourth, Jesus did not compromise God’s truth to fit human error (v. 30). He compared resurrected people to angels, knowing that Sadducees denied angels. Are we ever tempted to tread lightly with certain subjects because we know they are controversial, or might bring us criticism (for example, the Genesis creation account, biblical miracles, marriage-divorce, etc.)? Never let Satan’s fiction make you avoid God’s fact.

Fifth, Jesus had the highest view of Scripture (v. 31). He understood it was the means by which God spoke to the Sadducees, even though they were not born when the Old Testament was being written.

Sixth, the Sadducees ignorance was not for lack of information (v. 31), since God had spoken to them in the Scriptures. They had not reasoned rightly about what God wrote, which allowed them to get in serious error. Their ignorance was inexcusable.

Seventh, Jesus is the master logician (v. 32). The passage he quoted to the Sadducees was Exodus 3:6, where God is described as “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Those three patriarchs had been dead for centuries when God spoke those words to Moses from the burning bush. Implied is that those three patriarchs were not dead, but living. If the Sadducees had seen the implication taught in Exodus 3:6, they should have had no trouble with the concept of resurrection.

Eighth, it is possible to be amazed at something heard, without believing it (v. 33). Astonishment at the Lord’s teaching is a good first step, but no substitute for acceptance. God help us avoid the mistakes of the Sadducees.

Posted in Expository, New Testament

John 3:16 – More Than Meets the Eye

By Weylan Deaver

It’s one of the most familiar Bible verses, and often appealed to as the basis of salvation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). While so much is packed into so few words, much also remains unstated. Many fail to realize that verse is summation, not explication. It summarizes what God has (love), what God did (gave), what a person does (believes), and what a believer should have (eternal life). What was involved when God “gave his only Son”? The verse has no particulars about the incarnation, the cross, the blood atonement, Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection. You have to go to other passages to flesh out the details of God’s gift. Likewise, “eternal life” is offered “whoever believes,” but details of heaven and of faith’s response are not given. You must go elsewhere for elaboration.

The problem is, many read “whoever believes” (v. 16) and assume it simply means mentally accepting facts about Jesus, and then getting “eternal life.” But, the very context of John 3 proves that “whoever believes” cannot mean salvation by belief only.

Jesus said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). If you cannot participate in God’s kingdom, you are not saved. And, no one sees the kingdom who has not been “born again.” This new birth is vital to participation in the kingdom, and the kingdom is vital to salvation. Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must become a believer who has been “born again.”

Jesus added detail to the concept of new birth when he said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Again, none “enter the kingdom” without a new birth consisting of both “water and the Spirit.” Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, has to become a believer who has been “born of water and the Spirit.”

Jesus also said, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21). Truth demands action, not just mental acceptance. And, while many religious folk act as though “works” is a dirty word unrelated to salvation, Jesus taught otherwise. My works cannot save me, but God’s works do. When I do what God commands, I am doing God’s works, and that is essential to salvation. In fact, Jesus also said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). So, John 3:16 mentions a believer, but does not mention works. But, John 6:29 tells us a true believer is already doing “the work of God” since belief, itself, is called a “work”! Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must be a believer who “does what is true.”

Further we are told, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized” (John 3:22-23). Why the emphasis on baptism? Because, as Jesus said in v. 5, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Peter stated it, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” [Acts 2:38]). “Born of water” happens when one is “baptized” in water. Baptism means immersion, and immersion requires “plentiful” water, which is why John was where he was—there was plenty of water. If Jesus connected “water and the Spirit” in being “born again” (v. 5), nobody has the right to disconnect or discount either element. Both are required. Moreover, nobody has the right to redefine baptism (which means immersion) so that it means sprinkling or pouring water, neither of which requires much water. Bible baptism is immersion (physically in water and spiritually in the Holy Spirit). Such is the new birth. Therefore, whoever believes, if he would have eternal life, must be someone who has been immersed in order to be born again.

Finally, note the chapter’s last verse: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Verses 16 and 36 both mention “whoever believes.” But, while obedience is implied in v. 16, obedience is explicitly mentioned in v. 36. Who gets to “see life”? The one who obeys God’s Son. The saved believer is the obedient believer. Believing is obeying, but obedience includes more than just believing.

God can put a summary in a single verse (such as John 3:16), but he never lists everything involved in obedience in any one verse. The only way to know the total requirements is to take all the pertinent passages together. In other words, take the entire New Testament. In our case, we’ve taken several connected truths from John 3, both before and after the words of v. 16. It is a monumental mistake to interpret John 3:16 as teaching salvation by belief alone. But, if belief by itself cannot save, then everything involved in salvation is not listed in John 3:16. And that means you have to go outside John 3:16 to learn what obedience entails.

Belief is a first step since “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Yes, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), but benefitting from that love requires continual commitment to Jesus’ commands. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

Posted in New Testament

Other Tongues

By Mac Deaver

In John 8:43 the Lord once asked some of his contemporaries, “Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word” (ASV). The footnote shows that the Greek word translated “understand” is actually the word for “know.” The Lord was asking why it was that those who spoke the same language did not know what he was saying. His explanation was that they could not hear his word. That is, though they spoke the same language as he did, they could not grasp the meaning of what he was saying. It was one thing to know the meaning of isolated words; it was another to comprehend the connection of words in sentence construction. In verse 45 he declares why it was that they could not comprehend what he was saying. In their case, it was a perversity of character. Since Jesus was telling the truth and their hearts were not attuned to the reception of it, they were not getting it. And in verse 47, he ascribes their lack of understanding to the fact that they were not “of God.” Dishonesty stood between them and understanding of truth.

But there are other reasons why someone might not understand or comprehend a message, one of which is that the sound of the message may, in fact, be presented in a language that he does not know. That is, the message is completely unintelligible to him because he does not know the words of that language. Each word is merely a sound that signifies nothing to him.

The New Testament doctrine of “tongues” is historically rooted in an event that God had long ago caused. When men refused to scatter on the earth, God confused their language. At the time only one language was being spoken (Gen. 11:1), and the people were not scattering out over the earth. So, in order to motivate human scattering, God made it impossible for some of the people to understand others of them. The details are not provided, but somehow in the power of God, he changed the language comprehension of some of them so that a language barrier now existed. And since humans tend to associate mainly with those with whom they can by words communicate, some people then left the area. This change in language was preceded by changing the relationship between humans and snakes (Gen. 3:15), changing the male-female relationship (Gen. 3:16), and by changing the relationship between man and the sustenance of life (Gen. 3:19). These changes followed the commission of the first sin. Later following the flood, another change took place: the relationship between humans and animals (Gen. 9:1-4).

So, the change in the then immediate language capacity was the latest of the changes that God brought about to position man as he desired him now to be on this earth. This was God’s own way of separating people so that they would “replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28) and not simply stay in the vicinity where they had all been born. Evidently, there were none or few who would on their own at this time adventure out into the great unknown world. So, it was God himself who created the situation in which men could not understand other men. Because of human reluctance to venture out into the world, God created the language barrier between humans. We are not told how many languages were now being comprehended. We can only know that the number was sufficient in God’s eyes to cause the desired scattering.

Notice please that God divided the nations in the earth after the flood (Gen. 10:32). The division of the earth referred to in Genesis 10:25 is not geological; it is ethnological. God would later separate another group from all the rest of humanity, not by language but by a covenant. All of Abram’s descendants were to be distinguishable from the rest of the world. By means of the circumcision covenant that God made with Abram, God created the Hebrew nation (Gen. 17:1-14). Abram was “the Hebrew” (Gen. 14:13). His descendants became known as “Hebrews” (cf. Gen. 39:14).

But our point just here is that all of these changes were initiated by God himself. And the language barrier was only one of the changes he wrought in the earth. And as with all the changes just mentioned, it affected the course of human existence and history for all time. The issue of the language barrier did not need additional divine attention until it was necessary for all men to hear the gospel of Christ. As long as Jews were amenable to God through the law of Moses and as long as the Gentiles were amenable to God through moral law (Rom. 2:14-15), (that is, as long as there was divinely imposed ethnic segregation) there was no necessity of divine intervention regarding the language barrier in any way.

But when the universal religion of Jesus Christ became operative on Pentecost of Acts 2, the stage was now historically set so that eventually all men would become answerable to God through Christ (Acts 17:30-31). Several years passed before the gospel was preached to the first full-blood Gentile (Acts 10), but by the end of the first century, all accountable men then living were answerable to the gospel (Col. 1:23; Mark 14:9; 16:19-20).

But in order to fulfill the mission of taking the gospel to the whole world (Mark 16:15-16), the apostles made use of a gift in order to speak to men whose language they did not know (Acts 2:5-12). Later, when the Holy Spirit deemed it appropriate, other brethren were endowed with this gift as well (1 Cor. 12:4-11).

Since God had changed the structure of human accountability, it was up to God to make the announcement. Men could not be held accountable to a message that they never received since they were already living within the confines of divinely imposed religious responsibility. God had left Gentiles in Gentile-ism and the Jews in Judaism. But now that divinely imposed human amenability would no longer be sufficient in God’s mind to allow humans to any longer retain God’s favor. As the announcement of the change in amenability was made, human accountability changed. And since there were various languages spoken throughout the world, it was necessary (if God wanted the gospel carried throughout the world in a relatively short period of time) that men be able to speak languages that they had not studied and did not know in order to make the announcement known throughout the Roman empire.

Miraculous divine intervention was utilized in pointing out the places to go to for optimum success (Acts 16:6-10) and in providing the languages that must be utilized but were not by the teachers then known. It was God’s will that the change in amenability be announced within the historical context of divine miraculous involvement. He would not and did not leave matters simply to human decisions and human capacity. The work of taking the gospel to the world was finalized within the time of the miraculous workings of God. That is also the same time period in which he completed his divine book by inspiring the writing of the complete New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 2:12-13).

That book had to be completed before God could withdraw the miraculous element from the earth, just as the preaching of the gospel had to be completely taken into all the world before God could hold all men now answerable to the gospel and judge all men by Christ. Men became amenable to the gospel as the gospel became accessible. They were being called out of two divine systems already in place. Those alive in the first century were being “transitioned” from Gentile-ism and Judaism into a new divinely imposed accountability to the gospel of Christ. Nothing like that historic moment has ever existed again. That is, the time period in which God was relocating Jews and Gentiles under obligation to the gospel was a period of time and a religious situation that could never be duplicated since Gentile-ism and Judaism were divinely replaced by Christianity.

The “tongues” that the Spirit provided were the means of God’s addressing the language barrier that existed then (and which still exists now but without any need for miraculous intervention). God settled for all time the issue of human amenability within a thirty year period (from about 30 A.D. to about 63 A.D.). Everyone had access to God’s announcement of the change of amenability! There was no geographical area on earth inhabited by people that was not contacted.

Tongues” were for a sign to the unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:22). The kind of question raised by the yet unbelievers on Pentecost was no doubt raised time and time again. How is it possible for someone who does not ordinarily speak my language to speak it now (Acts 2:7-8)? The event itself signified that something divine and miraculous was occurring!

Thus, it is clear that “tongues” were languages. The disciples of John on Pentecost of Acts 2 spoke “with other tongues” (v. 4). These tongues were real languages (v. 6). They did not simply utter unintelligible sounds, but languages that were known and spoken by others. Furthermore, by the fact that “tongues” were always subject to rational interpretation, we know that they were sounds that made sense (1 Cor. 14:13).

It should also be observed that in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul discusses the cessation of miraculous gifts (including miraculous tongues), he mentions three specific things that will cease as he compares the cessation of miracles to the permanence of faith, hope, and love. That is, in chapter 13 he is contrasting what is passing away and what remains. The miracles are coming to an end; faith, hope, and love are permanent features of the faithful church. So, in 1 Corinthians 13:8 he declares that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will all come to an end (v. 8), and the gift of prophecy was miraculous (1 Cor. 12:10). He states that tongues shall cease, and miraculous tongue-speaking was another miraculous gift (1 Cor. 12:10). Thirdly, he says that knowledge will cease. This, of course, is knowledge that is miraculous to which reference had already been made (1 Cor. 12:8). Thus interestingly, each of the three items that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 13:8 has to do with information! Miraculous information will cease being provided, he is saying. In verse 10, when he refers to “when that which is perfect is come,” he is contrasting that perfect or completed information with the partially and miraculously supplied information. When the perfect thing is finally here in its completed form, Paul is saying, then no longer is there a partial thing here. And when the perfect thing is here, there is no longer any need for the miraculous process that had delivered information up to the time of the perfected or completed form. When the perfect thing is come, that which is in part (the partial product) ceases. That is, there is no longer a merely partial thing. It has eventuated into the perfect or the now completed thing.

Finally, let me say a word about the transmission of scripture. God removed the miraculous element from the earth. Scripture would remain as promised (1 Pet. 1:25), but its permanence would obtain through translation. God would not keep scripture here by miraculous intervention. His divine providence would suit the situation so that capable people would be available at the right place and the right time to transmit scripture into languages that were then, as seen by God, now ready for scripture dissemination through them. Today those who are capable of translating scripture and those who have an inherent interest in certain people and places are all entailed in the marvelous providence of God. And neither group, translator or missionary, has access to the first-century gift of tongues.

Posted in Expository, New Testament

Turn the Sinner Back: Notes on James 5.19-20

It would appear that James declares the purpose of his letter at the very end (Davids 1994, 1367), in Jas 5.19-20, by calling his readers to do what he has just done by writing:

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (NET).

By leaving his purpose statement for the end, and crouching it in yet another recommended behavior, perhaps he hopes that his readers will not only repent of those sins and errors which he points out, but will themselves turn to their erring brethren and work toward their restoration as well.

The 54 imperatives in the 108 verses leave no doubt that James is concerned to straighten out problems among his readers. (The last imperative is in verse 20: “know.”) They also highlight what is evident from even a cursory reading, that the book emphasizes the necessity of obedient action among the faithful in order for faith to be genuine and effective for salvation. “Tests of a living faith” is the key that one writer finds to tie the letter’s diverse subjects together under a single theme (Hiebert 1978, 224). Continue reading “Turn the Sinner Back: Notes on James 5.19-20”

Posted in Expository, New Testament

Another Look at Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

By Glenn A. Jobe

Introduction

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 the apostle Paul makes reference to “a thorn in the flesh” that had been given to him:

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [NKJV]

In the past any investigation as to the identity of this “thorn” has come to be synonymous to those “secret things that belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). Thus, many conclude that no one can know what the “thorn” was that plagued Paul. Can the same be said about the original recipients of Paul’s letter, the Corinthian church? Did they not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was? If they could not know what it was, why would Paul include a discussion of it here in Second Corinthians? If they did know, are there any clues from the epistle itself that might identify what Paul’s thorn was?

So what is this “thorn?” Unfortunately, various attempts at identifying Paul’s thorn often remove the study away from the immediate context. Halley’s Bible Handbook offers a typical approach at the question: [from Halley’s Bible Handbook; 23rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), p. 607].

. . .Paul suffered from Chronic Ophthalmia, a disease of the eyes which was not extremely Painful, but, at times, made Paul Repulsive in Appearance.

This seems to be borne out by the language of the Epistles. It came upon Paul 14 years before he wrote this Epistle (12:2, 7), which was about the time of his entrance into Galatia, on the First Missionary Journey.

His entrance into Galatia was occasioned by some sort of Physical Infirmity, Galatians 4:13, so offensive in appearance that it constituted a sore trial to anyone in his presence, Galatians 4:14.

They would have given their own eyes, Galatians 4:15. Why eyes, unless that was his particular need?

Paul’s customary “large” handwriting, Galatians 6:11, may have been due to poor eye-sight. This may have been the reason Paul Dictated his epistles to some of his helpers.

Does this not approach the question through the back door? Instead of beginning with the text and from there identify the thorn, the suggestion is to begin with some known ailment and try to make it fit the passage.

Suppose one grants that Paul suffered from poor eyesight. Undoubtedly he did. How do we know that this was his “thorn in flesh?” How do we know that he did not have other “physical” infirmities? Several years ago I had the sad duty of preaching the funeral of a close fellow preacher. Jim suffered for years with many maladies. He had hepatitis C, epilepsy, kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, and did I mention to you that he was also blind? What would you say was Jim’s thorn in the flesh?

The purpose of this study is to suggest that the identity of Paul’s thorn can be ascertained from the immediate context of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Thus, this article hopes to stimulate the reader to look at the question from the immediate context.

Contextual Considerations

Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority

(10:1-13:10)

A. Paul replies to those who reject his apostolic authority. He stresses that he is not a coward, that his warfare is not fleshly (carnal), but mighty before God to the casting down of every stronghold (of the devil) that might stand against the knowledge of God (10:1-16).

B. Paul desires to use his apostolic authority for building up and not for tearing down–but to those who might think his letters “weighty” and his presence “weak”, let them know that what was said in his letters will be followed in deed (10:7-11).

C. Paul is not of the group that compares themselves by themselves: “For not he that commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (10:12-18).

D. Paul is concerned that the Corinthians might be beguiled by those that parade themselves as “super apostles” (11:1-6).

  1. Paul calls upon them to bear with him in a little foolishness.
  2. He wants them to know that he is not at all behind any that might claim to be apostles.

E. Paul’s sacrificial preaching and the absence of physical sustenance from others demonstrates the genuineness of his apostleship so that the slander of “false apostles” might be cut off (11:7-15).

F. Paul says if they want to get into a contest of foolish boasting he stands ready to meet them on their own ground (11:16—12:13). He cites his (1) “pedigree” in the Jewish religion (11:22), (2) his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33), (3) his visions and revelations, and states that lest he be puffed up in pride due to such, God left “a thorn in the flesh,” identified as “a messenger of Satan,” to buffet him (12:1-10).

  1. Finally, he states that the signs of a genuine apostle were wrought among them by him.
  2. The only privilege they had missed was that they had not financially sustained him as he worked among them.
  3. In this regard, if the apostle has conducted himself inappropriately, the apostle begs from the Corinthians, “Forgive me this wrong!” (12:11-13).

[Adapted from outlines by Jackie M. Stearsman]

Brief Observations of the Context

Some of the things Paul states in the above outline will surely assist in identifying what his thorn was, that causes him grief. Note carefully that the apostle has already stated that (1) his conflict is not a carnal one (10:3-6); (2) he is confronting those who present themselves as “super apostles” (11:13); and, (3) he is behind no one in his development in the religion of the Jews (11:22).

At the end of 2 Corinthians 11 Paul declares, “I will boast in the things that concern my infirmity” (verse 30). He thus mentions his infirmity in chapter 11 before he begins his discussion of “a thorn in the flesh” in chapter 12. Then in the remaining three verses that end chapter 11 Paul cites an occasion in which he suffered from his infirmity:

31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

Acts 9:19-25 supplies additional information to the aforementioned “infirmity.” The Jews plotted to kill Paul and apparently they had persuaded the governor of Damascus to arrest him. Paul escaped by the help of disciples who “took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:25). What is the “infirmity” the apostle mentions? Surely the “infirmity” is identical to “a thorn in the flesh.” By now its identity should be obvious to us, but let’s continue.

After adding to his apostolic credentials in 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Paul returns to the discussion of his “infirmity,” only this time he adds another descriptive phrase: “a thorn in the flesh.” We can know that 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 continues the discussion of the infirmity in chapter 11 because after Paul describes his thorn in the flesh he concludes:

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

Indeed this is a further description of the “infirmity” that is introduced in the previous chapter.

Paul has received not only every advantage under the law (for he was a “doctor” of the law), but he has also received the advantage of “visions and revelations of the Lord” (12:1). Applebury correctly observes,

It was not foolish to boast in the thing which the Lord had done. Paul spoke the truth about what the Lord had done with him and limited his remarks to this lest anyone should exalt him above what they saw in him and heard from him [Corinthians, Vol. 2, p. 214].

Now, in the midst of his defense, the same apostle refers to a thorn that God had given him. Further he explains why such a thorn was given him: to keep him from being “puffed up.” Thus in light of this, note that in verse 22 he proudly cites his own “pedigree” in the Jewish religion. This acknowledgment is followed by his own affirmation of his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33). Is there any connection between his “pedigree” as a Jew and the sufferings that he is called upon to endure? Surely there is! Already we are learning the source of his infirmity, “the thorn in the flesh.”

It is within this setting that Paul states,

a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.

Paul then continues his defense of his apostleship in verses 11-13. The apostle issues a strong rebuke to the church at Corinth:

I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.

Applebury’s summary on this is interesting: “It is difficult to understand how they could have forgotten all this and gladly listen to the claims of false teachers in the absence of Paul” [Ibid].

Has Paul wandered away from his subject to speak about the thorn in the flesh or is his thorn in the flesh directly related to his boasting as an apostle? Surely the latter is true. As to the identity of those who questioned Paul’s apostleship, several possibilities exist: (1) unconverted Gentiles and Jews outside the church, (2) unconverted Gentiles only, (3) unconverted Jews only, (4) converted Gentiles and Jews in the Corinthian church, (4) converted Gentiles only, (5) converted Jews only, or (6) converted and unconverted Jews. The descriptions in both epistles seem to indicate the last possibility—converted and unconverted Jews.

The Words “Thorn” and “Flesh”

How are the words “thorn” and “flesh” used in scripture? If “flesh” means literally “flesh”, should we not say that Paul’s “thorn” is a literal thorn that impales his body? And if his ailment is poor eyesight, should one not conclude that that the “thorn” is in his eyes and cannot be removed? However, if the “thorn” is not literal, should we not suspect that “flesh” isn’t either? To so conclude is consistent with the immediate context for the apostle had already stated, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh” (10:3).

What does the word “thorn” signify in scripture? The usual word for thorn, akantha (Matt. 7:16; 13:7, 22; 27:29; Mark 4:7, 18; Luke 6:44; 8:7; 8:14; John 19:2; Heb. 6:8), designates a wood sliver of a plant or tree. But the word in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is skolops and means literally, “what is pointed,” and it is also related to skallō which means “to hack” [Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p. 409].

Interestingly, Paul does not employ akantha, but skolops, a word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament! Fortunately skolops does occur three times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX). A consideration of these three occurrences is very helpful.

First Occurrence. As the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, Moses charged the people that they drive the inhabitants out of the land, for if they fail in this, these non-Israelites will oppress the people (Numbers 33:55-56):

NKJV reads: 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell. 56 Moreover it shall be that I will do to you as I thought to do to them.'”

The RSV reads: 55But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”

What proved to be “thorns” in the sides of the Israelites? It was the inhabitants of the land whom Israel had failed to remove from the land.

Second Occurrence. As we know, the Israelites did not drive out the inhabitants from the land. Rather they became like their heathen neighbors and adopted their gods. Consequently, Israel became an unfaithful wife to the Lord. Hosea prophesied to the Northern Kingdom from 750 – 725 B.C. and predicted the coming consequences to Israel:

Therefore, behold, I will hedge up your way with thorns, And wall her in, So that she cannot find her paths” (Hos. 2:6).

The Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. What was the hedge of thorns here in Hosea 2? Assyria was. The Assyrian captivity was cruel and painful.

Third Occurrence. The Southern Kingdom also entered captivity. While in captivity, Ezekiel spoke of the time when God would release his people from their misery:

And there shall no longer be a pricking brier or a painful thorn for the house of Israel from among all who are around them, who despise them. Then they shall know that I am the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 28:24).

What was the painful thorn that irritated Israel during the time of Ezekiel’s prophecy? It was Babylon for they were in Babylonian captivity.

What is common about all three of these occurrences of skolops in the Old Testament Septuagint? Each time “thorn” is figurative not literal and every time “thorn” designates an oppressing people who are set against God’s people. Any Jew acquainted with the history of his own people surely is familiar with this usage of “thorn” in the pages of the Old Testament scriptures.

Apparently Gerhard Kittel in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament sees the connection of “thorn” referring to oppressing people. First, he begins by saying that in the LXX Old Testament skolops is never used for “stake” (i.e., in a literal sense of impaling a person on a stake (VII, p. 305). Kittel then comments,

One may perhaps connect these two passages [i.e., Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24; G.A.J.] with the use of skolops in NT even the ref. here is hardly to oppression by men.”

One can only ask, “Why not?” Kittel acknowledges, “Some early expositors referred to the skolops of 2 C 12 to individuals, Plummer, ad loc., 350.” [This is A. Plumber’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (International Critical Commentary) (1925).] Plummer and other “early expositors” were right!

Thus the figure of “thorn” in the Old Testament refers to a wayward people who harass the people of God. Surely Paul had this picture in mind as he describes his own thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. If this be true, the issue boils down to one question: Who are these people?

The identity of these oppressing people must be identified with the words “in the flesh.” What does this phrase mean in our present text and context? The word “flesh” occurs a number of times leading up to our present study. For example he wrote in 10:2-3,

But I beg you that when I am present I may not be bold with that confidence by which I intend to be bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.

A similar usage of “flesh” is found in the book of Romans. “Flesh” can refer to both the physical body and the unregenerate state. Consider the following readings from Romans.

(1) Paul speaks of the time when he and his hearers were “in the flesh” (7:5). Paul states,

Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another — to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death (7:4-5).

“In the flesh” is contrasted with “newness of the Spirit” (7:6). The Spirit in this section (7:1-12) refers to freedom in Christ through the Spirit; the “flesh” refers to the old law that said, “You shall not covet,” the Mosaic law (7:7), in which is death (7:9-10).

(2) Consequently, saints walk according to the Spirit (or “in the Spirit”) and not according to the flesh (8:1-4).

(3) We are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (literally “in flesh” and “in Spirit,” 8:9).

(4) Paul speaks of his kinsmen according to the flesh (9:3). His kinsmen according to the flesh were the Jews.

Thus “flesh” refers to the Jews who held to the Old Testament law with its regulations and, failing to realize that the law which once held them has now been done away, they constantly sought to impose that law upon the church. We know them as the judaizing teachers whom Paul constantly battles throughout his ministry. Surely unconverted Jews were in league with judaizers in the church for they were both defenders of the Law. This situation leaps out at us in the immediate context.

Note carefully how Paul concludes his discussion in 2 Corinthians 12:10—

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

These miseries came from what source? From the Jews!

“Weak” is the same word that is translated “infirmity” in chapters 11, 12, 13. So Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is termed his infirmity. If we are to understand what he means by infirmity, we must study these three chapters.

Information in these chapters helps establish the immediate context and reveals the infirmities, the reproaches, the needs, the persecutions, the distresses, about which the apostle Paul speaks. Consider chapter 11, verses 22-33:

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

What is Paul’s infirmity (astheneias) in 11:30? It is the things that he had suffered as a servant of Christ. What event does Paul reference in verses 30-33? It was the time when in Damascus certain Jews plotted to kill him and he escaped their murderous intentions by being lowered down a wall in a large basket (Acts 9:22-25). Clearly the “they” of verse 22 includes both converted and unconverted Jews and perhaps some converted Jews, too.

In 2 Corinthians 12:5 Paul employs the same word for infirmity, but this time it is plural and he makes a general statement of the benefit that he received from all of his infirmities: “Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.”

Verse 7 continues,

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.”

Now read chapter 12:9-10:

9 And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, no one shall stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia.”

Paul continues to talk about his weaknesses or infirmities (which includes more than only his “thorn in the flesh” as we saw in verse 7). (1) In chapter 13 Paul speaks of the “weakness” (or infirmity) of Christ that resulted in his crucifixion. Read verses 1-4. (2) The fact is that the word “infirmity,” appears both as a noun or verb some 13 times in chapters 11, 12 and 13 of 2 Corinthians. The noun is the word astheneia and the verb is astheneō, words that refer to weakness of any sort. It is certainly not limited to afflictions to the human body. If astheneia always refers to physical weakness, what was Christ’s affliction (weakness)?

For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you (13:4).

It appears that Christ’s weakness was identical to that of Paul. Christ’s thorn crucified him, Paul’s thorn caused him aggravation but not death. In both instances the thorn is people of their own race who were zealous about the Mosaic Law—the Jews.

Let’s now return to these chapters and see if we can identify the infirmity (infirmities) about which Paul speaks. Let’s do a little more analysis of these chapters, especially as they relate to the word “infirmity” which is also rendered “weakness” in our text. Let us see if we are able to follow the continuity of Paul’s thoughts by reading these sections together.

2 Corinthians 11:16-21 Reluctant Boasting

16 I say again, let no one think me a fool. If otherwise, at least receive me as a fool, that I also may boast a little. 17 What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. 18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage (i.e. they tolerate judaizers who seek to enslave them in the Law; G.A.J.), if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak [verb] for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also.

2 Corinthians 11:22-33 Suffering for Christ

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak [verb], and I am not weak [verb]? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity [noun]. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

2 Corinthians 12:1-6 The Vision of Paradise

1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities [noun]. 6 For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness [noun].” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities [noun], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities [noun], in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak [verb], then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:11-13 Signs of an Apostle

11 I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. 12 Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. 13 For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!

2 Corinthians 12:14-21 Love for the Church

14 Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. 15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved. 16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! 17 Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps? 19 Again, do you think that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ. But we do all things, beloved, for your edification. 20 For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults; 21 lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.

Apparently the Corinthian church itself did not walk in Spirit but walked in flesh.

2 Corinthians 13:1-6 Coming with Authority

1 This will be the third time I am coming to you. “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” 2 I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare— 3 since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak [noun] toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. 5 Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?unless indeed you are disqualified. 6 But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified.

2 Corinthians 13:7-10 Paul Prefers Gentleness

7 Now I pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified. 8 For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. 9 For we are glad when we are weak [verb] and you are strong. And this also we pray, that you may be made complete. 10 Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction.

So, prior to 2 Corinthians 11:30 Paul had already introduced his “infirmity.” Most students want to begin discussing Paul’s infirmity (thorn in the flesh) beginning with chapter 12. Yet Paul had already introduced the discussion of his “infirmity” in chapter 11. What is that infirmity? Is it not the treatment that he received from his own kinsmen in the flesh? These were judaizing teachers who held that Gentile Christians were obliged to keep Old Testament ordinances of the Law. When Paul makes sharp distinctions between the two covenants, as he fully develops in chapter 3, judaizers attack his apostleship wherever he goes. Paul was also abused by unbelieving Jews nearly every time he entered a city and began preaching in their synagogues.

Conclusion

Consequently “flesh” does not mean literal “flesh” as in Paul’s physical body anymore than “thorn” means a literal irritant to one’s body. “Flesh” refers to his kinsmen according to the flesh who insist in keeping the Mosaic law, walk in flesh, and war against the law of the Spirit.

1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Rom. 9:1-5)

Indeed this is interesting in light of the fact that Paul had just contrasted the law of the flesh with that of the Spirit:

1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-5)

These judaizers reject the Law of the Spirit and their conduct demonstrates such (cf. Matt. 7:15-20). The Spirit’s fruit was conspicuously absent from their lives (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).

Paul had already written in Romans 5:8-10,

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Paul explicitly states what he means by “flesh” in our present context (2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12):

18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. (2 Cor. 11:18-23)

As has been pointed out in this analysis, Paul utilizes the word “thorn,” not the usual word for thorn (which we know as a wood sliver), but “thorn” (skolops) in the sense of a pointed thing that causes persistent irritation (2 Cor. 12:7).

“Flesh” is another way of referring to Jews who are diligent to keep the law of Moses which is weak according to the flesh when compared to the law of the Spirit (see Romans 8). Thus, judaizing teachers were Paul’s thorn in the flesh. They were people who persistently opposed God’s righteous economy. Paul felt that these judaizers were a persistent hindrance to his ministry and prayed that they be removed. Judaizing teachers in the Corinthian church went so far as to question Paul’s apostolic authority. Perhaps some of our readers can identify their own “thorn in the flesh” from brethren who oppose them who war against the Spirit and walk in the flesh and not in the Spirit.

Final Exhortation

In reading Paul’s words one can sense the strong political tension in the church between those who had honestly investigated Paul’s credentials as an apostle, his teaching, the abolishment of the requirements of the Law and Paul’s foes who refused to reason through the evidence, deceiving themselves due to the fact they stubbornly refused to lay aside the ordinances of the Mosaic Law which they had always observed. Unable to refute Paul’s arguments, judaizers attacked Paul personally (ad hominem) by impugning the apostle’s character and authority. These false teachers had not the courage to confront Paul in person, so they discredited and ostracized him in absentia.

Sadly, today’s brethren share in the same malady that irritated Paul. Other brethren are so tied to their former understandings of scripture, are so steeped in tradition, feel that they cannot possibly be mistaken, and bow to the approval and pressures of others that they refuse to rethink their assumptions even if a solution is present that could resolve a century of conflict. They use fleshly tactics in order to protect their positions. Paul resolved that, though his warfare is spiritual, he does not fight according to the flesh (2 Cor. 10:2, 3).

Paul never lived to see the results of his labors, but because he fought as one who walked in the Spirit, God saw to it that his efforts have blessed generations for 2,000 years. May we learn to handle whatever “thorn” is given to us in the same graceful manner as did the apostle Paul.

9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

REFERENCE WORKS CITED

Applebury, T.R. Studies in Second Corinthians, Volume II in One Volume: Studies in Corinthians Joplin, Mo.: College Press.

Friedrich, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.

Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Handbook. 23 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.

Kittle, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, editors. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.

Stearsman, Jackie M. II Corinthians. Included in outlines of Bible books, presented to the Central Church of Christ, 1454 Belleair Road, Clearwater, Florida. March 1977.