The Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Bread of Life Discourse

The Narratives

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Matthew 14.13‑21 • Mark 6.30‑44 • Luke 9.10‑17 • John 6.1‑151

The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle the Lord Jesus Christ performed that is recorded in all four gospels.  It occurred about one year before the Lord Jesus was crucified, as John records that it happened on the Passover.2  Mark and Luke record that just prior to this event, the Lord Jesus had sent His twelve disciples, whom He also called apostles, on an evangelism mission “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” giving “them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” (Mk. 6.7‑13, Lk. 9.1‑6)3  While the apostles were away, or possibly while they were returning, disciples of John the Baptist brought Jesus the news that Herod the tetrarch had beheaded him (Mt. 14.1‑12, Mk. 6.14‑29).

When the apostles had returned to Jesus, where He had apparently been ministering to crowds of people, He invited them to join Him on a retreat.  So they boarded a boat on the Sea of Galilee and crossed to a desolate coast near a mountain.  However, the crowd to which He had been ministering followed them to this desolate place on foot, arriving before He did.  Here, the Lord Jesus had compassion on the multitude “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  And so, He preached the Kingdom of God to them and healed the sick among them.

After a full day of ministry, the crowds had not departed.  The land was grassy but desolate, and there was no provision of food nearby.  The disciples complained that the hour was late and that there was no provision of food for the multitudes.  However, the Lord Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  Philip answered, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get (even) a little.”  The disciples took stock of what resources they had, and Andrew said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”  Jesus said, “Bring them here to me,” then He instructed the crowd of five thousand men plus many more women and children to sit down in groups of fifty and one hundred.

Once the crowds had been seated, the Lord Jesus offered thanks to His Father for the bread and asked His blessing on it.  The Jesus video shows that the loaves miraculously multiplied during the blessing, presumably while the crowd’s eyes were averted, and that there were suddenly many more loaves as a result.4  However, the text does not suggest that this is how they were multiplied.  Then Jesus broke the five loaves and two fish and distributed them to His disciples to distribute to the multitudes.  Luke is clear when he distinguishes between the twelve apostles and the larger group of disciples that followed Jesus, and here, he wrote that Jesus distributed the broken loaves and fish to the larger group of disciples and not just the twelve apostles.  This should not be construed as if the apostles were sidelined and did not participate in this ministry of distribution, for the larger group of disciples encompasses the twelve apostles.  Moreover, supposing that there were at least one woman and two children for each of the five thousand men in the crowd, the crowd would have numbered at least twenty thousand, and it is not reasonable to suppose that such a large number of people could have easily been served by only twelve men.

As the Lord Jesus distributed the broken loaves and fish to the disciples, and as the disciples distributed them to the multitudes, He worked a miracle: the broken pieces of bread and fish multiplied in order to satisfy the hunger of every man, woman, and child in the crowd.  This miracle is akin to the miracle by which the Lord multiplied the flour and oil in the jar and jug of the widow of Zarephath to preserve not only her life but also the lives of her son and the Prophet Elijah (I Kg. 17.13‑16).  It also correlates to the miracle by which the Lord provided bread (manna) six days a week for the forty years that the nation of Israel was in the wilderness (Ex. 16, Josh. 5.12), enough to feed a population of just over 600,000 men, not counting women, children, and Levites (Num. 1, 26), a correlation brought up during the Bread of Life discourse.

After the multitudes had been served, the disciples gathered up all the leftover fragments “and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.”  Once the fragments had been gathered, Jesus sent His disciples ahead of Him by boat to Capernaum in the land of Gennesaret, while He dismissed the crowds.  As He was dismissing them, He perceived that they intended to take Him by force and make Him king, so He withdrew by Himself to the nearby mountain to pray.

Jesus Walks on Water

Matthew 14.22‑33 • Mark 6.45‑52 • John 6.16‑21

Sometime between 3:00-6:00 the next morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee.  The sea was rough, and the winds were against them.  At this time, the Lord Jesus went out to them, walking on top of the surface of the water—yet another miracle,5 akin to the iron axe head that floated to the surface of the Jordan River at the behest of the Prophet Elisha (II Kg. 6.1‑7).  As the disciples watched Him come, they were frightened, believing Him to be a ghost.  He seemed to be about to pass them by when they cried out to Him.  He answered, saying, “Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The phrase translated, “It is I,” is the Greek phrase ἐγώ εἰμι, which is used to translate the “I AM” of Exodus 3.14 in the Greek Septuagint.  The word εἰμι normally stands by itself to mean, “I am”, without the need for the pronoun ἐγώ, which means “I”.  The phrase is used by Jesus here for the second time in an express revelation of His deity.6  Moreover, His appearance to the disciples shares much in common with the Old Testament manifestations of God in human form (e.g., Gen. 16. 7‑14, 18, 32.22‑32, Josh. 5.13‑15, Judg. 6.11‑27, 13).  Here, as in those cases, God appears manifestly in the flesh in a manner that makes His divine identity apparent, He expressly identifies Himself as God, those around Him are stricken with fear on account of His presence, and He tells them not to be afraid.

At this point, Matthew recounts that the Apostle Peter called out to Him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” to which the Lord Jesus bade him, “Come.”  Then Peter, in an astonishing act of faith, got out of the boat and walked on the surface of the water toward Jesus.  Then Peter’s attention was drawn from Jesus to the strong winds about him, and he became afraid and began sinking.  He cried out, “Lord, save me!”  At this, the Lord Jesus reached down and pulled Peter out of the water, chiding him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Then Jesus and Peter got into the boat, and the raging winds became still.

John records that the disciples were glad to receive Jesus into the boat, and Matthew says that the disciples worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  However, Mark states that the disciples were utterly astounded because they did not understand the lesson of the loaves and fish, and what is more, the disciples’ hearts were hardened.

Ministry in Gennesaret

Matthew 14.34‑36 • Mark 6.53‑56

After this, Jesus and the disciples came to Capernaum in the land of Gennesaret on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus went into the local synagogue to teach and to heal.  The people of Gennesaret recognized Jesus, and they brought their sick to Him that they might be healed.  Matthew and Mark recount that anyone who touched the fringe of His garment was made well (cf. Mt. 9.20‑22, Mk. 5.25‑34, Lk. 8.43‑48).

The Bread of Life Discourse

John 6.22‑71

Meanwhile, the multitudes to which Jesus had been ministering the previous day noticed His absence.  And so, they boarded boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee, coming to Capernaum, where they found Jesus ministering.  And coming to Him, they asked, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

But Jesus, knowing the thoughts and intentions of their hearts (cf. Jn. 2.25), chastened them, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.  For on him God the Father has set his seal.”

The crowds were taken aback by Jesus’s rebuke and were not quite sure what He was telling them.  So they asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered that the work of God consists in believing in the One whom He has sent.  At this, the crowds put two and two together and asked, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you?  What work do you perform?”  These were rhetorical questions, because they had seen Him work the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish.  “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  The verse they quoted was from Nehemiah 9.15: “You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.”  The message they were telling Jesus was, “We don’t know why You are claiming that we aren’t seeking You because of the signs we saw—they were unmistakable.  Just as Moses gave our fathers manna from heaven to eat in the desert, You gave us barley bread to eat in the desolate place.  You must be the Messiah, and God must be calling You to lead us in battle to retake the land that God had sworn to give us.”

But Jesus, discerning the real intent behind their words, said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  The crowds, still confused by what He was saying, said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus’s answer to this request flabbergasted and alienated the crowds.  He said,

I am (Gk. ἐγώ εἰμι) the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.  All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

From the moment Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, the crowds began grumbling about Him.  Just as when He had preached at Nazareth (Mt. 13.54‑58, Mk. 6.1‑6, Lk. 4.16‑30), some in the crowd asked themselves, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  Evidently there were those in the crowd from Nazareth who either were not present when Jesus had preached there, or had not participated in the attempt to throw Him from the cliff, or were at least willing to give Him a second hearing.  But just as His claim that the prophecy of Isaiah 61.1‑2 found its fulfillment in Him had offended the people of Nazareth, His claim to be the bread of life that comes down from heaven was offending the crowds at Capernaum.  Whereas the crowds were willing to accept a political leader from their midst who performed miraculous signs and wonders, they were quite unwilling to believe such a one to be God incarnate, especially when He called them out for their unbelief.

But Jesus was not finished offending the crowds.  He continued, saying,

Do not grumble among yourselves.  No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.  It is written in the Prophets, “And they will all be taught by God.” (Is. 54.13)  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

At this, the crowds grumbled even more, asking themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  In this, as when they asked Jesus to give them the bread always that gives life to the world, they were interpreting His words literalistically, as did Nicodemus (Jn. 3.3‑4), the woman of Sychar (Jn. 4.10‑15), and the disciples (Mt. 16.5‑11, Mk. 8.14‑21).  Jesus, however, did not remonstrate with them as He did with the disciples when He asked, “How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?” (Mt. 16.11)  Rather, He continued His message, using the analogy of food and drink to make His point.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died.  Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

During this discourse, one can visualize the assembled crowds starting to dissipate, finding Jesus’s words offensive and leaving in disgust.  The previous day, they had witnessed a great miracle when the Lord Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fish and provided temporal food enough to satisfy their physical hunger.  Yet now, as He was telling them that He was providing Himself as eternal food to satisfy their spiritual hunger, they were turning away in distaste.  They wanted Jesus on their own terms and were quite unwilling to accept Him on His.  He did not change His message even the slightest bit and absolutely refused to accommodate Himself and His purpose to the crowds’ expectation of Him.  Rather, He persisted in His message that genuine spiritual nourishment that leads to eternal life is to be found in Him alone and in absorbing all that He is into one’s soul and then living out His life in one’s own.

At this point, the Lord Jesus had managed not only to alienate the multitudes He had fed the previous day but also many of His own larger circle of disciples (not the twelve apostles) that had been following Him.  His own disciples now were complaining, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”  Indeed, the same unbelief and hardness of heart—which had characterized the crowds that had eaten the temporal bread that He had provided, intended to “take him by force to make him king”, and yet rejected Him at the end—was now revealed to be manifest in the hearts of many of those who had made themselves His disciples.

But the Lord Jesus did not accommodate Himself to them either.  He continued, saying,

Do you take offense at this?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  But there are some of you who do not believe. … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.

At this, many of the larger circle of disciples forsook Jesus, despite all that He had taught them and did in their presence.  Then Jesus turned to the twelve apostles—the twelve men that Scripture records He had chosen Himself—and asked them, “Do you want to go away as well?”

Then Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the apostles, as he would again in a few short weeks (Mt. 16.16, Mk. 8.29, Lk. 9.20), answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”  To be sure, Peter, like the others, had not completely gotten his understanding straight about Jesus’s identity and purpose in the world (Mt. 16.22‑23, 26.51‑56,69‑75, Mk. 8.32‑33, 14.47‑52,66‑72, Lk. 22.49‑51,54‑62, Jn. 18.10‑11,15‑18,25‑27).  Nevertheless, Peter and the other remaining disciples (except Judas) had been drawn by the Father and had truly come to know Jesus by the Spirit, who had given them life.

However, Jesus, rather than commending Peter, as He would do later (Mt. 16.17‑19), continued His message of rebuke, saying, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve?  And yet one of you (referring to Judas Iscariot) is a devil.”

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

The first thing to notice in Scripture’s account of the feeding of the five thousand is that, despite His grief, the Lord Jesus set His own emotional needs aside in order to minister to the multitudes.  He was grieved on account of John the Baptist’s death, and the apostles were returning, fresh from the emotional high of their first evangelistic mission.  He wanted to spend some time apart with the apostles so that they could share in His grief and He in their rejoicing (Rom. 12.15).  But He set this aside in order to minister to the multitudes.  Moreover, He did not begrudge the crowds His time and energy, for He discerned them to be “like sheep without a shepherd.”  And so He had compassion on them.  It was compassion, then, rather than a sense of duty or obligation that motivated Him to minister.

Likewise, it should be compassion rather than duty or obligation that moves us to minister to those in need.  And we ought not begrudge those to whom we minister of our time and energy, just as our Lord Jesus did not so begrudge the crowds.  When we are tired or grieved, our natural tendency is to withdraw and be refreshed.  But in the example set by our Lord, we see that He did not set His own needs above the needs of the multitudes to hear the Word of God preached and to be healed of their diseases.

But we must not miss the fact that once the crowds were dismissed, the Lord Jesus did withdraw by Himself to pray.  If the Son of God found it necessary to seek solitude and spend time with the Lord—especially after a long day of ministry and toil—how much more necessary it is for us!  Apart from the Lord, we can do nothing (Jn. 15.5).  It is by spending time reading and meditating on His Word and spending time in prayer that we come to know Him, to know His heart, His thoughts and counsel.  From this wellspring, we are spiritually nourished, strengthened, and renewed, enabled to go out and serve in His name and in His strength.

The second thing to notice is that Jesus exercised Lordship throughout His ministry to the crowds, and that the disciples followed His lead without complaint.  At the end of the day, the disciples were tired—and probably hungry as well.  And so, they asked Him to send the multitudes away “to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  But Jesus told them to give something to the crowds to eat.  It is easy to read into the disciples’ response in the Synoptic gospels a weary complaint and an incalcitrant, “It cannot be done!”  But when we read John’s account, such an interpretation becomes untenable.  Jesus, to test the disciples (Philip, specifically), asked where they could buy bread for all the multitudes.  Philip, answering from a natural point-of-view, responded that two hundred denarii—half a year’s wages—would not be enough to feed them all.7  Another apostle—Andrew—mentioned that there was a boy among the multitudes who had five loaves and two fish, and from his natural point-of-view, he said that he did not see how so little could feed so many.  Yet in these responses, they remained open and obedient to Jesus’s leading, honestly reporting that they did not have the resources to feed the multitudes.  But they did not say that it could not be done.  And accordingly, the Lord Jesus did not chasten them for having too little faith, as He did elsewhere (Mt. 8.26, 14.31, 16.8, 17.20, Mk. 4.40, 8.21, 9.19, Lk. 8.25, 9.41).

In this, we should be like the apostles and honestly confess that we do not have the resources to do all that God calls us to do.  And likewise, we ought not say to Him that what He calls us to do cannot be done simply because we cannot see how it can be done.  “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19.26)  Rather, we must look to Him to provide the resources to do what He calls us to do and to recognize that without those resources, we cannot obey His call.

Third, we notice the example of the boy who gave Jesus the loaves and fish when He asked for them, and we see in this example the lesson that God is able to accomplish much with the little we have when it is given in faithful obedience to Him.

Now there are some who would see in the boy’s example the primary message of this text.  They contend that there were others in the crowd who had brought food with them, and when they saw the boy’s example, they were moved to share the food that they had brought with those around them.  The real miracle, this interpretation claims, was the change in heart of the multitudes.8

However, such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.  First, there is a complete absence in the text of any suggestion that anyone else in the crowd had brought any food, and a complete absence of any suggestion that anyone who might have brought such food shared it with anyone else.  This is a supposition predicated upon a rejection of the supernatural implication in the text that the Lord Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish that the boy gave Him.  It assumes that there must be a natural explanation for the event because it assumes that the supernatural interpretation is, at best, unreliable.

Second, this interpretation fundamentally depends upon the boy’s example of sharing as the inspiration for the crowds’ like response.  However, only John records that the origin of the five barley loaves and two fish was a boy who had brought them—Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not consider the matter of the boy’s action of giving Jesus his loaves and fish significant enough to mention in their accounts.  Moreover, John records that twelve baskets were filled specifically “with fragments from the five barley loaves.”  He does not mention any other bread from which fragments were added to the fragments from the five barley loaves in order to fill those twelve baskets.  This very clearly indicates that the bread in those loaves was miraculously multiplied, enough such that its leftover fragments filled twelve baskets.

Finally, John also contradicts this interpretation’s unsupported assertion that the hearts of the men and women in the multitudes were changed.  These same men and women that supposedly shared the food that they brought with others around them were offended the very next day by Jesus’s claims in the Bread of Life discourse and turned away from following Him.  If their hearts had truly been changed, they would not have done that.

The Lord Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish and gave them to the crowds as an illustration that He is the One who came from the Father to give Himself as spiritual nourishment that leads to and sustains eternal life.  The anti-supernaturalistic interpretation that the only “miracle” that happened was that men and women purportedly shared their food enough to satisfy the hunger of all those around them fundamentally robs Jesus of this miracle, for they purportedly shared their food because they were inspired by the boy’s example of sharing his rather than on account of anything that Jesus did.  Jesus cannot be said to have performed a miracle to change their hearts, because this very evidently did not happen.  Jesus, then, could not be credited for the feeding of the five thousand, even though John clearly states that Jesus beforehand “knew what he (himself) would do.”  Furthermore, robbing Jesus of this miracle undermines His claims in the Bread of Life discourse.  On the basis that He gave the multitudes physical bread to eat, thus sustaining the temporal lives of the men, women, and children in the crowds, He explains that He is offering Himself to us as spiritual bread to nourish our souls, thus sustaining our eternal life.

Mark records that the disciples “were utterly astounded” on account of Jesus’s miraculous walking on water because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”  Likewise, those who put forward the anti-supernaturalistic interpretation of Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand do not understand it either.

Jesus Walks on Water

The account of Jesus walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee immediately follows the account of the feeding of the five thousand (except in Luke, where it is omitted), and it is an extension of the lesson Jesus was teaching in that miracle, directed specifically at the disciples.  In the feeding of the five thousand, the Lord Jesus was teaching that we ought not worry ourselves about our physical circumstances but rather ought to devote ourselves to Him, trusting in His provision for all our needs.  In walking to the disciples on top of the water in the middle of a windstorm, the Lord Jesus was giving them an opportunity to exercise that devotion and trust.

Earlier, the Lord Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee with the disciples when a great storm arose, threatening to swamp the boat (Mt. 8.23‑27, Mk. 4.35‑41, Lk. 8.22‑25).  In that earlier account, Jesus was sleeping through the tempest when the disciples woke Him, frantically asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus bade the wind and waves to be still, demonstrating His mastery over the forces of nature before chiding the disciples for their lack of faith.

Here again, Jesus was demonstrating His authority over the natural forces, and He wanted the disciples to trust in that authority.  And Peter, at least initially, did demonstrate that trust.  He called out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  To be sure, Peter doubted his senses.  Jesus had just identified Himself to them, but a man walking on the surface of the water unsupported by solid ground was quite outside of the realm of the disciples’ experience.  Nevertheless, Jesus bade him, “Come.”  And so Peter, alone of all the disciples, had the temerity to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus on the surface of the water, demonstrating trust in Jesus’s authority over natural forces and His provision for his need—particularly, his need to not sink and drown.

But then, Peter’s trust wavered.  When he saw the strength of the wind, fear and doubt crept into his heart, and his faith in Jesus’s authority over the natural forces and His ability to provide for his every need faltered—and he began to sink.  At least he had the presence of mind to call out to Jesus to save him, and so Jesus pulled him out of the water, chiding him for his lack of faith.  To be sure, Peter’s faith was stronger than the other disciples’, who lacked the faith to even get out of the boat.  But it was still below the strength of faith for which Jesus had hoped from all the disciples.  The disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

What, then, of our faith?  It is easy to say that Peter trusted Jesus as much as he did because he was present with the Lord and witnessed many of the miracles He performed.  But still he doubted, and although the other disciples witnessed the same miracles, they did not have enough faith to risk getting out of the boat.  Moreover, unlike the disciples during Jesus’s earthly ministry, we have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which is to our advantage (Jn. 16.7, Acts 2.1‑4, Eph. 1.17‑18).  Unfortunately, many of us do not believe that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an advantage over the physical presence of the Lord Jesus.  But it was only with the power of the Holy Spirit that the apostles were able to perform the signs and miracles they did (Acts 3.1‑10, 5.12‑16, 8.4‑8, 9.32‑43, 13.4‑12, 16.16‑24, 20.7‑12, 28.1‑10).  “For we walk by faith, not by sight,” (II Cor. 5.7) and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10.17)  And as Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn. 20.29)

Our faith is sub-standard.  Jesus calls us to complete and unwavering faith in Him—faith that will enable us to perform great and mighty deeds on His behalf because they were done in complete reliance on His provision for all that He calls us to do (Mt. 17.20, 21.21‑22, Mk. 9.23).  Jesus Christ is mighty and able to accomplish all that He wills, and the one who has great faith in Him is able to accomplish all that the Lord Jesus calls him or her to do.

The Bread of Life Discourse

Prefiguring the Lord’s Supper

The Bread of Life discourse is Jesus’s explanation of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand.  Its primary message is that Jesus Christ is God’s provision of spiritual nourishment to humankind for sustaining eternal life.  As such, it shares much in common with the Living Water discourse in which He engaged with the woman of Sychar (Jn. 4.1‑45).

The Lord Jesus said that He gives “the food that endures to eternal life,” just as He told the woman of Sychar that He gives “living water.” (Jn. 4.10)  Again, He told the multitudes that He gives Himself as “living bread”, and that whoever eats this living bread “will live forever.”  And, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  And what is more, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  Likewise, He told the woman of Sychar that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4.14)

First, we note that the Lord Jesus is making abundantly clear in these two discourses that our pursuit of sustenance should be for sustenance for eternal life rather than for sustenance for temporal life (cf. Mt. 6.25‑34, Lk. 12.22‑34), and that He Himself is that sustenance.  He is not, as He later reminded His disciples (Mt. 16.11), speaking literally.  He is, rather, speaking of His words and deeds, upon which we are to meditate and by which we are to order our lives (Jn. 8.31, 15.7‑8).

Moreover, the offering of Jesus’s body and blood points forward to the Crucifixion, in which He “offered himself without blemish to God,” in order, by His blood, to “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9.14)  This offering is embodied for our tangible reference and spiritual edification in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in which the bread represents Christ’s “body, which is given (or broken) for you” (Lk. 22.19, I Cor. 11.24), and in which the wine represents Christ’s “blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26.28)  To be sure, Christ is not here instituting the sacrament.  The full meaning of the sacrament depends on its union with Christ’s death, and He had not at this time explicitly foretold His impending death and resurrection (cf. Mt. 16.21, Mk. 8.31, Lk. 9.22), which was still one full year away.  However, the spiritual reality that the sacrament embodies is explained here, and the sacrament is certainly foreshadowed in this discourse and in the feeding of the five thousand.

In the Lord’s Supper, we eat the body of Christ broken for us when we partake of the bread, and we drink the blood of Christ shed for the remission of our sins when we partake of the wine.  But this must not be taken literally—the bread remains bread and does not become the body of Christ, literally understood, and the wine remains wine and does not become the literal blood of Christ.  Neither are blessings conferred indiscriminately when the elements are partaken, as if the blessings of Christ could be bestowed on an unbeliever simply by partaking the elements.  “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 11.27)  Rather, the elements are infused with the spiritual presence and promise of the Lord, and the body and blood of the Lord are spiritually discerned in the bread and wine of the sacrament.  This is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended.  When we partake of the bread and wine, we meditate upon Christ’s death represented in the elements and upon the benefits conferred to us by His death and resurrection.  And we eat the bread and drink the wine as a physical representation of our reception of the presence and benefits of Christ crucified and resurrected into our hearts—into the spiritual core of our being.  The Lord’s Supper is a physical representation of our spiritual union with Christ, and this is precisely the point that Christ was making in the Bread of Life discourse when He said that those who feed on His flesh and drink His blood—which are “true food” and “true drink”—have eternal life.  “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  Put another way, to abide in Christ—that is, to know, love, trust, and obey Christ—and for Christ to abide in us—that is, for Christ to exercise Lordship in our lives—is to feed on His (spiritual) flesh and drink His (spiritual) blood, having union with Him through His sacrifice on our behalf on the Cross.  And this is eternal life, for the spiritual sustenance of Christ found in our abiding in Him and He in us sustains our souls for eternity.


Second, we note here also Christ’s most explicit teachings on the doctrines of Predestination.  First, He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  And again, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  But there are some of you who do not believe. … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”  No human being has ever come to Jesus Christ on his or her own recognizance—no human being has the innate capacity to choose Him.  This is illustrated by how the multitudes and many of Jesus’s larger circle of disciples rejected Him—they appeared to come to Him by their own volition, but yet they did not truly believe in Him.  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”  The crowds came to Him under false pretenses.  They thought Him to be there primarily for their benefit, to serve them as they saw fit.  They saw in Him one who would deliver them from this world’s ills.  They saw in Him one who would be a powerful this-worldly king that would throw off the rule of their earthly oppressors and rule over them benevolently.  But as He later told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn. 18.36)  The crowds’ impressions and beliefs about Christ were informed by their observation and reason alone, and they lacked the life-giving direction of the Holy Spirit.  Their beliefs and actions were futile because they were not led—or drawn—by the Spirit.  They thought that they had chosen Him and come to Him on their own volition.  But they had not chosen but rejected Him because coming to Jesus had not been granted to them by the Father.  Their seeming “choice” was of no avail.

But those who did, in fact, come to the Lord Jesus came because they were drawn—because it was granted to them—by the Father.  Moreover, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”  And again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  God’s grace in calling His chosen disciples is one hundred percent effectual and irresistible.  Everyone chosen by God comes to Jesus—there are no exceptions.  The choice of who comes to Jesus is the Father’s, not the individuals’, and God’s choice cannot be thwarted.  Just as the will of those whom God did not grant to come to Jesus could not avail to believe in Him when the Spirit had not given them life, neither can the will of those whom God has granted to come to Jesus avail to refuse the summons.  God is sovereign, and His will cannot be thwarted by anything, let alone by the will of the individual.  The Apostle Levi (Matthew) came at the summons of Jesus, leaving everything behind (Lk. 5.27‑28), because it had been granted to him to do so by the will of the Father—he could not have chosen otherwise.  Those who refused to leave everything behind at Jesus’s summons (Lk. 9.57‑62) could not come to Him because it had not been granted them to do so by the will of the Father—they could not have chosen otherwise.  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”

Moreover, just as those drawn by God cannot refuse the summons of Jesus, neither can they choose to abandon Him.  Again, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And again, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.  It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  As the Apostle Paul put it, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8.38‑39)  And to be sure, “nor anything else in all creation” includes our own mutable, fallible human will.  No one chosen by God for eternal life in Jesus Christ can permanently fall away from Him.  God’s sovereign providence may allow genuine believers to wander in the futility of ungodly decisions for a time (e.g., II Sam. 11‑12), but no one chosen by God can ever permanently fall away from Jesus Christ, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And the will of God cannot be thwarted.  Those who finally reject Jesus Christ and/or fall away from Him permanently are like the crowds and disciples who rejected Jesus Christ at the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse—they rejected Him because He did not choose them; they did not come to Him in faith, despite external appearances.  After all, Jesus did say, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”  And, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

These doctrines are difficult for many in the Church to accept.  Such would rather the Bible teach unequivocally that Jesus holds out the offer of salvation to every man, woman, and child, and that everyone has the equal opportunity to come to Jesus.  The idea that God would predispose certain individuals—and not others—to want to seek Jesus on His terms is odious to them.  They want the choice of individual salvation to rest ultimately with the individual and not with God.  Such individuals seek to qualify God’s choice upon v. 64: “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.”  Because God is omniscient, He knows in advance who will come to faith in Jesus and who will not.  Thus, He chooses men and women on the basis of foreseen faith.  These—and these only—He draws to Himself in Jesus Christ.  They come to faith, however, not because God drew them, but because God foresaw that they would come to Him.  Or else, He chose them on the basis of what He foresaw they would do with the faith He would implant in their hearts.  But this interpretation then becomes not God’s choice on account of foreseen faith but God’s choice on account of foreseen works, in contradiction of those passages that teach that man is saved from sin and sin’s penalty by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3.24‑28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8‑9).

But the omniscience of God ultimately works against this interpretation: Not only does God know who will come to faith in Jesus Christ and who will not, He knows the deepest thoughts and intentions of every human heart (Heb. 4.12), and what is more, He knows how to move the human heart to believe in Jesus Christ.  “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21.1; examples of this principle are seen in Pharaoh, Ex. 7.3, 9.12, 10.20,27, 11.10, Rom. 9.14‑18; David, II Sam. 24.1; Cyrus, Ezra 1.1, Is. 45.1; and Pilate, Jn. 19.10‑11, Acts 2.23).  And if the Lord can thus direct the heart of the king according to His agenda, then he can just as easily direct the hearts of all men, women, and children.

The Greek verb translated “draws” in v. 44 (Gk. ἑλκύω) is also translated as “dragged” in Acts 16.19, 21.30, James 2.6.  ἑλκύω (or ἕλκω in Acts 21.30, Jas. 2.6) has a connotation of irresistible force, that just as Jason was compelled by irresistible force by the crowd to appear before the magistrates, and just as Paul was compelled by irresistible force by the angry mob to be brought out of the temple, so too are men and women chosen by God compelled by Him to come to Jesus Christ.  The word “draw” is also used of bringing water up from a well (although the Greek verb ἀντλέω is used in New Testament passages that speak of drawing water: Jn. 2.9, 4.7,15).  Here, again, the word has a connotation of irresistible force—the water is an otherwise static object that is compelled by the force of the one pulling a bucketful of it by a rope or chain.  The water has no will to resist.

If it be objected that men and women, being volitional creatures, have a will to resist God’s call, it should be noted that God, who is omniscient and knows all things, including all the factors that determine our volitional choices—He knows precisely why we choose one thing and not another—and that He, being omnipotent and able to accomplish all that He purposes, is able to affect those factors so that our choices align with His purposes.

This principle appears in its rawest form in Joseph’s abduction and sale into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37.18‑28).  As Joseph told his brothers after their father’s death, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50.20, emphasis added)  The same word is used both of God’s role in what happened to Joseph as well as of Joseph’s brothers’ role—they both intended the same thing, albeit for very different reasons.

Consider that the brothers plotted to kill him.  Left to that decision, Joseph would be dead, and Israel would not have been preserved through the seven-year famine.  But Reuben convinced his brothers not to kill him but instead cast him into a pit, and his brothers were persuaded by his plea.  And so, Joseph’s life was spared.  However, Reuben also intended to release him, and if he had, Joseph would never have gone to Egypt and would not have interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and Israel, again, would have perished in the famine.  But then Judah saw the opportunity to profit by selling Joseph into slavery, and his brothers were persuaded by his pitch.  And so, although Joseph’s brothers intended evil against him, God used—indeed, guided—their actions to bring Joseph into Egypt at the right time and place to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.

Behind every decision the brothers made was the super-intention of God.  God sent the dreams to Joseph that provoked his brothers to anger.  God could have tempered Joseph’s cockiness or softened his brothers’ hearts to prevent their attack on him, but this would not have accorded with His plan.  He also moved Reuben to desire to release Joseph, thus preventing Joseph’s death.  God could have hardened Reuben’s heart along with his brothers’ hearts, but He showed mercy to him, thus preserving Joseph’s life.  Again, God hardened Judah’s heart against Joseph, increasing Judah’s desire for gain at his brother’s expense, whereas He could have softened his heart, thus sending Joseph to Egypt.  And He also moved the brothers’ hearts to listen first to Reuben and then to Judah, thus ensuring Israel’s deliverance from the seven-year famine.  And so, Joseph, by God’s definite plan, was irresistibly compelled to go to Egypt.

Likewise, all who come to Jesus Christ, and thus are saved, are irresistibly compelled to come to Him by God, who works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1.11).  “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9.18)  Now, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom. 8.26‑27)  The Spirit speaks to us in a still, small voice (I Kg. 19.12‑13, Jn. 10.3‑5,14‑16).  But the voice of the Spirit is the voice of God, who said, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Is. 55.11)  If God purposes to harden a man’s heart so as to keep him in his sin for the Day of Judgment, then he cannot come to Jesus Christ, even if he appears to do so outwardly, for nothing, least of all the mutable will of man, can thwart His purpose.  Conversely, if God purposes to show a man grace and mercy, drawing him to Jesus Christ for healing, repentance, and forgiveness, then he cannot but come to Jesus Christ, even if he resists his whole life, for nothing can ultimately hinder the purpose of God.

In light of these passages, we must consider those who commit “blasphemy against the Spirit,” which the Lord Jesus said “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Mt. 12.31‑32, Mk. 3.29, Lk. 12.10)  The “blasphemy against the Spirit” is the sin of apostasy.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb. 6.4‑6)

How can it be that one who has been drawn by the Father to come to faith in Jesus Christ finally and ultimately reject Him and fall away?  How can it be that such a one can blaspheme the Holy Spirit, when it is the will of the Father that Jesus “should lose nothing of all that he has given (Him), but raise it up on the last day…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life”?

The answer is that they cannot.  There is no weak link in the golden chain of salvation in Romans 8.28‑30.  God “is able to keep (us) from stumbling and to present (us) blameless before the presence of his glory.” (Jude 24)  “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor. 12.3)  Jesus Christ is “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12.2)9  “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1.6)

Yet Jesus Himself said that on the last day, there will be those who say to Him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”  But He said that He will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Mt. 7.21‑23)  Likewise, Paul speaks of those who “have made shipwreck of their faith.” (I Tim. 1.19‑20)  But such, despite all appearances, never had true, genuine faith.  Genuine faith in Jesus Christ that leads to repentance is not something we can generate within our hearts—it is the gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2.8) that He gives to whomsoever He will (Rom. 9.15,18) “according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1.5)  “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.”  And He also said, “‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve?  And yet one of you is a devil.’  He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.”

Judas Iscariot, then, is the archetype of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit.  He once was enlightened, he tasted the heavenly gift, he shared in the Holy Spirit, and he tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (Heb. 6.4‑6) as one of the Twelve Disciples chosen by Jesus Himself.  Likewise, he went out on evangelism missions (Mt. 10, Lk. 10) during which he prophesied, cast out demons, and did mighty works all in Jesus’s name.  And yet the Lord Jesus did not know him—He did not set his electing love on him—but rather chose him as a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9.22) into which He poured the malice of Satan (Lk. 22.3, Jn. 13.27).  Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who is one with the Father, never knew him.  And because God did not know him—or foreknow him—He did not predestine him “to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  And because He did not predestine him, He did not call, justify or glorify him either (Rom. 8.29‑30).

To be sure, God did so predestine Judas to be “the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (Jn. 17.12)  Jesus Christ was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2.23)  Just as God had superintended the sinful acts that sold Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37.18‑28, 50.20), so He also superintended Judas’s act of treachery.  “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Mt. 26.24, Mk. 14.21, Lk. 22.22)  Indeed, David had foretold Judas’s treachery a thousand years earlier.  “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” (Ps. 41.9; see also Ps. 55.12‑14)

Likewise Jude wrote, “Certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)  And according to Paul, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.  Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (II Cor. 11.13‑15)  God has used false teachers in every age to try and refine His Church.  They say, “We believe the same things you do—we just have a slightly different interpretation of them.”  But in truth, they empty Biblical doctrine of its Biblical meaning and fill it with their own meaning.  They even “perform great signs and wonders.”  Thus, they lead many astray, “if possible, even the elect.” (Mt. 24.24, Mk. 13.22)  Such were once enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come.  But Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.”  They have taken the name of the Lord in vain, and “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Ex. 20.7, Dt. 5.11)  Such have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens.  The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. …

I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.  (Jn. 10.1‑5,14)

Now it is possible for those chosen and elect by God to wander from the faith and follow false teachers for a time.  It is even possible for the elect to spout some of the heretical teachings of false teachers for a time.  But in time, Jesus Christ, the shepherd of the souls of the elect, will call them back to faithfulness, and they will hear His voice and return to Him, forsaking the false teachers who led them astray.  But those who commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are those who never were of the elect of Jesus Christ but mingled among them for a time, like Judas, tasting the goodness of His Gospel.  In time, they were (or will be) drawn off by the false teachers, but when Jesus came to call His elect back to faithfulness, they refused His summons, staying with the false teachers.

But it is not possible for those chosen and elect in Jesus Christ to commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for it is the will of God the Father that Jesus Christ should lose no one who has been drawn to Him by the Father, but that everyone who believes in Him and knows Him will persevere to the end and be raised by Him on the last day.  And it is not possible to thwart the will of God.

The Work of God: To Believe in Him Whom God Has Sent

What, then, shall we take away from the Bread of Life Discourse that affects our everyday lives?  After all, there is much theology in this discourse and not much in the way of actively doing that we can put into practice in our daily lives.

The first lesson we need to learn is, as Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Eternal life, as He later said, consists in knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom (He has) sent.” (Jn. 17.3)  We must not be offended by what Jesus said in this discourse, as many in the crowd—and even some of His own disciples—were offended and turned away from following Him.  As He said earlier, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Mt. 11.6, Lk. 7.23)  Jesus said many things in the Bread of Life Discourse that many find hard to accept, even in the Church today.  And many seek to find ways to interpret His teachings that better accord with their understanding of the freedom of the human will and of Christ’s presence in the Sacraments.  But Jesus gave us these teachings, as blunt and plain as they are, in order that we should better know Him and His Father.  When we find Jesus’s teachings at variance with our own preconceived ideas, it isn’t Jesus’s teachings that need to be reinterpreted.  Indeed, when we reinterpret His teachings to better accord with our ideas and understanding, especially as they have been influenced by the world around us, we are loudly proclaiming that we are offended by and ashamed of Jesus and His words.  And let us not forget Jesus’s warning to His disciples, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mk. 8.38, Lk. 9.26)

To be sure, very few people in the Church are willing to actually say that they are offended by something Jesus says.  Rather, those who are thus offended will usually say that they are offended by, or take issue with, the interpretation that others in the Church have, especially if the others come across as implying that theirs is the only true interpretation of the text.

Consider for a moment that the Church of Jesus Christ is fractured on account of differences in interpretation.  Christians differ over whether the doctrine of predestination is predicated upon God’s foreknowledge of who will come to Christ in faith and who will not, or whether it is predicated upon God’s sovereign will and good pleasure alone.  They differ over whether the bread and the wine of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are miraculously transformed in their substance into the literal body and blood of Christ while their outward manifestation remains bread and wine,10 or whether “the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present”11 in, with, and under the forms of the bread and the wine,12 or whether Christ is spiritually present in the Supper,13 or whether the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative feast only with Christ neither physically nor spiritually present.14  Other matters of differences in interpretation are infant baptism versus believers-only baptism, whether the history of redemption is best understood in the paradigm of covenants or in the paradigm of dispensations, and whether the thousand year period of Revelation 20.1‑10 will occur before Christ’s return (premillennialism), after Christ’s return (postmillennialism), or is coextensive with the entire period between Christ’s ascension and return (amillennialism).  Churches are divided over whether Scripture teaches that the form of Church government taught in Scripture is best embodied in the episcopal form of government (rule by bishops), the presbyterian form of government (rule by elders), or by the congregational form of government (congregational independent self-rule).  Churches are divided over whether Paul’s proscription against women teaching and having authority over men (I Cor. 11.8‑10, 14.34‑35, I Tim. 2.11‑12) ought to be interpreted in the context of Scriptural passages where women do, in fact, teach or have authority over men (Judg. 4‑5, II Kg. 22.14‑20, Lk. 2.36‑38, Acts 18.26, Rom. 16.1‑2) or vice-versa.  In the past century, churches have divided—and are still dividing—over whether Scripture ought to be interpreted under the authority of contemporary cultural norms and scholarly criticism or whether these norms and criticisms ought to be interpreted under the authority of Scripture.

The Apostle Peter wrote “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (II Pet. 1.20‑21)  The Westminster Confession of Faith, the confessional standard of historic Presbyterianism, includes a line that reads, “God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” (Ch. XX §2)  In the past century, many have used this credo to justify any and all interpretations of Scripture, and ironically to subject the authority of Scripture to the authority of cultural norms and secular scholarship.

What those who thus subject the authority of Scripture have lost sight of is that what validates an interpretation of a work is whether or not the interpretation accurately communicates the message the author intended.  In the case of Scripture, the author is God, who, the Scripture tells us, will judge all of humanity at the end of time (Mt. 25.31‑46, Acts 17.31, Rom. 2.16, Heb. 10.30, 13.4, Rev. 20.11‑15).  We must be exceedingly circumspect about this fact, for it is not intended to comfort us.  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 30.31)  We do not want to be “found to be misrepresenting God” (I Cor. 15.15) by “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mt. 15.9)  Yet this is what we do when we interpret the Word of God by the authority of cultural norms and secular scholarship.  By this, our own interpretation eclipses God’s self-revelation in Scripture.  Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture is rejected in favor of an idol called by the same name, and thus we show that we are ashamed of and offended by Him and His words.

How, then, are we to do the work of God by believing in Jesus Christ?  The first step is to understand that Jesus Christ is revealed in the context of God’s written revelation through the prophets who preceded Him and the apostles who followed Him, and that He cannot be known apart from this context.  Moreover, this context so profoundly influences our understanding of Him that adding to or subtracting from the revelation of God in Scripture produces a distorted image that warps our ability to know Him and compromises our ability to believe in Him.  Thus, the additions of the Book of Mormon or the Watchtower Society produce a much different Jesus and a much different gospel than the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)  Likewise, the subtractions demanded by secular scholarship and cultural norms fundamentally rob Jesus of His glory, leaving us with a pale shadow and shrunken image that his hardly worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5.12), and much less worthy that to Him “every knee should bow … and every tongue confess.” (Phil. 2.10‑11)

Moreover, to believe in Jesus Christ means to trust Him, and trust is demonstrated by action.  Just as a man demonstrates his trust in the reliability of a bridge only when he steps onto the bridge and walks across it, and just as a man demonstrates his trust in the soundness of an airplane and the competence of its pilot only when he boards the plane and takes a flight in it, we demonstrate our trust in the Lord Jesus when we believe what He says and obey His commands.  He asks us, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6.46)  If we claim that Jesus is Lord but disobey what He says, our confession is a lie, for a lord, by definition, is one who has the authority to tell us what to do, what not to do, what to believe, and what not to believe, and our disobedience declares louder than words that we do not regard Him as Lord.  Sin, by its definition, is disobedience to the Law of the Lord, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23), and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3.23).  Indeed, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I Jn. 1.8)  But the Lord Jesus died on the Cross “to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I Jn. 1.9)  “We know that our old self was crucified with (Christ) in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. … For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6.6,10‑11)  But “how can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6.2)  “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (Rom. 6.12‑13)


1     All quotations of Scripture are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, 2000, 2001).

2     The Crucifixion occurred on the Passover (Mt. 26.17‑19, Mk. 14.12‑16, Lk. 22.7‑13).

3     Matthew records the sending out of the twelve apostles much earlier, at the time the Lord Jesus commissioned them (Mt. 10).

4     Jesus, dir. John Krish & Peter Sykes; perf. Brian Deacon, Rivka Neuman, Alexander Scourby, Niko Nitai, Joseph Shiloach (Orlando, FL: The JESUS Film Project, 1979).

5     This is the only miracle recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John, but not Luke.

6     The first was in John 4.26, when the Lord Jesus revealed Himself to the woman at Sychar.

7     Mark, attributing the response to the disciples generically, wrote, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”

8     William Barclay’s commentary on Luke 9.10‑17 is an excellent example of this interpretation: “The people were hungry—and they were utterly selfish.  They all had something with them, but they would not produce it for themselves in case they had to share it with others.  The Twelve laid before the multitude their little store and thereupon others were moved to produce theirs; and in the end there was more than enough for everyone.  So it may be regarded as a miracle which turned selfish, suspicious fold into generous people, a miracle of Christ’s changing determined self-interest into a willingness to share.” (The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke, Revised & Updated [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, 2001], p. 140)

9     Other translations read, “author and finisher”.

10    This is the position of the Roman Catholic Church.

11    The Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Article X.

12    This is Martin Luther’s classic position.

13    This is John Calvin’s classic position.

14    This is Ulrich Zwingli’s classic position.

A Letter to Kansas State Representative Barbara Bollier regarding House Substitute for Senate Bill No. 18

Loren Golden
Overland Park, Kansas

Barbara Bollier, MD
Kansas State Representative, 21st District
State Capitol
Topeka, Kansas 66612

Dear Representative Bollier:

It has recently come to my attention that on February 26, 2014, the Kansas House of Representatives debated a bill (House Substitute for Senate Bill No. 18) introduced by Representative Craig McPherson of the Eighth District that would have replaced the Hierarchical Deference approach to resolving church property disputes with the Neutral Principles of Law approach recommended by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1979 Jones v. Wolf decision.

It has also come to my attention that you, as my elected representative in the Kansas Statehouse, argued and voted against this bill.

It is my considered opinion that the Hierarchical Deference approach currently enshrined in Kansas property law does not well serve the citizens of the state of Kansas, let alone the citizens of the 21st House District, whereas the Neutral Principles approach does.

Recently, as I am sure you are aware, my own congregation, Colonial Presbyterian of Kansas City, of which I have been a member for seventeen years, went through a legal struggle with Heartland Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), with which Colonial was formerly affiliated, over the issue of the ownership of Colonial’s property, both in the state of Missouri and in the state of Kansas.  Now, Colonial is organized as a Public Benefit Non-Profit Corporation in the state of Missouri, and its Articles of Incorporation state, “Any property held by or for the Corporation or titled in the name of the Corporation shall be for the exclusive use and benefit of the Corporation only in furtherance of the purposes set forth herein, without a trust in favor of any other entity; provided, however, that any property deemed to be held in trust shall be held in a revocable trust, unless expressly stated otherwise in a written instrument describing said trust, and accepted and agreed to in writing by the Trustees of the Corporation.” (emphasis added)

From its incorporation in 1953 until 1983, Colonial was voluntarily associated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), and from 1983 until August 22, 2010, it was voluntarily associated with the PCUSA.  In the early 1980s, prior to its union with the United Presbyterian Church (USA), the PCUS amended its Book of Order to add a Trust Clause, similar to that found in the PCUSA Book of Order at the time Colonial voted to terminate its voluntary association with the PCUSA and instead to voluntarily associate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church: §G-8.0201: “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”  Needless to say, Colonial’s Articles of Incorporation and the PCUSA Book of Order’s Trust Clause are at odds.

Colonial’s property was purchased and has been (and still is) maintained by the donations of its members.  Colonial’s Articles of Incorporation do not state that Colonial’s property “is held in trust…for the use and benefit of the (PCUSA)”.  Indeed, as stated above, Colonial’s Articles of Incorporation as a Missouri Public Benefit Non-Profit Corporation do not recognize “a trust in favor of any other entity.”  Now the Missouri Circuit Judge who heard Colonial’s case against Heartland Presbytery, declared that “the language ‘for the use and benefit’, confers only a right to use the property, it does not confer ownership of the property.  The (PCUSA) Book of Order is a unilateral document created by the (PCUSA) as beneficiary of said trust and not by (Colonial), the grantor.  It is not signed by (Colonial).  The above clause in the Book of Order refers to property, generally.  Missouri law requires that in order for a trust to be created, the subject matter must be definite. … The above clause does not describe the property with any specificity.  Missouri law also requires that an express trust be created by the ‘direct or express words of a grantor or settler, or by the intentional act of the party having dominion over the property.’ … The above clause is drafted by the beneficiary and not the grantor contrary to and in violation of Missouri law.  For these reasons, the court finds that the above clause does not create a trust over (Colonial’s) property.” (Colonial Presbyterian Church v. Heartland Presbytery, Case No. 1016-CV24909, Division 4)  In other words, the PCUSA has no legal standing (at least in the state of Missouri) to unilaterally impose a trust on property owned by another corporation, even if said corporation, as an ecclesiastical body, is under the ecclesiastical oversight of the PCUSA, as Colonial was until August 22, 2010.  The Johnson County, Kansas, District Court (which has civil oversight over the property that Colonial owns in Johnson County, Kansas) and the Missouri Western District Appellate Court concurred.

The ownership of property is the purview of civil, not ecclesiastical, law.  Just because the PCUSA in its Book of Order asserts that all property of a particular congregation under its ecclesiastical oversight is held in trust for the benefit of the PCUSA does not mean that the particular congregation is thus bound to legally recognize that claim.  To quote from Colonial’s Bylaws: “These bylaws (the ‘Bylaws’), in like manner and consistent with the Articles, address themselves to civil matters, such as corporate governance and property.  It is recognized that the Church (as defined in the Articles; herein the ‘Church’) and its members are subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction of church governing bodies (congregation, session, presbytery, synod, General Assembly, and the like) which jurisdiction extends only to spiritual matters and spiritual oversight; not temporal or civil matters.”

The Hierarchical Deference approach considers the denomination’s constitution in matters of church property ownership and not just those secular documents related to the actual ownership, such as the deed, charter, state statutes, and corporate governance documents.  In the case of the PCUSA Book of Order, the PCUSA intends to assert its ownership over the physical property of the congregations under its ecclesiastical oversight by means of the Trust Clause included in its Book of Order, regardless of whether or not the secular documents related to the actual ownership do, in fact, convey the ownership of the individual congregation’s property to the denomination by means of an agreed-upon trust explicitly stated in said secular documents.  However, for the civil courts to thus consider the denomination’s constitution (e.g., the PCUSA Book of Order) in property disputes is tantamount to the state enforcing ecclesiastical law in violation of the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion.

Thus, for the civil courts, by reason of the Hierarchical Deference approach to church property law, to divest a congregation of its property when said congregation has not conveyed its property to its parent denomination by means of an explicit trust included in its Articles of Incorporation, By-Laws, or property deed, solely upon the denomination’s inclusion of a Trust Clause in its constitution, is an unjust violation of that congregation’s rights under the First Amendment.  Such a violation is not in the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas or of the citizens of the 21st House District.  For this reason, the defeat of House Substitute for Senate Bill No. 18 was also contrary to the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas and of the citizens of the 21st House District.

Therefore, I am writing to express my disappointment that you, as my elected representative to the Kansas Statehouse, both argued and voted against House Substitute for Senate Bill No. 18.  I would hope that in the future, should such a bill come up as a subject for debate and consideration on the House floor, that you would vote to approve it in consideration of the best interests of the citizens of the state of Kansas and of the citizens of the 21st House District.

Loren Golden

Understanding Leviticus, Part I: The Old Testament Sacrifice

When people set out to read the Bible from start to finish, they make their way through Genesis and Exodus without much problem, although their eyes will often glaze over when they get into the details of the Law that begin in the second half of the Book of Exodus.  But then they reach Leviticus and they quickly find themselves bewildered by the emphasis on sacrifice and all the laundry lists of various and sundry laws, much of which seem to say, “Do not touch,” or “Do not taste.” (Col. 2.21)  At this point, many people will either give up on reading the Old Testament and jump over to the New, or else they will give up on reading the Bible altogether in frustration.

There is a perception that the Book of Leviticus is largely inconsequential, and that there is no value in reading it, let alone value in applying its teachings to our lives here and now in the 21st Century.  It also does not help that President Barack Obama, when he was a senator running for his first term in the presidency, said in a keynote address that he gave at a conference in 2006,

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?  Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination?  How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?  Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount—a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?  So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles.  Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles.

Biblical literacy consists not only in not being aware of the Bible’s content, but also in understanding its meaning.  In this quote, President Obama demonstrated that he was passingly familiar with at least some of the contents of Leviticus, but he did not demonstrate that he knew of any Biblical principles that explain why Christians should oppose slavery when Leviticus permits it (Lev. 25.39-55), or why Christians should not regard the eating of shellfish as an abomination when Leviticus teaches that it is (Lev. 11.9-12).

Leviticus is a sticking point today because it contains two of the proscriptions against the practice of homosexuality (Lev. 18.22, 20.13), which Christians cite as Biblical evidence that God regards the practice as sin.  Those who support the practice of homosexuality often respond to this citation by referring to passages in Leviticus that seem bizarre in our modern context, such as Leviticus 19.19, which states, “You shall keep my statutes.  You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind.  You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of two kinds of material.”  On this, such individuals say that if we were to interpret this passage “literally” (that is, taking it at face value and reading with no genuine Biblical discernment), we would have to say that God regards wearing a shirt made from a cotton and polyester blend as a sin, which, of course, sounds ludicrous to us.  These individuals imply (if not outright say) that if we don’t believe Leviticus when it speaks about wearing clothing made from different materials, why should we believe it when it speaks about homosexuality being an abomination?

But we also must remember that when the Lord Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mt. 22.39, Mk. 12.31), he was quoting Leviticus 19.17-18, which says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”  Similarly, when the Apostle Peter wrote, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy,’” (I Pet. 1.14-16) he was quoting from Leviticus 11.45.

When we approach the Book of Leviticus, we need to understand that it was not written to us.  To be sure, it was written for our edification as God’s people, but it was not written to us.  Specifically, it was written to the Ancient Israelites in the 15th Century B.C., who were wandering in the desert on their way from Egypt to Canaan.  Nevertheless, it is part of God’s Word, and as such, it needs to be held in high regard.  And despite not having been written to us, it was written for our benefit and for the benefit of the Church of Jesus Christ in every age.  Therefore, it behooves us to study it and learn its lessons as they apply to us today.

Leviticus was written by Moses immediately after he wrote the Book of Exodus, and Leviticus points back to Exodus, especially for the details of the ordination and installation of the High Priests in Leviticus 8-10, and in the reference to the Sabbath and Passover as two of the appointed feasts of the Lord in Leviticus 23.  Consequently, the individual passages in Leviticus need to be interpreted first in the context of the whole of the Book of Leviticus and secondly in the context of the Book of Exodus, which was written before it.  Thirdly, Leviticus needs to be interpreted in the context of the whole Old Testament revelation, for the sacrifices introduced in Leviticus were central in the life of Ancient Israel.  Finally, and most important for us today, Leviticus must be interpreted in the context of the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, for the Lord Jesus did “not come to abolish (the Law—including Leviticus—or the Prophets) but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5.17)

That Moses is the author of Leviticus is not merely inferred from tradition but is stated in the text as well.  In the first two verses of the book, it is written, “The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting (i.e., the Tabernacle), saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…’”  This formula, or variations thereof, is repeated throughout the book (e.g., “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying…’” [Lev. 6.8-9]; “And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, saying…’” [Lev. 11.1-2]; “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them…’” [Lev. 17.1-2]; see also Lev. 4.1-2, 5.14, 6.1,19,24-25, 7.22-23,28-29, 8.1,31, 9.1-2, 10.3,8,12, 12.1-2, 13.1, 14.1,33, 15.1-2, 16.1-2, 18.1-2, 19.1-2, 20.1-2, 21.1,16-17, 22.1-2,17-18,26, 23.1-2,9-10,23-24,26,33-34, 24.1-2,13,15, 25.1-2, 27.1-2).  Similarly, several sections of the book end with phrases clarifying that what is written is the law that the Lord commanded Moses on behalf of the people of Israel (Lev. 7.37-38, 26.46, 27.34).  And although not explicitly stated in Leviticus, “Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD,” (Ex. 24.4, Dt. 31.9) which infers that, in addition to Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, he wrote down the words of the Book of Leviticus, inasmuch as the Lord spoke them to him as part of the Law that would govern Ancient Israel until its destruction in AD 70.

The Sacrifice

The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus detail the requirements of five of the six offerings that the Lord required of the Israelites:

  • The Burnt Offering (Lev. 1.1-17, 6.8-13)
  • The Grain Offering (Lev. 2.1-16, 6.14-23)
  • The Peace Offering (Lev. 3.1-17, 7.11-36)
  • The Sin Offering (Lev. 4.1-5.13, 6.24-30)
  • The Guilt Offering (Lev. 5.14-6.7, 7.1-10)

The sixth offering, the drink offering, does not have special regulations regarding its preparation as do the others, and is only mentioned as being required in conjunction with other offerings (Lev. 23.13,18,37, Num. 15.5,7,10, 28.7-8).

The Burnt Offering was the most basic offering the Lord required of the Israelites.  In it, the death of the animal symbolized the death of the person offering it in just recompense for his or her sin.  The burnt offering was required to be a bull, ram, or billy goat without blemish, although a poor person was allowed to bring a turtledove or pigeon if he could not afford one of the specified animals.  The one offering the animal was required to lay his hand on its head, identifying himself with the animal and symbolically transferring his sin to the animal.  Then he was required to kill the animal at the altar before the Tabernacle or Temple in the presence of the priest—if the offering was a bird, the priest was required to wring off its head.  Then the priest was required to throw the blood of the bull, ram, or billy goat against the sides of the altar—or to drain the bird’s blood out on the side of the altar.  Next, the one offering the animal was required to skin it and cut it into pieces—or the priest handling the bird was required to remove its feathers and dispose of them in the ash heap next to the altar and then tear the bird open by its wings without severing it completely.  Then the priest was to arrange the animal’s pieces on the altar, wash the entrails and legs, and then burn the whole animal on the altar.

Unlike the other types of offerings identified in the first seven chapters of Leviticus, none of the priests were to be given a portion of the burnt offering, for it was to be devoted wholly to the Lord.  The priests were required to keep the fires of the altar burning perpetually.  After a burnt offering had been reduced to ash, the priests were required to don a special linen garment and undergarment (Ex. 28.42-43, 39.28) and remove the ashes from the altar and place them in a heap beside the altar.  Periodically, the priests were required to remove their priestly garments and don ordinary clothes to remove the ashes and take them to a clean place outside the camp (or outside the city walls after the Israelites were established in the Promised Land).

The Grain Offering was typically offered along with the animal sacrifices as part of a food offering to the Lord (Lev. 2.3,10,16; see also Lev. 1.9,13,17, 3.5,11,16 for references to the burnt and peace offerings as food offerings; the drink offering previously referenced also constituted part of the food offering, Lev. 23.13,18, Num. 15.10, 28.8).  Unlike the animal sacrifices, the donor did not identify himself with the grain offering.  Rather, the grain offering—especially the firstfruits grain offering—was like a tithe to the Lord, an offering of the sustenance of the donor’s life, which in turn was used to sustain the livelihood of the priests and their families as part of their portion of the offerings.

The Lord established three kinds of grain offerings—fine flour, unleavened loaves or wafers of bread baked from fine flour, and the firstfruits of the grain reaped at the beginning of harvest.  The donor of the unbaked fine flour was required to pour oil and frankincense on it and then bring it to the priest, who would take a handful of it to burn on the altar as a memorial portion to the Lord.  (Although the Lord does not here specify the amounts of fine flour and oil required for the offering, Numbers 15.4-9 specifies the differing amounts, based upon the type of animal sacrifice and what kind of animal was being sacrificed.)

The donor of the baked loaves or wafers was required to either bake the unleavened loaves with oil or smear the oil on the unleavened wafers.  If he baked the bread on a griddle (as opposed to a pan), he was required to break it into pieces and pour oil on it.  He was forbidden from baking the bread with either honey or leaven.  Then he was required to take the baked bread to the priest, who was required to take part of the offering and burn it on the altar as a memorial portion to the Lord.

The donor of the firstfruits was required to bring the first sheaf he harvested, crushed and roasted and mixed with oil and frankincense, as a grain offering to the priest, who was required to burn some of the grain on the altar as a memorial portion.

The remainder of the grain offering was the priests’ portion.  It was to be regarded as most holy, and as such could not be baked with leaven.  It could only be eaten by the priests and the male members (but apparently not by the female members) of their households only in the court of the Tabernacle, where they dwelt.

The Peace Offering, unlike the other animal sacrifices, was not directly related to sin.  Rather, it was used in offering thanksgiving, when making a vow, or as a freewill offering.  It could be a bull or cow, a ram or ewe, or a billy-goat or nanny-goat, but it had to be without blemish.  (Lev. 22.23 allowed that an animal with a limb too long or too short was acceptable for a freewill offering but not for a vow offering or any other kind of offering.  No other blemish—especially not those identified in Lev. 22.22-24—was acceptable for any kind of offering.)  Unlike the burnt offering, the peace offering was intended to be eaten—only certain parts were to be burned on the altar.  As with the burnt offering, the person offering the sacrifice was required to bring the animal to the altar before the Tabernacle (or Temple), where he would lay his hand on its head and then kill it.  The priest would throw the animal’s blood on the sides of the altar.  Next, the donor of the peace offering was required to remove the animal’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail (cut close to the base of the spine), which he would give to the priest, who would burn them on the altar of burnt offering.  Leviticus 3.17 made a special point that eating an animal’s fat or blood was strictly forbidden, and Leviticus 7.22-27 expands upon this, stating that those who consumed the fat of an ox, sheep, or goat and those who consumed blood were required to be put to death (the prohibition against eating blood is expanded upon in Lev. 17.10-16).

In addition to the fat, entrails, etc., the donor of the peace offering was required to remove the animal’s breast and right thigh and give them to the priests as their portion of the peace offering.  All the priests had a right to share in the breast, but the right thigh was given specifically to the priest who offered the animal’s blood, fat, entrails, etc.  The priests were required to wave the breast as a wave offering before the Lord and could then eat the meat of the breast and right thigh with their families.  (Given that there is no restriction, as in Lev. 6.18, that only the male members of the priest’s household could eat their portion of the peace offering, it should be understood that the females of his household could likewise partake of it.)

Scripture indicates that the peace offering for thanksgiving must not be made alone, but should be accompanied by a grain offering comprised of unleavened loaves of bread mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and loaves of fine flour well-mixed with oil.  One loaf from each offering was to be given to the priest who threw the animal’s blood against the side of the altar as his portion.  The meat from an animal offered as a peace offering for thanksgiving was required to be eaten on the same day that the peace offering was made—any leftovers were required to be burned.

Scripture does not indicate that vow or freewill offerings had to be accompanied by grain offerings or any other offerings.  The meat from a vow or freewill peace offering was required to be eaten either on the same day that the peace offering was made or the next.  But any meat left over until the third day was required to be burned, and anyone who ate the meat of the vow or freewill offering would bear his iniquity, and the Lord would not accept his peace offering.

Any meat from a peace offering that touched anything ceremonially unclean was thereby made unclean and had to be burned.  Only ceremonially clean people were permitted to eat of the peace offering.  People who were ceremonially unclean—because of a physical condition or from having touched something unclean—were ineligible from partaking of the peace offering, and any unclean people who did so partake were to “be cut off from (their) people” (i.e., put to death).

The Sin Offering, as the name implies, was intended to atone for the sins of the person or people who sinned, or who bore the guilt of the person or people who sinned.  The sins covered by the sin offering were sins committed unintentionally or by mistake (Lev. 4.2,13,22,27).  Other sins required the death of the offender, especially those committed intentionally, which demonstrated despite toward God and His Law.  Examples of the sins covered by the sin offering are given in Leviticus 5.1-4.  These include:

  • A witness to a crime who does not testify (i.e., sins of omission)
  • Anyone who has touched the carcass of an unclean animal or human uncleanness of any sort (i.e., inadvertent sins)
  • Anyone who utters a rash oath (i.e., sins of rashness)

When those who had committed such offenses realized their guilt for having thus sinned, they were required to confess their sins and bring the required sin offering to the priest as the Lord’s compensation for having sinned against His Law, and the priest would then offer the sacrifice and thus make atonement for their sins.

There were four different classifications of sin offerings based upon who it was that sinned:

  • For the Anointed (High) Priest, whose sin brought guilt on all the people of Israel
  • For the whole congregation of Israel
  • For a leader (other than the High Priest) of the people of Israel
  • For anyone of the common people of Israel

The sin offerings for the High Priest and for the whole congregation were essentially identical, for their sins detrimentally affected the holiness of the people of Israel as a whole.  A bull without blemish from the herd was required in both cases for the sin offering.  If the High Priest was the one who sinned, then he was required to put his hand on the bull’s head to identify himself with it and to symbolically transfer his sin to it.  If it was the congregation that sinned, then the elders of the congregation were required to lay their hands on the bull’s head.  Then the one who sinned—either the High Priest or one of the elders representing the people—was required to kill the bull at the altar before the Tabernacle (or the Temple).  Next, the High Priest was required to take some of the bull’s blood (presumably in a bowl) into the Tabernacle, where he would dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times in front of the veil cordoning off the Holy of Holies.  Then he would take some of the bull’s blood and smear it on the four horns of the altar of incense in the Tabernacle.  Sprinkling the blood in front of the veil and smearing it on the horns of the altar was intended “to make atonement for the Holy Place” (Lev. 6.30), which was defiled by the sin of the High Priest or of the congregation.  The rest of the bull’s blood was to be poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offering.  Next, the High Priest was required to remove the bull’s fat, entrails, kidneys, and liver and burn them on the altar of burnt offering, as he did with the peace offering.  But the rest of the bull’s carcass was to be taken out of the camp to the clean place where the priests disposed of the ashes from the burnt offering, where the rest of the bull’s carcass would be burned.  Because this type of sin offering atoned for the High Priest, both for his sin as an individual and for the whole congregation, of which the High Priest was a part, the priests were not allotted a portion of the bull as they were of other types of offerings.

The sin offerings for a leader of the people (other than the High Priest) and for a common person were basically the same, except that the leader was required to offer a billy-goat without blemish, whereas the common person was required to offer a ewe or nanny-goat without blemish, and the poor common person was permitted to bring a less expensive offering based on what he could afford.  Once the person seeking atonement realized his sin, he was required to take the goat or lamb to the Tabernacle, where he would lay his hand on the animal’s head and kill it on the north side of the altar.  Then the priest would take some of the animal’s blood and smear it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and pour the rest out at the base of the altar.  Next, the priest would burn the animal’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail on the altar, just as with the peace offering.

The poor person, if he could not afford a ewe or a nanny-goat, was permitted to substitute a pair of turtledoves or a pair of pigeons.  The priest was required to wring the head of one bird from its neck without severing it completely, sprinkle some of its blood on the side of the altar, and drain the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.  Then he was required to offer the second bird as a burnt offering in accordance with the procedures specified in Leviticus 1.14-17.  But if the poor person was unable to afford a pair of either turtledoves or pigeons, then he was permitted to substitute a tenth of an ephah (an ephah was approximately 3/5 bushel or 22 liters) of fine flour without the oil and frankincense required with the grain offering.  The priest was required to burn a handful of the fine flour on the altar.

Having thus atoned for the person who offered the sin offering, the remainder of the ewe, goat, or flour, or the one bird that was not offered as a burnt offering, was to be regarded as most holy and belonged to the priest who offered it as a sin offering as his portion.  He and the males of his household were permitted, indeed required, to eat of it in a holy place.  As Leviticus 10.17 makes clear, the sin offering was given to the priests in order that they “may bear the iniquity of the congregation (or of the one[s] for whom the sin offering was made), to make atonement for them before the LORD.”  The priests were required to eat their portion of the sin offering “in a holy place,” specifically, “in the court of the (Tabernacle),” where they dwelt.

The Guilt Offering was much like the sin offering, except there was only one prescribed offering—a ram without blemish or its monetary equivalent, valued in shekels (a shekel was approximately 2/5 ounce or eleven grams).  Moreover, whereas the sin offering was intended more for the sinner’s purification, the guilt offering was intended more for the guilty person to make restitution.  The sacrifice itself was essentially the same as the sin offering, with the ritual of the guilty person laying his hand on the ram’s head and then slaughtering it at the altar of burnt offering.  Then the priest would throw the ram’s blood against the sides of the altar and offer up the ram’s fat, entrails, kidneys, liver, and tail on the altar.  And as with the sin offering, the rest of the sacrifice of the guilt offering belonged to the priest who offered it, to be regarded as most holy and eaten only by the priest and the male members of his household in a holy place.

The guilt offering was stipulated for three categories of offenses:

  • Sins against the holy things of the Lord
  • Sins forbidden by the Law that ought not be done
  • Sins against one’s neighbor

In sins against the holy things of the Lord, the guilty person was required to make restitution to the Tabernacle (or Temple).  This presumes that the guilty person took or withheld something from the Tabernacle or the priests that did not belong to him, such as inadvertently eating the priests’ portion of one of the offerings.  In addition to restoring that which he had misappropriated, he was required to pay an additional twenty percent of the monetary value of the item(s) that he had taken or withheld.

Moses did not elaborate on “the things that by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done.”  As with the other two categories, it is presumed that such sins were done unintentionally, but inasmuch as no restitution is stipulated—unlike the other two categories—the guilty person presumably did not merit his guilt by having taken or withheld something that did not belong to him.

The sins identified against the guilty person’s neighbor all deal with his misappropriation of his neighbor’s property—whether through deceit on a matter of security, outright theft, opposing his neighbor, or lying about finding his neighbor’s lost property.  The guilty person was required to return that which he had misappropriated plus an additional twenty percent of the monetary value of the stolen property.

Regardless of the category, the guilty person was required to make restitution and pay the assessed penalty before offering the ram for the guilt offering (Mt. 5.23-24).

The Necessity of the Sacrifice

In Leviticus 17.11, the Lord said, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”  The author of Hebrews paraphrased this idea and said it more succinctly when he wrote, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb. 9.22)

Death is the punishment that God has decreed for sin.  To Adam before the Fall, He said, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.17)  As He said through the Prophet Ezekiel, “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18.4)  And as the Apostle Paul more famously said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and, “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 3.23, 6.23)

Sin, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it, “is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Q. 14)  God is holy—He is separate from evil and wickedness.  He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” (Hab. 1.13)  As the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and destroy its sinners from it. … ‘I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.’” (Is. 13.9,11)  As Abraham rhetorically asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18.25)  Indeed, He must.  All have sinned against the Lord, and therefore all deserve to die and suffer eternally for their sins.  There is no exception—the holiness of God demands it.

What is more, our sin is endemic to our fallen nature.  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  We are condemned to death because we sin and we sin because we are sinners.  Note the order: We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.  “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6.5)  Again, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8.21)  “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17.9)  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt. 15.18-19)  We cannot keep from sinning—especially not on our own strength.  This, by no means, excuses our behavior; it only explains it.  We are sinners by nature, and when we sin, we are being true to our nature.  And in just recompense for our sin, we deserve to die.

Yet God, who is rich in mercy (Eph. 2.4), was not willing to leave His creature man, whom He made in His own image (Gen. 1.26-27, 5.1, 9.6, I Cor. 11.7, Jas. 3.9), utterly to the punishment that awaited him.  He appointed a substitute.

After Adam and Eve fell, the Lord made garments of skin for them and clothed them in these skins to cover the shame of their nakedness (Gen. 3.21; cf. 2.25, 3.7).  This entailed killing an animal on their behalf—the first sacrifice.  In Genesis 4.4, Abel son of Adam sacrificed the firstborn of his flock and offered their fat portions as a sin offering.  In Genesis 8.20, after the Flood, Noah “took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar.”  Thus, the Lord appointed certain animals to serve as substitutes that men could offer up in atonement for their sins—oxen, sheep, and goats.

In Genesis 22, the Lord commanded Abraham, as a test of his obedience, to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah (vv. 1-2).  When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” (vv. 7-8)  Indeed, at the point where Abraham had raised his knife to sacrifice his son, the Lord stayed his hand and revealed a ram caught in a thicket by its horns that He had provided as a substitute for Abraham’s son (vv. 10-13).

Again, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb. 9.22)  But, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (and sheep) to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)  Thus, as a means to make atonement for our sins, the sacrifices made in accordance with Leviticus 1-7 are totally without effect.  The significance of the sacrificial laws in Leviticus 1-7 cannot be found in the effect of making atonement for our sins, but rather in the heavenly reality to which they point.  The Levitical sacrifices “serve (as) a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb. 8.5)  Again, “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” (Heb. 10.1)  And the “true form of these realities” of which the Levitical sacrifices are but “a copy and shadow” is the atonement made by Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4.4-5)

At the hour that God the Father had appointed, He sent forth His only begotten Son (Jn. 3.16), God the Son, who was with God the Father in the beginning (Jn. 1.1-2), and who shared in the divine being and glory of His Father (Jn. 1.1, 10.30, 14.10, 17.5, Phil. 2.6), into this world of fallen, mortal men and women, to empty Himself of His divine glory and to take on our nature (Mt. 1.21-23, Lk. 1.31-35, Jn. 1.14, Phil. 2.6).  He was heralded by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn. 1.29,36)  He was the Lamb that God provided for Himself in fulfillment of Abraham’s prophecy in Genesis 22.8.  As was required of the sacrifice, He was without blemish (Ex. 12.5, 29.1, Lev. 1.10, 5.15, 9.2), which is to say, He alone among men was without sin (II Cor. 5.21, Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).

He was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice (Ex. 12), for on account of the “propitiation by his blood,” God “passed over former sins” (Rom. 3.25).  He was the fulfillment of the sin offering, for “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” (I Cor. 15.3)  He was the fulfillment of the guilt offering, with its requirements of reparation, for in Christ’s death, God “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, setting it aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2.14; see also Mt. 20.28, I Tim. 2.6, I Pet. 1.18-19).  He was the fulfillment of the burnt offering in that as He partook of the cup of His Father’s wrath poured out on Him for the sins of the world, draining it to its bitter dregs (Mt. 20.22, 26.39,42, Mk. 10.38, 14.36, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11; cf. Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22, Jer. 25.15-16), the Father’s wrath consumed Him, for in His wrath, “our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12.29, Dt. 4.24)  He is the fulfillment of the grain and drink offerings, for the bread represents His body, which is given for us, and the wine represents His “blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26.26-28, Mk. 14.22-24, Lk. 22.19-20, I Cor. 11.24-25; see also Jn. 6.53-56)  And He is the fulfillment of the peace offering, for “the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him.” (Is. 53.5; see also Eph. 2.13-18, Col. 1.20)

Jesus Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9.12-14)  “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world.  But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9.24-26)

What, then, of the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7?  Are they passed away, or are they still required?  If they are still required, then for what purpose?  To atone for sins?  But this cannot be, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” (Heb. 10.4) and what is more, Jesus Christ has “once for all…put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb. 9.24)

So then, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are not effectual in atoning for sin; but does God take delight in them?  No, for it is written, “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but you have given me an open ear.  Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Ps. 40.6, Heb. 10.5-6)  And again, “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps. 51.16-17)  And again, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (I Sam. 15.22)

So then, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 do not please the Lord; He does not require them of us, and He does not delight in them.  They are ineffectual for atoning for sin, and their purpose in the Old Testament was to teach the people of God that a blood sacrifice was required to atone for their sins and to point forward to the One whose blood alone God would accept for the remission of sins, namely Jesus Christ.  They formed the heart and soul of the Old Covenant that governed the people of God from Adam to John the Baptist.  But with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, the Old Covenant is abolished and the New Covenant in His blood is established (Heb. 10.9).  And with the abolition of the Old Covenant, the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are passed away.  For as the Apostle Paul wrote, “When the perfect comes (that is, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross), the partial (that is, the sacrifices of Lev. 1-7) will pass away.” (I Cor. 13.10)  And this fundamental truth has a profound influence on how we are obligated to interpret the Book of Leviticus.

Lessons from the Sacrifices

Although the sacrifices of Leviticus 1-7 are passed away and we are no longer obligated to observe them (indeed, we are prohibited from doing so, for if we were to observe them, we would be showing despite for Christ’s finished work upon the Cross; by our actions, we would be saying that His one sacrifice for all sins for all time was insufficient to atone for His elect), they still have lessons to teach us, which we would do well to learn.

When reading through the requirements for preparing the offerings, one can see the level of detail prescribed, such as which animals were prescribed for which sacrifice, how the animal or bread was to be prepared, where the animal was to be sacrificed, which parts of the animal were required to be burned, to what use the blood was to be put and how it was to be handled, which parts of which sacrifices were to be given to the priests as their portion, how long the people were permitted to partake of the sacrifice before it had to be burned, etc.  All of this points to the fact that God is quite concerned with the details of how we worship Him.  He wants us to be careful to observe the elements of worship in order to demonstrate our love for Him.  There is, of course, an element of walking through the motions that comes about when we become so practiced in performing the steps that we neglect the reason for and the significance of the actions, and we fall into the trap of the Pharisees, who honored the Lord with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Is. 29.13, Mt. 15.8).  But the reverse is a careless disregard for what the Lord wants us to give Him in worship.

As Moses commanded the people of Israel on the eve of their entrance into the Promised Land, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’  You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.  Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do.  You shall not add to it or take from it.” (Dt. 12.29-32; see also Lev. 18.24-30, Dt. 19.9-14)

And we see examples of this in the later histories of the kings of Israel and Judah (I Kg. 16.29-34, II Kg. 21.1-26, II Chron. 21.11-15, 24.17-19, 25.14-16, 26.16-21, 28.1-4,22-27, 33.1-9,21-23).  Indeed, even in the first century, the Churches of Pergamum and Thyatira compromised themselves by tolerating teachers who taught the parishioners of those churches to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality (Rev. 2.14-15,20-21).  Likewise today, there are churches whose pastors preach that sexual immorality is not a sin in God’s sight and churches that study the teachings and doctrines of non-Christian religions in order that they might integrate their practices into their services, as if the Lord might be pleased with such syncretism.  Such churches were and are in violation of the commandment given in Dt. 12.32 (see also Dt. 4.2, Prov. 30.5-6, Rev. 22.18-19) to neither add to nor detract from the revealed Word of God.  As we shall see in Leviticus 10, the Lord takes a very dim view, to put it mildly, of those who treat His commandments carelessly.

Second, one notices that those who minister before the Lord merit compensation.  To be sure, the tribe of Levi, to which the Aaronic priesthood belonged, was not to be given tribal lands in the Promised Land, as were the other twelve tribes.  Instead, as the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them.  I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.  To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the (Tabernacle).” (Num. 18.20-21)  And again, the Levites were required to give “a tithe of a tithe” of the contributions they received to the priests, indeed, “from each its best parts to be dedicated” (Num. 18.29) as the priests’ portion as directed in the laws of the grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings.

To be sure, there were those priests who abused this privilege, as with Hophni and Phinehas (I Sam. 2.12-17), whom the Lord executed for their sin, divesting their descendants of the priesthood (I Sam. 2.27-36, 4.4-11).  Yet as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.  For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” (I Tim. 5.17-18; quotations from Dt. 25.4, Mt. 10.10)  Thus, the pastors who serve the Lord in teaching us the Word of God and shepherding us with the Lord’s discipline deserve a portion of our tithes and offerings to the Church.

Now, the Lord said, “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified,” (Lev. 10.3) and He established specific rules above and beyond the rules governing the laity that applied specifically to the priests (Lev. 21.1-22.16).  Likewise, the Lord tells us through James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (Jas. 3.1)  But all the more for this, our pastors rightly deserve our honor and a portion of our tithes and offerings for the work of the Church, as indicated in the establishment of the priests’ portion of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Finally, we should not leave our study of the Old Testament sacrifices without having been duly impressed by the fact that our sins are so grievous that they require a death to atone for them.  “The wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6.23) “The soul who sins shall die,” (Ezek. 18.4,20) and “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3.23)  And to make matters worse, the end of the sinner is not simply to fester in the grave.  “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. … For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10.26-27,30-31; quotations from Dt. 32.35-36)  Indeed, at the end of time, when the Lord Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10.42, II Tim. 4.1, I Pet. 4.5), He will sit on a great white throne, and every man, woman, and child will be gathered before Him to receive judgment.  There, books will be opened in which is recorded every sinful or thoughtless deed, every false or carelessly spoken word (Mt. 12.36), indeed, even the thoughts and intentions of our wicked hearts (Heb. 4.12-13).  And by what is written in these books, we will be judged (Rev. 20.11-15).  “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21.8; see also Rev. 22.15)  This is the just desert that awaits every man, woman, and child who has ever sinned, in just recompense for their sins committed against the Law of the Lord.  And none is without excuse (Rom. 1.20), for God has written His Law on every human heart (Rom. 2.15), the seared consciences of liars notwithstanding (I Tim. 4.2).

To be sure, God would be fully justified if He consigned every member of our race to this fate, for all have sinned, and all deserve to die.  However, He was not willing to consign man, whom He had created in His own image, wholly unto this fate, and yet the justice and moral perfection of His holy character demands the death of the sinner in order to satisfy the debt that he or she has incurred on account of his or her transgression of His morally perfect and just Law.  Consequently, He appointed a substitute.  In the Old Testament, this substitute manifested itself as oxen, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons.  This was a tangible reminder, often repeated, that drove home the point to God’s covenant people that on account of their sins, these animals had to die.  It was intended to make them sober so that they would strive all the more to obey the Lord and not transgress His commandments.  It also exacted a cost from them, inasmuch as these animals had a financial value that the Israelites were required to pay in order to acquire them and which was lost when they offered them up as a holy sacrifice unto the Lord.  But “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)  So then, it could not have been in the sacrifices themselves that the Israelites trusted to atone for their sins and satisfy the demands of God’s justice and holiness, but rather it could only have been in the promise inherent in those sacrifices that pointed to the greater reality that was then yet future, namely, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (Jn. 1.29), Jesus Christ.

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.

As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—

so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what they heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?

And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,

although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

—Isaiah 52.13-53.12

Just as the Ancient Israelites had the tangible reminder of sheep and goats bearing their sins to see the cost of those sins, so, too, we look “on him whom (we) have crucified, (we) shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” (Zech. 12.10)  Whenever we, who are called by His name, sin, the penalty of our sin is laid on Him; He bears the guilt of our sin on the Cross, and it is as if we are there in place of the Roman soldiers, mocking Him, putting the crown of thorns on His brow, spitting on Him and striking Him with the reed that we placed in His hand as a mock scepter.  It is as if we are there, putting His Cross on His shoulders to bear to Golgotha, casting lots for His garments, nailing His hands and feet to the Cross, and raising His Cross to subject Him to the scorn of the unbelieving world.  And even as we do so, He intercedes with the Father on our behalf, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Mt. 27.27-44, Mk. 15.16-32, Lk. 23.26-39, Jn. 19.16-24)

And so, Paul asks,

What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin. … For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.

—Romans 6.1-12

So then, Christ died upon the Cross not in order to pay the penalty for our sin only, but also in order to deliver us from the power of sin.  In this, His is a superior sacrifice to that of bulls, sheep, and goats, for even if the Lord accepted the blood of animals as satisfaction for the sin of men, it had no power to deliver those for whose sin it atoned from the power and dominion of sin.  To be sure, this power to deliver us from the dominion of sin does not reside inherently in us, for then we would be self-sufficient.  But the Lord, in His wisdom, does not want us to be self-sufficient for our righteousness but to rely solely upon Christ’s sufficiency in faith.  As He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12.9)  And so, we pray not only, “Forgive us our sins,” (Lk. 11.4, Mt. 6.12) but also, “Lead us not into temptation, (and) deliver us from evil.” (Mt. 6.13, Lk. 11.4)  Indeed, He is ever “able to keep (us) from stumbling and to present (us) blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” (Jude 24)

Slavery and the Bible

In the debate regarding homosexuality within the Church, the subject of the Biblical texts regarding slavery is often brought up.  The argument typically proceeds thus:

  1. Slavery is wrong.  Period.
  2. The Bible condones slavery.
  3. The Biblical texts regarding slavery were used to justify slavery in the United States until the Civil War.
  4. Because slavery is wrong, and because the Biblical texts condoning slavery were used to justify slavery in this country, we do not follow the Biblical texts regarding slavery today.
  5. Because we do not follow the Biblical texts regarding slavery today, and because slavery is wrong, we therefore admit that the Bible was in error in condoning slavery.
  6. If the Bible was in error on the account that it condones slavery, it follows that it could be in error on other matters on which it teaches, such as the sinfulness of homosexuality.

However, the argument breaks down because it posits slavery as an absolute wrong and does not consider that God might have had reasons to allow slavery in the context of Ancient Israel despite today’s general consensus that slavery is immoral in all its forms.

But why is slavery wrong?  Do we appeal to the Golden Rule and argue, “If I should not want to be a slave, then I should not condone anyone else being forced into slavery”?  But what if I would not mind being a slave?  Would it not follow that I would therefore not object to slavery because I would not object to being a slave?

Moreover, if the Bible was in error on account that it condones slavery, why does it not follow that it could be in error regarding the Golden Rule (Mt. 7.12, Lk. 6.31)?  If it is on account that it was Jesus who gave the Golden Rule, whereas it was Moses who gave the laws condoning slavery, it should be pointed out that Jesus also said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5.17-19, Lk. 16.17)  This implies that He gives His stamp of approval to the whole Old Testament, including the laws condoning slavery.  Why, then, should the subjective interpretation of the Golden Rule as it applies to slavery overrule the explicit approval of the Lord Jesus on the Old Testament Law, including, by implication, the laws condoning slavery?

The institution of slavery was a reality in the ancient world.  Those who became destitute often sold their children—and sometimes themselves—into slavery in order to pay off debts (Lev. 25.39,47).  Similarly, those who could not pay their taxes were taken and sold into slavery if they had nothing that could be confiscated and sold to cover their taxes (Mt. 18.25).  Also, a population that lost a war was often taken captive by the victorious army and sold into slavery (Dt. 21.10).  And still others were kidnapped and sold into slavery (Gen. 37.25-28).

The Old Testament Law, which served the ancient state of Israel as its constitution and body of laws, did not seek to abolish the practice of slavery but regulate it as far as the nation of Israel was concerned.  Israel, after all, was a sovereign nation, and as such, it engaged in international commerce with nations that bought and sold slaves.

The Old Testament texts dealing with the institution of slavery are as follows:

  • Exodus 21.2-11,16,20-21,26-27,32
  • Leviticus 25.39-55
  • Deuteronomy 15.12-18, 21.10-14, 23.15-16, 24.7

Israelites were permitted to own their follow countrymen as slaves (Ex. 21.2-11, Lev. 25.39-55, Dt. 15.12-18).  However, this was allowed only in the context where an Israelite had become destitute and was forced to sell himself and/or his children into slavery.  Kidnapping a person with the intent of selling him or her into slavery, or of keeping him or her as a slave, was expressly forbidden and was punishable by death (Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7).  Moreover, Israelite slaves were to serve as slaves for no more than seven years, and then they were to be released.  If an Israelite were to sell himself to a foreigner, his relatives were obligated to redeem him (Lev. 25.47-49).  But regardless, he was still to be released after no more than seven years of slavery, even if owned by a foreigner sojourning in the Land of Israel.  Furthermore, the masters of Israelite slaves were not to release their slaves empty-handed, lest their poverty should lead them shortly back into slavery.  Rather, the master was obligated to “furnish (the slave) liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress.  As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.” (Dt. 15.12-18)  As such, the institution of slavery as it pertained to Israelite slaves was actually a form of indentured servitude, not of perpetual slavery.  Only if the Israelite slave said, “I love my master, my wife (whom my master has given me), and my children (born of my wife whom my master has given me); I will not go out free,” was he to be perpetually enslaved to his master (Ex. 20.5-6, Dt. 15.16-17).

Also, Israelites were permitted to own foreigners as slaves.  But whereas Israelite slaves were to be released after seven years, the foreign slaves were not required to be released and could be bequeathed as an inheritance to their masters’ children (Lev. 25.44-46).  Israelites were permitted to purchase slaves from other nations or from foreigners dwelling among them.  In certain cases, certain peoples captured in war were permitted to be retained as slaves for the nation of Israel (e.g., Josh. 9.22-27).  But as Israelites were required not to pervert the justice due to foreigners dwelling among them (Ex. 22.21-24, 23.9, Lev. 19.33, Dt. 10.18-19), the laws forbidding the kidnapping of individuals to make them slaves (Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7) likewise extended to protect foreigners from this abuse.

The laws permitting Israelites to own foreigners as perpetual slaves, whereas Israelite slaves were to be released after seven years, must be understood in the broader context of the lesson the Lord was teaching the Israelites about holiness.  At Sinai, He had told them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19.5-6)  And again, “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” (Lev. 20.26)  In the immediate context of permitting the Israelites to own foreigners as slaves, the Lord prefaced this permission by stating, “For (the Israelites) are my servants (Heb. ebed; the same word translated as ‘slaves’ in v. 44), whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.  You shall not rule over them ruthlessly but shall fear your God.” (Lev. 25.42-43)  And He concluded this permission by stating, “You may make slaves of (foreigners), but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.” (Lev. 25.46)  And at the conclusion of the section in Leviticus on slaver, the Lord repeated, “For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants (Heb. ebed).  They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 25.55)

We must not miss the significance of this: The Lord in the Old Testament was teaching His chosen people the concept of what it means to be holy, and He was using hard lessons to drive this point home.  That He used foreigners who neither knew nor trusted in Him to become perpetual slaves in comparison to the Israelite indentured servants must be understood as part of that hard lesson and not as a blanket permission to Christians to own slaves.  That God should choose thus to use some of His creatures at that time and place is His prerogative.  “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9.21)  This permission was given at that specific time and place and under the circumstances that then existed in order to teach a hard lesson in holiness to the people of God—both then and now—and must not be construed as permission for the New Testament people of God to keep or sell slaves.

Now within the context of the permission granted to the ancient Israelites to own indentured servants and slaves, the practice of slavery was regulated—slaves were human beings with rights by virtue of their having been made in the image of God.  If a slave was beaten to death by his or her master, the master was to be put to death as just punishment (Ex. 21.20; cf. Gen. 9.5-6, Ex. 21.12, Lev. 24.17, Num. 35.30-31).  Likewise, an ox that gored a slave was to be put to death, just as if it had gored anyone else (Ex. 21.28-32; cf. Gen. 9.5-6).  If a master were to permanently maim his slave, he was obligated to set the slave free (Ex. 21.26-27).  And Israelites were not permitted to return escaped slaves to their masters (Dt. 23.15-16).

In the specific case of female slaves (both Israelite and foreigner), the master was permitted to marry them or to arrange their marriage to his son.  However, in the case of Israelite female slaves, their status as slave ended as soon as they were married, and they were to be afforded the same protection under the Old Testament Law that extended to all married Israelite women (Ex. 21.7-11).  Similarly, in the case of foreign female slaves, their status as slave also effectively ended as soon as they were married.  In the event that her husband wanted to divorce her, he was permitted to do so (cf. Dt. 24.1-4), but he was not permitted to sell her as a slave because he had humiliated her (Dt. 21.10-14).

In the context of the Old Testament Law, the laws permitting and regulating slavery are classified as part of the Judicial Law.  The Judicial Law included all laws that stipulated a penalty, such as death (Ex. 21.12-29, 22.18-20, 31.12-17, 35.2, Lev. 20.1-6,9-21,27, 24.14-17,21,23, Num. 15.32-36, 25.1-9, Dt. 13.5-15, 17.2-7,12-13, 19.11-13, 22.20-27, 24.7,16) or restitution (Ex. 21.30 – 22.15, 22.25-27, Lev. 19.21, 24.21, Dt. 22.28-29, 25.1-4), as well as laws regulating human relationships, such as slavery, divorce and remarriage (Lev. 21.7,14, Dt. 24.1-4), monetary lending (Ex. 22.25-27, Lev. 25.35-37, Dt. 15.2-6, 23.19-20), treatment of foreigners, widows, and orphans (Ex. 22.21-22, 23.9, 19.33-34, 25.44-46, Dt. 10.18-19, 14.29, 24.14-15,17-22, 27.19), and treatment of the poor and indigent (Ex. 22.25-27, 23.6,11, Lev. 19.9-10,15, 25.25-28,35-43,46-55, Dt. 15.7-18, 24.12-15).

These laws as formal rules and regulations are passed away with the state of Ancient Israel.  The punitive requirements are passed away in particular.  These were based on the principle laid down by the Lord in giving the Law, “If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Ex. 21.23-25, Lev. 24.19-20, Dt. 19.21)  At its root is the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, which is the message the Lord conveyed by it.  However, given the litigious nature of the human heart, man is wont to exacerbate the punishment, to desire to see the guilty suffer for their crimes.  In his desire for vengeance, man is prone to sin.  This is seen in its extreme example in the boast of Lamech, descendant of Cain:

“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech listen to what I say:

I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.

If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4.23-24)

But in the New Testament, Jesus ended the abuse of this principle when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.  But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Mt. 5.38-42)

Likewise, Paul cited Deuteronomy 32.35 when he wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom. 12.19; cf. I Thess. 4.6, Heb. 10.30-31)

Moreover, unlike the nation of Ancient Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ is not a sovereign state with the responsibility of enforcing public conduct—that is the responsibility of the civil magistrate.  As the Lord said through the Apostle Paul, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13.1-4)  Ancient Israel at the time of Christ and the apostles was ruled by Rome, and it is very clear that Jesus and the Apostles expected Christians to submit themselves to the secular governing authorities—both then and now (Mt. 22.17-21, Rom. 13.1-7, I Pet. 2.13-17)—except to the extent that civil law contradicts God’s moral law (e.g., where civil law forbids Christians from assembling together to worship God or from preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, for “we must obey God rather than men”; Acts 4.18-21, 5.27-29).

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus and the Apostles do not directly address the institution of slavery.  Neither do they give express permission (as in Lev. 25.44-46) to own slaves, nor do they condemn those who own slaves.  However, that does not mean that the Apostles had nothing to say about slavery, and what is more, they said nothing explicitly condemning the practice of owning slaves.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Slaves (Gk. doulos), obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.  You are serving the Lord Christ.  For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.  Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” (Col. 3.22-4.1, Eph. 6.5-9, I Pet. 2.18-20)

Likewise, Paul wrote an epistle to a Christian slave owner named Philemon, asking him to receive back a runaway slave named Onesimus, who had converted to Christianity through Paul’s teaching, “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” (vv. 16-17)

To the Corinthians he wrote, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.  Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.  For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord.  Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.  You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (I Cor. 7.20-23)

And he wrote to Timothy that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for,” among others, “enslavers (that is, those who take someone captive in order to sell him into slavery).” (I Tim. 1.9-10; cf. Ex. 21.16, Dt. 24.7)

Justification for the institution of slavery in the years before the Civil War was sought by appeal to Scripture.  However, in that appeal, a grave injustice was visited upon men, women, and children of African descent by a misappropriation of Noah’s curse in Genesis 9, by a failure to understand the limits and the purpose behind God’s permission to Israelites to own foreigners as slaves in Leviticus 25, and by failures to extend Biblically-rooted human rights to those trapped in the institution of slavery.

Justification for the enslavement of the sons and daughters of Africa was sought by an appeal to Noah’s curse on his grandson, Canaan.  Noah’s son, Ham, “saw the (drunken) nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside.  Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father.  Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.  When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan:
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers. …

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.

May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.” (Gen. 9.22-27)

Those who sought the enslavement of the sons and daughters of Africa did so on the belief that they were descendants of Ham, whom Noah cursed by prophesying slavery.  However, Noah’s curse was not against all of Ham’s descendants, but only against his descendants through his son, Canaan, whose descendants settled in Ancient Palestine, and whose descendants were dispossessed and enslaved by the Israelites after the Lord gave His chosen people their land after they had forfeited it through grave, persistent, and unrepentant sin (Dt. 9.1-5), a land named after their ancestor, Canaan.  Noah’s curse did not apply to all Hamitic peoples, and it was an injustice to use it as a pretext to enslave the sons and daughters of Africa on account of their race.

Moreover, slave owners in the first century of this nation’s history failed to extend Biblically-rooted human rights to those trapped in the institution of slavery.  Slave owners faced no civil penalties if they beat their slaves to death or otherwise caused their slaves’ deaths through other ruthless punishments.  Neither were slave owners obligated to free slaves whom they maimed.  Slave owners faced no civil penalties if they committed adultery or fornication with their female slaves with the intention of producing even more slaves through reproduction—slave owners under the Old Testament Law were not permitted to engage in sexual intercourse with their female slaves unless they first married them.  And Biblical injunctions against those who crossed state lines to kidnap free African Americans for the purpose of selling them into slavery were not enforced in states where slavery was legal.

The human institution of slavery today has been abolished on account of the evils and abuses that have attended it.  Today, those who become destitute are not permitted to sell themselves or their children into slavery (or even indentured servitude) to extricate themselves from debt.  Neither do governments sell prisoners of war into slavery.  And the act of kidnapping people for the purpose of keeping or selling them as slaves, as is forbidden in Scripture, is illegal.

But the institution of slavery persists in the world today despite its illegality.  Men, women, and children are kidnapped for the purpose of enslaving them—they are set to prostitution, uncompensated forced labor, and serving in guerilla militias.  And it occurs not only in distant lands but even here in the United States, often run by the criminal underworld.  It is evil, illegal, and immoral.  Those who engage in the slave trade today will be judged for their sin, even if they are not brought to justice in this life, unless they repent of it.

To be clear, I do not advocate for the legalization of the institution of slavery, nor do I condone the enslavement of men, women, or children under any civil circumstances.  Nevertheless, as the Apostle Paul told the Church at Rome, we are all slaves:

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.  I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.  For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

“When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6.16-23)

Likewise, the Lord Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn. 8.34)

Although I do not advocate for the legalization of the human institution of slavery, I would wish that all were obedient slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the alternative is not freedom from slavery but rather slavery to the harsh master of sin.  “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures.” (Tit. 3.3)

Those who have been delivered from addiction—to nicotine, to alcohol, to chemical substances, to gambling, to pornography, or to a host of other things—perhaps can see this clearly, that they were enslaved to these things.  Those so enslaved feel helpless against the internal drive that compels them to desire and pursue the very things that that are destroying them.  And those who turn to Christ from addiction are often those who appreciate most Christ as their Master.  The one who has been forgiven much loves the forgiver much, whereas the one who has been forgiven little loves the forgiver little (Lk. 7.40-47).

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5.8)  But Christ did not die for us merely to show the Father’s love, as if He freed us only from sin’s penalty but leaves us free to conduct our lives as we see fit.  “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2.13-14)  Jesus Christ purchased for Himself at the cost of His own blood sinful men and women, like you and me, slaves to sin, in order to be His faithful, obedient, and loving slaves.

The Lord regarded Ancient Israel, which He brought out of the land of Egypt, as His own slaves (Lev. 25.42,55); and so, He likewise regards us who are called by the Name of Jesus.  As the Apostle Paul told the Corinthian Church, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body.” (I Cor. 6.19-20)  And again, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” (I Cor. 7.23)  Likewise, the Apostles identified themselves in some of their epistles as slaves (Gk. doulos) of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1.1, Phil. 1.1, Tit. 1.1, Jas. 1.1, II Pet. 1.1, Jude 1).  Moreover, we are called to “live as people who are free, not using (our) freedom as a cover-up for evil; but living as servants (i.e., slaves; Gk. doulos) of God.” (I Pet. 2.16)

The Lord Jesus proclaimed that He would be our Master.  Any master has a yoke and a burden for his slaves, and the Lord Jesus also has a yoke and a burden for those who would be His slaves: He said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11.28-30)  Likewise, He expects those who would be His slaves to obey Him, as a slave is obligated to obey his or her master.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ (Gk. kyrios, which is also translated ‘master’; e.g., Acts 16.16,19, Eph. 6.5,9, Col. 3.22, 4.1) and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6.46)  He also said that no one who was devoted to another master could own Him as Master.  “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt. 6.24, Lk. 16.13)  Or more broadly, one cannot be a slave of God and a slave of sin.  And although He told the Apostles, “No longer do I call you servants (Gk. doulos) … but I have called you friends” (Jn. 15.15, He told them, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant (Gk. doulos) is not greater than his master (Gk. kyrios).  If they persecuted me (i.e., the Master), they will also persecute you (i.e., My slaves).  If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (Jn. 15.20)  Moreover, slaves do not choose their masters, but the Lord Jesus chooses those whom He would have as His slaves, disciples, and friends: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (Jn. 15.16; cf. Jn. 6.44,65,70, 13.18)

Of course, the Lord Jesus will have no slaves who resent Him—we who are called by His name are called to intimately know and love Him (Dt. 6.5, Mt. 22.37, Mk. 12.30, Lk. 7.40-49, Jn. 15.9, 17.3), and on the basis of our intimate knowledge of and love for Him, we are to obey Him as our Master (Jn. 14.15,21,23-24, 15.10, I Jn. 2.3, 5.3, II Jn. 6).

Should we then reject His teachings regarding what constitutes sin, even as many in the world today regard as morally permissible certain actions the Bible declares to be sin?  God forbid!  All sin—even popular sin—is a wicked master that will bring about the destruction of those who remain enslaved to it until the bitter end.  We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves in the context of our loving devotion to the only Lord and Savior, our Master Jesus Christ (Mt. 22.37-40, Mk. 12.28-31), and it is not love that we show to sinners if we condone the sin that enslaves them.

Whither the Presbyterian Church?

“For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” (II Tim. 4.10)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (I Jn. 2.15-17)

Whither the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

For the 46th year in a row, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost members and churches, and for the fourth year in a row, the net membership loss has exceeded 60,000.  2011 represents the first time that the membership of the PCUSA has officially dipped below two million—the reported number is 1,952,287, which is actually inflated, as it includes the membership of churches (like mine) that have voted to disaffiliate but are being sued for their property.  To be sure, 86,645 people (a number that is annually declining) joined PCUSA congregations in 2011.  However, the loss of 150,449 members more than offsets that gain.

Not only is the PCUSA losing members, it is losing whole congregations.  In 2011, only eighteen new congregations were organized, and no congregations were received from other denominations, whereas 21 congregations were dismissed to other denominations and 75 congregations were dissolved (which number probably includes congregations that left the denomination without the blessing of presbytery as well as those congregations that simply died because its members were too old, too few, and/or too poor to continue constituting a viable congregation).  To remedy this egregious loss (and the like losses that have been transpiring for decades), the 220th General Assembly of the PCUSA voted to approve the General Assembly Mission Council’s proposal to organize 1001 new worshiping communities in the next ten years.  This same proposal was introduced last year at the PCUSA’s Big Tent event in Indianapolis by GAMC director Roger Dermody.  As I wrote in response to this proposal then, I still contend now: This proposal will not work because the PCUSA has not taken into account the consequences of the pluralistic worldview that pervades its seminaries and many, if not most, of its congregations, especially the insurmountable barrier that this worldview poses to evangelism.

The annual hemorrhaging of members and congregations is symptomatic of a much greater underlying problem: The PCUSA is in love with this present world.  Or, to be more precise, the PCUSA in large measure is given over to the doctrines of Theological Liberalism, which, in turn, is in love with this present world and ever has been since its inception.

Theological Liberalism was born in the aftermath of the devastating attack on religion in general—and Christianity in particular—by the Enlightenment.  During the Enlightenment, European philosophers, of whom Immanuel Kant and David Hume were foremost, succeeded in convincing most who were educated in Europe’s universities that supernatural revelation was simply irrational.  The only sources of knowledge accessible to humankind, the Enlightenment philosophers asserted, were empirical observation and reason based solely thereupon.  That a Supreme Being who formed the human mind and the human tongue might use the minds and tongues of just a handful of men in a minor civilization that had been gone from the face of the earth for seventeen or eighteen centuries to deliver His message to all humanity for all time was judged to be an offense to reason.

Moreover, during this same time, the disciplines of literary and historical criticism were developed that effectively said that the text of Scripture cannot be taken at face value (let alone as the Word of God); the books of the Bible were each hodge-podged together by ancient scribes from even more ancient sources.  Moses was deemed not to be the author of the Pentateuch (in contradiction to the testimony of the New Testament; Mt. 19.8, Lk. 16.29,31, 24.44, Jn. 1.17,45, 5.45-47, 7.19-23, Acts 26.22, 28.23), Isaiah was not the author of the last twenty-seven chapters of the book ascribed to his name (cf. Mt. 3.3, 12.17-21, Lk. 3.4-6, 4.17-19, Jn. 21.38, Acts 8.30-33, Rom. 10.20), and Peter was not the author of the second epistle ascribed to his name (cf. II Pet. 1.1,14,16-18, 3.1).  We Presbyterians are fond of quoting Chapter 20, Section 2, of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it in matters of faith of worship.  So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”  Thus, those who use the tools of literary and historical criticism would bind our consciences to their teaching in opposition to the plain text of Scripture.

In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, jealous for the high regard of the cultural elite, sought to recast Christianity into the world’s way of thinking, jettisoning the idea of propositional revelation in the hope that the cultural elite would find this sentimental Christianity more palatable and to their liking than the inflexible approach of “It is written” or “Have you not read” (cf. Mt. 4.4,7,10, 11.10, 21.16,42, 19.4, Mk. 7.6, Lk. 3.4, 24.46, Acts 1.20, 2.16,25,34, 4.25, 7.42,48, 13.33-35,40,47, 15.15, 28.25).  The doctrines of Christianity, he believed, must be decontextualized from its foundation in Scripture and recontextualized into the prevailing contemporary worldview.  If there is a conflict between the text of Scripture and the fundamental presuppositional beliefs of the prevailing contemporary worldview, it is the text of Scripture that must be made to agree with the world’s way of thinking than to require those in the world to reorient their thinking to the context of God’s self-revelation in Scripture.  Furthermore, if there is anything in Scripture that is unpalatable to the prevailing contemporary worldview, it must be jettisoned in order to make Christianity appealing to those in the world so that they might meet Christ in the context of prevailing public opinion.

Moreover, not only did Schleiermacher seek to recontextualize the Christian faith into the worldview of its cultured despisers, he adopted the cultured despisers’ literary and historical critical approach to the Scriptures, seeing it as merely a different interpretation of the Scriptures rather than as an utter repudiation of the objective self-revelation of God in the context into which He chose to reveal Himself.  In the context of Scripture, all of God’s self-revelation coheres.  But if that context is discredited, as is far too often attempted through the employment of literary and historical criticism, God’s self-revelation becomes marred, distorted, obscured, and even obliterated.

Thus, the Christian faith became for Schleiermacher and his spiritual heirs a deeply personal, subjective reality that has meaning only for oneself, but which has no objective content to which one is obligated to conform.  Only the external demands made on the Christian faith by the world must be obeyed; otherwise, the Christian faith will be judged to be irrelevant.

Thus it is that Schleiermacher was too in love with the world and the things in the world that he compromised the Christian faith to the world, hoping to curry the world’s favor.  And Schleiermacher’s spiritual heirs in the PCUSA today are still doing the same thing.

In the wake of hundreds of PCUSA congregations reevaluating their relationship with the PCUSA in the aftermath of the ratification of the removal from the PCUSA Book of Order of ordination standards that required PCUSA officers to practice either chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman, a group of PCUSA pastors and seminary professors calling themselves NEXT Church wrote, “Some seek separation, differentiation, even the establishment of a New Fellowship which has all the marks of a new denomination.  This new fellowship echoes the church of a century ago, when there was not a Book of Confessions, but a singular confession, and Scripture was yet to be read aided by the tools of historical and literary criticism.  The New Reformed Body seems to us to be the church we once were, rather than the church God is calling us to be.”  A with Schleiermacher, the NEXT Church leaders are envious of the world’s methods of interpreting Scripture.  To them, the PCUSA’s state of being compromised and continuing to compromise itself to the world’s way of thinking is “the church God is calling us to be.”

This is made nowhere more evident than in the address of Princeton Seminary Professor William Stacy Johnson at a NEXT Church conference on February 27, 2012.  “Mainline religion,” he said, “faces a tsunami of change: and adaptive challenge.  The real adaptive challenge is not confronting the tsunami, but the gospel itself.”  In other words, the Gospel must be adapted to conform to the deeply-held presuppositional beliefs of the prevailing contemporary worldview.  He claimed that a large number of factors collectively imperil the probability of the survival of Theologically Liberal denominations like the PCUSA.  “But if you are a conservative, the news is even worse.  (There has been a) dramatic decrease in the percentage of Americans who believe the Bible is inerrant, and (a) dramatic increase in the acceptance of religious pluralism and inter-religious marriage.  Three quarters of Americans respond ‘yes’ that there are religions other than their own that can offer a true path to God.  The number of people who adhere to no religion at all—the ‘nones’—increased from two or three percent in 1990 to close to seventeen percent in 2010, (and) the number of ‘nones’ in their twenties now stands at twenty-five percent.”  Furthermore, he said, “The real adaptive challenge comes from the gospel itself.  The adaptive challenge in the church goes all the way down.  It includes the need to envision and re-envision the gospel itself.  (What we need is) not just a better delivery system for the message, (but the) message itself needs to be re-envisioned.”  But this has been the approach Theological Liberalism has been taking ever since Schleiermacher.  The Church in Europe adopted this approach, and now the Church in Europe is dead.  This has been the approach that has dominated the PCUSA since the 1960s, and the PCUSA has been losing members every year ever since.  Johnson complained that “Christianity as usual is not working,” but what he has proposed in the re-envisioning of the Gospel is “Christianity as usual” in the recent experience of the PCUSA.

The NEXT Church leaders, like Schleiermacher before them, are “in love with this present world.”  Johnson has rightly noted the inherent pluralism that is part and parcel with the spirit of this age.  But he is in love with the spirit of this age and would have the Church wed the spirit of this age by conforming the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the liking of the spirit of this age.  But the Church’s Bridegroom is not the spirit of this age but rather her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and in order for her to wed the spirit of this age, she must forsake her first love (Rev. 2.4), who “loved (her) and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present (her) to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (or holy and blameless).” (Eph. 5.26-27)

But the PCUSA has prostituted herself, and continues to prostitute herself, to the world.  But the world has never loved her, does not love her, and will never love her.  Certainly the world approves of her prostitution, for by it she does its bidding.  But it is written, “The waters that you saw, where the prostitute is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.  And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute.  They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it in their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” (Rev. 17.15-17)

But this need not be the fate of the PCUSA.  Even after philandering Israel had prostituted herself with other gods, the Lord said,

“Therefore, I will allure her,
     and bring her into the wilderness,
     and speak tenderly to her.

“And there I will give her vineyards
     and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.

“And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
     as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

“And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’  For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered no more. … And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.  And you shall know the LORD.” (Hos. 2.14-20)

The prostitution by the Church of Jesus Christ to the world that is inherent in the re-envisioning of the Gospel grieves Him.  If she persists in her prostitution until the end, then her end will be as described of the Great Prostitute in the Book of Revelation.  But until then, He persists in calling her tenderly back to Himself, for He wants her restored to Himself and not to perish.  “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn and live.” (Ezek. 18.31-32)

Whither Evangelical Presbyterianism?

The love that Theological Liberalism has for this present world is plain for all to see.  But what is less plain is the love that Presbyterian Evangelicals have for this present world that lulls them into complacency.  In their aforementioned letter, the NEXT Church leaders claim that they “will miss (Presbyterian Evangelicals’) focused commitment to evangelism.”  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  American Evangelicals are losing their commitment to evangelism, and Presbyterian Evangelicals are not significantly different.

The Lord’s complaint against the Church in Ephesus is rightly leveled against Presbyterian Evangelicals today.  We “have abandoned the love (we) had at first.”  Therefore, we are admonished to “Remember therefore from where (we) have fallen; repent, and do the works (we did at first.  If not, (the Lord Jesus) will come to (us) and remove (our) lampstand from its place, unless (we) repent.” (Rev. 2.4-5)

The world is lost in sin.  Our friends, neighbors, family members, and co-workers do not know the hope that lives within us, the hope of salvation that is found only in Jesus Christ.  Our hearts must be broken by the plight of the lost, which plight breaks the heart of the Lord Jesus.  We must renew our commitment to reaching out to the lost with the hope of salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin that is found only in Jesus Christ, for that is the only hope the world truly has.  The works of the Law cannot save; Allah, Buddha, and the pantheon of Hindu gods cannot save; the doctrines of pluralism and Theological Liberalism cannot save.  Jesus Christ alone can save, but those who do not know Him will perish in their sin.  Do not forget the warning that the Lord gave to the Prophet Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. … Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die.  Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezek. 3.16-21)

“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (I Cor. 1.21)

But the biggest impediment to evangelism in the Church today is a sense of guilt for the sins of which we have not truly repented, which sins continue to fester and plague us.  These are sins that this present world has in abundance.  Yet we are called to put them to death, for their continued presence in our lives undermines and belies our testimony of the power of Jesus Christ to deliver us from the power of sin and darkness.  “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6.2)  “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” (Col. 3.5-6)  And indeed, if we have not put our sins to death, it shows that we are “still in love with this present world,” and that “the love of the Father is not in” us.

Likewise, our love of things—nice homes, nice cars, things that money can buy—is another impediment to evangelism in the Church today.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the love of money (and by extension, that which money can buy) is a root of all kinds of evils.  It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (I Tim. 6.10)  They lead to complacency and dullness of heart toward the things that break the heart of the Lord Jesus, and they show that we are “still in love with this present world,” and that “the love of the Father is not in” us.

“But as for you, O man of God, flee these things.  Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (I Tim. 6.11-12)

On the Ordination of Women (Archived)

Note: This post has been archived and replaced.  The new post on the subject of the ordination of women can be found here.

In the past five years, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, with which my home congregation is affiliated, has experienced growing pains as the influx of congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) has doubled the number of congregations in the EPC’s fold.  As a consequence of this growth, the recent General Assembly voted to refer to the Committee on Administration the possible creation of a new presbytery—called “Great Plains”—that would be carved from the Presbyteries of the West and Mid-America—and would stretch from Oklahoma to North Dakota.

The study group that presented this recommendation to the General Assembly stated that it “is mindful of the particular complexities of state boundaries in the metropolitan Kansas City area in relation to existing EPC congregations.”  Perhaps the greatest of these “complexities” is my home church, Colonial Presbyterian, which has campuses in two states—Kansas and Missouri.  Adding to this complexity, is that Colonial, like the majority of former PCUSA congregations that have been received into the EPC in recent years, is egalitarian—that is, she has taken the position that the ordination of women is Scripturally permissible—whereas the Presbytery of Mid-America, which is the presbytery into which Colonial would naturally fall geographically, is comprised of a majority of congregations that are complementarian—that is, they have taken the position that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible.  Moreover, because one of Colonial’s associate pastors is a woman, Colonial has been received into the Presbytery of the West, which is comprised of a majority of egalitarian congregations.  As such, Colonial is geographically distant from the majority of congregations in her new presbytery in Colorado.  A new presbytery thus comprised would, of course, be to Colonial’s benefit, as the great distance to travel in the Presbytery of the West naturally limits her ability to participate in the presbytery’s life and ministry.

Now the EPC allows each local congregation to choose whether or not to ordain women to the offices of elder and deacon and each presbytery to choose whether or not to ordain and/or receive into membership women as pastors.  The EPC holds that the ordination of women is not an essential of the Christian faith—that is, the Christian faith does not hinge upon this doctrine as it does, for example, on the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Substitutionary Atonement, and the Resurrection.

The first essential doctrine held by the EPC has to do with the Bible.  “All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life.  The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.”  That includes the matter of the ordination of women to the offices of elder, deacon, and minister of Word and Sacrament.

The complementarian position—that is, that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible—is the majority position throughout Church history and is still the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Evangelical churches and denominations.  It is predicated especially upon teachings by the Apostle Paul.  Referring to the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, Paul wrote, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.  That is why a wife (or woman; Gk. gunæ) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (or messengers, that is, people sent to observe and report; Gk. angeloi).” (I Cor. 11.8-10)  Again, in the context of orderly worship, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.  If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (I Cor. 14.33-35)  And perhaps most significantly, following a plea for prayer for all people and preceding the qualifications for the offices of elder and deacon, Paul wrote,

“I desire then at every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.  Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.  Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (I Tim. 2.8-15)

In the complementarian position, the responsibility of the husband to lovingly lead his wife and the responsibility of the wife to submit to her husband’s leadership (Eph. 5.22-33, I Pet.3.1-7) extends also to the life of the Church.  In the regular organization of the church, the pulpit ministry, the ruling council of the church, and even those who are responsible for leading the compassion and mercy ministries of the church are to be exclusively staffed by godly men—godly women, even those with preaching, teaching, and leadership gifts, are Scripturally ineligible from serving in these offices.

Most complementarian churches do not adhere to the strictest interpretation of Paul’s prohibition against women actually participating in the worship of the church.  They are permitted to serve as readers of Scripture, to sing solos and participate in choirs and worship teams—even to lead worship singing or conduct the choir—and to pray aloud.  On rare occasion in some complementarian churches, they are also permitted to speak from the pulpit (although because they are excluded from pastoral ministry, the message they deliver cannot be considered to be a sermon).

Although Paul prohibited women from teaching or exercising authority over men or from speaking in church, there are a number of passages in Scripture where women do, in fact, do these things.  For example, the Prophetess Deborah was appointed by God to judge Israel (Judg. 4.4-5.31); the Prophetess Huldah was appointed by God to instruct King Josiah (II Kg. 22.14-20); the Prophetess Anna prophesied at the dedication of Jesus that He was “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2.36-38); Priscilla, with her husband Aquila, taught the Evangelist Apollos “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26); and the four unnamed daughters of the Evangelist Philip prophesied in Caesarea (Acts 21.8-9).

Moreover, in his list of qualifications for the offices of deacon, Paul wrote that “(the deacons’) wives (Gk. gunæ; linguistically, it can be interpreted as either “the wives” or “the women”) likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things” (I Tim. 3.11); and he commended to the Church at Rome a woman named Phoebe, who was a deacon (Gk. diakonos, the same word employed in I Tim. 3.8) at the Church in Cenchreae (Rom. 16.1-2).  Likewise, in I Corinthians 11.5, Paul commends women who pray or prophesy in church, and in II Timothy 1.5, he pays homage to Timothy’s mother and grandmother, who were instrumental in instructing Timothy in the faith.

Because “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (II Tim. 3.16), and because God does not contradict Himself (Num. 23.19, I Cor. 14.33), the passages which prohibit the ordination of women must be reconciled with the passages in which women function in ordained capacity.  Those who hold the complementarian position hold that the passages which prohibit women from serving in ordained office are normative, whereas those passages in which women apparently function in this capacity are divinely-sanctioned exceptions.

Conversely, Bible-believing Christians (as opposed to those who claim the name of Christ and yet undermine the authority of Scripture) who hold the egalitarian position hold that the passages in which women function in ordained capacity are normative and that those passages where the Apostle Paul prohibits them from ordained office require special handling.  To be sure, egalitarian Christians, like complementarian Christians, are committed to uphold the integrity and authority of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word.

Egalitarian Christians predicate their belief that the ordination of women is permissible upon those passages in which women prophesy in church, or teach or exercise authority over men, and upon Paul’s teaching that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3.28)

The prohibition against the ordination of women hinges upon the three passages, previously mentioned, in which Paul stated that women “ought to have a symbol of authority on (their) head” (I Cor. 11.8-10), that women ought not speak in church (I Cor. 14.33-35), and that women ought not teach or exercise authority over men (I Tim. 2.8-15).  Egalitarian Christians hold that these proscriptions must be interpreted in the context of the specific circumstances that existed in Corinth and Ephesus at the time Paul wrote I Corinthians and I Timothy.  Corinth was the home of the cult of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of lust, whose priestesses were cult prostitutes.  Similarly, at the time Paul wrote to him, Timothy was ministering in Ephesus (I Tim. 1.3), which was the home of the cult of Diana (or Artemis; Acts 19.21-41), a fertility goddess portrayed in art with many breasts, whose priestesses were also cult prostitutes.  Moreover, the Lord Jesus chastised the Church of Thyatira for tolerating “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike all her children dead.” (Rev. 2.20-23)  Likewise, it is known that sexual immorality was an issue with which many early churches struggled, including the churches in Corinth (I Cor. 5-6) and Ephesus (Eph. 5.3-5, I Tim. 1.9-10).  Because of the association in Ancient Greek society of women religious leaders with cult prostitution, it is likely that Paul forbade them in that context specifically for that reason.  Because this association between women religious leaders and cult prostitution no longer exists in modern society, and given the Biblical precedence of women in leadership roles, it follows that Paul’s prohibition of women from ordained office no longer applies today.

Now it must be granted that Paul nowhere gives this line of reasoning as the basis of his prohibition against the ordination of women.  Moreover, he did give reasons that relate to the creation of woman before the Fall and Eve’s role in the Fall.  Because woman was made from and for man, and not man from or for woman, it follows that a woman “ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” (I Cor. 11.8-10)  And again, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (I Tim. 2.11-12)

However, the first reason ought to be interpreted in the context of I Corinthians 11.3, which relates the relationship of a woman to her husband.  As such, vv. 8-10 relate to the relationship of husband and wife.  As noted above, the Greek word used in this passage is gunæ, which linguistically can be translated as either “woman” or “wife”.  Given the context of the passage as the relationship of husband and wife, it does not follow that it applies to women in the broader life of the Church.

With respect to the second reason (I Tim. 2.11-12), Paul claims that Eve was deceived, whereas Adam was not.  However, both Adam and Eve transgressed the commandment (Gen. 3.6-7,16-19), and it was on account of Adam’s sin that our race is accounted guilty (Rom. 5.12,18-19, I Cor. 15.21-22).  And Scripture does not bear evidence that a woman is more gullible than a man.  Indeed, Abigail proved wiser than either her first husband, Nabal, or her second husband, David (I Sam. 25), and the “excellent wife” of Proverbs 31 “opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  Thus, women are not inherently more susceptible to deception than men on account of their gender.

What is more, Paul claimed that women “will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (I Tim. 2.15)  But as Paul emphasized elsewhere, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 2.16; see also Rom. 3.28, Eph. 2.8-9)  And Paul elsewhere stated that it would be better for the unmarried persons and widows, if they could keep from sexual desire, to remain unmarried so that they would be more unencumbered in order to serve the Lord (I Cor. 7.8,25-40).  Paul, therefore, could not have meant that women would, in fact, be saved by the work of childbearing.

Rather, given the context of vv. 13-14, it would seem that there were in the Ephesian Church women who were susceptible to false teachers (I Tim. 5.15).  Likewise, it would seem from the context of vv. 8-15, that Paul is instructing Timothy that these women ought to give attention to spiritual discipline, learning sound doctrine, and doing good works that befit godliness, and not seeking positions of authority in the Church.  However, just because there were in the early Church, and still are in the Church today, women who were susceptible to false teachers, it does not follow that Paul’s proscription against women serving in ordained office in the Church, if there are godly, wise women who fulfill the spiritual and character requirements of I Timothy 3.1-13, Titus 1.5-9 for elders and deacons.

If it be objected that women do not meet the requirements of being the “husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), it should be pointed out that neither did the Apostle Paul.  If godly single men should not be excluded from ordained office in the Church, then neither should godly women.  What is of concern here is that a man who is called by God to ordained office be either chaste in singleness or faithful to his (only) wife in the covenant of marriage.  Likewise, a woman who is called by God to ordained office must be either chaste in singleness or faithful to her (only) husband in the covenant of marriage.

Complementarian Christians will point out that today, there are still women in ordained offices of churches who, like “Jezebel” in the Church of Thyatira, are “teaching and seducing (the Lord’s) servants to practice sexual immorality” (Rev. 2.20).  Of course, such should not be ordained to office in the Church, but few of these, if any, are practicing cult prostitutes.  Moreover, there are men in ordained office who do the same thing; they ought not be ordained either.  It does not, therefore, follow that godly women should be precluded from ordained office.

Certainly, the egalitarian position is not unassailable, and it could be in error.  But the same holds true of the complementarian position.  Whether or not one holding to the binding authority of the Word of God believes that the ordination of women is Scripturally permissible, such is not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  To be sure, the position that the ordination of women is not Scripturally permissible but that the Scriptures may be corrected by secular scholarship and cultural norms must be avoided, for it is not a position that comports with the Christian faith in that it places the interpretation of the Scriptures as an authority over the Scriptures rather than bringing one’s interpretation into submission to the same Scriptures that one purports to interpret.  Complementarian Christians and egalitarian Christians, therefore, ought to be charitable toward one another on this issue and ought to extend to one another that hand of Christian fellowship.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (I Cor. 1.10)

“By this all people will know that (we) are (Christ’s) disciples, if (we) have love for one another.” (Jn. 13.35)

A Response to the Litigious Spirit of Heartland Presbytery

In January 2010, the church in which I serve as a deacon, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City, Missouri, and Overland Park, Kansas, entered into a season of discernment regarding her continued affiliation with Heartland Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Heartland was invited into the discernment process; town hall meetings were held at both of Colonial’s campuses, with cases made for and against disaffiliation by Colonial’s Session and representatives from Heartland; mailings were sent by both the Session and the Presbytery to the homes of Colonial’s members; and an informal, non-binding survey was conducted that revealed that 91.2% of the 69.1% of Colonial members who responded to the survey wanted to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and instead to affiliate with a denomination that accorded more closely with Colonial’s beliefs and values regarding Scriptural interpretation and Christian living (see for the resources provided to Colonial’s members).  And so, Colonial’s Session approached Heartland Presbytery, requesting that a plan be developed to dismiss Colonial to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church with her property.

However, Heartland refused, wanting the discernment process and Colonial’s involvement in the PCUSA to continue.  Yet the Session believed that the discernment process was complete and that God had spoken through the voice of Colonial’s members.  And so the Session, seeing that Heartland was unwilling to enter into negotiations, scheduled a congregational meeting to decide whether or not to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and affiliate instead with the EPC (see “No more Mr. Nice Guy in Heartland”).

In the week preceding the scheduled meeting, Heartland Presbytery summoned Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session to a meeting where the Presbytery ordered them to cancel the scheduled meeting or face the Presbytery stepping in to suspend the pastors’ relationship with the congregation, dissolve the Session, and assume leadership and pastoral responsibility for Colonial.  The following day, Colonial’s attorneys filed for quiet title and a temporary restraining order in both Kansas and Missouri.

On August 22, 2010, Colonial Presbyterian Church voted 96.8% to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and 95.8% to affiliate instead with the EPC (see “Colonial leaving PCUSA; Heartland presbytery counters” and “Colonial joins New Wineskins; pastors renounce jurisdiction”).  Heartland responded by filing to acquire ownership of Colonial’s property on the grounds that the PCUSA Book of Order has a property trust clause that states, “All property held by or for a particular church…whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association…is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” (§G-8.0201 of the 2009/2011 PCUSA Book of Order, which was in place at the time Colonial voted to disaffiliate) despite the absence of any such trust language in Colonial’s property deed or corporation by-laws.  On June 9, 2011, the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, at Kansas City ruled in favor of Colonial (see “Missouri court rules in favor of Colonial Church in property dispute”), and on February 2, 2012, the District Court of Johnson County, Kansas, ruled the same thing (see “Heartland loses second battle in Colonial property dispute”).  Heartland appealed the Missouri circuit court ruling on May 3, 2012, at the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, but given the precedence set by Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church on June 10, 2012 (see “Missouri church wins property-dispute appeal against PCUSA presbytery”; Heartland appealed this ruling, but the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear it), it is highly probable that the ruling from that trial will again be in Colonial’s favor.

Recently, I stumbled across the Heartland Presbytery Minutes from its February 11, 2012, stated meeting, which was held a little more than a week after the Kansas court ruling was issued.  At that meeting, one of Heartland’s minister members presented a motion (1) “to immediately cease any further plans for litigation against either Colonial…(or) Gashland,” (2) “to dismiss Gashland…to the (EPC),” and (3) “to formally contact Colonial with an invitation to enter into professional mediation that will ultimately facilitate Colonial’s dismissal into the (EPC).”  The motion was defeated by a four-to-one margin.

Between the motion and the vote, Heartland conducted a debate on the presbytery floor during which the following points were raised, which I want to here address:

  • “While the Commission may have been carrying out the Presbytery charge, their method is not the only method of resolving disputes, and that other, perhaps more Biblical, ways should be explored, in light of the series of adverse civil court rulings the Presbytery has received.”

The Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge…  Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5.25-26)  Likewise, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth,

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?  Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels?  How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!  So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?  I say this to your shame.  Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather suffer wrong?  Why not rather be defrauded?  But you yourselves are wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (I Cor. 6.1-8)

Biblical authority is lowly esteemed in the PCUSA, especially in presbyteries like Heartland.  Rather than seeing Scripture as possessing the authority of the edict of the King, most in the PCUSA see it as possessing the authority of the expert court witness that can be cross-examined and overruled by the higher authorities of criticism and interpretation.

God and the Bible are presumed upon in the PCUSA, not feared or respected.  Biblical teachings on sexual morality are treated as secondary to contemporary cultural ethics.  Christ’s teachings as being the only conduit to the Father (Jn. 14.6) are disregarded in favor of “not (denying) the truth and benefit found in (non-Christian) religious and wisdom traditions” (see “Elders raise concerns about GA vice moderator’s presentation”; Landon Whitsitt, the author of the quote and Vice-Moderator of the 219th General Assembly, is a minister member of Heartland Presbytery).

As such, the PCUSA tolerates false teachers despite Scripture’s warnings against them (II Pet. 2, Jude 3-16, Rev. 2.14-16,20-23).  To be sure, not all ministers in the PCUSA are false teachers, but they are the majority, holding the interpretation of Scripture as a higher authority than the Scriptures themselves.

Thus, Colonial found no just court in the PCUSA to which to appeal for protection from the unjust actions of Heartland Presbytery and which could justly arbitrate between them.

And it is further evidence of Heartland’s disregard of the authority of Scripture that it should seek satisfaction for its grievances against Colonial in civil courts rather than pursue more peaceful and Biblically-based remediation by settling with Colonial out of court.

  • “Considering the value of the properties involved, the Presbytery has spent less than 2% of what it would recover if the property were to remain in the denomination as a result of a successful defense of the denomination’s ‘property clause.’”

This, perhaps, is the most damning statement in Heartland’s meeting minutes.  What matters most is not that Colonial is using her physical property to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God, equipping them to reach out with the Gospel to their friends and neighbors who do not know the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, all for the glory of God.  What truly matters to Heartland is that Colonial’s physical property be retained and that the property clause of the Book of Order be justified, all to the glory of Heartland Presbytery and the PCUSA.  Property, not Christian love, is what binds Presbyterians together.  Blessed be these ties that bind.

  • “The concept of ‘walking away’ from litigation in mid-stream is neither legally responsible nor economically viable, without knowing what the costs of that line of action would be.”

Not responsible to whom?  Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.  Is it truly responsible to Him for Christians to sue one another in civil court over property?  What kind of testimony does acrimonious litigation give to the unbelieving, watching world?  Already the world sees no earthly difference between Christians and non-Christians, and civil litigation only serves to reinforce that belief.  And if there truly is no earthly difference between Christians and unbelievers, what good is the Church?  “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Mt. 16.26)  “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13.35)

  • “The direction of the 218th General Assembly to draft ‘gracious dismissal’ policies was recognition that litigation is deadly to the body of Christ, and that pursuing litigation costs congregations both financially and spiritually.”

Heartland Presbytery is concerned about the costs of pulling out of civil litigation with a congregation formerly under its care, but it was not concerned about the costs of that litigation before proceeding with it.  There is no evidence that Heartland has truly counted the cost to its own soul for this litigation.  From all appearances, it seems that its lawsuits are motivated by pride and greed.  “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16.18)  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex. 20.17)

  • “The General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission has cited the Heartland Presbytery process as a good example of carrying out the directions of the 218th General Assembly on ‘gracious separation.’”

This statement is not credible.  Heartland Presbytery has no examples of “gracious separation” to which to point.

  • “Carrying out the final requirement of the motion is highly problematic, since even sending a note holding the Colonial pastors in prayer was deemed to violate a civil court injunction of ‘no contact.’”

So rather than ceasing litigation and pursuing a peaceful way to gracious separation, the “problems” of dropping a civil suit and extending an olive branch are considered too insurmountable.  Have you not read, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”?  Or is it that you have read it but do not believe it?

  • “If these churches are allowed to depart with their property, it will bring to an end any hope of gifts for New Church Development.”

Here, at last, is recognition that churches’ property truly belongs to them.  Here, also, is yet another statement that financial gain is more important to Heartland Presbytery than peace.  The fact is that Heartland Presbytery never contributed to the purchase or maintenance of Colonial’s property.  And yet, just because a General Assembly thirty years ago added a property trust clause to the Book of Order, it believes that it has a legal right to Colonial’s property.  And so far, the civil courts have disagreed with that belief.

When the early Church was growing rapidly, “Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people (and mentor to Saul of Tarsus, Acts 22.3) … said to (the Sanhedrin), ‘Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with (the Apostles). … So in the present case I tell you keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.  You might even be found opposing God!’” (Acts 5.34-39)

Likewise, Heartland Presbytery and the PCUSA ought to be careful about pursuing departing congregations with litigation.  They believe, after a season of discernment by which they have sought the will of God with fasting and prayer, that the Holy Spirit is leading them to disaffiliate from the PCUSA and affiliate instead with other Reformed denominations, such as the EPC.  If they are mistaken, if they are disaffiliating based on their own recognizance and not based on the leading of God, then these changes in denominational affiliation will come to naught.  But if God truly is leading them to disaffiliate, then the money that Heartland and other presbyteries throughout the PCUSA spend in a draconian attempt to coerce them and others who sympathize with them to stay is spent in vain, and they oppose the will of God.

UPDATE June 26, 2012: The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, has ruled in favor of Colonial, upholding the June 9, 2011, Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruling.  Praise the Lord!