On the Ordination of Women (Revised)

Note: This new post is intended to replace the original post of the same name, previously published on July 2, 2012.  I have determined that the previous post, which is archived here, is inadequate for its purpose, contains at least one inaccuracy, and no longer reflects my thinking on the subject.  This new post exegetes the pertinent texts more thoroughly, represents the arguments for the ordination of women more accurately, and evaluates these arguments more critically.

On February 14, 1974, Ministerial Candidate Walter Wynn Kenyon, who had then recently graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with honors, stood before the Pittsburgh Presbytery, seeking ordination as a Teaching Elder in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) and to be called as a pastor in one of the churches within the Presbytery’s jurisdiction.  When asked if he were willing to ordain women who might be elected to the Session of the church that was seeking to call him, he said no, explaining that on the basis of I Corinthians 14.33-34 and I Timothy 2.12, he did not believe that it was Scripturally permissible to ordain women to teaching offices in the church, in particular the offices of teaching and ruling elder.  Mr. Kenyon stated that he would not have a problem working alongside ordained women in Presbytery or on the Session of the church to which he was called, but he could not, in good conscience, participate in the ordination of women, and if it were the will of the Session to ordain women despite his objection, he would not prevent it and would ask the Presbytery to send another teaching elder to officiate at the ordination.

Although Pittsburgh Presbytery voted to proceed with Mr. Kenyon’s ordination by a vote of 147 to 133, one of the presbytery’s teaching elders, Rev. Jack Martin Maxwell, on February 25 initiated a complaint against the decision.  On March 6, Pittsburgh Presbytery issued a “Stay of Execution,” effectively postponing Mr. Kenyon’s ordination until the case against him was finalized.  The Judicial Commission of the Synod of Pennsylvania and West Virginia tried the case and on April 19 decided that the vote to ordain Mr. Kenyon was irregular and should be rescinded.  Mr. Kenyon appealed the decision, and early the following year the Permanent Judicial Commission of the UPCUSA in the remedial case of Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh sustained the Synod Judicial Commission’s ruling.  The PJC emphasized the following points in its decision:

  1. “Discrimination against women within the United Presbyterian Church on the basis of their sex is forbidden by the Constitution of the Church.
  2. “The nature of the authority of presbytery in the licensure and ordination of candidates.
  3. “A minister’s refusal to participate in the ordination of women has unacceptable implications for the Church at large.”

Regarding the Synod’s ruling, the PJC wrote,

We recognize the heavy burden borne by Synod in overruling the majority vote of a presbytery on a question of ordination.  However, presbytery’s power is not absolute.  It must be exercised in conformity with the Constitution.  In other words, our polity is a government of law, rather than of men.

In considering the gravity of the question, we are mindful that conscience can be in conflict with polity.  But it is important to recall that the decision to present oneself as a candidate for ordination is voluntary.  A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience.1

Mr. Kenyon was by no means the only individual in the UPCUSA who believed the ordination of women to be unscriptural.  Some ordained ministers in the UPCUSA were already facing litigation because of their opposition to the practice, and even those who were not keenly felt unwelcome in light of the PJC ruling.  On July 29, 1975, a number of teaching elders and churches withdrew from the UPCUSA and joined with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a denomination that had come into existence only a year and a half earlier and which excluded women from ordained office in its Book of Church Order (§24-1).2  Other teaching elders and churches opposed to the ordination of women also withdrew in 1981 to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which ordains women as well as men who oppose women’s ordination,3 although most of those joining the EPC who opposed the ordination of women were coming from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

The Teaching of Scripture on the Ordination of Women

The clearest teaching in Scripture on the subject of the Ordination of Women comes from the Apostle Paul.  In his first epistle to his young disciple and associate, the Evangelist Timothy, he wrote,

I desire then that in 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 Timothy 2.8-15

Immediately preceding this passage, Paul is discussing prayer, urging Timothy that his congregation should be making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings…for all people,” especially those in places of authority, so “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (vv. 1-2).  On this basis, he teaches that men in the congregation ought to pray peaceably, and the women ought to present themselves modestly and with good works.

He then proceeds to instruct women to learn quietly and submissively in the context of worship and prohibits them from teaching or exercising authority over men, citing the creation order and the Fall from Genesis 2-3 as his reasons for the prohibition (this reasoning will be explained in further detail in the next section).  Finally, he says that the woman “will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” (v. 15)  The Greek word translated here as “saved” is σωθήσεται, the future passive indicative form of σώζω, meaning “to save,”4 which Paul commonly uses to refer to redemption from sin and death (Acts 16.31, Rom. 5.9-10, 8.24, 9.27 [Is. 10.22 LXX], 10.1,9,13, 11.14,26, I Cor. 1.18,21, 3.15, 5.5, 7.16, 9.22, 10.33, 15.2, II Cor. 2.15, Eph. 2.5,8, I Thess. 2.16, II Thess. 2.10, I Tim. 1.15, 2.4, 4.16, II Tim. 1.9, Tit. 3.5).  As he elsewhere emphasizes, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3.28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8-9), so it cannot mean that a woman is saved in this sense by bearing children.  Neither does it mean that she is saved by the birth of the Child (i.e., Jesus), for no one is saved by His birth but only by His atoning work on the Cross.  Rather, this is a continuation of Paul’s allusion to the Creation and Fall accounts in vv. 13-14, specifically to the woman’s created purpose in childbearing (Gen. 1.27-28, 3.16, I Cor. 11.11-12), likely as a remedy for the sins of being idlers, gossips, and busybodies, for which he rebuked the Ephesian women (younger widows specifically) later in the epistle (I Tim. 5.13-14), for he also emphasized the woman’s need to “continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”

It is no mere coincidence that this passage immediately precedes the qualifications for the offices of elder (or bishop)5 and deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13); thus, it is quite clear that Paul is here exercising the Apostolic authority granted him by God to exclude women from these offices, which are explicitly intended to teach and exercise authority over the Church.  This exclusion is further emphasized in the qualifications for these offices, which require, among other things, that an elder or deacon be “the husband of one wife” (Gk. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα; I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), literally a “one-woman man”.  The point Paul is making in this specific requirement is that officers in the Church must be monogamous men, faithful and content with their wives, although it should not be construed to exclude single, unmarried men (or widowers), for then it would exclude not only unmarried apostles and evangelists such as Paul and Timothy, but also the Lord Jesus Himself.  However, it should not be missed that the noun used here is ἀνήρ, the Greek word for adult male or husband, not ἄνθρωπος, the Greek word for human being, commonly translated, “man”.

Paul is not here teaching that women should never instruct men under any circumstances, nor is he teaching that women should never instruct males in church settings, as one of the members of Pittsburgh Presbytery examining Mr. Kenyon implied.6  After all, in his second epistle to Timothy, Paul commended the faith of his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois (II Tim. 1.5) and enjoined him to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it (i.e., his mother and grandmother) and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings.” (II Tim. 3.14-15)  Likewise, Scripture recounts that Priscilla and her husband Aquila, after hearing the eloquent Evangelist Apollos preach at Ephesus, took him aside to explain the Gospel more accurately (Acts 18.24-26).

In a passage similar to his instruction to Timothy, Paul in his first epistle to the Church in Corinth wrote,

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.

Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
—I Corinthians 14.33-38

Again, Paul should not here, or in I Timothy 2.11-12, be construed as absolutely forbidding women to speak during the worship service, for elsewhere in the same epistle he wrote, “but every wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (I Cor. 11.5, emphasis added), thus implying that it is not only permissible for a woman to speak during a worship service, but that she is actually encouraged to do so.  Considering his injunction against women serving as elders and deacons in I Timothy 2, it seems likely that Paul in I Corinthians 14 is only excluding women from the task of regularly preaching and teaching the Word of God during a church worship service, which is one of the tasks specific to the office of elder (I Tim. 3.2, 5.17, Tit. 1.9).  After all, he raised no objection to the Evangelist Philip’s four unmarried daughters, who prophesied to him while he was staying for several days with Philip in Caesarea (Acts 21.8-9; cf. Joel 2.28-29, Acts 2.17-18).

Gender Roles in the New Testament

Paul’s injunctions against the ordination of women in I Timothy 2 and I Corinthians 14 must be understood within the framework of what the Scriptures—especially the New Testament—teach about the specific roles men and women in the Church of Jesus Christ are called by God to fulfill.

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) is her husband (or man; Gk. ἀνήρ), and the head of Christ is God.  Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.  For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.  But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.  For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.  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) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (or messengers; Gk. ἄγγελοι).  Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.  And all things are from God.  Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?  Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.  If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. —I Corinthians 11.3-16

Paul is here not dictating women’s fashions or hairstyles—or men’s either, for that matter7—for at the end of this passage, he said, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God,” meaning the literal practice of head coverings could be dispensed with if it became a matter of contention.  Moreover, in today’s society we do not think it unseemly of women to worship with their heads uncovered or their hair cut short—or of men wearing a hat or growing their hair long.  His point was that women ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, inasmuch as a man is the head of his wife, and his rationale for this was the order and purposes of God in the creation of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Paul’s first statement is, “the head of every man is Christ,” that is, man “is the image and glory of God” and was created directly for His purposes.  Genesis 2 records that God created Adam directly from the dust of the earth (v. 7) and placed him in the Garden of Eden for the purpose of tilling and keeping it (v. 15), whereupon He gave him permission to freely eat the fruit from any of the trees in the Garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which was forbidden upon pain of death (vv. 16-17).  Then He declared, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (v. 18)  Consequently, He brought all the animals dwelling in the Garden to Adam, so that Adam could exercise the dominion God granted him over His creation in Genesis 1.28 by naming them.  “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” (vv. 19-20)

Then Paul states, “the head of a wife is her husband,” that is, “woman is the glory of man” and was created by God to fulfill man’s need of “a helper fit for him.”  Hence, Genesis 2 continues with God’s creation of a woman from Adam’s rib (vv. 21-22).  Then God brought her to Adam, who named her woman, saying, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (Heb. ishshah), because she was taken out of Man (Heb. ish).” (v.23; see also Gen. 3.20)  And just as naming the animals demonstrated man’s dominion over them, so his giving her the name of woman demonstrated his headship over her, even before the Fall.

From the beginning, it was not God’s intention that man’s headship over woman should be onerous.  However, the Fall brought a curse upon the relationship between man and woman: “To the woman (God) said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.  Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” (Gen. 3.16)  This same wording is used in Genesis 4.7, where God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  The similarity of these passages indicates that the woman’s desire for her husband is a desire to dominate him, usurping the headship over her delegated to him by God, and that man’s rule over his wife will likewise be afflicted by his own sin.  Hence, in this fallen world in which we live, woman will chafe at man’s headship over her, and man’s headship over woman will be burdensome and onerous, and even abusive, both because of sin.

But this sinful tendency in fallen man’s exercise of authority over woman does not negate the command of God given through the Apostle Paul: Woman is still commanded by God to submit to man’s authority, both within the Church and within the Covenant of Marriage (I Cor. 11.3-16, 14.34-35, Eph. 5.22-24, Col. 3.18, I Tim. 2.8-15, I Pet. 3.1-6).  To be sure, no woman should remain in an abusive relationship.  Paul teaches that, “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.  In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.  God has called you to peace.” (I Cor. 7.13-15)  For a man to abuse his wife demonstrates that he is an unbeliever and is not willing to live with her, and she should not be enslaved to his abuses.  Nevertheless, Scripture unequivocally teaches that women are to humbly submit themselves to the rule and authority of the men appointed by God both in the Church and in the Christian home.

The Disciples of the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry often disputed among themselves as to which of them was the greatest.  On one occasion, He reproved them, saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you.  But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-27)  And at the Last Supper, He demonstrated this type of leadership by washing their feet—a task typically performed by the lowliest of servants (Jn. 13.1-15).  It is this sort of leadership that He expects, both in the Church and in the Christian home.

After admonishing wives to be subject to their husbands, the Apostle Peter wrote, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (I Pet. 3.7)  Paul had even more to say:

Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church 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 the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (quoted from Gen. 2.24)  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. —Ephesians 5.25-33 (see also Col. 3.19)

In his Epistle, James, the brother of our Lord, wrote, “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)  And as the Lord Himself said, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Lk. 12.48)  Authority and leadership is something that the Lord does not give lightly, and of those to whom He entrusts it, He will require a greater account.  It is a tremendous privilege and responsibility to be entrusted with the care and nurture of other souls, and the One to whom we are responsible will require an accounting for the neglect, misuse, and abuse of this authority.

Within the economy of the Christian home, the husband and father is entrusted with the care and nurture of the souls of his wife and children.  He is to love and honor his wife as Christ sacrificially loves and honors the Church.  He is to raise his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, without provoking them to anger (Eph. 6.4, Col. 3.21)  As a husband, he represents Christ to his wife, just as she represents the Church (Is. 54.5-8, 62.1-5, Jer. 2-3, Ezek. 16,23, Hos. 2-3, II Cor. 11.2-3, Eph. 5.22-33, Rev. 19.7-8, 21.2,9-11, 22.17)—and these roles are not interchangeable, as nowhere in Scripture does the wife represent Christ, nor the husband the Church.  And as a father, he represents God the Father to his children.  Fulfilling these roles is a tremendous responsibility and a high and noble calling, as a husband and father must provide for his family.  He must show the love of Christ to his wife, empowering her to exercise her own God-given gifts and talents for ministry.  He must teach his children the ways of the Lord, not only teaching them the content of the Bible, but also teaching them to trust and respect the Word of God, and to live out the teachings of holy Scripture in his daily life with them and their mother.  Much has been entrusted to him, and much will be required of him.

Likewise, within the economy of the Church, the elders and deacons are entrusted with the care and nurture of the souls within the congregation.  Indeed, among the requirements for these offices are that not only must an elder or deacon be the husband of one wife (I Tim. 3.2,12, Tit. 1.6), but also “he must manage his own household well, with all dignity, keeping his children submissive” (I Tim. 3.4-5,12, Tit. 1.6).  Proven ability in representing Christ to his wife and God the Father to his children is a prerequisite for a man to serve as an officer in the Church.

That women are excluded from the offices of elder and deacon, in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, is by no means meant to disparage the value of godly women who have been gifted with the ability to teach, to lead, or to offer wise counsel.  Indeed, they may have superior gifts to many men who faithfully serve as officers in Christ’s Church.  But it is the prerogative of God alone, speaking as He does through His holy, inspired, and authoritative Word, to determine who is eligible to serve as an officer in His Church, and who is not.

Reasons Commonly Adduced in Favor of the Ordination of Women

In the 20th Century, a tremendous cultural shift occurred in the United States and Western Civilization regarding women’s roles in society.  Whereas women hitherto were expected to aspire to become housewives and stay-at-home mothers, they are now encouraged to pursue careers outside the home alongside men.  Thus, as women began filling professional roles traditionally filled only by men, such as doctors, attorneys, lawmakers, scientists, and the like, the question was raised whether they should not also become pastors as well.

In mainline Protestant denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PC(USA)) and its predecessors,8 that had already compromised the authority of Scripture in order to accommodate worldly beliefs and practices, there was little resistance to opening the offices of teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon to women.  The General Assembly of the (northern) Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) voted to open the offices of ruling elder and deacon to women in 1930 and to likewise open the office of teaching elder in 1956, while the General Assembly of the (southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States voted to open all three offices to women in 1964.9  As noted above, the PJC of the UPCUSA ruled in 1975 that it was no longer permissible to ordain men who opposed women’s ordination to the office of teaching elder, and this precedent continued into the PC(USA) after the 1983 reunion with the PCUS.  Today, the Session (or governing body) of a PC(USA) congregation is required to “consist of equal numbers of men and women,”10 and the attitudes of many teaching elders and seminary students in the PC(USA) are decidedly hostile toward Christians who hold that Paul’s injunctions against the ordination of women are still authoritative for the Church today.

Although mainline Protestant churches that had already compromised the authority of Scripture were quick to embrace the ordination of women, others that still held a high view of Scripture also made peace with the practice.  Some of these, reading Paul’s clear injunction against the practice in I Timothy, reasoned that if Scripture was wrong on teachings, such as women’s ordination, that did not directly impact the integrity of the Gospel message, perhaps it was also wrong on other teachings that did.  Thus, they began descending the perilous slippery slope leading inexorably to Theological Liberalism and the irrelevant cult of the pursuit of relevance.

Still other Evangelical churches and denominations with a high view of Scripture have made peace with the ordination of women but have not followed others, like the PC(USA), down the path to Gospel infidelity.  Such include the aforementioned Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians,11 a new denomination founded in 2012 as a result of a split from the PC(USA) over the latter’s change in ordination standards to remove the requirement that officers in the denomination “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”12

In support of their position, Evangelicals with a high view of Scripture, who nevertheless endorse women’s ordination, including respected seminary professors and other scholars, cite other passages of Scripture in favor of the practice, and while seeking to respect Paul’s Apostolic authority, they interpret his injunctions against it in light of these passages.  In the debate over women’s ordination, Evangelicals who favor the practice are identified as Egalitarians, for their emphasis on the equal standing of men and women before God, while those who oppose it are identified as Complementarians, for their emphasis on the specific, complementary roles defined in Scripture for men and women to fulfill.

“I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach or to Exercise Authority over a Man”

The Westminster Confession of Faith admits, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”  And further, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”13

The clearest passage of Scripture addressing the ordination of women is I Timothy 2.8-15, quoted above, and v. 12 in particular: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”  Naturally, it is the passage most debated between egalitarians and complementarians, and the most contested word in this passage is the Greek word αὐθεντεῖν, the present active infinitive form of αὐθεντέω, which is translated as “exercise authority” in the ESV and the NASB, “usurp authority” in the KJV, “have dominion” in the ASV, “have authority” in the RSV, the older NIV, the NKJV, and the NRSV, and “assume authority” in the 2011 revision of the NIV.  Thayer defines it as, “to govern one, exercise dominion over one.”14  What makes this Greek word particularly contentious is that it appears only here in all of the New Testament (and nowhere in the Greek Septuagint), and there are only five or six extant extra-Biblical Greek texts contemporary with or predating Paul that use the word αὐθεντέω, and none of them seem to have the “neutral” meaning of “exercise authority” or “have authority”, translations that rely more heavily on the relative abundance of αὐθεντέω occurrences in post-Constantinian Greek texts.

John Jefferson Davis, Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in an article discussing the interpretation of I Timothy 2.12, referenced a 1984 study by theologian George W. Knight, III, noting that of 329 occurrences of αὐθεντεῖν and its cognate αὐθέντης in Ancient Greek texts, “prior to and contemporary with the first century, αὐθεντεῖν often had negative overtones such as ‘domineer’ or even ‘murder’ or ‘perpetrate a crime’; only during the later patristic period did the meaning ‘to exercise authority’ come to predominate.”  Davis then cited a 2004 study in which New Testament scholar Linda Belleville “carefully examined the five occurrences of αὐθεντεῖν prior to or contemporary with Paul and rendered these texts as follows: … ‘commit acts of violence’, … ‘the author’ (of a message), … ‘I had my way with him’, … ‘powerful lords’, … (and) ‘Saturn…dominates Mercury’,” and noted that in all but the second of these examples, “a neutral meaning such as ‘have authority’ is not in view.”15

In December 2011, Al Wolters, Emeritus Professor of Religion at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, published an article, in which he contended that a Greek astrological text called the Methodus mystica, which uses αὐθεντέω, and which Knight had dated to the 15th century AD, ought to have been dated to between 100 BC and about 50 AD, on the basis of its reference to crucifixion (which Constantine had abolished in 337 AD), the absence of “any vocabulary characteristic of later popular Greek,” and the attestation of Greek scholars conversant with Greek astrological texts as to the time in which certain astrological methods referenced therein were in use.  The passage in question states, “one who is superior (αὐθεντοῦντα) to these in his occupation, and yet earns nothing.”  As Wolters observes, “there is nothing in this passage which suggests that αὐθεντέω has either a pejorative or ingressive connotation.  It simply refers to the way a person is superior, in terms of professional expertise in a given τέχνη (trade or craft), to others in the same business.  There is no suggestion that the former is thereby abusing the latter, or doing them an injustice.”  Wolters continued his article with an examination of the use of αὐθεντέω and its cognates in early Greek astrological texts, including the “Saturn…dominates Mercury” quote that Davis and Belleville cited from Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika (Tetrabiblos), and then concluded,

The foregoing survey of early astrological texts, almost all of them roughly contemporaneous with the NT documents, demonstrates that the use of αὐθεντέω in the Methodus mystica is not unusual.  In fact, it is consistent with the way both the verb and its cognates are generally used in astrological texts before about 200 AD.  The αὐθέντης word family seems to be used throughout to refer to authority or dominance of some kind.  Given the relative paucity of αὐθέντης “master” and its cognates in this time period, it is their use in these astrological texts which is particularly relevant for understanding αὐθεντεῖν in I Tim. 2.12.16

Continuing to cite Belleville’s study, Davis observed,

that a variety of pre-modern versions of the Bible translate this word not simply as “have authority” or “exercise authority,” but with some negative sense, e.g., the Old Latin: “I permit not a woman to teach, neither to dominate (dominari) a man”; the Vulgate ‘neither to domineer over a man”; the Geneva Bible (1560 ed.), “neither to usurpe authority over a man”; the Bishops Bible (1589), “neither to usurpe authority over a man”; and the King James Bible (1611) “nor usurp authority over a man.”  In none of these cases can the translators be suspected of having a modern, “feminist” bias in translating αὐθεντεῖν with a negative sense of “domineer” or “usurp authority.”  These instances show that the “traditional” translation of αὐθεντεῖν as “exercise authority” is neither uniform nor self-evident in the history of interpretation; if anything, it could be argued that the burden of proof is on the (now) “traditional” view to justify its translation choice.

It should also be observed that Paul, had he the ordinary exercise of ecclesiastical leadership and authority in mind, had at his disposal a number of words that could have served in this sense, notably προΐστημι.  This word, occurring eight times in the New Testament and used six times by Paul in reference to church leaders (I Tim. 3.4,5,12, 5.17, I Thess. 5.12, Rom. 12.8), can have the senses of “manage, conduct, rule, direct, be concerned about,” and connotes the “normal” and “expected” type of leadership that should be exhibited by those selected to lead.  The fact that a highly unusual and ambiguous word is chosen in 2.12 would be consistent with an unusual set of circumstances in the context to which the text is addressed.  It will be argued below that these circumstances, as indicated by clear references in the pastoral epistles themselves, involve women who are being deceived by false teachers and, as such, are not suitable for the exercise of teaching or ruling authority in Ephesus.17

After examining Paul’s citation of the creation account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, both in I Timothy 2 and elsewhere, passages of “clear references in (Paul’s) epistles (that) involve women who are being deceived by false teachers,” and an extensive examination of Deborah’s leadership in Judges 4-5, all of which are assessed below, Davis concludes that the best translation of I Timothy 2.12 is, “I do not permit a woman to teach in a way that domineers over men.”18  However, this interpretation does not fit the Greek grammar of this passage, nor does it fit the immediate context of I Timothy 2.8-12, nor does it fit the context of this passage as preceding the requirements for elder and deacon in I Timothy 3, specifically that any individual who would fulfill one of these offices must be a “one-woman man,” as noted above.

The Greek text states, “διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός, ἀλλ’ εἶτα έν ἡσυχίᾳ,” that is, “I do not permit (οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω) a woman (γυναικὶ) to teach (διδάσκειν) nor (οὐδὲ) to αὐθεντεῖν a man (ἀνδρός), but to be in silence (or quietness; ἡσυχίᾳ).”  Davis’ construction would use αὐθεντεῖν to qualify διδάσκειν to mean that Paul is forbidding women to teach in a particular way, but from the text, it is clear that Paul is forbidding women from both διδάσκειν and αὐθεντεῖν as two distinct but related activities.  In defense of his construction, Davis states, “In the New Testament, pairs of nouns or noun substitutes (e.g., infinitives) connected by a ‘neither…nor’ (δὲ…οὐδὲ) construction can define a progression of related ideas or define a related purpose or goal.”  Again citing Belleville’s study, Davis references Matthew 6.20 and Acts 17.24-25 as examples of this grammatical construction, and says that if this was Paul’s intention, then the meaning would be interpreted as, “I do not permit a woman to teach with a view to dominating a man (or to teach men in a dominating way).”19  Although some neither/nor passages can be interpreted this say, others cannot (e.g., Mt. 10.24, 24.21, 25.13, Lk. 6.44, 12.24, Jn. 1.13, 11.49-50, 16.3, Acts 8.21, 9.9, 24.18, Rom. 9.16, I Cor. 2.6, II Cor. 7.12, Gal. 3.28, 4.14, I Thess. 2.3, 5.5, I Tim. 6.16, Heb. 13.5, II Pet. 1.8, Rev. 5.3, 7.16).  Neither can I Timothy 2.12.

If we insert Davis’ meaning into the text, then we would conclude that Paul is saying that women should dress modestly, adorn themselves with good works, learn quietly and submissively, not teach men in a domineering way, and be quiet.  This begs the question, why, in between admonishments that women ought to learn quietly and submissively and that they should be quiet, is Paul saying that they ought not teach men in a domineering way?  Why not simply say that women ought not to teach others in a domineering way?

Davis claims that Paul’s choice of “a highly unusual and ambiguous word” like αὐθεντεῖν suggests that he was addressing “an unusual set of circumstances” that Timothy was facing in the Church at Ephesus.  However, that is not the Apostle’s stated purpose at the end of Chapter 3: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth.” (I Tim. 3.14-15)  In other words, the teachings about which Paul has been writing in this epistle, at least to this point, are intended as normative principles to be applied to all the churches, not instruction on how to address unusual issues that Timothy was facing in the Church at Ephesus.  In defense of his position, Davis points out that Paul, in both of his epistles to Timothy, addresses the issue of false teachers in the Church (I Tim. 1.3-11, 4.1-5, 6.3-10,20-21, II Tim. 3.1-9, 4.1-4).20  However, of the specific names of troublemakers Paul mentions (I Tim. 1.19-20, II Tim. 2.16-18, 4.14), not one of them is feminine.  Neither, for that matter, does Paul identify any examples of women falsely teaching in the Church at Ephesus (compare Rev. 2.20-23).  He mentioned young women—young widows in particular—who were susceptible to false teaching (I Tim. 5.11-15, II Tim. 3.6-7), but he made no mention of women—young or otherwise—who were themselves false teachers.  Elsewhere, he commanded that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2.3-5), and it is likely that he had this task in mind when he wrote to Timothy about enrolling older widows (I Tim. 5.3-10).

As noted above, Paul’s injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men immediately precedes the requirements for elders and deacons in I Timothy 3, including the requirement that officers be a “one-woman man” (Gk. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα).  And preceding this injunction, Paul was exhorting prayer for all people, especially governing authorities, and the proclamation of the Gospel, for such “is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.” (I Tim. 2.1-7).  Again, these are normative principles that Paul clearly intended as standard practices in the Church and not to address specific issues Timothy was facing in Ephesus.  It is not in keeping with this context that Paul should be forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men in a way that is limited to a specific error that he was addressing in the Church at Ephesus.

Further, Paul is excluding women from the specific tasks of teaching and exercising authority—tasks of spiritual oversight that are particular to the offices of elder and deacon (Acts 20.28, Heb. 13.17, I Pet. 5.1-5), which follow—over men.  Given that Paul had commended women prophesying within the context of worship and of otherwise giving sanction to women teaching men (a subject taken up at greater length, below), it seems apparent that Paul, in forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men, just before he gives the requirements for the offices of elder and deacon, is thereby, in effect, forbidding women from occupying these offices—even if he does use the word αὐθεντεῖν rather than προΐστημι.  Even if one agrees that αὐθεντεῖν has a pejorative meaning, like “usurp authority” (KJV) or “assume authority” (2011 NIV), the fact that Paul requires an elder or a deacon to be a “one-woman man” or “the husband of one wife” (emphasis added) means that Paul, by his apostolic authority, is saying that God is reserving these offices exclusively for qualified men, and his proscription in I Timothy 2.12 is meant to emphasize this.

Finally, Davis mentions that if Paul had “the ordinary exercise of ecclesiastical leadership and authority in mind,” he “had at his disposal a number of words that could have served in this sense, notably προΐστημι.”  Conversely, if Paul had the meaning “to domineer” or “to dominate” in mind, he likewise had a number of words at his disposal that had this specific meaning, such as κατακυριεύω or κατεξουσιάζω,21 both of which the Lord Jesus used in reference to the manner in which powerful men among the Gentiles ruled over others, when He was admonishing His disciples who had been arguing about which of them was greatest (Mt. 20.25, Mk. 10.42; for κατακυριεύω, see also Acts 19.16, I Pet. 5.3).

Paul’s Citation of the Genesis Narratives of Creation and the Fall

Paul states that his reason for not permitting women to teach or exercise authority is rooted in the order of creation—Adam was formed first (Gen. 2.7), and then Eve (Gen. 2.21-22)—and in the events of the Fall—Eve was deceived (Gen. 3.13), but Adam was not—indeed, God held him accountable, chastening him for “having listened to the voice of your wife and having eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it.’” (Gen. 3.17)  He not only ought to have refused to eat the fruit himself, but he also ought to have exercised the spiritual oversight over his wife, which God had entrusted to him, by refuting the serpent’s deceitful arguments—after all, he was not deceived, and he was present with her while the serpent was beguiling her (Gen. 3.6)—and thus keeping her from becoming a transgressor.

Again, Paul’s statements in I Timothy 2 must be read in light of what he says about headship in I Corinthians 11, where he likewise grounds his reasons in the order and purpose of man’s creation: Man was created first (v. 8), in order to do the work that God had appointed for him (Gen. 2.15), and then woman from man (v. 9), in order to fulfill man’s need for a helpmate comparable to him (Gen. 2.18,20); and not the other way around.

Within the economy of the family, God created the man to be the head of the wife and the wife to be the helpmate of the man, as illustrated from Genesis 2.  He is responsible for exercising loving, godly leadership of her and their children.  He will be held to account for his exercise of that leadership, to the extent that if he fails to love his wife as Christ loved the Church, if he fails to show honor to his wife or to live with her in an understanding way, his relationship with the Lord is impaired, and his prayers will be hindered (I Pet. 3.7).  Under the old covenant, a man had the authority to nullify any vow made by his wife or unmarried daughters on the day he first heard of it but was otherwise responsible for fulfilling any vow they made (Num. 30.3-16).  And under the new covenant, a man’s godly leadership in the home is a prerequisite for him to serve as an officer in the Church (I Tim. 3.4-5,11-12, Tit. 1.6).  As a husband, a man is appointed by God to the spiritual oversight and care of his wife, even if his wife’s spiritual maturity and gifts of leadership exceed his own, and the Lord will hold him to account.

Likewise, the wife is responsible for respecting and submitting to her husband’s authority, as unto the Lord (Eph. 5.22-24, Col. 3.18, I Pet. 3.1-6).  This does not mean that the husband may force his wife to submit to his authority, nor that he may act toward her in a controlling or abusive way; he is required to love her as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5.25-33, Col. 3.19, I Pet. 3.7), and what the Lord Jesus told His disciples about modeling the world’s ways of leadership (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-29), as referenced above, most certainly applies to husbands.  Nor does it mean that a man should disregard his wife’s gifts in leadership, wisdom, or management, but a wise man should seek to encourage her to develop and employ them in respectful, God-honoring ways.  To be sure, a woman ought not to obey her husband if he tells her to sin, nor should she remain in a home with an abusive husband.  But just as the Lord will call a man to account for his treatment and care of his wife, so too will He call a woman to account for her submission to her husband’s authority.

Again, God from creation has charged the husband with his wife’s spiritual oversight and care; He has not charged the wife with the spiritual oversight over her husband.  It stands to reason, then, that if God has not charged a woman with the spiritual oversight over her husband, he would not charge her with the spiritual oversight over other men either.  And Paul confirms this, forbidding women from teaching or exercising authority over men, citing the creation order for this, immediately before he enumerates the requirements for the offices of elder and deacon.

Now Davis argues that the foregoing argument “fails to take into account the way in which the apostle Paul draws implications from creation texts in ways that are specifically related to his pastoral and theological concerns for specific churches and congregations.”  First, he draws a parallel contrasting how Paul cited Adam’s sole culpability for bringing the curse of Original Sin on the entire human race, with no mention of Eve, in Romans 5.12-21, with how Paul cites the creation accounts in I Corinthians 11.2-16 for defining women’s conduct and apparel in worship, how he cites Eve’s deception as an example of the Corinthians’ susceptibility to false teachers in II Corinthians 11.3, and how he references the creation and fall accounts in I Timothy 2.8-15.  According to Davis, in the early chapters of Romans, Paul “is especially concerned with the ‘global’ and universal relevance of the gospel, and consequently reads Genesis 3 in terms of Adam’s disobedience that led to condemnation for all people.”  In the Corinthian epistles, however, “Paul makes different applications of the creation narratives that are specifically related to the problems of this local assembly.”22  And II Corinthians 11.3 is especially to be contrasted with I Timothy 2.8-15, in that in II Corinthians, Paul cites as an example “the deception of Eve” as a way to express his concern about “the danger of the entire Corinthian congregation (or its [male] leaders) being deceived by false teachers,” whereas in I Timothy 2, he “references…the deception of Eve” within the context of a letter he “is writing to a church in Ephesus in which he is concerned that some of the younger widows have already ‘turned away to follow Satan’ (I Tim. 5.15), and is aware of ‘weak-willed women’ in Ephesus who are burdened by sins and have not learned the truth, their homes being infiltrated by false teachers (II Tim. 3.6-7).”  On the basis of this contrast, Davis concludes,

This comparison of II Corinthians 11.3 and I Timothy 2.12(-15) shows that Paul does not have a “one size fits all” hermeneutic when reading and applying the Genesis narratives of creation and fall: “Eve” can be seen as a figure of women in Ephesus or as a figure for an entire church in Corinth—because the local circumstances differ, though false teaching is a danger in both settings.  Applications are drawn from Genesis in a church-specific and contextually sensitive way.23

Continuing his argument, Davis draws another comparison between false teachers in I Timothy 4.1-5 “who…require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (v. 3), and Paul’s concern in Romans 14 about the unity of the Roman church being imperiled by members judging one another over dietary practices, specifically where “one person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (v. 2).  Paul clarifies, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean,” but nevertheless, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14.14,21).  Davis points out that whereas in Romans 14, “Paul urges that a central redemptive concern for the unity of the church and respect for Christian conscience in secondary matters take precedence over any individual’s ‘creation right’ to eat meat, … in Ephesus, Paul (is) more insistent on the ‘creational right’ to eat all foods because the denial of this right is coming from false teachers who are in danger of abandoning the faith and following deceiving spirits (I Tim. 4.1).”

Then pulling the two comparisons together, Davis argues,

Just as in one circumstance a creational right to eat (I Tim. 4) does not lead to an unqualified permission to eat in another instance (Rom. 14), so it could also be the case that a creationally endorsed prohibition (I Tim. 2.12-13) of women exercising ecclesiastical authority does not imply prohibition under different circumstances.  In both cases, it is here being argued, Paul applies creation texts in a contextually sensitive manner and in a way that is concerned to preserve the apostle’s core values: sound doctrine and the preservation of the apostolic deposit of faith, the unity of the churches, and harmony and good order in the Christian family.

On this reading of I Timothy 2.11-15, Paul is indeed prohibiting women in Ephesus from exercising ecclesiastical authority and would not support their “ordination,” the reason being that false teachers pose a grave threat in Ephesus and women are being misled by false teachers and straying after Satan.  Paul sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis 3 and the deception of women in Ephesus, just as he sees a parallel between the deception of Eve in Genesis and the deception of the congregation in Corinth.  In different circumstances, where women are sound in the faith and their lives consistent with the apostolic core values of congregational unity and harmony and good order of the family, the way would be open for their exercise of ecclesiastical leadership.  The general, “transcultural” lesson that should be drawn, then, from the Genesis texts, in light of their contextually differentiated uses in I Timothy 2 and II Corinthians 11, would be that whenever and wherever either women or men are being misled by false teachers, they should not be ordained as church leaders; soundness in the faith is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for service as an elder or deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13).24

There is a significant difference between Paul’s reference to Eve’s deception in II Corinthians 11.3 and his reference to the same in I Timothy 2.12-15 that Davis overlooks.  In II Corinthians 11.3, Paul is using Eve’s deception as an example to which to compare the way in which the Corinthians were being led astray by false teachers, whereas in I Timothy 2.12-15, he is using it, together with the creation order, as his reason for prohibiting women from teaching.

In this regard, there is a stronger parallel between I Corinthians 11.8-10 and I Timothy 2.12-15 that Davis does not explore in depth.  In both of these passages, Paul is using the creation order of man then woman as his reason to command that “a wife (or woman; Gk. γυνὴ) ought to have a symbol of authority on her head,” in the one case, and that he “does not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” in the other.  It may very well be that Paul in I Timothy 2.12-15 referenced Eve’s deception because of the deception of some of the younger widows in the Church at Ephesus, as referenced elsewhere in the epistle (I Tim. 5.11-15), but this is by no means certain, as he does not reference it in this passage, and it does not explain his reference of the creation order as part of the reason for his prohibition.

Further, Paul’s reference to the Creation and the Fall accounts in I Corinthians 11.3-16 and I Timothy 2.8-15 argues against treating both male headship and the exclusion of women from exercising spiritual oversight over men as limited to addressing specific circumstances in particular congregations, and not binding on the Church of Jesus Christ today.  Unlike the issue of false teachers that Paul was addressing in II Corinthians 11.3-15, these two passages involve commands regarding the relationship of men and women within the context of congregational life, a relationship that was ultimately defined by the Creation and the Fall in Genesis 2-3.  This has far greater bearing on the interpretation of these texts than superficial observations regarding parallels between the contexts in which Paul references creation texts.

False Teachers and the Role of Women in First Timothy

Paul references false teachers in Ephesus in three passages in I Timothy (1.3-11,19-20, 4.1-5, 6.3-10,20-21), and in I Timothy 5.11-15, he says that younger widows “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not,” and further, that “some have already strayed after Satan.”  In addition, in II Timothy 3.6-7 he says that certain ungodly men in the last days will “creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”  Davis concludes on the basis of these passages that these younger widows have “strayed after Satan” because of the influence of false teachers (although Paul does not draw that specific conclusion, for their “straying after Satan” might very well have been on account of their being “idlers, gossips, and busybodies”), and on that basis urges that Paul’s injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men must have been made solely to address this issue, and where this issue is not present (as if it were not still a problem in the 21st Century Church), then the injunction no longer is in effect.25

The presence of false teachers in the Church has been a problem in every age and was not in any way restricted to the Church at Ephesus in the First Century, for it is a problem that still persists to this day.  Indeed, other epistles besides I Timothy address the problem of false teachers in the Church as well (II Cor. 11.3-15, Gal. 1.6-9, 5.1-15, Col 2.4,8,16-23, II Tim. 2.16-18, 3.1-9, 4.1-4,14, Tit. 1.10-16, II Pet. 2, II Jn. 7-11, Jude 4-19, Rev. 2.14-16), including one epistle the Lord Jesus wrote to the Church at Ephesus that commends her for how she has addressed the issue of false teachers within her pale (Rev. 2.2,6), and another He wrote to the Church of Thyatira, which was tolerating a woman who was a false teacher (Rev. 2.20-23).  Yet none of the authors of these epistles cited the false teaching within the churches to whom their epistles were addressed—or the susceptibility of women who were members of these churches to false teaching—as a reason to categorically forbid women from teaching or exercising authority over men.  Neither, for that matter, did Paul in I Timothy 2.8-15.

The younger widows to whom Paul referred in I Timothy 5.11-15 had been identified as “idlers, gossips, and busybodies”—character traits that would exclude them from the offices of elder or deacon (I Tim. 3.1-13, Tit. 1.5-9).  Yet of the older widows who were to be “enrolled” were those who had no family to support them, were at least sixty years old, had been the wife of only one husband, had a reputation for good works, had reared children, had shown hospitality, had demonstrated service within the church community, and had cared for the sick (I Tim. 5.3-10).  This “enrollment” may have entailed additional service that Paul mentioned to Titus, that “Older women…are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Tit. 2.3-5)  They would have met the character requirement for the offices of elder and deacon, Paul’s reference to younger widows “having already strayed after Satan” did not include them, and yet Paul’s injunction against women teaching and exercising authority over men encompassed them as well.

Kenneth E. Bailey, the late prolific author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies, agreed with Davis on the provisional/temporary nature of Paul’s injunction in I Timothy 2.12 and the negative meaning of αὐθεντέω, with a similar approach to the reason Paul might have “permitted no woman to teach, or to lord it over the men.”26  After referencing the susceptibility of young widows and weak women to false teaching in the Ephesian church (I Tim. 5.15, II Tim. 3.6-7), Bailey turned to the account in Acts 19 of Paul’s first visit to Ephesus and the great riot the silversmith Demetrius incited among the Ephesians, claiming that the Gospel message Paul was preaching constituted a threat to the worship of Artemis, the virgin Greek goddess of the hunt, the moon, and chastity, which was centered in the temple dedicated to her in Ephesus (not to mention a threat to his own livelihood as a crafter of idols).

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus had a large footprint, measuring 221 feet (67 m) wide × 425 feet (130 m) deep and supported by 127 columns that were 65 feet (20 m) high, architecturally dominating the city.  The Cult of Artemis was ruled by a cadre of virgins and castrated men, who oversaw a caste of virgin priestess/slaves dedicated to the goddess’ service.27  The worship of Artemis was the central reality in the life of Ephesus; Ephesian commerce was inextricably linked to the Temple, and “the entire town set aside one month a year for ceremonies, games and festivities connected to the cult.”

Bailey pondered the type of male/female relationships that might have developed in an environment dominated by a virgin cult, and how that might have affected male leadership and women’s attitudes in Ephesus.  Certainly, we can see how a false prophet, influenced by a virgin cult, might “forbid marriage” (I Tim. 4.3), if given a voice in the Church.  Bailey surmised that, “In Ephesus some women had acquired absolute authority over the men in the church and were verbally (and perhaps theologically) brutalizing them.  Paul calls for a halt to this dehumanizing attack.”28

The underlying assumption behind Davis’ and Bailey’s arguments is that Paul intended the injunction against women teaching or exercising authority over men as a temporary, local injunction, not intended as normative principle applicable to all the churches and not applicable in cases in which the peculiar circumstances facing the church in which Timothy served no longer exist.  However, Paul clearly stated in I Timothy 3.14-15 that what he had hitherto written in this epistle was intended so that, “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.”  Further, the paucity of examples in Scripture of women teaching or exercising authority over men, within either the New Testament Church or Old Testament Israel, also speaks against Davis’ and Bailey’s assumption, and it is to these examples that we now turn.

Biblical Examples of Women Teaching or Exercising Authority over Men

Those in favor of the Egalitarian position urge as consideration for their contention that women, as well as men, who otherwise meet all the requirements for elder or deacon given in I Timothy 3.1-13 and Titus 1.5-9 (the requirement to be “the husband of one wife” being an obvious exception; compare I Tim. 5.9) ought to be considered as candidates for these offices, cite a number of examples in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of women teaching and/or exercising authority over men, or fulfilling offices that entail the regular teaching and/or exercise of authority over men.  Some of these examples are legitimate cases where women do, in fact, teach or exercise authority over men, whereas others are much more dubious, and those examples in which women demonstrably teach or exercise authority over men will be evaluated for the criteria of whether these women actually exercised regular spiritual oversight over men, which is part of the work to which elders in particular, and also deacons, are called.  These examples, in the order in which they appear in the Scriptures, are as follows:

  1. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, was identified as a prophetess (Ex. 15.20), and she claimed that the Lord had spoken authoritatively through her, in addition to having spoken through Moses, and on that basis, she contended against her brother for his having married a Cushite woman (Num. 12.1-2).29
  2. Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess whom the Lord appointed to judge Israel, after the Canaanites had been oppressing His chosen people for twenty years (Judg. 4-5).30
  3. Huldah, the wife of Shallum, was a prophetess through whom the Lord was pleased to speak His Word to King Josiah of Judah after the rediscovery of the Book of the Law in the Temple, following the idolatrous reigns of Kings Manasseh and Amon (II Kg. 22.14-20, II Chron. 34.22-28). 31
  4. The unnamed wife of Isaiah the prophet was identified as a prophetess (Is. 8.3).32
  5. Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus, when she sang the Magnificat (Lk. 1.46-55), thereby became “a teacher of theology, ethics, and social justice,” to not only the women of the Church but also the men, when Luke recorded her song in his Gospel account.33
  6. Anna, the widowed daughter of Phanuel, was a prophetess who gave thanks to God for the presentation of the infant Lord Jesus at the Temple and “spoke of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2.36-38).34
  7. Priscilla (or Prisca), the wife of Aquila, together with her husband, “explained to (the Evangelist Apollos) the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26).35
  8. The four virgin daughters of the Evangelist Philip prophesied (and presumably did so before the Apostle Paul; Acts 21.9).36
  9. Phoebe, whom the Apostle Paul commended to the Church at Rome, is identified by him to be a deacon (Gk. διάκονος) of the Church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16.1).37  (The subject of women in the diaconate is addressed below, separate from this present discussion.)
  10. Junia, the wife of Andronicus, together with her husband was identified as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16.7 NRSV).38
  11. The older women (Gk. πρεσβύτερας) identified in I Timothy 5.1-2 alongside older men (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) ostensibly served on the (council of) elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) that laid hands on Timothy at his ordination in I Timothy 4.14.39

Prophetesses.  Of these examples, slightly more than half of them (#1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #8) are women who are designated prophetesses or women who prophesied.  Apart from Deborah, whose unique case will be examined at the end of this section, there is no evidence that any of them were tasked with exercising spiritual oversight over men, which was what Paul proscribed women from doing in I Timothy 2.12.  Huldah came the closest, through whom the Lord was pleased to declare His Word by means of her private prophecy to Josiah King of Judah, but she neither spoke a command to him, either to do something or to not do something, nor is there evidence that she rebuked him for any sin, nor is there any evidence that Josiah sought regular spiritual counsel from her, as he did from the High Priest Hilkiah.  Similarly, Deborah prophesied privately to Barak when she delivered the Lord’s command to him (Judg. 4.6-9).  And Miriam’s only prophecy was a direct repeat of the first verse of Moses’ song, and it was sung only to the women who followed her with tambourines and dancing (Ex. 15.20-21; compare Ex. 15.1).  None of the prophetesses recorded in Scripture had a ministry where they proclaimed the Word of God publicly to all men and women alike, such as the ministry of the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

Further, it is noteworthy that none of them—not even Deborah—prophesied without the named authority of a man with spiritual oversight over her: Moses was named in Miriam’s case,40 but otherwise either the prophetess’ husband or father was named in each case.41  This is the intent behind Paul’s commands regarding head coverings—the head coverings demonstrated that the woman did not prophesy or pray without “a symbol of authority on her head,” indicating that her father, brother, or husband was a God-appointed authority over her (I Cor. 11.3-16), even if she was a long-time widow, like Anna.  Thus, there is no evidence that any of these prophetesses (except potentially Deborah) had regularly taught and exercised authority over men in the manner for which men called to the office of elder/overseer or deacon are expected to do.

Priscilla.  Likewise, with the case of Priscilla (also called Prisca; #7), who, with her husband Aquila, approached and “explained to the Evangelist Apollos the way of God more accurately.” (I Cor. 18.26)  This couple appears a half dozen times in Scripture (Acts 18.2,18,26, Rom. 16.3, I Cor. 16.19, II Tim. 4.19), and in four of these verses, her name is listed before his.  Egalitarians want to make much of this, implying that she was the leader in the relationship, but far more likely she was the more loquacious and sociable of the two.  In point of fact, when they are first introduced, Aquila is named first (Acts 18.2), and she is never named apart from him.  The passage at hand reads,

Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus.  He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed (Gk. κατηχέω) in the way of the Lord.  And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught (Gk. διδάσκω) accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained (Gk. ἐκτίθημι) to him the way of God more accurately. —Acts 18.24-26

The key points of this are, that Apollos was “competent in the Scriptures, he had been instructed in the way of the Lord, … he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus,” and yet, “he knew only the baptism of John.”  To understand the extent of Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation of the way of God to him, we need to understand what was meant by “the baptism of John.”

The phrase, “the baptism of John” (Gk. τὸ βάπτισμα [τὸ] Ἰωάννου), appears eight times in the New Testament (Mt. 21.25, Mk. 11.30, Lk. 7.29, 20.4, Acts 1.22, [10.37], 18.25, [19.3]), and was defined by the Apostle Peter as, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.” (Acts 10.38)  In regard to the meaning of this phrase, Calvin wrote, “Luke comprehendeth all (John’s) ministry under this word, not only because doctrine is annexed unto baptism, but also because it is the foundation and head thereof, without which it should be a vain and dead ceremony.”42  John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” in order that they should “believe in the one who was to come after (John), that is, Jesus.” (Mk. 1.4, Lk. 3.3, Acts 13.24, 19.4)

Yet John’s baptism was insufficient, for it only pointed to the Christ who is to come, namely, Jesus.  To be sure, Christ was present at the time John pointed to Him, but His work, which gives baptism in His name meaning, had not yet been accomplished.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.3-5)  John had been beheaded by Herod while he was in prison, more than a year before the Lord Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead,43 before Jesus began to teach His disciples that He must be delivered into the hands of sinners, killed, and raised on the third day.

When Paul revisited Ephesus during his third missionary journey (he had left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey, while he returned to Antioch; Eph. 18.18-22), subsequent to Apollos’ preaching mission there, he found a dozen disciples—perhaps discipled by Apollos himself—who had only been baptized into John’s baptism and had neither received the Holy Spirit nor even heard of Him.  Upon hearing this, Paul rectified the situation by baptizing them into the name of Jesus, after which they received the Holy Spirit and began exhibiting the charismata—supernatural gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying (Acts 19.1-7).

By Apollos “having been instructed in the way of the Lord,” Calvin inferred, “that he understood the doctrine of the gospel, because he both knew that the Redeemer was given to the world, and also was well and sincerely instructed concerning the grace of reconciliation; and yet had he been trained up only in the principles of the gospel, so much as could be had out of John’s institution.”44  Thus, it seems that Apollos suffered from the same shortsightedness as the twelve Ephesian disciples Paul baptized, namely, that he failed to recognize the significance of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and his own need to be baptized into His name, and it is likely that this was the subject of Priscilla and Aquila’s explanation.

Of I Corinthians 18.24-26, Bailey wrote, “Clearly Priscilla is ‘team teaching’ the theology with Aquila and the student is no beginner, no fledgling catechumen; rather he is the famous, eloquent preacher of Alexandria.”  And further, “Priscilla had theological authority over her student Apollos.”45  Remember that Apollos had been well-trained in the Scriptures and the early proclamation of the Gospel, as presented by John the Baptist, and the Gospel that he was teaching from the pulpit during his ministry in Ephesus was accurate, if not adequate, for it lacked the centrality of the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ and our union with Him through baptism in His name.  Thus, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and expounded (Gk. ἐκτίθημι) the Scriptures to him, just as the Lord Jesus did to Cleopas and another disciple on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24.27), “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead” (Lk. 24.46), and that all whom He called should be baptized into His name (Mt. 28.19).  This was a one-time instruction and correction meant to clarify Apollos’ understanding of the Gospel he was preaching.  It was not as if he was submitting to Priscilla regularly teaching (Gk. διδάσκω) from the pulpit, as he had been doing in Ephesus prior to her and Aquila’s arrival, or to her exercise of discipline over him, nor did she have a public preaching ministry, such as Paul’s or Apollos’, as if she were in the office of elder/overseer.

Mary.  Likewise, the simple fact that Mary’s Magnificat is recorded in Scripture for the edification of men and women alike (#5) does not mean that she is in the office of elder/overseer either, regularly preaching and teaching the Scriptures and exercising discipline in the Church.

Junia.  With respect to Junia (and Andronicus) being identified as an apostle in Romans 16.7 (#10), there are a number of interpretive difficulties: Is the name translated Junia feminine or masculine?  Are the pair prominent among the apostles, or well known to the apostles?  And exactly what, in this passage, does Paul mean by “apostle”?

The name Junia, as it appears in the United Bible Studies Greek New Testament (3rd ed., corrected, 1983) text, is masculine in form and as such would be translated Junias (Gk. Ἰουνίας), and is thus found in the ASV, RSV, & NASB, in which case Junias would not be the wife of Andronicus but a brother in Christ instead.  However, Thayer indicates that Junia, the feminine form found in the KJV, NIV, NRSV, & ESV, is linguistically possible.46  Bailey observed that no Latin commentaries on Romans prior to the late 13th century referred to Junia as Junias, and the late eminent Reformed theologian Roger Nicole noted accordingly that the earliest commentator who referred to Junia as Junias was Aegidus de Columna (ca. 1245-1316).  Bailey further observed that the name Junias has never appeared in any Greek or Latin text, that the shift in the European Church to call Junia Junias occurred between the 13th and the 16th centuries, and that the same shift occurred in the Middle East in the 19th century.47  Despite what the UBS text says, the evidence points to Junia being a woman and the wife of Andronicus.

Secondly, are Andronicus and Junia “prominent among the apostles” (NRSV), or “well known to the apostles” (ESV)?  The Greek reads, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις.”  According to Thayer, ἐπίσημοι means “marked” and has both positive and negative connotations.  The negative meaning is “notorious” or “infamous,” whereas the positive meaning, which is what Paul clearly intends here, is “of note” or “illustrious.”  The meaning, however, hinges upon the word ἐν, a very common preposition with a great many meanings, depending on context.  One possible meaning, and the one most commonly used in modern Bible translations of Romans 16.7, is “in,” “among,” or “with,” in the sense of, “that with which a person is surrounded.”  Examples of this meaning include: Mark 8.38, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in (Gk. ἐν) this adulterous and sinful generation;” or Galatians 1.14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among (Gk. ἐν) my people” (see also Mt. 2.6, 11.11, Mk. 9.50, Lk. 1.1, Jn. 1.14, 13.35, Acts 2.29, I Cor. 3.18, 5.1).  Thus, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις,” would mean, “illustrious among the apostles,” in the sense that Andronicus and Junia would be included in their number.  Obviously, this is the meaning favored by Egalitarians.  Another possible meaning, and the one used in the ESV translation of Romans 16.7, is “with, among, in the presence of,” with the sense of to.  Examples of this meaning include: I Corinthians 2.6, “Yet among (Gk. ἐν) the mature we do impart wisdom;” or Matthew 21.42, “This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in (Gk. ἐν) our eyes.”  Thus, “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις,” would mean, “of note to the apostles,” in the sense that Andronicus and Junia would be esteemed by the apostles but not included in their number.48

Although the second sense is linguistically possible and coheres with the idea that the word apostle (Gk. ἀπόστολος) in its customary use in the New Testament is synonymous with the Twelve Disciples (with Paul replacing Judas), the first sense actually has greater attestation from the early Church.49  For example, the Fourth Century Church Father John Chrysostom said in one of his homilies concerning the reference to Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7, “And indeed to be apostles at all is a great thing.  But to be even amongst these of note, just consider what a great encomium this is!  But they were of note owing to their works, to their achievements.  Oh! how great is the devotion (φιλοσοφία) of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”50

So then, what, exactly, does Paul mean by calling his kinsmen, Andronicus and Junia, “apostles”?  Does he mean that they are invested with the same foundational authority with which he, Peter, John, and others were invested by the Lord Jesus, such that, “whatever (they) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever (they) loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16.19, Jn. 20.23)?  That they were enumerated among “the apostles and prophets” that constituted the foundation on which Christ built His Church (Eph. 2.20)?

In commenting on Romans 16.7, John Calvin wrote,

(Paul) calls them Apostles: he uses not this word in its proper and common meaning, but extends it wider, even to all those who not only teach in one Church, but also spend their labour in promulgating the gospel everywhere.  He then, in a general way, calls those in this place Apostles, who planted Churches by carrying here and there the doctrine of salvation; for elsewhere he confines this title to that first order which Christ at the beginning established, when he appointed the twelve disciples.51

In its most basic sense, the word apostle (Gk. ἀπόστολος) means, “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders,”52 and it is used in this sense in John 13.16, II Corinthians 8.23, and Philippians 2.25.  It is used of the Lord Jesus in Hebrews 3.1, and elsewhere in the Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and Revelation, it is exclusively used of the Twelve Disciples who were later named Apostles, except in Acts 14.4,14, where the Evangelist Luke uses it of Paul and Barnabas.  In Paul’s Epistles, the Apostle sometimes uses the word apostle in this sense, including in passages where he refers to himself as an Apostle, but often he uses it to refer to those engaged in missionary work (I Cor. 4.9, 9.5, Gal. 1.9, I Thess. 2.6), including Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7.  Thus, when Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle,” he does not intend it in the same sense of the Twelve Apostles (and those known and endorsed by them) who wrote the New Testament Scriptures that form, together with the Old Testament Law and Prophets, the foundation upon which Christ builds His Church (Eph. 2.20).

Women Elders in Ephesus.  With respect to older women serving on the council of elders alongside men in the Ephesian Church (#11), Bailey’s argument for this proposition is convoluted, tortured, and by no means conclusive.  It does not flow from a plain reading of the text and depends entirely on fitting the fourth and fifth chapters of I Timothy into an “inverted parallelism:”

In regard to our text, if we observe the larger section in which (I Tim.) 5.1-2 appears, the following outline emerges:

1. These instructions (as a minister) 4.6-11

     2. Timothy and the elders (and the young) 4.12-5.2

          3. Older widows (and the young) 5.3-16

     4. Timothy and the elders 5.17-20

5. These rules (in regard to ordination) 5.21-22

Bailey proceeds to identify #1 & #5 and #2 & #4 as two pairs, based on their indentation in this scheme, with #3 as the center, and his argument is focused on the perceived parallels between #2 & #4.  First, he wants to group the first two verses of I Timothy 5 with the topic Paul is discussing in 4.11-16, which is personal instructions to Timothy, particularly about the example he is to set for the Church in Ephesus, which is under his pastoral care, while 5.1-2 are further instructions on how, as a young pastor, he is to treat older and younger men, and also older and younger women.  The following section, 5.3-16, is a discussion on the enrollment of widows, which is expanded upon above, and while this discussion flows naturally from the first two verses of I Timothy 5, the instructions in these two verses align more with the last six verses of the preceding chapter.  Thus, there is no logical reason that we should not agree with Bailey on this point.

However, Bailey has an agenda behind making this alignment.  In I Timothy 4.14, Paul tells Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) laid their hands on you.”  And in I Timothy 5.1-2, he is saying, “Do not rebuke an older man (Gk. πρεσβύτερος) but encourage him as you would a father.  Treat younger men like brothers, older women (Gk. πρεσβύτερας) like mothers, younger women like sisters, all in purity.”  Bailey describes this conjunction, saying, “Paul first mentions the elders who have ordained Timothy (4.12-16),” namely, “elders who are not criticized.  He then discusses the difficult elders (5.1-2).  These are obviously people whom Timothy is sorely tempted to attack.  He is told, ‘Don’t do it.  Treat the πρεσβύτερος like a father, he is advised, and the πρεσβύτερας (plural) like mothers.”

Then he draws a parallel between I Timothy 4.11-5.2 and 5.17-20, saying, “Thus the two topics of ‘helpful elders’ and ‘difficult elders’ appear in” both of these passages.  In the first two verses of this latter passage, Paul is enjoining Timothy to honor elders who rule well, especially elders who exercise the ministry of teaching and preaching.53  Then in the latter two verses, Paul cautions him to be wary of charges made against an elder, but then to rebuke those elders who persist in sin before the entire congregation.  Then he concludes, saying, “In each case the good elders are mentioned first and the difficult elders second.  Thus paragraphs 2 and 4 can be seen as parallel discussions of ministry.  If this is true, the πρεσβύτερας in 5.2 are women elders ordained and engaged in ministry in Timothy’s congregation.”54

In making this analogy, Bailey is overly simplistic, reading the “good elder/bad elder” scheme into both of these passages.  While it is true that in both I Timothy 4.14 and 5.17-20, Paul is undoubtedly referring to ordained elders, who have been appointed after having met the requirements detailed in 3.1-7, as opposed to older men (πρεσβύτεροι can be translated as either “elders” [a term interchangeable with “overseers”] or “older men,” depending on context), in 4.14 the elders are not the subject of discussion but are only mentioned with respect to Paul’s instruction not to neglect the gift Timothy received when they laid hands on him, whereas in 5.17-20 the elders are themselves the subject of discussion.  Moreover, in 5.1-2, the natural reading of πρεσβύτερος is “older man,” especially when seen in conjunction with “younger men,” “older women,” and “younger women” in the same passage.  Bailey would have us believe that in 5.1-2 Paul was discussing how Timothy ought to be treating colleagues in “formal ministries,”55 but this is a forced interpretation, when it is clear that Paul is instructing Timothy on how to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (I Tim. 4.12)  Further, if Paul had elders specifically in mind in I Timothy 5.1-2, rather than older men, why would he categorically tell his young protégé there to not rebuke an elder but then in 5.20 to rebuke in front of the whole congregation an elder who has proved himself an incorrigible sinner?  Thus, there is no evidence that women served as elders in the Church of Ephesus, especially given Paul’s proscription of the practice in I Timothy 2.12 and the requirement that an elder be a “one-woman man” in I Timothy 3.2.

Deborah.  What, then, about Deborah (#2)?  Not only was she accounted a prophetess, but she “was judging Israel” during the Canaanite occupation under the command of Jabin, the king of Canaan, and Sisera, the general of his army.  “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4.1-5).  She summoned Barak, the general of the Israelite army, and ordered him to assemble the army at Mount Tabor and meet Sisera and the Canaanite army at the Kishon River, where the Lord promised to give him the victory (Judg. 4.6-7).  And after Israel’s victory over Sisera and the Canaanite army (Judg. 4.12-24), Deborah and Barak led the Israelite nation in worship (Judg. 5).  Of her, Davis wrote,

In Judges, Deborah appears as a “second Moses” figure whose authority derives from the God of Sinai.  The case of Deborah poses a special dilemma for the “traditional” reading of I Timothy 2.12: If it is true that Paul’s use of creation texts is intended to prohibit all women in all circumstances from exercising authority over men in the covenant community, then the apostle is forbidding what God has in this instance permitted—and this would amount to a contradiction within the canon itself.56

Deborah alone of all the women in the Bible was approved by God to exercise authority over men in deciding disputes between them.  However, she did so in the time of the Judges, in days when “there was no king in Israel, (and) everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17.6, 21.25), and as John Piper and Wayne Grudem have pointed out, “The period of the judges is an especially precarious foundation for building a vision of God’s ideal for leadership.”57  None of the priests who served in the Tabernacle or the Temple were women.  Athaliah was the only ruling queen in either Israel or Judah, and she attained her position through usurpation and not by the anointment of God (II Kg. 11.1-3).  And although there were prophetesses in Old Testament Israel, none of them, not even Deborah, were invested with the same magisterial authority as prophets such as Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel.

Deborah’s judgeship over Israel was unique in other ways as well.  To begin with, unlike all other prominent judges in the book, there is no explicit statement that God had raised her up (compare Judg. 3.9,15, 6.14, 11.29, 13.25, 14.6).  Instead, the text simply states that she was judging Israel during the time of Canaanite occupation under Jabin and Sisera and gives the details as to where she was when the Israelites came to her for judgment (Judg. 4.4-5).  Further, God had no intention of delivering Israel from the Canaanites by her hand, as He had delivered His people from their oppressors by the hands of other judges—Othniel (Judg. 3.9-11), Ehud (Judg. 3.15-30), Shamgar (Judg. 3.31), Gideon (Judg. 6.14, 7.1-8.21), Jephthah (Judg. 11.29,32-33), and Samson (Judg. 13.5,24-25, 14.4,19, 15.14-17, 16.28-30).  Rather, He chose to deliver Israel by Barak, to whom He delivered His command by Deborah’s prophecy (Judg. 4.6-7).  Yet it was Barak, not God, who wanted her to accompany the army, and he received a consequence as a result, namely that it would be a woman, Jael, who slew Sisera, and he would not get the glory (Judg. 4.9,17-22).

Finally, Davis’ argument that Paul’s prohibition of what God had permitted in Deborah constitutes a contradiction within the canon of Scripture is answered by Calvin, who wrote in his Commentary on I Timothy 2.12,

If any one bring forward, by way of objection, Deborah (Judg. 4.4) and others of the same class, of whom we read that they were at one time appointed by the command of God to govern the people, the answer is easy.  Extraordinary acts done by God do not overturn the ordinary rules of government, by which he intended that we should be bound.  Accordingly, if women at one time held the office of prophets and teachers, and that too when they were supernaturally called to it by the Spirit of God, He who is above all law might do this; but, being a peculiar case, this is not opposed to the constant and ordinary system of government.58

Paul’s “Great Vision” of Gender Equality?

Besides the foregoing, Evangelical Egalitarians will often cite other Scriptures in support of their contention that women ought to be ordained to the offices of elder and deacon.  While there are a number of such passages, many of them are directed toward abuses wrongly perceived in genuinely Biblical complementarianism but present nonetheless in some, if not many, who claim to be complementarians but fail to observe the Lord’s commands regarding Biblical leadership and how men are to treat women, both in the home and in the Church.  But there is one particular passage that Evangelical egalitarians regard as the lynchpin of their philosophy.

In Galatians 3.28, the Apostle Paul wrote, “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.”  Egalitarians latch onto this passage—in particular the third proposition therein—and absolutize it, holding to it as the central passage by which all passages of Scripture touching on the relationships of men and women must be interpreted.  In the context of building his argument that Paul in I Timothy 2.12 was speaking against female-dominance attitudes from the Ephesian culture that were infiltrating the church, Bailey wrote, “Two wrongs do not make a right.  The great standard set in Gal. 3.28 affirms that ‘in Christ…there is no longer male and female’ (NRSV).  Progress toward that goal of full equality cannot be made if either gender is asserting de-humanizing power over the other.”  And again,

Verses 11-12 (sic) are as follows: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  Difficulties continue: What is meant here?  This text appears to be in direct clash with Gal. 3.28 on the one hand and Rom. 5 and I Cor. 15.21-22 on the other.  Gal. 3.28 (as noted) says that in Christ there is no more “male and female” (NRSV).  Paul is quoting Gen. 1.27 and affirming that in Christ this order is no longer relevant.  Here, apparently it is significant.  This is indeed a crux interpretum.  Yet in this text Paul is angry and is surely not attempting to write a calm dispassionate essay that can be critically compared to what he wrote decades earlier in another time and to another situation.

And Bailey concludes his article by writing, “In this manner all the NT texts considered can be seen as supportive of the great vision in Gal. 3.28 where ‘in Christ…there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”59

Bailey and all egalitarians who use Galatians 3.28 in this manner are taking it out of context and are using it to justify a position that Paul never intended it to say.  In Galatians Paul was writing to rebuke the Churches of Galatia for listening to the Judaizers, who insisted that circumcision (a token representing the principle of keeping the whole Old Testament Law), in addition to faith in Christ, was necessary for salvation.  In Galatians 3.15-4.7 he was emphasizing the priority of God’s Promise to Abraham, which was the patriarch’s by faith, over the condemnation of the Law.  In the immediate context, Paul writes,

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on 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.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. —Galatians 3.23-29

What Paul is saying here is that Christ has abolished the condemnation of the Law for all who are found in Him.  Men and women in Christ have equal standing before God as brothers and sisters, “joint heirs of the grace of life” (I Pet. 3.7), without one standing to inherit more than the other.  Paul is not saying that Christ has abolished gender roles and responsibilities which were defined for our race by God before the Fall, at Creation.  If that were the case, we would not see such passages as I Corinthians 11.3-16, 14.33-38, Ephesians 5.22-33, Colossians 3.18-19, II Timothy 2.8-15, and I Peter 3.1-7, where such distinctions are maintained in the Church.

In a similar passage, Paul was enjoining the Corinthian Church to unity and rebuking the attitude some of its members had regarding the possession (or lack of possession) of spiritual gifts: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12.12-13)  Likewise, Paul enjoined the Colossian Christians to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3.5-11)

In neither of these passages did he think it necessary to include the male/female dichotomy, as he did in Galatians 3.28.  It stands to reason that if the abolition of gender roles was God’s “great standard” or His “great vision,” we should see many more such passages in the New Testament.  But it is not, so we do not.

Women in the Diaconate

The argument that women ought to be ordained to the office of deacon is predicated upon two texts.  First, in the middle of his list of qualifications for deacon, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Their wives (Gk. γυναῖκες) likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” (I Tim. 3.11)  γυναῖκες (the plural of γυνὴ), as noted above, can be rendered as either “wives” or “women,” depending on context, and the possessive pronoun “their” is not present in the Greek text of this passage but was added by the translators of the ESV (likewise KJV, NIV, NKJV), who believed that the context of the passage indicated that γυναῖκες should in this case be interpreted to mean the wives of the deacons.  Thus, the verse has also been translated, “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.” (NASB; likewise ASV, RSV, NRSV, 2011 NIV)

Second, in his greetings at the end of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant (Gk. διάκονος) of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron (Gk. προστάτις) of many and of myself as well.” (Rom. 16.1-2)  Similar to the multiple meanings of γυναῖκες mentioned above, διάκονος can also be translated as “deacon,” as it is in Philippians 1.1 and I Timothy 3.8,12.  Thus, Romans 16.1 has also been translated, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.” (NRSV)  However, of the twenty-nine or thirty60 instances of διάκονος in the New Testament, the most common translation is “servant.”61  Of Phoebe, Roger Nicole wrote,

Phoebe is called a “deacon” (note the masculine form related to an office rather than the gender of the person who holds it) of the church in Cenchreae, “who has been a benefactor (from προΐστημι, ‘to rule, to help’) of many people,” including St. Paul (vv. 1-2).62

Likewise, Bailey wrote,

Phoebe is called a deacon (διάκονος) not a deaconess.  The evidence for the feminine use of this masculine form is slight.  Most likely this masculine ending is used because Phoebe was ordained to a clearly defined ministry, that of deacon (διάκονος).  Thus the formal title appears.  Another reason is that the Aramaic word is shammash, which is used to describe the High Priest officiating in the temple at the day of atonement.  But the feminine shammasha means a prostitute.  The need for an honorable title would dictate the use of the masculine in the church where a significant number had Aramaic as a part of their linguistic heritage. …

In the contemporary scene Cranfield concludes, “We regard it as virtually certain that Phoebe is being described as a or possibly the ‘deacon’ of the church in question, and that this occurrence of διάκονος is to be classified with its occurrences in Philippians 1.1 and I Timothy 3.8 and 12.”  We would add to this that in I Tim. 4.6 διάκονος is applied to Timothy himself where it is usually translated “minister.”  While recognizing that Romans is written when the church’s ministry was in an early and more undefined stage, Dunn feels that “servant” is inadequate.  He writes, “διάκονος together with οὖσα points more to a recognized ministry…or position of responsibility within the congregation.”  Paul refers to himself and to Apollos as διάκονοι in I Cor. 3.5.  Furthermore, Phoebe is called a προστάτις over/to many.  This word was applied to the leader of worship in Graeco-Roman temple as well as to a governor, a chieftain and the leader of a democracy.  Dunn argues for patron/protector, or leader/ruler.  A ninth century Arabic version translated this phrase, ‘qa’ima ‘ala katherin wa ‘alayya’, in authority over many and over myself as well.63

In addition to egalitarian Evangelicals like Nicole and Bailey, who believe that the offices of both elder and deacon ought to be open to women, there are complementarian Evangelicals who believe that, although the office of elder is denied to women based on the foregoing arguments, Scripture seems to permit, and even commend, women to the office of deacon.  For example, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America deny the offices of teaching elder and ruling elder to women but open the office of deacon to them, and the Presbyterian Church in America, which currently reserves the office of deacon exclusively for men (BCO §24-1), is wrestling with the issue.64

Edmund Clowney, the late Professor of Practical Theology and President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after arguing against the ordination of women to the office of elder, argued for the ordination of women to the diaconate.  Quoting from the ASV, he said of I Timothy 3.11,

This verse occurs in a passage that gives the requirements of church officers: first bishops (I Tim. 3.1-7), and then deacons (3.8-10,12-13).  Verse 11 is located in the middle of the passage that describes the deacons.  Clearly this is not a description of women in general: the verse describes either women who are deacons or women who are wives of deacons. …

An argument against referring to this text to the wives of deacons is the fact that there is no similar description of the wives of bishops in the preceding verses.  The absence of the possessive pronoun (i.e., “their”) is also significant.  More striking is the use of “likewise” or “in the same way” (ὡσαύτως), which was used in verse 8 to relate the requirements of deacons to those of bishops.  Evidently three parallel sections of qualifications are aligned: for the bishop (3.1-7), for deacons “likewise” (3.8-10), and for women “in the same way” (3.11).  This mention of deacons’ wives comes before the requirements for male deacons are resumed in the next verses (3.12-13).

Further, the requirements listed for the women in 3.11 are remarkably parallel to the requirements for deacons in general (3.8-10).  Paul seems to point out that these requirements apply to women deacons as well to men, before going on to describe the further requirements for men, and then concluding with a statement of the reward of faithful diaconal ministry.65

Another complementarian who agrees that women ought to be ordained to the diaconate, Thomas Schreiner, the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Professor of Biblical Theology, and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agrees with Clowney that γυναῖκες should be translated as “women,” and that Paul’s use of ὡσαύτως signifies a brief transition to women who serve as deacons.  He then goes on to say,

Third, another argument in support of female deacons is from silence, but it’s an important one.  The argument goes like this: If the reference is to the wives of deacons, why does Paul omit a reference to the wives of elders, particularly since elders exercise pastoral oversight and overall leadership in the church?  It would seem the character of the wives of elders would be even more important than the wives of deacons—and thus focusing on the wives of deacons, but not on the wives of elders, is strange.  Yet if the reference is to female deacons, we have an elegant explanation for why the wives of elders aren’t mentioned—for the wives of deacons aren’t included either.  In other words, Paul isn’t referring to wives at all, but to female deacons.

Fourth, the character qualities required for the women in I Timothy 3.11 are also mandated for elders and male deacons, which makes sense if an official capacity is intended.  Just as deacons are to “be worthy of respect” (I Tim. 3.8), so too female deacons must “be worthy of respect” (I Tim. 3.11).  Elders are to be “self-controlled” (I Tim. 3.2), and female deacons must also be “self-controlled” (I Tim. 3.11).  Two other character qualities are required of female deacons: They are not to be “slanderers,” and they must be “faithful” (I Tim. 3.11).  Such qualifications point to official responsibility.66

Conversely, Guy Waters, the James M. Baird, Jr., Professor of New Testament and Academic Dean of the Houston Campus of Reformed Theological Seminary, disagrees with Clowney’s and Schreiner’s arguments.  Although he notes that γυναῖκες could be translated as either “women” or “wives,” he does not find significance in the absence of a clarifying pronoun (i.e., “their”).

Paul could be referring to the wives of deacons or to a separate group of women altogether.  Conceivably, women in such a group could hold the office of deacon, could hold an office (“deaconess”) alongside that of the diaconate, or could be a chosen body of assistants to the deacons.

It is noteworthy that Paul refrains from assigning a title to these women as he earlier has to elders and deacons (I Tim. 3.1,8).  No matrimonial qualification is assigned to these women, as for elders and deacons (I Tim. 3.2,12).  No provision is made for testing these women, as for elders and deacons (I Tim. 5.22, 3.10).  Paul immediately resumes his discussion of the diaconate in I Timothy 3.12-13.  All these things point away from understanding I Timothy 3.11 as speaking of women holding either the office of deacon or a parallel office.

Paul, rather, may be describing the qualities that must characterize wives of deacon candidates.  In light of the sensitivities surrounding deacons’ work, and in light of the fact that wives may be called on to assist their husbands—particularly in addressing the needs of the church’s women—one could see why Paul might have desired that the church be satisfied with the character of a candidate and his wife as they assessed his suitability for the diaconate.67

Writing on the subject of Phoebe, Clowney said,

C. E. B. Cranfield concludes that the form Paul uses in Romans 16.1 speaks of a “deacon” in the official sense.  The present participle of the verb “to be” is regularly used to identify an office (Jn. 11.49, Acts 18.12, 24.10).  The addition of the name of the church in Cenchreae fits this identification: “Phoebe our sister, being also deacon of the church in Cenchreae…”  If διάκονος were being used in the general sense of “servant” we might have expected “servant of Christ.”

The reference of διάκονος to an office is further supported by the fact that Paul goes on to describe how Phoebe fulfilled the office.  She was a “helper” to many, including the apostle himself.  The Greek term προστάτις was sometimes used in the sense of “patron,” someone with the social position and means to protect the defenseless.  Perhaps Phoebe’s “business” at Rome included the defense of widows or orphans.

The charge Paul gives the Roman church concerning Phoebe does not merely commend a friend to their fellowship.  He formally requests recognition for Phoebe, and full support for her activities.  How do we define “office” if not as a function that requires public recognition for its proper exercise?  If Paul had not called Phoebe a διάκονος at all, the fact of his commending her for support by the Roman church in her work indicates that she was entitled to formal recognition in any case. …

Since Paul excludes women from authority in the church (I Tim. 2.11-15), and presents order appropriate to the “household of God” (3.15), he makes no provision for women when he gives the qualifications for the office of bishop.  Women are not called to rule in the family or in the family of God.  But Paul does make provision for women in the office of deacon, and recognizes Phoebe as active in that office.68

Schreiner has very little to say on Romans 16.1-2.  Because the passage includes the words, “of the church at Cenchreae,” he is inclined to think that διάκονος in this passage means “deacon” rather than “servant,” especially “since Phoebe is designated as a ‘patron’ (ESV) or ‘benefactor’ (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.”69  Waters likewise has little to say on it, saying only, “It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of ‘deacon.’  The context of Romans 16 requires only that Paul be commending Phoebe as a dedicated servant of God’s people.  It does not require that she was a church deacon.”70

The office of Deacon is an office of service—hence its name.  Although the name is not directly applied to them in the text, it is generally believed that the seven Greek men in the early Church, who were appointed to oversee the daily distribution of the financial support that the Church was raising to support the widows in her midst (Acts 6.1-6), were the first men appointed to this office.  Accordingly, the Apostles commissioned the office, saying, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (Gk. διακονέω) tables.” (v. 2)  The office of Deacon is a position of responsibility, with the authority to call men and women of the congregation to assist them in their task, as needed.  Thus, they exercise authority over men, as well as women.

Deacons are also required to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” (I Tim. 3.9)  Although deacons are not expected to regularly teach, as are elders (I Tim. 3.2, 5.17, Tit. 1.9), two of the seven men first appointed to the office did (Acts 7.2-53, 8.4-40).

Finally, deacons are required to “be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.” (I Tim. 3.12)  As Waters observed, if Paul had women deacons in mind in 3.11, rather than deacons’ wives, one would have expected him to have required them to be “the wife of one husband,” as he did of enrolled widows (I Tim. 5.9).  A wife is called to assist her husband in ruling their household, but ultimately he, not she, is responsible to God for ruling his household well.

Thus, the Scriptures indicate that God, through the Apostle Paul, calls on His Church to reserve the office of deacon, like the office of elder, for qualified men.  That Paul calls Phoebe a διάκονος no more means that she had been called to the office of Deacon than the fact that he called her a προστάτις means that she exercised authority over him, as Bailey suggests.


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 Timothy 2.11-15

Paul, in making this statement immediately prior to establishing the prerequisites for ordination to the offices of elder and deacon, both of which require the officeholder to be “the husband of one wife” (I Tim. 3.2,12), is clearly stating that he is excluding women from these offices, which do entail teaching and exercising authority over both men and women.  Further, his statement in I Timothy 3.14-15, that, “I am writing these things to you so that…you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth,” demonstrates that what he has written about men’s and women’s roles in I Timothy 2, as well as the prerequisites for office in the Church, is intended as a normative principle to be applied to all the churches.

Reading I Timothy 2.11-15 in the greater context of the teachings on gender roles in the Old and New Testaments, it is clear that Paul is not saying that women should never pray, prophesy, or speak in church, nor that they should never give instruction to men.  Neither, for that matter, should it be construed that women are Scripturally forbidden from holding places of authority in secular offices.  However, in the context of the Church and the Christian home, woman is placed under the headship, or the servant leader authority, of man, who is commanded to love his wife as his own flesh—and as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5.25, I Pet. 3.7)—and to treat “older women (in the Church) like mothers (and) younger women like sisters, all in purity.” (I Tim. 5.2)  Man’s authority over woman must be exercised with love and gentleness, as the Lord Jesus demonstrated, and not in an onerous, overbearing, or demanding way, as the Gentiles were wont to do (Mt. 20.25-28, Mk. 10.42-45, Lk. 22.25-29, Jn. 13.1-15), for “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14.12; see also Mt. 12.36-37, 16.27, Heb. 4.13, I Pet. 4.5)

The case for the ordination of women to the offices of elder and deacon is weak.  It is predicated upon the assumption that Paul in I Timothy 2.11-15 was addressing a situation in which women in the Church of Ephesus, where Timothy was serving as pastor, were teaching and usurping authority over men, despite the absence of any reference to that effect in either of Paul’s epistles to Timothy, or in his epistle to the Church at Ephesus, or in the Lord Jesus’ own epistle to the Church at Ephesus (Rev. 2.1-7), similar to “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2.20).  It is further predicated upon the assumption that if these assumed conditions were not present, then Paul’s injunction against women teaching and exercising authority over men would no longer be in effect, and there would then be no Scriptural reason for women not to teach or exercise authority over men in the offices of elder or deacon, despite the paucity of examples in Scripture and Church history prior to the 20th century of godly women actually doing so.

To be sure, there are those within the pale of the Church who disagree with these conclusions.  Some of these loosened their understanding of Paul’s injunction regarding women teaching or exercising authority over men, and that precipitated loosening other doctrines as well, leading down the slippery slope to doctrinal compromise and theological liberalism.  Others had already compromised on other theological doctrines more central to the Gospel, and so compromising on Scripture’s teachings against ordaining women was done without a second thought.  But this is not true of all who have made peace with women’s ordination, for there are still genuine Christians who hold to Biblical inerrancy and the Gospel of salvation from sin and death by the grace of God through faith in the person and atoning work of Christ on the Cross, who nevertheless believe arguments advanced by scholars such as Kenneth E. Bailey, John Jefferson Davis, Walter C. Kaiser, and Roger Nicole that teach that women ought to be ordained to the offices of elder and deacon.  And irrespective of my arguments made against them in this post, I have deep respect for the scholarship of each of these godly men.

It is important to remember that the Scriptures’ teaching that women ought not teach or exercise authority over men, or to be ordained to the offices of elder or deacon, is of secondary importance, not primary importance.  One is not required to believe that Scripture teaches that women ought not be ordained in order to trust in the person and work of Christ for salvation from sin and death.  Neither, for that matter, should the issue of women’s ordination be a cause for separating oneself from a particular church.  And one’s beliefs on women’s ordination—one way or the other—ought not be a hindrance to membership in a particular church or for partaking of the Lord’s Supper at a particular church.  The Lord includes in His Church both men and women who do believe in women’s ordination and men and women who do not.

Nevertheless, gender roles in Scripture have revelatory significance, as representing the union of Christ and the Church (or of God and the Old Testament people of Israel), wherein the man represents Christ (or God) and the woman represents the Church (or Old Testament Israel).  The ordination of women to the offices of elder and deacon cannot but have the effect of diminishing the significance of this aspect of God’s revelation.

The Apostle Paul enjoins us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4.3)  While it is likely that denominations that hold to women’s ordination will never be organizationally united with denominations that do not (at least this side of heaven), Christians who disagree on this subject ought to disagree charitably, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We ought not hold negative stereotypes of one another but make an earnest attempt to understand the other’s viewpoint, even if we do not share it.  And at the end of the day, especially if neither side has convinced the other, we ought to be able to sit down at the table and take bread together.

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! … For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133.1,3)


1     G‑6.0106b (2) UPC, 1975, p. 254, Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Rem. Case 1); accessed 1 Feb 2021.  Note: Although the PC(USA) was still hosting the transcript of the case of Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh at the time this blog post was being drafted, the PC(USA) has since removed it from its website.

2     “This Day in Presbyterian History: July 29: Ascension Presbytery (PCA)”; accessed 1 Feb 2021.

3     EPC Position Paper: Ordination of Women, Adopted by the Fourth General Assembly, June 1984; accessed 1 Feb 2021.  The EPC holds that, “While some churches may ordain women and some may decline to do so, neither position is essential to the existence of the church.  Since people of good faith who equally love the Lord and hold to the infallibility of Scripture differ on this issue, and since uniformity of view and practice is not essential to the existence of the visible church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has chosen to leave this decision to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as elders and deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as ministers.”

4     Joseph Henry Thayer, D.D., The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1879; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979, 1981), pp. 610-611.

5     The name given to this office in Greek is ἐπίσκοπος, which is normally translated as “bishop” or “overseer”.  However, in the parallel passage in Tit. 1.5-9 where Paul again enumerates the qualifications for this office, he wrote, “I left you in Crete, so that you might…appoint elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) in every town as I directed you. … For an overseer (Gk. ἐπίσκοπος), as God’s steward, must be above reproach.”  Likewise, in Acts 20.17-38 Paul “sent to Ephesus and called the elders (Gk. πρεσβύτεροι) of the church to come to him.  And when they came to him, he said to them: … ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (Gk. ἐπίσκοποι), to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’”  Thus, it is evident that Paul uses the two names interchangeably to refer to the same office.  Further, in I Tim. 5.17-18 Paul makes a distinction between elders who rule only and those who labor in teaching in addition to exercising rule: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”  On the basis of this passage, Presbyterians refer to members of the clergy as “teaching elders” and to laymen appointed to assist the clergy in ruling the church as “ruling elders”.

6     G‑6.0106b (2) UPC, 1975, p. 254, Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Rem. Case 1).  The exact question was, “If the candidate does not believe that women should teach, I come to the very practical question as to how he would staff his church school?”

7     The practice of Orthodox Jewish men wearing kippah (or yarmulke) skullcaps during worship was developed subsequent to Paul’s teaching in this passage.

8     The PC(USA) was formed in 1983 by a merger of the UPCUSA and the PCUS.  Similarly, the UPCUSA was formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA and the United Presbyterian Church in North America.

9     Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015), pp. 207-212.

10   “Articles of Agreement between the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” §8.1 in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order, 2015-2017 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA), 2015), p. A-7.

11   The ECO Essential Tenets document §III.D, which is part of that denomination’s constitution, states, “The ministries of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king—reflected in the church’s ordered ministries of teaching elders, deacons, and ruling elders.  We affirm that men and women alike are called to all the ministries of the Church.”  And again, the ECO Polity (its equivalent of the Book of Order) §1.0603.c states, “(The session shall) train, examine, ordain and install those men and women chosen to serve as elders and deacons.”  To the best of my knowledge, as of this writing, the ECO has not faced a challenge to this position through either the examination of a candidate for office, or the discipline of an officer, who disagrees with the denomination’s position on the ordination of women.

12   The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II: Book of Order, 2007-2009 (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA), 2007), §G-6.0106.b.  §G-6.0106.b was removed from the PC(USA) Book of Order, after three previous failed attempts to do so, by a vote of the 2010 General Assembly (373-323-4) and the subsequent ratification by a majority of presbyteries (97-74), precipitating a massive split in the denomination, with nearly all departing congregations changing their affiliation to either the EPC or the ECO.  At the end of 2009, the PC(USA) had 2,077,138 active members; eleven years later, that number had fallen by forty percent to 1,245,354.

13   Westminster Confession of Faith I.7,9.

14   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 84.

15   John Jefferson Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives” in Tim Krueger, ed., Correcting Caricatures: Revisiting the Biblical Ideal for Men and Women in Ministry (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012), p. 20, emphasis original.  Thayer quotes three of these occurrences in his Lexicon (op. cit.).

16   Al Wolters, “An Early Parallel of αὐθεντεῖν in I Tim 2:12” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Dec 2011), pp. 673-684.  The translation of the text is Wolters’ own.  Alternative translations by other Greek scholars that Wolters gives before his own are, “one who has full command (αὐθεντοῦντα) of everything in an art but gains nothing” (Robert Schmidt), and “one who exercises authority over all in the trade and pays no consequences” (John R. Werner).

17   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 20, emphasis original.

18   Ibid., p. 23.

19   Ibid., pp. 24,25, n. 18.  Mt. 6.20 states, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  And Acts 17.24-25 states, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands.”  By Davis’ and Belleville’s argument, “where thieves do not break in and steal” (Gk. ὅπου κλέτται οὐ διορύσσουσιν οὐδὲ κλέπτουσιν) becomes, “where thieves break in with a view to steal;” and “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (Gk. οὐκ ἐν χειροποιήτοις ναοῖς κατοικεῖ οὐδὲ ὐπὸ χειρῶν ἀνθρωπίνων θεραπεύεται προσδεόμενὀς τινος) becomes, “does not dwell in human temples with a view to being served by human hands.”

20   Ibid., p. 24.

21   Thayer defines προΐστημι as, “to be over, to superintend, preside over, “to be a protector or guardian; to give aid,” or “to care for, give attention to.”  He defines κατακυριεύω as, “to bring under one’s power, to subject to one’s self, to subdue, master,” or, “to hold in subjection, to be master of, exercise lordship over.”  He defines κατεξουσιάζω as, “to exercise power over, wield power.”  (Lexicon, pp. 332, 339, 539.)

22   Davis apparently overlooks Paul’s “global” use of the creation and fall in I Cor. 15.21-22 in the context of his defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ—hardly a “local” problem limited to the Corinthian Church.

23   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” pp. 20-21, emphasis original.

24   Ibid., pp. 21-22, emphasis original.

25   Ibid., pp. 20-22,24.

26   Kenneth E. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View,” in Correcting Caricatures, p. 33.  The translation quoted here is Bailey’s.

27   My original post on the Ordination of Women incorrectly referred to the priestesses of Artemis’ Temple as cult prostitutes.  I apologize for the error.

28   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 32-33.  This is, of course, pure speculation on Bailey’s part, based upon a runaway extrapolation resulting from an insistence that αὐθεντέω must necessarily mean “dominate” or “domineer,” an interpretation that does not at all fit the context of the passage in I Timothy 2, as previously discussed.  It is, however, characteristic of some of the absurd things Bailey puts forth in his argument.

29   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Walter C. Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” in Correcting Caricatures, p. 9.  Roger Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” in Priscilla Papers, Vol. 20, No. 2, (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2006), p. 6.  Although the text identifies Miriam as a prophetess, no prophecy of hers is recorded in Scripture.  The words she sang in Ex. 15.21 are identical to Moses’ words in v. 1.  Moreover, although she and Aaron contended in Num. 12.2 that the Lord had spoken through the two of them, no words that He might have spoken were attributed as coming through her.

30   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” pp. 22-25.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 9.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

31   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 9.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

32   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

33   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” p. 27.

34   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 5.

35   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27,33.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

36   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” p. 28.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Kaiser, “Correcting Caricatures,” p. 10.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

37   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27-28.  Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 22.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

38   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-30.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

39   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 29-30.

40   According to later Jewish tradition, Hur, who assisted Moses in Israel’s early days in the wilderness (Ex. 17.10-12, 24.14), was accounted Miriam’s husband.  However, Scripture neither states this anywhere nor records whether or not Miriam was ever married.

41   Isaiah’s wife, mentioned only in Is. 8.3, was simply identified as “the prophetess.”  Although she may have been a prophetess in her own right, the appellation might have been applied to her simply because she was the wife of a prophet.

42   John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, Volume Second, trans. Henry Beveridge, Esq., in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 201.

43   The Lord Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation before the Passover (Jn. 19.14ff.), and He had been informed of John’s death just before the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mt. 14.13), which occurred during an earlier Passover (Jn. 6.4).

44   Calvin, Commentary on Acts, Vol. II, p. 200.

45   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27,33.

46   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 306.

47   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-29.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

48   Thayer, Lexicon, pp. 210,242.

49   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 28-29.  Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” pp. 6-7.

50   John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Homily XXXI, trans. J. B. Morris & W. H. Simcox, rev. George B. Stevens, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 11: Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans (Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1889; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994,1999), p. 555.

51   John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XIX (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 546.

52   Thayer, Lexicon, p. 68.

53   As an aside, Paul in I Tim. 5.18 cites Scripture as support for financial remuneration for teaching elders, quoting Dt. 25.4 (Old Testament) and Lk. 10.7 (New Testament) and identifying them both as “the Scripture.”  This is an indication that the Apostles recognized each others’ works as Scripture, on the same level of authority as the existing Old Testament Scriptures.  (See also II Pet. 3.15-16.)

54   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 29-30, emphases original.

55   Ibid.

56   Davis, “First Timothy 2:12, the Ordination of Women, and Paul’s Use of Creation Narratives,” p. 23.

57   John Piper & Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Piper & Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), p. 72.

58   John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XXI (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 67.

59   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 34,35 (emphasis original).  Bailey’s assertion that Paul in I Timothy “is angry and is surely not attempting to write a calm dispassionate essay,” whereas in Galatians, where he wrote, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves” (5.12), he was supposedly being calm, dispassionate, and not angry, is an absurd attempt to eisegete an attitude of anger and frustration into I Timothy 2 that is patently not there.

60   Although the UBS text uses the word συνεργός (translated “coworker” in the ESV) to describe Timothy in I Thess. 3.2, some manuscripts use the word διάκονος.

61   The ESV occasionally translates διάκονος as “minister” (II Cor. 3.6, Eph. 3.7, 6.21, Col. 1.7,23,25, 4.7), and once as “attendant” (Mt. 22.13), but in none of these passages would the meaning be changed if the word “servant” were substituted.

62   Nicole, “Biblical Egalitarianism and the Inerrancy of Scripture,” p. 6.

63   Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 27-28,35.  Citations in the quoted text are: C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 374; and J. D. G. Dunn, Romans, Vol. II (Waco, TX: Word, 1990), pp. 886ff.

64   On March 13, 2019, the Presbytery of Metro New York overtured the PCA General Assembly to revise portions of the Book of Church Order to allow women to be ordained as deacons.  However, Metro New York withdrew the overture prior to the 2019 Assembly.

65   Edmund P. Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), pp. 232-233.

66   Thomas Schreiner, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? Yes.” (The Gospel Coalition, 19 Feb 2019; emphasis original); accessed 15 Apr 2021.

67   Guy Waters, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? No.” (The Gospel Coalition, 19 Feb 2019); accessed 15 Apr 2021.

68   Clowney, The Church, pp. 232,233.  Citation in the referenced text is from C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. II (Edinburgh:T & T Clark, 1986), p. 781.

69   Schreiner, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? Yes.”

70   Waters, “Does the Bible Support Female Deacons? No.”

Does It Matter that Jesus Christ Was Born of a Virgin?

In the Nicene Creed, one of the few documents adhered to by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, we find this statement: “We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ…who…was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Likewise, the Apostles’ Creed, also accepted by the same three major branches of the Church of Jesus Christ, affirms, “I believe…in Jesus Christ (God’s) only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”  In this, the Creeds affirm only what is explicitly stated in the first chapter of both the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke, namely, that Mary, the betrothed wife of Joseph, a poor carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee, when she conceived the Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, was a virgin, and the conception was nothing short of a miracle.  Luke tells us that,

In the sixth month (of Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist) the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin (Gk. παρθένος) betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin (lit., since I do not know a man)?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And the angel departed from her. —Luke 1.26-38

Very shortly after Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Mary, she left her home in Nazareth to visit her kinswoman (likely an aunt or older cousin) Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk. 1.5-26,36), and stayed with her for three months.  As Elizabeth’s due date approached, Mary returned home (Lk. 1.39-56), and by this time it was quite likely that her own pregnancy was showing.  Joseph, her betrothed husband noticed this, and he knew that he was not the father of her child, from which fact he deduced that she had been unfaithful to him.  She might have told him about Gabriel’s appearance and announcement, but her testimony could not be corroborated if she had, and Joseph could not have been ignorant about how babies are conceived.  Then as the Apostle Matthew wrote,

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin (Gk. παρθένος) shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (quoted from Is. 7.14)

(which means, God with us.)  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus. —Matthew 1.18-25

Under the Old Testament Law, a woman was required to remain a virgin until she was married (this is still an expectation of Christian women, as fornication, or sexual intercourse outside monogamous heterosexual marriage, is still classified as a sin against God).  If an Israelite man were to marry a woman, and if he “did not find in her evidence of virginity” (e.g., blood does not spill when the hymen is broken), and her parents were unable to produce “the evidence of her virginity” (i.e., the soiled bedsheets from her wedding night) before “the elders of the city in the gate”, then she was to be stoned to death, “because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house.” (Dt. 22.13-21)

Had he pressed his rights, Mary would have been stoned to death.  But “Joseph, being a just man (not to mention gracious and compassionate) and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Had he gone through with this, Mary’s life and that of her child would have been hard, and no just and upright man would have her as wife, but the two of them would still live.  But another angel (or possibly Gabriel once more; Matthew does not identify the angel by name) appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, that the child in her womb had been miraculously conceived and would somehow “save his people from their sins,” and asked him to continue with the betrothal and marry her.

This would have been a burden on Joseph, as marrying a pregnant woman tacitly meant that he was accepting the responsibility of fathering her child, for presumably no angel appeared to anyone else in Nazareth to clarify that the Lord Jesus had been conceived miraculously, without his earthly parents having had sexual intercourse.  It meant that he would be accepting the public shame for having treated a daughter of Israel dishonorably, and this would have had social repercussions, likely including the loss of business in his carpentry trade.  Nevertheless, Joseph did wed Mary, and they abstained from sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born.1

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Virgin Birth

But why, then, was it necessary for the Lord Jesus to be born of a virgin?  Two complementary answers can be found in Scripture, the first of which is: To fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  In Matthew 1.23, the Apostle explicitly states, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” and then he quoted Isaiah 7.14, which states, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

One of the most common objections to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14 is that the Hebrew word commonly translated “virgin” in this passage is almah, which means “young woman”, rather than bethulah, the more common Hebrew word for “virgin”, for almah can be used also to refer to a young mother and does not specifically denote virginity.

For reference, the word almah appears seven times in the Old Testament.  The first of these appears in Genesis 24, where Abraham is sending his oldest servant to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had emigrated with his father and nephew many years before (Gen. 11.31), in order to seek a bride for his son Isaac among his kindred.  In v. 14, the servant prays to the Lord, saying, “Let the young woman (Heb. naarah; also in vv. 16,28,55,57,61) to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”  Then Rebekah, who would become Isaac’s wife at the end of the chapter, came out and replied exactly as the servant had asked the Lord that she should reply.  In vv. 42-44, where he was relating this to her father and brother, he said, “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water.  Let the virgin (Heb. almah) who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’” etc.  Given Middle Eastern cultural standards, especially of prominent men like Abraham, the servant would certainly not be seeking a wife for his master’s son who was not a virgin.  And in any case, Scripture confirms that Rebekah was a virgin, saying, “The young woman (Heb. naarah) was very attractive in appearance, a maiden (Heb. bethulah) whom no man had known.” (v. 16)

The second appearance of the word almah occurs in Exodus 2.1-10, where Moses’ mother set him in an ark of bulrushes in the Nile River, from which Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out.  Moses’ sister Miriam then went up to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked if she should summon a Hebrew woman to serve as a wetnurse for Moses.  “And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go.’  So the girl (i.e., Miriam; Heb. almah) went and called the child’s mother.” (v. 8)  Given that Moses at the time was a three-month-old infant, and that their brother Aaron was only three years older than he (Ex. 7.7), Miriam was, in all likelihood, somewhere between five and ten years old and was hardly expected to be anything but a virgin.

The word almah next appears in Psalm 68, in which David is singing of God routing His enemies.  About two-thirds of the way through, David writes,

Your (victory) procession is seen, O God,
the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them virgins (Heb. almah) playing tambourines. (vv. 24-25)

There are only three examples of women playing tambourines in celebrations like this in the Old Testament.  The first was in Exodus 15.20-21, where Miriam led the women of Israel in playing tambourines, singing, and dancing, after the Lord had destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the midst of the sea.  Miriam by this time was in her late eighties and was no longer a virgin (unless she had never married; Scripture does not indicate one way or the other), and the Hebrew word used here for “women”, nashim, is commonly used in the Old Testament of women generally and is not restricted to virgins or even to young women.  The second was in Judges 11.34-40, when Jephthah’s only daughter came out of his house upon his return, after the Lord had given him victory over the Ammonites, after he had made his horrific vow to offer up whomever or whatever came out of his door upon his return: “Then Jephthah came home at Mizpah.  And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.  She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” (v. 34)  And after he had grieved his vow and told her what he had promised to the Lord, she agreed that he had to follow through on it, asking only for two months to spend with her companions and bewail her virginity (Heb. bethulim).  In the third, women (Heb. nashim) were recounted singing, dancing, and playing the tambourine (I Sam. 18.6-7).  Elsewhere, prophets are mentioned playing the tambourine (along with other musical instruments; I Sam. 10.5), but most often when tambourines are mentioned in the Old Testament, no mention is made of who is playing them.  Thus, there is no cultural reason that almah in Psalm 68.25 must be restricted to unmarried women (i.e., virgins).

The fourth instance in which the word almah occurs is in the words of Agur in Proverbs 30, in which he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin (Heb. almah).” (vv. 18-19)  Although in this context, almah could certainly mean “young woman”, it has greater meaning if “virgin” is intended.

The fifth and sixth occurrences are found in the Song of Solomon.  In Song 1.2-3, the Bride says, “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore, virgins (Heb. almah) love you.”  Likewise, the Beloved says in Song 6.8 after having praised the Bride’s beauty, “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins (Heb. almah) without number.”  It would be highly improper, even in the erotic Song of Solomon, for the almah to include young married women among those who would aspire to be loved by (and thus wedded to) the Bride’s Beloved or whom the Beloved might consider adding to his harem.  Thus, in both of these passages, almah must mean “virgin”.

In Isaiah 7, the Lord through the prophet is assuring the wicked King Ahaz of Judah that the Lord will not permit the allied kings of Israel and Syria to conquer Jerusalem, although they were besieging it.  Indeed, He promised, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim (i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel) will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.” (v. 8)  Then Isaiah invited Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign that He would accomplish what He promised, but Ahaz refused, saying, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”  Then Isaiah replied,

Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin (Heb. almah) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. (vv. 10-17)

At the Lord’s instruction, Isaiah had brought his young son Shear-jashub (whose name means, “a remnant shall return”) with him when he came to Ahaz, as a physical illustration of the prophecy.  To be sure, Shear-jashub was not the fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, for neither was he born of a virgin, nor was he God manifested in the flesh—Immanuel, God with us.  But he was a sign that pointed to that future reality that had to wait more than seven hundred years for its fulfillment.

The Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 was a promise of deliverance from the Lord.  Temporally, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy in delivering Jerusalem from the besieging Israelite and Syrian armies.  But ultimately He fulfilled the prophecy in delivering His people from sin and death in the sacrificial death of Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, just as Isaiah had foretold.

Now some still charge Matthew with mistranslating almah as παρθένος, in order to find an Old Testament passage to corroborate his teaching that the mother of Jesus was a virgin.  However, Matthew did not translate this passage at all.  To be sure, the Church Father Papias claimed, “Matthew put together the oracles (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”2  English New Testament scholar John W. Wenham similarly opined, “My own undogmatic view is that Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, between A.D. 33 and 42; Mark in about 44, followed shortly thereafter by a Greek translation of Matthew.”3  However, no texts of Matthew’s Gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic have been found, and other New Testament scholars have noted that Matthew does not read like a translation from these languages.  Regardless of how he might have written the Gospel account bearing his name, he did not translate Isaiah 7.14 out of the original Hebrew.  The text of Matthew 1.23 in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament matches the text in Isaiah 7.14 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) word-for-word, and the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy Jewish scholars (according to tradition; hence its name) at Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC), thus predating Christ’s birth by more than two hundred years.

Jesus Christ Had No Human Sire

It might seem overly obvious, but its profundity is not always understood: Jesus of Nazareth had no human sire; no man’s Y-chromosome was part of His physical makeup.

In the context of His excoriating criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He commanded, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (v. 9)  Now in this, He was criticizing them for accepting the usage of pretentious titles, not forbidding anyone from addressing their earthly fathers by that title.  But at the same time, it is profoundly true in His case that He does have only one Father, who is in heaven.  Accordingly, we nowhere see Him in Scripture addressing or even referring to Joseph as His father.  To be sure, the Gospel writers refer to Him as Joseph’s son, but only to connect Him with His descent from David, and even then they do so only with qualification.  Matthew writes, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt. 1.16), rather than, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the father of Jesus, who is called Christ.”  Likewise, Luke writes, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.” (Lk. 3.23; emphasis added)  The men and women of Nazareth thought Him to be Joseph’s son (Mt. 13.55, Lk. 4.22), but they either were not aware of His virgin birth or did not believe it if they were.  And what is most striking is that when Mary said upon finding Him sitting in the Temple after He had been missing for several days, “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress,”4 He answered, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (or about my Father’s business)?” (Lk. 2.48-49)  To be sure, Joseph functioned as Jesus’ father as He was growing up, but he was not actually His father.

In ancient mythologies, there were copious examples of gods coming to Earth in various forms and impregnating women.  But this was certainly not the case with the conception of the Lord Jesus.  As Gabriel told Mary, after she had asked how it could be that she could conceive a son when she was a virgin, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 2.35)  Again, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me.’” (Heb. 10.5; quoted from Ps. 40.6 LXX)  This body was created supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in the same manner in which the body of Adam was created supernaturally from the dust of the earth and the body of Eve was created supernaturally from the rib of Adam (Gen. 2.7,21-22).  And in this supernaturally created body, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was Himself God, the eternal Son of God, was made flesh (Jn. 1.14).  “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2.6-7)

Now as it is written, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15.21-22)  And again, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  Yet despite the fact that all we who are born in Adam sin and therefore die, that we all were conceived in sin and born in iniquity (Ps. 51.5), Jesus Christ alone, out of all humanity, was born without sin (Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).  He was “born of woman” (Gal. 4.4), the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the Serpent (Gen. 3.15, Heb. 2.14), but He was begotten by no man.  Now both Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s prohibition of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3.6).  Yet it was Adam’s sin alone that was imputed to his posterity, for Scripture does not say, “As in Eve all die,” nor yet even, “By Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” but, “As in Adam all die,” and, “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  Thus, by being born of woman, He shares in Adam’s nature, but because He was begotten by no man, He does not share in Adam’s Original Sin.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ was conceived before Joseph and Mary had been married.  Thus, at the time He was conceived, had Mary engaged in sexual intercourse with a man, she would have been defiled by sexual immorality and adultery, regardless of whether she had been a willing participant or not.  In Genesis 34, we read how a prince of the Hivites either seduced or raped Dinah, the only daughter of the Patriarch Jacob named in Scripture, and afterward, “Jacob heard that (this prince) had defiled (Heb. tame) his daughter Dinah.” (v. 5; also vv. 13,27).  Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel referred to the commission of the sin of adultery as a man “defiling (Heb. tame) his neighbor’s wife” (Ezek. 18.6,11,15, 22.11, 33.26).  The Angel Gabriel said that the Lord Jesus “will be called holy—the Son of God” (Lk. 1.35); but it would have been far less than holy—not to mention radically out of God’s character—had He been born of a defiled woman, to have been “born of sexual immorality” (as the scribes and Pharisees may have insinuated when they said this in Jn. 8.41).  Thus, to deny that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, as the Scriptures teach, is tantamount to blaspheming the character of God.

Consequently, because He was born of a virgin, the Lord Jesus alone was suited to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1.29).  For the lambs used in the Old Testament sacrifice were required to be “a male without blemish” (Ex. 12.5, Lev. 1.10, 22.19-25).  “But it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (or lambs, for that matter) to take away sins” (Heb. 10.4), for they do not share in our human nature.  Only man ought to die to pay the penalty for his sin, but no one begotten by man can pay the penalty for man’s sin, because not one of them is “without blemish,” that is, without sin.  So then, Christ alone, because He was born of woman but begotten by God (Jn. 3.16) and not man, and thus sharing our nature but not our sin, is eminently suited to be the sacrifice that bears the wrath of God poured out in just penalty for the sin of the entire human race.  “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’ (quoted from Gen. 2.7); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” (I Cor. 15.45-47)

Controversy over the Virgin Birth in Early 20th Century American Presbyterianism

In the 1920s, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth figured somewhat prominently in the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  The Theological Liberalism that had come to dominate the Protestant Church in Europe in the Nineteenth Century came to American shores in the decades following the Civil War, and its influence was soon being felt at the seminaries of the Mainline Protestant denominations.  In 1876, the PCUSA’s Union Theological Seminary in New York called as its Chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages a young Presbyterian pastor named Charles Augustus Briggs.  Briggs, who had been educated at the University of Virginia, Union, and the University of Berlin, quickly became controversial for championing the Literary/Historical Critical Method.  Upon his appointment to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union on January 20, 1891, he delivered an inaugural address in which he declared, “We find there are errors of transmission.  There is nothing divine in the text—in its letters, words, or clauses. … I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption, upon which no mind can rest with certainty.”5  Then he proceeded to belligerently deny Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Isaiah wrote all of the book attributed to him, and that Biblical prophecy was a genuine prediction of the future.  Subsequently, he was brought up on charges of heresy before the PCUSA General Assembly that year, which vetoed Union’s appointment of him to the Biblical Theology Chair.6  The following year, the General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Oregon, issued what has become known as the Portland Deliverance of 1892, which stated,

The General Assembly would remind all under its care that it is a fundamental doctrine that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and infallible Word of God.  Our Church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error.  The assertion of the contrary cannot but shake the confidence of the people in the sacred Books.  All who enter office in our Church solemnly profess to receive them as the only infallible rule of faith and practice.  If they change their belief on this point, Christian honor demands that they should withdraw from our ministry.  They have no right to use the pulpit or the chair of the professor for the dissemination of their errors until they are dealt with by the slow process of discipline.  But if any do so act, their Presbyteries should speedily interpose, and deal with them for violation of ordination vows.7

In October the same year, Union rescinded the General Assembly’s right to veto its faculty appointments, although it professed continued fidelity to the PCUSA.  Then in 1893, Briggs was brought before the General Assembly again, which overwhelmingly voted to suspend him from the ministry “for propagating ‘views, doctrines, and teachings’ contrary to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and standards of the church and in violation of his ordination vows.”8  Union subsequently disaffiliated from the PCUSA, although it still continued supplying graduates to fill Presbyterian pulpits.9

Despite the resolution of the Briggs heresy trial and the withdrawal of Union Theological Seminary, Theological Liberalism continued to plague the PCUSA, and the trouble only grew worse.  Soon, not only were the reliability and authority of the Bible being openly criticized, but many primary doctrines as well, including the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Although Briggs believed the Biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth,10 some of his students did not.  In 1910, a case came before the General Assembly in which three graduates of Union Seminary had been ordained to the ministry, despite having refused to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Because the PCUSA Book of Order allowed candidates to state scruples (or take exception) to the Westminster Standards, and because New York Presbytery accepted the men’s scruples against being required to affirm the Virgin Birth (as stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 22), the Assembly dismissed the complaint and drafted and approved a Doctrinal Deliverance consisting of the following five articles, with which all candidates for the ministry would henceforth be required to affirm:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  Our Confession says (Chapter I, Section 10): “The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.”

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up “himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God.”  The Scripture saith Christ “once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit.”  (Cf. the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 25)

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that “on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession.” (Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Section 4)

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles.  This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35).  These great wonders were signs of the divine power of our Lord, making changes in the order of nature.  They were equally examples, to his Church, of charity and good-will toward all mankind.

These five articles of faith are essential and necessary.  Others are equally so…

Resolved, That, reaffirming the advice of the Adopting Act of 1729, all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate for the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, unless he declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of the Confession.11

The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1916.12  Then on May 21, 1922, Theologically Liberal Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in the pulpit of New York’s First Presbyterian Church, during his candidacy to become the church’s next senior pastor, in which he criticized the PCUSA for “shutting the doors of Christian fellowship” against those who held a different “point of view” of the doctrines enumerated in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Regarding the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in his sermon

Fosdick allowed that many devout Christians believed that the virgin birth was an historical event, that “it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into the world except by a special biological miracle.”  But, he argued, many others within the evangelical churches accepted another point of view.  These Christians held that “those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in His birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”

He addressed the rest of the doctrines in the Deliverance similarly.13  Fosdick’s sermon set off a firestorm of controversy in the PCUSA.  Naturally, a complaint on the subject came before the General Assembly the next year.  Although many commissioners (including all but one of those serving on the Bills and Overtures Committee that first argued the case) wanted to take no action, since New York Presbytery was already investigating the complaint, the 1923 Assembly voted by 55% to reaffirm the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 and “to take such action…as will require the preaching and teaching of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith.”14

Following the decision of the 1923 General Assembly, a committee of eleven Theological Liberals in the PCUSA drafted their own declaration, entitled, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, more popularly known as The Auburn Affirmation,15 written in six articles, which took special aim at the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  The first article of the Affirmation attacked the first article of the Deliverance, denying the Doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture:

There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept “from error.”  The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not to be found in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any of the great Reformation confessions.  The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.  We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,” spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.  We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (Conf. I.ii).16

Likewise, the fourth article in The Auburn Affirmation explicitly rejected any attempt to identify any specific teaching—especially those in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910—as “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards”:

The General Assembly of 1923 expressed the opinion concerning five doctrinal statements that each one “is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards.”  On the constitutional grounds which we have before described, we are opposed to any attempt to elevate these five doctrinal statements, or any of them, to the position of test for ordination or for good standing in our church.

Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.  Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.17

The committee that drafted The Auburn Affirmation began seeking signatures in November 1923.  By May 5, 1924, when the second printing was produced, they had collected 1293 signatures.  Naturally, a complaint against the Affirmation was brought before the 1924 General Assembly, as were a complaint against two Union Seminary graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained the year before, despite their having denied the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and a complaint that Fosdick should be removed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  But the Assembly voted to take no action against any of the three complaints and, in fact, invited Fosdick to join the PCUSA.18  However, as church historian George Marsden has pointed out, the invitation the Assembly extended to Fosdick was “in effect an invitation for him to let himself be tried for heresy.  This move, in fact, ensured Fosdick’s resignation from his New York pulpit.”19

Despite the tepid response of the 1924 General Assembly, matters came to a head at the General Assembly the following year.  Complaints against the ordination policies of New York Presbytery—and the two Union graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained despite their denial of the Virgin Birth—were brought before the Assembly again.  The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled, “that inasmuch as these two could not affirm their belief in the virgin birth, a doctrine repeatedly affirmed by previous assemblies, the presbytery should have deferred their licensing.  As such, (the PJC) returned the matter to the presbytery for appropriate action.”  In response, Henry Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, read a prepared statement at the invitation of the Assembly Moderator, saying, “The sixteen commissioners of the Presbytery of New York, on behalf of the said Presbytery, respectfully declare that the Presbytery of New York will stand firmly upon the constitution of the Church, reaffirmed in the reunions of 1870 and 1906, which forbids the Assembly to change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry, without submitting such amendment to the Presbyteries for concurrent action.”  By “change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry,” Coffin clearly meant the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Fearing a denominational schism, Moderator Charles Erdman proposed “that a Commission of Fifteen members be appointed to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest, and to report to the next General Assembly, to the end that the purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured.”  The Assembly passed the proposal unanimously.20  The Commission Erdman appointed presented an interim report the following year and a final report to the 1927 General Assembly, both of which were heavily influenced by The Auburn Affirmation.  The final report, which was approved by the Assembly, stated,

(I)t seems quite clear…that, granting for the moment the authority of the General Assembly, acting in any capacity, to declare broadly that an article is essential and necessary, it would be required to quote the exact language of the article as it appears in the Confession of Faith.  It could not paraphrase the language nor use other terms than those employed within the Constitution, much less could it erect into essential and necessary articles doctrines which are only derived as inferences from the statements of the Confession.21

In effect, the Doctrinal Deliverance approved by the 1910 PCUSA General Assembly, and reaffirmed by the 1916 and 1923 Assemblies, was rendered null and void by the 1927 Assembly, with no authority to prevent candidates for pastorates and professorships in the denomination who disagreed with any of its articles from being ordained and installed.  In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA with the United Presbyterian Church in North America) abandoned all pretense of doctrinal conformity when it replaced the Westminster Standards with a Book of Confessions and removed its requirement that all officers in the denomination should promise to “sincerely receive and adopt the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”.  After 1967, officers in the UPCUSA (or the Presbyterian Church (USA) since the 1983 merger of the (Northern) UPCUSA with the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States) are asked to do no more than to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and (to) be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God”.22  Today, the PC(USA) thinks nothing of ordaining officers who do not believe the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Four denominations have resulted from divisions in Mainline American Presbyterianism since the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the 1920s.  Of these, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires officers to strictly adhere to the Westminster Standards.  While most presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America allow candidates for office to declare a few more scruples than most presbyteries in the OPC, they also require officers to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, which more generally ensures that unbelief masquerading as unique interpretations cannot be used as justification for scruples against doctrines such as the Virgin Birth.  And the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians both have a document enumerating essential tenets with which all officers in the denomination must affirm without exception, and which tenets include the Virgin Birth.23

Is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth Essential to Christianity?

In 1906, the great Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary was asked to answer the question, “Is the doctrine of the supernatural birth of Jesus essential to Christianity?”24  To put this question another way, “Would Christianity be substantially different if the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth were removed from the Bible?”  Dr. Warfield answered that it depends entirely on what “Christianity” means.  The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America determined for itself in 1927 that the Virgin Birth is not truly essential, and its present-day successor, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has not determined any differently.  But then again, the “Christianity” that is preached and taught from the majority of PC(USA) pulpits and seminary classroom podiums today is a far cry from the Christianity that the Bible proclaims.

The Christianity that the Bible proclaims is supernatural, revelational, and redemptive.  Christianity is supernatural, in that it comes from God and not from man (Mt. 16.15-17, 21.24-27, Gal. 1.15-16).  Christianity is revelational, in that it is God revealing Himself to men and women—through His creation of the physical world around us and in the moral nature of man (Ps. 19.1-6, Rom. 1.19-20, 2.14-15); through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which come from Him alone and not from the men who wrote them down (II Tim. 3.15-17, II Pet. 1.19-21); through His supernatural intervention in the natural world by way of miracles (Mk. 2.10-12, Jn. 5.36, 12.37-38, Acts 2.22); and chiefly through the incarnation of His eternal Son in the man Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1.9,14,18, 3.31-36).  And Christianity is redemptive, in that it is God, through the ministrations of Jesus Christ, redeeming lost men and women from bondage to sin and death and reconciling them to Himself (Lk. 19.10, Jn. 12.32, II Cor. 5.18-21).

Now the Gospel accounts teach that Jesus Christ performed many miracles when He walked the Earth, as attested to by many who witnessed them (Mt. 4.23-25, Jn. 3.2, Jn. 6.10-14, Acts 2.22); that He was raised bodily from the dead and appeared afterward to many eyewitnesses (Mt. 28.9-10,16-20, Lk. 24.13-51, Jn. 20.11-23,26-29, 21.4-23, I Cor. 15.3-8); and that He ascended bodily into heaven in the presence of His disciples (Acts 1.6-11).  And the Gospel accounts also teach that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of a young woman from Nazareth in Galilee who had never had sexual intercourse with a man.  If one believes the supernatural accounts attested to by the eyewitnesses, then one should not have a problem believing that the God behind the miracles, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is also capable of creating a zygote in the womb of a virgin.  Yet the same men who objected in The Auburn Affirmation to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Incarnation…of our Lord Jesus Christ,” meaning efforts to commit the PCUSA to the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, also objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the (bodily) Resurrection and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power (i.e., the “mighty miracles”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.”25  And although they claimed, “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the (Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910) as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion,” they fully intended to persuade the denomination to open the office of teaching elder to men (and later women) who disbelieved the supernatural basis for Christianity, in their denial that God has ever intervened supernaturally in human history.

Likewise, it is the accounts recorded in Scripture that teach us that the Lord Jesus Christ was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.  Yet The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they likewise objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible,” by which they meant the “assertion…that the writers (of the Scriptures) were kept ‘from error.’”  And further, they believed that, “The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.”  Thus, it stands to reason, that if the Scriptures can and do err, that if Matthew and Luke in particular were not supernaturally kept from error, despite having been “inspired of God,” then their claim that Mary was a virgin when the Lord Jesus was conceived in her womb might also be in error, and that “all who hold most earnestly to the great fact and doctrine” of “the Incarnation” and yet who disbelieve in the “particular theory” of the Virgin Birth, “are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”

But what is overlooked here is the question that, if the Bible does, in fact, err, then in what meaningful sense can the Bible be considered to have been “inspired of God”?  Is not God omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and omnipotent?  If so, then He lacks not for knowledge, wisdom, or veracity—or for the capability of ensuring that the Bible communicated exactly what He wanted it to, if He did, in fact, inspire it.  And it says something derogatory about the character of God, if we confess that yes, He is omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and eminently capable of ensuring that the Bible communicates exactly what He wants it to, and yet that that same Bible contains errors.  Why, then, would He want it to err?  Furthermore, it takes an enormous amount of hubris to claim to be a Christian and then to turn around and claim that the Bible which the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ inspired contains errors, and then to use that claim as justification to disbelieve what the Bible teaches, including what it teaches about the Virgin Birth.  So again, not only does the “Christianity” that the Auburn Affirmationists want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural, it also denies that Christianity is revelational.

Finally, Scripture teaches that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2.1), and this applies to all men and women.  “For we have charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ (quoted from Ps. 14.1-3, 53.1-3)  ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ (quoted from Ps. 5.9)  ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ (quoted from Ps. 140.3)  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ (quoted from Ps. 10.7 LXX)  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ (quoted from Prov. 1.16, Is. 59.7-8)  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (quoted from Ps. 36.1)” (Rom. 3.9-18)  Moreover, the penalty that we deserve for our sin is the wrath and fury of God, and death (Rom. 2.7, 6.23).

And worse than this, there is nothing whatsoever that we can do that will appease the wrath of God poured out justly on us for our wickedness.  The Law of God requires that we “must be perfect, as (our) heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48), and He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1.13).  “The Judge of all the earth (must) do what is just” (Gen. 18.25), and what each of us has done deserves death.  “But 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)  And if we think that we might escape His judgment because we have not committed any of these sins, we must remember that He counts hatred as murder, lust and divorce as adultery, and He requires us to fulfill everything we say we will do, to not retaliate against anyone who injures or maligns us, and to love our enemies.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5.21-48)  We have nothing to offer the Lord in exchange to recompense for our sins against Him.

For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
and our sins testify against us;

for our transgressions are with us,
and we know our iniquities:

transgressing, and denying the LORD,
and turning back from following our God,

speaking oppression and revolt,
conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands afar off;

for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter.

Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. —Is. 59.12-15

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64.6)  We have no righteousness of our own that we can use to atone for even the smallest of our sins (Phil. 3.9).  As the Psalmist confessed, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130.3)

This is the human condition, and we must grapple with it and understand it, before we can begin to appreciate the atonement that Jesus Christ has made on our behalf.  God is the potter, and every man, woman, and child is a vessel made by Him for one kind of use or the other—either a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction,” or a “vessel of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9.21-23).  But the vessels of mercy are no less guilty, no less sinful than the vessels of wrath, and therefore deserve the same fate.  In order to be used as vessels of mercy, they must first be washed clean, and they cannot wash themselves.

In the Old Testament, God provided His people with animal sacrifices—bulls, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons, all without spot or blemish—to offer up in atonement for their sins (Lev. 1-7, 16).  But these only “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 8.5,10.1), pointing to a better, more perfect sacrifice that could actually accomplish what the Old Testament sacrifices could not, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)

Thus it was that “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.5-8)  “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.” (Is. 53.5-6, I Pet. 2.24-25)  He drank to the bitter dregs the cup of His Father’s judgment and wrath, poured out for the sins of the world (Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22), just as He said He would (Mt. 20.22-23, 26.39,42,44, Mk. 10.38,39, 14.36,39, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he 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 and 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.  Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
—Hebrews 9.11-15

Christ made an atonement for sinful men and women when He died on Calvary’s tree, substituting Himself for the penalty richly deserved by filthy, unclean, wicked sinners like you and me.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5.21)  And then God raised Him from the dead in glorious demonstration of His victory over sin and death.  “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2.17)

And this is the Gospel: That Christ died on the Cross to bear the sins of many, making propitiation for the sins of all those whom God has chosen from before the beginning of the world, that whosoever believes in Him and trusts in His perfect, holy, sinless life, in His perfect atoning death on the Cross, and in His life-giving bodily resurrection from the dead will themselves be raised from the dead into a glorious new life when He returns at the end of human history to judge the living and the dead.

Yet again, all who endorsed The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they further objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Atonement (and) the Resurrection…of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  They thus denied the centrality of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Bodily Resurrection from the Dead of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Gospel.  Thus, not only does the “Christianity” that they want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural and revelational, it also denies that Christianity is redemptive in their rendering as optional the doctrines that are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Birth is supernatural—it comes from God and not from man.  The Virgin Birth is revelational—through it the Son of God was made flesh and manifested among us.  And the Virgin Birth is redemptive—through it came the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.  Therefore, the answer unequivocally is: Yes, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth is absolutely essential to Christianity.


1     The Roman Catholic Church holds that Mary continued in a state of perpetual virginity even after the birth of the Lord Jesus, finding greater significance in her virginal motherhood than that which Scripture ascribes to it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], 499-501,505-507).  In point of fact, apart from the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Scripture does not refer to Mary’s virginity at all.  Moreover, by saying that Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (Mt. 1.25, emphasis added), Matthew implies that Joseph did, in fact, have sexual relations with his wife after Jesus’ birth (although presumably not until after the forty days of her menstrual uncleanness had elapsed, as specified in Lev. 12; compare Lk. 2.22-24); after all, Joseph’s marriage to Mary would not be much of a marriage if he could never engage in sexual intercourse with his wife, especially when marriage is consummated by sexual intercourse.   And Scripture contradicts Rome’s doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity by referring to the Lord Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters (Mt. 12.46-50, 13.53-58, Mk. 3.31-35, 6.1-6, Lk. 8.19-21).  Rome counters this by claiming, “Against this doctrine is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.  The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.  In fact, James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’  They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 500)  However, this interpretation is forced, as the natural understanding of “brothers and sisters” are other children born of his parents, not children of “the other Mary”, whose familial relation with the Lord Jesus is pure conjecture on the part of Rome and is nowhere established in Scripture.  Moreover, in three of these passages, Jesus’ unnamed brothers are referenced alongside His mother, who is not named.  “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mt. 12.48-50, Mk. 3.33-35, Lk. 8.21)  The context of these passages does not suggest that these “brothers” are cousins, but rather the biological sons of Joseph and Mary, and thus Jesus’ half-brothers.

2     Papias, Fragment VI, in Alexander Roberts, D.D., James Donaldson, LL.D., and A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D., eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 155.

3     John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture” in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 449, n. 3.

4     This is the only instance in Scripture where Mary is recorded as referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father.

5     Charles Augustus Briggs, D.D., The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), pp. 31,35.

6     Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 23.

7     Quoted in Christopher K. Lensch, “Presbyterianism in America, The Nineteeth Century: The Formative Years” in WRS Journal 13:2 (August 2006), p. 8; online at https://www.wrs.edu/assets/docs/Journals/2006b/Lensch-Presbyterianism_America_19th_Century.pdf, accessed 16 Dec 2020.

8     Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

9     Paul Matzko, “Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs” (The Association of Religion Data Archives); online at https://www.thearda.com/timeline/events/event_252.asp; accessed 16 Dec 2020.

10   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

11   “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910”, online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html; accessed 16 Dec 2020.  See also George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), p. 117; Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

12   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

13   Ibid., pp. 9-10.

14   Ibid., pp. 74-75.

15   The Auburn Affirmation received that name, not because it was drafted at Auburn Theological Seminary, but because its chief architect, Robert Hastings Nichols, was a professor at the school (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

16   Robert Hastings Nichols, et al, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1924), Article I; online at https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/auburntext.html; accessed 18 Dec 2020.

17   Ibid., Article IV.

18   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 100,125-126.

19   Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 181.

20   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 151-152.

21   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 158-161.

22   Book of Order 2019-2021, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2019) §W-4.4003.c.  It is especially telling that the PC(USA) moved its ordination vows in the early 2000s from the Form of Government section of its Book of Order to the Directory for Worship, as if ordination vows were not something inherent to the government of the church but merely formalities of ordination worship services.

23   Although the ECO does this by reiterating that “He is born of the virgin Mary” (ECO Essential Tenets I.B), the same phrasing used in the Apostles’ Creed, the EPC Essentials of Our Faith Article 2 declares, “Jesus Christ, the living Word, became flesh through His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His virgin birth.”

24   Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Supernatural Birth of Jesus” in Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, eds., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. III: Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1932; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 447-458.

25   Similarly, in the year before my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, disaffiliated from the PC(USA) and affiliated with the EPC, a gentleman on the staff of the church who had graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was seeking ordination in the PC(USA), so he might receive a call as an Associate Pastor at the church, and in his statement of faith, he said he believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And one of the minister members of the presbytery with which Colonial was affiliated objected to this statement, saying that if he believed this, then he could not vote for him.

A Delicious Paradise: The World of Man Before the Fall

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth (Gen. 2.8,15-16); putting the creatures under his dominion (Gen. 1.28), and ordaining marriage for his help (Gen. 2.18, Mt. 19.3-9, Eph. 5.31); affording him communion with himself (Gen. 1.26-29, 3.8); instituting the Sabbath (Gen. 2.3, Ex. 20.11); entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience (Gen. 2.16-17, Gal. 3.12, Rom. 10.5), of which the tree of life was a pledge (Gen. 2.9, 3.22-24); and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death (Gen. 2.17, Jas. 2.10). —Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20

The Garden of God: The Habitation of Man Before the Fall

In prehistoric times, the Lord God planted a garden that He intended to be the first abode of humankind.  Of the events of these days we have no firsthand records, and the most reliable were written by Moses, the prophet of the Lord, many thousands of years after the fact, in the Book commonly called Genesis.

Moses says that God planted this garden “in Eden, in the east.” (Gen. 2.8)  A few verses later he gives another clue as to its location, when he writes,

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.  The name of the first is the Pishon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.  And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is the Gihon.  It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.  And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.  And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Gen. 2.10-14)

Of these four rivers, we know for certain of only two—the Tigris1 and the Euphrates.  The text states that the Pishon “flowed around the whole land of Havilah.”  In the Table of Nations, Havilah was identified both as a son of Cush (Gen. 10.7), a son of Ham, and of Joktan (Gen. 10.29), a descendant of Shem, and Genesis later records that the descendants of Ishmael “settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria.” (Gen. 25.18)  Calvin opines that Havilah

is here taken for a region adjoining Persia.  For subsequently, in the twenty-fifth chapter, Moses relates, that the Ishmaelites dwelt from Havila unto Shur, which is contiguous to Egpyt, and through which the road lies unto Assyria.  Havila, as one boundary, is opposed to Shur as another, and this boundary Moses places near Egypt, and through which road lies into Assyria.  Whence it follows, that Havila (the other boundary) extends toward Susia and Persia. … Every thing which Moses asserts respecting gold and precious stones is most applicable to this district.2

Similarly unknown to us, the text states that the Gihon “flowed around the whole land of Cush.”  As noted above, the Table of Nations identifies Cush as a son of Ham (Gen. 10.6), one of the three sons of Noah, and Cush has traditionally been identified as Ethiopia,3 which gave rise to some of the ancients that the Gihon was to be identified with the Nile.  Calvin references the fact that “all interpreters translate this word Ethiopia,” and then further elucidates, explaining,

but the country of the Midianites and the conterminous country of Arabia, are included under the same name by Moses; for which reason, his wife is elsewhere called an Ethiopian woman.4  Moreover, since the lower course of the Euphrates tends toward that region, I do not see why it should be deemed absurd, that it there receives the name Gihon.  And thus the simple meaning of Moses is, that the garden of which Adam was the possessor was well watered, the channel of a river passing that way, which was afterwards divided into four heads.5

Based on the fact that the antediluvian river flowing out of Eden dividing into four was once the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and that the modern-day headwaters of those two rivers are found in what is today eastern Turkey, then it is likely that Eden was also located there.  However, the garden, the river that issued therefrom, and the divergence of said river into the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, as well as (possibly) the Pishon and Gihon Rivers themselves, have disappeared from the face of the earth, likely as the result of the Great Deluge that devastated the antediluvian world and nearly made the human race extinct in the days of Noah.  Calvin, however, does not agree with this assessment, writing,

From this difficulty (that the Tigris and the Euphrates do not have a single source), some would free themselves by saying, that the surface of the globe may have been changed by the deluge; and therefore, they imagine it might have happened that the courses of the rivers were disturbed and changed, and their springs transferred elsewhere; a solution which appears to me to be by no means to be accepted.  For although I acknowledge that the earth, from the time that it was accursed, became reduced from its native beauty to a state of wretched defilement, and to a garb of mourning, and afterwards was further laid waste in many places by the deluge; still, I assert, it was the same earth which had been created in the beginning.  Add to this, that Moses (in my judgment) accommodated his topography to the capacity of his age.  Yet nothing is accomplished, unless we find that place where the place where the Tigris and Euphrates proceed from one river.  Observe, first, that no mention is made of a spring or fountain, but only that it is said, there was one river.  But the four heads I understand to mean, both the beginnings from which the rivers are produced, and the mouths by which they discharge themselves into the sea.  Now the Euphrates was formerly joined by confluence with the Tigris, that it might justly be said, one river was divided into four heads; especially if what is manifest to all conceded, that Moses does not speak acutely, nor in a philosophical manner, but popularly, so that every one least informed may understand him.  Thus, in the first chapter, he called the sun and moon two great luminaries; not because the moon exceeded other planets in magnitude, but because, to common observation, it seemed greater.  Add further, that he seems to remove all doubt when he says, that the river had four heads, because it was divided from that place.  What does this mean, except that the channels were divided, out of one confluent stream, either above or below Paradise?6

However, we know from nature that an enormous amount of water eroding over an area for even a short span of time can effect tremendous geologic and geographic changes, and the amount of water washing over the Middle East in the Noachian Deluge has not been matched—let alone exceeded—in the millennia since its occurrence.  Therefore, it is extremely likely that the topography of the lands following the Great Deluge was significantly altered from what it had been before.

Moreover, there is a theological significance of the one river flowing out of Eden and then dividing into four, that is subverted if misinterpreted to mean that one or more of the referenced rivers did not originate in the river issuing from the garden but merely flowed into either that river or one of its distributaries.  The garden in Eden is the garden of God (Ezek 28.13).  As Geerhardus Vos points out,

The garden is “the garden of God”, not in the first instance an abode for man as such, but specifically a place of reception of man into fellowship with God in God’s own dwelling-place. … The correctness of this is verified by the recurrence of this piece of symbolism in eschatological form at the end of history, where there can be no doubt concerning the principle of paradise being the habitation of God, where He dwells in order to make man dwell with Himself.7

Vos here refers to the vision of John recorded in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation.  Here, John writes, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Rev. 21.3)  And again, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Rev. 22.1-2)  The one river is likewise presented in Genesis as flowing out of Eden—out from the presence of God, who dwells there—and then divides into four distributaries that water all the lands.  This symbolism loses its theological meaning, however, if the effluence of the four rivers is misinterpreted to mean (in whole or in part) a confluence.

The final thing to note about the first habitation of humanity is the presence of the trees.  Certainly, the Trees of Life and of the Knowledge of Good and Evil are specifically mentioned, but these have special theological significance that will be discussed later.  However, it is the trees—all the trees of the Garden—that give the Garden its paradisaical character, physically speaking. (Obviously, it was the presence of God in the Garden that gave it its paradisaical character, spiritually speaking.)  “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden…  And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” (Gen. 2.8-9)  Indeed, as the Lord elsewhere told the man, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit.  You shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Gen. 1.29-30, emphasis added)  As Matthew Henry waxed eloquently about the trees of Eden,

(The garden) had all the best and choicest trees in common with the rest of the ground.  It was beautiful and adorned with every tree that, for its height or breadth, its make or colour, its leaf or flower, was pleasant to the sight and charmed the eye; it was replenished and enriched with every tree that yielded fruit grateful to the taste and useful to the body, and so good for food.  God, as a tender Father, consulted not only Adam’s profit, but his pleasure; for there is a pleasure consistent with innocency, nay, there is a true and transcendent pleasure in innocency.  God delights in the prosperity of his servants, and would have them easy; it is owing to themselves if they be uneasy.  When Providence puts us into an Eden of plenty and pleasure, we ought to serve him with joyfulness and gladness of heart, in the abundance of the good things he gives us.”8

In later passages of Scripture, the trees in the Garden of God became the standard of majesty and beauty against which the majesty and beauty of earthly kingdoms were compared.  For example, Ezekiel, in prophesying against the Egyptian Pharaoh, wrote,

Whom are you like in your greatness?
Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon,
with beautiful branches and forest shade,
and of towering height,
its top among the clouds. …

The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
neither were the plane trees like its branches;
no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty.
I made it beautiful in the mass of its branches,
And all the trees in Eden envied it, that were in the garden of God. (Ezek. 31.2-9; see also Is. 53.3, Ezek. 28.13, Joel 2.3)

The Regulation of Man in the Garden of God: The Covenant of Life

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.27)

When God created the first man, Adam, He created him in His own image.  Just as the Lord Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15), so too was Adam, save that the divine nature of God was not joined with the human nature of Adam, as it was with the Lord Jesus.  And even as the Lord Jesus was “made like his brothers (i.e., us) in every respect” (Heb. 2.17), except “without sin” (Heb. 4.15), so too was Adam.  Like the Lord Jesus, Adam was created by God in the state of what theologians call Original Righteousness,9 and in him was not to be found any taint of sin, that is, his heart was not naturally inclined toward rebellion against God.  He was not created above the possibility of falling into sin and thus losing his condition of Original Righteousness, as Genesis 3 makes only all too clear, but in his original condition as constituted by God at his creation, he was not naturally disposed toward sin, as we are, and as he afterward became.

Nevertheless, although not predisposed to sin, Adam’s life in the Garden of God still had to be regulated, in order to ensure that he fulfilled the purposes for which his Creator had made him, and God issued this regulation in the form of a covenant.  O. Palmer Robertson, in his text on the covenants in Scripture, defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”10  Although no blood was shed in the establishment of this particular covenant, as there was in each successive administrative establishment of the Covenant of Redemption, it was a “life-and-death bond” sovereignly established and administered by God,11 with a specific condition—namely, the prohibition of eating the fruit from one particular tree—with the threatened consequence of death, to be executed on the same day as the violation of this covenant.

Now, the first thing to be noticed is that the word covenant (Heb. berith; Gk. διαθήκη) does not appear in Genesis until 6.18, where the Lord announces to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you.”  However, the absence of the term does not mean that God did not establish a covenant with unfallen man in the Garden.  As Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out,

All the elements of a covenant are indicated in Scripture, and if the elements are present, we are not only warranted but, in a systematic study of the doctrine, also in duty bound to relate them to one another, and to give the doctrine so construed an appropriate name.  In the case under consideration two parties are named, a condition is laid down, a promise of reward for obedience is clearly implied, and a penalty for transgression is threatened.12

The second thing to be noticed is that theologians are not agreed as to what this covenant should be called.  The Westminster divines alternately called it the “Covenant of Works”13 and the “Covenant of Life”.14  Old Princeton preeminent theologian Charles Hodge followed the Westminster divines in their use of both terms, writing, “That covenant (with Adam) is sometimes called a covenant of life, because life was promised as the reward of obedience.  Sometimes it is called the covenant of works, because works were the condition on which that promise was suspended, and because it is thus distinguished from the new covenant which promises life on condition of faith.”  However, the name of the chapter in which this quote appears, as well as in the subheadings and the rest of the text of the chapter, Hodge exclusively used the name “Covenant of Works”.15  Berkhof mentions that it has been referred to “as the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of works.”  However, the nomenclature “Covenant of Nature” gradually fell out of use, as it was “apt to give the impression that this covenant was simply a part of the natural relationship in which man stood to God.”  Berkhof objected to calling it the Covenant of Life or the Edenic Covenant, because both names “might also be applied to the covenant of grace.”  And because of his argued unsuitability for the first three names, he preferred the name “Covenant of Works”.16  Vos, who labored at Princeton Seminary two generations after Hodge, also used this nomenclature, although he did not discuss the reason, other than to say that this was the name commonly given to it, and he neither mentioned any other name for it nor disputed it.17  Robertson objected to the name “Covenant of Works”, especially as contrasted with the “Covenant of Grace”, as the nomenclature “suggests that grace was not operative in the covenant of works,” and “that works have no place in the covenant of grace.”  Instead, he stated a preference for the names “Covenant of Creation” and “Covenant of Redemption”, respectively.18

Although I agree with Robertson’s objections to the terms “Covenant of Works” and “Covenant of Grace” and concur with his adoption of “Covenant of Redemption” for the latter, I disagree with his identification of God’s covenant with unfallen man with the Covenant of Creation.  In Jeremiah 33.19-26, the Lord references His “covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth,” and in Hosea 2.18 His “covenant…with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground.”  This context is much broader than the covenant God established with man in the Garden before the Fall, although the latter is undeniably an integral part—indeed, the chief part—of the former.  After all, the consequence of man’s violation of the terms of the first covenant had catastrophic ramifications for the greater Creation, which, on account of man’s sin, “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.20-21)  But the covenant in the Garden was specifically with man, not the whole Creation, signified and sealed by the Tree of Life, of which man in the Garden was free to eat, and conditioned by the prohibition against man partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—a prohibition that did not extend to birds or beasts.  The covenant in the Garden was intended to regulate the life of man, which was graciously given him under the terms of the covenant, whereas the Covenant of Redemption intends to restore to man the life he had in the Garden, and further to confirm him therein, just as he would have been confirmed, had he complied with the Lord’s injunction.  For had Adam remembered the Lord’s commandment during the serpent’s temptation, and not listened to the voice of his wife, who enjoined him to eat the fruit with her, instead gently rebuking her and reminding her of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminding her of His trustworthiness and questioning the trustworthiness of the serpent’s doubt-sowing words—for unlike her, he was not deceived (I Tim. 2.14)—our race would have been confirmed in the life of Original Righteousness, having come to the knowledge of good and evil by learning obedience, just as the Lord Jesus had (Phil. 2.8, Heb. 5.8; see also Mt. 4.1-11, Lk. 4.1-13).  Hence, the appropriate name for this covenant is the Covenant of Life.

As previously stated, the Covenant of Life was instituted to regulate man’s life in the Garden of God.  Specifically, we see three broad areas of man’s life that the Covenant regulated, namely: labor, worship, and marriage.


God did not create man to no purpose, but gave him meaningful work to do under the Covenant of Life.  Specifically, he “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Gen. 2.15)  So, contrary to the popular adage, the “world’s oldest profession” is that of gardener or farmer.  The negative and burdensome connotations often associated with labor today were completely absent from man’s life in the Garden; warnings against indolence (e.g., II Thess. 3.10-12) were completely unnecessary.  The ground was not cursed, nor did it yield thorns and thistles as a reward for man’s labor, for these were a result of the Fall (Gen. 3.17-19).  To the contrary, as Calvin wrote, “This labour, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness.”19  Likewise, Robertson notes, “Labor is to be seen as a principal means by which man’s enjoyment of the creation is assured. … Labor belongs integrally to the role of man made in God’s image.”20

More broadly, man’s work was not simply to have stewardship over the Garden alone, but over the whole earth.  “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1.28)  To be sure, the subjugation of and dominion over the earth was not intended to be an oppressive government or an abuse of the earth’s resources, as the rule and dominion of man is wont to be, this side of Eden.  Rather, it was to be a benevolent lordship, to the creation’s benefit, just as God’s Lordship is likewise benevolent to man, whom He made in His image.


On the cusp of their entrance into the Promised Land, Moses told the children of Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Dt. 8.3; quoted by the Lord Jesus in Mt. 4.4, Lk. 4.4)  This was no less true of man under the Covenant of Life than it is of man under the Covenant of Redemption.  Adam did not live by the fruit of his labor in the Garden of God alone, but by his fellowship in worship of the God who created him out of the dust of the ground.

On the day on which man violated the Covenant of Life, he “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Gen. 3.8)  From this we may infer that it was at this time of the day, after man’s labor for the day was complete, that the Lord was accustomed to commune with him.  But more than this, God Himself had set a pattern, whereby for six days He had toiled in the creation of the world, and on the seventh He rested (Gen. 1.3-2.2).  And further, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” (Gen. 2.3)  And it was to this specific pattern that He referred, when He gave the children of Israel the Fourth Commandment, that is, to labor six days and rest on the seventh, keeping the seventh day holy (Ex. 20.8-11).  Thus, in addition to meeting with man at each day’s end, it follows that God expected him to rest from his labor one day out of every seven, and to spend that holy day in communion with Him.


In the first chapter of Genesis, one finds a common refrain, wherein God has just created something according to His design, and then the text says, “And God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1.4,10,12,18,21,25)  And then, once His Creation was complete, with the creation of man and woman, the text says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1.31)  The whole of His Creation was not merely “good” (Heb. tob), but “very good” (Heb. tob meod).  As Calvin wrote of this, “On each of the days, simple approbation was given.  But now, after the workmanship of the world was complete in all its parts, and had received, if I may so speak, the last finishing touch, he pronounces it perfectly good; that we may know that there is in the symmetry of God’s works the highest perfection, to which nothing can be added.”21

Yet prior to this final pronouncement, there was something of His Creation that God said was not good, namely: “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.’” (Gen. 2.18)  Now we know from Genesis 1.26-31 that God created mankind male and female, which was essential for the fulfillment of the blessing and commandment that He gave there, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.  However, from the narration in Genesis 2 detailing the specific creation of mankind, we know that He created man first, and then after an unspecified amount of time (which, if the “days” of Creation in Gen. 1 were literal twenty-four hour periods, would have had to have been no more than a matter of hours, for man and woman were both created on the Sixth Day) He created woman.  Thus, at the point in the narration when God made this pronouncement that man’s solitary existence was “not good”, Adam had no frame of reference to know that God intended to create others like him.

Then the Lord brought to Adam “every bird of the heavens” that He had created on the Fifth Day, and “every beast of the field” that He had created on the Sixth Day, in order to see what Adam would name them, and ostensibly to select a helper fit for him.  “But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”  The motions of going through this “selection process” were solely for Adam’s benefit, for God knew from before He began His work in Creation that no animal could fulfill the role of Adam’s helpmate, and He had already planned to create a woman to be the “helper fit for him.”  So, as the Lord brought the birds and beasts to him, Adam could see that they came in pairs—male and female, as God had created them—whereas He had as yet created no female to correspond to Adam, and Adam could thus see and understand his own need for a mate.

Once Adam understood this, God put him into a deep sleep, during which He removed one of his ribs, closing up the place from which He took it with flesh, and then proceeded to transform Adam’s rib into a woman, in His last work of Creation.  In remarking on this text, Matthew Henry wrote,

The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.  Adam lost a rib, and without any diminution to his strength or comeliness; but in lieu thereof he had a help meet for him, which abundantly made up his loss: what God takes away from his people he will, one way or other, restore with advantage.22

Although woman is “the (physically) weaker vessel” (I Pet. 3.7), she is the helpmate fit for man, corresponding to his nature.  She is neither his superior nor his inferior, but is his intellectual equal, and yet is temperamentally different from him, with a different perspective than his, owing to the unique way in which God created her, as opposed to how He had created man.  These differences were ordained by God at Creation and are to be respected and celebrated.

Then the Scriptures state that after God transformed Adam’s rib into a woman, He “brought her to the man.”  Logically, given that Adam was sleeping during this act of creation, and that the woman was formed from his side, it follows that God created her lying next to him, cradled by his body as he slept.  And when they had awoken, Adam would immediately have known what God had done, and from where He had taken the woman He had formed for him.  Thus, in the first recorded poetry spoken by man in the Scripture, Adam said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman (Heb. ishshah),
because she was taken out of Man (Heb. ish).” (Gen. 2.23)

Following this, Moses declared, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2.24)  Make no mistake: God created woman to be the mate of man in a lifelong covenant of monogamous marriage, for the purpose of producing and raising children, which is the meaning of the man and his wife quite literally “becoming one flesh.”  Had man not fallen into sin, man and woman would have been happy and content with this arrangement.  The discontent that leads couples to separate or divorce, or for a person to take multiple spouses, to commit homosexuality, or to commit a plethora of other forms of adultery and fornication, finds its root in the sinful heart of man after the Fall, perverting the good and positive desires God planted in the heart of man before the Fall, which he uses for selfish and self-seeking reasons, and not for the purpose of glorifying God, the purpose for which He created man in the beginning.

This is not to say, however, that an individual woman’s worth is found only in her identity as her husband’s wife, as if Angela Golden should be loved and cherished solely because she is the wife of Loren Golden.  To be sure, I am joyfully obligated to love and cherish her for that very reason, but she is an individual created by God for His purposes, with thoughts and ideas of her own that have merit, and as I am called to love her as Christ loves the Church (Eph. 5.25-33, I Pet. 3.7), it is my privilege to encourage her to find ways and opportunities to employ the gifts with which our Heavenly Father has richly endowed her in ways that redound to His glory.

Finally, Moses remarked that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2.25)  The physical nudity of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall symbolized the spiritual reality that they had nothing to hide—no unworthy thoughts, desires, or memories of actions of which to be ashamed.  They were naked spiritually as well as physically, transparent with one another and with God in a way in which we, with all our sinful baggage this side of Eden, cannot be.  And this free conscience, allowing for the deepest intimacy without a sense of shame, is perhaps the greatest loss we suffered in the Fall, for its loss utterly disrupted our unimpeded communion with God, making us unfit to stand in His presence.

The Test of Man’s Covenantal Faith: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

As previously stated, Adam was created in the state of Original Righteousness, free from the taint of, and inclination or bent toward, sin.  He was disposed toward fulfilling his covenantal responsibilities—working and keeping the Garden of God, and exercising dominion over it and over the birds and beasts that dwelt there; resting every seventh day and enjoying regular communion with God; and loving, cherishing, and cleaving to his wife.  After all, these activities redounded to his own benefit, and he knew that God was providing for his every need.

Yet there was one thing that God had forbidden him, namely, the fruit from one particular tree, which was given the unusual name of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.23  “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but 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. 2.16-17)

The first thing to observe is that God Himself planted the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of His Garden—the same Garden in which He placed man (Gen. 2.8,15, 3.3).  It was not planted in the periphery of the Garden, but in its very midst, so Adam could not easily avoid it in his daily tasks of caring for the Garden.  It might be suggested, then, that the very presence of this Tree was temptation staring Adam in the face every day.  He likely could see the birds and beasts partaking of its fruit with no consequence, but it was denied to him.  One might ask why God might tempt him like that, why He did not forbear from planting it in the same Garden in which He intended to place the man whom He had created.  But “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (Jas. 1.13-15)

The bare fact of the Tree’s presence in the midst of the Garden was, in and of itself, insufficient to tempt man to disobey his Creator’s injunction.  True, there was God’s threat of death on the day on which he partook of its fruit, but more than this, man was without sin when he dwelt in the Garden.  Sin perverts the good desires implanted in man’s heart at Creation and makes him desire that which is denied him, and Adam and his wife were free from its debilitating influence before the Fall.  They were content to obey God’s solitary injunction and freely partake of the fruit of every tree in the Garden except this one—until the day when the serpent sowed doubt and discontent in the woman’s heart (Gen. 3.1-3)—and one must not underestimate the power of godliness when found in combination with contentment.  “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (I Tim. 6.6-8)  Adam and his wife possessed this power, and it was recharged every evening and every seventh day, as they found their rest in Him.  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Heb. 4.9-11)

The second thing to observe is that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil had no intrinsic properties that could endow those who partook of it with knowledge of any kind, let alone the specific knowledge of good and evil.  To be sure, the serpent insinuated that it did, when he said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  Likewise, the woman believed that the fruit somehow did possess some kind of intrinsic properties to convey the knowledge that its name suggested, for she saw “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6).  Yet when they did partake of the fruit, and “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3.7), having come to the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3.22), it was not anything intrinsic to the fruit that brought them this knowledge, but the sudden realization that they had violated God’s solitary injunction in the act of eating the forbidden fruit, which act was evil, whereas to have kept God’s commandment would have been good.

The prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a test of man’s faith in God, quite similar to the Lord’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and the son of God’s covenantal promise, which Moses expressly stated was a test of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 22.1 ff).  Frequently theologians and other Bible scholars refer to this prohibition as a test of man’s obedience.  As Calvin writes, “Moses now teaches, that man was a governor of the world, with this exception, that he should, nevertheless, be subject to God.  A law is imposed upon him in token of his subjection; for it would have made no difference to God, if he had eaten indiscriminately of any fruit he pleased.  Therefore, the prohibition of one tree was a test of obedience.”24  Similarly Westminster, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works (Gen. 2.16-17, Hos. 6.7, Gal. 3.12), wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity (Gen. 3.22, Rom. 5.12-20, 10.5), upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen. 2.17, Gal. 3.10).”25  And likewise Berkhof, “The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional.  The condition was that of implicit and perfect obedience.  The divine law can demand nothing less than that, and the positive command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating as it did, to a thing indifferent in itself, was clearly a test of pure obedience in the absolute sense of the word.”26  However, what this viewpoint overlooks is that what was on trial was not man’s obedience, but his faith.  Would man, when the veracity and trustworthiness of God’s Word was challenged, continue to put his trust in Him, or would he compromise his faith in God to the challenger?  To be sure, man’s faith has to work itself out in obedience to God’s command, but to focus on man’s obedience as the point of his probation is to miss the point entirely.  “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (I Sam. 16.7)  Does Adam truly trust God?

Those who believe Adam’s probation to have been a test of his obedience are not wholly off-base, because faith is validated in outward works of obedience, as a public demonstration of trust in what one believes.  After all, it matters not that a man believes a particular bridge is structurally sound and capable of taking him to where he wants to go, until he demonstrates trust in what he believes by physically crossing it.  Likewise, Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15.6, Rom. 4.3, Gal. 3.6)  Yet it was not until the Lord tested his faith, by asking him to demonstrate his trust in His promises by sacrificing his beloved son Isaac, the son of God’s covenant promise to him, that his faith was validated (Gen. 22.12, Heb. 11.17-19, Jas. 2.21-23).  As Paul emphasized, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2.10)  And again, “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. 2.14)  The works we do are not approved, however, unless they are done from a motive of faith.

So it was with Adam.  He communed with God every evening and every seventh day, and he experienced God’s blessing in the fulfillment of his every need—a suitable environment that met his physical needs, meaningful labor, a mate corresponding to his sexual needs and his needs for human companionship and assistance in his labor, and above all else His own presence to fulfill his deepest spiritual need.  As a witness of every blessing, a recipient of every good and perfect gift, and whose every need was abundantly fulfilled, Adam had every reason to trust and obey God.  And left to his own devices, he would have blissfully continued in this existence, but without an opportunity to exercise his faith through trust in God’s Word in the face of opposition to His Word.

Enter the serpent.  Physically, a serpent was present, but it was not a mere animal that tempted Eve—especially not an animal lacking vocal chords and the ability to form human words with the shape of its mouth.  Rather, as Scripture elsewhere makes plain, this serpent was the tool of the principal demonic spirit known as Satan (literally, the Adversary) or the Devil (literally, the Accuser; II Cor. 11.3-15, Rev. 12.9, 20.2).  Just as the Lord gave Satan access to Job, in order to try his faith (Job 1.6-12, 2.1-6), He allowed Satan access to Adam and his wife.

The tempter’s first tack was to sow doubt in God’s Word.  He asked Eve, believing her to be more susceptible than her husband to his insidious words, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  This was an exaggeration, but it implied that the prohibition of the one tree was somehow unreasonable, and Eve’s reply indicated that she believed it was: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’.” (Gen. 3.1-3)  God had prohibited the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil but said nothing about touching it.  Moreover, she shortened the penalty to, “lest you die,” whereas God has expressly stated, “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2.17)  The Hebrew idiom translated as “surely die” is a repetition of the word “die”, indicating the certainty of the threatened punishment for violating the solitary injunction.  Thus, Eve’s omission of the repeated word constitutes a lessening on her part of the severity of God’s threat.  Now Scripture recounts that God gave this prohibition to Adam when He placed him in the Garden, before He created her, and so she may have learned of the prohibition solely from him.  However, given that God communed with both of them every evening and every seventh day, it seems unlikely, given how she worded her response to the serpent’s question, that the subject of the prohibition had not come up during any of those times.  Yet despite what God might have told her during these times, she may have continued to harbor doubts as to the reasonableness of the prohibition.

Then seeing Eve’s susceptibility to the implication in his question, the tempter outright contradicted God’s Word: “You will not surely die.” (Gen. 3.4)  On one hand, it would seem that Satan was correct in saying this, for neither Adam nor Eve died that day after eating the fruit.  Interpreters generally attempt to explain the seeming disparity between the expressly prescribed punishment in one or both of two ways: First is that what was envisioned in the penalty was a spiritual death, rather than a physical death, for Scripture elsewhere says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked. … But God, … even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2.1-7; see also Rom. 7.7-25)  The second way is to say that on the day on which Adam and his wife ate the forbidden fruit, they became mortal, subject to death, as emphasized in God’s curse and the account of Adam’s death and the subsequent accounts of the deaths of his posterity (Gen. 3.19, 5.5,8,11,14,17,20,27,31, 9.29), excepting godly Enoch only (Gen. 5.21-24, Heb. 11.5).  Now it is true that man died spiritually on the day that he partook of the forbidden fruit, but this hardly does justice to the severity of the penalty of “you shall surely die”; nothing less than Adam’s physical death is envisioned here.  It is also true that man became mortal on that day, but this also falls short of the specified execution date: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (emphasis added)  The only reason that Adam and Eve were not summarily executed on the same day as their rebellion, in fulfillment of God’s Word, was that God provided and accepted a substituted sacrifice in their place and clothed them with its skin as a garment (Gen. 3.21).  However, this is getting into the Covenant of Redemption and will be discussed at greater length in a future post.

Finally the tempter told Eve, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3.5)  This was a half-truth.  The words themselves were correct: their eyes were opened (Gen. 3.7), and they did become like God in knowing good and evil (Gen. 3.22).  But this knowledge, gained by violating the Lord’s commandment, did not benefit them in the slightest.  They became the recipients of God’s curse, they were expelled from paradise, and eventually they died (Gen. 3.16-24, 5.5), and all Creation was subjected to God’s curse along with them (Gen. 3.17-18, Rom. 8.20-22).  Eve thought “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3.6), but seeking “to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1.22), opening a floodgate of iniquity, “and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1.27)  “For as in Adam all die.” (I Cor. 15.22)  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5.12), “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5.19).

One will notice that Adam alone is afforded the blame for the Fall, not Eve, who was deceived (Gen. 3.13), nor yet the two of them together.  Adam “was with her” (Gen. 3.6) during the temptation, witness to the transaction between his wife and the serpent, but whereas “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”, “Adam was not deceived” (I Tim. 2.14).  He knew the command of the Lord, and the serpent’s words did not beguile him, as they did her.  He should have stood firm, reminded his wife of the Lord’s provision for their every need, reminded her of the solitary injunction against eating the fruit from this particular tree, and challenged her reasoning for believing the serpent’s word above that of their Creator.  Yet he did not.  He “listened to the voice of (his) wife” (Gen. 3.17); he let her persuade him to eat the fruit against his better judgment.  As the head of his wife (Gen. 3.16, I Cor. 11.3, Eph. 5.23), Adam was responsible for her and for her conduct, as well as for their progeny and their conduct.  Thus, because of Adam’s sin, and Adam’s alone, all of humanity was made a race of fallen, mortal sinners, justly deserving God’s condemnation.

The last thing to observe with respect to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is that had Adam refrained from eating of its fruit and kept his wife from doing the same, he and his wife would have come to the knowledge of good and evil without losing their Original Righteousness.  It is good to obey the Lord and to refute the testimony of those who speak against His Word, and it is evil to listen to the voice of those who speak against God’s Word and follow according to theirs.  Had Adam overcome Satan in the Garden, as the Lord Jesus did in the desert, he and Eve would have learned this lesson by their faith worked out through obedience to the Word of the Lord, and thus come to a righteous knowledge of good and evil, qualitatively superior to the knowledge of the same that they gained by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.  And that makes their acquisition of this knowledge by the means they employed in the Garden all the more ironic.

The Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Life: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, was planted in the midst of the Garden of God (Gen. 2.9), but unlike the other named Tree, there was no prohibition against man eating its fruit before the Fall.  Thus, when God said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2.16), He included the Tree of Life in the scope of His permission.

The Tree of Life was a fitting symbol of the Covenant of Life, inasmuch as it signified and sealed the covenant blessings to man, in particular the blessing of everlasting life.  Thus, when man violated the Covenant by partaking of the fruit from the forbidden Tree, he forfeited all right to partake of the Tree of Life, and the Lord had to take steps to prevent him from doing so ever again.  “‘Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden … He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3.22-24, emphasis added)

The implication of the Lord’s statement, that by eating of the Tree of Life man would “live forever”, was that man was endowed with everlasting life at his creation, that it was his to lose, and that only by partaking of the proscribed Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Berkhof takes this a step further, observing that although Scripture nowhere states before the Fall that man had been given the gift of conditional immortality, “it is clearly implied in the alternative of death as the result of disobedience.  The clear implication of the threatened punishment is that in the case of obedience death would not enter, and this can only mean that life would continue.”27

Moreover, what we have in Christ’s work in Redemption is a reversal of the curse that God laid down on our race and all of Creation at the Fall, a restoration to us of the life man had in the Garden before the Fall, and our confirmation in that life, to ensure that we can never lose it again.  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility (i.e., at Eden; see Gen. 3.16-19), not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8.19-21, emphasis added)

Again, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem that will come when Christ returns victorious at the end of human history, “The dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”  This is what man had in the Garden of God.  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.3-4)  And if this were not enough, there is in the new Jerusalem “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city,” just as there was in the Garden of God the river that flowed out from the presence of God there to water all the lands.  “Also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22.1-2)

Finally, the Lord Jesus announced His purpose when He said, “I came that (my sheep) may have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn. 10.10)  If this were not clear enough, He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3.16)  Likewise, He said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Jn. 11.25-26)  And as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Then comes the end, when (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’” (I Cor. 15.24-27)  Death will be destroyed.  Everlasting life, found abundantly in Christ, will be restored, just as it was in the Garden of God before the Fall.

Sadly, not all Christians believe that God created man in the Garden with conditional immortality, or that the penalty involved in violating the terms of the Covenant of Life was nothing less than the physical death of man on the day he violated those terms.  In particular, well-known Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, for whom I have a great deal of respect, and whose books I enjoy immensely (even if I strongly disagree with some of what he says), apparently believed that God had created Adam to be physically mortal.  In his first work of science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis created not one, but three races of unfallen beings (or hnau) on the fictional planet Malacandra (Mars, as it had been powerfully shaped in the popular imagination of the first half of the Twentieth Century)—the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi.  Also on Malacandra was a dangerous species of aquatic predator called the hnéraki, against which the hrossa, in particular, would band together to hunt, just as the hnéraki hunted them.  But even beyond the occasional death of a hross by a hnakra, the hrossa had a natural lifespan of “about 80 Martian years, or 160 earth years.”28  However,

except for some few whom the hnakra gets, no one dies before his time.  All live out the full span allotted to their kind, and a death with them is as predictable as a birth with us. … (Those who are near death are sent) off, to receive the last counsel of Oyarsa, to die, and to be by him “unbodied.”  The corpses, as corpses, will exist only for a few minutes: there are no coffins in Malacandra, no sextons, churchyards, or undertakers.  The valley is solemn at their departure, but I see no signs of passionate grief.  They do not doubt their (spiritual) immortality, and friends of the same generation are not torn apart.  You leave the world, as you entered it, with the “men of your own year.”  Death is not preceded by dread nor followed by corruption.29

Thus, in the microcosm of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, “A world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not (God’s) way.”30  Of course, Out of the Silent Planet is a work of fiction—and speculative fiction at that.  An author might write something in a work of fiction that he does not believe to be true and would not hold to it if challenged.  However, Lewis has a much larger body of non-fiction works, where what he says can reasonably be expected to represent what he believed.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis includes a chapter on the Fall of Man, in which he discusses, among other things, what he believed about Adam’s origin before the Fall.  At the beginning of this chapter he writes, “Christianity asserts that God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of their goodness; that one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.”31

So far, so good.  As a Calvinist, I might challenge his definition of free will, and his gloss leaves unexplained why a good creature of God’s should desire to avail himself of the possibility of evil, but such issues have been debated by Christians for most of Church history, and the Church has been divided along these fault lines for centuries.  The point is, Lewis believed, as do I, that God made man upright, morally good, but with the possibility of falling into sin and disobedience.

However, Lewis did not believe that God literally made man from “dust from the ground” (Gen. 2.7), nor woman from the rib of man (Gen. 2.21-22), as Scripture states.  “If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection.”32  Now on the face of it, Lewis might be saying, “If this is what you believe, I am not going to argue with you,” without committing to the doctrine of theistic evolution.  However, just a few pages later, he expanded on this, more clearly stating that he believed in theistic evolution:

What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but if it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture—a “myth” in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale.

For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself.  He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated.  The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity.  But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.  Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me”, which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. …

Judged by his artefacts, or perhaps even by his language, this blessed creature was, no doubt, a savage.  All that experience and practice can teach he had still to learn: if he chipped flints, he doubtless chipped them clumsily enough.  He may have been utterly incapable of expressing in conceptual form his Paradisal experience. … I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised.  Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow-spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.

We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.  But sooner or later they fell.  Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as “accidents” (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.33

Lewis was enamored by the notion of Christianity as the “true myth”, a notion he shared with his good friend, J. R. R. Tolkien,34 and he clearly regarded the early accounts in Genesis among the “myths in Holy Scripture”, for which he had “the deepest respect.”  He believed “the story in Genesis is a story (full of the deepest suggestion) about a magic apple of knowledge,” that pointed to a more pedestrian reality, as outlined above.  Yet he expressed disappointment that, in developing the doctrine of the Fall, the early Church Fathers regarded the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “simply and solely (as) a pledge of obedience,” devoid of any mythical significance.35

When taken together, Lewis’ claims in Out of the Silent Planet and The Problem of Pain show that he believed that God created man mortal, albeit positively good and in right standing and relationship with Him, which condition was lost when he fell into sin, but nevertheless mortal, destined to die eventually.  To be perfectly fair to Lewis, there is one passage of Scripture that seems to lend credence to this line of thought, where the Lord through the prophet Isaiah announces,

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,

and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Is. 65.17-20, emphasis added)

Immediately we are reminded of John’s parallel words near the end of the Apocalypse:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.1-2, emphasis added)

Rather than saying, “No more shall there be in it…an old man who does not fill out his days,” that “the young man shall die a hundred years old,” the Apocalypse says that in the New Jerusalem, “death shall be no more.”  How, then, are these two seemingly contradictory passages to be reconciled?  Is Lewis correct in teaching that God never intended to make man’s body immortal, but only his soul?  Is Christ’s work in redeeming man, restoring him to the original condition he enjoyed in the Garden of God, limited to a restoration of full spiritual life only, wherein he is once again in a right relationship with his Creator, the source of his life, but in which physical death is inevitable, albeit without its sting?  If Lewis interprets the Scriptures correctly, this would be the condition in which man in the Garden of God found himself.

However, Paul writes,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (I Cor. 15.20-26)

Paul in this passage (which begins with verse 12) is addressing the resurrection of the dead and likening it to Christ’s.  Just as Christ was raised from the dead, we who are found in Him will likewise be raised from the dead; in the manner in which Christ was raised, we, too, will be raised.  As he elsewhere said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6.5)  Then Paul goes on to discuss the resurrection body.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. … Behold!  I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15.42-55; citations from Is. 25.8, Hos. 13.14)

Christ, having died, was raised immortal and imperishable.  “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” (Rom. 6.9)  Likewise, when we who are found in Him are raised from the dead at His Second Coming, we will be raised immortal and imperishable, no longer subject to death either.

So, too, then, was man before the Fall immortal and imperishable, contingent upon his fulfillment of the terms of the Covenant of Life.  But man sinned, and in his sin, the imperishable put on the perishable, and the immortal put on mortality.  Yet the imperishable and immortal Christ without sin put on the perishable and the mortal, in order to reverse this curse and restore man to the imperishable, immortal nature he enjoyed before the Fall.

Man as a creature of God was created with a body as well as a soul, and that body God declared to be “very good” (Gen. 1.31).  The souls of those who have died in Christ have returned to God who gave them, there to await the resurrection from the dead, while their bodies suffer corruption in the ground (Eccl. 12.7, Rev. 6.9-11).  Yet a disembodied soul is less than a man, incomplete without a body.  Although “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Cor. 5.8, Phil. 1.23), it is not God’s design that man should be a disembodied spirit like an angel, but that man should live with Him forevermore in a body suited to that purpose, as he was originally fashioned in Eden.

So then, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” (Is. 65.20)  “Death shall be no more.” (Rev. 21.4)  “For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Ps. 90.9-10)36  As Calvin comments on this passage in Isaiah, “But Christ comes to repair our strength, and to restore and preserve our original condition.”37  Likewise as Henry comments,

Believers through Christ shall be satisfied with life, though it be ever so short on earth. … As for old men, it is promised that they shall fill their days with the fruits of righteousness, which they shall still bring forth in old age, to show that the Lord is upright, and then it is a good old age.  An old man who is good, and wise, and useful, may truly be said to have filled his days.  Old men who have their hearts upon the world have never filled their days, never have enough of this world, but would still continue longer in it.  But that man dies old, and…full of days, who, with Simeon, having seen God’s salvation, desires now to depart in peace.38

But, “for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” (Is. 65.20)  Again, as Henry comments,

Unbelievers shall be unsatisfied and unhappy in life, though it be ever so long.  The sinner, though he live to a hundred years old, shall be accursed.  His living so long shall be no token to him of the divine favour or blessing, nor shall it be any shelter to him from the divine wrath and curse.  The sentence he lies under will certainly be executed, and his long life is but a long reprieve; nay, it is itself a curse to him, for the longer he lives the more wrath he treasures up against the day of wrath and the more he sins he will have to answer for.  So that the matter is not great whether our lives on earth be long or short, but whether we live the lives of saints or the lives of sinners.39

As stated, the Tree of Life signified and sealed the promise of the Covenant of Life—namely, everlasting life—to man before the Fall.  By this we must not suppose that the fruit of the Tree of Life was somehow endowed with mystical power to bless whomever partook of it with eternal life, much to Lewis’ disappointment, nor yet that the fruit possessed natural properties that would have enabled man to live forever, if he continued partaking of it, as Hodge suggests.40  Neither should we presume with Vos, based on the Lord’s statement in Genesis 3.22, “that man before his fall had not eaten it,”41 nor yet that there was a second injunction, albeit temporary, against eating of the Tree of Life also, the privilege to do so contingent upon man fulfilling the terms of the Covenant.  Rather, as Calvin observes, God

gave the tree of life its name, not because it could confer on man that life with which he had been previously endued, but in order that it might be a symbol and memorial of the life which he had received from God.  For we know it to be by no means unusual that God should give to us the attestation of his grace by external symbols.  He does not indeed transfer his power into outward signs; but by them he stretches out his hand to us, because, without assistance, we cannot ascend to him.  He intended, therefore, that man, as often as he tasted the fruit of that tree, should remember whence he received his life, in order that he might acknowledge that he lives not by his own power, but by the kindness of God alone; and that life is not (as they commonly speak) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God.42

The significance of the Tree of Life is sacramental, functioning in the life of the Garden of God under the Covenant of Life in much the same way as the Lord’s Supper functions in the life of the Church under the Covenant of Redemption.  God terminated man’s access to the Tree of Life after the Fall, not because its fruit would literally enable him to “live forever” (Gen. 3.22) in his fallen, sinful condition, but because in his sin, man had broken the Covenant of Life and forfeited its promise, and for him to continue partaking of the sign and seal of the broken Covenant would be to eat the fruit “in an unworthy manner,” to be “guilty of profaning” the Lord of the Covenant, who was represented in the Tree of Life, bringing “judgment on himself.” (I Cor. 11.27-29).

The Once and Future Covenant of Life

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  God has done it, so that people fear before him.  That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Eccl. 3.14-15)

Although man in his sin has abrogated the Covenant of Life and forfeited its blessings and promise, he has not—nor indeed could not have—destroyed the Covenant of Life, for God is the author of the Covenant of Life, and “whatever God does endures forever.”  That which has been, namely, the Covenant of Life, is that which is to be, for although God drove man from the Garden, He now seeks him, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10; see also Ezek. 34.11-16, Lk. 15).  God seeks fallen man in order to redeem him and to restore him to the Covenant of Life.

Moreover, the Covenant of Life has been fulfilled: The covenantal faith that was lacking in the first Adam, leading to the Fall, has been found in the second Adam, who continued to put His faith in God, when the veracity of God’s Word was challenged.  The second Adam truly trusted God, demonstrating and validating His covenantal faith in outward works of obedience: He “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.7-8)  He was the ultimate substituted sacrifice that God provided and accepted in the place of the first Adam, and the source of our shame—our spiritual nakedness—is covered by His righteousness as a garment that is infinitely more durable than the garments of skin with which God clothed the first Adam and his wife (Job 29.14, Is. 61.10, Rom. 13.14, Gal. 3.27, Eph. 4.24, Phil. 3.9, Col. 3.10).

Further, it is of no accident that the Cross on which the Lord Jesus was hung is sometimes in Scripture referred to as a tree (Acts 5.30, 13.29, I Pet. 2.24), for Paul, referencing Deuteronomy 21.22-23, writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal. 3.13)  Nor is it a coincidence that the Lord Jesus, in His Bread of Life Discourse, said, “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.” (Jn. 6.53-56)  So then, taken together, the image of the Cross as a Tree and the image of the body and blood of Christ hung thereupon as “true food and…true drink” form a powerful image of the Crucified Savior as the Tree of Life, signifying and sealing to those of us in the Covenant of Redemption the promise of the Covenant of Life, with His body and blood represented in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper (Mt. 26.26-28, Mk. 14.22-24, Lk. 22.19-20, I Cor. 11.24-26).

Finally, in the Resurrection, in the new earth and the new Jerusalem, we see the restoration of everything man lost in Eden. The foundations of the city walls are “adorned with every kind of jewel,” the city gates are fashioned from pearl, and the city streets are “pure gold” (Rev. 21.18-21), reminiscent of what the Prophet Ezekiel wrote, “You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering.” (Ezek. 28.13)  The presence of God fills the city, obviating the need for a temple, and providing all the light the city needs (Rev. 21.22-25).  The throne of God will be established in the city, where all His servants shall worship Him (Rev. 22.3-4), and from His throne flows “the river of the water of life,” just as it did in Eden. Along the banks of this river grows “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.  The leaves of the tree (are) for the healing of the nations. … Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22.1-2,14)

Sin will be abolished, and we who are found in Christ will be transformed into His likeness and His glory, that we may be found fit to dwell in the new Jerusalem, for “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21.27)  Marriage between man and woman will be no more, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22.30, Mk. 12.25, Lk. 20.34-36).  However, the greater reality to which marriage in this world imperfectly points, the marriage of Christ and His Church, of God and His people, will be consummated (Is. 54.5-8, 61.10, Ezek. 16.6-14, Hos. 2.14-20, II Cor. 11.2, Eph. 5.22-33, Rev. 19.6-9, 21.2,9-11, 22.17), for the things in this world “serve (as) a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8.5, 10.1), and “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (I Cor. 13.10).

And gone will be the specter of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We will have been raised incorruptible, and sin will have no more dominion over us (Rom. 6.14, I Cor. 15.42-44).  “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” Jer. 31.34)  And as we shall all know the Lord, enjoying intimate fellowship with Him, and as no evil thing can enter the new paradise of God, there will be no tempter to try our faith.  We will know the difference between good and evil, and like the Lord, we will “know how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Is. 7.15)

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8.18)

Come, Lord Jesus, as you have promised (Rev. 3.11, 22.7,12,20), quickly come!


1    The Hebrew name of the referenced river is Hiddekel, which the Septuagint translates as Tígris.

2    John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Volume First, trans. Rev. John King, M.A., in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. I (reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 123-124.

3    Indeed, the Septuagint translates the name Cush in Gen. 2.13 into Greek as Αἰθιοπίας.

4    Numbers 12.1; compare Exodus 2.15-22.

5    Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 124.

6    Ibid., pp. 119-120.

7    Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; reprinted Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, 1992), pp. 27-28.

8    Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I: Genesis to Deuteronomy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), p. 13, emphasis original.

9    For examples of Reformed teaching on Original Righteousness, see Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), Book I, Chapter 15; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (1872-1873; Reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 99-102; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; reprinted 1993), pp. 202 ff.

10   O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), pp. 4-15.  In his research, Robertson focused on the primary covenants in Scripture—God’s covenant with Adam before the Fall, His covenant with Adam after the Fall, His covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David, and His new covenant in Christ’s blood—with additional studies of the covenants implemented in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures surrounding Israel.

11   Ibid., p. 67.

12   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 213.

13   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2, XIX.1,6; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 30.

14   Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 12; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20.

15   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 117-122.

16   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 211.

17   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 23.

18   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 55-57.

19   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 125.

20   Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, pp. 80-81.

21   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, p. 100.

22   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. I, p. 16, emphasis original.

23   Vos notes, “The phrase (in Hebrew) is not ‘knowledge of the good and the evil’.  It reads, literally translated: ‘knowledge of good-and-evil’, i.e., of good and evil correlated, mutually conditioned conceptions.” (Biblical Theology, p. 31)

24   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 125-126.

25   Westminster Confession of Faith VII.2.

26   Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 216.

27   Ibid., p. 213.

28   C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938; reprinted New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 156.

29   Ibid., p. 159.

30   Ibid., p. 100.

31   Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; reprinted New York: Harper Collins, 1996, 2000), p. 63.

32   Ibid., p. 67.

33   Ibid., pp. 71-75.

34   Justin Taylor, “85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien convinces C. S. Lewis that Christ Is the True Myth” (The Gospel Coalition, Sept. 20, 2016).

35   Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 66.

36   As an aside, it is curious that Moses, to whom Psalm 90 is attributed, and whom Scripture recounts to have lived to the age of 120 years (Dt. 34.7), whose father lived to the age of 137 years (Ex. 6.20), and whose successor lived to the age of 110 years (Josh. 24.29), should state that “the years of (man’s) life are (only) seventy or…eighty.”

37   Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Volume Fourth, trans. Rev. William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. VIII, p. 400.

38   Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. IV, p. 305, emphasis original.

39   Ibid.

40   Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 125.

41   Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 28.

42   Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. I, pp. 116-117.

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.

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.