Monday, May 30, 2011

Forgiven Forever

Biblegems #40
Is it true that, as followers of Jesus, when we forgive someone of an offense against us personally, God will not hold that offense against that person on Judgment Day?

Judgment Day is when unbelievers stand before the God of the universe and are judged according to their actions in this life (Rev. 20:11-14). These are people who have died without the saving grace of Jesus, and therefore their names are not written in the Book of Life, and they will spend eternity in hell (Rev. 20:15). But before they meet this terrible future, God reviews their lives in order to show that His Judgment is just and fair.

Jesus taught in Matt. 6:14-15 that if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. This means, at least in part, that forgiveness of a sin cancels out that sin.

Jesus taught this specifically in Matthew 18. In that chapter sin and forgiveness are both framed in the context of eternity. If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.

In verses 23-35, forgiveness is portrayed through a parable as the cancellation of a debt. When the king in the parable forgives the debt, the effect is a total cancellation. Nothing is held against the indebted servant whatsoever.

However, when the forgiven servant has the opportunity to cancel a much smaller debt owed him, the servant demands payment in full. As a result, the servant’s forgiven debt is re-instated by the king and the servant delivered to be tortured (Gk,: basanistais). Jesus then concludes the parable by emphasizing its point: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (35).

The point is clear—sin has eternal consequences, and so does forgiveness. When we truly forgive someone who has offended us or who has wronged us, their debt to us is completely cancelled. How terribly unfair it would be if the person owing the debt to the servant in the parable should have his debt cancelled, only to discover at a later date that the king expects the debt to be paid to him anyway!

But Jesus does not even suggest that. Instead, His parable focuses on the fact that a forgiven debt is completely cancelled.

Actually, the entire context of Matthew 18 demonstrates how sin has eternal consequences (6-9), and that when the Church disciplines someone for unrepentant sin that too has eternal consequences (15-18). As He says in verse 18, I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

He then applies the same principle to forgiveness (19-22), giving the parable of the cancelled debt as illustration (23-35). In fact, Jesus’ famous statement—…if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matt. 18:19-22)—is specifically related to the eternal effectiveness of Church discipline and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a powerful act of grace. When we forgive someone for a personal offense, that offense is cancelled—now and forever.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Bible & Tattoos

Biblegems #39

Tattoos are all the rage. Men and women, young and old, non-believer and Christian—everybody’s doing it. A young Christian man I know wants a tattoo with a strong Christian theme. His rationale? He wants to use it as an invitation to explain it’s meaning as an avenue for sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. But before he does it, he wants to know what God wants.

There is only one verse in all of Scripture which specifically addresses the practice of tattooing. The Lord says in Leviticus 19:28, Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. As always, context here is very instructive. Equally instructive is the lack of other teaching in Scripture concerning this practice. It is always unwise to build a doctrine on the strength of one verse.

For the context, we must begin with the verse itself. Unlike the ten commandments which give unconditional instructions and prohibitions, the proscription against tattooing in Leviticus 19:28 has to do with marking or cutting the body as part of a spiritual ritual in memory of someone who has died. This was a very common practice, along with cutting one’s flesh as an emotional expression of grief.1 God’s instruction to the Israelites was designed to set them apart from the way the cultures around them either abused their bodies or decorated their bodies as a way of remembering loved ones who had died. God’s people were to be different, using their bodies to glorify God rather than memorialize the dead (see Lev. 21:11; 22: 4; Num. 5: 2; 9: 6, 7, 10; 6: 6; Deut. 14: 1).

The command against tattooing is actually just one of many examples given in Leviticus 19 of ways in which the people of God are to set themselves apart from the ungodly cultures around them. God’s Word to His people is be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).

This is the true message to God’s people for all time: Be like God, not like the rest of the world—in this case, in the way you treat your body. As Paul says in Romans 12:1, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

The question for the believer today, as it has always been, is one of holiness: Will tattooing your body set you apart as a child of God or identify you more with the ungodly of the culture in which you live? Will tattooing your body be holy and pleasing to God—a spiritual act of worship?

Ultimately, this becomes a very personal matter between the believer and God. Leviticus 19:28 provides an example from everyday life in ancient Israel on how to treat your body in a way holy and pleasing to God that would mark you as a believer. Every generation has its own challenges in how to live as God’s children in the world without being mistaken for being just like the rest of the world.

Personal holiness is the response of an obedient heart lived out in the actions of an obedient life.
1 Commentary on the Old Testament, electronic version, by C.F. Keik & F. Delitzsch, Hendrikson Publishers, 2006. In loc.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Salvation In The Old Testament

Biblegems #38
In light of John 14:6, which says: "Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" — how can the people of the Old Testament be given eternal life?

The key to this puzzle lies within Jesus’ own words, where He refers to Himself as “I am.” In John 8:58, Jesus declares, …before Abraham was born, I am. The Jews He addressed that day understood perfectly that by using that phrase He was claiming to be the very same God whom Moses encountered at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-15). There, God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14).

Jesus in the New Testament is the great I AM of the Old Testament. Jesus could say to Thomas in John 14:6, No one comes to the Father except through me, because Jesus and the Father are one. As He says in the very next verse, If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. Those who put their faith in the I Am of the Old Testament put their faith in Jesus—before He was revealed in the flesh.

Jesus’ revelation of Himself as the I AM is sprinkled throughout the gospel of John, often with direct allusions to His presence among the people of Israel in the Old Testament:

I am the bread of life…” “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (the manna in the wilderness, Ex. 16:13-34—John 6:35, 41, 48, 51).

I am the light of the world” (the light of creation, Gen. 1:3-4—John 8:12).

“…I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23).

“…if you do not believe that I am… you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24).

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am…” (raising the snake on a pole in the wilderness, Num. 21:7-9—John 8:28).

It was as true in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament that “…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8). That faith was always a matter of putting one’s entire trust in the One True God, as He revealed Himself prior to the final and perfect revelation in human form. As it says in Hebrews 1:1-3:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through
the prophets at many times and in various ways,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his
Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and
through whom he made the universe. The Son is
the radiance of God’s glory and the exact repre-
sentation of his being, sustaining all things by his
powerful word.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Bound" And "Loosed"

Biblegems #37
One biblegems reader asked for an explanation of the following verse:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).

The following two verses augment and expand Jesus’ teaching in verse 18:

“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:19-20).

The word translated “bind” from the Greek NT means “to bind, be in bonds, knit, tie, wind.”1 To “loose” means to “break (up), destroy, dissolve, (un-)loose, melt, put off.”2

The ideas intended by these picturesque words are that believers in Jesus have been given authority by Him to forgive someone who offends us with such effectiveness that God Himself will count that offense as having been completely withdrawn, no longer to be considered as an offense. The forgiveness is “binding” for all eternity. By the same token, if we withhold forgiveness for an offense, understanding that God’s glory and will is better served by His judgment being “loosed” upon a person, then all restraints against God’s judgment are “dissolved” or “put off.”

A good example of believers exercising authority in Jesus’ name to “loose” God’s judgment upon someone is found in Acts 13:8-12. Here, A false prophet named Elymas persistently tried to prevent the apostle Paul from leading the proconsul of Paphos to faith in Jesus. Finally, Paul used his authority in Jesus and said:

Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:11-12).

The context of Matthew 18:18 deals with forgiving or not forgiving someone who has sinned against you (18:15-35). So this is not a carte blanche permission slip from Jesus giving His followers authority to bind or loose whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it. God is not a dispenser of our whims, or even of our human sense of justice. That is why Jesus goes on to say in verses 19 and 20 that two or three believers are better suited to discern what God’s will is than a single person acting alone. Indeed, to ask for something “in Jesus’ name” means to ask for something already approved by Him.

1 Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, Public Domain, Electronic text downloaded from the Bible Foundation e-Text Library: Hypertexted and formatted by Oaktree Software, Inc. Greek text added by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.4
2 ibid