Category Archives: Scripture Notes

Do God and Satan Still Speak Together about Believers?

In the two opening chapters of Job we read of encounters between God and Satan.  The angels appeared before God, both the good and the evil.  God challenges Satan with respect to Job.  He says in Job 1:8, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?”  Satan replies with cynicism.  He insinuates that Job is just motivated by self-interest.  If the blessings are gone, then Job won’t be so committed to God anymore.  God then allows Satan to go out and smite Job.   

Someone recently asked me whether that kind of conversation between Satan and God still happens today.  Does it happen today that Satan appears before God and God says, “Have you considered my servant x or y?”  And Satan says, “Let me have a go at x or y and you’ll see what happens.”  Then God lets Satan do that.  Might that be happening even at this very moment? 

We have to be careful not to follow our own personal opinions.  Any answer we give has to be based on what the Bible says.  Furthermore, we have to limit ourselves to what the Bible says.  Reflecting on this question brought me to the last book of the Bible, to Revelation chapter 12.  In Revelation 12, the ascension of Christ into heaven is described with powerful symbolic language.  The effects of Christ’s ascension are also described there.  When Christ ascended into heaven victorious from his death and resurrection, that had an impact on Satan and the evil angels.  It says in Revelation 7:9 that Satan was cast down from heaven, along with the demons.  They aren’t permitted in the presence of God in heaven after Christ’s ascension.  Revelation 12:10 says Satan is no longer able to accuse believers in the presence of God in heaven. 

So based on Revelation 12, we have to say that what happened in Job 1-2 can’t happen today anymore.  After Christ’s ascension, Satan doesn’t have that access to God that he once did.  Does that mean he’s now unaccountable to God?  Does that mean Satan is outside of God’s sovereignty?  No, God’s sovereignty is always absolute.  Regardless of whether Satan is allowed before God in heaven, God is still sovereign over Satan.  Later in Revelation 20, Satan is bound by a chain.  God binds him. 

What we can say based on Scripture is that the trials we experience today are not the result of a conversation between God and Satan like what was happening behind the scenes in the opening of Job.  Christ changes everything.  The coming of Christ fulfilled the victory God achieved over Satan in the story of Job.  So today, when we go through tough times, it’s not a face-off between God and Satan.  Yes, God is still sovereign over our trials.  Yes, he ordains our trials and he has a good and wise purpose behind them.  But just because you’re experiencing something hard, that doesn’t mean God and Satan had a conversation about it.  It doesn’t mean God allowed Satan to bring these hard things to you in order to prove Satan wrong about you.  On this point, Job’s experience is not at all a template for our experience as Christians today. 


Don’t Share Your Faith?

Sharing the gospel isn’t only a biblical imperative, it’s also something every Christian should instinctively want to do.  If you love your Saviour, why wouldn’t you want others to hear about him?  However, someone could be held back by a Scripture passage which, at first glance, seems to tell us not to share our faith.  I’m thinking of Romans 14:22a, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”  That could be understood as saying Christians shouldn’t evangelize.

When faced with an interpretive issue like this, it’s a good idea to look at other Bible translations, especially if you don’t know the original languages of Scripture.  Above I quoted from the ESV, a translation which attempts to be both literal and readable.  The New King James Version is similar:  “Do you have faith?  Have it to yourself before God.”  While the first clause becomes a question in the NKJV, it still represents essential a literal rendering of the Greek. 

This is an instance where the New International Version is helpful.  The NIV leans more to a “dynamic equivalent” approach to translation.  In this approach, being literal is less important than being understandable.  This approach has its pros and cons.  But in Romans 14:22a, the meaning is clearer in the NIV:  “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”  This translation makes it clear this has nothing to do with evangelism. 

With the ESV and NKJV, it is possible to discern that from the context of Romans 14:22.  The context has to do with convictions about eating clean and unclean foods.  However, the word “faith” usually refers to faith in God or in Christ and that can throw us off in verse 22.  Sometimes the word “faith” can also refer to the whole body of Christian teaching, as in “the Christian faith.”  But the Greek word pistis can occasionally also mean “conviction” or “belief about something” and so it is here in Romans 14:22a.

We can learn two things here. 

First, we’re reminded again that “a text without context is a pretext.”  You could remove Romans 14:22a from its context and make it sound as if God is telling us not to evangelize.  The context helps us see how such an assertion would be erroneous.  So remember to always study the context.

Second, we see that there are no perfect Bible translations.  I appreciate a lot of things about the ESV, but its literal approach sometimes hinders understanding.  I appreciate some things about the NIV, but its dynamic equivalent approach sometimes forces readers to adopt a questionable understanding.  The takeaway here is, if you have no training in the original languages, don’t study with just one Bible translation.  By using two or three together, you may be able to compensate for the blind spots of each one.  Bible Gateway has a great tool where you can easily add parallel translations to a passage you’re studying.  I’ve highlighted (in red) the button for this function in the screenshot below – it’s in the upper left hand corner of the tool bar. 


Every Believer Evangelism

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8:4

Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.”  Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism.  We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives.  Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this.  To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election.  There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.

One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures.  According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries.  Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers.  Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.

At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention.  After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers?  There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.”  It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.  Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word. 

The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo  — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word.  In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.”  Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always.  Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.

What does it mean in Acts 8:4?  Here we need to look at the context.  Who were those scattered?  That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison.  This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles.  So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4.  In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria.  There are two important things to note here.  One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary.  He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation.  The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation.  In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties.  In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4.  He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction.  The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.

It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel.  In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise.  This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.

But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today?  There are two angles we should explore.  One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about.  Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles.  But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter.  In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.”  When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach.  We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light.  We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus.  This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him.  As Christians, we’re also united to Christ.  What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.

The second angle is closely related.  One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize.  Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them.  When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get.  And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities.  If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.

Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling.  There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.  But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church.  Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.


Human?

Hereditary chiefs of the Lake Babine Nation welcome a group of canoeists to their village.

Are First Nations people human beings or not?  Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear.  In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question.  On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop.  Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church.  On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar.  Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved.  It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.

There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others.  In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews.  God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles.  Think of Jonah.  Think of his attitude to Nineveh.

But what about us?  Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for?  In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations.  It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away.  But what about closer to home?  How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday?  Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues.  What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people?  Would we eagerly welcome them?

What would our Master do?  To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Her daughter had an unclean spirit.  She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet.  She begs for healing for her daughter.

Jesus gives her a curious answer.  He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  The comparison is implied:  the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles.  The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry.  At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.

However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it.  He wants her to make a good response so he can help her.  The woman has to justify her request.  She has to demonstrate her faith.  How desperate is she?  More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?

Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him.  She acknowledges her low status.  She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie?  I’m in agreement with that.  I’m not a child in your house.  I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps.  Can I please have some of the scraps?”  She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption.  But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles.  She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her.  He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon.  Jesus does.  He commends her faith and heals her daughter.

Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies.  But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family.  We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance.  We become everything human beings were created to be.  We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace.  If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture.  God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them.  It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9.  He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her.  It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.


Christian, Don’t Suppress Your Identity!

I once heard a radio program about call center workers in India.  North American companies often contract out their call center work to cheap labour in India.  However, many North Americans get annoyed and agitated when they call that number and then hear someone who’s obviously from India.  So many call center workers suppress their Indian identity as part of their work.  They take extensive training to get rid of their Indian accent, they adopt American accents, take a Western name, adopt a Western diet and so on.  So when you call that number, Jim who sounds like he’s from Boston might really be Raj from Mumbai.

As Christians, we have a distinct identity in Christ.  Believers are united to him and that means that our identity is bound up in him.  Who we are is totally related to who he is.  What we’re like and what we’re becoming is entirely related to what he is like.  You can’t separate a Christian’s identity from Jesus Christ.

Yet that’s exactly what we’re so often tempted to do, isn’t it?  We’re tempted to divide our life up into little air-tight compartments.  This compartment is what I do for entertainment and it has nothing to do with this compartment that has everything related to being a Christian.  This compartment is for me at work and it has nothing to do with the “religious” compartment.  This compartment is for me on the Internet and it has nothing to do with the “faith” compartment.  The world insists that this is the way you should live.  If you have religious convictions, you must keep them in that air-tight compartment and don’t ever let them out.  It makes things uncomfortable for people around you if you do.  Our own sinful nature tempts us to do that too – after all, it’s much easier to take the compartmentalized approach to life.  The people at work are never going to give you a hard time if you just talk and act like one of them.  That’s what we mean by suppressing your identity in Jesus Christ, hiding the fact that you are united to him.

Scripture speaks to that temptation in several places.  For example in Colossians 3, Paul points out that believers who are united to the ascended Christ should let that fact always be evident.  Christians cannot ever suppress their identity, they can’t be hiding who they really are in Jesus.   If they have a new nature in him, it should be obvious in things like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).  Our identity in Christ should be seen as we bear with one another and forgive one another (Col. 3:13).  Overarching it all, our identity in Christ should be evident in our love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).  Finally, that identity is lived out by doing “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

Fellow Christians, we have to be who we are in the risen Lord Jesus.  No more identity suppression.