Category Archives: Greek

Romans 1:26-27 – The Kingdom of God Revealed and Rejected

The Apostle Paul

Biblical restrictions against same-gender sexual activity may seem incredibly counter-cultural. Certainly, this charge is leveled against other biblical teachings as well. Many people find the prohibition against premarital sex to be unrealistic, and contributing money regularly to a church strikes people as foolish, and the idea that Christ is the only way to God can appear to some as intolerant. Biblical teachings reflect the values of God’s kingdom and show us what life should look like under God’s reign. But God’s kingdom has always been in tension with the kingdoms of this world. Romans 1:18-32 paints a picture of what it looks like to resist God’s reign.

(See previous posts on this topic here, here, here, and here).

 

Literary Context of Romans 1:18-32

After the apostle Paul greets his readers, introduces himself, and articulates his gospel message (Romans 1:1-17), he devotes several chapters (Rom 1:18-3:21) to demonstrating that all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, are sinful and therefore deserving of God’s judgment (“that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” – Romans 3:19). Paul introduces this section of his letter with the pronouncement of God’s wrath against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (πᾱσα ἀσέβεια καὶ ἀδικία). These are words that shape our understanding of what follows – sinful rejection of God and sinful behaviors. “Unrighteousness” (ἀδικία) stands in contrast to the “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) revealed in the gospel (1:16-17).

Romans 1:19-23 speaks of Gentiles’ rejection of God’s general revelation and their descent into idolatry. The focus is not on each individual Gentile’s experience with idolatry, but with idolatry as characteristic of a Gentile world that denies the knowledge of God.

Romans 1:24-25 is a transitional verse that introduces God’s “handing over” of idolaters into immorality. The immorality is described as “the desires of their hearts resulting in impurity (ἀκαρθασία) and the dishonoring of their bodies among/in themselves.” “Dishonoring (ἀτιμάζω) of their bodies” is not defined here but anticipates the description of “dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) same-sex practices in the verses that follow. The prepositional phrase at the end of Romans 1:24 (ἐν αὐτοῖς) could be interpreted as “among themselves” (as a culture-wide phenomenon) or “in themselves” (with a possible parallel in 1 Corinthians 6:18).

Romans 1:26-32 describes the “dishonorable passions,” with 1:26-27 focusing on male-male and female-female sexual activities.

This passage should not be read as Paul’s musings on the psychology of same-sex attraction and behavior. Paul does not set out to prove that for a given individual the experience of same-sex attraction or the practice of same-sex activity is caused by rejecting God.  Paul’s purpose is more general: to argue that “idolatry leads to social disintegration, particularly in the form of sexual confusion, as God hands people over to the consequences of their sinful desires” (Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament, 351).

 

The Text of Romans 1:26-27

“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural  relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

“For this reason” – see verse 25 – the reason is the rejection of God for idolatry.

“God gave them up – repeats the language of verse 24 and is repeated again in verse 28. God releases idolaters to their lusts (ἐπιθυμία), passions (πάθος), and debased minds (ἀδόκιμος νοῡς). The verse does not indicate the cause of immorality but describes the unchecked reign of these immoral desires and activities.

  • “Dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) – “a state of dishonor or disrespect,” (BDAG, 149).
  • “Passion” (πάθος) – “experience of strong desire, passion,” (BDAG, 748). This is used in a negative way in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 and Colossians 3:5 as well.

“For” (γάρ) – explains the way in which the passions are dishonorable.

“The women” – Paul describes the prevalence of sexual activity between females before turning his attention to the males.

  • The inclusion of women in descriptions of same-gender sexual activity invalidates the argument that Paul is denouncing only abusive sexual relationships in which one participant is an adult and the other is not (such as pederasty – sexual activity between an adult male and a younger boy). Schreiner notes that “there is no evidence that older women victimized younger girls, and so this theory does not account for the indictment of female sexual relations” (Thomas Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 661).

“Exchanged” is the same word as 1:25 (exchanging the truth of God for a lie) and is related to 1:23 (exchanging the glory of God for images). The pattern reflects exchanging what is true and good for what is false and wrong.

In this case (verse 26), the charge is that people exchange “natural relations” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) for “those that are contrary to nature” (τὴν παρὰ φύσιν).

  • φυσικός is “pertaining to being in accordance with the basic order of things in nature,” (BDAG, 1069).
  • χρῆσις is the “state of involvement with a person, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse,” (BDAG, 1089).
  • φύσις is “the regular or established order of things, nature,” (BDAG, 1070).

In summary, “their women” are said to exchange sexual activities that align with the natural order of things for activities that are against the natural order of things.

For Paul “natural” and “contrary to nature” are categories that are both transparent from observation (male and female differentiation, which is evident to all) and in alignment with God’s creative design from Genesis 1-2. This connection between God’s creative design and observed order is affirmed in Romans 1:20 (God’s attributes are perceived “ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”) Additional corroborating evidence that male and female distinction is what is “natural” is found with the pairing of “women and men” or “females and males” (θῆλυς and ἄρσην) in this passage (see the LXX version of Genesis 1:27, Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6, and Galatians 3:28). In summary, Paul uses “natural” and “contrary to nature” to describe actions “in accordance with the intention of the Creator” and actions “contrary to the intention of the Creator” (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 1:125).

  • Paul likewise appeals to “nature” or φύσις in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, where observed design from creation (“nature”) is used to condemn the practice of men looking like women or vice versa. (Note that in that passage, the confusion of genders was culturally expressed and pertinent to that particular culture, but the basis for not having confusion in the first place was timeless and grounded in creation-determined differentiation between men and women).
  • Natural and unnatural is not determined inwardly, according to the person’s orientation, but according to God’s design in creation. In other words, a person may protest that certain actions are in fact natural to that person’s inclinations, but the Bible does not accept those as natural if they conflict with God’s revealed will.

Some of the same language from verse 26 is applied to men in verse 27. The men’s “natural use” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) is “departed from/abandoned” (ἀφίημι- see BDAG, 156). This time though, the parallel to “contrary to nature” (which is opposite of “natural”) is spelled out more specifically. The men were “consumed with passion for one another, men carrying out shameful acts with men and receiving in/among themselves the penalty which was necessary for their error.”

  • “Consumed” (ἐκκαίω) is defined as “have a strong desire for, be inflamed” in BDAG, 303.
  • “Passion” (ὄρεξις) describes “a condition of strong desire, longing,” (BDAG, 721).
  • Note that this is a description of misdirected passion rather than excess passion. The emphasis is on the passion that is not according to “nature.” The disordered passion results in committing same-sex acts. From the men’s perspective, the actions were aligned with their passions, but from God’s perspective, the actions were contrary to nature.
  • Contrary to Vines, 105 (Paul “was condemning excess as opposed to moderation”), Paul is criticizing disordered (contrary to nature and God’s will from creation) passions as opposed to ordered (in harmony with nature and God’s will from creation) passions.

The behavior between “one another” is immediately restated as “men in/with/among men” (ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν).

These men were “carrying out” (κατεργάζομαι – BDAG, 531) “shameful acts” (ἀσχημοσύνη), which is defined as “behavior that elicits its disgrace” (BDAG, 147).

These men (same grammatical subject) also were “receiving” (ἀπολαμβάνω) “the penalty” (ἀντιμισθία – “requital based upon what one deserves, recompense, exchange,” BDAG, 90), which “was necessary” (ἔδει) for their error (πλάνη) – “wandering from the path of truth; error, delusion, deceit, deception” (BDAG, 822). These men received this penalty “in/among themselves,” which is similar language to Rom 1:24 and could mean either among them broadly or within each sinner (with a nod to the personal nature of sexual sin – 1 Corinthians 6:18). The same-sex acts themselves are the penalty for denying God’s natural revelation (not some penalty on top of the same-sex acts), recalling that the language is parallel to “acts contrary to nature” in Rom 1:26.

Why did Paul highlight these vices (women having sex with women and men having sex with men) in particular? For one, it was shocking to the Jewish mindset, which Paul sought to identify with at that point in the argument. But two, Paul likely sees a connection between rejecting the revealed knowledge of God in nature with the distortion of the natural manner of sexual intercourse. Both involve abandonment of the naturally revealed knowledge of creation and its creator. See Gagnon, 264-268 for further examination of connections between the idolatry and same-sex practices as they are described in this passage.

 

Other considerations

Romans 2:1, where Paul abruptly confronts the Jewish moralist for his/her sin, reveals more of Paul’s agenda for Romans 1-3. His purpose is to show that all people are sinners and accountable to God (see Romans 3:19-20). Even though Romans 2:1 serves as a “gotcha” moment for the Jewish readers, Paul still presents points he sees as valid in Romans 1:18-32 (as seen in the transition from the righteousness found in the gospel – Romans 1:16-17 – to the unrighteousness of humanity introduced in Romans 1:18). This resembles the familiar OT prophetic pattern of denouncing both the nations and the Jewish people for their sins (before promising a future hope through God’s saving work).

There is a close association between this passage and Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. They have similar critiques of Gentile idolatry and immorality. Wisdom of Solomon may mention same sex relations in 14:26 (γενεσεως ἐναλλαγη), though this is debated.

Could same-gender sexual activity within a committed marriage fall outside of the negative characterization of same-gender sexual activity within this passage? Paul does not indicate the legitimacy of any exception to the rule. And any such practice, whether inside or outside a marriage, would still seem to involve activity that is in opposition to the “natural function” Paul describes in the passage. As John Stott notes, the Bible does not support the idea that “love is the only absolute, and that whatever seems to be compatible with love is ipso facto good, irrespective of all other considerations” (Issues Facing Christians Today, 350).

This brings us back, full circle, to the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is abundant life, even “human flourishing,” with the key qualifier that this is life lived under God’s reign, according to his perfect wisdom. As difficult as a biblical teaching may sound, we can trust that God’s perfect wisdom will lead us into paths of life, both now and for eternity.

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Sodom and Gomorrah throughout the Bible

Fire

This post is part 3 of a series on biblical passages that are relevant for or commonly mentioned in discussions about same-sex practices. The overview to the series is found here, and the second post, which surveys the biblical definition of marriage, is found here. Our goals as Christians should be to better understand the truth communicated in these passages while at the same time to love the people around us with pure hearts. With humility we seek to treat one another with respect and understanding while looking out for each other’s best long-term interests.

This current post examines the original account of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19, as well as later passages that refer back to that event.

There is no single sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that is isolated from other sins in Genesis 18-19. The episode that led to God’s judgment upon the cities was only one indicator of a broader sin problem in those cities. The nature of the sins there is best described as comprehensive wickedness, which included arrogance, inhospitable behavior, sexual immorality, and violence.

The specific episode with Lot’s visitors that is recounted as final evidence of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wickedness was characterized by hostility to outsiders, lawlessness, attempted sexual violence against same-gender targets, and arrogance.

 

Genesis 18-19 in context

In Genesis 13:13 Lot and family move into the city of Sodom: “Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.” This verse points to the general wickedness of the city, without specifying the exact nature of the sins against the LORD.

In Genesis 18 the LORD appears to Abraham and arrives with two men that are later identified as angels, according to their title (malakhim in Genesis 19:1) and by their supernatural actions in Genesis 19 (blinding crowds of men and foretelling divine judgment on the city). The three men (they are identified as men in Genesis 18:2, describing how they looked to Abraham) stay with Abraham and Sarah. The LORD speaks and leads throughout the narrative (Genesis 18:1,10,17,20, etc.), and at one point the two angels depart for Sodom while the LORD stays with Abraham (Genesis 18:22). Abraham treats the LORD and the visiting men/angels with great hospitality.

  • Though the narrator identifies the visitors as the LORD and two angels, Abraham sees them as human men (the men of Sodom will likewise see the angels as men). Hebrews 13:2 probably refers to this event: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Genesis 18:20-21: “Then the LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.’” In the verses that follow, “righteous” and “wicked” are contrasted.

  • Righteous = tsadiq (dikaios in LXX) – “morally in the right, innocent” (HALOT, 1002). See Noah – Genesis 6:9 – “a righteous man.” God is often described as righteous.
  • Wicked = rasha (aseb­­ēs in the LXX) – “guilty in general, essentially before God, guilty, wicked person” (HALOT, 1295).
  • Outcry = z’aqah – “plaintive cry, cry for help” (HALOT, 277).
  • Grievous = khabed – “weighty” (HALOT, 456).

Genesis 19:4-5 – “Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’”

  • The two angels are identified as “men” by the men of Sodom, which suggests that they were seen primarily, if not exclusively, as ordinary human men by the residents of Sodom.
  • “Have sex with them” is from the Hebrew for “to know,” and it often carries a sexual connotation (which seems to be confirmed in this instance by the same use of “know” in Genesis 19:8). The desperate offering of Lot’s daughters (for sexual intercourse) shows the sexual nature of the request. The scene also has strong parallels to Judges 19:22-26, where men of Gibeah seek to “know” a visiting man in the city, and the man hosting the visitor offers his daughter instead, who is “abused”/raped throughout the night.

Genesis 19:7 – Lot: “Don’t do this wicked thing . . . (offers daughters) . . . But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

  • A strong culture of hospitality undergirds the narrative (with Lot’s concern to protect his guests).
  • At the same time, the verses that follow depict a frenzied atmosphere that is likely fed by the need to satisfy sexual desires. In Genesis 19:9 the men say “Get out of our way . . . This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge.” They then proceed to “press hard” and “drew near to break the door down.”

Genesis 19:13 – In the midst of the terrible scene, the angels save the day (and Lot’s daughters!), and the need for divine judgment is confirmed. The angelic visitors say, “The outcry against its people is so great that he (the LORD) has sent us to destroy it.” In other words, the men’s actions were extreme and wicked enough to demonstrate that God’s judgment against the city was justified.

 

References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in later OT passages:

Many later passages in the OT refer to Sodom and Gomorrah. A basic reason for this is because the cities were memorable for God’s swift judgment upon them. Note in the verses that follow that at times the threat of judgment is the basis of comparison (and not the nature of the sins themselves). In other words, the sins of those threatened by a judgment similar to Sodom and Gomorrah do not always correspond exactly to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, unless the passage explicitly makes that link.

In Deuteronomy 29:23 threatened judgment of Israel is compared to judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. A similar idea is found in Isaiah 13:19 (against Babylon), Jeremiah 49:18 (Edom), Jeremiah 50:40 (Babylon), Lamentations 4:6 (Jerusalem), Amos 4:11 (Israel), and Zephaniah (Moab and the Ammonites). Judgment in these cases is devastating and irreversible.

Isaiah 1:9-10 – the Israelites, in the wake of God’s judgment, felt that they were almost extinct as a people – almost as devastated as Sodom and Gomorrah. Israel has sinned (“rebellion” and “corruption” and “forsaking the LORD” and “spurning the Holy One of Israel”). There is an ironic turn from verse 9 to 10 – God says they actually are Sodom and Gomorrah (because of their wickedness) – their sacrifices and rituals are meaningless. They need to repent and do right and seek justice.

Isaiah 3:9 – Jerusalem, Judah are guilty because “they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” Jerusalem is thus compared to Sodom because its sin is flagrant, being practiced without shame or repentance.

Jeremiah 23:14 – “And among the prophets of Jerusalem, I have seen something horrible: They commit adultery and live a lie. They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that not one of them turns from their wickedness. They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah.” The prophets are unfaithful to God and to their divine calling. Instead of confronting the people’s sins, they are condoning sin (promoting sin without shame or repentance).

  • To “commit adultery” (naaph) is used  throughout Jeremiah and the prophets to refer to idolatry and spiritual unfaithfulness to God and his covenant.

Ezekiel 16 – “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations” (16:2). Jerusalem was the unfaithful wife to God’s covenantal love, through idolatry (16:17), (spiritual) prostitution, and lewdness (16:43 – “Have you not committed lewdness in addition to all your abominations?”).  They imitated practices of godless cultures and cities, including Sodom (16:47): “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” Ezekiel 16:49-50: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

  • A variety of Sodom’s vices are linked to Sodom in 16:49-50, including arrogance, selfish indulgence, lack of mercy, and committing an abomination. The mention of arrogance and injustice match with the general description of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 13, 18, and 19, and it may also recall the outcry of the righteous in Genesis 18:20-21 and 19:13 (see Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel 1-24, 509). But what about the language of abomination?
  • The appearance of “abomination” in 16:50 could summarize the sins listed prior to it, or it could add a different sin to the list. “Abomination(s)” (toevah) is mentioned multiple times in the passage to describe practices that are offensive to God (HALOT 1703 – toevah – “abomination, abhorrence”). “Abomination” is used more as a catch-all category for sin elsewhere in Ezekiel 16 (in the plural) but may indicate a more specific sin in 16:50 (in the singular – “committing an abomination”). This is plausible when seen in comparison to Ezekiel 18:10-13, which presents a list that includes “abomination” (singular) before summarizing all sins in the list as “abominations” (plural) – see Robert A. J. Gagnon, “The Old Testament and Homosexuality: A Critical Review of the Case Made by Phyllis Bird.”
  • Even more, “abomination” may describe sexual sin in Ezekiel 16:50. The word also appears in Leviticus 18 and 20 in the context of laws against sexual immorality, and it describes sexual sin in Ezekiel 22:11. More specifically, it may recount the sexually lawless behavior that led to judgment in Genesis 19. The end of Ezek 16:50 (“So I removed them, when I saw it”) may support the idea that “abomination” refers to that specific episode (the attempted male-on-male gang rape), because it suggests a correlation between seeing the behavior (through the eyes of the angelic messengers?) and delivering the judgment. The chaotic scene of sexual aggression was the final straw that confirmed the need for judgment against wicked cities.
  • Though Sodom’s non-sexual sins are highlighted here, there is some evidence that the passage has Sodom’s sexual sins in view as well.

 

References to Sodom (and Gomorrah) in NT passages:

Several New Testament passages highlight the connection between Sodom/Gomorrah and swift judgment. But 2 Peter 2:6 and Jude 7 delve more extensively into the original account from Genesis.

  • Matthew 11:23 – Sodom is used as an example of sin and future judgment (towns rejecting Jesus are in an even worse situation). See also Matthew 10:15/Luke 10:12.
  • Luke 17:28 – with the coming kingdom of God, judgment will come suddenly, amidst common daily events (as was the case with Sodom).
  • Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, drawing upon the finality of judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.

2 Peter 2:6 – “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) – if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.”

  • Ungodly = ἀσεβέω, ἀσεβής  = “to violate norms of a proper or professed relation to deity, act impiously,” and “pertaining to violating norms for a proper relation to deity, irreverent, impious, ungodly, BDAG, 141.
  • Depraved = ἀσέλγεια = “lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable,” BDAG, 141. See also 2 Peter 2:2 and 2:18. ESV has “sensuality.” This vice (ἀσέλγεια) is also condemned by Jesus in Mark 7:22. It is often found in lists associated with sexual immorality (Rom 13:13, 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19).
  • Lawless = ἄνομος = “pertaining to violating moral standards,” BDAG, 85. 1 Timothy 1:9 – the Mosaic Law was given for people who are “lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.”
  • Elsewhere in 2 Peter 2 (2:2, 2:10, 2:13, 2:18, 2:20) words with connotations of sexual immorality appear as part of a broader condemnation against godlessness.
  • The specific description of Sodom and Gomorrah and the broader context in 2 Peter 2 has sexual deviancy as a strong focus.

Jude 7 – “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. In the very same way, on the strength of their dreams these ungodly people pollute their own bodies, reject authority and heap abuse on celestial beings.”

  • Sexual immorality = ἐκπορνεὐω  = “indulge in illicit sexual relations/debauchery.’ Used only in Jude, but related to the common term πορνεία.
  • “Perversion” = ἕτερος σάρξ = “other flesh.” ESV – “unnatural desire.” HCSB – “perversions.” NASB – “strange flesh.” NET – “pursued unnatural desire in a way similar to these angels.” NRSV – “unnatural lust.” It is somewhat ambiguous here whether this refers to desire for same-sex activity or sex with angels, though the former is more likely in view of the fact that according to Genesis 19 the men of Sodom did not appear to realize that they were seeking sex with angels.
  • “Pollute” bodies = μιαίνω = “to cause the purity of something to be violated by immoral behavior; defile,” BDAG, 650.
  • Jude as a whole condemns “ungodly passions” (Jude 18), and “sensuality” (Jude 4 – ἀσέλγεια), so sexual immorality seems to be central to the problem he is addressing (along with general spiritual arrogance and irreverence). The judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah is enlisted as one example of judgment for sexual immorality, with perhaps a specific reference to same-sex sexual activity as well.

 

Conclusions

Both the passage itself and the later references to it show that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities in a number of ways. A number of vices marked the cities. Readers should not target same-gender sexual relations as the solitary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, though the fact that the men of the city demanded sex with other men is still a notable detail in the story. The narrative of Genesis 18-19 highlights this violent, inhospitable, sexually inflamed behavior as something shocking and out-of-bounds, and some later passages imply that the sexual practices of Sodom and Gomorrah contributed to their being judged by God.

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The First Christians – Servants of God and Christ

John the servant

A stroll through the books of the New Testament reveals a common expression for how the earliest Christians viewed themselves: as servants of God and Jesus Christ:

Romans 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus”

Titus 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ”

James 1:1 – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”

2 Peter 1:1 – “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ”

Jude 1:1 – “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”

Revelation 1:1 – God gave his revelation to “his servant John.”

Five different Christian ministers – Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John – identify themselves as servants of God and Christ. Two (James and Jude) were likely Jesus’ own brothers! Still, they didn’t play the “brother-of-Jesus card” but represented themselves as his servants. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and John, the last surviving apostle, each adopted the title “servant.” All five disciples placed this label front and center – at the beginning of their letters or writings.

The title “servant” captured the early Christians’ complete, undivided loyalty to Christ. The term comes from the Greek word doulos and typically referred to an actual slave in the Roman era. The Holman Christian Standard Bible actually insists on translating the term as “slave” in the verses mentioned above.

Christians serve the Lord exclusively. They buy into his lordship and kingdom, and they respond to his call. They make it their goal to know how to serve him through prayer and a careful study of Scriptures. They recognize the privilege of serving him, and they love to bring glory to his name. In the end, they long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

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Portrait of an Apostle – my first book

A long-term project recently came to fruition when my book on the apostle Paul was published two weeks ago. The title of the book is Portrait of an Apostle: A Case for Paul’s Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians.

Portrait of an Apostle

Over the course of my research I had a great time navigating my way through large sections of Colossians and Ephesians containing Paul’s direct description of his ministry (such as his calling to reach the Gentiles) and his personal circumstances (such as suffering and being imprisoned). My aim for the project was to respond to arguments that a later imitator of Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians. 

Most people are not even aware that many scholars dispute that Paul wrote these two letters. What I found is that while a number of scholars reject Paul’s authorship of the letters, their reasons for doing so are not convincing when subjected to careful analysis.

I decided that the easiest way to detect or rule out forgery (or pseudepigraphy, the more technical term) was to examine how Paul is actually portrayed in the letters. Someone who wanted to imitate Paul would need to describe his personal experiences and sense of calling in ways that are consistent with Paul’s depiction of himself in other letters. But if the imitator sounded too much like Paul, without any freedom or variety in expression, our suspicions would be raised that we were dealing with forgery.

There actually are two letters, from the 2nd or 3rd centuries, that are written under Paul’s name. The letters known as 3rd Corinthians and the Epistle to the Laodiceans are widely acknowledged as forgeries, and they give telltale signs that the author is someone other than Paul himself.

But with Colossians and Ephesians, we see fresh and unstudied articulations of Paul’s ministry and calling that nonetheless align comfortably with Paul’s description of himself in his earlier letters. Through a verse-by-verse investigation of relevant passages, I demonstrated that it makes much better sense to credit Paul himself with the authorship of Colossians and Ephesians.

Colossians and Ephesians are beautiful New Testament letters that point to the sacrificial love of Christ, his reign over all things, and God’s plan to bring reconciled people together as part of Christ’s body, the church. I hope that this study encourages Christians to be confident that God spoke powerfully to us through the apostle Paul in these letters, so that we can read the letters with attitudes of complete trust, worship, and obedience.

More information about the book can be found by following this link: Publishing info for Portrait of an Apostle.

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God’s Kingdom and Matthew 11:12

Jesus, Patmos

Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God throughout the Gospels using parables and other teachings. His message about the kingdom was that God’s reign was being implemented in Jesus’ ministry and that this kingdom would advance until Jesus brought it to completion one day when he returned. Perhaps the most difficult verse to interpret about the kingdom of heaven/God in the Gospels is Matthew 11:12. Note three different translations of the verse:

ESV: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and violent men take it by force.”

NIV (1984): “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

NLT: “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people attack it.”

As seen from the translations, the passage is typically understood in one of three ways, depending on the connotation of the Greek verb βιάζω and its cognate noun βιαστής in the two halves of the verse. Specifically, the words can carry the negative sense of violence or the positive sense of decisive action or momentum. This (along with an ambiguity related to the grammatical voice of the first verb) leads to three likely combinations:

1. A negative followed by negative sense (ESV, NET, NIV 2012, NKJV, NRSV, with commentators Hagner, Blomberg, Davies and Allison, Turner, Gundry, France, Osborne, Wilkins, and Bruner). The idea is that violent people are working against God’s kingdom purposes, and God’s servants will encounter suffering as a result. One strength for this position is found in the immediate context, in which John the Baptist has just been imprisoned by opponents of God’s kingdom (see also Matt 17:10-13). Furthermore, Jesus had previously taught the disciples to expect suffering when they serve him (Matt 10). This view also interprets βιαστής (“a violent person”) with its typical negative meaning.

2. A positive followed by positive sense (NIV 1984, commentators Keener and Ridderbos, and theologians Ladd, Schreiner, and even the 2nd century church father Irenaeus). Jesus’ meaning  to his audience would be to get on board the kingdom train while they can – the kingdom requires a wholehearted, urgent response. This view aligns well with the parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46), since those parables encourage decisive action in response to hearing about the kingdom. In addition, this second position fits well into a salvation-historical perspective, in which the era of the old covenant is giving way to the kingdom’s arrival and advance through Jesus. This salvation-historical mindset surfaces in the immediate context, with a delineation between the era of promise (the Law and the Prophets – Matt 11:13), and the era of kingdom fulfillment (“from the days of John the Baptist until now” – Matt 11:12). Moreover, in nearby passages the kingdom’s arrival is linked to healings and exorcisms (Matt 10:7-8), miracles (Matt 11:4-6), and the plundering of Satan (Matt 12:27-29), which are actions consistent with the forceful advance of God’s kingdom.

3. A positive followed by negative sense (NLT, commentators Carson and Nolland). This interpretation would discern a play on words – God’s kingdom is advancing against the powers of darkness, even though people with different agendas are trying to claim the kingdom by their own methods and for their own purposes. I prefer this interpretation, since it incorporates the strengths of the first two views (persecution in the midst of kingdom progress) and does so in a rhetorically effective way, though with a play on words that has no good English equivalent (“the kingdom of heaven is invading, and invaders are trying to seize it” creates a similar effect, but βιάζω does not translate as “invade”). The overall picture of contending kingdoms in this verse resembles the Old Testament backdrop for the kingdom of God (see especially Daniel 7, which portrays God’s kingdom rising up in the midst of earthly kingdoms that are hostile to it).

A final complicating factor arises with the similar wording of Luke 16:16: “The kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing (or being pressed – also from βιάζω) into it.” Could this be the same teaching expressed in a different way? If so, then it could be inferred that the first part of Matt 11:12 carries a positive sense (corresponding to “the kingdom of God is being preached” in Luke 16:16). The second half of Luke 16:16 could convey either a positive or negative connotation (though most commentators detect a positive meaning in that context). But the first half of Luke 16:16 and, arguably, the first half of Matthew 11:12, depict the powerful inbreaking of God’s kingdom into our world, through the ministry of Jesus.

The bottom line: kingdoms are accompanied by agendas for the world. When Jesus arrived on the scene, he brought God’s kingdom agenda with him. Opponents of God’s kingdom reacted with their own plans and seemed to succeed, especially when they crucified Jesus. But when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was confirmation that God always has the final word.  Indeed, God’s kingdom will be the only kingdom left standing one day, and its presence will be enjoyed by citizens of his kingdom everywhere.

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Filed under Bible Study, Biblical Theology, Greek, New Testament