Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Importance of Taking Steps to Avoid Temptation

Various biblical passages make it clear that it is normal for Christians to be tempted. 

In 1 Corinthians 10:13, for example, Paul tells the church in Corinth: 
‘No temptation has overtaken you except what is common for human beings.’ 
Similarly, in Hebrews 4:15 the author writes: 
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in every way as we are . . .’ 
1 Thessalonians 3:5, Hebrews 2:18 and James 1:13-15 are some of the other passages that refer to Christians being tempted.

It is, of course, yielding to temptation that is sinful.  Being tempted is not a sin in itself.  However, knowing this, many Christians make the mistake of doing little to avoid situations in which they are likely to be tempted.

In fact, Scripture makes it clear that normal Christian living should involve taking steps, sometimes radical steps, to avoid temptations when possible. 

Matthew 18:8-9

In Matthew 18:8-9 (paralleled in Mark 9:43-47) Jesus speaks powerfully on this subject: 
‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell fire.’ 
This is a very striking way of putting things, and Jesus’ instructions here are clearly not meant to be taken literally.  However, when reading something in the Bible that contains hyperbole, i.e., language that is deliberately exaggerated for effect, Christians can often fail to take what is said as seriously as they should.  An over-compensation for the hyperbole can occur when interpreting, with the result that the forcefulness of the words is not properly recognised. 

When we take proper account of the hyperbole in this passage, we see that Jesus is stressing how serious sin is.  But He is also making it clear that if necessary His followers should be taking radical steps to avoid sinning. 

1 Corinthians 7:5

In 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul tells married Christians in the church in Corinth: 
‘Don’t deprive each other [of sexual relations], except by agreement for a time so that you can devote yourselves to prayer.  Then you should come together again, so that Satan does not tempt you through your lack of self-control.’ 
Note how Paul instructs his readers to take steps to avoid temptation.

Galatians 6:1

In Galatians 6:1 Paul writes: 
‘Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person gently.  And watch yourself, so that you are not also tempted.’ 
Again, Paul tells his readers to act to avoid being tempted.

What we should do

All of us are vulnerable to temptations in various ways, and we will be aware of at least some of the sins we are most in danger of committing.  We should therefore ask ourselves if we are doing what we can to avoid getting into situations where we are tempted. 

In some circumstances, we might find that there is not much we can do, such as when the temptations concern only thoughts in our minds.  However, even in situations like these we can experiment to see if doing anything helps us to avoid being tempted.  For example, we might find that trying to fix our mind on something good is a help.

When temptations concern actions, it is much more likely that we will be able to take steps to greatly reduce the amount we are tempted.  And some of these steps might need to be radical. 

I know of Christians, for instance, who found that they were giving in to temptations to watch bad content on TV, or to watch more TV than they should, and who got rid of their TVs as a result. 

I also know of Christians who were dating, realised that they were in danger of yielding to temptations to sleep together before they were married, and who therefore decided only to meet in public places.

I think these are good examples of how the biblical teaching quoted above can be put into practice in the modern day. 

It is not enough for us to fight temptations that we experience.  We should also be taking steps, radical steps at times, to avoid being tempted in the first place.

See also:

Fighting Tooth and Nail to Interpret the Bible Honestly

In eternity past, God devised His Bible project. He decided that He would create a group of writings to teach human beings things that they need to know. And then in history He fulfilled this plan by using certain people to bring this literature into existence.

Although humans had some input into the Bible, it is essentially a divine thing. God chose what to put in it, and we can be sure that He knew what He was doing.

Dishonesty in using the Bible

Because the Bible is from God, it should be obvious that Christians need to take what it says extremely seriously. And this means that we should always be as honest as we can be about everything in it.

Sadly, however, this often doesn’t happen.

I spend a lot of time reading up on various Christian issues. When I do, I am frequently dismayed by the amount of biased and dishonest interpretation of biblical passages that goes on, sometimes even by well-known Christian leaders.

Time and again, I come across forced interpretations of texts by those who seem determined to make them say what they want them to. It is also very common for Christians to ignore passages that are difficult for their views or to exaggerate the support that passages provide for the case they are making.

Many Christians do these sorts of things so much that they can’t be making much of an effort to be honest with what they are reading.

Motivation for dishonesty varies

The motivation for dishonest use of the Bible varies.

Sometimes there is at least a legitimate desire to oppose false teaching. The following, or something similar to it, often happens:

A truth of the Christian faith comes under attack. A Christian sees this happening and wants to defend against it. They therefore respond by quoting biblical passages. However, they don’t find it easy to make their case. So they try to manufacture extra support for their arguments by dishonestly interpreting parts of the Bible. Honesty in biblical interpretation is sacrificed, because an important issue is seen to be at stake.

It is, of course, good to be distressed by false teaching. But that doesn’t make it right to be dishonest when combating false teachers. The end never justifies the means. Instead, we should fight false teaching with Scripture as God inspired it, regardless of how easy or difficult that is to do.

At other times when Christians dishonestly use the Bible, the dishonesty isn’t even because of a desire to oppose false teaching. Often the reason seems to be simply because a Christian doesn’t like what Scripture teaches on some subject, and they are not willing to accept what it says. But they are not prepared to admit this openly, so they force it to say something else instead.

This is a shameful way to treat the holy Bible.

Almost obsessed about being honest

As Christians, we should be the most honest people on the planet. And this applies when we are using the Bible, as much as at any other time. When we are reading Scripture, we should be almost obsessed about being honest with what we are reading.

Whether what we read is something we do or don’t want to hear should be beside the point. Instead, we should be consumed by a desire and determination to understand the text as God inspired it. We should be constantly saying, “Lord, what are You saying in this passage? What do You want me to know from it? Not my will but Yours be done.”

The benefits of this approach

Taking this approach to Scripture is bound to be pleasing to God and also good for ourselves.

First, we need to be clear that whenever someone is dishonest in how they use the Bible, they are committing a sin. And in God’s sight the gravity of sin is enormous. It is a kind of infinite insult to Him.

Committing sin doesn’t just grieve God, however. It is always harmful for the sinner too.

Second, as far as understanding things is concerned, Christians who are determined to interpret Scripture honestly are at a huge advantage over those who aren’t. If a Christian is not even really trying to believe what is true, if they are not giving it their best shot, then they are bound to fall into a lot more error than a believer who is trying to do this.

Fighting to be honest

In the light of what I have said, I would like to challenge every Christian who is reading this. If you haven’t done so already, I would urge you to make a decision that from this point forward you will fight tooth and nail to honestly interpret the Bible in all that it says.

In some ways this might make using Scripture more difficult. If we are really open to God telling us whatever He wants to from it, we can expect to find that the conclusions we reach are sometimes uncomfortable or even painful. At times, they will be ones that we would prefer not to reach.

But this is the attitude to the Bible that followers of Jesus are duty bound to take.

See also:

The Danger of Gossip in Christian Relationships

Everyone will surely have witnessed the problems that gossip can cause. Relationships can be damaged, sometimes badly, by unkind words spoken about people behind their backs. And sadly, there is plenty of this that goes on among Christians too.

Rumours that are untrue

Worst of all is when the rumours that are spread are not even true. Satan and his demonic followers are the masters of deception, and at times we have all doubtless fallen into the trap of believing that someone has acted badly, only to find out later that they were innocent all along. Some of us will also probably be able to think of times when we mistakenly passed on false information about people.

Fuelling the gossip engine

Even if there is no doubt that a bad report about someone is true, great harm can still be caused by those who hear about it and fuel the gossip engine by passing on what they hear. If Christians learn that a person has acted badly, far too often they just tell others without considering whether that is the right thing to do.

Times when we need to speak negatively

It is true that there are times when we do need to speak negatively about people when they are not present. For example, there are occasions when a Christian acts badly in some way, and others in their church really do need to know. Or maybe a person might have hurt us by something they have said, and we feel that it would be helpful to tell someone.

But unless there is a good a reason for passing on the negative information, then we shouldn’t.

Close relationships are no excuse

Even if we have a close relationship to someone, that doesn’t make it right to pass on gossip to them. Just because someone is meeting a close friend doesn’t mean it is acceptable to tell them the bad report about a person that they have heard. Or just because someone is married doesn’t make it right for them to pass on gossip to their husband or wife.

A little rule

In my own life, so as to try to avoid saying anything inappropriate about anyone, I have set myself a little rule. This is never to say anything negative about someone who is not present unless I can think of at least one specific reason why I believe God would want me to. If I can’t come up with a reason, then I won’t say anything. At least, this is my intention, even if perhaps I don’t succeed in following this rule all the time.

The Christian life, of course, is not about keeping lots of rules, but is about living in the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, living in the Spirit does not conflict with occasionally making ourselves a rule or two to try to live by, and this is one that I find helpful.

Acting in love

In our interactions with people, the top priority is always to love everyone. And this includes those who have acted badly and those who are the subject of gossip, whether that gossip is based on something true or untrue. Love will not speak negatively about a person unless there is a good reason for doing so.

Importantly too, there is obviously a sense in which people who are not there when others are talking about them are vulnerable. They can’t defend themselves. And Jesus certainly wants us to be careful to treat vulnerable people well.

Let us all strive, then, to avoid spreading rumours and gossip about people. So much damage to relationships could be avoided if every Christian made the effort to do this.

See also:

The Danger for a Christian in Marrying a Non-Christian

The Christian life is a radical thing.  It is about having one all-consuming purpose, which is to be a follower of Jesus Christ. 

Biblical teaching on following Jesus

Jesus Himself told us: 
‘If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and pick up his cross daily and follow Me.’  (Luke 9:23).  
He also said: 
‘. . . none of you who does not give up all his possessions can be My disciple.’  (Luke 14:33) 
And He even went so far as to say: 
‘If someone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’  (Luke 14:26).  
None of these sayings is meant to be taken strictly literally.  But they show clearly that following Jesus is a radical, all-encompassing thing.

Similarly, the apostle Paul set us a precedent when he stated: 
‘For to me, living is Christ . . .’  (Philippians 1:21) 
He also said: 
‘And whatever you do in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus . . .’  (Colossians 3:17) 
Like Jesus, then, Paul clearly believed that the Christian life should be about giving our all for Christ. 

Nor do any of the other biblical writers lead us to think that the life of a believer is anything less radical than this.  Basically, normal Christian living is about using 24 hours of every day to do the will of God to the best of our ability, and then doing the same the next day, and so on.   

The decision to marry someone

When it comes to the decision of a Christian to marry someone, this decision needs to be made as part of the goal of living only for Jesus.  If marrying a certain person looks as if it will enable a believer to do this better, it is to be welcomed.  But if it looks as if it will make living for Jesus more difficult, it needs to be avoided.

It should therefore be obvious that the idea of a Christian marrying a non-Christian is deeply problematic.  If someone’s goal in life is to live only for Christ, how can there not be massive problems when that person joins their life at the most intimate level with someone who doesn’t share this goal?

2 Corinthians 6

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Bible strongly implies that Christians shouldn’t marry non-believers.  Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 are especially relevant here: 
14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.  For what partnership do uprightness and lawlessness have?  Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?  15 What harmony does Christ have with Beliar?  Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?  16 And what agreement does the temple of God have with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God, as God said: 
“I will live in their midst and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.  17 Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch what is unclean.  Then I will welcome you 18 and I will be a Father to you and you will be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”’ 
What Paul says in this passage about not being unequally yoked with unbelievers surely applies in part to marriages between Christians and non-Christians.  It would be a very unnatural interpretation that excludes marriages from what he is saying. 

We should not hesitate to say, then, that Paul is strongly implying that Christians should avoid marrying non-Christians.  And, given the radical nature of what it means to follow Jesus, this is exactly what we would expect the Bible to teach.  (Verse 17 doesn’t mean that Christians who are already married to non-believers must leave their spouses.  See 1 Corinthians 7:12-13.)  

The experience of Christians

The value of this teaching can be seen time and time again in churches.  Those believers who are married to non-Christians often have a terribly difficult time living out their lives as followers of Christ.  Either they do try to live for Him alone, and this leads to great hostility from their husband or wife.  Or, frequently, they end up compromising on their discipleship.

In fact, Christians should not only avoid marrying non-believers, but they should also avoid marrying believers who are not serious about giving their all for Jesus.  Being married to a half-hearted Christian is almost certain to hinder someone’s walk with Christ.

The threat of death

Although, as a general rule, it is a grave mistake for a Christian to marry a non-believer, it makes sense to think that there are rare circumstances when this is actually God’s will.

I am thinking especially of situations where the alternative involves a real danger of being murdered.  There are well-attested accounts of this from the Muslim world. 

What sometimes happens is the following:

A teenage girl from a Muslim family becomes a Christian.  Her father nevertheless arranges for her to marry a young Muslim man.  She refuses, and the father then threatens to kill her unless she backs down.  Finally, when the girl continues to refuse, the father makes good on his threat.

No one should doubt that murders of this sort do take place.  These are so-called ‘honour killings’, which are well-documented both in some Muslim countries and in the Western world. 

I think that in at least most situations of this kind it would be the will of God for the girl to agree to marry a non-Christian if she believes there is a genuine threat to her life.  It is true that her ability to achieve things for Christ will probably be very hindered by her marriage.  Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that refusing to marry a non-believer is typically something that is worth being martyred for. 

Perhaps God may at times want a girl in this sort of situation to become a martyr.  However, I think these girls should marry the non-Christians unless they believe God is specifically telling them to do otherwise. 

I should stress that I am talking here only about death threats over potential marriages.  I am not saying that Christians who are threatened with martyrdom for other reasons should usually make concessions until the threat is removed.  For example, Christians must never deny that they are believers in Christ (see, e.g., Matthew 10:32-33), even if it costs them their lives.

We must never compromise on the will of God.  However, I am sure that in some circumstances when Christians are threatened with death, it is God’s will for them to back down.  And I would suggest that death threats over potential marriages often fall into this category.

Other exceptional circumstances

Other than for the purpose of avoiding being murdered, I think there may be other, very rare situations in which it might be God’s will for a Christian to marry a non-Christian.  But there would need to be a very good reason indeed for doing something that on the face of it would be so harmful to Christian discipleship.

In the vast majority of situations, marrying a non-Christian would be a terrible mistake for a Christian to make.  Our goal in life is to give our all for Jesus, and our decisions need to be made with this in mind.

See also:

Christians Must Be Careful Not to Endorse Illegitimate Divorces or Remarriages

The Bible Is Often Very Imprecise about Things

Most Christians are well aware that although the Bible is divinely inspired, this hasn’t stopped its human authors from expressing their own writing styles. 

What Christians often fail to recognise, however, is that the inspiration of Scripture has also allowed the authors, and Jesus, to express the particular ways of thinking and speaking that were present in ancient Jewish culture. 

Often, modern Western Christians approach the Bible assuming that the authors thought and spoke like we do, when in some key respects they actually didn’t.  This frequently leads to puzzlement and mistakes in interpretation.  Many of the problems that modern readers of Scripture experience when reading it can be solved by taking account of the authors’ cultural ways of talking about things. 


One important difference between the authors of the Bible and us concerns attitudes to precision.  The biblical writers (and Jesus Himself) often spoke much less precisely about things than we do.  They also tended to be less concerned about precisely sticking to traditions that they held in high esteem. 

To be sure, when it was important, the authors of the Bible could be very precise.  But often they were imprecise in ways that we find strange, at times even amazing.

In what follows, I will highlight some areas in which this difference in attitude to precision reveals itself in Scripture.  I will concentrate on the New Testament, since that is the part of the Bible that I know the most about. 


To begin with, here are two general examples of how first century Jews could use astonishingly imprecise language by our standards. 

Matthew 12:40

First, there is Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 12:40: 
‘For just as Jonah was in the sea monster’s stomach for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.’ 
Being in the heart of the earth here refers to the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And three days and three nights, at least on the face of it, is approximately 72 hours.  Yet Matthew himself, who records the words in this verse, portrays the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection as roughly 36 hours (Matthew 27:46-28:7)! 

In Matthew 12:40 the three days and three nights must be referring to three consecutive Jewish calendar days.  Jewish days began and ended at sunset.  So the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection fell on the last part of the day before the Sabbath, all of the Sabbath day, and probably a bit less than half of the day after the Sabbath.  Therefore the time between His death and resurrection fell on part or all of three consecutive calendar days.

Matthew clearly regarded it as true to say that this period of about 36 hours was three days and three nights!  But in modern Western culture we couldn’t possibly truthfully describe a period of about 36 hours as three days and three nights! 

In comparison with how modern Westerners speak about things, the lack of precision in Matthew 12:40 is truly amazing.

1 Corinthians 1:14-15

Consider also 1 Corinthians 1:14-15.  In this passage Paul tells the church in Corinth: 
‘I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say that you were baptized in my name.’ 
Paul has clearly been concerned that some of the Corinthian Christians were putting him on a pedestal and regarding him more highly than they should.  And he is implying that he baptized so few of them to counter this.  But the way he refers to why he acted as he did is astonishing in comparison with what modern Westerners are used to.

Paul speaks as if the Corinthians had said to themselves: 
‘This guy Paul is amazing.  You know what, when I was baptized, I think I was actually baptized in the name of Paul.’  
But Paul cannot possibly have thought that Corinthian Christians who had been baptized in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, would really have thought this!  Yet he speaks as if they had! 

The difference between the concern that Paul really has and the words used to describe that concern is amazing in comparison with modern Western ways of speaking about things.   

I have given these two examples to set the scene for what follows by showing to what extent the biblical authors could be imprecise about things in a way that we wouldn’t be.  I am in no way criticising this imprecision.  I am just noting that it is a way of speaking that is very different from what we are used to. 

Let’s look now at some specific types of imprecision in the Bible.


First, there is the issue of hyperbole.  This is a figure of speech that uses deliberate exaggeration for effect without any intention to deceive.

Modern Western culture uses hyperbole very frequently.  For example, someone might pick up a bag and say, ‘That weighs a ton!’  In this case, ‘a ton’ is not meant to be taken literally, and both speaker and hearers understand this perfectly.  The idea is that the bag is extremely heavy, and the exaggeration is used to stress this.

Although we commonly use hyperbole, first century Jews used it more often and in ways we wouldn’t.  Here are some New Testament examples:

Mark 10:29-30

In Mark 10:29-30 Jesus promises: 
‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, who will not receive a hundred times as much in the present time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields . . .’  
In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing.  We can note too that Jesus even emphasises this promise by beginning it with ‘Truly I tell you’, yet the promise can hardly be taken literally.  Jesus is promising blessing before death to those who give up things for His sake.  But the language used to describe this blessing is astonishingly exaggerated when compared with what we are used to.

Mark 1:5

Another example can be found in Mark 1:5.  Here Mark tells us: 
‘And all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to [John the Baptist].  And they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’ 
Actually, we know that there were many Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t do this.  The point is that large numbers of people went to be baptized by John.  But this is stated in very hyperbolic language.

Hyperbolic ‘every’ and ‘all’

In fact, there are many places in Scripture where ‘every’ or ‘all’ is used hyperbolically.  In addition to the example I have just given, see, e.g., Luke 6:30; Acts 3:24; 17:21; Hebrews 4:15.  There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase ‘all Israel’ doesn’t literally mean all Israel.  See, e.g., 1 Samuel 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11.

Failing to recognise hyperbole

Failing to recognise hyperbole can sometimes lead to misinterpretation of a biblical passage. 

One such text is Revelation 5:9, which refers to those who receive salvation as coming from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’. 

It is a fact that there have been tribes that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having heard the gospel.  And it is often claimed that because this verse says that the saved come from every tribe, some members of these tribes must therefore have been saved without faith in Christ.  This also means, the argument goes on, that we can expect significant numbers of people today to be saved without faith in Him.

However, once we recognise that ‘every’ in Scripture is often used hyperbolically, it immediately becomes clear that this verse doesn’t prove this at all.  It could easily just mean that those who are saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.


Another way in which Jesus and the authors of the Bible tended to be more imprecise than we are used to concerns exceptions to things.  This actually overlaps with the issue of hyperbole. 

First century Jews often didn’t mention that there would be exceptions to something, even when there might be many exceptions.  Here are a couple of New Testament examples:

Matthew 5:42

In Matthew 5:42 Jesus teaches: 
‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’  
There are in fact obviously many situations when we shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us.  For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly not oblige!

Jesus, in line with ancient Jewish cultural habits, sees no need to mention the fact that there will be many exceptions to the principle that He is outlining.  We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture.  We would express the same concept differently.

Luke 16:15

Luke 16:15 is another example.  Here Jesus states: 
‘That which is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’ 
Actually, we can think of many things that would have been highly valued by people in Jesus’ day but which wouldn’t have been detestable to God.  For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.

Again, in line with His Jewish culture, Jesus takes it for granted that there will be numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He doesn’t refer to these exceptions.  We wouldn’t speak like this in the modern West.  We would probably express the same concept by saying, ‘Much that is highly valued by people is detestable in God’s sight.’

Failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions

Sometimes, failing to recognise unexpressed exceptions to things causes difficulties for modern Western Bible readers. 

For example, in Mark 10:2-12 Jesus teaches that whoever divorces his wife and ‘marries’ another woman is in fact committing adultery.  That might seem to conflict with Matthew 5:32; 19:9, which allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality. 

However, once we understand that first century Jews often allowed for unexpressed exceptions to a principle, the difficulty disappears.  Mark provides a general principle whose exceptions have been left unexpressed.  Matthew then goes into a bit more detail, specifying exceptions to the principle in Mark.  There is no need at all to see a conflict between these passages.


Something else that modern Western Christians find strange is how the New Testament writers sometimes altered the Old Testament text that they were quoting.  They had enormous respect for the authority of the Old Testament.  But often that didn’t stop them changing the wording to make it more relevant for their purposes.

Comparing Acts 2 with Joel 2

There is an example of this in Acts 2:17-21, where Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. 

The Greek words in this passage of Acts correspond very closely to the Greek words in this passage of Joel in the Septuagint, i.e., the standard Greek Old Testament translation of the first century.  And this correspondence shows that Peter is quoting Joel in these verses, not paraphrasing it.  What is more, the first Greek words in Acts 2:17 – kai estai – are the same as the first words of this passage in the Septuagint, which shows that the quotation starts at the beginning of Acts 2:17. 

In the Septuagint this prophecy begins: 
‘And it will be after these things . . .’  
Very similarly, in the original Hebrew underlying our English translations of Joel the prophecy begins: 
‘And it will come to pass afterwards . . .’  
In Acts 2:17, by contrast, in Peter’s quote, the prophecy begins: 
‘And it will be in the last days . . .’ 
‘In the last days’ is not in the Old Testament text.  Luke (and also Peter, if the quote is strictly historical – see the discussion on history below) has correctly understood that Joel’s prophecy applied to the last days that began with Jesus’ crucifixion/resurrection/giving of the Spirit.  But instead of just realising this, he actually alters the Old Testament quotation to make this connection clear!

This is another example of how the Jewish mindset of the first century could allow imprecision in a way that a modern Western mind finds problematic.  (Even if Luke wasn’t a Jew himself, he was certainly very influenced by Jewish ways of thinking, as scholars agree.)

Comparing Galatians 4:30 with Genesis 21:10

Another example can be found in Galatians 4:30, where Paul cites Genesis 21:10.

In the Septuagint, Genesis 21:10 reads: 
‘Expel this slave woman and her son.  For the son of this slave woman will not be an heir with my son Isaac.’    
The original Hebrew underlying our English versions of Genesis 21:10 has a virtually identical meaning.

In Galatians 4:30, however, Paul writes: 
‘But what does the scripture say?  “Expel the slave woman and her son.  For the son of the slave woman will not be an heir with the son of the free woman.” ’ 
Apart from the last few words, the words Paul uses correspond very closely to the Septuagint translation.  And this shows that Paul is quoting Genesis, not paraphrasing it.  His initial question, ‘But what does the scripture say?’ also suggests quotation. 

Note, however, the big change at the end of this passage.  ‘My son Isaac’ in Genesis has been changed to ‘the son of the free woman’ in Galatians. 

Paul has altered the Old Testament text that he received in order to help him further his argument in Galatians.  At this point in the letter he is rounding off his allegorical treatment of Sarah and Hagar.  And he wants to emphasise that Christians, whose allegorical mother is Sarah, are free.  He therefore modifies the text of Genesis to aid him in making his point.

It is, of course, true that the points that are being made from the Old Testament in these examples from Acts and Galatians are legitimate ones.  Nevertheless, it tends to strike us as a bit dishonest to alter the text in this way.  But Luke and Paul apparently didn’t think it was dishonest at all.  And, more importantly, apparently neither did the Holy Spirit who inspired the text!


At times, then, the New Testament authors clearly felt a liberty to modify the Old Testament text they were quoting.  And they did so despite holding that text in very high esteem. 

Similarly, when writing their historical accounts of Jesus and the early church, at times they clearly felt free to make certain modifications to their traditions, despite holding those traditions in very high regard.  If they were prepared to alter the Old Testament text, it shouldn’t surprise us that they were also prepared to alter their historical traditions.

Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew and Luke

An example of this can be seen when we compare Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

In Luke’s resurrection account, on the Sunday Jesus rises from the dead He appears to the inner circle of eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot having defected) in Jerusalem (Luke 24:1, 13, 33-49).   

In Matthew’s account, however, on the day Jesus rises an angel appears to Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’, who instructs these women to tell Jesus’ disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him (Matthew 28:1-7).  Immediately after that, Jesus meets the women and repeats the instruction: they are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Him (Matthew 28:8-10).

Then in vv. 16-17 we are told: 
‘The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus had designated.  And when they saw Him they worshipped Him, but some doubted.’ 
There can be no doubt that in Matthew’s account, this meeting in Galilee – a few days’ journey from Jerusalem – is being portrayed as the occasion on which the eleven see Jesus for the first time after His resurrection.  It is impossibly implausible to suppose that the eleven are being portrayed as those who have already seen and spoken to Jesus in Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection.  Verses 16-17 cannot reasonably be read in that way.

This means that Matthew’s and Luke’s portrayals of the first resurrection appearance to the eleven cannot both be historical.  And the best solution is that one or both of these authors felt a liberty to depart a little from writing pure history.  Unless we assume that at least one of them has made a mistake, there must have been a conscious decision by one or both of them to modify historical traditions or to accept already modified traditions.

Jesus’ ascension

Another example of modification of historical tradition can be seen when we compare Luke 24 and Acts 1.

As I have just noted, Luke 24 has an account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the Sunday He rises from the dead.  This narrative includes words of Jesus to His disciples in vv. 46-49.  And these words are certainly portrayed being spoken either on that Sunday or perhaps in the early hours of the following Monday morning.  Then immediately following these words, Luke continues in verses 50-51: 
‘And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  While He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up to heaven.’  
By far the most natural way of understanding vv. 50-51 is that they are portraying Jesus’ ascension taking place on the Sunday of His resurrection or early the following Monday. 

If we turn to Acts 1:1-11, however, we find that Luke – the same author! – portrays the ascension taking place forty days after the resurrection!    

To claim that there must have been two ascensions is a very dubious explanation.  And this is surely not what the church has believed down through the centuries. 

Similarly, trying to force the interpretation of one or both of these passages to make them agree historically is the wrong thing to do.  We need to let the Bible stand as it is.  Instead, the best solution is that in at least one passage Luke felt a liberty to modify his traditions.

Altering historical traditions

Just as with altering the text of the Old Testament, so altering the history of Jesus and the early church strikes us as strange and even dishonest.  Besides, it is in the psyche of us modern Westerners to want to know exactly what happened. 

But a close analysis of the New Testament text shows that the authors of the Gospels and Acts were often not as concerned as we are about recording history precisely.  If they could modify their historical traditions to a certain extent to make them more edifying for their readers or to simplify things, they frequently did that.

Imagine we were able to ask Luke, for example: 
‘Luke, after looking closely at your Gospel, it seems clear that you haven’t written pure history.  Is that right?’ 
I am sure he would reply by saying something like this: 
‘Yes.  I’ve modified some of the historical traditions I received to make them more applicable to my audience and to simplify things.  Nevertheless, my Gospel approximates fairly closely to history.  I’ve done something similar in some of my quotations of the Old Testament.’ 
It is important for us to recognise that the Gospels and Acts are first and foremost works of theology.  They are aimed primarily at teaching us important spiritual truths.  They are only secondarily works of history.  Once we understand that, the fact that the history has at times been modified is a bit easier to understand. 

It is surely also true that God wouldn’t have allowed the Gospels to give us portraits of the life of Jesus that are basically unhistorical.  They doubtless give us largely historically accurate portraits of His life.  Similarly, Acts surely gives us a basically historical account of what went on in the early church. 

Treating the Gospels and Acts as history

The Gospels and Acts are historical enough that a pastor need not bother to try to differentiate between what is historical and what is modification of history when teaching.  When I write about Christian matters and I want to cite the Gospels or Acts, I myself usually just treat the text I am dealing with as though it is fully historical.  Treating these works as if they are fully historical will not cause any problems.  And, in any case, these works infallibly teach us what is true in all that is of importance for life and faith.

Ancient views

It is also worth noting that understanding the Gospels and Acts as something other than pure history is not an invention of modern theological liberalism. 

For example, the second-third century theologian, Origen, stated: 
‘There are many . . . points on which the careful student of the Gospels will find that their narratives do not agree.’  (Comm. Joh. 10.2) 
Similarly, the fourth-fifth century church leader, John Chrysostom, wrote: 
‘But if there be anything touching time or places, which [the Gospel writers] have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said . . . [but those things] which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed . . .’  (Hom. Matt. 1.6) 
Problems with insisting that the Gospels and Acts are pure history

We can only read the Gospels and Acts as pure history, if, over and over again, we take very unnatural interpretations of passages.  However, this is problematic for various reasons.

To begin with, there is the matter of honesty.  In my experience, when Christians interpret biblical passages in very unnatural ways, they almost never admit that this is what they are doing.  However, when someone does something and claims not to be doing it, they are being dishonest.  And dishonesty is a sin.  What is more, when non-Christians think they see Christians being dishonest, they are often put off the Christian faith. 

Non-Christians are also put off the faith when they are given the impression that in order to be a Christian, they must interpret biblical texts in ways that seem very unnatural.  And those who insist on taking the Gospels and Acts as pure history frequently give this impression.

Finally, when a Christian takes a very unnatural interpretation of a Bible passage, this gives a green light to those who want to do so in other passages too.  So trying to make the Gospels and Acts pure history unintentionally encourages people to misinterpret the Bible.


The examples I have given show that in various ways the Bible refers to things much less precisely than modern Westerners are used to.  Many other examples could also be cited. 

We should accept and embrace this feature of Scripture.  However, sadly, there are large numbers of Christians in Western countries who fail to do this.  Time and time again Western Christians can be found explaining away imprecision in the biblical text.  These Christians rightly have a very high view of the authority of Scripture.  But they fail to understand that Jesus and the authors of the Bible didn’t always speak about things as precisely as we do today.

Other modern Christians, who are more honest with the text, will admit that the features I have discussed are present when it is really forcing things to deny them.  But in cases that are not so clear-cut they will always deny that they are there. 

This not only makes no sense, but also shows that these Christians are not really at peace with the ancient Jewish mindset of the Bible.  They are still trying to fit Scripture into a modern mould whenever it is conceivably possible to do so. 

Instead, what we should do is let the Bible stand as God inspired it.  And that includes accepting all its ancient Jewish ways of thinking and speaking about things.


A large part of the problem is that the modern Western mind connects precision very closely with truthfulness.  If writing is imprecise in any way, modern Westerners often tend to feel that there must be something untruthful about it.

It seems clear, however, that this is not how the ancient Jewish mind worked.  Ancient Jews were happy to regard some things as truthful even when they were more than a little imprecise.

Of course, there must have been a limit to this.  There is only so far a person could have gone in speaking imprecisely before they were regarded as untruthful.

Nevertheless, there was clearly less of a connection between truthfulness and precision in the ancient Jewish mindset than there is in the modern Western one. 

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The Arrogance and Hypocrisy of Western Society

The evils in our world are many and grievous. Sin has terribly damaged and distorted human beings, and in every country all sorts of terrible things occur on a daily basis.

It seems to me, however, that Western society is unusual in the extent of its arrogance and hypocrisy. Western commentators are forever criticising other parts of the world for various things, while ignoring the terrible evils that go on in their own countries. I doubt whether the rest of the world is quite so arrogant or hypocritical in its attitude.

That is not to say that criticising non-Western countries is always inappropriate. Far from it. There are certainly some ways in which the West is more in line with God’s will than other countries. And it is not wrong to criticise things that He disapproves of.

It is just so hypocritical when Western commentators look down on and judge other countries, when there is so much evil in the West, and when some evils are especially common here.


Take the mainstream Western attitude to homosexuality, for example. The West has got things all wrong in this area. If a man wants to have sex with a man, or a woman with a woman, something has obviously gone wrong. That is obviously not the way human beings are designed. Yet in Western countries we are constantly bombarded with information telling us that homosexual orientation is something normal that you should put into practice if you want to.

Of course, we all have things wrong with us, morally and otherwise. So anyone who is not affected by homosexual orientation is being a hypocrite if they look down on someone who is affected by it. The typical Western attitude to people with homosexual orientation of some decades ago – condescension and despisal – was a disgraceful one. Yet the typical attitude today is disgraceful for a very different reason. Something that is obviously outside God’s created order is said to be normal and appropriate.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he refers to people suppressing the truth that they know about God (Romans 1:18). The Western attitude to homosexuality surely involves a lot of suppressing truth. In their minds people may think of reasons for saying that homosexual orientation is not abnormal and that homosexual practice is not immoral, but deep down their consciences are unclear and they know that these reasons aren’t convincing. There may be a few people who are so deceived that they genuinely believe that homosexuality fits with the way God made people, but if so, they are surely a small minority.

So-called 'gay marriage'

The sin of the West on this issue doesn’t stop at merely encouraging people to practise homosexuality, however. Many Western countries have gone further and have changed the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

We should be crystal clear that the offence to God in this is enormous. It essentially involves taking God’s blueprints for humanity, tearing them up and making new, supposedly better ones instead. Playing God like this is a terrible thing to do.

Teaching children to approve of homosexual practice

The sins of Western society regarding homosexuality go even further than this, however. Not only do mainstream Westerners practise and encourage this evil, and not only have they dared to play God by redefining marriage, but they also teach children to approve of these awful things.

Children are almost by definition vulnerable people. They don’t have the wisdom to discern good from evil in the way that adults can. Therefore, adults should look out for and protect them. Any responsible adult who is caring for children should want to protect them from the promotion of homosexuality.

Yet mainstream Westerners teach children that homosexual practice is not wrong. And in some Western countries they are even trying to stop parents teaching their own children that it is wrong. This is absolutely outrageous and nothing other than a form of child abuse.

A Scandal

Anyone who has anything to do with practising or promoting homosexual acts, or redefining marriage, or teaching children what is evil is acting appallingly badly.

Yet many of those who do these despicable things then have the nerve to arrogantly judge people in other countries. And in many respects these other people are more upright than those in the West. It is scandalous.

Damaging the health of children

There are other forms of child abuse that are widely tolerated in modern Western culture too.

For example, here in the UK each year there are over 100,000 occasions when children need medical treatment for breathing the second-hand smoke of smokers. Yet society tolerates this without much objection. It is rarely in the news.

Anti-smoking groups know that they face a huge challenge on this issue, because the parents, and others, who commit this evil are not willing to change.

If those who do this were to decide that they would put the interests of their own children above their own interests, this problem could be virtually solved overnight. It is very easy to go outside to smoke if you have children in the home.

Yet many parents and guardians are more interested in avoiding a minor inconvenience than in looking after their own children. This is appalling selfishness.

Adultery affecting children

Let’s think too about adultery. This is an awful thing in many ways, but let’s consider how it affects children.

It is well known that children often suffer terribly when their parents split up. It is well known too that often, when someone begins an affair, their intention is not to leave their husband or wife, but that later they do end up leaving, causing great pain to their families. They know the risks to their families involved in having an affair, but they go ahead with it anyway.

In many countries adultery is properly seen as a terrible evil. Contrast that with the attitude in the West. Those Westerners who condemn it as a heinous thing are few in number. Most would see it as a minor vice or a bit worse than that. And many would say it is not even an evil at all, but just one of those things that happens that isn’t anybody’s fault.

None of this makes sense. Who do people think they are kidding? Quite apart from the direct offence to God involved in committing adultery, to risk getting into a situation where you break up your family, causing them terrible suffering, is a despicable thing to do. To actually go ahead and abandon your family for another man or woman is even worse. Even to abandon your spouse and take the children with you is a dreadful evil.

If someone leaves their spouse, causing great suffering, what is the penalty for this in the West? It is not a criminal offence. Nor are people often socially excluded from anything. Nor do they usually have to pay any real price. Yet the suffering of children (and rejected husbands and wives) caused by adultery goes on, their visits to psychiatrists continue to be numerous and their suicide tally adds up.

If people in Western countries just chose to put the interests of children above their own, things would become radically different in this area overnight. Yet people refuse to do this. They continue to commit adultery, to joke about it, to abandon their families and cause untold suffering. And then to cap it all, many of those who do this judge the rest of the world and encourage politicians to preach the values of the West to other countries. The hypocrisy and arrogance of this are almost tangible.

The judgment of God

No one is going to get away with any of the things that I have mentioned in this article, or with the many other evils that people apparently do with impunity. There will be a Judgment Day. It will happen. And anyone who has not found the escape route in Jesus Christ will be punished with the utmost severity.

People need to turn away from their sins and accept the forgiveness that comes through faith in Christ. That is what I myself have done. In no way am I writing from some imagined position of superiority. I am saved by the mercy of God.

However, if people refuse to repent, then it is good that they will be punished after death. Personally, I wouldn’t want to worship a God who just turned a blind eye to the awful things that go on. There really are no words to describe the magnitude of the evil in our world, and Westerners are major culprits in this.

Christian readers

If you are a Christian reading this article, don’t be deceived into thinking that today God is especially on the side of any Western countries or that any of them can be considered Christian countries.

I don’t believe it has ever been right to describe any Western countries as Christian, although we can say that in times past they were heavily influenced by the Christian faith. Those days, however, are long gone.

If you are a Christian today living in a Western country, you are living in a foreign land and heaven is your home (Hebrews 11:13-16; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Take care that you don’t share in the sins of the foreign country where you live.

Non-Christian readers

If you are a non-Christian reading this, make sure that you take up God’s offer of forgiveness before it is too late. God will judge people after death, He will send most people to hell, and the punishment will be severe, everlasting and thoroughly deserved.

The wonder is that despite all our evil, Jesus, in His love, has paid the price on the cross so that we can be forgiven, undeserving though we are. Take hold of that offer of forgiveness at once. Today could be your last day on this earth.

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