Monday, 21 November 2016

Every Christian Should Desire the Gift of Prophecy – Part 3, Some Personal Testimony

In part 1 of this article I argued that the Bible most naturally suggests that the gift of prophecy is one that God will give until Jesus returns.  And I argued too that all Christians should therefore certainly choose to obey the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 to eagerly desire this gift.

In part 2 I listed some objections that are made by those who say that Christians should not seek to prophesy today.  And I gave what I believe are good answers to those objections.


In this final part I will say something about my own experiences of prophecy.  I have seen God build up my faith by the use of this gift.  And I want to tell other Christians about this.

Although I eagerly desire to be able to prophesy myself, I haven’t yet been able to do this.  But I have benefited from the prophetic ministry of others.  I have heard numerous Christians give prophecies that I am sure, or in some cases fairly sure, were from God.

To be fair, at times I have also heard what I believe were false prophecies.  Sometimes when this has happened, I have felt that the prophet was probably a fake Christian and someone to be avoided.  At other times I am sure that the person was a devout and genuine believer who was nevertheless making a mistake.

In what follows I want to concentrate on prophecies that I am convinced were genuine.  The fruit of them has been good.  They have helped me grow in my Christian faith.

Some prophecies that I have experienced are rather personal in nature.  I don’t intend to share those.  Others have not yet been fulfilled.  And I don’t want to talk about them either.  But that still leaves a few that I feel comfortable sharing.

For some reason, in the last 20 years or so I have not had much contact with Christians or churches who were using the gift of prophecy.  And during that time there have been only a few occasions on which someone has prophesied to me.  None of these examples is really something I want to share here. 

In the first 10 years I was a Christian, however, I experienced a lot of prophecy, from several prophets.  And during that time I had a close, older Christian friend who had an especially strong prophetic gift.  All of the following prophecies are ones that he gave me:

Learning New Testament Greek

In 1989 my friend, whom I had only recently met, prophesied to me that God wanted me to learn New Testament Greek.  I had never considered doing this previously.  Nor was my friend just giving me advice that he thought might be useful.  He was telling me what he believed God was saying to him prophetically.

After the prophecy, I began to pray about whether this prophetic word was from God or not.  And little by little He showed me that it was. 

The result is that I spent more than twenty years of academic or semi-academic work based in large part around New Testament Greek.  And during that whole time everything about this work seemed right for me.  I am sure that the prophecy was from God. 

It should be clear that this prophecy, which related only to my own personal circumstances, in no way threatened the supremacy of Scripture.  And I received direction from it that I think it would have been impossible for me to have gained from the Bible alone.

Travelling to China

In 1991 my friend prophesied that I should go to a city, Urumqi, in north-west China, to meet an old Christian man and learn from him.  This came out of the blue.  I had never heard of Urumqi and I had had no intention of going to China

I should also point out that this came out of the blue for my friend too.  He had never heard of Urumqi either.  Nor had he ever been to China or did he have any contacts there.

Anyway, after I was given this prophecy, I started praying about this, asking God to show me if it was from Him.

A few months later I happened to meet a Chinese Christian couple in Scotland.  Bearing in mind the prophecy, I asked them if they knew of anyone who lived in Urumqi.  They told me that they knew of just one person, an old Christian pastor! 

Between the time of the prophecy and meeting this Christian couple I can’t remember if I asked anyone else if they knew of anyone in Urumqi.  But if I did, it was only a very few people.  I say this in case someone might suspect that I had been asking dozens of people, so that by probability I might have been more likely to meet someone who knew an old man in Urumqi.  That wasn’t the case.

Over the next few months after meeting the Chinese couple God directed me to a Christian organisation that was sending a party to Urumqi.  I also had no money for my trip, and I saw Him meet my financial needs to go there.  To cut a long story short, in the summer of 1992 I went to Urumqi and I met the pastor, Huang Qingzhi.

By the time I got to Urumqi many months had passed since the prophecy was first given to me.  And I had seen the hand of God guide and help me in various ways.  So I no longer had any doubt that this prophecy was from God.   

Because the prophecy had said that I would learn from the man I met, I was wondering what I was going to learn from this old saint.  I expected that he might say something concrete that was valuable for me to know, or something like that.

I spent about an hour talking to him through a bilingual fellow Christian.  However, it was not what he said that I remember so much as the moral fruit in his life.  He was one of the few people I have ever met who seemed to be utterly humble, incapable of any pride.  He was also very peaceful.  And He spoke without bitterness of spending seven years in prison for his faith during China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’.  Most importantly, he gave a strong impression of his life being for one purpose, to follow Jesus. 

I often think of that old pastor and make it my goal to imitate the moral fruit that I saw in his life.  I am sure that God led me on this trip to the other side of the world.  He used it to show me the importance of dedication to Himself and humility.  And He also used it to strengthen my faith by meeting all my needs, financial and otherwise, along the way.  This whole adventure was started by means of a prophecy given to me. 

Again, it should be clear that this prophecy was no threat to the supremacy of Scripture.  What is more, it would surely have been impossible for me to have received God’s leading to go on this trip to China simply by reading the Bible.

Freedom from oppression

I remember a time many years ago when I was being counselled by my friend.  Sitting there in the room, I was suffering from strong demonic oppression with the demon pressing on my mind with confusing thoughts.  I really was feeling terrible.

My friend then prophesied, ‘You need to forgive someone.’  I immediately knew who I needed to forgive, although previously I had not been properly aware that the low-level feelings of bitterness I held towards the person in question were something that God was particularly concerned about.

Anyway, then and there I chose to forgive that person.  And I believe I could sense God helping me to do so.  The feelings of bitterness left and have never returned.  Importantly too, as soon as I forgave, the demonic oppression lifted as well and I had peace of mind. 

The prophecy on this occasion helped me to turn away from the sin of unforgiveness.  It also brought me blessing and relief. 

I should note too that my friend had no idea that I felt any bitterness towards anyone about anything.  He didn’t give me advice that he thought might help my situation.  He gave me a prophecy from God.  And it produced good fruit.

Once again, it should be clear that this prophecy in no way threatened the supremacy of the Bible.  It is true that in this case it didn’t give me information that I couldn’t have gained from Scripture itself.  After all, the Bible teaches us plainly enough to forgive people.  Nevertheless, for some reason I had lost sight of this to a certain extent.  And the prophecy on this occasion helped me to put biblical teaching into practice.

Growing in holiness

I can remember phoning my friend and telling him that I was struggling spiritually.  I didn’t give any details, but he got a piece of writing that he had near to hand and read it to me prophetically.  It ran as follows: 
‘You have been trying too hard and it has upset you.  Be still and know that He is God and that His power is flowing into you.’  
This hit the nail of my problem right on the head.  I had indeed been trying in my own strength to do things for God.  And the words of the prophecy helped me. 

I should stress for the benefit of those who might doubt whether this was a genuine prophecy, that for me to have felt the way I did on that day was unusual.  It is therefore not the case that my friend could have guessed from knowing me what the problem was.  I have no doubt that God spoke directly to me through this prophecy.

Again, it should be clear that a prophecy of this kind in no way challenges the supremacy of Scripture.  And even though the insight in the prophecy is something that can be found in the Bible, it still helped me to live out biblical principles.  It also encouraged me.

Encouragement to endure

On one occasion my friend prophesied to me the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: 
16 Therefore we do not lose heart.  But even though outwardly we are wearing out, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  17 For our momentary and light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs it all, 18 while we keep our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ 
Over time I came to the conclusion that this prophecy was indeed from God and that it was very relevant for my life as a long term word from Him.  Through the years I have suffered a lot.  And these words been an encouragement to me in some very difficult times that God was with me and that the glory in heaven will be worth going through it all.

Summing up

It should be clear that none of the examples of prophecy that I have mentioned even remotely threatened the supremacy of the Bible.  Some were used to help me live out biblical teaching better than I was doing.  And others gave me specific direction for what God wanted me to do that I couldn’t have gained from reading the Bible itself.  As I look back at these prophecies, everything about them seems right.  I am sure that they were all from Jesus.

As well as the few examples I have referred to, I have also experienced many other prophecies from various prophets that have also been very helpful for me.  God has used prophecy to keep me away from sin, encourage me and lead me in a number of ways.


There are many Christians like myself who have experienced the blessing and benefit of the gift of prophecy.  This is a powerful gift that God is giving and using today for His glory and for the good of people.

Those who claim that God doesn’t speak in this way today are making a very serious mistake.  Either they have not properly considered this issue.  Or they cannot or will not hear what the Holy Spirit is saying.  Far from standing by the teaching of Scripture, they are actually setting themselves against its teaching.  And they are also missing out on something wonderful. 

Let me end where I began, with 1 Corinthians 14:1.  As we have seen, this verse reads: 
‘Pursue love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.’ 
This is a command that is for every Christian alive today as much as it was for those in Corinth in the mid first century.

Let all of us, then, who are following Jesus as Lord, be faithful in heeding what the Spirit says in this verse of Scripture.  We dare not disobey it.

So how can we practically obey this command?  Well, we can pray that God would give us the gift of prophecy.  And for some of us, it may be good to seek out people who are experienced in gifts of the Spirit, those we feel we can trust, to ask for their help and guidance.  The more of us who can use spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy, the stronger God’s church is bound to become.

See also:

Every Christian Should Desire the Gift of Prophecy – Part 2, Objections Answered

In part 1 of this article I argued that the Bible most naturally suggests that the gift of prophecy is one that God will give until Jesus returns.  And I argued too that all Christians should therefore certainly choose to obey the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 to eagerly desire this gift.

In this second part I will move on to look at objections that cessationists often make to the continuist position on prophecy.  I am confident that each objection can be answered adequately.


Prophecy today is no threat to the supremacy of the Bible

One of the main reasons why some Christians deny that we should seek the gift of prophecy today is because they think that if prophesying existed, it would threaten the supremacy of Scripture.

There is a big misunderstanding here.  Prophecy today is a kind of revelation that exists on a far, far lower level than biblical revelation.  It is communication, subordinate to Scripture and never contradicting it, by which God guides individual Christians or churches in their everyday walk with Him.

It is true that in the early church some of the prophecies were much more important.  At that time, God spoke some things through prophets that He designed to end up in the Bible.  But today God never gives revelation in prophecy that is remotely on a par with the authority of biblical revelation.

It is worth noting that even in the first century there must have been many other prophecies from God that are not recorded in Scripture.  For example, 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 implies that prophecies would normally have been given when the Corinthian church met together.  And the vast majority of these – probably all of them – do not appear in the New Testament. 

Prophecy today is the same sort of thing as this.  No genuine prophecies today even come close to threatening the supremacy of the Bible.

The usefulness of prophecy

Cessationists also often claim that there is no need for the gift of prophecy now that we have the New Testament.

There is another huge mistake here.  The New Testament gives us crucial, general principles about how we should live.  But it should be obvious that in the course of our Christian lives, we encounter numerous situations, sometimes complex ones, in which only reading the Bible will not give us full insight into how we should act.  And when important decisions are involved, we need other direction from God. 

For example, take the following situations:

(1) A Christian man is wondering whether to take a job he has been offered or to keep the one he has.  Despite praying and asking advice, he finds that the pros and cons are evenly balanced. 

(2) A Christian couple are very unsure whether they should move to a different town or continue to live where they are.  And, again, the pros and cons seem to cancel each other out. 

(3) A church is considering doing some evangelism.  An opportunity opens up for them to do some outreach to older people.  And another opportunity arises for them to reach out to teenagers.  But they feel that they can’t manage both.  So they have to choose.

I could give a multitude of similar examples.  For individual Christians, Christian families and churches, situations will often arise where reading the Bible doesn’t give enough insight to know what the will of God is.  The Bible is not designed to give us direct and specific information about how to decide in situations like these.  Instead, it gives us general principles about how to live and what to do.

It should be an undeniable fact, then, that Christians and churches often have to choose between various courses of action that seem to fit equally well with the Bible.  And some of these decisions are very big ones.  What is more, it makes sense to think that God is almost never neutral about big decisions we make.  Almost always He will want us to take one course of action instead of other alternatives.

So Christians and churches often find themselves in situations where they need to be able to hear God speaking to them about what He specifically wants them to do. 

There are some who will readily accept this, but who still argue against prophecy today.  They say that God is able to speak to us in other ways than by prophecy, and so there is no need to seek the gift of prophecy.

This argument is completely misguided.  Of course God can and does give specific insight to Christians other than through prophecy.  But it is wrong to think in terms of either-or here.  It should be both-and.  Prophecy is one major way in which God gives insight to Christians.  And this should be allowed to take its place alongside other ways He speaks.

I should also note that the most common way in which I have seen the gift of prophecy used is to cite Scripture itself!  Either a prophet gives a word to a person or church that a particular passage of the Bible is especially relevant to a situation they are facing.  Or a prophet says that a certain passage applies in a special way to a Christian’s life.  I will give one example of this below.

We must also bear in mind that no Christian knows the Bible perfectly.  And young Christians often don’t know it at all well.  Those cessationists who say that we have no need of prophecy now that we have the Bible often seem almost to assume that we all know the Bible perfectly.  But we don’t.  And prophecy – whether a quotation from Scripture or something else – helps to fill in our gaps in knowledge.  That a loving God would choose to act in this way should not be a surprise.

In conclusion, then, the idea that we should not seek to prophesy because we have the Bible is completely mistaken.  It is far too simplistic.

The Reformation and prophecy

Another argument that is sometimes made by cessationists appeals to the Reformation.  One of the principles of the Reformation is sola scriptura, ‘by Scripture alone’, which means that Christians should be led by Scripture alone.  It is sometimes claimed that this principle means that we should not expect to hear from God at all except through the Bible.

There are two points to make here.

Firstly, I admit that I am not an authority on the Reformation.  But I think those cessationists who argue in this way have misunderstood what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura.  At least as it seems to me, when they said that we should be led by Scripture alone, they were not saying that God never speaks other than through Scripture.  Rather, they were rejecting what Roman Catholics taught.

Catholics said, and still say, that there are two major authoritative sources of instruction for Christians: the Bible and the teaching of the Catholic Church.  When the Reformers said that Christians should be led by Scripture alone, they were denying – rightly – that Catholic teaching is authoritative.  That is the context in which they were speaking.  And I don’t think they were saying that God never speaks to a Christian other than through the Bible. 

The Reformers would certainly have been clear that any revelation about anything that God gives to a Christian would need to fit with Scripture and in a sense be subordinate to it.  But I find it very hard to believe that they would have denied that God might give specific leading to Christians in areas such as what job they should do etc.

Secondly, even if – as I very much doubt – the Reformers did take the extreme view that God never speaks other than through the Bible, that doesn’t have to mean that they were right.  There are unfortunately many evangelicals today who follow certain people in church history without questioning their beliefs nearly enough.  Lutherans are often too quick to accept Martin Luther’s teachings without properly weighing them.  The same can be said for Calvinists and John Calvin, and for Wesleyans and John Wesley.

Even if the Reformers did hold an extreme view on God speaking through the Bible, then, there is no good reason why we should follow suit.  But, from what I have read on the subject, I very much doubt that their beliefs were so extreme.

Examples of false prophecy do not mean that prophecy is wrong in itself

Sometimes cessationists point to situations in which supposed prophecies were obviously not from God.  And they then claim that these situations show that the gift of prophecy is not one that God is using at the present time. 

It is certainly true that many false prophecies are given in Jesus’ name today.  The gift is often abused, and there should be no denying that.  It is also true that devout Christians will often make mistakes in prophesying, despite trying hard to hear God’s voice. 

But to say that abuse and mistakes show that all prophecy is invalid today makes no sense at all.  By the same logic, we should avoid anything that is abused or about which mistakes are sometimes made.

For example, teaching from the Bible is something that is massively abused in our day.  Every Sunday there are thousands of so-called Christian pastors worldwide who say they are teaching from the Bible, but who are actually promoting heresy in one way or another. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, claim that the Bible does not teach that Jesus is divine.  Those in the so-called Free Grace movement claim that Scripture teaches that people don’t need to turn away from their sins in order to be saved.  And so-called liberal Protestants often claim that the Bible doesn’t teach that all homosexual practice is a sin. 

These are just a few of many examples that I could give.  Bible teaching is something that is often abused.  But this doesn’t mean that all teaching from the Bible is false!  It doesn’t mean that pastors on a Sunday should abandon giving biblical instruction to their flocks!  And the same applies to prophecy.  To say that abuses and mistakes mean that prophecy itself should be avoided is illogical.

Wherever there is something that is from God, Satan will almost always try to counterfeit it.  He will also tempt Christians into using gifts, including prophecy, in ways that are less than edifying.  And part of what it means to be a fallen human being is to make mistakes.  So even Christians with good intentions and motivations can get things wrong at times. 

Therefore, bad reports surrounding the gift of prophecy in no way have to mean that this gift is not available today. 

Church history

Cessationists often argue that it must be wrong to claim that the gift of prophecy exists today, because it is only since the beginning of the 20th century that any orthodox (i.e., non-heretical) Christians have claimed to be able to prophesy.

Again, I acknowledge that I am not an expert on church history.  However, I am sure that there were claims of prophetic experiences by orthodox Christians between the 1st and 19th centuries. 

Even if there were no claims using the words ‘prophecy’ or ‘prophesy’ – which I very much doubt – we must be careful not to fall into what we could call ‘the word – concept fallacy’.  This is the mistake of thinking that if a word that is commonly used to refer to a concept is not present, then that concept itself cannot be present. 

The concept of prophecy or prophesying can be present even if the words ‘prophecy’ or ‘prophesy’ are not.  Orthodox Christians between the 1st and 19th centuries could have referred to experiences as ‘divine leading’ or as ‘an impression from God’ etc., when in fact these experiences fitted with what Paul refers to as prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Another, similar, argument used by cessationists is that if prophecy continued throughout the church age, it would surely have been widely used in every century of the church.

Regardless of what words were used to describe it, I do agree that there have been many more claims of prophecy since the beginning of the 20th century than there were previously.  However, there are two important points to make here.

First, the Bible often makes receiving things from God conditional upon believing.  The believing is very important.  So when a Christian doesn’t believe that God wants to give a gift of some sort, it seems that God would almost certainly not give that gift, even if He wanted to.  I would suggest that part of the reason why there has been a lack of prophecy throughout church history is because most Christians wrongly believed that God had no desire to speak prophetically at that time. 

Second, and in my view even more importantly, we need to recognise that the Holy Spirit is thoroughly mysterious.  And it is a mistake to claim that He must have chosen to do things in more or less the same amounts in each century of the church.

In 1 Samuel 3:1 we are told that when Samuel was a boy, ‘the word of the LORD was rare in those days’.  Similarly, I think that even under post-Pentecost, New Covenant conditions, it is not all that surprising if there is considerable variation in how much the Spirit operates supernaturally from time to time.

Summing up

There are other arguments too that cessationists sometimes make to support their view that God is not using the gift of prophecy today.  But I have listed the most important of them.  In short, none of their objections convinces. 

In part 3 I will move on to give some personal testimony of how I have seen God use the gift of prophecy.

See also:

Thursday, 10 November 2016

What Does 1 John Mean When It Says That Christians Do Not and Cannot Sin?

The letter of 1 John says some striking things about the relationship of Christians to sin.

1 John 3:6 states: 
‘No one who abides in Him [Jesus] sins.  No one who sins has seen Him or known Him.’ 
Then a few verses later, in 3:9, we are told: 
‘No one who has been born of God commits sin, because His sperm abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.’ 
Incidentally, the Greek word sperma in this verse is much better translated by ‘sperm’ than by the ‘seed’ found in most English translations.  God is being metaphorically portrayed as a human father here, and ‘seed’, a euphemism, doesn’t do proper justice to the powerful imagery that is used.

Finally 5:18 says: 
‘We know that no one who has been born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.’ 
At first sight, these verses seem to be telling us that genuine, born-of-God Christians do not commit sins.  And 3:9 even seems to be saying that they cannot commit sins!

As Christians who take the authority of the Bible seriously, what are we to make of this?  We certainly mustn’t explain away what these verses are saying.  God is speaking to us in them and we should therefore accept whatever He is teaching. 

Some have tried to take these verses literally

Over the centuries, there have been some Christians who have insisted on trying to interpret these verses literally.  They have taught that Christians literally do not sin and cannot sin.

However, in order to hold this view, they have had to take a very weakened view of what sin is.  They have typically only included intentional sins, not sins that someone might commit accidentally.

They have also had to say that it is extremely easy for a Christian to fall away from the faith and lose salvation.  If a Christian commits any intentional sin, this line of thinking goes, they lose salvation and can no longer be considered a genuine Christian until they repent and regain salvation.

This whole approach to interpreting the verses seems contrived.  And crucially, it fails to reckon with two key things:

Taking account of the broad picture

First, when we are forming our views on something in the Christian faith, it is essential that we always look at the big picture of what the Bible has to say on that topic.  In other words, we need to take account of all the biblical passages that are relevant for the subject we are thinking about.  It simply won’t do to fire out 2 or 3 proof texts and claim to settle a matter that way.  That has the potential to be very misleading.

As far as the issue of Christians sinning is concerned, when we look at the big picture, we see that there are many passages in the Bible which most naturally suggest that genuine Christians do commit sins.  In the New Testament letters, for example, there are constant instructions to Christians to keep growing in moral purity, which has to imply that they do commit some sins.  But these Christians are regarded as people who are in a state of salvation.  The big biblical picture doesn’t suggest that genuine Christians literally do not and cannot sin.

In James 3:2, for example, James says: 
‘We all stumble in many ways.’ 
When James talks about stumbling here, he is referring to committing unpremeditated sins of short duration.  He is saying that every Christian often commits sins of this kind.  And the big picture of the Bible fits with this.

In fact, even 1 John itself suggests that Christians can and do sin sometimes.  In 1 John 2:1 we read: 
‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you might not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the upright One.’ 
It seems a very forced interpretation of this verse to understand ‘if anyone does sin’ to be referring only to sins that occur after a Christian has fallen away from the faith and lost salvation.

Taking 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18 to mean that Christians literally do not and cannot sin, then, is enormously difficult.  It involves going against the big picture of what the Bible teaches.  And it even fits poorly with the rest of 1 John itself. 

Taking account of biblical hyperbole

But those who try to interpret these verses literally have not just failed to take account of the big picture.  They have also not reckoned with how the Bible tends to use language.  In some respects Jesus and the authors of Scripture talked about things in ways that differ from what we are used to in modern Western culture.  And if we fail to appreciate these differences, we can sometimes end up with faulty interpretations of passages. 

One such difference concerns the Bible’s use of hyperbole.  This is a term that refers to deliberately exaggerated language that is used for effect and involves no attempt to deceive.

Modern Western culture actually uses hyperbole a lot.  For example, if I pick up a heavy bag, I might say to someone, ‘That weighs a ton!’  In saying this, I am exaggerating the weight.  But my reason for doing so is not to deceive anyone.  Rather, I am simply trying to express my experience of finding the bag heavy.

Although we often use hyperbole, Jesus and the authors of the Bible used it more often than we do and in ways that we are not accustomed to.  This is my main focus in this article, so here are a number of examples from the New Testament:

Matthew 5:42

In this verse Jesus teaches: 
‘Give to the person who asks you, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow from you.’ 
Jesus’ words here are very hyperbolic.  In reality, there are obviously countless times when we should not 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.

Some try to explain away the hyperbole in this verse by pointing out that Jesus is not explicit about what we should give the person who asks us for something.  They say that if a person asks us for one thing, we could give them something else and still be obeying Jesus’ command.  For example, if someone asks us for money and we give them kind words instead, we would be doing what Jesus tells us to.

Interpretations like these should not be taken seriously.  Jesus is clearly implying that we should give the thing that is asked for.

What He is teaching in this verse is that we should be very generous in giving and lending material things to people.  But instead of putting this straightforwardly, He uses hyperbole.  And this kind of hyperbole goes well beyond what modern Westerners are used to.

Matthew 23:8-10

In Matthew 23:5-12 we find Jesus criticising the scribes’ and Pharisees’ pride, and urging humility among His followers, especially among those who, in time, would be in leadership positions.  In verses 8-10 He instructs: 
‘Do not be called ‘Rabbi’, for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone among yourselves on earth ‘Father’, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  Nor be called instructors, because you have one Instructor, Christ.’ 
Jesus is teaching here that He or God the Father is the pre-eminent Teacher, Father and Instructor of Christians.  Yet He doesn’t state this in a matter-of-fact way.  Instead, He uses hyperbole by saying that Christians have one Teacher, Father and Instructor.  In this case the hyperbole is one that exaggerates downward the number of something.

His reference to us having one Teacher is especially remarkable, since on several occasions the Bible explicitly refers to Christian teachers.  See, e.g., Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28-29; Ephesians 4:11.

The hyperbole used here goes far beyond what we are accustomed to in the modern West.

Mark 10:29-30

In this passage 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 land 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 land . . .’ 
Jesus is saying that those who give up relationships or material possessions for His sake will be rewarded here on earth.  But His words can hardly be taken literally, even though He begins the promise with ‘Truly I tell you’.

In comparison with the way Westerners use language today, the hyperbole in this passage is really amazing.

Luke 16:13

In this verse Jesus warns: 
‘No servant can serve two masters.  For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and wealth.’ 
Obviously someone with two masters would not necessarily have to hate one and love the other.  What Jesus is teaching is that if someone loves money it will stop them serving God fully.  But He uses very hyperbolic language to express this.  And this hyperbole goes well beyond what we are used to in our culture today.

Luke 16:15

Here Jesus says: 
‘That which is highly esteemed among people is hateful in the sight of God.’ 
We can, in fact, think of many things that are highly esteemed among people but not hateful 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.

What this saying must mean is that much that is highly esteemed among people is hateful to God.  But it is expressed by using hyperbole of a far greater degree than we are used to in Western culture today.

John 14:12

In this verse Jesus states: 
‘Truly, truly, I tell you, the person who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also . . .’ 
The deeds of Jesus that He is referring to here surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as scholars widely agree. 

I believe strongly that miracle work is something that Christians today should be involved in.  Nevertheless, by saying that the person who believes in Jesus will do the deeds, i.e., miracles, that He does, Jesus is surely speaking hyperbolically.  Elsewhere Scripture implies that miracle work is something that only some Christians do (see especially 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-30).  And John is surely not intending us to think that every Christian should expect to work the sorts of miracles that Jesus Himself worked.

The hyperbole here goes well beyond what we are used to.

Colossians 1:19-20

In this passage Paul tells us: 
‘For it was the Father’s good pleasure . . . through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross . . .’ 
On the face of it, these verses seem to be saying that all people will be reconciled to God and end up in heaven.  From the Bible as a whole, however, we know that only a minority of people will actually experience this.  Again, we can see that a very hyperbolic expression has been used.  And this sort of hyperbole goes far beyond what is found in modern Western culture.

Titus 1:12

Here Paul quotes a saying: 
‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ 
And in the next verse he states that this is a true saying.

It is reasonable to think that these vices were common in Crete at the time.  But the language is clearly very hyperbolic.  A modern Westerner – at least one who wanted to speak truthfully – would phrase the same concept differently.

Hebrews 4:15

In this verse the author says: 
‘For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in everything as we are . . .’ 
In fact, there are many ways in which Jesus would not actually have been tempted.  For example, He would never have experienced temptations that are particular to a husband or a father.  More importantly, because He had no sinful nature, He could never have been tempted in a way that aroused inherently sinful desires, as we often are.

Someone might want to argue that this verse should actually be taken much more literally than I have done.  They might claim that Jesus was supernaturally enabled to experience all sorts of temptations that He would not have encountered in the normal course of His life. 

This, however, would surely be a mistake.  The whole point of the author’s argument in this part of Hebrews is that Jesus shares in our humanity.  He knows what it’s like.  He’s been there and done that.  Any suggestion of experiencing temptations other than those He experienced in the normal course of life would therefore not fit the context. 

What the verse is telling us is that Jesus, as a real human being, experienced temptation in a wide variety of ways.  Nevertheless, this is expressed using very hyperbolic language.  And this kind of hyperbole goes beyond what we find in our culture today.

1 John 2:27

This verse states: 
‘As for you, the anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you.  But as His anointing teaches you about all things, . . . you abide in Him.’ 
On the face of it, this verse seems to be saying that because Christians have an anointing from God, they have no need of teachers.  But we know from the rest of the Bible that this is not literally true.  Instead, this is hyperbolic language.  And the hyperbole goes well beyond what we are used to today.

Summing up

The list of examples I have provided could be extended much further.  But I think I have said enough to make my point.  It is clear that the Bible often uses hyperbole in ways that go far beyond what we find in modern Western culture.

Hyperbole in 1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18

In the examples of hyperbole that I have given, something is stated that on the surface seems to be an absolute, but in fact it is literally only partly true.  1 John 3:6, 9; 5:18 should be interpreted in the same way.  At first sight these verses seem to be saying that Christians do not and cannot sin.  But when the hyperbole is taken into account, what they really mean is that relatively speaking and in comparison to people who are not born of God, Christians do not and cannot sin.  The power of God within us draws us away from sinning, even though we will not reach anything close to perfection before death. 

This interpretation fits well with the other examples of hyperbole that I gave.  It is not forced.  What is more, interpreting in this way allows these verses to fit with the big picture of what the Bible teaches about the relationship of Christians to sin.

Allowing the hyperbole to speak to us

Although we shouldn’t take these verses in 1 John literally, it is important that we don’t lose sight of the forcefulness of what they are saying.  When reading something in the Bible that is hyperbolic, it is easy, if we are not careful, to over-compensate for the hyperbole when interpreting.  And this can mean that the force of the words is not properly recognised.

Even though these verses are not teaching us that genuine Christians literally do not and cannot sin, they are teaching us that we have an awesome and mighty power within us that inclines us away from committing sins.  We need to understand this well.

See also:

Believing in Jesus Will Not Save Those Who Live Unrepentantly Sinful Lives

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Did the Early Christians Really Approve of Slavery?

It seems clear that some non-Christians are put off the Christian faith by what they see as immoral attitudes in the early church towards slavery.

Many seem to think that first century Christians usually approved of the practice of owning slaves. And even those who would accept that early Christians generally tolerated rather than approved of slavery, are often sharply critical of their tolerance. These supposed attitudes of first century believers put some people off the Christian faith today.

It is also true that many Christians themselves are troubled by this issue. For some, it leads to questioning the authority of the Bible. And for others, it just leads to puzzlement and a certain amount of disappointment.

So, what are we to make of this? Is this topic an unavoidable source of embarrassment for Christians today? Or can we come up with a reasonable defence for the attitudes of the early church to slavery?

I believe we can do the latter. I am convinced that when all factors are taken into account, the attitudes of early Christians to slavery were not immoral and that they did make sense.

The New Testament never speaks favourably about slavery and probably sometimes criticises it

To begin with, we need to understand clearly that the New Testament never endorses or promotes slavery in any way. It never, ever speaks favourably about this practice, whether explicitly or implicitly. And those who think that it does are simply mistaken.

Secondly, there are passages that probably contain an implied criticism of slavery.

In Rev. 18:13 John refers to greedy merchants who trade in “slaves, that is, the souls of human beings.” It seems likely that there is a criticism of slavery here.

Similarly, in 1 Tim. 1:10 Paul uses the Greek word andrapodistes to refer to a class of sinners. This word is usually translated as “kidnappers” in this verse, and this is a good translation. However, the word was often used to refer to those who kidnapped people to be sold in the slave trade, and it seems likely that this is at least part of Paul’s meaning here.

Most of the time that the NT speaks about slavery, there is no positive or negative evaluation given to it. Instead, those NT writers who refer to slavery just assume that it exists and that people need to live their lives in the context of a slave-owning society. Some passages instruct Christian slave owners how to live out this role in a God-fearing and kind way (e.g., Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1). And other passages teach Christian slaves how they should live (e.g., Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:18-20).

Attitudes of early Christians to slavery

At first sight, then, the attitude of the early church to slavery seems to have been mainly neutral, but probably with a bit of opposition to it as well.

However, first impressions can sometimes be misleading, and we need to think about this more deeply. What reasons might there be for believing that early Christians either approved or disapproved of the practice of owning slaves?

Well, for a start, it is true that there were probably some believers in the first century who didn’t really stop to question the morality of slavery. All Christians should do their best to decide which of the values of their societies do and do not please God. In 1 Thess. 5:21 Paul tells the church in Thessalonica to “test everything,” and we should all try to live this out. Sadly, however, many Christians today don’t seem to do very much of this. The values of society are copied unquestioningly in all sorts of ways. And it makes sense to think that the same was true of some Christians in the first century.

So it seems reasonable to believe that in the early church there were probably some Christians who didn’t stop to think about the rights and wrongs of slavery, even though they should have done. They may just have assumed that it was an acceptable practice without giving it any real thought.

But for Christians who did think and pray about things, it is difficult to believe that they would have been in favour of slavery.

First, a great many Christian slaves would doubtless have wished that they didn’t live in a slave-owning society. Without slavery, they would have avoided the mistreatment that was so common from slave owners.

Furthermore, being a Christian involves making Jesus Christ Lord and following Him with our lives. But for a Christian who was a slave and had a non-Christian owner, this must have been terribly difficult to do. Instead of being free to follow Jesus where He might lead, a slave would have been restricted by what his or her owner allowed.

For more than one reason, then, Christian slaves must have hated the practice of slavery.

But it was surely not just slaves who felt this way. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a Christian pastor in the first century Greco-Roman world. Pastors should be encouraging their flocks to live for Jesus. But there is no doubt that the directions for living given by pastors to slaves in their churches would often have conflicted with the orders given to them by their non-Christian owners. This must have made the lives of pastors very difficult.

Besides, pastors who cared for the Christians in their churches must have frequently been distressed at the mistreatment of Christian slaves they knew and loved. Imagine how it would have been for a pastor to meet up with a devout Christian slave in his congregation and hear about the latest beating he had received from a cruel owner. It must have been very upsetting and frustrating.

For at least two reasons, then, it is surely true that many leaders in the early church would have deeply disliked the institution of slavery. And many other Christians too, who cared for the wellbeing of their brothers and sisters who were slaves, must have felt the same way.

Why didn’t the early church speak out publicly against slavery?

But if early Christians who thought and prayed about things disapproved of the practice of owning slaves, why is there no evidence in the NT that they tried to reform society? Why is there not even any evidence that they spoke out publicly against this practice?

I think there is a perfectly reasonable answer to these questions that can be summed up in one word: persecution.

We need to understand that throughout the first century the church was often persecuted. References to this in the NT include Matt. 10:17-23; Mark 10:30; 13:9-13; John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; 6:9-8:1; 9:1-2, 23-24, 29; 12:1-5; 13:45-51 14:2-6, 19-22; 16:19-24, 35-40; 17:5-9, 13-14; 18:12-17; 19:23-41; 21:27-26:32; Rom. 8:35-37; 12:14; 2 Cor. 11:23-26; 12:10; Gal. 1:13; 4:29; Phil. 1:28-30; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 2:14-16; 2 Tim. 2:9-10; 3:12; 4:16; Heb. 10:32-34; 13:3, 23; 1 Pet. 3:14; 4:4, 12-19; 1 John 3:13; Rev. 1:9; 2:10, 13; 6:9-11.  

This is a long list, but it is by no means exhaustive. Many other NT references could be added to it as well. There is no doubt that just by living as Christians and sharing the good news with others, the early church experienced a great deal of hostility.

We need to realise too what a massive thing slavery was in the Greco-Roman world. There were literally millions of slaves. Slavery was, in many respects, the first century equivalent of electricity today. Huge parts of society ran on the work done by slaves.

If Christians had spoken out publicly against slavery, we can be sure that powerful people with vested interests in it would have taken a very dim view of what they were saying. And it seems almost certain that the persecution they experienced would have increased significantly. But they were simply not in a position to face this, especially when their words would have had very little effect anyway.

And given that speaking out publicly against slavery would have been so problematic, it should be obvious that trying to reform society in this area would have been completely out of the question. The early Christians had their hands full as it was.

Why does the NT so rarely criticise slavery?

But although it would have been unwise for the early church to speak out publicly against slavery, why are there so few places in the NT where this practice is even criticised at all?

There are a few points to make here.

First, although getting rid of slavery would have been a valuable goal if it was achievable, the early church had far more important goals. The Christian message of good news is about providing people with a way of avoiding eternal punishment in hell. It was infinitely more important to help people avoid hell than it was to help them get out of slavery. So it is not a surprise that the NT concentrates on what is most important.

Second, the early Christians were realists. They would have understood clearly that they were not in a position to reform society in its practice of slavery. And it is therefore not surprising that the NT authors tend to talk about other things instead.

Third, first century Christians needed to be careful even about incidental references to things that could have been discovered by their enemies. Even rumours that the Christians disapproved of slavery could have led to increased persecution if the wrong people heard them. Therefore, it would often have been better to keep quiet about things that were not of first importance.

In view of these points, it is really not difficult to reconcile the fact that the NT so rarely criticises slavery with a general dislike of slavery among early Christians.

Why did Christians continue to own slaves?

But although it made sense for early believers to keep criticisms of slavery to themselves, couldn’t they have avoided owning slaves? Why didn’t it become standard practice for Christian slave owners to free their slaves and avoid buying new ones?

Well, Christian slave owners in the early church surely did free their slaves more than they would have done if they had not been believers. Freeing slaves after they had been in slavery for some years was a common practice of the time. And, given that many Christians must have deeply disliked slavery, as we saw above, it seems reasonable to think that Christian slave owners often freed slaves.

However, if Christians who owned slaves had typically freed all their slaves, the Christians would have become known for doing this. And, again, we can easily imagine that powerful people with interests in slavery would have reacted strongly for fear that the practice of not owning slaves might catch on. The persecution of Christians would almost certainly have increased. But the Christians were being persecuted enough as it was.

And as far as buying slaves is concerned, if Christians didn’t buy them, then pagan owners would have. And life for a slave with a pagan owner would typically have been far worse than for one with a Christian owner. In fact, if Christian owners acted on the principles in Eph. 6:9 and Col. 4:1, their slaves should not have been harshly treated at all.

When we think things through, then, it really would have been unwise for early Christians to collectively renounce the practice of owning slaves. It would very probably have caused far more problems than it solved.


When we take the first century context into account, therefore, the fact that the NT so rarely criticises slavery is not a surprise. Although a great many early Christians, including leaders, must have hated this aspect of Greco-Roman society, they were simply not in a position to do anything about it. And so they concentrated their attention on other things instead.

Similarly, the fact that some in the early church continued to own slaves is also not surprising. If the Christians had all given up the practice of owning slaves, it would almost certainly have led to increased persecution. But they were being persecuted quite enough as it was.

Christians led the abolitionist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries

Those who are offended by supposed attitudes of the early church to slavery should also bear in mind that in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was Christians, especially evangelicals, who spearheaded the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time, of course, it was realistic to try to reform society. So that is exactly what Christians did.

If you haven’t already seen it, I thoroughly recommend the 2006 film, Amazing Grace. This tells the story of how abolitionist William Wilberforce succeeded in his struggles against powerful slave owners among the British establishment. And Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian.

Slavery in a positive sense

Despite all that is bad about slavery, there is one sense in which being a slave is a positive thing. The NT itself often refers to Christians as slaves of God or slaves of Christ (e.g., in Acts 2:18; 4:29; 16:17; Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 7:22; Gal. 1:10; Eph. 6:6; Phil. 1:1; Col. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 1:1; Rev. 1:1; 7:3; 22:3).

In each of these verses the Greek word doulos is used, the standard word for “slave” in Greek of the first century.

Disappointingly, however, in the above texts and others, it is very common for English versions to translate as “servant” instead of “slave.”

This is wrong, for a few reasons:

First, it seems that many translators find the idea of Christians being slaves offensive, so they translate doulos with something else instead.

However, translators of the Bible should always do their best to convey what the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts are saying. They should never alter the meaning of a passage because they find it offensive or because they think others might be offended by it. The whole point of the Bible is to hear what God has to tell us. And to knowingly mistranslate a passage is therefore to act against the purpose of biblical revelation.

Second, “servant” in modern English does a poor job of giving the meaning of doulos. To say that someone is a servant suggests that they are a paid employee of a very low social status. However, a servant of this sort is far from being a slave. For example, they can choose to leave their place of employment and get a job elsewhere if they want. By contrast, a doulos was regarded as the unpaid legal property of their owner and had no legal right to leave whatsoever.

Third, I think doulos in the above verses is actually meant to startle us slightly. We Christians are so under the authority of God that we are His slaves! Jesus is our Lord to such an extent that we are His slaves!

This is what these verses are telling us about the relationship between Christians and God or between Christians and Jesus. And Bible translators shouldn’t water this down for fear of offending people.

Of course, God loves His slaves deeply, so this kind of slavery involves no abuse on the part of the slave owner. And paradoxically, to be God’s slave is to be truly free. Living under the all-encompassing authority of God is exactly how humans are designed to exist. So being the slaves of God and of Christ frees us to be who we are really meant to be.

See also:

A Very Strong Piece of Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus