Making Fasting Matter

empty plate on a bare table

Have you ever considered the fact that fasting is something Christians do in the New Testament? We often associate fasting with the Old Testament since it had periods of required fasting. The New Testament commands no such observances, but we find fasting listed along other traditions of worship we are familiar with.

Acts 14:23 says:

When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This is toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it gives us an apostolic example of early Christians participating in fasting. In this case it’s coupled with prayer. Acts 13:2 – 3 contains similar language: “They were worshipping and fasting,” and, “After fasting and praying.” The apostles obviously had a tradition of fasting before important spiritual decisions or events.

Jesus also fasted. In the beginning of Matthew 4, we can read that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to facing Satan. I’ve often heard this taught as Satan approaching Jesus at His weakest, but have you ever considered the fact that Jesus might have fasted to prepare for this encounter. Just as the apostles would later fast before important events, here we see Jesus possibly doing the same.

When to Fast

When is it appropriate for Christians to fast? While there’s no hard-and-fast “on the first day of the week” passage for fasting like there is for the memorial, I believe we see evidence that fasting can be done individually or collectively. Both examples in Acts see Paul and his friends fasting together. Just as we can pray both individually and collectively, we can fast alone or together.

Also based on these examples, there’s no prescribed time for fasting. Paul and the apostles did it prior to some big undertakings. Jesus fasted before facing Satan. Individuals in the Old Testament also fasted in times of mourning and repentance. Fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to God, so the best time to fast is when you need that closeness most. That’s why prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. It’s an act of removing something you take for granted or rely on and replacing that thing with God.

What to Give Up

When I think of fasting, I most often think of food. I think you can make the case, however, that fasting isn’t limited to eating.

I Corinthians 7:4 – 5:

A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

When Paul says, “Do not deprive one another…except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer,” it certainly seems like a form of fasting. In this case, the couple fast from physical intimacy for a time.

The point is that fasting requires a serious commitment. It’s not about giving up something trivial for a week; it’s about disciplining yourself by removing something meaningful and important. Like the monetary offerings we see in the New Testament, what you give up is between you and God. Maybe one person will give up all social media for a period of time while another takes their fast more literally and gives up food.

How to Fast

Jesus and Paul both have some guidelines for us when it comes to fasting. For example, Paul warns against self-denial for the sake of false holiness in Colossians 2:18 – 23:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God. If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

Basically, Paul is saying that fasting of any sort should not be outwardly enforced, nor does it serve as evidence of holiness in and of itself. I Timothy 4:1 – 5 makes a similar claim, that we should be careful of anyone regulating specific foods from which to abstain. These things can feel pious, but Paul says they’re not.

Jesus says, in Matthew 6:16 – 18:

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The idea here is the same as Jesus’ teachings on prayer and benevolence. When you fast, it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. When you fast, it’s not my business what you are giving up, unless you need me to know so I can support and encourage you. In fact, Jesus says that no one should even be able to tell we’re fasting based on appearance or behavior.

So What About Lent?

At this point, Lent becomes an elephant in the virtual room. Should Christians observe Lent? My only response is that it’s between you and God. That comes with a caveat: that we all understand that Jesus nor His apostles command the observance of Lent in the New Testament. Then we can apply Romans 14:5 – 8:

One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

If your conscience moves you to observe Lent, then do so in the ways we see Paul and Jesus observe and teach about fasting. If your conscience steers you away from Lent, then abstain. Do not judge the brother or sister who does observe, nor should the one who observes judge the one who does not. Both are acceptable to God as long as their motivations and conduct remain pure.

Fasting, Spirituality, and Self-Discipline

I Corinthians 9:24 – 27:

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

To me this is the at the heart of fasting. It is an act of self-discipline that trains us to be self-disciplined in the Lord. The act of giving something up that is meaningful to you takes self-discipline. Sticking to it for a predetermined period of time takes self-discipline. If you are able to keep your fast quiet, that takes self-discipline. If you’re not letting a fast affect your behavior, that takes self-discipline. All of this helps us bring ourselves under control so that we will exercise self-control in all of our conduct.

Fasting can also bring us closer to God if we really are giving up something meaningful and replacing it with study and prayer. It puts us in a place to turn to God when we might most miss something of this world, and it helps put the things of this world in perspective. Whether you are giving up meals for a couple of weeks or turning off all screens for a month, fasting helps remind all of us that we need God more than we need the things of this world.

 

 

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Running Without Legs

hunterwoodhall

This is based on a sermon I delivered at the South Boone Church of Christ a few years ago. Image of Hunter Woodhall of Team USA 2016.

On January 2, 2008, one of my favorite tech bloggers posted this short anecdote:

On the final day of a trip to Disney World with my family last month, I saw something remarkable: a boy, 4 or 5 years old, with two artificial legs, running around Mickey’s Toontown Fair in the Magic Kingdom. Running. If he had been wearing pants instead of shorts, you’d have simply thought he had a bit of a limp.

He was born without legs, but yet there he was, galloping across the playground on a warm, sunny December morning, every bit as happy, excited, and carefree as every little kid in the world ought to be.

His legs — sleek, lightweight, and impressively dextrous — were inspiring and beautiful. And they were made using technology that simply did not exist when I was his age, one generation ago. Focus solely on current events and it’s all too easy to despair at the state of the world. But science and progress march ever forward, and the world is a better place today than it used to be.

This post caught my attention for several reasons – not the least for shaking my perspectives about this world we live in, for contradicting that, “What is the world coming to?” voice. I really think that sometimes we have grown very fixated on negative things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. Hopeless and pessimistic attitudes can impair our spiritual walking in a way this child’s disability fails to impede him.

Recognizing Our Obstacles

We often go to Ephesians 5 to discuss our Christian walk, and in verse 2, Paul instructs us to walk in love. If we skip to verse 5, he encourages us to walk as in the light, and the apostle concludes in verse 15 that we should walk with wisdom. Love, light, and wisdom should guide our lives. In other words, we should be able to:

  • Clearly see what matters. This is light.
  • Make good choices based on what we see. This is wisdom.
  • Allow compassion for others and for God motivates every step we take. This is love.

Worldly Cares

Unfortunately, there is much around us to tear us away from this walk if we allow it to consume our energy and attention, leaving us sitting along the side rather than progressing toward our goal. We can grow discouraged at crime rate statistics, at political figures, at business decisions, at stock market trends, at individuals or groups who somehow offend our sensibilities.

We argue these issues over the dinner table. We complain about them around the water cooler. We blog about them. We yell at the TV about them, and, in so doing, we are sitting down and giving up. We are forgetting how to walk. We are failing Christ. We are failing our brothers and sisters. We are failing those toward whom we should be examples – and over what? Over things that are temporary and insignificant in the bigger picture.

Matthew 6:19-21 reminds us that the things of this world are temporary and warns us about letting them take hold in our hearts. Also, I John 2:15-17 warns us against loving the things of this world, which are transient and will pass away. Often, we apply these passages to outward temptations and covetousness, but we fail to apply these at a deeper level.

When I argue with and berate you because my politics don’t agree with yours, am I not putting worldly cares first? When I mope and complain about taxes or bills, am I not allowing money to rule my life? In these cases, I have stopped walking that Christian walk of light, wisdom, and love, and I have allowed myself to become helpless along the side of the road.

Back in Matthew 6:31-34, Jesus concludes that we should not be overly concerned with the petty details of this life, relying on God for what really matters, and Paul, in Philippians 4:8 reminds us to concentrate mainly on those things that are virtuous and encouraging.

Helplessness

Additionally, I can permit my own sense of helplessness disable my journey. After all, I am apparently powerless against sin (Romans 3:23). I cannot earn my salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). I deserve death (Romans 6:23), and every sin I commit reinforces the torture Christ went through millennia ago (Hebrews 6:6). I may feel myself a hopeless case. I am expected to walk the narrow path. I am expected to walk in light, love, and wisdom. Yet I find I have no legs to stand on.

James 4:10 tells us that we should humble ourselves before God, and He will lift us up. I Peter 5:6 reiterates this sentiment, encouraging us to cast all worries and doubts upon Him who cares for us. In every passage that recounts our helplessness before God, his grace and mercy is described as negating those obstacles between us and Him.

The imagery of God’s hand is replete throughout the Old Testament, and the prophet Isaiah encourages God’s people with the news that His hand is able to save them from their helpless state if they would but take it in Isaiah 59:1 . We may be unable to walk on our own.

We may be unable to make the Christian journey on our own legs, but remember Jesus in Mark 2 when helping a paralyzed man. He asks the scribes around Him which was more difficult, to make him walk or to forgive his sins. With this man, Jesus does both, and today He gives us the ability to walk with Him because of the forgiveness He offers.

Running Toward the Goal

The child at Disney World was not content to walk, though. Even on his artificial legs, he wanted to run, and he ran so well, he could have fooled those around him had it not been for the shorts he was wearing. Likewise, I Corinthians 9:24 encourages us to run to obtain the crown. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to run with endurance toward Christ, but to do so we have to be willing to lay aside anything that burdens us.

I personally like the account in John 20, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John of the empty tomb, and both race to see it for themselves. John makes it first, but Peter runs right past him and into the tomb itself. For all intents and purposes, these two should have been strangers to each other by now — the disciple possibly closest to Christ and the one who verbally denied Him. Still, they set aside their differences, and they ran toward Christ. We can do likewise. Though we have no legs of our own, through Christ we can run.

Day One

Day One

This is a sermon I recently delivered at the Westfield Church of Christ.

Paul’s Moment

In Acts 9, Paul wasn’t planning on his life changing. In fact, it was quite the opposite, for Paul had been traveling to Damascus with one thing in mind – to capture and imprison as many Christians as he could.

Acts 9:1 – 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The road to Damascus became a road to change for Paul, but this was not enough. Sometimes, we refer to these events as the conversion of Saul, but his true conversion did not happen for another three days, and that’s recorded in verses 10 – 19.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

From this point forward, Paul’s life took an entirely different trajectory. The moment he came out of the waters of baptism, Paul was made new. And he lived like it. He would even write later that his past counted nothing to him compared to his new life in Christ. That day Paul confessed the name of Jesus and submitted to baptism became his Day One moment. It became Day One of a new life.

Introduction

A Day One experience is an event that changes the course of your life forever. It’s a moment when you take control of your own story to take it in new and exciting directions. For Paul, it looked like rejecting all that he had been raised to believe and striking out on a path he had formerly rejected and even persecuted. It was a complete one-eighty.

Esther’s Moment

Another example of a Day One experience happens in Esther.

Ester 4:12 – 16:

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai,  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther does more than resolve to go to the king. She sees it through. In Esther 7 not only does she reveal the plot against the Jews, but she reveals at last to the king that she herself is a Jew! Then she accuses Haman, the king’s highest officer, of orchestrating the impending genocide. Think of the the risks she took! Think of the consequences that could have befallen her. But she boldly steps into the first day of the rest of her life, and, in so doing, she not only changes her own life forever, but she saves the lives of countless others. Their lives hung on the resolve of one person and her willingness to take the control of her story out of the hands of others.

The salvation Esther brings to God’s people is still memorialized in an observance called Purim, as is written in Esther 9:23 – 29:

So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them.  For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.  But when it came before the king, he gave orders in writing that his evil plan that he had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.  Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them,  the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year,  that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

That remembrance comes from the selfless and courageous actions of one woman in a day when women were hardly empowered. Esther stands an as example to all of us that one voice can shape great events.

Peter’s Moment

Not all Day One moments are visibly momentous, however. Some are quiet but every bit as powerful. Take Peter as an example in John 21:15 – 19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter  said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus  said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This comes after Jesus appears to the other apostles. This is after Jesus strengthens Thomas’ faith. Think of the pressure on Peter. Yes, Peter runs to the tomb when he learns it is empty. Yes, Peter jumps from the boat when He sees Jesus, but there is still something big between them – the fact that Peter had forcibly denied Jesus in His hour of need. In these verses, Jesus and Peter mend their relationship, and it becomes a Day One moment for Peter.

From this point, Peter will go forward to preach the first gospel message to the assembly at Pentecost. He will be the first to preach to the Gentiles. He will live a life dedicated to Christ, and he will write, near the end of his days in II Peter 3:8 – 9:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Peter could write so confidently of the Lord’s patience for repentance because He was once a recipient of that same patience. To him, that restoration was his Day One moment.

Elements of Day One

These individuals all had three things in common:

  • Each faced a crisis. For Paul and Peter, it was a crisis of faith. For Esther, it was a crisis of impending disaster.
  • Each took control. Esther takes control from Haman. Paul from his past, and Peter from his regret.
  • Each gave control to God. This is the important part. All of these took control, but they didn’t claim total ownership. Instead, each seized control and handed it over to God. They placed their trust in Him.

Your Day One

What will be your Day One moment? II Corinthians 5:16 -17 says:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Being a Christian is all about being new. The day you put Christ on in baptism becomes Day One of a new life, but the challenge is that we must constantly renew ourselves. We all fall. We all slip into – for lack of a better term – oldness of life from time to time. We all face crises that threaten to take control of our lives. It may be a crisis that threatens disaster to chip away at our faith. It might be a spiritual crisis where we come to question what we believe. Whatever it is, the crisis is not the end of the story. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to take control from the crisis, purge the old, and become new again.

See I Corinthians 5:6 – 8:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul is writing this to a congregation at the brink of destruction from within. They are divided. They are facing numerous doctrinal challenges, but no crisis is as great as the fact that they have an example of rampant immorality among their number – and not only do they tolerate that immorality, they are celebrating it.

They seem beyond recovery, yet this is the church Paul would address this way in II Corinthians 1:5 – 7:

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Did you hear that bit: “Our hope for you is unshaken?” This, to the same congregation that had been previously boasting in tolerance of immorality. They faced crisis. They took control away from that crisis, and they gave that control over to God. They emerged from their crisis a better and a stronger church family than when they began. What might have been the end of their story instead became their Day One moment.

Conclusion

That is the challenge to all of us. What will you do when faced with crisis? What will you do with your Day One moment? I challenge you, when things threaten to tear you down, to follow the example we see in Paul, in Esther, and in Peter. Face the crisis, take control away from it, and hand that control over to God. Let it change you for the better and make you new.

Make it Day One for the rest of your life. Step forward like Esther standing before the king. Put your past in the past and strive for a better future like Paul after the Damascus road. Or humbly repent like Peter with Christ, and trade your regrets for hope. Whatever the challenge before you, know that God wants you to succeed. Know that you have all that you need to make today Day One.

Speaking Truth While Teaching the Truth

Speaking Truth While Teaching the Truth

I recently linked to an article from Sojourners regarding the recent political climate having an adverse affect on honesty in Christian conversation. The truth is, however, that this is not a new problem. Recent events have perhaps exacerbated the problem, but we’ve historically demonstrated a rather tenuous relationship with the truth when it comes to making sure things fit our personal narratives of how we perceive the world.

Getting Things Right

One example comes from a congregation we were recently visiting. The preacher was leading a series about other Christian faiths, and that day’s lesson was on Catholicism. At one point in the lesson, he said something to the effect that the Catholic Church sells indulgences so that people can buy their way out of Hell or make early payment for future sins. Both of these are flatly untrue. I can’t say I fully understand every detail of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, but I do know these are myths.

Anecdotes, misconceptions, urban legends, and myths — when preached or taught as truth, these undermine the greater truth we are trying to spread. They become obstacles to others coming to the truth of God’s word. This is one of the reasons James writes, in the beginning of James 3:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

Sweating the Details

If someone listening to my preaching can’t trust me to rightfully discern between factual and fictional information, how can they trust me with the bigger truths of God’s word? If someone hears me misrepresenting what they believe, how can they trust me to rightly explain what I believe? If I can’t be trusted to do my homework on secular illustrations or doctrinal explanations, how can I be trusted to study and rightly divide scripture?

II Corinthians 8:21 mentions that we aim to be seen honorably both to God and to our fellow humans. This means we should get things right, even if they aren’t part of scripture. We need to check to see if our lessons that touch on science are relying on outdated or debunked information. We need to make sure that the stories we share as true actually are true. While we defend our own doctrines, we have to get the doctrines we attribute to others right. That’s being truthful in all things.

Practical Application

I have to apply this to myself as well. I’ve occasionally shared a story about African missionaries and neckties that I think is true — but now I’m not so sure. I tried to track it down to the source I thought it came from but have been unsuccessful. It’s a humorous anecdote that I think well illustrates the challenge of unintentionally teaching culture-specific values alongside the gospel. But I have to stop using it as I don’t know if the story is true, and the illustration loses all power if it’s not.

Do all illustrations have to be true stories? Jesus certainly allowed himself to use fictional illustrations in his use of parables, so no, I don’t think every anecdote and illustration has to be true. Fiction is fine as long as our audiences know we are speaking in fiction. If we are presenting something as real, as truth, we need to be sure it is. We always have to make sure that we are telling the truth while we are speaking truth.

Contradictions and Dispensations

One of the more challenging aspects regarding God’s law is helping others understand the divisions between the laws found in our Bibles. While everything we have collected of God’s message is in a single bound volume, it’s not all one law. In order to understand which passages we should view as binding to ourselves as Christians, we need to understand those different sets of laws, who they apply to, and the time frame surrounding that system.

The Basic Dispensations

Where I am right now in my studies, it seems most logical to divide the Bible up into three distinct eras that contain their own laws and expectations. In theology-speak, we call those time periods dispensations. They are as follows:

  1. The Patriarchal Dispensation. This is contained roughly between Genesis 1 and Exodus 12. There’s room for debate about when this period actually started, but this range is a simple ballpark. During this period, there was no recorded law. God spoke directly to holy men that then made His will known to their families and tribes. This period ended with the delivery of the Mosaic law and the binding of the covenant at Sinai.
  2. The Mosaic Dispensation. This begins in Exodus 12, and it ends with the crucifixion. There is almost certainly a grace period after the crucifixion as the church does not come into existence until Acts 2. This time period is perhaps the most well-known set of laws as it contains the Ten Commandments. This is also the part of the Bible that contains the numerous feasts and sacrifices as well as things like stoning.
  3. The Christian Dispensation. This is where we are right now. This era really gets under way in Acts 2, but Jesus’ teachings prior to Acts 2 certainly inform the expectations of this new covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Dispensation, we don’t have a strictly codified law, but Jesus and His apostles set out a definite code of conduct those bearing the name Christian should follow. If they do not follow that code, Jesus makes it clear that they are not really Christians.

Within the first two, you can divide things up a bit more. During the Mosaic Dispensation for example, some laws adjusted depending on whether God’s people were yet to inherit the Promised Land, were already living in the Promised Land, or were in exile.

Keeping Things in Context

Romans 7: 1 – 6:

Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Using marriage as an illustration, Paul is making the point that you cannot be both under the law of Moses and the law of Christ at the same time. The latter fulfilled and replaced the former. This is one of the main points of the entire book of Hebrews. We Christians live under a new and better covenant than God delivered through Moses. With the institution of the new covenant came a new law.

Hebrews 7:11 – 14:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

A new covenant brings a new priesthood, and a new priesthood brings a new law. Nothing written in the law of Moses binds us today for we are under a whole new system. Our authority and our code of conduct comes from Jesus Christ and the word revealed by inspiration to His chosen apostles.

Dispensations and Doctrine

One of the things that can be confusing is that there are similarities between the dispensations. The promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the age of the patriarchs carry through the Mosaic Dispensation (in which they are partially fulfilled) and find themselves completely fulfilled in the Christian Dispensation. Furthermore, there are certainly similarities between the expectations and laws in each of these time periods.

However, because some laws and themes carry over from one to the next, it does not mean all do — especially where we see apparent contradictions between the covenants. In those cases, the words of Christ and His apostles carry greater authority than the words given through Moses. Take the food restrictions of Leviticus as an example.

Leviticus 11:1 – 8:

And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Nevertheless, among those that chew the cud or part the hoof, you shall not eat these: The camel, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the rock badger, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you. And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.

Now contrast this to Acts 10:9 – 15 when God assures Peter that he should take the gospel to the Gentiles:

The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Here, the subject is really the fact that the gospel is to be delivered to Jew and non-Jew alike, but it also signals the end of the dietary restrictions God placed on His people during the Mosaic Dispensation. This principle is also reiterated in Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is not a contradiction in God’s law; it is merely a new law replacing the old.

Here’s one more example — this time regarding adultery — from Deuteronomy 22:22 – 23:

If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

In the New Testament, Jesus also clearly condemns adultery in Matthew 5:27 – 30:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Here the difference is more nuanced. Moses instructed a direct physical consequence for those caught in the act of adultery. Jesus requires no such action, instead turning our minds to the eternal spiritual consequences of such actions. In fact, nowhere in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament is there any indication that the church should harm or kill anyone for punishment of sin. Therefore, while we Christians should hold ourselves to Christ’s standard regarding morality, we are out of line if we preach as necessary physical Mosaic punishments on those who fall short of the standard. Whenever we find discrepancies between the laws of Christ and those set forth in previous covenants, Christ’s law is always what we defer to.

The Takeaways

  1. Most sources of apparent Biblical contradictions come from misunderstanding the divisions between dispensations.
  2. Each new dispensation brought new things for God’s people. This includes new laws.
  3. Where apparent contradictions exist, we defer to what we find in the teachings of Christ and His apostles.

When approaching passages that contain contradictory instructions, this should hopefully keep things clear in our heads.

For experienced Christians, keeping these in mind helps us to rightly divide the truth. Throughout the letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, the writers of the New Testament make the distinction between the new and old laws clear. Paul and others had to deal with topics of circumcision, of feasts and observances, and of food restrictions. They even condemned those who would try to bind the tenets of the Mosaic Law upon Christians as lasting requirements to be pleasing to God.

We who preach and teach God’s word should be careful about doing the same. It sows confusion among those who are not as Bible literate, and it undermines the better covenant Christ died for. It is right to stand for Christ and hold fast to His teachings. But let’s be careful about keeping the law of Moses where it belongs: in the past. Through it, we can learn many qualities of God, and it reveals a shadow of the better things to come. The law and the prophets point to Christ. Now that Christ has been revealed to us, and He has provided us the perfect and spiritual covenant leading to salvation, let’s keep our faith in that and that alone.

Lucifer

Jupiter and Venus

image by Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons

How you are fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; and I will sit on the mountain of congregation, in the uttermost parts of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”

Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the uttermost parts of the pit. Those who see you shall gaze at you, they shall consider you: “Is this the man who made the earth to tremble, who shook kingdoms; who made the world as a wilderness, and overthrew the cities of it; who didn’t let loose his prisoners to their home?”

All the kings of the nations, all of them, sleep in glory, everyone in his own house. But you are cast forth away from your tomb like an abominable branch, clothed with the slain, who are thrust through with the sword, who go down to the stones of the pit; as a dead body trodden under foot. You shall not be joined with them in burial, because you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people; the seed of evil-doers shall not be named forever.

Isaiah 14:12 – 20

This passage is not about Satan. I know some translations say Lucifer is being addressed here, but have you ever wondered why we even call Satan Lucifer? Basically, it’s because of this passage, but why do we apply this passage to Satan? Because it refers to something called Lucifer. It’s completely recursive.

So Who Is It About?

The passage is talking about an unnamed king of Babylon. Pretty much all of chapter 13 is condemning a king of Babylon. Isaiah takes a break in the first couple of verses in Isaiah 14 to reassure the children of Israel they will return from captivity, and then he gets back on the Babylonian king’s case. Isaiah doesn’t change subjects until he gets to verse 24, where Assyria becomes the subject of judgment.

Also, look at some of the language. “You are cast forth away from your tomb … You shall not be joined with them.” This is a reference to kings being traditionally buried with their ancestors. Also, “Is this the man who … shook kingdoms; who made the world as a wilderness, and overthrew the cities of it; who didn’t let loose his prisoners to their home?” This is a description of a conquering king, possibly Nebuchadnezzar II or a whole line of Babylonian rulers.

So What’s Up with the Lucifer Thing?

When the first English translations of the Bible started popping up (the Tyndale Bible and the original King James Version among the most notable examples), some of the translators chose to anglicize certain words instead of directly translating them. βαπτιζω (pr. baptizo) is one such word. Baptize didn’t exist in the English language prior to the Bible being translated, and it came from anglicizing a Greek word. If it had been simply translated, everywhere we read baptize would instead read submerge.

The same basic thing happened with Lucifer. Lucifer is the Latin equivalent to הֵילֵל (pr. Heylel). It literally means “morning star” or “bringer of light” and makes reference to one of the brightest objects in the morning sky. We would call it the planet Venus. In the context of Isaiah 14, this king’s fame makes him shine brightly in the minds of the nations around him. He has grown proud because of this reputation, and Isaiah calls him by a name that reflects the magnitude of his pride.

How Did We End Up Making This About Satan?

I half-jokingly wrote that Satan getting pegged with the name Lucifer is recursive reasoning, but there’s probably a bit more at work here. First, we could be seeing some influence of Roman mythology (which has a lot of influence on many Catholic traditions). Prometheus was the bringer of godlike knowledge to man as symbolized by fire. He was a light-bringer. Satan does something similar in the Garden story. Therefore, the “bringer of light” in Isaiah 14 could easily be connected to Satan via Prometheus.

Canaanite mythology could be influencing tradition here as well. Ancient Canaanites called the morning star Attar, and Attar was a god who tried to overthrow Ba’al. He failed and instead went to rule the underworld. Historically, Satan has been depicted as an angel who wanted to usurp Jehovah. Perhaps this Canaanite legend melded with ancient Judaism and informed how Satan has been interpreted through the ages. (There are other similar legends throughout ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.)

Then there’s a small passage from the pseudepigraphic book of II Enoch:

And from the rock I cut off a great fire, and from the fire I created the orders of the incorporeal ten troops of angels, and their weapons are fiery and their raiment a burning flame, and I commanded that each one should stand in his order.

Here Satanail with his angels was thrown down from the height.

And one from out the order of angels, having turned away with the order that was under him, conceived an impossible thought, to place his throne higher than the clouds above the earth, that he might become equal in rank to my power. And I threw him out from the height with his angels, and he was flying in the air continuously above the bottomless.

II Enoch 29:2 – 4

Even though many Christians today don’t consider books like II Enoch to be canon, their influence can be felt in a number of traditional mythologies we carry alongside our faith. Here is a perfectly encapsulated retelling of the common Satan tradition, and, if you substitute Satanail with Lucifer, it would feel right at home in Isaiah 14. (Also, Prometheus imagery again. Just saying.)

I don’t know exactly when Lucifer became synonymous with Satan. It certainly wasn’t common in the time of Augustine. However, both Calvin and Luther condemn interpreting Isaiah 14 as referring to the devil. So the name became popular sometime after Saint Augustine of Hippo but before Martin Luther’s writings. That gives us a possible window of something like a thousand years.

What’s the Point?

We Christians should be making a habit of differentiating the Bible’s teachings from popular trends and mythology. We live in a culture where we share posts and images on social media without first checking the veracity of the content, and we therefore perpetuate popular myths and urban legends without thought. We should be holding ourselves to a higher standard — even moreso in matters pertaining to faith.

Instead of simply repeating what we’ve heard from pulpits or read from others’ writings, we need to be able to separate faith from fiction. And no matter how long we have held to a certain story, belief or doctrine, if the scriptural evidence doesn’t back it up, we have to be OK with letting it go. Let’s strive to be more like the Bereans of Acts 17 who not only received the apostles’ teaching with gladness but then also researched God’s word for themselves. Then we will all have far fewer confusions like this.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

I John 4:1