Does the Encouragement to the Corinthian Church to Remain Single Apply to the Christian Church Today?



Introduction and Thesis

            The contention that I am setting out to argue within this paper is that the contents of 1 Corinthians 7 relating to Paul’s encouragement to remain unmarried is not a justification for singleness, but rather statements that were occasioned to Paul’s first century readers and relevant to their present and impending persecution and suffering. My position is in opposition to those who would argue that Paul’s statements, while made within a particular context of persecution, are meant to offer justification for singleness. The distinction between the two positions, while they may seem to be a matter of semantics, actually has a significant bearing for the Church today.  1 Corinthians 7 has been used by the catholic church to justify the celibacy of the Priesthood, and within Protestantism, there has been no shortage of talks to youth groups about God’s call to singleness using Paul’s words as justification. While I do believe there is much wisdom within the Bible to offer those who are presently unmarried (contentment etc.), I do not believe Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 are contextually relevant for much of our advice. The primary focus within this paper will be upon verses 26-31 and the two major interpretations that are given to explain Paul’s advice. Verses 26-31 are significant because they are “the first expression of the reason for his advice.”[1] This work is primarily expositional and theological because the nature of Paul’s argument is such. I have found that the discussion over singleness within 1 Corinthians 7 will not advance if we simply pull verses out of Paul’s argument and prop them up without his expressed contextual markers. I will begin with the argument that there is justification for singleness within 1 Corinthians 7.

The case for 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for singleness

            Most understand that Paul’s case for his advise to his hearers “to remain as he is” (v. 26), and his desire that “all were as I myself am” (v. 7), is grounded upon the statements found in the section of vs. 26-31. Paul makes three primary statements that serve as purpose indicators for his discourse.

1)     Because of the present (or impending) distress (v. 26).

2)     This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short (v. 29).

3)     For the present form of this world is passing away (v. 31).

These statements, which are actually eschatological statements, are understood in two primary ways:

1) Statements that are to extend throughout the church-age, or

2) Statements made for Paul’s original readers only.

I will begin by laying out the case that these contextual time indicators extend throughout the church-age.

Contextual time indicators extend throughout the Church-age

The vast majority of interpreters understand Paul’s three purpose statements in vs. 26-31 as an indication of our perpetual involvement in the already established eschatological process. In other words, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have begun the process that will bring about the end of the present form of this world within which we live. With these conditions being the case, Christians must now live in light of the second advent of Jesus. Ben Witherington says, “Paul is not speaking of some future apocalyptic event, but of an eschatological process already begun.”[2]  Thiselton, commenting on Witherington’s statement, says, “Although these verses imply an ethic “affected” by the “possible shortness of the time left,” the redemptive events which took place in the death and resurrection of Christ remain “decisive”: these have “shortened the time, “leaving believers ignorant of how long they have before the parousia will finally cut short all activity in this world.”[3] C. E. B. Cranfield says,

the parousia is near…not in the sense that it must necessarily occur within a few months or years, but in the sense that it might occur at any moment and in the sense that, since the decisive event of history has already taken place in the ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, all subsequent history is a kind of epilogue, necessarily in a real sense short, even though it may last a very long time.[4]

Garland concurs, arguing, “Paul believes that the end of time has already broken in…affliction is inseparable from the Christian life in this world…but he assumes that the affliction and pain, suffering and care, and sadness and fear associated with the end time will only intensify for those who are married…end-time circumstances determine his advice.”[5]  And Ciampa and Rosner admit that, “The majority of commentators… understand Paul to be referring to the tribulation or messianic woes which are the lot of all Christians and will herald the Second Coming of Christ. On this reading, vv. 29-31 reinforce the same point.”[6]

According to this view, Christians should expect the “present distress” to continue throughout the church-age because, through the inaugurated work of Christ, the appointed “time has grown very short” and because the “present form of this world is passing away.” With this in mind, it is argued that we have justification for singleness from 1 Corinthians 7. If it is the case that Paul’s grounding for his advise, although immediately impacting his earliest readers, extends to all readers for all time throughout the Church-age, then it follows that the advise itself can continue to be used for grounds of justification for singleness.  Fee expresses this point when he says,

In Paul’s view the End has already begun; the form of this world is already passing away (v. 31). Christians do not thereby abandon the world; they are simply not to let this age dictate their present existence…In light of our present existence, with its suffering and trouble, and in light of the increased troubles that will tend to befall the married (v. 28), the single person will do well to remain that way”[7]


Therefore, those who argue that Paul’s advise to Christians extend beyond his original readers, see the statement “present distress” contextualized by a present, ongoing, and future interpretation of the “appointed time has grown very short” and “the present form of this world is passing away. ” Having an interpretation that extends these statements beyond Paul’s original readers, allows for Paul’s advise to flow throughout the course of Christian history in such a way that we today can read it as an admonition for us. Given the construction of vs. 26-31, it is impossible to argue that the statement “in view of the present distress” not be understood in light of the “appointed time has grown very short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.” Therefore, if one believes that the latter statements of v. 29 and v. 31 reference end-time and ongoing eschatological events, then it follow logically that the “present distress” applies to anyone that those latter statements include. This is why most commentators argue that Paul’s advise to the Corinthians can be advise for us today.

The case against 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for singleness

While it is true that the vast majority of interpreters understand Paul’s advice to perpetuate throughout the church-age, this is not the only interpretation that can be given. If it can be shown that Paul’s statements in v. 29 and v. 31 are not eschatological statements regarding the future second advent of Jesus, but rather something having a nearer referent, then a strong case can be made for 1 Corinthians 7 to be an occasional situation, not extending beyond Paul’s readers.

Contextual time indicators are relevant to Paul’s readers only

It seems that vs. 29-31 has perplexed many commentators through the years. Regarding the present distress Fee states, “But what it intends is far from certain.”[8] A little later, regarding Paul’s connection between his reason for his advice and what follows, he says, “The argument itself is in two parts (vv. 29-31, 32-35), whose relationship to each other is also something of a mystery.”[9]  Barnett comments that this “passage [7:25-35] and the next (7:36-40) are the most difficult in the epistle, as witnessed by the divergent opinions of commentators and translators.”[10] Ciampa and Rosner says, “These verses do present formidable challenges to a secure interpretation.”[11]  I am convinced that perplexed opinions about this section have more to do with commentator’s particular eschatological positions then it does with the way the section reads. The natural reading of vs. 26-31 would lead us to conclude that Paul’s concern was “present” (v26) for his readers, and thus, whatever the “appointed time” (v29) was, would have been immediately relevant for his earliest readers. Likewise, the phrase “the present form of this world is passing away” would be constrained to Paul’s immediate audience.

The case I want to argue is that Paul’s language in vs26-31 refers to first century realities, rather than end-time realities. The problem is that most people do not have proper theological and eschatological categories for Paul’s language applying to his earliest readers. In other words, people do not have an eschatological timetable that is able to account for a major prophetic event within Paul’s reader’s lifetime. Paul’s statements in v29 and v31 are usually only understood in cataclysmic and end of history ways. As we saw above, for those who extend this section throughout the church-age, Jesus’ ministry and work initiated the countdown to the end (of history), which perpetually signals woes for the Church, thus giving way for Paul’s advice for singles.

There is good reason to believe that Paul’s advice given is constrained to the events prophesied by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse relating to the tribulation that would precede the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). I will look at each statement in turn.

1) I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. (v 26)

Many commentators realize that whatever the “distress” the Corinthians was experiencing was relevant to them and not something distant. Fee argues that Paul’s usage of “present” invariably means “what is already present in contrast to what is yet to come.”[12] This can be seen in Romans 8:38 where Paul argues that “things present nor things to come” can separate us from the love of God. Notice how Paul makes a contrast between that which is present and that which is future.[13] Leon Morris argues against the prevailing notion that this has referent to the second coming of Jesus, or that it refers to suffering Christians throughout the church-age, seeing it rather as having a unique reference to the Corinthians:

Paul’s advice is conditioned by the present crisis (anangke). This is usually taken to mean the troubles that preceding the second advent, and indeed this is often held to be self-evident. But the word is never used in the New Testament in this way; the nearest is a reference to the troubles preceding the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 21:23). Paul often refers to Christ’s return, but he does not associate anangke with it…It seems here to denote more than the opposition the Christian always encounters. Some pressing constraint lay hard on the Corinthians at the time of writing. Whatever the precise meaning, Paul’s friends were at that time in unusually difficult circumstances, and in view of the troubled times Paul felt it best for them to stay as they were.[14]

Notice that Morris admits that the nearest reference for the word anangke is used in Luke 21:23 regarding the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Luke 21:23). Morris closes his commentary on v.26 saying “whatever the precise meaning…” because he does not know exactly what Paul is referencing. I think that Luke 21:23 has much to offer us within this discussion. It says, “Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.” Jesus is explaining here how difficult the time of tribulation will be for those experiencing this “great distress”. Jesus explains that for those who have little children it will be a very difficult time.[15] Most understand this section in Luke to be referencing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  This point is enforced by the fact that Luke gives us a time indicator for the events he is warning about. He says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (v.32). A biblical generation is 40 years. That means that when Jesus uttered these words (around A.D 30), he anticipated that within 40 years the events he spoke about would come to pass.

For Paul, getting married meant starting a family. Just as Jesus warned about the struggles mothers would have to endure during the tribulation preceding the destruction of the temple, so too, Paul, picking up on Jesus’ language warns about getting married and starting a family. This same warning was given to Jeremiah prior to a similar time of tribulation and destruction:

The word of the Lord came to me: “You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place. For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bore them and the fathers who fathered them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried. They shall be as dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth. (Jer. 16:1-4)

Many of the events that Jesus spoke about in Luke 21 were already beginning to press hard upon the Corinthians (Famine, Acts 11:28). As these events began to unfold, it would have been understood that all of the signs and tribulations spoken about by Jesus would soon follow. As a matter a fact, Jesus expected his followers, and those reading his words, to be able to discern exactly when the destruction of the temple was nearing by the signs and tribulation that preceded it (Mark 13:28-30). Paul astutely deciphered his time and warned the Corinthians against pursuing marriage, knowing what was upon them.

2) This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short (v. 29).

Fee argues that in v. 29 Paul is giving his reason for singleness, and that in it he is explaining what has come before.[16] But what does Paul mean by “the appointed time has grown very short?” Regarding the phrase Garland suggests,

The periphrastic participle…has been taken to mean that the time is “short,” “shortened,” or “compressed”… If it means that the prescribed time “has been shortened” (Weiss 1910:197), then it may reflect the divine shortening of the time until the end for the sake of the elect (cf. Mark 13:20; 2 Pet. 3:12; barn. 4:3).[17]

This phrase, as suggested by Garland, can also be connected with Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse (Mark 13:20). In Mark 13:20, Jesus says, “Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days.” Here we have Jesus describing how God will divinely intercede to shorten the days of persecution for the sake of his elect. Paul was somehow privy to the knowledge that the days in which the Corinthians were living had been “shortened” by God. For Paul, this served to illumine the “appointed time” (v. 29). This same phrase, “appointed time” can be seen further in the Olivet discourse. Jesus warns, “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13:33).
Some may object that within the Olivet discourse we find cataclysmic events that simply could not have taken place during the besiege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But the problem is that the burden of proof is not upon those who advocate a destruction and national judgment application, but rather upon those who do not, seeing that this type of language is used in the Old Testament regularly to express the coming of the Lord to judge nations (Isaiah 19:1-10; Psalm 18:4-15; Joel 2:1-11). In each instance we find within the Old Testament, no scholar would argue that God literally returned, but rather, the language expresses apocalyptic imagery for judgment.

3) For the present form of this world is passing away.

Many commentators will emphatically argue that this phrase implies that the literal earth is passing away, and through this statement we should understand the preceding time texts. Indeed, it may be the case that the present earth is passing away, but that is not the point Paul is making within the context of his argument. What is important to understand is that, for Paul, there is a major covenantal shift taking place. For Paul, the New Covenant had already been inaugurated in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but the Old Covenant had not completely vanished (Hebrews 8:13). This would take place when the covenantal judgment of God would come upon the Jewish nation who rejected the Messiah (John 19:11; Matthew 21:33-45; Matthew 22:1-7; Matthew 23:29-36; Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; 1 Thess. 2:14-16).  Therefore, there is an overlap of the times between the Old and the New, with the Old coming to an end with the destruction of its primary symbol, the temple.

The bible uses a variety of images to signify the establishment of a covenant, as well as the closing of a covenant. One such image is the variety of ways the terminology of “heaven and earth” is used.  This can be seen from several passages (Is. 34:1-4; Is. 51:15,16; Is. 65:17-25; Jer. 4:23-28; Hag. 2:6; 2 Peter 3:3-13; Hebrews 8:13; Heb.  12:25-28). Recounting the establishment of the covenant with Moses, Isaiah says, “And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishingthe heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people” (Is. 51:16). Isaiah associates the making of a covenant with Moses as “establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth.” Why is this significant? It is significant because within this context Paul expresses concern over the “present distress” and claims that the “appointed time has grown very short.” If, as I have shown, that these phrases are to be understood as referring back to the statements Jesus made in the Olivet discourse (Mk 13:20), then it only stands to reason that this last phrase also refers back to the same event.

When commenting upon 2 Peter 3:3-13, and the “present heavens and earth” being burned up, John Owen, the great Puritan theologian says,

On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state…[18]

Likewise, John Lightfoot says regarding the same passage,

(Peter, in the second epistle,) sets forth the destruction of that cursed Nation and their City in those terms that Christ had done, Matt. 24, and that the Scripture doth elsewhere, Deut. 32.22,23.24; Jer. 4.23, namely as the destruction of the whole world, the heavens passing away, the elements melting, and the earth burnt up. And accordingly speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, from Isa. 65.17. a new state of the Church under the Gospel among the Gentiles, when this old world of the Jews state should be dissolved.[19]

Elsewhere Lightfoot states, “The destruction of Jerusalem is phrased in Scripture as the destruction of the whole world.”[20]

Therefore, when Paul states that the present form of this world is passing away, he is making the connection between the present and fast approaching signs and tribulations and the destruction of the temple, which is the passing of the old way, the old heavens and earth (Is. 51:16; Heb. 12:26,27). This same phrase can be found in all three accounts of the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This is simply another way of saying that the Jewish economy will come to an end with the destruction of its symbol (the temple), but his words of life and of the Kingdom will continue throughout the new age to come.

Regarding the language found in Acts 2:19,20 where Peter describes earth shattering cataclysmic events, G. K. Beale says,

If the Old Testament usage of this kind of language is determinative for Peter,           then here also the wording connotes the end of one kingdom and the emergence of another. The kingdom ending is of course, Israel, but this time it is her definitive end. Rome would destroy Jerusalem and her temple in AD             70. Joel’s language of the earth’s destruction in Acts 2 is also appropriate as a          figurative portrayal of the temple’s destruction, since, as we have seen so           often earlier, the temple itself and its parts symbolized the cosmos.[21]

The connection that Beale makes with the language of Acts 2:19,20 is the same connection that should be made with Matthew 24:29-35. In Matthew 24 we are told that the sun will be darkened, the moon will stop giving off its light, and the stars will fall to the earth. This type of language is meant to convey nothing short of the destruction of the heavens and the earth. Yet, within the context of Matthew, the destruction of the temple is in view (Matt. 24:1,2). This explains why Jesus says, “heaven and earth will pass away” (vs. 35). Jesus is not making a statement unrelated to his previous discourse, but rather drawing a connection between the fall of the temple and the fall of the universe. Paul Penley, explains how we should understand the language of “heaven and earth” from Matthew 24:35:

In the context of the eschatological discourse Jesus is answering the disciples’          question about the destruction of the Temple and speaking of events that will affect them and the land of Judea. So we must consider the possibility that            Jesus’ reference to ‘heaven and earth’ that he just promised to pass away             within a generations time may actually fit into the Temple’s destruction          rather than a doomsday scenario that destroys the physical universe. A    number of texts that represent a first century CE Jewish mindset need to be   consulted to determine the plausibility of associating the destruction of          ‘heaven and earth’ with the destruction of the Temple…According to these      sources the Temple represented a microcosm of the universe in Jewish          cosmology.[22]

Therefore, we find in Paul’s three contextual phrases, which are meant to ground his advice, elements that can be traced back to Jesus’ words in the Olivet discourse, which refers to the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:2, 34), and thus indicating the immediate relevance for Paul’s earliest readers.


I think that given the context of Paul’s grounding phrases (vs. 26, 29, 31), we have sufficient reason to understand Paul’s advice as relevant for his immediate context and not as suggested advice to be stretched throughout the church-age. It no more makes sense for us to stretch Paul’s language out then it would for us to stretch Jeremiah’s language out (Jer. 16:1-4). Both instances are unique and come under extreme circumstances. When rightly understood, as any good hermeneutical method would suggest, Paul’s advice could be applied to contemporary contexts as long as the circumstances reflected the conditions under which he wrote to his readers. But, the utilization of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 as marriage advice for each person in any context would deflate the conditions in which Paul wrote and even possibly do harm to our present outlook on marriage. This is certainly something Paul would not have wanted for his distant readers.

[1] Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 328.

[2] Ben Witherington, Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 27-30.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 582.

[4] C. E. B. Cranfield, “The Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Eschatology of Luke-Acts,” SJT 16 (1963), 300-301.

[5] David E. Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2003), 324, 325.

[6] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2010), 336.

[7] Fee, Corinthians, 330.

[8] Fee, Corinthians, 329.

[9] Ibid., 335.

[10] Paul Barnett, First Corinthians (Scottland: Christian Focus, 2002), 124.

[11] Ciampa and Rosner, First Corinthians, 328.

[12] Fee, Corinthians, 328.

[13] This same point can be seen in 1 Corinthians 3:22, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours.” Notice again how Paul contrasts the “present” with the “future.”

[14] Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: First Corinthians (Downers Groove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 115.

[15] These same themes are seen within other literature as well. 3 Macc. 1:16, 19, 20 utilizes the Greek expression found in 1 Corinthians 7:26, te enestose ananke (Present distess). Within this passage we find a description of the desecration of the temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes: “Then the priests in all their vestments prostrated themselves and entreated the Supreme God to aid in the present situation [variant: ‘the present crisis’] and to avert the violence of this evil design, and they filled the temple with cries and tears…Those women who had recently been arrayed for marriage abandoned the bridal chambers prepared for wedding union, and, neglecting proper modesty, in a disorderly rush flocked together in the city. Mothers and nurses abandoned even newborn children here and there, some in houses and some in the streets, and without a backward look they crowded together at the most high temple.”

[16] Fee, Corinthians, 334,335.

[17] Garland, First Corinthians, 328.

[18] John Owens, Works of John Owen, Vol. 9 (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Publishing, 1966), 134.

[19] John Lightfoot, The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot: Vol. 1 (London: Cambridge, 2010), 338.

[20] John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (London: J. F. Dove, 1825), 141.

                [21]  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 214.

            [22] Paul Penley, The Common Tradition Behind Synoptic Sayings of Judgment and John’s Apocalypse (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), p. 102,103.


Grace, Generosity, and Equality.

Two men stand at the border of the province of Macedonia. Years have passed since this missionary and his companion have visited this area. As they gaze across the land, memories of the first time God called them to this place play on the screens of their minds. Many people had turned to Jesus then, but it came with angry mobs and nights in prison.

Come to think of it, the past few years had been filled with ups and downs too. Beautiful births, rampaging mobs, growing saints, disappointments and lonely, cold nights have filled their church planting journeys. Yet they pushed on, heralding the good news, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, to anyone who would listen.

But now, on this visit, a burden is weighing on their shoulders. It is inextricable from their gospel message. It rings in their minds as an echo of the voice of an elder from home, now far away, saying, “Remember the poor.” How could they forget the poor at home? Even if they are a thousand miles away across the Mediterranean Sea, their images are seared in their minds like the outline left after glowing metal is pressed in to flesh. The wheat fields are scorched and barren. There is no baker’s bread cooling in the morning air. Women, whose husbands died many

days ago, are left barren in womb and in food. Through the streets they stagger under their loads, like dead sticks bending under the weight of sand bags. The cry of parentless children never leaves them. Under nourished, under grown, their bones look to tear through their thin skin. How could they forget the poor?

So church after church, Paul and Timothy have encouraged believers to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. They have appealed to them to extend a hand of kindness to their distant family.

But not this time, as they stand on the borders of this province, how can they ask them this time? Fearful news reaches the two missionaries: The fines given by insecure Gentile rulers and ostracism from jealous Jews are taking a toll on the Macedonian churches. There is no baker’s bread cooling in the morning air at the Macedonian church.  How can they ask them?

With this weight on their shoulders, the two missionaries head west, over the border, into the province of Macedonia. Down the dusty road, the pair makes its way to the city of Philippi. Here the pair is welcomed by the church and news is shared among them. Paul listens as they tell of their hardships. Their gaunt faces tell the tale of hunger. Yet even in this depth of poverty, they have an abundance of joy!

Eventually, the topic of home comes up. An elder asks, “How are our brothers and sisters doing in Jerusalem?” Paul tells them everything about the plight that the famine had brought on the church, especially to the widows and orphans. But he does not ask them to help. Suddenly, the elder takes Paul’s hands and begs him, “Please let us have the grace of taking part in the relief of the saints! They have given us the overflowing wealth and spiritual blessings of the Gospel; how can we not serve them with our material blessings?” Before Paul can say anything, the Christians begin to empty small bags of coins into his hands! They are small bags, for they are poor people. This is all they have to live on! From the deep pit of their poverty and their abundant joy, the Philippians overflow in a wealth of generosity; giving even beyond their means!

But this is only the beginning! With one last word of encouragement, Paul and Timothy head to Thessalonica and then Berea and throughout Macedonia and the same thing that happened in Philippi happens throughout the whole province. The Macedonians’ deep poverty and abundant joy overflows into a wealth of generosity! The grace of God has been given to the Macedonians!

After a few days, Paul and Timothy decide to write a letter to Corinth. The Church there has struggled over the years. They never seem to understand the glory of suffering for Christ or that prestige in God’s eyes is not found in wealth. Paul has appealed to them for the sake of the poor in Jerusalem as well, but the Corinthians’ giving is stalled. Suddenly, an idea pops into his mind. “Maybe this story of the Macedonians generosity can spur on the Corinthians to resume giving to Jerusalem.” So Paul includes it in a letter, carried by Titus, hoping that this story of the Macedonians will stir up the same grace in the hearts of the Corinthians.

 How has this story stirred your heart?  Does your heart, filled with the Holy Spirit, resonate with this grace of God?  Do you wonder at their overflow of wealth from deep poverty? Do you wonder at what could cause such generosity? Paul makes it clear what our desire should be after hearing this story. Look at verse 7.

“But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us – see that you excel in this act of grace also.”

Brothers and sisters, as beloved children in the Kingdom of God, be generous. Excel in giving all you can to the poor. Overflow in this gracious act of generosity.

But maybe you find it hard to be generous, like the Corinthians. And in your mind you are asking, “Why should we be generous?” “What made Macedonians so generous?”  “Is God commanding us to be generous?” “Is He forcing us to give?” Today you will not hear a simple command to follow. We are not called to simply follow a moral code. This is not a rote ritual!  Paul makes this clear in verse 8:

“I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.”

The example of the Macedonians is to test us. It is to prove us. It is to hammer us like the forgers hammer. Banging at us to show what we truly are. As the hammer of the Macedonian’s story falls on us, those filled with true love, the love of Jesus, will emit the grace of generosity. This generosity will overflow out of us because it is the same grace that flowed out of Jesus himself. Look at verse 9:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

In my imagination, I see Jesus standing in his pre-incarnate glory in heaven. All around him are millions and millions of angles, lit up like flaming torches. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty! They sing for eternity. Every shadow is driven away by the light from the glory of the Father! The power of the Holy Spirit fills and gives life to everything.

And Jesus stands in the middle of it all. His clothes shine whiter than the brightest light of the sun. His face flashes like bolts of lightning. His eyes burn like flames of fire. His skin shines, reflecting the light like polished brass. And his voice sounds like the shout of a million voices; like the deafening roar of a waterfall. He is rich in glory!

But for our sake, he becomes poor. From the riches of glory, I see Jesus descending into the corridors of history; born into the poverty of a naked baby. He experiences the temptations of Satan. He feels the realities of starvation, thirst and exhaustion. He has no place to live and no bed to sleep in. He is poor.

His family disowns him. His community rejects him. His enemies hate him. His friends betray him. He is poor.

Kings mock him with a crown of thorns and a purple robe. Soldiers hit him with a rod and tear out his beard. Blow after blow, they punch him in the face saying, “Prophesy who hit you!” though he is blindfolded.  He is whipped 39 times and carries his own cross. Three nails hold him to it and a spear is shoved in his side. And then he dies. He became poor!

So that we through his poverty, we might become rich. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, our generosity should be driven by God’s grace (v. 8-9). If we are filled with the genuine love of Jesus, born again by the Holy Spirit, citizens of the Kingdom of God, we will overflow in the grace of generosity.

Perhaps though, this example stirs up more questions in your mind. “What is an acceptable amount to give?” The Macedonians gave beyond their means and we can barely comprehend Jesus’ gift so, “How can we give something that is acceptable?”


These questions also came up in the minds of the Corinthians, but not out of their genuine desire to grow. Being wealthy like us, their culture measured prestige in hoarded wealth. Because of this they struggled with giving away their money. But Paul knew that a year ago the grace of God gave the Corinthians the desire to give to the poor saints in Jerusalem. They committed to it and even began to set money aside. But then the Corinthians delayed giving their gift. False teachers had crept into the church. They appealed to their desire to hoard money. They said, “It is fine to keep your money.” And out of spite for Paul, they spread lies saying, “Paul only wants you to give so he can steal from the gift!” So Paul urges the Corinthians in v. 10-12 to finish what they had committed to do. He also explains to us what an acceptable amount to give is. Look at verse 10-12:

“An in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year go started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”

The acceptable amount to give is the amount that is given from what we have and backed by a true desire to give. God has not laid out a fixed amount for us to give. Any fixed standard would either:

(A) – Make it impossible for the poor to give an acceptable gift because they would be unable to pay the amount

  • or

(B) – Allow those who could afford it to deceive themselves into thinking a gift back by no genuine desire, a lifeless ritual, could earn God’s favor. Instead, God looks for true generosity driven by His grace and done in proportion to what we have! It is about genuine desire and sacrifice, not about amount!


One woman knows the grace of generosity. Living in Rwanda, Africa, she is HIV positive. Abandoned by her husband, she is a widow and her two children cry for her to feed them. Infected, alone and in poverty, shame has curled her head down into despair and hopelessness. “There is no way out” she thinks.

But one day, Pastor Tertullien Nsabimana sees Maria at the back of his church. Pressed against the back wall, she won’t even look up to the front of the church because of her shame. The Pastor eventually convinces her to join a discipleship group, and by the grace of God she turns to Christ. As God takes away Maria’s shame, she begins to understand she is a child of the Kingdom. Through the help of other believers she learns to earn money and saves enough to buy goats, land and things she needs.

As the December celebration of God’s Blessing approaches, Maria desires to give something to God. But what can she give? She doesn’t have any money. So she gives the biggest pumpkin in her garden. As the church sees her lay her offering, people are inspired to give even more! People join in the celebration and Maria’s pumpkin ends up inspiring the largest offering ever given in this Rwandan church: $1300!

As children of God’s kingdom, excel in the grace of sacrificial generosity. Our generosity should be proportionately sacrificial (v.10-12). Our giving is acceptable if it is sacrificial in proportion to what we have.

After all this, we may still have another objection to this generosity. The Corinthians did. “Does God want us to make ourselves poor so that others can be rich?” “Does He want others to sit in ease on our hard earned money while we are driven into a deep pit of poverty?” God answers us in verse 13-14:

“For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.”

The goal is not to ease others and cause ourselves to suffer. The goal is equality. When we see the poor in need, we should give generously to them. Then when the roles are reversed and we are poor, they will give to us. This will bring equality.

Do you think this is really God’s way? Does God really desire fairness? Does he really, dare we say it, desire equality? Yes! This has been God’s way since the beginning! In the Kingdom of God there is equality! Even in God’s dealings with the Israelites this is proven true!  God desires equality among his people! Look with me at verse 15.[Paul says there should be equality,] “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.’” (Ex. 16:18)


This statement comes from Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. The people, sleepy eyed and yawing, poke their heads out of their tents. The sun is just beginning to peak over the eastern horizon. As their eyes clear, they notice there is something covering the face of the wilderness. A fine, flaky thing, like the first frost that whispers of winter. “What is it?” they whisper to each other. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” says Moses, “in response to your complaining.” The Lord had commanded the day before each person could collect one omer or 2 liters each day, but no more.

So, the people remembering the word of the Lord begin to gather the manna. Some gather more and some gather less. Miraculously, those who collect a lot find there is nothing left over after everyone in their tent has eaten an omer. Those who only collect a little never have too little. Everyone’s needs are met.

As the people finish eating, Moses says to them, “Do not leave any of it till the morning.” But they do not listen to Moses. Without him knowing, some of the people hoard a little extra manna for later. The next morning, as the hoarders open the lid of their jars, the extra bread is full of little worms and its smell fills the air with rot.

God ensured that greed would not raise its ugly head in Israel. He ensured that each person got what they needed by limiting the manna of those who collected much and by increasing the little that others had. God reached out his hand and stuck all the hoarded manna so that it rotted! He enforced this equality among the Israelites.

Today, God calls us to equality. It does not mean that everyone will have the same but it does mean that in the Kingdom each person is to get what they need. It is ok for the rich to dwell with the poor, but it is not ok for the rich to dwell with the starving. God moves by the power of His grace to cause us to create this equality through our generosity. We are free to give as we choose, but remember that hoarding will have its consequences. Treasure hoarded here on earth, will not give us treasure in heaven. It will leave a bug-infested, rotting mess before the eyes of God.

Brothers and sisters let God’s grace drive your generosity until you see the equality of the Kingdom in your “Jerusalems.” Seek this equality of the Kingdom of God by excelling in the grace of generosity. (v.13-15).  


Far across the oceans, above the rippling waves

We hear the call of people, formerly called slaves.

Darkness had called them, its chains held them tight

Like ropes hung on the gallows, death was the end in sight.

But light has burst upon them, and life has set them free.

Christ left his glory in heaven, and died on Calvary

From unknown heights of riches, He descended to our world.

Poverty was his companion, among the poor he dwelt.

But through his destitution, He has given us wealth.

His cross has brought forgiveness; in his stripes we find health.

His grace overflowed upon us, like a mighty rolling sea

He has given us redemption, and taken our poverty

So now we hear the Haitians call, Japan is close behind

People made in God’s image, people loved by the divine

Many are our brothers, in communion we are joined

They also are our sisters, by God’s grace reborn.

But Sin has raised its ugly head; the curse still stands as strong.

We see their endless suffering, and we ask God, “How long?

There is no baker’s bread today; it’s not cooling in the morning

And their husbands are dead, as wives sit in mourning

Fatherless children search for food, their hunger calling in the night

While evil men kill and steal, questing for power and might

But in God’s kingdom there is hope, the just and righteous stand

We make up its citizens, and God’s grace is in our hand

Will you seek equality, through giving what is not your own?

Generosity seeking equality, that we will make our own!

A Debate on Acts 2 usage of Joel 2.

This is an outline I used for debate I had in my senior seminar class.  We debated on the usage of Joel 2 by Peter in Acts 2.  Obviously I argued from a Reformed viewpoint and my friends argued for the Dispensational viewpoint. One from a classical and the other from a progressive viewpoint.

What are your thoughts on this passage?

Stephen M. Willcox


CPO# 1501


Debate:  Acts 2 Peter’s usage of Joel 2:28-32a:  Inaugurated Covenantal View

Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection a monumental event took place.  Theologians refer to it as Pentecost, the day in which God poured out His Spirit on all members of the church.  However, many scholars argue on the meaning of this event.  Some see this as a fulfillment of Joel 2 while others see it as a type of what God has in-store for Israel in the Millennial Kingdom, and still others see this event as a partial fulfillment with a greater or full fulfillment yet to come.  This outline will argue that what took place in Acts 2 “is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2:16 ESV italics added for emphasis).

  1. I. Proof from the grammar for an inaugurated view

  1. The grammar in Acts 2:16 is unambiguous to what Peter means when he defends positively what is taking place.  All scholars agree on the interpretation and translation of this portion of scripture.  The NIV, NASB, KJV, ESV, NLT all translate this passage nearly identically.  Something huge takes place in Acts 2, many are curious to what is happening and some are accusing them of being drunk, this calls for Peter to give a response in which he negatively argues that they could not be drunk for it is too early.  And positively he states that this event “is what” was prophesied to take place by the prophet Joel.  The grammar really gives no basis for Peter intending for his audience to understand that he did not really mean “this is what” but rather “this is like what”.

B.  This grammatical structure is similar to what was used in the Dead Sea        Scrolls known as “pesher”.  The structure was used to state “this” is         “that.”  So grammatically speaking it makes the most exegetical sense to    understand what Peter was saying is that Pentecost is the bringing in of the       age that is found in Joel 2:28-32a.

II.  Proof from the immediate context

A.  In addition to the grammar teaching that “this,” Acts 2, is “what” Joel was speaking of, Peter seems to make some changes to clarify what he means that this event is what Joel was speaking of.  The phrase, “and in the last days” is a change Peter makes from Joel where he states, “and afterwards…”  In other words, Peter clarifies that Joel’s prophecy of the pouring out of the Spirit and the signs to be seen are not a single event but rather an age to come and fulfilled in a process.

So we see that pouring out of the Spirit on “all flesh” being fulfilled not only in Acts 2 but also in Acts 10 where the Spirit is poured out on Gentiles for the first time. Luke also records the visions and prophecies being fulfilled in the rest of the book.

B.  We must not forget that Acts is volume two of Luke’s Gospel in which he records the heavenly signs that are spoken of by the prophet Joel to take place “before” the “great and magnificent day” at the crucifixion of Jesus.    So we have in the immediate context of this work by Luke all of the signs spoken of by Joel taking place in Luke’s works recorded.

  1. II. Proof from the big picture

  1. A. All four gospels including Luke/Acts are building on a foundation of Messianic prophecies that speak of being fulfilled with the Advent of Christ.  Some of the prophecies include: A son of David reigning, a new kingdom, deliverance, and restoration to YEHWEH through a New Covenant.  This is also the setting for which Joel 2 is written.  The events coincide masterfully.  In fact, it is in Luke’s Gospel that the New Covenant is introduced being in Jesus’ blood.  This Covenant was the covenant made by YEHWEH to Israel that would bring in a new age that would be greater than the one brought in the Mosaic Covenant.

B. It is important to note the Apostles are all Jews

IV. Conclusions

V.   Rebuttal against the symbolic view

The Key Role and Necessity of Suffering in the Life of the Believer! (A Commentary of 2 Corinthians 4:7-12)


After many hours of study, I am amazed that I was unable to unearth what I believe to be a crucial part of Paul’s whole point of 2 Corinthians. In fact, if seems all the pieces are there, but no one has taken the time to connect the dots. It is accurate to believe that a major theme in Paul’s second (or third depending on who’s counting) epistle to Corinth is to defend his apostleship.

It is also true that Paul is putting forth a solid cohesive display of the New Covenant. However, I have found little satisfaction on how Paul sees exulting in his weaknesses and suffering are linked to these two previous statements. In fact most Bible Dictionaries spend most of their time trying to solve the problem of evil when covering the issue of suffering.[1] This is staggering since this does not seem to be the point of Scripture when it speaks of suffering.

It is the goal of this paper to show that Paul sees the New Covenant manifested like Moses face coming down Mt. Sinai (and greater yet) by proclamation and suffering. The majority of exegesis will take place in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. However, to make a valid case for this thesis, I need to do some background information on 2 Corinthians 3-4:6.


In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul clearly has to deal with false teachers who are causing dissension in the church. These false teachers were challenging the validity of Paul’s ministry because he was not what they or the world expected of a great leader. He was not much to look at. He was late in the Apostleship game. He was not much of an orator. And the worst of it all, Paul was constantly suffering. The false teachers exposed these things in an attempt to deface Paul and what he had accomplished. Their hopes were to gain the authority that Paul had.

This led Paul into a defense of himself and his ministry. Paul saw the two as inseparable. In order to defend one he would need to defend both. Paul begins with himself and moves into an explanation of this great ministry which is the New Covenant.

Paul compares his ministry (the New Covenant) to the ministry of Moses and states that his “far exceed(s)[2]” it. The Old Covenant was temporal the New Covenant is eternal. The glory of the New was surpassing the fading glory of the Old Covenant. The old killed; the New gave life. The Old condemned; the New Covenant produced righteousness. And finally, the Old was veiled, but the New Covenant was unveiled.

In the concluding verses of chapter 3 Paul states that “all” Christians are ministers of the New Covenant much like Moses was of the Old[3]. However, Moses had a veil over his face covering the glory, but the Christians faces are “unveiled.”

The beholding of the glory of the covenant results in transformation. All those who behold the glory of God are changed from one degree of glory to another. In others words, Paul has in mind in this text the means of sanctification[4].

In chapter 4:4 Paul states that it is Jesus Christ’s glory that is being displayed in the New Covenant. Paul states that Satan strives to blind men’s minds from seeing this glory, because he knows what will happen (see 3:18). So Jesus Christ is the focal point of the New Covenant, and it is His glory that has transforming power.

In verse 5, Paul states that this is why he proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord. He doesn’t tamper with the word of God nor does he attempt to be cunning. He strives to be clear and sincere. “Why?” because the glory of God is composed of knowledge. We see this in verse 6. God shines His glory in our blinded/veiled hearts to give knowledge. So, Paul believes it is necessary to speak, in order to display the glory of Jesus Christ. Paul is convinced that proclaiming the message is essential to being a minister of the New Covenant.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay

Paul then moves onto a contrast. There is an immeasurable treasure but it is placed in jars of clay. The treasure is referencing the gospel or the New Covenant that was just seen the previous verses[5]. The jars of clay represent all believers[6]. Paul could not be any clearer. He chooses the most unique, precious, valuable thing-the gospel-and places it in the most common, mundane, cheap, worthless thing-jars of clay[7].

[T]o show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. The previous contrast is necessary for one major reason. This is the first of four of Paul’s purpose clauses[8]. God, by placing the treasure in jars of clay, will receive all glory for the “surpassing power.” In other words, when Paul would normally give up and does not the power of God is magnified[9]. Now it is important to point out at this point, Paul has yet to explain how the glory of the New Covenant is put on display. In the Old Covenant everyone could see the glory of it on display from Moses’ face. In 3:18 Paul tells us that we are like Moses only with “unveiled faces” displaying the glory of the New Covenant.


But he has yet to state how it is manifested. In the dispensation of the Law people heard the law and the glory/power of it was manifested on Moses’ face. In the New Covenant people hear the gospel but how is the glory/power of the New Covenant manifested?

This is where my research hit a wall. Of all the commentaries read, none of them speak upon this issue. They are all silent. And yet the text screams it! Look at all of these visual words speaking of the glory/power of the New Covenant put on display here in chapter 4:7-11: “to show” (vs.7), “manifested” (vs. 10), “bodies” (vs. 10), “manifested” (vs. 11), “mortal flesh” (vs.11).

Also, notice what is being manifested in verses 7-11: “surpassing power” (vs.7), “the death of Jesus” (vs.10), “the life of Jesus” (vs.10), “the life of Jesus” (vs.11). Now 4:4,6 state that the “light of the gospel” is Jesus Christ. Luke 22:20 tells us that the New Covenant was established on the cross at the death of Jesus. Paul also points out that the resurrection of Christ is essential to the Christian faith (I Corinthians 15). And here in 4:7-11 Paul states that the power/glory of Jesus’ death (cross) and life (resurrection) are “manifested” in the perseverance of the suffering saint.

Can the apostle Paul be any more obvious that the unveiling of the glory of the New Covenant is shown through the suffering of the saints? This is why Paul boasts in his weaknesses. In doing so he puts the power of gospel on display[10]. This is what it means to be a minister of the New Covenant. Paul links suffering so close to being a true minister that to not is to negate your claim to being a minister! This is Paul’s response to those false teachers. And this argument shut them up!

In 4:1-6 Paul’s point was to expose that a true minister of the New Covenant does not alter the message, but proclaims it clearly. “But we have renounced disgraceful underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word.” This is the first true credential to being a true minister of the New Covenant. That is, proclaiming the unadulterated gospel is essential to being a minister of God. In 4:7-12 Paul explains the second was persevering suffering, so that the power of God may be made known in our weakness.

The false teachers’s came along and were mocking Paul’s stature, speech ability, and suffering. Paul’s response was; my stature and inability display the competence of God in me. My suffering, yet never quitting, manifests the power of God in me. And my lack of rhetoric reveals the glory of Jesus Christ in me! This is what causes Paul to go back to the Psalms and quote Psalm 116, in which the psalmist states, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints (vs. 15).” For there is no greater way to manifest the power and glory of God than to take cheap, breakable pots and have then slammed against a brick wall and they not be “crushed.[11]” Such a display requires there to be a God.

So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Remember that Paul states that sanctification is the result of beholding the glory of Jesus Christ. Because the glory of Jesus Christ is manifested two-fold: the proclamation of the gospel and the life of a suffering saint, The church in Corinth had been experiencing life as a result of Paul’s proclaiming and suffering for the gospel[12]. However, the principle goes far beyond just the Apostle Paul’s life. This two-fold revelation functions this way for all ministers. And so, it is true for all ministers that when they proclaim and suffer for the gospel the church is sanctified. This is why Paul references “suffering” over 60 times[13].


Christians should not be discouraged if they have what seem to be weaknesses. Perhaps a Christian may have turrets, or A.D.D. Maybe the Christians stutters or is physically handicap. All of these are often used today to explain why we should expect less from one. However, Paul taught that these weaknesses were opportunities to display the power of God.

What is often referenced as a low self-esteem is Biblically what Paul would call unbelief in the power of God. That type of thinking has man at the center and God purposes and plans crippled as much as the tool He desires to use. But God has chosen “jars of clay” for this very reason to display His surpassing power!


In response to the false teachers in Corinth, Paul explains to the church what a true minister of the New Covenant is. By doing so, Paul authenticates his apostleship and defends the gospel for which he suffers. The application is clear for the church as well. They are to continue to clearly and sincerely proclaim the gospel and respond to suffering with joy. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you to stand firm in your faith.” (2 Corinthians 1:24).

[1] Frances Young, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden, (Philladelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1983) pg. 555.

[2] ESV Bible, (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2001), 2 Corinthians 3:8.

[3] Murray J. Harris, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Second Epistle to Corinth, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005) pg. 313.

[4] W. Harold mare and Murray J. Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: with New International Version, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995) pg. 166.

[5] R.V.G. Tasker, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983) pg. 72.

[6] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians, ed. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academics, 1997) pg. 146.

[7] Colin Kruse, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Inter-Varsity Press,1987) pg. 106.

[8] Jan Lambrecht, S.J., SACRA PAGINA: 2 Corinthians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington and Jan Lambrecht S.J., (Collegeville, MN.: The Liturgical Press, 1999) pg. 72.

[9] Linda L. Belleville, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, vol. 8., ed. Grant R. Osborne, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996) pg. 122-123.

[10] Paul Barnett, The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of 2 Corinthians, ed. John R.W. Stott, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988) pg. 87.

[11] Frank J. Matera, The New Testament Library: 2 Corinthians, (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) pg. 109.

[12] Paul Barnett, The New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) pg. 237.

[13] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993) pg. 919.

The Holiness of God

***This post is a summary of  “The Holiness of God” by R.C. Sproul***

In the following paragraphs I will be presenting the Reformed outlook on the holiness of God.  First, I will show how God is wholly other than us.  Second, I will define holiness and the fear we do and should have of the holiness of God.  Third, I will demonstrate the holy justice of God.

As I began studying this subject of the holiness of God, I realized how profoundly essential it is not only for the believer to understand the holiness of God but also the unbeliever.  The appropriate understanding of the holiness of God will forever shape the approach a man takes in living his life.  It seems to be an unpopular teaching in contemporary evangelical churches and virtually detested in liberal churches.  The suggestion of a God that is holy simply scares people.

It is always a heartrending time when a homeland loses its leader.  There is a sense of soberness.  People often feel like lost sheep when their shepherd dies.  It says in Isaiah 6:1, “ In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.”   King Uzziah died.  Every leader that has ever walked this earth already has or will die.  But Isaiah the prophet sees the “Lord” sitting on His throne.  God is wholly other than all other things.  First, notice that God is eternal.  There never was a time when God was not.  Before all created things God was existent and glorifying Himself and fellowshipping with Himself in eternity past.  And God will always be.  There will never be a time when God is not.  He is the Great “ I Am”.  He was who He is, and He is who He is, and He will be forever who He is.  There is no changing in God.  God is forever Righteous.  God is forever just.  God is forever loving.  God is forever merciful and so on.  It says that Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on His throne.  God is not at a loss because King Uzziah, one of the greatest of the kings of Israel, was dead.  God is not frantically trying to figure out what He is going to do.  He is found sitting on His throne.  Observe what it says about the train of His robe.  The passage says that it was “filling” the “temple”.  Now the world has had some significantly prosperous kings, but not of them was it ever said that the train of their robes could fill a temple.  And His throne is said to be “lofty” and “exalted”.  God is not merely a super-human, or some kind of Greek god like Zeus.  He is the King of Kings and the LORD or Lords.  His throne is the Highest of all thrones.  Indeed He is “exalted”.  It is He who places all other thrones in their place.  Hence, He is so holy that no man can ever see His face lest the man die.  Isaiah is granted a moment where he can see the Lord sitting on a throne and just His train fills the temple.  Imagine the magnificence of a being so mighty that His train could be so glorious.  Later in Isaiah it says that there are “seraphim” who are there simply to worship Him and serve Him day and night.  But notice in Isaiah 6:2 is says, “seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.”  Why do these seraphim have six wings—why not two?  When the Almighty creates a being, He does so, that it fills its purpose.  And so it is necessary for these seraphim to cover there faces with two wings.

The seraphim are not sinful humans burdened with impure hearts.  Yet as angelic beings, they are still creatures, and even in their lofty status as consorts of the heavenly host it is necessary for them to shield their eyes from the direct gaze on the face of God.  They are fearfully and wonderfully made, equipped by their Creator with a special pair of wings to cover their faces in His majestic presence.[1]

But why an extra set of wings for the feet?   Why would an angel need to cover its feet before the Almighty God?  The answer is in the following verse, in Isaiah 6:3 it says, “And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’”  This God that Isaiah saw was so Holy that the angel cried out to another that He is Holy, Holy, Holy.  But why would this angel bellow it out three times?  Did this angel struggle with some type of stuttering problem?  Was he just trying to fill dead air time?  Was the angel running short on lyrics to sing so he just determined to say Holy a bunch of times?  What could this possibly mean?

The significance of the repetition of the word holy can be easily missed.  It represents a peculiar literary device that is found in Hebrew forms of literature, especially in poetry.  The repetition is a form of emphasis.  When we want to emphasize the importance of something in English, we have several devices from which to choose.  We may underline the important words or print them in italics or boldface type.  We may attach an exclamation point following the words or set them off in quotation marks.  These are all devices to call the reader’s attention to something that is especially important.

The Old Testament Jew also had different techniques to indicate emphasis.  One such device was the method of repetition.  We see Jesus’ use of repetition with the words “Truly, truly, I say to you” (NASB).  Here double the use of truly was a sign that what He was about to say was of crucial importance.  The word translated “truly” is the ancient word amen.  We normally think of the word amen as something people say at the end of a sermon or of a prayer.  It means simply, “It is true.”  Jesus used it as a preface instead of a response.[2]

Can you see the significance of why these angels had a whole additional set of wings to cover their feet?  R.C. Sproul comments on why the feet, and says, that feet were associated with “creatureliness in the exalted presence of God.”  This is similar to the experience Moses had when he encountered God in the form of a burning bush.  God commanded Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:2-5).

This brings us back to the important message of the angels’ triasgion, which means “three times holy”.[3] None of God’s other attributes are expressed to the third time.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say God is “love, love, love” or that God is “mercy, mercy, mercy,” or that God is “wrath, wrath, wrath.”  But here when Isaiah is revealed an image of God in His temple, the angels cry out that God is “holy, holy, holy.”

On a handful of occasions, the Bible repeats something to the third degree.  To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree, attach to it certain importance.  For example, the dreadful judgment of God is declared in the book of Revelation by the eagle who cried out in midair with a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe! To the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 8:13) or we hear it in the mocking sarcasm of Jeremiah’s temple speech when he chided the people for calling out in hypocrisy, “This is the temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 7:4)[4]

Understanding the holiness of the Lord is crucial for the Christian and non-Christian.  When one does not understand the holiness of God then the respect is no longer there for an almighty, wholly other than being.  The desire, the proper desire, and chief end of man no longer comes naturally.  For the unbeliever the holiness of God should terrorize him to repentance.  This is what we see when Jonathan Edwards, in the time of the Great Awakening, spoke of the holiness of God in the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.  For the believer, understanding the holiness of God will drive him to be sober minded, repentant, and thankful for the mercy and grace of God that has been shown to him.

And speaking of God being wholly other than us, it sets the stage for us to look at what it means for God to be holy, as well as explain why all creation should fear Him.  Holiness could be described as purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect, and immaculate in every detail.

The primary meaning of holy is “separate”.  It comes from an ancient word that means “to cut” or “to separate”.  To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase “a cut apart”.  Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase “a cut above something”.  When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is “a cut above the rest”.

God’s holiness is more than just separateness.  His holiness is also transcendent, the word transcended means literally “to climb across”. It is defined as “exceeding usually limits”.  To transcend is to rise above something, to go above and beyond a certain limit.  When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes his supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world.  He is higher than the world; he has absolute power over the world.  The world has no power over him. Transcendence describes God in his consuming majesty, his exalted loftiness.  It points to the infinite distance that separates him from every creature.  He is an infinite cut above everything else.

This is why the holiness of God drives one to worship Him.  He is the very essence of what beauty is.  There is none other like God.  He is unique.  He is the perfect conglomeration of all that is good and pure.  All creation desires to worship something, they seek to find that which is most glorious, precious, beautiful, and pure and worship it.  However, since the fall of man, his view of what is good has been tainted.  We were created to worship Him and to enjoy Him.

When God made man in His own image and then formed woman out of the side of man also in the image of God, He did so for His glory.  The purpose of man was to then worship God in the Garden of Eden.  When mankind fell in Genesis 3 something shameful happened.  Man and woman both became unclean.  There was now shame where there was no shame.  The holiness of God no longer drove man to worship God but rather to run from Him.  The idea of a being without fault revealed the inadequacy of them.

The result of sin was a sense of shame and fear.  The aprons of “fig leaves” speak of man’s attempt to save himself by a bloodless religion of good works.  When called to account to God, sinners excuse themselves.  Adam said, “The woman you gave to be with me. . .” as if blaming God (see Pro.19:3). Eve said, “the serpent. . .” (v. 13).[5]

Man also knew the result of his sin, “death” (Rom. 3:23).  Adam was told the “day” he ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of “good and evil” he would “die”.  We will discuss this passage in more detail when we get to the topic of holy justice.  Since this time man has naturally been enemies with God.  R.C. Sproul says that if God were to make Himself vulnerable to death and to us at any moment we would kill Him.  This is a pretty accurate guess being that this is exactly what man did with Jesus.  Jesus also is Holy in the same sense that God the Father is Holy.  Man has, since the fall, graded what is good and what is righteous not by God’s standards but on a curve.  God’s holiness throws the curve off a little too much for comfort.  God’s holiness reminds us of our inadequacy and our penalty for it.  The Bible puts it like this, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23).

When we take a look at all the times man encounters God in glory, often his immediate reaction is a realization of God’s holiness and his own deficiencies.  Whether it be Moses before the burning bush in Exodus, or Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 where he cries out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!”  in all cases man’s response is the same.

Another common response man has when encountering God and His holiness is fear.  In Mark 4:35- 41 we have the story of Jesus calming the sea.  The response of the disciples is quite fascinating.  The disciples and Jesus were out at sea in an attempt to get over to the other side (no joke intended here).  While at sea, a “fierce gale of wind” rose upon them.  But all the while Jesus is sound asleep in this boat on the stern.  The storm was so intense that the text says that the boat was beginning to fill up.  The disciples go to Jesus saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Judging by this statement it is fairly safe to say that the disciples were terrified.  Jesus rises from his sleep and rebukes the wind saying, “Hush, be still.”  The wind dies down and the passage says it became “perfectly calm.”  Jesus then rebukes them for fearing and for their lack of faith.  But here is where the text says something very intriguing. Mark 4: 41 says, “They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him.’”

When the storm was roaring and they thought they were going to lose they lives,  Jesus rebukes them for being afraid or cowardly.  But after Jesus removes the problem and their lives are no longer in threat then they become “very much afraid”.  Why would the disciples become even more afraid after they see a man perform this miracle?

What is significant about this scriptural story is that the disciples fear increased after the threat of the storm was removed.  The storm had made them afraid, Jesus’ actions to still the tempest made them more afraid.  In the power of Christ, they met something more frightening than they had ever met in nature. They were in the presence of the holy…Why would the disciples invent a God whose holiness was more terrifying than the forces of nature that provoked them to invent a god in the first place?  We can understand it if the people invented an unholy god, a god who brought only comfort.  But why a god more scary than the earthquakes, flood, or disease?  It is one thing to fall victim to the flood, or to fall prey to cancer.  It is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God.[6]

It is obvious that men do not find solace in their inadequacy before a holy, just God.

So what is God’s holy justice? What does it mean to us for God to be both holy and just? John Calvin said,

Hence, that dread and amazement with which, as scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God….Men are never dully touched and impressed with the conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.[7]

Let’s go back to Genesis, to the creation and fall of man.  After God created Adam and Eve in His image, they sinned against Him and ate the fruit that God commanded Adam not to eat.  The result of this act was to be their death on that very “day”.  Why did Adam and Eve not die that very day?  The answer is the God in the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament.  The difference is the hope from God is revealed in the New Testament. God was showing Adam and Eve mercy from the start of the fall of man.

We see again in Romans that the wages of sin is death.  God gave Adam and Eve time to repent of their sin and to look forward to the promised seed in Genesis 3:16.  Every man from that day is conceived in sin and born as an enemy of God.  God is great in mercy.  All men are shown mercy when they do not die the moment they are conceived.  God does not owe any man anything.  We see that God chooses continually throughout scripture to give His people time to repent and turn away from their sins and to fear and obey Him.  Psalms 147:10-11 says, “He does not delight in the strength of the horse.  He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man.  The LORD favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.”

Should God have acted merely with His Holy justice man would no longer exist.  This is what Jonathan Edwards was communicating in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  God is so holy that He will not permit wickedness, sin, uncleanness, before His presence.  Mankind has become so acquainted with the mercy of God that they have forgotten about the holy justice of God.  Man has forgotten that God destroyed the earth and all of humankind through a flood, except for a small remnant.  We have become so accustomed to God’s mercy that when God does show us His holy justice, we act in utter shock.  Such instances are cases like Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant, the ordering from God to kill off seven nations: men, women, and children, Ananias and Sapphira, and even the capitol punishment required for many sins by Mosaic Law.

Now some of these passages are dealing with something more than just the holy justice of God.  However, all of them still deal with the holy justice of God.  In short, these passages are places in scripture that most wrestle with and struggle with and can not understand why God would be so “cruel” or “unloving”.  Some even argue that the God in the Old Testament is different from the God we read about in the New Testament.  This is a result from a lack of understanding God’s holy justice.  What is happening in these rare passages is what should happen every time someone sins even in the most “smallest” of ways.  Even something that seems as small to us as eating a forbidden cookie or in Adam’s case forbidden fruit.  Let us take a look at the stories of Nadab and Abihu, and Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant.

In first dealing with Nadab and Abihu, we need to understand what happened.  Nadad and Abihu were children of the High Priest Aaron.  They were given strict instruction and guidelines to follow on how to act as priest on behalf of the people before the Living God.  The text says that they offered up some “strange fire” and God judged them swiftly with fire and they died.  Aaron’s response immediately was one that would be expected by a father who just lost two sons over making some “strange fire” in the presence of the Lord.  He went to Moses and his response was this, “It is what the LORD spoke saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’” (Lev. 10:3).  Now, if you had just lost two sons as Aaron did, is this the response that you would want to hear from Moses?  And yet it was the response that Moses gave, that God will be regarded as holy, and He will be honored among His people.  Sproul says:

Moses gave Aaron the answer of the Lord.  He reminded him of the original consecration of the priest.  They had been set apart for a sacred task and solemnly charged with the precise requirements of their office.  They had the privilege of ministering before a holy God.  Each vessel in the tabernacle was made to precise specifications, and each item was sanctified by elaborate measure commanded by God.  There was no ambiguity to be found in these commands.  With respect to the altar of incense, Aaron and his son were specifically instructed in the proper procedures.  God had spoken: “Do not offer on this altar any other incense of any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it.  Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns.  This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come.  It is most holy to the Lord” (Exodus 30:9-10).[8]

Nadab and Abihu, when offering the “strange fire” in the presence of the Lord, were essentially committing treason before the Lord, and for that, they died “before” the Lord.  These children were showing a lack of reverence and fear before the most holy God.  This passage, however, is still hard for someone to swallow.  But again, in this passage, God is following through with what He promised the result of sin would be: death.

When speaking of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant, at first glance, it would seem that God is again a “cruel, “unloving” God.  Sure, you can understand God now for why He would judge Nadab and Abihu with immediate death for what they were doing in the presence of God.  But why Uzzah?  Was not he only trying to do what was right?  And does not God look at the heart of a man?  The background for the story of Uzzah is as follows:  The Ark of the Covenant had been lost due to some foolish mistakes by the Israelites.  It was tossed around like a hot potato once it left the presence of Israel.  Finally, the Ark of the Covenant was on its way back to its hometown.  David had the ark being brought back on a type of carriage, being pulled by oxen.  While the ark was being taken back, the ark began to shake and tremble and looked as though it were going to fall to the ground due to an ox stumbling.  So Uzzah stretched out his arm and touched the ark to stop it from falling.  And the text says that the Lord’s “anger burned against Uzzah” and so He struck him dead.  Why would God strike this man dead for attempting to keep His ark from falling on the ground?  Was not the ark holy and the ground unclean?  And was not what Uzzah was attempting to do right?

The Lord made it clear to all the people of Israel that the ark was not to be touched by anyone.  The ark was to be carried on poles which went through the loops on the ark, by men who were from the Kohathite tribal clans (Numbers 4:17-20)

Uzzah was probably a Kohathite.  He knew exactly what his duties were. He had been trained thoroughly in the discipline of his calling.  He understood that God had declared that the touching of the Ark of the Covenant was a capital offense.  No Kohathite, under any circumstance, was ever permitted to touch the ark.  No emergency was grounds for breaking that inviolate command.  The elaborate construction of the ark, complete with gold rings, through which long poles were inserted, was so fashioned as to make it clear that the ark itself was not to be touched period.  The men commissioned to transport the ark could only touch the poles and the rings.  Then it was the task of the Kohathites to carry the ark by these long poles.  No provision was made for hurrying the procedure by transporting the ark via an ox cart.[9]

Uzzah’s sin was not something he was unaware of.  He had been fully prepared and educated on what he could and could not do in regards to the Ark of the Covenant.  Not only was he commanded not to touch the ark by the law, but he was not even to look upon the ark.  Uzzah had been struck dead because he had sinned against a holy, just, God.

It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption.  Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth.  But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark.  It was the touch of man.  The earth is an obedient creature.  It does what God tells it to do.  It brings forth its yield in its season.  It obeys the laws of nature that God has established.  When the temperature falls to a certain point, the ground freezes.  When water is added to dust, it becomes mud, just as God designed it.  The ground doesn’t commit cosmic treason.  There is nothing polluted about the ground.[10]

This is the consequence of man when he sins again a holy and just God.  This is not a reflection of God showing His mercy.  However, understanding God’s mercy and grace cannot be fully understood until one understands God’s holy justice.

All of theses stories mentioned are dealing with man knowingly and willingly choosing to sin against a holy just God, and therefore, God dealing with them as a holy and just God.  Again, it is hard to understand this because man grades righteousness on a curve of how everyone else is doing.  He does “what is right in his own eyes.”  But God’s standard is not the same measure of what is righteous before Him.  He judges what is right and good according to His wisdom and His goodness and this standard does not change.  All fall short to His standard.

When talking about the holiness of God one is tackling a big topic on Theology Proper.  I also feel that it is a very important doctrine that has somehow lost its way in numerous modern day churches.  But in understanding the holiness of God results in understanding the chief end of man.  What is the role of a Christian?  How can my walk with God stay alive and vibrant?  How do I keep grace from becoming old news to me rather than “good” news?  All of these can be answered when one has an appropriate view on the holiness of God.  The role of a Christian is to fear God and to wait on His lovingkindness.  When understanding the standard in which God holds us to and how holy He is, worshipping that God never becomes boring and dormant.  After one comprehends the consequence of what all man is justifiable of because of the holy standard God has set, then one can understand how grace truly is marvelous, everyday.

In these pages I have presented the reformed view of the holiness of God.  I first showed how God is wholly other than us.  Secondly, I explained what holy was and why we do and should fear the holiness of God.  And finally, I demonstrated through numerous texts how God is not only a God of mercy, grace, and love, but also a “holy” and just God.

[1] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p 23.

[2] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p 24-25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 25-26.

[5] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary.  Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.  p. 36

[6] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 53.

[7] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 47.

[8] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 102.

[9] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 107, 108.

[10] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 108.

John Calvin and Christology.

John Calvin Book Two chapters 12-14


John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France when Martin Luther was 25 years old and had just begun teaching in Wittenberg.  When he turned fourteen years old His father sent him to study theology in Paris France.  At this time Paris was not changed by the Reformation and was still deeply entrenched in the teaching of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church.  When John turn 19 his father ran afoul with the church and so in response his father pulled him out of school in theology and sent him to law school.  John remained in his studies concerning law for three years in Orleans and Bourges.  John Calvin mastered the Greek language while in these studies.  He was influenced by such men as Duns Scotus, William Occum, and Gabriel Biel.  He also completed his studies in law at this point in time.  May 1531 John Calvin’s father died which in a way freed him from his studies in the law and then he pursued his love which was theology.  John Calvin was 21 years old at this time.  In 1532 at the age of 23 years old John Calvin published His first book, “Commentary on Seneca”.  It is sometime in 1533 that John Calvin catches wind of the Reformation and its message.  And in November his friend Nicholas Cops preaches a message in Paris at the start of winter that many believe that Calvin wrote.  This results in a persecution brought about by King Francis I.  It is clear at this point Calvin is devoted to the message of the gospel.

Calvin flees to Basel, Switzerland where he devotes himself to learning the Hebrew language and in March of 1536 puts out his first publication of “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”  Five more enlargements will be the end in 1559.  They were written in response to the persecution that broke out and the blood that was shed for their beliefs as an Apologetic work from scripture.  It should be noted that John Calvin went through much suffering through the lost of children, wife, and physical affliction brought on due to a lack of health.  It should also be noted that John Calvin was a very diligent worker due to his belief of doing all for the glory of God.  He spent five years going through the book of Acts.  He preached forty-six messages on Thessalonians, one hundred and eighty-six messages on Corinthians, eighty-six sermons on the pastoral epistles, forty-three sermons on Galatians, forty-eight on Ephesians, three hundred and fifty-three on Isaiah and many more sermons.  He also wrote a commentary on nearly every book of the Bible along with many other works.  He worked diligently to his death and is one who lived what he believed.

Review of reading

In Book II chapters 12-14 John Calvin is dealing with Christology and its relationship with Soteriology along with Anthropology and Angelology.  Calvin in this work portrays the proper view to be held on Christ and his work in fulfilling the office of priest in chapter 12.  In chapter 13 John Calvin is refuting the false views on Christ and His humanity.  And finally in chapter 14, John Calvin defends the Hypostatic Union that was defined in the council in 451 AD.  Although most of his arguments are from scripture and only appeals to the churches authority in that it unanimously agreed that certain teachings taught by Nestorius and Eutyches were heresy.  In conclusion, he links the teaching being taught by Servetus as nothing new and is a weak hybrid of the two.  It is hard to understand exactly what Servetus taught from reading what John Calvin says in these chapters.  Servetus was later burned at the stake under the order of the city council.

In chapter twelve much is said concerning the need for Jesus Christ necessarily to be both fully man and fully God.  He points out that it is impossible for man to ascend to God and so it is necessary for God to come down to man.  The Son then takes on flesh and stoops down to mankind and then rises up mankind to be with God.  Jesus Christ as a man is able to do what no other man is able to do because He is also fully God.  John Calvin devotes a lot of the chapter dealing with substitutionary atonement as well as describing propitiation.  John sees the sin as a horrid offense to God the Father in which He must be appeased.  This can only be done and fully met by a willing substitute is both fully man because he is representing man and fully God so that He is capable of paying the infinite debt placed on man.  The first Adam represents all mankind and so all men are considered guilty and sinners because of his sin and guilt and they are also polluted themselves that they are unable to do anything good before God.  The second Adam, who is Jesus Christ, represents all that the Father called Him to save and so when on the cross the Father impute the sin of those people on Him and He suffers the full extent of that wrath so that there is no longer any need for payment.  In this case Substitutionary Atonement works perfect with the rest of his views on Soteriology.  Great defense is given in argument for this view of atonement.  He quotes a Bible to a large extent so much so that most the language to define his atonement view is scripture.  He also argues from Ephesians 1:4-7 that God the Father predestined the relationship that is found in Christ prior to predestining the fall.  It should not be seen as in order of time as much as in order of events.  For example Calvin would argue that The Father did not predestine salvation for man because of the known fall but rather because of a desire to bring men into a relationship to Himself through the work of the Son predestined a fall.  To this he says,

Here certainly the fall of Adam is not presupposed as anterior in point in time, but our attention is directed to what God predetermined before all the ages, when He was pleased to provide a cure for the misery of the human race.  If, again, it is objected that this counsel if God depended on the fall of man, which he foresaw, to me is sufficient and more to reply, that those who propose to inquire, or desire to know more of the Christ than God predestined by His secret decree, are presuming with impious audacity to invent a new Christ.

John Calvin also deals with those who ask “foolish questions” that are not dealt with in scriptures.  He does not have any patience for those who fall into pointless and fruitless speculations.

In chapter 13 John Calvin defends the full humanity of Jesus Christ.  He sees this as not only crucial for salvation but also for application to ones life in beliefs and action.  He refers to any who deny the full humanity of Christ as being no benefit.  He says, “…nor do they gain any thing by their frivolous subtleties when they attempt to do away with what I have now adduced in opposition to them.”  The two views being argued against are the Manicheans and the Marcionites.  He argues thoroughly from scripture that Christ was indeed fully man.  He uses such passages as Psalms 8, Romans 8 and 9, Hebrews 2, Galatians 3, and Matthew 1.  All of these refer to him as being a man either by title or function.  In the closing of the chapter He states that Jesus is not free from sin because he did not have a genetic physical father.  But rather Jesus could be fully man and a descendant of Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and Mary but remain sinless because of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.  In attempting to communicate this mystery of Christ being fully man yet without sin and also the Son of God, John Calvin says this:

The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on earth, and hang upon the cross and yet always filled the world as from the beginning.

The last chapter deals with the Hypostatic Union of Jesus Christ. Who “became the Son of Man, not by confusion of substance but by unity of person… and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.”  He starts from arguing the one person of Jesus.  He argues this because scripture never speak of there being more than one person or more than one Christ.  He shows then from scripture that there are, however, two natures within the Christ.  He is careful with his words to show distinction but not separation of the two.  He states he would not be so precise had it not been for the overwhelming consistency being taught in scripture. He spends the rest of this chapter describing the faults in the modern “fatal monster” Michael Servetus.  “Who for the son of God has substituted a figment composed of the essence of God, Spirit, flesh, and three untreated elements.”  John Calvin then argues the Michael Servetus first denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  From what’s gathered in reading these chapters, Michael Servetus argued that Jesus did not exist prior to the Incarnation as the Son of God, but became the Son of God as we also are adopted as children of God.  Calvin argues again with a multitude of Scripture passages showing the Son of God was pre-existent and took on flesh while remaining the Son of God.  John Calvin states this about Michael Servetus,

Thus while he cannot comprehend that Christ was the Son of God until his flesh came forth from the essence of God and was converted into Deity, he reduces the eternal personality (hypostasis) of the Word to nothing, and robs us of the Son of David, who was the promised redeemer.

I am in agreement with John Calvin and his strong stance against these heresies that deny either that Jesus Christ was not fully man or not fully God, or that Jesus Christ was more than one person.  To believe in any less than Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man within one person is to create a whole new Christ that is different than the one who is taught in Scripture.  And that Christ can save no one.  As argued in the first chapter, and laying the foundation work for the rest of the chapters, Calvin shows how it is necessary that the Messiah be what He is representing for the redemption of man, in this case fully man.  He also needs to be fully God, capable of paying the penalty due.  After reading Book II, chapters 12-14, I have realized how much we today take for granted that we know because of men such as John Calvin.  We are saints standing on the shoulders of the giants before us.


The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, John Piper

Five leading Reformers lives at a Watershed of History, Christopher Catherwood

The Story of Christian Theology, Roger E. Olson

How to Understand the Imprecatory Psalms.


The idea of a righteous man who is gracious, loving, and forgiving is not often seen as one who prays curses upon people or desires to have their enemies’ children dashed against rocks.[1] But this is the dilemma found in Scripture.  The Bible affirms both of these ideas—to love one’s neighbor and yet at the same time desire to see God destroy that which is evil.  Lewis has noted, “In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth.”[2] In fact, the imprecatory Psalms are so offensive that contemporary priests and monastics are no longer obliged to read them.[3]

The imprecatory prayer will be examined in this paper.  The paper will begin with a brief definition of what an imprecation is, as well as what the foundation for an imprecation is.  Then the paper will go into the book of Genesis and show the blossoming of the imprecatory prayer throughout Scripture all the way to Revelation.  The conclusion will include ideas concerning whether the imprecatory prayer is to be practiced anymore.

The definition of an “Imprecation”

Laney defines an imprecation as, “invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God.”[4] Imprecations were quite common in the Ancient Near East.  The Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET) are filled will all types of curses and incantations to cure one from an imprecation.[5] Biblically, imprecations are done by God’s people who are seen as righteous and their enemy as the manifestation of evil.  In short, an imprecation is a cry from the righteous for justice.[6]

The foundation for the imprecatory prayer

Almost all scholars agree that the groundwork for the imprecatory prayers of the saints is based upon the Abrahamic Covenant.  Day writes,

…they [the imprecatory Psalms] root their theology of the cursing, of crying out for God’s vengeance expressed in the Song of Moses (Dt. 32:1-43), the principle of divine justice outlined in the lex talionis (e.g. 19:16-21), and the assurance of divine cursing as well as blessing in the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:2-3)…[7]

The Abrahamic Covenant, which is introduced in Genesis 12:1-2, is likely what saints, throughout Scripture, claim as their promise and foundation for their prayers of imprecation.

Genesis 12:3 states, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Here we find the foundation for why Abraham and his descendants would have prayed an imprecation on their enemies.  This is something God had promised Abraham from the beginning.  We see this idea reiterated in Deuteronomy 32:1-43.  So when Moses, David, and Asaph pray for God to judge their enemies, they are in fact merely asking God to fulfill what He had promised to do.

This idea is developed at the giving of the Mosaic Law.  In Deuteronomy 27-28 God reveals that He will judge according to these laws.  Anyone who keeps these laws He will surely bless.  However, anyone who neglects the law will be cursed.[8] This will be an important point and will be brought out later.

How should the imprecatory Psalms be understood?

There are over 30 Psalms that contain a clear imprecation.[9] They are typically broken up into three major categories.  They are as follows: societal enemies, national enemies, personal enemies.  Because of the harsh language, many have seen the Psalms as barbaric, vindictive, and out of place with the teachings of Jesus.[10] However, this idea must be rejected.  When these prayers are examined in light of the context, these statements could not be further from the truth.  First, the context is grounded in a promise by God (Gen. 12:2-3).  Second, the prayers of the saints are never asking to take vengeance for their own sake, rather, they are asking God to do what is just according to His promise (Psalm 6:4b; 7:6; 28:4; 31:15; 40:13; 70:5; 109:120).  Third, these prayers are always a type or picture of the innocent pleading against the guilty to the judge (7:3-6; 9:12b; 28:4-5; 31:6).  Fourth, these prayers represent the needy who have nothing and no one to defend them but God (Psalm 10:10; 69:1-4; 137).  Fifth, it is a cry for justice to a just God (Psalm 1:6; 10:5; 17:9-13; 35:23-24).  Sixth, they are a cry for God to defend His name and glory (Psalm 5:11; 6:4; 7:11; 10:3; 28:5; 31:6; 35:9; 58:11).  Seventh, the prayers do not see themselves as faultless, but rather those who turn to the LORD (Psalm 5:7-8b; 6:1-4; 10:12-13; 31:6-10).

Imprecatory prayer throughout Scripture

The idea of God cursing is found as early as the first few chapters in Genesis (2:15-1; 3:14-1-9; 4:10-12).  We see God speaking to man and holding him accountable to his actions.  “You obey me and you will be blessed, you disobey me and you will be cursed.”  God then selects a specific people to be His to be blessed and be a means of blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:2-3; 15:1-6; 17:1-14).  However, YEHWEH later gives these people a law by which He will bless and curse (Dt. 27-28).  In fact, the law instructs Israel to destroy all enemies of their God (Dt. 2:26-37; 3:1-22; 7).[11] All of this is commanded while there law also instructed Israel not to hate and to leave vengeance to the LORD (Dt. 32:35; Lev. 19:17-18).  Soon after this, Israel goes through a roller coaster of blessing and cursing.  Later, God appoints a King for His people.  This King represents God on earth for His people.  It is the King’s responsibility to uphold the laws and defend and provide for God’s people.  It is during the reign of King David that much of the imprecatory Psalms are written.  Although David is the author of the majority of imprecatory Psalms when examined in the narratives concerning him, few would see him as vindictive (2 Sam. 16:11; 19:16-23).[12] However, one could see David’s prayer as one for vindication.  As Israel continues on, it gradually falls further and further away from God.  God sends them corrupt leaders as a judgment.  Then God sends more wicked nations to judge them.  Throughout this entire time God is raising up prophets who speak on His behalf to repent so that blessings may come.  Hosea is one of those prophets.  Hosea begins his pronouncement against pagan gentile nations.  But the seventh nation listed under his pronouncement of judgment is against Judah.  Lessing states,

From 1:3 through 2:5 Amos’s audience in all likelihood cheered and applauded after each neighboring nation was condemned.  “Great preacher, this Amos!”  was the mantra of the moment.  The sermon builds to a climax as three, four, five nations are placed under divine fire.  With the next judgment pointing to Judah (2:4-5), the number reaches seven.[13]

From Genesis to Malachi Scripture shows a curse remaining on God’s people for failure to fulfill what was required of them.  And yet the imprecatory Psalms teach of God visiting sin and justly destroying it and having mercy and forgiving sin.  How these two both are true is revealed in the New Testament.  Although at the close of the Old Testament Israel does not look too good, there is promise of a New Covenant God will make with them and will bring about His original promise with certainty (Jer. 31:31-40; Ez. 36-37).

After four hundred years of silence from God, He sends a prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah who will then inaugurate the “New Covenant.”  John the Baptist is seen as one who warns Israel of God’s soon judgment/curse.  When Jesus comes on the scene, He continues to follow what was taught in the Law of Moses while developing the ideas found there.  Jesus explains how the tension can be understood better of how one can hate evil and yet love his enemy (Matt. 5:29-30, 43-45).  Jesus does not teach one idea as supreme over the other, or teach only one at the neglect of another.  In fact, Jesus practices both (Matt. 5:43-45; Lk. 17:11-19; Matt. 11:20-24; 23:13-39; Mk. 11:14).

Martin Luther explains how Christians should understand the two without sacrificing one.  He says,

We should pray that our enemies be converted and become our friends and, if not, that their doing and designing be bound to fail and have not success and that their persons perish rather that the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.[14]

The blessings and cursings do not end with Jesus’ teachings though.  The Apostles are seen continuing in the line of saints who will pray prayers of imprecation (Acts 5:3-4,7-10; 8:20; Gal. 1:8-9; 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:14; Jude11-13)[15].  Peter curses Simon the Magician and yet extends an opportunity for repentance.[16] Paul gives a warning/imprecation to anyone who teaches a false gospel.  Even the saints who die for Christ in Revelation are seen as praying imprecations on the unjust!  In fact, the imagery given in Revelation is the saint’s prayers going up to God in His holy sanctuary and then later being poured out on the wicked.[17] This prayer of the saints has an illusion back to the imprecatory Psalms.[18] The imprecatory prayer is seen throughout scripture.  However, the idea of repentance and desire to see the wicked converted is developed more in the New Testament, while holding to a love and desire for God to uphold justice and display His righteousness.

Conclusion and Application

Although it is difficult for the American Church to understand the fullness of the imprecatory prayer, it may come easier should persecution come upon her.  However, traditionally the Church has held dearly to these Psalms and prayers when under severe suffering( 2 Thess. 1:5-12).[19] For the Christian, he should look to the cross whenever contemplating the curse motif in Scripture.  This is because Jesus bore the curse for all, some to salvation and some to postpone the curse on the unbelieving.[20]

Sadly, the response in America has typically been to skip over, ignore, and often feel shame for having these verses in the Bible.  Kelley states, “Our responsibility is to listen.”[21] The Christian should not see the imprecatory prayer as one to be ceased in the practice of the everyday believer, nor as sinful.  The saints in heaven (sinless) pray these prayers to God even today (Rev. 6:9-11).  Instead like Jesus, Peter, and Paul the desire of every Christian should be to see all come to repentance and yet if that not be God’s sovereign will, then for God to deal justly with the unbelieving according to their deeds.

[1]e.g. Matthew 5:44; Psalms 137:9.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Orlando, FL.:  Harcourt Brace, 1958), 23.

[3] Gary A. Anderson, “King David and the Psalms of Imprecation,” PRO ECCLESIA 15 (2006) 267 [267-280].

[4] Carl J. Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 549 (1981) 35 [35-45].

[5] Reed Lessing, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Bashing:  Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” CONCORDIA Journal 32 (2006): 369 [368-370].

[6] Ibid., 369.

[7] John N. Day, “The Imprecatory Psalms and Christian Ethics,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 159  (2002):168 [166-186].

[8] Earl S. Kaliand, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 3:  163.

[9] Reed Lessing, “Broken Teeth, Bloody Baths, and Baby Basking:  Is There Any Place in the Church for Imprecatory Psalms?” CONCORDIA Journal 32 (2006): 368 [368-370].

[10] Ibid., 368.

[11] J. Denney, A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, vol. 1 (Peabody, Mass.:  Hendrickson Publishing, 1988), 534.

[12] Carl J. Laney, “A Fresh Look at the Imprecatory Psalms,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 549 (1981) 42 [35-45].

[13] Reed Lessing, “Upsetting the Status Quo:  Preaching like Amos,” CONCORDIA  33 (2007):  288 [285-298].

[14] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, A.T.W. Steinhaeuser,[St. Louis: Concordia, 1956], 1000.

[15] Edwin A. Blum, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 12:  391-392.

[16] Richard N. Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Act (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 110-110.

[17] Robert L. Thomas, “The Imprecatory Prayers of the Apocalypse,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 502 (1969):  123 [123-131].

[18] G.K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic Apollos, 2007), 1104.

[19] Raymond F. Surburg, “The Interpretation of the Imprecatory Psalms,” Springfielder 39 (1975): 100.

[20] David Turner “God’s Wrath Postponed,” BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 657 (2008): 106 [106].

[21] Kelley H. Page, “Prayers of Troubled Saints,” Review and Expositor 81 (1984):  379 [377-383].