2Pe 1:19 ¶ We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. 2 PETER 1:19-21

Questions in This Section:

» What is the order of Melchizedek?

» God instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead, Moses struck the rock. Because of this act, God punished both Moses and Aaron. Why?

» Why in the Old Testament does God demand so much violence and war of the Jewish nation?

» The Lord says in the Old Testament that he loved Jacob but he hated Esau, and in 1 John, John actually says that if we say we love God but hate our brothers, we’re wrong. How can we reconcile these two passages?

» Did Jacob really wrestle with an angel all night, or was that story a symbolic way of saying that he was struggling with an issue?

» In the book of Judges it appears that a human sacrifice was performed and accepted. Please explain.

» Proverbs 21:14 says, “A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath”. Why is this in the Bible?

» “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What is meant by this?

» Would you please expound on Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might”?

» What does the Apostles’ Creed mean when it says that Jesus descended into hell?

» In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” and in another passage he says, “Let your light so shine before men.” This seems like a contradiction.

» In Matthew 24:32–34, Christ tells the parable of the fig tree. In your opinion, just what does the fig tree represent?

» Could you explain what Jesus meant when he said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”?

» Could you comment on Jesus’ statement that we shouldn’t throw our pearls before swine?

» In the story of the adulterous woman, what did Jesus write in the sand?

» In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to be circumcised, then later condemns the practice. Was he being hypocritical?

» What is the Christian view of baptism for the dead by proxy, referred to in 1 Corinthians 15?

» What does the writer of Hebrews 6 mean when he writes, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit”?

» Lately people have been talking to me about “curse Scriptures.” Is this something Christians should be worried about? Are curses passed down?

What is the order of Melchizedek?

The book of Hebrews, of course, has as one of its central themes the high priestly work of our Lord Jesus. To communicate to the Jewish people that Jesus was the High Priest created some serious problems. In the Jewish expectation, their king was to come from the tribe of Judah. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah. But the priestly tribe, the tribe of Aaron and of his descendants, was the tribe of Levi. So if Jesus is not from the tribe of Levi, how can the New Testament say that he is a High Priest? For Jesus to be High Priest, he would be expected to be a descendant of Levi from the line of Aaron and Moses. But he clearly was not. What the author of Hebrews is doing here is reminding us that there is another priesthood in the Old Testament in addition to the priesthood that bears the name of Aaron or Levi. The author goes back into the earlier chapters of the book of Genesis where we read the story of Abraham coming back from battle and meeting a gentleman whose name is Melchizedek. Melchizedek is identified as a priest-king; he’s the king of Salem, which means the king of peace, and he is a priest as well as a king. The point the author of Hebrews makes is this: Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek and Melchizedek blessed Abraham.
Then the author raises these questions: Does a person give a tithe to the greater or to the lesser, and who blesses whom in a situation like that? In Jewish categories, the one who gives the blessing is superior to the one who receives the blessing, and the lesser gives the tithe to the greater. In the activity that takes place in the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek, Abraham clearly subordinates himself to this strange king Melchizedek. He pays the tithe to Melchizedek; Melchizedek blesses Abraham. So whoever this Melchizedek is, or wherever he came from and whatever he does, he’s of a higher nature than Abraham.
Then the writer asks the question in Jewish terms, “If Abraham is the father of Isaac, and Isaac is the father of Jacob, and Jacob is the father of Levi, who’s greater, Jacob or Levi? Jacob. Who’s greater, Jacob or Isaac? Isaac. Who’s greater, Abraham or Isaac? Abraham. Well, if Abraham is greater than Isaac and Isaac is greater than Jacob and Jacob [p. 446] is greater than Levi, who’s greater, Abraham or Levi? Abraham. And if Abraham is greater than Levi and Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, who’s greater, Melchizedek or Levi?” Whew! You know the answer. Melchizedek is of a higher order than Levi, so Jesus’ priesthood is superior to the priesthood of Aaron. That’s the point.

God instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead Moses struck the rock. Because of this act, God punished both Moses and Aaron (Num. 20:1-13). Why? And why did he punish Aaron when Moses was the one who committed the act?

I’m very much puzzled—as are a number of Bible scholars—by that episode in the Old Testament. The Bible doesn’t really give us a clear explanation as to why God was so upset by this action of Moses or why Aaron was implicated in it as well.
If we read the text carefully, as well as read between the lines, it appears that God had given Moses some instructions, but Moses got a bit presumptuous and took it upon himself to make this gesture in an inappropriate way. That’s the only reason I can think of for God’s response; Moses’ sin was one of presumption. He did not do it in the right way—at the right time or in the right manner—that God instructed.
The fact that Aaron is included in the punishment would indicate that he must have been somehow included in the action. The fact that the Bible is silent on his involvement doesn’t exonerate Aaron altogether. We have to presume here that the text doesn’t say everything that took place, and we know that God does not punish the innocent. The fact that God punished Aaron is evidence enough for me that Aaron was guilty of complicity in this event and that presumably both of them, Aaron and Moses, acted in an arrogant way, doing something that was unauthorized. Because of that, they forfeited certain benefits and blessings in the kingdom. Of course, they were not excluded from fellowship with God, but they endured the censure and the rebuke of God.
The same sort of thing occurred with the census of David (1 Chron. 21). Did God ordain the census that David took, or was it instigated by Satan? In the one version it’s attributed to God, in the other one, to Satan. Of course, I don’t think that’s ultimately a contradiction because God is sovereign over Satan, and God will allow certain things to come to pass by giving a long leash to Satan. The Jews might say God ordained this, but he didn’t sanction it. He stood sovereign over it, and perhaps that has bearing on that text as well. Ultimately, we have to trust in the character of God, that he is just, even when we don’t get the whole picture.

Why in the Old Testament does God demand so much violence and war of the Jewish nation?

One of the most difficult episodes for us to handle as people who live on this side of the New Testament are the Old Testament records of what is called the herem. This is where God calls Israel to embark in what we could call a holy war against the Canaanites. He tells them to go in there and wipe out everyone—men, women, and children. They were forbidden to take prisoners and were to utterly destroy and put the ban, or curse, upon this land before they occupied it for themselves.
When we look at that, we shrink in horror at the degree of violence that is not only tolerated but seemingly commanded by God in that circumstance. Critical scholars in the twentieth century have pointed to that kind of story in the Old Testament as a clear example that this couldn’t be the revealed Word of God. They say that this is the case where some bloodthirsty, ancient, seminomadic Hebrews tried to appeal to their deity to sanction their violent acts and that we have to reject that as not being supernaturally inspired interpretations of history.
I take a different view of it. I am satisfied that the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God and that God did in fact command the Jewish nation to institute the herem against the Canaanites. God does tell us in the Old Testament why he instituted that policy against the Canaanite people. It’s not as though God commanded a group of bloodthirsty marauders to come in and kill innocent people. Rather, the background was that the Canaanites were deeply entrenched in unrestrained forms of paganism that involved even such things as child sacrifice. It was a time of profound inhumanity within that nation. God said to Israel, “I am using you here in this war as an instrument of my judgment upon this nation, and I’m bringing my violence upon this unbelievably wicked people, the Canaanites.” And he said, “I’m going to have them destroyed” (Deut. 13:12-17). In effect, he said to the Jewish people, “I want you to understand something: I’m giving to the Canaanites their just deserts, but I’m not giving them into your hands because you’re a whole lot better. I could put the same kind of judgment on your heads for your sinfulness and be perfectly justified to do it.” That’s basically the sense of what God communicated to the Jews.
He said, “I am calling you out of my grace to be a holy nation. I’m tearing down in order to build something new, and out of what I build new, a holy nation, I’m going to bless all of the people in the world. Therefore, I want you to be separated, and I don’t want any of the influences of this pagan heritage to be mixed into my new nation that I’m establishing.” That is the reason he gives. People still choke on it, but if God is, indeed, holy—as I think he is—and we are as disobedient as I know we are, I think we ought to be able to handle that.

The Lord says in the Old Testament that he loved Jacob but he hated Esau, and in 1 John, John actually says that if we say we love God but hate our brothers, we’re wrong. How can we reconcile these two passages?

God, who created us, has the right to demand of his creatures anything he desires; he certainly has the right to demand that we love others. And how can we, who are sinners, hate other people who are sinners for doing the very same things we are doing? Loving God, others, and ourselves is the great commandment, given first by God and then echoed by Jesus in the New Testament.
But if we’re commanded to love everybody, how do we deal with this statement of God: “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated”?
First of all, we are dealing with a Hebrew idiom. It is the Hebrew form of speech we call antithetical parallelism, whereby the Scriptures speak in terms of direct opposites. To understand it, we have to see that whatever God means by hating Esau it means the exact opposite of what it means to love Jacob.
We use the terms love and hate to express human emotions and human feelings that we have toward people, but in the context in which this particular text occurs, when the Bible says that God loves Jacob, it means that he makes Jacob a recipient of his special grace and mercy. He gives Jacob a gift that he does not give to Esau. He gives mercy to Jacob. He withholds that same mercy from Esau because he doesn’t owe Esau the mercy and he reserves the right as he says back then and in the New Testament, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy.” He displays benevolence. He gives an advantage; he gives a blessing to one sinner that he does not choose to give to another. The Jewish person describes that differential by using contradictory terms. One receives love; one receives hate. Now again, we have to remember that the Bible is being written in human terms, the only terms we have, and we can’t read into the text the idea of feelings of hostility or of wickedness toward a human being. That’s not what the Bible means when it uses that kind of language for God.

When Jacob wrestled with the angel all night, is this to be taken literally, or is this a symbolic way of saying that Jacob wrestled with an issue?

So often when we are faced with the question of interpreting a narrative like that literally or symbolically, we have to be very careful of what governs our answer. So often how we side on a question like that is conditioned or governed by our prior view of the supernatural. There are people who would come to a text like that with the previous judgment that there is no supernatural realm and that any scriptural report of the miraculous or the supernatural must be recast into naturalistic terms and interpreted according to psychological states. This in a sense compromises the text.
I have to say that when we allow that kind of prejudicial approach to Scripture to affect our interpretation of Scripture, we have violated the text, and we have violated objective principles of literary interpretation. I have much more respect for the scholar who would say that the text clearly suggests that there was a real wrestling match going on between Jacob and this angel than for someone who tries to spiritualize or relativize the episode by calling it a symbol.
Now, there are clearly times when the Bible is using imaginative language, symbols that ought not to be interpreted in concrete historical terms. The basic principle that would apply in interpreting a text such as this (or any other text where there’s a question of whether it should be interpreted literally or figuratively) is that the brunt of the matter must be decided by a careful analysis of the literary genre in which the text appears.
People ask me if I interpret the Bible literally, and I usually say of course. What other way is there to interpret? To interpret the Bible literally does not mean to impose a wooden, concrete literalism upon the Scripture. To interpret it literally means to interpret the book as it was written. That’s a scientific approach; that is, you interpret poetry according to the rules of poetry, letters according to the rules of letters, historical narratives according to the genre of historical narratives, and so on. Otherwise you are changing the intended meaning of the author, which is simply unethical.
My governing consideration in that text would be, What is the literary style or form in which it appears? If it’s historical narrative, then I think it should be interpreted as historical narrative. Incidentally, in the case of this particular story, I’m persuaded that the text does have all of the elements of historical narrative, and I think the author intended to convey that there was a real visitation of a real angel and that there was a real wrestling match.

In the book of Judges it appears that a human sacrifice was performed and accepted. Please explain.

Not only do we have that difficult question as it appears in the book of Judges, presumably with the vow of Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter (Jud. 11:29-35), but also even earlier, in the book of Genesis, chapter 22, when God tells Abraham to offer his son Isaac on the altar at Mount Moriah.
Kierkegaard wrote a book that wrestled with this issue, and he described it as the temporary suspension of the ethical. I don’t think God suspends the ethical even for Abraham. The question you’re wrestling with is how could God accept or command a practice that he reveals elsewhere as being utterly repugnant to him?
Abraham did not have the benefit of the first five books of the Old Testament, in which all the laws and legislations and codes of holiness of Israel were set forth. But presumably he had at least the benefit of what we would call a natural law. That is the law that God gave to man from Adam onward, the chief principle of which is the sanctity of life and the prohibition against murder. Abraham had to be confused by this command of God to offer his son on the altar. He would have to know that it was utterly inconsistent with natural law.
But at the same time, it’s like a man who comes to a red light at an intersection and a policeman is standing there with a white glove, waving him through. The light says stop, but the policeman says go. The policeman always supersedes the written motor-vehicle code. You obey the policeman and not the traffic light. So perhaps Abraham was thinking that although he knew what the law said, if the author of that law told him to break it, he had better break it.
You asked specifically about the problem in the book of Judges. In the holiness code, in the legislation of the Pentateuch, child sacrifice, practiced by other ancient religions, was seen not only as something that God frowned upon but as a capital offense in Israel—an utter abomination to God. Scripture speaks in the strongest possible language prohibiting the sacrifice of human beings as a religious activity. Religion can sink no lower than when it seeks to appease the deity through human sacrifice—with the obvious exception of the perfect sacrifice that was offered once for all, where God sacrificed his own Son for our sins.
My understanding of the book of Judges is this: Just like the rest of the Bible and particularly the Old Testament, Judges records for us not only the virtues of the people of God but also their vices. Jephthah’s vow was a sinful one. He should have never made that vow in the first place. God didn’t command him to make it; he made that vow and then in a mistaken concept of vow keeping thought it was his moral obligation to keep it when he discovered that he’d actually promised to kill his own daughter.
In fact, we would call that an unlawful vow. Once a person makes a vow to sin, he is required not to keep that vow if it obligates him to sin. I think that this passage is not so difficult from a theological standpoint but is simply a record of Jephthah’s sin.

In Proverbs 21:14 it says, A gift in secret pacifieth anger: and a reward in the bosom strong wrath. Why is this in the Bible?

That’s a tough one. I think to understand it we have to do a couple of things. First of all, we have to understand the nature of a proverb. A proverb is not an absolute moral law. A proverb is an expression of practical wisdom that is drawn from the daily experiences of life. They are not absolutes. For example, in English we have the proverbs “Look before you leap,” and “He who hesitates is lost.” If you made both of those absolutes, they’d cancel each other out. The same would be true if we made all the proverbs in the Bible into absolutes.
What makes this so difficult is that the proverb here draws practical wisdom from human sinfulness and tells us that the bribe sort of greases the skids and puts people’s wrath away. The author of Proverbs, as a matter of practical wisdom, is very much concerned about human relationships and how to get along. One of the recurring themes of the book is dealing with people who are angry: “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” That makes sense. It’s not just a matter of virtue but one of practicality.
I remember once when I was coming out of Pittsburgh off the Liberty Bridge through the tunnels. I saw that the light was going to turn red. I was going to have to sit there for a long time. This policeman was motioning me over into another lane, and I went right around and back into the lane I wanted. Just as I was going to get past him, the light turned red and I had to stop. The policeman ran up to my car and started pounding on the roof. I knew I was in big trouble. I just turned to him and said, “I’m very sorry, officer.” That sort of defused him, and he told me to go ahead and leave. That made me think that a soft answer does turn away wrath. It works.
This verse uses a literary device called parallelism—saying the same thing in two similar ways. It says, “A gift given in secret soothes anger.” There’s nothing wrong with giving a secret gift to somebody. Then we see the parallel statement: “A bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath.” What’s being described here is the same thing as a surprise present. A bribe will also turn somebody’s anger away.
I would say that the author of Proverbs is doing very much the same thing that Jesus did when he said that we are not as wise in the Christian community or in the believing community as thieves are out there. He talks about the unjust steward and says we can learn practical ways of getting along with people by watching how the thieves do it; they know how to stop people’s anger and wrath as a matter of practical wisdom. I think that’s what the author had in mind.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What is meant by this?

I’m sure you’ve heard that verse quoted many times in church—anytime there is a building program or a new educational program, for example. People are told that they have to catch the vision. We’ve set the goal before us, and without a vision the people perish. It’s translated to mean in contemporary situations that without a goal, a project, or an objective, the people will be destroyed. That may be a secondary application of the original text, but that is not what the text meant when it was written in antiquity.
The original meaning of that text, “Without a vision the people perish,” had to do with a prophetic vision. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself through the proclamations of his prophets. Sometimes they received a word from God. These prophets functioned as agents of revelation, like Jeremiah and Isaiah. They were human vehicles through whom God spoke his word to the people. What the Proverbs are saying is that without the supernatural revelation of the word of God, the world would perish.
When Jesus appears in the New Testament, the prophecy of the Old Testament “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” is fulfilled. So often in the Bible, the concept of divine revelation is expressed through that metaphor of light into darkness. What I hear that text saying is that without the light of God’s revelation, humanity would be left in utter darkness, and we would, in fact, perish.
We know people who aren’t involved at all in the Judeo–Christian faith. They have no commitment to it whatsoever. They’re still alive, they’re not perishing, they’re doing fine. They may not be perishing now, but they may be perishing ultimately.
Aside from that consideration, there’s no significant culture that we know of in this world that has not received some of the fallout of the benefits of divine revelation. There’s no place in the darkest point of this world and in the darkest hour of the dark ages where the light of God’s revelation has been totally snuffed out or obscured or eclipsed. In fact, we couldn’t live as human beings on this planet for five minutes except by the Word of God. No wonder Jesus said that it’s through the Word of God that we live.

Would you please expound on Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might”?

Before I answer that question specifically, I think it’s important to make a few basic comments about the type of literature we find in the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s very similar to the book of Proverbs and comes under the category of Hebrew Wisdom Literature, in which nuggets of wisdom and practical application of godliness are set forth in very succinct statements. We can easily get confused if we try to treat these statements as if they were moral absolutes. I’m convinced that the Bible provides many moral absolutes in the law of God that is expressed therein. But what you find in the maxims of Wisdom Literature are practical guidelines for behavior.
This particular passage from Ecclesiastes is not a universal absolute that says, “Anything you do, do with all of your might.” There are lots of things that we do with our hands that are ungodly, and we ought not to be doing them with any commitment. What the book is saying here is that in the labor to which we are called, in the devotion that we give to God, in those things that are just and proper and good to which we apply ourselves, we are to do these things with determination, not in a casual manner. It’s somewhat similar to Jesus saying that he would rather people be cold or hot, not lukewarm. Those who are lukewarm he said he will spew out of his mouth. He seems to have more respect for a zealous hostility than for indifference, for example.
The spirit of slothfulness falls under the rebuke of the Wisdom Literature repeatedly. God calls us to an attitude, a lifestyle, of purpose and diligence. That means we are to do the tasks that are set before us with not only diligence but a certain kind of zeal for them. That very idea and sentiment is again repeated in the New Testament and especially with respect to seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that we are to set ourselves with a decisive spirit of endurance in seeking God’s kingdom.

What does the Apostles’ Creed mean when it says that Jesus descended into hell?

The Apostles’ Creed is used as an integral form of worship in many Christian bodies. One of the more puzzling statements in that creed is: [Jesus] descended into hell.
First of all, we have to look at the creed from a historical perspective. We know that the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles, but it’s called the Apostles’ Creed because it was the early Christian community’s attempt to give a summary of apostolic teaching. This, like other creeds in the church’s history, was partly a response to distorted teachings that were present in some communities; it was a statement of orthodox belief. The earliest reference we can find to that “descent into hell” element of the Creed is around the middle of the third century. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t in the original—we don’t know when the original was written—but it seems to be a later addition and has caused no small amount of controversy ever since. The reason for it is theological as well as biblical.
We see this problem: Jesus, when he’s on the cross in his dying agony, speaks to the thief next to him and assures him that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Now that statement from Jesus on the cross would seem to indicate that Jesus was planning to go to paradise, which is not to be confused with hell. So in some sense Jesus goes to paradise. We know that his body goes into the tomb. His soul apparently is in paradise. When does he go to hell? Or does he go to hell?
In 1 Peter 3:19, Peter talks about “this Jesus, who by the same spirit by which he is raised from the dead goes and preaches to the lost spirits in prison.” That text has been used as the principal proof text to say that Jesus, at some point after his death, generally believed to be between his death and his resurrection, went to hell. Some people say that he went into hell to experience the fullness of the magnitude of suffering—the full penalty for human sin—in order to give complete atonement for sin. That is regarded by some as a necessary element of Christ’s passion.
But most churches that believe in an actual descent of Jesus into hell do not see him going to hell for further suffering because Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished.” Rather, he goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints. I personally think that the Bible is less than clear on that point because the lost spirits in prison could very well refer to lost people in this world. Peter doesn’t tell us who the lost spirits in prison are or where the prison is. People are making a lot of assumptions when they consider that this is a reference to hell and that Jesus went there between his death and his resurrection.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” and in another passage he says, “Let your light so shine before men.” This seems like a contradiction.

When Jesus gave this teaching, he used several different styles of communication, the most famous of which is the parable. Another style of teaching that was common among the rabbis was to give a nugget of truth in what was called an aphorism. An aphorism is simply a succinct, pithy little statement that encapsulates or crystallizes a spiritual truth. Sometimes if you push these too far, you’ll find some that rub up against each other and apparently are in conflict with each other.
When Jesus says, “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” he has just gone through a very lengthy rebuke for the ostentatious public display of piety that was the favorite preoccupation of the Pharisees. They prayed and dressed in sackcloth so that everybody would know how spiritual they were. They paraded their spiritual disciplines [p. 458] before the watching world as a matter of personal pride rather than out of godliness. They fought with each other over who got the seats of honor at the feasts and who was more religious than the other. Jesus severely rebuked them, for they were praying not to God, but they were praying to be seen by people. He rebuked them for the obvious hypocrisy of that. He told them to go into their closets and pray to God in secret, for God would listen to them in secret.
It’s in that context that Jesus says, “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In other words, if you’re going to be doing these honorable things that are really ultimately an offering to God, they don’t have to be known by people. This is something we do privately, anonymously. We don’t parade our offerings and our worship to God for the sake of being seen.
By the same token, we are called to make visible the invisible kingdom of God by living lives of integrity. Our outward integrity is to be so clearly on display that it will be a beacon to those who observe it.

In Matthew 24:32-34, Christ tells the parable of the fig tree. In your opinion, just what does the fig tree represent?

When Jesus taught in parables, he drew examples from the normal activities of daily life—from stone masonry, agriculture, etc. He used the fig tree to teach a lesson on more than one occasion. We remember the occasion on which he cursed the fig tree for having blossoms but not giving any fruit. The indispensable indicator for the presence of fruit for a fig tree was not what season it was but whether or not it had blossoms. If it had the blossoms, it should have had the fruit. Jesus saw a fig tree blossoming out of the normal season, which would make it a special species of fig tree. He went over to get something to eat, and there were no figs, and so he cursed the fig tree as an object lesson of hypocrisy.
Flipping that around, when he uses the parable here, he uses the fig tree’s propensity for blooming and bearing fruit as a positive indication for looking to the future. Jesus had given the Olivet discourse, in which he told his disciples to be alert to the signs of the times so that when he returns at the end of the age, his coming is not a total surprise to those who are to be watching for him.
What, specifically, does the fig tree represent? It’s exceedingly dangerous to interpret parables in an allegorical sense. In an allegory every element of the story has a one–to–one correlation to some figurative or symbolic representation. There are times when Jesus did use allegory, as in the parable of the sower. But in that case Jesus provided the allegorical interpretation of the parable. Other than that, the normal use of parables is to communicate through the little story one single, simple lesson. We get into big trouble if we look at all of the elements of the story and want to make each concrete element a symbol for something in particular. I don’t think you can do that with the parable of the fig tree. I think it is like most other parables; there’s one basic lesson that Jesus is trying to communicate to his disciples, and that is to watch and be ready. When you see the signs of the times, look up, knowing that your redemption is near. When we see the things happening that he describes in the Olivet discourse, we should be alert to the fact that our redemption is soon, and it may be that these things are harbingers of the very return of Christ himself.
Some would like to look at those particular elements like the fig tree and say that’s the restoration of Israel to their homeland or the recapturing of the city of Jerusalem, but such interpretations are speculative. I would rather be more careful and just say that it’s the general meaning of the text to be careful, to be vigilant, to watch for the signs of the times.
In the book of John there’s the statement that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Could you explain what Jesus meant by “set you free”?

At least a clue to the meaning can be found by taking a good look at the context. When Jesus made that statement, he was talking about discipleship, and he said, “If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
When he said that, it agitated some of the clergy who were standing nearby, the Pharisees specifically. They became very annoyed with Jesus for saying that, and they protested, saying, “Hey, we’re in bondage to no man.” And then they said, “We’re the children of Abraham.” Jesus rebuked them severely, saying, “You’re the children of those whom you serve.” And then he told them they were children of Satan because they were doing the will of their father, the devil.
On the one hand, Jesus identifies sonship in terms of obedience: “You are the son of whom you obey.” Since the track that Jesus takes is one that emphasizes obedience, I think that’s the clue. When he’s speaking of freedom, he’s not speaking of political freedom or financial freedom. He’s speaking of spiritual freedom—freedom from bondage or slavery to wickedness. Jesus picks up on this theme more than once, as do other speakers and writers in the New Testament. When Paul, for example, describes the condition of fallen man, he talks of fallen man as being in bondage to his own evil inclinations. And conversely, the Holy Spirit is described as one who is the author of liberty: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
This touches on a major issue in theology that has to do with natural man; that is, fallen man’s moral power or moral ability. Every church that I know of in the World Council of Churches has some doctrine of original sin. They don’t all agree as to the exact degree to which the human race has fallen, and there are details of debate that center around original sin. But original sin is not the first sin, the sin that Adam and Eve committed. Original sin refers to the result of mankind’s initial transgression against the law of God. Not only was guilt incurred and man exposed to punishment, but something happened to our moral constitution. There is a blemish in our very structure and makeup so that now, as human beings, we all have a tendency and a proclivity toward evil that was not put there by God in the first place. Insofar as we surrender to the wicked impulses that somehow can dictate our lives, we are in moral bondage and need to be liberated. This is one of the great messages of the New Testament gospel: Christ liberates us from the power of evil.

Could you comment on Jesus’ statement that we shouldn’t throw our pearls before swine?

That statement is what we call one of the hard sayings of Jesus. It’s so uncharacteristic of Jesus to talk that way about people—to call people swine, particularly for a Jew to call somebody swine. Such a shoot–from–the–hip statement from Jesus startles us.
When Jesus sent the seventy disciples out to proclaim the gospel, he told them to travel light. He told them that when they came to a village, if the people refused to hear them, they were to shake the dust off their feet and go elsewhere. It’s in that kind of a context that Jesus talked about giving pearls to swine. In reaching out to others with the gospel, we’re not to give up easily (this patient attitude runs through several parables and in Scripture in general). But from the standpoint of strategy, it’s ineffective to be reaching out constantly to people who are steadfastly, adamantly opposed to the Christian faith. We see many, many cases in which those people mellow and actually come to Christ. But to spend all of your attention on those people is not the best use of time and energy.
If people despise the things of God, we are certainly not supposed to write them off or to stop being concerned about them, but at the same time, we’re not supposed to invest our best things over and over again in those people.
In the story of the adulterous woman, what did Jesus write in the sand?

We have no idea what Jesus wrote in the sand. In fact, that is the only reference that we have anywhere that Jesus ever wrote anything. I suspect he was literate and he could write, but he didn’t leave any documents for us to read to this day—so we can only guess what he wrote in the sand. My guess is that he was being very specific. The text notes that these people were in a frenzy; they had taken up stones and were going to kill this woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They tried to entrap Jesus with a theological issue concerning the law of Moses and the law of Caesar. On that occasion Jesus made the comment, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And then he waited for the executioners to volunteer, and he stooped down and wrote in the sand. We’re told that as he wrote in the sand the people, beginning with the older ones, started to leave—they put down their stones and walked away.
We can only speculate, of course, but I figure that Jesus looked one man in the eye and wrote the name of this man’s mistress, and for another guy he wrote down, “extortion,” and for another, “embezzlement.” I think he could see the sins of these people. He started writing them down, and nobody wanted to see any more, so they put down their stones and got out of there in a hurry. This is sheer guesswork, but that, to me, is the kind of thing that Jesus would do to defuse a mob that’s bent on passing judgment.
What are we to do with our brothers and sisters if we know them to be involved in sin? We get some instruction in the New Testament on these things. We are told that if we see a brother or sister engaged in a serious matter of sin, we are to go to them privately and discuss this with them. If there is no repentance, then we are to take two elders, and so on. There is a procedure to be followed (Matt. 18:15-17). Notice that, in the spirit of Jesus, the procedure bends over backwards to protect the dignity of the guilty person. And the whole purpose of this is not to accuse or to punish but to redeem. It’s not an exercise of judgmental spirit. The New Testament says that there is a love that covers a multitude of sins. We are not to be confronting each other with peccadillos; we are not to be nitpickers. One of the Christian community’s great weaknesses today is its pettiness. Pettiness can be very destructive to the Christian community, and we tend to oscillate between two extremes—overly severe and judgmental or letting anything go without daring to criticize. We are called to keep each other concerned about righteousness, but in a spirit of meekness.

In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to be circumcised, then later condemns it. Was he being hypocritical?

I don’t think the apostle was being hypocritical at all. This is a very interesting historical situation that the New Testament records for us. It does say that Paul circumcised Timothy and then refused to circumcise Titus, and this became a major controversy in the early church. Paul’s reasoning behind it, I think, can be ferreted out through a study of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans.
He talks about his concern for ethics and says that there are certain things God prohibits and certain things he commands. Then there are those things that are basically neutral in the ethical sense—those things that in and of themselves have no moral import or ethical significance. He is consistent in his approach to these things, as we read in correspondence to the Romans and Corinthians; these are areas in which Christians can exercise their liberty.
But the Judaizing party sprang up and threatened to destroy the infant Christian church by seeking to impose the absolute law of circumcision on every convert to Christianity. The counsel of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was one of those examples of the church having to respond to this. The counsel’s conclusion was that it pleased the Holy Spirit not to add all of these burdens upon Gentile converts that God had required of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament. What had happened in contemporary terms is this: Those who wanted to cling to some of the now antiquated practices were considered by Paul to be weaker brothers, and Paul said we don’t do anything to cause the weaker brother to stumble. We want to be sensitive to the weaker brother.
But suddenly the weaker brothers became so strong that they wanted to tyrannize the church and make their preferences the absolute law of [p. 464] God. Whenever people do that, it is a representation of legalism that destroys the essence of the gospel. Paul, by the time he wrote Galatians, saw the expansion of this group of Judaizers as being such a threat to the truth of the Christian gospel that he steadfastly refused to engage in circumcision as a religious act and used the strongest language to condemn those who were trying to make a matter of personal preference the absolute law of God.
You remember the earlier debate that Jesus had with the Pharisees. Jesus was very harsh with them because he said that they had taken the traditions of men and passed them off as if they were the laws of God, something we are not permitted to do. Jesus took the Pharisees to task for doing it, and Paul did the same thing; that is, in the earlier situation in which circumcision didn’t have this legal import to it, he went with the flow. He said if you want to be circumcised, fine; if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. So for those who wanted it, he did it. But when they tried to make it a law that he circumcise other people, he steadfastly refused to do it, in order to keep the integrity of the gospel intact.

First Corinthians 15:29 says, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" I know it’s a Mormon doctrine to believe in baptism of the dead by proxy. What is the Christian view of this?

There’s not a single text in all of Scripture that gives an explicit mandate for the church to practice proxy baptism, or baptism for the dead, and yet here is a practice that has emerged in one religious body. The text cited as proof of this is 1 Corinthians 15:29. We notice that Paul does not say to his readers, “You should baptize the dead,” but he asks the question, “Why is it that some of you are baptizing for the dead if in fact the dead are not raised?” The fact that Paul asks a question about it indicates that there were people practicing it. When he asks the question, [p. 465] there is neither an explicit or implicit rebuke for the practice. Some have looked at that and said that the apostle Paul recognized that this kind of practice was going on in the Corinthian community and he didn’t denounce it, so it has a tacit apostolic approval, and perhaps we’re missing something we ought to be doing.
But we don’t have a mandate to do it, and I think there’s much in Scripture to indicate that this practice is utterly repugnant to God because of its theological implications.
We have to understand why Paul says what he says in 1 Corinthians 15. This entire chapter is Paul’s magnificent defense of the resurrection of Christ. He is responding as a theologian to a spirit of skepticism that had emerged in the Corinthian church. Word had come to him that some people in the church were denying the Resurrection. So Paul explored the implications of that. If there is no such thing as resurrection (which is what the Sadducees believed) and if there is no life after death, what are the consequences? First of all, if there is no resurrection, then Christ is not raised. So if there’s no resurrection whatsoever, that eliminates the resurrection of Christ. If there is no resurrection of Christ, what are the implications of that? That means you’re still in your sins. There’s been no mark of divine approval on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for your justification. It means you’re a false witness of God because you’ve been running around telling everybody that, in fact, Jesus was raised and that it was God who raised him.
Paul goes on to say that if Christ is not raised, then those who have fallen asleep have perished. The dead are dead. We’ll never see them again; it’s all over. He goes on to give them all these options.
In this process he uses a classical form of argument, the ad hominem argument, in which you argue on the other person’s grounds and show the inconsistency of their position. Paul, in essence, is saying, “I know some of you people are out there practicing baptism for the dead and at the same time saying that there’s no resurrection. What in the world are you doing it for?” In other words, he’s showing the folly of denying resurrection and practicing something that would depend on resurrection [p. 466] for it to have any meaning. But Paul is in no way endorsing the practice of baptism by proxy.

What does the writer of Hebrews 6 mean when he writes, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit”?

In the ongoing debate among Christians as to the possibility of losing our salvation, that text is certainly the one most frequently discussed and debated. Those who believe that you can fall from grace to the point of losing your salvation look at Hebrews 6 as Exhibit A to prove it. There is this solemn warning and admonition to those who had been enlightened, who had tasted the heavenly gift, that if they fall away, it’s impossible to restore them again to repentance.
It’s difficult to know exactly what the author of Hebrews means by this text, for several reasons. First of all, we don’t know who wrote the book, and second, we don’t know to whom it was written. Most important, we’re not sure of the immediate issue that provoked the writing. Some look at it as a crisis of people caving in under Roman persecution and people denying Christ publicly. Maybe that was the temptation. A more frequent view is that it was a temptation to fall into the sin of the Judaizing heresy of returning to a legalistic structure of Old Testament religion.
My position on the passage is this: There is a strong admonition here saying it’s impossible to restore again to repentance those who have been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, and participated in the Holy Spirit. I question whether the author is describing a Christian in the first place. On the surface it would seem that he is because those descriptive terms “enlightened” and “tasted the heavenly gifts” would certainly be true of a Christian. However, in the broader context of Hebrews he talks about those who are church members, even as members of the body of [p. 467] Israel in the Old Testament, who had all the benefits of the church and the presence of Christ in their midst, who were never really redeemed.
There are many commentators who believe that the author of Hebrews is talking about people who are inside the community and have the benefits of hearing the Word of God. They are enlightened, they have the sacraments and all of these things, but they’re not genuinely converted.
I’m not persuaded, however, that that’s what the text means because he uses the phrase as you quoted, “to be restored again to repentance.” Repentance in the book of Hebrews and throughout the whole New Testament is a fruit of regeneration. True repentance is only something that a Christian can do, so there had been an authentic prior repentance if he was talking about restoring them again to repentance.
I take the position that what we have here is an ad hominem argument throughout, in which the author is arguing a reasoning through the other man’s position. He’s saying, “OK, let’s look at your position. Suppose it’s the Judaizing heresy. If you reject Christ and go back to the old system and you’ve done away with the Cross, what possibility would you have of being saved under that system? You’ve just rejected the only way of salvation there is.” He’s not saying that it’s the unforgivable sin, but you couldn’t be restored as long as you were in that position. Notice he doesn’t say that anybody does it. In fact, at the end of that text he says, “But I am persuaded of better things of you, that which is consistent to those of your calling.” I think it’s a hypothetical warning against an argument, but it doesn’t teach that any true Christian does lose his salvation.

Lately people have been talking to me about “curse Scriptures.” Is this something Christians should be worried about? Are curses passed down?

When we talk about curses in contemporary American culture, it sounds like something out of the dark ages or like some voodoo witch doctor who’s putting a curse on somebody by sticking pins in dolls. Yet the concept of the curse is one of the most important concepts we find in Scripture because the laws of God that he delivers to Israel in the Old Testament are set before the nation in terms of two polarities. On the one hand, when God gives his law to his people and enters into a covenant with them, he says that if they keep the terms of this covenant, if they obey his laws, they will be blessed. He says, “Blessed will you be in the city and in the country, when you stand up and when you sit down, in everything you do I will bless you.”
But he says, “If you break My law, disobey My commandment, and violate My covenant, then cursed shall you be in the city, cursed shall you be in the country.” Then what follows are terrifying penalties and punishments that God promises to people who refuse to obey him. They are encapsulated by the word curse. To be cursed in the Old Testament meant ultimately to be cut off from the presence of God, to be sent out from his immediate presence, just as the scapegoat was cursed in Israel by being driven out into the wilderness, away from where the presence of God was focused in the center of the camp. To be cursed meant to be sent into the outer darkness where the face of God did not shine and the light of his countenance did not penetrate.
As I said, it’s so important because the whole idea of atonement, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament, is centered on that concept of the curse. In Galatians Paul tells us that Christ on the cross became a curse for us; he was accursed—cut off from the Father, sent outside the camp, even crucified outside the city limits of Jerusalem—to make certain that the whole of God’s curse promised to the evildoer would be visited upon himself so that he might bear the whole the sinner’s punishment.
The Bible clearly speaks about curses, and the worst possible curse is to be outside the circle of God’s benefits. He also says that there is such a thing as the visitation of the consequences of evil upon future generations. In the Ten Commandments we are told that the sins can be [p. 469] visited to the second or third generation. The descendants of Canaan are cursed by Noah. Ham is the one who received the curse, and he received it as a direct consequence of his father. Accursed Canaan is the one who received the consequence of the sin of his father, Ham.
I would say that the negative loss of many of God’s promises to people flow down through time and space onto the next generation. It doesn’t mean that God directly punishes a person for a sin somebody else committed. God says that each person is punished for their own sins. However, we still deal with the consequences that come down from previous generations and in that sense miss out on some of the benefits of God.