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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Can A Woman Be A Pastor?

QUESTION: I was talking with an AC3er and we were looking at the question: Can a woman be a pastor or preacher?  We came upon the answer from this site and I was hoping you could comment on it: 

My friend was under the impression that female pastors would be acceptable since Paul was only saying women should not preach due to the lack of reverence that the people would assign to them, and men would be held in higher regard. But the gotquestions video seems to go against this idea. Especially with the bible verse, 1 Timothy 2:13-14 seemingly bashing women for Eve's mistake.

ANSWER: "Gotquestions" is a good site.  And in regards to this subject, they have correctly laid out two things at the outset - one, this is not an issue about chauvinism or discrimination.  This is an issue of interpretation.  If the Bible is our guide the main question is simply what does it teach, when understood in its total context (historic, linguistic, cultural setting etc), in light of its ongoing revelation?  Based on those factors, and not on cultural pressure, we at AC3 would simply align differently on this issue than the good people on this site do.

But second, they acknowledge the legit controversy in the church over this issue.  And in spite our strong feelings about women in leadership, we do hold this issue with an open hand and do not break fellowship with churches that do not allow women to be pastors or hold positions of authority in the Church.

So the main scripture they draw from to justify their stance is 1 Tim 2:11-15.  While they try to address the key objections to their view, I think they did not address the most important objection which is the crisis with widows in the Ephesian church.  I'll get to that below - but first, they don't seem to take into account the references in Scripture to women in leadership roles.  To discern God's instruction for the Church, we have to take all Scripture together and not interpret any verse in violation of all the others.

So we begin with the global context.  In the Bible there are many examples of women in spiritual leadership, beginning back in the Old Testament:  such as Huldah and Miriam, prophetesses, and Deborah, who was a military, judicial and spiritual leader in Judges 4.  Gotquestions mentions these, but their only response to these amazing examples (amazing given the entrenched context of ancient patriarchy!) is to say that in the Church, God has set up new rules and Old Testament examples of women in spiritual leadership are therefore irrelevant.

But surely it's too simple just to pass these examples off as irrelevant!  These women were honored and appointed by God and they were clearly not “silent” in their roles. So they are inferring that God was moving the Church away from any vocal female spiritual leadership, even though he blessed it before.  Which would put forward the notion that under the Gospel, God was retracting former, divinely granted and sanctioned freedoms for women. 

Is this the true trajectory of the gospel? 

I want to be careful here, to not make too much of a "trajectory" argument.  It could be used to justify all manner of culturally faddish liberation movements, under the rubric "gospel liberation".  Still, it's significant that before Jesus came, godly women clearly were called by God, used by God and affirmed by God in leadership.  Would Jesus' Kingdom emphasis on "freeing captives and liberating the oppressed" lead to less of this kind of godly feminine leadership or more?

What adds to the argument based on gospel trajectory is simply the overwhelming anecdotal evidence of how the New Testament community embraced female ministry and leadership in a myriad of roles after the Holy Spirit descended.  Beginning most definitively on the very first day the Holy Spirit descended.  As a sign of God’s favor on women teaching and leading publicly, his Spirit fell on them just as He did on the men on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) to proclaim the Kingdom. 

That the disciples spoke in other languages was considered scandalous (Acts 2:13), but additionally the fact that it was women speaking aloud God's mysteries was a further scandal.  It needed justification.  So Peter quotes the Prophet Joel and his great prophesy about the Day of the Lord when Scripture predicts the Spirit would fall on everyone, not just men but women also, and not just freeborn but slaves also!  Was there a lower status person than a female slave?  Yet Peter declares, in the Kingdom, God had long ago decreed even this person would be anointed by God himself for ministry!

Now, it's utterly shocking, given both the Jewish and the Roman context, how quickly women show up in all aspects of ministry, in the Apostolic church, including in leadership.  Examples are to be found everywhere.  Women are affirmed as intercessors (Acts 1:14), as helpers (Acts 9:36, Mark 15:40,41), as deacons (Rom. 16:1,2), as prophetess' (Acts 21:9), as teachers (Acts 18:26), as apostles (Rom. 16:7), as messengers of good news (John 20:17, 18), as evangelists (Phil. 4:2,3) and as leaders of house churches (Col. 4:15). 

This last passage is very short but very interesting: since most churches met in the homes of elders, we can assume Nympha (Col. 4:15) was a functional elder of the church that met in her home.  Most scholars would argue that the first churches did meet in the homes of elders.  This fact could also be argued from the fact that Nympha's name was often changed to a masculine form in several copies of this verse down through the centuries, as some scribes wanted to avoid the clear implication that Paul had appointed a woman as a leader of a church!

Taken all together these examples mean women were functioning in any role in which they were gifted in the young churches.  And Paul never felt the need to tell churches when discussing gifts that some spiritual gifts could never be given to women, such as the gift of teaching or leadership or apostleship or evangelism (1 Cor 12).

Of course, all these wonderful examples had their foundation in Jesus ministry as he brought women into his extended band of disciples (Luke 8:1-4), teaching them and accepting them and talking to them in public (John 4).  If we understand the cultural context of his time, Jesus began a radical shift and set a new tone for female freedoms and value in Christ’s Kingdom.

Now, against these awesome descriptors of women's diverse service in the early church, we have the passage in question, 1 Tim 2:11-15.  There's just no question that Paul is limiting women's teaching and authority role in the Ephesian church.  There is, however, a question as to whether this restriction is a binding principle for all churches at all times, or is it a special case based on special circumstances?

So along with all the anecdotal evidence of women in leadership and teaching roles I've just listed, we have, in 1 Cor 11:5, the explicit permission for women to prophesy in the public worship environment.  Now, gotquestions affirms this freedom, but distinguishes it from a teaching role over men under discussion in 1 Timothy.  But is there a real distinction to be made? 

How was the prophetic gift, which female disciples clearly had, exercised?  In Paul's own instructions about the gift, prophecy is giving public instruction from the Lord.  1 Cor 14:3-5 says, "the person who prophesies speaks to people for edification, encouragement, and consolation."  If there are men in the audience, as there certainly were, this means that female disciples gifted with prophesy were publicly speaking to men for their edification, encouragement and consolation.  IE, they were spiritually teaching men!  

This directly refutes the gotquestions claim that Paul was opposed to women ever "preaching to men, teaching men publicly, and exercising spiritual authority over men".

What if we approach the 1 Tim passage (which was written after 1 Corinthians) with this backdrop of women regularly edifying believers (male and female) in Christian worship services?  What it would suggest is that there must be some special context for Paul to restrict what he himself allows in all the other churches (and he does infer "all" - 1 Cor 11:16).  We get many clues that this is in fact a special case:

Paul says women should prophesy to the Corinthian church but in 1 Tim he says, "women should learn in silence".  To single women in Corinth he says, "Stay single if you can, to enhance your devotion to the Lord" (1 Cor 7).  To single women in Ephesus, he says, "get married, have kids" (1 Tim 5:14).  Same Apostle, totally different teaching on women.  These are our first two clues that maybe the restriction banning women from teaching or authority in that church wasn't meant for all churches.

If you research the letters to Timothy, in fact we do find a crisis in that church that gives insight into why his instruction here is so different.  First, there were renegade elders in Ephesus that needed to be rebuked.  But most importantly for this discussion, was their association with trouble making young widows.  This is a repeated theme in both letters.  Young widows were going from house to house teaching things they shouldn't teach (5:13).  These young, single women were being sexually promiscuous (5:11, 2 Tim 3:6) - probably with the renegade elders.  These young widows were selfishly living off the church's benevolence (5:11).  These young widows were being taught the gospel, but never getting it (2 Tim 3:7). 

So in light of this clear crisis with women in that church, Paul tells Timothy that the women can't teach or have (probably, "usurp") authority over a man.  Clearly this is a restriction, but what is often missed is that this is actually a retraction.  That is, a withholding of a previously granted freedom.  We not only infer this because the Corinthian women were obviously  not "silent" and were teaching publicly in their worship services, but also because in the Roman context women simply didn't teach at all! 

Why would Paul feel the need to keep female teaching from happening unless it were, in fact, happening?  Yet, if it were happening, was it because they were importing "liberated" Roman cultural values which were super accepting of women in leadership roles?  Hardly!!  In Roman culture, women were chattel and unless of some royal birth, they were completely uneducated.  So the cultural context lends credence to the idea that the normal operation in the Ephesian church as in others had been the counter cultural, radical practice of women teaching in public ways.  Why else does Paul have to tell them not to do it?

But here's what's truly amazing, again given the context:  Paul does not give such a strict retraction of freedom without first telling the women they must learn (2:11)!  Now, that seems demeaning at first, especially with the modifying, "in silence and submission".  But remember, women didn't learn in those days.  Most Roman women didn't even know how to read!  But here is Paul commanding them to go to school on the Gospel and learn!  His frustration with them is not that they learned and started teaching, it's that they didn't learn (2 Tim 3:7), but started teaching anyhow (1 Tim 5:13)!  Learning precedes teaching, but it seems that some Ephesian women had put the cart before the horse.

Now, the moral laxity of this group of women also helps explain that baffling phrase about "being saved through childbirth" (2:15).  We know how often Paul says Christians are saved by grace!  So most likely that entire verse is Paul's way of saying, “if these immature women, will settle down, stop talking and start learning the gospel, and repent of their sensuality and prove it by marrying and having kids – they'll be saved.  But of course, they have to have the prerequisite of faith expressing itself in love etc.”  He's not really saying that a woman's salvation is secured through the work of having children... it's just in this situation, childbirth would be a key sign of true repentance, which would indicate faith, through which they are saved (15b).

Also, it should be noted that the pronouns are odd in this verse.  In Greek it literally reads, "woman (singular) will be saved through childbearing if they (plural) continue in faith, love..."  This would suggest Paul may be talking about Eve and the Ephesian women separately - indicating Eve is the one saved by childbirth, because her Seed crushes the Serpent, but the Ephesian women are saved by faith.

Either way, Paul is clearly calling them here and elsewhere in these two letters into marriage and family.  Another clue to the crisis:  the false male teachers were teaching that marriage itself was a sin (4:3).  Paul's concerns for this faction were justified because an antinomian Gnostic cult developed in early Christendom that basically relaxed all sexual propriety.  So the instruction about child bearing would also counter the “marriage is evil and sexual relationships should be open", idea that was developing there.  So again, it’s very revealing that Paul would give this advice to widows and singles in Ephesus, when in 1 Corinthians he specifically tells widows and singles to stay single if they can (1 Cor 7:8). 

If we don't acknowledge the context of the two letters, we have no answer to why the Apostle would change his advice so radically to the singles in this church (1 Tim 5:14) and we're left with a real contradiction.  But it makes perfect sense if there is a unique crisis in Ephesus – which lends a lot of weight to the idea that Paul's restriction on women should also be seen as unique and bound to that church and for that crisis.

It was a bad situation.  A frat party had broken out in Ephesus, heresy tied directly to sexual promiscuity.  So here's Paul writing to settle it all down, not just the problems with women, but also with men:
"ok, Timothy, let's get this thing under control.  Fire these male leaders (1 Tim 1:20), pull the young women back (2:12), they're abusing the freedoms the gospel has given them (5:13), but don’t abandon them, tell them to go back to basics and learn (2:11), call them to settle down (5:14) and have kids (2:15) to demonstrate their faith in Christ and repentance from acts that lead to death... and the men that do lead must be thoroughly checked out (3:1-13) and not appointed quickly (5:22).  It's time to clean house, Timothy."
Read 1 and 2 Tim in one sitting and the crisis with young widows and renegade elders will pop out at you.

We have written a position paper on this topic for AC3 that we make available if you're interested in going into more detail on these and other Scriptures.  Read it with your Bible open and you'll have a great study of the issues involved in this key question!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Don't The Conquest Passages Mean Non-Combatants (Women & Children) Were Slaughtered?

QUESTION:  Hi Rick.  In your recent message you said that there were no woman and children killed when the Jews defeated a city.  How do you explain then in Joshua 10 and 11 for example when scripture states in several places that "everything that had breath" and "every person in the city" was destroyed?  Looking forward to hearing back from you. 

RESPONSE: I'm so glad you came to AC3 this weekend!  Also grateful for your question, let me see if I can clarify.

My research leaned on Paul Copan, in his book, "Is God a Moral Monster?" and the work of Old Testament scholar Richard Hess and Philosopher William Lane Craig.  Copan makes the claim that the specific and repeated phrases used to recount the conquest, for example in Josh 10:39, "He destroyed everyone in it, leaving no survivors" is not unique to the Bible.  He suggests this is indicative of Ancient Near East hyperbolic ways of speaking effusively about military victory.  Related, Hess talks about what archaeology shows regarding the nature of the cities like Jericho and Ai, that they in fact were military garrisons, and not centers with large civilian populations.

So based on that work, I suggested the possibility that while the commands are to destroy everything in the Land, this amounted to destroying everything that remained in the land, as the Israelites "drove them out".  And it is a striking note of the conquest narratives over some 20 chapters that there is not one mention of women or children being killed.  So Copan doesn't argue with the descriptors in Joshua 10 and 11, "there were no survivors" and "he completely destroyed everyone in the land" - he just makes the point that we are not bound to believe that those who were destroyed MUST have included non-combatants.

Something I didn't include was that in Joshua 11:19 the author says that no one "made peace with Israel" except Gibeon, which suggests that while they were to "make no covenant" with the inhabitants, terms of expulsion were nevertheless offered and in most cases not received.  Given Israel's success, Gibeon's fear and desperate attempt to save their own necks shows that any who remained to stand against this onslaught were only those fully prepared to stay and fight to the death.  Remember I said the phrase "drive them out" outnumbers the phrase "destroy totally" by 3 to 1 in the conquest narratives.

The bible further confirms some kind of treaty was possible, when it says God hardened them against such possible peaceful expulsion, so that he might execute judgement against them, Judges 11:20.  Also, confirming the suspicion that non-combatants fled and hid and were not part of the destruction is the fact that when you open the book of Judges, directly after the conquest, there are Canaanites everywhere!  (Judges 2:2-23).

While acknowledging these factors, I also said we still have to deal with the commands to kill "ALL", whether or not they entailed the actual killing of non-combatants.  So I endeavored to also cover that much harder problem when I discussed the "divine command" theory of moral duty.  It was not wrong to destroy all in the land because God commanded it but would have been, if he did not.  The question then is, are these commands consistent with God's love and justice?  And there I said they were, given the eternal stakes involved.

I think you might be helped by a deep dive into the topic.  William Lane Craig, despite evidence that non-combatants were not involved, sees full justification for the conquest even if all the verbiage of "men and woman", "everything that breathes" was literally carried out.  He does that in this Q & A post:

If you go there, please click on the other link embedded, where he gives a longer answer to the question of God's justification to command to slaughter of innocents.

To read a summary of Copan’s paper on this, go here:

Here is a video of Dr Richard Hess on this topic:

Monday, November 27, 2017

Is Christmas pagan, and therefore wrong to celebrate?

QUESTION:  Is Christmas OK to celebrate or are the trappings so pagan they are wrong to participate in?  Please comment on this site: Do you think the “no-Christmas” stance advocated here potentially borders on legalism?

RESPONSE:  Having looked at this tract, I think you've stumbled onto a hyper-Protestant overreaction to Roman Catholicism.  The author of the tract, Pastor Meyer (deceased) was saved out of an occult background so his writings and tracts present heavy condemnation on anything that is directly or even remotely associated with paganism, witchcraft and spiritism.  While there are many things to be concerned with in the occult, the effect of this tract feels like that of the militant ex-addict we all know, who no longer sees any difference between a beer and a binge.

The evidence of overstatement in his arguments can be seen easily enough in the first two of his "three things wrong with Christmas".

First, he states with complete confidence that the Bible says Jesus was born in September, which is nowhere in Scripture.  Ironic.  When you throw anything 'Roman Catholic' under the bus because they purportedly invent traditions that just aren't in Scripture, then I feel you better be really sure you aren't doing the same.  I've heard all the arguments for why Jesus was possibly born in December or September or even the Spring, but all of them lack this one thing:  explicit biblical support.  They are all cases build totally on circumstantial evidence and Scriptural inferences.

Which doesn't mean none of the positions has historical merit, it just means we don't know for sure.  And that means it doesn't matter, for sure.  Clearly, Jesus was born!  But anyone who celebrates that event, is going to be doing so on a somewhat arbitrary date.   That the author's biggest problem with Christmas is that it should be in September not December, tells you everything you need to know about how he's going to use Scripture: he going to read his thoughts into it, rather than extracting God's thoughts out of it, and making bold pronouncements out of the scantest evidence.

Second, he states that trees and holly are "strictly forbidden".  Where?  Of course, the Bible nowhere forbids people to put a tree with lights in their living room.  The principle he suggests forbids this, is the principle of God's people separating from pagan beliefs and practices.  Jer 10.  Yes, this is an important principle.  But let us have a complete understanding of how this principle played out before we apply it to Christmas. 

Jeremiah 10:2 says, "do not learn their ways".  Their ways included, but not limited to what the same Prophet lists in chapter 7:5-9:  idol worship, murder, infanticide etc.  Idol worship is clearly a huge concern, but are the symbols and trappings of Christmas idols to other gods?  

No Christian who puts a tree in their home or holly on their door is doing so to appeal to a god who is not the Lord. They don't do so to gain favor with that god and they surely don't support the immoral practices that God detests in Jeremiah 7 - which pagan idolatry did.  So the principles forbidding the occult can't apply to Christmas traditions as MOST people practice them.  

A case might be made that the commercialism we've attached to Christmas is idolatrous, since Paul says that greed is an idol (Col 3:5) and our obsession with things may elevate acquisition and materialism above God in our heart's affection.  In that same sense, we might also say Christmas trappings, could, if  they lead us into real temptation to do real evil are to be avoided.  But in and of themselves, these things are amoral.  As music also is, depending on how it's used.

A Yule log was a pagan tradition - no one doubts this.  Gift giving, the winter solstice rites surrounding the coming of the longer days... all of this had pagan expressions in Europe.  Now, the author will even admit a certain amount of strategic thinking on the part of the church as it accepted and changed these rituals and infused them with Christian meaning.  But the Author goes further saying, the Church said, "bring your gods, goddesses, rituals and rites, and we will assign Christian sounding titles and names to them...".  

To clarify, the Roman Church never told European pagans to "bring their gods into the church" to worship along side of Christ.  This is wild overstatement.  It did however, accept many pagan rituals as it Christianized the continent.  This missionary policy had some problems (the attempted conversion of the Knight ideal has to be considered troublesome on any scale) but on some level it was genius.  Without compromising the truth about Christ, their compromises with pagan culture showed that the Christian message had deep relevance to the world they lived in.  It showed (as with the Athenians in Acts 17) that some of what they had done in ignorance, the Gospel would fully explain/fulfill.

For example, having Christmas at the winter solstice, is a beautiful expression of the Light of God coming to the world.  The same is true with taking an evergreen tree and seeing in it the promise of eternal life, or taking holly and seeing the blood of Jesus and the crown of thorns.  Same is true of the lights and fires the Church appropriated to point to the Light of the World, and same is true with gift giving showing us how God so loved the world that he GAVE his only Son.

In this way, the gospel didn't repudiate paganism as a whole but rather FULFILLED it.  

Yes, many perversions about God are in paganism - but it's basic instinct was to see spiritual reality in nature.  Do we think it's for no reason that Resurrection is celebrated in Spring?  The date of that event is known with certainty, as it parallels Passover, and I see God's romantic touch in the timing.  We propose to our girlfriends in the place we first dated, or first kissed or first saw each other.  You can propose anywhere, why there?  Because the time and the place and the physical setting add weight and symbolic significance to our hearts which respond to metaphor.

That the Father raised Jesus from the dead in Spring is perfectly consistent with that same God calling for New Moon festivals, and calling for the sacrifice of animals, or approving palm trees and flowers carved into his Temple, or enshrining other festivals around the cycles of the harvest.  So we follow in God's example then, when we use symbols, settings, and rituals found in God's nature to add weight to our memory of his work and his love.

Just because a thing is from nature, doesn't automatically make it pagan, or demonic.  And the truth is, even if the devil could use some natural thing, like an animal or a physical ritual to imprison people to himself, expose his power or dumb down our view of God (Romans 1), nature finally doesn't belong to him!!  If he is using it to promote his power or obscure God, then it is the right and privilege of the people of God to relieve him of it!  If it's the devil's rituals, they are stolen goods and we, the children of God, rightly steal them back!  He holds no ground in this world that's rightfully his.  He only perverts what isn't his originally.  Evil is a parasite, Lewis once said.

So I do not approach the use of formerly pagan trappings with fear, cowed by their former meaning, former owner, former usage, or former evil associations, if any.  The earth is the Lord's and I am the Lord's and so the earth is mine.  A Yule log is mine to burn in the fireplace and I remember the warmth of God's grace coming to my cold heart.  A wreath is mine to hang on the door and say to my neighbors, eternal evergreen life is celebrated in this home!

Yes, I think the no-Christmas stance not only borders on legalism, it marches right on in!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Is Suicide the Unforgiveable Sin?

Question: What happens to a person once they commit suicide? I have always been taught that they go to hell. If all sins are equal, then why is this one so unforgivable?

Answer: There is nothing in Scripture that teaches us that suicide is the unforgivable sin.  I believe it has been the teaching of the Catholic church that all Suicides go to hell, but this isn't explicitly taught in the Bible. 

If one wanted to build an assumption about suicide and salvation, it's not hard to imagine that suicide is not a good sign that a person is heaven-bound – since it is such a final and unrepentant act of rebellion against God.  Also, no suicide in the Bible is of a righteous person (Saul, Judas, etc).  And if it’s true that the New Birth leads to new life, then suicide is a horrible report card on whether the Birth has happened.  It’s a not a good report card on a person's inner journey.

However, while all of that is true, and while the Bible teaches that a person who is heaven bound is born anew and as such should be increasing in their love for God and man (including themselves)... still, no person who experiences new life lives perfectly without sin. (1 John 1:8). 

And thus you are correct in assuming that NO SIN is unforgivable... (with one exception, which I’ll comment on in a second) and that NO Christian is without sin.  In one sense, a Christian dying while committing suicide is not terribly different than a Christian dying while committing adultery.  Neither is a good way to go out but both have happened to true Christians before.  If we believe that we are saved by grace through Christ and not by acts of righteousness (Rom 3:21.22), then it is faith and God's wonderful mercy and not any one act of sin that determines heaven or hell.

The idea that all suicides MUST go to hell is partly built on the faulty idea that a Christian is forgiven, and heaven-bound, but only if they can repent of each and every sin they commit after the New Birth.  And obviously Suicide is an act that no one can repent of because it is their last act.  But this idea of "YO-YO" salvation based on our moment by moment "performance" violates the very idea of Adoption which the Bible repeatedly uses as a descriptor for what happens in Salvation (Rom 8:23).  If I am adopted into God's family, by grace, then one sin does not kick me out (1 John 2:1).  In fact, nothing can keep me from the "love of God in Christ Jesus"... not hardship or danger or sword, or a bad week where I sin repeatedly. (Romans 8:28-39)

 Now, there IS one sin that is unforgivable.  Jesus said: 
Matt 12:31  And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven..."  

So there IS an unforgivable sin – the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Could that be suicide? What could that mysterious sin be?  I believe this isn't as complicated as some make it.  What does the Holy Spirit come to do?  He brings the saving benefits of forgiveness to human hearts.  So this means, everything is forgivable except this one thing:  the rejecting of forgiveness. That’s a sin for which there is no forgiveness.

So we can say that suicide could only be the unforgivable sin IF it is a person's deliberate sin against the Holy Spirit, an final rejection of his saving benefits and healing touch. Then suicide marks a person for hell.  But in all reality, that person was probably headed there already.  Suicide isn't the magic act that condemns a person, but it may be the final outward sign of a continual, inward rejection of grace.

While we cannot make pronouncements of anyone's eternal destiny based on any one act of sin, (or many acts of righteousness for that matter!) we can say this:  Christians should be living out new Life in increasing love and victory, but only God knows the heart.  Suicide is, at best, a mark of a defeated Christian who did not access God's power for New Life in a critical way.  At worst, however, it may be the outward expression of the spiritual death that hangs over this person's soul, evidence of still being dead in sin, and therefore a dark harbinger of their eternity. (Eph 1:1-6)

It's up to God to know what suicide means for any individual person.  If they claimed to be a follower of Christ, their salvation was not determined by enough good works, or the absence of all sin.  Thank God!  It's about grace.  And we shouldn’t assume any such individuals are in hell.  However, grace works.  So suicide, while not directly corresponding to damnation, is surely an ending no Christian who claims to have God's power at work in them would want to choose.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Is there a Difference Between a Believer and A Disciple?

QUESTION: Is there a difference between a Believer and a Disciple? If you walk away from the faith - were you ever truly saved?

ANSWER: Thanks for the question.  I’ll summarize the argument from the article, and then respond to it.

The author saw the light when they realized that Christ’s offer of salvation is totally divorced from his call to followership.  One can merely believe the beliefs about Jesus, and not love or follow Jesus, and still be saved.  This liberated him from having to think that every Christian would automatically be a fruit-bearing, obedient disciple, since it seems in the real world that a lot of professed Christians walked in disobedience and failure.  So he had to believe either that the Holy Spirit had failed, and that God was  guilty of breaking his promise of “eternal life”, OR that these people simply were never Christians in the first place which seemed to deny their clear experience.

Rejecting those two options, the author now believes that “belief” in Scripture means simply ‘assent to truth’.  In other words, if I simply agree mentally to the idea that Jesus is a Savior, I have eternal life in that moment.  Following Jesus after that moment then, is optional, and a choice some Christians make and others don’t make.  And the reason to be a disciple then, and not just a believer is because many rewards are offered in heaven and to not follow or love Jesus after “belief” will cause you to suffer loss in heaven.

I understand why the author feels forced into this view, with certain verses in Scripture and experience suggesting it, but I think he’s actually not handling all the relevant Biblical data well.  So I think it’s an error to divorce salvation from discipleship and I’ll explain why.  But first, I should mention what his view has going for it. Two things:

  1. It very clearly affirms the Biblical teaching that salvation is by grace through faith and this is not our work, but wholly God’s.  One does not get cleaned up to take a bath, and the gospel is the bath, it washes us clean and no clean up prior to its reception is required.

  1. It effectively addresses verses that deal with reward in heaven and the neglected idea that just as the experience of hell will not be uniform, neither will the experience of heaven.  Faithful discipleship will yield reward in the New World.

Now, I poked around the articles by this same author just to see if he was going to deal with some very obvious Scriptural push back that came to mind.  I didn’t see him address it, so I remain skeptical until I see how he handles two ideas that recur in Scripture a lot:
  1. The idea that faith is not defined in most cases the way he defines it: as mere assent to certain propositions as knowledge.  In fact, faith is most often shown as a rich, beautiful term describing a whole person turning to Christ.  When it IS described as “mere belief” it is rebuked as unable to lead to salvation.

  1. The idea that it is quite possible for believers to lose their standing in grace.

Let me defend those two critiques. 

The bible connects belief and discipleship on almost every page – Jesus most often of all.  To imagine that Jesus’ repeated call to discipleship is not connected to his offer of salvation, you have presume that every time Jesus calls people to “follow” he is talking to people who are already-believers, and every time he calls people to “believe” in him, he’s talking to non-believers.   

Now, the author said he struggled when he connected belief and discipleship because he felt he had to overcomplicate the gospel message with complex definitions about what faith meant.  Ironically, if you separate them, you have to really overcomplicate the gospels, because you have to decide when Jesus was talking only to “believers” or to non-believers and why.  To claim that every call to follow was given to people who already believed strains the text to the breaking point.

One potent example: Matt 19:16-22. The case is the rich young ruler who wants eternal life.  Jesus turns him to the law.  He confidently asserts he’s obeyed the law, to which Jesus says, “One thing you lack.”  And then He calls for total commitment to himself, demonstrated in the selling of his possessions and following Jesus.

To maintain the divorcement of belief and following, our author must assert that this young man WAS ALREADY a believer.  If Jesus only called believers to discipleship, since Jesus is clearly calling the man to follow him, he must already be a believer.

But is that reasonable to assume?  He walks away from that conversation in tears, “grieving”, Matthew recounts.  Why?  Because he was going to go to heaven and get eternal life, but he was just going to miss out on some rewards?  No, the grief is only understandable when it’s connected to his first request – “how do I gain eternal life?”  This is what he assumes he is missing out on.  Did Jesus call after the man to say, “no my brother, don’t be sad, you are already saved because I know you already have “belief” in me (whatever that means).  I just want you to get your full reward in addition to eternal life!”?

No, he did not.  In fact, Jesus not only says no such thing, he also mentions directly following this how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:23).  So obviously what’s at stake in this exchange is eternal life.  Heaven.  Salvation.  Not rewards in heaven – heaven itself.  And it hangs on a clear call to repent.

At this point a word should be said about works-based salvation. Is Jesus putting works forward as the condition of salvation?  Not at all, as I argue in this post..  Jesus was shrewdly using the law as a teacher to drive the man toward Grace.  But what I also argue is that Jesus’ demand would have broken the rich man who relied on his wealth like an idol – and thus would have brought him to a faith-filled dependence on God’s mercy alone to be saved.

In other words, if he really applied what Jesus said, he would not get life by it, by rather he would die by it!!  Die to his idols, pride and self-sufficiency – and only then would he live – by grace.

This is so consistent across the gospels.  Jesus said, one must ‘lose his life for my sake, and live.”  Jesus said, “Whoever does not deny himself cannot be my disciple”.  The author here would try to convince us that he only said such things to already-believers whom we ought to presume were saved by merely thinking Jesus was a life giver.

But in Luke 14:25, it says that Jesus gave this challenge to “great crowds”.  These were all believers?  I supposed one could argue that since they were traveling with him they must already believe in him.  Perhaps, but then we consider that when Jesus went from town to town his message was consistently, “repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

That one sentence tells us that belief in Jesus is something more than mere mental assent to a doctrinal position.  Faith then, is a robust thing, which includes repentance.  Connecting faith and repentance happens almost universally when the gospel is presented for salvation.  In the early church, for example: Acts 2:38-39:
“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So while we agree that Salvation is by faith alone, we see that the condition of “faith” is something richer and deeper than mere “belief”.  It is more like, “believing loyalty” as Dr Michael Heiser puts it.  Looking all over scripture at this majestic theme of salvation by grace through faith, what can we say such “believing loyalty” look like?

It looks like this (and none of these descriptors ought to be construed as “work”):

  • A broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:16-17)
  • Confession of sin (Ps 32:5)
  • Turning from sin (Matt 11:20 – note you can turn from sin without stopping all sin.  Repent means to “change the mind” – it denotes a repudiation of sin, which one can do before one even stops the sins.)
  • Belief – believing in the truth of God’s appointed means of reconciliation, Jesus Christ, born, crucified, raised from the dead (Romans 10:9).
  • Trust – a thing is true, therefore is worthy of trust.  So faith is a whole person casting of your sin and self onto the mercy of God in confidence he will save (Romans 10:11).
If we want to know for sure that when the Bible says “faith” it means more than mere “conviction in the mind something is true” – we need only look at when such a definition IS implied, it is strongly rebuked.

So in Romans 6:1 Paul addresses those who hear the good news of God’s unmerited favor by faith alone, and take it for permission to live in sin.  This is abhorrent to him.  He’s not merely saying, it’s a bad idea to sin all the more because God is so gracious because you might lose out on some reward.  He’s saying that it’s not consistent with the act of faith that brought you into Grace in the first place, and that act of faith is synonymous with dying, to self and to sin.

Again, this dying is not a work.  It is not something we do to earn salvation, it is part and parcel of true biblical Faith, without which we cannot be saved.

James most notably uses faith in the sense of “mere assent to certain doctrines”.  For he says, in 2:19:
“You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.”  
Clearly, to simply believe a doctrine, no matter how true, is useless.  If demons have true beliefs and their doom is certain, how can it be that humans could, by the mere presence of true beliefs in their minds about Jesus, be saved?

We can also add John to the list of those who assume that saving faith is something more than mere "assent to truth", and that continuing in an ongoing, unrepentant patterns of sin is inconsistent with the new life grace works into those who are born again.
1 John 3:6: “Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.” 

So the category of “believer who is saved but is unrepentant and keeps on undeterred in sin” is not a real category.

Therefore, a "believer" in New Testament parlance is synonymous with "disciple".  When a person comes to Jesus in saving faith, they come as a disciple ready to follow, or they haven’t really come.  They come broken, repentant, confessional, trusting and believing.  None of these things indicates sinlessness, none of these things is a work, none of these things earns salvation - these qualities merely define faith through which God’s grace becomes operative in our lives for salvation and sanctification.

Now, is every repentant believer following Jesus well?  Of course not.  And the Bible certainly has a category for these people.  But they are not called “non-disciples”.  They are called young, or weak, or immature (Heb 5:11-14).  There are ignorant believers in the book of Acts who have much to learn about the way of Jesus, but they are still called disciples (Acts 19:1).

In fact, think of the incoherence of Acts if the apostles truly did divorce belief from followership, believers from disciples.  When Acts says Paul “taught the disciples”, or when it says the council “wrote to the disciples” or when it says Paul “strengthened all the disciples” we would have to conclude all these references are to only half the church.  These would have to be references to only the sold-out ones who had truly repented of sin and taken on Jesus as Lord.  Are we to assume the “mere believers” are just hanging out at the fringes of the New Testament community, continuing in sin, not loving Jesus at all, but somehow intellectually accepting that he’s the Messiah?  Of course not.  In fact the term “believers” is used interchangeably with “disciples” (Acts 16:1).

Also, the letters of Paul would also make no sense if we divorce believing from following.  Clearly, the letters indicate many in the churches were ineffective, disobedient, struggling, and sinful.  I am all those things at times, but I still think I’m a disciple.  And Paul also thought of such imperfect followers as the “saints” (1 Cor 1:2).  They were all “holy ones”, by the merit of Jesus, even if immature, and struggling with the old life.  And yet, if they struggled so much that nothing in their lives showed the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit, Paul actually urged them to evaluate if they were saved. (2 Cor 13:3)  

This is only understandable if saving faith works.  Living things grow.  Yes, living things can also struggle; living things can be very unhealthy.  But all living things show some signs of life.  If there was no sign of life, it's hard to deny that Paul questioned if someone was saved.  Good deeds are not required to be saved – being saved leads inexorably to good deeds.

Now, your second question – Is the apostate someone who was never saved? 

Well, this author has a bit of a unique position.  Like a strong Calvinist he believes that God’s grace is effective and all saints persevere to the end without losing their salvation.  So if a saint does repudiate the faith, the Calvinist is forced to believe that such persons were never saved in the first place.

The author here parts company quite radically with that view and suggests that even if you repudiate the faith, if you ever expressed belief in Jesus (and remember his definition of belief is “mere assent to God’s truth”) you are saved nevertheless.  Yes, even if you become an atheist (same author, different post).

He loses me at that point.  This is to imagine that while God lays out faith as the only condition of salvation, yet if one expresses every sentiment in direct opposition to what we defined as “saving faith”, no belief, no trust, no repentance, no confession – that person will nevertheless be saved if at any point in their lives, they did one time assent to certain facts about Jesus.

This puts God in a terribly coercive posture, one that negates the will of the free moral agent made free in God’s Image.  To appeal to the prior free decision to believe to make this coercive “saving” fair or just, simply does not match the emphasis in scripture on how you finish your race, over how you begin it. 

Two core examples show this is what matters to God.
Ezek 33:13: When I tell the righteous person that he will surely live, but he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, then none of his righteousness will be remembered, and he will die because of the iniquity he has committed.

And Jesus in his parable in Matt 21:28-31
“But what do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go, work in the vineyard today.’ 29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to!’ Yet later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. “‘I will, sir,’ he answered. But he didn’t go. 31 “Which of the two did his father’s will?” “The first,” they said.
The simple way out of this problem is to open up a third possibility.  Instead of saying the apostate is saved against his own wishes AND instead of saying that he was never saved in the first place, even if lasting and deep evidence of new life suggested that he was – perhaps it is possible that a truly saved man can shipwreck his life of faith.

This may seem to fly in the face of “once saved always saved” but that probably ought not to matter if this 3rd way agrees with Scripture.  In fact, when we look at Scripture, Apostasy is a live possibility for every writer, and the Lord Himself.  Paul names two elders who “have suffered the shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:19).  These apostate elders are assumed to have had faith, and now assumed to be lost.  Jesus refers to plants from gospel seed that sprout up as really alive as any other seedlings. But some die and others produce fruit.  No mention in the parable of how the ones that are choked or die from shallow roots “were never really Christians after all”.

Maybe the best way to think about this, is that new life in Christ is like physical life.  Just like salvation, physical life is never given by merit.  It is bestowed as a gift from parentage which we did not earn or deserve.  But once given, this life goes a long way toward its own growth and flourishing.  It has internal unction, like our spiritual life lead and fed by the Holy Spirit inside.  Yet we are called to nurture this life, just like a man nurtures the life his parents gave him by exercise and good nutrition. 

If one neglects the gift-life given to him, he may become very unhealthy.  If he refuses to partner with that Life, He may become so unhealthy that he looks just like a cadaver.  It would take a close examination to see any signs of life, but they may still be there.  But finally, would it not be possible, just as a man can choose to drive his own physical life away by suicide, that the believer can commit spiritual suicide?

All Calvinists would deny this is possible from verses that speak of the security of the believer (John 10:28 etc.).  Without negating those, we note that the entire book of Hebrews, was written to impel Jewish disciples to not defect from faith in Christ at risk of their own souls (Heb 6:1-6).  This one book by itself suggests true apostasy is a live option for every believer.  Why else write the book?

To suggest that the writer was only writing to Christians whom he knew could not defect from salvation, to threaten them into better behavior, casts a terrible light on the author’s motives.  A more natural assumption is to take the writer at face value: Heb 6:11-12
Now we want each of you to demonstrate the same diligence for the final realization of your hope, 12 so that you won’t become lazy, but imitators of those who inherit the promises through faith and perseverance.
Some Christians will disagree with this possibility, and that’s not the really important thing.  What’s most important is to realize that it is far more important how one ends their race than how they began it.  And that’s true no matter if the bad end proves that the good beginning was false OR even if it was real!  The emphasis is still, end well!  The author of the article, suggesting the end of your race is irrelevant as any indicator of your standing in faith doesn’t add up.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why Does God Rename People?

QUESTION: I find it very confusing that the names of people seem to change with each chapter in Genesis. Why is this? I ask cause I have a hard time with the whole identity thing at times cause i was given up at 12. I woke up one day and was known as a totally different person. Do you think the people of the bible found it hard to have God change their names? Why would God one day wake up and decide to change someone's identity?

ANSWER: I can understand why having your name changed due to abandonment could make you feel like your identity was being stripped.  And you are right that your name does make a person feel connected to who they are. But if you look at the times that God renames people, it’s very good that God changes names, because he’s trying to replace a deficient identity with a much better one.

So for example, Abram means exalted father.  But after God blesses Abram in Gen 17, he is called Abraham – "father of many". Because he has been called by God to a much, much bigger calling than merely having a great household with many riches and servants. He is told that through him ALL the nations will be blessed.  So in renaming him, God raises his purpose, and calls him into a life that’s so much bigger than he could have ever imagined.

He wasn’t destroying his identity, so much as moving him into his TRUE identity.  But that identity was not something he could have known outside of relationship with God. He couldn’t just pick a new name for himself.  It has to be given by God.  For God knows all our secrets and hidden potentials and he knows what only HE can do with us. 

So he’s an expert in taking what is small and limited in us, and expanding it wildly. Then he gives us that new identity, and amazing things happen.

It's true, Abraham resists his new name from God.  But that just indicates how attached we can be to an old person, disappointing and disappointed, yet familiar. We're limited by our past and can't imagine the power of God and what he can do in us, through us. Just think, for the man who has no kids, his given name is a bitter irony: Exalted father, childless!! God steps in and says, not just you’ll have a son, but you’ll be the father of MANY NATIONS!! More than he could ask or imagine. That’s the power of God’s grace in renaming us in Christ.

Jacob’s name change is also like this, only more drastic. Jacob means, “one who grasps the heel” – metaphorically this meant, deceiver, or usurper.  The guy who trips other people up.  And that’s who he had been up to the name change.  He makes his way in life by being sneaky.  By telling lies.  By being smarter than the next guy and cunningly outwitting his opponents. Trying to stay one step ahead of his manipulations, with his Father, his older brother, Esau, and his father in law, Laban.

When God calls him back to his homeland, he has to face all his lies and trickery. He probably doesn’t want to go, but he’s burned his bridges with Laban - and learned what it is to be on the receiving end of deception.  So he goes back humbled.  But he’s terrified.  He gave Esau good reason to want him dead, and Esau had the means to do it, and had made the threat. 

On the way home, he separates his family and belongings into two camps to protect them, he sends gifts on ahead to placate his brother.  But he has no peace.
That night, he meets God.  The Angel of Yahweh (some think this was a pre-incarnation of Jesus himself) wrestles with him.  This is so profound!  Jacob has tried to get what God was willing to give him all along – by his own means.  Deceiving and struggling with others to get the blessing that God would give him freely.

So now he literally wrestles with the Angelic figure, and in the process God wounds him.  But Jacob, desperate and insecure still, asks for a blessing – knowing somehow he is having a divine encounter.  And the Angel first asks him his name.  Why?  The name Jacob is not just a name – it’s a confession!  To name his old name is to confess who he WAS – a deceiver, “the one who grasps the heel”.  That’s not who you will be, God is trying to tell him, but  I can’t bless you until you can say it and see it – Jacob. 

And then, God gives him his new name, his God-identity:  Israel - "the one who wrestles with God".  For Jacob wasn’t to be the man who gets what he wants by back-channels.  He is to be the man who gets the blessing by being in the face of God, fighting there, pouring out his strength before God, and not being satisfied with anything less than God’s touch, God’s way, even if it wounds him. 

He had been "Jacob", trying to get God’s blessing avoiding pain, now he is Israel not avoiding the pain by cleverness or deception, but struggling with God in the open, and blessing follows.  The Bible says, he leaves that encounter limping, but the "sun shone down on him".  The clouds have lifted, he knows who he is.

I hope you can see just how beautiful this name changing business is. Peter was Simon… and Simon was particularly loud and impetuous, rash and impulsive.  And despite that natural wiring for flakiness, which got him into a lot of trouble, Jesus sees the gifting for leadership, for faith and courage – and so nicknames him “Rock”. Peter.

In a sense, the Gospel renames ALL of us. In older Christian traditions, now unfortunately lost, Christians would often get renamed at baptism, and you’d never hear their old name again. What a great way to think about coming out of darkness of sin, into the light of grace.  You get a new identity in Christ, no longer unloved, now loved. No longer alone, now adopted. No longer sinner, now “Christian” – literally “little Christ”. Rev 2:17 says it like this:
"Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it."
So maybe ask yourself, what was my old name (identity) and what is my new name in Jesus? God might surprise you with his answer.

Do We Shorten Our Lives by Being Disobedient?

Thanks for your question.

The Bible has a lot to say about this.  It does not definitively correlate the length of our lives with our obedience, however, Scripture does in fact say that when we get on God's page, his commandments do lead to longer life.  They are said to be for our benefit and flourishing, and thus would be conducive to long life.

This just makes sense.  If God is our Creator then he knows how the human machine runs best and his moral duties and commands are like the operator's manual for ourselves and our lives with others.  And to not follow the manufacturer's instructions would lead to malfunction and shorter life.  So Moses will say about God's commands:
Deut. 5:33:  Follow the whole instruction the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, prosper, and have a long life in the land you will possess.
And again God's promise to Solomon:
1 Kings 3:14:  If you walk in My ways and keep My statutes and commandments just as your father David did, I will give you a long life.”
Again if you find God's wisdom, you conform your life to God's good way and it leads to happy outcomes including longer life:
Prov 3:13-16
Happy is a man who finds wisdom
and who acquires understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver,
and her revenue is better than gold.
15 She is more precious than jewels;
nothing you desire compares with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
in her left, riches and honor.
Some of these promises should not be considered to be merely the special favor God supernaturally puts on the obedient.  It's that the obedient avoid life shortening behaviors by living God's way which GENERALLY lead to longer life. 

For example, the overarching command to love our neighbor as ourselves, means the obedient will not engage in behaviors that abuse themselves or others, which lead to incarceration, or vengeance, addiction, violence, or other bodily harm.  People in Christian medical sharing co-ops pay very reduced monthly premiums.  Why?  Because the people in the pool covenant to not engage in behaviors prohibited in God's Word, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, addictive substances, gluttony.  They all will (on average) live longer, therefore will pay less medical costs because of their obedient lifestyles.

Now, on the other hand, the Bible takes note of the times when the disobedient seem to live long and prosper.  For example:
Jer. 12:1-2: You will be righteous, Lord, even if I bring a case against You.  Yet, I wish to contend with You: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do the treacherous live at ease? 2 You planted them, and they have taken root. They have grown and produced fruit.
And again:
Ps. 73:1-4: God is truly good to Israel, to those whose lives are pure.  2 But my feet had almost stumbled. They had almost slipped because I was envious of arrogant people when I saw the prosperity that wicked people enjoy. 4 They suffer no pain. Their bodies are healthy.
So there are times when those who are disobedient live long and prosper.  It could be that part of their long life is due to the fact that they obey God's design instructions in SOME areas, but they are disobedient in other areas.  For example, they obey the Bible's instructions that relate to physical health, but in their arrogance they are hard-hearted and greedy and cruel. 

JP Getty lived a long time - 83 - but he was a man of 4 marriages, sexual immorality, acrimony and conflict in his home, estrangement from his children and a tight-fisted, angry man who once refused the ransom demand for his own kidnapped grandson.  The Bible acknowledges these examples when disobedience DOES NOT correlate to shorter life.

Then, on the opposite side of this, sometimes, the obedient live very short lives. Very recently, a wonderful man, Nabeel Quarishi, a gifted Christian speaker, a medical doctor, a defender of the Christian faith, died.  Stage 4 stomach cancer found last year.  And he was 34, leaving a young wife and a little daughter behind.  Why?  It cannot be because he was flagrantly disobeying God or his good instructions for life.

We don't always know why obedience isn't ALWAYS connected to long life, or disobedience to short life.  But we know that God is generous with everyone, the righteous and the unrighteous.  Jesus said, in Matt 5:45-46: "God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  It's God's grace to all of us that we live even for the next moment, and the next.  God doesn't owe us a single moment, all of life is a gift.

So with a kind of child-like trust, we entrust to God those situations which do not match, when bad behavior does not correlate to shorter life, or vice versa.  And we can be happy that God is gracious to us all, that in some sense, as measured by the spiritual demands of God's holiness, NONE of us is obedient.  

And so every breath, every moment we live, no matter how long or short, we are living on grace.  None of us has EARNED a long life.  It may be we have done things that on average will lead to a long life, and God's commands and promises should be seen as blessing us that way.  And disobedience can have many natural consequences, some of which are to curtail physical health and longevity.

But the most important thing is that as long as we live, we remember God blessed all us disobedient ones by sending his own Son to extend our lives indefinitely!  I quote the Apostle Paul at length:
Rom 5:7-10: We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. 8 But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.  9 Now that we are set right with God by means of this sacrificial death, the consummate blood sacrifice, there is no longer a question of being at odds with God in any way. 10 If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!  THE MESSAGE
So the most important thing is that every moment we live we are able to call God our Father, Abba, whether sick or well, old or young, well fed or hungry.  One day, long or short, this life will end.  Then what?  For us in Christ, made new by his forgiving love, true Living only then begins.