The Immortality Of The Soul – Truth or Myth? (Part 1)

In this study we will examine the biblical data to answer questions regarding the soul. What is the soul? Is the soul immortal? What happens when people in general and Christians in specific die? What is the difference between the soul and spirit? We will examine these questions from a biblical and a popular Christian perspective, but will not look at beliefs of other religions regarding the soul.

What Is The Soul?

Before we delve into Scripture I want to look at what Christians of the past and at present have said concerning the nature of the soul. It has been the common belief from the times of early Church fathers, starting with Justin (c.150), that the human soul is the immaterial part of a person, distinct from the body. It is believed that this soul is the true person which inhabits the body, the ‘ghost in the machine‘ as it were. The soul is assumed to be immortal and so lives on in conscious and sentient existence after the death of the body. Now not all the church fathers believed the same things concerning the soul. Tertullian, for example, held that the soul was not immaterial but corporeal in substance. He seems to have come to this understanding based on the story of Lazarus and the rich man found in Luke 16, which we will examine later, and on certain philosophical arguments.

Some fathers did not hold to the immortality of the soul, such as Tatian. However, the immortality of the soul does appear to have been the predominate view among the church fathers. (By immortality of the soul I am referring to the belief that the soul is alive, conscious and active in the intermediate state between a person’s death and resurrection). Here are a few quotes to demonstrate this fact:

  1. Irenaeus c. 180 – “… souls not only continue to exist (after death) … but that they preserve the same form as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased …”    Against Heresies: Book II, Ch. 34
  2. Tertullian c. 210 – “The attributes which belong to the soul’s own proper condition are these: immortality, rationality, sensibility, intelligence, and freedom of the will.”
  3. Origen c. 248 – “That the human soul lives and subsists after it’s separation from the body is believed not only among Christians and Jews, but also by many others among the Greeks and barbarians.”
  4. Origen c. 225 – “The apostolic teaching is that the soul, after it’s departure from the world, will be recompensed according to it’s deserts. For it has a substance and life of it’s own.
  5. Methodius c. 290 – “It is the body that dies; the soul is immortal.”
  6. Novation c. 235 – “Only the flesh suffers the effects of wasting and death. But the soul is uncorrupted and beyond the laws of destruction and death.”
  7. Lactantius c. 304-313 – The soul cannot entirely perish,  for it received it’s origin from the Spirit of God, which is eternal … So long as the soul is united with the body it is destitute of virtue, and it grows sick by the contagion of the body and from sharing it’s frailty … However, once the soul is disunited from the body, it will flourish by itself …  It is not the soul that becomes senseless when the body fails. Rather it is the body that becomes senseless when the soul takes it’s departure.”

So we see that this was the nearly universal belief of the early fathers. But from where did they derive this view that the soul of a man can live in conscious and sentient existence apart from the body? From Scripture? We will answer this question shortly, but first let’s see how modern Christians have carried on this view of the soul.

The popular internet site GotQuestions.org answers the question, “What is the human soul?” like this:

“Simply stated, the human soul is the part of a person that is not physical. It is the part of every human being that lasts eternally after the body experiences death … we know that the soul is different from the body and that it continues to live after physical death.”

“The human soul is central to the personhood of a human being. As George MacDonald said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a human body.”

Christian author and apologist J. Warner Wallace, on his website Cold-Case Christianity, has an article titled The Brief Biblical Case for the Eternal Life of the Soul. In this article there are four subheadings which are assertions he is making about the soul.They are as follows:

  1. Souls Are Alive With God Immediately After the Death of the Body
  2. Souls Are Functional Immediately After the Death of the Body
  3. Souls Are Available Immediately After the Death of the Body
  4. Souls Are the Source of Life Immediately After the Death of the Body

Under each of these subheadings he gives what he deems is sufficient scriptural support for the assertion. We will come back to this article later to interact with this scriptural support.

Dr Wayne Grudem answers the question “What is the soul?” in his online systematic theology course. Here is what he says:

“Most evangelical theologians don’t hold this view (monism) because so many scriptural texts seem to affirm that our souls or spirits live on after our bodies die.”

“… Scripture is very clear that we do have a soul that is distinct from our physical bodies, which not only can function somewhat independently of our ordinary thought processes … but also, when we die, is able to go on consciously acting and relating to God apart from our physical bodies.”

These leading voices within Christianity today seem to agree with the early fathers in their view of the soul and also in their affirmation that scripture teaches this view. But is this view of the soul really derived from scripture?

If The Root Is Unholy …

Now whether or not this view of the soul is based on scripture may be subjective. Each of  the above articles provide what the authors feel are scriptural proofs for this belief. Later we will examine these scriptures to see if they really do support this view or if this is a case of reading into the scriptures what is perceived as the ‘orthodox’ view. In other words, is this view assumed and then scripture read in such a way as to lend credence to it. It seems that today’s Christian world simply accepts this view because it has been the dominate view for so long. It is the view which Christiandom today has inherited from the early fathers. Only fringe ‘Christian’ groups have denied it, such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christadelphians. What is clear is that the concept of the soul as a distinct entity from the body that can live on independently apart from the body is most certainly of pagan origin. The roots of this belief are to be found in ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religion:

“The belief that the soul continues in existence after the dissolution of the body is…speculation…nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture…The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended” ( Jewish Encyclopedia, 1941, Vol. 6, “Immortality of the Soul,” pp. 564, 566).

As the above quote states, the foundations of the belief in the immortal soul are in ancient Egypt, but the more immediate influence upon early Christianity was Greek philosophy. Plato was the chief proponent of the concept of the immortal soul among the Greek philosophers and it appears that he derived it from direct contact with Egyptian mystery religion. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian philosopher, in his work titled Stromata (c. 195), in Book 1 Ch. 15, states:

“And Plato does not deny that he procured all that is most excellent in philosophy from the barbarians; and he admits that he came into Egypt.”

By the time of the early church fathers, the belief in the immortal soul was so well established and universally accepted through the predominance of Greek culture and philosophy, that it is no wonder they just passed on what they themselves had been taught. For most of these church fathers had a thoroughly Greek education in one or more of the philosophical schools prior to their conversion to Christianity.

Not only were the Greeks influenced by Egyptian religion, but many centuries before, the Canaanite peoples would have been influenced by and would have influenced Egyptian religion. For more than three hundred years Egypt ruled Canaan, and from the constant concourse between the two there was much intermingling of their religions, cultures, art, etc. Elements of Egyptian religion can be found in Canaan and vice versa. It would appear from biblical texts that a belief in a soul which survives the death of the body was common among the Canaanites. Perhaps the Canaanites derived it from ancient Babylonia and passed it on to the Egyptians. At any rate, we can see from the prohibition in the law of Moses against following the detestable practices of the Canaanites, that a belief in life after death must have been a part of their religion. In Deut. 18:9-12 the Israelites are forbidden to practice many of the occult practices of the Canaanites, including “inquir(ing) after the dead.” If one is going to inquire after the dead they must necessarily believe the dead to be alive in some sense. This prohibition does not say anything about the legitimacy of that belief, only that the attempt to contact the dead is detestable to God {see also Is. 8:19}. Later we will look at 1 Sam. 28:4-20 where King Saul consults a medium to inquire of the prophet Samuel who had previously died.

Just as Israelites living in Canaan were influenced by the religious beliefs and practices of the original inhabitants remaining among them, so were early Gentile Christians influenced by the predominate beliefs of the cultures in which they had been brought up. Some of these beliefs were carried over into their new found faith and adapted to the biblical writings. The belief in the immortality of the soul is one such belief. Yes, there were passages in the scriptures which seemed to lend credence to this belief and so it was easy and natural for them to see this concept as part of divine revelation. They even praised the Greek philosophers for having seen this ‘truth’ without the aid of revelation.

The Soul In Hebrew Scripture

The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh. It occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Bible, with a wide semantic range, but even then The Westminster Theological Wordbook Of The Bible can say this regarding the word ‘soul’:

“The English word ‘soul’ often denotes the inner person, conceived of as independent of the body. This is a rare usage in Scripture …”    pg. 482

Perhaps the most important occurrence of this word, as it relates to the nature of human beings is in Gen 2:7, which reads:

“And Yahweh God formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living nephesh.”

It should be noted just how the scripture speaks concerning man. It does not say that God formed a body for the man out of the ground and then put a soul into it. It says “Yahweh formed the man of the dust of the ground and breathed into (him) the breath of life.” This is important to our understanding of what constitutes a human person from a biblical perspective. The common belief that the true person is distinct from the body is a false notion. Whatever it means to be a human person must include the body. It is not uncommon to hear pastors or Christian teachers say to their students, “You are not your body” or “Your soul is the real you.” But I think that misses the point. From this verse we can conclude that a human being is a body + the breath of life. This (the body + the breath of life) is what scripture calls a living soul.” Most English versions translate this as living being” or living creature.”

Now the strange thing about this is that I had always been taught that what set man apart from the animals is that man had a soul and animals did not. But this turns out to be a false idea. The very same words used with reference to man are used in reference to animals – “living creature” (Heb. nephesh chay). In the creation account in Genesis 1 we  read:

“And God said, ‘Let the waters teem with a swarm of living creatures” (nephesh chay) … So God created great sea creatures and every living creature (nephesh chay) that glides, which swarm the waters according to their kind …’ ”   vv. 20-21

Here we see that the oceans teem with ‘living souls.’ The same is said of land animals:

“And God said, ‘ Let the earth bring forth living creatures (nephesh chay) according to their kind, livestock and creeping things and living things of the earth, according to their kind.’ ”  v.24

In Gen. 9, after the flood, God tells Noah, “Behold I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”:

“and with every living creature (nephesh chay) that is with you, the birds, the livestock and every living thing that came out of the ark with you – every living thing of the earth.”   vv. 9-10

Other occurrences of the word nephesh (soul) in reference to animals of all sorts are found in Lev. 11:10, 46; 24:18- (lit. kills the soul of an animal); Job 12:7-10; Prov. 12:10; Ez. 47:9.

Nephesh As Life

Often nephesh denotes a persons life. This can be seen clearly in many passages, such as Ex. 21:23 – “But if injury occurs, you shall appoint life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Here “life for life” translates ‘nephesh for nephesh.’ This verse speaks of the penalty to be meted out upon one who causes injury to another. It is easy to see how the idea of soul as an immaterial part of a man that can live independent from the body, does not fit this verse. It obviously refers to the life of a person, i.e. if death occurs then the one at fault must pay with his own life. Here are other verses where nephesh carries this obvious meaning:

  • 1 Sam. 28:9“But the woman said to him, ‘Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my soul (nephesh = life) to bring about my death.’ ”
    Because ‘set a trap for my soul‘ is juxtaposed to ‘bring about my death‘ we know that the medium is referring to her ‘life’ not some supposed immortal soul.
  • 2 Sam. 14:7 – “Now the whole clan has risen up against your servant, saying, ‘Hand over the one who struck his brother down, so that we may put him to death for the soul  (nephesh = life) of his brother whom he killed.’ “
    A man had slain his brother and so must pay with his own life. Did he slay his brother’s immortal soul or did he take his life?
  • Joshua 2:14 – The two spies sent into Jericho told Rahab, “Our souls for yours!” nephesh = lives).
    Were the two spies trading off their immortal souls for the immortal souls of Rahab and her family or their lives for the lives of Rahab and her family?
  • Gen. 19:17 “It came to pass when they had brought them out, that he said, “Escape for your soul (nephesh = life); do not look back or remain in the plain. Escape to the mountains are you will be destroyed.’ ”
    Was Lot’s immortal soul in danger by the impending judgment on Sodom or was his life in danger?
  • Deut. 12:23“Only be sure that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the soul (nephesh = life) and you may not eat the soul with the meat.”
    Is a creatures blood it’s immortal soul or it’s life?
  • Other verses are Ex. 4:19; Jdg. 12:3; 18:25; 1 Sam. 19:5; 22:23; 25:29; 2 Sam. 19:5; 1 Kings 20:39; 2 Kings 1:13; 10:24; Jer. 38:16; Ez. 27:13.

Nephesh As The Self

Another obvious meaning of nephesh is that it denotes the self, and in this regard can be translated as I, myself, me, you, us, they, etc. Here are some verses in this vein:

  • Gen. 27:4“Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you (Lit. that my soul may bless youbefore I die.”
  • 1 Sam. 1:26“And she said to him, ‘As surely as you live (Lit. as your soul lives), my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to Yahweh.’ “
  • Psalm 124:4“the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us.” (Lit. over our soul).
  • Psalm 11:1“In Yahweh I put my trust. How then can you say to me (Lit. to my soul), ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain.’ “
  • Isaiah 66:3c ” …They have chosen their own ways, and they delight (Lit. their souls delight) in their abominations.”
  • Psalm 78:50“He prepared a path for his anger; he did not spare them (Lit. spare their souls) from death but gave them over to the plague.”
  • Psalm 139:14“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, that I know (Lit. my soul knows) full well.”
  • Other verses are Gen. 19:20; 49:6; Num. 23:10; Judges 16:30; 1 Sam. 17:55; 1 Kings 20:32; Ps. 59:3; 88:3; 143:3; Jer. 18:20.

This category is obvious and self- explanatory, and makes up the majority among the different usages of nephesh.

Nephesh As Person

In this category, people and even animals are simply referred to as nephesh. This meaning is clear in the following verses:

  • Gen. 12:5“Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people (Lit. the souls) they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan …”
    Did Abraham acquire immortal souls in Haran or did he acquire people?
  • Ex. 31:14 – “Therefore you shall keep the Sabbath because it is holy for you. Anyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death. For whoever does any work on that day, that person (Lit. soul) shall be cut off from among his people.”
    Was it immortal souls which were to be cut off from their people or was it individual persons who had profaned the Sabbath?
  • Num. 31:19 “Whoever has killed a person (Lit. a soul) and whoever has touched one of those killed, must remain outside the camp seven days.”
    Can the immortal soul be killed by man?
  • Joshua 10:28“That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and it’s king to the sword and utterly destroyed them and the people (Lit. souls) who were in it. He left no survivors.
    Joshua did not destroy immortal souls but the people in the city.
  • Jer. 43:6 “They also led away all the men , women  and children and the king’s daughters and every person (Lit. every soul) whom Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard had left … “
  • 1 Chron. 5:21“They seized the livestock of the Hagrites — fifty thousand camels, two hundred fifty thousand sheep and two thousand donkeys. They also took one hundred thousand people (Lit. soul of man) captive.”
    How did these Israelites capture 150,000 immortal souls?
  • Num. 19:13“Whoever touches the dead body of anyone (Lit. the dead soul of the manwho has died and fails to purify himself defiles the LORD’s tabernacle. That person (Lit. soul) must be cut off from Israel.”
    Here a dead soul seems to refer to a dead person, hence a corpse. Certainly nephesh cannot be a reference to an immortal soul here.
  • Other verses are Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27; 23:29-30; Num. 31:35, 40, 46; Joshua 11:11; Prov. 27:7

Unusual Usages Of Nephesh

Here are some unusual occurrences of nephesh which clearly demonstrate that the meaning of an immortal soul is impossible.

  • Gen. 34:3His heart was drawn to Dinah ( lit. his soul clung to Dinahdaughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her.”
  • Ex. 23:9 –  “Do not oppress an alien for you yourselves know what it is to be aliens (lit. know the soul of an alien) because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
    This could be translated “know the life of an alien.”
  • Lev. 7:27“Any soul who eats any blood, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.”
    Can immortal souls eat?
  • Deut. 19:11“And if anyone should hate his neighbor and he lies in wait for him, and rises against him and he strikes his soul so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities …”
    Can a persons immortal soul be struck and killed by another person?
  • Deut. 24:7“If a man is found kidnapping a soul from his brothers from the sons of Israel, and he makes him a slave or sells him, the kidnapper shall die …”
    Can someone’s immortal soul be kidnapped by another person and made his slave?
  • 1 Sam. 18:1 – “After David had finished talking with Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and he loved him as his own soul.”
    Jonathan became loyal to David and loved him as himself.
  • Psalm 44:25 – “For our souls sink down to the dust, our bodies cleave to the ground.”
    Here the soul is depicted as going down to the dust along with the body, which doesn’t fit the concept of the immortal soul.
  • Isaiah 42:1“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, My chosen one, in whom my soul delights … ” 
    God is depicted as having a nephesh (see also Lev. 26:11,30; Jer. 6:8; 12:7; 15:1; 51:14; Amos 6:8). Translate simply, “in whom I delight.”
  • Numbers 6:6“All the time of his separation to Yahweh he must not go near a dead soul.”
    How could this be referring to an immortal soul? Translate simply “a dead person.”

Minor Uses Of Nephesh

One use of nephesh is when joined with a noun or adjective denoting some distress or anguish which has come upon someone because of some unpleasant circumstance.

  • 1 Sam. 1:10 – “And Hannah was in bitterness of soul and she prayed to Yahweh and wept greatly.”
  • 2 Kings 4:27“When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, ‘Leave her alone! Her soul is made bitter within her, but Yahweh has hidden it from me and has not told me why.’ “
  • Prov. 31:6“Give strong drink to those who are perishing, wine to those who are bitter of soul.”
  • Other verses are Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:65; Job 3:20; Is. 19:10

Nephesh is used to denote ones will, intention, or desire.

  • Gen. 23:8 “Abraham said to them, ‘If it is your soul that I bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf …’ “
  • Deut. 12:20“When Yahweh your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you say, ‘let me eat meat,’ because your soul craves to eat meat, you may eat all the meat your soul desires.”
  • 2 Kings 9:15 ” … and Jehu said, ‘If it is your soul, let no one leave the city to go and tell the news in Jezreel.’ “
  • Jer. 44:14“None of the remnant of Judah who have gone to live in Egypt will escape or survive to return to the land of Judah, to which they lift up their soul to return and dwell there; none shall return except the fugitives.” 
    See also Jer. 22:27 and Hosea 4:8. In the Psalms, to ‘lift up one’s soul’ to Yahweh means to set one’s desire upon Yahweh – see 25:1; 86:4; 143:8.
  • Other verses are Deut. 14:26; 1 Sam. 2:16; 20:4; 23:20; 1 Kings 11:37

Nephesh appears with lebab (heart) in the phrase “with all your heart and with all your soul.” In much of popular Bible teaching, expositors make a distinction between these two words, assigning differing functions for the heart and the soul. But I don’t think this is correct. In this phrase, these two words are not being used as technical terms for distinct parts of man’s nature, but the phrase seems to be a figure of speech meaning whole-heartedly, without reserve, sincerely, with loyalty. This seems to be the thought behind this phrase as Deut. 13:1-4 shows. Other verses where this phrase is found are Deut. 4:29; 6:5; 10:12; 11:13,18; 26:16; 30:2,6,10; Joshua 22:5; 23:14; 1 Kings 2:4.

So what can we conclude from this survey of the word nephesh in the Hebrew Scriptures? I have not found any occurrence of nephesh that would require the traditional understanding of an immortal soul i.e. a distinct immaterial part of man that continues to live in conscious and sentient existence after death. In fact, not only does no passage require that meaning, but that meaning does not seem to fit at all in the vast majority of passages where nephesh occurs. However, there are a couple of texts where this idea could be read into the passage. We will examine these verses next.

But What About …

In the GotQuestions article mentioned above, the first text presented as proof of the concept of the immortal soul is Gen. 35:18, which reads in the NASV:

“It came about as her soul was departing, for she died, that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”

This verse, for most people, probably conjures up the image of Rachel’s soul, or what is typically in the secular world called ‘ghost’, leaving her body and floating upwards, perhaps stopping to look back down at her now lifeless body before heading to her after-life destination. But does anything in this verse demand us to understand it that way, apart from the fact that tradition leads us to that conclusion? I think not. The little phrase ‘for she died‘ is added by the author or a later editor precisely to explain what it meant that her nephesh was departing.’ The fact that she could still speak to name her child while her ‘nephesh was departing‘ should clue us in on what is being said in this text. As we saw above, one of the meanings for nephesh is life. So the verse could be translated, “It came about as her life was departing, for she died …” This makes much better sense. It could even be translated, “as she was dying …” Here are some English translations that have followed this understanding of the Hebrew text:

  • HCSB – With her last breath – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni …”
  • NET – With her dying breath she named him Ben-oni.”
  • NIV – “As she breathed her last – for she was dying – she named her son Ben-oni.”
  • ISV – Just before she died, Rachel called her son’s name Ben-oni.”

Another passage which seems to lend support to the traditional belief in the immortal soul is 1Kings 17:17-24. In verses 21-22, in the ASV, we read:

“And he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried unto Jehovah and said, ‘Oh Jehovah my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.’ And Jehovah hearkened unto the voice of Elijah: and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.”

Again, for one who has been trained to think in line with the tradition, this passage can be read as confirmation of that tradition. If you think of the soul as the immaterial part of a person, the real person inside the shell of the body, which can survive independently of the body, then you will see that idea in this text. But is that the necessary meaning of the text? Let’s see how other versions render this passage:

  • ESV – “Oh LORD my God, let this boy’s life come into him again … and the life of the boy came into him again, and he revived.”
  • HCSV – “My LORD God, please let this boy’s life return to him!” … and the boy’s life returned to him and he lived.
  • NET – “O Lord, my God, please let this boy’s breath return to him” … the boy’s breath returned to him and he lived.
  • Other versions which translate similarly are the NASB, NIV, and ISR.

As we can see, it is not necessary to introduce the pagan concept of the immortal soul in order to understand what is going on in this text. The Hebraic concept found in the Hebrew scriptures is sufficient to explain it’s meaning.

Now we come to a passage which is indeed strange and for which various interpretations have been offered – 1 Samuel 28:4-20. I will not write out the passage here, so please take a minute to read it. This is, of course, the story of King Saul consulting a medium in order to contact Samuel, from the dead, to find out what he should do. This passage seems to give credence to the belief of an immortal soul that lives on in conscious existence after one’s death. Although the word nephesh is not used in this passage in connection with the appearance of Samuel from the dead, it can be assumed that the departed soul of Samuel appeared to Saul. This would be the only occurrence of an alleged visitation by a departed soul in the entire Hebrew Bible.

Various interpretations of the passage have been put forward by commentators and Bible teachers. The question that arises is whether or not the soul or spirit of Samuel actually appeared to Saul. The typical answers to this question are:

1. The  disembodied soul of Samuel actually appeared to Saul. This is said to have been allowed by God in order to pronounce judgement on Saul. This is supported by the fact that the text says it was Samuel (vv. 14-16, 20), by the medium’s reaction, and by Samuel’s prophecy of Saul’s death coming to pass. Of course, this view presupposes that the soul of Samuel was consciously existing in some location from which he was ‘brought up.’
2. The disembodied soul of Samuel did not appear to Saul. Some in this camp believe that a familiar spirit impersonating Samuel appeared, while others believe the whole thing was a con pulled off by the medium. Support for this view is the fact that God had forbidden the Israelites to consult mediums and to contact the dead, so it would be inconsistent for God to bring up Samuel from the dead to speak to Saul. Also the text does not say that Saul saw or even heard Samuel, but only the medium was supposedly able to see and hear Samuel. Mediums supposedly speak for the spirit they are channeling, so fraud is easily perpetrated upon the gullible. This view does not necessarily presuppose the belief in the immortal soul, only that Saul believed it to be possible to contact someone who was dead.

There is another option that I have not seen mentioned by anyone before, but which seems to me to be a better solution than the two options above. I propose that what happened in this incident was not an apparition of the disembodied soul of Samuel (which requires belief in the immortal soul), nor was it a deceptive spirit masquerading as Samuel (why wouldn’t the text tell us this), nor was it a scam on the part of the medium (the surprise reaction of the medium when she saw Samuel suggests that what was happening was not under her control). I believe the simple solution is that what was seen was not real but merely a vision. Visions do not present actual reality to those who experience them. What is being seen by a visionary is only a mental image and not an actual real time event.

Take Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, where he sees a sheet being let down, out of heaven, to the earth, filled with all kinds of unclean animals. Now was this actually occurring in the real world? If someone else were passing by at that moment would they have seen the sheet coming down from heaven also? No! What Peter was seeing was only in his mind and could not be experienced by anyone else even if they were standing right next to Peter at that moment. In v.10 Luke tells us that while Peter was on the roof praying “a trance came upon him.” The Greek word for ‘trance’ is ekstasis which refers to a state of mind. Thayer defines it as “a throwing of the mind out of it’s normal state.” Luke then calls what Peter saw a ‘vision’ in vv. 17 & 19. Later, when Peter is recounting his experience he says, “in a trance I saw a vision” {see Acts 11:5}.

Not long after this Peter is arrested and put in prison. While awaiting trial, Luke tells us that an angel suddenly appeared in the cell and woke Peter, whose chains miraculously fell from his hands. The angel instructed him to dress and follow him, which Peter did {see Acts 12:1-8}. What Luke says next is instructive:

“Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.”  Acts 12:9

No doubt Peter had related this story to Luke himself. Peter understood that a vision was not a real event but only something seen in the mind. Now lets relate this understanding to the incident with Saul and the medium in 1 Sam. 28.

Mediums at that time, as well as today, declared their ability to contact those who have died. This of course presupposes belief that the person lives on after death in some form, in another dimension. This is what is called the immortal soul or is also commonly referred to as a ‘ghost.’ That Saul sought out a medium in order to contact the deceased Samuel does not necessarily mean that he had always believed such an idea as this. Saul was in a very distraught frame of mind, in rebellion to God and abandoned by God. “He was afraid and terror filled his heart,” because of the Philistines (vv.4-6). Desperate people will sometimes do things they would never think of doing otherwise. Saul may have just thought, “What have I got to loose. Perhaps the dead can be contacted.”

Now I do not believe that mediums then or now have the ability to contact the dead, simply because I do not think the dead are consciously existing somewhere to be contacted. I will address the issue of what happens to a person after death later in this study. What mediums do can be explained in two ways:

  1. They are actually contacting deceiving familiar spirits who have knowledge of and imitate the dead.
  2. They are perpetrating a hoax upon the gullible who seek them out. This probably fits the majority of so-called mediums.

Whether the medium, whom Saul consulted, was actually in regular contact with deceiving spirits or she was just a con artist , we may never know. When she sees the vision of Samuel she seems genuinely surprised (v. 12), as if she wasn’t expecting it. Also it should be noted that Saul himself did not see Samuel, only the medium did (v.13). When Saul asks her to describe what she sees

“The woman said, ‘ I see a spirit being ascending out of the ground.’ He asked, ‘What does he look like.’ ‘An old man wearing a robe is ascending,’ she said.”  vv.13-14

If this is the immortal soul of Samuel appearing in person, why does he look like an old man wearing a robe. Do immaterial souls where clothing and do they reflect age in their appearance? This is a common thread among so called apparitions and ghost sightings – they always appear looking just like the person they presumably were before death, clothes and all. But why should this be the case? It makes more sense to me that the medium was seeing a vision of Samuel as he was in life rather than an apparition of Samuel as he is in death.

When Samuel speaks to Saul the text seems to imply that Saul himself is hearing Samuel, but this need not be the case. The medium may be relating the words of Samuel to Saul (that is what mediums do) and the author of this account is simply leaving out that detail as assumed and so unnecessary. But why does Samuel say, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This seems to imply that it really is the departed soul of Samuel. I reiterate that I do not believe the soul of Samuel literally appeared in the room. If so, why did Saul not see it? I suggest, that because Saul had once again rebelled against Yahweh by seeking the dead, that Yahweh, who is controlling the vision, plays along with Saul’s expectation. But instead of Samuel giving Saul advice on what to do concerning the Philistines, he pronounces Yahweh’s judgment on him.

Now someone may object to the fact that God would give a vision to a medium and speak through her. But this would not be the only time in scripture where God does something of this nature. Did not God give visions to and speak through Balaam, who was a practitioner of divination {see Num. 24:2-4; Joshua 13:22}. In Judges 7:13-15 we read that God gave a dream to a pagan enemy in order to encourage Gideon. John tells us in chapter 11:49-51 of his gospel that Caiaphas, who was in rebellion to God and seeking to kill Jesus unjustly, prophesied of Jesus’ death on behalf of the Jewish nation. Even Saul himself, after being forsaken by God and openly seeking to kill David, prophecies under the influence of the Spirit of God {see 1 Sam. 19:23-24}. God cannot be put into our boxes and neither should our prejudices control how we think of Him.

One other thing in the Hebrew Scriptures which may seem to promote the idea of the immortal soul is the concept of Sheol. The early church fathers were nearly unanimous in the belief that Sheol (Gr. Hades) was a literal place where the departed souls of those who have died, whether righteous or unrighteous, reside in conscious and sentient existence, awaiting the final judgment. No doubt it was passages like Ezekiel 32:20-21 that fostered this idea:

“They will fall among those killed by the sword … From within Sheol the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies.’They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’ “

And in the NT, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man {Luke 16:19-31} was a key passage for early fathers as a proof of this concept. We will examine this parable later to see if it really does support the concept of the immortal soul.

So what about Sheol? Is it a literal place where fully conscious departed souls go to await final judgment? We must look carefully at what scripture says to answer that question. One thing that aids us here is the poetic devise in the Hebrew Scriptures known as synonymous parallelism. This occurs when an author presents a thought and then presents the same thought in the next line with the use of synonyms. Here are some examples where the word Sheol occurs:

“For Sheol cannot praise (Heb. yadah) you, death cannot praise (Heb. halal) you.”  Isaiah 38:18

Here we see that Sheol = death (Heb. maveth) and yadah = halal. The rest of verse 18 and verse 19 help clarify the meaning:

“Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living he shall praise you …”

So we see that Sheol is equivalent to death and those who are dead cannot praise God, only the living can. If Sheol was a literal place and conscious souls were there, why couldn’t they praise God or hope for his faithfulness? Sheol is not a literal place but only a concept, presented as a place, to denote the state of being dead.

“The cords of death surrounded me, the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of Sheol encircled me, the snares of death confronted me.” Ps.18:4-5

Again we see the parallel ideas of death and Sheol; these are synonyms. Sheol simply refers to the state of death. One more example from Hosea 13:

“From the power of Sheol I will ransom them; from death I will redeem them.
O death, where are your plagues; O Sheol, where is your sting.”

It should be noted that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:55, quotes this passage, but replaces the word Sheol with the Greek word thanatos which means death, showing that in his mind Sheol is just a euphemism for death.

Sometimes Sheol denotes the grave. In the passage quoted above from Ezekiel 32, if we continue to read we see what is going on. In verses 22-26 two Hebrew words which denote grave, tomb or sepulchre, are used six times. Then in v.27 we read this:

“Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads.”

Did the immortal souls of these slain warriors take their weapons of war with them into the place of departed souls? Or were their swords placed with their dead bodies in their tombs? It was in that time a great show of respect to place the weapons of fallen heroes in their graves with their bodies. Verse 21 is not to be taken literally. The portrayal of the dead in Sheol consciously interacting is merely a literary device, an allegory, meant to convey some truth in a vivid and even mocking way. In this case it was to foretell the destruction of the Pharaoh of Egypt and his armies by the Babylonians.

No Consciousness In Death

I recently heard a Christian minister describe death as a doorway. He and his co-host were discussing ‘near death experiences’ and their belief in the immortal soul. To his mind, physical death is just a doorway to another kind of life; there is no real cessation of life. This, to my mind, gives credence to the lie of the serpent, “You shall not surely die.” {see Gen. 3:1-4}

The Hebrew Scriptures deny the ongoing conscious existence of the soul after death. In Hebrew thought the soul is so vitally joined to a person as to comprise one single whole being. Man is not viewed as consisting of distinct constituent parts but as a unified whole. When a person dies their is no element of his nature that continues to live; the whole man dies.

“Do you perform wonders for the dead; the dead do not arise to praise you.
Is your covenant mercy recounted in the grave; your faithfulness in the place of destruction. Shall your wonders be made known in the darkness, and your righteousness in the land of oblivion.”         Ps. 88:10-12

“All that your hand finds to do, do it with your might. For there is no working and reasoning and knowledge and wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.”  Eccl.9:10

“Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb … for now I would be lying down and undisturbed. I would have been asleep and at rest.”    Job 3:11-13

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward and even the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, yes even their hatred, yes even their envy have now perished … ”   Eccl. 9 5-6

“It is not the dead who praise Yahweh, those who go down to silence.”   Ps. 115:17

“No one remembers you (O LORD) when he is dead. Who praises you from Sheol.”                                                                                                                                           Ps.6:5

“For he can see that wise men die, together with the fool and the senseless they perish and leave their wealth to others … but man, in his splendour, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”   Ps.49:10-12

“(Man) springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow he does not endure … man dies and is laid prostrate; he breathes his last and is no more … so man lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, men will not awake or be roused from heir sleep.”     Job 14:2, 10-12

Conclusion 

In conclusion to this part of our study I think we can say without contradiction that the concept of the immortal soul is not a part of the record of the Hebrew Scriptures. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, under the word ‘Death’, agrees:

“… the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal… is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament.”

In the next part of this study we will examine the NT data concerning the soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spiritual Death – Truth or Myth?

There is a prevalent belief in Christianity that people just assume is true but which has no actual foundation in scripture —- the concept of spiritual death. This belief is nothing more than a myth built upon a handful of biblical texts and erected with the aid of an arbitrary and false definition of death. In this study we will examine the roots of this belief and the supposed biblical ground for it. I hope that you will come to see, as I have, the flimsy scriptural support for this idea and abandon it.

Defining Our Terms

The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon a definition of death which is completely arbitrary and just assumed to be true, although there is no scriptural support for it. The Got Questions website answers the question, “What is spiritual death?” in this way:

Answer: Death is separation. A physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. Spiritual death, which is of greater importance, is the separation of the soul from God.

They then go on to give what they believe is the scriptural support for this definition of death and of spiritual death, which we will examine shortly. But I will note here that none of the verses put forward actually say what they propose. Their definition is just assumed and then used to interpret the passages accordingly; their definition is not derived out of the texts.

This concept of spiritual death is very important in Reformed theology which teaches that all men are born in this state of separation from God due to the sin of Adam. We will examine this belief also to see if it squares with scripture.

The concept of spiritual death goes back to early church fathers, who were the first to define death as the separation of the soul from the body. For example, Tertullian, c. 210, said: “The operation of death is plain and obvious – it is the separation of body and soul.” Likewise Lactantius, c.304-313, wrote: “We define the first death in this manner; death is the dissolution of the nature of living beings. Or we can say that death is the separation of body and soul.” This was a commonly held meaning of death among the early church fathers and is, no doubt, the original source of the definition of death as separation, which Christians today simply take for granted. What most Christians today are unaware of, as I myself was for the first 33 yrs. of my Christian experience, is that this concept among the early Gentile Christians was derived not from Scripture, but rather from the philosophical worldview in which these men had been previously educated, i.e. the Greek metaphysics which was so ubiquitous during their times. This predominant worldview included the idea that the soul was a part of man distinct from the body, which inhabited the body and animated it.  Some believed this soul was created while others believed it to be eternal, but nearly all believed it to be immortal, i.e. incapable of dying. The soul was the true person, the body being simply an instrument which the soul used to function in this world. The common belief was that the soul lived on in conscious existence after being separated from the body in death. Some believed the soul would be reincarnated in another body, others believed it would ascend to higher realms of existence until it reached perfection or deification of some sort. We can see that while some of these ideas were rejected by the church fathers the core beliefs of this worldview concerning the soul were retained by them and incorporated into the theology of the developing orthodoxy. It must be understood that the concept of an immortal soul which continues on in conscious existence after death is not derived from the Hebraic culture and worldview, in which the Scriptures came down to us, but from the Greek philosophy which imbued the early Gentile Christian writers of the 2nd – 5th centuries. These church fathers, though sincere in their devotion to God and to Christ, interpreted the Scriptures according to the philosophical worldview of their times. Hence, much error was introduced into the common beliefs of the Christian assemblies and eventually became enshrined as orthodoxy. While the Reformation of the 15th -17th centuries removed some of the errors of ‘orthodoxy’ which had accumulated during the Middle Ages, it retained in it’s tenets the errors that had crept in early on, under the influence of the ubiquitous Greek metaphysical worldview.

The Christian world today is the inheritor of the beliefs of former times, the traditions which have been handed down from generation to generation, which are uncritically taken for granted and proclaimed from pulpits all across the world.

Now back to the definition of death. The most widely held definition of death by Christian teachers and apologists today is simply separation. This can be confirmed simply by doing an internet search for the biblical meaning of death. This definition of death is assumed and taken for granted but is in fact completely arbitrary. The concept of spiritual death is dependent upon this definition of death, especially within the Reformed tradition or what is known as Calvinism. The verse that supposedly teaches unequivocally that death means separation is James 2:26, which says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” We are told, based on this verse, that death equals the separation of the spirit from the body. Here, spirit (Gr. pneuma) should be understood as breath i.e. the breath of life that is in all living creatures {see Gen. 6:17}. Now lets use our reason here. When a person dies, to be sure, the breathe of life departs from them, but their death is not to be attributed to that fact. Their death is attributed to some malfunction of a bodily system, some failure of a vital bodily function. And when that occurs, when the bodily systems can no longer function as needed then the breath of life departs. This verse says nothing about death being the separation of some supposed self-conscious, immortal soul from the body. Now it may be true that separations of various kinds are the consequence of death, namely that the dead are separated from the living, but defining death as such a separation is going to far.

In Scripture death is often put in opposition to life, e.g. Deut. 30:15,19; 32:39; 2 Sam. 15:21; 2 Kings 18:32; Jer. 21:8, so that the two concepts are exact opposites. Death can be defined simply as the cessation of life. But from a biblical perspective something more needs to be said, for in scripture death is not the natural cessation of life but a judgment for sin.

Death As Judgment

Death entered into the human experience as a direct result of our first parents’ act of disobedience. When God created the first humans he put them in a lush garden in which was the tree of life {Gen.2:8-9}. Whether you take the tree of life literal or symbolic it was the source of man’s immortality, and God intended for man to freely partake of it and live forever {Gen.2:16; 3:22}. But the Lord God had given man a warning:

“You must no eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”    Gen. 2:17

Amazingly, the standard interpretation of this passage is that it refers to spiritual death. This is because it is mistakenly understood to be saying that the man would die on the very same day that he ate of the forbidden fruit, and since he obviously did not physically die until many years later, he must have died spiritually, on the day he ate of it. But is this the necessary interpretation of this passage? Part of the misunderstanding stems from the Hebrew text which reads, “dying you shall die.” This has been wrongly interpreted to mean ‘dying spiritually you will eventually die physically.’  But this meaning is unjustified. The phrase occurs dozens of times in the Hebrew scriptures and never bears such a meaning, e.g. Gen. 20:7; 26:11; Ex. 19:12; Num. 26:65; Judges 13:22; 2 Sam. 12:14; 1 Kings 2:37. The double use of the Hebrew word muth (= to die) is a Semitic idiom used to express the certainty of death and is translated in most English versions as “you shall surely die.”  The entire phrase can mean nothing more than, “in the day you eat from it your death is certain.” “In the day” need not refer to the time of the man’s death but to the certainty of it. There is no warrant in the context of the passage to assign the meaning of spiritual death to it. Later, when God confronts Adam and pronounces judgement on him, nothing is said about a separation of his soul from God, but rather that:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  Gen 3:19

God then takes action to ensure the man’s death:

” … he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever.” So Yahweh God banished him from the garden of Eden … and he cast him out and he stationed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword turning about to guard the way to the tree of life. Gen. 3:22-2

In order to carry out the sentence of death God had to prohibit the man’s access to the tree of life, which was obviously the source of his immortality. Perhaps the fruit of the tree renewed the cells of the body so as to prevent degeneration and once this was taken from man his body began to degenerate until he finally died.  In this whole account there is no mention of spiritual death being the consequence of man’s sin. In fact, in the subsequent material, after the account of the fall, while man’s relationship to God, his surroundings, and other humans is altered in a negative sense, there is not the total separation from God that spiritual death proponents declare is the result of Adam’s sin. Yet it is the common belief that as a result of Adam’s sin all human’s are born in a state of spiritual death, i.e. separated from God. But after Adam’s sin we still see God conversing with the man and his offspring, in chapters 3 & 4. Though the relationship with God is strained it does not seem like a total break in the relationship occurs. To get around this, Reformed theology proposes and assumes some kind of unconditional election and regeneration of any individuals who are presented in the OT as having a relationship with God.

The apostle Paul makes reference to this first sin of man and it’s consequent judgement in Romans 5:12-21. Once again, this passage also is arbitrarily interpreted by most as referring to spiritual death. But again, this is without warrant. There is not one thing in this passage that necessitates that Paul is speaking of spiritual death. Death in this passage means what it means in the Genesis account, i.e. the deprivation of life as a consequence of sin, a returning to the ground from which we came. The Greek adjective pneumatikos (= spiritual) occurs 26 times in the NT. The Greek noun thanatos (= death) occurs 120 times in the NT. Yet there is not even one occurrence of the adjective pneumatikos being used to modify the noun thanatos. We are supposed to believe that this concept of spiritual death is so prevalent in the NT that almost every time the word death appears it means spiritual death, yet the words spiritual and death never occur together. One online article on spiritual death stated that Paul’s use of the word condemnation in Rom. 5:16 and 18 is proof that he is referring to spiritual death rather than physical death. The Greek word is katakrima and refers to the sentence handed down after a guilty verdict, the penalty to be exacted. In verse 16 the word translated judgement is krima, which refers to the verdict, whether guilty or innocent, given by the judge. The phrase means this: “the (guilty) verdict followed one man’s sin and resulted in the sentence (of death).”

Further proof that the result of Adam’s sin was real death, i.e. a deprivation of life and a returning to the dust from which he came, is seen in 1 Cor. 15:20-23:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

If the death spoken of here is spiritual death then the resurrection must also be spiritual and not bodily. Paul is clearly saying that death, i.e. the deprivation of continued life in this world, came into the world through a man; and so the restoration of that life, by means of resurrection, comes also through a man. We can see how our understanding of what the consequence of Adam’s sin was affects our understanding of Messiah’s redemptive work. The standard evangelical notion is that Adam’s sin caused us to be separated from God and so Jesus’ death brings us back into union with God; this is what salvation is supposed to mean. But the biblical picture is different. Adam’s sin resulted in the privilege of living on in this world forever being taken from him and from his descendants through death. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and subsequent resurrection provides the forgiveness of sin and the eventual immortalization of the believing ones, fitting them for everlasting life in this world.

Misunderstood Passages

What about verses which speak of people, who are alive, as dead. We are told that such verses must be referring to spiritual death since the persons in view are physically alive. The one most resorted to by the spiritual death proponents is Ephesians 2:1,5:

And you being dead in your transgressions and sins … we being dead in our transgressions, he (God) made us alive together with Christ; by grace you are the saved ones.

Along with this passage is Colossians 2:13:

And you being dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, (God) made you alive together with (Christ), forgiving us all those sins.

Do these verses teach the concept of spiritual death or is that concept being read into these passages? Can these verses admit of any other interpretation? I believe Paul is simply using an idiom, prolepsis, where something which is future is spoken of as a present reality, because of the certainty of it’s fulfillment. Because the judgement of death is the certain destiny of all who do not know God and his Messiah, men can be said to be dead, even now while they still live. This figure of speech is meant to heighten the awareness of the inevitable consequences of sin. Even in our culture and language we use such expressions. We might say of someone, “he’s a dead man” meaning that death is near and certain. In our prisons, one who is on his way to his execution is called a ‘dead man walking.’  Another example of this idiom in Paul’s writing is found in Rom. 8:10: “But if Christ is in you, indeed your body is dead because of sin, yet the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Paul speaks prolepticly of the Christian’s body as dead, in anticipation of it’s eventual death because of sin, i.e. Adam’s sin. In the next verse Paul assures the believers of the certainty of the resurrection. This idiom is also found in the OT. In Genesis 20 we have the story of Abraham and Sarah’s stay in Gerar, where he requested of her to say that she was his sister. This resulted in Abimelech, the king of Gerar, taking Sarah for his harem. Verse 3 reads:

But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are a dead man because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

This use of prolepsis, by God himself, is explained in verse 7:

“Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be certain that you and all yours will die.”

Other examples can be found in Gen. 48:21; 50:5, 24; Ex. 12:33; Is. 38:1; Ez. 18:18, in the Hebrew, but the English versions do not translate the prolepsis. In each of these cases, in the original Hebrew, persons literally alive are spoken of as dead, because the prospect of death was looming over them.

Another passage is 1 Timothy 5:6: “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.”  Paul is supposed to be saying that such a widow is spiritually dead. But this could be understood in a proleptic sense, i.e. the widow who lives for pleasure is headed for certain death. The same could be said for Matthew 8:22: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Although this could refer to the spiritually dead there is nothing in the verse that necessitates that interpretation, especially in light of the fact that the term spiritual death (sd) does not occur even once in scripture. Taking it as another example of prolepsis is a viable way of reading it and would mean something like, “let those who are doomed to die bury their own dead.”

Death As Metaphor

Passages where death is used as a metaphor are often read as a reference to spiritual death. For example, Rev. 3:1 reads: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.Here death is likely being used metaphorically and it’s meaning would depend upon the meaning of “being alive,” for it would be in contrast to that. Now if the sd proponents want to say that dead here refers to spiritual death, then being alive must be in contrast to that. And since sd is defined as separation from God, the condition of all men before they are saved, then being alive here must refer to being saved i.e. being reconciled to God. This would mean that Jesus is addressing  an assembly of Christians like this: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being saved, reconciled to God, but you are separated from God.” This seems like a rather strange thing for Jesus to say to a congregation. Can a congregation be saved and reconciled to God; can a congregation be separated from God?

The congregation at Sardis had a reputation for being alive, i.e. from an outward perspective it was a thriving, vital community of believers. But beneath the surface something wasn’t right. Verse two certainly must throw light on the meaning of verse one: “Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain, which are about to die …” Obviously there were some things that had already died, and the congregation was being called upon to strengthen the things which had not yet died but which were on the verge of doing so. We may never know exactly what these things were but the deadness of the congregation of Sardis must be directly related to the things which had died and the things which were about to die. Therefore dead is used here as a metaphor for the condition into which this congregation had fallen.

Another verse that is commonly  pointed to as a proof text for sd is in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In verses 24 & 32 the father characterizes his relationship to his once erring but now repentant son by stating that his son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” If dead here means spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, then alive must mean no longer separated from God. But the major purveyors of the sd concept, the Calvinists, will find themselves in trouble here, for they teach that all men are born in this state of sd and need to be made alive by God. But the text says unambiguously that the repentant son is considered alive again. This does not fit the Reformed doctrine at all, which would never say that one who has been made alive is alive again. Plus, there is another metaphor in play here – that of being lost and found. Both of these metaphors, dead & alive again and lost & found, are meant to convey something about the relationship between this father and son. From the father’s perspective it was as if his son had died or was lost when he left home. As far as the father knew, he might never see his son again, the relationship was over. When the son returned it was as if he had come back from the dead; the relationship the father had thought was forever over was now renewed.

Now the application of this parable is primarily concerning the children of Israel who had, as it were, left the Father’s house and squandered away their inheritance on profligate living – the prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, the ‘sinners’ of society. Many of these had been turning back to God under the preaching of John and the Messiah { see Matt 21:31-32}. From the perspective of God his wayward children were returning home. The point of the parable is the same as the two parables which precede it i.e. there is great joy in heaven over the repentance of even one sinner. This parable and the two preceding ones all depict the restoration of a relationship which was lost, which doesn’t fit well at all with the Reformed notion of all men being born spiritually dead.

Another passage where death is used as a metaphor, but which is taken to mean sd, is Romans 7:9-13:

Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death… Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means. But that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me, through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

Paul here refers to the time of his childhood, before the full force of his obligation to the law was etched upon his conscience. He refers to this time, metaphorically, as being ‘alive.’ But “when the commandment came” i.e. when he first understood his personal obligation to the law and the law’s condemnation for disobedience, then “sin came alive” in him, i.e. he became keenly aware of his own disobedience to the law. As a result he “died” i.e. he felt himself under the law’s condemnation.

This passage should not be read as if it were a theological explanation, but rather as a testimony of his personal experience with the law and sin. The whole passage is highly metaphoric.

Separation from God

I do believe in the concept of separation from God, but the Scripture never calls this spiritual death, nor does it teach the idea that all men are born in the state of sd due to Adam’s sin. Rather it teaches that all are born under the condemnation which came upon Adam as a result of his sin, which was death. This is why all men die. Scripture speaks of two deaths. In the book of the Revelation we are told of the second death, which implies a first death {see 2:11; 20:6, 14}. While it is true that the book of Revelation is replete with symbolism and imagery, I think we should take the term second death literally because we are told in 20:14 that “the lake of fire is the second death.” In other words, the imagery of the ‘lake of fire‘ is interpreted to mean ‘the second death.’ Often throughout the book the symbols are explained by the angel, e.g.  1:20;12:9; 17:9-10,12,15,18. Just like in all of these instances, where a symbol in the imagery is interpreted as something literal, so is the symbol ‘lake of fire’ interpreted to be literally the ‘second death.’

Now the first death is interpreted by sd proponents as physical death, and the second death as eternal separation from God. But this is an arbitrary interpretation, based not on the grammar or context of these passages, but based on the presuppositions of the theological system. There is no reason not to understand the death in the term ‘the second death’ as literal death, except for presuppositional bias. Here is how I see the situation as revealed in Scripture. All men are doomed to die the first death as a direct result of Adam’s sin {Rom. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:21-22}. The only exception to this are those believers who are alive at the time of Messiah’s return in glory, these will be transformed i.e. made immortal, without ever experiencing death {1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thess. 4:15-17}. All who have died will be physically raised from the dead, but not all at the same time {John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor. 15:21-23}. Those who are in Messiah will be raised immortal, to live forever in the renewed earth. Those who have not believed the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness will be raised only to be judged and condemned to die a second time, this time not because of Adam’s sin but because of their own iniquities. From the second death there is no escape, no further resurrection. Therefore the second death is only experienced by those who have refused to love the truth. In other words, the first death is experienced by all because of Adam’s sin, but the second death is experienced only by those who do not know God, because of their own sin. The redemption of Messiah is salvation from death, both the first death and the second death. The forgiveness of sins is not the ultimate goal of redemption, but the means by which we can be reconciled to God, which then puts us in position to receive the promised immortality. All who die the first death while in a state of separation from God will experience the second death. But let me say categorically, no one has ever experienced separation from God or eternal condemnation as a result of Adam’s sin. The Scriptures no where teach such a concept.

There are only a few verses which speak of separation from God and these are used to bolster the idea of sd — Is. 59:2; Eph. 4:18; and Col. 1:21. But if you carefully read these passages you will see that in each case the separation is the result of the personal sins and iniquities committed by those who are thus separated from God. There is no hint in these passages that anyone is spiritually dead i.e. separated from God, because of Adam’s sin. In Is. 59:2 it is specifically the Israelites, as a covenant people, who are in view. Their many sins, enumerated throughout this  chapter, had caused a separation between them and their God. God would no longer hear their prayers for blessing or their cries for help {see also Is. 1:14-17}. In Eph. 4:18 it is Gentiles who are in view. But this verse does not say that they are separated from God, but rather from the life of God, i.e. the immortality that God had intended for man but which was forfeited by Adam. The Greek is strange here, reading ontes (present active participle of eimi) apellotriomenoi (perfect passive participle of apallotrioo) and literally meansbeing in a state of having been estranged from the life of God.’ The word apallotrioo is better rendered as estranged or alienated or excluded rather than separated. One of Strong’s definitions is ‘to be a non- participant.’ Now the combination of two verbs, the first being a present active participle and the second a perfect passive participle, is strange indeed. The present active verb is referring to a present state or condition in which the subjects of the verb are active in maintaining. The perfect passive is referring to a completed past action in which the subjects were passive, i.e. the action was done to them. So then the Gentiles (unsaved according to context) are continuing, by their own action, in a state of exclusion from the life (immortality) that God had intended for man originally. The initial exclusion from this life was not the direct result of their actions (it is the result of Adam’s sin, i.e. death), but their continued exclusion from that life is because of their actions (their refusal to acknowledge the true God and turn from sin to him). This verse has nothing to say about some supposed spiritual death.

Col. 1:21 is addressed to Gentile believers, whom Paul says were once in the same condition described in the Eph. 4:18 passage. The same two Greek verb forms are used here and so Paul is saying these Gentiles were once in that same state. The NIV says “alienated from God” but the ‘from God‘ is not in the Greek text. Most versions translate the Greek correctly as “alienated and enemies in mind.”  There is no reason, exegetically, to read into this the concept of sd. Of course, their “evil deeds” had estranged them from God and excluded them from his promise of immortality. Now, however, they have been reconciled “in the body of his flesh through death.” This reconciliation is typically viewed  as simply the removal of the enmity, i.e. sin, but there may be more involved here. The purpose of the reconciliation is so that we may be presented before God holy, unblemished and blameless (v. 22). Holy speaks of being set apart unto God; blameless speaks of having nothing against us for which we can be accused, and refers to the fact that our sins have been forgiven. But what exactly is meant by unblemished? Though the word can be used in an ethical or moral sense, since that idea seems to be covered by the word blameless, I think we can understand it to be referring to the our physical condition after the resurrection. This word (Gr. amomos) is used in the LXX to refer to unblemished animals for the use of sacrifice. In this regard it means without physical defect. Our being presented before God takes place only after the resurrection {see 2 Cor. 4:14; Jude 1:24}, when the corruption we inherited from Adam is annulled and we are made incorruptible and immortal {1 Cor. 15:50-55}. Part of our reconciliation therefore, is the bringing of our physical bodies into line with God’s purpose {see Rom. 8:20-25; Phil. 3:20-21} so that God’s original plan for man, immortality, may be realized.

Conclusion

It is easy to see how a misconception in one area can lead to misconceptions in other areas. If we imagine man’s problem to be spiritual death then we will view God’s solution to be primarily about that. Scripture teaches us that our problem is sin and death, alienation and deprivation of immortality. God’s solution, through Messiah’s atoning sacrifice, is reconciliation and life everlasting through resurrection from the dead.

In my next article we will study the question of whether or not man has an immortal soul that lives on consciously even after we die. We will answer the question of what happens to believers in God when they die. Is the hope of the Christian to die and go to heaven to be with  Jesus? May God enlighten us through his word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do OT Yahweh Texts Applied To Jesus Prove Jesus Is Yahweh?

In this study we will look at the popular notion that because OT texts about Yahweh are said, in the NT, to be fulfilled in some sense by Jesus, either in his first appearance, or at his second coming, that the NT authors intended their readers to understand Jesus to be Yahweh himself. This is the assertion of many apologists for the Trinity and the deity of Jesus, as well as many pastors and some scholars. I will quote a few popular personalities to demonstrate that this idea is mainstream.

Mark Kruger, president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC and associate pastor of Uptown PCA, in an October 2013 post on his website Canon Fodder, said this regarding Mark’s gospel:

In fact, it is worth noting that Mark presents Jesus as God from the very opening few verses … Mark accomplishes this by beginning his gospel with citations from the Old Testament.

He then quotes Mark 1:2 and Malachi 3:1 and then says:

The first notable observation is that in the original context of Mal. 3:1, it is God himself who is coming … For Mark to apply Mal. 3:1 to the coming of Jesus, which he is clearly doing, is a very plain way of saying that Jesus is God coming to visit his people.

After further elaborating on the passage he concludes:

Thus, for Mark, Jesus is God.

On the Ligonier Ministries website, http://www.ligonier.org, under the Devotionals tab, is an article titled The Fulfillment of Prophecy. In it, the author, presumably R.C. Sproul, also deals with the passage in Mark 1:2-3, taking the same approach as Mark Kruger:

Also, we note that Isaiah 40:13 is about a voice that prepares the way for Yahweh, the one true God and covenant Lord of Israel. By applying this text to the voice that prepares the way for Jesus, Mark identifies Jesus as this one true God, implicitly teaching the deity of Christ.

Sam Shamoun of Answering Islam has an on-line article titled Jesus is Yahweh -Examining the New Testament Use of Old Testament Passages to Demonstrate the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The opening paragraph reads:

As any Bible-believing Christian already knows (assuming that he has actually carefully studied the entirety of Scriptures) the NT writers often apply OT passages which speak of certain characteristics or acts of Yahweh to the Lord Jesus. The only logical conclusion that one can arrive at is that the NT authors clearly believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was the incarnation of Yahweh God, i.e. they believed that Yahweh God Almighty had become an actual human being in the historical person of the Lord Jesus.

He then proceeds to prove his point by showing OT text which say something about Yahweh and then comparing that to NT passages which have similar language applied to Jesus, and by OT passages which are fulfilled by Jesus.

One final example. On the CARM website, run by Matt Slick, there is an article titled Jehovah is Jesus. The article consists of two columns of Bible verses, one under the heading Jehovah, and the other under the heading Jesus. There is no commentary in the article but the title reveals the intended purpose of the author. Similar kinds of language or actions attributed to Jehovah in the OT and applied to Jesus in the NT, prove that Jesus is Jehovah.

Now I admit, that at first glance, this kind of argument seems impressive. When you see all the verses listed in these articles it appears that there is overwhelming biblical data in support of the assertion that Jesus is Yahweh himself. But when you take each verse separately and study it out, what at first seemed to be impressive, then appears to be not so much so. In fact, I have come to see a naivete and shallowness in this argument. It focuses only on those passages of Scripture which seem to put Jesus in the place of Yahweh, while totally ignoring all the passages that militate against that position. When each of the passages presented in these articles is looked at on it’s own merit, I can propose an interpretation of them that does not involve Jesus being Yahweh himself, and so keep these passages consistent with those passages which make it impossible that Jesus could be Yahweh himself. I do this by understanding the Messiah to be Yahweh’s chief and ideal agent, his supreme representative, the one through whom Yahweh accomplishes his eternal purpose. This concept is so thoroughly biblical and so prevalent in both the OT and NT, that I am ashamed and embarrassed to say, that in the first 35 yrs. of my life in Messiah, I had no clue about it. But I certainly am not alone in this. I had never heard a sermon or teaching, or had never come across a book or an article touching on this biblical concept. And why had I never seen this before? Because my mind had been trained from the very beginning to understand Jesus to be God himself. And the impressive list of verses supposedly teaching this idea confirmed me in that belief. But now that I have come to understand the biblical concept of agency, the idea that prophecies, titles, and characteristics of Yahweh attributed to the Messiah means that Messiah just is Yahweh, just seems sophomoric. Sam Shamoun’s assertion that “the only logical conclusion that one can arrive at is that the NT authors clearly believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God, i.e… that Yahweh Almighty had become an actual human being” is simply absurd. There is in fact a logical and reasonable and biblical alternative.

Agency is the Key

In the culture of the ancient Semitic peoples, the concept of agency was well established. According to The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, the concept of agency is defined thus:

Agent (Heb. Shaliah): The main point of the Jewish law of agency is expressed in the dictum, ‘a person’s agent is regarded as the person himself’ [Ned. 72B; Kidd, 41b]. Therefore any act committed by a duly appointed agent is regarded as having been committed by the principal, who therefore bears responsibility for it with consequent complete absence of liability on the part of the agent.   Adama Books, 1986, p.15

In The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God, Aubrey R. Johnson expressed this concept as follows:

In Hebrew thought a patriarch’s personality extended through his entire household … in a specialized sense, when the patriarch, as lord of his household, deputized his trusted servant as his malak (his messenger or angel), the man was endowed with the authority and resources of his lord, to represent him fully and transact business in his name. In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived of as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.

So in the world of the ancient Near East, when an agent was sent, whether by a king or a wealthy patriarch, the agent was to speak and act as the one who commissioned him, with all of the authority and resources of his lord at his disposal. The agent came and carried out his task in the name of his lord and so his reception or rejection, by those to whom he was sent, was actually the reception or rejection of the one who sent him. Thus the agent was to be regarded as though he himself were the one whom he represents. As James F. Ross says, in Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity, p.114:

It would seem that the question of the messengers authority could be answered simply: it is that of the one who sends him. Thus a messenger is to be treated as if he were his master.

Rene A. Lopez, in his paper titled Identifying the “Angel of the Lord” in the Book of Judges, stated this concerning this mysterious figure in the OT:

In the ANE context, kingly messengers often addressed others in the first person and were treated as if the actual king were present. Semitic culture thus supports understanding the angel of the Lord as a messenger who represents God, but is not God himself.

In ancient Near East texts, this concept is seen not only with human agents sent by human kings but also with divine agents sent by the gods.

In the Hebrew Scriptures this concept is demonstrated in various ways. The Hebrew word used to signify such an agent is malak. This word is often translated in our English Bibles as angel, a misleading translation. Our English word angel is a direct transliteration of the Greek word angelos, which means messenger, envoy. The translators then use the word angel to translate malak, which also means messenger. Both words malak and angelos are used of both supernatural beings and humans. When the context seems to clearly be referring to supernatural beings it is translated as angel, and when the context seems clearly to denote a human it is translated as messenger or envoy or ambassador. The word angel, in my opinion, should be dropped from our English Bibles, seeing how it has become jaded in our modern times, conjuring up images and ideas that do not accurately portray the biblical meaning of a malak. I prefer the word agent over messenger because messenger could denote simply relaying a message, whereas in the Scriptures, as we will see, a malak does more than that. The Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines agent as “one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from him.” This fits quite well with the Biblical picture of a malak.

OT Examples of Agency

  1. Prophets – In 2 Chron. 36:15-16 the word malak is applied to God’s prophets:
    “Yahweh, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his agents (malakim) again and again … But they mocked God’s agents (malakim), despised his word and mistreated his prophets until the wrath of Yahweh was aroused against his people until there was no remedy.”
    The prophet Haggai is called Yahweh’s malak in Haggai 1:13 and in Malachi 3:1 the prophecy fulfilled by John the Baptizer designates him as Yahweh’s malak. As God’s appointed representatives prophets were called to speak for God, which they often did in the first person. Sometimes the prophet would start speaking of God in the third person and then without the customary formula “thus says the LORD” suddenly switch to the first person, speaking as God himself. When we read these prophecies today it is easy to forget that these words were spoken by a representative of Yahweh, instead of directly by Yahweh himself.
  2. Moses – Though it is disputed as to whether or not Moses was ever called a malak, the fact that he was a prophet and a representative of God to the people surely entitles him to be called a malak. There is, however, a passage which I believe does refer to Moses as a malak, though perhaps, not conclusively. In Numbers 20:14-16 Moses sends messengers (Heb. malakim) to the king of Edom to say:
    “This is what your brother Israel says: You know about all the hardships that have come upon us. Our forefathers went down into Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our fathers, but when we cried out to Yahweh, he heard our cry and sent an agent (malak) and brought us out of Egypt.”
    Now many do not see this as a reference to Moses, but rather to the angel who accompanied the Israelites on their journey. But I do not see any reason why the malak cannot be referring to Moses, even if this is the only time he is so designated. When we compare this verse with Exodus 3:7-10, I think it becomes clear that Numbers 20:16 is indeed speaking about Moses. In verse 7 Yahweh tells Moses that he has seen the Israelites misery and has heard their cry. In verse 9 he reiterates that he has heard their cry and in response is sending Moses “to bring my people out of Egypt.”
    We should also note in this passage how Yahweh says in verse 8, “I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egytians and to bring them up out of that land...” He then says in v. 10 that Moses’ task is to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Here we see a perfect example of the role of a malak — to act in God’s place, on God’s behalf, with God’s authority and power backing him. It can be said that Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but it is also true that Yahweh brought them out. Yahweh was working in and through his appointed agent {see 1 Sam. 12:6}.
    Also worthy of consideration is Moses’ (and Aaron’s) role as a malak in relation to Pharaoh. In Ex.7:1 Yahweh says to Moses, “See, I have made you God (Heb. elohim) to Pharaoh and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.” It is clear that Moses is in a sense standing in for God. Later in the same chapter we see again a blurring of the lines between Moses and Yahweh, in vv. 14-20. God tells Moses to take his staff  with him and sends him to Pharaoh. In v.17 Moses is commanded to say, “This is what Yahweh says: By this you will know that I am Yahweh: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed to blood.”  Moses then gives the staff to Aaron and commands him to strike the water, which he does, turning the water into blood. So in whose hand was the staff and who struck the water, Yahweh or Aaron? From this we can see that when Yahweh’s agent acts on his behalf it is as if Yahweh himself is acting.
  3. Priests – Malachi 2:7 – “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction — for he is the agent (malak) of Yahweh of hosts.” As far as I can ascertain this is the only time in the OT where a priest is designated as a malak.
    Often in the OT we read of someone going to “inquire of the LORD,” and then that “the LORD answered him.” Now if we think that this is just someone asking God in prayer and then God speaking to them in response, then we have misunderstood the text. When someone, like a king, wanted to inquire of the LORD as to what course of action to take, they had two options — find a prophet or go to the high priest. Part of the high priests official garments included the ephod, to which the breastplate was attached. In a pocket behind the breastplate was kept the Urim and Thummim, the sacred lots, by which the priest would obtain decisions from the LORD and determine God’s will in specific matters {see Ex. 28:29-30}. When Moses was told by God to lay hands on Joshua to commission him as his successor, he was given these instructions: “He (Joshua) is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the LORD.” In 1 Samuel 21-23 we see this method of inquiring of the LORD played out in David’s life {see specifically 22:10; 23:2, 9-12}. So we see that one function of the high priest, as a malak of Yahweh was to stand in for God. When one went to inquire of the LORD, they literally went to the priest, and when they went to the priest, they actually went to the LORD.
  4. Angels – Every time we see the word angel in the OT, the Hebrew behind it is malak. As noted above, the word angel is not really a proper translation of malak, which denotes a messenger, an envoy, one with a delegated authority. Again, I propose the word agent. In this category we will be looking at malak of the supernatural or heavenly kind, what are typically known as angels. Throughout both the OT and NT, these beings are sent by God to carry out certain tasks on his behalf. As with Moses, there is often a blurring of the lines between these beings and Yahweh himself. Appearing as men, they will often speak for Yahweh in the first person, as if they were Yahweh. At the end of such encounters, those to whom they appeared (once they understand they were not dealing with a human being), will often interpret the event as seeing God himself, although it is clear that it was not actually God himself. Examples of this can be seen in Gen. 16:7-14; Gen. 18-19; 22:9-18; 31:10-13; 32:24-30; Ex. 3:1-4:17; 23:20-23; Joshua 5:13-6:5; Judges 6:1-23; 13:2-23. The malak is often so closely identified with Yahweh (he speaks and acts as Yahweh) that many scholars have been led to believe that “the angel of the Lord” is actually a personal appearance of God himself in visible form. Some postulate that it is pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. But there is no biblical reason to draw such a conclusion. Although it has been a popular idea, since the middle of the second century down to our present time, to view the ‘angel of the Lord’ as the pre-existent Son of God himself, the New Testament makes no such connection. No NT author ever equates the Messiah with the angel of the Lord, which is indeed strange, seeing that Christian teachers have been freely speaking this way since the middle of the 2nd century. If the believers of the first century did believe this, isn’t their silence about it baffling? In fact, in the only place in the NT where one of the OT appearances of the angel of the Lord is spoken of, in Acts 7:30-36, no mention is made of this angel being the Son of God. In this passage Stephen, who is described as being “full of faith and of the holy spirit,” recounts the incident of the burning bush. He simply says that an agent (Gr. angelos) appeared to Moses in the flames of the burning bush (v.30). He goes on in v. 35 to say that God commissioned Moses “by the hand of the agent who appeared to him in the bush.” ‘By the hand of’ is a Hebraism meaning ‘through the agency of.’ Stephen is clearly making a distinction between God and the agent through whom he spoke, and he says nothing about the agent being Messiah. Yet Stephen also says that when the agent spoke it was God speaking (vv.31-34). I think it is safe to assume that this was the way that the apostles and the first believers viewed the appearances of the ‘angel of the Lord’ in the OT, despite what Greek church fathers of the second century had to say. We can see that in their mind God’s malak stood in God’s place, speaking and acting as if he was God, yet was distinct from God.
  5. Messiah – There is one occasion in the OT in which the Messiah who was to come is designated as a malak. In Malachi 3:1 we read: “Behold, I will send my agent who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord (Heb. adon) whom you seek will come to his temple, the agent (malak) of the covenant, whom you desire will come,” says Yahweh Almighty. In OT theology David and his line were the uniquely chosen vessels to represent Yahweh’s rule over his people { 1Chron.28:5-7; 29:23; 2 Chron. 13:4-8; Ps. 89:19-37}. As such they carried the title ‘the LORD’s anointed (Heb. mashiach = messiah; Gr. christos = christ). The Davidic king was very closely associated with Yahweh as His appointed messiah {Ps. 2; 45:2-7; 80:17; 89:21-28; 1 Chron. 29:20; Zech. 12:8; 13:7}. The rest of this study will show how the Messiah as God’s malak explains the phenomenon of the NT authors applying OT Yahweh texts to Jesus.

Messiah, God’s Ideal Agent

Now let’s look at some of the specific passages, presented in the articles quoted at the beginning of this study, which are supposed to be conclusive proof that Jesus is Yahweh.

Mark 1:2-3 – The passage used most often in this regard is Mark 1:2-3. As noted in the above articles, Mark is applying two OT passages, Mal. 3:1 and Is. 40:3, to the coming and ministry of John the baptizer. The first point worth noting is that Mark is quoting this verse with reference to John, not Jesus. This surely weakens the theory that Mark’s intention is to equate Jesus with Yahweh. He’s quoting the passage to show it’s fulfillment in John. The second point of note is the fact that Mark’s version of Mal. 3:1 and Is. 40:3 (as well as other NT quotations of these verses – Matt.3:3; 11:10; Lk. 7:27) do not match either the Masoretic Text (MT) or the LXX. Both the MT and the LXX, at Mal. 3:1, have Yahweh saying that his messenger “will prepare the way before me.” The text in Mark changes the first person to a second person pronoun – “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” This also undermines the idea that Mark wants his readers to equate Jesus with Yahweh, because the text he uses would obscure that connection. We have a similar problem with the Isaiah passage. Both the MT and the LXX read “our God” at the end of the verse, while mark’s version reads “for him.” Again this militates against Mark wanting his readers to think Jesus is “our God.” It is true that the MT reads “prepare the way for Yahweh” in the first part of the verse. Mark’s version and the LXX, both being in Greek, read, “prepare the way for the Lord “ (Gr. kurios). What text is Mark (and Matthew and Luke) reading from? It is clearly not the MT or the LXX. Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) readings of these verses seem to match the MT.
But for the sake of the argument, let’s just go with the MT and LXX readings. Do these readings prove that Jesus is God? The very question is absurd on it’s face. Yes the messenger (John) was to prepare the way for Yahweh and make straight a highway for God. In the appearing of Jesus of Nazareth on the scene, God was going to accomplish his long awaited plan of redemption. “God was, through Messiah, reconciling the world to himself ” {2 Cor. 5:19}. John’s mission was to ready a people prepared for what God was about to do in and through his anointed one {Lk.1:16-17}. Jesus himself told his disciples, “It is the Father, living in me,who is doing his work” {John 14:10; see also 10:31,38}. No Jew reading Malachi’s or Isaiah’s prophecy would have thought that Yahweh was literally, personally and visibly going to appear in the wilderness of Judea. They understood the language as it was intended to be understood – Yahweh was going to visit his people through the raising up of the promised Messiah. Luke gives us a clue as to how Jews understood prophecies about God coming or God visiting his people. Zechariah, the father of John, speaking in proleptic terms at the birth of his son, declared:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited  and accomplished redemption for his people. He has raised up a horn (symbol of a king) of salvation for us in the house of his servant David …      Lk. 1:68-69

Note how Zechariah understands God visiting his people — by raising up the Messiah in  the house of David. Later in Luke’s gospel we read:

They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has been raised up among us,” they said. “God has visited his people.”    Lk. 7:16

Again, how did the Jews understand God coming to them? By the fact that a great prophet had been raised up among them (at this stage in Jesus’ ministry the multitudes at least regarded him as a prophet, if not the Messiah). We can understand that when God’s appointed agent shows up on the scene, it is in effect God showing up. And when Yahweh foretells of something he is going to in the future, and then some appointed agent of his shows up and carries it out, it is to be regarded as God himself doing it.

Zech. 12:10“They will look to me the one they have pierced , and they will mourn
for him as one mourns for an only child.”
Rev. 1:7“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see him, even those 
                    who pierced him; and all the tribes of the land will mourn because of him.”

Yahweh, in the MT and LXX, at Zech. 12:10, states that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will “look to me.Yet the author of the Revelation, speaking of Messiah at his second coming, says that Messiah is the one who was pierced. The mention of mourning in connection with this piercing, in both passages, makes it clear that the Zechariah passage is being referenced by the author of the Revelation. So does John (most scholars and commentators take the author of Rev. to be the same as the apostle John, author of the 4th gospel) intend by this reference, for his readers to understand Jesus to be Yahweh himself? Is this the “only logical conclusion that one can arrive at?” Absolutely not! To begin with, if this John of Rev. is synonymous with the apostle and author of the gospel of John, which I believe he is, then we can gain an insight into how he understood the Zechariah passage, from his gospel. In ch. 19:31-37 he relates the story about the soldiers not breaking Jesus’ legs, because he was already dead. Instead, presumably to confirm his death, one soldier thrust a spear into his side. John concludes:

These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and , as another scripture says, “They will look to the one they have pierced.”

Note how John words the passage from Zechariah; it does not contain the ‘me‘ of the MT and LXX. If John wanted his readers to think of Jesus as ontologically equivalent to Yahweh then why present a reading that would obscure that interpretation. It is probable that John’s particular reading of the passage is interpretive, i.e. he understands not a hypostatic equivalence between Yahweh and Messiah Jesus, but a functional equivalence. So the Messiah, as Yahweh’s agent, takes upon himself the offense committed against Yahweh. The piercing is emblematic of rejection. If the one who was sent is rejected, this is tantamount to the rejection of the one who sent him {Luke 10:16; John 15: 23; see also John 12:44}. When the Messiah was pierced, it was in effect Yahweh himself being pierced. To make the claim, based upon the juxtapostion of these two passages, that Jesus must be Yahweh himself, strikes me as a rather simple-minded, even juvenile form of exegesis.

Isaiah 45:23 – “By myself I have sworn …  to me every knee will bow and every tongue 
                            will swear.”
Phil. 2:10-11“… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue 
                           confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Here are another two passages which, when juxtaposed, are supposed to be proof positive that the NT authors, Paul here specifically, regarded Jesus the Messiah as Yahweh himself. But once again, the concept of agency helps us avoid such an overly simplistic reading of the NT. I would draw your attention to John 12:44:

Jesus cried out, “The one who believes in me, believes not in me, but in the one who sent me.”

The concept of agency is profoundly clear in this verse. To believe in the Messiah is in effect to believe in Yahweh who sent him. Can we not say then, that to bow the knee to Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord Messiah is equal to bowing the knee to Yahweh who sent him and who appointed him as Lord and Messiah. And can we not say that to acknowledge Jesus as Lord is to acknowledge the God who appointed him to that position. Now that God has raised up his chosen agent and has exalted him, one must now acknowledge and serve him, Messiah, in order to be faithful to God. If a man claims to be faithful to Yahweh yet refuses to bow the knee to Yahweh’s appointed ruler, then that man is not being faithful to Yahweh {Jn. 5:23}. Faith in Yahweh is now inextricably linked to faith in his anointed one {Jn. 14:1}. And to believe in God’s Messiah is to be faithful to the one who commands our belief in this Messiah {Jn. 6:28-29; 1 Jn. 3:23-24}.

Note in the Phil. passage, that the exaltation of Jesus and his having the name above all names, so that every knee would bow and every tongue confess him Lord, is something that is conferred upon him by God, as a direct result of his humble obedience, even unto death. This also militates against the idea that Paul is presenting Jesus as Yahweh. First off, Jesus is presented here as someone other than God – he is distinct from God. This God is said to have exalted Jesus and to have given him the name above all names. But if he were Yahweh wouldn’t he already have been exalted and had the name above all names? Why did these things have to be bestowed upon him, and that as a result of his obedience?

Joel 2:32“And everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.”
Romans 10:12-13“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is  Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ “

Much excitement is had by Trinitarians over this correlation of Scriptures, but I think without merit. It is assumed that Paul is quoting Joel 2:32 as being fulfilled in the fact that one must call on the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved. Joel says “the name of Yahweh” and Paul applies it to Jesus, hence Jesus must be Yahweh. This, once again, is far to simplistic. The above explanation is again applicable here. That is, now that the Messiah has been raised up by God and he has accomplished the work (phase 1 anyway) to which he was commissioned, God now requires acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord Messiah for ultimate salvation. So then to confess Jesus as Lord, he having been made such by God {Acts 2:36}, is equivalent to acknowledging Yahweh. Yahweh has his appointed means of salvation, and those means involve a faith recognition of God’s work in and through Messiah Jesus {see Rom. 10:9; 2 Cor. 5:19}.

Also it is highly probable that Paul is not even quoting Joel 2:32 in the sense of a fulfillment in Messiah. Notice that there are none of the common formulas preceding the quotation, such as “as it is written” or “as the scripture says” or “that the scripture might be fulfilled.” I think what Paul is doing here is a common practice (I have even done this myself) of using a passage of scripture whose wording aptly fits the present situation, but without implying that the present situation is a fulfillment of the original meaning of the passage. In fact, Paul does this same thing just five verses later at verse 18. This provides a good example of what I am referring to because v.18 is not embroiled in controversy as v. 13 is, and hence should be evident to all no matter what one’s Christological beliefs.

But I ask, did they (the Israelites) not hear? Of course they did. Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

Paul here quotes Psalm 19:4, but it is clear he does not mean that this passage had been fulfilled in his day by the preaching of the gospel. Paul was not stupid. He knew that the original context of Psalm 19:1-4 referred to the heavens declaring the glory of God and that everyone has heard (i.e. seen) their testimony. It is only because the wording of that passage fit his present situation (that the gospel had been thoroughly proclaimed to the Jews both in the land and in the dispersion) that Paul quoted it. Notice again the lack of a fulfillment formula.

So, I suggest that Paul is quoting Joel 2:32 simply because the wording of the passage in the LXX came to his mind as a perfect fit for the present situation, in which now, by God’s decree, men must acknowledge Jesus as Lord Messiah for everlasting salvation.

Now I could go on looking at all of the examples given in the articles mentioned at the beginning of this study, applying the concept of agency to them, and showing how there is no necessity to think that the NT authors were making an ontological equivalence between Yahweh and Jesus, but that would be superfluous. These examples should be sufficient to show that the kind of exegesis promoted in the above mentioned articles is overly simplistic and not worthy of being taken seriously.

 



                     

 

 

 

Refutation of the Master’s University Bible Faculty Document on the Trinity and Divinity of Messiah (Part 4)

The Trinity and Divinity of Messiah-92b9c7Here is the TMU document. Please open and follow along. We pick up on page 8.

2. The NT thoroughly describes Jesus as divine and preexistent

A. PAUL”S VIEW OF JESUS

Jesus is Active Prior to the Incarnation

  • Phil. 2:5-8 –  The authors use the ESV here, which gives a terrible rendering of the second part of verse 5 : “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” No other version reads this way except the RSV. Most versions have something like, “which was also in Christ Jesus.” The problem is that in the Greek there is no verb : ho kai en Christo Iesou = literally “which also in Christ Jesus.” The verb must be supplied in English for the sentence to make sense. Because it seems like Paul is calling believers to have a certain frame of mind and then describes a frame of mind which Jesus had a some point, it is best to supply the word ‘was.’ So it is a call for believers to have the same frame of mind that Christ Jesus had at some point in the past. Why is this important? The reason it is important may also be the reason why the authors chose to present the passage from the ESV. Paul is exhorting believers to have the same frame of mind that Messiah Jesus had. Even from a Trinitarian perspective, Messiah Jesus can only be referring to the man {1 Tim. 2:5} from Nazareth, who was born of Mary, who “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” {Lk. 2:52} What orthodox commentators and Trinitarian apologists want us to believe is that what Paul describes in vv. 6-8 is the frame of mind of God the Son, the Logos, as he was existing in heaven from all eternity. But what Paul describes is not the frame of mind of the pre-existing Logos, but of the man, Messiah Jesus. In other words, the traditional way of understanding this passage, that the eternal Logos up in heaven makes a decision to humble himself to become a man  and die for us, is false. The passage is describing the mind of the man Jesus, who in willing obedience to the Father gave himself for us. Therefore whatever Paul says in vv. 6-8 is being said of a man, specifically Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. Paul is not saying that Jesus was in heaven existing as God, and that while in that state he decided that being God was not something he needed to hold on to, so he emptied himself and became a man. What Paul is saying is that the man Jesus, though he was born to be king {Matt.2:2; Mk. 15:2; Jhn. 18:37}, having been foreordained to that position, being the one from David’s line chosen to rule over God’s kingdom {1 Chron. 28:5-7}, did not consider this position of power as God’s representative and vice-regent (i.e. this positional equality with God), a thing to be selfishly seized for his own advantage. Instead of demanding his rights as the heir to the throne of his father David, he emptied himself, having been born like all other men, subject to the ruling power of the day. He lived an ordinary life among men, not as the king he was born to be. He knew that the path to his predestined glory was the path of suffering and death. At least twice in his life he could have bypassed the suffering and death and obtained a measure of the glory to which he was predestined {see Lk. 4:5-8 and Jn. 6:15}, but instead he humbled himself  and was obedient to the Father’s will, knowing that in God’s time and in God’s way (death and resurrection) he would be exalted beyond measure.

Now in what way was the man, Messiah Jesus, in the ‘form of God?’ This portion of Philippians, 2:6-11, is unanimously considered by scholars to be a hymn, and is therefore poetic in nature. Jesus being in the form of God is just a poetic way of saying that as the one chosen from David’s line he rules for God, on God’s behalf. This may be based on Psalm 45:6, where the reigning Davidic king is addressed as ‘God.’ You see, Yahweh is the true king of Israel, but he has chosen to rule through a human agent. This position was given only to the descendants of David by covenant {see Ps. 89:19-37; 2 Chron. 13:4-8}. So this effectively puts the king in the place of God, he even sits on Yahweh’s throne {1 Chron. 29:23}. This was the glorious position to which Jesus was preordained {Lk. 1:31-33}, but he did not seek to grasp it for himself apart from the will of the Father. Instead he lived a rather modest, unkingly life, waiting for the Father to glorify him in His time. This is the true meaning of the Philippians hymn. For more on Phil. 2:5-11 see my May 2018 post The Lordship of Jesus the Messiah (Part 2).

  • 2 Cor. 8:9 –  This passage is in effect a parallel to the Philippians hymn. Once again, this has been traditionally read that Jesus, as God, was rich in heaven, but then became poor by becoming a man on earth. But this is reading way to much into the passage. Once again, Paul is talking about the man Jesus, the Messiah, not God the son, or the Logos. So how was the man Jesus rich? And in what way was he made poor for us? From the moment of his birth he was the heir to David’s throne {Lk. 1:32-33; Matt. 2:2}. From his birth he was rich, in the same way that Abraham was  the father of many nations before he even had a child {Gen. 17:5}, i.e. in the foreordained purpose of God. The Greek says plousios on= being rich; this coincides with ‘being in the form of God’ in the Philippians passage. From his birth, he was predestined to glory, honor, and riches, as the rightful heir to Yahweh’s throne. The phrase ‘he became poor’ coincides with  ‘he emptied himself’ in the Philippians hymn. He made a conscious choice to submit to the poverty of life into which God had him born, not trying to seize for himself his kingly rights and honors, even to the point of allowing men to put him to death. This he did for our sakes, that we might one day reign with him in glory. I repeat, nothing in this passage requires the interpretation that a pre-existent divine being descended  from heaven and became man; that is pure eisegesis. The man Jesus was indeed rich, in that he was, in reality, as the chosen one, the heir of all things {Heb. 1:2}. Yet he never entered into the actual possession and experience of all that belonged to him, in his short time upon this earth. This parallels Abraham’s journey, who, along with Isaac and Jacob, were heirs of God’s promise {Heb. 11:9}. Yet he and they “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” {Heb. 11:13} So it still remains for Jesus the Messiah to rule over the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus has descended from heaven

  • 1 Cor. 15:47 – Here is another case of reading one’s a priori theological beliefs into Scripture. It is imagined by Trinitarians that Paul is saying that the first man Adam came from the earth, but the second man Jesus came from heaven. But do Trinitarians really believe that the man Jesus came from heaven? No, they believe the eternal Son or the Logos came down from heaven and assumed humanity from Mary. But Paul is talking about the Man from heaven. Paul is not referring to an incarnation but to the risen and glorified man, Jesus the Messiah, who became a life-giving spirit” by his resurrection from the dead. This man is from heaven. Now ‘from heaven’ does not need to be taken literally, although that would still be acceptable, since the man Jesus is now in heaven and will come again from heaven to give those who believe in him immortality. But ‘from heaven’ can be understood as in Matt. 21:24-25:

Jesus replied , ” … John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men.”

Now nobody believes that John’s baptism was up in heaven and then came down to earth. From heaven here clearly means that it was according to God’s will and foreordained purpose. In the same way, Jesus’ being from heaven denotes that the immortality and incorruptibility he possesses as a result of resurrection, is according to the foreordained purpose of God. The comparison in vv. 47-49, is not between how Adam came into the world and how Jesus came into the world. The comparison is between the fallen Adam, who was corruptible and mortal, and the risen Messiah, who is incorruptible and immortal. Those who are of the earth, i.e. in Adam, are like Adam, mortal and corruptible; while those who are of heaven, i.e. redeemed in Messiah, shall be like the man from heaven, immortal and incorruptible. This is clearly the import of Paul’s words, as the context shows {see vv. 50 -57}.

Note also v.48, which speaks of those who will be made immortal as hoi epouranioi , meaning literally ‘the heavenly ones.’ The author of the paper summarily dismisses the significance of this, saying: “Contrast is not simply that Jesus is “heavenly” just as we are “heavenly.” So say you. It is not a comparison so much, but an association with Jesus. As he is ‘the heavenly one,’ in the same way we shall be ‘heavenly ones.’ This rules out that Paul is talking about some supposed deity in Jesus.

Jesus is Creator

  • 1 Cor. 8:6  –  For a thorough explanation of this verse see my May 2018 post The Lordship of Jesus the Messiah (Part 2).
  • Col. 1:16  –  At first glance, on a superficial reading, this verse does seem to say that Jesus was involved in the creation of all things. Of course, those who already view Jesus as God will be especially susceptible to seeing this verse as confirmation of that view.  But does the text actually say this? The context, of course, must guide us in the proper understanding of Paul’s statements regarding Messiah here. The authors of the TMU paper want us to note v. 15, where Messiah is called “the image of the invisible God,” as if this statement is also asserting Messiah’s deity. It should be obvious to any unbiased reader that an image of something is to be distinctly differentiated from the thing of which it is an image. An image of a thing cannot logically be the thing itself. A picture of my wife is not my wife. A sculpture of Abraham Lincoln is not the man himself. The fact that Paul calls Jesus the ‘image of God‘ should immediately rule out, in any unbiased mind, that the son of God is here being declared to be God. Only a mind already biased by an a priori commitment to orthodox dogma, could read this in such a way as to make it say that an image is itself the thing it images. Further proof that ‘image of God’ does not and cannot denote deity is the fact that Adam (and so all humanity) was created in God’s image {Gen.1:27}. This being  in the image of God was directly related to the concept of rulership {see Gen. 1: 26 & 28}. Man was to represent God in his rule over the rest of creation, but man is clearly a part of the creation. Paul reiterates this concept in 1 Cor. 11:7 :

A man should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God.

Here the man (in distinction from woman), specifically, is the image of God in the marriage relationship, in that he is the head {v.3} and bears the rule in the relationship.

Now surely, Paul does not have in mind a totally different concept of the ‘image of God’ in reference to Messiah. Jesus, the son of God, as the ideal man, bears the first place of rule and dominion in God’s creation. The next clause in v. 15, “the firstborn of all creation” is certainly meant by Paul as an elaboration of what it means that Messiah is “the image of the invisible God.” The word ‘firstborn’ here does not denote the first one in time, as JW’s suppose, making Jesus the first created being. The Greek word prototokos can also denote the status of the firstborn, i.e. priority and supremacy over the others in the family. When Paul says that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation he means that of all created beings Jesus has the highest place, the supremacy. If Paul had wished to express the idea that Messiah was supreme over creation because he is deity, then he would not have used the concept of the firstborn, which surely connotes being in the same category as that of which he is the firstborn. This clearly puts Jesus on the creature side of the Creator/ creature divide. The rest of the context (vv.16-19) is a further elaboration on Messiah’s supremacy within the created order. In fact, the whole passage is not about a supposed pre-existent son of God creating the universe, but rather of the glorious status of the risen and exalted man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

So whatever Paul means in v.16 has to fit into his previous assessment of the person of Messiah. Again, an unprejudiced reading of v.15 yields a picture of Jesus as an exalted man, not as God. So can Paul really be saying in the next breath that Jesus is the Creator of the universe? Such an understanding strains credulity. V.16 must be telling us something about Messiah’s rule and dominion within the created order, for that is the import of this whole passage. Beginning in v.13 Paul tells how we have been brought into the kingdom of the son, by God, the Father. The rest of the passage, at least through v. 18, is about the authority that has been given to the son to rule on his Father’s behalf. So let’s take a close look at v.16 with this understanding in mind.

First, let’s establish what is being created in this passage. Is Paul speaking about the original creation of the universe? No! But doesn’t he say all things were created in him?  Surely ‘all things’ refers to the entire creation, right? Not necessarily. Actually when Paul says ‘all things’ he does not always mean all things that exist. Sometimes he means the all things pertaining to what he is talking about, in a certain context, e.g. Rom. 8:32; 1 Cor. 2:15; 3:21; Eph. 1:10; 1:22; Phil. 3:8. A relevant passage that may throw light upon Paul’s use of ‘the all things’ (Gr. ta panta) is 2 Cor. 5:17-18:

Therefore, if anyone is in Messiah, a new creation. The old things have passed away, behold, new things have come to be (or have been established). And the all things (ta panta) are from God …

Here ta panta, the all things, is clearly in reference to the new creation in Messiah and not to the originally created material universe. This helps us to understand Col.1:16, which I believe is referring to the new creation in Messiah. Furthermore, Paul does not seem to be speaking of the original creation of the material universe, because he mentions nothing that can be seen in the original creation story in Genesis. Paul uses a literary device here known as inclusio. This involves a word or phrase that occurs at the beginning of a section, being repeated at the end of the section. Here the phrase ‘the all things were created’ occurs at the beginning and end of the sentence. What is sandwiched between the two statements is descriptive of the bracketing phrase.

For in him were created the all things in the heavens and the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or governments, or rulers, or authorities. The all things have been created through him and for him.

The bracketed material tells us what Paul is speaking of, and limits ‘the all things in the heavens and the earth’ to the power structures which exist in both of these realms. This makes sense, since Paul is developing the idea of the “kingdom of His son” spoken of in v.13. In this kingdom, which shall be made manifest in the age to come, Jesus, the son of God, is the supreme ruler under God. He holds the highest position of authority and the place of greatest honor and supremacy. All else will be subservient to him. This is a restoration and expansion of the dominion and rule given to the first Adam.

In this present age, in which we live, there are existing power structures, both in the heavenlies {see Eph. 6:12}, the invisible realm, and upon the earth, the visible realm. At the present time all of these ruling powers, whether in the visible or invisible realm, are in opposition to God, as well as to one another. But in the age to come Messiah will subdue these hostile rulers and reclaim the power structures in both realms, bringing them all under his authority {see Eph. 1:10, 20-23; Col. 1:19-20; Is. 24:21-22}. In this way, through Messiah’s reign, God will reconcile all these power structures to himself. The new power structures, which are a part of the new creation in Messiah, will be occupied by the saints of the Most High, with Messiah Jesus as the Head {see Dan. 7:13-14,18,27; Col. 2:10}. This is the meaning of vv. 17-18:

He is before all things, and in him the all things have been made to stand together. And he is the head of the body, the assembly (of the saints of the Most High). This one is the beginning (of the new creation), the firstborn from among the dead, in order that he should come to have the first place in all things.

The word ‘before’ (Gr. pro), though it has the meaning of before in time, i.e. prior to, can also have the meaning of priority in rank. This is the evident meaning here, because if Paul intended to say that Messiah existed before all things he would have used the imperfect tense verb ‘was‘, rather than the present tense ‘is.’ Messiah is given priority over all the authority structures in the heavens and the earth, and in him they will all one day stand together as one harmonious whole, subjected to and bringing glory to God. He is the head of the ecclesia, the congregation of the holy ones, who shall rule with Messiah, in both realms. He is the beginning of the new creation, being the first to be raised immortal from the dead. This connects the new creation with the resurrection/transformation of the body, which fits one to rule in the age to come. The text explicitly says that he is the firstborn from the dead in order that he should come to have the preeminent place in all things. It is inconceivable that one who is eternal God would have to become a man, die, and be raised to life, in order to have the first place in all things.

Now I want to examine why it is that Paul speaks of this new creation, which in actual experience is still future, as something already done (were created). In the ancient Hebrew worldview it was not uncommon to speak of things predestined to be as if they already were. This way of speaking of things which were certain to be as being already accomplished, was learned from the Hebrew Scriptures, from God’s very own declarations of future realities as presently existing. No doubt Paul’s thinking and language were shaped by this phenomenon to the point where he could say of God:

” … the one … calling the things not existing as if existing.”  Rom. 4:17

Paul gives the premier example in Abraham, who was told by God, while still childless, “I have made you a father of many nations.” Because Abraham was predestined to be such, God could speak to him and of him in this way. This must have had a profound impact on Paul’s thinking for we see him speak this way a number of times in his letters. For example in Romans 8:29-30 Paul speaks of the predestined glory to which believers are called, in the past tense, i.e. glorified. No believer actually enters into the experience of this glory until Messiah comes in glory (1 John 3:2), but in the mind and plan of God it is accomplished already. Similarly, in Eph. 2:6 Paul says that God has raised us believers up with Messiah and has seated us with him in the heavenly realms. This speaks of the fact that we will be made immortal and rule with Messiah in the age to come, yet Paul speaks as if it is already a fact. Why? Because it is our destiny, predetermined by God – it has been written in the plan. Again, in 2 Tim. 1:9 Paul says that God’s “grace was given to us in Messiah Jesus before the ages of time.” Now nobody actually, literally and personally was given God’s grace before the ages of time, for no one of us existed then. Paul means that it was then determined for those in Messiah to be given this grace, i.e. it was written in the plan from before the ages of time. One more example is in 2 Cor. 5:17 where Paul says that if one is in Messiah he is a new creation. Now I know that this is one of those special verses for evangelical Christians, but the truth of the matter is that we do not actually, literally, and experientially become new creations until the Lord Jesus “will transform the body of our low condition, conformed to the body of his glory” {Phil. 3:21}. If Jesus’ being the beginning (v.18) refers to the new creation, as even the NIV Study Bible comment on this passage says, then Paul connects the new creation to the resurrection of the body. Yet Paul can speak as if it is a present reality because it is already written in the plan and is simply awaiting manifestation in the real world.

So in this same way, when Paul speaks of the all things, i.e. the authority structures in the heavens and in the earth, as having been created in Messiah, he means that it has already been written in the plan; Messiah has already been exalted and seated above all of these ordered systems of authority and is awaiting the time when he will actually and literally rule over them. We know that he is not now reigning over them because they are still in opposition to God.

V. 19 is inaccurately translated in most versions, as something like “all of his fullness” or “all the fullness of God.” But the Greek reads like this,For he (God) deemed it good, in him (Messiah) all the fullness to settle.The fullness of which Paul speaks here must be the sum of all authority and rule in both the heavens and the earth, which God has determined to have it’s residence permanently in Messiah. This entails the ecclesia, Messiah’s body, the saints of the Most High, filling all of the positions of rule in the authority structures of the two realms.

This interpretation of vv. 13-19 is confirmed by v.20 which reads:

” … and through him (Messiah) to reconcile the all things to himself … whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.”

Is God reconciling to himself mountains and trees and fishes and birds? No, he is reconciling mankind, who has been at enmity with him, and the authority structures of the created order, which have also been at enmity with him.

Jesus is sent by God — this means pre-existence

  • Rom. 8:3  – The author of this paper, as well as most Trinitarians, think that in this verse they have a proof text for the pre-existence of Messiah. But I want you to see how this conclusion is based on circular reasoning. There are two things in this verse that they think is proof that Jesus pre-existed: first, that the son was sent and second, that he was in the likeness of sinful flesh.

We are in the section of this paper under the heading Paul’s View of Jesus and the author has presented the two references, in Paul’s letters, to the son being sent. Now the author, along with all Trinitarians, take this to mean that the son was in heaven and God sent him from there to earth, to be incarnated in the womb of Mary. Does Paul really believe that? He only mentions the son being sent, twice, in all his letters, and in neither mention does he say that the son was sent from heaven to earth. So why would anyone assume that this is what Paul means? We know that Paul thinks Jesus is a man {see Acts 13:23; 17:31; Rom. 5:15; 1 Cor. 15:45-47; 1 Tim. 2:5}, so why should we assume that when Paul refers to Jesus being sent, that he means he pre-existed in heaven, and was sent from there to earth? Again, Paul never says that. The only reason anyone would take Paul in that way is because they already believe that Jesus is God, and being God he pre-existed in heaven; so when Paul says he was sent, he must mean he was sent from heaven. This is why I say that this is a circular argument; it is based on the presupposition that Jesus is God. Without that presupposition there is no reason to think Paul means that Jesus was pre-existing in heaven and was sent from there to earth. So these two passages in Paul are not a proof of Jesus’ pre-existence, unless you already believe he pre-existed as God. So what could Paul have meant when he said that Jesus was sent by God? In Jewish parlance this simply means that Jesus was given a commission by God to carry out a certain task. While the word sent can certainly mean that one is sent from one place to another place, the literal meaning, it does not necessarily mean that. This is the language of agency — where one is commissioned by another to perform some task. The one commissioned could be spoken of as being sent even if he does not travel from one place to another. Take the prophet Isaiah for example, he was commissioned by God in ch. 6 of the book that bears his name:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I, send me.” And he said , “Go and tell this people … ” vv.8-9

But Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and preached to the people in Jerusalem, so he wasn’t literally sent anywhere, but he was commissioned to be a prophet to the people of Jerusalem. Sometimes the idea of being sent denotes not so much a change of location, but of occupation. We are not told what Isaiah’s occupation was before God commissioned him to prophesy, but whatever it was he most certainly gave it up to become a prophet {see also Amos 7:14-15}.

John the Baptizer was sent from God {John 1:6}, but he didn’t really go anywhere. He lived with his parents in Judea, presumably until their deaths, and then, according to Luke 1:80, he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly as a prophet. When he did begin his ministry it was in the desert of Judea, according to Matt. 3:1. So he wasn’t sent from one location to another, but he was commissioned to preach and baptize.

It seems to me that the whole flavor of Paul’s statement in 8:3 is pertaining to the son’s sacrificial death. The words “for sin” are understood by many scholars as a Hebraism meaning  “as a sin offering.” So the sending of the son is in connection with his death on the cross and not to a supposed incarnation. Jesus, the son of God, was commissioned by the Father to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin.

Now in the paper it is stated that the phrase “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is Paul’s way of saying that “Jesus the Son took on a condition he had not previously possessed.” But the opposite is actually true. Clearly, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is denoting the condition in which the son was when sent. Paul does not say, “God sending his own son to be made in (or to take on) the likeness of sinful flesh.” So the assertion of the author just does not prove true. So what does Paul mean by “in the likeness of sinful flesh?” The word ‘flesh’ is probably being used as a metonymy for man. Paul uses the word this way sometimes, e.g. Rom. 3:20; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16. The NIV takes it this way, translating, “in the likeness of sinful man.” The word ‘likeness’ could refer to Jesus being a representation of sinful man, yet without being sinful himself. This may be a parallel passage to 2 Cor. 5:21:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.

Here, again, scholars see the phrase “to be sin” as a Hebraism meaning “to be a sin offering. So the point of “in the likeness of sinful flesh (man)” is not to convey the idea that Jesus took on a condition which he previously did not possess, but to say that though sinless, he was a representation of sinful man and a sin offering when he died on the cross. And this was the task to which he was commissioned by God.

  • Gal. 4:4  –  You may read my comments on this passage in the January 2018 post Son of God (Part 4); what I said there I will not repeat here, so please read that first. What I said above concerning the son being sent applies here as well. The author of the paper sees a parallel meaning in the son being sent in v. 4, with the Spirit being sent in v. 6. The conclusion is that if  the Spirit was sent and he pre-existed then this means that the son also pre-existed before being sent. Well, all I can say to that is, that there are a whole lot of presuppositions that had to be read into the text to arrive at that conclusion. Notice that the author presupposes one aspect of the Trinity, namely the personal divinity of the Spirit, and then uses that presupposition as a basis for interpreting the passage in such a way that supposedly proves another aspect of the Trinity, namely the personal  divinity and pre-existence of the son. This is not exegesis but eisegesis.

In answer to this, I will first point out that it is not even clear that “spirit of his son” is referring to the Holy Spirit. I would ask Trinitarians a question – from your perspective, exactly who is the Holy Spirit? Is he a divine personage distinct from the Father and the Son, or is he the Spirit of the Son {see Rom. 8:9}, or is he the Spirit of the Father {see Matt. 10:20 compared to Lk.12:12; Rom. 8:11}. This seems like a difficult thing to grasp and I have never heard an explanation that clears it up.

Every time the word ‘spirit‘ appears in Scripture it is not necessarily referring to the Holy Spirit. We should not be fooled by the capital S, for that was not in the original but was added at the discretion of the translators. Scripture, and especially the apostle Paul, sometimes uses spirit to denote a dominating frame of mind which motivates or compels one to act or live a certain way. Here are some examples: Num. 5:14,30; 14:24; Lk.1:17; Rom. 8:15; 11:8; 1 Cor. 4:21; 2 Cor. 4:13; Eph. 4:23; Phil. 1:27; 2 Tim. 1:7; 1 Pet. 3:4. I believe that this is what Paul means in Gal.4:6 – God has given believers in Messiah the spirit of his son, i.e. the same dominating frame of mind as was in his son Jesus of Nazareth. And what is that frame of mind? The realization of sonship. The Lord Jesus, throughout his life, was motivated and compelled to live and act by the overarching realization of his personal sonship in relation to God. The constant reference to God as his Father shows this to be evident. Even from an early age we find him keenly cognizant of his sonship {Lk. 2:49}. The average Jew of Paul’s day did not have this awareness of personal sonship, but only of corporate sonship, i.e. Israel was God’s son. But the Jewish believer in Jesus the Messiah, as well as the Gentile believer, was given this awareness of personal sonship, what Paul here calls “the spirit of his son.”

The validity of this interpretation is found first in the fact that Paul says that God sent forth this spirit “into our hearts.” In Hebrew thought the heart is a way of putting in concrete terms an abstract concept. It denotes that which is interior as opposed to that which is exterior. It envelops the abstract concepts of the will, mind, intentions, motivations, affections, commitments, loyalties, etc. This can be seen in many passages, such as Prov.4:23; 13:12; Ps. 17:3; 24:4; 26:2; Rom. 2:29; 5:5; 10:9-10; 1 Pet. 3:15. The idea of God putting in our hearts a certain disposition or frame of mind works much better than God putting in our hearts a personal, divine entity. Second, it is this spirit which is said to be crying out “Abba, Father.” But surely Paul’s meaning is that we, as believers, are crying out under the dominating influence of this new frame of mind of personal sonship. This is extremely pertinent to the Jew, who, under the law, lacked this awareness. This becomes even clearer in the parallel passage in Rom. 8:15-17, where Paul pits the “spirit of bondage … to fear,” against the “spirit of adoption (sonship).”  In this context, ‘spirit’, as a frame of mind, fits better than ‘spirit’ as a personal being. Paul is speaking primarily of the Jew, who, under the law, was under the dominating frame of mind of fear, but who now, through faith in Jesus, has been given a new frame of mind that motivates him to live and act as Jesus did, i.e. the spirit of sonship {Rom. 7:6}. He then says of this spirit of sonship, ” … by which (Gr. neuter pronoun, not ‘by whom’) we cry out “Abba, Father.’ ” So it is better to understand Gal. 4:6 as saying that we, under the dominating influence of the spirit of sonship are crying out ‘Abba, Father,’ rather than that the Holy Spirit of God is crying out ‘Abba Father.’

This interpretation of the passage makes moot the first point made in the paper, since the ‘spirit’ which God has sent forth into our hearts is not a personal, divine, pre-existent entity, but simply a new dominating frame of mind. The second point is nullified also, on the same basis. Especially relevant to this is Luke 1:17 where we are told that John, the son of Zechariah, would perform his ministry “in the spirit … of Elijah.” Surely no Trinitarian would imagine that Elijah was more than human, yet the same spirit under which he ministered was also the dominating frame of mind under which John ministered.

One further note on Gal. 4:4. Trinitarians read the verse as if Paul said, “God sent his Son to be born of a woman … ” If that is what Paul meant to say he would have used the aorist infinitive form of the verb, rather than the aorist participle, which is better translated, “God sent his son, having been born of a woman …” Again, as we have seen throughout this paper, theological presuppositions (the belief in the doctrines of the Trinity and deity of Messiah) are the basis for interpreting the passages presented as ‘proof texts’ for the deity of Messiah. This circular argumentation in itself takes the ‘proof’ out of these texts.

Jesus Was Active in Israel’s History

  • 1 Cor. 10:4  –  Here we are supposed to believe that Jesus was with Israel in the desert when they came out of Egypt. The text says, ” … for they drank from the  spiritual rock, and that rock was Messiah.” What could Paul possibly mean by this? Well, the author of the paper admits it is “difficult to say.” But that does not stop him/her from assuring us that “the Israelites had Jesus the Messiah accompanying them in the desert.” This statement is astounding. Do Trinitarians really believe that Jesus the Messiah, the descendant of David, the one born of Mary, the man Jesus from Nazareth, was actually with the Israelites in the desert. I would have thought they might say that the pre-incarnate, eternal Son or God the Son, was with the Israelites, but that Jesus the Messiah was with them seems to be going to far.

Paul seems to be referring to the two incidents in Israel’s desert wanderings, where God supplied water to the community from a rock, once at the beginning and again toward the end of their wandering. Does Paul mean for us to believe that it was the same rock on both occasions, that the rock was actually following them around as they wandered? And does Paul further mean for us to believe that the rock was actually and literally, the Messiah? Although it may be “difficult to say” exactly what Paul means, I think we can rule out this ridiculous notion as unworthy of the apostle Paul. I think the simplest solution is to understand Paul as saying that the rock was meant to be a type of Messiah for us. As the Israelites received life-giving sustenance from the rock, so we receive life-giving sustenance from Messiah. This interpretation is bolstered by v.2 where Paul seems to see the Israelite’s passing through the Red Sea as a type of baptism, which believers in Messiah participate in. Further confirmation of this interpretation is found in v. 11:

These things happened to them as types (Gr. typikos), and were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages has come.

The common objection to this interpretation is that if Paul had meant this he would have said, “the rock is Messiah” rather than “the rock was Messiah.” But I really do not think that is enough to overturn this interpretation, and to leave us with the alternative, which is just not feasible.

  • 1 Cor. 10:9  –  Here it appears as if the Israelites are said to have tested Messiah in the wilderness, and therefore Messiah must have been at work among them. I am quite surprised that under a section titled Jesus Was Active in Israel’s History the only ‘proof texts’ offered  are these two in 1 Cor., seeing how they are rather weak in proving what they are purported to prove. What the paper fails to make mention of is the fact that v.9 has variant readings in the Greek manuscripts, some reading Christ, some Lord, and one reading God. Some English versions follow the manuscripts that read Lord, e.g. the NIV, ASV, ISV and the NASB. Other’s follow the manuscripts which read Christ, e.g. the ESV, KJV, CSB, and the NET. If the original reading was ‘Lord,’ then this would simply be referring to God, as even Meyer agrees. Paul often uses ‘Lord‘ of Yahweh when quoting or referring to OT texts. If the original reading was ‘Christ,’ then the meaning is simply this – that we, professing Christians, should not put Messiah to the test in the same manner as the Israelites put God to the test. To read more than this into this text is to again assume what one is trying to prove. Why would anyone think that Paul is saying that a man who was born and lived in the first century C.E., was alive and active 1500 yrs. earlier, unless you are already convinced that man pre-existed.

Paul calls Jesus God

  • Rom.9:5  –  I have given an explanation of this verse in Part 3 of this series, so please read that if you haven’t already. I do want to address the author’s comments, which he presents after giving an alternate translation (kudos for that) which makes God, rather than Messiah, the object of the doxology. The author says, “Seems out of place to have ‘God blessed forever’ suddenly.” But does it really seem out of place for a Jew, after enumerating the special privileges and blessings bestowed upon Israel by God, culminating with the fact that Messiah has come through them, to suddenly burst forth in praise to God? Rather, this is just what one would expect from a devout Jew. The author then admits that “Paul doesn’t usually refer to Christ as God” (again kudos for that), but then states with absolute assurance that Paul “includes Jesus in the divine identity.” This refers to Richard Bauckham’s theory of the Christ being included in the identity of Yahweh. But this is just a man’s theory of how to explain the way in which Christ is presented in the NT, and he is approaching the subject with an a priori belief in the Trinity. This is hardly proof to such a degree that we can just talk about Paul including Jesus in the divine identity as a matter- of- fact. The verses given in the paper are easily explained as Yahweh working in and through His chief agent, Messiah, and/or Messiah acting on behalf of Yahweh as His chief agent.

Summary

None of the summary points have been proven by the supposed ‘proof texts’ offered. In every case, the interpretation of these texts is just assumed to coincide with orthodox dogma. The belief in the dogma has preceded the exegesis of the texts and is simply read into them. I have offered plausible, reasonable, and scriptural objections, as well as alternative interpretations, to the accepted orthodox interpretations. If you wish to push back on how I have interpreted these passages, please feel free to leave comments or contact me by email. I will be more than happy to interact with you. Shalom to all who love our Lord Jesus Messiah.

Addendum to John 8:58

 

In this post I want to deal with an issue I did not touch upon in my post on John 8:58. Some recent scholars and/or Trinitarian apologists have seemingly abandoned the idea that the use of ‘I am’ by Jesus in John 8:58 is a direct reference to Exodus 3:14. Why they do so I don’t know. James White , in his paper titled Purpose and Meaning of “Ego Eimi” in the Gospel of John In Reference to the Deity of Christ, says this under the section Old Testament Background of ego eimi:

Suffice it to say that the position taken by this writer reflects a consensus opinion of many scholars … that the closest and most logical connection between John’s usage of ego eimi and the Old Testament is to be found in the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew phrase ani hu in the writings (primarily) of Isaiah. It is true that many go directly to Exodus 3:14 for the background, but it is felt that unless one first establishes the connection with the direct quotation of ego eimi in the Septuagint, the connection with Exodus 3:14 will be somewhat tenuous.

My contention in my post, that the connection between John 8:58 and Ex. 3:14 was tenuous at best and none existent at worst, was based on other considerations beside that which White mentions here, but the fact that he sees a “consensus of opinion of many scholars,” is itself confirmation of my conclusions in that post.

Later in the same paper, in the Conclusion, White says: “It could fairly be admitted that an immediate and unqualified jump from the ego eimi of John 8:58 to Exodus 3:14 is unwise.” Not withstanding this consensus among scholars, many lay-persons and lay- apologists will continue to think they have a solid case for Jesus’ deity in the supposed connection between the two passages.

But now White and other scholars think they have found a better way to view Jesus’ ‘I am‘ statements in John’s gospel. They now connect it with the Hebrew ani hu, which, in the LXX, is translated as ego eimi, the same Greek words in John’s gospel, translated as ‘I am‘ in English. The assertion is that in the OT ani hu becomes a way that God speaks of himself, a sort of code for his Godhood, a declaration of his absolute being. These passages then get translated into the LXX as ego eimi. Then the link is made to Jesus’ ego eimi statements in the gospel of John. And presto! Absolute proof that Jesus was claiming to be Yahweh. So let’s look at this OT phrase to see if this assertion holds water.

First of all, ani = I and hu = he, so the phrase is literally ‘I he’, but this is translated in most cases as “I am he.” From what I understand, in Hebrew the verb meaning to be is often not explicit in the text, and must be supplied. The relevant passages are Deut. 32:39; Is. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6. In all of these passages God speaks these words concerning himself. But the simple fact is that these words are simply a way of self identifying. I do not think that any of these occurrences of the phrase demand the meaning of absolute being, though this is true of God, but rather God is identifying himself as the one who is doing a certain thing or fulfilling a certain role in relation to his covenant people Israel. The context must determine precisely what God is claiming. So let’s look at these verses.

Deut. 32:39   –  “See now that I, I am he! There is no God besides me.”

Here ‘I am he’ points to the next phrase, i.e. I am the one who alone is God

Is. 41:4  –  “Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, Yahweh — with the first of them and with the last — I am he.”

Here ‘I am he’ points back to what was just said, i.e. Yahweh who calls forth the generations from the beginning.

Is. 43:10  –  “You are my witnesses,” declares Yahweh, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no God was formed, nor will there be after me.”

This one could be pointing back to v.3 where Yahweh declares to be Israel’s God, Holy One and Savior. Or it could be pointing forward to v.11 that he is Yahweh, Israel’s only Savior.

Is. 43:13  –  “Yes from ancient days I am he.”

This one is easy, just go back to the previous statement, “You are my witnesses that I am God. Yes from ancient days I am he.”

Is. 43:25  –  “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

Yahweh is saying he is the one who forgives Israel’s sins.

Is. 46:4  –  “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

Again, the context makes it obvious. Yahweh is Israel’s sustainer.

Is. 48:12  –  “Listen to me , O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: I am he, I am the first and I am the last.”

God is proclaiming himself to be the first and the last in relation to Israel {see 41:4}; he is the one who created the nation, he will be the one to carry them through to their ultimate destiny. As in 41:4 he was with the first generation and will be with the last.

Is. 51:12  –  “I, even I am he who comforts you.”

Yahweh is Israel’s comforter.

Is. 52:6  –  “Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that same day, that I am he who has spoken. Behold, it is I.”

Yahweh is the one who has foretold of Israel’s redemption from their slavery to foreign powers.

Both Is. 43:25 and 51:12 have anoki hu instead of ani hu, though the two words seem to be parallel in usage, with anoki being perhaps more emphatic.

So it should be evident that in none of these passages does the phrase ani hu = I am he stand alone as an absolute statement of eternal self- existence, as scholars are asserting. In each case, the context tells us what Yahweh is pointing to about himself when he uses this phrase. Again these are not ontological statements of Yahweh’s essential nature, but God’s way of emphatically pointing to the covenant roles or functions he performs in relation to Israel. Scholars are simply making to much out of this phrase, overstating the case, I suspect, because having admitted the tenuous connection of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements with Exodus 3:14, they have looked for some other connection that would support the assertion that Jesus was making a claim to deity. In other words, this theory is being driven not by a strict exegesis of the text, but by the theological presupposition that Jesus is God. In fact this whole theory is based upon circular reasoning, as I will show.

Ani hu, in all of the passages above, is translated into the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek version of the OT at use in Jesus’ time) by ego eimi. One thing that this clues us to is that the word ‘he’ or some other predicate such as ‘the one,’ is implicit in ego eimi. Therefore, the English versions that add a predicate to the occurrences of ego eimi  in the gospel of John, where  a predicate is lacking in the Greek, are correct to do so. Now we can assume that Jesus spoke in Hebrew and so the Hebrew behind John’s ego eimi is almost certainly ani hu. But as we saw in the case of the OT usage, the ego eimi on the lips of the Lord in the NT is also not being used as a stand alone statement of eternal self-existence, but in imitation of the OT usage, as an emphatic way of pointing to the role or function which Messiah bears in relation to Israel. Let’s go through the relevant passages in John, just as we did with the OT passages, to see if this assertion bears out. Taking ego eimi to be translating ani hu, I will add the word ‘he.’

John 4:25-26  –  The woman said, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes , he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking to you.”

This should be obvious to everyone; “I am he” means I am the Messiah.

John 6:20  –  But he said to them, ” I am he, don’t be afraid.”

Here Jesus comes walking on the water to the disciples in a boat, and they were terrified. We are told by Trinitarian apologists that Jesus then tells them “Hey don’t be afraid, I am God.” How absurd! Almost all modern English versions give the true sense, as a simple statement of self identification, “It is I, don’t be afraid.”

John 8:24  –  “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”

This is one of the verses that are taken by Trinitarian scholars as a stand alone, absolute claim to deity. Hence the claim is made that belief in the deity of Messiah is necessary for salvation. But this is merely an interpretation, and that based on the a priori belief that Jesus is God. The very next verse rules out that interpretation, for the Jews to whom he was speaking, and who certainly would have been familiar with the phrase ani hu, do not gasp in horror that Jesus is claiming to be God, but they simply ask, “Who are you.”  This shows that they understood ani hu as a simple “I am he” or “I am the one.” They are not sure to what he is referring. Jesus answers, “What I have been telling you from the beginning.” So what has he been telling these Jews (specifically the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem) ? In chapter 5 he claims, 6 times, to be the one sent by the Father, the son of the Father and the son of man. All of these should have been understood by the Jews as a claim to be the promised Messiah. The discourse in chapter 6 takes place in Capernaum, not in Jerusalem and so is not relevant. Chapter 7 finds him once again in Jerusalem, where again, 5 times he claims to be the one sent by God. The discourse of chapter 8 begins with Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world,” a clear reference to such Messianic passages like Is. 9:1-2; 42:6 and 49:6. He continues on, once again claiming to be the one sent by God, i.e. the Messiah. So clearly, Jesus’ “I am” in v.24 is not a claim to absolute eternal existence, but to being the promised Messiah.

John 8:28  –  “When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will know that I am he…”

They will know that he is who? The son of man.

John 13:19  –  “I am telling you before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am he.”

In verse 18 Jesus quotes a passage from the OT (Ps. 41:9) in reference to his betrayal by one close to him. He then says that he is telling them before his betrayal happens so that  when it does happen, they will believe what? That he is God. That makes no sense at all. The ability to predict the future would not be seen by any Jew as a mark of deity. Many prophets of the past had predicted the future in great detail without anyone accusing them of thinking they were God. Surely in the disciple’s minds, Jesus would have been at least a prophet. No! He told them in advance so that when it happened they would believe he was the one of whom the prophecy spoke.

John 18:4-8  –  Jesus … went out and asked them, “Who is it that you seek?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” Jesus said … When Jesus said “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them “Who is it you seek?” And they said “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered “I told you that I am he …”

According to Trinitarians, when the soldiers said “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus is supposed to have replied “I am the self-existent eternal God.” And further proof that this is what Jesus meant is that the power of those words knocked these men to the ground. Really! What absurd lengths some people go to find their favorite traditional beliefs in the Scriptures. Once again, this is a simple statement of self-identification. Jesus is simply saying “That’s me, I’m the guy.” But what about them falling to the ground? Note that the text does not say that they were knocked down to the ground, but that they moved back and fell down. Now if the words “I am” are so powerful that these men could not stand when Jesus uttered them, then why did some such phenomena not occur any of the other times Jesus uttered those words? This is simply much ado about nothing. These soldiers, probably from the temple guard, along with some officials from the chief priests, are coming to Jesus at night. Though they had torches the light was probably not very bright. They would be walking in a tightly knit group, staying close to those carrying the torches. These men knew who they were going to arrest, a man who had displayed a miraculous power like nothing any of them had ever seen, but had only heard of from the OT stories. Not long before this night he had raised a man to life who had been dead at least four days. No doubt there was some apprehension on the part of these soldiers, perhaps even fear, not knowing what they might be getting themselves into trying to arrest such a man as this. Jesus approached them, but they did not know he was Jesus, and when he told them who he was, the initial reaction of those in the front was to move backwards suddenly, pushing themselves into those behind them, creating a domino effect, causing them to fall down. It is not even necessary to assume that every single person fell. This is certainly a more reasonable explanation.

The only remaining verse is, of course, John 8:58, which may be the only occurrence of ego eimi that has an existential meaning. But it is not necessary to postulate a meaning of eternal self-existence, just some sort of prior existence. As I show in my post on John 8:58, this can be understood as pre-existence in the predetermined plan of Yahweh, rather than a literal, personal pre-existence.

I said earlier that I would prove that this theory, that Jesus was purposely using the ani hu phrase to declare himself God, is based  upon circular reasoning. First of all, the theory is based on the assumption that ani hu, as spoken by God in the OT, is a declaration of his eternal self-existence. This assumption is unproven, as I have shown. This is simply the opinion of some scholars who are committed to the false idea that Jesus just is Yahweh. But even if it were true that ani hu in the mouth of Yahweh was just such a statement of his eternal self-existence, that would not mean that if someone other than God said those words that they would be claiming eternal self-existence. The only reason these scholars think that Jesus’ “I am” statements are an absolute declaration of eternal self-existence is because they already believe Jesus is Yahweh. Are we to believe that no one else can utter the words ‘I am he’ without making a claim to deity. If we assume Jesus to be what he is unambiguously called in Scripture, i.e. a man, then there would be no need to take these ‘I am’ statements as anything more than an emphatic way of identifying himself as Israel’s promised Messiah, sent by God. It is the presuppositional belief in Jesus’ deity that then becomes the basis for interpreting Jesus’ words as a claim to deity. In other words, it is impossible to prove, from Jesus’ use of ani hu, that he is indeed Yahweh. But if one already accepts the belief that Jesus is Yahweh, he will see Jesus’ words as confirmation of that belief. That, my friends, is circular reasoning.

 

 

 

Refutation of the Master’s University Bible Faculty Document on the Trinity and Divinity of Messiah (Part 3)

The Trinity and Divinity of Messiah-92b9c7  Please click on the link to open the pdf of the document we are examining. We pick it up on page 5 at 3. Dealing with supposed objections …

3. Yes it is true, that a major objection to the orthodox tradition that the title ‘Son of God’ ,as it is applied to Jesus in the NT, carries the connotation of deity, is the indisputable fact that of all the uses of this designation in the OT, none of them carry that connotation. For a more thorough study on this topic see my December 2017 post Son of God (Part 1). But I will briefly sketch the OT usage here. There are four uses of the designation in the OT:

  1. heavenly beings (angels?) – Gen. 6:1-4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps. 29:1; 89:6
  2. the members of God’s covenant people – Deut. 14:1; 32:5,6,8,18-20; Hosea 1:10
  3. the covenant nation, Israel – Exodus 4:22,23; Hosea 11:1
  4. the reigning Davidic king – 2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13; 28:5-6; Ps. 2

As can be seen, in none of these uses is the one or ones designated ‘son of God’ deity. They are all created beings. On top of this, there is no other usage anywhere else in the OT, of this designation. So I ask, what is the basis for the ‘orthodox’ meaning of ‘son of God’ applied to Jesus in the conciliar creeds? Why should we believe that a fundamental change occurred from the OT usage to the NT usage? Since the NT clearly portrays Jesus as the one who will sit on the throne of David and rule over God’s kingdom {see Lk. 1:32}, which coincides with 4. above, why do we need to import a foreign meaning into this biblical title? It was Gentile church fathers of the 2nd – 4th centuries, who were steeped in Greek metaphysics, who developed the ideas about a metaphysical son of God, eternally begotten, of the same substance as the Father etc. , concepts and language which cannot be found anywhere in the NT.

The reference to shepherds in the book of Jeremiah is irrelevant. Shepherds is a metaphor for rulers or leaders throughout Jeremiah, whether foreign leaders or those within Israel. The metaphor is not changing, just being applied to different people. Is the differing uses of the word shepherds in Jeremiah supposed to be justification for ignoring the OT usage of ‘son of God’ and importing into the title a meaning which clearly, historically comes from Greek philosophy? The insistence on the “flexibility of metaphors” is a rather strange defense for exchanging the truth of God for a lie.

I am glad to see that they recognize the “Messiah’s human kingship and fulfillment of that role” in Psalms 2 and 89, but they then insist on seeing things in these Scriptures that are not there. Where in these Psalms (or anywhere else in the Bible) is the Messiah referred to as “God-man.” This is reading orthodox creedal dogma into the OT text. Of course “the relationship between YHWH and his king/Son is put in very exclusive and unique terms” since there is only one person who ever fulfills that role at any given time. Jesus is the final and ideal fulfillment of that role. That role is a special role, placing the one who fills it in an exclusive and unique relationship with Yahweh, as his vice-regent, the one through whom God rules his people. The reference to Ps. 2:12 where the kings of the surrounding nations are warned to “kiss the son” i.e. to put themselves in subjection to God’s vice-regent who is reigning over God’s kingdom, does parallel the statement in v.11 to ” serve (not worship) Yahweh.” The Hebrew word is abad and means to serve as a subject. Now if one would serve God it is incumbent upon him to also be in subjection to God’s appointed ruler. Could anyone in the congregation of Israel, as they came out of Egypt, have served God without submitting to Moses leadership? Although this verse does not speak of worship, there is a verse where the normal Hebrew word for worship, shachah, is used to show the high honor God places on his appointed ruler and the honor that others are required to show him:

Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise Yahweh your God.” So they all praised Yahweh, the God of their fathers; they bowed down and worshipped Yahweh and the king.   1 Chron. 29:20

Sorry, but there is no implication anywhere in the OT that the “sonship of the ultimate Davidic king is something far beyond human.” Psalm 110 is just another reference to the Davidic ruler which is ideally fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

For an explanation of Is. 9:6 see my December 2017 post A Christmas Myth.

John 5:18 – Here is a good example of how the orthodox Christian mind is bound to a certain way of thinking, inherited from the early Gentile church fathers; a way of thinking that is so ingrained, people are not even aware of it. This thought pattern sees everything through a Greek metaphysical perspective. Now most people reading this are completely unaware that they are doing this, but nonetheless this is what they are doing. You see, the Greek metaphysical mindset is just part of the orthodox Christian faith, inherited from 4th and 5th century church councils, which interpreted Scripture through the lens of Greek thought and fixed this mindset into the collective mind of the ‘orthodox’ church. So when an orthodox Christian reads this verse he just can’t help thinking in terms of Greek categories, such as ontology, nature, essence, being, etc. So they understand the statement that Jesus was “calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God,” to mean that Jesus was claiming to be of the same nature or essence as God. But there is another way to understand this statement, one which draws from a different mindset, from the Hebraic categories of status and function. First off, we must understand that this was an accusation from the Jewish leaders. They not only accused Jesus of making himself equal with God, but also of breaking the Sabbath. Were these accusations true? They accused him of breaking the Sabbath because he healed a man on the Sabbath. But is healing a man on the Sabbath really breaking the Sabbath? I think not, especially since it was God himself doing the work through Jesus, as vv.17 and 19 imply. And the accusation that he was making himself equal with God was based on the fact that Jesus was calling God his Father. But does this really mean that Jesus was claiming to be ontologically equal to God? No, and that is not what the Jewish leaders meant. They thought he was making himself equal with God in status and function, and as God’s visible representative he did indeed enjoy an equality with God which was unique to the one chosen to rule for God over His kingdom {see Ps. 45:6; 89:24-27; 110:1}. But the idea that he claimed equality with God based on innate deity is strongly denied in the very next words he spoke:

I tell you the truth, the son has no power from himself to do anything …  v.19

He repeats the same thought in v.30 “I have no power from myself to do anything.”

Matthew 4:3 – Here the author of the paper wants you to believe that Satan thinks Jesus is claiming to be God because he tempted him to turn stones into bread, something, presumably, only God can do. But there were two other temptations recorded. Do either of these other two temptations work with this argument? The second temptation was for Jesus to test God by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, for God had promised to protect and deliver from harm the one who trusts in him, in Psalm 91. Does that make sense if Satan was thinking Jesus was God. The third temptation was for Jesus to bow down and worship Satan, and if so, Satan would give him authority over all the kingdoms of the world {see Lk. 4:6}. If Jesus were God and Satan knew this, then this temptation would be absurd. How could one be tempted to do evil in order to obtain what is already his, for if Jesus were God then the kingdoms of the world would already be under his dominion. The authors of the paper picked the one temptation that seems to give credibility to the assertion that Satan understood Jesus to be God, while ignoring the other two temptations which do not fit that scheme. The temptations in the desert occurs immediately after Jesus’ baptism, where the Holy Spirit visibly came upon Jesus and the voice from heaven declared him to be God’s son. Though these manifestations were not perceived by the crowd, I believe Satan would have been able to observe them. And after doing so he followed Jesus out into the desert where he attempted to throw him off his predestined course. Now it is not necessary to assume that Jesus could have actually turned the stones into bread or that Satan even thought that he actually could. What Satan was doing in this temptation was trying to get Jesus, in his moment of weakness, to attempt to use his newly acquired power for his own benefit, apart from the will of God. This would have derailed Jesus’ destiny right from the start.

Matt. 14:28-32 – For a thorough treatment of this verse see my January 5th post Son of God (Part 2).

Matt. 28:19 – For this verse see my January 18th post Son of God (Part 3).

Matt. 11:27 – For this verse see once again Son of God (Part 3).

  • This next point seems self-refuting. If the Jews saw themselves as sons and daughters of God because of their special relationship to God, then why would they assume Jesus’ calling God his Father would be a claim to deity. If you say, “Well it was that coupled with the miracles he did.” But there had been others in Israel’s history who had performed mighty acts of power and no one assumed they were God in the flesh. This assertion, that the Jews understood Jesus to be claiming to be the God of their fathers in human flesh, is refuted by the fact that at Jesus’ trials, before both the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, this accusation was never made against him. The claim to be the son of God was understood by the Jews to be a claim to be the chosen one to sit on the throne of David and to rule God’s kingdom, i.e. the Messiah {see Matt. 26:59-66; Lk. 22:66-71; Jn. 19:6-12}.
  • No this is not helpful. No where in the NT is this kind of argument ever put forth. This is man’s reasoning replacing the Scriptural revelation of what ‘son of God’ means. This is silly and childish thinking.

4. Some conclusions from the OT discussion

  • I think I have adequately demonstrated that these supposed Trinitarian tensions are really only imaginary. In every case we have seen that a Trinitarian reading of these texts must be forced upon the texts and is in no sense derived from the texts.
  • I am not sure what is meant by “actual.” Again, we have seen that none of these texts attest to Messiah being divine. If the case for Messiah’s deity rests on the supposed proof texts given in this paper, it is a wonder how anyone could ever be convinced of this doctrine by Scripture alone. For every verse offered as a proof text has been easily refuted, and that by Scripture itself.
  • None of the assertions made in this bullet point were actually drawn out of the texts given as the proof of them. These are mere assertions which have not been proven by this document.

THE NT AFFIRMS THE TRINITY AND DIVINITY OF THE MESSIAH

  1. The NT explicitly affirms this – are these the best verses they could come up with as proof texts.
  • 1John 5:20 – This verse has an ambiguity to it; does the phrase “This one is the true God and eternal life” refer to “the one who is true,” which would be God, the Father, or to “his son Jesus Christ.” The authors of this paper obviously take it to refer to Jesus, as do many other Trinitarians, but they withhold from their readers the vital information that the verse is ambiguous and can be interpreted the other way, as even many Trinitarians do. Among orthodox scholars and commentators who see the phrase as a reference to the Father and not to Jesus are Rickli, Lucke, de Wette, Neader, Gerlach, Frommann, Dusterdieck, Erdmann, Myrberg, Bruckner, Braun, Hofmann, Winer, Buttmann, E.W. Bullinger, Lange, L.M. Grant, Vincent, Alford, Zerr, Ellicott, and MacLaren. All agree that the case cannot be determined on grammatical considerations because grammatically it could go either way, so context must determine which is best. Those who favor Jesus as the object of the phrase point to the fact that “his son Jesus Christ” is the nearest antecedent and therefore “This one” must refer to Jesus. But it is not always the nearest antecedent to which a pronoun must refer. It may rather refer to the main subject of the thought, which in v. 20 is “that we may know him who is true (the Father) and we are in him who is true (the Father).” The phrase “in his son Jesus Christ” is simply a parenthetical statement telling us how we are “in him who is true,” i.e. we are in the Father by being in the son. As a parenthetical statement it is not the main thought and is therefore not the subject of what follows. Without the parenthesis the passage flows rather nicely: “… so that we may know the true one, and we are in the true one … this one is the true God and eternal life.” Beside this, John in his gospel records Jesus’ prayer to the Father, in which he says, ” … that they may know you, the only true God …” {John 17:3}. Now let’s give John the respect of not interpreting his words in such a way as to involve him in a contradiction. If he here records that Jesus himself declares the Father to be the only true God, we cannot then think that he would declare Jesus to be the true God, can we. The word only (Gr. monos = sole, alone, only) in John 17:3 surely eliminates anyone else beside the Father, from being the true God.
  • Romans 9:5 – This verse also is ambiguous in the Greek; it is capable of being translated multiple ways, some of which would designate Christ as God, and some which would not. The document appears to quote the NASV, which gives the impression that Christ is being called God. The NIV is the most blatant in this regard reading “… Christ, who is God over all, forever praised.” However, the NIV Study Bible gives two alternate readings in a footnote: ” … Christ, who is over all. God be forever praised.” and “… Christ. God who is over all be forever praised.” The ESV is nearly the same as the NIV but gives no alternate readings. The HCSB reads like the NIV and gives two alternate readings in a footnote, one which still designates Christ as God and one that does not. Needless to say, all modern versions translate the verse in a way that makes Christ God, but not all of them give alternative readings in a footnote, which to my mind is dishonest. The authors of this paper, as well as many apologists for orthodoxy, consider this verse to be a slam dunk proof text for the deity of Christ. Apologists, as well as this paper, rarely alert their hearers of the possible alternative translations of the verse. The verse, as it stands in the NIV, ESV, HCSB and others, is merely the result of the presuppositions (trinitarianism) and the imagination of the translators and editors of these Bibles. For those who may not be aware, in the Greek manuscripts there are no distinctions between small and capital letters and there are no punctuation marks. All of these features, as you see them in your English Bible, are put in solely at the discretion of the translators and/or editors; and you can believe that they will use that discretion to further their theological presuppositions whenever possible. At least some of these Bibles are honest enough to give the alternate readings in a footnote. I believe that after a delineation of the peculiar blessings bestowed upon the covenant people Israel, culminating in the appearance of the Messiah, it would only be natural for Paul, or any Jew for that matter, to break out in word of praise to God. The verse could read like this:… from whom is the Messiah, according to the flesh. God, who is over all be blessed forever.” or like this: ” … from whom is Messiah, according to the flesh. The one being over all, God, be blessed forever.” Here is a list of other doxologies in Paul’s letters, which always refer to God, i.e. the Father: Rom. 1:25; 11:33-36; 16:27; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Gal. 1:5; Eph. 1:3; 3:20-21; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16.  Not counting our text, there is no such doxology to Christ in Paul’s letters. Add to this the statement of Paul in Eph 4:6: ” … one God and Father of all, the one over all.” This makes it certain to my mind that the statement refers to God, as distinct from Christ.
  • Luke 24:51-53 – Because this verse (and others) says that the disciples worshipped Jesus it is assumed that they were ascribing deity to him, and since he did not correct them he was claiming deity for himself. But this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding within Christendom of the English word worship, as well as the Hebrew and Greek words behind it. The modern idea behind the word worship is that it is that which should be given to God alone. But this is a relatively recent idea. The modern word worship comes from the old English noun weorthscipe meaning the state of being worthy or honorable. For centuries, in Britain and Canada, it has been used as a title for magistrates and others of high rank, i.e. ‘Your Worship.’ At some point it began to be used as a verb with the meaning to show reverence and honor to one who is worthy. For example, in the Church of England’s wedding vows the man is to promise his wife, “with my body I thee worship.” It also began to be used with reference to God i.e. ascribing worthiness to God, but continued to be used, as it had always been, with reference to men. Once again, the idea that worship is something only to be given to God is a recent development in the evolution of the word. So when you are reading the NT and you come across a verse that says that someone worshipped Jesus, there is no basis for assuming that they are ascribing deity to him; it’s just not that simple, as you will see.

Now let’s look at the Biblical words which are sometimes translated by the word ‘worship’ in our English Bibles. The Hebrew word is shachah = to bow down, to prostrate oneself, to pay homage to a superior or to God. The word was used to express ones  honor, reverence, or submission to another:

  • to God – Gen. 24:26  “Then the man bowed down and worshipped (shachah) Yahweh”
  • to Jacob –  Gen. 27:29  “May nations serve you and peoples bow down (shachah) to you. Be lord over your brothers and may the sons of your mother bow down (shachah) to you.”
  • to Joseph – Gen. 43:28  ” … And they bowed low to pay him honor (shachah).
  • to Jethro – Ex.18:7  “So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down (shachah) and kissed him.”
  • to an angel – Joshua 5:14b  “… Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground and worshipped (shachah), and asked him, ‘What message does my lord have for his servant?’ “
  • to king Saul – 1 Sam.24:8   “Then David went out of the cave and called to Saul, ‘My lord the king!’ When Saul looked behind him, David, bowed down and prostrated himself (shachah) with his face to the ground.”   
  • to David – 1 Sam 25:41  “She bowed down (shachah) with her face to the ground and said, ‘Here is your maidservant, ready to serve you and wash the feet of my master’s servants.’ “
  • to Elisha – 2 Kings 4:37   “She came in, fell at his feet and bowed (shachah) to the ground … “

Shachah is used many times throughout 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings of people paying homage to the king, and of course is used many other times of people worshipping God. Most English versions make a distinction between shachah when done toward God, usually translated as ‘worship,’ and when done toward men, usually translated as bow down to, prostrate oneself before, pay honor to. The English reader has no idea that the same Hebrew word is used in both cases, leaving the impression that in Scripture, only God is rightly worshipped. But if we understand worship to be showing honor and reverence to one who is worthy, such as a king, then we will have a better understanding of the biblical concept of worship.

In the NT the Greek equivalent of shachah is proskuneo, which is the word used in Luke 24:52. Proskuneo is the Greek word used in the LXX to translate shachah in all of the verses listed above except Joshua 5:14, where the LXX reads differently than the Hebrew text. In fact it is used to translate shachah consistently throughout the LXX. No distinction is made between shachah rendered to God and that rendered to men; both are translated by proskuneo.

So when we come to the NT and we see in our English versions, that people offer ‘worship’ to Jesus in the gospels, we must understand that the Greek word behind our English ‘worship’ is proskuneo. And the LXX has already set a precedent that proskuneo can rightly be offered to men, to show honor and reverence to those worthy of it. Now let me show you how theological bias has crept into our English versions. All English versions are consistent in translating proskuneo done to God by the word ‘worship.’ When proskuneo is given to men by other men, such as at Matt. 18:26, the English versions are consistent in rendering that as fell down on his knees, prostrated himself, bowed down before or something like that. I don’t have a problem with this necessarily, reserving the word ‘worship’ for God. Where the bias comes in is how the English versions translate proskuneo when it is given to Jesus. In most cases our English versions render it by the word ‘worship.’ Now what connotation is intended by this translation except that Jesus is being given honor as God, i.e. that the people who are giving proskuneo to Jesus are ascribing deity to him? Let’s take for example Matt.2:2,8 & 11, where the Magi come to Jerusalem with the express purpose of offering proskuneo to the child Jesus (v.2). Are we to believe that these foreigners understood Jesus to be God? That is highly unlikely. They came seeking “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” They did not say that they were seeking God incarnate or the God-man or God the son, but the king of the Jews. The proskuneo they wanted to give to Jesus was the same as we see in the LXX where proskuneo is given to the king on numerous occasions. It is clear that the word should have been rendered as to pay homage to or to pay honor to instead of to worship. This is where a theological presupposition has determined how a passage of Scripture would be translated. I believe that it is never the case, when proskuneo is given to Jesus in the gospels, that the ones offering it think that Jesus is God. What all of these people were doing was paying homage to Jesus as either a prophet, a great Rabbi, or as the promised Messiah from the line of David who would rule over Israel as king.

So our text in Luke 24:52 would better be rendered, “Having paid him homage they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” The word ‘worship’ being put in this verse is the result of the theological presupposition that Jesus is God. This supposition is not derived from such verses, but imposed upon them.

Now regarding the footnote (6) at the bottom of page 8, it is confusing and I am not sure what is being said. Do they mean that the line about the disciples worshipping Jesus is parallel with the line about the disciples praising God continually in the temple? If so, that assertion is absurd on it’s face and reveals a rather strange way of reading Scripture. Why would anyone assume the two thoughts are parallel unless they are approaching the text with their presupposition in the forefront of their thinking. Then this comment is made, “God is the one who blesses as Jesus does.” What does this even mean? Because Jesus is said to have blessed his disciples this means he is God? Once again this is simply absurd. The exact same words used of Jesus here are used of Aaron in Lev. 9:22:

“Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.”

Perhaps the church should hold another council to consider including Aaron in the Godhead.

Please click the comment link to leave a comment or question. Thankyou.

 

          

 

 

 

 

 

John 8:58

John 8:58  –   “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am.”

This verse is taken by many Christian teachers, apologists and Bible commentators as one of the clearest statements in the NT of the pre-existence and deity of Messiah. It appears that Jesus is saying 1) that he existed before Abraham, and 2) that he is himself  Yahweh, in accordance with Exodus 3:14. This has been the standard way of understanding this passage ever since the early church fathers from the middle of the second century forward. What I hope to show is that this interpretation of this text is merely superficial and was driven by a different mindset than what we find in the whole of Scripture.

 

 

The Exodus 3:14 Connection

There are two aspects of the Trinitarian interpretation of this text we need to look at. First is the claim that Jesus, in saying the words ‘I am’, is claiming the Divine name for himself in accordance with Exodus 3:14. This is a clear assertion that Jesus was claiming to be, in fact, Yahweh, the God of the OT. Exodus 3:14 reads as follows in most versions of the Bible:

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ “

Immediately one can see the verbal similarity between the statement of Yahweh and the statement of Jesus, as it stands in most English versions. This is what has led many to conclude a meaningful connection between the two statements. But I will show that this connection between the two statements is purely superficial.

The Hebrew behind the phrase ‘I am who I am’ is ehyeh asher ehyeh. The usual translation of ‘I am who I am’ is by no means certain. Many recent scholars have called into question this rendering of the Hebrew phrase, including many Jewish scholars, insisting on the translationI will be who I will be.’ As I understand, this is because ‘ehyeh’ is the first person singular imperfect form of hayah . According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon hayah has three predominate meanings I. fall out, happen, occur, take place, come about, come to pass. II. come into being, become, arise, appear, come on the scene. III. to be, exist, live. Now in Biblical Hebrew, the imperfect, as well as the perfect, does not have tense but denotes incomplete action, whether in the past, present or future. The tense or time factor of the verb is determined by context and syntax. Imperfects are usually expressed in English by the future tense, although they can express present and even past action; whereas Hebrew perfects are usually expressed by the present or past tense, although they can express future action. So we can see that it is not a simple matter to translate this phrase. It really seems to be a matter of what one thinks God is trying to convey in the answer to Moses’ question in v. 13:

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them.”

I must point out something which is usually not perceived when v. 14 is read in isolation from the context of the whole passage. What God says in v.14 is not the answer to the question of what is God’s name. The answer to that question comes in v. 15:

God said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH (not ehyeh), the God of your fathers… has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.

What God says in v. 14 is not his name proper, but appears to be a play on words, in that ehyeh sounded like YHWH, at least in Moses’ time. We see this kind of playing off of words that sound similar a number of times in the OT, e.g. Gen. 2:7; 4:1; 5:29; 30:18; 41:51; 49:8; Ex. 2:10; 18:3; Josh. 5:9; Jdg. 15:16; Jer. 1:11-12; 19:1,7,10; 48:2; Micah 18-16. It may be, in this case, more than just a similarity of sound, it may involve a similar meaning. But the exact, definite meaning of YHWH is debated.

So how should the phrase ehyeh asher ehyeh be translated? As I said before this depends on what one thinks God’s answer to Moses to be communicating. If one is of the mind that he sees it as a declaration by God of his eternal self-existence, then he will probably translate it in the traditional way as ‘I am who I am.’ But, if one instead, sees this as a declaration by God of his faithfulness to Israel, to be with them and to deliver them, based on his covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then he will translate it as ‘I will be who (what) I will be’ or ‘I am who (what) I will be.’ This would have the meaning of  ‘I will be whatever I need to be to Israel to fulfill the covenant I made with their fathers.’

Now because the traditional way of translating this phrase as ‘I am who I am’ is so familiar ( and I might add sentimentally dear), whenever an alternate translation is offered many will just reject it out of hand as an attempt to ‘change the word of God.’ Therefore it is necessary to take some time to show the validity of the translation ‘I will be what (or who) I will be.”

First, the word ehyeh appears 43 times in the Hebrew Bible and in the majority of those occurrences nearly every modern or popular Bible version translates the word as “I will be,” including the LXX. I will not list every verse here; anyone can look up the word in a concordance and find the verses. But I will list a few, those in Exodus, Deut., Joshua and Judges:

  1. Ex. 3:12 –     Here just two verses before v. 14 we find God encouraging Moses with this promise, I certainly will be with you … ”  –  ISV
  2. Ex. 4:12 –      “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth … ”  –  ESV
  3. Ex. 4:15 –      ” … and I, even I, will be with your mouth … “  –   NASV
  4. Deut. 31:23 –   “The LORD (said) to Joshua … I myself will be with you.” –   NIV
  5. Joshua 1:5 –   ” I will be with you, just as I was with Moses … “  –    HCSB
  6. Joshua 3:7 –   “And the LORD said unto Joshua … know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee.”  –   KJV
  7. Judges 6:16 –  “And the LORD said unto him: ‘Surely I will be with thee, and thou shall smite the Midianites … ”  –   JPS Tanakh
  8. Judges 11:9 –   “Jephthah said to the leaders of Gilead, “All right! If you take me back to fight with the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me, I will be your leader.” – NET

So you can see that many Bible versions have no problem with translating ehyeh as ‘I will be’ rather than ‘I am.’ This is not to say that ‘I am’ would not work in some occurrences of the word, but only to show the legitimacy of  ‘I will be’ as a translation choice. There are a few of the 43 passages where ehyeh occurs where ‘I am’ does work better, like the four passages in Job at 3:16, 10:19, 12:4, 17:6. So we can see the flexibility of the imperfect Hebrew verb form and how context is necessary to help determine tense. Now the fact that all of the translations that translated ehyeh as ‘I will be’ in the majority of it’s occurrences, especially at Ex. 3:12 and 4:12,15, chose to translate it as ‘I am’ at 3:14, is suspicious. Could this be a simple case of Trinitarian bias in translation. One person in a recent Facebook discussion mocked this idea as conspiratorial, pointing out that some of the translators on these translating committees are not even Christians, much less Trinitarians. I don’t know if that is true, but even if it is it is irrelevant. The editors of the major Bible translations are Trinitarians and no doubt have the final say on any verse’s final wording. What is never known by the reading public is the various alternate translations which were offered by the translators. You can believe that, concerning an important verse like Ex. 3:14, committed Trinitarian editors do not want to lose the connection with John 8:58, even if it is a superficial connection, and so would choose ‘I am’ over the better ‘I will be.’ Many modern versions do however include a footnote with the alternate reading ‘I will be what (or who) I will be,’ such as the NIV, ESV, HCSB, and ISV.

Further evidence of the validity of this alternate reading are the Greek translations of Aquila  and of Theodotion. Both of these 2nd century Greek versions of the OT translate ehyeh asher ehyeh into Greek as esomai hos esomai. Esomai is the future indicative 1st person singular form of eimi and is translated into English as ‘I will be.’ It is true that the earlier LXX translates the passage into Greek as ego eimi ho on meaning ‘I am the one who is,’ but some  scholars feel that Aquila and Theodotion were assuming to correct what they felt was an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew into Greek. Could the translators of the LXX have been influenced by Greek metaphysics to translate this passage as a statement by God of his eternal self- existence rather than as a statement of his commitment to be to Israel whatever he would need to be in order to fulfill the covenant he made with their fathers? I think that is entirely possible.

The famed Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his notable work The Pentateuch and Hoftorahs, said this in a footnote regarding Ex. 3:14:

“Most moderns follow Rashe in rendering ‘I will be what I will be’ i.e. no words can sum up all that he will be to his people, but his everlasting faithfulness and unchanging mercy will more and more manifest themselves in the guidance of Israel. The answer which Moses receives in these words is thus equivalent to, ‘I shall save in the way that I shall save.’ It is to assure the Israelites of the fact of deliverance, but does not disclose the manner.”

J. Washington Watts, professor of OT at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary from 1930-1968, in his 1977 work A Distinctive Translation of Exodus With An Interpretive Outline, said this:

“Such a translation as ‘I am what I am’ appears to be ruled out completely by the fact that the verbs here are imperfects. ‘I am’ is the normal translation of the Hebrew perfect, not an imperfect … The translation offered here relates this explanation of the name to covenants with the patriarchs. As such it was a basis of assurance concerning Yahweh’s presence and support. This thought is made explicit in the verse that follows, and the proper name Yahweh, the memorial name, is made synonymous with the description ‘I shall continue to be what I have always been.’ This makes the description a restatement of Yahweh’s faithfulness and assurance that he will fulfill the covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

So my point is this: It appears that the better translation of Ex. 3:14 is “I will be what I will be,” on both grammatical and contextual grounds, and so any verbal connection to John 8:58 is brought into serious doubt.

Another thing that needs to be considered is the LXX rendering of ehyeh asher ehyeh and how this corresponds with the ‘I am’ statement of Jesus. As noted above, the Greek of the LXX reads ego eimi ho on, which is translated into English as ‘I am he (the one) who is’ or ‘I am the being.’ My point here is not to argue for or against the validity of this translation of the Hebrew phrase into Greek, but merely to show the unlikely connection to John 8:58. Now when Jesus spoke the words recorded in John 8:58 it is highly certain, even indisputable, that he was not speaking in Greek. The context tells us he is addressing the Pharisees in Jerusalem and so would be speaking in Hebrew, or at least in Aramaic. The apostle John would most likely have been present when Jesus spoke those words. Now if John had heard Jesus speak the words ‘I am’ in Hebrew and understood him to be claiming to be the same one who spoke the words ehyeh asher ehyeh to Moses, what would be the best way for John to communicate that in the Greek language? If John wanted his readers to understand that Jesus was claiming eternal self-existence, how could John best get that point over in Greek? All he would have to do is put into Jesus’ mouth the  exact words of the popular and widely used LXX – ego eimi ho on – and any Jew in the dispersion and any Gentile proselyte or convert to Judaism would have immediately made the connection to Ex. 3:14. But this is not how John translated Jesus’ words; he simply has Jesus saying ego eimi. In the LXX the ego eimi is not the part of the statement that supposedly conveys the idea of eternal self-existence, but rather the ho on. In other words, why doesn’t John record Jesus as saying ‘ego eimi ho on’ i.e. ‘I am he who is.’ The ego eimi part of ego eimi ho on means nothing more than if I were to say ‘I am Troy’ or “I am a man.’ I contend then, that this also makes it extremely unlikely that Jesus’ ‘I am’ has any connection whatsoever to Ex. 3:14.

The Grammar of John 8:58

As in the case with Ex. 3:14, the traditional English translation of John 8:58 is not without dispute. The English “before Abraham was I am” seems like a rather straight-forward translation of the  Greek prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi. Here’s the breakdown on the grammar:

  • prin  –  adverb meaning before , prior to
  • Abraam  –  masculine singular noun in the accusative case, Abraham
  • genesthai  –  aorist infinitive verb in the middle voice meaning to become, come into a new state of being, to be born, to receive being, arise, come on the scene, come about
  • ego  –  1st person singular personal pronoun meaning ‘I’
  • eimi  –  1st Person singular present indicative verb meaning to be, to exist, to live

Now the word we need to look at closely is eimi. It seems to be a clear cut, foregone conclusion, taken with ego, that the only possible translation would be “I am” or “I exist”. But there may be more than meets the eye here. There is a use of the present indicative verb form in Greek that can be expressed by the perfect tense in English. It is known as the progressive present or the present of past action. The rule seems to be that when there is an indicator of past time the present indicative is best translated as a perfect tense in English. This Greek idiom expresses the idea of an action occurring in the past and continuing to the present. Biblical examples are:

1.) Luke 15:29  –  ” … Look, so many years (past time indicator) I serve (present indicative verb) you, and I have never disobeyed your commandment, and you never gave to me a young goat … ”   Literal translation from the Greek.

Here we see the present indicative verb used with a past time indicator.  Note how it doesn’t sound right in English. Now observe how modern versions translate the verb in English by a perfect tense:

  • NIV  –  “Look! All these years I have been slaving for you …”
  • ESV  –  “Look, these many years I have served you …”
  • HCSB  –  “Look, I have been slaving many years for you …”
  • ISV  –  “Listen! All these years I’ve worked like a slave for you …
  • NAS  –  “Look, for so many years I have been serving you …”

The implication of the present indicative in this case is that the son has been serving his father so many years and still is.

2.) John 15:27  –  “And you also are witnesses, because  from the beginning (past time indicator) you are (present indicative verb) with me.”

Again we note how this doesn’t sound right in English, and how modern versions translate it:

  • NET  –  “And you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • ASV  –  ” and ye also bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.”
  • CSB  –  “And you also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • NIV  –  “And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”
  • ESV  –  “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Again, the implication is that the disciples have been with Jesus from the beginning and still are.

3.) 1 John 3:8  –  ” from the beginning (past time indicator) the devil is sinning (present indicative) …”

  • NASB  –  ” … the devil has sinned from the beginning … “
  • ESV  –  ” … for the devil has been sinning from the beginning …”
  • ISV  –  ” … because the devil has been sinning from the beginning …”
  • NET  –  “ … because the devil has been sinning from the beginning … “
  • NASB  –  ” .. for the devil has sinned from the beginning … “

Other examples of this phenomenon in the NT are: Mark 9:21; Luke 13:7; John 5:6; 8:25; 14:9; Acts 15:21; and of course John 8:58. There are also examples of the ‘progressive present’ in the LXX and in extrabiblical and secular writings of the time.

In John 8:58 we find the same kind of past time indicator (before Abraham was) in conjunction with a present indicative verb (I am). But what we fail to find is any popular modern version translating this ‘progressive present’ in the same way they translated the other verses of similar construction, i.e. with a past or perfect tense verb. Why? Well I am sure the editors of these Bibles will have a ready excuse, but one has to be suspicious as to why John 8:58 is the only case of a progressive present, in these versions, that is not translated with a past or perfect tense. Could their choice to translate John 8:58 in this way have been theologically motivated? Indeed, I think it highly probable.

So how does this information affect our understanding of Jesus’ statement in John 8:58? It becomes possible and even probable that the present indicative ‘I am’ can be translated into English as a perfect tense, i.e. ‘I have been.’ This would even further detach this passage from any connection with Exodus 3:14, and nullify the claim that Jesus is here asserting self- existence. At best this verse could only be a support for the pre-existence of Jesus, but not for a self claim to deity.

Next, I want to deal with the absence of a predicate in Jesus’ statement. It seems that we have two options here: 1.) We can take eimi as copulative in function, in which case the predicate must be supplied by implication from the context; or 2.) we can take eimi in an existential sense, in which case no predicate would be needed. Let’s look at the first option. As stated above, if eimi is serving as a copula, then good English requires a predicate in order for the statement to make sense. This predicate, if not explicit in the Greek, is implicit and must be supplied by the English reader. Now before you go and accuse me of adding words to Scripture, I want you to see that this is the practice of all modern versions in all verses where eimi is clearly functioning as a copula but where the predicate is not explicit in the text. The construction ego eimi without a predicate occurs 18 times in the NT: Matt. 14:27; 26:22, 25; Mark 6:50; 13:6; 14:62; Luke 21:8; 22:70; John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28; 8:58; 9:9; 13:19; 18: 5,6,8. I will not deal with every one of these verses but mainly with those in John’s gospel. But let’s look first at Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8, which both read, strictly from the Greek, “Many will come in my name saying ‘I am’ …” As you can see, this makes no sense in English without a predicate, so modern versions supply the implied predicate, mostly with ‘he,’ hence ‘I am he.’ ‘I am he’ is found in the ASV, CSB, ESV, NET, NASB, NIV and HCSB, while the KJV has ‘I am Christ‘ in both places. The interesting thing is that Matthew, in his account in 24:5, supplies the predicate himself, reading in Greek, ego eimi ho christos, i.e. ‘I am the Christ.’ Matthew obviously understood Jesus’ ‘I am’ in this way.

Let’s look at the verses in John, excluding 6:20 and 8:58. In 4:26 ‘he’ is added as a predicate by the ASV, CSB, ESV, HCSB, ISV, NET, NIV, KJV and NASB. In 8:24, 28, 13:19  and 18: 5, 6 and 8 ‘he’ is added by the ASV, CSB, ESV, HCSB, NET, NIV, KJV and NASB. In 9:9 the ASV and KJV add ‘he‘, ESV and NIV add ‘the man‘, and the CSB, HCSB, NET and NASB add ‘the one.’

Why have all of these translations added these words that are not in the Greek text? Simply because in English a copula without a predicate doesn’t make sense. Anyone reading John’s Greek gospel in the first century would automatically mentally add the predicate implied by the context. Our English translations are correct to add the predicates in order to smooth out the sentence. But what about John 8:58? None of these versions has supplied a predicate at 8:58. Is this another case of translation bias? Perhaps, for you can be sure that the editors of these Bibles do not want to lose the connection of this verse with Exodus 3:14, as a proof text for Jesus’ deity, although, as we have shown, that connection is tenuous at best. But perhaps some of them see the ego eimi in 8:58 as an existential statement, i.e. “Before Abraham was, I exist.” Of course that does not work in English. This is where they would have to follow their pattern of translating the present indicative, when accompanied by a past time indicator, with a perfect tense verb, i.e. “Before Abraham was, I have been.” But as noted above, none of these versions followed their normal pattern for translating the progressive present at 8:58.

So based on the two grammatical options for eimi, and the fact that eimi is a progressive present, we could translate the verse in two ways. Based on option 1 above we could read:

“Before Abraham was, I have been the one.”

And based on option 2 above we could read:

“Before Abraham was, I have been.”

Immediate Context

Now the context must determine what ‘the one’ would mean. We know from the context of the whole book of John that ultimately ‘the one’ would refer to the promised one, the Messiah. The whole purpose of the book was to inculcate the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, not that he is God.

“But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  John 20:31

The more immediate context would be the whole of chapter 8, for v.58 is still part of the discourse which began at v.12. In v. 12 Jesus claims to be the light of the world, perhaps with Messianic passages from Isaiah in mind, such as 9:2, 42:6 and 49:6. In vv.16 and 18 he claims to have been sent by the Father. This is the language of agency i.e. he is the appointed agent of the Father. In v. 24 he tells them, “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he,” meaning the one sent by the Father and the light foretold by Isaiah. In v.28 he says, “When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will know that I am he,” i.e. the son of man. In vv. 31-47 Jesus claims that his word, as the Father’s appointed agent i.e. the Son, is the truth of God, which must be believed and held fast in order for one to be considered a child of Abraham. In v. 51 he claims that his word must be held fast if one would have life. To this the Jews respond:

” … Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you make yourself to be?   vv.52-53

In v. 56 Jesus says :

” Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day, and he saw and was glad.

It is often asserted by trinitarian apologists that Jesus was saying that Abraham actually saw him as the pre-incarnate Son, as the Angel of the Lord. But Jesus does not say that Abraham saw him personally, but that he foresaw the time of Messiah, in which Abraham rejoiced, knowing that, in that time, he would be raised from the dead to receive his inheritance {see Rom. 4:17 and Heb. 11:13 & 19}.

The Jews then retort, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” This is often understood as if these Jews really misunderstood what Jesus was saying. But were these Jews really that stupid? I do not think so. This is what people often do in debate when they cannot respond to an opponents argument — they twist their opponents words, mockingly, to make it seem like the opponent meant their words in some ridiculous way. But Jesus never said he saw Abraham. So Jesus, ignoring their attempt to make him look foolish, said “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was, I have been.” This would be the translation based on option 2 above. Without the connection to Ex. 3:14 there is no reason to read this as a claim to deity. At most it appears to be a claim to have existed before Abraham. Is Jesus claiming to have existed before Abraham was born? Yes, but only in a certain manner. If this is the way we should understand eimi, i.e. existentially, then we can understand Jesus to be claiming some kind of pre-existence, before the time of Abraham. I say some kind of pre-existence because in the Hebrew worldview pre-existence was not literal and personal, but only in the mind, plan and purpose of God.

Pre-existence in Jewish Thought

Some ancient Jewish writings help to give us insight in this matter. From the Genesis Rabbah, a midrash on the book of Genesis, at 1.4 we read:

Six things precede the creation of the world; some of them were actually created, while the creation of the others was already contemplated. The Torah and the Throne of Glory were created … The creation of the Patriarchs was contemplated … [The creation of] Israel was contemplated … [The creation of] the temple was contemplated … The name of Messiah was contemplated …

From the Babylonian Talmud, Peshaim 54a, we read:

Seven things were created before the world was made, and these are they: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, and the house of the sanctuary, and the name of the Messiah.

We see from these texts that in the Jewish mind these things had a sort of existence long before they were actually brought to pass in the real world. This existence was not viewed as actual but in the purpose and plan, the blueprint as it were, of that which God willed to bring about. Many scholars over many years have confirmed this Jewish perspective of pre-existence. Norwegian theologian and professor Sigmund Mowinckel, in his work titled, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, wrote this concerning pre-existence in Jewish thought:

Attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel … as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah … in Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.” This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.     p.334

E. G. Selwyn in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Emil Schurer in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol.2 p.522 wrote: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.”

Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p. 218 of Born Before All Time?, wrote: ” … in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

Reverend Maurice Wiles, Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine:

Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds … Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Talk of his pre-existence ought probably in most, perhaps in all, cases to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind.

Now this concept of things existing in the mind, will and plan of God before they have actual, real world existence can be seen in Scripture. One example is Rev. 4:11:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and our God … for you created (aorist indicative) all things, and on account of your will they existed (imperfect indicative) and were created (aorist indicative).”

Here we see that all things were existing because of God’s will and then were created. In Isaiah 37:26 the word of the LORD came against Sennacherib, “Have you not heard? Long ago I accomplished it. From ancient times I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you exist to turn fortified cities into ruinous heaps.”

The Apostle Paul tells us something interesting about God in Romans 4:17:

As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He (Abraham) is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed — the One who … calls things not existing as if existing.

Paul seems to be implying that this is a normal way for God to speak. But when God calls things which do not exist as if they did exist, is he lying? No, because they do exist in a particular way, i.e. in his purpose and plan. God said to Abram, before he even had a child, “I have made you a father of many nations.” The only sense in which this could be true is that in God’s plan He made Abram such.

So, though Jesus’ statement in John 8:58 implies a pre-existence before Abraham, this should not be understood as a literal, personal existence, but an ideal existence in God’s plan. His statement also asserts a priority over Abraham in the purpose of God. Remember the Jews’ question, “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” Indeed, Jesus is claiming a greater position in the plan and purpose of God than that of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as King David, all had important roles in God’s plan, but they were in a sense only means to the ultimate figure in God’s plan, Messiah. You see, the Messiah had to come from a certain people, through a certain family line. God chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob. From Jacob he chose Judah, and from him David. All of these played an important role in bringing the Messiah into the world, but it is Messiah who is the focal point of God’s overall plan. Though Abraham could also be said to have pre-existed in the plan of God, Messiah’s pre-existence would be antecedent to Abrahams. God, as it were, wrote the plan concerning Messiah, and then wrote Abraham into the plan as the means through which he would bring Messiah into the world.

Now it is often claimed that because the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus, that this is proof that he was claiming to be God. This is supposed to be what blasphemy is — claiming to be God. But where does this idea come from? Nowhere in Scripture is blasphemy ever defined as ‘claiming to be God.’ It is not likely that anyone in the history of Israel was ever stoned for claiming to be God. If anyone had ever made such a claim he would have been pitied as deluded and out of his mind. Blasphemy was the sin of speaking about or against God in a derogatory way. Also, in the Jewish mind, one could also blaspheme against Moses, the temple and the law {see Acts 6:11-14}. The patriarchs were highly esteemed and for one to claim superiority over someone like Abraham would also be considered blasphemy, after all, he was the progenitor of their nation. It would also have been considered blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah {see Matt. 26:59-66; Mark 14:55-64; LK. 22:66-71}. Further proof that the Jews did not hear, in Jesus’ statement, a claim to be God, is the accusations brought against him at his trial before Pilate. In none of the gospel accounts is it said at Jesus’ trial that he had claimed to be God. Even in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is supposed to be making the clearest declaration of his deity, we do not find this being brought against him as an accusation. When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, in John 19, and Pilate was inclined to release him, they accused him saying, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the son of God.” (v.7) Pilate questioned Jesus further and again wanted to release him, but the Jews shouted, “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (v.12) This coincides with the other gospels {see Matt.27:11-13; Mark 15:1-3; Lk. 23:1-3}.

Conclusion

So, when all the evidence is taken together, it appears that the interpretation of John 8:58 which purports that Jesus is making a claim to deity is indeed a superficial reading of the text. The only thing it seems to have in it’s favor is that it supports the orthodox tradition of Christ’s deity. But it ignores so much in arriving at it’s conclusion. It ignores the Hebraic context and worldview in which the Gospel of John is positioned. It ignores the grammatical considerations which work against it. It ignores the tenuousness of the connection to Ex. 3:14. It ignores the immediate context of John’s gospel, who’s stated purpose is that his readers might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God { 20:31}.

One Final Alternative

There is one other possible translation and interpretation of John 8:58. It hinges on the word genesthai. This is translated in all versions, as far as I know, with a past tense verb in English, i.e. “before Abraham was (or was born) …” The verb form in Greek is an aorist infinitive. The aorist form definitely denotes past action only in the indicative mood. Here the mood is the infinitive, and so there is no definite time implied. It could be speaking of a past, present or future action; only the context can determine which. When we look at this exact word in other places in the NT we see that it often is used to denote a future action, e.g.

  1. Matt. 20:26  –  ” … whoever wants to become great among you… “
  2. Mark 1:17  –  “ … I will make you to become fishers of men … “
  3. Mark 13:7  –  ” … such things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”
  4. John 5:6  –  ” And Jesus seeing him … said, ‘Do you desire to be well.’
  5. Acts 26:29  –  “Paul said … “I wish to God … for all those hearing me today, to become as I am … “
  6. Acts 27:29  –  ” … they prayed for day to come.”
  7. John 14:29 –  “And now I have told you before it comes to pass …”

The reason that virtually all versions translate it as a past tense is because it is assumed that the context is referring to Abraham’s coming to be at his birth. But this is not the only possible way to understand the context. As we saw above, in the context of the passage, the Jews, in vv.52-53, mention the fact that Abraham died, yet Jesus claims that if anyone holds fast to his word they will never die. They want to know who he thinks he is claiming to be greater than Abraham. Then Jesus gives the answer about Abraham rejoicing that he would see Messiah’s day, presumably by resurrection. Then the Jews attempt to make Jesus look foolish, but he ignores them and states the phrase under consideration, which could be translated as “Before Abraham comes to be (in the resurrection) I am (to be).” If we take genesthai in a future tense then eimi would be copulative and the predicate implied from the context. Jesus would in this case be asserting that he would experience resurrection unto immortality apart from and prior to Abraham and all the righteous dead. This would, once again, mean that Jesus has the supremacy over Abraham and all others. This accords with Paul’s statement in Col. 1:17:

“… he is the beginning  and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he  might have the supremacy.”

And in Romans 14:9:

“For this very reason, Christ died and has come to life again so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

This interpretation works well with both the grammar and the context and should be considered viable.