The greatest commandment

Jesus’ controversial teaching enraged the religious leaders who wanted the people to see them as the authorities on Jewish religious matters. On one occasion, the chief priests and the elders directly challenged Jesus’ authority and asked him the question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23). Jesus’ response may have seemed like a clever sidestep, but it showed these men that he was not intimidated by their positions of power (Matthew 21:24-27). When he was later tested on his interpretation of the scriptures, Jesus clearly demonstrated his superior exegesis of God’s word. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46)

Jesus’ summation of the entire written word of God into two simple commandments likely astounded his audience, but it was his understanding of the Messiah’s identity that silenced the crowd that was trying to publicly discredit him. In other words, Jesus blew them away with his incredible insight into God’s word, so much so, that the Pharisees realized they were no match for Jesus’ keen intellect.

Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 6:5 as the great and first commandment. What Jesus meant by that was that this verse of scripture takes precedence over everything else. The Greek word that is translated great, megas (megˊ-as) means “big” and is sometimes translated as higher, larger, older, profound, severe, strong, too much (G3173). The Greek word that is translated first, protos (proˊ-tos) means “foremost (in time, place, order or importance)” (G4413). Today we might refer to this verse as a heavy hitter and might think of it in terms of getting the most bang for your buck when you’re trying to understand the Bible and want to live according to its principles. Jesus said that we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind (Matthew 22:37). I think the point that Jesus was trying to make was not that we are to love God with our heart, our soul, and our mind, but that we are to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. The Greek word that is translated all, holos (holˊ-os) means “whole” or “’all,’i.e. complete (in extent, amount, time or degree)” (G3650). In that sense, you could say that we are expected to love the Lord with every bit of our heart, with every bit of our soul, and with every bit of our mind.

The heart, the soul, and the mind are likely similar to the three parts of the Godhead: God, the Father; God, the Son; and God the Holy Spirit; in that we have a triune nature like God that is meant to function in an integrated fashion. We can’t love God with just our heart because we wouldn’t be able to understand who God is and have a relationship with him, nor can we love Him with just our mind because we wouldn’t feel close to Him or have a desire to be in His presence. The soul is what makes it possible for us to identify with God as an eternal being that is connected to everything around us. The issue for us is being able to focus our minds completely on God or being able to give our hearts to him without any reservations. Jesus said that we must love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds (Matthew 22:37). The only way that we can do that is by becoming one with God. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:120-21).

The unity that Jesus has with his Father is clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4 where it says, “Here, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Hebrew word that is translated one, ʾechad (ekh-awdˊ) means “united” (H259) and is derived from the word ʾachad (aw-khadˊ) which means “to unify, i.e. (figurative) collect (one’s thoughts)” (H258). ʾAchad is translated “go one way or other” in Ezekiel 21:16. From that standpoint, you might say that God is the unifier of all things and that His word is a unified thought that makes us go one way or the other. The fact that all believers read the same Bible and seek to live according to the same principles is what makes us look, act, and talk like each other and how we essentially become one with Jesus and the Father. Jesus,’ through the example of his relationship with his Father, took it one step further by stating that we should “become perfectly one” (John 17:23). I believe what Jesus meant by become perfectly one was that we would not just understand God’s word, but that we all would understand what it means in the context of our own lives. In other words, for each and every person to understand and seek to attain God’s perfect will for their lives. Paul talked about this in his letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 3:12-4:1)

Paul indicated that there was a three-fold effort involved in becoming perfectly one. First of all, our thinking must be aligned with God’s word. Paul said, “If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Philippians 3:15). Paul is talking here about our minds being submitted to God and under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word phroneo (fron-ehˊ-o) means “to exercise the mind, i.e. entertain or have a sentiment or opinion; by implication to be (mentally) disposed (more or less earnestly in a certain direction); intensive to interest oneself in (with concern or obedience)” (G5426). Secondly, Paul instructed believers to imitate him and to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). The King James Version of the Bible uses the phrase followers together to describe the process of imitating other believers. The Greek word that is translated example, tupos (tooˊ-pos) refers to a prototype and is “spoken figuratively of a person as bearing the form and figure of another, a type, as having a certain resemblance in relations and circumstances (Romans 5:14)” (G5179). The point that Paul was trying to make was that we shouldn’t just mimic the behaviors of other Christians, but we need to pay attention to what mature believers are doing and follow their examples. Keeping our eyes on someone means that we watch them closely and therefore, regard them in our heart. It is important that we don’t regard the wrong people, such as the ones that Paul identified as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Finally, Paul indicated that Jesus will transform our bodies to be like his glorious body and said that he will do this by “the power that enables him to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). The involuntary transformation of our bodies suggests that the physical change that is necessary for us to become perfectly one with other believers is not something that we are able or would want to do on our own. Obviously, no one would want to follow Christ if it involved crucifixion, but according to Paul, the believers’ old man was crucified with Christ and we will all one day be united with him in a resurrection similar to his. Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:5-6).

Moses’ recitation of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:7-21 was followed by the statement, “You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:32-33). The Hebrew word that is translated careful in Deuteronomy 5:32, shamar (shaw-marˊ) appears 16 times in Deuteronomy 4-6 where Moses talks about obedience to God’s commandments. In Deuteronomy 4:9, Moses elaborated on his instruction to be careful and stated, “Only take care and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.” The idea that we can forget the things that our eyes have seen and that they can depart from our heart has to do with us becoming oblivious to or intentionally turning off our spiritual discernment.

The book of Proverbs, which was primarily written by King Solomon who is thought by some Bible scholars to be the wisest man that ever lived, contains numerous analogies between spiritual and material things (Proverbs, Introduction, p. 714). It says in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Solomon indicated that fools have no regard for wisdom or instruction. “The fool’s only authority is himself.” He “twists God’s ways into his own” and “is insensitive to godly prodding” (H191). On the contrary, Solomon said, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). The kind of fear that Solomon was referring to was the fear that is “produced by God’s word and makes a person receptive to knowledge and wisdom” (H3374). God employed wisdom as his master craftsman to create all things and thus, it is inherent in the created order (H2451). Knowledge has to do with knowing how to please God. These two qualities are the theme of the book of Proverbs as a whole. “The acquisition and application of wisdom are paramount concerns throughout the book” (note on Proverbs 1:1-7).

Solomon took great care to illustrate for us the results of becoming oblivious to or intentionally turning off our spiritual discernment. Solomon began with the enticement of sinners. He said:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
    and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
    and pendants for your neck.
My son, if sinners entice you,
    do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
    let us ambush the innocent without reason;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive,
    and whole, like those who go down to the pit;
we shall find all precious goods,
    we shall fill our houses with plunder;
throw in your lot among us;
    we will all have one purse”—
my son, do not walk in the way with them;
    hold back your foot from their paths,
for their feet run to evil,
    and they make haste to shed blood.
For in vain is a net spread
    in the sight of any bird,
but these men lie in wait for their own blood;
    they set an ambush for their own lives.
Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain;
    it takes away the life of its possessors. (Proverbs 1:8-19)

Solomon emphasized the foolishness of committing a crime by stating, “in vain is a net spread in the sight of any bird” (Proverbs 1:17) and then, drove home his point about the punishment that sinners will ultimately receive in his statement, “but these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives” (Proverbs 1:18). The Hebrew word that is translated lives is nephesh (nehˊ-fesh). The best Biblical definition of this word is found in Psalm 103:1 where nephesh is defined as “all that is within” a person. Nephesh is usually translated as “soul” which “makes sense in most passages. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the opposition of the terms ‘body’ and ‘soul,’ which are really Greek and Latin in origin. The Hebrew compares/contrasts ‘the inner self’ and ‘the outer appearance’ or, as viewed in a different context, ‘what one is to oneself’ as opposed to ‘what one appears to be to one’s observers.’ The goal of Scripture is to make the inner and the outer consistent” (H5315).

The reason that Moses gave for the Israelites being careful to do as the LORD had commanded them was “that you may live, and that is may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:33). In this instance, to live meant more than physical existence, it meant to revive the spirit or to revive the heart (H2421). The Hebrew word that is translated well in Deuteronomy 5:33, towb (tobe) means “to be happy, to please, to be loved…the word naturally expresses the idea of being loved or enjoying the favour of someone” (H2895). Moses repeated the statement that it may go well with you for emphasis and linked it with the blessing that was promised to Abraham in order to drive home his point that God’s covenant with the nation of Israel was conditional and was dependent upon their obedience to his commandments (Major Covenants of the Old Testament, KJSB, p. 16). Moses said:

“Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 6:3)

Afterward, Moses summarized the law by stating the greatest commandment:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

And then, Moses concluded his summarization with some personal advice:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6).

The King James Version of the Bible indicates that the words that Moses spoke should be “in” the Israelites’ hearts rather than on their hearts. The difference between something being on our heart and something being in our heart may have to do with the memorization of scripture as opposed to the external viewing of it on a scroll or in a book. Moses’ warning to not forget it or let it depart from your heart (Deuteronomy 4:9) would make more sense in that context.

One of the words that Solomon used to describe the person that ignores God’s word was simple. He asked, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Proverbs 1:22). The Hebrew word that is translated simple, pᵉtha˒iy (peth-aw-eeˊ) is derived from the word pathah (paw-thawˊ) which means “to open, i.e. be (causatively make) roomy” (H6601). In that sense, someone that is simple might be thought of as being empty headed or lacking in education. Solomon may have been thinking about a person that had never studied the scriptures or committed a single verse to memory. Solomon reproved the simple ones, encouraging them to repent before it was too late and said of wisdom:

“Because I have called and you refused to listen,
    have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
    and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
    and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
    and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.” (Proverbs 1:24-33)

Solomon stated that “the simple are killed by their turning away” (Proverbs 1:32). The Hebrew word that is translated turning away, mᵉshubah (mesh-oo-bawˊ) means apostasy and is usually translated backsliding (H4878). What Solomon likely meant by the simple are killed by their turning away was that since the simple have turned their backs on God and have no protection from him, they will become victims of the violence that is going on in the world around them and will die as a result of it.

Life after death

Outside of the twelve apostles that were Jesus’ constant companions during his three year ministry on earth, there are only a few people mentioned in the Bible that were close to him. One family in particular is mentioned in John’s gospel as being among Jesus’ closest friends. John tells us, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:1-3). The love that Jesus had for Lazarus came from his heart and had to do with a personal attachment that had been formed between the two men. The Greek word that is translated love, phileo (ful-ehˊ-o) represents “tender affection” (G5368). John went on to say, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’” (John 11:5-8). The Greek word that John used in this instance that is translated love is agapao (ag-ap-ahˊ-o). The distinction between the two kinds of love that Jesus had for Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus are more evident in Jesus’ conversation with Peter after he had denied the Lord (John 21:15-17). The context itself indicates that agapao, which is used in the first two questions that Jesus asked Peter, suggests the ‘love’ that values and esteems (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration” (G5368). It was a deliberate assent of Jesus’ will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety rather than a desire to preserve Lazarus’ life that caused Jesus to respond to Mary and Martha’s request for him go to Judea in spite of the risk that it imposed to his own life. Jesus told his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).

Jesus explained Lazarus’ situation to his disciples in John 11:11-16. It states:

After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus compared Lazarus’ death to falling asleep in order to make it clear to his disciples that Lazarus had not gone beyond a point of no return. The Greek word that is translated death in John 11:13, thanatos (thanˊ-at-os) “has the basic meaning of separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust…Death is the opposite of life; it never denotes nonexistence. As spiritual life is conscious existence in communion with God, so spiritual death is conscious existence in separation from God” (G2288).

The thing that Jesus wanted his disciples to believe was that physical death does not separate us from God. The Apostle Paul said of God’s everlasting love, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). Jesus told his disciples that he was glad that he was not there when Lazarus died, “so that you may believe” (John 11:15). The Greek word that is translated believe, pisteuo (pist-yooˊ-o) means “to have faith” (G4100). Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” When we are convicted of things not seen, we are either shown to be wrong, convinced of our error or given proof that we are right (G1650). Faith enables us to have an accurate perception of what is going on in the spiritual realm.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, John tells us:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21-27)

Martha’s attention was focused on the fact that her brother’s physical life had been cut short and she expressed her disappointment that Jesus hadn’t done something about it. Jesus redirected Martha’s attention to the eternal state of her brother’s soul. Jesus told Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23), meaning that Lazarus was born again and therefore, would experience a restoration of his physical life at some point in the future (G450). Martha acknowledged this when she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24), but Jesus wanted Martha to realize that Lazarus was still living, even though he wasn’t physically present with them.

Luke’s gospel contains a story that Jesus told to illustrate life after death. It states:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (16:19-31)

The place that Jesus described, Hades was known as the place of punishment, the abode or world of the dead. “According to the notions of the Hebrews, hades was a vast subterranean receptacle where the souls of the dead existed in a separate state until the resurrection of their bodies. The region of the blessed during this interval, the inferior paradise, they supposed to be in the upper part of this receptacle; while beneath was the abyss or Gehenna” (G86). When Jesus was dying on the cross, he told the criminal hanging next to him who asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). After he was resurrected, Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:51) and shortly before his death, Jesus assured his disciples that they would eventually join him there. Jesus said, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

In Jesus’ story, the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them about the torment they were going to experience in Hades. “Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke 16:30-31). In this statement, Jesus made it clear that hearing, or you might say paying attention to what God says, is a prerequisite of faith. Paul told the Romans, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The Greek word that is translated convinced, peitho (piˊ-tho) “in the active voice, signifies ‘to apply persuasion, to prevail upon or win over, to persuade’ bringing about a change of mind by the influence of reason or moral considerations…It also means ‘to persuade, to win over,’ in the passive and middle voices, ‘to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey’” (G3982). Believing in God and trusting in God are not exactly the same things. When Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25), he used the Greek word pisteuo. “Peitho and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies obedience that is produced by the latter, cf. Hebrews 3:18-19, where the disobedience of the Israelites is said to be the evidence of their unbelief. Faith is of the heart, invisible to men; obedience is of the conduct and may be observed. When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God. Of course it is persuasion of the truth that results in faith (we believe because we are persuaded that the thing is true, a thing does not become true because it is believed), but peitho, in New Testament suggests an actual and outward result of the inward persuasion and consequent faith” (G3982).

Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” and then, he asked her, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). Martha believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but she hadn’t yet gone so far as to put her trust in him. Jesus dealt with this issue when he instructed Martha to have the stone taken away from her brother’s tomb. John 11:38-44 states:

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus used the Greek word pisteuo when he told Martha that if she believed, she would see the glory of God (John 11:40) indicating that Martha may not have actually been saved prior to her brother’s death. Martha knew in her head that Jesus was the Messiah (John 11:27), but might not yet have been persuaded to the point that she had actually put her trust in him for salvation.

John tells us that before Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the grave, “he lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me’” (John 11:41-42). What was going on between Jesus and his Father was a visible display of their cooperative effort to persuade the people standing around that Jesus was in fact “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and because of that, even though Lazarus was physically dead, he was spiritually still alive. It seems that Jesus’ ability to raise Lazarus from the dead was somehow being hindered by the unbelief of the people standing around. It’s possible that belief and unbelief are somewhat like opposing forces that compete against each other to determine the outcome of a situation. When Jesus told a man that wanted him to cast a demonic spirit out of his son, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23), the man responded, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). The Greek word that is translated help, boetheo (bo-ay-thehˊ-o) means “to aid or relieve” (G997). The boy’s father had faith (I believe), but his unbelief was counteracting it and needed to be dealt with in order for Jesus to heal his son.

One of the biggest hindrances to the Jews accepting Jesus as their Savior was that they didn’t understand how things worked in the spiritual realm and therefore, couldn’t comprehend how a person could be “born again” (John 3:3-4). Jesus told a man named Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8). Jesus indicated that the sound of the wind is evidence of its presence. Even though it’s invisible, wind exists and can be detected by its sound. When God the Father testified to Jesus’ identity, he did so with his voice. Matthew 3:16-17 states, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Likewise, at Jesus’ transfiguration, Matthew indicated “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matthew 17:5).

Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd and told the Jews, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5). Jesus’ emphasis of the sheep knowing the shepherd by his voice suggests that spiritual connections are formed through vocal interaction. Jesus often used the statement, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:43) to draw attention to the spiritual truths in his lessons and distinguished believers from unbelieves by stating, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). The Greek word that is translated words, rhema (hrayˊ-mah) refers particularly to “a word as uttered by a living voice; a saying, speech, or discourse” (G4487).

After Jesus instructed Martha to take the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb, John tells us:

So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42).

Jesus wanted everyone to know that God could see and hear what was going on at Lazarus’ tomb. By looking up to heaven and praying out loud to his Father, Jesus shifted the focus of everyone’s attention to what was going on in the spiritual realm. John went on to say:

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:43-44)

Lazarus’ response to Jesus’ command demonstrated that he was able to hear what he said to him. It seems likely that Jesus intentionally used a voice command to bring Lazarus back from the dead to show everyone that even though he had died, Lazarus was still spiritually connected to Jesus. Before they left for Bethany, Jesus told his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). Jesus was speaking in a figurative sense when he said he was going to wake Lazarus up, but when Jesus cried out to him with a loud voice (John 11:43) Lazarus was not actually dead; his soul was just temporarily separated from his body.

Impossibility

The Apostle John stated near the end of his book the purpose of his gospel. John said, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). John connected certain signs that Jesus did in the presence of his disciples with their belief that he was the Christ, the Son of God. The Greek word that is translated signs in John 20:30, semeion (say-miˊ-on) means “a token of proof. A sign by which the divine power in majesty is made known, a supernatural event or act, a token, wonder, or miracle by which the power and presence of God is manifested, either directly or through the agency of those whom He sends (Sept.: Exodus 4:8, 17, 28, 30)” (G4592). “Each of the incidents recorded in the gospel of John is specifically included to prove that Jesus is indeed the Son of God” (Introduction to the Gospel According to John). John started with the most obvious and perhaps what he considered to be the most import incident that Jesus was involved in, God’s creation of the universe. John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). John referred to Jesus as the Word, indicating that his existence was not limited to the physical expression of God’s character. The Greek word that John used, logos (logˊ-os) goes beyond something said to include also “reasoning (the mental faculty or motive; by extension a computation; specifically (with the article in John) the Divine Expression (i.e. Christ)” (G3056). When logos is used to represent the “Word of God” it means “His omnipotent voice, decree.”

John said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). When John said that he and others had seen Jesus’ glory, he was most likely referring to the signs that were proof of his deity. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord’s glory indicated that it is linked with his inauguration as King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16). Isaiah stated:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

The words of Isaiah’s commission (Isaiah 6:9-10) were used by Jesus to explain why he taught in parables (note on Isaiah 6:1-13). Jesus said:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
     and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
     and with their ears they can barely hear,
     and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
     and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
     and turn, and I would heal them.’” (Matthew 13:13-15)

“Jesus spoke in parables to explain spiritual truths, but those who had already rejected Jesus did not have divinely enlightened minds with which to perceive these truths, and no amount of explanation would make them understand (1 Corinthians 2:14). They could watch and hear Jesus with their physical eyes and ears, but they were not capable of understanding the truth in their hearts because they had rejected him (2 Corinthians 4:3, 4)…People do not hear and see because their hearts are full of wickedness; consequently, they fail to understand the truth that has been given them. They are so opposed to God’s message that they harden themselves against it, lest they should understand it and ask forgiveness of God. Once they reject Jesus, they also reject the possibility of understanding the parables that Jesus told (Isaiah 55:6-8)” (note on Matthew 13:10-17).

Isaiah’s description of the compassion of the Lord revealed that we often misunderstand God’s Word because we don’t understand the way He works. Isaiah encourages us to:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
     call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
     and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
     and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
     neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
     so are my ways higher than your ways
     and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The difference between God’s ways and our ways has to do with our human limitations. God said that His ways are higher than our ways. What he meant by higher was that He and humans operate on different levels of existence. God operates on the spiritual plane and we operate on the physical plane, which skews our perception toward tangible evidence of the things that we believe in. When we seek to have a relationship with God, we have to do it on a level that is beyond our physical comprehension.

The intersection of the spiritual and physical planes is where contamination of holy things and purification of unholy or unclean things takes place. When something on the physical plane is consecrated to God, it is transferred to a higher level of existence. Likewise, when something or someone such as Jesus Christ, who is a spiritual being, is born into the physical plane, he has been brought into a lower level of existence. That’s what John was talking about when he said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Greek word that is translated became, ginomai (ghinˊ-om-ahee) means “to come into existence” (G1096). Ginomai is used of miracles and the like and implies that there is a tangible result of some sort. The main point that John wanted to make in the first chapter of his gospel message was that Jesus became something that he had not previously been when he became a human being, but on the spiritual plane, his physical birth was not the beginning of Jesus’ existence.

Purification is a method whereby physical things and people can be made holy and interact with God on the spiritual plane. The impossibility of transferring something or someone to a higher plane was demonstrated through the purification rites. The LORD instructed Moses and Aaron to, “tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come” (Numbers 19:2). The red heifer was symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ and was rare because of its special color and because it had to be uniform in color, no spots or defects of any kind in its coat. The complicated process of sacrificing the red heifer added to the perplexity of its cleansing power. After the red heifer was cremated, its ashes were gathered and then, combined with water to create a solution referred to as “the water for impurity” (Numbers 19:9). Numbers 19:16-21 states:

Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and freshwater shall be added in a vessel. Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean. “If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. Because the water for impurity has not been thrown on him, he is unclean. And it shall be a statute forever for them.

According to the Messianic Prophecy Bible Project, such a perfect creature as the red heifer that is described in Numbers 19 “is so elusive that its ceremonial burning has seldom happened in all of Jewish history. Mishnah, which is an authoritative, written embodiment of Jewish oral tradition, teaches that only nine red heifers were sacrificed from the time of the Tabernacle worship until the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD. The rabbis consider the red heifer one of the greatest mysteries of the Torah. Even they wonder how it’s possible that the ashes of the sacrificial animal can purify from sin and defilement. Furthermore, in an apparent paradox, these same ashes that purified also made anyone involved in the red heifer preparations – from the person who gathered the ashes to the person who sprinkled the water – unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:10). The commandment regarding the red heifer is considered to be such a mystery that the rabbis place it in the category of chukkim “divine decrees that cannot be understood by our limited human understanding” (free.messianicbible.com, The Red Heifer and the Third Temple in End-Time Prophecy).

Along with God’s specification of the water for impurity that was to be used to cleanse everyone that came in contact with a dead body (Numbers 19:20) was an incident in which Moses was commanded to bring water from a rock. The connection between these two events was God’s expectation that his instructions would be carried out exactly as he had stated them. Numbers 20:7-8 states:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before your eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them to drink to the congregation and their cattle.”

We know that God was expecting Moses to operate on the spiritual plane because his instruction to tell the rock to yield its water (Numbers 20:7) made no sense on the physical plane. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explained that God was referring to a spiritual Rock and indicated that “the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Rather than telling the rock to yield its water, it says in Numbers 20:11 that “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice.” The Hebrew word that is translated struck, nakah (naw-kawˊ) is usually associated with God’s discipline or a military defeat (H5221). Nakah is translated smitten in Isaiah 53:4 where it says of Jesus, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Moses’ actions are described as disobedience (Numbers 27:14) and a failure to honor the Lord as holy (Numbers 20:12; Deuteronomy 32:51). As a result, Moses was prohibited from entering Canaan (note on Numbers 20:9-12) because, as the LORD pointed out, the root cause of Moses’ disobedience was unbelief (Numbers 20:12).

Jesus made a distinction between operating on the physical plane and operating on the spiritual plane when he told his disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). The Greek word that is translated possible, dunatos (doo-nat-osˊ) signifies “powerful” (G1415), so another way of looking at God’s ability to do things would be to equate it with his power. God is able to do everything that his power enables him to. The Greek word that is translated impossible, adunatos (ad-oo-nat-os) is a combination of the words dunatos and a (alˊ-fah) as a negative participle, which signifies that something is not possible. Another way of saying Matthew 19:26 might be, with man there is no power, but with God there is unlimited power so he can do everything that he wants to. When Jesus’ disciples asked him why they weren’t able to cast a demon out of a little boy (Matthew 17:19), he answered them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there, and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). According to Jesus, faith enables us to operate on the spiritual plane where impossibility doesn’t exist.

John’s attempt to record the specific signs that would convince people that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31) began with what John described as “the first of his signs” (John 2:11) or you might say, the foremost sign, meaning that this particular sign began to make it obvious that Jesus wasn’t an ordinary human being. John’s account is of a wedding at Cana in Galilee where Jesus turned water into wine. John said:

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)

John said that Jesus “manifested his glory” (John 2:11) when he made the water into wine. At Cana both God’s grace and God’s power were manifested, and these constituted Jesus’ “glory” (G1391). John indicated that Jesus was full of grace and truth (John 1:14) and said, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).

Grace and truth are key components of faith. Paul told the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace in a spiritual sense refers especially to “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life” (G5485). The Greek word charis (kharˊ-ece) is derived from the word chairo (khahˊee-ro) which means “to be ‘cheerful, i.e. calmly happy or well-off” (G5463). Based on this definition, when John said that Jesus was full of grace (John 1:14), it can be assumed that he meant Jesus was always happy or well-off, even when he was dying on the cross. That is one of the things that made Jesus stand out and be recognized as the Son of God.

After Jesus drove out those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting in the temple (John 2:14-15), “the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (John 18-19). The phrase destroy this temple had significance on both the physical and spiritual plane. The Jews that Jesus was talking to were focused on the physical aspect of his declaration and determined that it was impossible for him to do what he had stated. They responded to him, “It has taken forty six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). A clue that Jesus wasn’t talking about the physical structure that they were looking at can be found in the Greek word he used that is translated raise. Egeiro (eg-iˊ-ro) means to waken and “is frequently used both in the transitive sense of ‘raising up’ and the intransitive of ‘rising’” (G1453). Egeiro is used in Matthew 27:52 in reference to the resurrection of believers and also in Matthew 27:62-66 in reference to Jesus rising from the dead, but even his disciples were confused when Jesus used the word egeiro in connection with the temple being destroyed and raised up again. It wasn’t until after he was resurrected that they understood what Jesus was talking about (John 2:21-22).

The sign of Jesus’ body being resurrected was likely an intentional effort on God’s part to bridge the gap between the impossibility of life after death on the physical plane and the possibility of a dead person standing up on his feet again as if he has just been woken up from sleep on the spiritual plane. Using the illustration of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19), Jesus was able to remove the barriers of his disciples’ physical mindset. It says in John 2:22, “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

God’s protection

King David revealed some of his most intimate moments with the LORD in the psalms that he wrote which were both songs and prayers. Psalm 61 in particular contained a heartfelt plea for God’s protection and blessing on David’s life. David wrote:

Hear my cry, O God,
    listen to my prayer;
from the end of the earth I call to you
    when my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I,
for you have been my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy. (Psalm 61:1-3)

The Hebrew word that David used that is translated hear in Psalm 61:1, shamahʿ (shaw-mahˊ) means to hear intelligently and conveys the idea of discernment or a comprehension of the spiritual meaning of a message. David said that he called to God from the end of the earth, suggesting that there was a long distance between them or perhaps that they were spiritually separated from each other. The Hebrew word that is translated end, qatseh (kaw-tsehˊ) means an extremity (H7097) and is derived from the word qatsah (kaw-tsawˊ) which means “to cut off; (figurative) to destroy” (H7096). David may have thought that the end of the earth was a place where God wasn’t present with him or at least that God’s presence couldn’t be felt by him and so David needed to call out to the LORD to make him aware of his situation.

David described his heart as being faint. In the Hebrew context, the heart was not an organ that pumped blood through one’s body, but referred to “some aspect of the immaterial inner self or being since the heart was considered to be the seat of one’s inner nature as well as one of its components. While it is the source of all action and the center of all thought and feeling the heart is also described as receptive to the influences both from the outer world and from God Himself” (H3820). When David said that his heart was faint, he meant that it was disconnected from the spiritual source of its strength. David may have been experiencing spiritual warfare and was seeking God’s protection from his spiritual enemy, the devil.

David’s statement, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) was likely connected to the Israelites’ experience in the desert when Moses brought water out of a rock for them (Exodus 17:6).  The Apostle Paul explained in his first letter to the Corinthians that this rock spiritually represented Christ. Paul said:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

David indicated that the rock was higher than he was. The Hebrew word ruwm (room) means to be high in the context of being exalted or to be brought to a position of honor (H7311). The Hebrew word that is translated lead in Psalm 61:2, nachah (naw-khawˊ) means “to lead, to guide, usually in the right direction or on the proper path…This term is also used metaphorically to represent spiritual guidance in righteousness (Psalm 5:8[9]; 27:11; 139:24)” (H5148).

David’s petition went beyond physical protection and dealt with an eternal state of well-being that he knew only God could provide. David said:

For you, O God, have heard my vows;
    you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

Prolong the life of the king;
    may his years endure to all generations!
May he be enthroned forever before God;
    appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! (Psalm 61:5-7)

A vow is a voluntary promise that is made to God which cannot be annulled (H5088). Numbers 30:2 states, “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” To a certain extent, a vow is the equivalent of a covenant except that it is initiated by a human being instead of by God. A vow is like a legal contract in that it cannot be broken without some penalty. David said that God had heard his vows. In other words, David’s vows had been executed and were considered to be in effect. As a result, David had been “given the heritage of those who fear your name” (Psalm 61:5).

The heritage that David was referring to was most likely connected to the birth of Israel’s Messiah. David seemed to be talking about an eternal kingdom that he would be the leader of. David asked the LORD to “prolong the life of the king” and David wanted his life to “endure to all generations” (Psalm 61:6). His request that “he be enthroned forever before God” suggests that David was talking about an eternal kingdom that does not yet exist.

Jesus was referred to as “the Son of David” on numerous occasions (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9) and Matthew’s genealogical record of Jesus birth showed that he was a direct descendant of King David (Matthew 1:1). Surprisingly, Jesus never talked about his royal heritage and he seemed reluctant to take on the role of a king. Jesus’ title of “King of kings and Lord of lords” is only mentioned in the book of Revelation in connection with his second coming (Revelation 19:11-16) and it marks an important shift in the power structure on earth. After Jesus returns to earth, there will be a world war that will end in the destruction of Satan’s armies and “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan” will be bound in a bottomless pit for one thousand years (Revelation 19:19-20:2). During that thousand years, there will be a kingdom on earth that will be ruled by Jesus and his followers (Revelation 20:4), but it doesn’t seem to be associated with the nation of Israel. Therefore, it seems likely that David’s petition to be enthroned forever before God had something to do with the New Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven after the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-21:2).

David concluded his prayer to God with this statement:

So will I ever sing praises to your name,
    as I perform my vows day after day. (Psalm 61:8)

David connected never ending worship of God with the daily performance of his vows. This seems to suggest that vows had an eternal significance in the Hebrew culture and that David saw his worship of God continuing after his death.

A religious group called the Sadducees expected Jesus to clarify the eternal nature of marriage vows when they asked him a hypothetical question about a woman that had married seven brothers, but had no children from any of them. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matthew 22:23-33)

Jesus made it clear in his response to the Sadducees that it is not our relationship to others that matters after the resurrection, but our relationship to God. Jesus’ comment that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, pointed out that the resurrection of the dead does not result in everyone receiving eternal life. The reason why the crowd was astonished when Jesus said this was because they believed that all of Abraham’s physical descendants would receive an eternal inheritance from God. The fact of the matter was that the Jews would be judged along with everyone else and some would experience a second and final death after the resurrection (Revelation 20:11-15).

Jesus’ instructions to his twelve disciples before he sent them out to preach the gospel contained an admonition that focused their attention on the kind of personal protection that was necessary for their work and who it was that could provide it. Jesus said:

“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:26-33)

The Greek word that is translated acknowledges in Matthew 10:32, homologeo (hom-ol-og-ehˊ-o) means “to ascent, i.e. covenant” and “to speak the same with another, e.g. to say the same things” (G3670). Jesus said that everyone that acknowledges him here on earth will be acknowledged by his Father who is in heaven and whoever denies him will likewise be denied by his Father. Therefore, there is a type of covenant that is initiated by us while we are still alive that involves God and that covenant will have an eternal effect.

David’s final statement in Psalm 61, “So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day” (vs. 8), seems to suggest that the performance of David’s vow was a continuous action that transcended time, meaning that David’s covenant with God began at a specific point in time while David was still alive and then continued throughout eternity. The Hebrew word that David used that is translated perform in Psalm 61:8 is shalam (shaw-lamˊ). Shalam means “to be safe, to be completed. The primary meaning is to be safe or uninjured in mind or body (Job 8:6; 9:4). This word is normally used when God is keeping his people safe. In its simple form, this verb also means to be completed or to be finished” (H7999). Given this context, it seems unusual that David would say that he would perform his vows, but one aspect of the meaning of Shalam is that of reciprocity. David may have actually been saying that he would reciprocate God’s vow to him on a continual basis until it reached a point of completion;  perhaps when David received eternal life or was resurrected from the dead.

God’s personal protection of David’s mind and body was linked to two of God’s characteristics that were also associated with Jesus’ ministry. David said of himself, “May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him” (Psalm 61:7). The Hebrew word that is translated steadfast love, cheçed (khehˊ-sed) is one of the most important terms in the vocabulary of Old Testament theology and ethics. “In general, one may identify three basic meanings of the word, which always interact: ‘strength,’ ‘steadfastness,’ and ‘love.’ Any understanding of the word that fails to suggest all three inevitably loses some of its richness. ‘Love’ by itself easily becomes sentimentalized or universalized apart from the covenant. Yet ‘strength’ or ‘steadfastness’ suggests only a fulfillment of a legal or other obligation. The word refers primarily to mutual and reciprocal rights and obligations between the parties of a relationship (especially Yahweh and Israel). But cheçed is not only a matter of obligation; it is also of generosity. It is not only a matter of loyalty, but also mercy. The weaker party seeks the protection and blessing of the patron and protector, but he may not lay claim to it. The stronger party remains committed to his promise, but retains his freedom, especially with regard to the manner in which he will implement those promises. Chesed implies personal involvement and commitment in a relationship beyond the rule of law” (H2617).

The characteristic of faithfulness crosses over the boundary between human and divine capability. The Hebrew word that is translated faithfulness in Psalm 61:7, ʾemeth (ehˊ-meth) which means stability (H571) is derived from the word ʾaman (aw-manˊ). Aman means to trust or believe and also signifies the element of being “trustworthy.” “Considering something to be trustworthy is an act of full trusting and believing. This is the emphasis in the first biblical occurrence of aman: ‘And [Abram] believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). The meaning here is that Abram was full of trust and confidence in God, and that he did not fear Him (v. 1). It was not primarily God’s words that he believed, but in God Himself. Nor does the text tell us that Abram believed God so as to accept what he said as ‘true’ and ‘trustworthy’ (cf. Genesis 45:26), but simply that he believed in God. In other words, Abram came to experience a personal relationship to God rather than an impersonal relationship with His promises” (H539).

The connection between God’s personal protection and our belief in him was often the focus of Jesus’ attention in the miracles that he performed. On one occasion, Jesus asked two blind men that wanted to be healed, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” After they answered, “Yes, Lord,” Matthew tells us, “Then he touched their eyes, saying. ‘According to your faith be it done to you’” (Matthew 9:28-29). The Greek word that is translated according, kata (kat-ahˊ) expresses the relation in which one thing stands toward another and speaks of a standard of comparison or something that is conformable to something else (G2596). From that perspective, Jesus was saying that his ability to heal the blind men was dependent on their faith. In other words, the blind men’s faith was dictating what Jesus could or couldn’t do for them.

Numbers 5:5-8 deals with the issue of breaking faith with the LORD. It states:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. But if the man has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him.

According to this passage, breaking faith with the LORD occurs when a person commits any sin against God or another person. When this happens, the sin has to be atoned for so that the relationship can be restored.

The Hebrew word that is translated restitution in Numbers 5:7-8, shuwb (shoob) means to return or go back. “The process called conversion or turning to God is in reality a re-turning or turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us, but whose we are by virtue of creation, preservation and redemption” (H7725). Numbers 5:6-7 indicates that when a person breaks faith with the Lord, “and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong.” The requirement of making full restitution was likely intended to signify a complete change of heart, something similar to being born again in that the sinner was expected to demonstrate a different type of behavior than what that person had previously displayed.

Aaron and his sons were instructed to say a blessing to the people of Israel that reflected the ideal state that God wanted his people to experience as a result of having a relationship with him. Moses told Aaron, “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:23-26).

The Hebrew word that is translated peace in Numbers 6:26, shalom (shaw-lomeˊ) means safe and “signifies a state in which one can feel at ease, comfortable with someone. The relationship is one of harmony and wholeness, which is the opposite of the state of strife and war” (H7965). Peace is a key characteristic of the New Covenant that Jesus established shortly before he died on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus linked the peace that he was giving his disciples to the condition of their hearts. He told them not to be troubled or afraid because he knew their hearts were prone to that type of condition and the only way that it could be prevented was by having a harmonized relationship with God (G1515).

Fellowship

The Apostle Paul talked about his ministry of reconciliation and told the Corinthians that, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” meaning that God was not counting people’s trespasses against them (2 Corinthians 5:19), but had made Jesus, the only person who ever lived a sinless life, to be the perfect sacrifice for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that God had already done everything that was necessary for them to be pardoned from their sins and concluded by stating, “Working together with him then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). Paul indicated that he was co-operating with Jesus to accomplish the task of reconciling the world to God by preaching the gospel. The gospel and its result of salvation was the instrument that God chose to use to reconcile the world to himself. Because salvation is received by grace and is based on God’s free gift for the forgiveness of sins (G1656), Paul encouraged the Corinthians to act immediately and not let the opportunity they were being given pass them by. Paul referred to Isaiah 49:8, a verse of scripture that indicates the day of salvation is a specific period of time in which God’s grace is available. Paul stated:

For he says,

“In a favorable time I listened to you,
    and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)

Paul’s emphasis on now being the favorable time and now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2) meant that there was no time to waste, immediate action was required. Paul’s final plea was directed at the Corinthians hardened hearts. He stated:

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:11-13)

A heart that is wide open is one that is able to be molded and shaped as when an artist is working with clay or wax (G4111). Paul’s use of the Greek word platuno (plat-oo’-no) may have been intended to draw attention to the fact that God was reaching out to the Corinthians in a distinct effort to bridge the gap between himself and the non-Jewish people groups. Paul explained in his letter to the Ephesians that we are all one in Christ. He said:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

One of the main points that Paul made in his letter to the Ephesians was that access to God was being granted to everyone that chose to put their faith in Christ. Paul stated, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Ephesians 3:8-12).

“The plan of the mystery” (Ephesians 3:9) that Paul referred to was a mechanism by which God could unite all believers into a sound whole. The Greek word that is translated plan, koinonia (koy-nohn-ee’-ah) literally means participation, but is also translated as fellowship, communion, and to communicate, thus it is used of the common experiences of Christian men and women and of the participation in the knowledge of the Son of God (G2842). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talked about the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and said, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). In other words, Paul was saying that God is able to overcome our unbelief and convince us of the trustworthiness of his Son’s death on the cross in order to pay the penalty for our sins. Paul used the word koinonia or participation to connect communion, a celebration of the Last Supper, to the enactment of God’s New Covenant through Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul said, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16, emphasis mine).

Partaking in communion essentially identifies you as a follower of Christ. The Greek word meta (met-ah’) which denotes accompaniment (G3326) is similar to the word sun (soon) which denotes “union; with or together (but much closer than 3326)” (G4862). Koinonia is derived from the Greek word sun and originated from “the idea of coming in contact with everything, not separated in the least” (G2839). The root word koinos (koy-nos’) “as an adjective, means ‘common,’ and is translated ‘unclean.'” The concept of fellowship seems to contradict what was originally established through the Mosaic Law. The primary objective of the Mosaic Law was to prevent people and things from becoming unclean and the priests that ministered in God’s tabernacle went to great lengths to separate themselves from things that were considered to be common (Exodus 19:22). Consecration, “the act of setting apart, being holy (i.e. withdrawing someone or something from profane or ordinary use)” (H6942) was a part of the initial process of setting up the tabernacle of God. Exodus Chapter 29 provides details about the consecration of priests and indicates that consecration and atonement for sin were closely related with regards to fellowship with God (Exodus 29:35-37).

After all the materials that were needed to construct the tabernacle were collected (Exodus 38:24-31), designated craftsmen began to work on the necessary articles of clothing and furniture that had to be created according to the instructions that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai. Among these articles were garments that had to be worn by Aaron and his sons when they entered the tabernacle. Exodus 39:1 states, “From the blue and purple and scarlet yarns they made finely woven garments, for ministering in the Holy Place. They made the holy garments for Aaron, as the LORD commanded Moses.” The Hebrew word that is translated Holy Place, qodesh (ko’-desh) is derived from the word qadash (kaw-dash’) which means to be clean (H6942). An important characteristic of God that differentiates him from other deities is his holiness. The song of Moses that is recorded in Exodus 15 refers to God’s holiness as being an indicator of his majesty or greatness. Exodus 15:11-13 states:

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
    Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
    awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
    the earth swallowed them.

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
    you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.

The holy garments that Moses wore were most likely symbolic of the righteousness of Christ that Paul talked about in the context of believers being renewed in the spirit of their minds. Paul instructed the Ephesians to no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds (Ephesians 4:17) and said, “They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:19-24).

Paul associated the believer’s righteousness and holiness with a new self that is created after the likeness of God (Ephesians 4:24). Paul used the Greek term that is translated self, anthropos (anth’-ro-pos) metaphorically of the internal man, meaning the mind, soul, the rational man “the hidden person of the heart” (G444). Two of the holy garments that Moses wore provide us with an example of how the new man may be connected to God and other believers and is thus enabled to act with them in a unified manner. The ephod, which was worn under the breastpiece, had two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it could “be joined together” (Exodus 28:7) Two stones with the names of the sons of Israel engraved on them were set on the shoulder pieces of the ephod “as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel” (Exodus 28;12). The breastpiece had twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. The two ends of the cords were attached to the settings of the stones of remembrance and attached in the front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod (Exodus 28:22-24). The unification of the ephod, stones of remembrance and breastpiece seem to suggest that the believer’s new self, the Holy Spirit and Jesus act like a seamless garment that encapsulates the believer’s heart and protects it from exposure to anything that might make it unclean.

The tabernacle of God was also called “the tent of meeting” (Exodus 40:1). God said, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22). The tent of meeting was an appointed place for God to communicate with Moses. An important aspect of fellowship is social intercourse and the partnership that exists between believers is based on companionship (G2844). Exodus 33:11 states, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” The fact that God spoke to Moses face to face implies there was a relationship, but at that time, Jesus had not yet made a way for man to be intimate with God (Hebrews 9:12). Also, there is no mention of Moses going through a process of consecration, so it would seem that the relationship Moses had with God was what made it possible for them to bridge the holiness gap and have fellowship with one another. Hebrews 11:24-27 talks about Moses’ faith and suggests that he may have been communicating with Jesus when he talked to God face to face. It states, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.”

Paul warned the Corinthians about having fellowship with unbelievers and asked them several rhetorical questions to make the point that it was absurd for them to try and connect with unbelievers in the same way that they did believers in Christ. Paul said, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). Paul’s statement that “we are the temple of the living God” was meant to emphasize the point that God lives inside of believers through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. It is impossible for us to separate ourselves from God. Paul stated in his letter to the Romans:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

Paul indicated that love is the essential ingredient that makes unbroken fellowship with God possible. The Greek word that is translated separate, chorizo (kho-rid’-zo) means to place room between (G5593) and is related to the word chasma (khas’-mah) which Jesus used to describe the permanent separation of believers and unbelievers in the afterlife. He said, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26).

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to enlarge their hearts so that God’s love could reach them before it was too late. He said, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13). Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that they could only receive God’s free gift of salvation by making room for him in their hearts. Paul talked about being unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14) because he knew that the Corinthians were trying to live with one foot in the world and one foot in the spiritual realm. They were compromising their faith by worshipping false gods like Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15). Paul touched on something in his second letter to the Corinthians that was explained more in depth in John’s first epistle. Paul asked, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14) in order to point out that fellowship assumes there is an exclusion of contradictory activities. John also stated:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

The connection between fellowship and the blood of Jesus cleansing us from all sin may have to do with the body of Christ, which signifies his church, being defined as “a sound whole” (G4983). Because Jesus was crucified on the cross, his body became a sacred thing that was dedicated to God in its entirety. Each of us, as members of Christ’s body, receive the benefit and the effects of that sacrifice. Jesus illustrated this point in his celebration of the Last Supper with his disciples (Matthew 26:26-29). Paul mentioned the disciples’ Last Supper in his first letter to the Corinthians and referred to it as the communion of the blood and the communion of the body (1 Corinthians 10:16). The Greek word that Paul used that is translated communion is koinonia, the same word that is translated fellowship in 2 Corinthians 6:14. A key to understanding how communion/fellowship works may be found in Colossians 2:13-15 which states:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Paul indicated that believers are made alive together with Christ (Colossians 2:13). The Greek word suzetesis (sood-zay-teh’-o) means “to reanimate conjointly” (G4806). In other words, the body of Christ will be resurrected as a united whole due to our participation in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection through water baptism (Colossians 2:12). The ultimate goal of fellowship is to get believers from earth to heaven so that we can be with Jesus throughout eternity (John 14:1-3). Paul assured the Corinthians that if they shared in his sufferings, they would also share in his comfort (2 Corinthians 1:7) and said that they should not rely on themselves, “but on the God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

Good news!

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians included many topics that are relevant to Christians today. In 1 Corinthians, Paul outlined the basics of what every believer needs to know in order to be successful at following Christ. One of the important things Paul talked about was the content of the gospel message that he had been preaching throughout Asia. Paul started with the statement, “I declare unto you the gospel” (1 Corinthians 15:1). What this meant was that Paul was certifying the content of his gospel. In other words, Paul was saying his gospel message was the real deal, it was guaranteed to produce results in converting people to Christ. The Greek word translated gospel, euaggelizo (yoo-ang-ghel-id’-zo) means “to announce good news” or evangelize (G2097).

Paul believed the gospel of Jesus Christ was not only good news, it was the best news anyone could receive: “You are saved from the punishment of sin” (1 Corinthians 15:2, NLV). Paul conveyed his gospel message in four relatively short sentences. He stated:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, ESV)

The three central points of Paul’s gospel message were that Jesus died, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day. Jesus’ appearance to numerous witnesses was a means of not only verifying, but also validating his resurrection. One of Jesus’ skeptical disciples said, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas had either seen or heard about the wounds Jesus received during his crucifixion and was convinced that Jesus had actually died on the cross. Thomas’ request for validation of Jesus’ resurrection seems reasonable under the circumstances. After Thomas request was met, Jesus told him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Paul understood that the only way a person could be saved was by the grace of God. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul stated, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, NKJV). Paul told the Corinthians that he had been saved by God specifically for the purpose of preaching the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:10), and then he added, “It makes no difference how you heard the Good News. It could have been through the other missionaries or through me. The important thing is this: We preached the Good News to you and you believed it” (1 Corinthians 15:11, NLV).

Personal testimony

Each of the four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John includes a record of the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not surprising that each of these accounts was different considering that the authors experienced this event at different times and in different situations. What appears to be consistent about Jesus’ return from death was that everyone that saw his resurrected body talked about it through a process of giving their own personal testimony. In other words, each person shared their experience by stating, this is what I saw with my own eyes, not what someone else has told me about it. The exception to this rule was the personal testimony of the women that first encountered Jesus on what is now known as Easter morning. In the time period when Jesus’ death and resurrection happened, a woman’s testimony wasn’t considered valid. Therefore, it’s no wonder they didn’t believe Mary when she came and told Jesus’ eleven apostles that she had seen him and he was alive (Mark 16:11).

Luke’s gospel indicated there were several women that testified to Jesus’ resurrection as a result of their own personal experience. He said, “It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:10-11). The Greek word that is translated idle tales, leros (lay´-ros) means “twaddle, i.e. an incredible story…Leros denotes an incredible tale in that it is foolish talk, nonsense, lacking credibility” (G3026). The reason why the apostles didn’t believe the women may have been because they were hysterical, but it is possible that these women were both calm and coherent when they relayed the details of what happened and yet, for some reason, the apostles refused to believe them.

Perhaps, the best explanation for why the apostles didn’t believe Mary when she told them Jesus was alive can be found in Luke’s concluding statement, “and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11). The Greek words Luke used, apisteo autos suggested that it was actually unbelief or more specifically, the apostles own unwillingness to trust in God that made them reject the news that Jesus had been resurrected. Two of the apostles, Peter and John, went to the tomb to investigate Mary’s story and found that the tomb was indeed empty just like she had told them, but they still refused to believe that Jesus was alive (Luke 24:36-41). That might explain why Jesus appeared to the women first, rather than his own apostles. Even though their testimony didn’t carry much weight, at least Mary and the other women were willing to believe that what they had seen and heard when they went to Jesus’ tomb was real, not a mere fantasy or wishful thinking.

 

 

Unbelief

 

At the close of Jesus’ ministry, the Apostle John summarized his accomplishments by saying, “But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him” (John 12:37). The primary cause of the Jews unbelief appeared to be their concern for other things that they thought were more important. John said, “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). Jesus’ parable of the sower revealed a deeper problem that was evident during his ministry. Using the analogy of seeds being sown on different types of soil, Jesus showed that the words he spoke about God’s eternal kingdom were not received because “the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22, ESV).

Jesus identified some extenuating circumstances that may have been preventing the Jews from recognizing him as their Messiah. He said, “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: for this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them” (Matthew 13:14-15). The primary issue that Jesus was pointing out was that the Jews were content with their situation. They didn’t want their lives to be disrupted by his radical teaching.

The central point of Jesus’ ministry was his death and resurrection. Just before he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus told his sister Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” and then he asked her, “Believest thou this?” (John 11:25-26). Martha’s response showed that she had a limited understanding of what Jesus was talking about. She said to him, “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (John 11:27). Martha’s acknowledgement of Jesus’ identity, but avoidance of the topic of his resurrection probably meant that she wasn’t convinced at that point that life after death was possible.

Jesus warned his twelve apostles repeatedly that he was going to be put to death, and yet, after he was crucified, they didn’t expect him to come back to life as he had promised. Mark reported that after Jesus “appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them. Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen” (Mark 16:12-14). In other words, in spite of eye witness accounts, Jesus’ apostles actually refused to believe that he was alive until they saw him themselves.

Jesus said of himself, “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46). The Greek phrase Jesus used that is translated “abide in darkness” meno en skotia could mean to live in obscurity (G3306/G1722/G4653). What Jesus may have been trying to say was that belief in him would bring meaning or purpose to life, an understanding of what life was really all about. With that in mind, it seems likely that the reason the majority of the Jews’ were trapped in a state of unbelief was because they had already established a relationship with God and already knew about his plan for the world. In their case it wasn’t a matter of knowing too little, but of knowing too much.

Lazarus

Lazarus was the only man outside of Jesus’ intimate circle of disciples that was referred to as his friend. Because of their personal relationship, it says in John 11:3, “Therefore his sisters sent unto him saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” The Greek word translated lovest, phileo (fil-eh´-o) means to “have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling)” (G5368). Jesus’ attachment to Lazarus may have been a result of them spending a lot of time together, but it could also be that Jesus’ feelings stemmed from his compassion toward this man’s unfortunate circumstances. Lazarus lived in the town of Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem where the cost of living was likely very high. There is no indication that Lazarus was married or had any other family members besides his two sisters Martha and Mary, who also appeared to be unmarried. It is possible Lazarus was about the same age as Jesus and had never been married because he was too poor to support a family.

When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he told his disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (John 11:4). The Greek terms translated glory and glorified have to do with the reputation Jesus gained through his self-manifestation (G1391/1392). In other words, how people interpreted his actions. It says in John 11:5-6, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.” Jesus’ reaction to the situation showed that he was in complete control of his behavior in spite of his feelings about what was going on. Jesus knew Lazarus was already dead (John 11:14), therefore, he refrained from going to Jerusalem because it wasn’t necessary for him to be there right away. The problem was that Jesus’ presence in the city would have ignited the wrath of the Jews that had already tried to stone him (John 10:31). He may have avoided this by waiting to go to Bethany until after Lazarus’ burial.

The key to understanding Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany in spite of the danger that awaited him was his determination to do the will of his Father. We know it was God’s will for Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead because he stated “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God” (John 11:4), but in order for him to do God’s will, Jesus had to put his own life at risk. Jesus’ motivation for doing what was expected of him was likely the love he felt for not only Lazarus, but also for his sisters Martha and Mary. When John stated that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5), he wasn’t talking about the same kind of love that Martha and Mary identified when they asked Jesus to come to Bethany (John 11:2). John used the Greek word agapao (ag-ap-ah´-o)which is an expression of God’s love. “In respect of agapao as used of God, it expresses the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential love in them towards the Giver, a practical love towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others seek the Giver” (G25).

Jesus’ disciples expected him to be killed when he returned to the area in and around Jerusalem (John 11:16). Their trip toward Jerusalem had already been filled with numerous warnings of Jesus’ imminent death (Matthew 20:18, Mark 10:33). When Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus was dead, he added, “And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him” (John 11:15). Jesus’ miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead was likely meant to be a preview of his own resurrection in order to demonstrate his power over the grave. Jesus wanted his disciples and everyone else to know that he had the ability to bring someone back to life that had been dead for several days.

Alive again

Jesus’ ability to raise someone from the dead was demonstrated three different times during his ministry. The first occasion is recorded in Luke 7:11-17. This miracle was performed by Jesus in the presence of many witnesses. Luke tells us, “And it came to pass the day after, that he went into a city called Nain; and many of his disciples went with him, and much people. Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her” (Luke 7:11-12). The circumstances of the situation were such that Jesus decided to act without any request or intervention from anyone that was involved. Jesus saw the dead man being carried out of the city and discerned within himself that his help was needed. Luke said, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not” (Luke 7:13).

The focus of Jesus’ attention was the mother of the dead man, who also happened to be a widow. Because her only son was dead, and she no longer had a husband to take care of her, the woman would have quickly become destitute after her son’s death, and likely would have herself died within a short period of time. Jesus’ command to the woman, “weep not” indicated that the woman was deeply distressed. The Greek word translated weep, klaio (klah´-yo) means to sob that is wail aloud (2799). It is evident from Luke’s account that the dead man himself had nothing to do with Jesus’ decision to raise him from the dead. In fact, it can be assumed from his command, that Jesus was invoking his will upon the dead man. Luke states, “And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise” (Luke 7:14).

The Greek word Jesus used egeiro (eg -i´-ro), which is translated “arise” (Luke 7:14), is the same word he used in John 5:21 where it says, “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.” It is possible that Jesus intended his action of bringing the dead man back to life to be an object lesson for his disciples of what he meant by rising from the dead or being alive again after death. Even though this was the first time Jesus had performed this type of miracle, it was not the first time such a thing had ever happened. In the Old Testament, prophets had the ability to raise people from the dead (2 Kings 4:34). What Jesus was demonstrating was his authority to raise from the dead anyone he chose to. It is likely that the woman’s dead son was not a believer. After Jesus spoke the command, “Arise” (Luke 7:14), Luke tells us, “And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother” (Luke 7:15).