Category Archives: Difficult Bible Passages

Can Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Be Reconciled with Luke’s Version of the Sermon?

Because the New Testament contains four biographies of Jesus (the four Gospels), there can be up to four parallel accounts of the events recorded about Jesus’s life. These accounts will contain similarities, but also differences, to each other because each of the four Gospel authors had different intentions and purposes when composing their biographies.

An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Matthew 5-7. There is a sermon recorded in Luke 6 which bears clear likenesses to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. How can we reconcile these two accounts? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) analyzes the popular scholarly attempts to relate these two sermons.

He first notes the similarities:

[B]oth sermons come in the context of Jesus’ widespread speaking and healing ministry among the crowds (4: 23– 25; Luke 6: 17– 19); both begin with beatitudes; both give significant ethical teaching on love and judging; both emphasize the necessity of bearing fruit; both conclude with the parable of the wise builder.

But there also differences:

Matthew does not include the ‘woes’ of Luke’s beatitudes (Luke 6: 24– 26); Luke does not include the majority of the antitheses found in Matthew (5: 21– 48); Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s prayer’ does not occur in his sermon but elsewhere (Luke 11: 1– 4); Luke 6: 17 puts the setting in a ‘level place,’ whereas Matthew describes a ‘mountain’ setting (5: 1).

Wilkins then examines three hypotheses about how the two sermons are related:

First, the similarities lead some to assert that Matthew and Luke present two distinct summaries of the same sermon (e.g., Bock 1994, 553; Carson 2010, 154; Osborne 2010, 160– 61).

Second, the differences lead others to suggest that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, which Jesus gave on separate occasions but included similar content (e.g., Blomberg 1992, 96; Morris 1992, 93). Any good preacher will repeat effective illustrations and preaching points, a fact that lends support to this view.

Third, still others propose that either Matthew or Luke (or both) gathered together teachings that Jesus gave on separate occasions and presented them as if they were given in one sermon (e.g., Betz 1995, 44– 45; France 2008, 154– 155; Guelich 1982, 35; Hagner 1993, 69). The latter is usually suggested because there are parallels to Matthew’s sermon scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel (e.g., cf. 5: 13 in Luke 14: 34– 35; 5: 14 in Luke 11: 33, etc.; see Hagner 1993, 83, for a complete listing).

Wilkins’ take on these three hypotheses follows:

Since Matthew and Luke both imply that their sermons were given on one occasion, the third view is least likely. The first view is strengthened by observing the same general context, the general order, and the similar geographical setting (a mountainous area can feature flat spots) of both sermons. The second view is strengthened by recalling that Jesus went about teaching and preaching all through the countryside of Galilee for nearly two years, and he almost certainly repeated much of the same content on numerous occasions. Since nothing of great importance relies on the solution to this question, it may be best to say that until further insight is gained either the first or second view is preferable.

We don’t conclusively know how the two sermons are related, but we have some good ideas. As Wilkins says, the first and second views are preferable, but we need more evidence to decide between them.

What Does “Born of Water and Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:

Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.

But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

Interpretation two:

Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .

The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

Interpretation three:

A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

Interpretation four:

Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:

The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .

Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).

Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

Did Jesus Drink Alcoholic Wine?

In John, chapter two, Jesus converts approximately 120 gallons of water into wine during a seven-day wedding feast. By performing this sign, was Jesus condoning the drinking of alcoholic wine? Biblical scholar Andreas Köstenberger tackles the issue of Jesus and alcoholic wine in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible). First, he explains the different kinds of wine that existed in first-century Palestine.

Fermented wine (oinos; e.g., Eph 5: 18; not from the most recent harvest) was usually mixed in the proportion of two or three parts of water to one part of wine (b. Pesahahim 108b). New wine (oinos neos; e.g., Matt 9: 17; Mark 2: 22; Luke 5: 37– 38; cf. Hos 9: 2; Hag 1: 11; Zech 9: 17; 1QS 6: 4– 6; 1QSa 2: 17– 18, 20; 1QH 10: 24) was made from the most recent harvest and was not fermented. Finally, there were wines that were non-alcoholic due to the process of fermentation being stopped by boiling the unfermented grape juice (called ‘must’). Wine was also, though less frequently, made from pomegranates (Song 8: 2) and raisins (b. Baba Batra 97b) along with apples, dates, honey, herbs, and figs.

Did Jesus drink fermented (alcoholic) wine?  Köstenberger argues “yes.”

The Gospels clearly portray Jesus as drinking fermented wine (Matt 11: 19; Mark 14: 25). The latter passage also intimates that wine will be drunk in heaven. In stark contrast to the portrayal of John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus ‘came eating and drinking’ and was promptly accused of being ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Matt 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). This shows that Jesus was known to have drunk fermented wine regularly while associating with his contemporaries.

What about the miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana?

The current passage in John recounts Jesus’ turning a large quantity of water into wine (oinos) at a family wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is Jesus’ first of a series of messianic signs selected by John for inclusion in his Gospel. There is no indication in these verses that Jesus would have turned the water into non-alcoholic wine. Instead, the use of oinos combined with Jesus’ use of fermented wines throughout the Gospels leads to the conclusion that Jesus turned the water into wine containing alcohol. That the chief servant made comment about the tendency of hosts to set out the ‘inferior’ wine last, after the guests have ‘drunk freely,’ confirms this conclusion, for if guests have drunk freely from non-alcoholic wine, they would not be duped by the inferior wine that followed (John 2: 10).

Whether a Christian today should drink alcohol depends on many factors that are outside the scope of this essay, but it seems unwise to argue that Jesus mandated abstinence from drinking alcohol. The evidence for this position, according to Köstenberger, is simply not there.

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.

Did the Census Reported in Luke 2 Actually Occur?

One of the thorniest historical problems in the Gospel of Luke is the census that Luke reports in chapter two, verses 1-2. Here is the wording in the NIV: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”

Here is the problem. Extrabiblical sources indicate that Herod the Great died in 4 BC. Biblical texts indicate that Jesus was born before Herod died, between 4-6 BC. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6 and ordered a census that year. So how could there be a census decreed in 4-6 BC if Quirinius wasn’t governor for ten more years? Did Luke make a mistake?

The first thing to note is that Luke seems to be aware of the census ordered in AD 6, as evidenced by Acts 5:37. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Luke had his facts mixed up. So how do reconcile the data?

Several suggestions have been made, although none definitively solve the problem. Darrell Bock writes, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible),

One option for solving the problem is to claim that Quirinius was governor twice, with his first governorship occurring prior to the well-known one that was initiated in ad 6 (Ramsay 1898, 174– 96; 1920, 275– 300). Ramsay argued that Quirinius served as governor of Syria from 11/ 10 bc to 8/ 7 bc, as well as in the later and firmly documented period that began in ad 6. Ramsay further argued that prior to the close of his first governorship Quirinius set in motion the census that Luke placed in Palestine in 6 bc.

The basis of Ramsay’s argument for two governorships is his contention that an inscription known as the ‘Lapis Tiburtinus’ refers to Quirinius. There is a noteworthy weakness to this approach: the Lapis Tiburtinus inscription is fragmentary and mentions no names. Thus Ramsay can suggest the inscription pertains to Quirinius only because the portion of the inscription that specifies who is being referenced has been lost. Based as it is on the anonymity of the inscription, Ramsay’s theory is impossible to establish as fact. Possibly he is correct, but there is no way of proving it unless we discover the missing portions of Lapis Tiburtinus.

Bock continues:

In an alternative theory, A. N. Sherwin-White suggested that Quirinius was a legate between Publius Quinctilius Varus and Gaius Caesar from 4 bc to 1 bc (Sherwin-White 1963, 162– 71). He was able to postulate this because this time frame coincides with the only governorship gap we have in the historical records. Thus, though Sherwin-White denied that a census was undertaken in the period of Herod the Great (ended 4 bc), he saw it as possibly legitimate for Luke to make reference to Quirinius in this period.

Bock, however, thinks that Sherwin-White’s hypothesis needs to be modified.

Variants of Sherwin-White’s proposal may offer the best explanation. Given that a Palestinian census under Herod is possible since it fits with Roman census-taking activities known to have occurred in this period, might it be that Varus was the one who began the census, with the full results and taxation emerging only later, under the governorship of Quirinius in the period Sherwin-White proposes (4– 1 bc)? If so, Quirinius’s name was understandably attached to the census since the census’s impact was felt chiefly during his governorship. A variation of this theory is that Quirinius administered the census prior to being governor, later became governor, and thus in a kind of literary collapse of the event was referred to as the governor responsible for the census (Hayles 1974, 29).

Bock offers further hypotheses from lexical-syntactical scholars:

One lexical argument says that prōtē should be translated as ‘earlier’ rather than ‘first.’ This meaning is found in John 1: 15, 30, for instance. If this is a legitimate rendering of prōtē, Luke was saying that the census he has in mind occurred earlier than the Quirinius census known to have taken place in ad 6. This view is possibly correct, but the difficult syntax of Luke 2: 2 leaves the matter unsettled.

A second lexical solution holds that we should translate prōtē as ‘before.’ In this case Luke is saying the census took place before Quirinius’s governorship (Higgins 1969, 200– 201; Nolland 1989, 101– 2). It is questionable whether Luke used prōtē in this unusual sense, but possibly he did (Hoehner 1977, 21– 22).

These alternative renderings of prōtē may not be necessary. If prōtē is best rendered ‘first,’ then Luke was calling this the ‘first’ census that occurred during Quirinius’s governorship. This could indicate that Luke knew of two governorships for Quirinius and two censuses associated with him. The fact that in Acts 5:37 Luke referred to a census best identified as the one that occurred under Quirinius in ad 6 strengthens this possibility. Thus if Luke meant to differentiate between two separate censuses taken by Quirinius, it is best to assume that the census he discussed in chapter 2 of his Gospel is not to be confused with the better-known Quirinius census of ad 6.

Bock concludes:

None of these proposals is guaranteed to be correct. Uncertainty about the succession of governors in Syria prevents us from making anything more than suggestions. The best possibilities are (a) that Varus (during the time of Herod the Great) began the census, but the full effects were not felt until the governorship of Quirinius, (b) that Quirinius served as a high-raking administrator of the census prior to his governorship, and (c) that prōtē is best translated as ‘before.’

Why Doesn’t the Author of 2 Kings Mention Manasseh’s Repentance?

In 2 Chronicles 33, the author records the capture of Manasseh by the Assyrians, his subsequent imprisonment, and then his repentance and return to Jerusalem. None of this material is recorded in the parallel account of Manasseh in 2 Kings 21. Why might this be the case and, secondly, is the account in 2 Chronicles historically plausible? Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe tackle the first question in When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties:

Apparently the author of 2 Kings did not record the repentance of Manasseh because of the lack of influence it had upon the steady decline of the nation. The Book of 2 Kings concentrates primarily upon the actions of the covenant people of God as a whole. The repentance and reforms of Manasseh did relatively little to turn the nation around from its path to judgment, while his sinful leadership early in his reign did much more damage to the nation. Even in the 2 Chronicles passage we find this statement: ‘Nevertheless the people still sacrificed on the high places, but only to the Lord their God’ (2 Chron. 33:17). Even though the people dedicated their sacrifices to the Lord, they were still committing sin, because sacrifices were to be made at the temple, not upon high places which were originally altars to false gods. Despite the efforts of Manasseh, the people would not totally dedicate themselves to the Lord.

Is the account of Manasseh being taken by the Assyrians plausible historically? J. A. Thompson, in vol. 9, 1, 2 Chronicles, The New American Commentary, attempts to answer this question for us.

A historical question has been raised in regard to Manasseh’s captivity in Babylon, taken there by Assyrian forces, since there is no extrabiblical documentation for these events. This fact is not, of course, a sufficient reason for rejecting their historicity. Assyrian records are by no means sufficiently comprehensive to allow any argument from silence to decide the issue. There is valuable circumstantial evidence which has persuaded a good number of scholars that historical events underlie the Chronicler’s narrative. The Assyrian records mention Manasseh. He is listed among twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seashore, and the islands, who were summoned to Nineveh by Esarhaddon (650–669 B.C.) to bring building materials for a new palace. Asshur- banipal (668–627 B.C.) mentions him among vassal kings who participated in a campaign against Egypt.

In these references Manasseh appears as submissive to the Assyrian king. The question is asked regarding what historical circumstances would have brought about his humiliation and punishment by Assyria. Various proposals have been made. Manasseh quite possibly may have been on the side of Shamash-shum-ukin, who revolted against his brother Asshur-banipal. The inscriptions of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal abound in references to Egypt and the Palestinian states in the time of Manasseh, who reigned for fifty-five years.

One other important Assyrian source is the vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon dated in the year 672 B.C. The crown prince of Assyria, Asshur-banipal, was inducted at a special ceremony where representatives of all the lands under Assyrian control were present. These representatives were sworn not to arouse the anger of the gods and goddesses against him and to serve Ashur as their god. They were bound by fearful oaths to support the crown prince after the death of his father. These treaties are not entirely intact, and the name of Manasseh does not appear. But the interest and activity of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal in the west may well have forced compliance with their demands on Judah. Naturally vassals took opportunity to deviate from the treaty obligations laid upon them and even to rebel. In fact, numerous rebellions are attested in the reigns of Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal.

By all accounts, the Chronicler’s narrative is historically reliable, but it of course includes a theological wording.

Is the Story of Jonah Fictional?

Some Bible scholars believe that the Book of Jonah is a fictional tale written purely for teaching purposes by its original author. They argue that the original author never meant for the story to be taken as real history. While it may be impossible to know just based on the contents of the book itself, there is one important person who seems to have considered the events in Jonah to be historical: Jesus Christ.

Billy K. Smith and Franklin S. Page write, in Amos, Obadiah, Jonah: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary):

Finally, there is the witness of Jesus Christ, which apparently was the basis for the early church’s linking the historicity of Jonah’s experience with that of Jesus, especially his resurrection. Although it would be conceivable that Jesus might have been merely illustrating in Matt 12:40 when he associated his prophesied resurrection with Jonah’s experience in the fish, it is much more difficult to deny that Jesus was assuming the historicity of the conversion of the Ninevites when he continued in v. 41 (cf. Luke 11:32).

‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.’

This is confirmed in the following verse (cf. Luke 11:33) when Jesus parallels the ‘men of Nineveh’ with the ‘Queen of the South,’ whose visit to Jerusalem is recounted in 1 Kings.

‘The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.’

Clearly Jesus did not see Jonah as a parable or an allegory. As J. W. McGarvey stated long ago, ‘It is really a question as to whether Jesus is to be received as a competent witness respecting historical and literary matters of the ages which preceded His own.’

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add:

[T]he most devastating argument against the denial of the historical accuracy of Jonah is found in Matthew 12:40. In this passage Jesus predicts His own burial and resurrection, and provides the doubting scribes and Pharisees the sign that they demanded. The sign is the experience of Jonah. Jesus says, ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ If the tale of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was only fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus’ claim. The point of making reference to Jonah is that if they did not believe the story of Jonah being in the belly of the fish, then they would not believe the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of His own death, burial, and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one was to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12). Likewise, if they believed one, they should believe the other. . . .

Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign that verified His claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here was Jesus in the presence of His own people, the very people of God, and yet they refused to believe. Therefore, the men of Nineveh would stand up in judgment against them, ‘because they [the men of Nineveh] repented at the preaching of Jonah’ (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the Book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.

Why Did Elisha Curse a Group of Young Men?

In 2 Kings 2:23-24, the prophet Elisha curses a group of young men, seemingly just for calling him names. Even worse, some translations indicate that these were small boys. What is going on here?

First, Hebrew scholars tell us that the words used to describe the boys can indicate an age anywhere from 12-30 years old. It is highly likely, given the context, that these were adolescent young men, at a minimum, and maybe even older than that.

Second, they weren’t simply calling him names. What they said was, “Go on up, you baldhead!” This was a direct reference to Elijah’s going up to heaven, and thus an insult to Elijah and Elisha’s ministry. The term baldhead could be a reference to the hair style worn by prophets of the day, but scholars aren’t sure. It could also refer to lepers who would shave their heads, indicating Elisha was an outcast just as lepers are outcasts.

In the end, God decided that the threat to Elisha and his ministry were serious enough to warrant an attack on the young men, causing 42 of them to be seriously injured and possibly even fatally wounded by two bears.

Norman Geisler and Tom Howe, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, add these thoughts about the passage:

First of all, this was no minor offense, for these young men held God’s prophet in contempt. Since the prophet was God’s mouthpiece to His people, God Himself was being most wickedly insulted in the person of His prophet.

Second, these were not small, innocent children. They were wicked young men, comparable to a modern street gang. Hence, the life of the prophet was endangered by their number, the nature of their sin, and their obvious disrespect for authority.

Third, Elisha’s action was designed to strike fear in the hearts of any other such gang members. If these young gang members were not afraid to mock a venerable man of God such as Elisha, then they would have been a threat to the lives of all God’s people.

Fourth, some commentators note that their statements were designed to challenge Elisha’s claim to be a prophet. They were essentially saying, ‘If you are a man of God, why don’t you go on up to heaven like Elijah did?’ . . .

Fifth, it was not Elijah who took their lives, but God who alone could have providentially directed the bears to attack them. It is evident that by mocking this man of God, these young men were revealing their true attitudes toward God Himself. Such contempt for the Lord was punishable by death. The Scriptures do not say that Elisha prayed for this kind of punishment. It was clearly an act of God in judgment upon this impious gang.

Should We Execute Non-Christians?

During King Asa’s reformation in Judah, he convenes a covenant ceremony during the Feast of Pentecost where all of Judah is called to seek after the God of Israel, the one true God who rescued them from Egyptian slavery centuries before. During this ceremony, they are also reminded that “all who would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.”

Two questions immediately arise: Where did this command originate and does it apply to us today?

To answer the first question, we must go back to the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. The book of Exodus teaches Israel to not worship other gods in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Chapter 22 then spells out the punishment for worship of other gods: “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.”

In the book of Leviticus, chapter 20 prescribes capital punishment for particular religious violations. Any person who gives their child to Molech, a pagan god, was to be executed. Likewise, any person who was a medium or spiritist was to be put to death.

Finally, the book of Deuteronomy reiterates the teachings of Exodus and Leviticus in chapters 13 and 17. False prophets were to be put to death and anyone in the community who was participating in or promoting worship of pagan gods was also to be executed. Therefore, there is clear precedent for the command in 2 Chron 15:13.

Does the command to execute anyone who is worshiping false gods still apply today? No. These commands were only applicable to ancient Israel who was in a unique covenant relationship with God. As Christians living today, we live under a different covenant with God.

The NT clearly states in several places that the Law (embodying the covenant with ancient Israel) was fulfilled by Jesus and no longer applies to Christians. Here are a few passages proving the point:

“By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one [the Law] obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Heb 8:13)

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal 2:15-16)

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.  So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law].” (Gal 3:23-25)

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code [the Law].” (Rom 7:6)

These verses and others clearly state that Christians are not under any obligation to follow the divine commands given to the Israelites as they left Egyptian slavery and journeyed toward the Promised Land. As my seminary professor used to tell us, the Old Testament was written for us, but not to us. It was written to ancient Israel.

Who Is Responsible for the Division of Israel?

In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam foolishly decides to threaten the northern tribes rather than agree to lighten their tax burden. This leads to the division of united Israel into the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah.

In verse 24, the prophet Shemaiah tells Rehoboam that the division of the kingdom is God’s doing, so don’t we have a contradiction here? Whose fault is the division? Rehoboam, who spoke foolish words, or God?

The truth is that both God and Rehoboam are responsible for the division.  There is absolutely nothing contradictory about an infinite God being in control of every little electron in the universe, but creating creatures in that same universe who have a special power of free will.  God can accomplish everything he wants to accomplish in human affairs through human free will.

While He commands volcanoes to erupt and water to flow as inanimate objects, He commands humans as free creatures.  He works in coordination with human freedom, not without it or against it.

Philosophers refer to this as primary and secondary causation.  God is the primary cause of all activity in the universe, but He uses the secondary cause of free will to accomplish his purposes with human beings.

Some say that this concept of human free will takes away from the glory of God, but claiming that God cannot create free creatures and still bring his plans to fruition is really the position that takes away from God’s glory.