"THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW" The Early Years Of Jesus (2:13-23) by Mark Copeland

                    "THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW"

                   The Early Years Of Jesus (2:13-23)


1. A remarkable feature concerning the gospel records is their brevity...
   a. Especially related to the early life of Jesus, following His birth
   b. Mark and John relate nothing about this period of Jesus' life
   c. Only Matthew and Luke record something about the first thirty years

2. Other than the visit of the wise men, Matthew records only...
   a. The flight to Egypt - Mt 2:13-15
   b. The massacre by Herod - Mt 2:16-18
   c. The return to Nazareth - Mt 2:19-23

3. Why did Matthew record only these three events?  Are there any
   lessons to be gleaned from what we know of the early years of Jesus?

[In an effort to answer such questions, let's take a few moments and
first examine the text of Mt 2:13-23...]


      1. Precipitated by the angel's warning - Mt 2:13-14
         a. Joseph was told to take Mary and the Child to Egypt
         b. For Herod was seeking to destroy Jesus
      2. Remaining there until the death of Herod - Mt 2:15
         a. The sojourn and eventual departure from Egypt fulfilled prophecy - Hos 11:1
         b. For the exodus of Israel alluded to in Hosea was evidently
            a type or shadow of the Messiah's own call out of Egypt

      1. Herod's angry decree - Mt 2:16
         a. Having been frustrated in his original plans - Mt 2:7-8,12
         b. Ordering the death of all male children, two and under, in
            Bethlehem and surrounding districts
      2. Jeremiah's prophecy - Mt 2:17-18
         a. This terrible calamity had been foreseen - Jer 31:15
         b. For the exile of Israel alluded to in Jeremiah was likewise
            a type or shadow of the grief that would be experienced
            again in the region where Rachel was buried

      1. Joseph was directed via dreams - Mt 2:19-22
         a. First, to return to Israel, for Herod was dead
         b. Then, to go to Galilee instead of Judea, for Herod's son Archelaus was reigning in Judea
      2. Residing in Nazareth, another fulfillment of prophecy - Mt 2:23
         a. The prophecy "He shall be called a Nazarene" was based
            upon the words of several prophets ("which was spoken by the prophets")
         b. There are at least two possibilities as to what is meant...
            1) "It may be that this term of contempt (Jn 1:46; 7:52) is
               what is meant, and that several prophecies are to be
               combined like Ps 22:6,8; 69:11,19; Isa 53:2-4." - Robertson's Word Pictures
            2) "Verse 23 alludes to Isa. 11:1, which states that a
               "branch" (netser, Heb.) will grow out of the roots of
               Jesse (cf. Jer 23:5). Under this view, "branch" and
               "Nazarene" share the same root (nzr, Heb.), and "branch"
               refers to the coming ruler of Davidic descent. Although
               they used a different word, other prophets also spoke of
               the Messiah in terms of the "branch" (Jer. 23:5; Zech 3:8; 6:12), and
               Matthew could legitimately say that this
               prediction was "spoken by the prophets" (vv. 6, 15)." - Believer's Study Bible

[It should be apparent that Matthew selected those events in Jesus' 
early life which were foretold by the prophets.  This assisted him in
his purpose to show his Jewish readers that Jesus was truly the Messiah
for Whom they were looking!  Now for a couple of...]


      1. This is seen throughout Jesus' life and the period following
         a. Herod the Great, upset at His birth - Mt 2:1-3,16
         b. Herod Antipas, who had John imprisoned and beheaded - Mt 4:12;14:1-12
         c. The leaders of Israel
            1) Who plotted against Jesus - Mt 26:3-4; 27:1-2
            2) Who attempted to cover up His resurrection - Mt 28:11-15
            3) Who sought to prevent the apostles from telling their
               story - Ac 4:1-3,18; 5:40; 24:1-5
      2. We should not be surprised if the same should happen to us today
         a. Jesus warned that such might happen - Jn 15:18-20
         b. Satan will certainly do all that he can to stop us
            1) He was behind the efforts to persecute Christ and His church - Re 12:3-5,17; 1Pe 5:8-9
            2) He made use of kings to war against the Lamb and His followers - Re 17:12-14
            3) And will do so again - cf. Re 20:7-9
      -- But as prophesied, all such efforts are for naught! - cf. Ps 2:1-12

      1. Jesus' beginnings did not prevent Him from doing great things
         a. Even though He lived in exile and relative obscurity at the beginning (in Egypt)
         b. Even though He was raised in a town despised by others (Nazareth)
      2. The example of Jesus' humility ought to inspire us
         a. To accept the mind of Christ, especially in relation to our brethren - Php 2:5-8
         b. To accept whatever area of service we might have in life - cf. Ps 84:10
      -- For those who humble themselves will be exalted at the right time - cf. 1Pe 5:5-7


1. What we know of Jesus' early years is very little

2. But it is sufficient to confirm that He was truly the Messiah...
   a. Who would be "despised and rejected by men" - Isa 53:3
   b. Against whom "the kings of the earth set themselves" - Ps 2:2-3

3. And it should be sufficient to remind His disciples...
   a. That we can expect the same treatment - 2Ti 3:12
   b. That we seek to emulate the same example of humility and 
      willingness to suffer for the will of God - 1Pe 2:21

Are you willing to humbly serve and even suffer persecution for Jesus
"the Nazarene"?

Exorcism, Demons, Witchcraft, and Astrology by Dave Miller, Ph.D.


Exorcism, Demons, Witchcraft, and Astrology

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

Many theories have been advanced to account for the origin of demons. Some say demons are the offspring of angels cohabiting with women (Genesis 6:1-4). But angels are sexless beings who apparently are incapable of such unions (Matthew 22:30). Instead, “sons of God” and “daughters of men” in Genesis chapter six is an idiomatic expression for the intermingling of good people with bad people—which inevitably results in moral corruption (1 Corinthians 15:33) [see Major, 1993].
Some say demons are the spirits of wicked dead men whom God permitted to leave the hadean realm to indwell some people in harmony with His divine purposes. Still others say demons are fallen angels who were allowed to escape their confinement (cf. Jude 6) to accomplish some divine purpose. The fact of the matter is, the Bible simply does not tell us where demons came from. No legitimate or useful purpose is served by dwelling on the matter.
On the other hand, the Bible does tell us many things about demons. For example, demons are spirits (Matthew 8:16; Luke 24:39). Demons are always depicted as unclean, evil, and malevolent. They are associated with Satan’s influence (Matthew 9:34; 12:24,43,45; Luke 11:15). Demons also are shown to be conscious, intelligent entities who possess true knowledge of God and Christ. In Mark 1:24, a demon spoke to Jesus, “I know who you are—the holy one of God.” Demons exercised volition and even locomotion (Matthew 12:44-45).
Demons frequently caused physical and/or mental illness. For instance, in Matthew 9:32, the victim of demon possession experienced “dumbness,” i.e., the inability to talk. Such illnesses were distinguishable from the demons themselves (Matthew 4:24). Some say demons have never actually existed, and that the Bible account of demons is simply the superstitious, pre-scientific explanation of epilepsy and other physical or emotional disorders. But in the New Testament, a clear distinction is drawn between demons and the illnesses that a demon might cause. Some demons had superhuman strength (Mark 5:4; Acts 19:16). No reason is given in the New Testament for why some individuals were singled out for demon possession. Included were men (Matthew 9:32), women (Luke 8:2), and even children (Mark 7:30).
What was the purpose of demons, and what was their relationship to God? It is clear from the Bible that God had ultimate control over them. For example, in Luke 10:17, the seventy returned from their preaching tour and said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us through your name.” A careful study of the New Testament will disclose the fact that demon possession was divinely permitted to show the supreme authority of Christ and His inspired representatives. During His earthly stay, Jesus demonstrated His power over: (1) nature and the created order (Mark 4:31); (2) disease (Mark 1:32-34); (3) physical substances (John 2:9); (4) death (John 11:44); and (5) the spirit realm and Satan (Mark 1:27). This supreme authority and manifestation of power set the stage for the establishment of His kingdom. In Luke 11:20, Jesus said: “But if I, with the finger of God, cast out demons, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.” The reader is urged to study carefully John 12:31, Ephesians 2:2 and 4:8, Colossians 2:15, Acts 10:38, Luke 10:17-20, and Matthew 12:28-29. John explained that “he who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil sins from the beginning. For this purpose, the son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). John’s statement correlates well with Hebrews 2:14, where the writer states: “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.”
These passages show that when Christ effected His death, resurrection, and kingdom, Satan’s power was dealt a blow that resulted in a measure of limitation. He was restrained to the extent that direct, supernatural influence over a human being ended. Just as the ability to expel demons has ceased (Mark 16:17; 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), so the ability of demons to possess humans has ceased. When direct miraculous ability gradually ceased as the apostolic age drew to a close, so demonic activity also ceased.
That is the Bible picture. This picture is very different from the claims being made today regarding demon possession and Satanism. In the New Testament, Jesus expelled evil spirits publicly and in the presence of multitudes (Luke 4:36). But much of the work of exorcists today is hidden and only reported second hand. The alleged exorcisms by those who are daring enough to operate publicly are contrived and unconvincing.
In the New Testament, expulsion of demons was achieved by a word with immediate results. For example, “Jesus rebuked the demon; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour” (Matthew 17:18). Read also Acts 19:12. But exorcism today is a long, drawn-out process in which multiple attempts are made. In the New Testament, demon possession caused the malfunction of otherwise normal body traits. You simply do not find in the New Testament the theatrical manifestations alleged by those who affirm demon possession occurs today—fire from the mouth, bulging eyes, transparent teeth, green slime spewing forth, and electricity emitted from fingers.
Another significant difference between demon possession in the Bible and alleged demon possession today is that in the New Testament, demons were respectful of deity and acknowledged Jesus as the “holy one of God” (Mark 1:24; 3:11). Demons knew that Jesus ultimately would banish them to torment (Matthew 8:29). They did not blaspheme deity. But claims today include curses and blasphemy directed against God.
In view of these biblical facts, what must we conclude? Demons do not possess people today. The Old Testament predicted that demon possession would cease in the first century.
In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness. And it shall come to pass in that day says the Lord of hosts that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land and they shall no more be remembered; and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land (Zechariah 13:1-2).
In addition, the Bible everywhere condemns those who practice spiritualism, sorcery, witchcraft, astrology, and all other forms of divination. Moses warned the Israelites as they were about to enter Canaan:
When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the lord; and because of these detestable things the lord your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so (Deuteronomy 18:9-14, NASB).
To God, all of these magical arts were an abomination.
Isaiah declared that all of Babylon’s sorceries and spells would be unable to avert the punishment that God would inflict against her (Isaiah 47:8-15). This observation points to a significant conclusion. The Bible repeatedly portrays those who claim sorcerous powers as fakes and counterfeits (e.g., Genesis 41:8; Exodus 7:10-12; Daniel 2:2-11). Even the action of the so-called “witch of Endor,” who actually is identified in the text as a “medium” (NKJV) or having a “familiar spirit” (KJV) [1 Samuel 28:3ff.], must be deemed fraudulent for three reasons: (1) she was surprised that a spirit actually appeared (vs. 12); (2) she thought the spirit was elohim—the Hebrew word for God or gods (vs. 13); and (3) she did not recognize Samuel, but had to describe him to Saul who in turn recognized him (vs. 14). In the New Testament, the claims of both Simon in Acts 8 and Elymas in Acts 13 also were bogus. All these sorcerers and astrologers were fakes who had no real power—though they fooled a lot of people into thinking they did.
Astrology, witchcraft, sorcery, spiritualism, and yes, those who claim to be “psychic mediums,” are all condemned by God. Why? Because these practices implicitly present themselves as substitutes for God, the one and only true power of the Universe, and His Word, the one and only valid spiritual guide. No wonder witchcraft is listed as a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). No wonder the Bible declares in no uncertain terms that “sorcerers...shall have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). The only “crossing over” that is actually occurring is by those whose spirits exit their bodies (i.e., they die) and who then are transported to the hadean realm to await the Day of Judgment and eternity. Their abode is fixed and unchanging (Luke 16:26-31).


The Bible speaks decisively and definitively on the subject of demon possession, witchcraft, astrology, sorcery, divination, enchantment, and wizardry. With a united and concerted voice, God’s Word condemns it and pronounces it false. People could be possessed by demons for a brief period of time in the first century. But this phenomenon has ceased. Those who wish to be Christians—those who wish to be pleasing to God—will give no credence to such claims today. No doubt, many of us like to break open that fortune cookie at the oriental restaurant and read the note inside; we might even occasionally glance at our horoscope in the newspaper—but only as a source of amusement, because there is absolutely no validity to it. The moment a person puts trust in such, and thinks that the future is determined by such, he or she is trusting in something other than God, and is sinning.
The only reliable guide in life is the Bible. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). The Word of God is living and active, quick and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). It is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). By that Word we will be judged one day (John 12:48). May we set aside all other claims to guidance and rely solely and strictly upon the Bible, wonderful words of life—the all-sufficient and authoritative Word of God.


Major, Trevor (1993), “Genesis 6:1-4 and the ‘Sons of God,’” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/pdfs/reprints_pdf/sonsgod.pdf.

Exclusivism and Christ’s Church by Dave Miller, Ph.D.


Exclusivism and Christ’s Church

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

Churches of Christ (Romans 16:16) have long been demonized for their insistence that all peoples are required to render obedience to the God of heaven, and that this obedience means that people must not tamper with God’s Word by inventing new churches, doctrines, creeds, and religions. They have insisted that the Bible depicts for humanity the religion of God, i.e., New Testament Christianity. Catholicism, Protestant denominationalism, and the plethora of manmade churches that have sprung up over the centuries are departures from “the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). They have maintained that it is possible—and necessary—for a person to go back behind all denominational creeds and affiliations, and to be simply a New Testament Christian, a member of the New Testament church.
This biblical posture has brought down upon members of churches of Christ a great deal of abuse, ridicule, and antagonism. The revulsion manifests itself in such accusations as: “You think you’re the only ones going to heaven.” Especially with the massive shifting that has taken place in American culture in the last 50 years, with “political correctness” and the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” mentality having thoroughly saturated national consciousness, anything that smacks of “exclusivity” is immediately demeaned and dismissed as “intolerant,” “mean-spirited,” “judgmental,” and even “a cult.” This mindset has literally infiltrated and infected most Americans. Take, for example, the following statement regarding the name for the church of the Bible:
The truth is that the name “Church of Christ” carries the baggage of an exclusivistic mentality to many people in our culture. “Oh, yeah,” somebody says, “those are the people who think they’re the only ones going to heaven.” One lady said that she never would have come into our building if she had known we are a “Church of Christ.” Once she came in and experienced the presence of God in this body, however, she isn’t about to leave! She and her children—from a very different denominational background—are reveling in the experience of Christ in this community of faith (Shelly, 1998, emp. added).
What does it mean to be “exclusivistic”? The dictionary definition of “exclusive” is “excluding or tending to exclude; not allowing something else; incompatible; not divided or shared with others; not accompanied by others; single or sole; excluding some or most, as from membership or participation” (American…, 2000, p. 620). A simple perusal of the New Testament reveals that the church of the New Testament is the church of Christ. He built her (Matthew 16:18). He gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25), and purchased her with His own blood (Acts 20:28). He loves her, nourishes her, and wishes to maintain her holy, unblemished nature (Ephesians 5:25-27,29). Christ’s church is not to be equated with the denominational churches that mere humans have established. This is where the name for the church becomes an important factor. Christ’s church will wear His name. Granted, a church may wear His name and claim to be His church when, in fact, it is not. But a church that identifies itself by some denominational designation that draws attention away from the founder (i.e., Christ) to some point of doctrine or lesser spiritual aspect cannot rightly be said to be His church.
Alas, such reasoning is almost universally rejected in today’s permissive climate of indiscriminate acceptance and toleration. Certainly, to suggest that there is “one church” (Ephesians 4:4a), and that every accountable person is obligated to submit to Christ’s plan of salvation in order to be added to that one church, is to be guilty of “exclusivism.” That is the very nature and essence of truth; it is narrow and exclusionary. But is there any indication elsewhere in the Bible that God’s will is exclusive? Does the Bible teach that the correct approach to life and religion is, in actuality, very narrow, rigid, and restrictive? Does the Bible endorse the current climate of toleration, acceptance, and openness?
Consider one brief illustrative incident. At the very beginning of human history, God placed the first man and woman in a beautiful garden paradise. He gave them wide latitude in exercising their own discretion with regard to daily dietary decisions (Genesis 2:16). However, He placed upon them one restriction: they were to refrain from eating the fruit from one particular tree (Genesis 2:17). Satan took issue with this restriction, and urged Eve to do the same (Genesis 3:4-5). She succumbed to his prodding, and to her own fleshly appetites, and ate of the fruit, encouraging her husband to do likewise. The result? Sin was introduced into the world, and the first family was changed forever and permanently banished from the beautiful garden. Question: was the restriction placed upon Adam and Eve by God exclusivistic? That is, did His instructions to them “not allow something else”? Were God’s directives “incompatible” with what Eve wanted to do? Was God’s command “not divided or shared with others” and “not accompanied by others”? Was God’s “my way or the highway” attitude inappropriate? To ask is to answer.
You “do the math.” Check out instance after instance, example after example in the Bible from beginning to end. Apply the definition of “exclusive” to each biblical account in order to determine if, in fact, God’s requirements are “exclusivistic.” Examine the cases of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-8), Noah (Genesis 6:22), Abraham (Genesis 26:5), Moses (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:7-12), Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), the Israelites (Numbers 14:20-23; 21:4-9; Joshua 6; 9:14; 1 Samuel 8), Eli (1 Samuel 3:13), Saul (1 Samuel 13:11-14; 15), King David (1 Samuel 21:1-6; 2 Samuel 11; 24), Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6-7; 1 Chronicles 15:13), Jereboam (1 Kings 12:26-33), Samaria (2 Kings 17:7ff.; 18:12), Josiah (2 Kings 22:13ff.), King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-21), the Jews who returned from exile (Ezra 9-10), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). The inevitable, indisputable conclusion to which the honest heart is driven is that God’s instructions to humans have always been exclusivistic.
Make no mistake: no human and no church have a “corner on truth.” Gospel salvation is available to all: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11); “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17). God decides who will be saved and who will be lost. However, He has given us His Word to inform us as to His will and His decisions. He says that He wants everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He says that He does not want even one person to perish in hell (2 Peter 3:9). But He also says that most people will spend eternity in hell (Luke 13:23-24). He is most certainly inclusive in that He offers salvation to all without partiality. But He is equally exclusive in that he requires a proper response of obedience to His directives (John 14:15).
We would do well to jettison our petty jealousies, pride, and political loyalties, devote ourselves to ascertaining the precise parameters of God’s directives, and then focus on conforming to His will—“bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). He is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). There are only two possible courses in life: “sin unto death, or obedience unto righteousness” (Romans 6:16). Jesus Himself declared that the former approach to life is “wide” and “broad,” and that most people go that direction (Matthew 7:13). He also stated that the latter approach is “strait” and “narrow” (i.e., exclusivistic!), and few people muster the gumption to confine themselves to that rigid, strict course (Matthew 7:14; Luke 13:23-24). Faithful Christians will remain undaunted when demonized as “exclusivistic,” since they are merely teaching and advocating that which God instituted. After all, an objective appraisal of the Bible reveals that Jesus, Himself, was an exclusionist. God is, in reality, the God of exclusivism!


American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language(2000), (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.
Shelly, Rubel (1998), “What Is Your Church’s Name?” Lovelines, 24[5], February 4.

Examining the “Husband of One Wife” Qualification for Elders by Kyle Butt, M.Div.


Examining the “Husband of One Wife” Qualification for Elders

by  Kyle Butt, M.Div.

The leadership structure of the Lord’s church is spelled out in the pages of the New Testament. Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), which He purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28). In particular localities where congregations of the Lord’s church meet, the inspired text explains that leaders who are called shepherds (or pastors), elders, or bishops are to direct the activities of each individual congregation (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-4). These terms are used interchangeably to describe the same position of leadership in the local church (Lewis, 1985, p. 14). The multiple terms are used in order to provide a complete picture of what these leaders are to do and be.
In addition, the New Testament provides consistent teaching that each local congregation should strive to maintain a plurality of elders/pastors/bishops. As the late Bible scholar J.W. McGarvey once wrote: “There is no proposition in reference to the organization of the primitive churches upon which scholars and critics are more perfectly agreed than that every fully organized church had a plurality of Elders” (1950, pp. 66-67). McGarvey went on to correctly conclude that there is New Testament authority and example for only a plurality of elders, and no authority for a singular pastor or bishop to rule an entire congregation or group of congregations.
If a plurality of men should be established as the overseers of any given congregation, what qualities or characteristics should these men possess that would enable them to fulfill their duties? Thankfully, the Lord, through the inspired New Testament, has not left us to guess what traits are needed for such a position. There are two very clear lists of qualities that elders should possess in order for them to be appointed to the eldership—1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. It is understood that biblical passages are often complimentary, in which certain passages include additional, supplemental information. With that in view, we will consider these two lists as complimentary, and therefore as one “master” list of the qualities that every elder should maintain.
An exhaustive study of every one of the qualifications for elders is outside of the purview of this article. Additionally, some of the qualifications are so self-explanatory, they call for little (if any) discussion. For instance, in Titus 1:7 we read that one who aspires to be an elder should not be “violent.” The meaning of that term is unambiguous. It simply means that an elder should not be a person who flies into violent fits of rage in which people are physically abused. Again, in the same verse we are told that an elder is not supposed to be “greedy for money.” A simple dictionary definition for the word “greedy” quickly renders this qualification quite easy to understand.
Not all the qualities prescribed for elders, however, are as self-explanatory as the two just mentioned. In fact, there are several that have been at the heart of many heated discussions. One that has often been discussed, and is viewed by many as being difficult to understand, is the injunction that an elder must be “the husband of one wife” (Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 3:2). It is to this qualification that we will direct our attention.


What does the statement that a bishop/elder/pastor must be the “husband of one wife” mean? Just reading this phrase in any standard English translation certainly leads to some ambiguity. Does it mean that he is only supposed to be married to one wife for his entire life? Does it mean that he is not to be married to two wives at once? If he was married to one wife when he was appointed an elder, but she dies, is he still the “husband of one wife”? If his wife dies and he marries another woman, is he now the husband of two wives? Does it really mean that a man must be married at all, or could it just mean that if he has a wife, he must only have one? Does this injunction mean that women are disqualified from the eldership? These are some of the most often asked questions pertaining to this particular qualification. In order to answer them, we will need to see if the original language clears up any ambiguity that might have arisen through translation.
In Greek, the phrase is mias gunaikos andra. Vincent, in his word study, translates it as “the husband of one wife” (1886, 4:228). R.H. Lenski translates the phrase as “one wife’s husband” (1998, pp. 579-580). William D. Mounce renders the words “‘one-woman’ man” (2000, 46:156). And C. Michael Moss translates it as the “‘husband of but one wife’ (literally ‘one woman’s man’)” (1994, pp. 69-70). What we see, then, is that the original language does not elucidate the phrase as much as we might like. In essence, it leaves us with the same ambiguities as the simple English renderings of the term. Thus, in order to gain a firmer grasp on the concept, we must think through the available options.

Must a Bishop/Elder/Pastor Be Married?

A host of scholarly commentators who have written about 1 Timothy 3:2 have concluded that the phrase “husband of one wife” does not mean that an elder must be married. They contend that the term simply means that if a man is married, then he should exhibit marital fidelity, be faithful to his spouse, and not be polygamous. There are a number of reasons such writers give for arguing that marriage is not a requirement for being a bishop. First, they believe that since Paul was not married, he would not have inserted a qualification that would exclude himself. Mounce summarized well this viewpoint when he wrote: “But the list is not a checklist requiring, for example, that all church leaders be married and have more than one child. Paul and Timothy were not married, nor did they have families (as far as we know), so neither of them could be a “one-woman” man or manage his household well” (2000, 46:156-159). Second, many of these writers believe that women should not be excluded from the eldership.
Those who believe that being the “husband of one wife” (i.e. married) is not a requirement often insist that what is being discussed is the personality and character of the individual, not the life circumstances in which the person finds himself. Thus, these writers argue that the text is simply saying that the proposed candidate for the eldership should have a character that he or she would remain faithful to one spouse. If the candidate’s character appears to be one of fidelity, whether or not the proposed elder actually is married to one wife is of no consequence. This interpretation of the “husband of one wife” is flawed for a number of reasons.
First, we must understand that life circumstances do dictate whether or not a person is eligible to be an elder or bishop. One of the qualifications for an elder is that he is not “a novice” (1 Timothy 3:1), or new Christian. Is it the case that a new Christian might be a very spiritual person? Certainly. Could it be that a new Christian may have an evangelistic attitude, have a close relationship to the Lord, and be walking in the light? Absolutely. Is there anything about the character of a “novice” that inherently excludes him from the eldership? No, there is nothing about his character that would keep him from being an elder. The only thing that keeps such a person from being appointed to the eldership is the fact that he is a recent convert. His life circumstance is such that he is not qualified to be an elder. He is not less valuable to the church. Neither is a novice less spiritual, less evangelistic, or of a lesser moral character than one who is qualified to be an elder. The only reason he is not qualified to be an elder is that God has stated that new converts are not to be appointed to the eldership.
Furthermore, the idea that Paul would not include a requirement to be an elder that would exclude himself carries no weight for a number of reasons. First, Paul interacted with various elders during his ministry (Acts 20:17, Philippians 1:1). He and Timothy wrote to the elders and deacons of the Philippian church (Philippians 1:1). And he instructed both Timothy and Titus (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) in the way to appoint bishops/elders/pastors. Yet throughout the text, Paul never refers to himself as one who is in the “office” of bishop/pastor/elder. This realization is telling, in light of the fact that we know Paul was not married (1 Corinthians 7:6-9). On the other hand, we see the apostle Peter speaking to the elders of the church, and stating that he was a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1). Since we know that Peter was married and had a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30), this would fit perfectly with the idea that the “husband of one wife” qualification for elders was mandatory. As J.W. McGarvey so clearly stated:
It has been urged as an objection to this conclusion, that it would disqualify Paul himself, and Barnabas and Timothy for the office of Elder although they held offices or positions of much greater responsibility. But this objection can have no force, unless it be made to appear that these brethren were qualified for the Elder’s office, or that the qualifications of an Apostle or an Evangelist include those of an Elder. Neither of the two, however, can be made to appear, and therefore the objection has no force whatever. Indeed, it seems most fitting that men whose chief work led them from city to city and nation to nation, through all kinds of danger and hardship, should be freed from the care of a family, and equally fitting that the shepherd, whose work was always at home and in the midst of the families of his flock, should be a man of family. A married man certainly possesses advantages for such work that are impossible to an unmarried man, and the experience of the world must confirm the wisdom requirement that the overseer shall be the husband of one wife (1950, p. 57).
Furthermore, to conclude that a person does not have to be the husband of one wife in order to be an elder ignores a very straightforward statement found in the context. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he stated: “A bishop then must be…” (1 Timothy 3:2). The phrase “must be” is a mandate that requires all those who aspire to become bishops to maintain the circumstances and characteristics that follow the phrase. The Greek word translated here is dei, which means “it is necessary, one must, or has to” (Glasscock, 1983, 140:245). Surely no one would contend that a man could be appointed as a bishop if he is greedy for money. None would be so careless as to suggest that a person who is violent could be appointed as an elder. Who would contend that a novice be appointed to the eldership? None. And yet each of these qualifications follows the phrase “must be” just as surely as “the husband of one wife.” All of the qualifications that follow “must be” are of equal value and importance and not one of them can be lacking from a prospective candidate for the eldership. The text plainly states that a bishop “must be…the husband of one wife.” To conclude that a bishop does not need to be the husband of one wife is to ignore a clearly worded inspired injunction.
In addition, numerous writers contend that “the husband of one wife” would be better rendered as something like “a one-woman sort of man” or “a man who has the character of fidelity to one woman if he were married” (Glasscock, 140:249-252). Thus, many of them suggest that men or women could be considered for the position of elder if they have a personality of fidelity even if they are not married. A flaw of this thinking is simply that a congregation would have to assume something about a person that there is no possible way of knowing unless the person were actually placed in that exact position. How in the world could it be verified that a person would be faithful to a spouse if that person is not married? In truth, there is no way to know, other than watching the person exhibit such faithfulness in an actual marriage.
To illustrate, suppose that the text stated that any candidate for the eldership must be “one who has taken a beating for Christ without recanting his faith.” If modern scholars were to “characterize” this qualification, they would assert that it means, not that he has been beaten, but if he were to be beaten, he would remain faithful to God. Yet to attribute to a person what he would do in a situation that he has never been in goes far beyond the capacity of human knowledge. Thus, to claim that a person is “a one-woman man,” without having seen that person remain faithful to a spouse, is claiming knowledge that no person can have. We can only know for sure if a man is a “one-woman” man if he has proven it in the testing ground of marriage. To borrow and modify a phrase from the inspired author, James, “show me your marital fidelity without being married, and I will show you my marital faithfulness by being married and remaining faithful.”

Can Women Be Elders/Pastors/Bishops?

A number of scholars contend that demanding that “the husband of one wife” is literal would disqualify all women from the position of elder. They contend that God would not allow men to attain a leadership position that is not also available for women. Thus they insist that the statement “the husband of one wife” cannot be taken literally.
From a general analysis of the inspired writings of Paul, one can see that he certainly was not sexist or gender biased. In fact, Paul penned one of the boldest statements of gender and race equality in all religious literature. In Galatians 3:28, he wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” About this verse, Jan Faver Hailey wrote: “Common exegesis understands Paul here to be advocating that access to God is open to all through faith in Christ, without regard to race, social standing, or gender” (1993, 1:132).
While Paul consistently maintained that men and women are equal in God’s sight, he insisted they have been given different duties and roles. Many religious people mistakenly equate the concept of different roles, with the idea of different status or worth. Even skeptics have falsely assumed such. Atheist Charles Templeton wrote: “In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul states unequivocally that men and women have a different status before God” (1996, p. 186). Allegedly, if Paul instructs men to be elders (Titus 1:5-9) and to lead publically in worship (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15), and husbands to be the “head” of their homes (Ephesians 5:22-24), then he must view women as less able, less valuable, or inferior to men. [NOTE: See Jackson, 2010 and Miller, 2005 for biblical expositions of these verses.]
Is it true that since the Bible assigns different roles to males and females, their status or worth must be unequal? Certainly not. In Titus 3:1, Paul explained to Titus that Christians were supposed to be subject to rulers and authorities and to obey the government. From that statement, is it correct to conclude that Paul views all those in governmental positions to be of more value than Christians? Does this passage imply that, because Christians are to obey other humans who are in governmental positions, Paul sees those in governmental positions as mentally, physically, or spiritually superior to Christians? Not in any way. The mere fact that Christians are to obey those in the government says nothing about the spiritual status or value of either party. It only addresses the different roles that each party fulfills.
Again, in 1 Timothy 6:2, Paul instructs Christian servants to be obedient to their own masters. Does this imply that Paul believed masters to be superior, or to be of more inherent worth than servants? No. It simply shows a difference in roles, not of status. Logically speaking, different roles can never be used to support an accusation that such roles imply different value or status. In Ephesians 6:1-2, Paul instructs children to obey and honor their parents. Does this mean that children are of less worth or value than their parents? This can hardly be the case, especially considering that Jesus described those in the kingdom of heaven as being like little children (Matthew 19:14), commanding His audience to be “converted and become as little children” (Matthew 18:3) in order to be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Furthermore, while many are quick to seize on Paul’s alleged sexism in his ordination of men as elders and leaders in their homes, those writers often neglect to include the responsibilities involved in such roles. Husbands are called upon to give their lives for their wives (Ephesian 5:25), physically provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families (1 Timothy 5:8), and to love their wives as much as they love themselves (Ephesians 5:25). While much is said about the “unfairness” of Paul’s instructions, it is productive to ask who would get the last seat on a life boat if a Christian husband and wife were on a sinking ship? The Christian husband gives himself for his wife in such instances. Is that fair that he is called upon to accept the sacrificial role of giving himself for his wife? Is she more valuable than he because God calls upon him to protect and cherish her and die for her if necessary? No. It is simply a difference is assigned roles, not in status or worth. Thus, one must conclude that to establish elders/bishops/pastors as men, each of which is the “husband of one wife,” does not imply gender bias or unfairness. It simply denotes a circumstance that must avail in the life of a person who is eligible to be an elder.

Polygamy, Bigamy, and “the Husband of One Wife”

A number of writers have concluded that the phrase “the husband of one wife” means that the man in view is not a bigamist or polygamist, but is married to “only” one wife. They stress that the force of the instruction lies on the concept of “only” one and not multiple wives. In considering this view, Michael Moss wrote: “Since polygamy was only infrequently practiced in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, is seems very unlikely that Paul would write to condemn a practice among overseers that would not be practiced even among Christians outside the leadership” (1994, pp. 69-70).It would seem prudent to argue, then, that the phrase is not inserted solely to exclude polygamists or bigamists from the eldership. To clarify, however, the condition would exclude polygamists, but would carry as much positive force for a man to be married to one wife as it would negative force not to have more than one. As McGarvey stated: “That he should be the husband of one wife, forbids having less than one as clearly as it forbids having more than one” (p. 56).

Only One Wife His Whole Life?

We have established, then, that the candidate for the eldership must be a man who is literally “the husband of one wife.” Our work is not done, however, because questions still remain concerning the qualification. Does “the husband of one wife” mean that the candidate must currently be married to the only wife that he has had his entire life? If his wife dies and he remains single, is he still the “husband of one wife,” since he was only married to one woman in his life? Or, if his wife dies and he remarries is he no longer the “husband of one wife,” since he has now been married twice to two different women?
First, let us state that the most ideal situation is one in which a man has been married to one woman for his whole life and they are still together during the time of his eldership. This situation would meet every conceivable challenge of the phrase “the husband of one wife.” Of course, stating the ideal does not exclude other possibilities that might be less than ideal but still potentially viable.
Let us then deal with the situation in which a man has been married, his spouse has died, and he is currently in his second marriage. Is this man a candidate for the eldership? Those who suggest that he is not, often refer to 1 Timothy 5:9 where Paul discussed widows who were to be “taken into the number” of the church. In that verse, Paul stated that only a widow who “has been the wife of one man” should be taken in. In light of this, some believe that having only been married to one person in one’s life has some type of spiritual significance, or at least offers a person some type of life circumstance that would be desirable for one who is an elder. Such an understanding seems to leave something to be desired based on the actual wording of 1 Timothy 3:2.
The qualification in 1 Timothy 3:2 states that a bishop “must be” in the present tense. The Greek words dei and eivai combine to form the “must” and “be” so that each of the qualifications is one that must at the present be a part of the potential elder’s life or character. For instance, it would do no good to have an elder who at one time was hospitable, but is no longer such. Nor would it behoove a congregation to have an elder who in the past was able to teach, but currently is not able to do so. Ironically, the present tense force is conspicuously absent from 1 Timothy 5:9, and a widow could not be taken into the number of the church if she was married to a man who was living (for she would not be a widow). Yet the ideal for an elder is for him to be currently married. Thus, it seems an unnatural and tenuous stretch to force the “parallel” between 1 Timothy 3:2 and 1 Timothy 5:9 to mean that an elder cannot be remarried after the death of a spouse. As Glasscock wrote: “First Timothy 3:2 does not say ‘an elder must be married only once’ nor does it say ‘an elder cannot remarry’” (140:247). He further stated that if Paul had wanted to insist that an elder must be married to one woman his whole life, the inspired writer could have written, “having had only one wife.” Since Paul did not make such a statement when it was in his power to do so, it goes beyond the bounds of the phrase “the husband of one wife” to insist that it means “having had only one wife” (140:247).
An understanding of the biblical teaching of marriage adds weight to the idea that a man can be qualified for the eldership, even if he has been married after the death of a spouse. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, Paul stated: “A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives, but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Marriage is a covenant that holds sway only as long as a person lives on this Earth in a physical, mortal body. Once a person’s spouse dies, he or she is no longer married to that person.
Jesus elucidated this fact in His discussion with the Sadducees. This particular Jewish sect did not believe in the resurrection of the soul. In order to trap Jesus, the Sadducees concocted a situation which they thought rendered the idea of the resurrection absurd. They presented to Jesus the situation in which a woman married a man, he died, so she married his brother. Subsequently, his brother died, and she married the third brother. Eventually, she lived through seven marriages to seven brothers and finally died. The Sadducees then asked Jesus, “Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For they all had her” (Matthew 22:23-28). Jesus explained to the Sadducees that they did not understand the resurrection or the Scriptures. He stated that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). From Jesus’ teachings, we learn that a marriage contracted on Earth has no force in the resurrection.
Thus, a person who was married to one wife on Earth, when she dies, is no longer married to that person. While she was his wife in the past, she cannot rightly be called his wife now, since the covenant of marriage is over at the point of the death of a spouse. Glasscock summarized this idea when he wrote: “Surely no one seriously believes that if a man’s wife dies that he is still bound to her in marriage; thus if he marries a second time, he still has only one wife, that is, he is truly still ‘the husband of one wife’” (140:247). As J.W. McGarvey stated: “It may be well to add that one living wife is clearly meant, and that there is no allusion to the number of deceased wives a man may have had. If my wife is dead, I am not now her husband” (1950, p. 57).
Therefore, if a man’s wife dies and he becomes a widower, the present tense force of being the “husband of one wife” would seem to exclude him from being qualified for the eldership. We must be careful to insist that such a situation does not make him any less of a Christian, any less spiritual, or any less valuable to the Lord’s cause. It simply is the case that a circumstance in his life has arisen that renders him no longer qualified to serve as an elder at a particular time. To illustrate further, suppose a man was an exceptional teacher, but was in a tragic accident and lost his voice and his ability to communicate his thoughts properly. Could it be that such an accident would render him unable to teach? Certainly. Since he is no longer “apt to teach,” and would most likely not be in the physical condition to serve as an elder, would it be the best course for him to no longer be an elder? Yes. Is he less valuable to God, less spiritual, or in any way less “Christian”? Absolutely not. It is simply the case that a circumstance in his life has rendered him unable to serve as an elder at a particular time in his life. The eldership is a functional role that requires a person to maintain the qualifications throughout the time of his tenure as an elder. On the other hand, if a widower were to remarry after the death of his wife (and the woman he remarried met the qualifications detailed for the wives of elders—1 Timothy 3:11), the present tense force of being the “husband of one wife” would allow him to be considered for the eldership.

Can a Man Who Has Been Divorced and Remarried Be an Elder?

If a man who loses his spouse to death and remarries can be considered for the eldership, the natural question arises, “What about a man who is divorced and remarried?” If the phrase “the husband of one wife,” does not mean “having been married only once in his life,” that would seem to admit the possibility that a man who has been divorced and is remarried to “one wife” could be eligible. Before delving into this, let us restate the ideal. The perfect situation is one in which there is a man who has been married once to the same woman and she is living during the time he serves as an elder. Is it possible, however, that a divorced man who is remarried may still be an elder?
When we look to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, we see that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and that in every divorce sin and selfishness on someone’s part lie at the heart of the broken marriage. When the Pharisees questioned Him about divorce, Christ explained that from the beginning of the human race, God instituted marriage to be between one man and one woman for life (Matthew 19:1-9). In the course of that discussion, Jesus noted that there is only one possible exception in which a person can divorce his wife lawfully in the sight of God. Jesus said: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexually immorality, and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). The sole exception that Jesus gave for dissolving a marriage in the eyes of God is if a person’s spouse has sexual intercourse with another besides his/her spouse. Jesus’ statement implies that if a man divorces his wife for sexual immorality, and he marries another person, he does not commit adultery by remarrying the second person. If a man can be married to a second wife (because he divorced his first wife due to sexual infidelity), and not be considered by God to be committing adultery, then it follows that God must (at least in the innocent party’s case) view the first marriage as dissolved and the covenant broken. Therefore, it would still be the case that a man who divorced his wife because of sexual infidelity and married another woman would/could be “the husband of one wife.”
It would appear logical that a man’s condition upon the death of a wife, or due to a divorce because of marital infidelity, would be the same, and a subsequent marriage would not disqualify him from being the “husband of one wife.” Robert Saucy aptly summarized the situation:
If divorce on the basis of adultery is legal and dissolves the marriage so that the one divorced can marry another, is the one remarried considered to be now “the husband of one wife”? It seems evident that legally such a remarried person is the husband of only one wife. He is not considered to have two wives. If this is true, then technically, he meets the requirements of the language of 1 Timothy (1974, 131:234).

An Additional Consideration

When discussing such “technicalities,” as we have in this article, it is often easy to forget that we are dealing with situations that play out in the real world of human relationships. While it may be true that a person could be technically qualified for the position of an elder, it might also be true that those who he is contemplating leading would not consider him qualified for one reason or another. It may be the case that many members of a congregation believe that a man must have only had one wife his whole life in order to be qualified to be an elder. It might be that a significant number of the members believe that death would dissolve a marriage, but a divorced man could never be qualified as an elder. What is to be done in such situations? The various other character qualities prescribed for an elder in Titus and 1 Timothy would help a Christian man come to the best possible conclusion. Any man who is qualified to be an elder, who is hospitable, wise, experienced, sober-minded, and temperate, will certainly consider more than the “technicalities” of the qualifications for the eldership before he seeks such an appointment. A man who is qualified to be an elder will have, at the heart of any decision he makes, the unity and overall good of the congregation of which he is a part.


Paul states that an elder must be “the husband of one wife.” There are some aspects of this statement that are clearer than others. It can be determined that the phrase necessarily means that only men are to be considered for the office. The exclusion of women from the office of elder does not imply that men are of more value, or that women are less capable. It simply accords with the biblical teaching that men and women have different roles, not different status as Christians. In addition, the phrase “the husband of one wife” is a present tense statement that implies that a man should be currently married to one woman. The candidate for the eldership, about whom there is no question as it pertains to this one qualification, is a man who is currently married to the one and only woman who has ever been his wife, and they stay married throughout the duration of his eldership. A close look at the qualifications, however, would seem to indicate that a man who is remarried after the death of a spouse, or one who is remarried after a divorce caused by his wife’s sexual infidelity, is technically still viewed as the “husband of one wife.”


Glasscock, Ed (1983), “‘The Husband of One Wife’ Requirement in 1 Timothy 3:2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 140:244-258, July-September.
Hailey, Jan Faver (1993), “‘Neither Male and Female’ (Gal. 3:28),” Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, ed. Carroll Osburn (Joplin, MO: College Press).
Jackson, Wayne (2010), “Women’s Role in the Church,” http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/169-womans-role-in-the-church.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1998), Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus, and to Philemon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Lewis, Jack P. (1985), Leadership Questions Confronting the Church (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
McGarvey, J.W. (1950), The Eldership (Murfreesboro, TN: Dehoff).
Miller, Dave (2005), “Female Leadership in the Church,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2694.
Mounce, William (2000), Pastoral Epistles (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).
Moss, C. Michael (1994), 1, 2 Timothy & Titus (Joplin, MO: College Press).
Saucy, Robert (1974), “The Husband of One Wife,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 131:229-240, July.
Templeton, Charles (1996), Farewell to God (Ontario, Canada: McClelland and Stewart).
Vincent, Marvin (1886), Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).

G.B. CAIRD & “AMATEURS” & “BALANCE” by Jim McGuiggan



It’s humans God created. It’s humans God communicated and continues to communicate with. It’s via humans that the Spirit of God has given us the Holy Scriptures and not by Dictaphones. I’m content to believe with Jesus Christ and His commissioned witnesses that it is GOD who speaks to us in the Scriptures whose origin and canonization were superintended by His Spirit.
I think I do understand that such a common view generates many questions but I’m not particularly interested (especially at this moment) in theories of inspiration, canonicity debates or current literary/hermeneutical questions. I’m happy to let the scholars or those who think they are scholars or the would-be scholars—I’m happy to let those continue to debate each other about the nature of the Holy Bible.
In the end we’re all going to have to call things as we see them. I’m not dismissive of scholars! It’s probable that no day goes by that I don’t thank God for men and women who have spent years becoming specialists in some area of truth that affects the masses of us. Though I don’t live in the same world as Alasdair MacIntyre I can still sympathize with his low view of philosophical work that doesn’t stay in touch with the actual living of life. The same is true of Clifford Geertz, the cultural anthropologist, who confesses to be weary with those in his own discipline who prove the obvious one more time and then publish their findings.
I think I do recognize the need for fresh thought and critical study and I confess I don’t know what (consistent) balance is or whether it can ever be gained when it comes to determining “how much” and what is “critical study”. How much do we need to know? How much do we need to “know for sure”? “How do we know what we know?” Epistemological certainty is a never ending quest with philosophical types. Where does it stop? And in the end, who knows a lot?
That remarkable man George Bradford Caird (a teacher who had a profound influence of N.T. Wright) wrote a book called The Language & Imagery of the Bible. He begins the book with this statement, “This is a book by an amateur, written for amateurs. Only an amateur could undertake to write on such a subject, since one life-time is too short for anyone to become an expert on more than one of the qualifying disciplines. For language is not the concern of the linguist alone, but of the literary critic, the psychologist, the anthropologist, the lawyer, the philosopher and the theologian as well. A prudent expert cultivates his own garden, not wasting time in looking over the fence at what his neighbors are doing. The amateur accepts cuttings from everyone, hoping that they will take in his own soil. I am content to…”
What is true of linguistics is true of everything else. Everything is linked to something else and the truth about anything is astonishing if someone teaches us to ask the right questions; not only astonishing, but in the end and in its entirety it’s “ungettable”.
So what we all do is this: we fence off a tiny plot of ground and work in that. That makes sense and as Caird says, we take cuttings from others to make our little garden grow with some semblance of order and maybe beauty. But we’re not to nod approvingly at Caird’s point and then ignore it—it’s not ignorable! Everyone is an amateur!
And then, of course, there are “gardeners” and gardeners. Some work at it, gratefully borrowing cuttings from here and there; content to settle for what does well and find pleasure and beauty in it. And there are those who are easily carried away with the latest fashions and die in pursuit of them.
Finally there is this that I can never quite be content: how much do I need to know? And if there is a lot that needs to be known am I the one that needs to know it? And the people I sometimes get the privilege to teach, what is it they need to hear from me?
Reuben Shapcott, a long-time friend of “Mark Rutherford” (a troubled soul of many years ago) thought Rutherford’s central problem was that he got in over his head with issues too great for him. I’m not sure what to make of Shapcott’s advice. See what you make of it.
“There is one observation which I may perhaps be permitted to make on re-reading after some years this autobiography. Rutherford, at any rate in his earlier life, was an example of the danger and the folly of cultivating thoughts and reading books to which he was not equal, and which tend to make a man lonely.
It is all very well that remarkable per sons should occupy themselves with exalted subjects, which are out of the ordinary road which ordinary humanity treads but we who are not remarkable make a very great mistake if we have anything to do with them. If we wish to be happy, and have to live with average men an d women, as most of us have to live, we must learn to take an interest in the topics which concern average men and women. We think too much of ourselves. We ought not to sacrifice a single moment’s pleasure in our attempt to do something which is too big for us, and as a rule, men and women are always attempting what
is too big for them. (To the bulk of us) the wholesome healthy doctrine is, “Don’t bother yourselves with what is beyond you try to lead a sweet, clean, wholesome life, keep yourselves in health above everything, stick to your work, and when your day is done amuse and refresh yourselves. It is not only a duty to ourselves, but it is a duty to others to take this course. Great
men do the world much good, but not without some harm, and we have no business to be troubling ourselves with their dreams if we have duties which lie nearer home amongst persons to whom these dreams are incomprehensible . Many a man goes into his study, shuts himself up with his poetry or his psychology, comes out, half understanding what he has read, is miserable because he cannot find anybody with whom he can talk about it, and misses altogether the far more genuine joy which he could have obtained from a game with his children, or listening to what his wife had to tell him about her neighbors.”


by David Vaughn Elliott

   Does the Bible mean what it says? Should we to take it at face value? Should we interpret it literally? Or, should we understand it figuratively? Few questions are more important for the study of Bible prophecy. 


    Is the Bible history, or poetry? Both! Do Bible laws apply to us today, or not? Both! Does the Bible contain the word of God, or the word of the devil? Both! (Not sound right? See Luke 4:6.) Is the Bible easy to understand, or hard? Both!  

    Many things in life cannot be forced into an "either-or" situation. So it is with Bible interpretation. Should we understand Bible prophecy literally or figuratively? The answer can be given in one word: both! 

Much of the Bible is Literal

    The Bible is a book of real people. Many of them are known to secular history: Ahab, Jehu, Hezekiah, Nebuchadnezzar, Pontius Pilate, the Herods, Caesar Augustus, John the Baptist, James the Lord's brother, to name a few. 

    The Bible is a book of real places. It tells of Babylon, Egypt, Samaria, Syria, Edom, Rome, and more. It takes us to the Euphrates and Jordan Rivers, the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee.  

    Real people in real places: a true, literal history of God's dealings with mankind. Since the Bible is solidly set in history, Bible interpretation should begin with the literal meaning.

    Many prophecies of the Bible are likewise to be literally understood. When Abraham's visitors told him that Sarah would shortly have a son, Sarah laughed. She laughed because it was impossible; she was past menopause. But with God all things are possible. He fulfilled it literally (Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-7). 

    God foretold that if the children of Israel disobeyed him, they would experience miserable sieges of their cities. They would go to the extreme of eating their own children! That was literally fulfilled (Deuteronomy 28:45-57; 2 Kings 6:24-29). 

    Centuries before Christ, Isaiah prophesied that a voice would one day cry out in a wilderness. Such was the unusual literal location of John the Baptist's ministry (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:1-5). Zechariah prophesied that the King of the Jews would enter Jerusalem on a donkey. It was literally fulfilled (Zechariah 9:9; John 12:12-16). 

    Bible prophecy, like other portions of the Bible, should often be understood literally. 

Much of the Bible is Figurative

    The problem among Bible believers today is not if we should understand much of the Bible literally. Believers accept that. But some talk as if all the Bible should be taken literally. However, it takes little Bible reading to discover figurative language. 

    For a quick start, consider Jesus' parables. The sower, the net, the ten virgins, the vineyard, the pearl of great price. Who can doubt that they must all be interpreted figuratively? 

    The Psalms declare that God is our rock, our shield, our fortress. Who does not understand that these are figures of speech? Paul said: "I fed you with milk and not with solid food." "I planted, Apollos watered." No one believes that Paul was literally a nursemaid or a farmer.  

    The real question is not whether the Bible--and it's prophecy--should be taken literally or figuratively. The question is how much is literal and how much is figurative. The question for the believer is not whether or not we should start with the literal. We should! The question is this: How can we tell when certain words, phrases or verses are to be understood figuratively?  


    Why not start with every-day-common sense? Daily conversation is filled with figurative language. Dad says, "You kids quit raising the roof." What do you think would happen to the youngster who replied, "Dad, come take a look. The roof hasn't been raised one inch"? 

    "I'm up to my neck in debt." "Don't be a pig." "We were flying down the highway." "I had butterflies in my stomach." Common sense. No one has to explain these figures to anyone--except to a small child. Ever notice how often small children are confused because grown-ups speak figuratively and the child takes it literally? But as children grow up, they catch on. 

    What is "common sense," anyway? It's the sense you would expect common folk to have. A person of normal intelligence. A person with a reasonable amount of knowledge about life.  

    Then, what is "common sense" in relation to literal and figurative language? Take "raising the roof," for example. A person of common intelligence and experience knows that kids can not lift a roof by yelling. It is impossible. Therefore, the expression must be figurative. When words, taken literally, involve self-contradiction, absurdity or unreality, then it is time to consider a figurative meaning. 

Common Sense and the Bible

    Jesus spoke of two men, one with a speck in his eye, the other with a plank in his eye. But it is not literally possible to have a plank in the eye. Conclusion? Jesus was speaking figuratively. 

    "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out," Jesus said (Matthew 5:29). Ever hear of anybody who sinned with just one eye? "I'll cover my left eye and lust on this woman with just my right eye." Absurd? Yes. It must be figurative language. 

    God's first command to man included figurative speech. God said of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). However, Adam and Eve did not literally die the day they ate. Since God does not lie, we are forced to consider a figurative interpretation. 

Common Sense and Prophecy

    Turning to prophecy, it is important to note that nobody interprets all prophecy literally, not even the very people who claim it is all literal. Common sense is part of the reason.  

    Everybody agrees that the beasts of Revelation 13 and 17 are symbolic. With a big imagination, maybe a literal beast could have seven heads (13:1) and maybe even talk (13:5). But no adult imagination is big enough to accept 13:7 as referring to a literal beast. "It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation." Imagination fails. Common sense says the beasts represent some human power(s). 

    Prophecies often mention stars. For example, Revelation 6:13 says, "And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind." In verses 15 and 16, the earth and its people still exist. This is literally impossible. Stars are huge. If just one star collided with the earth, the earth would be obliterated but the star hardly affected. Thus, the student must look for a figurative explanation.  

    Common sense, of course, has its limits. It can often tell us something is not literal; but by itself it may not explain the figurative meaning. 


    "Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so." In like manner, many times we can say, "The text is figurative this I know, for the Bible tells me so." What surer ground than to let the Bible interpret itself!  

Simile: "Like," "As"

    Formal language classes sometimes explore figures of speech. Some of the examples already given are called "metaphors." In a metaphor something is said to be something else. It was more forceful for Jesus to say, "I am the door," than to say "I am like a door." This latter figure of speech is a "simile." A simile uses "like" and "as." To recognize a metaphor, one must use common sense. The simile, on the other hand, plainly declares itself to be a figure of speech. 

    Genesis 22:17: "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which [is] on the seashore." As the stars; as the sand. Matthew 23:27 reads: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead [men]'s bones." Like whitewashed tombs.  

    Another figure of speech, the parable, may be defined as an "extended simile." "The kingdom of heaven is like... " The entire account that follows "like" is figurative language. 

Interpretation Given

    Often the Bible does more than simply say that certain language is figurative. It interprets the figure. Parables are like that. Some are only identified as parables, leaving it to the disciple to discern the meaning. In other cases, the meaning of the various figures is explained. 

    Matthew 13:37-38: "He answered and said to them: 'He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked [one].' " 

    God's first command to man includes a figure (Genesis 2:17); but the figure is not explained. The New Testament provides insight. "Let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:22). Common sense says the first "dead" is figurative; the second, literal. Ephesians 2:1-3 explains this figurative death: "dead in trespasses and sins... fulfilling the desires of the flesh." Dead while living! Dead in sin. With such insight, it is easy to conclude that Adam and Eve died spiritually on the day they ate. 

    Revelation opens with a vision of Christ. He is standing amidst seven lampstands and has seven stars in his hand. Literal or figurative? He himself answers in 1:20: "The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches." The identity of these "angels" is not clear, but there is no question about the seven churches. They are identified in 1:11. The Bible has explained the figure.  


    Figurative prophecy does not begin in Revelation. It begins in Genesis! Pharaoh had a dream that he did not understand. He summoned Joseph, who explained: "God has shown Pharaoh what He [is] about to do: 'The seven good cows [are] seven years... And the seven thin and ugly cows which came up after them [are] seven years, and the seven empty heads blighted by the east wind are seven years of famine" (Genesis 41:25-27). Prophecy in figurative language is in the first book of the Bible. 

    Common sense says that beasts in prophecy are figurative. But of what? An example is found in Daniel 8:20,21: "The ram which you saw, having the two horns--[they] [are] the kings of Media and Persia. And the male goat [is] the kingdom of Greece." Prophecy in figurative language. The Bible says so. 

    One time in the temple, Jesus foretold his resurrection. The Jews totally missed it. They thought He was speaking literally. John 2:19-21 explains: "Jesus answered and said to them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' Then the Jews said, 'It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?' But He was speaking of the temple of His body." This prophecy was not to be literally fulfilled as the Jews supposed. Jesus spoke of "this temple" in a figurative sense. The Bible says so. 

    On the day of Pentecost, Peter explains a prophecy which in part is figurative. He quotes Psalms 16 where David is speaking: "I... my... me." To be literally fulfilled, it would have to refer to David himself. Rather, Peter carefully shows that David was not speaking of himself, but rather of Jesus, his physical descendent (Acts 2:25-32). The prophecy seems to be literally speaking of David; however, it is figuratively speaking of Jesus. Peter explains and proves the figure. 

"Stars" as Important People

    Common sense has shown that stars in prophecy are, at least sometimes, figurative. But of what? All the way back in Genesis, Joseph's prophetic dreams included stars. His father, Jacob, clearly understood that the eleven stars were not literal, but rather symbolized Joseph's eleven brothers (Genesis 37:9,10). 

    The stars in Revelation 1:16,20 have already been seen to be angels (messengers). Whether they be heavenly angels or human messengers, the stars are living beings, as in Genesis. This figurative use of stars in the Bible agrees with the usage in daily life. We speak of movie stars and stars in sports--real people. 

The Prophecy Concerning Elijah

    Four hundred years before Christ, the Old Testament closes thus:  
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet  
Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.  
And he will turn  
The hearts of the fathers to the children,  
And the hearts of the children to their fathers,  
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:5,6). 

    Elijah is coming! Is this supposed to have a literal fulfillment--Elijah himself is coming? Or is this to be understood figuratively (symbolically, spiritually)--someone like Elijah is coming? There is nothing in the context to indicate one way or the other. Therefore, we might assume it is literal, unless--unless--God clearly tells us otherwise. 

    Matthew 17:10-13 is a key text: "And His disciples asked Him, saying, 'Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished'... Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist." 

    John the Baptist was Elijah. Not literally, of course (see John 1:21), but spiritually. Gabriel told Zacharias that John the Baptist "will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children' " (Luke 1:17). The last expression is a direct quotation of the Malachi prophecy. So Gabriel is saying that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy. Gabriel and Jesus agree: the prophecy was not fulfilled literally. It was fulfilled figuratively (spiritually). "The Bible tells me so." 

Jesus' Kingdom

    It is a well-known fact that the Jews of Jesus' day were awaiting the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies regarding the King and his kingdom. It is also well known that they were expecting a literal, physical kingdom. 

    If Jesus had in mind setting up a literal kingdom, there was no better time than after the feeding of the 5,000. The Jews were so stirred up that "they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king (John 6:15). Far from seizing the opportunity, Jesus "departed again to the mountain by Himself alone." When the crowds found Him the next day, He preached a powerful sermon, contrasting the physical with the spiritual (6:26-65). The net result? "From that [time] many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." From what time? From the time Jesus refused to become a literal, physical king. From the time He declared to the multitudes the superiority of the spiritual over the physical.  

    Over and again, Jesus declared "The kingdom of heaven is like... " and followed with a parable that in no way relates to a literal, physical kingdom. Rather, these parables tell of such things as the seed, which is the Word of God, and the net gathering fish, which is the final day of judgment. 

    Before He was crucified, Jesus made it clear to Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews" (John 18:36). The Son of David would not have a kingdom like David. David fought for a physical kingdom. He slaughtered Goliath; he conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites; he greatly extended his earthly domains. But Jesus would not take up arms either to save his own life or rescue Jerusalem from the Romans. "My kingdom is not of this world." 

    Jesus did come to fulfill the kingdom prophecies. Listen to His words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Since the time was fulfilled and the kingdom was at hand, of necessity it had to be set up soon after Jesus spoke. However, all agree that no physical kingdom was set up in the first century. A spiritual kingdom, however, was set up! 

    Thus the King and kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament must not be interpreted literally. Rather, they must be interpreted figuratively. It is a spiritual kingdom with a spiritual message, a spiritual King and a spiritual hope.  


    There is no escaping the conclusion: many Bible prophecies must be interpreted figuratively, symbolically, spiritually. Indeed, all these examples should alert us to the need to always consider the possibility of a figurative interpretation. When the Bible clearly declares a figure, it may be a key to open up the understanding of other prophecies. 

    In some prophecies, for example, stars must be interpreted figuratively, either by the rule of common sense or because the Bible tells us so. In other prophecies there may be a doubt. What then? The Bible sometimes shows stars to be important people. This can become a key. It can alert us to the possibility that unexplained stars in other prophecies may be important people. 

    A caution must be expressed about such "keys" to interpreting prophecy. It is just like keys to a literal lock: if the key fits--if it helps to make sense out of the prophecy--well and good; use it. If the key does not fit, does not make sense, reject it for that prophecy. 

    An important key to unlocking several "time" prophecies is found in Ezekiel 4:6: "a day for each year." Some "time" prophecies, indeed, must be taken literally, such as Jeremiah's prophecy of the 70-year captivity. The 70-week prophecy, on the other hand, simply was not fulfilled--if a literal interpretation is forced. But take it figuratively, as most believers do, apply the day-for-a-year rule, and it becomes one of the most powerful prophecies of Scripture. (See Daniel 9 for both prophecies.) 


    Many today are looking for the future literal fulfillment of prophecies that have already been fulfilled--figuratively. They seem to be like the woman at the well, who had a hard time grasping that Jesus was not talking about literal water. They do not comprehend that the same Jesus who is spiritually a door, spiritually a shepherd, and spiritually a lamb, is also spiritually a king. They do not comprehend that the same people who are spiritually the body of Christ, spiritually the family of God, and spiritually the temple of God, are also spiritually the kingdom of God.  

    Attitude may be involved. Willingness to believe Jesus' word may be involved. What did Jesus say? "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive [it], he is Elijah who is to come." (Matthew 11:13-15). If we are willing to receive it, many prophecies receive their true fulfillment figuratively. 

    Literal or figurative? It all depends. Clearly some prophecies should be interpreted literally. Just as clearly, other prophecies should be interpreted figuratively. One should not have a prejudice for either the literal or the figurative. It is not an "either-or" matter. The student of God's Word must have an open mind and a willing heart to accept what the evidence shows in each case. 

(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)