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Digging Deeper: Lydia – The Purple Seller

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that the first European convert in Paul’s ministry was a woman?

Her name was Lydia. She was also the first female convert Luke described in the entirety of his Book of Acts. Lydia was a businesswoman from Thyatira who traveled to Philippi to sell her valued products. This Digging Deeper profiles this exceptional woman who blessed Paul’s ministry.

Through divine direction, Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to travel to Asia Minor and Bithynia in the early 50s AD to preach the gospel (Acts 16:6-12). Instead, he was guided by a vision to travel across the sea from modern Turkey to Greece. There he preached at a river outside the city of Philippi in the Roman province of Macedonia where women gathered for prayer on the Sabbath because there were not enough men making a quorum to establish a Jewish synagogue (Acts 16:13).

Our focus verses for this study are Acts 16:14-15 (KJV throughout) “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.  (15) And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.”

Lydia and purple dye

Luke reported that she worshipped God. The NIV Study Bible explains her status: “Lydia was a Gentile who, like Cornelius (10:2), believed in the true God and followed the moral teachings of Scripture. She had not, however, become a full convert to Judaism” (Tecarta Bible App). As such people were called then, she was a “God-fearer”—a Gentile who associated with Judaism.

Being “a seller of purple,” she was a merchant of dyed garments. Oriental dyeing was prominent in Paul’s world. Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred H. Wight reports: “The Orientals have some very fine dyes. Their favorite color is a bright crimson, and the dye they use to make this color comes from a worm or grub that feeds on oak and other plants. Indigo is made from the rind of pomegranate. Purple is made from the murex shellfish which can still be found on the beach at the city of Acre” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22).

The NKJ Study Bible describes the painstaking effort to create this dye: “Purple dye had to be gathered drop by drop from a certain shellfish. Because it was so expensive, purple dye was used on garments worn by royalty. As an artisan in purple dyes, Lydia was a wealthy woman who had come to Philippi to practice her trade” (Tecarta Bible App).

Word Pictures in the New Testament by A.T. Robertson associates this color with a modern term: “There was a great demand for this fabric as it was used on the official toga at Rome and in Roman colonies. We still use the term ‘royal purple’” (e-Sword 13.0.0). However, not everyone was authorized to wear this color, as explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “During the Roman Period, laws restricted who could wear clothes dyed purple because it was the most precious of all colors. Thus Lydia undoubtedly dealt with an exclusive and affluent clientele” (Ibid.).

Lydia’s home town

Manners and Customs of Bible Lands by Fred H. Wight connects this process to her home city of Thyatira: “She was a merchant who sold the purple dye to tanners, weavers, and others. This business of dyeing with which she was connected, had long been centered in the city of Thyatira. Inscriptions have been discovered that refer to ‘a guild of dyers’ that was located in that vicinity”(Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22).

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes her home city: “Thyatira in western Asia Minor was strong in textiles; it was in the region of ancient Lydia, making Lydia a fitting name for this woman. Some scholars believe that 10,000 crushed shellfish were needed to yield a single gram of the costliest purple dye, the sort from Tyre. Some believe that dyers in Thyatira and Macedonia used a less expensive substance (the madder plant, for Thyatira)”  (Tecarta Bible App).

Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments narrates the extent of the trade of this product: “The purple traffic in this region was earlier than Homer, and women were the purplers. By the great Roman roads the traffic between Thyatira was, at this time, easy; and inscriptions are still extant describing the trade as it once existed” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Fausset’s Bible Dictionary associates Thyatira with Philippi: “Thyatira being a Macedonian colony had much contact with Philippi, the parent city” (Ibid.).

A responder to the call

Acts 16:14 declares the Lord opened Lydia’s heart. The Holman KJV Study Bible explains this divine-human interaction: “Luke combined both human and divine initiative in the description of Lydia’s response. The Lord opened her heart, but she attended to what Paul said” (Tecarta Bible App).

The Dake Annotated Bible Notes defines the condition for responding to God’s calling: “Some people are honest and yield to the Lord to open their hearts and others refuse all offers of God’s dealings and are hardened” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22). The Pulpit Commentary, edited by H.D.M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, explains this miraculous opening: “To open (διανοίγειν) is applied as here to the heart (2 Mace. Philippians 1:4); to the eyes (Luke 24:31); to the ears (Mark 7:34-35); to the understanding (Luke 24:45); to the Scriptures (Luke 24:32) …” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Her baptism in Acts 16:15 was noteworthy for Paul’s ministry, as explained by the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “The mention of baptism here (for the first time in connection with the labours of Paul, though it was doubtless performed on all his former converts) indicates a special importance in this first European baptism. Here also is the first mention of a Christian household” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Acts 16:15 details that her household was also baptized. The Holman KJV Study Bible explains: “If the leader of a household converted, perhaps others of the household (children, servants, spouse, etc.) were persuaded to respond in the same way. It is assumed on the basis of Lydia’s response (16:14) and her question to Paul after her baptism that her confession of faith preceded her baptism. This suggests that only those of the household who were mature enough to make their own positive response to the gospel would have been baptized” (Tecarta Bible App).

Her “household” consisted of various adults, as suggested by the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: “Who constituted Lydia’s household is uncertain; it could have included servants, freedpersons, or workers. She apparently heads her own household, which could mean that she was widowed, divorced, or a prosperous freedwoman” (Tecarta Bible App).

A courageous hostess

Acts 16:15 describes Lydia’s inviting Paul and his traveling companions to stay in her Philippian home. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides important cultural background: “Dealers in purple could be persons of means, although Lydia is technically a foreigner in the city. Hospitality was a prized virtue in the ancient Mediterranean world, and Lydia would count it an honor for this ministry team to stay with her. It would not be unusual for Jewish people to provide guests lodging for three weeks if they found the guests trustworthy. Inns were notorious for prostitution and other issues that made them less than ideal for Jewish travelers. Perhaps 10 percent of ancient benefactors were women …” (Tecarta Bible App).

Acts 16:15 notes that Lydia “constrained” Paul and his associates to abide with her. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges explains this term: “Used only by St Luke in N. T. here and Luke 24:29 of the two disciples at Emmaus. The force used was that of a prayer which would hear no ‘Nay’” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, offers reasons Paul may have been hesitant to accept her offer at first: “Up to this time the four teachers may have supported themselves by their own labours, Paul as a tent maker, Luke as a physician, Silas and Timothy in ways unknown. That Paul was reluctant to accept Lydia’s invitation has been argued from the words, And she constrained us (compare Luke 24:29); and this he may well have been, not because of unwillingness to partake of the hospitality of others (see Romans 16:23), or to receive assistance from them when his circumstances required (Acts 24:23; 28:10; Philippians 4:15), but because he wished to avoid the imputation of being actuated by mercenary motives (Acts 20:34; 2 Corinthians 12:17,19)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

In the early 50s AD, Lydia hosted the Philippian church’s meetings in her house (Acts 16:40). Paul and his associates had just been imprisoned and released there (Acts 16:16-39). This displays her courage in the face of growing civic opposition. She and other converts formed the nucleus of that church, to whom Paul wrote an entire epistle in the early 60s AD. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary notes: “Lydia may have been also one of ‘those women who laboured with Paul in the gospel’ at Philippi (Philippians 4:3)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Lydia was a devoted female disciple of Paul’s ministry and a generous member of the early Church of God. Her legacy lives on today in the lives of many Christian women who follow her lead.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: Teach Us to Number Our Days

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

Did you know that Moses composed a prayer asking God to teach him to number the days of his life?

Deep inside, humans know they have limited life spans. Nonetheless, people go about their daily affairs as if there would be no end of days. God inspired a psalm to remind us that, because of sin, human life is limited. He wants believers to make the most of their limited time serving Him. This Digging Deeper challenges its readers to think deeply about the brevity of mortal life while anticipating life eternal.

Our focus verse comes from a psalm that frames Moses’ prayer: Psalm 90:12 KJV throughout: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Moses was not the only man of God to make such a request. David prayed a similar prayer in Psalm 39:4 “LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.”  By contrast, notice how God views time in Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”

Notice the immediate context of Psalm 90:12 in v. 10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” The NKJ Study Bible explains this lesson of counting our years: “The point here is not to set a maximum, but to present a context for the brevity of human life. No matter how long people live, it is inevitable that they will fly away to death” (Tecarta Bible App).

Life spans shortened in the wilderness

B.H. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible provides some background for this psalm: “The author of Psalm 90 is Moses. He wrote this psalm while he was in the wilderness of Arabia. The internal evidence that Moses wrote it at this time is that it bears the stamp of the wilderness period all the way through” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Henry Morris in his Days of Praise commentary for Psalm 90:10, entitled Threescore Years and Ten, wrote: “When Moses wrote these words near the end of his life, he was 120 years old (Deuteronomy 34:7), but all the rest of the people of Israel (except Caleb and Joshua) who had been over 20 at the beginning of the 40-year wilderness wanderings, had died there (Numbers 14:28-34), and so there were no others over 60 years old…Thus, the normal lifespan by Moses’ time was down to 70 or 80 years, and he prophesied that this would continue. It is remarkable that, with all the increase in medical knowledge, this figure has stayed about the same, and there seems to be little the gerontologists can do to increase it.”

F.B. Meyer in his Through the Bible Day by Day pictures the Israelites’ trauma as they witnessed the older generation dying off because God judged them for refusing to enter the Promised Land as He instructed: “The ceaseless succession of graves was the bitter harvest of Israel’s rebellions. Oh, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom that we may not fail of God’s rest” (e-Sword 13.0.0)! The Treasury of David, by C.H. Spurgeon, elaborates further: “Poor Israel was greatly afflicted. These deaths in the wilderness made her a perpetual mourner, but Moses asks that God will return to his people, cheer and encourage them, and let the few days they have to live be bright with his presence” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

B.H. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible notes a fascinating correspondence between this psalm and a section of Deuteronomy: “There are several parallels between this and Moses’ Song and Blessing in Deuteronomy 32-33. For example, Psalm 90:1 equals Deuteronomy 33:27 a: Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations (Psalm 90:1). The eternal God is thy dwelling-place, And underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27 a). Psalm 90:12 equals Deuteronomy 32:29: So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12.) Oh that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end, (Deuteronomy 32:29.)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Moses had properly instructed the people in God’s ways, but their rebellion resulted in multiple graves instead of blessing.

Apply your hearts to wisdom

Even so, there is hope for all sinners. Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible provides broader context for understanding this psalm: “Psalm 90:7-12 This strophe clearly admits that YHWH’s judgment on His people is the direct result of their sin. However, His people trust and hope in the basic character of God—mercy! To me, Psalm 103:8-14 is a sure hope in the character of God (cf. Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 4:31; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 145:8)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Among his final statements, Moses admonishes the repentant to pray: “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil (Psalm 90:15) “.

In Psalm 90:12 God’s people are counseled to apply their hearts to wisdom. The NET Bible defines heart: “The Hebrew term ‘heart’ here refers to the center of one’s thoughts, volition, and moral character” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Jamiesson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary describes what wisdom entails in this context: “The ‘wisdom’ meant is that which flows from a right consideration of the brevity of life, and our guiltiness as the cause of God’s, anger against us; and consists in ‘fearing God’ and ‘departing from evil’ (Job 28:28)” (Ibid.). This is the essence of repentance.

The Sermon Bible Commentary, edited by W. Robertson Nicholl, enhances the meaning of wisdom: “Wisdom is a great word, because the idea it symbolizes is great. Wisdom represents that finer power, that higher characteristic of mind, which suggests the proper application of facts, the right use of knowledge, the correct direction of our faculties. He whose heart is applied to wisdom has put himself in such a position that he can think divinely—think as God would think in his place” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Expository Notes by Dr. Constable then summarizes wisdom: “A heart of wisdom refers to discernment of Yahweh’s purposes” (Ibid.). Bible study and prayer reveal the mind of God to the faithful.

The Treasury of David by C.H. Spurgeon illuminates true spiritual wisdom: “That is the great matter, after all, to get the heart applied to wisdom, to learn what is the right way, and to walk in it in the practical actions of daily life. It is of little use for us to learn to number our days if it merely enables us to sit down in self-confidence and carnal security; but if our hearts be applied to true wisdom, the Lord’s teaching has been effectual” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

W. Robertson Nicholl’s The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts elaborates with practical steps: “It means to gauge and test our own career in the light of its moral and spiritual issues. And as God teaches us this we understand the secret of true wisdom. For wisdom lies in a just estimate of the real values of things. T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, p. 436” (e-Sword 13.0.0). God’s wisdom teaches His adherents the things that really matter to prepare them for service in His eternal Kingdom.

Seeking eternity in a short life

Daniel Whedon’s Commentary specifies what God is trying to accomplish: “This looks to the end of all divine judgment. Lamentations 3:39-40. God’s displeasure is manifested to awaken a salutary fear of him, which shall turn men from sin, and lead to the practice of wisdom. So long as men treat sin as a trifle they will treat God with irreverence and themselves with abuse. Revelation 15:4” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Sermon Bible Commentary, edited by W. Robertson Nicholl, presses upon devotees the right use of their limited time: “A short life should be wisely spent. We have not enough time at our disposal to justify us in misspending a single quarter of an hour. Neither are we sure of enough of life to justify us in procrastinating for a moment. If we were wise in heart we should see this, but mere head wisdom will not guide us aright” (e-Sword 13.0.0). God gives Christians limited time – use it wisely!

Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible makes an impressive comparison: “Compare Deuteronomy 32:29 in Moses’ valedictory address to the children of Israel. A person has only about eighteen thousand days in which he could apply his life to eternal values, so it is vitally important to be ‘redeeming the time’ (Ephesians 5:16)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible provides reassuring words to begin to bring this brief study to a close: “Once we realize our frailty and His permanence, then and only then, can we live a life of joy, peace, and trust. Our hope is completely in Him. Our service to Him brings meaning to life” (e-Sword 13.0.0)! The time that God does provide believers should be expended in His service. The NKJ Study Bible pinpoints the central lesson of Psalm 90:12: “This is more than just having a sense of mortality; it means valuing the time we do have by using it for eternal purposes” (Tecarta Bible App).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: Onesiphorus

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

Did you know that while Paul was in prison awaiting execution for the last time, brethren risked their lives to visit him?

In his final epistle, Paul remarked heartbrokenly that some had turned away from him, either fearful for their lives by associating with him or having turned against true doctrine by teaching falsehoods. Nonetheless, Paul purposefully thanked those who supported him and even endangered their lives to visit him in his final days. This Digging Deeper considers one such individual who risked everything for his beloved apostle.

Our focus verses mention Paul’s associate, Onesiphorus, in only two passages:

2 Timothy 1:16-18 KJV “The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: (17) But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me.  (18) The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day: and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.”

2 Timothy 4:19 KJV “Salute Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.”

Onesiphorus is not the only one Paul thanked for their loyal support. F.E. Marsh’s 1000 New Bible Readings prepared this list under the title “621. Paul’s Regard for His Brethren”:

“It is an interesting study to ponder Paul’s regard for those with whom he laboured.

  1. He was solicitous of Trophimus, who was sick—2Tim 4:20.
  2. He writes of prayerful Epaphras—Col 4:12.
  3. The Women who helped in the Gospel—Phil 4:3.
  4. The beloved Timothy—2Tim 1:2.
  5. Profitable Mark—2Tim 4:11.
  6. Refreshing Onesiphorus—2Tim 1:16.
  7. And Others—Romans 16.” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22)

Who was Onesiphorus?

The biblical record offers extraordinarily little information about Onesiphorus. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible declares: “He was evidently of Asia, and is the only one who is mentioned from that region who had showed the apostle kindness in his trials. He is mentioned only in this Epistle, and nothing more is known of him” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul wrote this last epistle to his young protege, Timothy, during his second and last imprisonment in Rome, according to the biblical record. This time he was not under house arrest, as in his first Roman imprisonment, but was likely in a dank, dark, and frigid dungeon. 2 Timothy 1:16 declares that Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul’s chains. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible describes Paul’s two Roman imprisonments: “Paul was bound with a chain when a prisoner at Rome; Philippians 1:13-14,16; Colossians 4:3,18; Philemon 1:10; see the notes at Acts 28:20” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Roman prisoners relied on family and friends for necessary supplies.

2 Timothy 1:18 says Onesiphorus had ministered to Paul beforehand in Ephesus, far from Rome. This may have been during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19-20). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia offers background: “It was to Paul that the church at Ephesus owed its origin, and it was to him therefore that Onesiphorus and the Christians there were indebted for all that they knew of Christ” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

A dangerous mission

Onesiphorus is contrasted to those, such as Phygellus and Hermogenes, who turned away from Paul (2 Timothy 1:15). He had to search everywhere to locate Paul in this huge capital city (2 Timothy 1:17). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible reports that “People were often ashamed to be associated with those in Roman custody, withdrawing from them … A benefactor from wealthy Ephesus could well have had means to visit Paul in Rome” (Tecarta Bible App).

Nonetheless, Onesiphorus risked his own life, as explained by the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “But to do this, though it was only his duty, involved much personal danger at that particular time. For the persecution, inaugurated by Nero against the Christians, had raged bitterly; its fury was not yet abated, and this made the profession of the Christian name a matter which involved very great risk of persecution and of death” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The College Press Bible Study Textbook Series explains how dangerous a mission this was: “It was not easy for Onesiphorus to leave Ephesus and travel all the way to Rome; not when Rome was on fire with hatred against all Christians. Would the loved ones of Onesiphorus ever see him again? If they didn’t, they could find comfort in knowing his mission was accomplished. He did arrive in Rome; he did find Paul; he did live up to his name, Onesiphorus, which means ‘profit-bringer’” (e-Sword 13.0.0). An alternate definition is “help bringer.”

This source then describes the complications he faced: “When Onesiphorus arrived in Rome, it had been largely destroyed by fire. Christians were scattered and were living in constant fear of being arrested and taken to the Arena. When he inquired concerning the whereabouts of Paul, he had the greatest difficulty in finding those who would identify themselves as friends of a condemned criminal” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

His diligent search

Onesiphorus was not dissuaded from locating Paul. Arno Gaebelein’s Annotated Bible Old and New Testament notes: “There were many thousands of prisoners in Roman dungeons, and we may well imagine how day after day Onesiphorus sought for his beloved brother, going from dungeon to dungeon till he had located Paul” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

C.H. Spurgeon’s Expositions adds more detail: “You could not tell in Rome where a prisoner was. The registers were not open to investigation. You had to go from prison to prison, and fee the guards to get admission, or to be told who might be there, and Onesiphorus was determined to find out Paul. I suppose that he went to the Mamertine, a dungeon in which some of us have been — one dungeon under the bottom of another” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Many expositors believe Paul was confined to this Mamertine Prison before his execution.

Imagining his diligent search, Albert Barnes’ in his Notes on the Bible offers this contemporary lesson: “It is not everyone, even among professors of religion, who in a great and splendid city would be at the trouble to search out a Christian brother, or even a minister, who was a prisoner, and endeavor to relieve his sorrows. This man, so kind to the great apostle, will be among those to whom the Saviour will say, at the final judgment, ‘I was in prison, and ye came unto me;’ Matthew 25:36” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Imagining Paul’s delight when Onesiphorus finally found him is provided by Peter Pett’s Commentary Series on the Bible: “And then into the bleakness of his experience came a shining light (Matthew 5:16; 25:36). For one day as he sat there in his cell, he heard the door grinding open, and into his cell strode Onesiphorus who explained that he was sorry that it had taken so long, but he had been looking for him diligently and had only just discovered in which prison he was. Only those who have gone through such an experience of darkness and aloneness would understand the joy that must have filled Paul’s soul” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Closer than a brother

Because our two focus passages report Paul’s greeting of and praying for the house (family) of Onesiphorus, some have concluded that Onesiphorus had since died. Paul prayed that God would show him mercy “in that day” (2 Timothy 1:18) causing some to assume Paul offered prayers for the dead, which later became a major practice in some Christian denominations. However, the Fausset Bible Dictionary in its article on Onesiphorus refutes this: “Absence from Ephesus probably is the cause of the expression; he had not yet returned from his visit to Rome. If the master were dead the household would not be called after his name…Nowhere does Paul use prayers for the dead; Onesiphorus therefore was not dead” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Another suggestion is that Onesiphorus had not yet returned home because he too was then confined, as explained by Rhoderick D. Ice in the College Press Explanatory Notes: “But he may also be in prison, waiting to be executed as was Paul. He had placed himself in danger by visiting Paul in prison and helping him” (e-Sword 13.0.0). At the time he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul may not have known what happened to his loyal friend after his visit.

Onesiphorus had risked his life to find his beloved teacher. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible praises Onesiphorus and offers believers this lesson: “His affection for him [Paul] did not change when he became a prisoner. True friendship, and especially that which is based on religion, will live in all the vicissitudes of fortune, whether we are in prosperity or adversity; whether in a home of plenty, or in a prison” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Onesiphorus stuck closer to Paul than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: It is finished

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

Did you know that one of the last things Jesus spoke from the cross was that He had completed His God-assigned task of providing substitutionary atonement for those willing to accept it?

In this hectic world, people often feel at the end of the day they still have unfulfilled tasks. At His death, Jesus knew He had accomplished all God had appointed Him for His first coming. This Digging Deeper explores His declaration and its meaning for Christians as they draw near to their annual observance of Passover.

Our focus verse this week is: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30 KJV throughout). This was the sixth of seven statements Jesus delivered from the cross that are recorded in the Four Gospels.

A duty fulfilled

Jesus came to earth with an assignment from His Heavenly Father. Early in His ministry: “Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34). God had assigned Jesus this duty and Jesus had accepted it willingly before the world began (2 Timothy 1:9; Revelation 13:8). During his high priestly prayer before His arrest, Jesus prayed to the Father: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (John 17:4). He understood His soon-coming death was part of this work.

The ESV Study Bible explains His statement: “It is finished proclaims that all the work the Father had sent him to accomplish (cf. 4:34; 9:4) was now completed, particularly his work of bearing the penalty for sins. This means there was no more penalty left to be paid for sins, for all Jesus’ suffering was ‘finished’ (see Heb. 1:3; 9:11–12, 25–28)” (Tecarta Bible App).

The Greek word for “finished” in our focus verse is teleo. Greek words of that same family appear just two verses before it and are translated as “accomplished” and “fulfilled”: “After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst” (John 19:28). These words have the same Greek root. Jesus knew He was fulfilling many scriptural prophecies concerning his sacrificial death for sin.

This word finished had a historical significance in that culture, as Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible explains: “John 19:30 ‘It is finished!’ This is a perfect passive indicative. From the Synoptic Gospels we learned that He shouted this with a loud cry (cf. Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; Matthew 27:50). This refers to the finished work of redemption. This form of the term (telos) in the Egyptian papyri (Moulton and Milligan) was a commercial idiom for ‘paid in full'” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Peter Pett’s Commentary Series on the Bible describes it further: “Interestingly we know from papyri that tetelestai would be written across invoices to indicate ‘paid in full.’ He had given His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)” (Ibid.).

What was finished

Joseph Benson’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments details what was finished: “The important work of man’s redemption is accomplished. The demands of the law, and of divine justice, are satisfied, and my sufferings are now at an end. It appears from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that in speaking these words he cried with an exceeding loud voice; probably to show that his strength was not exhausted, but that he was about to give up his life of his own accord” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

B.H. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible itemizes more of what Jesus accomplished: “Expiation for sin was made; the penal demands of the law were satisfied; the vicarious Substitute for sinners died in their behalf; and the claims of the law on the sinner that believes in Jesus Christ were fully met. Therefore, no man can ‘lay any charge to God’s elect.’ The debt, all of it, has been paid” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Psalm 22 is known as the Crucifixion Psalm and was recited by Jesus, at least in part, during His hours on the cross, as explained by Peter Pett’s Commentary Series on the Bible: “As the final words in Psalms 22 tell us ‘He has done it’. God’s work had been accomplished, and Jesus had successfully completed His mission” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Imagine Jesus’ deep emotion as He recited David’s words that He was then experiencing. He was the One who had inspired David to write them as a prophecy of His own death.

He suffered God’s wrath, for us

To understand the horror Jesus faced in His last moments, David Guzik in his Enduring Word Commentary writes: “This was the cup – the cup of God’s righteous wrath – that He trembled at drinking (Luke 22:39-46, Psalm 75:8, Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25:15). On the cross, Jesus became, as it were, an enemy of God who was judged and forced to drink the cup of the Father’s fury. He did it so we would not have to drink that cup” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Humanity deserved that wrath, but Jesus suffered it in their place. This explains His agony in Gethsemane before He was arrested. He was repulsed by sin, yet He would bear the sins of the world on the cross.

John the Baptist described Jesus at the beginning of His ministry: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29).” They understood the significance of Jesus’ coming to earth to provide salvation from sin for humanity. Paul explained that God “…hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Peter later wrote: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

The victorious end

There was another work that Jesus finished before His sacrifice. He was the Creator in the Book of Genesis (John 1:3). Notice these words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Genesis 2:1). Jesus finished creation and redemption for His creatures. All that believers need for life and happiness has been supplied by the One who gave Himself for us (Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:2). These are words to remember during the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Paul wrote to primarily Gentile Christians at Corinth in the first century who were observing the spring festivals.

As tragic and heartbreaking as the words “It is finished” are, Jesus was victorious in His death, nonetheless. David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary explains: “It is finished! Jesus’ final word (tetelestai in the ancient Greek) is the cry of a winner. Jesus had finished the eternal purpose of the cross. It stands today as a finished work, the foundation of all Christian peace and faith, paying in full the debt we righteously owe to God” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Jesus died victorious, even though it seemed He had lost it all. Satan was defeated (John 16:11; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14) and humanity’s reconciliation with God was accomplished. William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible provides a thought-provoking explanation: “‘It is finished’ is one word in Greek–tetelestai (G5055) –and Jesus died with a shout of triumph on his lips. He did not say, ‘It is finished,’ in weary defeat; he said it as one who shouts for joy because the victory is won. He seemed to be broken on the Cross, but he knew that his victory was won” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Because Jesus was victorious, believers can be too.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: Woman, Behold thy Son!

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 9 min.

Did you know that among the last things Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross were words directed to His mother?

Imagine her agony, despair, and terror as she stared at her firstborn son crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Jesus suffered with her and desired to comfort her. As a widow’s firstborn son, he had a responsibility to her knowing He was about to die. This Digging Deeper details this heartbreaking scene to understand how Jesus met His duty to His beloved mother.

Our focus passage is: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home” (John 19:25-27 KJV throughout). Jesus spoke seven times from the cross, as recorded in the four gospels; this is the third and the first recorded in the Gospel of John. Only John describes this incident.

The one whom Jesus loved

The disciple to whom Jesus assigned His mother is unnamed but has been deduced to be the apostle, John, the author of this gospel account. Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible Study Guide Commentary explains John’s reluctance to name himself: “Since John is not mentioned by name in the Gospel, many assume this was his way of identifying himself (cf. John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). It was customary in the first century to refer to oneself in the third person to avoid drawing attention to oneself.

Notice that, though His disciples had all fled and forsaken Him when He was arrested in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:56), the KJV Study Bible declares: “Four women attend the Crucifixion, and they remain while the disciples flee (except for John, who returns). Several women, including these mentioned here, have accompanied Jesus and His disciples on their journeys, taking care of their daily needs” (Tecarta Bible App). Jesus had many loyal female disciples during His ministry and at least some stood by Him in His hour of need.

“Woman!”

Modern readers of John 19:26 may think Jesus’ use of the term Woman when referring to His mother is distant and harsh. However, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 5  shows otherwise: “Woman – In the Orient, a customary, dignified, and respectful term of address…” (Review and Herald Publishing, 1980, p. 921). Mary was not the only woman whom Jesus addressed this way. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers highlights other examples: “Were proof needed of the tenderness which underlies the word as used by Him, it would be found in the other instances which the Gospels supply. It is spoken only to the Syro-Phœnician whose faith is great (Matthew 15:28); to the daughter of Abraham loosed from her infirmity (Luke 13:12); and, in this Gospel, to the Samaritan embracing the higher faith (John 4:21); perhaps to the sinner whom He does not condemn (John 8:10); to the same mother from the cross (John 19:26); and to Mary Magdalene in tears (John 20:13, 15)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Nonetheless, this was an unusual way for Jesus to refer to His mother, as the NET Bible explains: “The custom in both Hebrew (or Aramaic) and Greek would be for a son to use a qualifying adjective or title. Is there significance in Jesus’ use here? Jesus probably used the term here to help establish Mary and the beloved disciple in a new ‘mother-son’ relationship. Someone would soon need to provide for Mary since Jesus, her oldest son, would no longer be alive. By using this term Jesus distanced himself from Mary so the beloved disciple could take his place as her earthly son (cf. John 2:4)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Another suggestion is offered by the College Press Bible Study Textbook Series: “Perhaps He did not use ‘mother’ in order to spare her an increased awareness of her maternal relationship to the One in extreme agony. But ever since He reminded her in the Temple, when He was twelve, of His unique relationship with God, He has taught her that He is much more than her son. He taught her that He was her Lord and Saviour (cf. John 2:4; Matthew 12:46-50)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Jesus may also have been attempting to reduce her pain and guard her security, as John Gill explains in his Exposition of the Bible: “Christ calls her not mother, but woman; not out of disrespect to her, or as ashamed of her; but partly that he might not raise, or add strength to her passions [sufferings], by a tenderness of speaking; and partly to conceal her from the mob, and lest she should be exposed to their rude insults; as also to let her know that all natural relation was now ceasing between them; though this is a title he sometimes used to give her before” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The responsibility of a son

By speaking to His mother and John together, Jesus was fulfilling a son’s duty, as explained by the ESV Study Bible: “In keeping with biblical injunctions to honor one’s parents (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), Jesus made provision for his mother, who was almost certainly widowed and probably in her late 40s or early 50s, with little or no personal income” (Tecarta Bible App). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds:”…because men controlled most legal proceedings, having a male advocate was vital. Since Jesus as the eldest son was responsible for his mother’s care, entrusting this responsibility to another before he died was important. Jesus had younger brothers (7:3–5), who would normally take the responsibility, but Jesus entrusts her care to a disciple, treating him as a member of the family (cf. Mk 3:32–35)” (Ibid.). Jesus understood this proverb: “Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22).

Why did Jesus not assign Mary to His half-brothers? John 7:5 reports they did not yet believe He was the Messiah. Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible adds this: “It is sad to note that His brothers were not present with their mother. Presumably they had remained in Galilee while Mary had decided to journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and the other women” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Book of Acts reports that His brothers were later part of the early church along with Mary (Acts 1:14).

Jesus was fulfilling His role as provider for His mother. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains: “Testaments could entrust care for a family member to a designated person, and one who was dying could assign property or duties verbally. In contrast to many subsequent portrayals, Jesus’ cross left him close enough to the ground (like many other ancient crosses) for his mother and disciple to hear him” (Tecarta Bible App).

Why did Jesus chose John? William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible explains: “And, after all, John had a double qualification for the service Jesus entrusted to him–he was Jesus’ cousin, being Salome’s son, and he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. So Jesus committed Mary to John’s care and John to Mary’s, so that they should comfort each other’s loneliness when he was gone” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

A pierced heart

Mary’s attendance at the Cross reveals a special love of a mother for her son, even one who had been crucified by the Romans, as explained by Joseph Benson’s Commentary: “While Jesus, hanging on the cross, suffered all manner of insults and sorrows; there stood by the cross his mother — ‘Neither her own danger, nor the sadness of the spectacle, nor the reproaches and insults of the people, could restrain her from performing the last office of duty and tenderness to her divine son on the cross. Grotius justly observes that it was a noble instance of fortitude and zeal. Now a sword (according to Simeon’s prophecy, Luke 2:35) struck through her tender heart, and pierced her very soul; and perhaps the extremity of her sorrows might so overwhelm her spirits, as to render her incapable of attending the sepulchre, which we do not find that she did'” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

John 19:27 declares that John took Mary that hour to his home. One may wonder if there is any other record of John’s caring for Mary. Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible Study Guide Commentary offers this: “Tradition says that John cared for Mary until her death and then he moved to Asia Minor (especially Ephesus) where he had a long and successful ministry. It is at the urging of the Ephesian elders that John, as an old man, wrote his memories of the life of Jesus (i.e., the Gospel of John)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

This tragic crucifixion scene painfully strikes believers’ hearts. William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible offers us some final thoughts: “There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the Cross, when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days ahead. He never forgot the duties that lay to his hand. He was Mary’s eldest son, and even in the moment of his cosmic battle, he did not forget the simple things that lay near home. To the end of the day, even on the Cross, Jesus was thinking more of the sorrows of others than of his own” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: The Heart Tablet

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

Did you know that the internal inscribing of God’s word, i.e., on the heart, is taught in the Old Testament?

Some may think that this is exclusively a benefit of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33). However, this Digging Deeper presents Old Testament examples in which God required His law to be inscribed internally on the heart, not just externally on stone. The Almighty has always wanted His people’s motivation for obedience to come from within. Our focus verse is: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 3:3 KJV throughout). God’s teachings are to be imprinted deeply into the innermost being so they never slip out of memory, as will be explained further in this study.

The phrase, “the table of thine heart” appears only twice in the King James Bible and both references are in the Book of Proverbs. The other one is: “Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 7:3 KJV). In both cases, the believer is instructed to bind something to their fingers or neck. In the case of Proverbs 3:3, it is mercy and truth and in Proverbs 7:3 it is the commandments. The Book of Proverbs is filled with moral instruction for righteous living. There are other Scriptures of a similar nature that speak of God’s instruction being written in the inner person as opposed to being inscribed on stone, such as Deuteronomy 11:18-20, Proverbs 6:20-24, Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 3:3, Hebrews 10:16. It is vital for our understanding that Hebrew often employed figurative language for depicting ways to influence human behavior.

Tables and Hearts

The older English word table in our primary text denotes a tablet, such as a writing tablet. The Pulpit Commentary by H.D.M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell defines it: “The table (luakh) was the tablet expressly prepared for writing by being polished, corresponding to the πινακίδον, the writing table of Luke 1:63, which, however, was probably covered with wax. The inscription was made with the stylus. The same word is used of the tables of stone, on which the ten commandments were written with the finger of God, end allusion is in all probability here made to that fact (Exodus 31:18; 34:28)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides additional historical background for this word: “In the ancient world, writing was often done on tablets. While in Mesopotamia writing tablets were normally made of clay, in the OT the term probably refers to wooden boards covered with wax (though the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets; Ex 24:12). The metaphor of the heart as a tablet (not a tablet worn on a cord over the heart as some would have it) on which one writes the law, of course, points to an internalization of God’s commands in one’s life, so that not only one’s actions but also one’s motives are pure (see also Pr. 7:3; Jer. 31:33)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Joseph S. Exell’s The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary additionally explains: “The tables were intended to be not a book only, but a type. An impress should be taken on our own hearts, that we may always have the will of God hidden within us.—Arnot” (e-Sword 13.0.0). As printing machine type leaves an impression on a sheet of paper, so God’s word is to impress our minds. The Pulpit Commentary by H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell explains the word write: “…i.e. inscribe them. mercy and truth, deeply there, impress them thoroughly and indelibly upon thine heart, so that they may never be forgotten, and may form the mainspring of your actions. The expression implies that the heart is to be in entire union with their dictates” (Ibid.).

A physical interpretation

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers reveals how some misunderstood the command: “These directions resemble the figurative orders with regard to the keeping of the Law in Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8, the literal interpretation of which led to the use of prayer-fillets and phylacteries among the Jews. Certain texts of Scripture were copied out, enclosed in a leather case, and tied at the time of prayer on the left arm and forehead” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This practice appears in the Gospels relating to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Mat 23:5). The word phylacteries appears only here in our Bible.

The Biblical and Theological Dictionary by Richard Watson defines the word phylacteries as “…little scrolls of parchment, in which are written certain sentences of the law, enclosed in leather cases, and bound with thongs on the forehead and on the left arm…The command ought doubtless to be understood metaphorically, as a charge to remember it, to meditate upon it, to have it as it were continually before their eyes, and to conduct their lives by it; as when Solomon says, concerning the commandments of God in general, ‘Bind them about thy neck, write them upon the table of thy heart,” Proverbs III, 1, 3; VI, 21” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22). The Bible’s figurative language was a colorful way for God to stress that His instruction was to be very much part of the worshiper’s psyche leading to observant behavior. Even some Israelites misunderstood this language genre.

The heart as the center

Proverbs 3:3 and Proverbs 7:3 state that instruction was to be written on the heart, i.e., the mind. The word heart was used multiple ways in Scripture, depending on the context. Definitions from three dictionaries will broaden our comprehension. Easton’s Bible Dictionary notes: “According to the Bible, the heart is the centre not only of spiritual activity, but of all the operations of human life” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary declares further: “Both Old and New Testaments speak repeatedly of the heart as the centre of a person’s inner life. An examination of the hundreds of references to the heart in the Bible will show that the word is not limited in its meaning to one particular part of a person” (Ibid.). The Poor Man’s Dictionary by Robert Hawker adds another aspect: “The heart in all languages is considered as the leading principle of action and of character” (Ibid.).

The Holman KJV Study Bible clarifies what God intended: “To write something on the heart is to internalize it so that it directs one’s actions (Pro. 1:1-4; Pro. 6:20-24; Jer. 17:1; 31:31-34)” (Tecarta Bible App). Conversely, wrong attitudes can also be impressed on the heart, as the College Press Bible Study Textbook Series explains: “The heart is like a table or tablet on which can be written either good (2 Corinthians 3:3) or bad (Jeremiah 17:1)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Jeremiah 17:1 declares that Judah’s sin was inscribed on their hearts instead of God’s law.

The inscribing process

As has been stated, action displaying character flows from a correct spiritual mindset. The NIV Study Bible explains: “These instructions are metaphors for internalizing in the very center of one’s being the character traits mentioned (see Ex 13:9; Dt 6:8–9 and notes)” (Tecarta Bible App). Christians are building godly character. This is accomplished through meditation, reflection, and internalizing God’s standards throughout the day (Joshua 1:8).

Daily Bible study and prayer are part of this inscribing process. Bible memorization (Psalm 119:11) is another method for keeping God’s word in our hearts, as explained by Gary Everett’s Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures: “It is a full time job of diligent effort to walk according to the Scriptures so we must constantly keep Bible verses on our mind in order to walk in them” (e-Sword 13.0.0). What facilitates this is explained by the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “The Spirit alone can enable us to ‘write them on the table,’ i.e., the tablet, of the heart (Jeremiah 31:33)” (Ibid.). By employing God’s Spirit and rehearsing God’s Scriptures throughout the day, Christians will respond obediently to God’s instruction written on the tablets of their hearts.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: Servants of Jesus Christ

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 9 min.

Did you know that Paul, despite being a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28), described himself as a servant?

Roman citizenship was highly prized in the first century. But when it came to his relationship to Jesus Christ, he referred to himself as a servant. This Digging Deeper explores why Paul chose this word for himself and how he intended brethren to understand it. Modern readers will uncover its relevance. This article highlights: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1 KJV throughout).

Before he declared his ministerial office as an apostle, he described himself as Christ’s servant. Gary Everett’s Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures emphasizes Paul’s word order here: “Notice that Paul calls himself a servant before declaring himself an apostle. The Greek language often lacks our familiar word order of Subject-Verb-Object. Instead, the Greek places words in the order of their emphasis, or the order of importance to the thought being presented.” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Servant, not slave

Notice that the King James Version of the Bible translates the Greek word doulos as “servant” and not “slave.” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary explains the difference: “Servant differs from slave, as the servant’s subjection to a master is voluntary, the slave’s is not. Every slave is a servant, but every servant is not a slave” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable agrees: “In his relationship to Jesus Christ, Paul was a bond-servant (Greek doulos). Some translators have rendered this word ‘slave,’ but Paul was a willing servant of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:7)” (Ibid.).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, explains why the word servant is appropriate: “Some prefer the rendering ‘slave,’ but this could suggest an unwilling attachment. In Israel the citizenry regarded themselves as servants of their king, even though they were free men. Since this word doulos is used of Christ in relation to the Father (Philippians 2:7), where ‘slave’ would be inappropriate, the translation ‘servant’ is altogether fitting here. By beginning in this fashion, the writer is putting himself on the same plane as his readers. He does not seek to dominate them” (Zondervan, 1976, p. 14).

By employing the word servant, Paul compares himself to God’s Old Testament prophets, as explained by the NET Bible: “Undoubtedly the background for the concept of being the Lord’s ‘slave’ or ‘servant’ is to be found in the Old Testament scriptures. For someone who was Jewish this concept did not connote drudgery, but honor and privilege. It was used of national Israel at times (Isaiah 43:10), but was especially associated with famous OT personalities, including such great men as Moses (Joshua 14:7), David (Psalm 89:3; cf. 2 Samuel 7:5, 8) and Elijah (2 Kings 10:10); all these men were ‘servants (or slaves) of the Lord’” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The attitude of a doulos

Jesus referred to His followers as servants, as explained by Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible: “This name was what the Lord Jesus himself directed His disciples to use, as their general appellation; Matthew 10:25; 20:27; Mark 10:44. And it was the customary name which they assumed; Galatians 1:10; Colossians 4:12; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1; Acts 4:29; Titus 1:1; James 1:1” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments defines this Greek word: “Servant—Δουλος, derived from δεω, to bind, so signifying a bondsman … To be a doulos of a Divine Master is a high honour ... Just so in English we may say servant of God, but never slave of God” (e-Sword 13.0.0). In his comment on Luke 7:2, Whedon notes that this word designates: ” … any person performing a subordinate service for any reason whatever; as for hire, for love, from civil office, from religious duty, or from ownership” (Ibid.).

David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary establishes the attitude of service:

“i. There were several Greek words used to designate a slave, but the idea behind the word for servant (doulos) is ‘complete and utter devotion, not the abjectness which was the normal condition of the slave.’ (Morris)

ii. ‘A servant of Jesus Christ, is a higher title than monarch of the world’ (Poole)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Servanthood in the ancient world

Servanthood was quite a different relationship in the Greco-Roman world of the first century than what people think of slavery in the western world, as explained by the ESV Study Bible: “The Roman institution of being a ‘bondservant’ or ‘slave’ (Gk. doulos; see ESV footnote and Preface) was different from the institution of slavery in North America during the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Slaves (bondservants, servants) generally were permitted to work for pay and to save enough to buy their freedom (see Matthew 25:15 where the ‘servants’ [again Gk. doulos] were entrusted with immense amounts of money and responsibility)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Servanthood was not a relationship foreign to first-century people, as explained by John D. Morris in his article “A Bondslave and a Freeman” for the Days of Praise publication: “The parallel phrase ‘bondslave of the emperor’ was commonly used in governmental and commercial circles of the day, and the readers in Rome would fully understand the meaning of the new term. The emperor of Rome not only was to be obeyed as a human slave owner and king, he also was to be worshiped as a god. Paul boldly proclaimed himself to be the bondslave of a different slave owner, the subject of a different King, and the worshiper of a different God.”

Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible expands this idea further: “It is often, however, applied to courtiers, or the officers that serve under a king: because in an eastern monarchy the relation of an absolute king to his courtiers corresponded nearly to that of a master and a slave. Thus, the word is expressive of dignity and honor; and the servants of a king denote officers of a high rank and station. It is applied to the prophets as those who were honored by God, or especially entrusted by him with office; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:2; Jeremiah 25:4. The name is also given to the Messiah, Isaiah 42:1, ‘Behold my servant in whom my soul delighteth,’ etc.; Isaiah 53:11, ‘shall my righteous servant justify many'” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Jesus was the Father’s servant.

Christians as servants

Not only did Paul describe himself as Christ’s servant, but our New Testament uses this term for Christians generally, as explained by R.C.H. Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament: “In the New Testament John, as for instance in Rev. 1:1, often employs δοῦλοι with reference to all Christians, with which passage Eph. 6:6; 1 Pet. 2:16 agree and we may add Rom. 6:16–20; 14:4, 7, 8; 1 Cor. 7:22, together with the statements that we all belong to Christ, are bought by him, and are bound to serve him (δουλεύειν)” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22).

Christ’s sacrifice has set His servants free from being slaves of Satan (John 8:34; Galatians 4:3), as explained by John D. Morris in his article “A Bondslave and a Freeman” for the Days of Praise publication: “Long before Nero’s executioner freed Paul from the limitations of his physical body, Paul had been made a ‘freeman of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:22). The common title of the day ‘freedman of the emperor’ designated a bondslave of the emperor who had been elevated by the emperor to a higher position. Paul had been, and all believers have been, ransomed out of the slave market of sin by Christ’s blood and have been set free from the guilt, power, and penalty of that sin.”

Paul explained that Jesus purchased Christians: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 KJV). Christ’s death provided the ransom price to set them free from slavery to sin, self, and Satan (Matthew 20:28; Ephesians 1:7).

Christians are servants of Jesus Christ. This is an honored position in Christ. Nonetheless, Christians owe everything to Him and are obliged to serve Him at every command. Jesus explained this discipleship: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

A special relationship

This servanthood also implies a special relationship with Christ: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:14-15).

The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, reconciles the competing terms servants with friends: “I call you no longer servants, etc.—Servants = δούλους … But the apostles rejoiced in His service (Romans 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1, etc.). It was, however, a free service, not that of a slave. The slave’s position admits but of one mode of action, unthinking obedience. It is far otherwise with Christ’s disciples and friends. He takes them into confidence, reveals Himself and His work to them, makes them fellow-labourers in His vineyard” (e-Sword 13.0.0). How privileged are Christians as servants of Jesus Christ! This servanthood and friendship are unlike any other in human history.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: A Mind to Work

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that about 90 years after the people of the House of Judah returned from captivity in Babylon, their capital city of Jerusalem still did not have a defensive wall around it?

The Jewish governor of Judea challenged his compatriots to unite and complete a project to protect Jerusalem and its inhabitants from their enemy’s opposition.

Decades earlier, the ancestors of these folks had built a semblance of a sacrificial altar and later a temple. But Jerusalem was undefended from hostile neighbors since it had no protective wall. The Bible records that the Jews recognized the importance of their participation to build a wall and worked with determination through the effective leadership of their governor. This Digging Deeper recounts this story to grasp an applicable lesson for God’s people who perform His work today.

Needing a wall

This building project occurred during the Persian Empire period of Old Testament history. Judea and much of the Ancient Near East were governed by this vast empire. Starting with Persia’s king, Cyrus, the people of the House of Judah were permitted to depart from the land of their captivity to rebuild their temple and city if they remained loyal to the Persian king and were peaceful contributors to the realm. Cyrus followed a policy of repatriation for the Jews and other formerly captive peoples, as noted in history.

Decades later, King Artaxerxes of Persia appointed as governor of Judea his cupbearer, Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11), to direct the project of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem. The entire Book of Nehemiah details this exciting saga of Nehemiah’s leadership over God’s people who accepted this challenge. They had lacked the necessary leadership until Nehemiah arrived. The Jews were being opposed by many nearby enemies. A wall around the city was vital for their protection.

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible summarizes Nehemiah 4: “This chapter relates, how the Jews, while building, were mocked by their enemies, to which no answer was returned but by prayer to God, and they went on notwithstanding in their work, Nehemiah 4:1 and how that their enemies conspired against them, to hinder them by force of arms, Nehemiah 4:7 to oppose which, both spiritual and temporal weapons were made use of, so that the work was still carried on, Nehemiah 4:13” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Facing opposition

In Nehemiah 4:1, Sanballat, the satrap (governor of a whole province) for Samaria, mocked the Jews and worked to discourage their progress. Nehemiah turned to God in prayer after learning of Sanballat’s opposition (Nehemiah 4:4-5). Arno Gaebelein’s Annotated Bible notes that this “… is another of the brief ejaculatory prayers of Nehemiah. There are seven of them in this book: chapters 2:4; 4:4-6; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Nehemiah’s effective leadership skills were the result of his constant prayer.

Our focus verse details what followed: “So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6 KJV throughout). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible explains the Hebrew of this passage: “The original is very emphatic: ויהי לב לעם לעשות  vayehi leb leam laasoth, ‘For the people had a heart to work.’ Their hearts were engaged in it; and where the heart is engaged, the work of God goes on well” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary makes this vital point about the result of Nehemiah’s prayer: “The immediate answer to the prayer made no difference in the enemies. The prayer was answered in the people of God doing the work. Nehemiah’s prayer asked God to take care of his enemies, and God answered by taking care of His people… We often miss God’s answer of our prayers, because we pray for Him to do a work in the lives of others we are in conflict with – and He answers by moving in our lives, but we resist that moving. It is as if He tried to give us a mind to work in a situation, but we resisted it” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Prayer and hard work

Commenting on the importance of joining prayer to work, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament asserts: “After praying, Nehemiah and the Jews continued with the work. Some Christians pray and then wait for things to happen, but not Nehemiah! As in all his efforts, he blended the divine perspective with the human. He faced Sanballat’s opposition with both prayer and hard work. Once he committed the problem to the Lord, he trusted God to help them achieve their goal” (Victor Publishing, 2000, p. 682). This combination of prayer and work empowers God’s people to perform His will.

HandFuls on Purpose, Vol. 06, (1) by James Smith and Robert Lee provides three vital actions taken by these Jews:

“1. A Mind to Work (Nehemiah 4:6). They had no mind to sit moping over their difficulties, or to spend their time in mere talk or fault-finding. The love of God constrained them…

2. A Heart to Pray. ‘Nevertheless, we made our prayers unto God’ (Nehemiah 4:9). A working mind should always be accompanied with a praying heart…

3. An Eye to Watch. ‘We set a watch against them day and night’ (Nehemiah 4:9). Watching and praying are frequently linked together in the Scriptures of truth (see Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:33; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Peter 4:7)” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22).

Christians need to join prayer with watchfulness, as K.L. Brooks’ Summarized Bible declares: “Nehemiah 4:13. Having prayed, they set a watch. We cannot secure ourselves by prayer, without watchfulness. Matthew 26:41. Prayer without watchfulness is presumption. Watchfulness without prayer is hypocrisy” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This is an example of faith as displayed by works. Brooks continues with another lesson on watchfulness: “God’s people are often a despised people, loaded with contempt, but the reproaches of enemies should rather quicken them to duty than drive them from it. Those who cast contempt on God’s people, in reality despise God Himself and prepare for themselves everlasting shame” (Ibid.).

Completing the job

The good news is that these pioneers did complete the wall they had built only halfway in chapter 4: “So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days” (Nehemiah 6:15 KJV). Fifty-two days was record time. Nehemiah’s leadership in this project was vital. Charles Simeon’s Homileticae explains the state of the project before he came: “The walls of Jerusalem still continued in their desolate condition, notwithstanding the Jews had returned thither about ninety years: but, at the instigation of one single man, the people combined; and engaging heartily in the work, they effected in a short space of time what had appeared utterly impracticable: Nehemiah says, ‘So built we the wall; for the people had a mind to work’” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Ger deKoning’s KingComments makes some pointed remarks on Nehemiah 4 that Christians must consider: “There is a kind of people who stand by and comment from the sidelines, but disappear when there is opposition. Some also want to contribute in an easy way, so they avoid effort. They send money – and insist on getting proof of payment in order to be able to use the gift as a tax-deductible item – and in doing so they think they can redeem their service in the kingdom of God. But they do not have a heart to work. Work in and for the church is not regulated by a collective labor agreement” (BPBible 0.5.3.1).

God’s people have always faced opposition from those who insist their work must be stopped. The Popular Commentary by Paul Kretzman provides the proper response: “Those who undertake the work of the Lord in true faith will not permit the ridicule of the enemies to discourage them, but will piously trust in the power of God to support them” (e-Sword 13.0.0). A New Testament admonition parallels this lesson from Nehemiah: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58 KJV).

As Christians approach the very end of the age, this will be even more important for God’s work to be completed through them. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible offers two final lessons: “1. Good work goes on well when people have a mind to it. 2. The reproaches of enemies should rather quicken us to our duty than drive us from it” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: Phebe

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that Paul may have entrusted a female Christian to transport his epistle to a church he had never yet visited?

He asked Christians in Rome to warmly welcome her when she arrived. In the last chapter of his epistle to them, Paul commends a woman who was on her way there who had served the brethren of Cenchrae, in modern Greece, and him personally. This Digging Deeper discovers who this outstanding female Christian was, why Paul praised her, and the assignment he gave her.

In this study we focus on: “I commend unto you Phebe [or, Phoebe] our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also (Romans 16:1-2 KJV throughout). This is the only mention of her in our New Testament and nothing further is known about her. Nonetheless, what an impression she made on Paul, as we will discover. She was one of those women who labored with Paul in the Gospel (Philippians 4:3), not in preaching (1 Corinthians 14:34), but in serving.

Bearer of an epistle

M.R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament explains Phebe’s circumstance: “Conybeare (‘Life and Epistles of St. Paul’) assumes that Phoebe was a widow, on the ground that she could not, according to Greek manners, have been mentioned as acting in the independent manner described, either if her husband had been living or she had been unmarried” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul probably wrote his Epistle to the Romans from Corinth during his third evangelistic journey. Phebe likely was the one who either transported Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or traveled with those who did. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Apostolic Church explains why it was transported by a friend instead of the official postal service: “The Imperial post was not available for private correspondence, and such a letter could be sent only by special messenger or by a trusted friend who happened to be travelling” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul commends Phebe unto the Roman brethren. Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary, in its second definition, defines this word and illustrates it from Romans 16:1: “To recommend as worthy of confidence or regard; to present as worthy of notice or favorable attention” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22). Paul provided her a letter of commendation, as explained by the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: “People of high status wrote letters of recommendation to peers on behalf of those of somewhat lower status. Often such a letter introduced the letter’s bearer, praising them and showing why they merited the help requested. The bearer of a document might also be called on to explain the sense of the document, making Phoebe’s qualifications important here” (Tecarta Bible App). At that time, supposed emissaries for Paul could turn up in a city purporting to bring word from Paul yet deceive brethren (2 Thessalonians 2:2). Signed letters from the apostles authenticated their true representatives.

In Romans 16, Paul greets several brethren in this capital city. Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible makes this key point: “Phebe is the first of thirty-five personal names mentioned in this last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, most of whom are mentioned nowhere else in Scripture. The reason why so much apparently personal information was included in the Scriptures by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is probably to illustrate the Spirit’s concern with individuals” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Paul greets these brethren from his location in southern Greece today. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible explains how he knew them: “Paul had been engaged in missionary work for 25 years when he wrote Romans. He had developed relationships with believers scattered all across the eastern Mediterranean world” (Tecarta Bible App). Evidently, these folks now lived in Rome. This source continues: “Phoebe was a prominent Christian who was planning to travel to Rome. Paul probably took the opportunity of her planned trip to entrust her with the delivery of his letter to the Roman Christians” (Ibid.).

Who was Phebe?

The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable declares Paul gave special mention of several women in this chapter: “Notice that the ministry of women in the Roman church is quite evident in this chapter. Paul referred to nine prominent women: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Tryphena, Thyphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, Julia, and Nereus’ sister” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Lange’s Commentary on the OT and NT explains that Phebe’s name: “…is derived from Φοῖβος, Phœbus (Apollo) [the sun god], but there is nothing remarkable in this, since the etymology would be as little recalled then, as now, in the case of proper names.—R.] See 2 Corinthians 5:12” (e-Sword 13.0.0). One may wonder why she retained a pagan name after her conversion. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges clarifies: “The early Christian converts seem to have had no scruple in retaining a pre-baptismal name even when the name (as in this case) was that of a heathen deity. Cp. Hermes, (Romans 16:14); Nereus, (Romans 16:15); and such derivative names as Demetrius (3 John 1:12)” (Ibid.).

Paul first refers to Phebe as our sister – i.e., a fellow believer. Then he calls her a servant. This has aroused much scholarly discussion on just how Paul used this term so early in the history of the Church of God. The ESV Study Bible explains: “Scholars debate whether Phoebe is a servant in a general sense, or whether she served as a deacon [deaconess], since the Greek word diakonos can mean either ‘servant’ (13:4; 15:8; 1 Cor. 3:5; 1 Tim. 4:6) or ‘deacon’ (referring to a church office; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12)” (Tecarta Bible App). Later the office of deaconess became an ordained position in the church. However, it is unclear here whether Paul intended this meaning.

Paul writes that Phebe had served the church at Cenchrea. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible reports that this location was: “A port about six miles (nine kilometers) from Corinth, where Paul is apparently located as he writes this letter (Acts 20:2-3)” (Tecarta Bible App). M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament describes Cenchrea further: “It was a thriving town, commanding a large trade with Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and the other cities of the Aegean. It contained temples of Venus, Aesculapius, and Isis. The church there was perhaps a branch of that at Corinth” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

A patron and benefactress

In Romans 16:2, Paul asks the Roman brethren to receive Phebe in the Lord – i.e., as a fellow believer. Then he calls her a succourer (i.e., benefactor or patron). The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible defines this word as: “The ‘patron,’ an important figure in the Greco-Roman world who used their money and influence to support various causes. Phoebe used her worldly advantages to help many believers, including Paul himself” (Tecarta Bible App).

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes benefactors further: “Wealthy benefactors helped their cities or other people, who in turn owed them honor. Most benefactors were male, but a number (some estimate 10 percent) were women. Benefactors of religious associations often allowed the latter to meet in the benefactors’ homes. Letters were normally carried by travelers. Phoebe is probably a well-to-do businesswoman traveling on business; Corinth and Rome had close trade ties” (Tecarta Bible App).

When Paul declares in Romans 16:2 that she had been a succourer of himself also, he may have meant that she had been instrumental in his recovery from an illness, as explained by Hasting’s Dictionary of the Apostolic Church: “Gifford (op. cit. p. 231) conjectures that the personal reference (‘and of mine own self’) may be to an illness in which Phoebe ministered to St. Paul at Cenchreae, and that his recovery was the occasion of his vow [Acts 18:18]. Certainly we may assume that she received him into her home when he visited or passed through Cenchreae (cf. Lydia at Philippi, Acts 16:15; 40), and that she ‘mothered’ him as did the mother of Rufus (Romans 16:13)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Barclay’s Daily Study Bible notes the importance of women to the early New Testament church: “There can have been no time in the Christian Church when the work of women was not of infinite value. It must have been specially so in the days of the early Church. In the case of baptism by total immersion, as it then was, in the visitation of the sick, in the distribution of food to the poor, women must have played a big part in the life and work of the Church, but they did not at that time hold any official position” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Phebe must have been an outstanding female servant of God’s church in the first century to whom Paul likely entrusted this treasured epistle. Paul’s description of her, though in only two verses, stands as a testament to his appreciation for the many women who backed him in his difficult circumstances of preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Digging Deeper: A Crown of Thorns

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that Jesus wore a crown before He died?

Christians understand that when He returns to take command of His kingdom He will be adorned with many crowns (Revelation 19:12). Even before He died, He was crowned and proclaimed king. However, it was not a proclamation by believers. Additionally, this crowning relates to the curse upon the earth from Genesis 3. What type of crown was this and how does it relate to the curse? This Digging Deeper recounts this event to discover its spiritual significance.

Our focus verse is: “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29 KJV throughout). This heartless act by the Roman soldiers as executioners is also recorded in Mark 15:17; John 19:2; John 19:5.

This scene occurs not long before Jesus was taken to Calvary to be crucified. Because of their military experience, these hardened and brutal Roman soldiers placed little value on human life. They mocked this helpless Jew who had been turned over to them for crucifixion by the Roman governor, Pilate.

A crown of torture

Before capturing the spiritual significance of this encounter, it is necessary to examine a couple of words used in this verse. Gary Everett’s Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures claims the word platted comes from the “The Greek verb πλέκω  (G4120) which means, ‘to twine, braid.’ This word is only used three times in the New Testament, and only in reference to this crown of thorns” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This organic crown was braided into the shape of a victor’s laurel. Ethelbert Bullinger in his Companion Bible attests that the Greek word for crown is “Stephanos (used by kings and victors); not diadema, as in Revelation 12:3; 13:1; 19:12″ (Ibid.). Victors’ garlands in Greco-Roman games were woven from leafy twigs of local plants, shrubs, or trees.

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides pertinent historical background: “Hellenistic [Greek culture] vassal princes wore garlands; soldiers may have used an available shrub such as acanthus to weave a wreath for Jesus. Imitating Hellenistic garlands, the soldiers may have intended the thorns to point especially outward, but some of the thorns would nevertheless turn inward, scraping the scalp. Scalp wounds bleed particularly profusely” (Tecarta Bible Apps). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary additionally notes: “Kings wear crowns, but not crowns of torture. The specific thorn-bushes of this region have long, hard, sharp thorns. This was a crown that cut, pierced, and bloodied the head of the King wearing it” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Royal diadems were much more elaborate, as Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains: “A crown was worn by kings, commonly made of gold and precious stones. To ridicule the pretensions of Jesus that he was a king, they probably plucked up a thornbush growing near, made it into something resembling in shape a royal crown, so as to correspond with the old purple robe, and to complete the mockery” (e-Sword 13.0.0). As John Bengel’s Gnomon New Testament asserts, “They treated Jesus as a madman who fancied Himself a King” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22).

Thorns and the curse

Various suggestions have been offered over the years as to which thorny bush was chosen for this crown. However, Henry Alford’s The Greek Testament cautions: “It does not appear whether the purpose of the crown was to wound, or simply for mockery—and equally uncertain is it, of what kind of thorns it was composed…Some flexile shrub or plant must be understood—possibly some variety of the cactus or prickly pear” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Biblical Illustrator by Joseph S. Exell adds: “According to the Rabbis and the botanists, there would seem to have been from twenty to twenty-five different species of thorny plants growing in Palestine; and different writers have, according to their own judgment or fancies, selected one and another of these plants as the peculiar thorns which were used upon this occasion. But why select one thorn out of many?” (e-Sword 13.0.0). However, there is a more substantial significance.

The NET Bible provides a hint of the spiritual significance of this act: “In placing the crown of thorns on his head, the soldiers were unwittingly symbolizing God’s curse on humanity (cf. Genesis 3:18) being placed on Jesus. Their purpose would have been to mock Jesus’ claim to be a king; the crown of thorns would have represented the ‘radiant corona’ portrayed on the heads of rulers on coins and other artifacts in the 1st century” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

This source asserts that apart from the specific thorn employed, more important is the connection of thorns to the first human sin described in Genesis. When one reads the punishment God imposed after this sin, it becomes plain that God cursed the serpent and the ground from which Adam and Eve would grow their food. Instead of the unhindered harvest of luscious fruits and vegetables, the ground would yield thorns and thistles to impede their efforts (Genesis 3:14, 17). Because of Jesus’ future sacrifice for sin, God did not curse Adam and Eve directly though they would suffer sin’s consequences in painful childbirth and laborious work (Genesis 3:16-19).

Curse from sin

Joseph S. Exell’s The Biblical Illustrator comments on the relationship of thorns to sin: “It may well be that more than one kind of thorn was platted in that crown: at any rate sin has so thickly strewn the earth with thorns and thistles that there was no difficulty in finding the materials, even as there was no scarcity of griefs wherewith to chasten Him every morning and make Him a mourner all His days” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible establishes this spiritual significance: “[1.] Thorns came in with sin, and were part of the curse that was the product of sin, Genesis 3:18. Therefore Christ, being made a curse for us, and dying to remove the curse from us, felt the pain and smart of those thorns, nay, and binds them as a crown to him (Job 31:36); for his sufferings for us were his glory” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Jesus vicariously suffered by bearing on Himself this curse, represented by the thorns. John Trapp’s A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments elaborates: “Christ, by wearing this crown of thorns, the firstfruits of the curse, took away the sin and curse of all his people; who must therefore, by their obedience, set a crown of gold on his head, Song of Solomon 3:11…” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Christ’s crown of thorns will be replaced by His bejeweled royal diadems (Revelation 19:12) when He sits upon the throne of David (Luke 1:32).

More lessons of the thorny crown

Matthew Henry goes on to explain two more significances of the thorns of Genesis: “[2.] Now he answered to the type of Abraham’s ram that was caught in the thicket, and so offered up instead of Isaac, Genesis 22:13. [3.] Thorns signify afflictions, 2 Chronicles 33:11. These Christ put into a crown; so much did he alter the property of them to them that are his, giving them cause to glory in tribulation, and making it to work for them a weight of glory.” (e-Sword 13.0.0). When Abraham was instructed to sacrifice his son, Isaac was a type of Christ, and Abraham in this action was a type of the Father.

Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible takes this significance a step further: “The ‘crown of thorns’ may allude to (1) mocking Jesus’ claim to kingship or (2) the curse of Genesis 3:18 (cf. Galatians 3:13). Thorns are a symbol of rejecting the gospel (cf. Hebrews 6:8)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Those who reject Jesus’ sacrifice for them will continue to experience the effects of the curse in their efforts to save themselves.

This mockery of Jesus as a king did not involve only these Roman soldiers, as A New and Concise Bible Dictionary by George Morrish explains: “Though applied to His sacred head by the rough soldiers, it was connived at by Pilate, who presented the Lord in this garb to the Jews, but which only drew forth their cry, ‘Crucify Him.’ We read that the robe was taken off Him, but nothing is said of the crown, so that He may have worn that on the cross” (Bible Analyzer 5.4.1.22). If this was the case, during His crucifixion Jesus suffered not only the nails of the cross and the spear wound of the Roman soldier but also the crown of thorns jammed into his skull.

Jesus’ crown of thorns should instill in all believers a terrifying awareness of the consequences of their sins. Jesus willingly took upon Himself this curse so that they may be forgiven and enter His kingdom as kings and priests (Revelation 1:6; 20:6). Each of these two offices provides distinguishing headwear to signify leadership. Priestly miters and kingly crowns will likely be worn by those Jesus has saved and transformed (Exodus 28:40-29:6). This results from Jesus bearing their crowns of thorns.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.