Digging Deeper: The Flood in the New Testament

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

Estimated reading time: 8 min. 40 sec.

Did you know that Jesus referenced the great flood of Noah’s day to describe the world’s unrepentant state before His Second Coming?

There are vital lessons for our day from Jesus’ relating this story. Skeptics today question whether this flood ever occurred, stating it was legendary or merely symbolic. Others may accept its reality but challenge whether the flood was universal or only local. There is a direct and conclusive way for Christians to verify the details of this Genesis account: by closely reading the New Testament. This Digging Deeper delves into the New Testament’s reference to this dramatic story to motivate humanity to heed Jesus’ warnings about world conditions before His return.

The first passage that mentions the flood in NT

The great flood of Noah’s day (sometimes referred to as the “Genesis Flood” or “Noah’s Flood”) is mentioned in six New Testament passages. The first is: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matthew 24:36-39 KJV throughout).

Notice that Jesus affirms that such a flood actually occurred and that it took them all away. This story was quite familiar to His listeners since He did not have to recount the entire drama. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words states that the Greek word translated flood is: “kataklusmos (G2627), ‘a deluge’ (Eng., ‘cataclysm’), akin to katakluzo, ‘to inundate,’ 2 Peter 3:6, is used of the ‘flood’ in Noah’s time, Matthew 24:38, 39; Luke 17:27; 2 Peter 2:5” (e-Sword 13.0). Noah’s Flood was a cataclysmic deluge of the entire planet. Many Jews of the time thought the flood prefigured the day of judgment to come.

The King James Study Bible comments on these verses: ” … we are given a comparison to the days of Noe (Noah and the Flood), which illustrate and prefigure the condition of humanity at the time of Christ’s return. The last generation, like the one of Noah’s day, is pleasure-oriented and self-gratifying by eating and drinking. The reference to marrying and giving in marriage may refer to carrying on the normal course of life without heeding the impending judgment” (Tecarta Bible App).

As in Noah’s day, people will be unprepared for the destruction to come due to neglecting God’s warnings. R.C.H. Lenski in his Commentary on the New Testament wrote: “In the days preceding the deluge men were wholly unconcerned (ἦσαν with an indefinite subject). They spent the 120 years which God had fixed as the limit of his grace ‘eating (πρώγειν, “to munch,” audible eating, used in John 6:54–58) and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage’ as though no judgment were impending. These are neutral actions that are not sinful in themselves; but they obtain a sinister significance when the total disregard of God’s warnings is observed which underlies this conduct. These men should have repented in sackcloth and in ashes” (Bible Analyzer

The second passage is:

“And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all” (Luke 7:26-27). When He said it “destroyed them all,” Jesus considered it a universal flood since He used it as a historical precedent for massive destruction of the world’s population at His return resulting from open sin. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes: “Ancient Jewish sources depicted Noah’s generation (Ge 6:11–13) and Sodom (Ge 18:20; 19:4–9), sometimes together, as the epitome of evil. The point here is that they thought only of life as usual, and sudden judgment took them by surprise (Ge 7:21–23; 19:24–25)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Sudden destruction will catch most people unprepared at Jesus’ return. R.C.H. Lenski in his Commentary on the New Testament described the people of Noah’s day: “They disregarded absolutely all warning and lived on as though the warnings meant nothing. The four verbs which are without connectives are dramatic, all are imperfect tenses to express customary actions. It is a masterly description of that blind, secure, unbelieving, ungodly generation of Noah’s day, whose successors are with us now and shall fill the world when the Son of man comes” (Bible Analyzer

The third passage is:

“By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith” (Hebrews 11:7). The KJV Study Bible notes: “Noah was asked by God to do in faith things that were incongruous with his former experience. He had never seen rain (Genesis 2:5), and yet God told him to build an ark because of a coming flood (Genesis 6:13–17)” (Tecarta Bible App). The NKJ Study Bible adds further: “Noah had never seen (v. 1) the flood God revealed to him. Yet he believed God in spite of this and heeded His warnings. His faith not only saved him from the deluge but also from God’s judgment, for He became an heir of righteousness” (Ibid.).

The fourth passage is:

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20-21). The Holman KJV Study Bible explains: “Noah and his family were saved by water, or brought safely through the floodwaters, whereas the wicked were destroyed (Genesis 7:22-23). Baptism in the NT corresponds to this OT event in that both involve breaks from past lives and a fresh start and entrance into new life” (Tecarta Bible App).

The fifth passage is:

“And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5). The NKJ Study Bible comments: “Noah is called a preacher of righteousness because his righteous life put to shame the immoral lives of his neighbors. Noah’s building of the ark would certainly have given him the opportunity to explain the coming judgment and to invite people to repent and believe in God. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears, just as the truth of Christ’s atonement fell on the deaf ears of the false teachers of Peter’s day. Such indifference and unbelief brought the ungodly of Noah’s world to certain destruction” (Tecarta Bible App).

The sixth and final passage is:

“For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished” (2 Peter 3:6). In his Days of Praise article for February 5, 2018, John Morris wrote, “Peter uses extraordinary language. The word ‘overflowed’ in today’s verse translates the mighty Greek word katakluzo, from which we get our word ‘cataclysm’ …In the Greek New Testament, this word is only used to refer to Noah’s Flood (see Matthew 24:38-39; Luke 17:27; 2 Peter 2:5) …” This is the word described earlier in this article. The NKJ Study Bible additionally notes: “The scoffing teachers would choose to overlook events such as creation and the Flood. The people of Noah’s time did not believe in Noah’s warning because they had never experienced a flood.” (Tecarta Bible App).

To summarize the importance of the words of Jesus and the New Testament apostles, Henry Morris in his Days of Praise article for January 30, 2018 wrote: “This is what Jesus said, and what He believed, and therefore, those who are truly His disciples must also believe this. The destructive effects of the Flood can still be seen today not only in the biblical record, but also in the abundant evidences of cataclysmic destruction in the rocks and fossil graveyards all over the world. To refuse this evidence, as do many modern intellectuals, can only be because they ‘willingly are ignorant,’ as Peter said in referring to this testimony (2 Peter 3:5).”

Christians need only go back to the New Testament’s affirmation in the first century that the flood was real and globally destructive. Contrary to what some claim, there is ample biblical and geological evidence of a global flood. Faith in the words of Christ Who inspired the New Testament settles the matter satisfactorily for those who claim to be His disciples. Jesus referenced the flood account to warn people not to avoid His call for repentance as people did in the time of Noah. Believers who heed God’s word and respond like Noah will find ” … grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8).

Ken Frank

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: Open Thou Mine Eyes

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

Estimated reading time: 8 min. 40 sec.

Did you know that humans are unable to understand the rich meaning of the Bible unless God opens their eyes to it?

Try as they might, people can read and reread the sacred text and yet never grasp the deep, underlying instruction from God’s Holy Book. They may discover surface details but the deeper truths of Scripture must be unlocked to trusting minds. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible explains: “Without the Lord’s intervention, we will miss the wonderful treasures in the word” (Tecarta Bible App). Bible readers must discover the frame of mind that God requires of inquirers. This Digging Deeper searches for this key to understanding.

Our primary text is: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18 KJV throughout). Notice that it is a prayer request from a believer who already had sufficient spiritual insight to recognize that he was still missing the even deeper significance of Scripture. He realized he was impeded from beholding wondrous things. That impediment was sin. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible elucidates: “The Holy Scriptures are plain enough; but the heart of man is darkened by sin. The Bible does not so much need a comment, as the soul does the light of the Holy Spirit. Were it not for the darkness of the human intellect, the things relative to salvation would be easily apprehended” (e-Sword 13.0).

A spiritual prognosis will specify what needs attention. Joseph S. Exell’s The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary details the human condition further: “I. That man by himself cannot see wondrous things. The Hebrew phrase is, ‘Unveil mine eyes;’ implying—1. That man is spiritually blind (Revelation 3:17; Job 11:12). (1.) By sin (Ephesians 4:18). (2.) By reason of ignorance. (3.) By reason of self-conceit (1 Corinthians 8:1-2). (4.) By reason of prejudice and disaffection (Luke 16:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4). 2. That man is not only thus naturally blind, but lacks that divine light which can alone reveal and illuminate the sacred mysteries. Man is both blind and in the dark. His therefore is ‘gross darkness.’ 3. That this blindness and darkness are universal. The Psalmist’s case before his prayer was not the exception, but the rule” (e-Sword 13.0).

Looking closer

Taking a closer look at some words used in our text will expand our understanding. The word open has the sense of “unveil.” The Dake Reference Bible notes that the Hebrew word is “galah (H1540), unveil; uncover; remove that which hinders sight (Psalm 119:18; Numbers 22:31…)” (Bible Analyzer Dake’s illustrative verse, Numbers 22:31, comes from the account involving Balaam when his donkey spoke to him. The LORD had to open Balaam’s eyes to see an angel standing with a drawn sword causing him to bow his head and fall flat on his face in submission. Balaam had been blinded by his willfulness and sin.

The Bible is veiled to those who do not have “eyes to see.” Until one submits to God in repentant obedience the meaning of sacred text remains veiled. We need to pray for insight beyond our abilities. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges explains this word open: “Natural sight is unable to discern the mysteries (cp. Psalm 119:27) of Divine revelation; hence this prayer for the removal of the veil from his eyes. Cp. 2 Kings 6:17 (a different word); Ephesians 1:17-18” (e-Sword 13.0).

The apostle Paul’s conversion illustrates this process: “And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized” (Act 9:17-18). From that point on, Paul had “eyes to see.” He became one of the most effective first-century apostles, writing 14 of our New Testament books employing this spiritual insight.

The word behold in Psalm 119:18 means “discern, or see clearly”. The author asks God to enable him to understand God’s revelation as He intends. In His first recorded sermon, Jesus said one of the reasons for His ministry was the “recovering of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18). He will cure spiritual myopia.

The word wondrous too has special significance. The Ultimate Cross-reference Treasury defines this word as “the wondrous, spiritual, truths that lie hid beneath the letter” (e-Sword 13.0). Bible readers will discern surface teachings, but to grasp the deeper issues submissive prayer is required. The ESV Study Bible states that the wondrous things are: “Probably the wondrous works recorded there and what they reveal of God himself (cf. v. 27; Ex. 3:20; Josh. 3:5; Ps. 78:32; 145:5)” (Tecarta Bible App).

The need for spiritual discernment

Some cross-references are enlightening: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man” (1 Corinthians 2:12-15).

Paul’s declaration about comparing spiritual things with spiritual refers to employing Scripture to interpret Scripture – one of the most important Bible study principles. These verses explain a major problem people have in reading the Bible today: they try to read it using man’s wisdom instead of seeking God’s wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit. Without that, the words of Scripture are foolishness to them because they are spiritually discerned. This accounts for much of the biblical skepticism not only among the general public but even among biblical scholars today.

The word law at the end of our primary text does not refer only to God’s Old Testament legislation. The Hebrew word torah has the broader meaning of instruction or teaching. The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary expounds it as: “The wonders of the law, not only its deep mysteries, but its practical truths, proceed ‘out of’ it only to the spiritually enlightened” (e-Sword 13.0). This is what it takes for “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Unless we discern properly, we are apt to misinterpret Scripture and attempt to apply it in ways not intended by the Author. Our primary text explains how Bible readers should discern the meaning of biblical truths to properly apply its teachings to their lives.

The need for communication with God

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains God’s law as: “Out of the written word; out of the Scriptures. The word ‘law’ here is used to denote ‘all’ that God had revealed to mankind; all that is contained in the volume of inspiration. The truths taught here are:

(1) That there are deep, hidden, secret things in the word of God, which are not perceived by the natural man;

(2) That those things, when understood, are suited to excite wonder, or to fill the mind with admiring views of God;

(3) That a special illumination of God is necessary that man may perceive these things; and

(4) That the proper understanding of these things is connected with prayer, and can be hoped for only in answer to prayer” (e-Sword 13.0).

This brings forward another vital key for Bible study. Before beginning one’s daily Bible reading and study, students should pray that God will unfold its significance before the reader’s eyes. David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary elaborates: “In order to keep God’s word, must we not pray to understand it? What then is this prayer? Not – give me a plainer Bible – but open my eyes to know my Bible. Not – show me some new revelations beside the law – but make me behold the wonders of the law (Bridges)” (e-Sword 13.0). So many clamor today for “clearer, more modern” translations of the Bible when the chief problem is their spiritual blindness caused by sin. Our standard classic English Bible is clear enough to those who ask God to open their spiritual eyes. 

The Pulpit Commentary carries this thought further: “To how many the Bible is all dark and dull, incomprehensible in many parts, and void of interest in others! It is because the films of sin and prejudice have rendered their eyesight dark and dull. Let their eyes be but opened, and they will behold, not, as now they do, mere words, but wondrous things out of God’s Law” (e-Sword 13.0).

With a submissive mind willing to respond to what is read, God will surely enlighten the reader to what is required to deepen one’s relationship with Him. Such readers will receive life through God’s Word (Psalm 119:17). Bible study should be life-giving. Far too many never experience the word as God intends. Readers need to pray for open eyes so that the blinder of sin will be removed. Once Christians are in a harmonious relationship with Christ, spiritual blindness can be cured by this sincere request: “Open Thou mine eyes.”

Ken Frank

Digging Deeper: Things Too High For Me

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

Estimated reading time: 8 min. 40 sec.

Did you know that King David came to a place in life where he realized there were mysteries of life that were beyond his understanding and, as a result, boldly entrusted them to God – even as a weaned child trusts its mother?

His illustration may seem unusual, but there is a good reason he expressed it thus. Sometimes we rack our brains trying to figure out why things happen in life. We search and search for answers. We stew and fret almost to the point of exhaustion. David discovered a better way to handle life’s mysteries. This Digging Deeper searches the inspired mind of David for guidance on how to live a life that does not have all the answers but knows the One who does.

Psalm 131 is the scriptural basis for this study: “A Song of degrees of David. LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever” (Psalm 131:1-3 KJV throughout except where noted).

A Song of Ascents

Notice that this psalm is here described as “A Song of Degrees [or, Ascents] of David.” It is one of a special collection of psalms within the greater Psalter (Book of Psalms). The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible explains: “Pss 120–134 are commonly called the ‘songs of ascents.’ The title denotes songs that pilgrims sang on their way up to Jerusalem for one of the major festivals (84:5–7; Exod 23:14–17; Deut 16:16; Mic 4:2; see Zech 14:16 and note). According to the OT spatial perspective, Jerusalem is always ‘up,’ regardless of the actual elevation of the starting point (2 Sam 6:12; Jer 31:6; Mic 4:2)” (Tecarta Bible App).

They are sometimes called “Pilgrim Songs”. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary reports that “The simple style, brevity, and transitions formed by retaining a word from the previous verse (e.g. Psalm 121:1-2, ‘from whence cometh my help; my help cometh,’ etc.), are suitable to pilgrim-song poetry” (e-Sword 13.0). The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible illustrates this repetition in our psalm by quoting the NIV translation: “Ps 131 maintains the theme that concludes Ps 130 by repeating verbatim ‘Israel, put your hope in the LORD’ (Psalm 131:3; Psalm 130:7). Ps 131 expands on what it means to hope in the Lord—negatively (v. 1) and positively (v. 2)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Of these Psalms of Degrees, Easton’s Bible Dictionary declares “Four of them were written by David, one (Psalm 127:1-5) by Solomon, and the rest are anonymous” (e-Sword 13.0). The NKJ Study Bible explains this psalm’s authorship further: “Psalm 131, a psalm of trust, is one of four songs of ascent attributed to David (also Ps. 122; 124; 133). The structure of the poem is as follows: (1) a statement of humility (v. 1); (2) a portrait of trust (v. 2); (3) a call for hope (v. 3)” (Tecarta Bible App).

History of Ps. 131

There are at least a couple of explanations for the historical background of Psalm 131. The Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge offers two: “Some think that this Psalm was composed by David when accused by Saul and his courtiers that he affected [assumed prematurely] the crown; though others refer it to the time of the captivity; and consider it as containing a fair account of the manner in which the captives behaved themselves” (e-Sword 13.0).

Bible readers will remember that David was ordained before King Saul’s death by the prophet Samuel to replace Saul but David deliberately avoided any action that could be perceived as an attempt to overthrow Saul. He boldly declared that he would not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:9). Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains: “It is probable enough that (as most interpreters suggest) David made this protestation in answer to the calumnies of Saul and his courtiers, who represented David as an ambitious aspiring man, who, under pretence of a divine appointment, sought the kingdom, in the pride of his heart” (e-Sword 13.0). Instead of plotting against Saul, David waited upon the LORD for his induction into this royal office.

Theme: Pride vs. Humility

A closer look at the three verses of this magnificent psalm follows. One of this psalm’s central lessons is that God’s people must avoid presumption (v. 1). As noted earlier, Psalm 131:1 describes what it means to hope in the LORD – negatively. In it David expresses his humility by denouncing arrogance and pride. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible declares: “Believers who hope in the Lord submit to him. They are willing to leave certain questions unanswered because they have full confidence that the Lord knows the answers (Deut 29:29)” (Tecarta Bible App). The NKJ Study Bible notes further: “David presents himself with genuine humility, a delicate balance between self-abasement and arrogant pride. From the life of David we know that he was not always able to keep this balance. But it was his desire, and at times—by God’s grace—a reality in his life” (Tecarta Bible App).

One may wonder how readers should understand pride in this context. The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable defines it: “Pride is essentially a belief that one does not need God but is self-sufficient. Haughty or lofty looks with the eyes betray a proud attitude because they look down on other people with a feeling of superiority (cf. Psalm 18:27; Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 30:13). Pride also manifests itself in taking on projects for which one is not capable and thinking that one can handle them. The proud person overestimates his own abilities as well as his own importance. The humble person, however, has a realistic understanding of his or her capabilities and limitations (cf. Romans 12:3)” (e-Sword 13.).

Things “too high”

There is another important lesson from verse 1. Henry Morris in his Defender’s Study Bible comments on things too high for believers: “There are ‘great matters’ in the spiritual realm that, even for a mature believer, must be acknowledged humbly as ‘too high’ for us to understand until the Lord comes (note Psalm 139:6)”. The Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge adds even more to our understanding: “The great and wonderful things meant are God’s secret purposes, and sovereign means for their accomplishment, in which man is not called to co-operate, but to acquiesce. As David practiced this forbearance by the patient expectation of the kingdom, both before and after the death of Saul, so he here describes it as a characteristic of the chosen people – Joseph Addison Alexander” (e-Sword 13.).

There are notable cross-references to verse 1 teaching believers that some matters of life are beyond their comprehension. Here are just a few, progressing successively through the Bible:

1. “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

2. “Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it” (Psalm 139:5-6).

3. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out” (Romans 11:33)!

4. “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).

Trust like a weaned child

Psalm 131:2 describes what it means to hope in the LORD – positively. In it, David expresses his trust in God. He employs a metaphor of a weaned child. The ESV Study Bible explains: “…just as a weaned child is content simply having his mother’s presence, so the faithful worshiper is content with God’s presence, even when there are many things he would like God to explain (such as how one’s own little story relates to the big story…)” (Tecarta Bible App). The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible describes a weaned child as “A young child anywhere from three to five years old. Just as a child of this age finds confidence in the presence of its mother, regardless of the circumstance, so the believer needs only the presence of their God to console them. Even though believers may not understand all that is happening or why it is happening (see v. 1 and note), they still confidently trust the Lord” (Ibid.).

In Psalm 131:3, David calls upon his readers for hope in the LORD forever. The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable provide a pertinent application for this psalms’ conclusion: “David called on the nation to follow his example and rest in confidence that the Lord would provide what His people needed. This dependent trust is a need God’s people never outgrow … This psalm is an excellent exposition of what it means to have faith as a child. We can trust God because He is who He is. We must trust Him because we are who we are” (e-Sword 13.0).

Ken Frank

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 Oracles of God

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

Estimated reading time: 8 min. 40 sec.

Did you know that the Bible refers to God’s spoken and recorded revelations by the term oracles?

When writing to the Church of God in Rome, the Apostle Paul used this term that  was familiar to Jews but that is rather unfamiliar to Christians today. Some may think this word refers only to pagan oracles. Some may wonder what God’s oracles are and why they were given this name. This Digging Deeper delves into these questions with a brief word study that will further open our understanding of God’s inspired and preserved word. It will also explain the demanding responsibility of God’s people to faithfully preserve and promote it.

Our focus verses for this word study are: Romans 3:1-2 KJV  “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?  (2)  Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” This was Paul’s reply to his question concerning the advantage afforded by God to the Jews. Paul reminded them they had been privileged to receive the word of God that at first was spoken directly by God but later inscribed for permanence.

Sayings and Revelations

In the plural, the oracles of God appears three times and the phrase the lively oracles appears once in our New Testament: Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11. They were described as living since the living God had spoken them at Sinai. The word oracles is translated from the Greek word logion (plural of logos), literally meaning “sayings”. In simple terms, this was the common first-century synonym  for the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.

Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary explains that oracle “… denotes something delivered by supernatural wisdom; and the term is also used in the Old Testament to signify the most holy place from whence the Lord revealed his will to ancient Israel, 1 Kings 6:5, 19-21, 23. But when the word occurs in the plural number, as it mostly does, it denotes the revelations contained in the sacred writings of which the nation of Israel were the depositories” (e-Sword 13.0).

God’s oracles were not always in written form. The CARM Theological Dictionary reports: “God’s method of communicating these oracles varied from dreams and visions (Numbers 12:6-8), to wisdom (Proverbs 30:1), and even the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 14:337 [SIC])” (e-Sword 13.0). Another source of divine guidance was the high priest’s breastplate. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words declares, “Divine ‘oracles’ were given by means of the breastplate of the high priest, in connection with the service of the tabernacle, and the Sept. uses the associated word logeion in Exodus 28:15, to describe the breastplate” (Ibid.).

Oracles of God

These oracles were the divinely inspired utterances of God. In defining what was included in these oracles, Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary declares: “These oracles contained the law, both moral and ceremonial, with all the types and promises relating to the Messiah which are to be found in the writings of Moses. They also contained all the intimations of the divine mind which he was pleased to communicate by means of the succeeding prophets who prophesied beforehand of the coming and of the sufferings of the Messiah with the glory that should follow” (e-Sword 13.0).

The Biblical Illustrator, by Joseph S. Exell, carries this thought even further: “But the apostles, when they term the Scriptures ‘oracles’ (Acts 7:38; Hebrews 5:12; 1 Peter 4:11), signify that they are real revelations from the true God. These were communicated—viva voce, as when God spake to Moses face to face—in visions, as when a prophet in an ecstacy had supernatural revelations (Genesis 15:1; 46:2; Ezekiel 11:24; Daniel 8:2)—in dreams, as those of Jacob (Genesis 28:12) and Joseph (Genesis 37:5-6)—by Urim and Thummim, which was a way of knowing the will of God by the ephod or breastplate of the high priest. After the building of the temple, God’s will was generally made known by prophets Divinely inspired, and who were made acquainted with it in different ways (1 Chronicles 9:20-21)” (e-Sword 13.0).

Pagan Oracles

Not all oracles are of God. The Devil has his oracles as well. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible declares: “The word ‘oracle’ among the pagan meant properly the answer or response of a god, or of some priest supposed to be inspired, to an inquiry of importance, usually expressed in a brief sententious way, and often with great ambiguity. The place from which such a response was usually obtained was also called an oracle, as the oracle at Delphi, etc. These oracles were frequent among the pagan, and affairs of great importance were usually submitted to them” (e-Sword 13.0).

The ultimate source of these revelations is spiritually dangerous as Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary declares: “Among the Heathen the term oracle is usually taken to signify an answer, generally couched in very dark and ambiguous terms, supposed to be given by demons of old, either by the mouths of their idols, or by those of their priests, to the people, who consulted them on things to come. Oracle is also used for the demon who gave the answer, and the place where it was given” (eSword 13.0).

One may wonder how reliable pagan oracles were. The Biblical Illustrator by Joseph S. Exell notes: “These were, indeed, merely pretended communications from gods that had no existence; or, perhaps, in some instances real communications from demons, and the answers which were given were generally expressed in such unintelligible, or equivocal phrases as might easily be wrested to prove the truth of the oracles whatever the truth might be (Acts 16:16)” (e-Sword 13.0). Ambiguity of meaning was the order of the day.

A New and Concise Bible Dictionary by George Morrish goes a step further: “In the learned heathen world, Satan had places in imitation of this, at which it was professed that an answer from their gods could be obtained; but the answers were often purposely vague in order that afterwards they could be interpreted differently according as the event turned out. Thus the persons were duped who asked the questions” (Bible Analyzer By contrast, God’s word may always be considered factual and verifiable.

Preserving the words of God

The Jewish people were given the special privilege, but demanding responsibility, for preserving, supervising, and promoting God’s holy word, which Stephen called “lively (living)” (Acts 7:38). Jewish scribes and scholars were especially diligent in preserving and copying these divine utterances. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible explains their significance: “The Jews were the Christians’ library-keepers, were entrusted with that sacred treasure for their own use and benefit in the first place, and then for the advantage of the world; and, in preserving the letter of the scripture, they were very faithful to their trust, did not lose one iota or tittle, in which we are to acknowledge God’s gracious care and providence” (e-Sword 13.0). This is how God preserved His word for succeeding generations. Christians need to be especially grateful to the Jewish people for safeguarding the largest section of their Holy Bible.

The Hebrew Scriptures became part of the Christian Bible since the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The Church of God is now the custodian of God’s oracles in both testaments. Christians need to read and study them to grow and mature. In his epistle to Hebrew Christians, Paul scolds them because they needed to be taught again the basic principles of God’s word instead of becoming teachers of others (Hebrews 5:12). Some believers today need to take these words to heart because of their neglect of serious scriptural study.

Peter cautions preachers by reminding them they must preach God’s oracles with the ability God gives, not their fanciful ideas (1 Peter 4:11). Too many preachers today do not preach the meat of the word of God to their congregants as they are commanded. Rather, concepts from the world of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology are often substituted for preaching and teaching God’s word. Preaching and teaching are two different, though related, techniques for conveying God’s mind to His people.

Study the living oracles

Paul commands God’s people to: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). How precious God’s word is for every believer. When we study the Bible we need to remember we are reading the very words our Creator and Redeemer has commanded each of us personally. Bible reading and study should be done with a sense of reverence (Psalm 119:161). When we read it we are in God’s presence and are having a “conversation” with Him when we join Bible study with prayer.

To bring our brief study to a close, The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, quotes R. Watson who offers these keys for proper Bible reading and study: “These oracles are committed or entrusted to you.—1. They are entrusted to be read or understood; 2. To interpret honestly; 3. To make them known to others; 4. To apply to practical purposes”(e-Sword 13.0). Today God’s people are the library-keepers for the word of God. God’s oracles are not only to be read and studied but lived since they are the “lively (living) oracles” given to us to share with the world (Acts 7:38).

Ken Frank

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: Plenteous Redemption

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

Estimated reading time: 7 min. 22 sec.

Did you know that God’s redemption is described in Scripture as plenteous?

Bible readers discover through diligent study that God has set in motion a plan to redeem those willing to confess their sins, repent of them, and seek God’s forgiveness. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, as the Redeemer. One may wonder if there are limits to His redemption. We will encounter in this study a fitting psalm that is often recited at funerals because of the comfort it affords. This Digging Deeper introduces our topic with an inspirational verse that will encourage and strengthen God’s people through His commitment to save them.

Our focus verse is: (Psalm 130:7 KJV) “Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.” Psalm 130 is the sixth of seven traditionally-named Penitential Psalms that include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. They are expressive of sorrow for sin, repentance, and change of behavior. The Book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook of praises to the Almighty. Believers have found solace time and again from its abundant instruction and assurances.

The Dake Annotated Reference Bible under its note for Psalm 130:1 calls this “A Backslider’s Psalm” and outlines the psalm in this manner:

            1. “His state or condition (Psa 130:1)

            2. His prayer (Psa 130:1-4)

            3. His questioning (Psa 130:3)

            4. His promise (Psa 130:4; 130:7-8)

            5. His sincerity and longing (Psa 130:5-6)

            6. His hope (Psa 130:5; 130:7)

            7. His faith and assurance (Psa 130:4; 130:7-8)” (Bible Analyzer

A price paid for deliverance

The word redeem means “to deliver by paying a price.” Redemption is a major New Testament doctrine. The CARM Theological Dictionary defines this noun more fully: “Redemption means to free someone from bondage. It often involves the paying of a ransom, a price that makes redemption possible. The Israelites were redeemed from Egypt. We were redeemed from the power of sin and the curse [penalty] of the Law (Galatians 3:13) through Jesus (Romans 3:24; Colossians 1:14). We were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23)” (e-Sword 13.0). Sinners were held captive by the archenemy of humankind, the Devil. Christ the Liberator sets them free when they trust in Him through the ransom He paid by His sacrificial death.

There is more than one nuance to the word redemption. The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary elaborates redemption further: “In Bible days a slave could be set free from bondage by the payment of a price, often called the ransom. The whole affair was known as the redemption of the slave (Leviticus 25:47-48). (The words ‘redeem’ and ‘ransom’ are related to the same root in the original languages.) The Bible speaks of redemption both literally (concerning everyday affairs) and pictorially (concerning what God has done for his people) (Psalm 77:15; Titus 2:14)” (e-Sword 13.0). Our God has come to our rescue, remitting the full price for our liberation from Satan’s kingdom.

Sinners must be redeemed from the penalty for violating God’s law. Concerning God’s transaction through redemption from sin, Webster’s 1828 Dictionary offers this summary definition: “In theology, the purchase of God’s favor by the death and sufferings of Christ; the ransom or deliverance of sinners from the bondage of sin and the penalties of God’s violated law by the atonement of Christ” (e-Sword 13.0). This older dictionary so well defines this doctrine since it drew many of its definitions from the Bible unlike many modern dictionaries.

The Scofield Reference Bible in its note for Exodus 14:30 elaborates on this major biblical doctrine: “Exodus is the book of redemption and teaches:

            (1) redemption is wholly of God Exodus 3:7; 3:8; John 3:16.

(2) redemption is through a person. (See Scofield “Exodus 2:2“). John 3:16-17

            (3) redemption is by blood Exodus 12:13, 23, 27; 1 Peter 1:18.

            (4) redemption is by power Exodus 6:6; 13:14; Romans 8:2.” (e-Sword 13.0).

Perfect and plenteous atonement

There are other doctrines related to redemption. B.J. Carroll’s An Interpretation of the English Bible elaborates: “When applied to the sacred work of the Lord Jesus Christ, it generally means ‘deliverance through atonement.’ Thus understood, it means both atonement and deliverance” (e-Sword 13.0). Christ is the great Deliverer whose blood atonement sets us free from our sins. This source further adds: “Man has always been endeavoring to find some atonement for his sin, and has always failed, but we have received a perfect atonement in Him; it is plenteous. (1) Plenteous to cover the sins of the whole world. (2) Plenteous to cover all the sins of each one” (Ibid.). God’s grace is truly all-sufficient! This is what our focus verse means by using the word plenteous.

Let us explore this theme even further. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible provides this additional note: “It is ample; it is full; it abounds. It is not limited; it is not exhausted; it cannot be exhausted. So we may always feel when we come before God, that his mercy is ample for all the needs of all the sinful and the suffering; that the provisions of his grace are unexhausted and inexhaustible” (e-Sword 13.0).

The following quotation from The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, should leave us awestruck: “’And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities’ (Psalm 130:8). It is no temporary, or indistinct, blessing that is so anxiously sought; it is nothing less than a complete deliverance from all iniquity. Redemption from sin includes redemption from all other evils: it is the greatest and most perfect work of God, and bestows the most exalted blessings on man” (e-Sword 13.0). Does this not remove any lingering doubts? This source continues: “LESSONS: —1. Redemption is a Divine work. 2. The most degraded soul is not beyond the hope of recovery. 3. Redemption must be eagerly and prayerfully sought” (Ibid.). Only God can accomplish this consequential redemption.

In this light, look at this supporting scripture: (Hebrews 7:25 KJV) “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost [most extensive degree] that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” Christ delivers believers not only from the consequences of sin but even from sin itself. Sinners who imagine themselves beyond redemption will find it if they turn to the Savior in sincere repentance, confession, and contrition. It must be accepted on God’s terms, not as we would imagine it. This is true for returning sinners as well (1 John 1:8-2:2).

Not willing that any should perish…

We have multiple examples of God’s enduring mercy. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges illustrates one notable example for us: “Observe how the thought that God’s manifold mercy and patience have not been exhausted by Israel’s persistent rebellion runs through the confession in Nehemiah 9; Nehemiah 9:17; 9:19; 9:27-28; 9:30-31; 9:35. Cp. Isaiah 43:25; 55:7” (e-Sword 13.0). Bible readers are awed by God’s abiding patience and desire for Israel to turn back to Him since He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

The Dake Annotated Reference Bible for its note on Psalm 130:7 offers “Five Reasons Israel Should Hope in God:

            1. God does not mark iniquities for punishment without extending mercy (Psa 130:3).

            2. There is forgiveness with Him (Psa 130:4).

            3. There is mercy with Him (Psa 130:7).

            4. There is abundant redemption (Psa 130:7).

            5. He shall redeem from all sin (Psa 130:8).” (Ibid.)

This is not a purely individualistic endeavor. It is essential to realize that this process is a family experience. Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible explains: “Remember biblical faith is corporate. It is a family! Be careful of the modern western over-emphasis on the individual. Salvation has a corporate focus! We are saved to serve. The goal of individual salvation is the health and growth of the body of believers” (e-Sword 13.0)! God’s church is to be filled with consecrated and spiritually clean sons and daughters of God who have received and continue to receive His plenteous redemption.

Ken Frank

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 Lesson from Barabbas

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

Estimated reading time: 7 min. 44 sec.

Did you know that many people of first-century Jerusalem demanded the release of an insurrectionist against the Roman Empire named Barabbas in exchange for the Son of God?

The Four Gospels describe Pilate’s attempt to set Jesus free from the charges brought against Him by the hysterical populace through a customary Passover release of one prisoner. Pilate offered the people the choice of Jesus or Barabbas. Without hesitation, the people chose Barabbas over Jesus. Only days before they had welcomed Jesus riding into Jerusalem with Hosanna (“save, we pray”) (John 12:12-16). This Digging Deeper explores this troubling account to illustrate an important spiritual lesson for Christians.

All four Gospel writers record this incident: Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-25; John 18:39-40. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that “Matthew calls him ‘a notable (i.e. notorious) prisoner’ (Matthew 27:16). Mark says that he was ‘bound with them that had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder’ (Mark 15:7). Luke states that he was cast into prison ‘for a certain insurrection made in the city, and for murder’ (Luke 23:19; compare Acts 3:14). John calls him a ‘robber’ or ‘brigand’” (John 18:40) (e-Sword 13.0).

Who was Barabbas?

John Lightfoot in his Commentary on the Gospels records that Barabbas was a common name in the Jewish Talmud (Bible Analyzer The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Merrill C. Tenney, adds further: “The name Barabbas may simply be a conventional proper name. It is found as the surname of several rabbis” (Zondervan Publishing Company, 1976, p. 472).

The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, proposes a derivation of this criminal’s name: “Barabbas.—’Son of Abba,’ i.e. Son of Father (so-and-so). The name would originally be given to one who was the son of some Rabbi who had been known in his locality as Father (so-and-so). Not unlikely Barabbas would thus be a person of respectable parentage, though for long he had gravitated toward the lowest stratum of society (Morison)” (e-Sword 13.0). The respectful title “father” was sometimes applied to mentors and teachers (2 Kings 2:12; 5:13; 6:21; 13:14).

Barabbas’ description as “notable” in Matthew 27:16 means he was distinguished in either great virtues or great crimes; in his case, he was infamous. Daniel Whedon in his Commentary on the Old and New Testaments paints this picture: “As a fierce and brave Jewish patriot, he had become notable or famous among the populace. He was, perhaps, like Robin Hood among the old English, hateful to the government but popular with the masses” (e-Sword 13.0).

No ordinary villian

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein provides the Greek word used in our Gospels to describe Barabbas as: “…no ordinary villain but a lestes (cf. Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:40). Although lestes can refer to a robber (as perhaps in John 10:1), it more probably refers to insurrectionists (cf. 26:55; John 18:40); and Josephus constantly uses it of the Zealots. Neither theft nor violent robbery was a capital offense, but insurrection was. Revolts and bloodshed fostered by guerrilla action were common (cf. Jos. Antiq. XVIII, 3-10 [i. 1], 60-62 [iii. 2]; Luke 13:1), and Barabbas had been caught. In the eyes of many of the people he would not be a ‘notorious’ villain but a hero” (Zondervan, 1984, p. 568-569).

Barabbas may have been a Zealot, as described by The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll and Jane T. Stoddart: “There was a fierce and defiant Home Rule party in Judea whose unresting aim was to drive the Roman garrison from the Holy Land. Their chosen name was that of Zealots, because of their unquenchable zeal for the restoration of the Jewish Dominion. Out of their ranks came one of Christ’s disciples, Simon Zelotes, whom Jesus taught a wider truth and, a better way than his fiery heart had at first conceived” (Bible Analyzer

The Expository Notes of Dr. [Thomas L.] Constable describes Barabbas: “He was a famous prisoner but not necessarily one that the Jews regarded as an undesirable character. On the contrary, he had evidently been leading an insurrection against the Roman government as a freedom fighter (cf. Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:40). His guerrilla actions were fairly common then. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 18:1:1.]  Many of the Jews would have viewed Barabbas as a hero rather than as a villain. He was more of a messianic figure, in the minds of most Jews, than Jesus was” (e-Sword 13.0).

Political rebel for the Son of God

The Fourfold Gospel by J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton provides a possible historical background to this insurrection: “Josephus tells us that there had been an insurrection against Pilate’s government about that time caused by his taking money from the temple treasury for the construction of an aqueduct (The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.2). This may have been the affair here referred to, for in it many lost their lives” (BP Bible

Insurrection was a serious crime against the state. The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J.D. Douglas notes that Barabbas was: “A bandit (John 18:40), arrested for homicidal political terrorism (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:18+)” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, p. 132). Barabbas was such an insurrectionist, yet Jesus was falsely accused of this crime by the Jews (Luke 23:2). Pilate later realized that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:22) and that for envy the Jews had accused Him (Matthew 27:18). The chief priests and elders had persuaded the Jerusalem crowd to demand Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:20).

When the overexcited Jews demanded Barabbas’ freedom instead of Jesus’ they preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero over the Son of God. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary explains that Barabbas (son of the father) was a ” … contrast to the true Son of the Father! The Jews asked the murderous taker of life to be given as a favor to them (it being customary to release one prisoner at the passover), and killed the Prince of life (Acts 3:14-15)” (e-Sword 13.0)!

The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J.D. Douglas offers an intriguing spiritual note to this story: “The priests, possibly taking up an initial demand from his [Barabbas’] supporters (cf. Mark 15:8), engineered a movement for his release to counter Pilate’s intended offer of that of Jesus (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11) – and Barabbas became an exemplification of the effects of substitutionary atonement” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, p. 132). The College Press Explanatory Notes by Rhoderick D. Ice explains further: “Some have made him a ‘symbol’ of the guilty human race which is set free from punishment by the substitution of the innocent Christ” (e-Sword 13.0).

Barabbas: A type for mankind

This takes our brief study to a deeper level. Barabbas committed treason against the Roman Empire and Pilate the governor. Each of us, in his or her way, has committed high treason against the Governor of the universe by our sins (Romans 3:23). Accordingly, we brought the death penalty down upon our heads (Romans 6:23). We are helpless and hopeless in ourselves to find deliverance from this undesirable fate.

In His love for humankind, God sent His only begotten Son to earth. As part of His preaching, Jesus announced His coming substitutionary death during His earthly ministry (John 12:32). He suffered vicariously for all humanity. His disciples did not understand what He meant. Only after His death, as the apostles and early Church of God began to digest this tragic account did they realize the full spiritual significance of His death (John 12:16). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead confirmed God’s redemptive plan to forgive humanity and instead offer them life – even life forevermore (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Jesus died in our place, as surely as He died in Barabbas’ place (Romans 5:7-8; Galatians 6:14). Each of us deserves the death penalty. Jesus became our substitutionary atonement to release us from our sins and enable us to be reconciled to God with the hopeful prospect of eternal life. In this way, Barabbas was a type of every sinner who has been redeemed by God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We do not know what happened to Barabbas after Jesus was exchanged for him. Nonetheless, Barabbas serves as a type of every sin-laden human who deserves death but through repentance and confession of sin has been released, rescued, and redeemed by the Savior of the world instead.

Ken Frank

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 Superscription on the Cross

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

Estimated reading time: 7 min

Did you know that, when Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, a placard called a superscription was placed over His head with the accusation laid against Him?

This sign is mentioned by all four Gospel writers and yet the words expressed differ one from another. You may wonder why they are different, how they can be reconciled, and what is the significance of this detail about Jesus’ crucifixion. This Digging Deeper will delve into this matter to reconcile our four accounts and explain the spiritual significance of this inscription.

Historical sources inform us that a placard naming the charge against a person to be crucified (who was called a cruciarius) was inscribed on a white tablet with red or black ink letters and hung around the person’s neck as they carried the cross beam to the crucifixion stake. According to John 19:19, Pilate wrote this superscription to be affixed to the cross. Matthew 27:37 says it was placed over Jesus’ head. Since the crucifixion was a public display, its purpose was to deter on-lookers from crimes against the state.

Historically, this sign above the cross has been called the superscription, inscription, or the title on the cross. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines superscription as: “That which is written or engraved on the outside, or above something else” (e-Sword 13.0). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by James Orr, explains the various biblical terms for this inscription: “The fullest description is that of Mark, ‘the superscription of his accusation’ (ή ἐπιγραφὴ τῆς αἰτίας ἀυτοῦ, epigraphḗ tḗs aitı́as autoú) (Mark 15:26). Matthew calls it more briefly ‘his accusation’ (τὴν αἰτίαν αὐτοῦ, tḗn aitı́an autoú) (Matthew 27:37), while Luke styles it merely ‘a superscription’ (epigraphē) (Luke 23:38). In the Fourth Gospel it is called a ‘title’ (τίτλον, tı́tlon) (John 19:19)” (Ibid.).

The words of the superscription differ among the four Gospels:

“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)

“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).

“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38).

“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

The Scofield Reference Bible Notes (1917 Edition) reconciles these differences simply: “These accounts supplement, but do not contradict one another. No one of the Evangelists quotes the entire inscription. All have ‘The King of the Jews.’ Luke adds to this the further words, ‘This is’; Matthew quotes the name, ‘Jesus’; whilst John gives the additional words ‘of Nazareth'” (e-Sword 13.0). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words adds that: ” … the variation serves to authenticate the narratives, showing that there was no consultation [collusion] leading to an agreement as to the details” (Ibid.). Compiling the various Gospel accounts, this superscription read “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains these differences further: “But in part also they may reasonably be ascribed to the natural variations sure to arise even among eye-witnesses, and à fortiori among those who were not eye witnesses, as to the circumstantial details of events which they record in common. On grounds of ordinary likelihood St. John’s record, as that of the only disciple whom we know to have been present at the crucifixion (John 19:25), may claim to be the most accurate” (e-Sword 13.0).

A superscription in three languages

A display of the original language letters of these superscriptions is available to us. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible illustrates the original languages:

In Hebrew – ΕβραΐϚι:

ישוע נצריא מלכא דיהודיא

In Greek – ΕλληνιϚι:


In Latin – ΡωμαΐϚι:


The difference in phrasing may in part be due to the arrangement and translation of words from these three different languages. Necessarily, the superscription must have been sizeable to contain the total content. A Dictionary of Christ and the Apostles, edited by James Hastings, explains why it was displayed in more than one language: “The three languages of the τίτλος—Hebrew (i.e. Aramaic), Latin, and Greek—represent, as Westcott remarks, the national, the official, and the common dialects respectively. The true reading, therefore, preserves the more natural order. Bilingual and trilingual inscriptions such as this were naturally common in the East under the Roman Empire” (e-Sword 13.0). Another explanation declares the three languages were those of religion (Hebrew), of empire (Latin), and of intellect (Greek). Hebrew was the local language of the Jews, Greek was the universal tongue of the eastern Roman Empire, and Latin was the official language of the Roman government.

“I have written what I have written.”

The College Press Bible Study Textbook hypothesizes why Pilate directed these words to be affixed to Jesus’ cross (John 19:19-22): “Pilate may have ordered it nailed to His cross to clear his record with Caesar, since the basic charge of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God would not interest Roman jurisprudence” (e-Sword 13.0). The Jews condemned Jesus for blasphemy (Matthew 26:65). However, they did not have the authority to execute Jesus without Roman permission. They laid the political charge of insurrection on Jesus when they presented Him to Pilate. Being Roman governor, it was Pilate’s responsibility to investigate. He knew it was out of envy they falsely accused Jesus (Matthew 27:18). Pilate pronounced Jesus an innocent man (John 19:4, 6). The Jews in turn tricked Pilate into condemning this innocent man (John 19:12). Pilate had already been in trouble with the Roman emperor so he did what was expedient for his career by handing Jesus over for crucifixion.

The Jews wanted to change the superscription wording to state that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews (John 19:21). Jesus never made such a claim. From his earlier conversation with Jesus, Pilate learned that Jesus was not threatening the Roman Empire when He explained ” … My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36 KJV). Others claimed Jesus’ kingship for Him (John 12:13). Inadvertently, Pilate formalized Matthew’s theme that Jesus was the King of Israel – i.e., He was the prophesied Messiah from the Hebrew Bible. Pilate publicized that the Jews had killed their King. Out of spite and revenge, he humiliated the Jews for their forcing him to concede to Jesus’ death. The Jews wanted Pilate to anathematize Jesus through the crucifixion. Instead, his inscription endorsed Jesus’ kingly office. Like Balaam, Pilate in effect blessed Jesus when the Jews wanted him to curse Him instead (Numbers 24:10).

Jesus of Nazareth: King

It is pertinent that when Jesus was born, Gentile wise men who traveled to the Holy Land to worship Him asked, “Where is He that is born king of the Jews? (Matthew 2:2). During Jesus’ trials, Pilate, a Gentile Roman governor, proclaimed by this superscription “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Pilate ennobled Jesus to the rank of King of the Jewish people. More broadly speaking, Jesus is not merely King of the Jews but the Lord of the universe and King over all humanity (Matthew 28:18; Revelation 17:14).

To bring our study to a close, a comment by J.M. Gibson in The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, summarizes the spiritual meaning of this superscription: “A better inscription for the cross the Apostles themselves could not have devised. ‘This is Jesus,’ the Saviour—the Name above every name. How it must have cheered the Saviour’s heart to know that it was there! ‘This is Jesus, the King,’ never more truly King than when this writing was His only crown. ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,’ despised and rejected of them now, but Son of David none the less, and yet to be claimed and crowned and rejoiced in, when at last ‘all Israel shall be saved’” (e-Sword 13.0).

Ken Frank

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: Jesus Stopped at a Comma

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

Estimated Reading time: 8 min.

Did you know that when Jesus read a passage of Isaiah during a synagogue service He stopped his reading at a comma?

This was a most unusual preaching strategy but it was done deliberately. My last Digging Deeper article entitled “Jesus’ Sermon at His Hometown Synagogue” outlined the liturgy and custom of the first-century Jewish synagogue. In it, I explained that Jesus was recognized as a member of His Nazareth synagogue and was invited by custom to read a portion of either the Law or the Prophets. Jesus may have deliberately chosen the scroll of Isaiah for this sermon to His fellow worshipers. However, what He read and pointedly commented upon caused them to rise up and threaten His life.

Luke alone records this incident in Luke 4:16-30. Jesus quoted two passages from Isaiah He was beginning to fulfill: Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6. Combining two texts with a similar theme was a common practice called a gezerah shava. If you read Isaiah’s original version, you will notice some rewording of the text in Luke’s account. This was common practice throughout our New Testament. God, the Author and Chief Editor of the Bible, is at liberty to revise and rephrase His word as necessary depending on the context in which it is cited.

Jesus First Came as a Prophet

When Jesus proclaimed that the Spirit was upon Him, He meant that he was moved to do some supernatural work. In Luke 4:18 He explained He was anointed by the Spirit, as Luke later explained in Acts 10:38, that authorized Him to preach. The Old Testament ceremony of anointing with oil inaugurated men into the offices of priest, prophet, or king. Jesus first came as the Prophet (Matthew 21:11; John 7:40), today He is our High Priest in heaven, and He will return as our King. He holds all three offices at once.

Jesus explained this anointing enabled Him to preach the gospel to the poor. He was a master preacher and teacher. One matter Luke emphasized about Jesus’ ministry was His concern for those materially poor. They were often at the mercy of unscrupulous officials and businessmen. It was generally thought that their suffering was due to God’s curse and was their fault. By contrast, those who relieved the poor were considered especially righteous since almsgiving was synonymous with righteousness in the minds of many at the time.

Jesus then proclaimed He was sent to heal the brokenhearted – those who were in despair of heart including those who mourn over their sins leading to repentance. He continued His sermon stating He came to preach deliverance to the captives – i.e., the forgiveness of sins and remission of its penalty. Those who are held in Satan’s snare as his captives in body, mind, or spirit Jesus will deliver.

Jesus added that He had come to recover sight to the blind – including those spiritually blind to God’s truth. During His ministry, Jesus healed many who were physically blind. He next declared that He came to set at liberty those who are bruised – i.e., oppressed, broken people. Jesus came to free people from heavy burdens of sin and oppressive rabbinical restrictions.

Jesus knew what it was like to be poor, brokenhearted, and bruised (Isaiah 53:3-5). The phrase “to set at liberty them that are bruised” in Luke 4:18 was Jesus’ insertion of a paraphrase from Isaiah 58:6. He was announcing a time when salvation was available to His audiences. The final phrase of Isaiah 61:2 states that throughout His ministry He came to comfort all that mourn: those who mourn over loss or sin. He still does today!

Stopping at a comma

In Luke 4:19, Jesus quoted only part of Isaiah 61:2. Notice the complete verse: Isaiah 61:2 KJV  “To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn.” “The acceptable year of the Lord” sometimes refers to the Jubilee year of Leviticus 25:8-17. However, Jesus applied it to His ministry then. He offered liberation from sin and its consequences. Those who accepted His salvation offer became His disciples.

As He quoted Isaiah 61:2 He stopped at the first comma (in the English Bible) and omitted “the day of vengeance of our God” and the rest of that verse (Luke 4:19). His reason seems to have been that the day of vengeance of our God is reserved for His second coming when He returns as conquering King and administers vengeance (justice) on those who willfully oppose Him.

Many Jews at the time believed that salvation was for them a matter of nationality rather than of submission to God. They considered vengeance and retribution to be reserved for the Gentiles. Some of the Jewish sects believed that Messiah would return as a powerful, conquering prince at the head of a mighty army to vanquish their enemies. When Jesus came instead as a suffering Servant Messiah who died for human sin, they rejected Him because He did not meet their messianic expectations. Their pride, prejudice, and preconceived opinion blinded them to their own spiritual need for repentance. What follows in this story is the result of this attitude.

Scripture fulfilled in a Man from Nazareth

In Luke 4:20 Jesus ended His reading, rolled up the scroll of Isaiah, and handed it back to the chazzan so He could sit down, as was customary, to deliver a sermon about these passages. The eyes of the congregation were fixed upon Him. There was an atmosphere of suspense building as they wondered what He would say next. He proclaimed that these texts were being fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:21). By contrast, they expected these passages to be fulfilled in a coming messianic age. Jesus said this phase of His ministry had already begun and they were being given an offer of repentance and discipleship.

The audience wondered at such gracious words coming from one they had known since He was a boy. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”, they asked (Luke 4:22). “How could He be the Messiah?” Rather than respond favorably to His offer, in Luke 4:23 Jesus predicted they would recite to Him a proverb that questions a person’s power and authority: “Physician, heal thyself.” Instead of responding to His offer, they asked Him to perform a miracle such as those they had probably heard about from His earlier ministry in Judea and Capernaum. By this point, Jesus had already turned water into wine and healed the nobleman’s son. Out of mere curiosity, they wanted to see a miracle but not transform their lives through genuine spiritual responsiveness.

Not accepted at home

Jesus then explained that prophets are seldom fully trusted back home (Luke 4:24). Jesus recited a proverbial expression that placed Him in the long line of prophets who were rejected by their people. What led to their rejecting Him was His noting examples of two Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who performed miracles for Gentiles during an age of Israelite apostasy (Luke 4:25-27).

This was more than they could stand so they arose in wrath (Luke 4:28). Their rage had been building as they sat listening to Him but now it boiled over. They were not slow to see how Jesus applied these Old Testament stories to them. He inferred they were just as apostate as Israelites in the time of Elijah and Elisha. Instead of accepting the message to repent of their sins, they chose to destroy the messenger. Familiarity had bred contempt for one of their own. 

To accept His words meant they would have to accept that God offered salvation to Gentiles whom they looked down upon as “dogs.” They were unwilling to humble their hearts. Their fierce, nationalistic pride and bigotry resented the thought of God’s blessing faith-filled Gentiles in the time of Elijah and Elisha. In effect, Jesus had compared his townsfolk to their unbelieving ancestors. Jesus even gave them another opportunity about a year later but instead they were offended in Him. As a result, He did not work many mighty miracles in his hometown (Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:5). At the time, even His siblings did not believe in Him (John 7:5).

In Luke 4:29, these congregants led Him to the brow of a hill overlooking Nazareth, intending to cast Him down headfirst and then stone Him to death for blasphemy. This was contrary to Jewish custom that forbad execution without trial and forbad it being conducted on the Sabbath. Not only that, but Roman law required the governor’s permission before executing one of their own. They were acting like a lynch mob. In Luke 4:30-32, Jesus miraculously passed through their midst and continued His ministry in Capernaum. His time of sacrificial death had not yet come (John 7:30). Many elsewhere became His disciples. Jesus lived this proverbial expression: “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house”  (Matthew 13:57 KJV).

Ken Frank

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: Jesus’ Sermon at His Hometown Synagogue

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

Estimated Reading time: 7 min.

Did you know that Jesus was considered a member of his hometown synagogue congregation and was thereby invited to preach to them on a Sabbath?

I have never preached a sermon in my hometown, although I have done so in my home state. Paul spent several years preaching in his hometown of Tarsus, in today’s nation of Turkey. If you were invited to speak before your hometown congregation, what would you say to them? You may want to be complimentary and grateful to those who witnessed your life changes in their community. This Digging Deeper will explore the first-century Sabbath liturgy in a narrative only Luke records to better understand what happened when Jesus addressed His local congregation.

The Gospel According to Luke records this experience in Luke 4:16-30. It occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. This was Jesus’ first visit to the town of Nazareth, where He grew up, since His baptism by John the Baptist. It is important for our understanding of Jesus’ sermon to remember that the Gospels refer to this area as “Galilee of the Gentiles” in the first century. During Pax Romana, the era of “Roman peace”, Galilee was occupied by many non-Jews. Luke records this incident right after reporting Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). However, John’s Gospel inserts His early Judean ministry following His baptism by John the Baptist and His temptation by the Devil. Following that, Luke briefly records Jesus being well-received when He taught in the Galilean synagogues (Luke 4:14-15). Jesus was both a preacher and a teacher, which are different means of communication. Teaching can be more effective than preaching because teachers can turn passive listeners into active participants. Jesus expected a response to His messages from the audience.

The First Century Synagogue

The word synagogue means “assembly.” Perhaps more than any other institution, the synagogue preserved the religion, culture, and special status of the Jewish people. These meeting places originated during the Babylonian captivity of the House of Judah and developed further during the time between the testaments (the Intertestamental Period). These buildings served as places of prayer and worship on the Sabbath. During the week they were transformed into law courts and schools. But on Sabbaths and at festivals they were places of scriptural instruction. Each synagogue was supervised by a board of elders or rulers. One lesser official was called a chazzan, somewhat equivalent to a deacon in Christian churches. The Holy Land offered synagogues not only for native Jews but also for diaspora Jews (those Jews originally from outside the Holy Land). It is estimated there were 480 such synagogues in Jerusalem alone.

In the standard synagogue layout, the main room provided a reading desk upon which scrolls of the Hebrew Bible were unfolded for reading. It was customary to read a portion of the Law and then a portion of the Prophets while standing, out of respect for God’s word. Following that, someone was invited to expound upon the texts for the day, usually based on the reading from the Prophets. Qualified men of the congregation were called upon by the rulers to sit in an assigned seat called “Moses Seat.” I refer you to my recent Digging Deeper article by this same title. Jesus was popularly considered a rabbi, or teacher – John 1:38, 49; 3:2; 6:25. Visiting rabbis were often invited to address the assembly, as was common for the Apostles Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13-16). Not only this, being a male member of this congregation entitled Jesus to be called upon to deliver the sermon for the day.

Order of service

Attendance was required for the Sabbaths and Feast days. The congregation faced the ark (chest or cabinet) housing the scripture scrolls in the front of the room. Men sat on one side of the room and women and children on the other or up in a balcony. Those who sat in the front near the reader’s desk were in the “chief seats,” mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels.  Following an opening prayer, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 5 reports a typical order of service as follows:

  1. Recitation of the shema – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 – known as “the creed of the Jews”. Part of this read: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 KJV  “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD :  (5)  And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
  2. The parashah, or reading of the appointed section of the Law – anyone making the least mistake was immediately replaced by someone else.
  3. The haphtarah, or reading of the Prophets.
  4. The derashah, or “investigation, study” – a homily, discourse, or sermon usually given by a member of the congregation, usually based on the Prophets but also could be from the Law.
  5. The bendiction (blessing) – offered by the priest, if one was present. Otherwise, a prayer was offered to conclude. In some places singing of psalms was introduced into the service (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980, pp. 57-58).

Luke 4:16 affirms that Sabbath attendance was Jesus’ regular habit. Jesus’ and His apostles and believers always observed the seventh-day Sabbath throughout the New Testament. Following their Master’s example, Christians today regularly attend Sabbath and festival services. Jesus’ example also provides evidence that the seven-day cycle since Creation has not been lost since Christians need only go back to Jesus’ day to verify this. He is the Creator and Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Time has not been “lost,” as some assert, since the first century. Jews would not have lost the cycle of days since that time either. They have meticulously recorded their weeks, months, and years for millennia to faithfully observe God’s sacred times. 

He stood up to read

After the synagogue service began with prayer and a reading from the Law, Jesus was invited to read the Prophets portion for the day. The scroll he was handed was that of Isaiah. Possibly, He chose that scroll for this occasion. He stood to read it out of respect for God’s word. In the time of Ezra, not only did Ezra stand to read but the audience did as well (Nehemiah 8:5). The words “to read” in Luke 4:16 imply that Jesus read aloud. He preached in other synagogues, but read only here in Nazareth, showing He was considered a member of this synagogue. The lesson for the day was only read in Hebrew, indicating Jesus knew Hebrew as well as Aramaic (the common language of first-century Jews in the Holy Land), and possibly Greek (the common language of the eastern Roman Empire).

The chazzan would take the scrolls from a cabinet (chest) called “the ark,” to hand to the President of the synagogue who then handed it to the reader for the day. Scrolls were animal skins of parchment on which the sacred words were written in ink. These parchments were rolled on two rollers, or spindles, and were unraveled from the right roller to the left. Unlike many modern languages, Hebrew is read from right to left. As Jesus unrolled the scroll, He read a portion from two passages of Isaiah: Isaiah 61:1-2; Isaiah 58:6. This combining of texts was commonly done in that time to join together passages with a similar theme. This was called gezerah shava, a “comparison of equals”, creating a composite text.

What Jesus read at first brought keen interest, then curiosity, then alarm, and finally hostility. What did Jesus say that brought about a mob action that threatened His very life? Watch for a future Digging Deeper in which I will annotate Luke’s summary of Jesus’ message to that congregation. In the meantime, I encourage you to read and study this entire account in Luke 4:16-30.

Ken Frank

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: Daughter of Abraham

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

Estimated Reading time: 7 min. 48 sec.

Did you know that Jesus illustrated acceptable Sabbath behavior by healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath?

When referring to her, He used a term that appears only once in our entire Bible: “daughter of Abraham.” This was a striking term for its focus on women. “Son of Abraham” appears twice in our New Testament. The Gospel According to Luke alone described this incident. Luke paid special attention to stories involving women as they related to Jesus’ ministry, even more so than the other Gospels. This Digging Deeper will examine this account of the daughter of Abraham, providing a vital lesson concerning acceptable Sabbath behavior.

Our focus verse is: “And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16 KJV). So special was this story to Luke that he focused attention on how women were often treated, or mistreated, in first-century Judaism. This anecdote is often referred to as “The Healing of the Crippled Woman” or “A Woman with a Disabling Spirit.” Its context is Luke 13:10-17.

Jesus performs a miracle

This is the only recorded case of Christ’s preaching in a synagogue during the latter part of his ministry. It was customary to invite visiting rabbis, like Jesus, to deliver the sermon after the reading of the Law and the Prophets from the biblical scrolls. Please refer to my recent Digging Deeper article, “What Was Moses’ Seat?” While Jesus was preaching, He noticed a woman bowed over who could not lift up herself. The word in v. 11 for “bowed” in Greek is a medical term (Luke was a physician – Colossians 4:14) indicating curvature of the spine as if she were doubled over from carrying a heavy burden. Upon seeing her, Jesus immediately set her free from her infirmity by laying hands on her to straighten her (vv. 12-13). He would not heal her from a distance, as He did in other cases. The touch of the Master’s hand gave her the encouragement needed to stand up straight. Once she did, she broke out into praise to God (v. 13).

Surprisingly, the ruler of the synagogue, who also should have rejoiced, criticized Jesus’ action because He had healed her on the Sabbath (v. 14). According to rabbinical tradition, emergency cases might be given a minimum of attention on the Sabbath, but not chronic cases such as hers. Perhaps this daughter of Abraham had been attending this particular synagogue for the entire 18 years of her infirmity. As a result, her case would not be classified as urgent. Either no one was able to help her, or perhaps, even tried. Nonetheless, she continued faithfully attending Sabbath services. This crippled woman had hobbled to synagogue every Sabbath for these 18 years! If she had not attended that day, she may never have been healed. Her example is an encouragement to all women that, despite pain and suffering, they go where there will be reassurance, fellowship, and even blessing among other worshipers on God’s day.

An unwelcome response

Notice that in v. 14, this ruler angrily turned to the audience to complain that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath. Perhaps this was his pious attempt to discredit Jesus so he could retain control over this congregation. He considered healing a type of work forbidden on the Sabbath (v. 14). Jesus retorted that the Law permitted properly feeding and watering one’s animals on the Sabbath (v. 15). Then Jesus asked a pointed question in v. 16: should not this poor woman be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath if farmers and ranchers commonly served their livestock on the Sabbath? A.T. Robertson in his Word Pictures in the New Testament explains Jesus’ reason for healing her as a “Triple argument, human being and not an ox or ass, woman, daughter of Abraham (Jewess), besides being old and ill” (e-Sword 12.2).

Verse 17 displays contrasting responses to her healing: the audience rejoiced while Jesus’ adversaries were ashamed. This was a culture of honor and shame. The synagogue ruler had tried to shame Jesus in public but Jesus turned the tables on him by working a breathtaking miracle in front of them all. These critics of her healing were shamed before their congregation, displaying their unreasonable standards of Sabbath observance.

A woman of the covenant

At the beginning of v. 16, Jesus referred to her as a “daughter of Abraham.” This was deliberate because the term “son of Abraham” was used commonly to stress the worth of men as members of the covenant community. However, the title “daughter of Abraham” was virtually unknown because women were not seen as citizens of the nation but rather as members of their family. Jesus used this exalted title to stress that she was a woman in the covenant community – God’s highly favored elect people – since she was a descendent of the great patriarch, Abraham. Attending synagogue, despite her 18 years of suffering, indicates she was not just a Jewess but a believer in the God of Abraham who had made a covenant with her people. She was entitled to the Messiah’s blessing.   

Many Jews regarded women as less important than men. Notice Jesus’ contrasting treatment of women, as explained by The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell: “There is great beauty in the behaviour of Christ to women, whether it be the woman of Samaria, whose deep wound He probes so faithfully, yet with so light a touch; or the child of Jairus, to whom He speaks in her own dialect, holding her hand; or the widow of Nain, whom He bids not to weep; or she whose many sins were forgiven her, loving much; or Mary, for whose lavish gift He found so pathetic [touching] an apology—’She hath done it unto My burial’” (e-Sword 12.2).   

A lesson in loosing burdens

The word “loosed” in v. 16 is used for disease only here in our New Testament, evidently because it referred to being bound by the Devil. Jesus argued from the lesser to the greater. How much more important was a human condition of suffering compared to an animal’s. Both should be considered acts of mercy permitted on God’s holy day. Jesus was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28) and therefore knew how the day should be observed.  Jesus’ critics did not accept Him as the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who created the Sabbath.

A common belief in Jewish culture was that calamity or suffering was the result of some great sin. No sin is connected to her suffering. Instead, Jesus said that Satan had bound this woman. No reason is given why Satan had done so. She was not possessed by the Devil; however, God permitted it as He had permitted Satan’s afflicting the patriarch Job. David Guzik in his Enduring Word Commentary explains this case had a spiritual dynamic: “We are foolish to think that spiritual issues cause all physical problems, but we [are] just as foolish to think spiritual issues can never cause physical problems” (e-Sword 12.2). For Jesus, handicaps were opportunities for God to display his power. Jesus displayed complete mastery during His ministry over demons, sickness, and disease.

What better day could there have been for this miracle than God’s Sabbath? Sabbath observance is not intended as a ritualistic burden, but as a blessing, as Jesus explained: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Some Sabbath-keepers become so legalistic in their observance of the day that they forget the original intent was to provide rest, rejoicing, refreshment, and renewal for humans and animals during this holy time. It should be enjoyed for its created purpose, not as an excuse for gaining more profit or participating in trivial worldly pleasures.

Bob Utley’s You Can Understand the Bible teaches us a valuable lesson from this singular story: “Jesus exposed this man and all who think like him (plural, hypocrites). The rabbis had great compassion in their oral traditions for the human treatment of animals on the Sabbath (cf. Luke 14:5), but were restrictive in their treatment of humans. Jesus illustrates the fallacy of the rabbinical system’s legalism without compassion for people. We must be careful of our rules. They often become more important than people. People are priority with God. Only people are eternal. God made creation for fellowship with people! Our rules often say more about us than about God” (e-Sword 12.2)!

Ken Frank

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.