Posts

Digging Deeper: Root of Bitterness

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


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know Paul warned Christians that if they fell short of God’s grace, they may develop a root of bitterness that defiles them?

God is merciful and forgiving. However, His grace must not be trifled with. Those who fail in God’s grace are in danger of developing bitterness like a deep-seated root of a tree or plant. Paul illustrated it by the patriarch Esau. This Digging Deeper examines Paul’s statement from one of his epistles considering its context and cross-reference to an Old Testament illustration of failure.

Our focus verse is: “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Heb 12:15 KJV throughout). It should be noted that this verse contains words used for the last time in the KJV: fail, bitterness, springing, trouble. This verse warns of apostasy’s consequences.

In danger of bitterness

Paul wrote his epistle to the Hebrews to dissuade Jewish Christians from backsliding to first-century Judaism because of persecution from unbelievers.  Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire; Christianity was not yet. Some brethren were even in danger of becoming bitter against God because of their suffering. Paul warns them that becoming bitter could cause them to repeat the mistake of Esau.

Some expositors suggest Paul wrote this epistle to the Churches of God located in the city of Rome. If that was the case, R.C.H. Lenski in his Commentary on the New Testament paints a scenario: “We may say that the danger was the greater because the readers were a compact body, all of them Jewish Christians, all worshiping in their old synagogues in Rome, which had now become Christian churches. By returning to Judaism some influential former rabbi among them might draw a large number with him. In fact, as these synagogues had become Christian, so they might again become Jewish” (Bible Analyzer 5.5.1.12).

In Hebrews 12:15, Paul likely restated an Old Testament verse: “Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood” (Deu 29:18). The ESV Study Bible explains the meaning of Paul’s statement: “The author warns against ‘bitterness’ by alluding to Deu 29:18, which describes one who turns away from God and pursues other gods. A bitter and resentful person is like a contagious poison, spreading his resentment to others” (Tecarta Bible App).

Joseph S. Exell in his Biblical Illustrator explains the difficulty of removing such a root of bitterness: “Though you may be able to destroy the fruit, and cut down the branches, the root may be beyond your reach. Though the branches be lopped off, and the stem cut down close by the ground, yet the root left in the soil will keep its hold, and send up another stem, and spread out other branches. So with this sin” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

This verse from Deuteronomy was noted for another New Testament illustration, as explained by Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “In Acts 8:23 St. Peter makes reference to the same chapter of Deuteronomy as he speaks to Simon Magus, who, above all other men, proved a root of bitter poison in the early Church” (e-Sword 13.0.0). One of my previous Digging Deeper articles, entitled “The Gall of Bitterness,” explained this confrontation between Peter and Simon Magus.

The sin of Esau

In Hebrews 12:16-17, Paul illustrated his case with an Old Testament personage: the bitter end of the Old Testament patriarch Esau. The NKJ Study Bible explains: “Under the Law, the eldest son would receive a double inheritance (see Deu 21:17). Esau lost his inheritance, which included God’s gracious promises, by despising it and valuing the pleasure of food over it (Gen 25:34)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Paul Kretzmann extends this further in his Popular Commentary of the Bible: “That was the sin of Esau, who considered the right of the first-born, though it included the fact that the first-born was also the bearer of the Messianic blessing, so lightly that he sold his birthright for a single meal, for a mess of pottage, Gen 25:29-34. His case illustrates the danger of missed or rejected opportunities. For when Esau afterwards made an attempt to get the blessing of the first-born for himself, he did not succeed, 27:30-40” (Bible Analyzer 5.5.1.12).

Lessons for Christian living

With this context, now we may extract valuable lessons from this passage for Christian living. Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments derives significant meaning from the words looking diligently: “The Greek might be rendered episcopizing; the word from which bishop [overseer] is derived. Every Christian should be bishop in this respect, watching for the purity of the Church” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Not only should Christians be concerned with the state of their spiritual health, but also that of their congregation since their lives impact it.

Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments then explains root of bitterness: “Not a principle or an event, but a person, who springs up like a poisonous plant in a garden, and whose noxious quality is contagious. So Christ is beautifully called the ‘root of David;’ and, in the Apocrypha, Antiochus Epiphanes is called ‘a sinful root.’ But the allusion here is to Deu 29:18: ‘Lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood'” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Based on this, the root of bitterness can be an individual, who like Esau, negatively impacts a congregation because he now had to live with the consequences of “despising his birthright.” Sins can be forgiven upon deep repentance, but consequences may remain. 

We may wonder how this could happen today. William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible explains how some Christians consider it too restrictive to obey Christian principles: “There are always those who think the Christian standards unnecessarily strict and punctitious; there are always those who do not see why they should not accept the world’s standards of life and conduct. This was specially so in the early Church. It was a little island of Christianity surrounded by a sea of paganism; its members were, at the most, only one generation away from heathenism. It was easy to relapse into the old standards. This is a warning against the infection of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, spread within the Christian society” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

David Guzik in his Enduring Word Commentary illustrates one way that bitterness can take root in a Christian: “Many are corrupted because of bitterness towards someone they feel has wronged them, and they hold on to the bitterness with amazing stubbornness! What they must do is remember the grace of God extended to them, and start extending that grace towards others – loving the undeserving” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Esau believed his brother, Jacob, had wronged him by stealing his birthright. Esau actually despised it for a mere bowl of pottage. 

Put away bitterness

Bitterness is a characteristic of the ungodly so a Christian must never rationalize it as “righteous indignation”: “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom 3:13-14 KJB). James warns against it as well: “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish” (Jas 3:14-15). Paul provides the antidote: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph 4:31-32).

Hebrews 12:15 insists that Christians must look diligently into their spiritual state, as Albert Barnes explains in his Notes on the Bible: “This phrase implies close attention. It is implied that there are reasons why we should take special care. Those reasons are found in the propensities of our hearts to evil; in the temptations of the world; in the allurements to apostasy presented by the great adversary of our souls” (e-Sword 13.0.0).  Christians have much to avoid while living in this world of sin.

William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible offers a final warning about the root of bitterness: “We do well to remember that there is a certain finality in life. If, like Esau, we take the way of this world and make bodily things our final good, if we choose the pleasures of time in preference to the joys of eternity, God can and will still forgive but something has happened that can never be undone. There are certain things in which a man cannot change his mind but must abide for ever by the choice that he has made” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: The Furtherance of the Gospel

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


Estimated reading time: 5 min.

Did you know the apostle Paul declared that his unjust trials from the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and his subsequent imprisonment in Rome resulted in “the furtherance of the gospel”?

Other people experiencing the same persecutions and slander Paul faced might think that this would hinder the spread of the gospel. Paul understood otherwise. This Digging Deeper explores what he wrote and why he was convinced that God was working mightily through these circumstances, nonetheless.

Our focus verses are: “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14 KJV throughout).

Preaching from prison

Paul wrote this epistle when he was under house arrest in Rome following a series of hearings with the Jewish Sanhedrin and Roman governors, as narrated in the Book of Acts. He wrote to the Philippians, in modern Greece, to thank them for their generosity in supporting him financially after they finally located him incarcerated in Rome. Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible explains the context: “He had been falsely accused, and had been constrained to appeal to Caesar, and had been taken to Rome as a prisoner; Acts 25–28. This arrest and imprisonment would seem to have been against his success as a preacher; but he now says that the contrary had been the fact” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Philippians 1:12 is the first time the word “furtherance” appears in the KJV Bible. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines it as “A helping forward; promotion; advancement” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words explains the Greek word used here: “In Php 1:12, Php 1:25, KJV, prokope, ‘a striking forward’ (pro, ‘forward,’ kopto, ‘to cut’), is translated ‘furtherance’; ‘progress’ in RV, as in 1Ti 4:15. Originally the word was used of a pioneer cutting his way through brushwood” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament adds: “The metaphor is uncertain, but is supposed to be that of pioneers cutting (κόπτω) a way before (πρό) an army, and so furthering its march” (Ibid.). These hindrances served to clear the way for the march of the church in preaching the gospel. Unexpectedly, Paul’s unjust treatment spread the gospel in areas before unreached.

Positive results

The King James Study Bible explains how Paul’s mistreatment advanced the gospel: “The word rather [v. 12] suggests that the Philippians were anticipating the reception of bad news as a result of Paul’s captivity. He informs them rather to the contrary. In His wisdom and sovereignty God has deliberately designed His servant’s present circumstances, as undesirable as they may be, for the gospel’s benefit. Two positive results of Paul’s imprisonment are given in verses 13, 14: (1) Caesar’s palace learned the gospel from him (v. 13); and (2) many Roman Christians were stirred to preach the gospel during his bondage (v. 14)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Near the end of this epistle, Paul sends greetings from brethren in Caesar’s household (court): “All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Cæsar’s household” (Philippians 4:22). Paul’s preaching, even under house arrest, had spread to members of Caesar’s family or servants and led to their conversion. Paul had been chained to Roman guards on a rotational basis, with whom he likely had shared the gospel. They may have then shared the good news (gospel) with others of Caesar’s family, staff, and soldiers in their barracks when off duty. Word of mouth spread the gospel even while Paul was confined.

The gospel spreads

Philippians 1:13 reports that the gospel had been transmitted “in all other places.” A Popular Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Philip Schaff, tantalizes readers with this geographical prospect: “The expression ‘all other places,’ though seemingly hyperbolic, is not without its interest when we remember that one of the traditions concerning the first publication of the Gospel in Britain ascribes it to Roman soldiers who may have been the hearers of St. Paul in his prison” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This may have been one way the gospel spread as far as Britain even in the first century.

Philippians 1:14 says, “And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” This verse notes that Paul’s imprisonment prompted brethren to step out in faith in their own proclamation of the gospel, as explained by Bob Utley in his You Can Understand The Bible series: “…other Christian preachers in Rome were taking courage from Paul’s attitude and actions to proclaim the gospel while Paul himself was imprisoned” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This is the last time the word confident appears in the King James Version, stressing the boldness of God’s spokesmen in this critical period. Paul’s example of courage and sacrifice motivated them to proclaim the gospel courageously.

God uses our trials for good

Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible provides us with a fitting lesson from this passage: “The Apostle Paul had the spiritual insight to realize that what seemed like great problems and difficulties such as being unjustly imprisoned, could—and would—be used by God to the ‘advancement’ of the gospel. Rather than complaining or even quitting when the Christian life gets hard, the Christian should remember that God can make even ‘the wrath of man’ to bring praise to Him (Psalm 76:10)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: Lydia – The Purple Seller

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


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

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

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

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

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

Lydia and purple dye

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

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

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

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

Lydia’s home town

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

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

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

A responder to the call

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

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

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

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

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

A courageous hostess

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

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: Teach Us to Number Our Days

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


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

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

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

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

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

Life spans shortened in the wilderness

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

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

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

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

Apply your hearts to wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking eternity in a short life

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: Onesiphorus

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


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Onesiphorus?

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

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

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

A dangerous mission

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

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

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

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

His diligent search

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

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

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

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

Closer than a brother

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: It is finished

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


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

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

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

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

A duty fulfilled

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

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

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

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

What was finished

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

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

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

He suffered God’s wrath, for us

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

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

The victorious end

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: Woman, Behold thy Son!

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


Estimated reading time: 9 min.

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

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

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

The one whom Jesus loved

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

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

“Woman!”

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

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

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

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

The responsibility of a son

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

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

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

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

A pierced heart

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: The Heart Tablet

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


Estimated reading time: 7 min.

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

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

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

Tables and Hearts

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

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

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

A physical interpretation

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

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

The heart as the center

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

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

The inscribing process

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: Servants of Jesus Christ

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


Estimated reading time: 9 min.

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

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

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

Servant, not slave

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

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

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

The attitude of a doulos

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

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

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

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

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

Servanthood in the ancient world

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

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

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

Christians as servants

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

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

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

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

A special relationship

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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

Digging Deeper: A Mind to Work

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


Estimated reading time: 8 min.

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

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

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

Needing a wall

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

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

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

Facing opposition

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

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

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

Prayer and hard work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Completing the job

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

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

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

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

Kenneth Frank headshot

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