Digging Deeper: The Finger of God

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

Estimated reading time: 8 min.

Did you know, that God is so powerful that He can work mighty miracles merely with His finger?

He truly is the Almighty, Who is omnipotent—all-powerful. He does not have to muster strength to work miracles. In Creation, He spoke the physical world into existence (Genesis 1). However, there are phrases in Scripture referring to His body parts employed for work. This Digging Deeper explores a peculiar expression used in both Testaments that expresses the mighty power of the Creator.

Four times in our Bible, the expression the finger of God appears. To understand what this expression signifies, let us first look at some articles from Bible reference works. Robert Hawker’s Poor Man’s Concordance declares: “This is a very common expression in Scripture, to denote the works of God. Thus the magicians in the court of Pharaoh were compelled to acknowledge the finger of God concerning several of the ten plagues of Egypt which the Lord brought upon the Egyptians” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Significance of fingers

Fingers were important for conversation in that world, as explained by The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “The fingers are to the Oriental essential in conversation; their language is frequently very eloquent and expressive. They often show what the mouth does not dare to utter, especially grave insult and scorn” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Richard Watson’s Biblical and Theological Dictionary expands this thought: “To put forth one’s finger, is a bantering, insulting gesture. ‘If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, and the putting out of the finger,’ Isaiah 58:9; if thou take away from the midst of thee the chain, or yoke, wherewith thou loadest thy debtors; and forbear pointing at them, and using jeering or menacing gestures” (Ibid.) In effect, God insulted the Egyptian gods in the characteristic way of that period (Exodus 12:12).

The ISBE continues: “The ‘finger of God,’ like the ‘hand of God,’ is synonymous with power, omnipotence, sometimes with the additional meaning of the infallible evidence of Divine authorship visible in all His works (Psalm 8:3; Luke 11:20), especially in His law (Exodus 8:19; 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10; compare Exodus 32:15, 32:16)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Egyptians versus God’s finger

The first place this phrase appears is: “Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh, This is the finger of God: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had said” (Exodus 8:19 KJV throughout). This was what the magicians concluded during the third plague of lice upon Egypt. Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible reports: “This expression is thoroughly Egyptian; it need not imply that the magicians recognized Yahweh, the God who performed the marvel. They may possibly have referred it to as a god that was hostile to their own protectors” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Notice that they did not attribute this plague to the power of YHVH, the covenant name of God with Israel, but to elohim. Elohim is a word referring to any god. They acknowledged this was the result of the power of a god.

The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable explains: “The ‘finger of God’ (Exodus 8:19) is a phrase denoting creative omnipotence in Scripture (Exodus 31:18; Psalm 8:3; Luke 11:20)” (Ibid.). God was superior in power to all the Egyptian gods. We may wonder why the finger was chosen. Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible provides this historical note: “Egyptian magical texts occasionally refer to ‘the finger of’ one of their gods or goddesses. Here they recognize the miracle as emanating from the finger of the true God of creation” (Ibid.). Dr. Peter Pett’s Commentary explains further: “In Egyptian texts we find reference to the ‘finger of Seth’ and ‘the finger of Thoth’. This was thus a typically Egyptian way of expressing the situation. We would say, ‘God must have had a hand in this.’ Note the use of ‘God.’ They were not thinking of Yahweh specifically, but of the divine” (Ibid.).

In this biblical text, the magicians were helpless in overturning this plague of lice. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible perceptively notes: “God has the devil in a chain, and limits him both as a deceiver and as a destroyer; hitherto he shall come, but no further. The devil’s agents when God permitted them, could do great things; but when he laid an embargo upon them, though but with his finger, they could do nothing” (e-Sword 13.0.0)

Writing on stone

Our next two references relate to God’s inscribing the 10 Commandments on two stone tablets:

“And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).

“And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10).

God made it truly clear that the 10 Commandments originated with God, not Moses. It ought to be referred to as “God’s law.” It is the “Mosaic law” only in a secondary and derivative sense. Henry Morris’ Defender’s Study Bible comments: “The fact that the Ten Commandments were written on stone by God Himself is stressed no less than seven times (Exodus 31:18; 32:15; 34:1,28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 9:10; 10:4). This is an indication of the importance placed by God on these stone-inscribed words” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Again, Morris states: “The fact that God wrote the Ten Commandments down Himself, rather than through a prophet, indicates the unique importance He places on these ten laws, as the foundation for all human legal systems. Also see note on Deuteronomy 9:10” (Ibid.)

We may wonder how God did it. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers addresses this question: ” We must understand that the tables were inscribed by some supernatural process, and not by any human hand. The exact nature of the supernatural process is not revealed to us” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Similarly, only He can inscribe His law on the hearts of Christians by the Spirit today (2 Corinthians 3:3). On the permanence of God’s law, notice David Guzik’s comment in his Enduring Word Commentary: “We often say that something can be changed because ‘it’s not written in stone.’ These commandments were written in stone” (Ibid.).

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges adds an important historical explanation on Exodus 31:18: “The practice of inscribing laws on tables of metal or stone was very general in antiquity: Rome, Athens, Crete, Carthage, Palmyra, Babylonia, all supply examples…That the tables on which the Decalogue was written are said to have been inscribed by ‘the finger of God’ (cf. Exodus 34:1) is an expression (Di.) of the sanctity and venerable antiquity attributed to them” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Its comment on Deuteronomy 9:10 is also insightful: “With His own voice, face to face, God spake the words of the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:12 f., Deuteronomy 5:4) and now with His own finger wrote them. Thus by a double metaphor is the directly divine origin and supreme sanctity of the Ten Words emphasised” (Ibid.). God’s spoken word and hands were significant in the Creation as well: (Psalm 8:3; 33:6).

Power in His finger

Our last reference comes from Jesus’ confrontation with critics who accused Him of employing the power of Beelzebub to work miracles. Instead, He declared: “But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20). In Matthew’s parallel passage, Jesus stated he cast out devils by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12:28). The finger of God works miracles by the Spirit of God. Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers notes: “As the ‘hand’ denotes power generally, so the ‘finger’ symbolises power in its concentrated and specially-directed energy” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Gary H. Everett’s Study Notes on the Holy Scriptures adds: “The Scriptures use the phrase ‘hand of God,’ or ‘power of God’ to express God reaching down to mankind in a display of mighty power. In contrast, the phrase ‘finger of God’ seems to indicate that God is able to cast out devils with very little effort” (Ibid.).

Christians serve a mighty Savior Who was Israel’s God of the Old Testament and Who thwarted Pharaoh and his magicians, inscribed the 10 Commandments on stone tablets, and cast out devils with merely His finger. Though symbolic, these verses demonstrate that Christ is the Almighty Creator and Savior. He is invincible. When He returns to earth, He will once again exercise His mighty power to deliver His people and establish the Kingdom of God.

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: Fellowship

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min. 37 sec.

Did you know that what many Christians call fellowship is not exactly what the New Testament writings had in mind?

Some consider common chit-chat over refreshments, social events, politics, entertainment, or sports as fellowship. However, the word used in the New Testament has a different connotation. This Digging Deeper discovers its meaning so Christians will gain a better understanding of what is required in this special relationship.

Our focus verse is: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42 KJV throughout). The Greek word koinonia, here translated fellowship, is the first of twenty occasions of this Greek word in our New Testament. In the King James Version, it is translated, depending on the context, as fellowship, communion, communicate, communication, contribution, and distribution. Vincent’s Word Studies provides a derivation of this Greek word: “From κοινός, common. A relation between individuals which involves a common interest and a mutual, active participation in that interest and in each other. The word answers to the Latin communio, from communis, common. Hence, sometimes rendered communion, as 1 Corinthians 10:16; 2 Corinthians 13:14. Fellowship is the most common rendering” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

David Guzik in his Enduring Word Commentary defines the word: “The Greek word koinonia has the idea of association, communion, fellowship, and participation; it means to share in something” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Additionally, James Hastings’ Great Texts of the Bible explains: “The word translated ‘fellowship’ (cf 2 χοινωνία) comes from a root which means literally sharing in common. The practical nature of the fellowship is very clearly seen by comparing the ways in which the same word is translated in other places in the New Testament. As a rule Scripture is its own best interpreter” (Ibid.).

It’s about sharing

The NET Bible associates it with relationships: “Fellowship refers here to close association involving mutual involvement and relationships” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This sharing is further defined in the Bridgeway Bible Dictionary: “According to its basic biblical meaning, fellowship is concerned…with people participating together in something. Fellowship is communion – having a share in something” (Ibid.). With other believers, we share a relationship through the fellowship of the Spirit (Philippians 2:1-2). Its focus is not so much social as it is spiritual.

The CARM Theological Dictionary illustrates this relationship: “There is no specific definition given in the N.T. But we are called into fellowship with one another (1 John 1:3), with Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:9), with the Father (1 John 1:3), and with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14). Fellowship implies sharing common interests, desires, and motivations. Fellowship requires that time be spent with another communicating, caring, etc. It carries with it a hint of intimacy. As Christians we fellowship with one another because of our position in Christ, because we are all redeemed and share an intimate personal knowledge of Jesus. We share a common belief (Acts 2:42), hope (Hebrews 11:39-40), and need (2 Corinthians 8:1-15)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary illuminates this common faith: “There is therefore a sense in which they have fellowship with one another, but again this fellowship is usually in someone or something that they have as a common possession (Philippians 1:7; Hebrews 3:14; 2 Peter 1:4). Their fellowship is a joint sharing in a common faith (Titus 1:4), in a common salvation (Jude 1:3) and even in their common sufferings (2 Corinthians 1:7; Revelation 1:9).” (e-Sword 13.0.0). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary adds even more: “As Christians, we share the same Lord Jesus, we share the same guide for life, we share the same love for God, we share the same desire to worship Him, we share the same struggles, we share the same victories, we share the same job of living for Him, we share the same joy of communicating that gospel to others” (Ibid.).

Practical fellowship

In 1 Corinthians 10:16 the word communion is translated from this same Greek word. Through the centuries, many have referred to the ceremony of Christians memorializing Jesus’ death with bread and wine as Communion. However, The Preacher’s Homiletical corrects this notion: “…’fellowship’ was not used to mean communion in the Lord’s Supper before the fourth century” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Rather than refer to this ceremony as communion, Christians today refer to it as Christian Passover. What Paul meant by communion is that which Christians share in this sacred service—the sacrifice of Christ for their sins. It was not intended as the name for the service.

In a related matter, some claim that breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 refers to partaking of Communion or The Lord’s Supper. On the contrary, Ethelbert Bullinger explains in his Companion Bible that “This was the common meal” (e-Sword 13.0.0). We read examples of an ordinary meal during Jesus’ ministry in (Luke 24:30, 35). These new followers broke bread together.

Later in Acts 2, Luke described the new believers’ practical fellowship expressed by sharing their possessions with believers in need (Acts 2:44-45). On the Day of Pentecost, Jews had come from all over the Roman world. Many decided to stay in Jerusalem for a time after receiving the Holy Spirit. Resident Jews distributed their possessions with those who stayed there longer than expected. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible comments: “Luke depicts the Jerusalem church as a loving, caring, and supportive community” (Tecarta Bible App).

Later in our New Testament, Paul encouraged similar generosity using a related word: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate [koinonikos]” (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

Sharing in suffering

Nowhere in the NT does fellowship refer to “fun times.” Numerous times it included hardship, persecution, and suffering. For example, Paul used the term when he was sitting under house arrest in Rome: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5). In the same book, Paul described his fellowship with Christ: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10).

Indeed, Paul did share Jesus’ sufferings throughout his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary explains this aspect: “Fellowship with Christ means not only sharing in the blessings that come through his sacrificial death, but also sharing in the sufferings that he endured (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:12-14; Revelation 1:9). But if people have fellowship with him in his sufferings, they will also have fellowship with him in his glory (2 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Peter 5:1)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Have no fellowship with sin

What destroys fellowship in God’s family is sin. The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary admonishes Christians: “Sin spoils the believer’s fellowship with God. Those who think they can sin as they please and still have fellowship with God are deceiving themselves. By contrast those who live righteously will enjoy unbroken fellowship with God, because God in his grace cleanses the sins that they unknowingly commit (1 John 1:6-7)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This demonstrates the need for continual repentance so that our fellowship remains unbroken.

To elaborate further, this source continues: “There are certain things that Christians are not to have fellowship with, not to share in, not to participate in. They are not to identify with others in a way that signifies a sharing in the wrongdoings of such people (1 Timothy 5:22; 2 John 1:10-11). Neither are they to share in marriage with non-believers (2 Corinthians 6:14-15) or in religious feasts where food has been offered to idols (1 Corinthians 10:20-21). They are to have no part, no share, in anything that is sinful (Ephesians 5:11; Revelation 18:4)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Examine your fellowship!

In Sabbath conversation, how often do Christians converse about spiritual things? Some are hesitant to do so. However, notice Malachi 3:16 “Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name.” These believers communicated to each other about God.

James Hastings’ Great Texts of the Bible admonishes with this solemn note: “I fear this aspect of fellowship has been sadly lost in these days. How seldom we talk about God! We talk about anything—everything else—about leaders, teachers, sermons, books; but how seldom do we find the conversation, even among a party of Christians, centring round God; and yet one of the sweetest of the ‘precious and exceeding great promises’ is given to those who practise the habit of speaking about God, and the things of God” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

General chit-chat about work, sports, politics, shopping, entertainment, etc. does not satisfy these fellowship descriptions. After reading these rousing Scriptures, let us consider how we fellowship next time we gather with fellow believers: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (Hebrews 10:24). Before our next worship service, let us pray: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

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: Death of the Righteous

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

Estimated Reading Time: 6 min. 29 sec.

Did you know that an Old Testament soothsayer aspired to die the death of the righteous?

Even though God had prophesied through this man in the past, at the time he pronounced this wish he had been hired by a Moabite king to curse Israel as they journeyed to the Holy Land to conquer it from the resident pagans. This anomalous story focuses on a bizarre character of the Old Testament. Nonetheless, what he proclaimed about the death of the righteous has inspired Bible readers ever since. Today’s Digging Deeper examines this intriguing account.

Our focus verse for this study is: “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10 KJV throughout). These words are part of the first oracle of a false prophet named Balaam. He had been hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse Israel as they passed through his territory on their way to the Promised Land (Numbers 22:1-41; 23:1-30; 24:1-25). Balaam recognized that the righteous have hope in their death (Proverbs 14:32). This glorious future is their “last end.” However, he seemed to realize he was not part of their destiny.

Who are the righteous?

Just who are these righteous that Balaam described? Some may think the righteous are perfect people. However, Israel was anything but, as explained by the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary: “This designation of ‘upright,’ or ‘righteous’ people, given by Balaam to Israel, was applied to them, not on account of the superior excellence of their national character-for they were frequently perverse, disobedient, and rebellious-but in reference to their being an elect nation, in the midst of which God, ‘the just and righteous’ (Deuteronomy 32:4), dwelt” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers defines the original word: “The Hebrew word yesharim (upright, or righteous) is applied to Israel because God, who is just and right (Deuteronomy 32:4) had chosen His people to be a Jeshurun (Deuteronomy 32:15; 33:5,26)—a holy and peculiar people, following after righteousness and judgment” (e-Sword 13.0.0). To bring this concept into our time, Adam Clarke’s Commentary declares: “A righteous man is one who is saved from his sins, who is justified and sanctified through the blood of the covenant, and who lives, not only an innocent, but also a holy and useful life. He who would die well should live well; for a bad death must be the issue of a bad life” (Ibid.). Based on this, God’s people are the righteous.

The soothsayer’s dilemma

Balaam was from Mesopotamia (Deuteronomy 23:4) and is described as a soothsayer (Joshua 13:22). James Gray’s Concise Bible Commentary declares: “Balaam is a mystery. He comes from Mesopotamia where the knowledge of the true God lingered after it had been lost in the other parts of the known world. He is one of the group containing Melchisedec and Job, who testified that although Jehovah was now revealing Himself peculiarly to the Hebrews, yet He had not left Himself without witnesses in the other nations” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Balak brought Balaam from Aram (Mesopotamia) to curse and defy Israel (Numbers 23:7). The Bridgeway Bible Dictionary clarifies what is meant: “Cursing in the ancient Hebrew world was not a burst of bad language as it usually is in the world of today. It was a pronouncement of judgment believed to bring the release of powerful forces against the person cursed (Numbers 22:6; Judges 5:23; Job 31:30; Proverbs 30:10)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This was an ancient custom, as Fausset’s Bible Dictionary declares: “It was a practice of ancient nations to devote their enemies to destruction at the beginning of their wars; the form of execration is preserved in Macrobius, Saturnalia, 3:9” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

However, God, Israel’s Protector, would not permit Balaam to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:12). Balaam tried more than once to curse Israel; instead, God’s words coming from his mouth were only blessings on Israel (Numbers 13:2). Even though Balaam was self-serving in his plot with Balak, God still spoke through him (Numbers 23:5). Balak demanded that Balaam curse Israel instead. Balaam retorted, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the LORD hath not defied?” (Numbers 23:8 KJV). Our focus verse for this article comes from this exchange of intense and desperate words.

Balaam admitted he could only proclaim what God put in his mouth (Numbers 23:12). F.B. Meyer’s Through the Bible Day by Day notes: “On the contrary, he could forge no weapon against Israel that could prosper, and when he tried to raise his tongue in judgment against the people of God he was condemned. It was as if God said, ‘Touch not mine anointed.’ Psalm 105:15; Isaiah 54:17; Romans 8:31” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Balak later declared why he did not go to war with Israel. He tried to curse them through Balaam (Joshua 24:9-10; Judges 11:25) instead. John Kitto’s Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature explains that “From Judges 11:25, it is clear that Balak was so certain of the fulfillment of Balaam’s blessing, ‘blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee’ (Numbers 24:9), that he never afterwards made the least military attempt to oppose the Israelites (comp. Micah 6:5; Revelation 2:14)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

What the death of the righteous requires

Even though Balaam wanted to die the death of the righteous, he did not get his wish. When the Israelites were victorious over their enemies in taking the Promised Land, among the people they executed was Balaam (Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22). Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers explains: “The end of Balaam (Numbers 31:8) presented a strange contrast to his prayer, and showed that even the prayer of the wicked is abomination in the sight of the Lord (See Proverbs 28:9)” (e-Sword 13.0.0). William Robertson Nicholl’s Sermon Bible presents this alarming picture: “His own death was perhaps the most miserable of all that are recorded in the Old Testament” (Ibid.). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary declares why: “Balaam was one of the many who long to die the death of the righteous, yet have no desire to live the life of the righteous. The two go together” (Ibid.). Few today are willing to live the life of the righteous so that they will experience the death of the righteous.

Death is not pleasant; often it is exceedingly difficult. Nonetheless, this assurance is offered by William Robertson Nicoll’s Sermon Bible: “By the death of the righteous is not meant merely a happy end, but any circumstances of death whatever after a holy and obedient life. The worst death of those who are accounted righteous before God is better than the best and easiest death of an unrighteous person” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Dying in the faith of Jesus Christ reassures Christians that, though they sleep in Jesus through death for a time (1 Thessalonians 4:14), they shall rise in glorious bodies like their Lord’s (Philippians 3:21). The resurrection of the righteous is the sequel to “the death of the righteous.”

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: Least of All Seeds

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min.

Did you know that Jesus is criticized for comparing the growth of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, which He said was the smallest of all seeds?

Critics charge that this seed was not the smallest of all seeds, displaying Jesus’ ignorance of Holy Land botany. They claim such statements reveal that the Bible is unscientific. How should Christians respond to such a charge? This Digging Deeper delves into this issue to discover what Jesus meant by His bold statement.

Our focus passage is: “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32 KJV throughout). Parallel passages are Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19 which substitute “kingdom of God” for “kingdom of heaven,” used synonymously. Matthew’s audience was largely Jewish people who customarily employed a euphemism (heaven) when referring to God.

Which plant is it?

There is a degree of uncertainty as to which plant Jesus referred. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible reports that: “Scholars do not all agree about which plant is in view here, but ancient sources agree in describing the mustard seed as proverbially small (v. 32)” (Tecarta Bible App). Jesus said that when it is grown, it is “the greatest among herbs,” which the Companion Bible annotates as: “greater than [garden] herbs” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The KJV Study Bible explains that the Greek word lachanon for herbs describes “…garden plants or vegetables…” (Tecarta Bible App).

Describing it as the “least of all seeds” is explained by The ESV Study Bible: “It was the smallest of all agricultural seeds in Palestine” (Tecarta Bible App). There were smaller seeds, as The Biblical Theology Study Bible notes: “Scientists today know of smaller seeds than the mustard seed, but it was ‘the smallest of all seeds’ (v. 32) that anyone cultivated in first-century fields or gardens in Israel. Normally the plant grows into a medium-size bush, but eight-foot high small ‘trees’ have been discovered, even if rarely” (Ibid.).

In v. 32, Jesus declares that it becomes a tree. A Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke clarifies: “The term tree is applied by botanists to plants of the larger kind, which grow to the magnitude of shrubs; and for that reason are termed plantae arborescentes” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Additionally, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible adds: “The Hebrew writers speak of the mustard-tree as one on which they could ‘climb,’ as on a fig-tree. Its size was much owing to the climate. All plants of that nature grow much larger in a warm climate, like that of Palestine, than in colder regions” (Ibid.). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible illustrates: “The Jerusalem Talmud, tract Peah. fol. 20, says, ‘There was a stalk of mustard in Sichin, from which sprang out three boughs; one of which, being broken off, served to cover the tent of a potter, and produced three cabes of mustard seed. Rabbi Simeon ben Chalapha said, A stalk of mustard seed was in my field, into which I was wont to climb, as men are wont to climb into a fig tree.’ See Lightfoot and Schoettgen” (Ibid.).

Science or rhetoric?

We need to remember that languages use figures of speech, as explained by The NET Bible Notes: “This is rhetorical hyperbole, since technically a mustard plant is not a tree. This could refer to one of two types of mustard plant popular in Palestine and would be either ten or twenty-five ft (3 or 7.5 m) tall” (Ibid.). The biblical record often used trees to illustrate the change of governments, as Henry Alford’s The Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, Volume I declares: “The comparison of kingdoms to trees was familiar to the Jews: see Daniel 4:10-12; 20-22; Ezekiel 31:3-9; 17:22-24; Psalm 80:8-11” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

It is important to remember Jesus’ audience. The Defender’s Study Bible declares that “Jesus was not speaking to botanical specialists, of course, but to ordinary people, on their level. The actual Greek allows the meaning ‘among the least of all seeds’” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Every day terminology is often less technical than scientific language, as explained by Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “The description is, of course, popular, and need not be pressed with microscopical exactness” (Ibid.). English speakers use metaphorical language and figures of speech all the time in everyday conversation, which is generally understood.

Why is Jesus not afforded that same liberty? Critics look for anything unusual to criticize but, in the end, they display their ignorance of the biblical record. Notice this remark from A Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke: “The phrase, the least of all seeds, is a figure frequently used in common discourse, and signifies one of the least; or the least of all those seeds with which the people of Judaea were then acquainted; so small, that it was proverbially used by the Jews; to denote a very little thing. ‘The globe of the earth, say the rabbies [rabbis], is but a grain of mustard-seed, when compared with the expanse of the heavens'” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Using common expressions

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia provides additional rabbinical background: “Among the rabbis a ‘grain of mustard’ was a common expression for anything very minute, which explains Our Lord’s phrase, ‘faith as a grain of mustard seed’ Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6” (e-Sword 13.0.0). John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the Gospels illustrates: “Hence it is passed into a common proverb, According to the quantity of a grain of mustard: and According to the quantity of a little drop of mustard, very frequently used by the Rabbins, when they would express the smallest thing, or the most diminutive quantity” (Bible Analyzer

Some expositors interpret the birds of the air that lodge on its branches as demonic spirits. Contrariwise, The NKJ Study Bible explains: “The birds of the air do not represent evil as they do in the parable of the soils (vv. 4, 19). In the OT, a tree large enough to support nesting birds was considered prosperous and healthy (see Ps. 104:12; Ezek. 17:23; 31:6; Dan. 4:12, 21). The kingdom, though having only a small number of people at the beginning of the age, will ultimately be large and prosperous” (Tecarta Bible App).

What Jesus really meant

Describing God’s kingdom, The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible declares: “The ‘kingdom’ (v. 31) too will begin as insignificant in size and impact but become surprisingly large and powerful” (Tecarta Bible App). Jesus’ lesson is explained by The NET Bible Notes: “The point of the parable seems to be that while the kingdom of God may appear to have insignificant and unnoticeable beginnings (i.e., in the ministry of Jesus), it will someday (i.e., at the second advent) be great and quite expansive. The kingdom, however, is not to be equated with the church, but rather the church is an expression of the kingdom” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Mr. Herbert Armstrong years ago used a metaphor along this line: “The church is the Kingdom of God in embryo.”

The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable explains why Jesus chose this simile: “The Jews correctly believed that the messianic kingdom would be very large. Why did Jesus choose the mustard plant since it did not become as large as some other plants? Evidently He did so because of the small beginning of the mustard plant. The contrast between an unusually small beginning and a large mature plant is the point of this parable. [Note: Cf. N. A. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church, pp. 155-56.] Jesus’ ministry began despicably small in the eyes of many Jews. Nevertheless from this small beginning would come the worldwide kingdom predicted in the Old Testament. [Note: See Mark L. Bailey, “The Parable of the Mustard Seed,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155:620 (October-December 1998):449-59.]” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The lesson of this parable is the coming rapid growth of the kingdom even though it starts very small. It will expand beyond expectation from seemingly so small a beginning. Jesus was not ignorant of botany since, as Creator, He designed the various plants of the world. He metaphorically spoke in common language that His hearers would not have thought unusual. Critics look for loose bricks to sling at the Bible. However, it has withstood the critics’ charges throughout history. Understanding basic principles of common speech answer many supposed inaccuracies. Jesus said precisely what He meant. Faithful disciples give the benefit of the doubt as they strive to understand His meaning.

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: Rejoice in the Lord Alway

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 12 sec.

Did you know that the apostle Paul instructed Christians to always rejoice in Christ?

In fact, he emphasized this point more than once to his readers. God’s people have just returned from the recent fall Holy Day season rejoicing. Conversations between brethren at the weekly worship services buzzed with enthusiasm and excitement. A spirit of rejoicing is now evident throughout the Churches of God. However, once they return to their normal routines along with associated problems and struggles, it can become challenging to maintain a spirit of rejoicing. This Digging Deeper explores Paul’s instruction on how to maintain a joyful spirit throughout the coming year.

Here is our focus verse: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4 KJV throughout). Notice that Paul reinforced his admonition with a double imperative. The verb tense in the Greek for rejoice represents a continuing, habitual action. Spurgeon’s Expositions on the Bible, Vol 3 explains the sense of it in English this way: “The very word ‘rejoice,’ seems to imply a reduplication; it is joy, and re-joy, joy over again; but here, you see, it is a fourfold rejoicing; joy, and re-joy; and again I say, joy, and re-joy; and this is to be the Christian’s continual experience, for the apostle says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always'” (Bible Analyzer

Encouragement sent from prison

When Paul wrote this instruction to the Philippian congregation, he was sitting under house arrest in Rome awaiting a hearing with the Emperor. As was customary in such a circumstance, he was probably chained to a Roman soldier on each arm or leg to prevent his escape. Nonetheless, he lived in his own hired house and even was permitted to invite guests to visit him. His circumstance is detailed at the end of Acts 28. Paul discovered how to be content in whatever circumstance he found himself (Philippians 4:11) and wrote to the Philippians from afar to help them discover contentment as well.

Why Paul emphasized this spiritual rejoicing to the Philippian congregation is explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “There were many reasons why the Philippian saints could have felt discouraged. Paul’s imprisonment and the possibility of his death, Epaphroditus’ illness, and the antagonism of unbelievers were a few. The attacks from legalists on the one hand and libertines on the other, plus friction among certain members of the church, contributed to this spirit. To counteract this attitude Paul prescribed rejoicing in the Lord. He repeated this charge in this verse for even greater emphasis” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings comments that “It has been well said that this whole Epistle may be summed up in two short sentences: ‘I rejoice’; ‘Rejoice ye!’ The word and the thing crop up in every chapter, like some hidden brook, ever and anon sparkling out into the sunshine from beneath the shadows. This continual refrain of gladness is all the more remarkable if we remember the Apostle’s circumstances. The letter shows him to us as a prisoner, dependent on Christian charity for a living, having no man like-minded to cheer his solitude; uncertain as to how it shall be with him, and obliged to contemplate the possibility of being offered, or poured out as a libation, on the sacrifice and service of his faith. Yet out of all the darkness his clear notes ring jubilant; and this sunny Epistle comes from the pen of a prisoner who did not know but that tomorrow he might be a martyr” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Philippian church in Macedonia (Greece today) was Paul’s first European congregation. They were a loyal and supportive church. However, they too were experiencing persecution for their newfound faith. Not only that, but they were experiencing deprivation, as explained by the Defender’s Study Bible: “In spite of their ‘deep poverty’ (2 Corinthians 8:1-2) as well as their ‘great trial of affliction,’ the Philippian church exhibited an ‘abundance of … joy.’ In Paul’s short letter, he used the words ‘joy,’ ‘rejoice’ and ‘rejoicing’ at least seventeen times!” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Joy is a characteristic Pauline theme in this epistle.  

Joy in the Lord

Notice that Paul did not write “Rejoice alway(s)”; rather, he wrote “Rejoice in the Lord alway(s) (emphasis mine).” This is something very different from general day-to-day rejoicing. What he meant is suggested by Adam Barne’s Notes on the Bible: “It is the privilege of Christians to do this, not at certain periods and at distant intervals, but at all times they may rejoice that there is a God and Saviour; they may rejoice in the character, law, and government of God – in his promises, and in communion with him. The Christian, therefore, may be, and should be, always a happy man [person]. If everything else changes, yet the Lord does not change; if the sources of all other joy are dried up, yet this is not; and there is not a moment of a Christian’s life in which he may not find joy in the character, law, and promises of God” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Additionally, this joy is to be centered on Christ, as the Bridgeway Bible Dictionary explains: “Joy in a special sense becomes the possession of believers when by faith they come into union with Jesus Christ (Joh 15:4, 11). This joy is more than simply a feeling of happiness when all is going well. That sort of joy will be only temporary (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). The joy that Christ gives is something that no circumstances can take away (John 16:22, 33; 17:13; Romans 15:13). It is a quality of peace and strength that enables believers to rejoice even amid trouble and sorrow (Habakkuk 3:17-18; Matthew 5:10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:10; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2; see PEACE)” (Bible Analyzer

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible notes that this kind of rejoicing is spiritually-based: “ Be continually happy; but this happiness you can find only in the Lord. Genuine happiness is spiritual; as it can only come from God, so it infallibly tends to him. The apostle repeats the exhortation, to show, not only his earnestness, but also that it was God’s will that it should be so, and that it was their duty as well as interest” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Rejoicing in tough times

Difficult times can discourage God’s people. Christians are not immune to suffering, disappointment, and grief. What motivates them to retain their rejoiceful outlook is explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “Paul was not urging us to be unrealistic. He was not saying that we should never feel sad. Even Jesus wept (John 11:35). However, he was advocating focusing on the blessings we have in Christ and being grateful for these regardless of how sad we may feel at any particular time. He had set a good example by singing when he was in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible elaborates on why rejoicing may continue even through tough times: “…there is always cause and matter for rejoicing in Christ, even in times of affliction, distress, and persecution; since he is always the same; his grace is always sufficient; his blood has a continual virtue in it, and always speaks for peace and pardon; his righteousness is an everlasting one, and so is his salvation, and such is his love…” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

In no way was Paul scolding or correcting them. In fact, this is what he thought of them: “Even as it is meet [suitable, fit] for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds [chains], and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels [tender mercies] of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:7-8). Subsequently, he encouraged them to: “Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). One reason Paul admonished them resulted from a dispute between two of the congregation’s ladies, Euodias and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3).

In conclusion, Christians will face problems and challenges between now and next year’s festivals. How they should respond to them is summarized by The NKJ Study Bible: “In the midst of difficulties, in the midst of all situations, Christians are to rejoice. The joy of Christians is not based on agreeable circumstances, instead it is based on their relationship to God. Christians will face trouble in this world, but they should rejoice in the trials they face because they know God is using those situations to improve their character (see James 1:2–4)” (Tecarta Bible App). God preserved Paul’s letter as general instruction to the Church of God for all time. Understanding this, Paul’s text is God’s admonition to Christians today: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

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: Those Who Love His Appearing

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 32 sec.

Did you know that God promises a crown of righteousness to all those who love Jesus’ appearing?

Not only are Christians to look for it but they are to love it. This presents a different dimension for believers as they patiently await the soon coming of their Lord. Just what did the apostle Paul mean by this phrase? Observant Christians around the globe will soon observe the Festival of Trumpets, which represents, by typology, Jesus’ Second Coming after seven trumpet plagues. This Digging Deeper explores Paul’s phrase about loving His appearing to gain a deeper appreciation for how Christians should await the coming of our Lord while we prepare for the next Holy Day.

Our focus verse is: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8 KJV throughout). This verse comes near the end of Paul’s last epistle in our New Testament. He is suffering deplorable conditions in a Roman prison awaiting his execution during a time of growing anti-Christian activism in the Roman government. In this epistle, Paul gives final instructions to his young protégé, Timothy, to carry on preaching the gospel and caring for the Churches of God in Paul’s absence. Paul knows his time is very short and that he had almost finished his apostolic work. The bottom line was that he had “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7).

Fighting and Running

Verses 7 and 8 are based figuratively on athletic competition, like the Olympics today, that was popular in the Greek and Roman Empires, including in the city of Corinth. In verse 7, Paul declares: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7 KJV). The image he portrays is that of the first-century boxer in fierce combat. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes this combat: “Boxing (1 Corinthians 9:26–27), one of the most popular Greek competitions, was violent. Boxers’ leather gloves protected most of their forearms but left the fingers bare. A still more violent version was a form of combat known as the pankration, which mixed boxing with wrestling. Its only rules were against gouging the eyes of one’s adversary and biting” (Tecarta Bible App). Of course, Paul meant he had fought a fierce spiritual battle.

In the next phrase, Paul declared he had finished his course, referring to a foot racecourse. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines this Greek word for course: “dromos (G1408), properly, ‘a running, a race’ (from edramon, ‘to run’), hence, metaphorically, denotes ‘a career, course of occupation, or of life,’ viewed in a special aspect, Acts 13:25; Acts 20:24; 2 Timothy 4:7” (e-Sword 13.0). Earlier, Paul stated he desired to finish his course with joy (Acts 20:24).

Competing for the Crown

The reward for finishing first in a contest was a crown. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible defines it as: “A wreath (Greek stephanos, not the kingly diadēma) was awarded for first place in a race (v. 7), like a gold medal today” (Tecarta Bible App). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains these material crowns: “Victors’ crowns at Greek competitions were wreaths: wild olive for the Olympics and pine or withered celery for the Isthmian Games” (Tecarta Bible App). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary suggests how this Greek word likely brought back a painful memory to Paul: “Before Paul was a Christian he supervised the execution of the first martyr and then began to kill as many other Christians as he could. But now at the end of his life he was ready to receive a crown – a stephanos. It is likely that he remembered the name of the first martyr, who died at Paul’s own hands: Stephanos (Stephen)” (e-Sword 13.0).

Various crowns are assured Christians in the New Testament, as described by The Defender’s Study Bible: “This is one of the crowns symbolizing rewards for faithful service, which Christ will award at His judgment seat (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 3:14). These include: ‘an incorruptible [crown]’ (1 Corinthians 9:25), the ‘crown of rejoicing’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19), ‘the crown of life’ (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10), and ‘a crown of glory’ (1 Peter 5:4)” (e-Sword 13.0).

But the one Paul mentions in our focus verse is the crown of righteousness. This phrase has been understood with different senses as explained by the NIV Study Bible: “He could be referring to (1) a crown given as a reward for a righteous life, (2) a crown consisting of righteousness or (3) a crown given righteously (justly) by the righteous Judge” (Tecarta Bible App). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible connects Christ the Righteous Judge with a judge in Roman games: “He alludes here to the brabeus, or umpire in the Grecian games, whose office it was to declare the victor, and to give the crown” (e-Sword 13.0).

Only one winner?

Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible comments that only one person won the prize in these games: “At the Grecian games, but one could obtain the prize; 1 Corinthians 9:24. All the rest who contended in those games, no matter how numerous they were, or how skillfully they contended, or how much effort they made, were of course subjected to the mortification of a failure, and to all the ill-feeling and envy to which such a failure might give rise” (e-Sword 13.0). By contrast, in the Christian “athletic games,” all potentially could be awarded, as Barnes continues: “No matter how numerous the competitors, or how worthy any one of them may be, or how pre-eminent above his brethren, yet all may obtain the prize … No one is excluded because another is successful; no one fails of the reward because another obtains it. Who, then, would not make an effort to win the immortal crown” (Ibid.)?

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible explains Christ’s reasoning why all could receive this prize: “Here is a reward, but it is a reward not of debt but of grace; for it is by the grace of God that even an apostle is fitted for glory. And this reward is common to the faithful; it is given, not only to apostles, but to all them that love his appearing. This crown is laid up – it is in view, but not in possession” (e-Sword 13.0). The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable describe the proper attitude for receiving such a reward: “An expectation of reward is also a recognition of God’s grace. Those who anticipate reward will not be able to boast, ‘Look at my accomplishments.’ They should be able to offer praise to God by saying, ‘Thank you, Lord, for what you have produced in me.’ The very expectation of reward is an acknowledgment of God’s grace'” (e-Sword 13.0).

Love His Appearing

In verse 8, the words that day have a special significance as explained by the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible: “A time of final reckoning, for good or ill. See 1:12,18; see also note on 1:12. Jesus spoke of ‘that day’ over a dozen times, both as judgment (Luke 21:34) and as a joyful time of reward (Luke 6:23) and reunion with Christ (Matt 26:29)” (Tecarta Bible App).

Receiving such a reward by all Christians is dependent on their loving His appearing, as explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “This reward (victor’s crown, Gr. stephanos) will go to all Christians like Paul who, by the way they lived, demonstrated a longing for the Lord’s return. Not all Christians are anxious for the Lord to return since some know they need to change their way of living” (e-Sword 13.0).

Sir W. Robertson Nicoll’s The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts portrays various attitudes Christians may express towards the prospect of Jesus’ return: “There are four attitudes of mind in which we may stand respecting the ‘appearing’ of Christ. By far the worst is ‘indifference’; and that indifference may be either the dullness of ignorance, or the apathy or the deadness of the moral feelings. The next state is, ‘fear’. There is always something very good when there is ‘fear’. It requires faith to ‘fear’. But above ‘fear’ is ‘hope’. ‘Hope’ is expectation with desire: knowledge enough to be able to anticipate and grace enough to be able to wish it And here the ladder is generally cut off; but God carries it one step higher—’love’. ‘Love’ is as much above ‘hope’ as ‘hope’ is above ‘fear’—for ‘hope’ may be selfish, ‘love’ cannot be; ‘hope’ may be for what a person gives, ‘love’ must be for the person himself” (e-Sword 13.0). 

Christians are to prepare for Jesus’ return. They need to examine themselves regarding their attitude to Jesus’ coming, as expressed in these four different attitudes from our previous quotation. Christians should examine themselves in springtime before Passover, but they also should examine themselves in autumn before the Festival of Trumpets. In this festival season, absorb and meditate upon these words from the apostle John: “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28).

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: Fire Shut Up In My Bones

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

Estimated Reading Time: 7 min., 56 sec.

Did you know that when God commands a man to preach His message, he feels compelled to comply?

Even when he tries to refrain from doing so, he senses an overwhelming urgency to deliver the message regardless of the consequences. Jeremiah was one such prophet who, because of his suffering for preaching God’s word, tried to restrain himself from doing so but found he could no longer hold back. Today’s Digging Deeper considers this compulsion of God’s chosen men who speak for Him.

Our focus verse comes from Jeremiah’s experience: “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay [stop, hold back](Jeremiah 20:9 KJV throughout). Later in his book, Jeremiah states, “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29 KJV). Fire and a hammer are two of several metaphors for God’s word used in Scripture.

Not of their own will

The NET Bible Notes explain the phrase “speak…in his name” from Jeremiah 20:9: “This idiom occurs in passages where someone functions as the messenger under the authority of another. See Exodus 5:23; Deuteronomy 18:19, 29:20; Jeremiah 14:14” (e-Sword 13.0). God had called Jeremiah at a young age and sent him to preach to the House of Judah before the final collapse of this kingdom to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 1:4-10). In Jeremiah 1:9, God put His words into Jeremiah’s mouth to proclaim to others. When God’s word becomes a part of a person’s inner life, that person is never the same again. That person has been given precious, divine truth that must be shared with others (Jeremiah 26:2).

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges describes what God’s prophets experienced: “These vv. shew us that the prophets did not speak of their own will. It was an influence which they could not resist that urged them forward, in spite of the certain ills that should follow to themselves. ‘Here there rings out clearly the prophet’s unfaltering certainty of the real inspiration which is the source of all his message.’ Pe. Cp. Jeremiah 23:29; so Amos 3:8 and 1 Corinthians 9:16″ (e-Sword 13.0).

Discouraged yet conflicted

When Jeremiah acquiesced to begin preaching after he was first called, he did not receive the kind of response he expected and hoped for. By Jeremiah chapter 20, he had been preaching for some time but was receiving little positive response. From king to pauper, Jeremiah’s message fell on deaf ears. People spoke back to him, threatened him, imprisoned him, and even lowered him into a slime pit to die. He became very discouraged and challenged God about why He had sent him when so few, if any, were willing to heed and respond positively to his message. The Dake Annotated Reference Bible summarizes Jeremiah’s debate with God in Jeremiah 20:

“Tenfold Complaint Of Jeremiah:

  1. Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived (Jer 20:7).
  2. You are stronger than I, and You have prevailed.
  3. I was in derision daily.
  4. Everyone mocks me.
  5. Since I spake, I cried out violence and spoil (Jer 20:8).
  6. God’s word was made a reproach to me, and a derision daily.
  7. I determined not to speak the word of the Lord anymore in His name; but it was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I could not keep from speaking out (Jer 20:9).
  8. I heard the defaming of many (Jer 20:10).
  9. Fear was on every side.
  10. All my familiars [intimate friends] watched for me to quit speaking, thinking they would prevail against me and get revenge” (Bible Analyzer

The Common Man’s Reference Bible Notes explains Jeremiah’s internal debate: “This account reveals the mental conflicts of Jeremiah during the conflicts with the apostate priests and people. Jeremiah desired to quit because he was upset with the LORD (Jonah 4:9). Everyone was against Jeremiah and they wanted him to quit or slip up (1Cor 4:9). At this time Jeremiah was against himself, but God called him to this work. Jeremiah had memorized much Scripture and the words of God burned inside his heart. When a man has the word hid in his heart, he cannot be silent (Prov 21:28). It is not the beliefs, fundamentals, message, or principles, but the words that motivate a man to preach (Psa 12:6-7; Acts 4:31; Col 3:16)” (Bible Analyzer

The tremendous battle in the heart

The College Press Bible Study Textbook Series describes further this struggle in Jeremiah’s mind: “A tremendous battle rages in the heart and mind of this sensitive man of God. On the one hand he wanted to resign his ministry and retreat to the peaceful and quiet life at Anathoth. He could not bear to face the prospect of continued ridicule and opposition. He wanted to forget all about his recent unpleasant experiences and never preach another sermon again. On the other hand his heart was burdened with a sense of prophetic obligation and divine mission. The fire of God’s wrath against sin burns fiercely within him. He tries to hold it back but cannot. He becomes utterly exhausted from trying to fight his compulsion to preach. In spite of himself he must follow the divine call, he must resume his ministry (Jeremiah 20:9)” (e-Sword 13.0).

Once Jeremiah realized his precipitous mistake in trying to resist speaking God’s word, he realizes he has no choice but to do so, as explained by Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible:

I wilt not make mention of him – I will renounce the prophetic office, and return to my house.

As a burning fire shut up in my bones – He felt stings of conscience for the hasty and disobedient resolution he had formed; he felt ashamed of his own weakness, that did not confide in the promise and strength of God; and God’s word was in him as a strongly raging fire, and he was obliged to deliver it, in order to get rid of the tortures which he felt from suppressing the solemn message which God had given. It is as dangerous to refuse to go when called, as it is to run without a call”.

(e-Sword 13.0)

Another prophet, Amos, expressed his compulsion to proclaim God’s word faithfully: “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). In the New Testament era, the apostles Peter and John said: “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The apostle Paul too sensed his absolute necessity to preach God’s word: “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me” (1 Corithians 9:16-17).

The Defender’s Study Bible explains what compelled these servants of God: “The Word of God simply cannot be quenched for one who truly loves God and understands what God’s Word has done for him and what it means for the world. Even though that man is the object of reproach and derision because of it (Jeremiah 20:8), he must proclaim it to others in whatever way he can” (e-Sword 13.0).

The message must be proclaimed

Sometimes God’s people tire of proclaiming God’s word because, seemingly, it is without many positive responses. Ger de Koning’s Commentary on the Whole Bible offers food for thought: “We may also be overcome by the feeling that we no longer want to continue our service, that we no longer want to think about the LORD. After all, there is no point to it all. But then, like Jeremiah, we will still have no choice but to continue because we are inwardly convinced of the truth. The heart is burning, even though we are disappointed with the results of our service. When we see the state of corruption and the judgment that threatens, we cannot help but speak God’s words” (BibleTime 3.0.1).

These personal examples should move those whom God has called today to continue to proclaim the gospel to the world. It desperately needs to hear God’s word. We must proclaim it, or else God will hold us accountable (Ezekiel 33:1-9). God will strengthen us despite much opposition. In the end, if we are faithful, we will hear these words from our Savior: “…Well done, good and faithful servant…” (Matthew 25:23).

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: God is Watching Us

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 54 sec.

Did you know that God observes everything on our blue-green gem of a planet floating in the blackness of space?

He sees it all – the good, the bad, the miraculous, the appalling, the beautiful, and the ugly. Many live as if He does not exist, or if He does, as though He is unobservant of the goings-on here below. This Digging Deeper highlights a proverb that demonstrates God’s observing eyes over this miracle planet of life that humankind is threatening to destroy.

The music world lost a singer/songwriter and guitarist last week whose career was vaulted by her recording of a song composed by Julie Gold entitled “From A Distance.” Nanci Griffith had a long musical career whose recordings transpired genres including folk and country music. Many people prefer her beautiful rendition of this song in which the words of the chorus are “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us – from a distance.” The aspirational theme of the song imagines what the world could be if only humankind lived in peace and harmony with God, itself, and the natural world. Instead, it suffers from war, disease, deprivation, hatred, and chaos because of global sinfulness.

Our focus verse is: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3 KJV throughout). Ger de Koning’s Commentary on the Whole Bible contrasts these two groups of people: “The evil people are both the great sinners and the friendly people who live decently, but none of them allow God into their lives. They are both those who openly sin and those who secretly sin. God wants them to become aware that He sees them, so that they may repent. The good people are in themselves also sinners, but they do good because they have acknowledged to be sinners. They live from a good relationship with God. That relationship has become good by their confession of sins and their faith in the forgiveness of those sins by God” (BibleTime 3.0.1).

His eyes run to and fro

We will consider a few parallel cross-references. Bible reference works, both printed and electronic, make it convenient to perform such side studies. One cross-reference is especially pertinent in the light of recent world events. This was spoken by God during the reign of King Asa of Judah: “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him. Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore from henceforth thou shalt have wars. ” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

Proverbs has a good deal to say about God’s overview of humankind, as illustrated by The ESV Study Bible: “The eyes of the LORD is a major theme in Proverbs: the Lord knows the actions and hearts of all, so he is neither pleased with nor fooled by one who offers sacrifices while continuing in the way of wickedness (cf. vv. 8–9, 11, 26, 29)” (Tecarta Bible App). Some may think they can appease God by their “religious” activities like monetary gifts to charities, hoping God will overlook their habitual sinfulness. God is not so easily fooled.

The College Press Bible Study Textbook Series declares that God is a perfect witness when it asserts: “Since He beholds both the evil and the good, God is not human, for human beings tend to see only the evil of their enemies and critics and to by-pass the evil in their friends and close relatives” (e-Sword 13.). Our problem is that we cannot read people’s hearts (minds) like God can. This proverb explains how observant the Almighty is: “Hell and destruction are before the LORD: how much more then the hearts of the children of men”? (Proverbs 15:11 KJV). We cannot hide anything from Him.

Beholding with a loving eye

Sometimes parents inform misbehaving children that God is watching them. To a point, this may remind children of what is expected of them by God. On the other hand, parents need balance, as explained by the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Vol. 3: “Beholding. Better, ‘keeping watch.’ Sometimes children are given the impression that God watches them in order to find cause for blame; but our heavenly Father watches with the pitiful, loving eye of One who knows the frailty of our nature (see Hebrews 4:13; Psalm 33:13; 90:8; 103:13-14″ (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1977, p. 999). The cross-references from Psalms listed here are heart-warming: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).

The Hebrew word translated beholding has a colorful usage in the Old Testament, as explained by The Holman KJV Study Bible: “The Hebrew word for beholding or being vigilant implies that proper action will be taken with regard to what is observed. It is used of the capable wife who watches over her household (31:27), of the watchman in Ezekiel who is obligated to sound the alarm (Ezek. 33:6), and of God Himself who watches and judges the nations (Ps. 66:7)” (Tecarta Bible App). The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges adds further: “The word is commonly used of a watchman (1 Samuel 14:16; 2 Samuel 13:34;18:24), and calls up the figure of the Almighty observing, as it were, from His lofty watch-tower in heaven all the doings of the dwellers upon earth.” (e-Sword 13.0).

Seeing the good and evil

Proverbs 15:3 not only alarms the wicked but encourages the faithful, as explained by The NKJ Study Bible: “That the eyes of the LORD are in every place watching everything chills those who do evil and comforts those who submit to Him (see Ecclesiastes 12:14)” (Tecarta Bible App). The cross-reference verse they offer is pertinent to our study: “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14 KJV). Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible assures God’s people: “The wicked shall not go unpunished, nor the righteous unrewarded, for God has his eye upon both and knows their true character; this speaks as much comfort to saints as terror to sinners” (e-Sword 13.0).

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible describes our focus verse’s instructional balance: “And if the consideration that his eye is in every place, have a tendency to appal those whose hearts are not right before him, and who seek for privacy, that they may commit iniquity; yet the other consideration, that his providence is everywhere, has a great tendency to encourage the upright, and all who may be in perilous or distressing circumstances” (e-Sword 13.).

God is extremely patient with human behavior, but there is a limit to His patience, as explained by Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “Beholding the evil and the good.—Waiting till the iniquity of the one is full (Genesis 15:16), watching to aid the other (Psalm 34:15,17)” (e-Sword 13.0). When some cross the line of no return in their evil, God will act – but within His overall plan. By contrast, the cross-references in this source from Psalms offer strong encouragement to God’s faithful people going through extreme troubles:

“The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.” (Psalm 34:15)

“The righteous cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles.” (Psalm 34:17)

He sees and will act

Suffering people sometimes wonder if God truly sees what is happening here below. Joseph Parker’s The People’s Bible assures them: “Such words are at once a comfort and a terror. The universe would be but an infinite darkness were it not for the assurance that the eyes of the Lord watch every throbbing heart, every thought, every purpose, every action of the multitudinous life of men” (e-Sword 13.). God is watching and He will act on His own timetable. In the meantime, His people must continue to trust Him to rescue them.

God not only sees all, but He also knows our thoughts. Another cross-reference reminds us: “To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off” (Psalm 139:1-2). Joseph S. Exell’s The Preachers Complete Homiletical Commentary explains these verses: “God is the one potentate and judge who can claim a perfect knowledge of all His subjects from personal acquaintance with each individual. Not one is lost in the crowd; each one stands before Him as distinctly as if He were the only creature in the universe” (e-Sword 13.). Now that is personal attention!

The righteous may be assured that, though God bears long with them in their suffering while they continually cry unto Him (Luke 18:7), He will finally act and reward them accordingly. Daniel Whedon’s Commentary on the Old and New Testaments explains that God beholds the evil and the good in order: ” …  as is implied, to judge accurately of their character and conduct, and to reward and punish accordingly. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (e-Sword 13.0). The Bible reference this source just summarized was spoken by Abraham to God as He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). God is fair and can be trusted to fairly punish the wicked and reward the righteous for the “eyes of the LORD are in every place…”

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 Chemarims

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 19 sec.

Did you know that in ancient Israel a mysterious group of religious officials known as Chemarims served in God’s sanctuary and at pagan shrines?

Some authorities suggest they were attired in black robes. Historically, black robes have been associated with clergy in the Christian world. The Catholic order, the Jesuits, was referred to as “Black Robes” by native peoples in the Americas during colonization. This Digging Deeper explores this unfamiliar term Chemarims to discover something about who they were and why they were referred to by this name.

The word Chemarims appears only once in our King James Bible. Here is the verse:

(Zephaniah 1:4) “I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests.” Notice that this worship is associated with the god Baal. This verse describes two groups of religious leaders, as explained by The New English Translation Notes: “The first word (כְּמָרִים, kemarim) refers to idolatrous priests in its two other appearances in the OT (2 Kings 23:5, Hosea 10:5), while the second word (כֹּהֲנִים, kohanim) is the normal term for ‘priest’ and is used of both legitimate and illegitimate priests in the OT” (e-Sword 13.0).

Who were the Chermarims?

The English word Chemarims is related to the Hebrew word (komer), which appears in two other verses also associated with heathen worship:

(Hosea 10:5)  “The inhabitants of Samaria shall fear because of the calves of Bethaven: for the people thereof shall mourn over it, and the priests [komer] thereof that rejoiced on it, for the glory thereof, because it is departed from it.”

(2 Kings 23:5) “And he [King Josiah] put down the idolatrous priests [komer], whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that burned incense unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven.”

Good King Josiah rid his land of these idolatrous priests (2 Kings 23:5). The NIV Study Bible, concerning Zephaniah 1:4-6, states that this passage: “Seems to indicate that Zephaniah’s main ministry took place before 621 bc, since the practices condemned here were abolished in Josiah’s reforms (see 2 Kings 23:4-16 and notes). Perhaps Zephaniah’s message was partly instrumental in motivating King Josiah to undertake his reforms (cf. 2 Chronicles 34:1-7)” (Tecarta Bible App). Josiah was one of the best kings of the House of Judah. His spiritual reformation of cleansing his empire of paganism is an epic Old Testament story.

Those in black robes

Several older sources associate the Chemarims with those who were attired in black robes. For example, The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature by John McClintock and James Strong declares: “According to Gesenius (Thes Hebrews p. 693), the corresponding Syriac word signifies ‘a priest in general; but this, as well as other Syriac words relating to divine worship, is restricted by the Hebrews to idol-worship. As to the etymology, the singular form כֹּמֶר, ko´mer, is properly blackness, sadness, and concretely, one who goes about in black, in mourning, hence an ascetic, a priest'” (e-Sword 13.0).

Then, relating this to Christian history, this source continues: “The priests who officiated in the service of the golden calves at Dan and Bethel were called chemarim (see the other passages referred to). Even to this day the Jews retain the word, and apply it in derision to Christian ministers, on account of their black robes” (e-Sword 13.). John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible describes some clergy today even more particularly: “The word is used now by the Jews for Popish monks that live in cloisters; and Elias Levita (m) thinks these here are so called from their living in such like recluse places” (Ibid.).

An older work from the 1600s by John Trapp called A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments is even more pointed when it refers to these religious leaders as “Baal’s chimney chaplains” and then asserts: “The Vulgate rendereth it  Aedituos, underlings to the other priests: Elias in Tisby, saith they were such as were shut up in cloisters, Chemarim Atrati they are called, either from their black garments, or because they were smutched with burning incense, or from the brandmarks they had superstitiously set upon their bodies, or because of their pretended fiery zeal and fervency in their religion, such as are the Sacrifici Seraphici among the Papists, who falsely and foolishly call them the lights of the world, sc. to light them into utter darkness” (e-Sword 13.0). We are not used to such bold declarative statements today!

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible in its comment on 2 Kings 23:5 goes even further with this challenging thought: “Probably they were an order made by the idolatrous kings of Judah, and called kemarim, from כמר  camar, which signifies to be scorched, shriveled together, made dark, or black, because their business was constantly to attend sacrificial fires, and probably they were [wore] black garments; hence the Jews in derision call Christian ministers kemarim, because of their black clothes and garments. Why we should imitate, in our sacerdotal dress, those priests of Baal, is strange to think and hard to tell” (e-Sword 13.0).  That is certainly something for current clergy to consider seriously!

A Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke also relates the word to black robes: “Bishop Patrick thinks, that they were so called from being clothed in black; for the Egyptians, as well as many other pagan nations, made use of black garments when they sacrificed to the infernal deities: in opposition to which, the Jewish priests were clothed in white at their sacrifices” (e-Sword 13.0).

Uncertain etymology

However, not all sources associate Chemarims with black robes. A comparatively newer source, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, edited by Merrill C. Tenney, declares the word’s uncertainty: “Its etymology is uncertain, none of those suggested being widely accepted … However, in the OT it is used only of the priests of idols or foreign gods, thus with an unfavorable sense” (Regency Reference Library, 1976, p. 786).

Another reference work, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’s article on Chemarims, also expresses its uncertain meaning: “The question of the root idea of the word remains unsettled. The traditional supposition, which finds some support even among modern scholars, is that the verbal form means ‘to be black,’ the priests being supposed to have been clad in black. But it is doubtful whether the root had this meaning. Another conjecture takes the root to mean ‘to be sad,’ the priest being a man of a sad countenance, an ascetic” (e-Sword 13.).

This source then adds this further explanation: “It is at all events probable that the priests, both in Israel and in the surrounding nations, employed white vestments, rather than black, when in the performance of their official functions. According to the Mishna, Middōth, verse 4, a Levitical priest who had become disqualified for service put on black garments and departed, while the others put on white garments and went in and ministered. The reference to the Baal worship in 2 Kings 10:22 seems more congruous with this view; hence, probably blackrobed priests (Chemarim) of Baal and the unfaithful priests of Yahweh shall be cut off together. G. A. Smith (BTP, II, 56) reads ‘the priestlings with the priests'” (e-Sword 13.0).

Let the Bible interpret itself

As you can see, the original meaning of Chemarims is still not fully understood. However, whatever is meant, our English Bible defines it sufficiently using English words. Notice that in all three instances of the Hebrew word komer, the Bible has given its definition as idolatrous priests. This is an important principle of Bible study: search for a particular English word with an English concordance of the Bible to find other verses that explain its meaning. This way, the Bible interprets the Bible.

Another useful study tool is to look up the original Hebrew or Aramaic word for the Old Testament or the original Greek word for the New Testament and perform searches in concordances for these original languages. Today, this process is very fast and convenient using electronic Bible study tools available for various devices. However, beware of lexicon definitions. Some of the classic original language lexicons were produced by men who gave definitions for original words of the Bible by quoting non-biblical dictionaries, literature, or other sources. Instead, rely on the word of God to defines its own words.

Whatever its origin and definition, Chemarims described men who were illegitimate religious leaders at different times of ancient Israel’s history. God’s true servants have continually been challenged by imposters and dangerous religious opponents since the beginning of human history. It behooves diligent and truth-seeking servants of God to discern between those who speak God’s word faithfully from those who speak deceptions. Christians must “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 KJV).

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: Mutual Submission

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

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 40 sec.

Did you know that Scripture teaches that Christians are to submit to one another in the fear of God?

Our age has become increasingly skeptical of authority figures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some are losing patience with mask and distance mandates and recommendations from local officials. Regrettably, this reluctance to comply can endanger others’ lives. What Scriptural admonition guides believers during this crisis? This Digging Deeper considers the words of the apostle Paul to offer a reassuring perspective for observant Christians.

Our focus verse is: “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21 KJV throughout). On the domestic scene, some Bible-reading husbands occasionally recite verse 22 from Paul that wives are to submit to their husbands in order to persuade their wives to surrender to their wishes. What they may not have realized is that the previous verse (v. 21) is God’s command to every Christian to submit one to another in the fear of God – i.e., as an act of respect for the authority of God. Have you ever noticed how you can read a Scriptural section and yet its significance does not fully register on your mind?

Let this mind be in you…

Ephesians 5:21 parallels another passage of Paul to the Philippian brethren: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8 KJV). Christ is our role model of submission. He gave up His personal “rights” to become our atoning sacrifice. He submitted to all legitimate authorities of His time – even those who killed Him.

Ephesians 5:21 serves as a “bridge” in this section of the Ephesian epistle. The ESV Study Bible explains: “Verse 21 is transitional, connecting with the previous section and leading to what follows. Submission is illustrated in various family relations in 5:22–33 (wives/husbands), 6:1–4 (children/parents), and 6:5–9 (servants/masters)” (Tecarta Bible App). Paul modifies some traditional first-century codes of behavior, as The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible clarifies: “Household codes instructed male heads of households how to rule wives, children and slaves; while continuing to uphold the call for subordinates to submit, Paul here goes beyond traditional expectations in calling for mutual submission (cf. general Christian servanthood to one another in Mk 10:42–45; Jn 13:14–15; Gal 5:13). This places Paul among the small proportion of ancient thinkers who valued mutual concern and sensitivity” (Tecarta Bible App). Notice how Paul reinterpreted these historical codes for believers.

The meaning of submitting

The word submitting is a keyword, as the ESV Study Bible explains: “Grammatically, ‘submitting’ is a participle in Greek and is dependent on the verb in v. 15. It explains further how to walk in wisdom (vv. 15–21 are one long sentence in Gk.)” (Tecarta Bible App). The NIV Study Bible takes this idea a step further: “The Greek grammar indicates that this mutual submission is associated with the filling of the Spirit in v. 18. The command ‘be filled’ (v. 18) is followed by a series of participles in the Greek: speaking (v. 19), singing (v. 19), making music (v. 19), giving thanks (v. 20) and submitting (v. 21)” (Ibid.). Mutual submission is essential in Christian spiritual wisdom.

The word submitting is expressed very positively, as The NKJ Study Bible notes: “The Greek word for submitting does not refer to being under the absolute control of another but to voluntarily placing oneself under the authority of another” (Tecarta Bible App). The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts by Sir W. Robertson Nicoll adds further: “It is a sacrifice of ourselves. Submission in the Christian sense is an act of strength and not of weakness; a victory and not a defeat; a victory over self, felt and realised” (e-Sword 13.0).

This Christian perspective on submitting is so contrary to unbelieving behavior. Human pride can consider itself autonomous and answerable to oneself alone, which is true of some in free democracies. This verse prohibits pride, egotism, and self-will, as The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges explains: “The primary point in the spiritual ethics of the Gospel is humiliation; self is dethroned as against God, and consequently as against men. Here the special, but not exclusive, reference is to fellow-Christians” (e-Sword 13.0).

Contrary to the uninformed views of some, Christianity teaches that there are ranks of authority figures to whom Christians must submit. David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary offers historical etymology to the word submitting: “The word submitting here literally means, ‘to be under in rank.’ It is a military word. It speaks of the way that an army is organized among levels of rank. You have Generals and Colonels and Majors and Captains and Sergeants and Privates. There are levels of rank, and you are obligated to respect those in higher rank” (e-Sword 13.0).

Subject to various authorities

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers lists various authorities Christians are to obey: “The strong and frequent emphasis laid in the New Testament on subjection, whether (as in Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) to the civil powers, or (as here, in Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1, and 1 Peter 2:18 to 1 Peter 3:7) to domestic authority, or (as in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 14-15) to ecclesiastical authority, probably indicates some tendency, in the first exuberance of Christian liberty and enthusiasm, to disregard the wholesome restraints, laws, and conventions of outward life. Hence St. Paul’s general caution here, prefatory to the more detailed teaching of subjection which follows” (e-Sword 13.0).

Cross-references reinforce these instructions:

“Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5 KJV).

“Obey them [church authorities] that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17 KJV).

What makes the difference for Christians is that their submission to these authorities is modeled upon their Savior’s. The Popular Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Philip Schaff, notes: “Such submission is not cringing obsequiousness, which is always selfish; but it is opposed to rudeness, insolence, haughtiness, and kindred manifestations of unchristian temper. The relation to Christ involves humility, and only true humility can produce the submission here required. The example of Christ teaches the same lesson: ‘The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister’ (Mark 10:45)” (e-Sword 13.0).

Submitting with godly fear

The last part of our focus verse, “in the fear of God,” is also critical for understanding. David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary enlightens us: “In the fear of God: This is an important point, because Paul repeats the idea all through the extended section speaking about submission:

  • Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
  • Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
  • Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.

The words in the fear of God describe what should be our motive for submitting to one another. We should submit to one other – see ourselves no longer in an individualistic way, but as a unit, as a company or a battalion – out of respect for God the Father and out of respect for Jesus Christ” (e-Sword 13.0).

The Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament by William Burkitt offers this commentary: “Learn hence, That where that noble and divine principle of the fear of God prevaileth in the heart, it will make a man conscientiously careful of his duty towards man: the fear of God in him will have both the force of a motive to quicken him up unto, and also of a rule to guide and direct him in, that submission, which, in obedience to God is due and payable to his neighbours” (BibleTime 3.0.1).

Today’s highlighted passage is critical to the peaceful, loving, and smooth operation of a local church, as Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains: “The general meaning here is, that Christianity does not break up the relations of life, and produce disorder, lawlessness, and insubordination; but that it will confirm every proper authority, and make every just yoke lighter. Infidelity is always disorganizing; Christianity, never” (e-Sword 13.0).

Christianity does not free believers from submissive behavior to due authority but refocuses it as service to God. As a fitting conclusion to our study, Kingcommments by Ger de Koning extends this point further: “We are connected to one another in the body of Christ, and also connected with Him. When we understand that, we would not want to raise ourselves above the other. There will be a healthy ‘fear’ not to dishonor Him with a mind of pride and rebellion. Only when I totally surrender myself to the glory of Christ and when I live with reverence for Him, I will be able to submit myself to the other” (BibleTime 3.0.1).

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.