Tag Archives: biblical interpretation

Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (4 of 6)

In this post I want to challenge a popular assumption about Jesus and homosexuality. It is common knowledge that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That assertion is technically accurate based on our existing historical sources (though he said many things that were never recorded). Yet, as I explained in the second post in this series, it is a flimsy argument for saying Jesus was okay with homosexual behavior.

In this post I want to go further. I plan to argue here that Jesus’ Jewish listeners did indeed hear him speak against homosexual behavior, even though he may never have explicitly mentioned it.

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

We’ve all seen it—that child who insists on interpreting their parents’ instructions as narrowly as possible. Mommy says, “Don’t draw on the wall!” So Daughter writes her name instead. “But Mommy, you didn’t say I can’t write on the wall. You just said I can’t draw on the wall.”

Or Daddy warns his children, “We have company coming in a few hours. Don’t make a mess in the living room!” The children all start heading to their bedrooms to play except for one child. He tells his siblings, “Hey, Daddy didn’t say we can’t play in the living room. He just said ‘don’t make a mess.’ Let’s get our blocks and cars and build a town over there in the corner.”

“I don’t know… I don’t think Daddy will like that,” his siblings protest.

“But we’ll keep it really neat.  There won’t be any mess. We’ll be careful!”

So, the children get out their blocks and toy vehicles and stuffed animals. They carefully arrange an “orderly” town that soon sprawls across the entire room.

Daddy returns moments before the guests arrive, surveys the busy living room with surprise and frustration, and calls his children to attention. “But Daddy, this isn’t a mess! We arranged it very carefully!” his son protests.

What do his siblings immediately say? “It was his idea! We knew you didn’t want us to bring our toys into the living room, but he wouldn’t listen!”

I suggest something similar is happening when we suggest that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. If Jesus’ original Jewish audience could time-travel and speak with us, they would say, “Of course Jesus spoke against homosexual behavior! We heard him plainly!”

Three Ways Jesus Spoke About Homosexuality

What did Jesus’ Jewish audience hear that we miss? What might we hear, too, if we listen as students of history rather than as combatants in a twenty-first century culture war? What teachings of Jesus might we be interpreting too woodenly? What did Jesus say that communicated his disapproval of homosexual behavior?

I suggest there are at least three ways Jesus referred to homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. I’ll begin with the most general and move toward the most specific.

First, Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery.” 

The Gospels record that Jesus explicitly cited this command at least twice (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), besides alluding to it on other occasions (Matt. 15:19; 19:9).  It seems illogical to our minds, trained by Western legal traditions, to think that “do not commit adultery” could also mean “do not commit homosexual acts.” But that is exactly how many ancient Jews thought.

We can perhaps begin to understand this way of thinking if we envision a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka doll), as in the following image.

A rough illustration of how ancient Jews thought of their paradigmatic law code. The more general commands (larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one. (This diagram is adapted from an image by Monika Schröder from Pixabay.)

In Jewish thought, the more general commands of their law (the larger dolls) implied other related and more specific commands (the smaller dolls nesting inside the bigger ones). In this way a person could sum up and include many “smaller” commands simply by citing a “bigger” one.

Let’s consider how “You shall not commit adultery” fits into this picture. This command was part of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments. As the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, “The Decalogue came to be regarded as a summary of biblical law.”1

If the Ten Commandments were a summary of God’s law, then they could also function as an outline, with each of the Ten Commandments serving as headings for other related commands. This is exactly what happened. “Some [ancient Jewish] sources classify the 613 commandments of the Torah under the the headings of the commandments of the Decalogue.”2

One person who thought this way was Philo, a Jewish philosopher alive at the same time as Jesus. Philo asserted that “under” the commandment “against adulterers… many other commands are conveyed by implication, such as that against seducers, that against practisers of unnatural crimes, that against all who live in debauchery, that against all men who indulge in illicit and incontinent connections.”3

While discussing the Decalogue’s commandment against adultery, Philo specifically mentioned several forms of homosexual activity:

The law commands that the man-woman who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption… And let the man who is devoted to the love of boys submit to the same punishment, since he pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature… wasting his power of propagating his species, and moreover, being a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust… and last of all, because, like a worthless husbandman, he allows fertile and productive lands to lie fallow.4

There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus and his apostles shared this approach to interpreting the Law of Moses. Jesus, for example, cited the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor) and then said that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on (hang from, are derived from) “these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

Paul similarly suggested the Ten Commandments are encapsulated within the great commandments:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up [summarized] in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”(Rom. 13:9).

Jesus seems to have applied this kind of thinking specifically to adultery. For example, Jesus, like some other rabbis of the time, taught a broad definition of adultery that included the attitude of the heart: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).

Jesus even “expanded” adultery to include actions that were contrary to God’s creation design but which had specifically been given loopholes by the Law of Moses:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8-9).

Under adultery then, Jesus also forbade other sexual sins such as lust and divorce.

If we combine Jesus’ and Paul’s statements, we could say that inside of “Love your neighbor” is found “You shall not commit adultery,” and inside of “You shall not commit adultery” are both “Do not look at a woman with lustful intent” and “Do not divorce”—and, Philo adds, “Do not engage in homosexual behavior.”

Robert Gagnon summarizes this ancient Jewish way of reading “You shall not commit adultery”:

The Decalogue commandment against adultery was treated as a broad rubric prohibiting all forms of sexual practice that deviated from the creation model in Genesis 1-2, including homoerotic intercourse.5

Given this way of thinking about laws, it is likely that ancient Jews would have understood Jesus to be prohibiting all sorts of unlawful sexual activity, including homosexual activity, when he taught “You shall not commit adultery.”

(This way of thinking is radically different from our Western legal tradition. Our legal codes are exhaustive, and any action not explicitly banned remains legal. Ancient law codes were paradigmatic, and people were expected to extrapolate from the examples given to all similar situations. For help in understanding these differences and how they impact the commands we are discussing here, see the appendix at the end of this article.)

Second, Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia).

This Greek word is found on Jesus’ lips in both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels.6 Jesus listed πορνεῖαι (plural) among the defiling sins that proceed from the human heart:

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality (Matt. 15:18-19; cf. Mark 7:21)

Πορνεία (porneia) is commonly translated “sexual immorality.” It is a broad term which refers to “every kind of extramarital, unlawful, unnatural sexual intercourse.”7

New Testament scholar James Edwards says that πορνεία “can be found in Greek literature with reference to a variety of illicit sexual practices, including adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality.”8

When Jesus spoke against πορνεία, he was speaking to Jews, not Greeks.  What kinds of sexual activity would they have considered unlawful or illegitimate? Would Jews have considered homosexual behavior to be πορνεία?

We don’t have to guess. In the Septuagint (the Greek OT translated about 200 B.C.), πορνεία was used “for any sexual practice outside marriage between a man and a woman that is prohibited by the Torah” (Edwards).9 Homosexual activity certainly fits this description. 

Remember the conclusion reached by Fortson and Grams regarding Jewish writings near the time of Jesus:

Jews consistently condemned homosexual practice of any sort… Jews understood the Old Testament to speak against homosexual behavior, and they accepted biblical authority in matters of sexual ethics.10

And remember how Keener summarized Jewish practices from the same period:

Jewish people… unanimously rejected homosexual behavior… Jewish homosexual practice was nearly unknown.11

Given this historical context, Gagnon’s summary is no surprise: “In Jesus’ day, and for many centuries before and thereafter, porneia was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse.12 The related verb ἐκπορνεύω13 is even used in the NT to describe what Sodom and Gomorrah did: “indulged in sexual immorality” (Jude 1:7).

What would Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if we suggested he never said anything about homosexual behavior? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him warn against πορνεία!”

Third, Jesus taught against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia).

Mark includes this word in his record of Jesus’ teaching about sins that come out of the heart:

From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality (Mark 7:21-22)

Ἀσέλγεια is sometimes translated “sensuality” (ESV, NASB). But that expression hardly carries the negative connotation in today’s “sexy” world that ἀσέλγεια apparently carried among ancient Jews. “Lewdness” (NIV) or “debauchery” (NET) come closer. While πορνεία was used widely to refer to all kinds of unlawful sexual intercourse, ἀσέλγεια seems to have been used more narrowly to refer to sexual sins that Jews considered especially shameful.

G. Thomas Hobson surveys the usage of the word ἀσέλγεια in classical Greek, pre-New Testament, and post-New Testament contexts in his 2008 journal article “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22.” His findings are worth quoting at length:

It’s a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law… ἀσέλγεια was πορνεία… taken to its most disgusting degree… The term may have been used to refer to what were regarded as the most shameless violations of the sexuality taught in the Torah.

It would appear that the writer of Mark, writing for a general audience, saw a need to spell out an element of Jesus’ teaching that addressed a sexual lifestyle issue among Gentiles, a matter that was less of an issue for Matthew’s predominately Jewish audience.  Furthermore, for some reason, neither πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] nor μοιχεία [“adultery”] specifically addressed the sexual sin he had in mind.  It is likely… that Jesus was speaking of violations of the Torah such as homosexual behavior, incest, or bestiality, rather than comparatively less shocking sins such as adultery and fornication.14

In fact, there is one place in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7) where the word ἀσέλγεια is used explicitly to refer to the actions of people who were homosexuals. Hobson again:

Second Peter uses ἀσέλγεια more than any other NT document.  It links ἀσέλγεια explicitly with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, picturing Lot (2 Pet 2,7) as “greatly distressed by the licentiousness (ἀσέλγεια) of the wicked” around him. 15

Given this usage of ἀσέλγεια, what might Jesus have meant by the term in Mark 7:22? Hobson once more:

Exactly what did Jesus consider to be “utter shamelessness”?  What did he consider too far “over the line”?  The danger is to impose twenty-first century AD politically correct ideas on Jesus… In context, it is far more likely that Jesus had in mind what his fellow Jews (like the author of 2 Peter) meant when they used the word: images of Sodom and Gomorrah, images of outrageous violation of the one-flesh union of man and woman

If Jesus had wished to speak of homosexual behavior in his list of sins that defile the human heart, to what other word could Mark have turned in his translation?  Παιδεραστία [“paederasty,” from “love-of-boys”] was too narrow a term. Ἀρσενοκοίτης [“man-bedder”] had barely been coined by Paul.  And πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] is too broad a concept, although it is the only word Matthew chooses to use in his version of Jesus’ sin list.  Ἀσέλγεια was an ideal word for identifying both homosexual behavior and other similar sexual sins of which even the Mishnah was reticent to speak any more than was absolutely necessary

The appearance of ἀσέλγεια on the lips of Mark’s Jesus must be accounted for somehow, and it will not do to say that a word of such shock value as ἀσέλγεια was a throw-away detail, or was intended as nothing more than a synonym for πορνεία [“sexual immorality”] or μοιχεία [“adultery”]…  It is argued here that, as he seeks to faithfully communicate Jesus’ teaching, Mark found it necessary to emphasize to his readers that Jesus did explicitly reaffirm the Torah’s prohibition of the most shocking sexual offenses.16

Again, what might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say to us today if they heard us suggest Jesus never said anything about homosexual activity? “Of course he did!” they might respond. “We clearly heard him mention ἀσέλγεια!”

And, of course, it is clear that Jesus’ first followers did indeed understand that homosexual behavior was incompatible with following Jesus. (I’ll share more of that evidence in my final post.)

Conclusion

A primary goal of this blog series is to help us interpret Jesus within his own ancient Jewish historical context. If we read his silence, his speech, and his actions as if he were our next-door neighbor or even a twenty-first century rabbi, we are sure to reach conclusions that are historically invalid at best and dangerously deceptive at worst.

It is frequently claimed that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. That may be technically true according to our post-Scientific Revolution, post-Enlightenment way of reading science journals and law codes. But it is also very misleading according to ancient Jewish ways of talking about laws and sins.

Jesus’ general language condemning sexual immorality would have been understood by his original listeners to prohibit all mutually-recognized sexual sins—including homosexual activity as surely as bestiality, pedophilia, incest, and many other activities he also “failed” to mention.

Any ancient Jew would have concluded that Jesus did indeed address the topic of homosexual behavior. He did so when he taught about adultery, even more so when he mentioned πορνεία, and especially when he warned about ἀσέλγεια.

Are you able to hear Jesus through ancient Jewish ears? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks for reading! I realize the posts in this series take some time to read and absorb, and I hope you have found the time worthwhile.


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Appendix:
The Implications of Ancient Law Codes

The following is excerpted from “The Paradigmatic Nature of Biblical Law,” an excursus in Douglas Stuart’s commentary on Exodus:17

“Modern societies generally have opted for exhaustive law codes. That is, every action modern society wishes to regulate or prohibit must be specifically mentioned in a separate law… By this approach, all actions are permitted that are not expressly forbidden or regulated. Thus it is not uncommon that criminals in modern Western societies evade prosecution because of a ‘technicality’ or a ‘loophole’ in the law…

“Ancient laws did not work this way. They were paradigmatic, giving models of behaviors and models of prohibitions/punishments relative to those behaviors, but they made no attempt to be exhaustive. Ancient laws gave guiding principles, or samples, rather than complete descriptions of all things regulated. Ancient people were expected to be able to extrapolate from what the sampling of laws did say to the general behavior the laws in their totality pointed toward… Ancient judges were expected to extrapolate from the wording provided in the laws that did exist to all other circumstances and not to be foiled in their jurisprudence by any such concepts as ‘technicalities’ or ‘loopholes’… The Israelites had to learn to see the underlying principles in any law and not let the specifics of the individual casuistic citation mislead them into applying the law too narrowly…

“It is in connection with the paradigmatic nature of Israel’s covenant law that Jesus, following the established tradition in Judaism, could make so sweeping an assertion as that two laws sum up all the rest… Properly understood, two laws do indeed sum up everything in the entire legal corpus of the Old Testament. So do ten laws (the Ten Words/Commandments); so do all six hundred and thirteen… If a reasonable number of comprehensive and comprehensible laws… are provided to a people as paradigms for proper living, there is no excuse for that people to claim ignorance of how to behave or to claim innocence when their sins are found out.

“Most laws are expressed as commands in the masculine singular—the you of the laws is ‘you, a male person’—from a technical, grammatical point of view. But here again the reader/listener would not have the slightest ground to say, ‘It prohibits individual men from doing such and such, but I’m a woman/we’re a group, so the wording of the law exempts me/us.’ Implicit in the wording is the need for paradigmatic extrapolation to all persons, singular or plural, male or female…

“Without an awareness of all six hundred and thirteen commandments and seeing within them the high standards of God’s holiness… a person corrupted by a fallen world does not easily get the point of what the two great commandments are intended to summarize. Once one has learned the breadth and depth of God’s expectations for his holy people, however, the two greatest commandments serve brilliantly as comprehensive reminders of all that is expected of God’s covenant people.”

In his discussion of the Ten Commandments, Stuart applies this understanding to command about adultery:

This commandment does not explicitly condemn premarital sex, postmarital sex (as by a widow or widower), cohabitation without formal marriage, bestiality, or incest, all of which are dealt with elsewhere in various ways; but by implication it certainly does condemn all those practices… Again the principle of law as paradigmatic is essential for appreciating the implications of this command: reasonable and careful extrapolation from the paradigm of the adultery law yields the realization that all sex outside of marriage, whether before, during, after, or instead of a person’s actual legal marriage would be a violation of the divine covenant… The commandment also argues, implicitly, against divorce. If marriage is so important that is must be protected against adulteration—even the sort of adulteration that might occur in brief interludes—it certainly is important enough to protect against dissolution altogether.”18

  1. “Decalogue,” David Kadosh, Encyclopedia Judaica, The Gale Group, 2008, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/decalogue, accessed August 2, 2019.
  2. David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 351.
  3. Philo, The Decalogue, XXXII. (168), http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book26.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. Philo, The Special Laws, Book 3, VII. (38, 39). English source: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html  Greek source: http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/philo/specialg.pdf, pp. 82-83, accessed September 2, 2019. Philo’s comment about a “man-woman” seems to be concerned with men who change their appearance and actions to be like women. As for his comment about “the man who is devoted to the love of boys, it is worth noting that Philo does not seem concerned about child abuse or sexual abuse in any modern sense of those terms. Rather, the concerns he mentions are that such unions (1) are “contrary to nature,” (2) contribute to population decline, (3) train boys to be effeminate, and (4) cause women to remain barren. As with other ancient Jewish authors, the question of consensuality apparently was not a prime factor for Philo in evaluating the ethics of homosexual unions; other factors weighed more, and could not be overruled by the presence of consent.
  5. Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.
  6. It is likely that Jesus did much of his teaching in Aramaic, in which case the Gospel writers (or the sources upon which they drew) chose which Greek words to use. Historians generally agree, however, that their translations reliably convey the message of Jesus’ teaching.
  7. See Geoff Ashley’s survey of definitions of πορνεία in “Jesus and Homosexuality,” online article, The Village Church, https://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/articles/jesus-and-homosexuality, accessed September 2, 2019. Compare also with the usage noted in BAGD (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker): “of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.” Mounce similarly notes that “the word group to which porneia belongs generally relates to any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words).
  8. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 213.
  9. Ibid.
  10. S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 235.
  11. Craig S. Keener, Romans, New Covenant Commentary Series (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), Kindle Edition, commentary on Romans 1:24-27.
  12. Gagnon, Ibid.
  13. The relationship between the words can be glimpsed even by someone who dooes not read Greek; compare πορνεία and ἐκπορνεύω, or, in transliteration, porneia and ekporneuo.
  14. G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65, 67, 70, bold added. See here for the full article: https://www.academia.edu/31907497/ASELGEIA_IN_MARK_7_22. See also this summary by Richard Klaus: “Jesus Did Mention Homosexuality!” online article, White Rose Review, October, 2014, https://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2014/10/jesus-did-mention-homosexuality.html, accessed September 2, 2019.
  15. Ibid., 68.
  16. Ibid., 72-74, bold added.
  17. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 442-444.
  18. Ibid., 464-65, bold added.

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Every Promise in the Book Is Mine?

“Every promise in the book is mine!” Do you remember that song? Here’s the complete chorus:

Every promise in the book is mine,
Every chapter, every verse, every line,
All are blessings of His love divine,
Every promise in the book is mine!

It’s a catchy little song. I think I learned it in Sunday School years ago. For a much slower version in a gospel style, complete with verses full of Bible promises, check out this performance by the Sensational Nightingales:

It’s catchy, but is it true? Is every promise in the Bible mine?

NO AND YES

The short answer is clearly No. God promised Abraham that he would make his name great (Gen. 12:2), but I have no reason to believe I will become famous like Abraham.  The Spirit through Paul promises that “the woman… will be saved through childbearing,” but I’ll need to let my wife claim that promise (1 Tim. 2:14-15).

Given the proliferation these days of devotional books and digital memes with random Bible promises, it’s important to remember to ask: Is this promise mine?

And yet, the short answer—No—is not the whole answer.

Consider this example: God promised David a son who would become king over God’s people (2 Sam. 7:12-16). I will never have such a son. And yet Isaiah, centuries later, wrote this as he recalled God’s promise to David: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Is. 9:6). The “us” in this verse includes not only Isaiah, who was part of David’s royal line, but also the non-Judean “Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1). And we, too, have had a son born “to us”—all we who have Jesus as our King. Handel was right to help us sing this promise!

Paul sums it up neatly: “All the promises of God find their Yes in him”—in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Therefore, as Paul boldly announces elsewhere, “all things are yours” if you belong to Christ (1 Cor. 3:21).

So, is every promise in the book mine? If I belong to Christ, the full answer is clearly Yes. In some way, in Christ, I will benefit from every promise God has ever given—even, I think, from the one about the woman being saved through childbearing, though I’m not exactly sure how.

Both the No and the Yes are important to remember as we read promises in the Bible. Most of us begin our Christian lives with the Yes in full view, eagerly claiming promises. Then many of us “wise up” as we learn a few basic rules of Bible interpretation, and we remind each other—rightly, though sometimes a little smugly—of the No: “To whom was that promise originally given?” we ask.

I tend to hang out in that No camp much of the time, but recently I was reminded to broaden my thinking and simplify my trust in God’s promises. I have the writer of Hebrews to thank, but let me start with Joshua.

“I WILL NEVER LEAVE” WHO?

When Moses died and Joshua faced the gargantuan task of leading the Israelites into a promised land full of giants and walled cities, God gave Joshua a promise: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5).

That was a very specific promise, right? God had been with Moses in a unique way. He had given Moses the same promise when he first called him into leadership: “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Now God transferred the same assurance to Joshua.

As a Bible interpreter, I would tend to be cautious about using either verse as a proof text for God’s presence with Christians. “Right teaching, wrong text,” I might quip. In both verses, the promise of God’s presence was given to a special individual facing a specific task. At most, I might acknowledge that these verses could apply more narrowly to Christian leaders today, at least if I’m confident they have indeed been called by God.

But the writer of Hebrews has no such qualms. Listen to how he understands God’s promise to Joshua. Writing to God’s people at large, he says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5).

His next words draw a conclusion (“so”) from this promise and confirm that he is applying it to both himself and his readers: “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Heb. 13:6). Notice the we: by implication, he means “we [he and his readers] can confidently say” that God has promised to never leave us.

In fact, the writer of Hebrews is so sure that God’s promise to Joshua is also a promise for his readers that he uses it as assurance that a second OT promise, too, is theirs to claim! “Because God has promised not to leave us”—claiming the promise to Joshua—we can confidently say “The Lord is my helper”—claiming an assurance from Psalm 118:6-7. His confidence about one OT promise gives him boldness that he has inherited another, too.

And the author of Hebrews is not just writing to Christian leaders like Moses or Joshua. In fact, if anything he is not writing to leaders, for here are his very next words: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

So there we have it: You and I, if we are part of God’s people, can claim God’s promise to Joshua: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This promise in the book is mine.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER PROMISES?

But what about this promise, also given to Joshua at the same time: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses” (Josh. 1:3)? Again, there is a clear No and a clear Yes.

No, I should not expect all my neighbors in Atlanta to be driven out before me so I can inherit the gold dome of Georgia’s capital building, the rich Buckhead neighborhood, or the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. Nor should I expect a divine inheritance of land if I move to Israel or Palestine.

But Yes, for Paul says “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world” belongs “the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:13, 16). Or, as Jesus put it, “the meek… shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). So, yes, this promise in the book is mine, too.

The same No and Yes apply to many other Bible promises you might consider, including famous ones like Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you…” NIV). In each case it is important to consider the original nature of the promise, identifying its original recipients. Then reconsider the original promise in light of Christ’s coming: how might his coming  have shaped the promise’s ultimate fulfillment and audience? Who will now enjoy its benefits, and how?

That, admittedly, can be complicated.

If you want a simpler question, try this one: What does this promise—no matter to whom originally given—tell me about God’s nature and his heart toward his people? Then rest assured that God’s heart toward you—if you belong to Christ—is no less generous. Even if you aren’t sure exactly if or how to rightly “claim” a given promise, let it assure you of God’s heart toward his people. God’s plans are, indeed, to “prosper” his people who seek him with all their heart (Jer. 29:12-13), even if that prospering does not involve us being returned to Israel after 70 years of exile in Babylon.

“Claiming promises” is a practice that has gone badly off the rails far too often, resulting in heresies such as the prosperity gospel and the American civil religion that considers America a “city upon a hill.”

And yet…

“Every promise in the book is mine.” It requires some explanation and a few caveats. But in some ultimate way, in Christ, it is true. Go ahead and sing it, if you’d like.

Now all we need to do is fix the last word and make it plural. “Mine”? Really? Aren’t we western Christians individualistic enough already? “Every promise in the book is ours” would be much better, except that “ours” isn’t very euphonious. Any poets to the rescue?


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading.


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On Which Day of the Week Did Jesus Die?

On which day of the week did Jesus die?

The first thing that must be said about this question is that it is not a question of first importance, nor even of second importance. It is much more important to understand why Jesus died than to pinpoint when. So if today’s question doesn’t interest you, that’s fine.

Nevertheless, the question of when Jesus died has often been debated. And it becomes an important one if it threatens to either divide Christians or erode our trust in the Scriptures.

Three answers have been commonly given to my question: Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. According to Harold W. Hoehner, “the Friday crucifixion view has had the overwhelming support of scholars throughout the history of the church.”1 But the Thursday view and the Wednesday view (though to a lesser extent) have also been defended by some scholars. (Note: I will be relying heavily on Hoehner in this post, using his book Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, available on Kindle right now for only $2.99.)

According to Hoehner, “the primary support” for both the Wednesday and Thursday crucifixion views “is the literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40 where Jesus states: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.'”2 But Hoehner believes that this piece of evidence for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion is not as strong as it first appears.

In this post I will build on Hoehner’s thoughts on this one specific argument. I acknowledge that there are other factors that should also be weighed to better answer my original question. But hopefully addressing this one factor will help strengthen our trust in the Scriptures.

The place to begin is to compare all the ways that Jesus spoke about how long after his death he would rise. There are at least five phrases that he and others used:

  1. “On the third day” (τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ). This is the most frequently used phrase, occurring nine times (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1Corinthians 15:4).
  2. “After three days” (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας). There are four times this phrase is used (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).
  3. “Three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας). This phrase is used once, as cited above (Matthew 12:40).
  4. “In three days” (ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις). This occurs twice, where Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” and the Jews discuss his saying. John clarifies that Jesus was speaking about his own body (John 2:19-20)).
  5. “In three days” (διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν). This similar phrase occurs twice, where Jesus’ accusers report his saying about rebuilding the temple (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58).

The first thing to note is that a very literalistic interpretation of all five phrases leads to direct contradictions. Phrase (3) “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” seems the most specific, so it is tempting to try to reconcile all the others to this one. Phrase (2) “after three days” could indeed be reconciled quite nicely with (3); the presence or absence of “nights” makes little difference. But there is no way to make a hyper-literal reading of phrase (1) “on the third day” mean the same as phrase (2) “after three days.” If I tell you to come to my house “on” Sunday, that is not the same as if I tell you to come “after” Sunday. So there is no way that phrases (1), (2), and (3) can all be synthesized if they are interpreted in a hyper-literalistic fashion.

Thankfully, parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels point to a solution. In three of the four occurrences of “after three days” (2), there are parallel passages where the phrase “on the third day” (1) is used instead (Mark 8:31 = Matthew 16:21 / Luke 9:22; Mark 9:31 = Matthew 17:23; Mark 10:34 = Matthew 20:19 / Luke 18:33). This shows that the Gospel writers understood the two expressions “on the third day” and “after three days” to mean the same thing. They did not have a hyper-literalistic understanding of time references as we often do.

The fourth occurrence of “after three days” (2) also points toward this understanding, for the response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ statement about rising “after three days” was to ask for a guard “until the third day” (ἕως τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας), not “until after the third day” (Matthew 27:63-64). So the Jewish leaders, too, understood phrases (1) and (2) to be equivalent.

To my amateur mind, phrases (4) and (5) could naturally match either (1) or (2), especially since (1) and (2) are actually equivalent. If so, we have now found a biblical way to synthesize four of the five phrases. (Hoehner does not discuss the last two phrases on my list.)

This leaves phrase (3)—the Matthew 12:40 statement—as the only “three-day saying” that seems to point toward a Wednesday crucifixion. But an examination of OT and rabbinic Jewish ways of discussing the passage of time shows that this passage, too, should not be ready in a hyper-literalistic fashion. For example, in Esther 4:16 Esther tells the Jews, “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day… Then I will go to the king.” But in Esther 5:1 we read that she went to the king “on the third day,” not “after three days and three nights.” (See also 1 Samuel 30:12-13; Hoehner mentions more passages.)

Similarly, several passages in the rabbinic literature reportedly “combine” the Jonah time-table (“three days and three nights,” Jonah 1:17) with various “on the third day” passages such as Genesis 22:4 and Genesis 42:17-18. (I am not sure what Hoehner means by “combine.”) More clearly, Hoehner reports that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (c. A.D. 100) stated, “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it”3

There are other factors to discuss when determining which day of the week Jesus died, but this is how Hoehner summarizes this primary factor:

“When one examines all the evidence, it seems that the New Testament, the Old Testament, and Rabbinic literature all agree that a part of a day is counted as a whole day-and-night. Thus, the expressions: ‘the three days and three nights,’ ‘after three days,’ and ‘on the third day’ are all one and the same time span.4

Even when using an ancient Jewish approach to when a new day starts (at sundown), the above data could fit with either a Thursday or a Friday crucifixion—though it seems to me that by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s method Friday works somewhat better:

Thursday crucifixion:
1st day—Thursday afternoon
2nd day—Friday
3rd day—Saturday
(don’t count Sunday morning)

Friday crucifixion:
1st day—Friday afternoon
2nd day—Saturday
3rd day—Sunday morning

If the analysis in this post is correct, then there is little reason to argue for a Wednesday crucifixion and one of the primary reasons to argue for a Thursday crucifixion has been removed. Other factors would need to be discussed to explain why some scholars still prefer a Thursday crucifixion but most conclude that the traditional view, Friday, makes most sense of the biblical and historical data.

My goal in this post was not primarily to convince you about which day of the week Jesus died. Rather, it was an exercise in reading the Scriptures carefully. I admit I enjoy that sort of investigation for its own sake! But hopefully this post will also increase your confidence, as it did mine, that the Scriptures can be trusted to make sense when we read them on their own terms.

What do you think? I can’t promise to answer your further questions, but do ask or instruct as you wish in the comments below.

  1. Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), p. 74.
  2. Ibid., p. 65, cf. p. 68.
  3. Ibid., p. 74. Hoehner cites three passages in Midrash Rabbah and Midrash on the Psalms regarding the Jonah passage, and the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbath ix. 3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 4a) regarding Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s statement.
  4. Ibid., p. 74, emphasis added.

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