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Last year I finally got around to writing about the history of Valentine’s Day.

(Graphics credit: FünMunch)

Since then, a bit more information has come in!

Let the story continue …

The French site l’Internaute has quite the summary of everything we always wanted to know about February 14, and is the source for the next few sections below.

Lupercalia

In ancient Rome Lupercalia was held every year on February 15. It was a year-end celebration of Faunus Lupercus, the god of fertility, shepherds and their flocks. It was also a rite of purification prior to the New Year, which fell on March 1.

The festival had three ceremonies. The first involved the pagan priests sacrificing a goat in the grotto of Lupercal, the wolf who nourished Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.

The remains of the goat were then used in the ritual which followed. The priests daubed young members of noble families with the goat’s blood which was a purification rite, representing a symbolic cleansing of the shepherds.

No doubt other animals were sacrificed, because the priests kept the blood and the skins for a race through the streets of Rome. They daubed themselves in blood, as they had done to the young noblemen. The skins served as a covering and switches. The priests and noblemen wore some of the skin and carried switches with which to whip people as they ran down the streets. Women were particularly eager for this, because it was said that a whipping was said to give a happy pregnancy and painless childbirth. (This is not the only pagan tradition in Europe where men used to whip women in late winter or early Spring. Central Europe has Dyngus Day, which takes place on Easter Monday and may extend to Easter Tuesday, when women get their own back on the men. No doubt there were more.)

Lupercalia culminated in a great banquet, where men chose their dining partners. This sometimes led to marriage.

It is also worth remembering that the story of Cupid and Psyche was part of Roman mythology.

Pope Gelasius I

Even once most Romans had converted to Christianity, Lupercalia continued to be celebrated.

In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I wanted to put a stop to the festivities. He wrote a letter to Senator Andromachus in which he listed his objections to the pagan revelry. Gelasius criticised the immoral behaviour displayed and pointed out that the pagan worship and rituals did nothing against the disease epidemics which plagued the city 20 years before.

However, Andromachus was fond of Lupercalia and refused to forbid the celebrations.

Gelasius had no choice but to urge Christians to turn the day into one of true love. He chose February 14 to commemorate St Valentine as the patron saint of lovers. However, Wikipedia says that Gelasius initiated Candlemas — February 2 — and encouraged devotion to Mary, recalling her purity. Incidentally, February comes from februare, meaning ‘to purify’.

Middle Ages

February 14 was not widely celebrated in Europe until the Middle Ages.

No doubt the notion of chivalry which was popular at that time gave rise to gentleness and honour on the part of men towards women.

Some pagan elements remained, even though the Continent was Christian by this time. A ‘love lottery’ took place in several European countries. Young people drew names of a partner of the opposite sex and wore that person’s name on their sleeves for the following week. On the first Sunday of Lent, the Bonfire Festival took place. A ‘knight’ — a Valentine (see my post for an explanation) — from the February 14 draw was appointed to head the festival. He was accompanied by a young woman. They led a procession around their town or village. The people carried small torches to burn weeds and smoke out garden pests, such as moles, in order to ensure a good crop during the summer months. The festivities concluded with a bonfire.

It was also during this era that young women paid attention to the birds they saw during this time. Some species were said to indicate what sort of men they would marry. A robin indicated a sailor. A sparrow designated a man of modest means who would keep her happy. A goldfinch was said to presage marriage to a wealthy man.

The cross as ‘x’ — and a kiss

The ‘x’ has been used by Christians since the earliest days of the Church.

Initially, an ‘x’ at the bottom of a message indicated a thousand kisses.

The ‘x’ recalled the cross on which St Andrew, the apostle, died. He, like St Peter, did not consider himself worthy to die the same way our Lord did. Also like Peter, Andrew died as a martyr. He had gone to preach in what is now the Balkans and was crucified in Patras in the Peloponnese. During his lifetime, he had travelled all the way to what, today, is Kiev. Therefore, it is not surprising that after his death a great devotion arose to him.

The custom of the illiterate signing their names with an ‘x’ began in the Middle Ages. Those who did so had to then kiss that cross as a sign that they were telling the truth in court or another situation involving the law. Remember, the printing press was still to come, so Bibles were rare.

From this and from the earliest days of the Church, the ‘x’ came to symbolise a kiss.

Shakespeare

Last year’s post looked at Valentine’s customs through the Renaissance.

The source for the following material comes from The Telegraph’s 2010 article, ‘History of Valentine’s Day’.

By the early 17th century, February 14 was widely celebrated as a day of love. Shakespeare made a reference to it:

in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.”

Mid-18th century

In England, men began writing love notes on St Valentine’s Day. In 1797, a book, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, appeared. It advised on which phrases, rhymes and words to use in these messages, which were precursors to the Valentine’s Day card.

When sending messages by post became affordable, the possibility of sending Valentines anonymously became standard — and still is today in the UK.

19th century

By the beginning of the 19th century, sending Valentines was so popular that English factories began to mass-produce them.

In the United States, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, began making and selling Valentine’s Day cards in 1847. She was able to use a new innovation — paper lace — to adorn her cards.

20th century

Valentine’s Day became commercialised with Hallmark Cards’ Valentines in 1913. February 14 is one of the company’s big card-selling occasions.

Then there was the St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929.

By the 1980s, a whole industry emerged around Valentine’s Day. What used to be an occasion for a card and flowers or chocolates went upmarket when diamonds were marketed as the most desirable gift a woman could receive on February 14. Jewellery has since remained a popular gift.

21st century

In 2009, American retail figures showed that people spent an estimated $14.7 billion (£9.2 billion) on Valentine’s Day cards and gifts.

In 2010 — nearly a century after Hallmark’s Valentines appeared — 1 billion cards were sent around the world.

Enjoy your Sunday and best wishes for a happy Valentine’s Day!

christogram-stained-glassFebruary 10 is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

What does this season mean? What does it involve? How do we use this season to prepare for Easter, the greatest feast in the Church?

Lutheran pastors show the way, with explanations about Lent in the early Church, including ashes and fasting:

Ash Wednesday reflections

Ash Wednesday: ‘No, that wasn’t dirt on my forehead’

St Athanasius and the Lenten practices of the early Church

Lent in the early Church — not a pagan practice

The last post about Lent not being a pagan practice refutes what an aberrant 19th century Free Church of Scotland minister Alexander Hislop wrote in his book The Two Babylons.

With regard to prayer and contemplation, I can highly recommend the Revd Joshua Scheer’s which you can follow every day:

Lutheran reflections for Lent

An Anglican pastor’s wife, Anne Kennedy, shared her thoughts on why Lent is an excellent time for addressing one’s spiritual state:

Thoughts as we enter Lent 2014

The Reformed and the Evangelicals are right to say that Christians should not feel obliged to treat Lent differently than any other time of the year. That means we should always be contemplating the state of our souls and repentance — turning away — from sin. In any event, we have the freedom in Christ to choose whether to observe Lent with special spiritual disciplines. See ‘Lent a source of Protestant contention’ in the next post where a lively written discussion takes place between a Reformed pastor-professor and Lutheran laymen:

Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ

Lent is an ideal time to begin reading the Bible, always profitable to body and soul:

Why not read the Bible this Lent?

Bible study plan suggestions

Some will ask, ‘What is the point when we only revert to our old ways afterwards?’

After 40 days, a new behaviour or spiritual discipline — more prayer! — should be part of us, enabling another step or two on the lifelong road to sanctification. We can then continue to build on that the rest of the year and when Lent rolls around next year, work on the next knotty and stubborn part of our sinfulness.

Lent is a great time to build layer and layer of sanctification, accomplished only with divine grace through our only Mediator and Advocate Christ Jesus.

In 2016, Shrove Tuesday is on February 9 and Ash Wednesday on February 10.

Epiphany gospel readings – Year C

Before going into the ancient history behind Shrovetide, let’s look at what denominations following the  Church calendar currently call the season of Epiphany.

Churches following the three-year Lectionary readings are using those for Year C until the first Sunday in Advent, when Year A readings begin.

The Lectionary readings for the Sundays after Epiphany normally focus on Jesus’s divinity and ministry. In 2014, I excerpted an excellent explanation of the Epiphany season from St Paul’s Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) of Kingsville, Maryland. The church has since taken the page down, but my post has the salient points, among them (emphases mine):

Epiphany is … a season that lasts until the beginning of Lent and encompasses four to nine Sundays, depending on the date of Easter.

… the church concentrates on several of the other incidents from Scripture that show how Jesus manifested God’s love to the world through His ministry of preaching, miracles, and healings.  What is common to each of these epiphanies is that in one way or another they make known the identity and mission of Jesus Christ: True Man and True God, born into this sinful world to be the Lord and Savior of all humanity.

This year, Sunday gospel readings included Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), His first creative miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11), His preaching at the synagogue in Nazareth when they wanted to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:14-21Luke 4:21-30) and the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a)). Be sure to read the missing and optional verses!

Shrovetide

Before the post-Vatican II liturgical changes occurred in the Catholic Church and before similar adjustments occurred in Anglican and Lutheran churches, these denominations observed what was called Shrovetide.

Shrovetide begins on Septuagesima Sunday and comprises Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday (commonly called Shrove Sunday). My post, ‘The Sundays before Lent’ explains what each of these ancient names mean and what they signified in terms of spiritual disciplines. In brief, they mark the days before Easter: 70, 60 and 50, respectively. Centuries ago, some Christians began Lenten fasting the day after Septuagesima Sunday.

The word ‘shrove’ is the past tense of ‘shrive‘, an archaic verb meaning:

Present oneself to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.

Christians were supposed to go to confession during this time, a customary practice before Lent began. In England, Abbot Aelfric instituted this practice in 1000 AD.

Even into the 20th century, people took Shrovetide seriously. In the 1960s, I knew a Catholic lady who explained that these Sundays were meant to exercise the consciences of the faithful, get them to focus on their sinfulness and decide on the appropriate spiritual disciplines they would need to undertake during Lent.

Carnival

The final days of the season are Shrove Monday and Shrove Tuesday.

Of course, by then, Carnival, where celebrated, is in full swing. In some countries, it lasts for a week. In others, it starts on the final weekend of Shrovetide. In both cases, the festivities climax and end on Shrove Tuesday.

According to Wikipedia, Carnival was an ancient pagan time of revelry. Certainly, early Church councils and synods attempted to curb the excesses which took place at this time. Wikipedia tells us:

Many synods and councils attempted to set things “right”. The statements of Caesarius of Arles (470–542), which protested around 500 CE in his sermons against the Pagan practices, seemed to have formed the building blocks of the Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (small index of superstitious and pagan practices), which was drafted by the Synod of Leptines in 742 in which the Spurcalibus en februario was condemned.

Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) decided that fasting would start on Ash Wednesday.

He did this in order to draw a clear line of demarcation between Carnival and Lent.

My post ‘Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ’ has more on Carnival, including the origin of the word which:

derives from the Latin carne vale, or ‘farewell, meat [literally, ‘flesh’]’.  In England, the word valete is still used occasionally in formal academic announcements (parodied in the satirical magazine Private Eye); valete is the plural of vale and is used when bidding farewell to more than one person or thing.

Shrove Monday

In addition to Carnival celebrations, Shrove Monday was also a time to eat foods that would need to be either consumed straightaway or abstained from during Lent:

Centuries ago, as Lent approached, flour from the previous year was near its expiry date, so to speak.  Similarly, eggs, milk and meat fat (e.g. lard) would also have to be eaten or discarded before the fast. No household threw out food.  Therefore, the European custom prior to Lent was to use up these foodstuffs.

Centuries ago, the British called this day Collop Monday. Collop means sliced or minced meat. It was a final opportunity to eat meat prior to Lent. The meal was often a breakfast, in which eggs also featured. If bacon was used, the cook or housewife reserved the fat for the pancakes served the following day.

Shrove Tuesday

Nearly all European countries mark Shrove Tuesday with a special food item or fat-laden feast, a final opportunity for enjoyment before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

These customs are centuries old and spread to other countries around the world with European exploration and settlement.

The Reformation could not put paid to old pre-Lenten customs which live on today. The British and many Commonwealth nations still call Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day. In Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe, people enjoy semla, a sweet bun filled with frangipane and topped with whipped cream. People in Iceland celebrate Bursting Day by eating salted meat and peas.

Many countries celebrate Carnival or hold other ancient festivities on Shrove Tuesday.

In Britain, a number of towns in Britain hold pancake races, which date back to the 15th century:

The tradition is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife from Olney, Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service. She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning.[17][18] The pancake race remains a relatively common festive tradition in the UK, especially England, even today. Participants with frying pans race through the streets tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running.

The most famous pancake race,[19] at Olney in Buckinghamshire, has been held since 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, carry a frying pan and race over a 415-yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants have to toss their pancake at both the start and the finish, as well as wear an apron and a scarf. Traditionally, when men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife (usually an apron and a bandanna). The race is followed by a church service.[17]

Another popular Shrove Tuesday tradition in England was the local football match. This has died out over the centuries, and the Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Derbyshire appears to be the sole survivor.

Yet, in the 12th century, a cleric, William Fitzstephen, wrote about a football match he witnessed in London. By the late Middle Ages, other towns and cities around Britain also held Shrovetide ball games. The types of games varied by region and tradition.

The Royal Shrovetide Football Match:

is a “mob football” game played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England. 

The match has specific rules and takes place not on a pitch but all over town:

The ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people.

Shops board up their windows and people park away from Ashbourne’s main thoroughfares.

The match gained royal assent in 1928 when the future Edward VIII (the abdicator!) attended. In 2003, it was given royal assent a second time when Prince Charles opened the match.

Conclusion

It is fascinating to discover how ancient, widespread, varied and enduring these pre-Lenten traditions are.

This history provides food for thought on how our ancestors might have spent the days preceding Lent.

My past few posts have discussed hell:

John MacArthur on hell

Hell on low — or no — heat (20th century history)

Christian views on hell: moving back to Origen

J C Ryle on hell (19th century, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool)

The second one in the series has several quotes from 20th and 21st century pastors and theologians who have downplayed hell and questioned eternal punishment in the life to come.

One of my readers, Brad Grierson, who kindly reblogged the aforementioned post on Origen, commented:

I think Hell often gets downplayed because it is so difficult to imagine. The mind cannot rightly comprehend an eternity of suffering so it comes up with ideas that are more familiar to it such as a temporal prison sentence or that it simply doesn’t exist at all. In a way, this is how heresy springs up: we cannot fully comprehend so we make it something we can comprehend.

That is very true. Oddly, sinful man has no difficulty imagining heaven as being both beautiful and eternal. Yet, when it comes to divine and just punishment, suddenly, many of us consider that unthinkable.

It is impossible to comprehend God. And, because we cannot comprehend His plan and His ways, we cannot comprehend how offensive our sins against Him actually are.

John MacArthur’s Grace To You ministry team posted an excellent three-part series on God and hell in 2011, when Rob Bell‘s Love Wins came out. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

I hope you will be encouraged to read all three articles in full.

God’s offence at our sin

Tommy Clayton wrote ‘Is God a Monster?’ in which he explains God’s view of sin.

Clayton was not always a Christian. He used to find divine judgment in the Bible unfair, extreme and arbitrary.

The Bible has several examples of people who died because they disobeyed God. Most of these are in the Old Testament, but the New Testament also has one case (not included in the three-year Lectionary, incidentally):

Lot’s wife. God turned her into a pillar of salt as she was leaving Sodom. Her crime? A backward glance (Genesis 19:26) …

  • Nadab and Abihu deviated from the priestly procedures. God consumed them with fire (Leviticus 10:1-2).
  • One man gathered wood on the Sabbath. God commanded Moses to stone him (Numbers 15:35).
  • Achan took a few forbidden items from the spoils of Jericho. God commanded Joshua to stone and then burn Achan along with his entire family (Joshua 7:24-25).
  • Uzzah kept the ark of God from falling into the mud by reaching out his hand and taking hold of it. God immediately struck him dead (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
  • Ananias and Sapphira lied to the apostles. God killed them both in front of the entire church. (Acts 5:1-10).

If we find ourselves asking if God is a monster, Clayton exhorts us to consider our imperfect and sinful lack of comprehension:

Our flesh wants to cry out in protest, “That’s not fair!” But responses like that reveal our failure to grasp the depth of sin. We see only actions—a devoted father gathering firewood to keep his family warm; a zealous Israelite anxious to keep the Ark of God off the ground—but God sees things differently, more clearly, than we do. He sees our sin as insurrection, rebellion against His holiness (Exodus 31:14; Numbers 4:15). What’s more, He sees the hidden motives and intentions at the core of our actions (Matthew 5:28; Hebrews 4:12) …

The Bible describes our sin as “rebellion,” “ungodliness,” “lawlessness,” “wickedness,” and an “abomination” (Leviticus 26:27; Isaiah 32:6; 1 John 3:4; Ezekiel 18:27; Proverbs 15:9). Sinners then, are traitors, refusing to love, thank, serve, and obey the God who gave them life, breath, and every good thing.

Sinners spurn God’s love, despise His sovereignty, mock His justice, and view His commands with contempt. They are thieves and murderers, stealing God’s glory and assaulting His holiness. In fact, as Martin Luther once remarked, if sinners had their way, they would dethrone and murder God, which is exactly what they did at Calvary (Acts 2:23). Viewed through the lens of Scripture, sin appears exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13).

Clayton makes an excellent point about humanity’s anger with God when they should be angry with themselves over repeatedly offending Him:

I find it ironic that those who protest the idea of eternal, conscious torment deride the doctrine with words like, “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant.” Why don’t they employ the same terms of outrage to describe sin? Simple: they fail to see as God sees. God finds our sin “cruel,” “morally revolting,” “monstrous,” and “repugnant,” and He’s absolutely right. If we can’t see our sin as God sees it, it stands to reason that we don’t see the just judgment of hell like He sees it either. We’re just going to have to trust Him.

He concludes:

We’ve all assaulted God (Romans 3:23), and we all deserve hell. Reject Christ, and hell is exactly what you’ll get. God will rise up in judgment and cast all unbelievers into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), and all creation will praise His justice. To accuse God of injustice for sentencing sinners to hell is the height of arrogance and audacity.

Yes, God’s judgment is unbearable, but it is never unjust (Genesis 4:13). And that is why “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

This reminds me of an atheist who said to me several years ago, ‘Hell doesn’t apply to me, because I don’t believe. Hell is your thing, not mine.’

Hmm. We’ll see. One must pray for such people that divine grace imbues their hearts and minds.

Annihilation or temporary punishment

In contemplating the eternity of hell for any length of time, one can understand how the Catholic Church devised their unbiblical doctrine of purgatory and all the short little prayers that one could say which are said to reduce the time therein.

Among Evangelical Protestants, the notions of annihilation and temporary punishment are not uncommon. In ‘Is Hell Really Endless?’ Travis Allen takes proponents of both errors to task for misinterpreting — either accidentally or deliberately — the word ‘eternal’ in Scripture.

One view of hell that seems to be making a strong resurgence today among evangelicals is Annihilationism. There are slight variations, but it essentially teaches God will eventually snuff every unbeliever out of existence. Some Annihilationists make room for divine wrath, but they don’t allow it to extend beyond the lake of fire. In other words, they won’t allow God the full force of His judgment, which is eternal, conscious torment. For them, the lake of fire is what completely consumes and finally destroys sinners. Whether they see death as the end, or whether they see hell’s torments as limited in duration, the result is the same—a denial of the endlessness of hell.

For no good exegetical reason, some Annihilationists have understood the word “eternal” to refer, not to a duration of time, but to the quality of God’s judgment. It’s eternal in quality, even though it has an end. Other Annihilationists say “eternal” refers to the effect of divine judgment. That is to say, God’s judgment results in death—as in extinction, annihilation—which is a state of non-being that lasts eternally.

If you’re having a hard time bending your mind around that, you’re not alone. It’s hard to conceive of a sinner experiencing an eternal quality of judgment without it lasting forever. Matthew 25:46 clearly teaches that the duration of punishment and life are alike, both eternal.

Allen cites John MacArthur’s explanation of the word ‘eternal’:

Punishment in hell is defined by the word aionios, which is the word eternal or everlasting. There are people who would like to redefine that word aionios and say, “Well, it doesn’t really mean forever.” But if you do that with hell, you’ve just done it with heaven, because the same word is used to describe both. If there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven. And I’ll go one beyond that. The same word is used to describe God. And so if there is not an everlasting hell, then there is not an everlasting heaven, nor is there an everlasting God. It is clear that God is eternal; and, therefore, that heaven is eternal, and so is hell. (John MacArthur, “A Testimony of One Surprised to Be in Hell, Part 2”)

Allen also quotes St Augustine of Hippo who wrote:

To say that life eternal shall be endless, [but that] punishment eternal shall come to an end is the height of absurdity.

We understand our temporal laws easily. Being found guilty of breaking the law sometimes carries with it a custodial sentence which has an end. However, a sentence to hell from God has no end:

the nature of the infraction is measured against the nature of God who is holy and eternal. Likewise, God, who is perfect in righteousness, determines the justice an infraction demands. According to His Word, the punishment for an offense against a holy God is everlasting torment in hell.

Ultimately:

In an uncomfortably poignant and penetrating way, the doctrine of eternal hell confronts our loyalty, reveals our true authority, and demands that we set aside what seems reasonable to us and trust in the righteous judgment of a holy God. When we embrace the hard doctrines of the Bible, it becomes one of the most significant evidences of true, God-given faith.

He concludes:

I hope the doctrine of eternal torment sobers you. May it fill you with praise to God for saving you from eternal punishment, for giving you eternal life instead. May it humble you when you realize you’re not getting what you deserve. And may it ignite in you a passion to proclaim the gospel to those poor souls who are unaware of the terror that awaits them outside the mercy of God.

Again, I cannot help but think of the atheist I spoke to several years ago.

Let’s not downplay hell

Tommy Clayton wrote the last article in the series, ‘The Severity of Hell’.

He began with a quotation from the famous 19th century Baptist preacher from London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

Shun all views of future punishment that would make it appear less terrible.

The rot was already setting in back then.

Clayton warns:

Modern views of hell won’t survive the test of biblical fidelity. They’ll allow the sinner to feel more comfortable and complacent by defanging God, making Him appear less severe.

He cites the Evangelical professor and theologian Wayne Grudem who associates an unscriptural belief about hell with a lack of belief in the validity of Scripture and, in the end, shaky faith:

The doctrine of eternal conscious punishment . . . tends to be one of the first doctrines given up by people who are moving away from a commitment to the Bible as absolutely truthful  [. . .]. Among liberal theologians who do not accept the absolute truthfulness of the Bible, there is probably no one today who believes in the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology)

Jesus never presented hell lightly, nor did anyone in the Bible. Clayton reminds us:

Whenever Jesus described hell, He was never flippant or dismissive. He used vivid, terrifying terms to describe the final destination of sinners, shocking and scaring His audiences with frighteningly graphic metaphors. Hell is a place so bad that you should be willing to cut off sensitive, irreplaceable parts of your body to avoid it (Matthew 5:29-30); even martyrdom would be worth avoiding the torment of hell (Matthew 10:28). He always presented hell as a horrific place of intolerable suffering.

His descriptions are consistent with other biblical writers. Daniel referred to hell as a place of shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). Paul called it a place of endless destruction and punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Jude called hell a place of eternal fire and darkness (Jude 7). The Apostle John described hell as a place where sinners suffer everlasting torment, with no rest day or night (Revelation 14:9-11).

Taken together, all those descriptions of hell communicate pain, fear, loss, anger, separation, and hopelessness. It’s utter agony, eternal torment.

John Calvin explained:

By such expressions, the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.

Some agnostics and unbelievers say they would rather be in hell so they can be with a close relative or best friend who predeceased them. However, that is a flawed, human way of viewing eternal punishment.

God does not allow any succour in hell. Those thinking they will be near their loved ones there will actually be very far away from them — forever.

Clayton cites John MacArthur:

This is a reminder to all sinners that while hell is the full fury of God’s personal punishment presence, He will never be there to comfort. He will never be there to show sympathy. He will never bring relief. [. . .] it is both the punishment of God and the absence of comfort. [. . .] That’s hell—punishment without relief (“The King Crucified: Consummation at Calvary”)

And the Puritan Thomas Vincent:

Not only will the unbeliever be in hell, but hell will be in him too.

The people ending up in hell will only be concerned with their own remorse and continuous torment, not with anyone else’s. Hell implies the absence of all things godly, which include love and compassion.

Please ensure that you understand the full import of hell. No one preaches on it anymore, so it requires independent study.

I’ve only heard one fire and brimstone sermon and that was by an elderly Catholic priest, a weekend guest in our parish, in 1972. He wore pre-Vatican II vestments, preached for 20 minutes and said most of the things that Grace To You elders have said above.

To say that hell is the absence of God alone makes eternal punishment appear metaphysical. It sells God’s justice and sovereignty short.

Posts later this week will give us a more human appreciation of the horrors of hell.

Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 14:34-36

Jesus Heals the Sick in Gennesaret

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick 36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

————————————————————————————————

Last week’s reading is at the beginning of Matthew 14 and relates the death of John the Baptist, news of which reached Jesus.

Matthew tells us that, afterwards, He went by boat to ‘a desolate place’ to be alone (Matthew 14:13).

The crowds followed Him via land routes (Matthew 14:14). He healed the sick among them and, when the day came to an end, He performed the miracle of feeding the 5,000, which was likely more, as that number only designated men. There were also women and children there, so, as John MacArthur says, there could have been as many as 25,000 people in all (Matthew 14:15-21).

Jesus still wanted to pray alone, so He sent the disciples on ahead in their boat to go to the other side of the sea to Gennesaret. A terrible storm broke out whilst the disciples were in the boat. They were too far out to get back to shore. They were frightened. In the middle of the night, Jesus approached them, walking on water. Seeing this figure, the disciples were truly terrified. Jesus said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 14:22-27).

This is what happened next (Matthew 14:28-33):

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind,[d] he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This brings us to today’s verses which concern his second ministry in Gennesaret. Matthew Henry tells us:

It was in this country and neighbourhood that the woman with the bloody issue was cured by touching the hem of his garment, and was commended for her faith (Matthew 9:20-22) and thence, probably, they took occasion to ask this.

John MacArthur says:

we do know that in past ministry there, He had healed multitudes and multitudes and multitudes, so there were a lot less than there originally were.

The parallel reading for this is Mark 6:53-56, which I discussed in 2012. That post has a much more detailed version of the feeding of the 5,000 and the ensuing storm which was a precursor of the hardships the apostles would endure in their future preaching and healing.

The story of His first ministry there involves healing the woman with the 12-year blood flow and Jairus’s daughter. There are three accounts: Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-34 and Luke 8:40-48.

Now on to today’s reading. Jesus and His disciples landed at Gennesaret (verse 34). My post about Mark’s version of events explains that this place, which was a small region rather than a village or town, was:

not far from Capernaum and Bethsaida, the original port of call (Mark 6:45). (This Bethsaida is different from the Pool of Bethesda or Pool of Bethsaida in John 5. The port of Bethsaida is along the Sea of Galilee. The name means ‘fish house’, so fishing was probably the primary local ‘industry’ there.)

John’s account tells us that people followed them there. More came from Capernaum. So, again, our Saviour and the Twelve were surrounded by crowds (verse 54). This time, however, the newcomers sought healing (verse 55). MacArthur says that Gennesaret is a scenic spot which is much identified with the Sea of Galilee, sometimes referred to as the Lake of Gennesaret.

Matthew Henry wrote that Gennesaret translates as:

the valley of branches.

Furthermore, it was next to the land of the Gadarenes, or:

the Gergesenes, their neighbours, who were borderers upon the same lake. Those besought Christ to depart from them, they had no occasion for him these besought him to help them, they had need of him.

You can read more about the story of the Gadarene swine in Matthew 8:28-34. For parallel accounts, but with one man instead of two, read Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-33 and Luke 8:34-39.

In Gennesaret, it was not long before the men of the region recognised Jesus from His first visit (verse 35). They quickly went around to bring the sick to Him.

Note that when the men brought the ailing to Jesus, they followed the example of the woman with the blood flow and implored Him to allow the sick to touch the hem of His garment in order to be healed (verse 36).

All who touched it were made well.

MacArthur says that they did not wish to impose on Him (emphases mine):

They may have remembered the woman in chapter 9, who grabbed His robe and was healed. All they felt they needed to do was to touch Him, and I think there is a sense of beautiful propriety here, a sensitivity here; they are saying, “We need so desperately what you have to give, but we don’t want to be an extra burden for you. You don’t have to get around to all of us; we’ll just touch You, and that way we’ll be as little a problem to You as we can be.” So there is a sense of propriety and sensitivity in their approach, and a great, great measure of faith.

Remember that Jesus’s creative miracles resulted in immediate and complete restoration to health as a sign that God is merciful in His love:

There are no progressive healings, or claims that, “Jesus healed me, and I’ve been getting better ever since.” They were made totally well in the instant that they touched Him. Here, again, we are wont to remark that the compassion of God is demonstrated; He is the compassionate healer. It is so that God may be revealed as a compassionate God, a God of loving kindness and tenderness toward people.

Did the people believe that Jesus was the Son of God afterward? MacArthur thinks that is unlikely:

It strikes me that this again is a classic example of the fact that people inevitably came to Jesus to get what they wanted. Then, having gotten what they wanted, they left. That is the pathos of this whole thing. It always seems to be so with Jesus. Once people have received what they wanted, they’re gone.

We respond with, ‘Aww, that’s awful.’ Yet, are we any better?

Even today in our contemporary kind of Christianity, Jesus is seen as a genie who responds to our wishes, and having received our wishes, we abandon any meaningful relationship. It’s as if Jesus is offered as one who is a panacea and little else. We, today, are as guilty of ingratitude toward God and Jesus Christ, which, by the way, may be the ugliest of all sins, as these were in that day. So in spite of their ingratitude and self-centeredness, and in spite of the fact that their commitment to Him was one of great faith and great need and not one of great adoration, He healed them. That is the compassion of God.

This modern taking God for granted is known as moralistic therapeutic deism. The link has a simple explanation of the comfy Christianity many of us ascribe to.

If we have fallen in that trap, Matthew Henry gives us advice on how to enter in to a truly profound relationship with our Lord which will sustain us in this life. Alternatively, we can carry on and risk falling away from the faith:

The healing virtue that is in Christ, is put forth for the benefit of those that by a true and lively faith touch him. Christ is in heaven, but his word is nigh us, and he himself in that word. When we mix faith with the word, apply it to ourselves, depend upon it, and submit to its influences and commands, then we touch the hem of Christ’s garment. It is but thus touching, and we are made whole. On such easy terms are spiritual cures offered by him, that he may truly be said to heal freely so that if our souls die of their wounds, it is not owing to our Physician, it is not for want of skill or will in him but it is purely owing to ourselves. He could have healed us, he would have healed us, but we would not be healed so that our blood will lie upon our own heads.

That’s a sobering thought.

In closing, John MacArthur introduced Matthew 15, which we will begin next week, as follows:

He rejected the shallow, sham kind of interest. It was superficial, political, self-centered, self-indulgent; they wanted food, they wanted healing, they wanted freedom from Rome and the Herodians, but they didn’t want their hearts changed, or Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, so He rejected the shallowness of their interest. From here on out, things begin to descend; He loses popularity, hostility begins to rise, we are one year away from His crucifixion, and the majority of that year is spent in seclusion with the Twelve. He is readying and equipping them for the tremendous ministry they’re going to have when He leaves …

From here on out, He’s going to spend more and more time with the Twelve as the hostility, anger, bitterness, and rejection arises. Again, as we look at our text, we see an instant change that helps us note this as a turning point. The crowd has given to Jesus the pinnacle of popularity, and it is the very next day that He is confronted, here in this text, with the scribes and Pharisees who pour their venom on Him, and reveal the fact that what they really want to do is publicly discredit Him and get rid of Him. So the turning point comes immediately, and we are faced with the hostility of these religious leaders of Israel.

Next time: Matthew 15:1-9

This follows on from Monday’s post about hell. Please note that there is an adult image and disturbing content in this entry.

In the 1970s my secondary school religion teachers taught that Origen was a heretic and that the Church declared him as well as his teachings anathema. In short, they said that Origen started out as a devout Christian then went off-piste.

My mother told me the same thing years before.

Today, Origen seems to be all the rage. The modern Church has rehabilitated his reputation, and clergy are encouraging us to adopt his beliefs.

Two of Origen’s beliefs concern hell and universalism. Origen held that hell was temporary, akin to a very long-term purgatory, and wrote that there will come a point in eternity when God will accept the population of hell — including Satan — to heaven.

Is that what the Bible says?

As far as Origen was concerned, the Bible is entirely allegorical — down to the last word. In his mind, the simple-minded could take it literally or look at it in terms of genre (like me), but if one truly had faith in Christ, one would be able to interpret the words differently.

Origen also believed in the pre-existence of souls, which is a form of reincarnation.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s entry on Origen states (emphases mine):

The chief accusations against Origen’s teaching are the following: making the Son inferior to the Father and thus being a precursor of Arianism, a 4th-century heresy that denied that the Father and the Son were of the same substance; spiritualizing away the resurrection of the body; denying hell, a morally enervating universalism; speculating about preexistent souls and world cycles; and dissolving redemptive history into timeless myth by using allegorical interpretation. None of these charges is altogether groundless. At the same time there is much reason to justify Jerome’s first judgment that Origen was the greatest teacher of the early church after the Apostles.

That last sentence demonstrates why heretics were and are so dangerous. Every one of them mixes truth with error.

The Church did not declare Origen to be anathema until 300 years after his death. Origen died in 254 and the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople condemned his teachings in 553.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains why:

In the 6th century the “New Laura” (monastic community) in Palestine became a centre for an Origenist movement among the monastic intelligentsia, hospitable to speculations about such matters as preexistent souls and universal salvation. The resultant controversy led Justinian I to issue a long edict denouncing Origen (543); the condemnation was extended also to Didymus and Evagrius by the fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople (553). Nevertheless, Origen’s influence persisted, such as in the writings of the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor (c. 550–662) and the Irish theologian John Scotus Erigena (c. 810–877), and, since Renaissance times, controversy has continued concerning his orthodoxy, Western writers being generally more favourable than Eastern Orthodox.

This CCEL page has the full statement of the 15 anathemas against Origen — his person as well as his teachings.

Today, we read that Origen was not declared anathema in 553. This notion comes from Norman Tanner whose Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils was published in 1990. An Eastern Orthodox blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy, has more on Tanner’s explanation, a clear plea for universalism.

The general gist is that Justinian I did not like opposition and that Origen was not the only early theologian who had such ideas. Two others, St Clement of Alexandria and St Gregory of Nyssa, were also universalists.

Yet, they are saints. Origen was declared a heretic.

It seems that, as my teachers and our religious studies books said, Origen went too far. Dr Ken Matto has an interesting list of Origen’s beliefs, some of which are held by the Catholic Church, sects and modern churches in other denominations. What follow are the really unorthodox ones. Although many claim Origen fought against Gnosticism, Matto purports that he was indeed a Gnostic:

Gnosticism was and is a belief that all matter is evil and that freedom comes through knowledge. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word “gnosis” which means “knowledge.”

Matto lists the beliefs of Gnostics, referring to Jay Green’s The Gnostics, the New Versions, and the Deity of Christ. There are eight, which you can read in full.

Those that stood out for me are that the Gnostic thinks he is Spirit while lesser beings are but flesh and blood; he has a knowledge which surpasses Christianity; he allegorises Scripture; he believes that Christ’s earthly body was an illusion and that He will always be inferior to Gnostic gods, the Demiurge and the Artificer.

Matto states Origen’s 14 beliefs. What follows are the most unusual — and wrong:

1/ He believed the Holy Spirit was a feminine force
7/ He believed in the transmigration of the soul and the reincarnation of the soul
8/ He doubted the temptations of Jesus in Scripture and claimed they could have never happened.
9/ The Scriptures were not literal. He was the father of allegory.
11/ Based upon Matthew 19, a true man of God should be castrated, which he did to himself.
13/ Christ enters no man until they mentally grasp the understanding of the consummation of the ages. (It was Frederick Dennison Maurice in the 19th century who defined eternal life as coming to a knowledge of God. This is the essence of Gnosticism.)
14/ He taught there would be no physical resurrection of the believers.

Gosh. I know Anglican and Episcopal clergy who believe some of these things. Not No. 11, however, I hasten to add. The painting of Origen below — courtesy of Bad News About Christianity — comes from Roman de la Rose [‘Romance of the Rose’], France 15th century, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, fol. 122v.

Odd, isn’t it, that Origen — he of scriptural allegory — took Matthew 19:10-12 literally?

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Natto follows with a useful Scriptural rebuttal of Origen’s teachings, concluding that Gnosticism fits in nicely with New Age teachings.

Indeed.

The New World Encyclopedia draws an empathetic conclusion about Origen:

In centuries much later, however, his work has been revisited by more sympathetic eyes, and his thought has been recognized as formative for the development of Christian theology. The historian Philip Schaff (1819-1893) sums up Origen’s contribution to Christianity, by saying that in spite of his condemnation he “did more than all his enemies combined to advance the cause of sacred learning, to refute and convert heathens and heretics, and to make the church respected in the eyes of the world.”[3] Origen’s hope for universal salvation and his tolerant attitude towards those who have different opinions would be more acceptable today when Celsus’ criticism of Christianity may tend to be more seriously reflected upon and ecumenism is more common-sensically practiced. It may be that as early as in the third century before church dogma was officially formulated he already had an insight into today’s situation.

Or maybe we are just leading ourselves down the garden path.

St Paul warned against false beliefs that tickle our itching ears (2 Timothy 4:3). How can something that sounds so good be so wrong? Paul warned:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,

On this point, the Wikipedia entry for Origen states:

Origen is regarded by the Catholic Church as a Church Father, but not a saint.[76]

Really? So, everything I learned about him in Catholic school has been conveniently overturned?

It would appear so. Catholic Encyclopedia has what can only be described as a puff piece on Origen. The entry explains away any criticism the Church had of him since the 6th century. It’s a long article and, like most Catholic Encyclopedia entries, is written in their typically arcane style, which is so unnecessary. I do wonder whether they want Catholics to read it or continue in blissful ignorance. But I digress.

In a nutshell, Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that through the centuries people have misunderstood or misinterpreted Origen’s teachings. The entry even casts doubt over whether Origen was actually anathematised! They base their reasoning on Pope Vigilius’s absence from the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553, the fact that the subsequent popes through to the early 7th century never mentioned Origen and, finally, the Origenism that was condemned was not the one Origen himself came up with but a derivation of it.

Hmm.

Am I convinced by that? Certainly not.

Origen came into this post at length because Bad News About Christianity mentioned the man in the article ‘Invented, Amended & Discarded Doctrines’ — one of which is hell:

According to recent theories Hell is not a place at all. It is, as the heretic Origen suggested, a condition of being distant from God. Alternatively, if it does exist it is probably empty! This solution attempts to reconcile the traditional doctrine of the reality of Hell with the requirement for a modern, caring, God. It is a classic example of the way in which teachings change when doctrine starts to become unteachable because of widespread disbelief. The Church cannot bring itself to agree explicitly with the atheist Lucretius (c.96-55 BC) and admit that “There is no murky pit of Hell awaiting anyone”*, but that is really what churchmen have come around to after 2,000 years.

Well said, even if they are unbelievers.

Their entry on hell is worthwhile reading. It quotes the relevant part of the Second Council of Constantinople statement:

Whosoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end …. let him be anathema.

The article goes on to say that this firmly established the Church’s belief in hell until relatively recently:

For centuries children and peasants were terrorised by the promise of eternal damnation. Theologians assured them that they would be crushed in giant wine presses, torn to pieces by wild animals, fed with the gall of dragons, burned for eternity, tortured by demons, and so on.

As Cardinal Newman pointed out, belief in Hell was central to Christian theology, it was “the critical doctrine — you can’t get rid of it — it is the very characteristic of Christianity”. The existence of God was held to prove the reality of eternal hellfire, so denial of eternal hellfire amounted to denial of God. The reality of Hell was simply not open to question.

The article mentions a Catholic priest, the Rev John Furniss, who wrote booklets about the faith for children. They cost one penny per volume and were well known in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of Furniss’s books was called The Sight of Hell, which is reproduced in full on the Bad News About Christianity site.

Those of us who are simple-minded when it comes to belief in a literal hell will appreciate Furniss’s work, several chapters of which begins with a Bible verse or have a variation on a Bible story. He wrote that the inspiration came from revelations that St Frances of Rome (1384-1440) said she received.

This is a brilliant book, but if you shared it with your children, you’d probably get arrested for child abuse. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Red Hot Floor’, about an adolescent of ill repute who ends up in hell:

Look into this room. What a dreadful place it is! The roof is red hot; the floor is like a thick sheet of red hot iron. See, on the middle of that red hot floor stands a girl. She looks about sixteen years old. Her feet are bare, she has neither shoes nor stockings on her feet; her bare feet stand on the red hot burning floor. The door of this room has never been opened before since she first set her foot on the red hot floor. Now she sees that the door is opening. She rushes forward. She has gone down on her knees on the red hot floor. Listen, she speaks! She says; “I have been standing with my feet on this red hot floor for years. Day and night my only standing place has been this red hot floor. Sleep never came on me for a moment, that I might forget this horrible burning floor. Look,” she says, “at my burnt and bleeding feet. Let me go off this burning floor for one moment, only for one single, short moment. Oh, that in the endless eternity of years, I might forget the pain only for one single,short moment.” The devil answers her question: “Do you ask,” he says, “for a moment, for one moment to forget your pain. No, not for one single moment during the never-ending eternity of years shall you ever leave this red hot floor!” “Is it so?” the girl asks with a sigh, that seems to break her heart; “then, at least, let somebody go to my little brothers and sisters, who are alive, and tell them not to do the bad things which I did, so they will never have to come and stand on the red hot floor.” The devil answers her again: “Your little brothers and sisters have the priests to tell them these things. If they will not listen to the priests, neither would they listen even if somebody should go to them from the dead.”

There we have a variation of the Dives (‘the rich man’) and Lazarus story that Jesus related (Luke 16:19-31).

Back to the article. The atheist author(s) rightly point out that Catholics and Protestants alike feared God’s wrath and the unspeakable horrors of hell for centuries. These days, less so, if at all:

Now belief in Hell seems to be no longer necessary. Certainly the Church of England does not require it. The Privy Council decided many years ago that belief in it is optional*. Theologians have now started to redefine Hell. In fact, according to the Church of England’s Doctrine Commission, traditional teachings of hellfire and eternal torment are “appalling theologies which made God into a sadistic monster and left searing scars on many”*.

On the contrary, it is better to live in fear and trembling — and repent — now than have eternal regrets in the everlasting fiery pit later.

In closing, Bad News About Christianity has an article about Origen, which tells us what Catholic Encyclopedia does not:

Like some of his contemporaries he voluntarily castrated himself to remove a sinful source of temptation. He insisted on observing Jesus” instructions, such as the ones about not carrying an extra coat and not wearing shoes (Matthew 10:10). During his lifetime he was deposed from the priesthood and deprived of his teaching post by the Bishop of Alexandria. He was also condemned by the Bishop of Rome and by a synod of Egyptian bishops. St Jerome held that he had deliberately tried to mislead the orthodox into heresy. Views attributed to him were condemned by further bishops, emperors and councils. To clear up any remnant of doubt, Origen’s teachings were condemned by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.

Now that sounds like my religious studies textbook (minus the first sentence)!

More on hell to follow.

Giotto Wikipedia 220px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-19-_-_Presentation_at_the_TempleFebruary 2 is Candlemas.

On February 3, Catholics remember St Blaise, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers said to guard against ills of the throat. Many attending Mass will have had their throats blessed last Sunday or will have this done on the feast day itself.

Regarding Candlemas, my aforementioned post has the gospel reading,  Luke 2:25-38, and the importance of this feast day which recalls Jesus’s Presentation at the Temple.

Candlemas always falls on February 2, because it is, in the Church calendar, the 40th day after Jesus’s birth. According to Jewish law (Leviticus 12, Exodus 13:12-15), Mary would have had to complete her ritual purification prior to accompanying Joseph and Jesus to the Temple. The presence of the infant Jesus, although circumcised and formally named (January 1), was required so that the priests could conduct the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn. In those days, Mary and Joseph would also have brought an animal sacrifice. They could only afford a pair of turtledoves.

Luke tells us that there were two holy, elderly people present: Simeon and Anna (Hannah, in Hebrew). Simeon’s prayer over Jesus became the Nunc Dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon). It can be found in Luke 2:29-32:

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen Jesus, hence the first words of the canticle.

When Anna heard Simeon’s prayer, she knew that this infant was the Messiah.

Before Christmas, John MacArthur wrote a three-part series of posts about Anna. Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

MacArthur tells us that it is important to remember that, at this time, the only Jews who recognised Jesus as the Messiah were humble, ordinary people — Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna:

All of them were basically nobodies. All of them recognized Him because they were told who He was by angels, or by some other form of special revelation. Luke recounts all their stories in succession, as if he is calling multiple witnesses, one at a time, to establish the matter.

Also recall the role that humble people had in Jesus’s ministry: the apostles and the vast majority of His followers.

The prophetess

Luke describes Anna as a prophetess. MacArthur explains that she is unlikely to have received divine revelation directly. It is more probable that she was a lay minister for women, either teaching them or praying with them. She would have had no teaching authority over men.

Anna lived at the temple and was known for her holiness. She spoke of God and Scripture, little else:

So when Luke called her a “prophetess,” he gave insight into her character and a clue about what occupied her mind and her conversation.

MacArthur says there were only five women referred to as ‘prophetess’ in the Old Testament. All had brief divine revelations, so were not on a par with the male prophets who actually held what MacArthur terms ‘prophetic office’.

Miriam

Moses’s and Aaron’s sister Miriam was the first. After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his army were swallowed up and drowned. Moses sang a song of thanksgiving, and afterward Miriam sang a one-stanza song of prophecy (Exodus 15:20-21):

20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Unfortunately, the fact that Miriam received prophecy went to her head and Numbers 12 tells us that God was angry with her for criticising Moses about his wife. He gave her leprosy for seven days, during which time she had to be well outside the camp.

Deborah

The next prophetess was Deborah (Judges 4:4):

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.

She was the only female judge in the era prior to the establishment of a monarchy in ancient Israel:

In fact, she was the only woman in all of Scripture who ever held that kind of leadership position and was blessed for it.

Deborah also had a brief prophecy from the Lord, which she gave to her fellow judge Barak, which led them to make a journey together (Judges 4:6-10):

She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak called out Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And 10,000 men went up at his heels, and Deborah went up with him.

MacArthur said her presence was God’s rebuke to the men of her generation who were fearful. She did not see herself as a leader like Barak, but rather as a ‘mother in Israel’ (Judges 5:7).

Huldah

Huldah appears in 2 Kings 22, where she warned of the need for repentance or the people would face the wrath of God (2 Kings 22:14-20):

14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. 15 And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’” And they brought back word to the king.

The parallel passage is in 2 Chronicles 34:22-28.

Two other women

Two more women are referred to as ‘prophetess’.

Noadiah was a false prophetess (Nehemiah 6:14):

Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

Isaiah’s wife was the other. She was more of an honorary prophetess, by virtue of being married to him. She did not receive any divine revelation but the prophet refers to his wife in Isaiah 8:3:

And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, “Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz;

Anna’s life

St Luke tells us that Anna’s father was Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. Asher means ‘happiness’, Phanuel ‘Face of God’ and Hannah ‘grace’. Asherites were well known for their wisdom and their daughters for their beauty.

Anna was only married for seven years before her husband died. By the time she saw the infant Jesus, she was already very elderly:

The Greek text is ambiguous as to her exact age. It might mean literally that she had been a widow for eighty-four years. Assuming she married very young (remember, thirteen was a typical age for engagement in that society), then lived with her husband seven years before he died, that would make her at least 104—very old indeed, but entirely possible.

More likely, what the text is saying is that she was now an eighty-four-year-old widow. She was married for seven years when her husband died, and having never remarried, she had now lived as a widow for more than six decades.

Widowhood in the ancient world meant much hardship. Anna would have struggled financially most of her adult life:

Anna probably either lived on charity or supported herself out of the remnants of her family’s inheritance. Either way, she must have led a very frugal, chaste, and sober life.

Luke says that Anna never left the temple. From this we can conclude that she lived in one of the modest apartments on the temple grounds, most of which housed visiting priests. MacArthur thinks that Anna might have been a caretaker at the temple when she was younger and that, perhaps, she was given the apartment in recognition of her service. Another possibility is that it was an act of charity to her in hardship.

Luke also tells us that Anna fasted and prayed continuously. MacArthur explains:

Abstaining from food per se has no mystical effect on anything spiritual. But fasting with prayer reveals a heart so consumed with praying, and so eager to receive the blessing being sought, that the person simply has no interest in eating. That is when fasting has real value.

Anna apparently had been doing this as a pattern for sixty-four years or longer. Here was a passionate woman!

He thinks she was praying for the coming of the Messiah:

there is little doubt that one of the main subjects of her prayers was an earnest plea for the very same thing Simeon was so eager for: “the Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25 NKJV). Her hope, like Eve’s, was for the Seed who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Her longing, like Sarah’s (Galatians 3:8, 16), was for the Seed of Abraham, who would bless all the nations of the world. She was praying that God would soon send the promised deliverer, the Messiah.

Despite her living at the temple, MacArthur believes that she was fully aware of the corruption at the heart of the religious leaders. She was there to be close to her Lord:

Remember, she belonged to the believing remnant, not the apostate majority. She had no part in the error and hypocrisy that Jesus would later rebuke among the scribes and Pharisees. She was not a participant in the money-changing system at the temple that stirred His wrath. She knew the Pharisees were corrupt legalists. She understood that the Sadducees were spiritually bankrupt liberals. She truly loved her God. She understood His heart and mind.

Lessons from Anna

MacArthur’s essays on Anna are most inspiring. Men can learn from them, too.

What struck me in particular were these:

She genuinely believed His Word. She was a wonderfully remarkable woman indeed—perhaps one of the most devout people we meet anywhere on the pages of Scripture. No one else comes to mind who fasted and prayed faithfully for more than sixty years! …

Anna knew who the believing remnant were. She could identify the true worshipers—the ones who, like her, were expectantly awaiting the Messiah. She sought such people out, and at every opportunity from then on, she spoke to them about Him.

It is unlikely that Anna lived to experience Jesus’s ministry. Yet, God answered her lifetime of prayers by giving her the blessing of seeing Jesus.

And, what did she do next? She prayed in thanksgiving and spoke to all of the Messiah (Luke 2:38):

And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna the prophetess is a true role model for all Christians.

j0289346In a recent Forbidden Bible Verses post on Matthew 13:50-53, I cited one of John MacArthur’s sermons, ‘The Power of Unbelief, Part 1’.

In that sermon, MacArthur describes Jesus’s return to the synagogue in Nazareth to teach the congregation. They were no more receptive than they were the first time, but at least they did not try to throw Him off a cliff again.

MacArthur described the ritual involved. The Church shares a few parallels.

Call to worship

Every Friday, there was the call to stop work for the Sabbath. The ancient Jews sounded:

two trumpet blasts. Those blasts would have come from the trumpet in the hands of the minister of the synagogue, who climbed up onto the roof of his house and just as the sun was beginning to set on Shabbat, Friday evening, he would blow two blasts to warn of the beginning of the Sabbath. A little time would intervene, and he would blow a second time, this time one blast. At that blast, all work halted. Then there would be a little space of time, and he would blow another single blast, and instantly put his trumpet down, lest he should defame and dishonor the Sabbath now that the third blast indicated it had begun. He would not defile the Sabbath.

Jesus would have heard the trumpet blasts and with the people, and gone to a place to partake in the Sabbath activity.

For Sabbath worship the following day, a synagogue leader used a shofar (translated as ‘trumpet’ in the Bible) to alert the congregation it was time to gather together. This would have been a long blast with one or two notes.

Churches have bells. In the Middle Ages, these were rung not only before Mass but at the time of the Elevation of the Host during the prayer of consecration, when everyone had to be at church. Some Christians used to wait for the second sound of the bells coming from the sanctuary, enter to hear the prayer, then leave afterwards. Many felt that it was sufficient to be present only at that point, as W D Maxwell explained in his 1937 book A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form (p. 65).

Today’s bells, where used, generally are rung 15 minutes before the start of the service or Mass. They are still rung at the time of the consecration at Catholic Mass and some High Anglican services.

Assigned places

MacArthur says that everyone had an assigned seat in the synagogue:

They sat in a very prescribed manner in a very prescribed place; it was very routine, with familiar faces, activities, and events.

Until the mid-19th century, it was common in some Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian congregations to rent or purchase a pew for one’s family. Those who could not afford to do so were relegated to lesser pews — on the side, in back or upstairs. Because of pew allocations some churches only allowed in members of their congregation, effectively prohibiting outsiders from attending. As congregants’ disputes rose over pew designations and clergy realised that they were restricting other Christians’ ability to worship, the practice was abolished.

Standing for the readings

MacArthur tells us that the Jews of Jesus’s time stood to hear the readings:

The standing posture was indicative of the authority of the Word of God.

Christians also stand for the Scripture readings.

Sitting for teaching

When a rabbi or guest teacher, such as Jesus, gave an address, the congregation sat down to hear it:

lest the people think that man’s teaching had the same authority as God’s Word. They stood to read, and sat to teach.

Similarly, Christians sit to hear a sermon.

Our Christian services follow time-honoured and ancient traditions.

Bible GenevaThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 14:1-12

The Death of John the Baptist

14 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife,[a] because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

———————————————————————————————-

It is appalling that neither version, Matthew’s nor Mark’s, of the death of John the Baptist — the last prophet — whom Jesus compared to Elijah and the greatest person who ever lived, is in the three-year Lectionary. Why? Churchgoers need to hear about profoundly serious sin brought about by the preference for one’s own pleasure. And Herod’s is a classic morality as well as biblical story, affirmed by the historian Josephus and the early Doctor of the Church Jerome.

The Bible tells us that we can choose to enslave ourselves to God or to sin. This story should be at the forefront of our minds as a real-life illustration — and warning — of what happens when people decide to give themselves over to the devil.

Matthew gives us the end of the story then goes back and explains what happened.

Mark has a longer history of John the Baptist and Herod. I wrote about his account in 2012 and provided a lot of historical information from John MacArthur as to why John the Baptist warned Herod about his lust and unlawful marriage with Herodias. You can read more here and here. I also wrote about the various Herods yesterday; you might find the post useful.

Now on to Matthew’s account. The first two verses tell us that Herod is convinced Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. He knew John was imbued with holiness, hence Herod believed he was now risen and working heavenly miracles. Herod did not know much of Jesus at this time.

We then read (verses 3, 4) why Herod imprisoned John the Baptist, who might have been held in close proximity to Herod’s home. Matthew Henry gives us a succinct explanation (emphases mine):

The particular sin he reproved him for was, marrying his brother Philip’s wife, not his widow (that had not been so criminal), but his wife. Philip was now living, and Herod inveigled his wife from him, and kept her for his own. Here was a complication of wickedness, adultery, incest, besides the wrong done to Philip, who had had a child by this woman and it was an aggravation of the wrong, that he was his brother, his half-brother, by the father, but not by the mother. See Psalm 50:20. For this sin John reproved him not by tacit and oblique allusions, but in plain terms, It is not lawful for thee to have her. He charges it upon him as a sin not, It is not honourable, or, It is not safe, but, It is not lawful the sinfulness of sin, as it is the transgression of the law, is the worst thing in it.

John the Baptist had so aggravated Herod’s conscience that he wanted to put him to death. The only thing that stopped him from doing so was the fury of the people who deeply loved and respected John the Baptist.

When Herod’s birthday celebrations took place (verses 6, 7), they were decadent. By the time Salome — unnamed in the New Testament — came in to dance, the assembled guests had enjoyed sumptuous feeding and watering. In keeping with Roman traditions, the event required a memorable party piece involving death.

John MacArthur gives us two examples:

Herodias had an ancestor by the name of Alexander Junius, and historians tell us that one time, Alexander Junius was holding a big feast, and brought in 800 rebels to make a display. He crucified all 800 of them in front of all the revelers at the feast, and then, while they were hanging on the crosses, still alive, he murdered their wives and children in front of them. It was a debauched world …

When the head of Cicero was brought to Fulvia, the wife of Antony, she spat on it, pulled its tongue out, and drove her hair pin through it. Jerome says that is what Herodias did with the head of John; we can’t verify that, but we know that Herod’s family seemed to want to mimic all of the worst atrocities of the Roman nobility. It must have been a point of derision and mocking – that dear, godly, faithful man, his head severed from his body. That is the extent of rejection that comes under the pressure of the fear of man. He was afraid to lose his throne, afraid of John, afraid of his wife, afraid of the people around him. Under the intimidation of that, he damned his soul to Hell forever.

Hell. Matthew had just mentioned Jesus’s description of it in Chapter 13, in a verse also excluded from the three-year Lectionary:

50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Anyone who doubts the existence of hell or eternal punishment is allowed to debate the issue here, however, please do give a reason why, other than, for example — speaking generally — that ‘God in His mercy will save everyone’ or ‘I never believed it’. Examples of reasons would include an underlying difficulty with authority, doubting the creeds, relying on favourite authors or revisionist professors rather than Scripture, etc.

As we saw last week, Scripture — and Jesus, in particular — warned us many times about transgressing the Father. And we transgress the Father when we transgress His Son Jesus.

Jesus’s death on the cross is satisfactory for the sins of the world but is efficacious only for those who believe in Him:

It is Satan’s studied purpose to keep souls from believing in Christ as their only hope; for the blood of Christ that cleanseth from all sin is efficacious in behalf of those only who believe in its merit.

If we were all saved, why would Jesus — and, later, the Apostles — have continually warned us in the New Testament to turn away from sin? Surely, if we were all going to heaven, it would not matter. We could do whatever we pleased, as Herod and his family did, and still be saved.

In fact, why would we need any laws at all if we were all going to share a glorious afterlife? We could all be murderous, thieving anarchists engaging in fornication and adultery.

To those who support Universalism, I recommend a solid study of the New Testament, because:

When the Godhead is denied, there is no salvation.  When the dual nature of Christ is denied, there is no salvation.  When salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is denied, there is no salvation.  When the Word of Truth is denied, there is no salvation.  When Jesus’ second coming bodily to rule and judge the earth is denied, there is no salvation.

We are not saved on the basis of simply saying we believe Jesus existed, was a great guy, was a prophet, was a wonderful teacher … but on the basis of our continued belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He will ultimately save us and give us eternal life.

I suspect that those who deny hell are worried not about themselves as much as a close family member or a cherished friend, past or present.

Pray that living unbelievers are given the divine grace necessary to enable an everlasting faith. Scripture tells us that we can know God only via a firm belief in His Son Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Returning to today’s reading, Herodias had a word with Salome, who then asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter (verse 8). Henry surmises that Herodias might have worried Herod could find a younger or more beautiful partner:

Perhaps Herodias feared lest Herod should grow weary of her (as lust useth to nauseate and be cloyed), and then would make John Baptist’s reproof a pretence to dismiss her to prevent which she contrives to harden Herod in it by engaging him in the murder of John.

Herod immediately regretted his rash and extravagant promise to Herodias’s daughter (verse 9). Henry explains the dangers of making oaths and throwing wild parties:

Promissory oaths are ensnaring things, and, when made rashly, are the products of inward corruption, and the occasion of many temptations.

Note, Times of carnal mirth and jollity are convenient times for carrying on bad designs against God’s people. When the king was made sick with bottles of wine, he stretched out his hand with scorners (Hosea 7:5), for it is part of the sport of a fool to do mischief, Proverbs 10:23. The Philistines, when their heart was merry, called for Samson to abuse him. The Parisian massacre was at a wedding. This young lady’s dancing pleased Herod. We are not told who danced with her, but none pleased Herod like her dancing. Note, A vain and graceless heart is apt to be greatly in love with the lusts of the flesh and of the eye, and when it is so, it is entering into further temptation for by that Satan gets and keeps possession. See Proverbs 23:31-33. Herod was now in a mirthful mood, and nothing was more agreeable to him than that which fed his vanity.

Herod did as his step-daughter asked and, as proof, the prophet’s head was duly brought in (verses 10, 11). Salome presented John the Baptist’s head to her mother.

Afterwards, John the Baptist’s friends buried his body, then relayed the tragic news to Jesus (verse 12).

MacArthur makes this observation:

It may speak something of the thoughtfulness of Herod in his sobriety as he would permit that.

Then, Jesus went away to be alone (Matthew 14:13). John the Baptist was His cousin. They were conceived around the same time.

The Gospels tell us that Herod wanted to meet Jesus. However, He never did. MacArthur tells us:

Once, He sent a message to him. In Luke 13:32-33, He sent a message to Herod and said, “You fox. You want to see Me? You will not be able to kill Me like you did John the Baptist until My work is done.” He called him a fox, and He never saw him, and moved, with quiet dignity, beyond the grasp of Herod. He left Herod to his guilt, his unresolved fear, his vile, wretched sin, and to the woman who was his doom, until one fateful day.

The only time Jesus saw Herod was at His trial, prior to the Crucifixion:

Look at Luke 23:6. This is the only time He ever went into the presence of Herod. This is the trial of Jesus. “When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” Pilate didn’t know what to do with Jesus, who was on trial, or mock trial. So he knows that He is from Galilee, and he says that He belongs in Herod’s jurisdiction, so he ships Jesus to Herod. Verse 8. “Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him.” Here was this strange fascination again, and now, finally, the two meet.

“Then he questioned Him with many words,” and we don’t know what he asked, but what an opportunity! The Lord can give him all the answers right now. Herod desires, longs to see Jesus, and has for a long time. The Lord could do some miracles, give him all the answers he wants, and it says, “But He answered him nothing.” Jesus never said one word. “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.”

The used to hate each other, but here, they became friends. You know how? Common mockery of the Son of God; they are two very tragic men. Listen, Herod rejected Christ, and Christ rejected Herod. It was hard, stony ground; for fear of a woman, for fear of a reputation, for fear of his peers, and for fear of his throne, he damned his soul forever. John the Baptist lost his head but lives forever in the presence of God.

In conclusion:

Christ wants to reveal Himself to you, but if you are proudly holding onto your reputation, for fear of what others may think, for fear of the attitude and actions of those who may reject you, for fear of the loss of face or reputation, for intimidation by evil people, you have forfeited Christ and damn your soul. The day will come when you ask the questions and get no answers.

Next time: Matthew 14:34-36

Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (here and here).

Matthew 13:50-53

50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

New and Old Treasures

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Jesus Rejected at Nazareth

53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there,

—————————————————————————————-

Verse 50 concludes Jesus’s Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-49):

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

That parable is read in the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time when Year A readings are used in the three-year Lectionary.

It is a pity that the compilers — Catholic and Protestant theologians — decided to omit verse 50.

Since the 19th century, the Christian idea of hell has been watered down to such a degree that many people joke, ‘So what? At least I can get a gin and tonic down there’.

However, as John MacArthur says, hell is no laughing matter (emphases mine):

Verse 50, “And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Now that is a fearful verse.  And I confess to you that it affects me just as it affects anybody.  It is a horrifying, fearful verse

And if there’s any doctrine in the Bible that you wish were not there it is the doctrine of hell, but that does not eliminate it.  It is there.  And this is the heart of the matter.  Cast into the furnace of fire.  Those are terrifying words from our Lord.  And yet He spoke more of hell than anybody else. 

And I think there’s a reason.  Do you know what I think?  I think that if Jesus hadn’t taught us about hell, we wouldn’t believe whoever did.  It had to be Him.  It is so inconceivable, it so causes us to be revulsed.  We cannot conceive of eternal damnation.  And it had to be our Lord who said this or we never would have been able to accept it.  It was His own special emphasis.  And He was a preacher of hell.  More than anything else, He threatened men with hell.  And if you don’t think He did then you haven’t been carefully noting His ministry.

MacArthur went on to detail the previous references in Matthew’s Gospel. MacArthur was using the KJV at this time in his ministry.

Matthew 5:22:

Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye offend you, pluck it out and cast it from you for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not your whole body should be cast into hell. If your right hand offend you, cut it off, throw it away, for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should be cast into hell.

Matthew 8:12:

The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Other verses which cite our Lord directly concern condemnation or damnation. And, as Bible readers know, it is not only in Matthew, including chapters 23 through 25, that we find such warnings but also:

Mark chapter 9, Luke chapter 6, Luke chapter 12, Luke chapter 16.  It just goes on and on.

If our Lord warned us so many times, why would we not believe Him?

Because theologians, even in the 16th century but more nowadays, have told us that this hell is a psychological one that causes us to long for God. I can understand why atheists respond with ‘So what? I don’t believe anyway.’

I’m going to go into MacArthur’s definition of hell — from the same sermon — in tomorrow’s post, but suffice it to say that it includes ‘impenetrable darkness’, ‘unrelieved fire’, physical pain and torment of the soul relative to the degree of sin committed in this life.

He says:

When a person dies, their soul goes out of the presence of God, into the torment of hell.  It may not be the full final lake of fire that comes after the judgment in the great white throne, for that needs a transcendent body to endure it

But it is a torment just as well as illustrated by the rich man who in hell was tormented.  When a person dies now, their soul descends into that torment.  In the future, there will be a resurrection of the bodies of the damned.  They will be given a transcendent body that will then go into a lake of fire.  It will be a body not like the body we have now.  It will be a very different one.  They will be resurrected just like we will, as Christians

We will be resurrected because this body could never live eternally in heaven, right?  We have to have a transcendent body, a glorified body, a different body, and so do the damned.  And they will be raised, John 5, they will be raised in new bodies for the single purpose of being punished forever in those bodies

That’s what the Bible says, tormented forever.  They have to have a body to fit that eternal torment.  And that’s why Jesus in Matthew 10:28 said, “Fear not them that can destroy the body, but fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”  You see, hell is soul and body …

With the present body, man couldn’t endure hell … the body that we have now would be consumed in a moment.  So as God fits the redeemed with new bodies for heaven, He fits the damned with new bodies for hell … 

Since childhood, I have always been struck by the words ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, which seem to imply more than torment of the soul.

Above, MacArthur referred to our Lord’s story of Dives (‘rich man’) and Lazarus, which is a reading in the three-year Lectionary (Luke 16:19-31). Dives did nothing to help poor, sickly Lazarus who ate the scraps from his table. When Lazarus died, he went to heaven. When Dives died, he went to hell. There Dives suffered from everlasting thirst:

24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 

Abraham refused. The rich man then asked him to send someone who had died to his brothers, so they might be warned of the torment to come. Abraham replied that the rich man’s brothers had Moses and the prophets to warn them. Ultimately:

31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

And so it remains to this day. Our Lord has millions who mock Him daily around the world.

Jesus had finished relating the disciples not only the Parable of the Net, but also the Parables of the Sower, the Weeds, the Mustard Seed and the Leaven, the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Value.

He asked His disciples if they understood them (verse 51). They replied, ‘Yes’. Matthew Henry says that Jesus asked because:

he was ready to explain what they did not understand. Note, It is the will of Christ, that all those who read and hear the word should understand it for otherwise how should they get good by it? It is therefore good for us, when we have read or heard the word, to examine ourselves, or to be examined, whether we have understood it or not. It is no disparagement to the disciples of Christ to be catechised. Christ invites us to seek to him for instruction, and ministers should proffer their service to those who have any good question to ask concerning what they have heard.

We can be sure that the disciples did understand the parables because when they did not, as with those of the Sower and also the Weeds, they asked for an explanation.

Jesus then paid them a compliment (verse 52) by comparing them to scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven and masters of a house. Henry explains:

They were now learning that they might teach, and the teachers among the Jews were the scribes. Ezra, who prepared his heart to teach in Israel, is called a ready scribe, Ezra 7:6,10. Now a skilful, faithful minister of the gospel is a scribe too but for distinction, he is called a scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, well versed in the things of the gospel, and well able to teach those things

He compares them to a good householder, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old fruits of last year’s growth and this year’s gathering, abundance and variety, for the entertainment of his friends, Song of Song of Solomon 7:13. See here, [1.] What should be a minister’s furniture, a treasure of things new and old. Those who have so many and various occasions, have need to stock themselves well in their gathering days with truths new and old, out of the Old Testament and out of the new with ancient and modern improvements, that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished, 2 Timothy 3:16,17. Old experiences, and new observations, all have their use and we must not content ourselves with old discoveries, but must be adding new. Live and learn.

Verse 53 refers to our Lord’s departure from Capernaum to his hometown of Nazareth. Luke 4:16-30 tells us what happened there, and I wrote about it, albeit briefly as it is in the Lectionary, in 2013.

In short, the people of Nazareth thought Jesus was an upstart, got angry with Him and tried to throw Him off a cliff:

30 But passing through their midst, he went away.

Given that, it seems strange that Mary and His step-brothers wanted to bring Him back to Nazareth.

MacArthur tells us that Jesus was leaving Capernaum for good, as the residents did not accept Him, even though He had been teaching and healing the people there for a year.

Remember His dire warning to them in Matthew 11:20-24, which some of you might remember from my entry of October 2015.

MacArthur explains:

back in Matthew 11:23, Jesus said, “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.”

In other words, Jesus had pronounced a curse on Capernaum, and when it says that very simple little statement at the end of verse 53, “He departed from there,” Capernaum’s history ended and God’s damning judgment began. It was the beginning of the end. He never went back, except in passing, and never reestablished a base there. Capernaum had its opportunity. He had come into that city, demonstrated power that could only be interpreted as from God, and now it was over. It marked a crisis in the town’s history from which it never recovered. If you go today to Capernaum, no one lives there; it is utter ruin. It is one of the most beautiful places on the earth, but no one is there. It has felt the hot breath of the curse of Jesus Christ for its unbelief.

At this point, He made a second visit to Nazareth. This took place one year after the synagogue congregation tried to kill Him:

He went right back into the teeth of the storm, right back into the synagogue, and taught them.

Matthew 13:57-58 relates that this return visit went no better than the first:

57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” 58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

It is amazing that between these two towns the most perfect teaching and healing the residents could ever experience escaped them. Who could have done that except the Messiah?

MacArthur explains:

Nazareth’s problem was that they loved their sin, and didn’t want Christ at all. That is why, when they came to Jesus, they said, “We want a sign,” and He said, “I will give no sign to this evil, adulterous generation. Your problem isn’t that you need proof, but that you love sin.” That is the issue. Unbelief blurs the obvious.

And so it remains and will remain until the end of time as we understand it.

In closing, two brief observations.

First, it is appalling to think how little our clergy explain the unbelief and rejection in both Nazareth and Capernaum. Until I started carefully reading the Bible, using Matthew Henry and John MacArthur as guides, I had no idea. If you have known this since childhood, say a prayer of thanks for the blessing of faithful teachers at home and in church.

Secondly, the compilers of the three-year Lectionary have done us all a disservice. The omission of one of Jesus’s dire warnings about hell (Matthew 13:50) is deplorable. We need to know this. We should not have to go digging around at home to find the missing verse. I say that because Catholics have their Missalettes which have the readings in the booklet. They generally do not have Bibles in their pews. A number of them have probably never read verse 50 — and many others which are omitted: Forbidden, yet Essential, Bible Verses. Don’t our clergy want us to know the truth?

Next time: Matthew 14:1-12

 

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