Once saved, always saved?

Q. About salvation, I have always believed, “once saved, always saved.” In other words, we cannot lose our salvation. What do you think about this?

This question is generally considered to be one about which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, can legitimately differ. However, individual churches and denominations may consider the issue important enough to their doctrine and practice to say that only one thing may be taught about it under their auspices, and that seems reasonable to me.

As for me personally, let me say that this is an issue that we often feel most strongly in the context of experience. We know someone who seems to make a heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus, but then at some point down the road they seem to abandon that commitment. What happened? Did they lose their salvation?

I would observe, based on the teachings of Jesus, that there are two further possibilities, two alternatives to that. The person may still be in fellowship with the Lord, just not living that out in a way that allows anyone to recognize it. Or, they may never really have made a commitment in the first place.

Consider, for example, the parable of the sower. Jesus talks about four kinds of soil that seed may fall into. Jesus explains that “the seed is the word of God,” so these soils represent four different responses that a person can make to the gospel message.

One response is for a person not to receive it because their heart is not open to it. That is like the hard-packed soil on the path. A person who responds that way is not saved, and they never appear to be saved.

The opposite response, corresponding to the “good soil,” is to hear the word with “a noble and good heart,” to “retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” A person who responds that way is saved, and they appear to be, right from the start and all along.

But the responses represented by the other two kinds of soil correspond to people who appear to be saved but who then seem to lose their salvation. Jesus also speaks of people whom he compares to shallow soil, who “hear the word and at once receive it with joy,” but who “quickly fall away when trouble or persecution comes.” Jesus says that they do this “because they have no root.” I take this to mean that these people were not really saved, although they appeared to be.

The fourth kind of soil, the thorny soil, represents those who “hear the word, but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” I take this to mean that these people really are saved, but after a point this is no longer evident, because other things are taking precedence.

So, without saying that the belief that a person can lose their salvation is an unbiblical idea, I would want to say that there are these two other alternatives. A person might have appeared to be saved, but they actually were not, or a person might appear no longer to be saved, but they actually are. But whether these two alternatives account for all situations where a person appears to lose their salvation is, as I said at the beginning, a matter on which Christians of good will can legitimately differ.

What does Isaiah mean about the Suffering Servant receiving a “portion” and “spoils”?

Q. What do these lines in Isaiah mean: “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong?”

The specific meaning of those lines is that this person will get a share in the plunder from a battle. The “great” and “strong” are the victorious warriors, and the “portion” and “spoils” are the plunder that the victors divide up among themselves.

There is a paradox, however. Those two lines are paired with the two lines that follow:

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

So somehow, even though this person died in the battle, and seems to have done something wrong, he will still get the rewards of the victory. How can that be?

Those four lines continue a paradoxical theme in one of the passages where Isaiah talks about the “Suffering Servant.” In that passage, the servant suffers to the point of death for the sake of others, but then seems to live again: “he was cut off from the land of the living,” but “he will see his offspring and prolong his days.” “After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Christians who read this passage see in it a prediction of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They believe that Jesus not only suffered for the sins of the world, he was considered a sinner so that he could represent guilty humanity. “He poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.” But because he gave his life to become the Savior of the world, in a supreme example of sacrificial love, as the Bible says elsewhere, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

In other words, God gave Jesus the rewards of victory, because even though his death seemed to be a loss and a defeat, it was really the culmination of all of God’s work to bring salvation to the world. “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong.”

What are the two great wings in Revelation?

Q. The book of Revelation says, “The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle.” What are these two wings?

I personally don’t believe that these wings are individually symbolic. That is, one wing doesn’t stand for something, and the other wing for something else. Rather, I think this is an allusion to a statement that God makes to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, right after bringing them out of Egypt and just before giving them the Ten Commandments: “I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

The book of Revelation is full of quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. It uses these to portray the experiences of Jesus’ faithful followers as continuous with the experiences of God’s people down through history to that point. I believe that the passage in Revelation where these wings are mentioned is, in its initial application, a description of an experience that the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem had in the middle of the First Century. As I say in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

“Many interpreters believe that the story of the woman’s escape from
the dragon recapitulates how Jewish followers of Jesus escaped from
Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman war of AD 66–70. In the
spring of ad 68, they fled across the Jordan River. It was swollen with spring
floods, but it unexpectedly subsided enough to permit them to cross. This
was like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea to escape from Egypt, when, as
Moses said, God carried them ‘on eagles’ wings.’ On the other side of the
Jordan, these Jewish followers of Jesus reached the city of Pella, where Gentile Christians from Galilee provided for them throughout the period of danger.”

(You can download a free copy of this study guide at this link.)

It is possible that this passage will have a further fulfillment sometime in the future, when faithful followers of Jesus experience a similar deliverance. But I believe that we need to start by understanding such passages in their initial historical setting, and then think about further applications by analogy.

An illustration of the woman of the Apocalypse in Hortus deliciarum (redrawing of an illustration dated c. 1180), depicting various events from the narrative in Revelations 12 in a single image. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

How old was Joseph when he married and when he died?

Q. We don’t hear much about Joseph in the Bible. Do we know how old he was when Mary and he married? How old was he when he died, how did he die, and how old was Jesus when he died?

We don’t have exact answers to any of these questions because, as you say, we don’t hear much about Joseph in the Bible.

We do know that in New Testament times, Jewish women often married in their mid-teens, while Jewish men married when they were a bit older, perhaps around twenty, once they had become somewhat established and could support a wife. So if Joseph and Mary’s experience was typical for the period, he might have been just out of his teens when he married her, and she was likely still a teenager.

We know from the gospels that Joseph was at least still alive when Jesus was twelve years old. Luke tells us how Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Jerusalem at that age, where he spoke with the teachers of the law in the temple. But Joseph seems to have died by the time Jesus was 30 and began his ministry. The gospels portray Jesus interacting with his mother and brothers at several points during his ministry, but never with Joseph.

We know nothing about how Joseph died, or how old he was when he died, except that if he married at around age 20, and had died by the time Jesus was 30, then he would like have died before age 50. So he would have lived a little shorter time than the average for a man in the Roman Empire, which was the mid-50s. But whether he died of illness or an accident or some other cause, we just don’t know.

So the primary picture we have of Joseph comes from the time around the birth of Jesus. What stays in our minds is that he was a righteous man, unwilling for Mary to experience public disgrace, and that he accepted the challenging role of being the adoptive earthly father of the Son of God. Perhaps it’s best that we think of him mostly in that light.

How widely accepted is the idea of a 130-proverb collection based on the value of Hezekiah’s name?

Q. Are you the only one who teaches the 130 proverbs of Solomon compiled by Hezekiah’s men? My focus is on the 130 number. I have found others that teach the 135 proverbs of Solomon in another section of the book, but I cannot seem to find anyone else teaching the 130 number in the Hezekiah section.

I think you are probably referring to this post, in which I say that there are 130 sayings in the section of the book of Proverbs that was compiled by “Hezekiah and his men” because 130 is the value of Hezekiah’s name in Hebrew. And I think you are probably actually referring to the 375, rather than the 135, proverbs by Solomon that are in another section of the book that is entitled “The proverbs of Solomon.”

I’ve looked around a bit online and I do find others who teach that there are 375 proverbs in that other section because that is the value of Solomon’s name in Hebrew. For example, a post on Bible.com says, “There are 375 proverbs in this section, and wouldn’t you know it, the numerical value of the word “Solomon” (שְׁלֹמֹ) in Hebrew is 375! Someone has thoughtfully curated these sayings for us to read and ponder.” Similarly, a post from GCI.org observes, “It would seem that Solomon, or someone else later, deliberately made a collection of 375 of the Solomonic proverbs to correspond to the numerical value of Solomon’s name.”

However, in a quick search at least, I don’t find others who make the same claim about the 130-proverb collection later in the book and the numerical value of Hezekiah’s name. But it seems to me that if the first claim makes sense, then the second one does, too. I must admit that it has been so long since I first learned about this likely reason for the number of proverbs in those two collections that I don’t actually remember where I heard it first. So I will just have to leave it to thoughtful readers and interpreters of the Bible to consider what they think of the idea. Thanks for your question.

Why didn’t more of Jesus’ disciples write books of the New Testament?

Q. How come only five disciples of Jesus Christ wrote books in the New Testament? My theory is that for one thing John and Peter were closer to Jesus. Matthew was a Levite from the priestly tribe of Levi, making his role that of writing on Christ’s priesthood. Christ redeemed the priesthood of Levi back unto himself and redeemed Matthew the tax collector from what was considered a disgraceful and corrupt profession. But I don’t know about the others.

I think your question actually contains a good start on its own answer. But first, let me say that if we accept the traditional understandings of authorship, only three of Jesus’ disciples wrote books in the New Testament. You mention John, who is traditionally credited with the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the book of Revelation. Two letters that Peter wrote are in the New Testament. And then there is Matthew.

But the James who wrote a book in the New Testament is not the James who was a disciple of Jesus. Rather, he was one of Jesus’ brothers. So was Jude, who wrote another book. Luke and Paul, the other remaining authors whose identities we know, were similarly not among the original twelve disciples. We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but many things about it suggest that this was someone from the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt (whether or not the book was actually written there), so its author was likely not one of the disciples either.

But let us return to Matthew, who, as you noted, was most likely a Levite. (In fact, in relating the same episode in which he is called Matthew in the gospel by that name, Mark calls him Levi. This might have been a nickname or surname; either way, it identifies him with that tribe.) I would say that Matthew’s gospel does more than speak of Christ’s priesthood; it explains the significance of his whole life and ministry as the Jewish Messiah, and his sacrificial death, against the background of the Hebrew Scriptures. As a result, Matthew’s gospel has far more quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament than the other three gospels. So it is a book written for a Jewish audience by someone who was deeply versed in the Jewish Scriptures.

All the other disciples were Jewish as well. We can imagine that they might well have addressed a similar audience in a similar way. And that would have limited the reach of the New Testament, which is the story of how Jesus brought the work that God had done to that point, as described in the Old Testament, to its culmination for the benefit of the whole world.

And so other types of authors were needed, to write to other audiences in other ways. Luke was a Gentile, and he wrote in excellent Greek to a Greek audience. His two works, Luke and Acts, make up a quarter of the New Testament. Paul was Jewish, in fact, he was a trained rabbi, but he came from Asia Minor, from a context outside of Palestine that was Greek in language and culture. So was also familiar with Greek philosophical thought, as we can tell from his writings and from his speeches recorded in Acts, and he writes largely to Christian communities made up of both Jews and Gentiles. His letters comprise another quarter of the New Testament.

While Mark was Jewish, he wrote his gospel in Rome, and we can tell that he is addressing a Roman audience. (For one thing, he uses many Latin terms, and he also explains customs for his readers that a Jew living in Palestine would have understood implicitly.) John was also Jewish, but he likely wrote his gospel in western Asia Minor, and while he refers extensively to the Jewish background of Jesus’ life and ministry, he speaks in a way that is accessible to the broad population of the empire. And as I have already noted, the book of Hebrews likely comes from the Alexandrian context.

So most of the New Testament actually comes from outside the Palestinian Jewish context in which Jesus and his disciples operated. But this allows the New Testament books to speak to a much broader and wider audience than they would have if most of them had been written within that context instead. So, as I said, your reflections about Matthew pointed in the direction of what I think is the answer to your question. Certainly a gospel like his was needed to interpret the meaning of Jesus for a Jewish audience. But the New Testament needed to speak to many other audiences as well, and that is why the authors of most of its books appropriately come from a range of contexts and backgrounds, not only the original circle of Jesus’ twelve disciples.

Why does Matthew say that Jesus healed two blind men outside Jericho when Mark and Luke only say one?

Q. Mark and Luke both tell the story of Jesus restoring a blind man’s sight on the road outside Jericho. Matthew tells the same story, but he says that two men had their sight restored. Why is there a difference?

Václav Mánes, “Healing the Blind Man,” 1832 (National Gallery, Prague)

You’re asking about the phenomenon that gospels scholars sometimes refer to as “Matthean doubling.” This isn’t the only place where Matthew seems to turn one character into two.

First, in the story you’re asking about, there definitely seems to have been just one person involved. Mark even tells us what his name was—Bartimaeus. The details of the story are the same in all three gospels. In Mark and Luke, this man calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tells him to be quiet, but he shouts all the louder. Jesus hears him and calls him over and asks what he wants. He asks to have his sight restored, and Jesus heals him. In Matthew’s version, two men call out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd tells them to be quiet, but they shout louder. Jesus calls them over and asks what they want. They ask to have their sight restored, and Jesus heals them. The only difference is the two men in Matthew versus the one in Mark and Luke. All three writers specify the same setting, on the road outside Jericho, and the same time, as Jesus was heading to Jerusalem at the end of his life. So Matthew doesn’t seem to be relating a separate incident. He’s doubling a character in the same incident.

Similarly, Mark and Luke tell how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man in the area on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They tell how no one could restrain him, how he came screaming out at Jesus and the disciples, and how the demons inside of him begged Jesus not to torture them. They asked to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs instead, and Jesus agreed. (If you’re wondering why he agreed, consider this post.) The demons left the man and went into the pigs, which all rushed down a hillside into the lake and drowned. Matthew tells exactly the same story, with all the same details, except he says that there were two men involved, not one.

A further instance occurs in the story of Palm Sunday. As Mark and Luke tell it, Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, and he sends two of his disciples to a nearby village to get a colt (a young donkey) for him to ride into the city. He tells them that if anyone challenges them, they are to say that “the Lord needs it.” They bring the colt back, throw their cloaks over its back, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem, where he is cheered by the crowds. Matthew tells the same story, with the same details, except he says that Jesus told the disciples to get two animals, a donkey and her colt. He says that if anyone challenges them, they are to say that “the Lord needs them.” Matthew then reports that the disciples “brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” We can at least recognize that Matthew means that Jesus sat on the cloaks, not on the two animals at once. But this is still one further instance of “doubling.”

So what’s going on here? The best explanation I’ve heard, and I find it convincing, is that two is the number of witness in Jewish culture, and Matthew is writing primarily for a Jewish audience. He is the only gospel writer who records how Jesus reinforced for his disciples the rule in the law of Moses, “Let every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

These three episodes are all well-known stories that circulated widely during the generation between the time when Jesus lived and when the gospels were written down. The times and locations and even some of the names involved are all documented. So Matthew isn’t trying to fool anybody. If he were, he would make up stories that don’t appear anywhere else, so that no one could check up on him. Instead, he’s beginning with the premise that his readers will know the stories only too well, and so they will be struck by the difference in detail. They will wonder what it means, and if they read carefully, they will find the answer right in his own gospel: The testimony of two witnesses establishes a matter.

So Matthew “doubles” characters as a way of saying that these particular episodes bear witness to who Jesus is. Interestingly, in each of them, there is explicit witness to Jesus’ identity. The blind man calls out to him as the “Son of David.” The demons say, “We know who you are, the Son of God.” The crowds who greet Jesus on his way into Jerusalem call him the king who comes in the name of the Lord. So it does indeed seem to be Matthew’s purpose to portray these episodes as bearing witness to who Jesus is.

In our own time and culture, we might still think this isn’t quite proper. What right does Matthew have to change the details in a story from Jesus’ life? But if we can appreciate that he is making use of symbolism even as he otherwise tells the story of Jesus realistically, we can understand his purpose and accept his method.

Why doesn’t Luke tell about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

Q. Why doesn’t the book of Luke mention anything about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt?

None of the gospel writers are attempting to present a comprehensive account of Jesus’ life, like a modern biography. Rather, they are all selecting and arranging episodes from his life in order to accomplish particular purposes of their own.

Matthew, for example, wants to give particular emphasis to the way that the good news about Jesus is for people of every nation. And so, for example, he includes the account of the Magi coming from “the East” to worship Jesus, while the other writers do not. It makes sense that he would also include a description of how Jesus actually lived in another nation for a time.

Luke, for his part, is writing for educated Greeks within the Roman Empire, and so he includes a long account of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem during which one person after another comes up to Jesus to ask a question or pose a problem, and Jesus responds with divine wisdom. Most of the material that is unique to Luke is found within this journey section, and most of the material within the section is unique to Luke. So we can tell that he has included it with a particular purpose in mind, that of introducing Jesus to wisdom-seeking Greeks.

Luke may well have known about the journey to Egypt. Some of his material seems as if it could only have come from Mary, or at least from people who knew her and passed along her recollections. Those would of course have included the time in Egypt. But as I said, Luke is selecting and arranging his material for a particular purpose, and apparently he did not feel that it was  necessary for him to tell the story of the journey to Egypt to achieve that purpose.

Why did Jesus talk so much about the kingdom of God?

Q. Jesus seemed to talk a lot about the kingdom of God. Most biblical teachers seem to talk more about salvation and redemption. What is the difference and why does it matter?

You’re right that the kingdom of God was the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. When the gospel writers summarize his teaching, they say that Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'” Jesus typically began his parables by saying, “This is what the kingdom of God is like,” or, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” He described choosing to follow him as “entering the kingdom.” And so forth.

So what exactly is the kingdom of God? I believe that Jesus gave us a definition of it in the Lord’s Prayer when he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is, God’s kingdom is present on earth whenever and wherever God’s will is done as it is in heaven—without resistance. What I like to call “circles of warmth and light” emerge at various places and times as the followers of Jesus commit together to do God’s will eagerly and freely. This applies primarily to relationships: There is a shared commitment to treat others with the compassion, generosity, mercy, and love that Jesus taught us to have. This strengthens the bonds within the circle and draws others in.

Note, then, that in our day, the kingdom of God is primarily a community. Gordon Fee has described it as “the community that lives the life of the future in the present.” Followers of Jesus are called to live now in the way that one day everyone will live when Jesus’ reign is extended over the whole earth. Note as well how this contrasts with the emphases you mentioned, on “salvation” and “redemption.” Those things are typically envisioned in individual terms: You will go and live forever in God’s presence when you die; your sins have been forgiven; you can be set free from old patterns of life.

So how do these two approaches relate to one another? I’d say that Jesus is envisioning and teaching that people receive all of those individual benefits as a result of their participation in the new community. It welcomes and accepts them as an expression of how God has forgiven them. Together the followers of Jesus grow into maturity, stirring one another up to love and good works. Life in God’s presence begins within that “circle of warmth and light,” and it continues from there into all eternity.

We see, then, that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is larger than the emphases on individual salvation and redemption and that it encompasses them. So it should really be our starting point. The individual benefits are wonderful, but we don’t want to miss out on a recognition and appreciation of the larger community within which we actually receive those benefits and they become real in our lives.

What is God’s perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Q. What is God’s standard and perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Thank you for your question. It is one that I was asked many times, in one form or another, during my 25 years as a pastor. Let me share some of the insights that crystallized over those years.

First, we cannot automatically assume that God has a life partner for us. The New Testament is clear that for followers of Jesus, advancing the kingdom of God is primary, and everything else, including marriage, is secondary. So God will have a life partner for you if you will be able advance the kingdom better if married, but not if you can advance the kingdom better if single.

As Paul put it to the Corinthians after describing how being single gave him advantages for his own work for the kingdom, “I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another” (meaning either singleness or marriage). In other words, marriage is not the default, and singleness the exception, as some communities implicitly suggest, nor is singleness (celibacy) a higher state that more spiritual people should aspire to, as other communities seem to believe. Rather, both marriage and singleness are “special gifts” that God gives to each person as He sovereignly chooses.

The Greek word is actually charisma, “spiritual gift.” So our first task in seeking God’s perfect will is to become yielded and willing to live either as married or as single, as God should decide. God promises blessings to people in both states: “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”; “I want you to be free from worry; a man who is not married is busy with the Lord’s work, he is trying to please the Lord.”

Now it may be that, all things considered, you feel that God would want you to be married. As far as you can tell, you would be able to advance the kingdom of God better that way. In that case, I would still advise you not to go looking for someone to marry. Instead, work on becoming the kind of person that the kind of person you would want to marry would want to marry. And then trust God to bring the right life partner along in His own time and in His own way. It’s not up to you to find them. It’s up to you to be ready when God brings them into your life. You want them to be able to recognize you as the right life partner for them!

I have heard of cases where people felt they had spent sufficient time “becoming” like this and it was now time for God to bring a partner into their life. These people felt led into extraordinary seasons of prayer, sometimes with fasting. And in unexpected ways, many of them were connected with people who did become excellent life partners. So if you eventually feel that you have reached this point, then rely on prayer (perhaps with fasting) as your essential means of seeking God in the matter.

But another thing I’d say is that we need to be open to the unexpected. I’ve known people who very much wanted to be married, but no partner ever came into their lives, and over time they accepted the disappointment and bravely began to explore how they could serve God effectively as a single person. On the other hand, I have known people who were quite content being single and who felt that they had an effective ministry for God that way. But unexpectedly God brought someone into their life who they recognized would be an excellent life partner and give them an even greater ministry, in ways they couldn’t have thought of themselves. We have to leave it up to God to decide, and we need to trust that God knows best.

One clear standard in the New Testament is, “Only in the Lord.” (While these words are spoken specifically to widows about the question of remarriage, in the wider context of the New Testament they certainly apply to all believers.) In other words, anyone a follower of Jesus marries must also be a committed follower of Jesus. No one who is not a follower of Jesus can help you have a greater ministry for the kingdom of God than you would have without them.

In trying to recognize whether a person who has come into our lives is indeed the life partner God intends, we can rely, for one thing, on what is often described as “ordinary guidance.” That means the convergence of factors such as the teaching of Scripture, the advice of trusted counselors, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, what the circumstances permit, the God-given desires of our hearts, etc. I personally have found that our parents (if they are still living, or otherwise people who have become like parents to us in their stead) are given special insight into whether a given person would be a good life partner for us. My late wife and I had each resolved, before we became serious about one another, that we would not marry anyone without our parents’ blessing. I feel that this resolution served us very well. (Obviously we did receive the blessing of both sets of parents, or we wouldn’t have gotten married!) I also have to say that unfortunately I have seen people marry against their parents’ wishes and suffer greatly for it afterwards.

But beyond this “ordinary” guidance, I have noticed over the years that very many times people receive “extraordinary” guidance about who to marry. That form of guidance is a direct communication from God, so that you just know, perhaps without knowing how you know. I have seen this happen so frequently, in fact, that I have come to believe that God will often give such guidance precisely because the decision about who to marry is so important and has such a great impact on our entire life and future.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may God direct you into His perfect will in this matter for your life.