Shouldn’t Uriah have gone home to be with his wife?

Q. I have a question about 2 Samuel 11, but not about the behavior of David or Bathsheba. My question is about the behavior of Uriah. He is often seen as heroic, manly, virtuous because he does not spend the night at home with his wife but sleeps with the servants as a show of solidarity with the troops who are still on the front. Certainly as a soldier he has a commitment to the troops. But as a husband, he also has a commitment to his wife. I think his behavior is not all that commendable. We all face competing competing commitments, obligations, etc. when they all seem worthy. How do we sort out the correct choice?

I will address your question about sorting out competing commitments, but I would like to observe first that one possibility we do need to consider in this passage is that Uriah knew about David’s crime against his wife Bathsheba, or that he at least suspected it. If that is true, then he would also have recognized that by arranging for his return to Jerusalem, David was trying to make it appear that he (Uriah, not David), was the father of the child Bathsheba was expecting. We can then understand all of Uriah’s behavior as something he pursued in order to prevent that false appearance. He was not neglecting his wife, he was preventing a coverup.

Bathsheba could have sent word to Uriah, just as she did to David, that she was pregnant with David’s child. Or one of the many servants in the palace who knew what happened could have told Uriah when he arrived. Or Uriah might just have found the circumstances of his recall to Jerusalem a bit too suspicious. I am not an expert on ancient military practices, but it seems to me from what I read in the Bible that a warrior champion such as Uriah (he was one of “The Thirty,” David’s mighty warriors) would not ordinarily have been sent from the front just to provide a report on how a campaign was going. That was the work of messengers. Fighting in those days centered around these warrior champions, so it seems to me that it would have been unusual to send one of them away from the front during an active campaign. I may be wrong about that, but in any event I think there are grounds to believe that Uriah knew or suspected what David had done to Bathsheba, and so by staying away from home, he was preventing David from creating the impression that the child Bathsheba was expecting was his.

However, your question also deserves an answer on the premise that Uriah did not know or suspect anything about what had happened. Could we still commend his behavior under those circumstances? I think we could.

Each one of us needs to strike a balance between our competing commitments. For example, we should not neglect our families for our work, but at the same time we need to meet the reasonable obligations of our work and not fail to meet those because we are spending time with family and friends when we really should be working. And the balance that we strike needs to be sustainable. That is, it needs to be something that ordinarily holds for the long term.

However, from time to time there will also be extraordinary circumstances that call for us to make an exception to the usual arrangements. For example, to honor his responsibilities both to his family and to his church, a man might commit to arranging his work schedule so that he is, as a rule, free every Wednesday evening to participate in a home group that his church sponsors. But what if, one week, there is a project at work that requires his participation, is vital to the company’s success, and has a deadline that can only be met if he works late into the evening that Wednesday? Under those circumstances, he could miss the group that week, and that in itself would not throw his competing commitments out of balance. If that happened every week, it would be a problem. But if he were back in the group the next week and the weeks that followed, this would be seen as a genuine and legitimate exception.

I think we could understand Uriah’s actions in this light. For all he knew, he was being sent back to Jerusalem on an overnight mission to give a quick report on the campaign and then return to the front. (It was David who extended the visit to two nights in an effort to make Uriah look like the father of the baby.) Under those circumstances, it seems, Uriah felt that his commitment was to his fellow troops and that he needed to show solidarity with them. If he never went home to his wife, even when the army was not in the field, that would be a different matter. But I think that under these exceptional circumstances (and I believe they certainly would have seemed exceptional to Uriah), we can give him the benefit of the doubt for honoring the commitment that he felt needed to take priority at the time.

Since the sun, moon, and stars will cease to shine, will Israel cease to be a nation before God?

Q. God said through Jeremiah: This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night … Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.” But there are many portions of Scripture that say that the sun, moon, and stars someday will cease to shine. So, my question is, when will Israel cease from being a nation? Can you help me understand the context and time frame in which this will happen, assuming it will happen? 

Personally I would not connect what God says through Jeremiah in this passage with the larger question of how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. I believe that God is speaking here to the Israelites within the context of their own lives and experience. And within that experience, the sun, moon, and stars effectively will not cease to shine. And so God is able to appeal to their endless duration (endless from a human perspective) as a guarantee for the promises he is making.

This statement comes within a longer passage whose overall concern is the return of the Israelites from exile. It begins: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.” The concern at the time was that Israel would indeed cease to be a nation: Its exiled people would be dispersed throughout large empires, they would never return home, and their identity would be lost. God is promising that that will never happen, and to guarantee that promise, he is appealing to something else that, within the framework of the people’s experience, would never happen either. This approach is sometimes described as “divine condescension,” with the word “condescension” not used in a negative sense, but to mean that God graciously and generously relates to us within the context of our own experience.

I think there is a comparable example in Psalm 72. That psalm is a prayer for the king of Israel, perhaps meant to be offered for each new king as he takes the throne. It says, in part: “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. … May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” Clearly this reference to the sun and the moon is not meant to specify a time period of limited duration on the basis that the sun and moon will not endure forever. After all, the poetic parallel to that reference is “through all generations.” Instead, this is the equivalent of the expression we see in several other places in the Bible, “May the king live forever!” The reference is just being made within the framework of an earthly perspective.

So what God really wanted to say through Jeremiah to the Israelites was that they would not be dispersed in exile at that time and lose their identity as a nation. God was promising, in terms they could understand, that he would never let that happen. And he did not. God brought them back from exile and re-established them in the same land in which they had been living. From there, God fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah, Jesus.

As I said at the beginning, I feel it is a separate question how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, give different answers to that question, and there would not be room in this post even to give a brief sketch of the range and scope of those answers. But I think we can say with assurance both that God will fulfill all of his covenant promises to Israel and that God wants the community of the redeemed to be “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

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What is the difference between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Apocrypha?

Q. Are the Dead Sea Scrolls the same as the apocryphal books missing from the King James Bible? If not, what are the differences between the two?

The Dead Sea Scrolls are not the same thing as the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha is a group of books that were written in Greek within the Jewish community in the centuries before Christ. Those books are distinct from the Old Testament because they were written in Greek, not Hebrew, and they are distinct from the New Testament because they were written before Christ came, not after. So there is something about them that sets them apart as different from the books that all Christians accept as inspired Scripture. As a result, Christians hold differing beliefs about how authoritative they are. All Christians agree that they are valuable and edifying to read. But not all Christians consider them to be the inspired word of God. For a fuller discussion of this, please see this post.

The term Dead Sea Scrolls refers to a specific set of manuscripts (that is, handwritten copies of certain works) found in an area near the Dead Sea. Many of these are manuscripts of books that are in the Old Testament. Others are manuscripts of books that are part of the Apocrypha. Still other manuscripts are of books that only a few communities of Christians accept as Scriptural. (I discuss several of those books in this post.) There are also a few manuscripts relating to the specific beliefs and practices of the community whose members created these handwritten manuscripts.

So there is something of an overlap between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Apocrypha, in the sense that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are manuscripts of books in the Apocrypha. But the Apocrypha is basically a group of books that exists in very many copies, while the Dead Sea Scrolls are one set of copies of certain books, some of which are books of the Apocrypha.

Incidentally, when the King James Bible was first published in 1611, it did contain the Apocrypha because it was produced by the Church of England, which accepted the Apocrypha as Scriptural. But as other communities have reprinted the King James Bible over the centuries, many of them have left out the Apocrypha because they do not consider it Scriptural.

I hope this information is helpful.

Why did Jesus explain his parables only to his disciples and not to others who may have had open hearts?

Q. In response to a previous question, you said, “Parables were the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ purposes because they either reveal or conceal the message, depending on the state of a person’s heart. They reveal the truth to those who are open to it, but conceal it from those who aren’t ready for it yet.”

The disciples’ hearts were obviously open to Jesus’ teachings, and Jesus definitely knew that, and he explained the parables to them in private. However, there could also have been people in the crowd who had open hearts, i.e. their state of mind was open, and they were willing to listen. Nevertheless, because they were not Jesus’ disciples, they didn’t have the chance to hear Jesus’ elaboration.

I have been thinking about this for a while now … is it because Jesus “had plans” for those non-disciples to understand the same truth some other time via some other means? Would appreciate if you could help me understand. Thanks.

Let me say two things in response to your question.

First, when we see the expression “the disciples,” we shouldn’t necessarily understand that to mean only the twelve disciples whom Jesus chose to be apostles. That is the meaning in some places in the gospels, but in other places the word “disciples” refers to anyone who was following Jesus closely in order to understand his message and live by it. For example, when Luke introduces what is known as the Sermon on the Plain, he says, “A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” So Luke distinguishes between “his disciples” and the others who came to hear on this occasion, and the disciples were a “large crowd.”

The word “disciples” also means more than just the twelve apostles in the episode you are asking about, in which Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower. Matthew says that after Jesus told this parable, “The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?'” Luke says similarly, “His disciples asked him what this parable meant.” But Mark elaborates a bit more about who these “disciples” were: “When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.” So I think we should understand that in this case, as likely in other cases, anyone with an open heart could remain after the teaching and listen in on the explanation.

The second thing I would say in response to your question is that the people who heard these explanations and elaborations from Jesus did not treat them as something they were supposed to keep to themselves. They shared them with others. That is how the explanations got to be included in the gospels: They became part of the oral tradition that was handed down to later generations from those who saw and heard Jesus, which provided the content of the gospels. And I would say that the “disciples” (probably a large number) who heard these explanations got the impression from Jesus himself that they were supposed to share them with anyone who had an open heart and mind.

So even in Jesus’ own time, the explanations would have fanned out by word of mouth into the crowds for open-hearted people to hear, and down through the years they would have circulated ever more widely. Now that they are part of the Bible, they have gone around the world. So Jesus himself set in motion the process that has made these explanations available to anyone, anywhere who truly wants to understand and obey.

How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

Q. How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

I’m not sure whether you mean this question in the sense of daily matters of obedience or in the sense of a life “calling” (that is, a vocation). But I will answer it in the first sense and then say how the answer applies to the second sense as well.

Ideally, we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus by developing a close relationship with him through prayer, worship, devotion, and obedience. There is an analogy that Jesus himself gave that I find very helpful. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” He said that after explaining in general terms about a shepherd: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” So the ideal is to learn to recognize the voice of Jesus so that we know enough to follow him when we hear him speaking, and we also know enough to run away from what opposing voices are telling us.

But this is a process that takes time, and there are things that can help us along the way. I think it is accurate and helpful to expect that a number of factors will converge to show us how God is leading us. In addition to the way we may have a sense of God speaking to us, these factors include what God says in the Scriptures; the advice we receive from wise, trusted advisors; what the circumstances permit (“open doors” vs. “closed doors”); the godly desires of our own hearts; the fact that we find we are yielded and willing to obey God about something—to have it, not to have it, or to wait; a sense of peace about it; and a recognition that it will require faith and that God is giving us the faith to believe for it. When many such factors converge to point in a direction that we sense the voice of Jesus is also indicating, then we can reasonably proceed in that direction, believing that he is guiding us that way.

But we should always be open to continual refinement of our understanding. We need to learn from experience. If it turns out that somehow we got the wrong sense of what God wanted us to do, then we need to think about how that happened and learn from it for the next time. There is a learning curve here. But it is also an adventure of walking by faith with a loving God who will reward us for our desire to hear and obey his voice, not punish us for hearing imperfectly while we are learning.

All of these principles apply to God’s guidance about a life “calling” or vocation. Vocation includes our paid work or profession, but it also includes our relationships, the ministry we have in our church, volunteer and leisure-time activities, and so forth. It is the “whole package” of life, but it does center around certain key decision such as what work to do and where, and what our primary relationships will be. The main difference between guidance about this and about daily obedience is that vocational guidance unfolds over time, as the result of much exploration. So you should still study the Scriptures, pray, seek godly counsel, understand the desires of your heart, and so forth. But you should just expect that you will need to find your way over time into your vocation; it’s unlikely that one day God will suddenly announce the whole picture to you.

Here are a couple of questions that are usually helpful for people exploring what their vocations should be.

  • What would you do if you could do anything in the world, if money were no obstacle and assuming that you could get any education or training you might need for it? Those limitations might actually be there, but answering this question helps you know what direction to head in.
  • What can you “not not” do? Most people can do a number of things well. But there is one thing, or a related cluster of things, that they just can’t help doing, no matter where they are. That points very clearly in the direction of God’s vocation for their lives. So don’t ask, “What can I do?” Ask, “What can I not not do?”

I hope these reflections are helpful, and may you find yourself able to hear more and more clearly all the time what Jesus is calling you to do.

How can we show that Jesus did not mean literally that we should cut off offending hands and pluck out offending eyes?

Q. How can we show that Jesus did not mean that we should literally pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands but meant it figuratively when he said that?

This is an excellent question, because it helps demonstrate that we cannot just take statements in the Bible and follow them literally without considering their literary and cultural context. When we do consider the context of the statements you are asking about, we realize that Jesus was following the practice of rabbis in his day and using overstatement for emphasis. (This is the rhetorical device known as “hyperbole.”) So the historical context is that Jesus was teaching the way Jewish rabbis did, and the immediate literary context is that rabbis used overstatement or exaggeration as a teaching tool. The goal behind the use of that tool was to provoke further reflection.

Beyond this, the broader literary context of any individual statement in the Bible is the Bible as a whole. Every statement needs to be understood within that broader context, which is sometimes called the “whole counsel of God.”

So let us consider the statements you are asking about. In the Sermon on the Mount, speaking about temptations to sin, Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

One thing we can say about this right away is that if it is taken literally, it goes against the emphasis that we find all through the Bible on human wholeness and well-being. It also goes against the further emphasis that temptations to sin arise from within a person, from their desires, and that it is those desires that really need to be addressed and transformed. So the “whole counsel of God” suggests that Jesus did not mean for us to take these statements literally.

Rather, they are designed to provoke reflection that will lead us to understand the true source of temptations. “If it is, in fact, your eye that is causing you to sin, then pluck it out, if you really want to be free from sin. But if you would not do that, then you are acknowledging that it is actually not your eye that is causing you to sin, it is your desires, so you need to deal with those.” The logic is the same with the hand.

We see Jesus using overstatement in other teachings as well. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Basically, it’s impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But Jesus is not saying it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. He is illustrating how very difficult that is for people to do that if they make riches their priority. “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” No parent would give a stone to a child who asked for food. This is another extreme illustration that Jesus used to make a point, in this case that God wants to give good things to us, his children.

So the whole gospel record of Jesus’ life and teachings show that he was a rabbi who used overstatement. We have every reason to understand what he said about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands as overstatements designed to provoke reflection on the true source of temptation, particularly when we consider these statements in light of the “whole counsel of God” in the Bible.

Who recorded the conversations that took place while the disciples were asleep?

Q, If the disciples were asleep during the Transfiguration (Luke 9:32), then who heard and recorded the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:31)? The same for Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). There Jesus repeatedly found the disciples asleep, so who heard and recorded his prayers? Perhaps Jesus simply told them later on what had happened on both occasions, or the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel writers to know—but I would like to hear what you think!

I don’t think we need to posit that the Holy Spirit revealed these details supernaturally to the gospel writers after the fact. I think that one of the wonders of the Bible is that it was produced through the ordinary process of literary composition (just as it speaks through ordinary human language), and yet we recognize that God worked through that process to give us his word. Luke, for example, tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he carefully researched all of the materials in it. He was not dependent on divine revelation for the details.

So how do we explain the records in the gospels of conversations that Jesus had that took place while the disciples were asleep? I think that if we look at those records carefully, we will see that the disciples could have heard what Jesus was saying, or that Jesus would have had reason to tell them what he had been saying, even if the gospels don’t say that specifically.

The gospels tell us that when Jesus went to Gethsemane with his disciples, he left the main group of them and brought Peter, James, and John with him to another part of the garden to pray. Luke tells us that he then went a short distance from them (a “stone’s throw,” about 50 feet) to pray by himself, but he asked them to be praying along with him.

The book of Hebrews indicates that Jesus prayed aloud, loud enough to be heard from that distance. Speaking of his sufferings, it says, “During his earthly life, he offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The author of Hebrews acknowledges not being an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus but having learned about Jesus from those who had heard and seen him. But somehow this tradition about what happened in the garden was passed on down to followers of Jesus. If we connect the dots, we can conclude that from 50 feet away, the disciples could well have been able to hear the “loud cries” of Jesus as he prayed.

Jesus prayed longer and more fervently than these three disciples, so that when he returned to them he found them asleep, but that does not mean that they fell asleep the minute he left them and heard nothing the whole time Jesus was away. A further possibility is that the gospels are only giving us a brief summary of what Jesus said when he returned and found the disciples asleep, and that he may actually have told them what he had been praying. It would have been natural for him to do that. The gospels don’t record him doing that, but we can infer that this is a possibility from the fact that what he was praying became known. So one way or the other, I don’t think we need to posit divine revelation to the gospel writers of what Jesus was praying.

The case of the Transfiguration is similar. Luke relates how Jesus brought Peter, James, and John with him up onto a mountain. He then tells how Jesus’ appearance and clothing changed and became gloriously bright, and how Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus “about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (that is, about his coming sufferings, death, and resurrection). Luke then notes that “Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.” I think we should understand this to mean that they had more than a momentary glimpse, because Luke records that Peter spoke about making shelters only “as the men were leaving Jesus.” So I think we should understand that these three disciples were able to observe the glory of Jesus and hear his conversation with Moses and Elijah for some time, long enough to know what they were talking about.

I hope these observations help answer your question. Thank you.

Is God’s “wrath” toward people who reject Jesus consistent with God’s love?

Q. It says in the Gospel of John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” Some argue that this is not consistent with the message of love that God has has toward all his creation.

Actually, it is rejecting Jesus that is not consistent with God’s message of love for his whole creation. Jesus came bringing a message of love and reconciliation between people and between people and God. To reject that message is to go contrary to God’s intentions as announced by his Son Jesus.

How should God respond to people who do that? The term “wrath” certainly does indicate divine displeasure and even anger. We can understand why God would feel that way towards people who do not want love and reconciliation. But “wrath” also refers to God enforcing the consequences of the choices that people make. If people persist in rejecting Jesus and his message, then we can see how God would ultimately give them what they are insisting on and leave them in a place of alienation from God and others. This is not inconsistent with God’s purposes. It is God upholding his purposes by making sure that those who reject them do not interfere with them.

But I think we always need to keep in mind that in such cases, the choice to reject Jesus and remain alienated from God and others is one that people make themselves. The Bible tells us that God is very patient with people because he does not want anyone to perish. Instead, he wants everyone to come to repentance.

So we should not read the statement you’re asking about and think that it means God is just waiting for people to say one thing against Jesus so that he can pour out his wrath on them. God gives people every opportunity, right up to the last moment, to believe in Jesus rather than reject him. (Consider, for example, how God used Saul of Tarsus, a former bitter enemy of Jesus and his followers, to spread the message of Jesus as the apostle Paul.) So I would say that everything in the statement you’re asking about depicts God upholding his loving purposes, not working against them.

Was Jesus born again?

Q. How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was born again? If he wasn’t, what about his statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”?

(What does it mean to be born again? And what is “circumcision of the heart,” which Paul speaks of in Romans? How would you respond to someone who asked whether Jesus was circumcised of the heart?)

If we think of being “born again” as having a certain experience, then Jesus was not “born again” in that sense, but that is only because he did not need to have that experience. We should think instead of being “born again” as entering into a certain kind of relationship with God, and Jesus was always in that kind of relationship with God throughout his life.

Specifically, when people realize that they have sinned against God and that this has made them alienated from God, and when they are sorry for their sins and ask forgiveness, God not only forgives them but also gives them a new life. The Holy Spirit comes to live inside of them and gives them the power to resist sin and live in the way that God wants. They are no longer in a situation where they are powerless to keep from sinning. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) This is what it means to be “born again.”

But Jesus did not sin, and he was not alienated from God, so he did not have to go through that process in order to be in the kind of relationship with God that results from the process. So he was not “born again” in the sense of the process, but he was “born again” in the sense of the result. In addition, that Greek expression can also be translated “born from above” (perhaps it is even meant to have both meanings). And Jesus certainly was “born from above.” In a mysterious way that we do not understand, which the Bible itself describes in figurative language, Jesus’ mother Mary was enable to conceive as a virgin and the true father of Jesus was God. So Jesus was indeed “born from above,” and the Greek phrase that is also translated “born again” definitely applies to him.

When Paul speaks in Romans of “circumcision of the heart,” he is describing the same process and result that Jesus was describing when he spoke of being “born again” or “born from above.” Paul says that “circumcision of the heart” is “by the Spirit, not by the written code.” In other words, it is not physical circumcision as prescribed by the law of Moses. It is something that the Holy Spirit brings about inside of us. Just as physical circumcision indicated membership in the covenant community under the law of Moses, so this spiritual circumcision shows that a person belongs to the new covenant community that God inaugurated with the coming of Jesus.

In other words, a person who has been “born again” has also experienced “circumcision of the heart.” So the same things I said about Jesus in the first case would apply in the second case. He was always in the relationship with God that would result from the process that can be described with either phrase.