Why don’t Christians only have communion once a year?

Q. If Jesus had communion with his disciples as part of the once-yearly Passover meal, why do modern Christians usually have communion much more often (sometimes every week!)?

The observance of communion or the Lord’s Supper is based on more than the once-yearly Passover meal. It is true that the observance draws great meaning from its continuity with Passover, with Jesus seen as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” But the observance is also based on the fellowship offerings that are described in the Old Testament. Those were a frequent occasion for worship in the life of the Jewish community in the time of Jesus.

These fellowship offerings were understood to be a meal that was shared by the worshipers with God. Part of the animal whose meat provided the meal was completely burned up. That was God’s share. The person making the offering would share the rest with invited guests, the priests, and even with the poor. These offerings could be made in fulfillment of a vow, in thanks to God for help, or spontaneously (as a “freewill offering”) specifically in order to provide the occasion for such a shared meal.

We can see the analogy to communion, which is understood to be a meal shared with God. (Indeed, the word “communion” means basically the same thing as “fellowship.”) And since fellowship offerings were made frequently, it was natural for Jesus to tell his disciples at the Last Supper, when they were sharing the Passover meal, that he wanted them to re-enact the same observance whenever they ate together. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

So Jesus himself said to observe communion frequently, and his first followers understood that this was his intention. That being the case, perhaps the question should now be  why most Christians observe communion more than once a year. Instead, perhaps we should ask why most Christians do not observe communion even more often than weekly or monthly. There seems to be a case for Christians to have communion every time they gather together for a shared meal.

Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

Q. What was the meaning of leprosy in the Bible? Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

In the Bible, the term “leprosy” applies to a broader range of skin diseases than the one known by that name today (which is Hansen’s disease, a long-term bacterial infection). As a note to Leviticus 13:2 in the NIV explains, for example, the Hebrew term traditionally translated “leprosy” was actually used for a variety of diseases affecting the skin. These included conditions such as whitening or splotchy bleaching, raised scales, boils, scabs, and so forth.

The law of Moses does seem to impose some harsh requirements on people who have such skin diseases. It says, for example, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

We should understand, however, that these regulations served to prevent the spread of such diseases. While we can appreciate how difficult it was for those who had the diseases themselves to be identified and isolated in this way, these measures protected the community as a whole. It has been noted that during outbreaks of leprosy in Europe in the Middle Ages, Jewish communities had a much lower incidence of the disease than others because they followed these regulations in the law of Moses.

We should also note that the term “unclean” is not moral a term. Rather, it refers to the absence of a state of ceremonial cleanness. In Leviticus, that state is closely connected with the boundaries of the human body. When those boundaries are not intact or when they are broken by something going in or out, there is a temporary loss of ceremonial cleanness. That is why, for example, people become unclean by eating the wrong kinds of food (because they bring them inside the boundaries of their bodies) and why a woman becomes temporarily unclean after giving birth (her child has gone from inside to outside the boundaries of her body). Similarly, when the skin is broken by a disease, the outer boundary of the body is no longer intact.

So we should not see the isolation required of people with skin diseases as reflecting any kind of moral stigma. The hope was that they would recover from the disease as soon as possible and be restored to the community. Leviticus has just as much to say about the cleansing and restoration of a person who recovers from a skin disease as it has to say about the necessary isolation of such a person while they have the disease.

And as is the case generally for issues that trouble us in the Bible, we see the heart of God regarding the issue reflected ultimately in the character and actions of Jesus Christ, who is the culmination of God’s revelation to us. Jesus did not stigmatize or condemn people who had skin diseases. Instead, this is how he responded, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” So in the process of restoring the man to health and ceremonial cleanness, Jesus reached across the isolation and touched the man, showing that God’s desire for anyone in such a situation is healing and restoration to community.

If we sin and ask forgiveness, is God our friend again?

Q. If we sin and ask forgiveness, is God our friend again?

I do believe I can reassure you that if we genuinely recognize and acknowledge that something we have said or done is wrong, a sin against God, and if we ask God to forgive us, God not only forgives us, based on what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, but God also restores our relationship to him.

Sin does create a break in our relationship with God. We relate to God as creature to Creator, as child to Heavenly Father, and ideally, as you have suggested, as friend to friend. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

However, just before Jesus said that, he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” So obedience to God is consistent with friendship with God, and disobedience to God is inconsistent with friendship with God. It breaks that relationship. However, repenting, confessing, and receiving forgiveness  restore that friendship, particularly if we make it our resolve to obey in the future where we have disobeyed in the past.

We should bear in mind that it is God who takes the initiative in cultivating a friendship with us. God is the one who sent Jesus to save us so that we could be restored to relationship with him as his children and friends. God is also the one who sends the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin so that we will repent, confess, and ask forgiveness. So we should not be wondering whether God still wants to be friends with us. Instead, we should respond gratefully to God’s initiative to create and preserve the friendship by confessing and forsaking our sins and then eagerly embracing God’s offer of continuing friendship.

Is every marriage ordained?

Q. Is every marriage ordained?

I understand you to be asking whether we can be confident that if two people are married, this is because God wanted them to be married and arranged their lives and circumstances so that they would get married.

I don’t believe we can necessarily have that confidence in the case of people who make their plans and decisions without regard to God. But I would hope that every marriage between two followers of Jesus Christ is one that the husband and wife each entered into as a matter of obedience to God’s leading. I believe that God shows two such people that they can have a greater influence for his purposes together than they could separately and that he is calling them to enter into both the joys and challenges of marriage for that purpose.

Of course people who get married are excited about each other, very much in love, and eager to be married. So we don’t always think of getting married as a matter of obedience to God. But I believe that must be the foundation. If it is, it will help the couple make it through difficult times and grow together into a deep, rich, happy relationship that is a blessing to them and to those around them.

So I do believe that God “ordains” marriages in the sense of leading two people of faith to recognize that his will for them is to enter into marriage as a life partnership to advance his purposes, and at the same time to experience the many joys of sharing life together.

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.