Touching a leper did not make Jesus unclean; was that because he was God?

Q. Jesus healed a leper by touching him. According to the law of Moses, that contact with a leper should have rendered Jesus ceremonially unclean. But he was not defiled. Instead, this contact purified the diseased man. Is that because Jesus is God?

Here is the episode you are asking about, from the gospel of Matthew: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before Jesus, saying, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Stretching out his hand, Jesus touched him, saying, ‘I am willing, be clean!’ Immediately the man was cleansed of his leprosy.”

As I have discussed in other posts on this blog (such as this one and this one), Jesus was able to do the remarkable things he did on earth not because he was God (though he was indeed God), but because he was fully yielded to God and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In that way Jesus sets an example for us and offers a challenge to us, to be equally yielded and empowered and to do great things in his name.

So if it was not because Jesus was God that he did not become unclean by touching the leper, why, then, did Jesus not become unclean? I think the answer lies in the nature of God’s acts. When God does something, at what point is it accurate to say that he has done it? When we see the actual results on earth? Or when God declares that it is his purpose for something to be?

When Jesus healed the leper, this was a “performative action,” that is, an action that was “performed” by speaking. It was along the same lines as when Ephron the Hittite said to Abraham, “I hereby give you the field,” meaning that by virtue of saying that, he was transferring the field to Abraham.

The Greek text of the episode we are discussing makes clear (by using a present participle) that Jesus said “I am willing, be clean!” as he was stretching out his hand to touch the leper. So Jesus touched the leper not in order to heal and cleanse him but in order to affirm that the leper had been healed and cleansed and could now be restored to human community. (Jesus sets a further example for us here by being concerned not just for the man’s physical health but also for his restoration to warm human relationships.)

Matthew relates that the leper was cleansed “immediately” when Jesus made this declaration and touched him. That is, all traces of the disease disappeared from his body. But this was the manifestation of what was already true as soon as Jesus declared it.

I think there is a devotional application here for all of us: What things has God declared about us that are in the process of being manifested? How can we cooperate with that manifestation process?

Do we have to be even more righteous than very good people in order to go to heaven?

Q. I have been troubled by what Jesus says in Mathew 5:20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Of course I want to do what is righteous, but as humans we all fall short. I always thought we were saved and would join Jesus in heaven by His grace and that His sacrifice is enough if we invite him into our life. And yet there seem to be stipulations. 

Jesus made the statement you are asking about not to specify stipulations but to correct a misunderstanding. He introduces it by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” It appears that some people were misunderstanding Jesus’ emphasis on loving God and neighbor as the fulfillment of the law to mean that people no longer needed to measure their conduct by the law and conform to it. Some people apparently thought that Jesus was saying they could now do whatever they wanted. So Jesus was correcting that wrong impression.

However, Jesus was nevertheless not making a prescriptive statement but a descriptive one. While he made the statement negatively, it has a positive meaning. Jesus was saying, in effect, “If you will enter the kingdom of heaven, then your righteousness will surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.” He meant that loving God and neighbor would result in people fulfilling the law even more perfectly than scrupulous observance. These results would come specifically through the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. (The apostle Paul explains this well in his letters.)

And the expectation is not that a believer in Jesus will immediately be transformed and start fulfilling the law completely through loving obedience to God. Jesus also told parables comparing the kingdom of God, in the world and in a believer’s life, to seeds growing and yeast rising. In other words, Jesus used examples of slow, organic growth to describe the progress of God’s work. And that is what we should be looking for: growth, progress, in obedience. If we see that and recognize it as the effects of the Holy Spirit’s influence through our faith in Jesus, we can be encouraged that we will indeed enter the kingdom of heaven.

Does the Bible say that we should or shouldn’t cross ourselves?

Q. Is there anywhere in the Bible that says we should or shouldn’t cross ourselves? Or is there an example where someone may have crossed themselves? Or is there anything in the Bible that’s supports me crossing myself? By crossing ourselves, I mean the expression of the Holy Trinity, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thanks for any help.

The Bible does not say that believers in Jesus should or should not cross themselves. The Bible does not depict anyone crossing himself or herself. However, the activity falls into a category that the Bible provides very clear teaching about.

I refer to activities in this category as “insignia.” They are things that we do to signify that we belong to God. Further examples would include wearing a cross on a necklace or pin, wearing a WWJD bracelet, refraining from certain activities on Sundays, abstaining from certain foods or drinks, or calling fellow believers “brother” and “sister.”

In the Old Testament, insignia were required. God told the Israelites, for example, to eat certain foods and not to eat other foods. This was a way of showing that they belonged to him. He said in Leviticus that they must “make a distinction between clean and unclean animals,” that is, between those they could eat and those they could not eat, because “I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”

Similarly God told the Israelites to observe the seventh day of the week as a day of rest on which they would do no work. He said in Exodus, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come.”

But the people of God in the New Testament are not a single nation that God has set apart from all the other nations as a model of how God wants people to live. The people of God are now a multinational community. There are still insignia in a sense: The character qualities that the Holy Spirit builds into the life of each believer are a sign that that believer is living as part of a community that belongs to God. Jesus said of love, the supreme character quality that underlies all the others, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

But the people of God now follow a wide variety of cultural practices, so insignia of the Old Testament type have become a matter of personal conviction. They are not required, and they are not forbidden. Rather, the principle is, as Paul wrote in the case of Sabbath observance, “Each person should be fully convinced in his or her own mind” that it is appropriate either to participate in the insignia activity or not to participate in it. The New Testament says the same thing about some other specific activities such as eating or not eating certain foods and drinking or not drinking wine. These specific teachings express the general principle I have described.

The same principle would apply to crossing oneself. If you are comfortable doing that as a non-verbal form of prayer (perhaps accompanying verbal prayers, spoken or silent) or as an act of worship (upon entering a sanctuary, for example) or as a way of identifying yourself as a follower of Jesus, then you are perfectly free to do so. But you are not required to do so. If you belong to a particular group of believers who have agreed among themselves to follow this practice, while it would still not be required biblically, you would probably want to follow the same practice yourself as a shared devotional expression with the believers with whom you are in closest fellowship.

Let me finish by sharing a story. I customarily bow my head and give thanks silently to God before a meal. One day when I was in college, I wanted to do this in the dining hall, but I also didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for anyone who might not understand what I was doing. So I waited until everyone else at the table was otherwise occupied. Then I briefly bowed my head, closed my eyes, and said grace. When I lifted my head and opened my eyes, the girl sitting across from me was looking right at me. She asked, “No … ?” and made the sign of crossing herself. “No,” I replied somewhat awkwardly, “I’m not …” and made the same sign myself. I learned from the experience that crossing oneself actually is something that most people understand and are comfortable with!

If God wants a relationship with me, then why doesn’t God speak to me or answer my prayers?

Q. If God wants a relationship with us, then why does He hide from us? God’s silence and absence, not to mention zero prayers answered, are giant stumbling blocks for me. Blocks that only God can remove. Thanks and God bless you, in Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

Let me say first that I sympathize deeply with your situation. I am sorry for the frustration, disappointment, and sense of abandonment that I hear you expressing. As a pastor, I had occasion to counsel with others in similar situations, and I have seen how painful it is and how challenging it is to continue to have faith when God seems absent.

But next let me share an observation. I have been catching up on the questions that were submitted to this blog during the time when I was unable to respond to them, and I note with interest that the other question I answered today, about the ways in which God speaks to us, arrived right around the same time as yours. I hope you appreciate that I don’t say this in any way unsympathetic to your situation, but I wonder whether the other question might have some bearing on yours. Specifically, might you be expecting God to speak to you in a certain way, and while God may not be speaking in that way, might God be speaking to you in some other way? I suggest this respectfully and hopefully for your consideration.

Beyond that, I would also suggest that you could see God as present and speaking through the very desire you feel for God to be present and speak to you. You could see that desire itself as an expression of God’s work in your heart and life. I hope that is also a hopeful thought.

I admire your acknowledgement that in the end, you must and do depend on God himself to resolve the difficulties you are experiencing. It has been said that simply in order to ask a question, we need to know at least part of the answer. And I think you ask your question, honestly and painfully, out of an awareness that God does indeed want to have a relationship with us. I hope you will see that awareness as well as something that God has given to you.

I also hope that you have Christian friends who can walk through this struggle with you and compassionate church leaders whom you can confide in and who will counsel with you. Personally I get from your question not a sense of hopelessness but a sense of hopefulness. I hear someone speaking who deeply desires a relationship with God and who is depending on God to remove everything in the way of that. May you indeed find that God grants this desire and brings you to a place of peace and joy in experiencing his presence and hearing him speak to you.

Does God speak to us today, and if so, how?

 Q. Does God speak to us today? How does God speak to us? Is it through the Bible or can he speak to us through our thoughts? Nature? Others? Thank you. Any tips of how to hear Him better would be appreciated and helpful. Thank you.

I believe that God does still speak to people today, and I think that in your question you have described several of the ways in which God does that.

God does speak to us through his written word, the Bible, and if we want to hear from God, we should read the Bible regularly, meditate on it (that is, ask what it means in the context of our own lives), memorize it, and discuss it with others.

But I believe that God also speaks to us in other ways. For one thing, as you suggest, God can speak to us through his creation. In the beauty and harmony of creation we experience something of the character of God. As the Bible itself says, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But beyond that, I know many people who have come back from an experience of being out in God’s creation with a better sense of what they should do about something. In a way that I cannot entirely explain, they heard from God. As the old hymn says, “In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.”

I believe that God also speaks to us internally. This can happen through strong and clear impressions that we realize intuitively are from God. I think this is actually a learned ability. Through experience—from being both right and wrong about this at various times—we learn how to recognize God’s voice. I once preached a sermon entitled, “Can You Hear God When He Whispers?” That is what I’m talking about here.

I believe that God also guides us through the godly desires that he develops in us. I know people who have found on various occasions that a desire for something has grown in them just before an opportunity to do that thing has presented itself. In this case as well we need to develop discernment. We need to be able to tell whether God is indeed using the desire to speak to us and encourage us to take the opportunity. But I think this is nevertheless another means that God uses.

As also you suggest, I believe that God can speak to us through other people. We may go to someone whose godly wisdom we trust and ask their advice. Or someone may simply say something to us that has a certain ring to it, behind which we may discern God speaking.

God even speaks to us through our dreams. While I would say that most dreams are simply our brains processing things that have happened in recent days, in some cases, a dream has a special vividness and immediacy to it that help us recognize that God is speaking to us through it.

I imagine that other means could be listed as well. But for any of these means to work, we need to be able to hear God speaking through them, and that requires being able to recognize his voice. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” By this he meant, “My followers recognize my voice and do what I tell them.” The more readily we obey what we do hear from God, the more able we will become to hear further things from God, in a greater variety of ways.

I think that God will use just about any means to speak to us and give us direction, encouragement, warning, and affection. So we can and should be watching and listening for that. Our part is to cultivate the ability to recognize God’s voice and especially to obey what we hear God telling us.

Should the Bible be read and studied in the order it was written?

Q. Should the Bible be read and studied in the order it was written? I’ve just gotten back into reading and studying. I’ve read Deuteronomy, then the first three gospels, then Genesis. Also use Zondervan study guide. Wondering what to read next?

One problem with trying to read the biblical books in the order in which they were written is that we aren’t exactly sure what that order was. For example, some interpreters believe that Joel was the earliest prophetic books, while other interpreters believe it was the last one written! We have a good idea of when the events described in the Bible took place, but we aren’t always sure when the books that relate those events were written.

As a whole, the Bible tells one continuous story, from the first creation to the new creation. If you read the books of the Bible in the order that has become customary since the advent of printing (most Bibles published these days present them in that order), you will read this story roughly in order from Genesis through Esther, hear about various parts of it again, at many points not in chronological order, from Job through Malachi, and then get the rest of the story in the New Testament.

However, many people find this approach difficult because the narrative of the story is frequently interrupted at length by other genres such as law and genealogy. The typical person who tries to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation gives up somewhere in Leviticus!

So I would not recommend reading the biblical books for the first time either in their customary order or in the order in which they were written, to the extent we can determine that. Rather, I would follow the principle, “Understand the whole from the parts, and then understand the parts in light of the whole,” beginning with the parts that can be understood most readily. I would encourage anyone who was reading the Bible for the first time to start with the gospel of John. Jesus is the center and the climax of the biblical story, and John’s gospel introduces him in a way intended to be accessible to people everywhere. From there you might read Luke and Acts, which together give an overview of most of the New Testament period. Then you could read some of the shorter letters, such as Philemon, James, Jude, 1 and 2 Peter, and 1, 2, and 3 John. After that you could take on some of the more challenging books, such as Revelation and Paul’s longer letters, picking up the other two gospels, Mark and Matthew, along the way.

You could then turn to the Old Testament. Since you have already read Genesis and Deuteronomy, I would suggest reading Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings. Those books are mostly narrative and they will fill in much of the story of the kingdom of Israel. You could read Psalms and Proverbs a little at a time while doing that. Once you have read the entire Old Testament, I’d recommend reading the New Testament again. You will understand much more about it when you know its background in the Old Testament.

You may also find it helpful to read the Bible in a format such as Immerse, a multi-volume edition of the New Living Translation that has no chapter or verse numbers in the text, presents the biblical books according to their natural literary divisions, and provides introductions to each book to orient the reader. I was a consulting editor for that edition, and I believe that it makes the Bible very accessible to readers. Often people read it in groups in a book-club format, and interestingly they read the New Testament first, then the rest of the Bible, then the New Testament again

I would also mention that you can download study guides to many of the biblical books for free from this blog. Here is the link. (Or just click on “Free Study Guides” at the top of this page.)

I hope these suggestions are helpful. May God bless your reading and study of his word!

Must women have children in order to be “redeemed” or “absolved from reproach”?

Q. Must women have children in order to be “redeemed” or “absolved from reproach”?

In some of my recent readings in the Bible, some of the women mention childbirth as a way to be saved from disgrace. For example, in Genesis 30:23, Rachel gives birth to a son and  says God has taken away her disgrace. Similarly in Luke 1:25, Elizabeth becomes pregnant and declares that God has taken away her reproach among people.

I had originally viewed these passages from a more cultural lens. Women were generally expected to have children, and having a child, particularly a male one, was a sort of insurance. If the husband died, a son could potentially care for his widowed mother.

However, in 1 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes that women are saved through childbearing. Now recently I’ve been considering committing to the advice in 1 Corinthians 7:8, which is to stay single and remain devoted to God. However, this advice appears to conflict with what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy. Is this a case where Paul, as a human, fell short of the mark and made a mistake? Does the advice in 1 Corinthians only apply to men, and women should marry and bear children for some sort of repentance for Eve’s transgression, as referenced in 1 Timothy 2:14? Or is there some other passage I’m missing with crucial information that can reconcile the two opposing ideas?

A. Thank you for your thoughtful question. It does not seem to me that Paul would be saying in the statement you cite that a woman needs to have children (presumably if possible—not all women are able to have children) in order to be saved. This would be contrary to Paul’s entire message of salvation by grace. Paul taught everywhere else that there is nothing we can do in order to be saved and that we do not need to add anything ourselves to what Christ has done for us on the cross. It is unlikely that he is saying differently here. So interpreters of the Bible tend to understand Paul to be saying something else than that women need to have children to be saved.

One possibility is that Paul is saying that women “will be kept safe through the process of childbirth,” as the NTE translation puts it. Other translations say  similar things. There is archaeological evidence from this time of the cult of a goddess whom women worshiped in the hopes of being preserved through childbirth. Paul could be saying that even if they abandoned the worship of this goddess—as they may have feared to do—they could trust God to protect them.

Another possibility is that Paul is saying that a role as wives and mothers can be a divine calling from God and that women do not need to forsake that role in order to live truly spiritual lives. We can see in Paul’s other epistles that some followers of Jesus at this time were so influenced by the Greek idea that matter was bad and spirit was good that they believed they should not get married. (This lies behind Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians, for example.) Note that there is a qualification on what Paul says in 1 Timothy: “Women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” This is similar to what Paul says later in 1 Timothy about younger widows. Apparently they could have been “enrolled” as part of a special guild committed to singleness and devoted to service in the church. But Paul knew that many of them might change their minds and break that commitment, so he wrote, “I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes, and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” One way of life was not superior to another, in other words; both were spiritual callings.

While these are possibilities, 1 Timothy 2:15 remains a puzzling statement, and so I would apply the principle of trying to understand what is obscure in light of what is clear. I think that whatever Paul might mean, based on the rest of his writings, we can be very confident that he is not saying that bearing children is necessary for salvation. We should also apply the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture in order to understand the whole counsel of God. While there are places where the Bible commends celibacy, for example, in 1 Corinthians as you mention, in other places the Bible praises marriage. For example, Proverbs says, “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” God himself said at creation, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a helper suitable for him.” (The word translated “helper” actually means “strong ally”!)

Given this balanced teaching in the Bible, I think your inclination to understand the passages about Rachel and Elizabeth (and similar passages) through a cultural lens was correct.

In the end, I think each person needs to discern how God is leading, whether towards marriage or whether towards singleness. According to the Bible, each situation in life offers opportunities to serve God in distinct ways. The Bible does not say that situation is better than the other. So this is a matter of individual discernment.

However, people often do not see it that way. They may simply assume that God wants them to get married, or, on the other hand, they may not want to get married and so not seek God’s guidance about that. I commend you for recognizing this to be a matter of discernment and for being willing to commit to singleness if that is God’s will for you. I trust that you are also willing to be married if that is God’s will. May you hear clearly from God as you continue to seek direction!

Should I stay in an “ungodly” relationship if the other person is learning about Christ through me?

Q. I’m conflicted about something. My spirit is torn about it—confused. So, I met this lady while I was still had the power of the world controlling my thoughts and and decision. But I have come to a place where I have a better and intimate relationship with God. She seems motivated my the steps I have been taking in getting closer to God and doing the same. Mind you, we started off as an ungodly relationship. I don’t know what to do, given that I’m more developed in the walk than she is. I teach her the gospel as well, which I really love doing. It helps keep me in check as well. I guess what I really want to know is do I end this relationship or continue. We’re both in our 20s and both learning about Christ in our way. Could someone speak on this?

Thank you for your question. To read between the lines a bit, if I’m not mistaken, when you say that you are in an “ungodly relationship,” I imagine this means you are living together.

If that is so, then it seems to me that you have more than two options. You don’t have to choose between continuing to live together or ending the relationship entirely. You could continue in a serious relationship but re-establish separate living arrangements. It seems to me that this would show the lady in your life that you are serious both about God and about her. But if you continue to stay in an “ungodly” arrangement, then that will suggest to her that you are not really serious about God, no matter what you might say about him, and that she doesn’t actually have to take God all that seriously either.

Indeed, if you truly love this woman (and it sounds as if you do), you will want the very best for her, which means wanting her to be able to love and obey God and live in a way that honors God. I believe that if you explained that to her, and made it very clear that by re-establishing separate living arrangements, you would not be breaking up with her, but rather working to put your relationship on a solid footing from which it could grow into a flourishing, God-honoring relationship, I would expect that she would be happy and encouraged about that. She would see that you really mean everything you have been saying about God, and it would give her joy to know that the gospel is so real that you are prepared to do something risky, difficult, and sacrificial to follow Jesus.

May God lead you and guide you as you take these steps forward. And please write back to let me know how things go! Thank you.

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.

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.