Can God tempt someone?

Q. Can God tempt someone?

God certainly doesn’t tempt people the way that evil forces do, trying to get them to commit sin.  The New Testament book of James explains this quite clearly: “Remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away.”

However, the Bible does describe places where God “tests” people; some translations actually use the word “tempt” in these contexts.  For example, we read in Genesis that God “tested” Abraham (this is the reading of the NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, etc.) by telling him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  (I discuss that episode more fully in this post.)  The KJV and a few other translations say that God “tempted” Abraham, while others say that God “proved” him (ASV, ERV, Jubliee Bible).

Whatever the translation, this was testing with the expectation of success, not testing designed to expose a person’s weaknesses and inadequacies and “flunk them out.”  Abraham not only proved his absolute loyalty and obedience (“Now I know that you fear God,” the Lord told him), God was able to use the occasion to offer a polemic against human sacrifice (which was supposed to be the takeaway from the episode for the later Israelites who would be tempted to adopt this pagan practice).

So while God may sometimes “test” people so that the virtues they are developing can be vindicated and displayed, God never “tempts” people to do wrong.  Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” that is, we should ask God to keep us away from temptation.  Paul writes in several of his letters that we should “flee” from things that would lead us to do wrong.  Since God does not want us even to get close to things that might lead us to sin, but to move actively away from them, God would not actively tempt us to sin.

How, then, do we explain the statement in Matthew’s gospel that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”?  (Luke says similarly that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”)

Rembrandt, “The Temptation of Christ.” Did God want Jesus to be tempted?

Once again we should recognize that from God’s perspective, this was intended as a “test.” It was meant to show that Jesus, who had just been identified at his baptism as the “Son of God” (that is, the Messiah), would choose to be the right kind of Messiah when the devil—trying instead to “tempt” him to make the wrong choice—tried to get him to present himself as some kind of magician, or a world ruler, or someone who would primarily meet material needs.  By continually answering the devil’s temptations from the Scriptures (“it is written,” Jesus said over and over again), Jesus demonstrated his godly learning, character and priorities.

This “test,” from God’s perspective, showed that He was right to say confidently, at Jesus’ baptism just earlier, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  But the “temptation,” from the devil’s perspective, failed—Jesus was not sidetracked into becoming the wrong kind of Messiah.  (This dual significance is present in the Greek verb that is used; as the NIV translators’ note explains, “The Greek for tempted can also mean tested.”)

We see that in a typical situation, God has one plan, while evil forces have another plan. In his first epistle, Peter explains God’s purpose in trials or tests:  “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”  In the gospel of John, Jesus explains the devil’s plan and how it contrasts with his own mission: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

So it is important to recognize that any situation can be a temptation that we might fail, if evil plans succeed, or a test that validates and strengthens our Christian character, if God’s plan succeeds.  The important thing is to recognize God’s plan in the situation and follow it.  As Paul explains, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

So if you ever feel as if God might be tempting you, recognize instead that you are actually in a situation where your devotion and loyalty to God can be proven afresh, if you seek to discern God’s plans and purposes for the situation and join in with them.

 

Did Jesus not declare all foods clean?

Q.  I’m in a group that’s discussing the gospel of Mark, and when we got to the place where Mark says that Jesus “declared all foods clean,” the question arose as to whether Jesus actually did away with all the Levitical dietary restrictions.  The suggestion was made that Jesus was declaring only that all of the foods that Jews considered to be foods were clean — thus, “all foods” declared to be clean would exclude things such as pork, shellfish, etc.  I’m familiar with the arguments of Daniel Boyarin about this, but I’m unpersuaded, especially by his insistence that if Jesus had undone the kosher food laws, he would have been a false prophet, per Deuteronomy 13.  What do you think?

I haven’t yet studied Boyarin’s arguments myself, so I can’t comment on them, but let me share some general thoughts in response to your question.

All Jesus actually said was, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”  This was the principle that Jesus taught.  Different early communities of his followers then sought to apply that principle to themselves, in the context of the particular milieu of life into which God had called them to live out their faith.

For Matthew, writing as an observant Jew to other observant Jews, the takeaway is simply, “Eating with unwashed hands does not defile” a person.  This was the direct issue at stake:  The Pharisees had asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

But for Mark, writing for an essentially Gentile audience, probably in a Roman context (Mark has to explain the whole issue of washing, which Matthew’s audience already understands), draws a broader application for life in the context of their calling:  “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And so one could well argue, on the authority of the gospels, that Jesus did not actually declare all foods clean for observant Jews (and being one of those is still a valid way of being a follower of Jesus today).  He only set aside a human tradition requiring ceremonial washing (something not in the law of Moses) in favor of the pursuit of true inner virtue.  But he did declare all foods clean for those who are called to live out their faith in many other contexts (but not all contexts, for example, not for Jesus-followers who continue to be cultural Muslims).

Paul, in his letters, declares not a radical freedom to eat all foods, but a radical freedom from trying to be righteous by works that allows one to eat, or not to eat, in whatever way best serves another person in love: “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat”—now that’s radical freedom!

(The Jews of Jesus’ time weren’t keeping kosher in order to earn a righteous status by works.  For them, this was a sign or boundary marker of the covenant to which they already belonged.  Rather, Paul was writing to Gentiles who were being encouraged to keep kosher as a way of being righteous before God—as a kind of “sanctification by works”:  saved by grace, but then maintained in righteousness by things like observing special days and keeping kosher.  Thus Paul had to write to the Colossians, for example, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

In short, as has well been said, there is no such thing as a disembodied “gospel.”  We can only engage the gospel of Jesus when we experience it contextualized for us in our own milieu of life.  When it comes to this particular saying of Jesus, the Bible actually models for us a couple of different ways in which his earliest followers contextualized it for themselves.  Trying to pick one or the other of these (“anything goes” vs. Levitical dietary restrictions for everybody today) does not do justice to the rightfully demanding process of understanding how Jesus’ words apply to us today, a process all of his followers are called to pursue faithfully and diligently–as you are doing by asking questions like this one.

The illustration from Daniel Boyarin’s Tikkun article “Jesus Kept Kosher: The Jewish Christ of the Gospel of Mark”

Is it possible to sin in your dreams?

Q. Is it possible to sin in dreams? Do you think that dreams in any sense reflect one’s state of morality absent of inhibitions or consequences? Do you think that they serve as warnings in terms of what might be the consequences of various actions? Or are they just dreams and shouldn’t be paid much attention?

Whether it’s possible to sin in a dream depends on what sense of sin is in view.

The Bible envisions sin in two different senses. In one sense it’s conscious willful disobedience to the known wishes of God, or, put more simply, doing something that you know is wrong.  This involves a choice of the will, and that’s why it’s not possible to sin in this sense in your dreams.

Dreams are symbolic subconscious expressions of our imagination, impulses, wishes, and desires.  They tend to depict something we want to happen, or else something we don’t want to happen, or they represent the realization of something that’s been apparent before us but hasn’t previously registered in our consciousness. (In this last sense a dream may indeed serve as a warning.)

We are not morally responsible for every idea that pops into our heads, every thought that flits through our minds, or every feeling or desire that wells up inside us.  So dreams don’t really reflect what we would be like morally if we had no consequences to fear.

What we are responsible for is what we choose to do with these things that come into our minds and show up in our dreams. It’s not a sin to become angry with someone, for example.  (The Bible itself says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”)  But it is a sin to choose to take a further step and hold a grudge, plot revenge, or lose our temper and become verbally or physically abusive.

For example, suppose you have an argument with someone during the day.  That night, you dream about killing them.  This is not a sin.  It’s the expression of a feeling.  But when you wake up, you are morally responsible for what you choose to do in response to that feeling, which you have now become vividly aware of.  Following the Bible’s teaching, you should seek forgiveness and reconciliation with that other person.

In other words, what happens in dreams represents only the first stage in the process–an idea, or wish, or desire.  Since our wills are not active in our dreams, but instead our unconscious mind paints a lively symbolic scenario based on an idea, wish, or desire, there is no moral culpability–no sin–on our part, no matter what happens in the dream.

But as I said, there is another sense in which the Bible envisions sin.  It’s also a force that’s active within us to shape our thoughts, words, and actions towards evil, in ways we are often not aware of.  This force is active even in our dreams.  The very things we imagine, desire, and wish for are not necessarily morally neutral, but influenced by the force of sin.

And in that sense, while we still do not sin in our dreams, we dream while under the influence of sin, and so the way we put things together in our heads while dreaming, the way we organize the events and incidents of the day and week while we are asleep, may be “sinful” in the sense that it does not reflect God’s perfect balance of love and justice, but rather some skewed version of it that appeals to us in our sinful state.

So while we still do not need to “repent” of anything that happens in our dreams in the sense of confessing guilt and asking forgiveness, we do need to “repent” in the literal sense of re-thinking the way we have put things together in a dream, critiquing that apparent resolution or aspiration in light of biblical teaching prayerfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the full light of day.

 

Marc Chagall, “Jacob’s Dream.” Jacob’s dream represented a recognition of the holy place he was in and of the God who had come to meet him there.

If God gave Saul a “new heart,” how could Saul disobey and be rejected?

Q. I recently noticed (for the first time) that God gave Saul a brand new heart when He chose him to be king over Israel. So how could Saul then disobey God, to the point where God rejected him as king?

The Bible does say that God gave Saul a “new heart” (NLT) or “another heart” (ESV) or “changed his heart” (NIV, NASB) when God chose him to be Israel’s first king.  Just before this happened, Samuel told Saul, “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you . . . and you will be changed into a different person” (NIV, NLT) or “another man” (ESV, NASB).  The Hebrew word translated “different” or “another” here is the same word used to describe the “new” or “changed” heart.

So this definitely seems to be genuine spiritual rebirth–both regeneration and Spirit-filling.  And there is evidence of it in Saul’s subsequent conduct.  At first Saul was so timid that when Samuel wanted to proclaim him king to all the Israelites, Saul hid among the supplies!  But soon afterwards, galvanized by God’s Spirit, Saul boldly led a successful campaign to rescue an Israelite city that was being besieged by a longtime deadly foe, the Ammonites.  In the wake of this success, Saul was given the opportunity to put to death all those who had opposed his kingship.  But he insisted that their lives be spared.

So what went wrong?  After Saul had been king for many years, he was facing another dangerous foe, the Philistines.  Samuel agreed to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor on Israel’s army, but when he didn’t arrive at the appointed time, and Saul’s army was so intimidated by their enemies that the soldiers began to desert, Saul decided to offer the sacrifices himself.

Samuel arrived just then and when he saw this he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

Why was offering the sacrifices such a severe violation that it cost Saul his kingdom?  Because God had carefully separated the kingship from the priesthood in the law of Moses.  The kings of the surrounding nations, by contrast, were priests; some were even revered as gods.  But God wanted the Israelites always to understand that He alone was their God, and He wanted them always to seek him through the priests who were descended from Aaron, whom He had chosen as Israel’s first high priest.

But Saul, most likely influenced by the example of the kings of the nations around him, did not hesitate to try to concentrate the roles of king and priest together in his own person, contrary to God’s design for the nation.  This led to disobedience and a break with Samuel’s godly influence, and it was all downhill from there.

The lesson is that a new heart and the filling of the Spirit are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a life that remains true to God.  We also have to be very careful of the examples around us that we allow to influence our thinking and conduct.  We need to pick our friends and role models carefully, and be careful what we watch and what we think about it.  We also need to be aware that the temptations we encounter in a position of power and influence are much greater than ordinary temptations. Otherwise, even genuinely reborn and Spirit-filled people like Saul–or ourselves–can be led down the wrong path.

John Singleton Copley, “Samuel Reproving Saul” (1798)

 

Can Christians ever take one another to court?

Q. How literally should we take Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians that Christians should settle their disputes out of court? If Christians do have to go to court (say, in a situation in which someone else brings a case against them and they don’t have a choice), how literally should they take Paul’s instruction to “rather be wronged or cheated”? For example, should a Christian be willing to be “wronged or cheated,” rather than engage in speaking harshly about another Christian, even when the stakes are high (such as in a child custody battle)?

If we are really going to take Paul’s counsel about this “literally,” we should recognize that the people he was addressing were members of the same local congregation, or at least members of the community of Jesus’ followers in the same city, so that they were under the spiritual authority of the same leaders.  Paul is saying that these leaders should have the wisdom to settle the dispute and so the aggrieved parties should submit it to them.  His point is not that we should never dispute about important things, but that our disputes should be settled under the authority of the Christian community.

The situation is quite different when the two parties are not part of the same community.  If there is no spiritual authority whom both respect and who knows them and understands their situations, it’s hard to follow Paul’s counsel as he intended it.

We should also recognize that Paul’s main concern was not simply the avoidance of conflict. (Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians he wrote, “There must be divisions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”). Rather, his concern was for the reputation of the gospel. As I explain in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, he tells the Corinthians that it is “an embarrassment to their community and to Jesus’ reputation in the city” for them to be publicly bickering and appealing to “unbelievers” to settle their differences.

It was only in this context that Paul said it was better to allow yourself to be wronged or cheated—better this than to put any stumbling block in the way of people believing the good news about Jesus.  As he wrote a little later in 1 Corinthians, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

So if the weak and defenseless would otherwise be oppressed, if a child’s welfare were clearly at stake, if the cause of the gospel would actually suffer more if an injustice went unopposed, in all such cases I would not see Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians as a blanket prohibition against appealing to the law to settle a dispute, even among self-proclaimed Christians.

However, I would also caution that the law is a blunt instrument.  It can only declare a winner and a loser in a court case.  And most situations that lead to these cases are much more complex than that; there’s right and wrong on both sides.  I imagine that a case that made even followers of Jesus consider litigation against one another would be very complex and nuanced, so that no one should be satisfied with a simple “judgment” in favor of one party or the other.

There are Christian mediation services (a simple Google search for that phrase turns up many) that can help resolve matters out of court, and I would strongly recommend going to them before considering litigation against another believer.  Turning to these professionals is not quite the same thing as submitting a dispute to someone who is in local spiritual authority over both parties (I hope today’s church pastors and elders are up for that challenge when it does arise), but I think it’s a wise and well-advised course.

In summary, as I say at the end of the discussion of this topic in my study guide, “Followers of Jesus might see this question in two different ways. Some would be concerned that the demands of justice be honored, so that someone who says they follow Jesus shouldn’t be allowed to defraud another person flagrantly. Others might say that modeling Christlike sacrifice and non-resistance could help another person realize that they need to change their ways.”

Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are actions morally right because God commands them?

Q. How would you answer the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” that is, the question that asks, “Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are they morally right because God commands them?” If you accept the first option, it would seem that God is not the basis of morality, but is simply a “recognizer” of morally right things. On the other hand, if an action is morally right because God says so, it means that it could be potentially morally right and obligatory to inflict pain and suffering on others. There is more to the discussion than just that, obviously, but I was just wondering which (if either) path you tend to favor and how you answer this “dilemma”?

(This question was asked in a comment on my recent post on the topic “Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?” because I said both that God had set apart sex as holy and that sex was intrinsically holy.)

The “Euthyphro Dilemma” (so called because it is first raised in Western literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro) is a truly vast question that has received much consideration over the whole history of Christian moral theological reflection. I won’t be able to do much justice in a short blog post, but let me say briefly that I’m among those who consider this actually to be a false dilemma.  I believe that the inherent moral structure of the universe reflects the character of the God who created it, and that God’s own assessment of actions (whether they should be commanded or forbidden) similarly reflects His own character, so we don’t have to choose between where we think the rightness or wrongness of an action should be grounded.

From this perspective of mine, there’s no problem of God being subject to a moral authority outside himself. There’s also no problem of anything morally questionable that God might command (such as lying, killing, etc.) being “good,” because we have things like conscience and natural law, built into the moral fabric of the universe, to help us recognize that when God does tell people to do such troubling things, this must be under exceptional circumstances and for exceptional reasons that are somehow justifiable.

However, there still are a couple aspects of the question that remain something of a “dilemma” for me.  First, exactly what is going on in those “exceptional” circumstances?  How could a good God command lying or killing at all?  I’ve discussed this in some other posts on this blog; for example, for lying or deception, see the series of posts that begins here; for killing or “holy war,” see this post.  I say in these posts that these “exceptional” cases are among the most difficult and troubling passages in the entire Bible for thoughtful readers, and so in saying that I consider the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a false dilemma, I don’t want to minimize that at all.

The second aspect of the question that remains a dilemma is that there is no outside standard by which to determine whether what God has generally commanded and built into the moral fabric of the universe as an expression of His own character is objectively good on any other basis.  We are, in effect, “trapped” within the creation of this God, and as His creatures we can only flourish within it by conforming ourselves more and more to His character.  Now personally I have no problem with this!  But for those who might want to be able to hold God accountable to some objective standard, that actually isn’t possible.  (This is one of the main issues raised and debated in the book of Job, as I show in my study guide to that book.)

Nietzsche argued that the Christian ethic of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness bred “weaklings” who failed to assert themselves, as they should, in acts of power against other creatures.  Nietzsche didn’t believe in God, but if he did, he would no doubt have said that the wrong kind of God had made our world and given us the wrong kind of guidance in our tender consciences and innate sense of fair play.

There’s no way to answer such a perspective, which is really an expression of faith in a way of life opposite to the one the Christian faith teaches, except by faith itself.  We can’t prove that we love and serve the best possible God from within a beautifully ordered moral universe of His creation.  We can only say that as we are getting to know Him and serve Him better and better, this certainly seems to be the case.  We have to take all the rest on faith.

Are we really supposed to give thanks for everything?

Q. I wonder if you’ve encountered the idea that we’re supposed to thank God for everything, even for the bad things that happen to us.  I’ve heard Paul’s statement in Ephesians referenced to support this notion:  “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This concerns me mainly because I can’t recall examples in Scripture where people thanked God for bad things that happened to them.  Did Jesus thank God for sending him to the cross?  Did Job thank God for taking everything from him?  And so forth.   Am I missing something?

Bible translations are generally agreed that when Paul says there in Ephesians that we should give thanks hyper pantōn, he does mean “for” everything (as opposed to “in” everything” or “in all circumstances,” as he says in 1 Thessalonians).  Hyper followed by a noun in the genitive (in this case an adjective used as a substantive), when paired with verbs of thanksgiving or praise, clearly means “because of” or “on account of,” as these other examples from Paul’s writings show:

“that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy”
“many will give thanks on our behalf
“something I thank God for

But regarding that substantive pantōn, the NET Bible makes the interesting suggestion that Paul is actually saying we should give thanks “for one another.”  The term pantōn can be either neuter (“everything”) or masculine (“everyone”), and the context in Ephesians does have to do with relationships in the community of Christ’s followers.  But practically all other translations take it to be neuter, meaning “everything” or “all things.”  So the broad consensus understanding is that Paul is saying we should give thanks “for everything.”

What does he mean by that?

I understand him to mean that we can always be thankful for what God is doing in a given situation or circumstance.  God is always active to make all things work together for our good.  But I agree with you that we’re not called to be thankful or grateful directly for things that are destructive and evil.  I don’t see Scriptural examples of this, either.

To use one of your illustrations, Jesus didn’t thank God for sending him to the cross.  In fact, he prayed that he’d be spared the cross if at all possible.  But I think he was aware of what God wanted to accomplish through the cross (which he calls his “hour of glory” in the gospel of John), and he celebrated that even in advance.

To use a contemporary situation as another illustration, I don’t think a follower of Jesus would be called to thank God directly for a loved one’s serious disease.  But they could still be very grateful for what they were learning through it about God’s grace and sustaining power, and for the way they were discovering that they were surrounded by a community of caring, loving people.

I hope this is a helpful distinction.  We don’t give thanks directly for evil or destructive things.  But we do give thanks for the way God is at work in every situation.

Do social media promote narcissism and conformity?

Q. Do social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter in particular) promote a type of Social Darwinism along with narcissism? There is a strong element of conformity. Also one cannot deny the presence of cyber bullying and ostracism of those who do not conform to certain norms. I personally stay away from them but I don’t think they’re entirely bad. Still isn’t a system that in some sense runs on strength in numbers a little worldly? Your views?

I think the problems you’ve identified aren’t inherent in social media.  Those are simply communication tools.  These problems arise instead from the way those tools are used.  The narcissism and bullying reflect the values and characteristics of the cultures and individuals who create and consume social media content.  It’s possible to use the media themselves to challenge and critique those cultures and behaviors.

Similar concerns have arisen with every new media technology.  Many Christians would not go to movies because they thought they were inherently worldly, based on the stories they told and the lifestyles of many actors and actresses. (Some Christians still won’t watch movies.)  But I think we’ve seen, as the medium has matured and its possibilities have been explored, that in the right hands, movies can be a powerful tool to express a positive and godly vision for life.

The same is true of social media.  They are the pervasive communication form of our time and I’d argue that followers of Jesus need to be in that space, transforming its culture and demonstrating its positive possibilities.

One thing this means is that we do need to be careful of narcissism.  The very form of social media influences us towards posting deliberately crafted image-management status updates that assure everyone we know that we’re hip, stylish people.  (In this sense it’s really true of social media that “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan said.) The values that Jesus and the apostles taught encourage us instead to ask about each potential post, “What will be the benefit for others?”

I’ve seen some good examples of positive, non-self-centered postings recently.  Here in the United States we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving.  Several people I know posted something on Facebook that they were thankful for on each day leading up to the holiday.  Now many of my friends are using Facebook to share their reflections on Advent, posting images and thoughts that speak of the coming of Christ as the Light of the World.

Another thing we need to be careful of, as you noted, is conformity.  It’s only too easy to be carried along by trends and prevailing notions that “go viral.”  Contrary voices can quickly be buried in an avalanche of disapproval and ridicule.  (This is one form of social media bullying; another is even worse, the intentional targeting of individuals for a campaign of vicious comments.)

But if social media present these destructive possibilities, they also present constructive ones.  At least that lone voice does get a voice on social media:  there are no “gatekeepers” deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t.  And if a person is tactful, persuasive, and undaunted, they can eventually get their point across even in the face of an onslaught of contrary comments.  This calls for the qualities of humility, graciousness, and persistence that the Bible encourages.

In short, I believe that social media, used well and in the right spirit, allow Christian values and perspectives to be articulated effectively for a potentially broad audience.  So as I said, I would encourage followers of Jesus to be in this influential space, trying to exploit all of its possibilities to advance the kingdom of God.

What did Jesus mean by “night is coming, when no one can work”?

Q. In John, when Jesus heals the man born blind, he says that “as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, when exactly is “night”? All the time since he left? Is this used to support the idea that we can’t do as many miracles now? Or does night refer to each person’s death? Or something else?

El Greco, “The Healing of the Blind Man”

I believe that in this context Jesus is using the image of “night” to describe his future arrest and execution.  In the gospel of John, just before Jesus comes upon the man born blind, he narrowly escapes from a crowd that wants to stone him.  Jesus knows that healing the blind man will create further notoriety and controversy.  But he’s saying that he can’t let that stop him.  For as long as he is free and alive (“as long as it is day”), he needs to do the works of the Father.

So for each individual follower of Jesus, “night” is the time when we are no longer free or able to be active in ministry.  It can certainly describe our death, but it could also refer to times of persecution, imprisonment, or incapacity due to illness or accidents.  The implication is that we need to make full use of every opportunity while we have it, without letting the risks or dangers involved deter us.

Of course we should be prudent, not reckless.  Jesus himself strategically withdrew from direct confrontation several times in order to prolong his ministry.  And we shouldn’t work so incessantly that we wear ourselves out, bringing on “night” prematurely.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t fail to take advantage of opportunities that are immediately before us, on the premise that “I can always do that later.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that after a certain point, he wouldn’t be able to “do that later,” and by implication, neither would they.  Not because God’s power wouldn’t be just as available after Jesus’ time on earth, but because sooner or later a personal “night” would render each one of them unable to minister actively.

So Jesus’ words are a warning and a call to action to us today:  “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me,” because “night is coming, when no one can work.”

Why did Jesus say we could pick up snakes?

Q.  Why did Jesus say that those who believed in him would be able to “pick up snakes with their hands”?  Some people have tried this and gotten killed.


There’s actually some doubt among biblical scholars whether the longer ending of Mark, in which that statement appears, was originally part of Mark’s gospel.  However, whether or not Jesus really said this or something like it, a person could still get the impression from the Bible that they could and perhaps should try to pick up poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.

This is because all of the “signs” that Jesus says will accompany those who believe in him (according to the longer ending of Mark) can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures:
• Jesus and the apostles drive out demons throughout the gospels and the book of Acts;
• They also place their hands on the sick and heal them;
• Believers speak in new tongues (languages they have not learned) at several points in Acts;
• Earlier in the Bible, the prophet Elisha and his guests are miraculously protected from poisoning;
• And most directly to our point, in the book of Acts the apostle Paul is bitten by a deadly viper, but he suffers no ill effects.

However, it’s important to recognize that in all of these cases, the people are not doing something daring and dangerous in order to demonstrate their faith in God.  Rather, they are obeying God as they go forth to proclaim and serve, and God is providing the power and protection they need as they do so.

Running a deliberate risk in order to demonstrate God’s protection is precisely what the devil tempted Jesus to do when he said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple.”  Jesus replied, quoting the Scriptures from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So the deaths that have resulted from the intentional handling of poisonous snakes are the result of a very unfortunate misunderstanding either of what Jesus said about this, or, if the longer ending of Mark doesn’t record his actual words, what the biblical narrative describes about God’s empowerment and protection.  We’re not supposed to put God to the test deliberately.  But we can count on God’s protection for as long as we still need to be alive and well on earth doing God’s work.