How can I have a soft heart, not a hardened one?

Q. I want to be a Christian, but I hardened my heart and then God hardened it. I don’t want a heard heart, I don’t want God to harden my heart. How can I get my heart softened by God? I want to be safe and not frightened and scared.

I have good news for you. If you are grieved by the way you’ve hardened your heart in the past, then that in itself means that your heart is actually soft once again now. When you say that God hardened your heart, I take that to mean that you gave God no option other than to leave you in the hardness of your heart—until that brought you to the place where you are now, grieved by your resistance to Him and wanting to come back. So I see no reason why God would continue to harden your heart, either, now that this purpose has been accomplished.

I would say go to God in the softness of your heart and say to Him everything that you’ve just said here: You want to be a Christian, you don’t want to have a hard heart, you want God to soften your heart, and you want to be safe (saved) and unafraid. You can pray to God in those terms and be confident of Jesus’ promise, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me.”

I encourage you to approach Christian friends or relatives, or a nearby church, and share your past struggles and future hopes. I trust you will find a warm welcome in to the community of those who are following Jesus and walking with God. May God be with you and bless you.

How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven?

Q. How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven? I have of course recognized my sin and asked the Lord into my life to take control of all of it.

What you’re asking about is sometimes known as “assurance of salvation.” It’s one of the main themes of the biblical book of First John, so I’ll answer your question from that book. What we find there is that there isn’t one single means by which we get assurance; rather, it comes through a combination of things.

One thing that John writes in this letter is, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” He adds, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This is sometimes put this way: “Progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” That is, as we find ourselves, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, living more and more in the way God intends, this assures us that we truly  do belong to Him.

Right after this, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness, but anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” So another sign that God has saved us is that our relationships are transformed. We become more and more able to love others; we live out this love by helping and serving and forgiving them.

A bit later John speaks of those who “went out from us, but did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” In other words, remaining within the community of Jesus’ followers,  persevering in the faith, is another sign of genuine belief. “Continue in him,” John says, “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” God wants us to receive this confidence, this assurance, through the way we see our faith persevere over time and despite difficulties.

Further on John says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” So our awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is something that gives us further assurance of salvation.

John does also say, near the end of his letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So there is indeed an aspect of putting our faith and trust in Jesus as our Savior, as you describe. But the practical themes of living as God commands, loving others, persevering in the faith, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work are woven through the entire letter, like the different themes of a musical composition. So we see that this belief is meant to be manifested in practical ways, and this is what really gives us assurance.

John concludes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So assurance of salvation is clearly something that God wants each believer to have. But it comes from reflecting on our own lives, from recognizing the progress we are making under the influence of God’s Spirit. Confessing our sin and turning our lives over to God is a necessary start. But it’s what God does with our lives from there that gives us the confidence that we truly do belong to Him.

So how about you? Are you finding that, by God’s grace and with His help, you’re more and more able to live as He wishes? Do you have greater love for others, expressed in greater patience, forgiveness, and practical compassion in dealing with them? Are you persevering in your commitment to Jesus, “no turning back, no turning back”? Are you discovering that the Holy Spirit is very much living inside you and bringing about transformation? Then all of these things, building on your initial confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, should indeed give you confidence that you have “eternal life.”

And that phrase actually means more than going to heaven when you die. It’s not just a quantitative term (life of infinite duration), it’s a qualitative one—it means life that is better and greater because it’s lived in relationship and fellowship with God. And we are meant to enjoy that even in this life.

Why will there still be sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom?

Q. When Jesus died on the cross God split the veil of the temple giving access to himself thru Christ. Making that system no longer valid. Why then does it talk about in the future millennial kingdom that the sacrifices will continue?

I believe you are referring to the way the restored temple in Ezekiel’s vision still has facilities for preparing and offering “burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.” Interpreters who understand this vision to depict the future millennial kingdom of Christ explain that these sacrifices will be offered in honor and memory of what Jesus did on the cross. The sacrifices under the old covenant looked forward to the death of Jesus; these future sacrifices will look back upon the death of Jesus, just as every time we take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” “in remembrance of him.”

Was Rahab really a prostitute?

Q. Was Rahab really a prostitute?

There’s no question, from the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Bible, that Rahab actually was a prostitute. In the Old Testament narrative about her in the book of Joshua, she’s described with the Hebrew term zonah, which unambiguously means “prostitute.” Rahab is also mentioned in the New Testament books of Hebrews and James, and in each case she’s described with the Greek term pornē, which correspondingly means “prostitute.” James, in fact, actually seems to stress this status when he emphasizes, in support of his argument that “faith without works is dead,” that “even Rahab the prostitute” was considered righteous because sheltered and protected the spies. The book of Hebrews also calls her “Rahab the prostitute” but it notes similarly that she protected the spies “by faith” and so “was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

I think that all of this leads us to an even more important question: Why was Rahab a prostitute? It seems quite likely from the Joshua narrative that she turned to prostitution out of desperate circumstances. Rahab acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” and so she promises to shelter and protect them. But then she asks them, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and that you will save us from death.”

Who isn’t mentioned here? There’s no mention of Rahab having a husband or children. It’s quite possible (though this does involve reading between the lines a bit) that Rahab had been married, but that she was then widowed before she had children. Alternatively, she may have been a young woman from a large family that was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry for all of its daughters, nor could it afford to continue supporting them after they became adults. Either way, she would have been without financial support in this culture.

One further indication we have of poverty is the comment that Rahab’s house was “built into the city wall.” One excavation of Jericho found an area where houses had been built into the wall. One website suggests that this was likely a poor section of the city, “since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district.”

So Rahab was most likely a woman who forced into prostitution out of financial desperation. Poverty and human trafficking are almost always responsible for prostitution. The Bible seems to recognize this and not condemn Rahab, but rather praise her for her faith in the true God and her courageous service to him.

Indeed, the Bible ultimately tells a very hopeful story about Rahab, though it needs to be unambiguous about her circumstances in order to do so. According to the gospel of Matthew, Rahab later married an Israelite man and had a son named Boaz, who himself became the husband of Ruth, another foreign woman who married into the covenant community. As Matthew makes clear, Rahab and Ruth both became ancestors of Jesus himself.

So the story of Rahab in the Bible shows us that when God came into our world as a human being, He chose to come into a family line that included a woman who had once been trapped in prostitution, but who was rescued from it and began a new life. I hope this encourages us all to recognize that there is indeed great hope for those who are rescued from human trafficking and prostitution due to desperate circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate response to your question is that we should all support, through prayer, giving, and advocacy, the work of those who are continuing to fight in our world today against human trafficking and prostitution.

A drawing of Rahab protecting the spies, from an 1881 illustrated Bible. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

How could Jesus promise Paradise “today” to the thief on the cross if he didn’t go directly there himself?

Q. If Jesus went right after his death to preach the good news to the “spirits in prison,” as 1 Peter describes, how could he tell the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”?

We should indeed consider whether there is a discrepancy in chronology between Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and what Peter says Jesus did after he died on the cross.

Luke records how Jesus was crucified “along with two criminals—one on his right, the other on his left.” One of them began to mock him, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other one said he should keep quiet. “We’re being punished justly,” he insisted, “we’re getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then this second criminal, often known as the “thief on the cross,” said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We know that all three men died that same day, because, as John explains in his gospel: “It was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus, they found that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs.”

So the plain meaning of Jesus’ statement to the criminal who defended him was that the two of them would be together in Paradise that same day after their deaths.

Peter, however, writes in his first epistle that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” This statement and some similar ones in the Bible have led to the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell,” that is, the idea that after his death, Jesus journeyed to hell, triumphed over it, and released its captives. (I affirm this doctrine in my post on this blog entitled, “What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?“)

We should note, however, that it was actually not three days, as we would reckon that time period ourselves, between when Jesus died on the cross and when he rose from the dead. In the Hebrew idiom, today is the first today, tomorrow is the second day, and the day after tomorrow is the third day. The gospels record that Jesus warned his disciples in advance, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; they will kill him, but on the third day he will be raised to life.” What he meant by that Hebrew expression was that he’d be killed and then after one full intervening day he would rise from the dead.

Sure enough, Jesus died on a Friday afternoon and rose on a Sunday morning. Even though we often speak of him being in the grave for “three days,” he was actually there for less than two days. Now the Bible also describes him leading the souls rescued from hell into heaven during that time. In Ephesians, Paul quotes from Psalm 68 and applies its words to Jesus: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.” Paul then asks, “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the depths of the earth?” So the understanding is that at some point after his death, but before his resurrection, Jesus led these rescued souls into heaven.

If we were going to assign an earthly time to an event that admittedly takes place outside of time, we would have to say that Jesus did this sometime between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, since he didn’t have these people with him when he reappeared to his disciples. And if we wanted to coordinate this account with the conversation Jesus had with the thief on the cross, we would have to conclude that this thief must have been among the ransomed souls Jesus led into heaven after his crucifixion. If we wanted to be very particular about it, we would insist that this must have happened on Friday, since Jesus promised the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (It does feel strange, however, to try to assign earthly times to events in heaven and hell.)

This may be the most we can say in response to this question. But let me  leave you with one last thought. Jesus seems to have led both the criminal who defended him on the cross and large numbers of people who perished “in the days of Noah” up into heaven after his own death. He would no doubt have stayed there with them long enough to ensure their acceptance and welcome. (In that sense, the thief was indeed “with him in Paradise.”) But Jesus then returned to earth for forty days so that he could teach and instruct his disciples, to prepare them for their work of spreading the good news about him all around the world. This question about the thief on the cross, in other words, reveals that Jesus left heaven and came to earth for us not once but twice, first in his incarnation as a baby, and then again after his crucifixion in a resurrected body. We can only imagine that after dying on the cross, where he suffered so greatly, Jesus was ready to leave this world and never see it again. But instead, he returned to the very scene of his suffering, for the sake of those he had died for. As the old hymn says, “Hallelujah! What a Savior.”

Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected?

Q. If Jesus was resurrected, then where did he later go with flesh and blood?

I understand this question the way I’ve indicated in the title of this post: Where did Jesus go in his body after he was resurrected? According to Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts, “After his suffering [that is, his death], Jesus presented himself to the apostles he had chosen and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” So Jesus didn’t go very far at first; he stayed in Jerusalem and appeared to his followers, teaching and instructing them for forty days. It’s not too hard for us to imagine him doing this in a resurrected body, though his sudden appearances and disappearances, which the Bible also describes, certainly are unusual.

After that, however, as Luke then records, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Two angels appeared to the apostles and explained to them that Jesus had been taken up “into heaven.” Now we might wonder a bit more—can someone who is “flesh and blood” really go right into heaven?

At this point we need to bring in the discussion of the resurrection that Paul offers in 1 Corinthians. There he explains, in answer to a question very similar to yours, “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

It’s hard to understand exactly what a “spiritual body” is; we think of bodies as physical and material, not  spiritual. But whatever it is, a person’s resurrected spiritual body is different in significant ways, as Paul explains, from the physical body they have when die. Nevertheless, even though it is characterized by glory, power, and imperishability, the spiritual body is still a body. A resurrected person is not a disembodied spirit.

So, to offer a simple answer to your question, after Jesus was resurrected, he first went around Jerusalem teaching and encouraging his disciples, and then he went up into heaven. To answer what might be the question behind your question, he was able to do this because his resurrected body was not exactly flesh and blood. It was a “spiritual body” that was different enough that he could enter heaven in it.

A 15th-century Russian icon of the ascension of Jesus.

Does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean “unable to be saved”?

Q. I was reading Paul’s description in 2 Timothy of what people will be like “in the last days” and I found it very interesting. In my opinion, it is a perfect description of narcissistic personality disorder. That is rather complex, but the basics are that a person with this disorder is incapable of feeling empathy or thinking they have done something wrong and therefore changing. I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s possible for them to be saved. (I know only God knows this.) The well-known passage in Romans never says we must repent in order to be saved, it says “believe in your heart and confess with your mouth.” But the 2 Timothy passage describes these people as “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” and it calls them “men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.” What does “disqualified regarding the faith” mean?

To answer your specific question about the text, the word Paul uses, which the ESV translates as “disqualified,” is adokimos. That’s the negative of dokimos, a term that means “having been put to the test and proved genuine.” Paul applies it, for example, to a man named Apelles in his greetings at the end of Romans; the ESV calls him “approved,” while the NIV says that his “fidelity to Christ has stood the test.” The term dokimos is used in half a dozen other places in the New Testament and the ESV translates it as “approved,” “genuine,” or “stood/met the test.”

I think the most important thing to recognize is that Paul has just told Timothy, in the passage in 2 Timothy right before the one you were reading, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The ESV has a footnote there explaining that “approved” (dokimos) means “one approved after being tested.” Paul’s use of adokimos in the next passage is a deliberate contrast. His description is actually of false teachers, who are “always learning” but “never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”

So when Paul calls them adokimos, he means that their teaching has been tested—measured against the truth, which they oppose—and disapproved, so it should be rejected. These men have been “disqualified” in that sense: disqualified as teachers, since what they teach is false. Other translations say that their teaching is “counterfeit,” “worthless,” “to be rejected,” etc. Some older translations call them “reprobate,” but it’s important to realize that this word is being used in its former sense meaning “disapproved,” not in the technical theological sense of “predestined not to be saved.”

So Paul really isn’t saying anything about these men in terms of whether they can or cannot be saved. He’s identifying them as false teachers whose teaching should be rejected. By contrast, he’s encouraging Timothy to strive to be an “approved” teacher who handles the word of truth rightly. (After talking about these “evil people and impostors,” Paul tells Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” You yourself are reading and reflecting on the “sacred writings” yourself, and if you continue in this practice, you will become more and more dokimos yourself.)

But now let me briefly address the application question you also raised, whether a person with narcissistic personality disorder can be saved. I have no formal training in psychology, so I cannot address that issue from an informed perspective in that regard. But I would say on Scriptural authority that “God is not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” I would therefore believe that the Holy Spirit would continually use any and all means to help a person recognize their need for Jesus to be their Savior. I’d like to think that even if a person had an exaggerated sense of their own achievements and importance, they still wouldn’t be without a conscience, and they might still recognize when they fall short of doing what they should, even if they characteristically have an unrealistically favorable interpretation of their own actions. But in the end, as you say, only God knows. What I do know is that God would do everything possible to help them be saved.