QUESTION: Is it correct to return tithe to any organization or individual who claims to be doing the work of the Lord?
Money is one of those things that we consider ours in a particular way. It represents the fraction of our lives that we accumulate through the investment of our energy and time. It is life preserved in liquid form; that is to say, we exchange it for almost any goods we may want or enjoy. Therefore we usually don’t want others to tell us how to use it or what to do with it. For believers life is a gift from God, whether in the form of the breath of life or in the form of money. Therefore, it is to be used to the glory of God. With these comments as a background, let me address your specific concern.
1. The Owner of Tithe: Tithe is a percentage of the money that reaches us as the result of the investment of our time and energy. It is therefore natural to conclude that it is ours and that we should decide how to administer it. Here the Scripture surprises us by making a claim that is scientifically unverifiable. Tithe—the 10 percent of our income or increase— belongs to the Lord: “A tithe . . . belongs to the Lord [leYahweh]; it is holy to the Lord [leYahweh]” (Lev. 27:30, NIV). From the human point of view all income is the result of the investment of our time and energy. Yet this text rejects that conclusion by indicating that a portion of our income/increase is fundamentally different from the rest of it. It is described by the Lord as “holy.” In this passage divine ownership is clearly emphasized by using the Hebrew preposition le (“belonging to”) two times, along with the word “holy.” The “holy” designates that which God set apart for His divine purpose that, therefore, belongs to Him. We do not consecrate tithe to the Lord; the Lord has already declared it holy. He has placed in our hands something that is holy, and we are sanctified when we, in obedience to His will, use it the way He intended us to use it.
2.Determining Proper Use: Once we acknowledge that tithe belongs to the Lord, the next questions would be Who has the authority to determine its purpose, and who should receive it? The answer is obvious. If it belongs to God, He is the one who defines its purpose and destination. This was clearly the case in the Old Testament. “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel … for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 18:21, NIV). Tithe is assigned by the Lord to a specific group within His people, and its purpose is to pay them for the work they do at the sanctuary on behalf of the people, a work assigned to them by God.
3.God Established a System: Not only were the purpose and use of tithe determined by God as the owner of tithe, but also the system through which tithe reached those appointed to receive it. The Israelites were to separate their tithe at home and bring it to the house of the Lord for the Levites (Num. 18:24; Mal. 3:10). The “storehouse” refers to rooms in the Temple employed to store the tithe that was to be distributed among the Levites. In other words, people were not free to give their tithe to whomever they wanted, or to deposit it in any other place except the Temple. Specific persons were in charge of collecting and distributing it to the Levites and priests (2 Chron. 31:12, 13, 15, 16). In the church tithe is to be used only by those recognized by the church to be God’s appointed instruments in the proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:13, 14).
We are expected to return tithe to the church through its local treasury, not send it to individuals or groups who run their own personal religious businesses. Let God’s tithe be used by the Lord as He intended it: for the fulfillment of the mission of His church.
Every year I receive letters or phone calls asking whether it is correct for Adventists to celebrate Christmas. The uncertainty is usually based on the absence of any biblical information about the date of Christ’s birth, and on the conviction that December 25 has been associated with a pagan festival. Let me provide some historical information about the celebration of Christmas and say something about its significance.
1. Christmas and Adventists: Before I comment on the question, let me clarify that Adventists are not, nor should we be, against Christmas. Why would we be against a period of time when Christians remember the birth of our Savior? However, since this festivity is not ordained by Scripture, we don’t consider it to be binding on believers. We recognize only one holy day, the Sabbath; and we keep it holy in obedience to our Creator and Redeemer.
2.Christmas and History: It is well known that the term “Christmas” is derived from the old English word “Christmesse,” which means “Christ’s Mass.” The term originated during the Middle Ages from the practice of having a midnight Mass on the eve of December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. In other languages it is called “Nativity” (Latin, natalis) or “Holy Nights” (German, Weihnachten).
The history of this Christian feast remains unclear. Historians have indicated that the nativity feast began to be observed by Christians during the fourth century. Some Christians calculated it based on the death of Christ taking place on March 25. It was then speculated that He must have been born nine months before on December 25. Others placed the birth of Jesus on March 25.
But the most common explanation is that Christmas is somehow connected with the Roman cult of the Invincible Sun (Latin, Sol Invictus), the rebirth of the sun, which was celebrated on December 25. This could explain the importance of lights during the celebration of the Nativity, although “light” is also associated with Christ in the Scriptures (e.g., Luke 1:78, 79). It is therefore common to hear it alleged that Christians adopted and adapted a pagan feast. This is possible, but it’s difficult to demonstrate from available historical evidence.
3.Christmas and the Believer: We should acknowledge two facts: First, we do not know why God, in His providence, chose not to preserve for us a record of the day of Jesus’ birth. There is no need to speculate about this. Second, the fact is that the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25. We cannot change this, and there is no reason to try to change it. Attempts to reject the feast are based on the absence of biblical evidence and its possible connection with a pagan feast. Therefore, we should leave this matter to the conscience of each individual.
Having said that, let me state again that there is absolutely nothing wrong with selecting any particular time to meditate and reflect on the incarnation of our Savior. I would suggest that during Christmas we could spend time thinking about the mystery of the Incarnation. It is a mystery in that it testifies to the fact that the Son of God became “flesh” (John 1:14). The Creator became a creature in order to save us from the power of sin and death.
The Nativity can also be understood as God’s gift to the human race; in His Son, God gave us the most precious gift He could bestow on us. He was the bread of heaven freely given to us by our heavenly Father (John 6:48-51).
But the Nativity is also a time of proclamation. That night angels proclaimed to shepherds the good news: “Do not be afraid…. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you” (Luke 2:10, 11). We should join our voices with that of the angels and proclaim once more throughout the planet the glorious news of peace and freedom from fear and through Christ, the Lord. Christmas provides an excellent opportunity to remind the human race that the Child born in Bethlehem is coming soon.
QUESTION: Was Jacob’s vow an attempt to bargain with God?
You are referring to the vow Jacob made in Genesis 28:20-22 after the Lord appeared to him in a dream. Jacob requested the company, protection, and care of the Lord during his journey, and promised that if these were granted to him he would worship Him and give Him tithe. This is very close to a bargain! But before we examine Jacob’s experience let me say something about vows in Israel.
1. Nature of a Vow: In the Bible a vow is usually a prayer in which individuals commit themselves to do something for the Lord, if their requests are granted by the Lord. This was particularly done in times of intense need or danger. There were two types of vows: 1. The unconditional vow, in which people committed themselves to do something for the Lord without requesting any specific blessing. This was the case of the Nazirite vow (Num. 6:2). 2. The conditional vow, which was to be fulfilled only if the favor requested was received (1 Sam. 1:11). The practice was based on the principle of reciprocity: a favor received calls for an expression of gratitude; the receiver is, through the gift, transformed into a giver. This was not so much an attempt to bargain with God, as it was a desire for intimacy and fellowship with Him. God is perceived as Someone with whom one can talk and ask a favor, and to whom one can make a promise to reciprocate His kindness. It is assumed that He may choose not to grant the petition, thus making the fulfillment of the vow unnecessary. The practice of making vows took place within a covenant relationship established by God after He redeemed His people. Some may have tried to bargain with the Lord. In fact, some tried to manipulate God through the sacrificial system (Ps. 50:7-15). It did not work!
2. Jacob’s Vow: Now, back to your question. The impression I get from the text is that Jacob was not bargaining. His situation was much more serious. God had already promised Jacob what he was requesting, and much more. In Jacob’s dream the Lord promised to give him the land on which he was sleeping, to multiply his descendants, to bless all people through him, to be with him, and to protect him (Gen. 28:13-15). In his vow Jacob asked for the divine presence, for protection, and for a safe return. If these were granted to him, God would be his God and he would give Him the tithe. Why didn’t Jacob take God’s promises at face value? My answer: Jacob was spiritually impaired.
3. Jacob’s Commitment to God: When he made his vow, Jacob had not yet committed himself to the Lord. In his vow he said, “then the Lord will be my God” (28:21, NIV). Knowing that, the Lord introduced Himself to Jacob as “the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (28:13, NIV). He was not yet the God of Jacob; His providential care resulted in the conversion of Jacob. God blessed Jacob so much during his time with Laban that Jacob said, “God has taken away your father’s [Laban’s] livestock and has given them to me” (31:9, NIV). The Lord also protected Jacob in his dealings with Laban (31:22-24) and during his encounter with Esau (33:1-5). Finally, the Lord sent Jacob back to the land of Canaan with the promise of His presence (31:3). At that point in the narrative Jacob chose the Lord as His God; the Lord was now the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was no longer Jacob but Israel (32:24-30). In Canaan he built an altar and worshipped the Lord (33:20).
Jacob’s vow was an interim experience that led to his personal commitment to the divine plan for him and his descendants. God deals with us according to our spiritual condition and patiently leads us, if we are willing, to a deeper, personal devotion to Him as our Redeemer.
We should try God, as Jacob did, because He still accepts our vows. He does not reject the spiritually impaired, and neither should we.
QUESTION: Does the Bible support the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, or not?
Iwill not answer your question directly, but I will comment on the reasons why the church is divided on this issue. Let me make two preliminary comments. First, the church has not taken an official position on the biblical support (or lack of it) for the ordination of women to the ministry. It has simply voted against leaving the decision up to each world division of the church. The final decision is to be owned by the world church. Second, this issue is not to be raised to the level of a fundamental belief. As far as I know, ordination to the ministry was not a test of Christian fellowship in the apostolic church. With that in mind, let’s deal with the reasons for the present impasse.
1.Liberal Theologians: A strong impetus for the ordination of women to pastoral ministry came from more- liberal Adventist theologians. In their discussions the biblical text played some role, but they argued from a sociological and moral point of view. They were influenced by the feminist movement, with its emphasis on gender equality and the liberation of women from a male-controlled society. In their eyes equality raised the issue of the ordination of women to the level of a moral mandate. Such a strong rhetoric, coming from a group that had questioned some of the distinctive doctrines of the church, brought an almost immediate reaction against the ordination of women.
2. Mainstream Theologians: These theologians are fully committed to the message and mission of the church. Surprisingly, they were divided on the topic, and still are. Here the main discussion is about biblical interpretation. Theologians who do not find scriptural support for the ordination of women have been quite vocal. They demand a “thus says the Lord” in order to ordain women, and no one has found it.
Theologians who believe that there is enough information in the Bible to support the ordination of women have also been vocal. They demand from their opponents a “thus says the Lord” forbidding the ordination of women to the ministry, and no one has found it. Both groups develop their cases through inferences drawn from particular passages. The debate revolves around arguments; about who can come up with the best arguments. Often in such debates theological pride inevitably creeps in; no one wants to give up. Some champion themselves as defenders of the Scriptures against other theologians who, they believe, are not as loyal to the Scriptures. And the debate goes on.
3. Extreme-Right Adventists: This group is heavily influenced by conservative theologians who oppose the ordination of women to pastoral ministry and consider such ordination to be an agenda of liberal theologians. They ignore the conservative theologians who support it. They are influential among church members who sustain their independent ministries, which are sometimes characterized by a strong negative attitude toward the leadership of the church. They tend to view the ordination of women as a potential act of apostasy.
4. Cultural Ideas: In many countries around the world the role of women in society is quite limited and the idea of equality does not seem to predominate. In such cultural settings it is not difficult for church members and leaders to question and oppose the ordination of women to pastoral ministry. Such individuals would naturally align themselves with theologians claiming to find no biblical support for the practice.
So what’s next? We should work and pray for healing. The debate among theologians indicates that in this particular case the Bible is not as clear as some may think. Both groups should keep this in mind. Theologians in particular have contributed to the problem by being dogmatic in their views and unwilling to listen to each other.
Perhaps the time has come for all of us to sit together, look at the issue in a spirit of service to the church as the body of Christ, and pray for healing in an effort to see where the Spirit is leading. This will require humility and willingness to work together in building up the church.
QUESTION: Had Jesus sinned, what would have happened to Him?
By Angel Manuel Rodríguez
This question, phrased in different ways, is often asked. And I’m always reluctant to deal with it because it is an invitation to speculate on matters about which we know nothing. What’s surprising is that some take their speculations so seriously that they become dogmatic about them. Humility should be a fundamental characteristic of any Bible student.
In this particular case my reluctance is determined by what we do know. We know that Jesus did not sin. That should be enough. But those interested in the question press the issue: Could He have sinned? Had He sinned, what would have been the consequences of His sin? In order to avoid dealing with this question again, let me make some comments that you may or may not find helpful.
1. Jesus and Sin: Could Jesus have sinned? My unambiguous answer: Yes! This is something the Bible supports. Jesus was absolutely human and was subject to temptations such as the ones we confront, as well as to others that we will never have to face (Heb. 4:15). Every day Jesus struggled against sin and was victorious over it. This was a real conflict; not because He had a nature corrupted by sin, but because He, like each one of us, had free will. It is free will that allows us to choose God’s side in the cosmic conflict. Rebellion is the rejection of that freedom or, more specifically, giving it up and choosing death.
The typical example of Jesus’ potential for sinning is His experience in Gethsemane, when His will would have urged Him to preserve His personal life, while His duty to the Father and the salvation of humanity called Him to self-sacrifice and death (Matt. 26:39). The power and reality of this temptation was predicated on the possibility of not doing God’s will. Otherwise the whole struggle would have been a pantomime, a self-deceptive exercise, or an illusion.
2. Jesus’ Uniqueness: The fact that Jesus overcame every temptation is incomprehensible to us because we are all sinners. The sinlessness of Jesus creates theological problems for those who would make Him very much like us. It is at this point that His uniqueness is manifested with great power. Whether we want it or not—and I personally want it—He is different from all of us! He never committed a sin in any form, type, action, or thought. He is the only and exclusive human being who has ever lived without sinning. It is this uniqueness that seems to prompt people to ask, What if He had sinned? We seem to feel uncomfortable with His sinlessness. But we shouldn’t be, because it is the prerequisite for the atonement.
3.Jesus’ Future: We can also affirm that the future of Jesus and our future are one, because He was victorious over evil and reconciled us to His Father. Could we postulate that there was an alternative future for Jesus in case He sinned?
Here’s where the speculation comes in the form of a theological argument. Let me put it as bluntly as I can: Had Jesus failed, the God we now know would not be our God. In other words, with respect to us, He would have ceased to exist. The failure of Jesus would have meant that God was unable to overcome the forces of evil and that Satan was powerful enough to overcome Him by derailing His plan of salvation, thus forcing God to abandon us.
As you can see, in my speculations the stakes are very high. The defeat of our biblical God at the moment of His greatest manifestation of power on the cross of Christ is something we can hardly begin to imagine, much less take seriously.
Since the biblical God is by definition unbeatable, our question remains almost unanswered. Had the human nature of the Son of God failed, God Himself would have failed. But He did not.
QUESTION: Don’t you think that the killing of animals as Old Testament sacrifices was a type of animal cruelty?
No, I don’t think so. Today the idea of killing animals as a religious act is foreign to most Christians. In fact, we are suspicious of people who kill animals for religious or superstitious reasons. It’s true that individuals in Israel occasionally offered animal sacrifices to the Lord, but we should read the biblical text on its own terms. The sacrificial system reveals at least three main objectives for animal sacrifices: devotional, dietary, and theological.
1. Expression of Religious Feelings: Sometimes the Is- raelites brought sacrifices to express their gratitude and joy to the Lord: “Sacrifice fellowship offerings…rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:7, NIV). Occasionally, the offerings were from the produce of the earth (Lev. 2:1-10; 23:9-11), but most of the time the person gave a substantial offering, a sacrificial ani-mal. The costliness of the offering was related to the level of gratitude they wanted to express, and to the finances of the person. Some could bring a bull, others only a sheep, a goat, or even a bird (Lev. 1:3, 10, 14). Giving a bull or a female animal would today be the equivalent of writing a substantial check to the church. Remember, for Israelites, their animals were their bank accounts.
2. Dietary Interest: Very often the religious and dietary concerns were both present in animal sacrifices. This is particularly the case with the fellowship offering. It was brought to the Lord for specific religious reasons; but at the same time the flesh of the animal was shared with others in a communion meal (Lev. 7:12-18). During some religious festivities the king offered many sacrifices in order to provide meat to the people during the festivity (1 Chron. 29:21, 22). In such cases, the people benefited from the wealth of the king without having to touch their “bank accounts.”
Meat was also accessible through the routine, or secular, slaughtering of animals and hunting clean animals (Deut. 12:15; Lev. 17:13). In these cases the blood, instead of being poured at the base of the altar, was to be poured out on the ground and covered with dirt. This showed respect for the life of the animal as one of God’s creatures.
3. Atonement and Sacrifice: From the theological point of view, animal sacrifice had the fundamental purpose of symbolically mediating reconciliation with God through the removal of sin and impurity (Lev. 4). It appears that in most cases atonement was accomplished through a sacrificial victim, whose blood became a vehicle for the removal of sin/impurity from repentant sinners. In this case, the theology of the sanctuary services becomes important, in particular the nature of sin and atonement. The use of a sacrificial victim raises the question of the connection between sin and death, atonement and life.
Bloody sacrifices ultimately reveal that sin cannot be separated from its immediate result, death. This was best expressed through the ritual death of an animal. The fact that the sacrificial animal was an innocent victim pointed to the costliness of redemption. Yes, repentant sinners could go home forgiven, alive; but only because the life of a sacrifice was given in place of theirs. This theological dimension of sacrificial killing lies at the heart of the biblical concept of redemption and found its deepest expression in the sacrificial death of the Son of God. I would dare to say, and you do not have to agree with me, that in both cases death caused pain in the heart of God, as well as in the heart of true worshippers.
4. Animal Suffering: The sacrificial killing of animals brought with it pain and suffering. We don’t know how animals were slaughtered, but it has been suggested that the Hebrew verb shachat, “to slaughter,” really means to “slit the throat.” In that case the only pain was the cut that drained the blood and soon rendered the animal unconscious. The divine intention was to reduce suffering to a minimum, thus showing God’s concern for animals. Later Jewish traditions required that the knife used be sharp and smooth to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain to the victim.
The question of vegetarianism in the Bible is a bit complex. The Bible addresses it from the point of view of creation to re-creation. Yet at the same time it allows for humans to eat certain meats. Thus we cannot require vegetarianism as part of a Christian lifestyle. But let’s examine some of the biblical evidence that speaks to your question.
1. Vegetarianism in the Bible:It is well known that the original diet God gave to humans was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29), and that it remained as such after sin entered the world (3:18). This diet was given in the context of God’s command to exercise dom-inion over the animals (1:28), thus setting a limit to hu-manity’s power over the animal kingdom. In the context of the Creation account, the vegetarian diet pointed to the absence of violence and death within the created order and to God’s intention to preserve that order. But the diet also revealed God’s wisdom and love in providing for humans the type of food that would make it possible for them to work with the Creator in preserving their lives in optimal conditions. Meat was unnecessary to sustain life.
Interestingly, the Bible suggests that at the end, after the eradication of sin from God’s creation, humans will again be vegetarians. This is particularly implied by the prophetic description of the transformation of the animal world and the absence of violence within it: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Isa. 11:9, NIV; see also Isa. 11:6-9; 65:25). The absence of violence in the animal world presupposes its absence among humans.
2. Restricted Meat Consumption: After the global flood, and in the context of the absence of flora, God allowed humans to eat animal flesh (Gen. 9:3). This was based in the divine distinction between clean and unclean animals (Gen. 7:2; Lev. 11). This restrictive use of animal flesh had two main purposes:
First, since it was a dietary law, it identified the flesh of animals that could best contribute to the preservation of human life in a world of sin and death. Second, it served to set limits on human violence against animal life by restricting the consumption of flesh to a particular number of them. The animals would fear humans and literally run for their lives when seeing one (Gen. 9:2).
The divine ideal of a meat-free diet was not totally forgotten later in the Bible. When Israel was in the wilderness in need of food, God provided manna. When they insisted on eating meat, the Lord gave them quail; but the result was sickness (Num. 11:4-23, 31-33). According to the Bible the Lord rarely provided flesh to His people (cf. 1 Kings 17:6). In fact, the regular diet of the Israelites was basically vegetarian. Only under special circumstances did they eat meat (e.g. sacrifices, Lev. 3:1-9). Their domestic animals constituted their “bank accounts” and were the source of milk, curds, and cheese (Deut. 32:14; Judges 5:25; 2 Sam. 17:29).
3. God’s Ideal for His People: Adventists have taken seriously the law of clean and unclean animals as representing the minimum the Lord requires from us concerning proper diet. We submit to it in grateful obedience to His will because it expresses His loving interest in our physical and spiritual well-being. By taking proper care of our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit, we glorify God. Biblical evidence has led Adventists to conclude that vegetarianism is God’s ideal for His people. Such an ideal is very relevant in a world that is slowly realizing the tremendous benefits of such a diet.
Vegetarianism is on the rise around the world for a variety of reasons: ethical, ecological, religious, even narcissistic. This may be the proper time to reaffirm that ideal and avoid the use of meat in official meetings of the church (potlucks, workers’ meetings, etc.) and, whenever possible, by excluding it from our kitchens.
This I write to you that “you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 2, NIV).
QUESTION: Why does the Bible, and the psalms in particular, mention “morning” so often?
The Old Testament employs two main Hebrew terms for “morning”: boqer, referring mainly to a moment of time, the daybreak; and shachar, designating the first reddish light at early dawn. A quick study of each is both spiritually and theologically enriching.
1. Associated With the Dynamic of Life: The dawn transitions us from rest to action, as if at daybreak there is an explosion of life on the planet. Nature is renewed (Ps. 90:6; Isa. 17:11); humans work the fields (Eccl. 11:6), build (Neh. 4:21), go on journeys (Gen. 24:54), go to war (Joshua 8:10), and sub-mit to God’s will for them (Gen. 22:3). In the morning human life is energized, re-activated; it is a new beginning. But this is possible only because God is also fully active in the morning. His love and compassion “are new every morning” (Lam. 3:23).* The New Testament tells us that something glorious and unique happened in the morning: Jesus walked out of the tomb alive (Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1-3)! Because of Him the morning is ever associated with life and light.
2. Time for Worship: Since the morning is associated with life, it was considered to be the time when God’s people were to worship Him. Hence we read: “In the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Ps. 5:3; cf. 88:13). The psalmist praises the Lord and proclaims His love “in the morning” (92:1, 2) when the Temple priests offered the morning sacrifice and the nation collectively worshipped the Lord (Lev. 6:12). But the morning was also a time for worship at home (Job 1:5). New beginnings were moments for the rededication of the family to the Lord.
3. Associated With God as Judge: It is in the morning that God reveals His justice. He commanded the king to “administer justice every morning” (Jer. 21:12). The oppressed suffered during the night, but they looked forward to the morning when the king would judge and vindicate them. This image is applied to God as the universal judge who “is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail” (Zeph. 3:5). The morning is, therefore, the time when God examines and judges us in order to vindicate and deliver us and to grant sinners what they legally deserve (Num. 16:5; Joshua 7:14, 16).
4. Ends the Darkness of the Night: Evil could rule during the night, but it comes to an end in the morning. In darkness immoral behavior is practiced (Prov. 7:18; Judges 19:25) and God’s enemies plot against His people (Isa. 17:14). But it is also during the night that God defeats them, thus identifying the morning as the moment when His saving power is revealed (2 Kings 19:35; Gen. 19:27, 28).
Of course, biblical writers knew that “weeping may remain for a night,” but they also understood that “rejoicing comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). They were acquainted with the complexity of human existence, yet they could still say, “I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble” (Ps. 59:16). The phrase “in the morning” became an expression of hope and trust in the Lord in the midst of trials (see Isa. 33:2).
The phrase “in the morning” points toward a time when there will be a new beginning, made possible through the resurrection of Jesus, when life will flourish in all its beauty and glory; when humans will be able to sing praises to the Lord and to worship Him as the very source of life. It also points to the time when the night of sin and death will end as the dawn of the consummation of our salvation becomes a reality. It will be a morning when God’s work of judgment will vindicate His people and renew His creation. This will happen when Jesus, “the bright Morning Star,” appears (Rev. 22:16).
*Bible quotations in this article are from the New International Version (NIV).
QUESTION: I’ve heard people say that the story of Jonah is only a parable. What do you think?
Many contradictory voices are out there creating confusion. Please read prayerfully the book of Jonah, and allow it to speak to you on its own terms. Human voices are often unreliable, unless they are clearly grounded on the biblical text. I will discuss why some consider the book of Jonah to be historically unreliable, as well as reasons to consider it a historical narrative.
1. A Unique Prophetic Book: When the book of Jonah is compared to the rest of the minor prophets it appears to be quite different. Those books emphasize the proclamation of God’s mes- sage to His people. In Jonah the emphasis is on the ex- perience of the prophet and little is said about the message itself. We seem to be dealing with a narrative rather than with a piece of prophetic literature. Therefore scholars begin by asking, what type of book is Jonah?
Many answers have been given to the question; what you’ve heard is one of them. A parable compares something with something else in order to instruct. But the
problem with that suggestion is that it is difficult for scholars to agree about what Jonah is comparing. The result has been contradictory opinions. If you simply read the book it is about a prophet commissioned by God to deliver a message of judgment against a non-Israelite city. It combines narrative and message in a way similar to that found in the stories of Elijah and Elisha.
2. Nonhistoricity of the Book: In trying to determine what the book of Jonah is, many scholars work under the assumption that it is not a historical account, just a piece of literary fiction that never happened. Their reasons for this include, for instance, the narrative’s lack of credibility. How can a person be inside a big fish and come out of it alive after three days? Other arguments used to question the historicity of the book are: (1) walking throughout the city would take much less than a journey of three days (chap. 3:3); (2) the reference to the “king of Nineveh” is wrong, it should be “king of Assyria”; and (3) the conversion of an entire heathen city can seem unbelievable.
3. Historicity of the Narrative: If we accept the biblical text at face value, it would not be difficult to conclude that it is a prophetic book in the form of a narrative. In other words the narrative contains a prophetic message; and the one does not exclude the reliability of the other. This was how the book was read until about 200 years ago, when biblical authority was replaced by human reason. This modern approach left no room for divine intervention in human history. This made it necessary for scholars to redefine the nature of the book of Jonah.
But the historicity of the book is stated in its introduction (chap. 1:1), and was endorsed by Jesus Himself (Matt. 12:38-41; Luke 11:29-32). Once we accept that God can intervene in history in ways beyond our comprehension, the story of the big fish and Jonah becomes part of a reliable narrative.
The alleged historical contradictions are not really contradictory. If the noun “Nineveh” is taken to designate the district of Nineveh, which covered anywhere from 30 to 60 miles, a journey of three days would be correct. Sometimes kings were identified by the city of residence (e.g., 1 Kings 21:1); therefore the phrase “king of Nineveh” is historically reliable. The conversion of a whole city should not be too difficult to conceive, even if there is no extra biblical evidence to support it. Scholars have pointed out that at about the time Jonah went to Nineveh a series of events happened that psychologically prepared its citizens for a change. Two plagues hit the city and there was an eclipse, considered a bad omen. Obviously, however, they soon forgot about the true God.
Human wisdom is useful. But when it replaces what is clearly revealed in the Word of God, we should listen to the Word. That is our only safety in a world of disorientation and confusion.
QUESTION: The prophetic scene recorded in Revelation 8:2-6 comes between the seven seals and the seven trumpets. What are we supposed to learn from it?
In the passage to which you refer, John sees seven angels with seven trumpets and another angel burning incense on the altar, adding it to the prayers of the saints, and taking fire from a censer and casting it to the earth. The result is thunders, flashes of light, and an earthquake. In order to understand this vision we will examine other scenes in Revelation that also deal with sanctuary theology. Then I will comment on the vision and its significance.
1. Sanctuary Scene: The references to the altar of in- cense, the censer, the burning of incense, and the angel indicate that a ritual activity is taking place in the holy place of the heavenly sanctu-ary. Revelation’s visions are often introduced by a scene from the heavenly sanctuary. Before the messages to the seven churches, Jesus appears dressed as a high priest in the holy place (1:12-20). The throne scene, which emphasizes the role of the Lamb (chaps. 4, 5), introduces the seven seals. The seven trumpets are introduced by the vision of the altar of incense (8:2-6). Before the vision of the cosmic conflict (chaps. 12–14), John sees the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary and the ark of the testimony, which contains the Decalogue (11:19). The seven plagues are preceded by a vision announcing that the services in the sanctuary have ended (15:5-8). In the last two chapters of the book (21, 22) the use of sanctuary/temple images increases. God descends to permanently dwell among His people in New Jerusalem.
2. Content of the Vision: The passage you mention introduces the trumpets as a distinct vision and separates it from the vision of the seven seals. When the trumpets begin to sound, Christ is still mediating for us in the heavenly sanctuary—ministering in the holy place. The fact that burning incense in the holy place was primarily the responsibility of the high priest (Ex. 30:7, 8) suggests that the angel John saw probably represents Jesus as our mediator. He takes the prayers of the saints, contaminated by sin, and cleanses them through an atoning incense, the cleansing of Christ (cf. Num. 16:46, 47).
The passage mentions another aspect of the mediation of Jesus: the judgments of God against the wicked world. The coals used to burn the incense, thus creating a cloud of smoke that ascends to God, are also a symbol of judgment (e.g., Gen. 19:24). Some of the coals were removed from the altar of incense and placed in the censer to facilitate throwing them to the earth (cf. Ezek. 10:2). Thunders, lightning, and earthquakes usually occur when God manifests His presence in judgment (cf. Isa. 29:6). The period of the trumpets is primarily the time during which Christ still performs the daily services on behalf of His people, and also the time during which God’s judgments against the wicked occur within the flow of history. Both are mediated through Christ.
3. Significance of the Sanctuary Scenes: These sanctuary scenes were intentionally placed where they are in the book in order to communicate a message. First, they reveal that God rules the world from His heavenly temple. This center of divine command is where Christ went after His ascension; and from there God influences and directs the cosmic struggle between good and evil on the planet. Second, these scenes point to the two aspects of Christ’s heavenly ministry: His daily work of reconciliation, and the annual service represented by the Day of Atonement. We see Jesus mediating for us in the holy place, but we also see the drama of the book moving to His work in the Most Holy Place, and finally to the moment when His high-priestly work ends. Finally, we see God’s tabernacle descending from heaven to our planet. Revelation is a book about Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary.