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Wordwise Insight, Issue #013 --
January 14, 2006

WORDWISE INSIGHT is the free, informative monthly newsletter of


BIBLE INSIGHTS. The Problem with Idols; When Righteousness Falls Short

READER Q & A. Whether it is right to eat meat, plus a good hymn story

IDEAS FOR YOUR CHURCH. Suggestions for Valentine's, plus a Bible Study on the heart

NEWS & REVIEWS. Josh McDowell's work in the area of apologetics is well worth a read


Israel in Old Testament times was surrounded by idol worshiping peoples. In the days of their bondage in Egypt they were confronted with them. And in their conquest of Canaan they faced many more. Time after time they were led astray and committed spiritual adultery with the false gods of the heathen. It seems to be an tendency rooted in the sinful nature of man, that he either create a god to his own liking, or try to replace God with himself. This spiritual perversion is addressed many times in the Bible. In fact, a prohibition against idolatry begins the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-6).

Idolatry is not only wrong because it represents unfaithfulness to the true God, but it is in itself the epitome of foolishness. What the New King James Version calls “useless idols” (Ps. 31:6), the 1611 text labels “lying vanities.” To make an image of a piece of wood or a block of stone, and then bow down to it, and ask for its help is the height of folly. Consider the problems with that as demonstrated in Isaiah 40:19-20.

1) The Money. The glory and splendour of your god depends on how much money you have to spend (vs. 19), not anything inherent in the god itself.

2) The Materials. The endurance of your god depends upon the materials you use. Natural forces threaten its very existence (cf. Matt. 6:19-21).

3) The Maker. The stability and reliability of your god depends on the skill of the manufacturer. If he is careless or unskilled, it may fall over at the slightest touch. (Better nail it down, Isa. 41:7!)

Mere logic would seem to completely invalidate such a god. Yet these same issues are at the root of a materialistic value system in the lives of countless people–most of whom would reject the idea of bowing before an image. How much does it cost? What is it made of? And who made it? The preferred answers to such questions can make a watch, a car, a house, or something else a prized possession to be sought after and coveted (cf. Col. 3:5).

What makes the true God unique above all is that fact that His many attributes are intrinsic and inherent in His very Being. His infinite splendour and majesty are to be praised. His eternal and self-sufficient existence is certain, His faithfulness to His word absolute (I Chron. 29:11-14; Ps. 36:5-9). Steve Green’s lyrics say it well: “God and God alone created all these things we call our own; / From the mighty to the small the glory in them all is God's and God's alone. / God and God alone is fit to take the universe's throne; Let everything that lives reserve its truest praise for God and God alone.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20).

This must have come as a shock to many of His listeners. The Pharisees were zealous to keep even the minutest detail of the Law. The Apostle Paul states regarding his early years as a Pharisee that "concerning the righteousness which is in the law [he was] blameless" (Phil. 3:6).

I am certain many wondered how they could exceed the high standard of these ultra-religious Jews. But there were several fundamental problems with the righteousness of the Pharisees. It fell short in a number of ways that good-living, moral people fall short in even today.

1) Their "righteousness" was based on self effort, rather than dependance on God (cf. Zech. 4:6; II Tim. 3:5).

2) It became a matter of sinful pride (cf. Matt. 6:2, 5, 16).

3) It prompted them to make unwise and unhealthy comparisons with others (cf. II Cor. 10:12).

4) It involved a re-interpretation of the Law to accommodate their weakness and failings (Mk. 7:8-13).

5) It led to play-acting (hypocrisy) to make themselves out to be better than they were (Matt. 23:14, 23, 27).

6) It focused on adherence to an external code rather than on a personal relationship with the Lord (Matt. 15:8).

7) It caused many of them to reject Christ because they were convicted by His true and perfect righteousness (Matt. 12:14, 24).


Question: Richard writes: We are a Catholic family and lately have reservations on the food we eat. About meat - can Catholics eat beef, pork, chicken and fish?

Answer: With the growing popularity (at least in North America) of a vegetarian diet, some have suggested it is wrong to eat meat at all. Not being a Catholic, I cannot speak for them. But I will share with you what I believe the Bible teaches.

At the time of creation, the Lord prescribed a vegetarian diet for our first parents (Gen. 1:29). But that was before the fall (man's first sin), and before the flood. Conditions on earth were ideal, and a non-meat diet was sufficient not only for man, but also for the animals (Gen. 1:30). (In that world, mosquitoes did not have to draw human or animal blood to get the needed protein in their diet. Happy day!)

However, with the fall, came a "curse" upon creation, with nature out of balance becoming a kind of object lesson of the destructiveness of sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Then, with the world-wide flood of Noah's day climatic conditions changed radically. In place of a uniform warm, moist climate from pole to pole, came more severe weather, with ice and snow, and freezing temperatures in many regions. Further, it seems a protective vapour canopy which once surrounded the earth was removed at that time. The sun's more harmful rays began to invade the earth. (This is one reason for the dramatic fall in life spans from the pre-flood times. Where human beings once lived nearly a thousand years, longevity rapidly declined after the flood to what we know today.)

With the changes just described, God gave new instructions regarding diet, allowing human beings to eat meat (Gen. 9:3). There are ample examples in the Bible of individuals consuming meat (e.g. I Kgs. 4:22-23; 19:21; Neh. 5:18), and it is not condemned as harmful or sinful. In fact, the holy days of Judaism required the eating of meat. Take the Passover, for example. Central to the ceremony was the consumption of roast lamb (Exod. 12:1-11). And since the Lord Jesus, as to His humanity, was a Jew living under the same law (Gal. 4:4)--a law which He perfectly fulfilled--He apparently ate the Passover lamb too. And we know Jesus not only ate fish (Lk. 24:41-43), but He broiled fish and served it to His disciples (Jn. 21:9, 12-14).

One more issue remains: the dietary restrictions of the Jews. Though they were pointedly allowed to eat the meat of mammals, fowl and fish, there were some limitations. Four-footed animals that did not chew their cud and have cloven hooves were excluded (Lev. 11:4-8), as were fish without scales--as eels or shellfish do not have (Lev. 11:9-12). Birds of prey that feed on dead carcasses were also excluded (Lev. 11:13-19). Some insects were off limits, though locusts could be eaten--and the latter were part of the diet of John the Baptist (Lev. 11:20-23; Matt. 3:4). But two specific questions must be considered with regard to these restrictions.

1) Did God set these limits because the excluded animals were unhealthy to eat? If so, then what was unhealthy 3500 years ago when the Law was given would seem to be unhealthy still--and still something we should avoid. Sometimes pork is used as an example to prove this point in the affirmative. It is pointed out that without proper refrigeration pork would have been extremely dangerous. But surely the same could be said for fowl and fish. In fact, the dietary restrictions of the Jews were mainly ceremonial, not health related. Consider Leviticus 11:24 as an example. Even touching the carcass of one of the restricted animals rendered the individual "unclean," but only "unclean until evening." It was a ceremonial uncleanness limiting religious activities until the period of uncleanness was over.

The main reason for all the restrictions seems to be this: God wanted Israel to have a continual reminder that they were different. They had been set apart by God for Himself as a special people, a unique privilege not given to other nations (Deut. 14:2). (Note that this last text immediately precedes a review of the dietary laws.) The daily application of these laws said, "You are different. You are set apart for Me, and must live in obedience to Me, and trust in Me." It is impossible to prove there is a consistent health problem with consuming the meats on the restricted list (as long as they are properly stored and prepared). It was a ceremonial thing. Which leads to the second issue.

2) Are we still to live by the restrictions of the Jewish Law? The answer is No. On this side of the cross, God is doing a new thing. He is bringing Jew and Gentile together in a new body (the church) through faith in Christ (I Cor. 12:12-13). Those aspects of the Old Testament Law that have to do with morality are also taught in the New Testament (e.g. not committing adultery, not stealing, etc.). But we are pointedly told that the church is not under the old Law (which included 613 commandments in all). About a dozen times this truth is restated (Rom. 6:14; 7:6, etc.).

When Peter was given a vision preparing him to extend the Christian gospel to the Gentiles, he reacted as a Jew (Acts 10:9-16). Commanded by God to eat the meat of animals he considered unclean, he refused. But a voice said, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (vs. 15). And after Gentiles began to turn to Christ, a church council was held in Jerusalem to consider their status, and whether the Jewish Law should apply to them (Acts 15). The main dietary concern was that the Gentiles should agree not to eat meat from which the blood had not been drained. This had been a major and overarching command of Judaism for centuries (Lev. 17:10-11). Reverence for the blood related to the fact that in it was "the life of the flesh," and it was shed in the sacrifices "to make atonement for your souls." The early church agreed to ask for a respect for this prohibition among the Gentile believers (vs. 23; 28-29).

Significantly, nothing at all is said by the Jerusalem council about keeping to a vegetarian diet. Under grace, there is freedom of choice in this area. "Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths [i.e. the restrictions of the Jewish Law], which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ" (Col. 2:16-17) And Romans 14:1-10 pointedly says that those who believe they can only eat vegetables are "weak in the faith"! The Bible tells Christians, "The living us richly all things to enjoy" (I Tim. 6:17). Of course, as with most things, moderation is important. Too much red meat in one's diet may indeed be harmful. Moderation is the key. If a person decides a certain diet is right for him, we may express concern if it seems an unhealthy choice. But we have no right to judge him on religious grounds. In that he has liberty, and is accountable to God, not to us.

Question: Andy asks regarding the story behind the hymn “And Can It Be?”

Answer: Charles was a good man. His older brother John was, too. They’d been raised right, and it showed. Then, the day came when Charles went away to university--Oxford University, in England. And he knew what happened to some young people at university. Away from home for the first time, it was an opportunity to kick up your heels and throw off the shackles of parental rules. But he wanted none of that.

With some others he helped to form what they called “The Holy Club.” Club members read books about how to lead a good life, then shared their findings at the meetings. Each determined he was going to lead the most perfect life possible. Never satisfied, they were always trying to do better. They had rules for everything. They fasted, they prayed, they visited the needy. It was quite a contrast to the wild ways of many other students at the university.

Then came graduation--with the usual question, what now? And about that time, the brothers heard of a need for missionaries to work among the First Nations people, over in America. Filled with great enthusiasm, they enlisted. It seemed a great opportunity to teach the heathen the right way to live, to pass on the many rules for good conduct they had developed in the Holy Club.

The voyage to America was a particularly stormy one. The ship was battered and beaten, and it rolled sickeningly, as each thundering wave threatened to send it to the bottom. The brothers were utterly terrified. But there was a group of passengers on board who hardly seemed to be affected at all by the prospect of being sent to a watery grave. They were Christian missionaries. They remained calm, and even cheerful in the tempest, often sitting together praying, or singing hymns of praise. Eventually the storm abated, and they reached the harbour safely. But Charles was greatly impressed with what he had seen and wondered what the missionaries’ secret was. “How can it be?” he thought.

Soon the two brothers launched themselves into what they believed to be their “mission.” They set about the task of making the Indian people obey all those rules they had followed so soberly in their university days. But the Indians did not see the value of it all, and their work was a failure. After one year, Charles took sick and the brothers were forced to return to England. They went back greatly discouraged.

Then Charles made contact with a group of Christians who held to similar beliefs to the missionaries he had met on the trip. And through their teaching he finally understood that the way to peace is not a “do” but a “done.” Not that good conduct was unimportant. But there was something needed first. Something deeper, and life-changing. It was not what he could do for God that would bring rest to his soul, but what Christ had already done for him on the cross. He learned that “Christ died for our sins” (I Cor. 15:3). He learned that when a person puts his faith in Christ, God credits the righteousness of Christ to his account, as a free gift of His grace (Rom. 3:20-21; II Cor. 5:21).

Three days later, his brother John made the same discovery. The two brothers--John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley-- then launched an evangelistic ministry that would be the greatest the English-speaking world has ever seen. And Charles wrote a hymn expressing his wonder at the love of God. We call it, “And Can It Be?”–an expression of utter amazement. It begins, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood? / Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? / Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Next Month: Some interesting thoughts on the star of Bethlehem? And what does the Bible mean by the kingdom of God?


With the month of February we will have another Valentine’s Day celebrating love and romance. Since the concept of love is much distorted by the world, it may be a good time to remind your congregation about the real thing. Perhaps you could build an entire worship service around the subject, preaching from a passage such as First Corinthians 13. There are some fine hymns on the theme: And Can It Be? (See the information on the hymn in this newsletter.); O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go; Jesus Loves Even Me (Bliss’s hymn is a favourite of mine.); My Jesus, I Love Thee (written by a Canadian teen-ager around 1862); More Love to Thee; and The Love of God (with the sublime poetry of that third verse).

And here is a Bible study on the human heart which you are welcome to use with your Sunday School class or study group: The Human Heart.

2) The best Bible study tool ever! At least, the best one I have ever discovered, is fully described on the website. Strictly speaking, this is not an idea for your church program but for you, personally. However, if you try it, you may want to share it with your Sunday School class or Bible study group. If a number of you begin using it and trading insights, you may be amazed at what will happen! See Best Bible Study Tool.

3) On the Website!--Interim Pastoral Ministry
Has the pastor of your church recently resigned? As well as beginning the search for a new undershepherd, have you considered the possibility of calling an interim man to minister for a shorter period of time? On the Wordwise website is an article called Interim Pastorates. Check out this practical material.

4) Also see, on the website, an article called 12 Keys to Good Music, giving you 12 biblical principles to evaluate the music in your life.

5) Is your church thinking of purchasing A NEW HYMN BOOK? Check out Choosing a Hymnal for Your Church on the website, for nearly three dozen excellent tips and ideas to help you make your choice.

6) Check out a Wordwise Bible study series to help seekers, or new Christians! A wonderful "review" for long-time believers as well! The free 10-part series is now available at Exploring Christianity.


This is a book about apologetics, which, as the author explains, does not mean making excuses or apologizing for the gospel. It means to defend with logical argument. If someone asks, “Why are you a Christian?” Or “How is it you can have peace and contentment under those conditions?” Peter says we are to “be ready to give a defense [in Greek apologia] to everyone who asks [us]” a reason for our hope (I Pet. 3:15).

The author Josh McDowell has spent over 30 years responding to questions about the Christian faith–especially from college students. This latest edition of his work brings two books together, providing over 700 pages of material to answer the skeptics. Topics dealt with in some depth: the authenticity and trustworthiness of the Bible itself, and the Person and work of Christ. Some useful material here. Check out The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

If you have a question or an idea to share, please go to the Wordwise website and use the question form.
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