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Wordwise Insight, Issue #042
June 14, 2008

WORDWISE INSIGHT is the free, informative monthly newsletter of


BIBLE INSIGHTS. The Traveller's Psalm; The Gospel Invitation, and more

READER Q & A. Jephthah's foolish vow; the meaning of terms like carnal, fleshly, etc., and more



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DISCUSSION BIBLE STUDIES ON THE BOOK OF JOB! There are 12 lessons in this unique series on an oft-neglected book. These will challenge your thinking in many ways. There is nothing else quite like this currently available on the book. Take a look at Job Studies.

Psalms 120 to 134 are known as Songs of Ascent, or Pilgrim Psalms. It is believed they were sung as pilgrims journeyed to Jerusalem for the holy festivals or feast days of Israel. (Since the city had a higher elevation than the surrounding terrain, people talked of going up (or ascending) to the holy city.)

The lovely 121st Psalm speaks of the travellers looking to the surrounding hills. That is where wild animals and thieves were lurking. Where could they look for help? (The second half of vs. 1 is likely a question, not as statement as the Authorized Version has it.) No help there. Only unknown dangers. But fortunately, the Creator of all was watching over His people, and He is ever-vigilant (vs. 2-4).

Though we may go through difficult times, we can be sure that nothing touches our lives as believers that God has not permitted, and that He will not ultimately turn to our good, and His eternal glory.

God protects His children...

1) From all enemies (vs. 1-2)

2) At all times (vs. 3-4)

3) In all circumstances (vs. 5-6)

4) For all time (vs. 7-8)

There is an incident in the Old Testament that is a bit of a puzzle in itself. But it does provide a lovely illustration of the gospel call to sinners today.

Delivered from Egypt, the Israelites spent time at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses was given God's Law. Then, the time came to move on. It is then we read, "Now Moses said to Hobab the son of Ruel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law, 'We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, "I will give it to you." Come with us, and we will treat you well; for the Lord has promised good things to Israel'" (Num. 10:29). The purpose of this request is later explained: "You know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes" (vs. 31).

The silence of God on this decision of Moses leaves us unsure of its propriety. For Hobab to be invited to join the company was one thing. Other non-Israelites had done that. (And Hobab's family seems to have remained with God's people, Jud. 1:16; 4:11.) But was not the Lord Himself the "eyes of Israel" (cf. II Chron. 16:9; Ps. 121:1-8; I Pet. 3:12)? Once before, Moses had gotten into difficulty by refusing to be the mouthpiece of God (Exod. 4:1-13). Is he now refusing to be their eyes?

Arno C. Gaebelein strongly criticizes Moses here, as does Harry Ironside. What need had the people for a human guide, with the Lord to direct them? The pillar of cloud and fire was a manifestation of God's presence, and they followed wherever it led them Exod. 13:21-22; 40:36-38). Notice in Numbers 10, vs. 33, "The ark of the covenant of the Lord went before search out a resting place for them." Is that not enough?

Jamieson, Faussett and Brown's commentary takes another point of view. They assert that while the ark pointed out the general direction Israel was to take, knowledge of watering holes and so on would be useful. Warren Wiersbe concurs, saying that just because the Lord has promised to guide us, that does not mean we are to ignore the advice of experienced people. Hobab, Moses' brother-in-law (the brother of his wife, Zipporah) knew the wilderness, and would be able to advise the people about day-to-day matters.

It is not entirely clear from the passage whether Hobab, after initially refusing to go along (vs. 30), changed his mind later and went. But the "so they departed" of vs. 33 seems to imply that he did. The later references in Judges to members of the family among the Israelites strengthens that possibility.

But Moses' appeal to his brother-in-law has a secondary application to the gospel invitation that is instructive. How is it that sinners are called to Christ?

1) A Personal Testimony. Christians are able to declare "we are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, 'I will give it to you.'" The Lord Jesus has gone to prepare a place where He will one day take us to dwell with Him (Jn. 14:2-3). Meantime, we are on a pligrimage. When we witness, we tell others about this, and how they may join with us.

2) A Biblical Foundation. Our pilgrimage is not a self-directed one. We are traveling through the wilderness of this world, according to the Word and will of God, and confident in His promise--"the Lord said." We do not call people to believe in us, or to join some human organization. We appeal to them on the authority of God's holy Word to follow Him.

3) A Sincere Invitation. "Come with us." In turning to Christ we each joined a great company of the saints. Some have already gone on before us. Others are still on the journey (cf. Eph. 3:14-15). In calling others to put their faith in Christ for salvation, we are also calling them to become part of the company of the committed.

4) A Pledge of Support. "We will treat you well" At the human level, evangelism requires follow-up. There needs to be a foundation of doctrine and practical help with such things as prayer and Bible study, if the new believer is to go on with the Lord. We read of those who turned to Christ, on the Day of Pentecost, that they were baptized (Acts 2:41), and "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread [likely a reference to the Lord's Supper], and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

5) The Promises of God. The assurance Moses gave Hobab we are able to give new converts--that "the Lord has promised good things." Along with the human support previously mentioned, the new believer must be encouraged to keep on feeding on the Word for himself, in order to grow (I Pet. 2:2). With Paul, we say, "I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32).

THE LEARNER-SERVANT PRINCIPLES. On the website there is an article about discipleship called The Learner-Servant Principles. Extensively referenced to Scripture, and with many diagrams, this material will give you a unique perspective on the subject. The seven basic principles are interconnected. They show the essence of discipleship as it is revealed in God’s Word, four key things God expects of us, and how sin contrasts with the four. As well, you will gain a helpful understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and walk in the Spirit. The framework described can also be used to analyze passage after passage in the Bible. Please study the material, put it to use, and pass it on!

TRUTH IN OUR TRIALS. Check out the extensive outline study on the subject of suffering at Truth About Suffering.

BIBLE STUDY SERIES ON PROPHECY! The subject of Bible prophecy is a fascinating one. This series of 12 discussion studies covering the major themes of prophecy will give you an opportunity to examine what God has planned for the future. To check it out, click on Prophecy Studies.


QUESTION: In the book of Judges, a judge named Jephthah makes a vow that seems to result in him offering up his daughter as a burnt offering! Did he actually do that?

ANSWER: Jephthah called upon God to give him and the Israelites victory over the Ammonites. He rashly vowed that if they were victorious he would offer up whatever came out of the door of his house first. The relevant text is, "Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me...I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Jud. 11:31), and "he carried out his vow" (vs. 39).

Some commentators seek to soften the outcome, suggesting the girl was, instead, committed to lifelong virginity, and devoted to ministry in the tabernacle–the way Anna later served in the temple (Lk. 2:37; cf. Exod. 38:8). But this is not the most natural reading of the text. Martin Luther's opinion was, "The text is too clear to admit of this interpretation."

That being said, there are points which seem to support one side or the other. And there will likely never be a satisfactory resolution to the question of whether Jephthah actually killed his daughter. Arguments against it can be explained, and those for it are inconclusive. My personal view is that the human sacrifice did take place--though it was certainly not done with God's approval.

It is important to keep the promises we make to God (Deut. 23:21). However, if a vow was foolish--and, therefore, possibly sinful to make--we are not under obligation to keep a vow that would involve us in sinning further against God. That would simply add one sin to another! In my view, we should seek God's gracious forgiveness for our foolish pledge (I Jn. 1:9), and determine to be more careful in making such promises in the future.

Here are the counter arguments regarding Jephthah's vow, discussed, one by one.

1) The Law forbad human sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5). And Jephthah appears to have had some knowledge of the Law (vs. 12-28).

¤ But these were lawless days, not always characterized by Law-keeping (17:6; 21:25). This weakens the argument that no priest would ever officiate at a human sacrifice.

2) There was an option in the Law of monetary redemption of human beings devoted to God (cf. Exod. 13:11-16; Num. 3:44-48).

¤ But Jephthah may not have known the Law well, since he grieved that he must do as he had said (vs. 35).

3) His vow was, clearly, that he was going to offer up something as a burnt offering (vs. 31). Surely he intended it to be an animal.

¤ (But see #4) There is no law or precedent for commuting such a vow to tabernacle/temple service, and we read "he carried out his vow" (vs. 39).

4) Animals may have been kept in the courtyard. In some ancient homes, they were even brought into the house itself, especially overnight, to protect them from thieves. And Jephthah must have had good reason to believe his daughter was elsewhere at this time (perhaps visiting a friend).

¤ But he was horribly mistaken. His daughter was at home.

5) Some suggest that God would not give victory on the basis of such a vow.

¤ But there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the vow itself. Jephthah did not vow to offer up his daughter.

6) Others object that there would hardly be an annual commemoration of a gross sin (vs. 40).

¤ But the memorial was of the death of Jephthah's daughter, not of his sin in sacrificing her.

7) Jephthah's daughter "bewailed her virginity" for two months–that it meant she could give her father no heir (vs. 38). That is what concerned them. Later, four days of mourning for her became an annual practice (vs. 40).

¤ But the memorial was rather an extreme measure to remember one who had simply gone to serve the Lord at the tabernacle (and could likely visit with her father from time to time). If such service was the custom in Israel, as it may have been (cf. I Sam. 2:22), it hardly seems to merit the extreme reaction of vs. 35-40.

8) What saddened her father was not her death, but the fact that she would remain childless, and his family line would come to an end (she being his only child, vs. 34).

¤ But her death would also mean she died childless!

9) The idea of child sacrifice was surely repugnant to the Israelites.

¤ But child sacrifice happened many times in Israel, certainly later (II Kgs. 3:27; 16:3; 17:17; II Chron, 33:6; Jer. 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). Jephthah, the son of a prostitute (vs. 1), lived in a semi-pagan environment, in a time of great lawlessness, and he was associated with a band of "worthless men" (vs. 3). This kind of "honour code" is what we might expect from cruel and violent men.

10) Jephthah had a measure of faith in God (cf. Heb. 11:32), and the Spirit of God is said to have worked through him (vs. 29).

¤ But the same can be said for immoral Samson whom God used.

QUESTION: Richard asks, "What's the difference, if any, in the terms 'carnal', 'flesh' and 'old man'?"

ANSWER: Thanks for the good question, Richard. The terms you have listed certainly are related, though not necessarily synonymous. And we could add some others, such as worldly, sensual, the natural man, and the Adamic nature. These words and phrases represent key spiritual truths about the desperate plight of the unsaved, and the dangerous potential for believers who are not living as they should. Let's see if we can sort it all out a bit.

1) THE NATURAL or SENSUAL PERSON. "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14). ("Natural" translates the Greek word psuchikos, from which we get our word psychology. It refers to the soul--the mind will and emotions--of the person, as opposed to his God-energized spirit. We could call this individual a soulish person.) The natural man is one who was born naturally (i.e. physically) but who has never been born again, and therefore is still "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1, 5). He is severely limited when it comes to understanding and applying spiritual truth, since this ability is given to those indwelt and taught by the Holy Spirit (vs. 12-13).

The word "sensual" is also used to translate psuchikos. It refers to that which pertains to the old, unregenerate nature. "The apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ...told you there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts, these are sensual [psuchikos, or soulish] persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit" (Jude 1:17-19). And if they do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, they are not Christians (Rom. 8:9). But it is possible for a born again believer to yield to temptation and somtimes act in a soulish way. James warns, "If you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual [psuchikos], demonic" (Jas. 3:14-15, and see the context, vs. 13-18).

2) THE OLD MAN is an expression used three times in the New Testament. (It is sometimes described as the ADAMIC NATURE by theologians.) These terms speak of the corrupt fallen nature we inherited from Adam. When we put our faith in Christ, the "old man" is considered to have been crucified in Christ. "Our old man was crucified with Him" (Rom. 6:6). "You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God....You have put off the old man with his deeds" (Col. 3:3, 9).

As to our legal position (or standing) before God, the old man has been dealt with. But as to our condition (or state) in daily experience, the old man or Adamic nature continues to be an active force that can only be controlled as we reject its promptings and walk in the Spirit. Each Christian has a responsibility to "Put off...the old man...and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and...put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph. 4:22-24; cf. Rom. 12:2).

This conflict in the Christian between the old Adamic nature, and the new nature energized by the Holy Spirit, will continue until we go to be with Christ and are transformed into His likeness (I Jn. 3:2; cf. Col. 1:27). The struggle is captured in Paul's words, "What I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (Rom. 7:15). "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another; so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Gal. 5:17).

The answer, if the Christian is to live a victorious life, is submitting to the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is described by the twin terms of walking in the Spirit, and being filled with the Spirit.

¤ "Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). This "walk" refers to daily and habitual steps of faith and obedience toward God. That is our responsibility, by His enabling grace.

¤ The word "filled" is perhaps better translated "fulfilled"--another meaning for the Greek word pleroo. (Cf. "He who loves another has fulfilled [pleroo] the law," Rom. 13:8.). Thus, "Be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18) could be paraphrased, "Be being fulfilled by the Spirit, allowing Him to fulfil His sovereign purpose in you, by His divine power."

These two realities of the Christian life are expressed in a little different way in Philippians 2:12-13. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [live out what God has equipped you to be, by an ongoing walk of faith and obedience], for it is God who works in you [filling and fulfilling] both to will and to do for His good pleasure."

3) FLESH & CARNAL. The Greek word (sarx) is most often translated "flesh," though occasionally it is rendered "carnal." Sometimes physical flesh and blood (the physical body) necessarily is in view. (For example, we are told that Christ "was born of the seed of David according to the flesh," Rom. 1:3.) But when it is used in an ethical or theological sense, it refers to the human nature, or earthly nature of man, apart from God's intervention and influence. The flesh in that sense is spiritually impotent, and prone to sin. Further, it tends to be self-centred, and opposed to God. Paul recognizes that when he says, "In my flesh nothing good dwells" (Rom. 7:18).

When we are saved, through faith in Christ, we are no longer living in the sphere of the flesh but in the sphere of the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). However, the flesh (the old, sinful human nature) is still within us, and we have a choice whether to respond to the flesh, thus walking according to the flesh, or to respond to the Holy Spirit, walking in the Spirit. This is the difference between a spiritual Christian and a "carnal" (sarx) Christian. To be saved is to be rightly related to Christ. To be a spiritual Christian is to be rightly related to the Holy Spirit. "Walk in the Spirit [controlled and guided by the Holy Spirit], and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16; cf. Rom. 8:4).

Paul condemns some in the church at Corinth because of their carnality. He does not deny that they are born again, but labels their behaviour as spiritually infantile. "I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ [i.e. as to those who are still spiritually immature]. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it...for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men [i.e. acting as unsaved individuals would]?"(I Cor. 3:1-3).

4) WORLD, WORLDLY. This is another word (kosmos in Greek) that can be used in a physical or spiritual sense. It can refer to the earth, or to the people living on our planet ("God so loved the world... " Jn. 3:16). But in the spiritual and ethical sense it speaks of this corrupt world system, dominated by Satan. In that usage we are warned, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world--the lust of the flesh [sarx], the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever" (I Jn. 2:15-17). Instead, we should be those who, "denying ungodliness and worldly soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Tit. 2:12).

SEEKING A NEW PASTOR for your church? Check out the Pastoral Questionnaire.

BIBLE STUDY: Available now on the Wordwise website is a discussion Bible study on The Lord's Prayer. Why not check it out at The Lord's Prayer.



The dictionary defines "passion" as an extreme and compelling emotion. North Americans have many great passions–for making money, watching sports, gambling, consuming alcohol, and for sexual excess. But what about those of us committed to Christ? Do we feel strongly enough about it that it molds and motivates our behaviour? Recent polls reveal a disturbing trend. In many cases, the goals and desires that animate professing Christians are not much different from those of unbelievers. That suggests the Christianity of many is only skin deep!

It was not like that for the Apostle Paul. Everything was invested in his service for Christ. But, within that broader aim, he had one particular "passion" he testifies to a number of times. As a converted Jew, he was especially concerned for the spiritual needs of his own people. He saw they had "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). Instead of claiming God's gift of salvation by faith, they were striving to find acceptance with God through good works, or relying on the privileged place their ancestry gave them.

Paul himself had tried that and found it wanting. He knew with certainty that salvation is "not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:9), and "not by works of righteousness which we have done" (Tit. 3:5). It comes through personal faith in the finished work of Christ, and that alone (Jn. 3:16; 14:6). So Paul was deeply concerned for his kin. It was not their Jewishness that was the problem. He was respectful of the heritage he shared with them. But he knew that outside of Christ his Jewish brethren were eternally lost, no matter how religious and moral they might be. With that realization, he became passionate about getting the gospel to the Jews.

On his various missionary journeys, Paul made it a point to visit local synagogues along the way. There, he preached about Christ to the assembly. Some responded positively, others did not. But he had done what he could. He tells us, "My heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved" (Rom. 10:1). In other words, what would give him the greatest delight and satisfaction was their salvation. But he also confesses, "I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart....for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh" (Rom. 9:2-3). Those who came to Christ brought him joy, but the ones who continued to reject Him were a heavy burden on his heart day by day. He was passionate about it.

Near the beginning of the twentieth century, a young Bible college student named Herbert George Tovey (1888-1972) prayed the Lord would grant him that very thing, a high and holy calling about which he could be passionate. He turned his prayer into a hymn, published in 1914, called "A Passion for Souls" One of Tovey's music teachers at the college (Moody Bible Institute) provided the tune. And God answered that prayer. Herbert Tovey went on to a long and fruitful ministry for the Lord Jesus, both as a pastor and a Christian musician. His hymn is a prayer: "Give me a passion for souls, dear Lord, a passion to save the lost; / O that Thy love were by all adored, and welcomed at any cost." The chorus says, "Jesus, I long, I long to be winning / Men who are lost, and constantly sinning; / O may this hour be one of beginning / The story of pardon to tell."

What about you and me? Do we tend to be indifferent to the desperate plight of those who do not know Christ--especially among our own neighbours and kinfolk? Or do we share Paul's burdened heart? What if we were to pray, "Give me a passion for souls"? What could the Lord accomplish in our community and beyond it with Christians possessed of such a holy passion?

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.

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.

Check out EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY, 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.

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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