Introduction to part 3:
Teach me your way
This part is about the third word of advice Jethro offers Moses, in which he says: ‘show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave’ (Exodus 18:20). Here, Jethro is talking about the task of teaching the people of God. Teaching focuses on the practical application in daily life of that which has been preached. In the Bible, teaching always centres on practising what we preach.
In the worldwide church, this teaching is known as discipleship. How can we live our lives as disciples of Jesus? How can we grow in following Christ? What does it mean to be a child of the Father? These things require knowledge of what the faith is really all about, and instruction as to how to put this knowledge into practice day by day. Discipleship combines our creed with our conduct; it deals with what we believe and what we do. That is what this part of the Pastors’ Manual is all about: what do you teach your people in order to help them grow as disciples of Jesus. You can present the many questions in this section to your congregation when you teach them these lessons and you can also use them to go deeper into these lessons yourself.
The teaching of the Christian Church
If we want to catch a glimpse of what God meant his church to be like, the best place to look is the early Christian church. Right after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, a large group of about 3,000 people came to faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41). They were baptised and began to come together in a large number of home churches. Led by the Spirit, they practised discipleship together. They functioned the way Jesus wants his church to function.
Acts 2:42-47 tells us what they did after they had come to faith and had started serving Jesus together. The first thing we read about them is that they ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’ (Acts 2:42). The first thing the Spirit led them to do was to learn. You might say that on that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem with 3,000 students, and the twelve apostles as their teachers.
The Bible often calls the Holy Spirit the ‘Spirit of truth’. Where the Spirit of truth is at work, there is a focus on discovering the truth. And it turns out the Spirit used apostles for this purpose. They had sat at the feet of Jesus, and now the believers were to sit at the feet of the apostles, to learn from them. The apostles’ teachings were handed down to us in the New Testament. This means we, too, can discover God’s truth. What a privilege it is to be enrolled in the school of the Holy Spirit. Teaching is very important for the church. Acts 2:42 shows us that a living church, first of all, is a learning church!
The apostolic teachings have been preserved and passed on since the days of the apostles. Throughout the entire history of the church, certain central themes that sum up the teachings of the Bible keep recurring. You could say that the teachings of the church of Christ centre on three major themes. Those who came to faith in the early church were instructed in these themes before being baptised and accepted as members of the congregation. The themes form a triad: faith-obedience-prayer. In the great revival of the church in the West following the Middle Ages, also known as the Reformation, these themes were restored to their central position. They point believers to the heart of the Christian faith and of living with Jesus.
The first theme is ‘faith’. Every believer should have a clear understanding of what faith really involves and what it is, precisely, that we believe. It is important for your own life with God, but it is also important as you face a world that does not believe. You cannot give account of your faith (1 Peter 3:15) if you don’t have the words, if you lack a clear understanding of what you believe about God and why. This is why the first theme in Christian teaching centres on the faith we adhere to as Christians. This teaching is based on the oldest and most well-known summary of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed.
Christian teaching does not merely focus on knowledge, but also on learning to walk with God, to actually follow Jesus obediently. The best way to stay close to him and to remain in his love is to keep his commands. Jesus says this himself in John 15:9-10. The Ten Commandments, in particular, were given to show the people of Israel and the church of Christ how to stay close to God’s heart and within his will. Jesus says he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). These are the laws given to teach God’s people and the church of Jesus how to live in a loving relationship with God and our neighbour. So if you wish to put the Apostles’ Creed into practice, you will need the Ten Commandments. For this reason, we will look more closely at the Ten Commandments in the second section of this book on Christian teaching. The
Bible offers a wonderful promise to those who instruct others in the Ten Commandments: ‘but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19b).
The third central theme in Christian teaching is ‘prayer’. A Christian has his daily life with God, in which he makes choices that are different from those made by non-believers. But on top of that, he also enjoys spiritual communion with God. Every believer who desires to stay close to Jesus must have this personal fellowship with God in order to keep the faith and to grow in it. It is the same in marriage: on top of the daily routine of living together, you need to have regular moments in your relationship when you look into one another’s eyes and share what is on your heart. Jesus talks about going into your room to spend time in personal prayer with the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:6). Prayer is the key element in your spiritual life. It is vital for every believer to learn to lead a life of prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’, Jesus answered by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. This is why in this book we will be looking at our spiritual walk through the lens of the Lord’s Prayer.
This triad of themes – faith, obedience, prayer – offers us a biblical foundation for expounding the basic tenets of the Christian faith, the daily following of Christ, and spiritual communion with God in the church of Christ.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy, apostolic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
What is believing?
Before looking at what we believe as Christians with the Apostolic Creed, we must ask ourselves what it actually means to believe. The Apostles’ Creed begins with the words ‘I believe…’ An old book on reformed doctrine, the Heidelberg Catechism, puts it this way (in my own words):
To believe is not only to know for certain that what the Bible says is true, but also to trust that through the suffering and death of Jesus my sins are forgiven and I am a child of God for ever. The Holy Spirit places this trust in my heart.
Assignment: Memorise those two sentences!
To believe, then, is a matter of the mind, of our thinking. To believe is to know for certain. It is a deep assurance that when you are reading the Bible you are not reading some random book written by humans, but that straight through the words, cultures and history it reflects, God is speaking to you. You read the Bible and you know God is speaking to you directly.
But unlike Islam, the Christian faith is not a book religion. At the centre of our faith we do not find a book, but we find the One to whom our Holy Scriptures testify. Luther said, ‘Holy Scripture is the crib in which Jesus lies.’ Jesus Himself put it this way: ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life’ (John 5:39). The Bible is the most common route by which God comes to us. God makes himself known to us through his Word. His purpose is not for us to worship the Bible, but to follow Jesus, who speaks to us in the Bible, offering us His love.
But faith is more than having certainty about God and the Bible. It also means trusting firmly that God loves not only other people, but you, too. To believe is to be touched by the love of Jesus, to receive the invitation He holds out to you in the Bible and to say ‘yes’ to it. Believing is daring to take the leap: it means jumping into the outstretched arms of God, the way a child jumps into his father’s arms. To believe is to entrust yourself, heart and soul, to God. It means giving your life to Him, so that He can save you, change you and lead you. So faith is not just a deep conviction about the Bible being the Word of God, it also means responding to God’s love with your whole heart and soul.
I believe in God the Father
In the Bible, God has made Himself known to us. To find out who God is, we can look at the names He uses to introduce himself. The first name we come across is Yahweh. God uses this name to present himself to Moses in Exodus 3. It means ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I will always be.’ The name tells us that God is faithful and will always be with us, no matter what. Another name is Adonai, which suggests God is our Lord, our Master. He is the Creator, we belong to him. In Psalm 100:3, the psalmist sings about this: ‘It is he who made us, and we are his.’ Another name for God in the Bible is El Shaddai, the Almighty. This name tells us that God knows no boundaries, no limitations, all is subject to his power: the angels, creation, mankind, and also Satan and his demons. God will always have the final say. The Lord reigns!
The name most commonly used for God is Father. It begins back in the Old Testament, for instance in Isaiah 63:16: ‘But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.’ In this text, the fatherhood of God is linked to His role as protector. A father represents safety and protection. With God we are secure, He will not lose control.
But it is the New Testament, especially, that reveals God the Father to us – through Jesus. Jesus calls God his Father, He is God’s Son. The wonderful gospel message is that through Jesus whoever believes in God will be adopted as His child. Paul exclaims this in Romans 8:15 and 16: ‘…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.’ God is Father, and this name reflects His love, protection, care and guidance throughout our lives. A father stands for authority and love. God is placed above us, but is also with us in everything. A father will do anything for his child. This is why God says: ‘Call me Father’ (Jeremiah 3:19). It is important to remember that God is not like an earthly father, but that earthly fathers must seek to be like God the Father!
The Father of Jesus Christ longs to be my Father also. By his grace I may become His precious son or daughter, just as Jesus is. Jesus loves me as much as God loves his Son Jesus (John 15:9).
The fact that God calls himself Father and Jesus introduces himself as God’s Son leads us to another important fact we must know about God. In the church we call it the Trinity. God has revealed Himself as the only and unique God. There is no other god beside him. In Deuteronomy 6:4, Moses, speaking on behalf of God, puts it as follows: ‘Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.’ So there is only one God. Yet the Bible speaks of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. All three are God. They are inseparable, a unity, and yet they are three ‘persons’. From the very start, the church has struggled to find words for this mystery. It is a beautiful revelation given to us by God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit all have our salvation and renewal in mind – each in his own way. We will never be able to capture God in a system, but the Bible does reveal something of this mystery to us. Perhaps the most beautiful glimpse we are given of the Holy Trinity is at the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan (Matthew 3:16-17): ‘As soon as Jesus was baptised, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.”’ These three persons are so united that wherever the Father is, the Son and the Spirit are also.
Perhaps you could compare the Trinity to the fingers on your hand: they are all different and can do different things, yet together they make up a single hand, they are inseparable. In the same manner, the Father, the
Son and the Spirit are one. So they are not three different gods, but one God who has manifested himself to us in three ‘persons’: God the Father above us, God the Son beside us, and God the Spirit within us. The more we get to know God and see His greatness and glory as Father, Son and Spirit, the more we realize we will never in our earthly lives grasp this, that all we can do is sing His praises, as Paul does: ‘to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen’ (Romans 16:27).
The omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth
The confession of the church regarding God the Father is that He is omnipotent. No one stands above Him and all things are subject to His sovereignty. Nothing is impossible with God. This is demonstrated in two main ways: we see God’s power in the creation of heaven and earth, and we see God’s power in his unending care for us.
In Genesis 1, we read about how God created the heavens and the earth. To create, literally, means to make something from nothing. In Genesis 1, we see God’s creation gradually unfold. He begins with separating the heavens from the earth. The earth, at first, was a kind of formless substance. In the next phase, God began to give form and content to the earth. In a period of six days God then created our entire reality. God created a universe so great and so beautiful that we now know that even with all the knowledge we have amassed, we have only discovered a tiny fraction of the whole. Also, His creation is so complex and ingenious that every new discovery arouses a new sense of amazement in us.
Because of our inability to grasp it all, people look for all kinds of rational explanations. However, Hebrews 11:3 clearly states that only ‘by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command.’ God spoke and it came into being. The Bible does not offer a historical, physical or biological account. The creation story was never meant as a scientific report. It was written as a confession of faith, a song of praise to the Creator in which His creative acts are confessed. Genesis 1 and 2 show us the bigger picture, which is quite clear throughout Scripture: God created this reality, he created space and time with the purpose of dwelling with us, His people. And He allows us to share in His love. Earth was prepared for us, so that, like Adam and Eve, we might live on this earth and walk with God upon it. We are to ‘work it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15) and to enjoy its beauty and its fruits.
The great drama of history is that this good creation was broken by the fall of man. Adam and Eve, being tempted by Satan, desired to become like God. From that moment on, there is a fissure running through all of reality, separating God and us and separating people from one another; it even runs through each person’s individual life. What was once harmonious and full of love is now damaged and broken. But right after the fall God demonstrated that He is not only loving, but also remains faithful forever. He did not let go of His plan for mankind and creation. He continues, straight through the brokenness of sin and death, to move toward the fulfilment of His purposes with all creation. And His purpose is that one day we will be with Him in a perfect world, in His kingdom that will have no end. There, God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). Because God did not want to let go of sinful man and our broken world, but wanted to repair the damage, He sent his Son. Even to this day, God remains faithful to what He created. This is the second way in which we see His omnipotence: He cares for us and is leading His creation towards His eternal kingdom.
God and suffering
God’s ongoing care for His people and His creation is wonderfully comforting. But it also often raises difficult questions. God’s faithfulness means He will not let go of this world or of me, and that ultimately He holds everything in His hands. This comforts me at times when I feel evil rules this world, or that sickness and death have the final word, that persecution and violence and poverty have free rein. No, says Jesus in Matthew 10:29-31: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more
than many sparrows.’ This is deeply comforting when we are going through trials we do not understand, or times of pain and suffering. God is faithful, He is there. Yet at the same time, we want God to use his omnipotence to solve our problems for us, to spare us difficulties…
If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He end all the suffering and brokenness we see? The Bible tells us two things about this. First, it shows us how God, all through history, carries out His own plan with the people of Israel. He keeps the bigger picture in view, and His involvement with His creation and His people continues, even when we cannot see it. When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, and later when they were exiled and all seemed lost, they sorrowfully hung their harps on the willows. But again and again, God proves Himself faithful to His promises and carries on. We often do not know why we must go through the depths, but we do know that in these depths God is fulfilling His purposes. We see this throughout the whole Bible.
The clearest evidence we have of God’s faithfulness to us is Jesus. Rather than leaving us to save ourselves, or each other, God sent his Son. If there is one place and time in history that reveals God’s faithfulness and care for us more than any other, it is when Jesus was hanging on the cross. Jesus did not come merely to share in our brokenness and suffering, but also to give us a way out. He led the way through suffering and death to God’s kingdom for all who believe in Him. Thanks to Jesus and together with Him, we can endure suffering on this earth. We know that with Him we can make it – and that one day there will be an end to sin, suffering and death. A new and glorious morning will dawn. A day of eternal joy in God’s kingdom. All will be perfect. This earth will once again be perfect, our lives will be perfect, all will be well. God is faithful, He will care for us and guide us, even if we do not always see or understand what is going on. He will not abandon the works of His hands!
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are described in the four gospels. The first three – Matthew, Mark and Luke – form a unity, as each one offers a brief biography of Jesus. Each of these three writers does this in his own way and his own style, with distinctive emphases and with his own group of readers in mind. While these three focus primarily on the words and actions of Jesus and the events that marked His life, the gospel of John is more meditative, taking more time to reflect on Christ’s words, actions and experiences.
Son of God
The first statement the church makes about Jesus in its Apostles’ Creed is that He is the Son of God. Jesus is God. But the words ‘only’ emphasise the uniqueness of the relationship between God and Jesus: they are in and of each other, they belong to each other, and they are one with the Holy Spirit. There is a bond of love between Father and Son. We find this echoed in John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Nothing is more precious and glorious than the love between the Father and the Son. This makes it all the more incomprehensible that God let his beloved Son go in order to save us!
We also catch a glimpse of their relationship at Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and at his transfiguration on the mountain. God speaks audibly from heaven, saying: ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17). Jesus is God’s Son, and throughout his earthly life he remained fully God. At times this fact was quite evident, for instance in the miracles he performed, in the authority with which he spoke, when he calmed the sea, in his knowledge of people’s thoughts, and in his power over demons, who recognised him as God’s Son. In John 14:30, Jesus himself says that ‘the prince of this world’, the devil, has no hold over him. He is stronger and mightier than Satan.
The wonder of it all is that Jesus deliberately laid down His divine glory, which regularly shines through in His words and actions. God knew we could not save ourselves from the power of sin and death. Because of this, someone without sin was needed to free us from captivity, someone willing to join sides with us. What was needed was someone willing to descend to the depths to which we have sunk as human beings. You cannot normally save a drowning person without jumping into the water yourself. This is what Jesus did for us.
Paul rejoices in this in Philippians 2:6-8: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!’ The Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, became a human being like us. But it did not make him any less the Son of God. A king who takes up his abode in a slum and begins to live, think and feel like a pauper is still a king, even if no one recognises him as such.
Conceived by the Spirit, born of the virgin Mary
Jesus remained God’s Son throughout his earthly life, yet he also became truly human, sharing in our feelings, thoughts, sorrows and disappointments. We cannot go far enough in imagining Jesus’ manhood. This is why the church, in the Apostles’ Creed, confesses that Jesus was ‘conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.’ It was God’s work, He is of divine descent, yet He was born in the flesh, just as every other human being is born in this world. As a man, He was as vulnerable as we are, He grew up like we do, played like our children do, went to the toilet, washed Himself, knew hunger and thirst, could laugh and have fun or cry, or get angry. And… until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at His baptism in the Jordan, He was unable to perform miracles or other unusual acts. Jesus speaks about this in John 5:19: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself…’ As long as God’s Spirit did not empower Him, Jesus remained powerless on earth – that’s how human, how dependent He was. All the signs and miracles attributed to Him were performed in the power of the Spirit God had given Him.
If there is one place and time in which we see just how human He was during his lifetime here on earth, it is in Gethsemane. There His soul was ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ (Matthew 26:38) and He begged his disciples to stay with Him, confessing to them that ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41). At this time He also begged his Father: ‘if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me’ (Matthew 26:39). Jesus was so afraid that at that moment He wished he could abandon the road He was on. Even so He surrendered to his Father, saying, ‘Yet not as I will, but as you will’ (Matthew 26:39). In Luke’s gospel, we read that He then continued on the road of suffering and was in so much anguish that ‘His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:44). Jesus is completely human and as such undergoes His sufferings on our behalf.
This same Jesus, all God and all man, we worship as our Lord. He who gave His life for us, choosing to become a man in order to save us, is the one to whom we entrust ourselves in this life and for all eternity. We invite Him to direct our paths and to lead us. He is everything to us.
I believe in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell
The heart of the message of the Bible is that God, in His amazing love for us, decided to reconcile the world and mankind to himself following the separation caused by sin. He will save us and restore us to the purpose for which he originally created us. That purpose was and is for us – and for all of creation – to live peacefully and joyfully with God, each other and all other created things. We cannot save ourselves from the power of sin. Neither could Israel, by keeping God’s commands. Therefore, God Himself had to come over to our side and pay the debt. The Judge has paid the penalty He Himself imposed! Paul expresses this beautifully in 2 Corinthians 5:19: ‘God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.’
Redemption from our sins
The road of reconciliation that Jesus travelled for God and for us was a road of humiliation, suffering, death and descent into hell. It is the road each person living without God would eventually have to travel. He died for me, so that I may now live with God. The suffering and death of Jesus were not just physical. He suffered most from taking upon Him the punishment for sin. This punishment is that we should be cut off from God for ever. This is why Jesus’ suffering is at its most intense when we hear Him cry out on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). At that moment, all our sins were laid upon His shoulders, He carried with Him all the evil of this world. He who had been declared innocent by Pontius Pilate took our guilt in order to pay for it with his own life on the cross.
Isaiah prophesied about Jesus as the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah 53:5, saying: ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ In this way Jesus travelled the road of suffering and dying without God, in our place. But as he was about to die, He knew He was to triumph over sin, the devil and death. So He called out: ‘It is finished!’ Reconciliation between God and man was now a fact, the debt had been paid, it was over. With that cry on His lips, Jesus died, committing His spirit into the hands of His Father. Jesus died because He chose to take our death upon Himself. He was buried in order to break through the finality of the grave, which always seems to have the last word.
In its confession of Jesus’ suffering and death, the church also states that He descended into hell. This means that no matter how low we may sink, no matter how badly the powers of hell may torment us, we need never be without Jesus. In Psalm 139:8, David sings about this: ‘If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (of hell), you are there.’
Through His suffering and death, Jesus restored our relationship with God, opening the way to life for all who believe in him. But something else happened on the cross as well: it was there that He overcame the power of the devil and the power of sin. Since His death on Calvary, the devil no longer holds our lives in his power. We may still feel his power and notice the presence of sin, but with Jesus we can resist and overcome the devil and sin. Paul says in Romans 6:11-12: ‘In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.’ Ever since Jesus’ victory on the cross, we have the freedom to choose. Through Him and with Him we can really resist and overcome sinful thoughts, words and actions. We are no longer slaves to the power of sin, but we are children of God. It is no longer sin that rules over our lives, but Jesus. As we become aware of this and entrust ourselves
to Him, we will discover that we can indeed ‘overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). In this way, Jesus, through His suffering and death, has the final word in our lives!
I believe in Jesus Christ, who on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, from which He will return to judge the living and the dead
Risen from the dead
After Jesus spent three days in the grave, the greatest and most beautiful miracle ever took place. This miracle was the turning point in the history of mankind and the world. Jesus Christ rose from the dead! If that had not happened, our sins would have been forgiven thanks to the cross, but we would have remained captive for ever to our old way of life. But Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of a new life with God. The Bible speaks of a new creation. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul says: ‘ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!’ This ‘new’ life is a life anchored in God’s love and power, a life through the Holy Spirit. It is a life in which the peace and joy of the kingdom are already manifested.
Jesus did not rise on this side of the grave, but on ‘the other side’. He did not rise like Lazarus did, to carry on living as before. He rose as a new creation, with a body created for eternity, no longer restricted by time and space. That’s why He could be here one moment and somewhere else the next. It explains how He could enter a room through a closed door (John 20:19). Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the new life with God, a life no longer subject to sin and death, but led by God’s Spirit. It is a life with Jesus that begins here and will continue for all eternity. To us who believe, death is no longer a wall at which every life is brought to a halt, but a doorway into a glorious future with God.
This is why the church rejoices so much on Easter morning. Jesus triumphed over death, God raised him to a new life with Himself that morning. Through the ages this fact has been denied by many, including the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. But the many eyewitnesses who testified to his resurrection were not lying. And we who believe in Jesus are aware every day that He is not dead, but alive and reigning.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Pauls deals extensively with the resurrection, explaining why it is so wonderful for us. In verse 20, he writes: ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep.’ For us who believe, Jesus’ resurrection means that we, too, will one day rise from the dead – not after three days, but when Jesus returns. On Easter morning, many believers go to cemeteries to stand among the gravestones singing and rejoicing in the resurrection. One day, on the new earth, we will have resurrection bodies like Jesus has, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15. We will be recognisable, but we will no longer experience limitations or commit sins.
Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we can experience that new life with him today. It is an amazing and wonderful experience to sense a peace within your heart that surpasses understanding. To have a deep joy in the midst of brokenness. These are foretastes of the future awaiting us. The victory has been secured, but God’s full restoration of creation has not yet been completed. This is why our life with Jesus has its ups and downs, and we still often stumble.
Ascended into heaven
Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus went back to heaven, saying goodbye to His disciples. But Jesus had told them before: ‘it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you’ (John 16:7). This Advocate, or Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit, can live in each person’s heart.
Jesus’ ascension was a farewell for His disciples, but also a glorious entry for Him into heaven. Before He ascended, Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him by the Father (Matthew 28:18). Revelation 5 shows us what this means. Having been banned to the island of Patmos, John had a vision in which he heard a voice proclaiming in heaven: ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ (verse 2). This is the scroll containing God’s wonderful plan for creation and for mankind, the plan of God’s kingdom. But the question is followed by silence. No one is able to release this kingdom. At that moment, Jesus appears before John’s eyes and before the throne of God. It is the moment of Jesus’ ascension and He appears as ‘a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’ (verse 6). Then come these beautiful words: ‘He (the Lamb) went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne’ (verse 7). Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God, from where He reigns over heaven and earth and is busy establishing the kingdom of God, in people, in churches and in more and more places all over the world.
Jesus is the conqueror, He reigns. As of yet, His reign remains hidden: He guides our lives, leads His church and rules over the world, but His rule is not immediately visible. He reigns in a broken world, in which sin, sickness, death and Satan continue to wreak havoc. But through it all, He will have His way with us and with the church. He even said in a parable that the good seed and the weeds will grow up together until the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).
The day of harvest will be the day on which Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. This judgement of the world and of all people will be the final step preceding the breakthrough of His kingdom. Jesus says two things about this judgement. First, we read in John 3:18 that whoever believes in him will not be condemned. Jesus underwent that condemnation in our place on the cross. When Jesus returns as Judge, we will see that our Judge is also our Saviour! Of course, this does not mean we can live any way we want. When he judges the living and the dead, Jesus will want to know whether we took his love and grace seriously. This is stated clearly in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, where Paul teaches us that Jesus is the foundation of our eternal life. So it is certain that we will enter God’s kingdom, but the state in which different people enter will vary. At the final judgement, God will look at how we handled the love and grace we received from Jesus and how it affected our lives. Did we take Jesus seriously, was He able to give us much of his Spirit, or not? Did we allow Him to lead us in what we did and didn’t do? This is what Paul means when he speaks of building with gold, silver and costly stones, or wood, hay and straw.
James (2:26) tells us faith without works is dead. If we believe, we must put our faith into practice in daily life. Matthew 25 shows us what God desires to see in us: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, taking in strangers, clothing the naked, visiting sick people and prisoners. Jesus says: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40).
I believe in the Holy Spirit
From the very first page of the Bible we read about the Holy Spirit. ‘The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’, it says in Genesis 1:2. In the Old Testament we often encounter the Spirit, but He manifests himself exclusively to small numbers of people, and usually only for short periods of time. For example, the designers of the tabernacle, groups of prophets, Samson, King Saul and King David. God’s Spirit gives these people insight into what is happening or what is going to happen. He gives them wisdom for a certain task or equips them to perform a specific assignment. The Spirit shows up here and there, now and then, sporadically.
That changes radically in the New Testament. Jesus told His disciples it was a good thing He was going back to heaven, because it meant the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Counsellor, could come. He is always with us. And at His ascension, Jesus instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, saying: ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
Fifty days after Easter, during the great harvest feast in the temple in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit appears. Then God’s purposes on earth and with us becomes clear. For one thing, the Spirit now no longer appears sporadically, but there is an outpouring. Ever since the first day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God has no longer been only for Israel and a few other individuals, but He moves throughout the whole world, touching people everywhere and causing them to come to faith in Jesus. Whoever believes receives the Holy Spirit, for ‘no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:3). The moment a person receives the Spirit, his or her body becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). That means the Spirit of God dwells within us, seeking to change us from the inside out, to the glory of God. He helps us become more and more like Jesus! Jesus says this about the work of the Spirit in us: ‘He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from Me that He will receive what He will make known to you’ (John 16:13-14). The sole purpose of the Spirit, then, is more of Jesus in our lives. In the church we call this ‘sanctification’. He helps us to recognise and confess our sins, to really focus on God in all aspects of our lives, to be one with Jesus. We can do none of that in our own strength, so the Spirit helps us.
How? The Bible offers several clues. It starts with the feast of Pentecost, when the Spirit´s appearance is accompanied by wind, fire and many languages. The Spirit is like the wind, Jesus tells us in John 3: ‘You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going’ (verse 8). You can tell the Spirit of God has touched you by the fact that you begin to read the Bible differently, to pray differently, to love Jesus more and more.
The second sign of the Spirit at the feast of Pentecost was the appearance of tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples. The Spirit sets us ablaze, He ignites the love of God within us. Listen to what the disciples said who met Jesus on their journey to Emmaus following His resurrection: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’ (Luke 24:32) That is the work of the Spirit.
The third thing that happened on the feast of Pentecost was that the disciples began to ‘declare the wonders of God’ in ‘other tongues’ (Acts 2). The Spirit enabled them to communicate the gospel of Jesus, God’s Word, clearly and comprehensibly.
Filled with the Spirit
The Spirit, then, makes sure that everything Jesus did for us becomes reality in our lives. The Spirit is given to all believers, yet not every believer is full of Jesus. How can this be? It is because we can grieve, quench or resist the Spirit (see, for example, Ephesians 4:30). David did this once by sinning with Bathsheba. In Psalm 51, he laments this period in his life and pleads with God: ‘Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me’ (verses 11-12).
So it is possible to drive the Spirit away from your life. If that has happened, the only means of restoration is to confess your guilt and ask for forgiveness. There were two signs telling David the Spirit was absent from his life. First, there was no joy in his heart – that deep joy of knowing you’re a child of the Father and that in God you have been given all you need. The Spirit gives that joy. Second, David missed a steadfast spirit. This means being free of doubt and fear, because you know nothing can separate you from the love of Christ – that he is with you and will carry you, no matter what you’re going through. The Spirit shows us these things. And these are the things David missed.
The fullness of the Spirit is available to everyone who asks for it and reaches out for it. Paul offers some advice on this in Galatians 6. Having spoken of the fruit the Spirit cultivates in our lives (Galatians 5:22), he says: ‘Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life’ (Galatians 6:8). Sowing to please the Spirit means investing in your relationship with Jesus. The Spirit will then see to it that what you sow by reading the Bible, praying or talking about God, will bear fruit in your life. You will discover what Jesus meant when he said: ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you’ (John 15:4).
I believe in one holy, apostolic, Christian church
Right after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the people who had come to faith in Jesus started to meet together. In Jerusalem they formed the first congregation of believers, and the Christian church became a fact. In Acts 2:42-47, we read how these first, Spirit-filled believers lived. Their story shows us the characteristics of a church of Christ. One of the first points mentioned is that they ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship’ (Acts 2:42). Their faith in Jesus brought them together and they felt a deep bond. Paul often uses the image of a body to discuss this feature. Christ is the head, we are the body. In a human body, all the different parts are interconnected and interdependent. It is the same with the church: every member matters, no member is less needed than others (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This is in keeping with Jesus’ appeal to His disciples to love each other (John 15:17).
The church is one
The first Christians got together almost daily. Three things stood out in their fellowship: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Preaching and biblical teaching were central features, then, along with the celebration of communion and intensive times of prayer. These are still the characteristics of the Church of Christ today, no matter where in the world it is situated: biblical preaching and teaching, joint prayer and the celebration of the sacraments.
Another characteristic of the first church is that ‘all the believers were together and had everything in common’ (Acts 2:44). They really looked after each other, avoiding gross economic inequality among the members. The rich sold property and possessions to give to those in need (verse 45). This is how the Church of Jesus is meant to be: a place where people care for one another, bear one another’s burdens and share in each other’s joys and sorrows (1 Corinthians 12:26). So the church is not made up of people who all belong to the same social class, ethnic group or culture. The family of God, the body of Christ, is characterised by tremendous diversity and colourfulness. It includes men and women, elderly folk and children, rich and poor, white and black, illiterates and academics. So many differences! But in Christ we are all one. To him each person is as precious as any other, he loves all people equally – and we may do the same. Worldly differences are of no account in the wonderful unity of the church. This amazing unity in diversity is what the Apostles’ Creed is talking about when it speaks of one holy, apostolic, church.
The church is holy
The Apostles’ Creed also calls the church a holy church. In his letters to the churches, Paul regularly addresses the believers as saints, or sanctified people, for instance in 1 and 2 Corinthians. And then he goes on to deal with all kinds of horrible sins in which some of them were involved. Could the church really be holy? In and of itself, the church is not holy. But its Lord is holy, and through the Holy Spirit the church, or the body of Christ, is sanctified, forgiven, cleansed and transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. Holiness is not the status quo, but rather a process of growing in faith, hope and love.
The church is apostolic, which means missional
When the first Christian believers gathered together around the Word and the sacraments, devoting themselves to prayer and to caring for one another, everyone around them noticed. Today, the church still has the same calling: to demonstrate the beauty of living with Jesus by loving one another. In Acts 2:47, we see the secret of a growing church: the believers praised God and enjoyed the favour of all the people: ‘And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ This is the secret of a growing, missional church.
Any living fellowship of faith centred on Jesus through the Word, the sacraments, prayer and a life of sharing, will be noticed by its surroundings. And God himself will bring people to the fellowship who wish to become a part of it. The church is intended to grow, to impact its surroundings. This is why a church should never be a closed community, but instead must be open and inviting, drawing people to come and get to know God together and to receive Jesus.
The church is the place for worshipping God, but that is only half the story; the other half is that we are commissioned to go out and share the gospel of Jesus’ love and forgiveness with all people. Being a church always involves those two movements of worshipping God, while also serving our neighbour. This is how Jesus intended his church to be.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins
The tenth article in the Apostles’ Creed deals with the forgiveness of sins. It is mentioned specifically as a part of the work of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, as a part of our sanctification. We first came across forgiveness when we looked at Jesus’ atoning suffering and death, and now we see it as a part of our daily walk with Him through the Holy Spirit. On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for our sins upon Himself. He will always forgive all of our sins! It is the Holy Spirit who applies this great miracle of grace and forgiveness to our daily lives.
Renewal through the Spirit
‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins’ is the joyful exclamation of every believer. We know very well that no matter how much we love Jesus, in this life we will keep sinning again and again. The power of sin has been vanquished, yet we personally experience the consequences of evil every day. As Paul sighs in Romans 7:21: ‘ So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.’ Evidently, Paul is so tired of it all that at the end of this chapter he groans: ‘What a wretched man I am!’ (Romans 7:24). Thankfully, he does not end there. With sin still stirring itself in his very body as it were, he holds onto his purpose of serving Jesus – and out of that struggle against sin he steps into life through the Spirit in Romans 8. It is the Spirit who controls our lives, not sin. The Spirit helps us to change our sinful will, teaching us to be responsive to His leading. So entrust yourself to God’s Spirit. Believe that He dwells within you, and reach out for the renewal of your life through Him.
Confession of guilt
This process of learning from the Spirit, in which he teaches us to resist and overcome sin, often involves profound depths. Forgiveness is always bound up with the confession of guilt. In 1 John 1:8 and 9, the apostle shows us how it works: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’
The beauty of confession is that we may believe that our sins will indeed be forgiven, that we have nothing to fear. Whoever confesses is forgiven. There is no condemnation for whoever believes in Christ. Like the prodigal son, who returned to his father and confessed his guilt, we may always return to our Father and confess our sins, in the conviction that thanks to Jesus those sins will be forgiven and blotted out forever from God’s judgement of us. Just before in the Apostles’ Creed we confess our faith in Jesus’ return, we confess that His return will be a great celebration for us, because our sins have been forgiven and we may appear before God without blemish.
I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting
The Apostles’ Creed culminates in an expression of the hope in which every believer lives. Christian hope is an intense anticipation of the day when Jesus will return on the clouds, and the new, everlasting life with him on the new earth will begin. This new life has already begun to take shape. In John 17, Jesus says in a prayer to his Father: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (verse 3). But on this earth the new life with Jesus, the new creation, cannot come into full bloom, because the ‘weeds’ of sin, the devil and death, are still around. This is why we watch and wait for the day when Jesus will come back and the new life with him on the new earth can begin without hindrance. As long as this moment has not arrived, we must wait in heaven after dying. We will be with God there, too, but it will not be our final destination. Heaven is a waiting room, and in Revelation 6:9 and 10 we read that even the souls of those who died as a result of persecution call out, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord…?’
The resurrection body
God’s Word and the confession of the church tell us that a day will come when Jesus returns and the dead are raised. The believers will receive a new, glorified body, like Jesus has since his resurrection: a body intended for eternity and fit for our tasks on the new earth. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes extensively about our resurrection bodies. He draws a comparison to the sowing of seed. If you put a seed in the ground, you do not yet know what it will look like when it begins to grow and blossom. That’s how it is with our bodies. Our mortal bodies are buried, but we do not know what they will be like once we are raised from the dead to live for ever with God. Paul writes this: ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power’ (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). What a wonderful perspective for all who believe! We will live for ever with a perfect body on a new and perfect earth. Just how it will all happen on the day of Jesus’ return, we don’t know, but the Bible does offer some clues. Paul, especially, gives us some insight into what will happen when our bodies are raised. In 1 Thessalonians 4, he responds to a question from the church. Its members were worried that those who died before Jesus’ return would miss the boat. Paul replies: ‘For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
A new earth
God’s ultimate destination for us is not heaven, but the new earth. That’s where His kingdom will be. We read about this new earth at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 21. This passage tells us God will dwell on earth, just as Jesus once did. ‘“God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”’ (Revelation 21:3-5a).
There has been a lot of speculation and conjecture as to what life on the new earth will be like. Again, we do not know exactly, but the Bible does give us some pointers. To begin with, there will be no sin or evil there. The devil will have been vanquished and banned. This broken creation will have been restored and renewed for good; creation will be perfect, without limitations and vulnerabilities. The earth will be purified with fire; all that is evil and broken will be destroyed and our ‘good works’ will follow us. The good will remain, all evil will disappear. So many things will be recognisable. Yet all that we recognise will also be completely different, because it will be perfect. This applies to our bodies, too: in our new and perfect bodies, we will be
recognisable, yet completely different. But the most important thing is that God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). We will share in his glory, perfect love, fullness of joy and deep peace. It’s going to be truly wonderful!
Introduction to the Ten Commandments
In Christian teaching, the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 have traditionally held an important place. God’s purpose is for us to become more and more like Jesus in all we do. Jesus lived a life of holiness. A holy lifestyle is radically different from the lifestyle of a godless person. It means living differently from the way you did before you experienced Jesus’ love. What matters is that you put into practice what you receive from God (Philippians 2:12-13). You have been delivered from slavery (Exodus 20:2), saved, so now live accordingly. It is about following ‘the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ’ (Ephesians 4:20-21). In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus calls his disciples to spread the gospel and to gather people into the church through baptism: ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (verse 20). The key question we must answer when we teach the law is this: how can a Christian put into practice everything Jesus commanded and taught us by example? How can a Christian obey God in day-to-day life?
Both in the Old and the New Testament, the Ten Commandments are viewed as the very heart of God’s will for our lives. The Ten Commandments are part of the Torah, the laws and prescriptions God gave in the first five books of the Bible. Many of these laws we no longer keep, such as the sacrificial laws (which were fulfilled through Jesus’ death on the cross), the food laws (which were adapted in Acts 10) and the purification laws (‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you’, John 15:3). Yet there is much to learn from these laws. They offer many godly principles, for instance on how to treat farmland with care, how to treat immigrants, poor people and so on.
The church summarises our response to the law in three purposes. The first purpose of the law is to make us aware of our sins (Romans 7:7). The second is to lead us to Christ, who fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17-20). And the third is to provide us with an answer to the question: Lord, what would you have me do?
Keeping God’s law is our life’s goal. Jesus says, ‘Remain in me, as I also remain in you’ (John 15:4). This means doing his will. It is not a heavy burden, but a joy. A person burdened by the law is behaving the way a slave behaves towards his master’s commands. This is not what God intends. After delivering his people from slavery, God gave his laws in order to teach us how to cope with our freedom. It is like the freedom of a child: God does not impose his will on us, instead we are free to deliberately choose to obey. Christ made it possible and the Spirit empowers us – but the choice is still ours!
The law is a source of great joy to the person who understands it (Psalms 1, 19 and 119). In Israel the Feast of Tabernacles is followed by a celebration called Simhath Torah, or ‘rejoicing of the law’. It marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings and the beginning of a new cycle. The person who reads the closing section is called the Chatan Torah, the bridegroom of the law. Israel has discovered that the law of God is no less than a marriage course – a course on the practical application of his love and our loving response to it. You could also say: the law cannot do without the gospel, and the gospel cannot do without the law.
The law and the prophets, or God’s instructions for our lives, are summed up in a dual commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5, which is later cited by Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). Our love for God is a response to His love for us (1 John 4:10). We cannot love God without loving our neighbour. Jesus talks about neighbourly love in the parable of the Good Samaritan: it means showing love to whoever you meet on life’s road. As a Christian, you are called to love your neighbour as yourself. So loving yourself is part of life, too – not in the sense of selfishness, but of accepting that you are God’s child, enjoying your identity and calling in Jesus, realising that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The law teaches us how to put this love for God and our neighbour into practice: it is the ethic of a life-changing love!
These are the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:
And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The first commandment: no other gods besides God
‘And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before (or: besides) me”’ (Exodus 20:1-3). The first commandment God gives us is to build our lives on nothing and no one other than him. He delivered us from the power of sin to live in freedom with him. We must not backslide into our former, bad habits, thoughts and actions.
The Bible clearly teaches us, both in the Old and the New Testament, that we live in a world in which powers and forces stronger than us are active. Mankind has been aware of this from of old. In their vulnerability, people have sought to influence these powers and forces by giving them faces or forms and worshipping those forms. People are prepared to sacrifice a lot for this kind of influence. In the Old Testament, Israel was surrounded by nations who worshipped these powers. Think of Baal, for instance, the Philistine god of fertility; Israel was the scene of a long between God and this Baal (1 Kings 18).
The powers influencing us are also evident in the New Testament. When Jesus was led into the desert, following his baptism, he was confronted with the satanic forces of wealth, pride and power (Matthew 4). We encounter these forces in our lives today, too. They try to tempt us into trusting other gods than the one God. The force of nature is another example, and many people have worshipped – or still worship – the sun, moon and stars. The power of the economy tempts people into believing that money will make them happy (Matthew 6:25). Jesus mentions the god Mammon, who represents money and possessions. Sexuality and health can also gain power over us – normal things that become gods to us if we serve them and build our lives and happiness on them.
We can also place our trust in people, for instance our ancestors, or people who impress us. They become like gods to us when we place them above God, expecting him to share his authority over our lives with others. God will not accept that. His love is exclusive, he is committed to us, but in return he expects us to entrust ourselves only to him. With God there is no room for worshipping other gods besides him, or for serving ancestors, nature or other forces. These forces are all very real, they actually exist, but we must turn away from them. In Deuteronomy 6:4-5, this is stated clearly in Israel’s most well-known creed: ‘Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’
The battle against these powers and forces is a daily reality for every believer. We are caught up in a spiritual battle that began in Genesis 3:15, where the hostility between God’s children and Satan is described. This battle still rages within and around us. It is a battle against all the powers Satan has at his disposal to draw us away from God. Yet we do not have to fight this battle on our own. Each of the Ten Commandments stands in the light of that opening statement: ‘I am the Lord your God who delivered you from slavery.’ With God on our side, we can fight and overcome the powers of darkness. We are not the slaves of gods, we are children of the Most High. In Romans 8:15, Paul says: ‘The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry Abba, Father.”
The second commandment: do not worship God in your own way
‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exodus 20:4-6).
While the first commandment focussed on worshipping God only, the second one warns us against worshipping Him in our own way. We are not to make our own image of Him. God cannot be captured by our imagination or thoughts. God is different and greater than we will ever be able to grasp as human beings. If we do create our own image of God, we are short-changing Him in a terrible way. All through the Bible we hear words like those in Isaiah 55:8-9: ‘“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”’
Our own images of God
Throughout the Bible, we see many examples of people who had a wrong image of God. Think of Job, who in his terrible suffering blamed God. He called God to account, God did not match the image Job had of him. When God answered, he simply showed Job that His greatness and power can never be understood. Having heard God’s reply, Job realised what he had done: he had created his own image of God. Then he said to God: ‘You asked, “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:3-6).
This commandment does not only mean He will not tolerate any other gods besides him. It also means we must love Him as He is and not as we would like Him to be. It’s like a marriage between a husband and wife. Marital love is exclusive, you can’t have a love relationship with another man or woman at the same time. If you’re a married man, your wife wants you to love her as she is, not as you would like her to be – that would mean loving your image of her rather than loving her. It would not be a real relationship. Most people would not accept it from their partner, so we certainly cannot expect God to accept it from us.
God warns us in this commandment that the images we create of Him may not only lead us astray, but will also have consequences for our offspring. He says in this commandment that He allows the guilt of those who hate Him – that is, those who try to use Him for their own purposes – to affect their children to the third and fourth generation. This implies that if parents shape God according to their own ideas, their children will do the same, sometimes for several generations. In God’s eyes, this is an expression of hatred of who He really is.
The third commandment: do not negate God’s name
‘You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name’ (Exodus 20:7).
In the third commandment, God offers further instruction on how we are to relate to Him. This time He speaks about our use of His name. A name is not just a word. It stands for who you are. If someone asks who you are, you tell them what your name is. The same applies to God’s name. It stands for who He is.
Do not misuse God’s name
In the Bible, ‘misusing God’s name’ means, first of all, that we must not swear falsely or inadvertently by His name. A person who makes a promise in God’s name must know what he is doing, because he has bound his reliability to that of God. We see this in Christian marriage ceremonies, for instance, when a bride and groom, in the presence of the church of Christ and under God’s blessing, exchange vows. They call God to witness. To break these vows is to tarnish God’s reliability. You vowed to remain faithful with His help, and failing to do so means you have dismissed His name and therefore His being. So be slow to make promises in God’s name, as God will call you to account if you break them.
In the second place, we see in the Bible that using God’s name means speaking on his behalf. God speaks through his prophets and servants, but sometimes people proclaim things in God’s name that did not originate with Him, but in their own hearts or minds. These people are placing the stamp of God’s name on their own ideas and using him for their own purposes. God will never accept that!
This happened in Israel when false prophets appeared, but it is also a very real danger in the church of Christ. Jesus warns us about it in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:19).
This is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:10, speaks of the gift of ‘distinguishing between spirits’ in order to know what is, and what is not, of God. Don’t say you have received a word from God if you are not absolutely certain. It is not without reason that Paul mentions this in the wider context of all of the gifts given to the church. If one person has a word from God, others must verify it. Present it to the church and listen to what others have to say about it. In that way, you will avoid misusing God’s name to validate your own opinions or ideas.
A third way in which we might misuse God’s name is when His name is on our lips, but we do not obey Him with our actions. Christians who do not practice what they preach, are guilty of misusing the name of Christ placed upon their lives. All through the Bible, we hear God complain that His people have his name on their lips, while ignoring the fact that the poor continue to die and the weak continue to be oppressed. Amos, speaking in God’s name, says: ‘Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:23-24). Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” We have the immense honour of being name bearers of God. Let us make sure we live and behave accordingly.
The fourth commandment: a foretaste of the kingdom
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns’ (Exodus 20:8-10)
In the fourth commandment, God instructs us to take a day of rest every week. The Old Testament offers us two motives for this commandment. The first motive, in Exodus 20, is related to creation. God made the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore God blessed this day of rest, setting it apart from the other days. We can find the second motive in Deuteronomy 5:15, where the Ten Commandments are written down also. Here, Israel is commanded to set apart one day a week for God, not on account of creation, but to commemorate Israel’s delivery from slavery in Egypt. You are no longer a slave, your life now consists of more than work: you are also allowed to rest and enjoy, just as God did after His work of creation.
Rest and enjoyment
The Sabbath is kept in different ways by different believers around the world. Jewish people celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, as God meant them to. Most Christians traditionally celebrate a day of rest on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Some small Christian communities in Islamic countries follow the practice of the society they live in and have their day of rest on Friday. When and how you celebrate a day of rest, then, is determined by your church tradition or cultural context. The Bible leaves us room for these variations. There is not a single, exclusive way of keeping the Sabbath. It is not without reason that Paul says in Romans 14:5: ‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.’ There is no general rule as to how we are to fulfil this commandment, but the gist of it is the same for every believer: God does not want our lives to consist of work only. His desire for us is that we regularly and deliberately leave our work to rest and to enjoy all He has given us in Himself, in each other and in creation. On the day of rest, you may stop working and look around you at God’s work, realising and rejoicing in the fact that He is the one who will bring all things to fulfilment, He will provide, He will guide.
This enjoying God is something we do by meeting with other believers, if possible, to worship God and listen to his Word. To enjoy one another means that on the day of rest we consciously spend time with our family, relatives and friends. To enjoy creation means to slow down and realise afresh all God has made. One way of doing this on the day of rest, for example, is to take a walk in nature or in the park.
Realising what really matters
With the fourth commandment, God reminds us of the relativity of our work and our striving. A day of rest brings us back to what really matters in our lives. This does not mean you cannot do anything on the Sabbath, rather, it means doing things you enjoy, things that give you pleasure and energy. In this sense, the day of rest is a foretaste of eternal life. The life on the earth that will begin when Jesus returns is also called ‘God’s rest’ in the Bible (Hebrews 4:9-11). The day of rest we take each week, therefore, reminds us of creation, of our delivery from slavery and of our eternal future. What a joy to bring one’s life back into the right perspective every week!
The fifth commandment: honour your parents
‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you’ (Exodus 20:12)
This is the closing commandment in the first section of the Ten Commandments. The first five commandments in this section all deal with man’s relationship with God. The second section deals with how people are to relate to each other. It is worth noting that the command to honour one’s parents is in the first section on how we are to relate to God. The Bible teaches that parents are representatives of God in their interaction with children. Parents are to take care of their children and lead them on behalf of God. This explains why this commandment is among the first five: it is about honouring God by respecting your parents.
Children, respect grown-ups
In this commandment, God calls us to revere our parents. This means we are to give them the importance they deserve, to take them as seriously as God intends. They are the parents God gave you; he chose them to conceive you, to take care of you, to raise you and to teach you how to live. They also taught you how to live with God, to be His child. You are bound up with them body, soul and spirit. This is why God asks us to honour the generation who initiated our lives, to allow them to go before us rather than having them trail along behind us. The practice of honouring those older than we are recurs throughout Scripture. In Leviticus 19:32, God says: ‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.’ Here, too, there is a direct relation between respecting those older than we are and honouring God.
Parents, be like Christ
This commandment does not just present children with a responsibility, but parents too. If God gives parents children to raise them up to physical and spiritual maturity on his behalf, their attitudes and conduct should reflect God. Children are instructed to honour their parents, but parents must not make this difficult for their children.
Paul emphasises this reciprocity in his letter to the Ephesians. Dealing with various issues of authority in the church, the family and the workplace, he also discusses relations between parents and children. Echoing the fifth commandment, his first instruction is addressed to children: ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right’ (Ephesians 6:1). Paul, too, connects obedience to parents with honouring the Lord. But right after this instruction, Paul addresses parents: ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord’ (verse 4). This means that as a parent you must be like Christ, raising your children in the attitude demonstrated by Jesus when He confronted the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Jesus did not overlook her sin, but He did offer her a fair opportunity to change: ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’ (verse 11). With Jesus, grace and forgiveness are leading, but his purpose in this is that the person in question will start doing things differently. Parents who raise their children in this spirit reflect something of God. Their children do not become bitter, but are given room to learn from their mistakes and to join their parents in following Jesus.
Sadly, there are countless children in this world who suffer at the hands of their parents. They may be neglected, abused or damaged in another way. Their parents were busy serving themselves rather than their children. Such parents break the fifth commandment. They also mar the image of God in the lives of their children, forfeiting their children’s respect. The fifth commandment cannot be applied to these children. When God asks children to show their parents reverence, respect and obedience, His desire is that the parents lead
their children in the spirit of Jesus.
In Ephesians 6, Paul says something special about the fifth commandment: it is the first commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:2-3). It is indeed remarkable that God adds a promise to this commandment, saying that ‘it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ This does not mean you will reach a very old age or live prosperously. It means you will be happy as a result of having a good relationship with your parents. If your parental home is a place of peace and security and if you continue to honour your parents, to visit them, to listen to their advice, you will enjoy greater stability and rest in your life. You will realise you are part of a greater whole and that you stand on the shoulders of your forebears.
The sixth commandment: do not murder
‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13)
This commandment seems obvious. Of course it is wrong to kill another person; even those who do not believe in God acknowledge that. So why does God expressly include this commandment? Because he is addressing an issue that is far broader than that of murder. With this law, God is prohibiting everything that can precede murder. The act of murdering someone is just the tip of the iceberg; the underlying issues are not directly visible, but they certainly exist. With this commandment, God wishes to completely remove all murderousness from among us.
Murder comes from anger
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that murder comes from anger. In Matthew 5 from verse 17, he speaks of the fulfilment of the law, explaining that the Ten Commandments go far beyond the mere words. They also cover those areas from which sinful deeds spring forth. This is why, on commenting on the sixth commandment, He says: ‘But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). Jesus is pointing out that the root of murder goes back to an angry heart. Allow that anger to fester and it will culminate in deadly hatred. That’s why anger is just as wrong as murder. The underlying feeling is the same and if it is dealt with, the results can be fatal.
This does not necessarily mean literally killing another person. That is the most extreme expression of murder, but you can ‘kill’ a person in subtler ways. For example, you can ruin someone’s life by speaking evil of him or her. You can break a person down by ignoring him or her. Even looks can ‘kill’. In all of these examples, you are making it clear that you consider another person’s life to be of no value. Whenever this happens, whenever you hear that evil little voice inside you or feel that fire burning within you, you are breaking the sixth commandment. The apostle John writes: ‘Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him’ (1 John 3:15).
The commandment ‘You shall not murder’ resounds throughout the Bible as an appeal to overcome evil and do good to others. Stop giving anger, envy and hatred a place in your life. They separate you not only from your neighbour, but also from God. This is why Jesus says: ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift’ (Matthew 5:23-24). Angry people cannot pray! ‘In your anger do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26).
The seventh commandment: do not destroy a marriage
‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:14)
The second section of the Ten Commandments deals with loving your neighbour as yourself. This means respecting the other person’s life. It also means respecting another person’s marriage, God tells us in this seventh commandment. The instruction not to commit adultery is not primarily aimed at protecting your own marriage, but the marriages of others. If you commit adultery, you will destroy another person’s marriage in the first place and your own in the second.
Marriage is a covenant
The protection of marriage is a central issue to God. We see this all through the Bible. The commandment not to destroy a marriage relationship carries as much weight as the commandment not to take someone’s life. With God, murder and divorce carry equal weight, for anyone ruining a love relationship destroys two lives.
We must also note that marriage is not a random way in which a man and a woman can enter into a relationship. Rather, it is a God-ordained covenant between a man and a woman. This covenant reflects the covenant God has made with us. It shows us how He wishes to bind himself to us. This means that in marriage we are to treat one another as God treats us. It also means we are to treat God as we treat a marriage partner. This covenant relationship, in which love and faithfulness go hand in hand, is the kind of relationship God desires. Whenever a relationship of this nature is threatened by romantic entanglements and sexuality outside of marriage, the covenant is broken and God’s covenant is marred.
Where is the boundary?
This commandment addresses the various degrees of adultery, which culminate in divorce. Again, Jesus shows us that sin often begins as something small and insignificant. In Matthew 5:28, He comments on this commandment, saying: ‘But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ So it begins with how we look at someone. The line between good and evil is very thin here. Looking at someone of the opposite sex and observing that he or she is beautiful is fine. But if you go on to fantasise about having sex with that person, you have crossed the line. In other words, we must be very conscious of how we look. Job puts it this way: ‘I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman’ (Job 31:1). Jesus speaks about this lustful way of looking in Matthew 5:29: ‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ It begins with looking at another person. If you do not control your looks, you will soon deliberately arouse the flame of sexual desire, either by flirting or by sharing too much time or intimacy with the other person. All of these things are a threat to the other person’s marriage as well as to your own. This is why the seventh commandment forbids adultery: adultery is a form of breaking the covenant of marriage.
Divorce is an abhorrence in God’s eyes, as it is for those directly involved and for the families destroyed by it. This is why God forbids divorce. Divorce is the impossible possibility. Jesus emphasises this again in Matthew 19:4-9, when He is questioned about divorce. The fundamental principle is that man should not separate what God has joined together. Moses opened the door to divorce by means of a certificate of divorce. He did this with a view to preventing people from divorcing randomly and easily. Jesus points out that divorce was never meant to be, not even in the days of Moses, but that Moses introduced the certificate of divorce as a means of restraining evil (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
The eighth commandment: do not keep everything for yourself
‘You shall not steal’ (Exodus 20:15)
Following the commandments to protect the lives and marriages of our neighbours, comes a commandment to protect our neighbour’s possessions. Why does God add theft to the list of murder and adultery? Surely, stealing is less extreme than those other things? Again, we must listen carefully to what the Bible is teaching us. Stealing someone’s possessions is no minor misdemeanour. The Bible compares theft with robbing a person of the opportunity to live. A person’s possessions represent his means of staying alive. His home, his tools – all of these are means of survival. Stealing these things, then, is paramount to threatening his survival. In its broader meaning, therefore, the commandment ‘You shall not steal’ means we must not make it impossible for another person to continue living.
Give every person a fair chance
In the Bible, wealthy people are often accused of stealing from the poor. The prophets rebuke city dwellers for stealing from country folk. Wherever people live together, there will be inequality. Usually, the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer. The rich, in other words, tend to make it difficult for the poor to survive, which means they are breaking the eighth commandment. The opposite of stealing from our neighbour is to offer him a fair chance to make a living like us. It doesn’t mean everyone must have equal wealth, but that everyone deserves an equal chance at working to support himself. The many laws in Leviticus, in which the Ten Commandments are worked out in more detail, are aimed primarily at the protection of the weak, the poor, the widows and orphans. The establishment of the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) is aimed at giving those stuck in their situation room to manoeuvre and a fair chance at rebuilding an independent existence.
The biblical concept of stealing also includes keeping everything for yourself. The evils of avarice and greed are deeply rooted in man. In 1 Timothy 6:10, Pauls says: ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ It is this lust for money, this desire for more, that causes us to forget others or to let them sink further into poverty. This explains the instruction in Leviticus 19:9-10: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.’ In 1 Timothy 6, again, Paul says: ‘Command them [those who are rich] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share’ (verse 18).
The ninth commandment: do not gossip
‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16)
Following the commandments to protect our neighbour’s life, marriage and possessions, this ninth commandment calls us to protect his or her name, or identity. Giving someone a bad name means you are undermining his or her position in society. This is why one of the Ten Commandments deals with how we speak about others.
No false testimony
This commandment deals first and foremost with how we speak of other people in court. If you are called on as a witness, you can make or break another person’s life. Your testimony can lead to that person’s condemnation or acquittal. So your testimony in court gives you a lot of power over your neighbour’s life. At these moments, when your words give you power over others, it is vital that you are reliable and sincere. A believer speaks and acts with integrity. You must not allow your sympathy, or antipathy, towards your neighbour to influence your testimony or judgement. In Leviticus 19:15 and 16, this commandment is dealt with in more detail: ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the LORD.’
Do not gossip
The text in Leviticus 19 shows us that the ninth commandment does not only apply in court, but also in daily life. We must always be aware of the power of words. This theme keeps recurring throughout the Bible. In Proverbs, Solomon often touches on it: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit’ (Proverbs 18:21). The apostle James also writes extensively about how we speak: ‘With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness’ (James 3:9). In other words, if we praise God, while speaking ill of other people, we are hypocrites.
As we saw in looking at other commandments, the line between good and evil can be very thin. Talking about others is fine, gossiping is not. Gossip aims at tearing a person down, at maligning him or her. Speaking ill of another person is the same as giving false testimony. This does not mean we are to whitewash everything people do or say. What matters is the intention with which we say things. Are you aiming at breaking a person down, or building him or her up? If we love our neighbour as ourselves, we can question another person’s behaviour or attitudes with the intention of building him up. If that is not your purpose, it is better to keep quiet.
The upside of this commandment is that it teaches us that we can build each other up with words, we can bless each other. This is what Paul means in Ephesians 4:29: ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’
The tenth commandment: do not covet what belongs to someone else
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:17)
The tenth commandment moves beyond the previous commandments dealing with the protection of our neighbour. In those commandments, we are told to keep our hands off our neighbour’s life, marriage and good name. This tenth commandment appears to repeat that, but its reach is broader and deeper. In the tenth commandment, God shows us the root of all those sins against our neighbour: covetousness. It is this same covetousness, this greed for more power and possessions, that brought sin into paradise. And beneath it lurks pride: in the final analysis, it is pride that drives us to harm our neighbour. The smaller we make our neighbour, the greater we become ourselves – and that is our ultimate human desire.
James paints a clear picture of how covetousness operates in our lives: ‘(…) each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death’ (James 1:14-15). Covetousness, or greed, is a force in our lives that we must resist and overcome. We can do this by nipping it in the bud, by recognising the desire, confessing it and resisting it in the power of God.
The tenth commandment teaches us that covetousness centres on desiring what our neighbour has. If your neighbour has something good, you want it, too – at the expense of your neighbour, if necessary. This commandment covers the entire breadth of our neighbour’s well-being. Do not damage anything in which he finds joy, God says. This wellbeing is represented by three specific things in the tenth commandment: our neighbour’s house, wife and cattle. They represent his circle of relatives and friends, his marriage and family, and his work and income. A person’s daily existence and happiness hinge on these things. Therefore, do not touch them, God says. Do not even look at them covetously or jealously. Be happy if your neighbour is happy and do not seek your own happiness in wanting to have the things he has.
The tenth commandment points out that a life with God is a life of contentment. It means realising that all we have comes from God’s hand, and being thankful – even if we have received less than our neighbour has. Paul speaks about this contentment in his first letter to Timothy. Having warned against the desire for more money, he writes: ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6). Contentment is the best remedy for covetousness. If we realise the riches of grace and goodness God has given us in Jesus, we will stop coveting what belongs to our neighbour. We will know that true joy and true riches are found in living with God.
Our Father – Introduction
Prayer is the breath of faith. Prayer connects us to God and keeps us connected. Prayer is about tuning in to God, aligning our lives with him. Prayer is sharing everything with our heavenly Father, both our joy and thankfulness and our cares and questions. This is why a prayer can be an expression of praise and worship one moment and a plea or lament the next. In all of this, prayer means turning to God.
But prayer is not just talking to God, it is also listening to God. More than conversation, it is having fellowship with God, consciously being in his presence. When loved ones come together, they talk a lot, they share their lives. But the best moments are those in which words are not necessary, in which they simply enjoy one another’s nearness. This is what our prayer times with God can be like. As children of the heavenly Father, we can spend time and share everything with him, but we can also simply enjoy his presence. This is prayer without words. In this peace and quiet, this intimate fellowship with God, you will sometimes hear his voice speaking to you, through a Bible verse, a song or a thought that comes to mind. This, too, is part of prayer.
Praying to God, then, is not primarily about getting results, but about developing a relationship! As we pray, we entrust our lives to him, we humble ourselves before him in the realisation that he is the Father and we are the children. We know that Jesus has been given all power in heaven and on earth, and in this confidence we share our lives with him. There are many things we do not understand, many situations we do not fully grasp, and reality often differs from our dreams and longings, yet through prayer we keep trusting God to care for and to guide us and this world. To pray is to yield, to trust, to draw near to God in every situation, with thanksgiving or with a plea, always placing ourselves in his loving care.
If we can share everything with God in prayer, we can also ask him anything, we can pray for everything. James rebukes the believers he is addressing in his epistle for not taking everything to God: ‘You do not have because you do not ask God’ (James 4:2b). Of course, God knows what we need, even if we do not ask him. He longs for us to tell him our needs, because it is a way of sharing our vulnerability with him and giving him an opportunity to draw near. It is like a love relationship. You appreciate it when your partner, or children, share their struggles with you, because it opens the door to friendship, support or advice, and going through trials together will strengthen your bond.
The second thing James says about prayer is that God does not answer prayers based on wrong motives: ‘When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures’ (James 4:3). Prayer is not a means of getting God to fulfil our desires for more, better, bigger and so on. The focus of prayer is to honour God and to receive a blessing for ourselves and for others. Blessings are not the same as success or possessions. If you pray for a greater blessing, you will be blessed and honour God for it. If you pray for more success, you are asking with wrong motives. God is our heavenly Father and will not give his children things that are not good for us, even if we think they are.
It is possible, then, for a believer to pray too little, or wrong. Not every prayer is automatically right. Together, we may learn to pray the way God intends us to. When the disciples noticed how much prayer meant to Jesus, they asked him to teach them to pray. In Luke 11, they saw Jesus praying and said to him: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (verse 1). Jesus then taught them what is now known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. You can also find it in Matthew 6:9-13. As he shows them how to prayerfully entrust themselves to their Father, he teaches them these words, this prayer that to this day is prayed by Christians all over the world. It is a prayer that teaches
us how to pray to God’s glory, how to have fellowship with him. In the following chapters, we will look at this prayer line by line.
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be Your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one
for Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
‘Our Father in heaven’ (Matthew 6:9)
The way God is addressed as Father here reveals such a beautiful message. Already in the Old Testament, God manifests Himself as a Father to His children. Paul puts it this way: ‘(…) the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father”’ (Romans 8:15). The Spirit teaches us to so trust in God’s love that when we pray, it is as if we walk into God’s presence, saying, ‘Hello, Daddy.’ This intimacy can grow as we live with God, and prayer plays an important part in this. This secret of talking to God as with a loving Father is one of the greatest secrets a Christian can discover.
God’s Fatherhood shows us how near He is to us. He is the Father. However, in the same breath, Jesus adds that he is our Father ‘in heaven’. God the Father is high and lifted up, He is and always will be the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth. This is a tremendous comfort: the one to whom we pray is enthroned in heaven and is stronger and mightier than anyone or anything else on earth. It also helps us to see that our Dad expects and deserves profound respect. He is in heaven, which means we cannot grasp, calculate or predict anything about him. All we know for sure is that he loves us, holds our lives in his hands and that we may confidently place ourselves and our world in his care. This is why we begin our intimate fellowship with God in prayer by reverently and gratefully saying: ‘Abba, Father in heaven.’
In closing this chapter, it is good for us to realise that Jesus reminds us right at the beginning of our prayer that we are not the only ones who believe and pray. God is not just my Father, He has also given me countless spiritual brothers and sisters. When I pray, I do so in fellowship with them, I am a part of God’s world-wide kingdom – and I am reminded of this each time I begin my prayer with ‘our Father’. God has placed me in His family, and together we pray to Him!
‘Hallowed be your name’ (Matthew 6:9)
In praying to our Father, Jesus instructs the disciples and us to start with properly focusing on Him. Our lives do not revolve around us. The first place is not ours, but God’s. This is what Jesus meant in Luke 14:26, when He said: ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be My disciple.’ Hallowing God’s name means giving God the first place, giving Him top priority. So we begin our prayer by asking God to help us to truly focus on Him, before we ask or share anything ourselves. ‘Father, make my life to be honouring unto You. May You be the first and the last in my life, may You be everything to me.’ This is what we ask in this first part of the Lord’s Prayer.
By praying this, we acknowledge that this attitude cannot be taken for granted in our lives. Again and again, we tend to set our own priorities. But by deliberately focussing on God, we ask him to set us straight first, so that we will give honour where honour is due. To hallow God’s name, then, means to acknowledge who God is and to honour and worship him accordingly.
The glory of his name
When we ask the Father for his name to be hallowed in our lives, we are asking for a greater awareness of ‘how wide and long and high and deep’ the love of God is, as we see it in Christ (Ephesians 3:18 and 19). The more meaning God’s name takes on in our lives, the more we will honour and thank him in everything. The realisation that God is present in all his power and might will compel us to do what Paul recommends in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.’
As our awareness of who God is grows, we will approach Him in prayer with greater reverence, dependence and trust. This first part of the Lord’s Prayer firmly places God on the throne and puts us in our place.
Build Your kingdom
‘Your kingdom come’ (Matthew 6:10)
In this second part of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God – a topic He addressed from His very first sermon. His whole life, death and resurrection stood in the context of the kingdom of God. The purpose of His saving work was to restore God’s kingship on earth. The kingdom of God is central to everything. Everything in God’s plan is aimed at restoring His lordship. In this part of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray that God will continue his work, the advancement of his kingship, to include more and more people and parts of the earth.
… in my personal life
This means, first and foremost, that we must ask God to allow His influence and authority to grow in our personal lives. Our prayer is that His kingship will be more and more visible and noticeable in our daily existence, that we will obey Him more and more deliberately, that we will allow His will and His Word to guide our lives. Build your kingdom and begin in me!
… in the church
It also means we must pray for the church, as it is God’s instrument for making His kingdom visible. Wherever the church is, God is. He plants his church all over the world in order to use it as a means of manifesting and spreading his love and grace. A prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom, therefore, is also a prayer that the church of Christ will remain steadfast and grow. ‘Let your kingdom advance in the world and equip your church to play its part.’
… in the world
The third truth we confess when we pray this prayer is that God’s kingdom is not of this world, it is the world turned upside down. Yet its purpose is to renew this world. The kingdom is not of this world, but it does exist for this world. God´s plan of salvation includes the whole of creation, man and animals, heaven and earth. So the way in which we treat creation certainly matters. If we pray for the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth, therefore, we also pray for the restoration of everyday things in our everyday earthly lives. Right here and now, in the common, day-to-day things, God wishes to manifest his glory and goodness.
Your will be done
‘Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10)
Following up on the second petition in the Lord’s Prayer for the advancement of the kingdom, Jesus teaches us in the third section to submit ourselves to the guidance of the Father. If we pray for God’s will to be done in heaven and on earth, we are praying, in the first place, that we will learn to do God’s will. Jesus set the example in a profound way when He prayed this prayer at one of the toughest moments in His life. In the garden of Gethsemane, God held out to Him the cup of His wrath over the sins of man. Jesus, having fallen to the ground, pleaded with God up to three times: ‘Abba, Father,’ He said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). Facing a terrible death, Jesus begged for a way out, yet at the same time He gave himself over entirely to the will of His Father. This prayer, ‘Your will be done’, resounds with an absolute trust in God. It says: Lord, I trust you completely!
Knowing God’s will
In the church, a distinction is often made between God’s revealed will and his hidden, or sovereign, will. We can read His revealed will in his Word. A good example can be found in Micah 6:8: ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ God’s will is clear and is revealed to us in the Ten Commandments, Jesus’ Sermon on Mount and many other parts of the Bible. Whenever we pray for God’s will to be done, we are asking God to help us do as He has told us. It is, primarily, a prayer of obedience to God’s will in our everyday lives. It is about putting into practice the will of God in our daily work, in our relationships and in the common experiences of day-to-day life.
God’s will also has a hidden, or sovereign, side. We can seek it in specific situations or when we face important decisions in life. Finding it requires an intimate relationship with God. You can discover His will if you are open to what God says to you through His Word, His Spirit or your own thoughts. As the Psalmist sings: ‘Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths’ (Psalm 25:4). This is a learning process, a matter of gradually familiarising yourself with who God is and what He wants. Often it takes patience. Rather than making things happen your way, you wait until you are absolutely certain you know what God wants from you.
Many of us have the tendency to run ahead of Jesus, like Peter did, to go ahead and do things our way. When we do, we need correcting, like Peter did: ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to Me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns’ (Matthew 16:23). The Psalms show us that discovering God’s will in our lives is a matter of trust: ‘Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this’ (Psalm 37:5). As you pray for clarity and move forward, taking decisions in faith, God will show you His will, one way or another.
A bit of heaven on earth
It is worth noting that Jesus adds ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. God’s ultimate purpose is that heaven and earth will once again become one, that the heavenly life and the earthly life will be connected. God is to be increasingly obeyed and served on earth, just as He already is in heaven. Wherever God’s will is put into practice, we see a little bit of heaven on earth, we catch a glimpse of the nearness of God that one day will be complete. In Revelation 21:3, John writes: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them”.’ Wherever God’s will is carried out, we are given a foretaste of this dwelling with God.
Pray for everyday things
‘Give us today our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11)
Having instructed us to pray for the honour of God, the advancement of God’s Kingdom and the universal performance of His will, Jesus now directs our prayers toward our everyday lives. Whoever lives in fellowship with God will soon discover the wonder of the commonplace. Christianity makes no fundamental distinction between the natural and the supernatural. God became man, thus embracing every aspect of human existence. The incarnation of Jesus offers the ultimate affirmation that God created all things and, therefore, will re-create all things. Nothing is too small or insignificant for God. That means we can share everything with him. In Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus talks about sparrows and about the hairs on our head. In Jesus’ life, there is a lot of attention for food and drink. He enjoys eating and drinking with other people and breaking bread with the crowds. In the coming Kingdom, there will also be a great feast. As a foretaste of that, he encourages us in the Lord’s Prayer to ask God for our daily bread.
Daily bread in this prayer represents our basic needs in terms of food and drink, shelter, work, income and possessions. This prayer is about our earthly concerns, big and small. Sometimes we are entangled by these cares, but if we prayerfully take them to God, we gain a clearer view, the knot comes undone, things begin to fall into place.
Living one day at a time
It is interesting that Jesus tells us to pray for our ‘daily’ bread. On the one hand, this is a reference to the bread we need today (in Matthew’s version), and on the other hand it refers to our need for bread every day (in Luke’s version). This prayer covers both aspects. As we trust God to provide for the acute needs we have today and to do so again tomorrow, we no longer need to lay up stores for ourselves. This principle is demonstrated when Israel receives manna from God in the desert. It is their daily bread, that is, it meets the needs of today. The Israelites were not allowed to save manna for the next day, except on the eve of the Sabbath (Exodus 16). They had to learn to trust God for their daily bread. In the same spirit, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:31 not to worry about what we will eat or drink tomorrow, or what we will wear, as our heavenly Father knows we need these things. This means that when we pray for our daily bread, asking God to meet the needs of this day, we do not have to anxiously beg him, but instead we can confidently approach the One who cares for us. He will do it today and every day of our lives.
Everything comes from His hand
Daily bread signifies what you really need. We are instructed to pray for bread, not for cake. But if we receive our bread from God’s hand, knowing how much he cares for us and how much peace and quietness this gives us, our bread begins to taste like cake! The Bible does not give us a boundary, telling us how much to ask. We are encouraged to share everything with God, all our needs. We ask in the name of Jesus. This helps us to pray in accordance with what Jesus would ask: not for greater wealth or more possessions, but for what we need in order to live and function properly in our surroundings. Praying for our daily bread means recognising that without God we can do nothing, that everything we are and have comes from his hand. It is sharing our day-to-day existence with our Father.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Matthew 6:12)
In the fifth part of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray for another daily need: forgiveness of sins. As children of the Father, we know we must love God above all else and our neighbour as ourselves. In day-to-day life, however, we discover again and again how easily we give ourselves the first place, following our own passions and simply forgetting God.
Yes, we sin every day. This is why Jesus tells us not only to pray for our daily bread, but also for daily forgiveness. Our sins accumulate, leaving us indebted to God and our neighbour. In this prayer, Jesus teaches us that we must confess our sins, even though we are God’s children and we know our sins are forgiven. If we neglect this confession, we may forget that we continue to sin. John says: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Confession, therefore, is an essential part of our prayer life. Without it, we cannot maintain an open, honest relationship with God. Only in confession do we find room to receive grace and forgiveness again and again.
Truly confessed, truly forgiven
Confessing guilt is not superficially ticking off all the wrongs we have done. It is a deep awareness of what our sins signify. David shows this awareness in Psalm 51, when he confesses that he has sinned with Bathsheba. In verses 3 and 4, he prays: ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’ David realises that the sins we commit against other people always pierce God’s heart too. When we sin, we go against His will, His purposes. We can see this same awareness at the return of the prodigal son in the parable in Luke 15. He, too, says in his confession to his father: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ (verse 21). To those who confess guilt like this, realising how their guilt affects their neighbour and God, the Bible offers wonderful promises. Both in Psalm 51 and in Luke 15, we see examples of the principle so powerfully described by John: ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). The Bible offers 100% certainty that this prayer will be answered. Whoever has prayed this prayer, may rise up and continue afresh.
Jesus adds one clear condition to all of this. You will only receive forgiveness from God if you are prepared to forgive others who have sinned against you. In his teachings on earth, Jesus stresses this several times. In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35), Jesus highlights this. In this story, a servant owes a king a large amount of money. The king cancels the debt. The servant then runs into someone else, who owes him a tiny debt, which he refuses to cancel. When the king finds out, he is furious and orders the servant to pay off his large debt after all. Jesus ends this parable with these words: ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart’ (Matthew 18:35). You can only ask for forgiveness if you are prepared to give it.
Again, Jesus speaks of we and us in this part of the prayer. When we ask God for something, we are not to ask just for ourselves, but to involve those who belong to us, such as our family and church. We pray for our bread, we confess our sins. We cannot pretend one person’s sin does not affect anyone else. Sin affects the whole community. We find a clear example of this in Nehemiah. While serving at the court in Babel, Nehemiah
receives news of trouble among the returned exiles in Jerusalem. Then he prays to God: ‘I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you’ (Nehemiah 1:6). Although he is not directly accountable for what has happened, Nehemiah realises he is part of a greater whole and carries his part of the responsibility. This is why, we, too, must pray: forgive us our debts!
‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’ (Matthew 6:13)
As believers we know from experience that our lives are the scene of a spiritual battle between God and the devil. We have been saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, but the final capitulation of Satan and of evil will not take place until the return of Christ. Until then, the devil will continue to have a lot of power. Jesus calls him ‘the prince of this world’ (John 14:30 and 16:11). The apostle Peter warns us to always be on our guard against evil: ‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). One of the ways in which the devil tries to lure us away from God is temptation. Temptation can come to us through external forces that draw us away from God. Jesus gave an example of this when He spoke of ‘the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth’ (Matthew 13:22). But temptation can also come from within, through things stirring in our hearts, such as doubts about God and faith, or persistent sins that seem to be ineradicable.
Jesus knows our hearts. He knows how vulnerable we are to the devil’s temptations. This is why He teaches us to pray that God will keep us from these temptations and deliver us from the evil one and from the powers of darkness. As we pray for this, we must, of course, realise that no temptation comes from God or is sent our way as a test of faith and a means of drawing us closer to him. That is definitely not the case, James tells us: ‘When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone’ (James 1:13). James stresses each person’s individual responsibility for coping with temptation: ‘but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death’ (James 1:14-15). This is another warning that we must take temptations seriously and pray to God all the more deliberately that he will protect us from them. This is the prayer of a child in a storm asking his Dad to hold his hand.
Jesus encourages us to pray for complete delivery from evil and the evil one. We can already be conquerors in this world; thanks to Jesus, we can resist and overcome sin and temptation. Yet the fact that the battle never ends, that sin is always lurking, that the pull of evil is always there and that we must always be on our guard can wear us out. This is why we join Paul in eagerly awaiting the moment at which our vanquished enemy will finally disappear: ‘(…) we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8:23). Whenever we pray ‘Deliver us from evil’, we are longing for that day and praying for its hastening.
The first Christians, many of whom were fiercely persecuted for their faith, also shared a deep longing for the final delivery from the evil one. The apostle John, after having been banned to the island of Patmos for his faith, received an amazing vision for the persecuted church and for all battle-weary Christians. In Revelation he describes what he saw, lifting a tip of the veil for us. This is how we know that prior to the final delivery, the devil will continue to wreak havoc. But the book of Revelation also tells us how we will eventually be taken away and how God’s children will be protected during this final battle. Revelation is a book of comfort for believers longingly praying for delivery from the evil one!
‘For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.’
This final exclamation of praise is not in Mathew’s description of the Lord’s Prayer, but these words certainly fit well. As we contemplate the contents of the Lord’s Prayer, we glimpse something of the greatness and goodness of God and are filled with a deep gratitude. That what is expressed in the last sentences of the Lord’s Prayer as we know it.