What is worship?

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

. . . the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. (Rev 4:10–11)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If a spiritual discipline points us to God, then worship is the prince of the spiritual disciplines. In fact, we were made for worship (Calhoun 2005, 25).

Unfortunately, the Bible’s first picture of worship also pictures improper worship. Cain brought God some fruit; Abel slaughtered the first born of his flock and brought God the fat portions. God honored Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s (Gen 4:3–5). Improper worship is like inviting your supervisor to your house and serving leftovers at dinner—you may not get fired, but it degrades the relationship.

One of the first deacons of the church, Stephen, was arrested in Jerusalem and was arraigned before the Sanhedrin. There, he accused them of limiting the access to God at the temple, of killing the prophets, of betraying and murdering Christ, and, therefore, of not keeping the law. Improper worship—limiting access to God—was Stephen’s first charge. For this and other things, they took Stephen out and stoned him (Acts 7:48–58).

Stephen’s complaint was not about altar sacrifices. When the Israelite people lived in Egypt, they needed to go into the wilderness to offer sacrifices, in part, because they sacrificed animals that were sacred to the Egyptians (Exod 8:26). The point of the sacrifice was to demonstrate loyalty to God by forsaking the typical idols of the day (Lev 17:7) [1]. However, over time the sacrifices lost their meaning, became routine, or, worse, started to look like divine bribes—improper worship [2]. Echoing the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 1:16), King David writes: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17) The content of worship, not its form, is what makes worship proper or improver.

An important picture of proper worship is given in Revelation 4:10-11 where the twenty-four elders cast their crowns before the throne of God. In heaven, the elders are casting down crowns given them by God, yet they still humbly lay them down (e.g. Rev 2:10). On earth, a crown is a symbol (an idol) of our vanity—a conspicuous display of personal wealth, power, and authority; it does not have to be a golden tiara! When I cast my crowns at the feet of the king of kings, I am surrendering all my idols—money, power, and authority—to God. On earth as it is in heaven this is the ultimate act of worship.

How do we then properly lay our crowns before the Lord?

Proper worship is an idol crashing event [3]. In worship we demonstrate our loyalty to God by surrendering to God the idols that most typically capture our hearts—our money, our power, and our authority. For some, it will mean writing checks; for others it may be donating time; for still others it may be simply to show up at worship clean and sober. For most of us, it means bringing along our families. For all of us, it means joining in God’s praises. Worship is a smorgasbord of praise.

When we look beyond our pride and idols to God, we cast down our crowns and truly worship.

[1] For more discussion, see: (Hahn 2009, 150).

[2] For example, the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 1:13) writes: “bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” Likewise, the prophet Malachi writes: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil?” (Mal 1:8)

[3] The prophet Mohammed (1934, 21.51–.66) wrote that Abraham’s father was an idol-maker. One day when his father was away, Abraham smashed all but the biggest idol in his shop. When his father returned and confronted him, Abraham told his father to ask the remaining idol what happened. His father replied—you know that idols cannot speak. To which Abraham responded—then why do you worship anything but the living God?


Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. 2005. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

What is worship?

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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What is Spiritual About Marriage and Family?

Maryam and Stephen 1984
Maryam and Stephen 1984

“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” (Prov 31:10)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

How has marriage transformed you? If you are not married, how has your parent’s marriage impacted you?

Scripture begins and ends with marriage. In Genesis, we see a couple, Adam and Eve, who are just made for each other! In the book of Revelation, an angel informs us: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9) Obviously, marriage was God’s idea (Keller 2011, 13).

As an unconditional promise—until death do us part, marriage is also formative and it provides a paradigm for other covenants. This implies that marriage, in and of itself, can function as a spiritual discipline.

The Apostle Paul’s comments on mixed faith marriages highlight marriage’s formative character. Paul reports that the believing spouse renders the whole marriage holy for the children (1 Cor 7:12–14). Paul also sees marriage as a witnessing opportunity. Paul asks: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16) [1]

In other words, Paul clearly sees marriage possessing a sacrificial component [2]. Jesus’ own teaching on divorce and remarriage clearly draws inspiration, not from the Law of Moses (which admits exceptions), but rather from God’s eternal work in creation [3].

But if marriage is a spiritual discipline, how does it draw us closer to God?

Marriage is formative in our faith for at least three reasons. The first reason is that God instituted marriage and commissioned marriage with a blessing and mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28) God created marriage, blessed it, and said it was good—obeying God must draw us closer to him.

The second reason that marriage is formative is that it starts with an unconditional promise. God is the eternal promise keeper. In marriage we imitate our creator. Making and keeping good promises—even when it hurts—transforms us and draws us closer to God.

The third reason marriage is formative is that it makes us accountable. Our spouses know us in the biblical (covenantal) way! Our weaknesses and sin affect our spouses and they tell us. We sin less, in part, because our spouses make us more aware of our sin—a sanctification process that forms us—even if we are not believers! Part of this process is to learn reconciliation skills by practicing them daily [4].

As the Apostle Paul wrote: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)

This list of reasons why marriage is formative is especially interesting because God instituted marriage even before he instituted the nation of Israel or sent his son to die on the cross.

God is not irrational. He knows that the biggest beneficiaries of marriage are our children. And he loves them as much as he loves us. This is probably the reason that God places such a high priority on marriage. We should too.

[1] A lot of ink has been spilt over the church’s traditional teaching that forbid remarriage after divorce. For a discussion of the various perspectives, see: Wenham, Heth, and Keener (2006). My point is not to advocate a position but rather to recognize that marriage has a sacrificial component that often gets lost in our era of no-fault divorce.

[2]  In the Roman Catholic tradition, marriage is also a sacrament.

[3] Deut 24: 1–4, Matt 19:6–9, and Gen 2:24.

[4] Marriage is so important in the Apostle Paul’s thinking that he used the household codes (Eph 5:22–6:10; Col 3:17–4:4) as a metaphor for relationships in the church. Paul writes: “. . .if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:5)


Keller, Timothy and Kathy Keller. 2011. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Dutton.

Wenham, Gordon J., William A. Heth, and Craig S. Keener. 2006. Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church: Three Views. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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Why Exercise?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Soccer, 1983
Stephen W. Hiemstra, Soccer, 1983

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:18–20)

Why Exercise?

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Which spiritual discipline should I focus on?

Sin distracts and separates us from God. The spiritual disciplines of highest value target sins to which we, as Americans, are especially vulnerable—sexual immorality and gluttony. Both are sins against the body.

Where Does Sin Begin?

Jesus is clear when he says that sin begins in the heart. On the question of adultery, he says: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:28) This statement is immediately followed by hyperbole about chopping off body parts that lead to sin [1]. This transition from heart to body is an example of how the body and mind are unified [2].

Unity of Body, Mind, and Spirit

The best example of the unity of body and mind applied to spiritual disciplines is found in Henri Nouwen’s book, Reaching Out. Nouwen describes our spiritual journey as a unity of three dimensions—reaching inward to ourselves; reaching outward to others; and reaching upwards to God. In ourselves, we move from being lonely to becoming content in solitude. With our relationships with others, we move from hostility to hospitality. In our relationship with God, we move from illusion to prayer (Nouwen 1975, 15). The paradox of this unity in three dimensions is that progress in one dimension makes progress in the others easier.

Spiritual Movements

This linkage of spiritual progress in different dimensions is especially important in dealing with sins of the body. Sins against the body invariably involve mild to severe addictions—obsessive behaviors that we repeatedly engage in. When we allow ourselves our “little indulgences”, they spread to other aspects of our life. Bad behaviors turn into bad habits that turn into bad lifestyles. Undertaking a “fast” in vulnerable areas of our lives can nip bad behaviors early in the process. Gerald May (1988, 177) writes: “It all comes down to quitting it, not engaging in the next addictive behavior, not indulging in the next temptation.” Physical discipline, accordingly, works to cleanse the whole system.

Why exercise?

The simple answer is because your body is the temple of God. We are under obligation to ourselves and to God to keep our temple clean. A more nuanced answer is that the physical disciplines grant us strength to discipline other, less obvious, areas of our lives. The body and the mind are inseparable—physical exercise is a kind of beach assault on our island of sin [3]. Beach assaults, like the one on Iwo Jima during the Second World War [4], are risky but the payoff is huge. Ironically, when we exercise we often exhibit less interest in food, alcohol, even tobacco because we are more relaxed and self-confident.


In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited. This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth. In like manner, the biblical paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance [5]. Did I mention that body and mind are closely bound together?


[1]  I wonder, which body part is really in view here?

[2] Macchia (2012, 104) writes: “Your personal rule of life is formatted and reflected in your . . . physical priorities (the care and training of your body, mind, and heart).”

[3] Reynolds (2012), who writes almost exclusively on a biblical perspective on weight-loss, notes that the first sin in the Bible is a temptation involving food (Gen 3:1–6).

[4]  Japan is a family of islands. In February 1945, United States amphibious forces landed on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. There they engaged the Japanese military in one of the bloodiest battles during the war.

[5] “Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character. Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” (Dyrness 2001, 81).


Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Macchia, Stephen A. 2012. Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Reynolds, Steve and MG Ellis. 2012. Get Off the Couch: 6 Motivators to Help You Lose Weight and Start Living. Ventura: Regal.


Also see:

Christian Spirituality

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Do Not Covet (Tenth Commandment)

And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deut 5:21) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

How many marriages and families have been destroyed over the years by the love of money? Disagreements over money are often cited as a leading cause of divorce.

Covetness is a cross between greed and envy. Greed is an extreme desire to possess something, while envy is an extreme desire that someone else not possess that which we desire. In either case, our desires lead us to treat others badly.

Both greed and envy are among the seven deadly (mortal) sins popularized by Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century. Aquinas listed these as pride (vainglory), envy, anger, sloth (spiritual apathy), greed, gluttony, and lust [2]. He described them as capital sins because they lead to other sins and are the opposite of particular virtues (Aquinas 2003, 317–20). Just as virtue is an ongoing good character trait, a vice is an ongoing bad character trait.

Jesus coined a new word for covetness (mammon) when he said: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” [3]

The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible transliterates the Greek word, mammon, which may also be translated as the god of money. The apostle Paul preferred to refer to covetness as the love of money. For example, Paul wrote:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim 6:10 NIV)

While covetness is a vice that causes relational difficulties, mammon is also idolatry. Something becomes idolatrous—becomes a god—when we love it more than God. Jesus warns us:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Matt 6:24)

Here we enter the realm of obsession and addiction as slaves of sin (John 8:34). We can be addicted to almost anything. Gerald May (1988, 14) writes: “addiction is a state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire.” Two tests can be applied to potentially addictive behavior. Does the behavior disrupt relationships with the people closest to you? Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you give it up? In this context, do you think covetness can rise to the level of addiction?

Henry Cloud (2008, 154) has an interesting suggestion for dealing with pain: “Look at the misery and then make a personal rule that will keep it from happening.” In this case, God has seen the pain in our lives and has given us a rule: don’t covet.

More generally, the Ten Commandments do three things: they reduce our pain, they simplify our lives, and they help us to model ourselves after the One who we claim to follow.

[1] Also: Exod 20:17; Deut 7:25; Rom 7:7; Rom 13:9.

[2] The seven deadly sin are often described using their Latin names. Those are superbia (pride), invidia (envy), ira (anger), gula (gluttony), luxuria (lust), avarita (greed), and accidia (sloth) (Fairlie, 2006, iv).

[3] Luke 16:13 KJV; Matt 6:24 KJV.


Aquinas, Thomas. 2003. On Evil (Orig Pub 1270). Translated by Richard Regan. Edited by Brian Davies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cloud, Henry. 2008. The One-Life Solution: Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Personal Success. New York: Harper.

Fairlie, Henry. 2006. The Seven Deadly Sins Today (Orig Pub 1978). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.


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Do Not Lie (Ninth Commandment)

seeds_12162013“And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exod 20:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The opposite of a lie is the truth.

We worship the God of truth. From the burning bush, God tells Moses that his name is: “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exod 3:14) Moses believed in God; Pharaoh refused to. When God presented the truth of his own existence, the nation of Israel was born. It is, accordingly, not surprising that the God of truth commands his people not to lie!

Bearing false witness is, however, more than an un-truth; it is a deliberate deception with a specific objective. The exposition in Exodus 23:1–3 outline three specific issues: spreading a false report, perverting justice in court, and giving biased testimony. Spreading a false report could be simple gossip or it could be committing libel. Perverting justice can, of course, be done in many ways. Being biased out can be motivated by poverty or various affinities (family ties, race, language, social class, national origin, creed, or even locality).

These prejudices and injustices are so common that we are more often surprised by integrity than by bias. The recent debate over the death penalty, for example, hangs less on a dispute over the penalty than on the disbelief that justice will occur. Is it any wonder that Pilate, a corrupt official himself, would ask Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

The story of the woman caught in adultery is probably the most celebrated capital judgment case in scripture. The woman’s guilt is not in question; the only question was the penalty. The Pharisees asked Jesus: “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5)

Notice that under Jewish law both parties in adultery face the same penalty of death (Lev 20:10). Because the Pharisee covered up the man’s identity, they broke the Ninth Commandment in presenting this case. In other words, they offered biased testimony and did not seek true justice.

Jesus points to the Pharisee’ bias when he says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) The law required that witnesses to the crime throw the first stone (Deut 17:7). If anyone picks up a stone, then that person is liable for prosecution under the law because they have not revealed the identity of the man who participated in the adultery. And, the penalty for perjury was the same penalty as for the alleged crime (Deut 19:18–19). The Pharisees understand their dilemma and they leave.

Jesus’ words to the woman are important. He says: “’Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:10–11) Jesus offers both truth and grace. Truth or grace, by themselves, is not the Gospel. Truth alone is too harsh to be heard; grace alone ignores the law. Jesus seeks our transformation, not our conviction under law (Rom 12:2).

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Do Not Steal (Eighth Commandment)

Fox“And you shall not steal.” (Exod 20:15) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The story of the rich young ruler seems to bother Americans more than other biblical stories, most likely, because we are a wealthy nation. The story is found in all three of the synoptic Gospels. The story begins when the man asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by listing off the commandments having to do with loving our neighbors. The man responds saying: “All these [commandments] I have kept from my youth”—is there anything further I must do? Jesus replied: “Sell all that you have and give to the poor, . . . and come, follow me.” At this point, the man went away sad unwilling to respond to Jesus’ invitation (paraphrase) [2].

What does this have to do with not stealing?

Avoiding evil is not the same thing as being good. It is presumably less tempting to steal if you are wealthy than if you are poor. If you are wealthy and motivated by greed, you can delegate little acts of theft to subordinates or convince legislators to change the law to make little acts of theft legal. The rich young ruler no doubt truthfully answered Jesus’ question about the commandments.

However, what if the rich young ruler were a subprime lender and came to Jesus, what do you think he might say? Is it stealing to sell a mortgage to a poor person who probably cannot repay the loan? What if the probability of repayment is reduced by one percent? What about five percent? Before the 2007 financial crisis regulations were amended to make subprime lending easier. Was it enough to have complied with such regulations? What if you worked for the government?

Taking positive steps to be good is not easy.

The apostle Paul makes this distinction when he lists works of the flesh (vices) and lists of fruits of the spirit (virtues). He writes:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:19–23)

Paul’s list does not include stealing, but we all know which list that one belongs to!

It is interesting that in the Sermon on Mount Jesus does not talk specifically about theft the way he does about murder and adultery. In some sense, he did not need to. If greed leads to cheating one’s neighbor, then obviously we should avoid being greedy in order to prevent cheating. Better yet, why not practice generosity?

[1] Also: Lev 19:11; Deut 5:19; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

[2] Matt 19; Mark 10; Luke 18.


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Do Not Commit Adultery (Seventh Commandment)

Photo of balance by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do Not Commit Adultery (Seventh Commandment)

“And you shall not commit adultery.” (Exod 20:14) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the heart of adultery is almost always a lie. The lie is that our private lives are and should remain private. The truth, however, is that our actions always affect those around us.


Ask King David. He thought that he could have a quiet affair with Bathsheba. When she got pregnant, he tried to hush it up first by calling her husband, Uriah the Hittite, back from service in the army to the palace. The idea was that if Uriah slept with his wife, David’s sin would be covered up. Uriah spoiled this plan by remaining loyal to David and refusing to return home. Unable to cover up his sin, David sent word to Uriah’s commander to place him on the front line in battle and then abandon him to the Amorites. Uriah died in battle (2 Sam 11). Pretty soon everyone heard about David’s sin and attempted cover up. Psalm 30 records David’s distress over his sin. Psalm 51 records David’s confession to God. God forgave David but David’s sin led to the death of his child (2 Sam 12:13–14).


Adultery, divorce, and other forms of immorality are the consequence of yielding to forbidden desires and temptations that threaten to destroy healthy relationships [2] and tear apart our families. They also stand in contrast to God’s intent for human marriage, which is life-long marriage between one man and one woman.

Marriage is not just a romantic idea. If we view our relationships as simply serving our own needs, our children lose out. According to the U.S. Census (2011, 68), the share of children born to unwed mothers rose from 27 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2007. This one statistic implies that the prospects for children in America have plummeted in our generation. Think more poverty, more drug use, more suicide. Marriage is not just a romantic idea.

Biblical Context

Jesus deplored divorce, permitting it only in the case of sexual immorality, and relating it to adultery [3]. The covenant of marriage (Mal 2:14) involves for us two parts: both a covenantal sign (physical intimacy) and a covenantal oath (the marriage promise) [4]. Sexual immorality breaks the first part, but not necessarily the second.

Adultery and Murder

Jesus’ teaching about adultery parallels his teaching about murder. Lust leads to immorality so Jesus cautions us to avoid lust and thereby prevent adultery. He then interrupts this discussion of adultery to launch into a bit of hyperbole: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out . . . And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29–30)  After this aside, he returns to his discussion of adultery. The implication is that the body part in view is not an eye or a hand but something a bit more personal! Jesus clearly deplores divorce and immorality.


[1] Also: Deut 5:18; Matt 5:27; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

[2] My first ministry experience as a young adult arose when my pastor and mentor encouraged me to start a summer youth program. The program was a success and I continued this ministry until I was married some years later. My mentor, however, was discovered by a church member to be having a homosexual affair. The affair cost him his pastorate and his marriage; it cost me an important mentor; and it cost the church a talented pastor.

[3] Matt 5:32; Matt 19:9.

[4] For Adam, we see Adam’s rib being taken out to create Eve (a kind of cutting ceremony) and an oath—“she is bone of my bones.“ (Hugenberger 1994, 342–43; Gen 2:21–23)


Hugenberger, Gordon P. 1994. Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2011. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2011. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


Also see:

Christian Spirituality

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Do Not murder (Sixth Commandment)

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“You shall not murder.” (Exod 20:13)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sixth Commandment—you shall not murder—seems cut and dry. In case you missed it, the Bible repeats it five times using the exact same words [1]. The punishment for murder—death—is given in the account of Noah (Gen 9:11).

When Jesus talks about murder, he compares it with being angry with and insulting your brother or sister. He then makes a curious comment: [if] “your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:24) This comment is curious for two reasons. First, at the time when he spoke only priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place in the Temple and approach the altar. Second, this comment appears to make reconciliation with our brother or sister more important than reconciliation with God.

So what is that all about? Jesus is reminding his listeners not of the Temple, but of the first murder story in the Bible—the story of Cain and Abel. He uses it as an object lesson. Cain got angry with his brother, Abel, after Abel brought a better sacrifice to God. For this, Cain murdered Abel (Gen 4:1-8). The lesson is that we should reconcile with each other before anger gets out of control and before we do something that we may later regret (Matt 5:23–24).

Jesus is making two important points.

First, Jesus teaches us to prevent murder by removing the incentive to murder. This lesson can then be applied to all sorts of situations, not just murder.

Second, asking God for forgiveness (bringing a gift) does not erase the sin that we have committed against one another. If we murder someone, asking God’s forgiveness does not restore the life lost or heal the emotional devastation experienced by the victim’s family. Forgiveness cannot be just about words.

The point is that asking God for forgiveness, such as repeating a prayer of confession on Sunday morning, neither requires a change of attitude towards our sin (Jesus’ first point) nor compensating those hurt by what we have done (Jesus’ second point). True repentance (a real change in heart) answers the first point; making restitution (compensating our victims) answers the second point.

Does Jesus’ lesson mean that we should never be angry? No. Anger has an object. Some objects of our anger are selfish and evil; some are not.

Jesus clearly got angry about injustice, about those doing business in the temple (John 2: 14–17), and about the hard-hearted Pharisees that refused to allow good works, such as healing, on the Sabbath. By contrast, the Pharisees got so angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath (because it made them look bad) that they responded by plotting his death (Matt 12:10–14).

[1]  Also: Deut 5:17; Matt 5:21; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

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Honor Your Parents (Fifth Commandment)

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 5:16) [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Who do you honor? Who do you honor most?

As postmodern Americans, we love the language of individual autonomy and freedom. Our laws limit the rights of almost all authority figures—parents, teachers, supervisors, police, politicians, even pastors.

Honoring one’s parents and the general use of father-son language of the Bible was common terminology in the Ancient Near East. For example, being created in the image of God implies a father-son (or father-daughter) relationship, which also appears when Adam fathers Seth in his image [2]. It also appears in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in the phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) The idea in the covenant with Moses, therefore, is that God is our suzerain (literally: King of kings or Father king) [3] and we are his vassals (subordinate kings) [4]. Vassals honor suzerains as children should honor their parents.

Oh well and good, you say, but why must we honor our parents?

The apostle Paul described the fifth commandment as the only one that includes a promise: “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” [5] This promise implies that we do not always know what is best for us ourselves.

The apostle Paul redefined hierarchy. He wrote: children obey your parents; parents do not upset your children. Likewise, he redefined other relationships. Wives respect your husbands; husbands love your wives like yourself. Slaves respect your masters; masters treat your slaves as family (Eph 6:1–9). Paul later required elders in the church to manifest these new relationships (1 Tim 3:4). The principle here is: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men [or women].” (Col 3:23)

If Christ is Lord of our lives, then hierarchy takes on new meaning. Two-way secular relationships are transformed into three-way relationships under God: every relationship is you, me, and God. Marriage transforms from a contract (two-way) into a covenant (three-way). Relationships morph from social transactions into opportunities to display Christ’s love for one another.

Jesus says: “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) Transformed relationships allow the kingdom of God to break into a fallen world here and now.

[1]  Also Exod 20:12; Matt 15:4; Mark 7:10.

[2] e.g. Genesis 1:27 and Gen 5:3. Kline (2006, 62) writes: “And knowledge of what one’s Father-God is, is knowledge of what, in creaturely semblance, one must be himself.”

[3] Today most governments are not governed by kings so we use less personal language. Today, we talk about superpowers and client states. However, the concept is the same.

[4] We know this, in part, because the Ten Commandments were written on two stone tablets (Exod 24:12; Deut 5:22). In Hittite treaties, two tablets were routinely recorded, one for the suzerain and one for the vassal. Sometime people speculate that the first four commandments dealing with our relationship with God were on the first tablet while the last six commandments dealing with our relationship with our neighbors were written on the second tablet, as in the Heidelberg Catechism (PCUSA 1999, 4.093). It is more likely, however, that the first and second tablets were identical. These treaties were written on durable materials, such as stone, to prevent fraud (Kline (1963, 19).

[5] Deut 5:16; Eph 6:2–3.


Kline, Meredith G. 1963. Treaty of the Great King: The Covenantal Structure of Deteronomy—Studies and Commentary. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Kline, Meredith G. 2006. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Convenental Worldview. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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Keep The Sabbath Holy (Fourth Commandment)

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor 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, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The divine origin of the Sabbath is well-attested in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, it is the only commandment that appears also in the creation account and it is also the longest commandment—an indicator of emphasis. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5) and performs several miracles specifically on the Sabbath. Why all this attention to the Sabbath?

A key to understanding Sabbath is found in Hebrews 4, which list four aspects of Sabbath rest: physical rest, weekly Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest—our return to the Garden of Eden.

Physical rest is underrated by many Christians. Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) How are we to love God and love our neighbors when we are physically exhausted all the time? Sabbath rest allows us to build the physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity to experience God and to have compassion for our neighbors.

We see a clue to this interpretation of Sabbath when we compare the Exodus and Deuteronomy renderings of the Fourth Commandment. Deuteronomy adds the sentence: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:15) Free people rest; slaves work. Are we, Americans, truly free? Sabbath rest is a symbol of our Christian freedom.

The Promised Land, promised rest (Ps 95:11), heaven, and the new Eden (Rev 22:2) all display and reinforce Sabbath imagery. The image of our Divine Shepherd is one who gives heavenly rest: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” (Ps 23:2) Sadly, this poetic image of rest only seems to come up at funerals. Why not start now?

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