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Reason #2 – “Soul” in Ezekiel refers to the whole person, not just the spirit of man, and so does not refer to eternal death.

Those who wrongly assume “death” means spiritual death in Ezekiel 18, make the same wrong assumption where the “soul” is mentioned.  An erroneous understanding is built from the first assumption.  It is reasoned that if this passage presents spiritual life and death, then the word “soul” must be the part of man subject to spiritual life and death.  And if works play a part in this spiritual life and death, then it is reasoned this must confirm works play a part in the salvation of Old Testament people.  Here it is presented in another way.

Assumption #3 Works leading to life or death must be the Old Testament plan of salvation
Assumption #2 “Soul” must be the part of man subject to spiritual death
Assumption #1 “Death” must be spiritual

This reasoning is a “house of cards.”  Once it is understood that Ezekiel 18 refers to physical life and death (Assumption #1), then it is easy to understand why the works produced in the context of this passage have nothing to do with justification unto eternal life.

By necessity, those who see the passage in terms of spiritual life and death believe the word “soul” must refer to the second part of man’s trichotomy (spirit, soul, body – cp. 1 Thessalonians 5:23) or a combination of soul and spirit.  However, once again, this forces a meaning on the passage without consideration of the context.  The Hebrew word “nephesh” is often, but not always, translated into the English word “soul.”  It is used in a variety of contexts in the Old Testament.  Here are a few examples of places where it is translated “soul” in the Old Testament.

In some places it refers to the individual man.

(Exodus 1:5)  “And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already.”

(Exodus 12:4)  “And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb.”

(Ezekiel 13:18)  “And say, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Woe to the women that sew pillows to all armholes, and make kerchiefs upon the head of every stature to hunt souls! Will ye hunt the souls of my people, and will ye save the souls alive that come unto you?”

In other places, it is translated “soul” where man exercises certain powers or performs certain actions.

(Genesis 27:4)  “And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.”

(1 Samuel 1:26)  “And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD.”

(Ezekiel 4:14)  “Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! behold, my soul hath not been polluted: for from my youth up even till now have I not eaten of that which dieth of itself, or is torn in pieces; neither came there abominable flesh into my mouth.”

And yet in other places, “nephesh” is translated “soul” to refer to mortal man, subject to physical death, salvation, and prolonged life.

(Genesis 12:13)  “Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.”

  • Notice Abraham’s soul referred to his physical life in this context.

(1 Samuel 24:11)  “Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it.”

  • Notice David is referred to his physical life.

(Ezekiel 18:27)  “Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.”

  • Notice it is the wicked man who turns away from his wickedness that saves his soul alive.

It is entirely consistent with the system of physical promises and physical punishments given to the nation Israel for death of the “soul” in Ezekiel 18 to mean physical death.  Even if one would like to take the contrary position, there is little if not less evidence, to support the concept of “soul” being the part of man subject to spiritual death in this context.

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(In the previous post, I laid out six reasons why “the soul that sinneth” does not concern spiritual death.  In the next several posts, I am going to go into detail concerning each reason.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  I thought about splitting this up into two or three separate posts but thought it better to just leave the information together for continuity of thought sake.  Yes, I am aware how much this violates the intent of the blogosphere!  Thanks for your indulgence.)

Reason #1 – “Death” In Ezekiel Means Physical Death, Not Spiritual Death

Those who believe people Old Testament saints were justified unto eternal life by keeping the Law make the assumption that the subject of dying and death in Ezekiel 18 refers to spiritual death.  But this is a huge assumption and an even bigger presumption on the passage.  First, it must not be assumed spiritual death is in view just because the words “soul,” “sin,” and “dieth” occur together.  Secondly, it is presumptuous to take the doctrine we understand today as spiritual death and force it on the understanding and situation of the Old Testament people in this passage.  Grave error occurs when passages are interpreted out of context both historically and dispensationally.

In the King James Version, the word “die” is used 30 times in Ezekiel.  Let’s look at a few instances where this occurs and see if we can understand the meaning of the passages, specifically Ezekiel 18.

The Death of the Wicked Is Literal, Physical Death

(Ezekiel 3:18)  “When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.”

  • Who is the wicked? Ezekiel 3:17 tells us the Lord is talking about the “house of Israel.”

(Ezekiel 3:17)  Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me.

Question:  Is “…house of Israel” referring to an individual or a nation?

Answer:  It should be obvious the context, like most warnings in Ezekiel, is national in scope.

  • Why are they considered “wicked?” Ezekiel 3:7 tells us, “…for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted.”
  • According to this verse, when the wicked dies, there is bloodshed. There are only two ways to interpret this – spiritually or literally. If the watchman does not warn the wicked (the disobedient house of Israel), the watchman will be held accountable. This is the principle laid out in Genesis 9.

(Genesis 9:5-6)  “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.  Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

The bloodshed refers to the taking of physical life.

  • Conclusion: This is a warning to the prophet. He must fulfill his duty to warn the house of Israel of their wicked ways and the coming physical consequences. Otherwise, he (the prophet) will be held accountable for the deaths of his fellow Israelites. The accountability is literal, the shedding of the blood of the wicked is literal, and thus the death of the wicked is literal.

Dying “In Iniquity” Is Physical Punishment

(Ezekiel 3:19)  “Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.”

  • What does “thou has delivered thy soul” mean in this context? There are two possible interpretations:
    • This is a passage on soul salvation. By warning the wicked of the coming judgment of God, Ezekiel himself as the watchman gains justification unto eternal life. If he fails to warn the wicked, he is condemned to eternal damnation.
    • The literal interpretation is: By warning the wicked, Ezekiel will deliver his soul from something. What is the something? It is the resulting guilt and accountability of not warning the wicked.
  • A comparison passage is found in chapter 14. For the sake of brevity, we won’t exposit all the pertinent verses. Here are just a few to help us get the point:

(Ezekiel 14:17-20)  Or if I bring a sword upon that land, and say, Sword, go through the land; so that I cut off man and beast from it:  Though these three men were in it, as I live, saith the Lord GOD, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they only shall be delivered themselves. Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out my fury upon it in blood, to cut off from it man and beast:  Though Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, as I live, saith the Lord GOD, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.

  • The sword comes upon the land – physical punishment
  • Man and beast will be cut off from it. What is “it?” It = the land, not eternal death. “Cut off” from the land. In other words, a figure of speech for physical death. Looked at another way – If this was eternal death, why would “beast” be mentioned?
  • The three men refer back to Noah, Daniel, and Job (verse 14). What shall they be delivered from? “A sword” as we saw in verse 17. This is deliverance from physical punishment.
  • Pestilence = physical punishment
  • Blood = a euphemism for death as seen again in the cutting off of man and beast.
  • “Deliver their own souls” = must refer back to the salvation from the physical punishment in verse 19 (pestilence and blood).

Conclusion:  Once again the passage concerns physical death.  Spiritual death is not in view.

Pointing Back to Context

(Ezekiel 3:20)  Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

In case you didn’t notice, the first two examples were from verses adjacent to one another.  Now, in Ezekiel 3:20, let’s ask the question once again – Is the context in this passage physical death or spiritual death? Notice the Lord says “Again” to let us know He is continuing the thought of the previous verses – the context is physical punishment, not spiritual.

Additionally, the word “deliver” is used 16 times in the book of Ezekiel and each time it refers to something physical occurring.  Check it out in: Ezekiel 7:19, Ezekiel 11:9, Ezekiel 13:21, Ezekiel 13:23, Ezekiel 14:14, Ezekiel 14:16, Ezekiel 14:18, Ezekiel 14:20, Ezekiel 21:31, Ezekiel 23:28, Ezekiel 25:4, Ezekiel 25:7, Ezekiel 33:5, Ezekiel 33:12, Ezekiel 34:10, Ezekiel 34:12

A Few More Considerations

For the sake of saving time (and space!) here are some of the other verses that contain the word “die”:  Ezekiel 5:12, Ezekiel 6:12, Ezekiel 7:15, Ezekiel 12:13, and:

(Ezekiel 13:19)  “And will ye pollute me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, to slay the souls that should not die, and to save the souls alive that should not live, by your lying to my people that hear your lies?”

  • Here is an indictment against the false prophetesses in Israel. If the death in this verse is spiritual death:
    • The false prophetesses had the power to condemn innocent people to eternity without God.
    • The false prophetesses had the power to deliver those who were guilty unto eternal life.

Obviously, this was not the case and this verse refers to physical death and physical life.

  • The terminology in this verse also occurs in similar fashion in a comparison verse in Ezekiel 18!

(Ezekiel 18:27)  “Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.”

The phrase in Ezekiel 13 “save the souls alive” refers to physical life, and the phrase “save his soul alive” refers to physical life.  In Ezekiel 13 it is the unrepentant and untruthfulness that causes the death of the innocent.  In Ezekiel 18, it is the change of mind and the obeying of the truth that saves life of the repentant.  This is a consistent use of the phrase.

Here is a list of verses with the word “die” in Ezekiel except those in chapter 18.  Ezekiel 17:16, Ezekiel 28:8, Ezekiel 28:10, Ezekiel 33:8, Ezekiel 33:9, Ezekiel 33:11, Ezekiel 33:13, Ezekiel 33:14, Ezekiel 33:15, Ezekiel 33:18, Ezekiel 33:27

An honest study would reveal these verses refer to physical punishment, not eternal death in Hell.  So far, we’ve considered every verse in Ezekiel except those in chapter 18.  If the verses in this one chapter do concern eternal life and death, then this chapter stands out as the great exception in the entire 48 chapters of Ezekiel!

So you can study it on your own, here are the rest of the verses that contain the word “die” in Ezekiel:   Ezekiel 18:4, Ezekiel 18:13, Ezekiel 18:17, Ezekiel 18:18, Ezekiel 18:20, Ezekiel 18:21, Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:24, Ezekiel 18:26, Ezekiel 18:28, Ezekiel 18:31

Conclusions

1)      In Ezekiel, “the death of the wicked” refers to physical death.

2)      In Ezekiel, to “die in iniquity” refers to physical death.

3)      In Ezekiel, when a soul is “delivered,” refers to physical deliverance.

Once again, it must be stated that the interpretation of spiritual death in Ezekiel 18 assumes a meaning on the passage without taking into account the context of the passage or the entire Book of Ezekiel.  There is no comparison passage in Ezekiel that supports the conclusion that life and death should be interpreted as spiritual rather than physical.

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The Crux of the Issue

(Ezekiel 18:4)  Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

This phrase is repeated again in verse 20.

(Ezekiel 18:20)  The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

Christians who believe this verse is part of the Old Testament message of justification also look to other verses in Ezekiel 18.  They do this to demonstrate their viewpoint that soul salvation (justification unto eternal life) was partly based on continued compliance with the Mosaic Law.  We must be very careful in the terminology used.  There are different types of salvation and justification in Scripture based on the context of the passage.  Those who believe there was a works message for salvation in the OT point to additional verses in Ezek 18 such as:

(Ezekiel 18:24)  But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.

As we consider these verses, we must conclude either God’s response to the proverb points to a soul salvation obtained and maintained on the basis of human performance or it doesn’t.  When a careful student considers the context of the passage, comparing Scripture with Scripture, we find six reasons[1] why this passage does not present the Old Testament message of justification unto eternal life.

  1. “Death” in Ezekiel means physical death, not spiritual death.
  2. “Soul” in Ezekiel refers to the whole person, not just the spirit of man, and so cannot refer to eternal death.
  3. The terms of the contract between God and Israel in the context of Ezekiel 18 refer to physical punishment.
  4. No one could ever perfectly comply with the Law enough to earn eternal life.
  5. If this chapter was about spiritual death, there would be a direct contradiction between the words of Ezekiel and the words of the Lord Jesus Christ
  6. God’s response to the proverb is pointing Israel to her need for national repentance.  Individual salvation is not in view.

[1] We are not limited to these six reasons.  But for the sake of space, I am only including six.

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(This is the final post in this series.  I am somewhat torn because there is so much more we could appreciate about it.   I may offer additional information in the future, but in the interest of completing the article and moving on to the article on Ezekiel 18, I leave you with these final thoughts.)

(Mark 10:22)  And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.

Two things we should note about the Lord’s response:

  1. He used the Law as it was meant to be used: to point out sin.  The Law is like a mirror.  The mirror doesn’t clean off dirt.  It shows the dirt.  In this case, the fact that he was unwilling to help the poor demonstrated his disobedience to the command to love his neighbor.  Love is the operative motive in the Kingdom.  This man was shown by the Lord that he missed the mark and was nowhere near obtaining eternal life.  Some tend to think this man was very close to inheriting eternal life.  The reality is, his guilt in one point of the Law indicated he failed in all of it.  He was not nearly the righteous man he thought he was.
  2. He hit the man right where his heart was: in his wallet.  Jesus didn’t need to address the additional four commandments pertaining to man’s relationship with God.  It was already apparent that wealth was this man’s god.  In Mark he went away “grieved” while in Matthew he was “sorrowful.”  Luke gives even more information on the intensity of this man’s sadness where we see he was “very sorrowful.”  He realized at this point he wasn’t as righteous as he thought he was.  He came to Jesus thinking he “had what it took” and left realizing he couldn’t “measure up.”

This is one of the saddest encounters in the gospels.  It was one of the only times someone went away from Jesus worse than when he came.  His love for wealth was stronger than his love for God.  The faith he so desperately needed to put in the Lord was misplaced in his own wealth.  Misplaced faith was a consistent problem in Israel.  The Pharisees loved their religion and the Rich Young Ruler loved his wealth.  The price of placing faith in the Messiah was too great for this man.  He believed he had too much to lose.

It should be obvious by this point what the Lord was doing in his conversation with the Rich Young Ruler.  He wasn’t telling this man that the only thing left to “do” to inherit eternal life was follow the commandments.  Rather, the Lord was using the commandment to reveal the real heart condition of this man.  Every person in every dispensation must come to a place where they recognize their real need.  Every person must come to a place where they believe they are what God says they are:  a lost sinner.  Only then can anyone be in a position to believe Who God is – the Provider of eternal life.

A little while later in Mark 10, we see a striking contrast to the Lord’s encounter with the Rich Young Ruler.  Compare this encounter with the Rich Young Ruler with blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52.

Rich Young Ruler

Blind Bartimaeus

Regarded Jesus as a “Good Master” – Mark 10:17 Regarded Jesus as “Lord” – Matthew 20:30
He had great possessions – Mark 10:22 He was a beggar – Mark 10:46
He could see but didn’t recognize who Jesus was (Good Master) – Mark 10:17 He was blind but recognized the true identity of Jesus (thou Son of David) – Mark 10:47-48
A rich man unwilling to give up his possessions – Matthew 19:22 A poor man willing to give up everything he had – Mark 10:50
A man who believed he was righteous – Mark 10:20 A man who believed he needed mercy – Mark 10:47-48
Went away from Jesus still blind to eternal life – Mark 10:22 Received his sight and followed Jesus – Mark 10:52
Left Jesus sad – Mark 10:22 Followed Jesus glorifying God- Luke 18:43
Jesus had compassion – Mark 10:21 Jesus had compassion – Matthew 20:34
Did not have faith – wanted to “do” An example of faith – not asked to give up anything

We see two pictures of Israel in these two men.  The Rich Young Ruler is a picture of the state of those who were ruling Israel at that time.  They trusted in their religion and their wealth more than they were willing to trust in the Lord.  Blind Bartimaeus believed Jesus was the Messiah and was willing to give up trusting in anything he owned.  He was at the end of himself.  He was a picture of the little flock who inherited the Kingdom of Heaven.

One man shows how a works-based mind thinks about eternal life.  One shows us how faith operates.  One shows us the unwillingness of Israel’s rulers.  One shows us the heart of the true disciple during the earthly ministry of Christ.

Those who interpret this encounter as the Lord’s endorsement of an Old Testament soul salvation that includes works miss the point entirely.  God’s integrity in His being is unchanged in every dispensation.  While the message changes over time, faith is always the approach.  The Holiness of God demands we have a higher view of His nature and character than man’s performance could possible commend.  The Righteousness of God demands our acceptance by Him is only on the basis of His righteousness.  The Justice of God demands those who stand righteous before Him are present on the basis of His provision.

Praise the Lord for His eternal life paid for on the cross and provided to those who choose to believe His message in time past, the present and the age to come!

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(Mark 10:19)  Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.

Immediately after Jesus tells the Rich Young Ruler to keep the commandments in order to inherit eternal life, the Rich Young Ruler asks a logical question in Matthew 19:18 – which commandments?

(Matthew 19:17)  And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.  (Matthew 19:18)  He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,

Jesus runs down a list of commandments taken from the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20.  But notice He doesn’t tell the man to follow all ten.  He only gives him six commandments.  Why these commandments?  These are the commands that talk about how people should relate to each other.  The sins listed – adultery, murder, stealing, bearing false witness, defrauding, honoring father and mother – are all about issues between people.  You can see they are the commands that provide God’s view on man’s relationship with each other.

It’s just as important to notice the four commandments omitted are the commands regarding people relating to God:

(Exodus 20:3)  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

(Exodus 20:4)  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

(Exodus 20:7)  Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

(Exodus 20:8)  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

The Rich Young Ruler didn’t think he had a problem because he viewed himself as righteous before mankind. This is what he thought gave him the capacity to earn eternal life.  The Lord was going to show him the truth about his righteousness and his incapacity to earn God’s acceptance.

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(Mark 10:18)  And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.

And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good?

Jesus was demonstrating two things in His question and statement:

1)      The Rich Young Ruler didn’t understand the true concept of goodness. He believed there was some inherent good in man.  He didn’t grasp that God is the standard of good and He alone is good.  If only God is good, and the man believed Jesus is good, then Jesus must be God!  If Jesus is not good, then He is just a man.  The problem is the man didn’t understand or believe God alone is good.  As a result, he didn’t grasp that Jesus was God.  But the Rich Young Ruler still considered Him good.  He had a casual understanding of good instead of the true standard of good only found in the character of God Himself.  This shows us the Rich Young Ruler didn’t believe man (including himself) was depraved and incapable of good.

2)      Besides not understanding the deity of Christ and the depravity of man, the Rich Young Ruler didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah.  There is no indication he thought Jesus was the Christ.  The essence and substance of the Kingdom gospel was belief in the Messiah and His coming Kingdom.

The Messiahship of Jesus was apparent to those who had faith.  If the Rich Young Ruler truly had the faith of a child, he would have rejoiced as Andrew did:

(John 1:41)  He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ.

If he had believed the Scriptures, he would have believed as Philip:

(John 1:45)  Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

His miracles declared Who He was for all Israel to believe.  The Scriptures declare Who He is:

(John 20:31)  But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

We even find in the Hebrew epistles the declaration:

(1 John 5:1)  Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.

Although he was very sincere, the Rich Young Ruler had a problem with faith.  In his sincerity, he still believed he could do something to earn eternal life.  Jesus was teaching him that his self-righteousness was standing in the way of appreciating Who was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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(Matthew 19:16)  And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

Notice a few important things in this question:

1)      He believes there is life after death.  He accepts eternal life as a fact.  He knows he doesn’t possess eternal life.  The kingdom is for those who repented.  In Matt 10:7, the disciples are commissioned to preach the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  This man is obviously seeking the kingdom but has not yet found the way.  He is still grappling with his own sense of righteousness, his own performance and his own pride.

2)      He wants to “do” something.  We see in Matthew it is a “good thing” he wants to do to inherit eternal life.  He believes he is required to perform a work that would earn him the right to inherit everlasting life.

3)      He believes he is capable of earning salvation.

4)      There is no indication this man understands or believes the gospel of the Kingdom.  If he understood the message preached by John the Baptist in Matthew 3, Christ in Matthew 9, and the disciples as commissioned in Matthew 10, he would have obeyed the call to repent of his sins and identify himself with believing Israel by submitting to water baptism.

This man is no different than any of us who at one time looked for a religious solution to a spiritual problem.  At this point, it’s obvious he is an unbeliever.

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