The Rest of the Story

 

December 6th, this Thursday, is an important day in my church each year.  The “why?” is best answered by sharing this true story with you.  If you are a fan of the Paul Harvey radio programs, you will be familiar with one of his shows called “The Rest of the Story”.   This story could easily be one of those stories.   I would like to share this true story with you about a man who made his mark on the world, not with power, or money, or great writings…but with his life.

Back in the 3rd Century this man was born in Asia Minor.  He was born into a wealthy, Christian home.  He was given an excellent education and had everything going for him.  Then his parents died and he was left with the family fortune.  He could have done anything he wanted…yet his heart began to long to serve God.

Unlike most people who dream of winning the lottery, he did not begin buying things for himself with his new found wealth.  Instead, he began to give money to help the poor.  One time he heard of a poor family with three daughters that were marrying age.  In those days, if a woman had no dowry she was likely to end up out on the streets.  This man went secretly at night and threw three bags of gold through their window for the daughters’ dowries.

He decided to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  While there he felt the calling of God so strongly on his life that he decided to become a pastor.  This was no easy decision because the most severe persecution of Christians was taking place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-311).  To become a priest in the Christian Church at that time could be a death sentence.  Yet not only did he become a pastor, he also gave away the rest of his money to the poor.

When the Archbishop died the bishops gathered together to choose a new Archbishop.  This was normally one of the bishops.  This time however, they chose this humble priest because they saw his deep spirituality.

Finally, he was arrested, tortured, and thrown into prison.  He would have died there except that the Emperor Diocletian committed suicide in 313.  Constantine became emperor and released all Christian prisoners.  Upon his release, he was reinstated to Archbishop, continuing to help the poor and  pointing out injustice in his society.  He was responsible for the first hospitals being built and for the first houses for the poor being established.  He was instrumental in helping to shape the Christian Church in ways that still affect it today.

He died in the year 330, not making his mark with great writings or in his power as Archbishop.  Rather, he left his life as a great example for us.  His example of faith and commitment is one that is well worth following. But the story doesn’t end here. So who is this man?  As Paul Harvey says:  “Now for the rest of the story!”

 In the early Church people who had led lives that were excellent examples for others to follow were remembered on a particular day.  Their life would be talked about and all were reminded of how they should be living.  This particular man was remembered on December 6th.  His name was Nicholas.  Remembering his life, people began to give gifts in secret on the eve of December 6th.  Over time, the Dutch Christians held an especially big celebration on this day.  Eventually many Dutch Christians came to America.  They continued to celebrate this day.  The celebration was Americanized. Here’s how it happened:

“After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.  The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly, were based on the descriptions found in the poem and  saint-nicholasWashington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. The picture shown here was the first “red suit” given Santa by Nast.  As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas.”

(The two previous paragraphs and the picture are used with permission from The St. Nicholas Center at  http://www.stnicholascenter.org  if you would like more info.)

Because of the gift giving, the celebration was moved to Christmas Day.  Eventually, a flying sleigh and reindeer were added from a Norwegian Mythology.

“And there you have, the rest of the story!”  Yes, there really was a Saint Nicholas.  The real man has been lost in the tall tales of recent years.  Not only was Saint Nicholas a real man, but he was a man worth remembering!  He was a man of convictions and commitment even in the face of tremendous worldly wealth and persecution.  Now you know why December 6th is important in my family.  It is a time to give to those in need…remembering the example of Saint Nicholas.

With all of the over-commercialization of Christmas, one can easily forget the real meaning of what is being celebrated.  Yet, let us not, in our desire to regain the meaning of Christmas, simply view all gift giving as a corruption of the celebration.  Rather, it can be a part of it, bringing joy as we give both to our families and to those in need.  And we can share with family and friends, the rest of the story behind “Jolly ol’ St. Nick”.

If you would like to celebrate this December 6th, perhaps you could find a way to give to someone in need without them ever knowing you did it!!!!  It’s hard to do, but you will be blessed if you can keep the secret!!!

May the days leading up to Christmas be filled with joy and peace and may you have a Christmas this year that is truly a HOLYDAY!!!

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Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving

A few years ago I did a solo climb of Kit Carson Peak.  This is a remote peak in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains of Colorado.  It was a tough trek, made more difficult by a chest cold I had been fighting.  After being up above 13,000 feet for a few hours, my body and my mind were saying: “Let’s climb this one another day!!”  They weren’t just suggesting it, they were shouting it.  I do confess that I was ready to call it quits when I decided to stop and take time to pray, giving thanks for the awesome beauty all around me.  Soon after that prayer, I began to regain my strength and determination to reach the summit.  Before I knew it, I reached the summit at 14,165 feet.  It was glorious (as every summit is)!

There were awesome views to take in and food to munch, but the one thing that stands out above all the rest is when I took time to give thanks to God.  There was surely much to give thanks for at that moment…including my physical well-being.  I also pulled out my pocket-sized Bible and read Psalm 8.  That psalm begins and ends with these words: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”   Looking out from the top of Kit Carson Peak brought that psalm to life!  There were several 14,000 foot peaks nearby that brought back memories of other climbs I had made…Crestone Needle (my very first 14’er), Crestone Peak (flying a kite off the top), Challenger Peak (another solo climb), and Humbolt Peak (my two daughters first 14er)…there far below was the mystery of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument that I had rolled down with my family…and stretching out to the horizons were 1,000’s of miles of awesome beauty.  The wonderful memories and the incredible beauty caused my heart to soar with thanksgiving to God.  It was indeed a “thankful” and worshipful moment.

Times like that seem natural for giving thanks to God.  Times of deliverance from some great fear or experiencing some great excitement can bring out the thanksgiving in us.  Yet, truth be known, God desires and delights in our giving of thanks at all times.  Ephesians 5:20 tells us to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.”

Hopefully, you will be reading this before Thanksgiving Day.  It’s wonderful to have a day set aside for all of us to give thanks.  One of our traditions at home is to go around the dinner table and have each person give one thing they for which they are thankful.  Surprisingly, it can be a very moving time.  I remember a few years ago when my parents told their grandchildren how thankful they were to have another year of life to just be with them…that moved everyone’s heart!

It is good to have a Thanksgiving Day, but it’s even better to give thanks each and every day.  Today is a good day to begin (or continue) to make the giving of thanks a regular part of our daily lives.  Even in the midst of what seems to be the absolute worst of times in our lives, pausing to give thanks to our Lord can truly help us.  It can bring a perspective that we may not have been thinking about.

Another suggestion to assist you in getting started with giving thanks is to use Psalm 136.  This is a psalm of thanksgiving for: 1) who God is; 2) His creation; 3) His deliverance; 4) His leading in your life; 5) His promises and care; and 6) once again, for who God is.  As you read this psalm, take time to personally thank God for some specific things in your life.  It is by the Grace of God that each of us still has the breath of life in us.  As you begin to thank God for whatever comes to your mind, you’ll find more and more things to be thankful for in this life.  May God bless you this Thanksgiving Day and always.  Here’s Psalm 136 for your enjoyment (Whenever God repeats Himself, I take it that He wants us really hear it in our hearts…so take note of the 26 repetitions in this Psalm):

Psalm 136

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.

5 who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.

6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.

7 who made the great lights— His love endures forever.

8 the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever.

9 the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.

11 and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.

12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever.

13 to him who divided the Red Sea asunder His love endures forever.

14 and brought Israel through the midst of it, His love endures forever.

15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; His love endures forever.

16 to him who led his people through the desert, His love endures forever.

17 who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.

18 and killed mighty kings— His love endures forever.

19 Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever.

20 and Og king of Bashan— His love endures forever.

21 and gave their land as an inheritance, His love endures forever.

22 an inheritance to his servant Israel; His love endures forever.

23 to the One who remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever.

24 and freed us from our enemies, His love endures forever.

25 and who gives food to every creature. His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

 

The Journey: A Reflection for the Nativity Fast

The Journey

During the Nativity fast, Orthodox Christians are on a journey that culminates with the  celebration of the Birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  This journey continually brings us face to face with the issue of giving: The Father gave His Son…The Magi gave gifts…Saint Nicholas gave in secret…and even we give gifts to the people we love in our lives.  But the call of God concerning giving goes far beyond Christmas presents.

My travels often take me to downtown areas in big cities.  Walking around the streets brings me face to face with many poor and homeless folks.  I suspect that each one of us has experienced that awkward moment as we tried to look the other way…making self-talk to justify why we shouldn’t give them any money:  “I am not a rich person.” “They will likely spend it on drugs and alcohol.” “They could get a job if they really wanted one.” “Everyone is asking me for money.” And so on, and so on…

I will share more of my own struggle with this issue later in this article.  But first, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder. As the Nativity Fast gets under way, Orthodox Christians will be hearing this passage from the Holy Gospel (9th Sunday of Luke):

The Gospel of Luke 12:16-21 – The Lord said this parable: “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” As he said these things, he cried out: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

At the suggestion of a dear friend and brother in Christ, I purchased a copy of St. Basil’s book, On Social Justice. Here’s a quote from a section of that book entitled:

“I Will Tear Down My Barns”…

How many precepts you ignore, since your ears are plugged with avarice! How much gratitude you ought to have shown to your Benefactor!

How joyful and radiant you ought to have been that you are not one of those who crowd in at others doors, but rather others are knocking at your door!

But now you lower your eyes and quicken your step, muttering hasty responses, lest anyone pry some small coin from your grasp.  You know how to say only one thing:

“I do not have, I cannot give, I myself am poor.”

You are poor indeed and bereft of all goodness: poor in love, poor in kindness, poor in faith towards God, poor in eternal hope.

Make your brothers and sisters sharers of your grain; give to the needy today what rots away tomorrow. Truly, this is the worst kind of avarice: not even to share perishable goods with those in need.   (Saint Basil, “On Social Justice”, p.68-69)

St. Basil’s description of someone lowering their eyes and making excuses has been accurate of me far too many times in those situations. Finally one day, another dear friend and brother in Christ taught me an incredible lesson.  He showed me how to put 20 one dollar bills in my pocket when leaving the hotel…just for those encounters.

It is easy to justify not giving to someone in need…I have failed more than I have succeeded.   It is a struggle…a warfare…that must be fought by each of us if we have any hope of overcoming our own selfishness and greed.  I can assure you that when I succeed in putting a dollar or two in the hands of someone in need, there is such a victory being proclaimed over my self-centered heart.

The Lord calls us to loosen the grip on our wealth and give to those in need.  He asks this of us, not to punish us, but to truly help us.  Like the rich man in the Gospel reading, we can easily be consumed by our self-centered greed and it becomes like chains around our souls…binding us and consuming us. The Lord wants to set us free from this bondage.

As we make our this journey, may we lift up our eyes and see those in need: those poor, those hungry, those in prison, those homeless, those suffering…and in seeing, may we all give from the abundance that God has already given us. For those of you who live and work in a city where you encounter the poor and needy every day, perhaps there is a local mission or downtown Church that would use your gifts to feed, clothe, and offer shelter to those very folks. OCPM (Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry) stands ready to assist with helping those in prison. Wherever and however we see the need…may the Lord strengthen us to share from what the Lord has provided us.

God bless you on your journey!!

“Lock’m up and Weld the Doors Shut”

Lock them up

Years ago, I gave a retreat at a wonderful church. The retreat focused on God’s amazing love for people in prison and how He touched different lives in miraculous ways drawing them to HImself.  I talked about things I had personally witnessed over my many years as a prison chaplain and how those men had begun to live lives of repentance following their Baptisms and Chrismations into the Orthodox Faith.

As I finished one of the sessions, I opened it up for questions or comments. An older gentleman stood up and shocked all of us with his words:

“I don’t believe a word of it. There is no forgiveness for those people in prison. They should be locked up and their doors welded shut!”

I responded to the man by asking him if he had any loved ones in prison and discussed how everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t matter how tarnished or covered with the mud that image and likeness becomes, they are still loved by God and they still have the opportunity to repent and become a child of God. The gentleman simply shook his head in disapproval and sat back down.

Over the years, I have heard similar statements many, many times. It seems there are many people that believe there is no forgiveness or hope of repentance for those in prison. To hold this view truly brings God down to the level of being simply a “super” human being that refuses to forgive and it misses the great love that God has for all of us, no matter how far we have strayed.

In my daily devotions, I came across this wonderful story this morning:

“In the time of the Emperor Maurice, there was a well-known bandit in the region around Constantinople. Both in the countryside and in the capital itself, he inspired fear and trembling. Then the Emperor himself sent him a Cross, as a pledge that he would not punish him if he gave himself up. The bandit took the Cross, and did indeed give himself up.

Arriving in Constantinople, he fell at the Emperor’s feet and begged his forgiveness. The Emperor kept his word, had mercy on him and let him go free. Immediately after that, the bandit fell gravely ill and sensed that death was near. He began to repent bitterly of all his sins, and implored God with tears to forgive him as the Emperor had. He shed many tears in his prayer, so the handkerchief with which he wiped them became soaked, and he died after ten days of prayerful weeping.

 The night of his death, the doctor who had been attending him had a strange vision in a dream: When the bandit on the bed breathed his last, a number of demons gathered round him, flourishing bits of paper on which his sins were written, and two glorious angels also appeared. A pair of scales was placed in the middle, and the demons gleefully put all the bits of paper on it, and their side of the scales was loaded while the other was empty. ‘What can we put in?’ the angels asked each other. ‘Let’s look for something good in his life.’ Then there appeared in the hand of one of the angels the handkerchief soaked with tears of repentance. The angels quickly placed it on their side of the scales, and it at once outweighed the other side with all its papers. Then the demons fled, howling in anguish, the angels took the man’s soul and carried it to Paradise, glorifying God’s love for mankind.” (The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovc, Lazarica Press, Birmingham, 1986, Volume 4, page 81, October 18th)

May we never confuse God’s willingness to forgive sins with our own unwillingness to forgive others who have sinned. God’s invitation to repent of sins extends to everyone…including those precious souls in prisons. Indeed, some of our greatest saints were once murders, robbers, prostitutes, and more. Let us do our part in reaching out with the love of Christ to those in prison.

Praying in the Difficult Times

 

3rd Sunday of Luke

Have you ever gone through (or presently going through) a really difficult time in your life? It could be injuries from an accident or the diagnosis of a horrible disease or a precious relationship suddenly gone from your life or… there are so many possible things that we would call “difficult!” In fact, is there anyone who has not experienced some difficult times in life?

This being true, then the question arises as to how do we spiritually handle such adversity in our lives? Obviously, on the physical side, we should seek medical assistance for injuries or diseases. This article concerns the spiritual side of things. One reaction is to shake an angry fist at God saying: “Why me God?” Another is to plead with God over and over again to take away the pain and bring healing.

The great Saint Paul had many such adversities in his life (check out 2 Corinthians 11:23-32 for a list). Yet, for Saint Paul there was one issue that stood out more than the others. He called it his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Here was a great man of God, whose prayers were continually answered, pleading with God to take this from him. After three times of begging God to remove it, he received this response: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Ouch…that would not be the response that I would be looking for from God!

Often my own prayers can be very self-centered when I am going through a bad injury or sickness until I am reminded that His Grace is sufficient for me. I am currently in the middle of a difficult time in my own life as I heal up from the fractures suffered in an accident. My doctors did a great job in getting me back home, but I am still in a battle with pain. In my down time, I am rereading the book; Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac (published by the Holy Monastery “Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian”, 2012). Elder Paisios is now recognized as Saint Paisios. His life and teachings leave no doubt about this man of God being recognized as a Saint of our Faith.

There were two quotes that leaped off the pages and caused me to change my whole approach to my own difficult time. Saint Paisios was suffering from a hernia. Here is the statement he made at that time:

“I have a hernia but I don’t want an operation. Let me have something wrong with me. It’s a great thing to be sick, to suffer; and not pray about it, but to pray for others. God really listens when someone who’s suffering prays for other people to get better.” (Page 274) Note that he is not saying it is a great thing to be sick or suffer, rather that it is a great thing to pray for others and not ourselves when these things happen. Later on the hernia worsened and he did get the needed surgery, but at first he wanted to focus on praying for others.

Wow, that got my attention and that very night my wife and I prayed the Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things” and then offered prayers for everyone we knew who was suffering (most of them from much more than a few fractured bones). The joy that filled my heart as we finished our prayers was simply amazing. My focus was off me and on to the needs of others. Since then my joy is in praying for others without praying for myself.

The second quote I ran into was also so very impactful:

“Elder Paisios was able to ignore his pain. ‘You do your job, and I’ll do mine,’ he would say to his sicknesses, and continue praying, doing manual labor, or seeing people. Though he was suffering himself, he comforted others who were suffering.” (Page 310)

“Ignore my own pain and comfort others” is a huge step for most folks, yet the rewards are great!! It may be the only way that we can truly come to understand the Lord’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Here is the challenge for each of us in this week ahead; whether we are in good health or terrible health; whether we are suffering in some way or in a place of absolutely no suffering:

There is nothing wrong with praying for yourself, but what would happen if you focused your prayers on others and not yourself? If you would like to try it, then over the next 7 days do not pray for yourself. Pray only for others. If you forget and begin praying for yourself, just stop and immediately focus on praying for others. Also, find someone who is suffering to comfort either in person or by phone, email, or letter. May it be blessed for you and may you be a blessing for others!

Capital Punishment

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

By Fr. Stephen Powley

St. Stephen being stoned

“’An eye for an eye’ seems right to the point.  Why should there be any further discussion on the matter of the death penalty?  If they violated the law and the penalty called for is death, then that settles it.  Put them to death!!”   I recently heard that said by a person who also seems very committed to their faith.  My namesake, Saint Stephen, was believed to have broken the law and the penalty called for was death.  The Icon above shows him being stoned as recorded in Acts 7.  Wait a minute, that’s not a fair comparison!!  Welcome to the debate on the death penalty in our modern world.

Capital Punishment is certainly a very divisive issue facing both our society and our Church in this world we live in.  Both sides of this issue are very emotional…many in favor of the death penalty and many opposed.  Even within Orthodox Christianity there seems to be a great deal of division… both among the people and among the clergy. So much so, in fact, that very few groups have issued an official statement on the subject.  I suspect that even within a local church there would be divided opinions. Even on a personal basis, I confess that I have believed both sides at different times in my life. With that in mind, let us proceed to take a closer look at the subject and ask ourselves some very difficult questions.

“Hey, the Bible supports capital punishment and that’s good enough for me!”  Those are the very words I hear when discussing the matter with someone who is in favor of the death penalty.  So let us begin with the Holy Scriptures, specifically the Old Testament. Capital Punishment was clearly a part of the Israelite society. The very stoning of St. Stephen was justified by their use of the Holy Scriptures at that time (what we call the Old Testament today):  “Anyone who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be put to death…the entire assembly is to stone him”  (Leviticus 24:14-23).

God commanded the Israelites to put people to death for a great variety of things (such as: offering their children as sacrifices, cursing their father or mother, committing adultery or various other sexual practices outside of normal marriage, and being a medium or spiritist).  Here are just a few verses found in Leviticus chapter 20:

“The Lord said to Moses, Say to the people of Israel: ‘Any man of the people of Israel, or any strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death.’

 ‘For everyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death.’

 ‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.’

 

‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.’

 ‘A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death.’”

The first tough question we have to answer is: “Does the fact that the death penalty was practiced under Old Testament Law make it a legitimate practice for today?”

The New Testament

Many would say that if it is in the Bible then it is okay.  It is vital that we hear the whole counsel of God from the Bible, before we reach any Scriptural conclusions. By that I mean, what does the New Testament have to say?  Consider these words of Jesus found in Matthew 5:18:

“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

This verse, taken by itself, would seem to point us toward legitimizing the death penalty by virtue of the Law.  It is important that verses of Holy Scripture be looked at within their context. We will do that in a moment, but first let us examine another passage dealing with our Lord Jesus Christ. In the 8th Chapter of the Gospel of John, we find the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The scribes and Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus saying:

“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”

It would seem fairly obvious from the verses both in Leviticus and in Matthew that were already quoted, that Jesus’ hands would be tied in this matter. The woman committed adultery and therefore would have to be put to death.  But amazingly, Jesus tells those standing there:

“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

When they heard these words of Jesus, all of them left, until only the woman and Jesus were together. Still, the Law is the Law, and Jesus is the One without sin…so he had the responsibility to carry out the punishment; to follow His Own Law.  Instead, the following conversation takes place:

“Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

It would seem that Jesus had failed to obey His Own Law. He admitted she had sinned, yet he did not carry out the mandate of His Law.  Did Jesus violate the Law?  Did he abolish the Law?  No, you say…but why not?  Here we have “God-Come-In-The-Flesh”, seeming to not obeying His own law, refusing to utilize the death penalty. What is the world is going on here.  The answer is alluded to in Matthew 5, taking that earlier quotation in context. Jesus says this:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus came to fulfill the Law. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious zealots of the time. They strived to keep the Law at all times. Yet, Jesus calls us to a righteousness that exceeds theirs. The rest of Matthew 5 explains that righteousness:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.” “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

As we come to understand Jesus’ higher understanding of the Law, we begin to realize that we all deserve the death penalty. That’s why Jesus invited the scribes and Pharisees, who were without sin, to cast the first stone.  All of us have sinned; none of us is worthy to cast that first stone. Jesus now calls us to a higher level…that of living under His Grace.  Thank God for the Grace that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.

If the scribes and Pharisees were unable to carry out the death penalty after speaking with Jesus, and if Jesus, Himself, did not carry it out, I believe we are quite safe to say that the Old Testament Law does not require us to execute people today.  But even if this is true, our current life situation brings us to another dilemma:  Can we, in our personal lives, live under the Grace of God, but as a society revert back to the Old Testament Law?

The United States of America is not a Theocracy, as was Israel when the Law was given.  We are a democracy, with human beings for our President and other leaders.  Our laws are passed by people and enforced by people. So this brings us to today and our society.  Our laws, both Federal and many States, have reinstated Capital Punishment.  Those in favor of the death penalty often quote Romans 13:1-2 as a reason:

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”

If we say that capital punishment is justified because it is the law handed down by our government, then we should perhaps think about other governments that have issued laws in the past that justified the death penalty for certain “crimes” against humanity.  This could begin with Rome and the death penalty for those practicing Christianity and extend right up to recent history.  Can any right thinking person really believe that St. Paul had in mind supporting the death penalty for Christians because the governing authorities had passed that law?  Saul may have believed that, but not the converted Paul!

According to the media, the vast majority of people in our country are in favor of the death penalty.  Some people say it is a matter of money, thinking it is cheaper to kill someone rather than imprison them for life.  In actuality, the most conservative estimates say that it costs 10 times more money to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.  California did a study that showed the death penalty system cost the taxpayers in that state around 137 million dollars per year whereas a system which imposed a maximum penalty of life time incarceration instead of the death penalty would cost them 11.5 million dollars per year.  There is absolutely no evidence that would support the death penalty using money as a reason.

Other Ethical Issues to Consider

Capital Punishment is much more than a money issue anyway.  It is an ethical issue on which most of Christianity has avoided taking a position. There are other ethical issues on which Christianity has taken strong opposition. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at two of those issues to see if any of our own arguments would apply to Capital Punishment:

  • Abortion: The vast majority of Christians oppose abortion. Orthodox Christians oppose it because it is the taking of a human life. The debates within the abortion issue are usually over the point at which life begins. We oppose abortion because we believe life begins at conception. Our conclusion is that abortion is murder. That baby is made in the image and likeness of God, even in its mother’s womb.  That being the case, when did we decide that that human being ceased to be someone made in the image and likeness of God?  How is it that we can draw an imaginary line that allows us to take any human life through the death penalty? We can talk about the innocence of the baby and the guilt of the convict, but if we cannot stand on the Old Testament Law, then what gives us the right to take a human life, someone clearly made in the image and likeness of God?

 

2)     Euthanasia: Proponents of euthanasia usually hold up the quality of life as the reason for killing an elderly or sick person.  Certainly the abortion arguments are relevant here as well.  But, the argument I have most often heard against euthanasia goes like this: “What gives anyone the right to play God by taking the life of an elderly or sick person?”  If this is the Christian argument against euthanasia, then what gives us the right to “play God” when it comes to the death penalty?  Playing God” means that we are in some measure taking responsibility for the eternal destination of another human being.  That may sound too strong, but if we kill another person we have immediately placed that person before the Judgment Seat of Christ.  Could it be that we have sentenced that person to eternal separation from God with no further opportunity to live a life of repentance?  Only God knows!

A Life of Repentance?

This brings us to another question that Orthodox Christians need to ask themselves: Is it possible for a murderer to repent and be forgiven by God?  Is it possible for that murderer to experience the Grace of God in their lives?  I know a man that took a gun and killed another man with a shot to the head. The death penalty could have been given, but it was not. Many years later, this man is still in prison. But, he is living a life of repentance as an Orthodox Christian, having committed his whole life to Christ. I believe he is a different person through the Grace of God.  He will stay in prison, paying his debt to society, but he certainly has different hopes for eternity.  By living, even in prison, he was given the opportunity to find forgiveness in the waters of Holy Baptism and to live a life of repentance with Christ Jesus as his Lord.  His story is repeated over and over again by others who deserved, but did not receive the death penalty.

Certainly, the early Christians of our Faith understood this concept.  Lactantius (260 to 330 AD) wrote in The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20:

When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits the violence that is condemned by public laws, but he also forbids the violence that is deemed lawful by men…Nor is it [lawful] to accuse anyone of a capital offense. It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword.  It is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.  Therefore, regarding this precept of God there should be no exception at all.  Rather it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.

There were many great men and women of God that deserved (by today’s standards) the death penalty early in their lives, yet went on to live holy lives later.  St. Moses of Ethiopia (4th Century) comes to mind. He was an evil person who not only stole, but even went so far as to commit murder. Later he became a great Christian leader as the abbot of his monastery and eventually became holy martyr for the Faith.  There are countless similar stories.

Although not directed toward the death penalty, this quote from St. Maximos the Confessor (7th Century) seems very appropriate:

“But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. Heaven was amazed at this and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed” (Third Century on Love, 54).

In closing, let us consider one last question: In light of all that we have examined, how can we, as the “bearers” of the Good News of Jesus Christ, not take a stand against Capital Punishment, if for no other reason than the possible salvation of the souls of those human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, who would be put to death?

  

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM EARLY CHRISTIANS

 “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”

  • ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  •  “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.” ~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)

 

  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
    ~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)

 

  • The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.” ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.” ~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)

 

  • “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.”
    ~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)

 

  • “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

 

  • “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  • “For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, and gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” ~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)

 

  • “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all;…they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.” ~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)

 

  • “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
    ~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

 

  • “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”

~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)

 

  • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”
    ~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)

 

  • “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
    ~ Aristides (written around 137AD)

 

  • “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
    ~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

 

  • “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”

~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)

 

  • “I recognize no empire of this present age.” ~ Speratus (martyred 180AD)

 

  • “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” ~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)

 

  • “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
    ~ St. John Chrysostom (347AD – 407AD)

 

  • “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”

~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)

 

  • “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

 

  • “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors. It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
    ~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

 

  • “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers…. The gods of the nations are demons.”

~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
    ~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD

 

PRAYER FOR SOMEONE CONDEMNED TO DEATH

 

O Most-merciful, All-gracious and Compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, Son of God:

 

Out of Your love for sinful men, You graciously condescended to accept condemnation, even unto death, to be crucified for the sake of our salvation, and on the Cross, to give up Your righteous Spirit into the hands of God the Father.

 

We entreat You, Most-gracious Master:  With Your compassion, look also on (Name), who has been condemned to death by the judgment of men.

 

Forgive his (her) mortal transgression; inspire in his (her) heart true repentance, that he (she) may, if even in this hour before death, also confess You, his (her) God and Savior, as once did the wise Thief, and be granted mercy from you.

 

Yea, O Long-suffering Lord of many mercies, condemn not by Your just judgment this condemned sinner, (Name); pardon him (her) his (her) transgressions; deliver him (her), by this penalty of death, from the eternal death prepared for unrepentant sinners, that he (she) may glorify You with all the sinners who have repented and been justified through You, for You alone are sinless and to You are due all glory, honor and worship, together with Your Most-holy and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

 

Amen.

Burning Questions on the Issue of Cremation – A follow-up to “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”

The previous article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, stirred many excellent comments and questions. Since many of the same questions were asked many times, it seemed like a good idea to take a close look at them in response. The following questions are a compilation of the similar type questions:

Question 1 – What is wrong with cremation since God is all-powerful and could do anything He wants to do? You are limiting God! He could resurrect ashes just as easily as he could bones. What about people who die in fires or airplane crashes? Are you saying they can’t be saved because they were burned up?

Response 1 – I would absolutely agree that God is not limited. He can do whatever He thinks best. The issue is not about what God can do. The issue is about our choices. Clearly, people who are burned up in tragic accidents did not make that choice and our God is perfectly able to resurrect them. That is not the issue. With cremation, we are making a decision that is not found in the Bible or in the entire history of Christianity until the 20th century. How could it now be okay for Christians? “Everyone is doing it” is not an appropriate answer to that question unless we really want to open up “Pandora’s box” within Christianity.

Some people say that because God is able to resurrect ashes, He gives us permission to be cremated. This is a very flawed argument, especially since cremation is not supported by the Bible or historical Christianity in any way. It would be along the same lines as the argument St. Paul provides in Romans 5 and 6. He writes that “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more. What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” (Roman 5:20-6:2)

 

Again, the “doctrine” of cremation is not about what God can do. It is solely about our decision making. Who are we to decide that it is okay with God to burn up a human body? Remember that when God created human beings He said: “It is very good!” (Genesis 1:31) Remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Remember that if you are “in Christ,” your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and, in the next verse, we are told to “honor God with your body!” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)  Could deciding to burn up your body truly honor God?

God does have guidelines for us as to how we should live, worship, etc. These have been in place over the centuries. Historically, the Christian Church buried folks because of the belief in the bodily resurrection. The Old Testament has a passage entitled: The Valley of Dry Bones (note that it is not the “Valley of Ashes”). It is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Listen to these words from verses 4-6: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” At the end of that passage, God even clarifies further in verses 13-14: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live!”

One final thought on why we bury the body and do not cremate it. Again, looking at the Bible, consider this from 1 Thessalonians 5:23:  “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  It really is a package deal! The body is not some separate entity that we can simply burn up as a useless piece of garbage. It is important to God and it should be important to each of His children.

Question 2 – I don’t get it. If there is nothing left of your body after decay, why would it matter whether you are buried or cremated? After all, the disposal of a soulless, lifeless body has nothing to do with the Bible anyway.

Response 2 – I would totally disagree with that last statement. The Bible has to do with all of life and death. One cannot hold to a “doctrine” of cremation and simply ignore everything the Bible has to say about the human body in death. To call a human body that has died “soulless” is a total misunderstanding of the Bible and the Christian Faith that has been followed for almost 2000 years now.

There are many, many things we “don’t get” in the Christian Faith and that is actually a very good thing. When it comes to the body being buried, St. Paul explains some of this to us in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our bodily burial to a seed (verses 36-38):  “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.” I love this comparison since I like planting flowers. If I look closely at a marigold seed and then plant it in the ground, what comes up looks absolutely nothing like that seed. St. Paul is saying that about our bodies. We have no idea what our glorified body will look like. That is truly something we “don’t get” in this amazing Faith.

St. Paul goes on to say (verses 42-44):  “So also is the resurrection of the dead. “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”  St. Paul finishes up with this amazing word for us (verse 52): “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  Our body is sown; not ashes, but our body. Just like the seed, we will plant a natural body and we will receive a spiritual body. The body that is raised will be incorruptible. Again, this is way beyond our understanding.

Question 3 – But Father, it is cheaper to have the body cremated, so why shouldn’t we save our loved ones some money? I’m afraid financial considerations have become the single criterion for most of us and having a settled, faithful opinion about cremation isn’t even in our sights.

Response 3 – Please, please look into the price of a burial done without embalming and with a simple casket. Caskets can be ordered from many Orthodox Christian sources at a very low price compared to some of the expensive models out there. You will find that financial considerations will no longer be the driving force.

One of the reasons for writing the first article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, was that the non-Scriptural basis of cremation was not “in the sights” of far too many Christians. It is hoped that readers will understand that the Bible does not support cremation in any way whatsoever. Christians who tell me they do their best to live according to the Bible should be questioning where this doctrine of cremation crept into Christianity. It was never held by our Christian Faith until well into the 20th century. This also should raise concerns.

Lastly, Christians should never allow money to guide theology. Make no mistake about this issue being about theology. It has everything to do with our beliefs regarding who we are as Christians, what happens to us at death, and what takes place at the resurrection of the dead.

A Scriptural Defense of Cremation

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In the town where I live, funerals have become rather rare. I hear this is true throughout our country. People now have a “Celebration of Life” with lots of pictures of the deceased person and sometimes a cremation urn will be present. Cremation has become the norm for most Christians in our country. It has replaced the funeral and the burial of the body of the deceased.

This has occurred with almost no debate about the issue of cremation. It has become an accepted doctrine of most Protestant groups (It also is fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church). Almost every Protestant statement of faith begins with something like this:

“The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

Putting this in simpler terms, most Protestants would simply say that they stand on the Word of God alone. With that as a foundation, here then is a defense of cremation taken only from the Bible.

First, since cremation is the burning up of the body, let us consider some of the verses dealing with the burning of bodies in the Bible. As you will see, the Bible is filled with great examples:

  • Genesis 19 – God burned up the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Leviticus 10 – God burned up Nadab and Abihu.
  • Leviticus 20:14 – A man who marries both a woman and her mother should be burned with fire.
  • Leviticus 21:9 – The daughter of a priest who becomes a prostitute should be burned fire.
  • Numbers 11 – God burned up some people for complaining against Him.
  • Numbers 16 – God burned up 250 men with Korah who rebelled against Moses.
  • Deuteronomy 12:29-31 – Nearby nations were burning their sons and daughters in the fire as a sacrifice to their gods. God forbid His people from doing this, but it does show that others were doing it. Haven’t you heard: “Everyone is doing it!”
  • Deuteronomy 18:10 – Even though God forbids His people, again we find that entire nations were sacrificing their sons and daughters in the fire.
  • Joshua 7:25 – Joshua had Achan and all his family stoned and then burned them up because of the sin Achan had committed.
  • Judges 9 – Abimelech burned up about 1,000 men and women in the tower of Shechem (Things didn’t go well for Abimelech right after that).
  • Judges 15:6 – The Philistines burned up Samson’s wife and her father.
  • 1 Kings 16:18 – Zimri burned up himself after things went bad for him.
  • 2 Kings 1 – The prophet Elijah called down fire and burned up the captains and their 50 soldiers (This happened two times).
  • 2 Kings 16 – King Ahaz cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).
  • 2 Kings 17 – The children of Israel were burning up their sons and daughters as offerings to other gods.
  • 2 Kings 21 – King Manasseh cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).

This brings us to the Major and Minor Prophets of the Bible who did mention cremation quite a few times, but since it was all in a rather negative light, we will not cite each passage. So let’s move on to the New Testament:

  • Matthew 18:41-42 – Jesus actually mentions casting people into the furnace of fire (which sounds like a crematorium).
  • Matthew 25:41 – Jesus does speak of an everlasting fire which certain ones will be cast into.
  • Mark 9 – Several times, Jesus mentions a fire that never goes out that some could be thrown into.
  • Luke 12:49 – Jesus said that He came to send fire on the earth. This may not be an actual reference to cremation, but could be used out of context.
  • John 15:6 – Jesus talks about throwing those who do not abide in Him into the fire to be burned up.
  • 1 Corinthians 3 – Our works will be tested by fire. Could this be a reference to cremation? Rats, that passage is about the Church, not individuals.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 – The Lord will take vengeance with flaming fire on the disobedient.
  • Hebrews 12:29 – A very strong witness for cremation: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
  • 1 Peter 1:7 – Our faith will be tested by fire (compare with 1 Corinthians 3 above for the continuing debate regarding works vs faith).
  • 2 Peter 3:12 – In the end, looks like everything gets cremated anyway.
  • Jude – More thoughts on the vengeance of eternal fire.
  • Revelation – Almost every chapter has something in it about fire. Suffice it to say, there will be some kind of everlasting cremation going on.

“If the Bible says it, it is good enough for me!” Clearly, the Bible shows that that even God practiced cremation. Some of the Kings in the Bible practiced cremation. The nations mentioned in the Bible often practiced cremation. Furthermore, the Bible points out that there is actually some sort of eternal cremation available.

But wait, these are all rather negative references toward the practice of cremation. In fact, I honestly couldn’t find one verse in which God blessed the practice of cremation. Perhaps we should take a different approach to the Biblical concept of cremation.

WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?” This phrase has certainly impacted the Christian world and perhaps we can use it to look at this widely accepted doctrine of cremation.

The greatest miracle in the ministry of Jesus occurred with the person of Lazarus. He had been dead for 4 days when Jesus raised him from the dead. Oops, my mistake, if Lazarus had been cremated, that wouldn’t have occurred.

Jesus Himself died. Hmmm…He wasn’t cremated either. If fact, when He rose from the dead, he did have a body, ate food, and insisted on being touched. Bummer, that won’t work either.

Instead of that, what about taking a look at what St. Paul taught. He wrote a lot of stuff in the New Testament. He talked pretty seriously about death in 1 Corinthians. Let’s take a quick look at chapter 15. In discussing the resurrection from the dead (which we are all interested in), he only talks about the body. He speaks of the body as if it were a seed planted in the ground which will eventually be raised. Earlier in chapter 6, St. Paul talks about our bodies actually being the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Hmmm, there is no mention of cremation by St. Paul. But, a fair question to ask at this point is: “Doesn’t the Holy Spirit simply leave the body of a believer after death?”

There is one passage of the Bible does come to mind regarding that question. In 2 Kings 13:20, we are told that the prophet Elisha died and was buried.  Well, let’s let the Bible speak for itself here:

“Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”

The bones of Elisha still contained the Holy Spirit so that a dead man was brought back to life. Wow, if he had been cremated and his ashes scattered over the Jordan River, that miracle would have never taken place.

I confess to you the reader that I have failed miserably in giving a Scriptural defense for the practice of cremation. That does raise the question about why so many Christians are practicing something that is actually condemned in the Bible if they truly believe in their statement of faith:  “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

What is guiding this doctrine of cremation? Please don’t tell me: “Everyone is doing it!”

The Journey

The man would have easily sold his soul to the devil to get ahead in this world, to make a name for himself, to be somebody very important.  Thankfully, he didn’t need to sell his soul to the devil because he had determined years ago that the devil didn’t exist.  It wasn’t actually the existence of the devil that he had ruled out; it was the existence of God.  Somewhat consciously and mostly sub-consciously, he had decided that God’s existence would really get in the way of his life.  If God existed, then he would be expected to live under a certain code of moral ethics.  If there was no God, then he could live his life in whatever manner he chose.  So it was that the non-existence of God slowly evolved in his life until he had convinced himself that there simply was no God.  And if there was no God, then there absolutely would not be a devil.  With that foundation to guide his thinking, it never even crossed his mind to sell his soul.  After all, to whom would he sell it?

The man had never questioned his reasoning in this matter of the non-existence of God.  He had learned early in his life that his conclusions were the only conclusions that really mattered.  Learned is perhaps the wrong word to use because it wasn’t a concept that he had been taught by any individual.  It was simply a way of thinking that everyone around him held.  It wasn’t necessarily talked about, it just was.  It was the foundation of most everything and everyone in his life.  It was the unspoken, guiding principle that seemed to be at the heart of everyone he knew, both those he respected and those to whom he felt superior.  Once he had determined that something was true or not true, then that matter was settled.  That there could be any kind of absolute truth that was contrary to his thinking was certainly not in the realm of possibility. Absolute truth did not really exist, unless his conclusions were to be called absolute truth.  And in all honesty, he lived and spoke as if that were the case.  So it was that this concept of truth slowly evolved in his life until he had convinced himself that there simply was no truth beyond what he determined to be the truth.  Again, somewhat consciously and mostly sub-consciously, he had embraced this life guiding concept that whatever he believed to be true was true.  If his thought process had taken him to the truth, then he certainly didn’t need to question his reasoning in this matter of the non-existence of God.  After all, with whom would he question it?

The man didn’t take this matter of truth lightly.  His mind was constantly looking for support for his conclusions.  He found this support literally everywhere.  Sometimes it was in a casual conversation when someone would say something that he could log away in that mental file that made his truths even more absolute.  The same thing happened when he read a book or newspaper.  Minute pieces of information were constantly being added to his thought process for his various conclusions.  He very seldom actually searched for this support.  His mind was just waiting to embrace it whenever it crossed his path.  It seems his mind had this wonderful ability to filter things that supported his thinking from things that might possibly weaken or question his conclusions.  The only time he felt the need to search out for more support was when the mind failed to adequately filter some facts.  But he had sources that he could go to that would always support his thinking and put the matter to rest.  Somewhat consciously and mostly sub-consciously, his confidence in his absolute truths grew daily and he found himself emboldened to gladly pass these truths on to others.  If the facts constantly proved him right, then he was the holder of the truth.   After all, who could possibly disagree with any truth that had so much support?

The man slowly began to realize his superiority to other human beings, especially those who disagreed with him in any matter.  He was the holder of truth itself.  This realization took much time.  After all, there were so many issues that he had to think through and decide upon for himself.  Over time he had come to so many truths, covering so many issues, that he arrived at the point where he no longer needed to think through a matter…he simply knew what was the truth.  Everyone else held opinions on issues, but if they disagreed with him, he would simply smile at their ignorance.  Again, somewhat consciously and mostly sub-consciously, he found his superiority to other human beings was so very great that no longer cared about their opinions on anything other than their praise of him.  The epiphany of this journey was the realization that he was not simply the holder of truth, but the holder of absolute truth.   And the logical conclusion to this truth became obvious to him:  The holder of absolute truth had to be God and therefore, he had become God!  After all, who could be the holder of absolute truth except for God?

The man at first rejected this idea that he was God, but everything pointed to that fact as the only possible conclusion.  It became for him the ultimate truth and for a time he was very happy with it.  It explained his obvious superiority to everyone around him and it cemented once and for all the fact that his conclusions were the only ones that really mattered.  His ponderings took on greater depths as he realized his responsibility to explain the deeper matters to those around him.  Inevitably, he was forced to consider why there were so many lies.  Absolute truth means that any variance from that would have to be a lie. This was something he had never really wrestled with before, but it was something he had to figure out.  After all, others had to know the truth of this matter.  He weighed out all the various options and didn’t really like any of them.  He became rather obsessed with the existence of lies.   Whether it was somewhat consciously or mostly sub-consciously, he couldn’t really say, but he wrestled with it day and night.  Until the truth finally came to him:  Since he was God and was the holder of all absolute truth; there had to be another who was the holder of all lies.  After all, how could others ever disagree with his infallible arguments, except when they listen to the one who holds all of the absolute lies?

The man was stunned by his own conclusion and yet there could be no other logical explanation of the existence of lies.  His ability to know absolute truth and his desire to spread it to everyone left him with no other options when it came to the existence of lies.  Just as truth was absolute so lies were also absolute.  He looked at the evil taking place in this world and realized that lies were the very foundation of their existence.  Absolute lies were the very things that led to the existence of evil in this world.  The holder of absolute lies was also the holder of absolute evil.  Mostly consciously and somewhat sub-consciously, he began to wrestle with the issue of absolute evil.  He actually fought hard against the obvious conclusion that he would have to come to:  there had to be one who was the opposite of him and who, with the same zeal, spread his absolute lies to everyone.  There is only one who could possibly be the opposite of God.  There was no other choice.  The absolute truth he had arrived at was that the devil was the holder of absolute lies.  After all, wasn’t his very existence as the holder of absolute truth dependent on the existence of the holder of absolute lies? Who else could that be except the devil?

The man was beside himself.  If absolute evil existed, then absolute good must also exist.  The holder of absolute good must also be the holder of absolute truth.  This realization shattered the very foundation upon which he had built his entire life.  He knew that he had done evil in his life.  Totally conscious and with no sub-conscious thought, he realized that he could not possibly be the holder of absolute good.  And if he was not the holder of absolute good, then he could not be the holder of absolute truth.  The holder of absolute good and absolute truth was one in that same and it could be no other than God.  If he was not the holder of absolute truth, then he had believed a lie.  And if he had believed a lie, could it be possible…could he have sold his soul to the devil to get ahead in this world, to make a name for himself, to be somebody very important?

Standing on the Word of God Alone?

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Most Christians in our world today really have no idea where the New Testament came from or how it came to be known as Holy Scripture.  Most folks don’t even ask that question, they simply refer to it as God’s Word and they loudly proclaim that they “stand on the Word of God alone.”  That phrase comes from the one of the battle cries of the Reformers of the 16th Century: “Sola Scriptura!”  If one reads the statement of Faith of many of the Christian Churches today, often the first thing mentioned has something to do with this concept of “Sola Scriptura.”

Standing on the Word of God alone can sound like the right thing to do.  In fact, who could argue against such an ideal?  The problem that immediately arose and continues to plague Christendom since the 16th Century is not the Holy Scriptures being God’s Word.  The problem is with the interpretation of that Word.  On one intersection there can be 4 different Christian Churches all proclaiming that they stand on the Word of God alone:  “Sola Scriptura” they will shout.  Sadly, each of them will be in serious disagreement with the others on matters of very important beliefs, doctrines, and practices.

In today’s world, some have estimated there are now over 60,000 different schisms within Christendom…looking very much like a shattered mirror.  People may shout “Sola Scriptura” but the truth of the matter is that they are really proclaiming “Sola Interpretation!”  The Holy Scriptures are not to blame.  It comes down to the interpretation of those Holy Scriptures.  Many Churches spring up every day because someone decided that the Bible says something different than what the Church they are currently in believes.  The picture of Christianity begins to sound much like the last verse in the Book of Judges:  “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  That didn’t work out at all in the Book of Judges and it certainly isn’t working out in today’s world with the interpretation of the Bible.

An understanding of where the New Testament came from is really foundational to how we interpret it today.  It didn’t simply fall from the sky one day.  The extent of the Canon of the New Testament is not a matter of Direct Revelation…God didn’t write the list on the wall!!!  Here is a very brief summary of what happened in history to bring us the Canon of the New Testament.

For the first hundred years or so of the Christian faith, documents like the letters written by Paul and the four writings about the life of Jesus, which we call “the Gospels”, had been circulated and copied throughout the Churches for use in teaching. Very quickly, these documents came to be regarded as Holy Scripture, of equal importance (or more, in the eyes of some) as the Jewish scriptures, which are referred to today as the Old Testament.

Around 140 A.D. (Over 100 years after Jesus’ death and His Glorious Resurrection), a man named Marcion began teaching a version of Christianity which viewed the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful God incompatible with the loving God of the New Testament.  He therefore rejected the theology of the Old Testament. To support his teachings, Marcion published a canon – a list of documents which he considered to be Holy Scripture – which included only an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (along with his own writings). This brought to light the need for a consistent understanding in the Church of what documents (or books) were indeed Canonical (i.e. accepted as Holy Scripture).  It is important to note that Marcion did not actually start this process of forming the canon, rather the controversy he started simply accelerated an already existing process.

At the time of Marcion, two sets of documents had already been assembled and circulated among the Churches. The first set was called the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The second set was the collection of the letters by the Apostle Paul.  Both sets were quoted as Scripture by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, around 115 A.D.  They had no doubt been in circulation for quite some years before that date. A collection of other letters,  those of Peter, John, James, and Jude –along with the Acts of the Apostles (which had been separated from the Gospel of Luke), were eventually included.

By 200 A.D., the majority of the New Testament was established.  A document called the “Muratorian Fragment” refers to Luke as the third Gospel (assumedly listing Matthew and Mark before it), then lists John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, two epistles of John and the Book of Revelation as Holy Scripture.  In the early 300’s, Origen lists the four Gospels, Paul’s 13 letters, one letter each of Peter and John, and Revelation. He also notes that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, amongst other documents were debated by some. Around that same time, Eusebius lists all of the New Testament documents except James, Jude, Peter’s second letter and John’s second and third letters, which he says are disputed by some, but recognized by the majority.

In 367, Athanasius is the first to list the 27 documents of the New Testament as we know it today, and he is quickly followed by Jerome and Augustine in the church in Europe. At the councils of Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397, the Church in the west as a body approved the 27 documents alone as Holy Scripture. The process farther east took a little longer; it was not until 508 that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were included in a version of the Syriac Bible in addition to the other twenty two books.

All of that history is important because it reveals to us that the Holy Scriptures did not give us the Church.  The Church was established by Jesus Himself and that Church, over the next 300-500 years, identified those 27 Books of the New Testament that we have today.  Indeed, it is the Church that gave us the New Testament!  That is worth repeating:  It is the Church that gave us the New Testament!

It is this same Church which also handed down the correct interpretation of that New Testament.   Seven times the Church had to come together in what is called an Ecumenical Council.  These Seven Ecumenical Councils came together because of the great heresies which were attacking the Church. Often these attacks were not simply debates, but the heretics were actually torturing and killing those who held firm to the Truth. True Christians shed their blood to hand down the correct interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, as it had been handed down to them from the beginning.

These Councils did not come up with some new doctrines but they only sought to identify that which had always been believed…that which was handed down from Christ to His Apostles, then to their disciples, and then to each generation.  These Councils took seriously the words of Jude 3:  “Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”  Today, the cry goes out to all of Christendom to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”… not some new doctrines that sound nice…but what has always been believed and taught from the beginning.

“Sola Scriptura” or “Sola Interpretation” was never a part of Christianity until the 16th Century.  Truth was never some subjective thing that changed with every breeze that drifted through Christianity.  The Bible is God’s Word and the interpretation of it has been handed down from the beginning of the Church.  If someone comes up with a new interpretation in the 21st Century, we should run…not walk…away from them.  There is no new truth…the Truth has not changed for almost 2000 years.  May we seek it out and walk in it alone:  ”Sola Truth”…which has been handed down and is available to each of us.