Context. Context. Context. – John 8:32

The following is an excerpt from Discover the Bible  (with a few minor edits primarily for continuity).


“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (NKJV)

Have you noticed that even as the Ten Commandments are being removed from government and other buildings, that this phrase uttered by Jesus still seems to pop up all over, and never receives the criticism that other Bible quotes often get? “You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Jesus told this to a group of His followers.

berkeleyToday several prominent universities feature this quote on their campus, including: the University of Texas, Miami University (Ohio), the University of Virginia, and Johns Hopkins. This piece of wisdom even gains acceptance from one of the most anti-religious arenas, a public high school in Berkeley, California where it is prominently displayed on campus.1 A quick search of the internet reveals some of the ways people use the quote: a lawyer has it for his website heading; it’s the title of a blog about a murder trial; and it’s the headline of a news story about the 2008 Chinese gymnastics team.

There are typically two common misinterpretations that people have of what Jesus was saying here. One is more in line with how the schools see it, with the emphasis on knowledge. The thinking is that the knowledge of the truth allows you to have more freedom because your mind is released from its limited capacity you had before you knew. The idea is that the more you learn and know, the more freedom you will have. The other misinterpretation usually drops the first half of the verse and just goes with “the truth shall set you free.” This is the way the webpages are using it. The idea is something like: Coming clean will make you feel relieved (free) because you won’t have to hide (the truth) anymore. While there is some wisdom in both of these concepts,2 are either really what Jesus meant on this occasion? Is “filling their heads with more knowledge” what Jesus is instructing his followers to do? Is “setting our conscience free so we can feel good” the proper application of this passage?

We should look at the larger context to help us understand the meaning of the specific passage. So for a passage from the Gospel of John, we often will start with thinking about the larger context of the Bible, then the New Testament, then looking at other writings by John and finally considering any themes or related issues in other parts of this Gospel. However, for this chapter, let’s just look at the immediate context so we can see the significance of only having that information for helping us interpret our verse. John 8:31-36 (NKJV) says:

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

The first thing that should jump out at us is that Jesus doesn’t say “you will tell the truth” and the truth will make you free. He says you will “know” the truth. So, it’s knowledge of a truth that sets us free, not us telling the truth. That rules out the second common misinterpretation completely. Another thing we can see is that the emphasis here is not as much about knowledge as it is about freedom. The first part of the passage builds up to the culmination in verse 36. “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”

We are set free by the Son. Free from what? The context tells us. We see that Jesus sets us free from being a slave to sin (verse 34). How? We are set free because we have a knowledge of a certain truth (verse 32). Knowledge of what truth? Well again, let’s look at the context. Jesus tells the disciples what truth He is talking about. He says “if you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth” (verse 31). It’s all found in the context.

First, notice that the promise is conditional. If we do something, then we get the result. It’s simple. If we follow in His teaching, then we will experience the result. But it’s not just “intellectual truth” or mere “mental assent” that Jesus is talking about. It’s an experiential truth. It is the truth that when we abide in His instruction and allow it to transform us, He will disciple us. It comes with the freedom of knowing that our sins are cast on the cross. It’s a freedom God wants us to experience in our lives through trusting in Him.  And that is a truth worth plastering on our walls.


References / Bible nerd section

[1] Berkeley High School at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Allston Way

[2] Again, I say “some wisdom.” Telling the truth about something may set our conscience free because we’re no longer emotionally struggling with an issue. However, telling the truth doesn’t always set you free. For example, truth would not set the spies free when Rahab lied to protect them. The truth would have killed them. Rahab would have been condemned along with the rest of Jericho. And as far as the other way of looking at it, more knowledge doesn’t always set us free. It’s easy to think of a time in our lives when we learned something we wish we hadn’t. Contrary to being free, we are sometimes then captive to the new information.

Photo: Gray Brechin,

The Pest of the Third Plague

After recently being interviewed about cicadas and religion, and reminding myself how much I love looking at areas where faith and entomology intersect, I’m planning on having more posts like this going forward. Another obvious area where an intersection occurs is with the plagues of Egypt. Three of the ten appear to involve insects. The eighth plague was clearly locusts, but questions surround the identity of the creatures involved in both the third and fourth plagues.

16 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats through all the land of Egypt.’” 17 They did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast. 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said.

Exodus 8:16-19, NASB

The following is adapted and expanded from the Appendix of God & the World of Insects.

This is the third plague of Egypt and the first of many occurrences where insects are used for divine judgment. The specific pest indicated in this plague is uncertain. Most of the popular modern translations opt for translating the word as “gnats,” including NASB, NLT, ESV, NIV and NRSV. While gnats are annoying, they seem an unlikely choice for a divine plague. For certain, if the word ken (Strong’s H3654) referred specifically to gnats, there would be no argument. God could create a plague of gnats so awful that people would cry out. That is not in question. But since the exact meaning of this word is unclear, gnats does seem an odd choice by translators.

For those who grew up with the King James Version, lice may be what comes to mind. Indeed, these ectoparasites are a plausible culprit. We know they were in fact a pest in ancient Egypt (and well before that). Archeologists have found combs for delousing that were used in the times of the Pharaohs.1 Some Egyptian men are known to have shaved their heads to avoid lice.2 Finally, an Egyptian medical document, the Ebers Papyrus, which as been dated to about 1600 BC, describes a treatment for lice using date meal.

So yes, lice plagued the Egyptians.

But lice may not be the pests of the third plague. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in the time of Christ, described the insects of the third plague as small creatures that fly, cause itching and penetrate the body.3 Certainly lice don’t fly, so if Philo was right, this would preclude them from this event. Additionally, lice are generally more specific to their hosts (human lice feed on humans, cattle lice feed on cows, etc.), meaning that the plague would have to involve multiple species, and not nearly as many animals are plagued by lice as by some other insects.4

Other creatures that have been suggested include ticks, maggots, fleas, midges and mosquitoes.

Adam Clarke in his commentary concludes that it is a plague of ticks. His reasoning is that verse 18 says that the pests were on “man and beast”. Clarke suggests that the behavior of the tick, attaching itself to man and other animals, along with burying its head into the skin makes it the most likely. He writes, “I know of no insect to which the Hebrew term so properly applies.”5 But surely we don’t want to base our interpretation on Clarke’s limited entomological understanding. While not to the degree of lice, ticks do exhibit some host preference. Furthermore, several of the other good options either bite or feed on tissue of both man and other animals.

If the plagues had a natural element about them, where one event flowed into the next due to the ecological conditions,6 maggots and/or other insect larvae may be a possibility, as they could have been the larvae of some (or all) of the swarms of insects in the fourth plague (which will be discussed in a future post).

Colin Humphreys, author of The Miracles of Exodus, advocates for such a natural tie in and suggests that this plague is a Culicoides species of biting midge. These insects are vectors of African horse sickness and bluetongue. Humphreys argues that Culicoides midges are thus the most likely pest of the third plague because the fifth plague consisted of dying livestock, which he suggests were due to these diseases. He writes, “Two separate viruses are required to kill all the animals listed, but, importantly, they are spread by the same insect and can therefore be spread at the same time.”7

It has also been suggested by others that the small size of Ceratopogonidae midges, often referred to by the common name “no-see-ums”, makes them a likely candidate for the pest of the third plague because of the reference in the text to the plague arising from the dust.8 Notably, biting midges would also seem to be consistent with Philo’s description.

Others have argued for mosquitoes, suggesting that the annual flooding of the Nile provided the perfect breeding opportunity. And like biting midges, these insects are generally consistent with Philo’s description.

Importantly, Philo is not the only ancient source to describe these creatures. The Peshitta, a collection of Aramaic manuscripts of the Bible, names the pests as lice. Likewise, the Targum refers to the pest as a plague of lice. On the other hand, a reading of the LXX suggests a small fly, like a mosquito or gnat.9 Other ancient sources are similarly divided with Jewish commentators favoring lice, and early Christian commentators favoring gnats/biting flies (including mosquitoes or midges). The early Christian scholar Origen describes them as stinging flies that are barely visible.

Some critics who argue against the plague being a flying insect have pointed out that it would just be redundant, as many see the fourth plague as a plague of flies. But this may not be the case. And even if it were, while they are both Diptera, a biting midge is a very different creature than a house fly for example.

So what do I think? Well, if I had to pick one, I’d probably put my money on lice or some kind of biting midges from the family Ceratopogonidae. Still, the idea of a massive plague of insect larvae rising up out of the ground is intriguing. And as we’ll see when we look at the fourth plague, that could be a possibility. Due to the uncertainty though, if I were on a translation committee, I might choose an English phrase like “insect vermin”.

Perhaps the most notable thing from this plague is that the Egyptian magicians who were able to, in a sense, duplicate the first two plagues, were unable to perform the task of causing these creatures to arise. So whatever this pest was, it was far too difficult to produce, capture and release in a way for the magicians to make a demonstration of the miracle appear that they had duplicated it. Thus, they are forced to conclude to Pharaoh in Exodus 8:19, “This is the finger of God.”10 Indeed.

Image: The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 313. The plague of lice. Uploaded by Philip De Vere. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

1 Drali, Mumcuoglu & Raoult. Human Lice in Paleoentomology and Paleomicrobiology. Microbiology Spectrum. Vol. 4 No. 4. (2021).
2 Gay Robbins. Hair and the Construction of Identity in Ancient Egypt, c. 1480-1350 B.C. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt , 1999, Vol. 36 (1999), pp. 55-69.
3 Philo, On the Life of Moses, 19.
4 Surely God could have caused several lice species to appear in the plague, but the question being looked at here, is what is most likely, not what is possible.
5 Adam Clarke Commentary
6 I am not suggesting that God was not performing miracles here, but rather that He might have used natural phenomenon and miraculously made them much more significant.
7 C. J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus: A Scientist’s Discovery of the Extraordinary Natural Causes of the Biblical Stories (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 2003), 121-25.
8 J. S. Marr and C. D. Malloy, “An epidemiologic analysis of the ten plagues of Egypt,” Caduceus 12, 1 (1996): 7-24.
9 Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers.
10 Enns notes that this expression may also be translated, “This is the finger of a god.” So the magicians may not be confessing that that Hebrew God is the source of the miracle, but rather more broadly that something larger than them, something that is not just smoke and mirrors, is behind it. Peter Enns, Exodus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 210.

Cicadas and Religious Symbolism

As an entomologist and a religion scholar, I particularly enjoy areas where the two fields intersect. Since we’re about to experience a major cicada event in the US, I thought discussing the religious symbolism of these creatures might be an interesting topic.

Cicadas are a part of the mythology of several Native American cultures. In the Navajo creation story, cicadas play major role as the explorers of new worlds. In Hopi mythology, there is a cicada kachina (or spirit-being). Like the Navajo, the Hopi believed that their ancestors had insect form. Some suggest that the humpbacked flute player found widely among the art of many Native American tribes in the southwest is the human form of the cicada. Finally, one group is known to have used medicine that was made from cicadas on their wounded warriors in hopes that the life-lasting power of the cicadas would heal them.

In some cultures, cicadas symbolize immortality. The ancient Greeks observed how the insects emerged from the ground, and then transformed to an adult. This led them to view cicadas as representing death and rebirth. Likewise, in Eastern thought, as far back as 1500 B.C., the shedding of the skin by the nymphs was seen as symbolic of rebirth. During the Han dynasty, cicadas carved from jade were sometimes placed on the tongue of deceased individuals. Scholars have suggested that this was perhaps done with the intention to induce resurrection.

In the US, Brood X is about to emerge. Brood X (“ten”, not “x”) is the largest of the 17-year broods. Yes, 17 years! While many insects live a year or less (and some much less), these creatures have a 17 year life-cycle.* The adults that emerge this year will soon mate, then lay their eggs. After the eggs hatch, the nymphs drop to the soil, where they migrate down and feed off plant roots for the next 17 years! So the next time we’ll see Brood X is 2038 when they come up out of the soil. With their long life-cycle, and the way they arise from the ground, quickly molt into an adult, and shed their old skin, it’s no wonder that many cultures have looked to cicadas as being symbolic of rebirth or immortality.

While the Bible makes no mention of cicadas, it does tell us why we think about life, death and eternity. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV) says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We are all aware that there is something more than this life.

Like the cicada that spends it’s time in a dark world, but then emerges to a new realm, so shall we when we pass on from this life and into his glorious kingdom.

UPDATE 6/5: After I wrote this, I was interviewed for Religion Unplugged and InterfaithRadio, for a show that syndicates on NPR affiliates. It can be found here.

* Not all cicadas have 17-year life cycles. Some have 13-year, and some are shorter or even annual.


Capinera, J. L. (1993). Insects in Art and Religion: The American Southwest. American Entomologist.

Cherry, R. (2011). Insects and Death. American Entomologist.

Kritsky, G., & Cherry, R. H. (2000). Insect mythology. Writers Club Press.

A Reminder of an Important Story for Our Times

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

This is known as the Great Commission. It is the final instruction that Jesus gave to His followers: share the Good News.

Paul was a man who lived this out, and the stories of his life that Luke captured in Acts can be a tremendous example for us today. Paul traveled to many foreign lands to share the name of Jesus. He endured hardships. He was beaten. He starved. He was shipwrecked, and much more. But all the while, Paul remembered that the purpose of his life was not to bring happiness to himself, but to share joy and bring others the knowledge of the Kingdom of God.

On one of his journeys, Paul made his way to Philippi. Below is a portion of that account, quoted from the NLT. (The whole story can be found in Acts 16.)

“God was calling us to preach the Good News there…we reached Philippi, a major city of that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony…One day as we were going down to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit that enabled her to tell the future. She earned a lot of money for her masters by telling fortunes.

…[Paul] said to the demon within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And instantly it left her. Her masters’ hopes of wealth were now shattered, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities at the marketplace. “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted to the city officials…

A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household…he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

The next morning the city officials sent the police to tell the jailer, “Let those men go!” So the jailer told Paul, “The city officials have said you and Silas are free to leave. Go in peace.”

But this isn’t the end of the story. Paul drops a bombshell at this moment. He reveals to the city officials that he is a Roman citizen. (This is one of the moments in history I truly wish I could have been there to see, just to catch the look on their faces.) The city officials were struck with fear. No Roman citizen should be whipped! They had committed a serious offence.

We don’t know why Paul chose to reveal this knowledge at this moment. He doesn’t seem to pursue any restitution. (Many scholars think it was perhaps so that the city officials would leave the newly established church alone.)

But the larger question is why didn’t Paul reveal this at the start. When the magistrates ordered that Paul be whipped, he could have said something to avoid such a painful experience. When he was shackled in prison, he could have said something and been immediately set free. But he did not. Paul sacrificed his freedom, his rights and his comfort. But for what purpose?

For the Great Commission. As a result of his actions, the jailer and everyone in his whole house was saved. The text doesn’t directly tell us, but it is reasonable to assume that others in the jail also became Christians, along with others in Philippi, including Lydia. Paul knew that his purpose was not primarily about his freedom or his rights or his comforts, but about the message of Jesus. Rather than think internally, Paul took on the attitude of a servant.

What an amazing example of love.

Some time later, the Philippians would receive a letter from Paul. Among his words, they would find the following,

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

You can bet that every one of them who was there back when Paul was imprisoned in Philippi felt the sincerity of his words. Through his actions, he lived this out. He did if for them. He did it for their children. He did it for God.

Image: “Philippi Prison of Apostle Paul” by Serendigity, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let’s Be the Church

As they headed toward the man, perhaps some of them felt that awkward sensation, when you want to both look, and look away. Maybe some of them were hoping their Rabbi would turn and go a different direction, so that they could avoid this man. But Jesus kept walking toward him. John 9:1-3 tells us what happened when they approached.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

It’s not surprising that Jews of the day would think to ask the question about what caused the blindness, as such links between suffering and sin are found in the Talmud, as well as the Old Testament (Job 4:7). Jesus even acknowledged the relationship (John 5:14). But He also pointed out that the two are not always connected (Luke 13:2-3). Not all suffering is a result of sin.

In this instance of the blind man, Jesus teaches us an important lesson, and it’s not just that suffering can happen due to things other than sin. With this act, Jesus shows us something more. He gives us a valuable message about looking for opportunities to do God’s work – the purpose of which is so that His name would be glorified.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage since reading it recently. 2020 has been pretty crazy for the world, but especially for the US. We have a pandemic that we don’t have a good handle on. We’ve had riots. We’ve had violent protests. We’ve had destruction of property. We’ve had a lot of hatred. It’s not been a particularly good year.

With all these current issues, you’d think the US church would have plenty of opportunity to go out and serve, and be recognized as the hands and feet of Jesus. At this point people should be looking at the church as a great example of love, right? So let me ask you: what do you think the perception of non-believers in the US has been of Christians so far in 2020?

jesus sheep

There have certainly been some beautiful examples of how Christians and churches have helped in these crises. Rick Warren’s church has had some great outreach events. North Coast Church in north San Diego had an incredible food drive. So there are some great examples of sharing the love of Jesus. Yet, the overwhelming loud noise that has become the majority of what people are seeing is this:

  • Christians shouting about not being able to have church inside a building – which puts the community, including people they love, at risk
  • Christians ignoring the cry of a minority group because they have to insist that all lives matter (when that may be true, but it completely misses the point)
  • Christians screaming about their freedoms being violated (because they have to wear a facial covering for a while to do certain things)
  • Christians promoting conspiracy theories and terms like scamdemic

It saddens me, but as I’ve read through comments on related news or posts by Christians advocating such things, this kind of comment has become common.

fb comment

Rather than shouting about how our American rights are being violated or how everyone else are “just a bunch of sheep”, we should go out and do things that glorify the Good Shepherd, and actually act like all lives matter.

Let the people of the world see the witness of God through His people. Let’s be the church.


DSC_0410The world has been especially crazy recently with wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, riots in the US, and COVID-19 around the globe. Lately we have been bombarded with sensational news, much of it likely coming from a biased source. How do we know what’s right? How do we be discerning?

I am so grateful for the biblical material that guides and instructs us on discernment. The Bible tells us that, “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps” (Prov. 14:15, NIV). Of course, we probably all think we’re being prudent. But what does that really look like? Well, thankfully, the Bible offers much more on this topic.

To begin with, we are instructed to not be foolish (Prov. 1:7b; 12:15; 28:26) or wildly form and boast our opinions (Prov. 18:2). Instead, we are first and foremost to seek God (Ja. 1:5; Prov. 1:7a). He is the source of wisdom and He has given us His word to equip us to live in this world (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Indeed, the Bible offers us much instruction on practices that will help us to be more discerning (Ps. 119:105). We should use our best thinking (Is. 1:18a). We are to examine things carefully and hold on to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21). We are to seek instruction from those who know more than we do (Prov. 1:5; 4:13; 10:17; 19:20). We are to listen (Prov. 19:20; Ja. 1:19). And we are to solicit wise council (Prov. 11:14; 12:15). If we’ve honestly done those things, we can generally rest in our views (or at least in our conscience about them). We can also heed this from James when we reflect back on our thoughts: “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Ja. 3:17, ESV).

In a fallen world, we are all subject to things like confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. It’s easy to be misguided or mislead, perhaps even by our own biases, if we’re not cautious. God knows what we face and that we struggle with discernment. Thankfully, He has provided us with instruction to help guide us. I’m incredibly grateful for it.

P.S. I encourage you to read again, slowly, the paragraph on the biblical practices. Ask yourself how you’re doing in these areas. It was helpful for me.

Referenced verses

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7, NASB)

The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice. (Proverbs 12:15, NIV)

Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe. (Proverbs 28:26, NIV)

Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. (Proverbs 18:2, NIV)

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5, NASB)

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path. (Psalm, 119:105, NASB)

“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the LORD. (Isaiah 1:18a, NASB)

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB)

let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance– (Proverbs 1:5, NIV)

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life. (Proverbs 4:13, NASB)

He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, But he who ignores reproof goes astray. (Proverbs 10:17, NASB)

Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life. (Proverbs 19:20, NLT)

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, (James 1:19, NIV)

Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14, NKJV)

The trouble with pronouns – Isaiah 55:8-9

Pronounany of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context (Merriam-Webster)


As noted in a previous post discussing 1 Cor 3:16-17, modern English doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural “you” like biblical languages do. But knowing if “you” is singular or plural is often important to the interpretation of a passage.

Another challenge that arises with pronouns occurs when we read verses isolated from their context. Errors can happen if we pull a verse out and read it without properly understanding who the pronoun is referring to. A quick and simple practice to help us have confidence we are properly interpreting passages with pronouns is to change the pronouns to what they actually represent, and read them with the referents. This approach can help us arrive at the correct meaning and keep us from making false assumptions about who the pronoun is referring to.

Here’s a key example, of an often misunderstood passage, that will help illustrate the significance of getting the right referent to a pronoun.

Isaiah 55:8-9

The verses (NIV): “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

People usually read these verses and assume that “your” means the readers, or that it is referring to all humans. So, let’s plug that in and read it as commonly understood. (I use “man’s” but you can use “people’s”, “human”, etc.)

As typically understood: “For my thoughts are not man’s thoughts, neither are man’s ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than man’s ways and my thoughts than man’s thoughts.”

This passage is often quoted by people and used to demonstrate that God is “higher” than us in understanding, or some other attribute. It is used, for example, when someone is explaining how the Trinity works, to illustrate that sometimes we just can’t understand God’s ways because He is God. “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” we say.

Certainly, God’s knowledge and power are beyond us. (See Job 36:26; Is 40:28; Ps 145:3; Ps 147:5; Rom 9:20; Rom 11:33-36.) But is that what this passage, Isaiah 55:8-9, is teaching? Or, does the Holy Spirit have something else in mind that He is intending to teach in this specific passage? Let’s try replacing each pronoun with the actual nouns they are referring to and see what we find.

First, let’s read verse 7 to get more of the context and discover the referents (Is 55:7, NIV): Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

The immediate context indicates to us who these pronouns refer to. It’s talking about the ways of the wicked and the thoughts of the unrighteous.1 Do you see the connection to verses 8 and 9? God contrasts His ways and His thoughts to theirs.2 Furthermore, there are other obvious indicators that these verses are connected. Remember that question, “What’s the therefore, there for?” Verses 8 and 9 both begin with ki, the Hebrew for “for” or “because.” This term is used to indicate “casual relations of all kinds, antecedent or consequent.” This further points the reader that these statements are referring back to verse 7.

Now, looking at the whole passage, here’s verses 7 to 9, with the actual referents plugged into 8 and 9:

Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not the unrighteous’ thoughts, neither are the wicked’s ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than the wicked’s ways and my thoughts than the unrighteous’ thoughts.”

When we read these verses with the right understanding of who “your” is, it changes (and corrects) the meaning we get from the passage. We see that it is not a passage about man’s lack of understanding of God in general. Instead, it is about contrasting God’s goodness and righteousness, His higher moral nature, to that of the wicked and unrighteous. This passage is telling us more about God’s character than His power. In fact, the entire chapter is talking about God’s mercy and goodness. The immediate context, especially verses 7-9, is about the free mercy that God offers to the wicked and unrighteous if they abandon their sin and return to Him.

Thus, the actual message verses 7-9 teach is not that God is higher than us in understanding.3 Rather it teaches that God is a righteous, good and just God, but He is merciful. Turn to Him and He will pardon you.

praying hands

The importance of understanding the pronoun can’t be understated. So the next time you come across a passage with pronouns, make sure you know who the “you”, “your”, “they”, “them”, etc. refers to.

References and Notes

[1] Isaiah begins a lengthy quote of God speaking in chapter 54 verse 1. The quote ends at 55:5 and Isaiah returns to his comments. Isaiah specifically turns his focus from Israel to “the wicked” and “unrighteous” in verse 7. God begins speaking again in verse 8, but He’s not referring to Israel here. God is not saying, “My thoughts are not Israel’s thoughts.” The antecedents to the pronouns in verses 7-8 are “the wicked” and “the unrighteous.” Isaiah understood God’s words in verse 8 were referring to “the wicked” and “the unrighteous” people, or why include his interlude, verse 7?

[2] Parallelism, like that found here, is a common tool employed in Hebrew writing, and is found abundantly in the Psalms. In the classic commentary by Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, they point out the connection of the three verses and show that the “you” points back to verse 7. Commenting on verses 8 and 9, they write, “You need not doubt His willingness ‘abundantly to pardon’ (compare Isa 55:12); for, though ‘the wicked man’s ‘ways,’ and ‘the unrighteous man’s thoughts,’ are so aggravated as to seem unpardonable, God’s ‘thoughts’ and ‘ways’ in pardoning are not regulated by the proportion of the former, as man’s would be towards his fellow man who offended him; compare the ‘for’ (Ps 25:11; Ro 5:19).” Oswalt (in his commentary on Isaiah, part of the NICOT), Alexander, Westermann (OT Library Commentary), Knight and Young each likewise point out that the parallelism is significant to the interpretation.

[3] Note that not only is the common misunderstanding an incorrect interpretation, in a sense it asserts the opposite of what the passage is teaching. Core to the passage is that God’s moral character is understandable. And it is higher. That’s why we need Him.

Interpreting & Applying the Old Testament Law

One of the things regarding Bible interpretation that I’m most often asked about is how Christians should understand the Old Testament laws. Here’s the perspective I offer in the book:

Excerpt from chapter 4gavel

Do you follow the Old Testament laws? All of them? Do you steer clear of the worship of idols? Are you sure not to steal and not to attempt to seek revenge? Most of us try, and are fairly successful at avoiding those actions. But at your last haircut, did you make sure that the stylist didn’t trim your sideburns? (Lev. 19:27) And did you remember to put on your blue tassels this morning? (Num. 15:38) If not, then how do you decide which laws of the Old Testament you should follow and which, if any, don’t apply to you?

Certainly, it would seem wise to honor our parents as directed in the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, should we have our children stoned to death if they are stubborn and rebellious? (Deut. 21:18-21) Both of these are commandments in the Old Testament. How can we be consistent and follow one and not the other? Can we just say, I like this one, but that’s a little harsh, so that one doesn’t apply? That’s more like treating the text the way many of us treat traffic rules than it is treating it as the Word of God. So just how do we know?

If we asked most Christians why murder is wrong or why we should obey our parents, the majority would probably point to Old Testament laws.  Yet, those same Christians likely have clothes in their closet that disregards Leviticus 19:19, which commands that garments made of two different kinds of material should not be worn. That’s right. There’s an Old Testament law which says “you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together” (NASB). If we were required to follow this, I know I’ve got a few of my favorite shirts that would be headed for the local thrift shop, not to mention the problem I’d have with deciding what to do about my Bermuda grass lawn which I just over seeded with Rye for the winter.  And what about the laws that prohibit eating pork? How many of us might get up on a Sunday morning and have a conversation like this:

“Dad I don’t want to go to church today.”

 “But son, God wants us to go. And the Bible says we need to honor the Sabbath.” [1]

Then later, we get home and for dinner enjoy a nice rack of barbequed baby back ribs? Either we’re making a huge mistake before God by disregarding His commands or there has to be some way to make a distinction.

Which Laws Are For Today?

A common approach to traditionally answer this question was to begin by dividing the law into three categories: ceremonial, civil and moral. This is followed by the suggestion that whichever of the three the law falls in to, tells us how to apply it today. So, for example, “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13), a moral law, would be considered to be a timeless truth and binding today, while wearing blue tassels on our clothing would be considered ceremonial, and like civil laws, were only for the Jewish nation at that time.

There are a number of problems with this approach though. For one, the Bible doesn’t divide the laws this way. And if the Bible doesn’t make this distinction, even for New Testament believers, then we should at least be careful before labeling them as such. A related and perhaps more significant problem is that placing laws in these categories is sometimes arbitrary. Who decides what group to place each law in? Sure, some laws, like those above, appear to easily fall into a category, but some are much more difficult. For example, is keeping the Sabbath a moral law or ceremonial law? It’s found among the Ten Commandments, the rest of which certainly seem to be moral laws. So does that mean we shouldn’t be doing any work on Sunday? (Lev. 23:3) We might have a real dilemma if we had to stop and pump gas on the way to church. Alternatively, was observing the Sabbath a ceremonial law just for Israel?  Was it just part of their system of religious rituals, with no bearing at all for us today? We had better get it right because the Bible says the penalty for not keeping the Sabbath is death! (Ex. 31:14-15, Num. 15:32-36)

Classifying the Sabbath as a moral law seems to put too much emphasis on doing works to earn our salvation. Yet, if we classify obedience to the Sabbath as purely ceremonial for Israel, then we miss important lessons about setting things apart for God, remembering He is the Creator, and the reminder the Sabbath can serve to us of the rest we enter with Him (Heb. 4:1-11). That’s why the traditional way of approaching the law just doesn’t work.

Who Is the Law Written to?

Knowing some basic principles of Bible interpretation for the genre of law will give anyone a good start to being able to determine how the Old Testament laws apply today. We just critiqued the traditional way of classifying the law into the three categories of ceremonial, civil and moral. While that system doesn’t work, note that that it has at its root two important notions: (1) the Church is not Israel and (2) a distinction in the way the laws apply to the Church versus the way they applied to Israel needs to be made. Part of the interpretive problem is simply that the Old Testament laws were not written to believers today, but we often read select ones that way. We fight for posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings as if they were written for America. Yet, the fact is that these laws were not written to American Christians, or Russian Christians, or Jewish Christians or any Christians for that matter.

If Moses had written a separate book of laws and indicated that they were to be a set of timeless rules for the people of God to follow, that would be different. However, that’s not what we have with the Mosaic Law. Instead, we have a group of laws recorded throughout the historical records of a particular nation. Recall our discussion on the differences between descriptive and prescriptive literature. The laws in the Old Testament are part of the descriptive story of Israel and cannot be accurately understood apart from that narrative.[2]

Much of the law comes in large portions throughout the Scriptures, and it is being directed to Israel as part of their ongoing relationship with God. To put it simply, all of the Old Testament laws were written to Israel, and for Israel. They are part of a narrative that is the record of the relationship between God and His chosen people.

Before we jump to an extreme and say the Old Testament laws have nothing to offer us, we must realize that God put them in our Holy Scriptures for a purpose. It’s not included just so we can have a bigger book to hit people with when we go Bible thumping. The history of Israel is important for us to gain insight from and the laws were part of that history. Without the recording of the laws, the history (and more specifically, a major part of the grand story) would be incomplete and more difficult to understand. The laws give us perspective with which to better appreciate God’s plan for Israel and Israel’s response to God, as well as the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus Christ.  When we see how these relationships work, we discover more about Him, and our purpose. That is the significance for us.

Application of the Law

In Galatians 3:23-25 Paul says,

“Before this faith [in Jesus as Savior] came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (NIV)

So based on what Paul says here, do we even need the laws anymore? When looking for application, can we now skip over them? Of course not! In fact, just before Paul made this statement, he indicates that the law is not opposed to the promises of God (Galatians 3:21), that it has a purpose. And remember, Paul also said that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). So then, how do we apply the laws today?

Biblical interpretation scholars have offered a possible answer that is sometimes referred to as “principlism.” One scholar, who has written on this approach, is J. Daniel Hays. He suggests five steps for interpreting and finding significance from Old Testament law.[3]

  1. Identify what the particular law meant to the initial audience
  2. Determine the difference between the initial audience and believers today
  3. Develop universal principles from the text
  4. Correlate the principle with New Testament teaching
  5. Apply the modified universal principle today

Here are a couple of examples to help see how this process works.

Example 1

Let’s start with an easy one. “Thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:15)

Step 1 – To Israel, the original audience, it simply meant “don’t steal”.

Step 2 – Believers today are under the New Covenant and this is a Mosaic law, but this law doesn’t appear to be anything that would be related to Israel specifically. It’s not like God told the Israelites not to steal because if they did the Canaanites would come kill them just because Canaanites don’t like thieves.

Step 3 – The universal principle is just that we should not take something that doesn’t belong to us.

Step 4 – It is reinforced in the New Testament (Romans 13:9, Ephesians 4:28).

Step 5 – So, applied today it means just what is says, don’t steal.

Example 2

Years ago, while studying the book of Joshua, a friend of mine went through a temporary “crisis of faith.” When we hit chapter 5, we saw how the Israelites who had been born during the nation’s wandering in the desert were uncircumcised. God told Joshua to have all the people circumcised in order to enter back into the covenant relationship with Him. My uncircumcised friend was briefly freaked out about the possibility of having to go through the procedure as an adult. He was quite relieved at the answer we found after we dove into the question. (With this example, I’ve included questions in the steps that may make the process easier.)

Step 1 – What did it mean to the initial audience? Circumcision was required in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 12:2-3). This requirement was based on the covenant God had made with Abraham back in Genesis chapter 17. The Israelites could not enter the Promised Land if they were not faithful to the covenant (Genesis 17:14). This was between Israel and God.

Step 2 – What are the differences between the initial audience and believers today? Believers today are under a new covenant. Jesus came and fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17) and established a new covenant for us (Luke 22:20).

Step 3 – What is the universal principle? The Israelites were ending their wandering in the desert and now wanting to fulfill their end of the covenant with God. At certain times in our walk with the Lord, we may drift away or become complacent. When we get refocused, if there was something we should have done for God that we have not yet done, we should do it. The principle is to get right with God.

Step 4 – How does the New Testament modify, or qualify, this principle? The New Testament teaches that real circumcision is of the heart (Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 5:2-6, Colossians 2:11-14). It’s about an inward transformation (getting right with God) and in the physical sense is not necessary for the believer (Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 7:17-20).

Step 5 – How should Christians today apply this principle? Joshua chapter 5 doesn’t mean that we need to physically circumcise ourselves and our children today. Instead, we need to make sure that we have circumcised hearts.[4]  We need to get right with God. In that sense, the law applies to us and we are compelled to act.[5]

I hope that helps you as you read through the OT law.

Want to know more about how to interpret & apply other genres? Check out the book.


[1] Few realize that this is actually a different day too. For Jews it was Saturday.

[2] So much of what is labeled “contradictions” in the Bible by skeptics would be easily dismissed if people just understood the importance of genre.

[3] J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 21-35. Available here.

[4] This is not meant to suggest that this is the only application for modern believers. On the contrary, it could also be shown that to Israel circumcision served as a practice, or ritual, that reminded them of their relationship with God. In a similar way, baptism serves a similar function to the modern believer.

[5] Of course, I’m not advocating works theology, as we are saved by grace alone, but if we desire to be followers of Christ, then we ought to certainly attempt to act in a manner consistent with His moral character (John 15:4) and the principles taught in Scripture.

If you’re still feeling like the reading Old Testament law is boring to you, check out this blog post: The Mistake of Leviticus. The author offers a wonderful example of how the law can provide application to the modern believer. It’s fantastic.

Will our pets be with us in Heaven?

I don’t plan on including a lot of book reviews on this blog, but I decided that I’ll post some recommendations of books that look at very specific topics, where the authors use solid hermeneutics in their approach. Here’s the first one…

Will Dogs Chase Cats in Heaven?: dogs cats in heaven.jpgPeople, Pets, and Wild Animals in the Afterlife by Dan Story

Before I opened this book, if someone would have asked me if their pet that died would be in Heaven, I would have answered that I didn’t really know. Often I’ve heard others speculate, and typically the answer I hear is that it’s unlikely our pets will be in Heaven. This usually comes with some explanation like we’ll be more concerned about God, so we won’t really want them there anyway. But this answer fails to consider two very important points. One, it puts the focus us – it doesn’t ask if God wants them there. And two, what exactly does the Bible say about the matter (which of course will give us a clue about whether or not God wants them in Heaven)?

Going to the Bible to see what it teaches is precisely what Dan Story has done, and why I appreciate this book so much. The author goes to the text to find the answer to this, and several other questions related to animals in the afterlife. He dives in to the relevant passages and shows convincingly how they reveal his conclusion. There are some theological areas (not highly significant to the main ideas of the book) where I disagree with the author, but he has certainly made a compelling overall case – that yes, it is likely that our pets, the very same ones we have here, will be with us again, and for eternity. This concept was surprising to me at first, but as I’ve noted, the author demonstrates this through some teachings in the Bible about the nature of God, His love for His creation and specific passages that refer to animals.

Like many who will ask the question if our pets will be with us in Heaven, I’ve had some really great animal companions over my life, and I’d be overjoyed to be reunited with them, so the insights in the book brought me not only knowledge, but comfort as well.

In sum, I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s looking to find biblical answers to questions about animals in Heaven.

God & the World of Insects

While it’s not significantly related to Bible interpretation, I did want to take a quick moment to announce that my second book (co-edited with Dr. Gary Braness) was recently released.

Here’s a bit about the book:
The book is a collection of essays from multiple authors, and besides contributions from Gary and myself, it includes chapters by Dr. Paul Nelson and Dr. Ann Gauger of the Discovery Institute, Dr. Fuz Rana of Reasons to Believe, Dr. Wendy Billock, Chair of Biological Sciences at Biola and several more.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, the bulk of the book, shows how these amazing creatures provide evidence of a Creator. God_World_Insects_Cover.inddAnyone interested in scientific apologetics will find a ton to like in this section, including some novel design arguments. Part two of the book is more theological in nature and contains discussions of various topics about the relationship between God, man and insects.

The appendix has much to offer those interested in biblical interpretation. Appendix 1 has a full listing of all the Bible passages that refer to insects with an analysis of which insect is being referred to in the passage. There is also discussion of various other possibilities. Appendix 2 then deals with three “Bible difficulty” passages that involve insects. Clear resolutions are provided for these supposed conflicts.

Here are a few endorsements of the book:
“This is a really amazing and encouraging book. It is one thing to reject intelligent design when the conversation is carried on in the abstract. But when specific cases are analyzed—the incredible nature and role of parasites, the development of a butterfly and on and on, it becomes so very hard to reject an intelligent designer in the face of such staggering, detailed information. And this book is full to overflowing with that sort of detail…I highly recommend it.”
– Dr. J.P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
“an insightful look at the complex world of insects through the eyes of entomologists/scientists who believe in a Creator…I would hope that this book would not only be read and contemplated, but also become weather-beaten by being part of one’s scientific reference library.”
– Dr. Paul Baker, Professor of Entomology, University of Arizona
“I highly recommend this book to all who want to further understand the relationship between the Creator and the created order.”
– Mike Masterson, Host of Verminators on The Discovery Channel

The book is available through, and other retailers.

Please take a moment to share with anyone you think may find it of interest. It is our prayer that the book provides encouragement believers, and that it helps open the hearts and minds of those skeptical of the Christian faith.