Category: Articles-Bible-Smart-What (Page 1 of 2)

Articles on featuring “What” questions.

So what exactly is the “unpardonable sin”?

Scripture: Matthew 12:22–37

In Matthew 12:31, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.”

This is a frightening truth, and one that’s been parsed in so many ways over so many centuries as to make it seem indecipherable. What does it mean exactly to commit “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? Here are some of the theories that have been circulated over time.

Theory #1. It was a sin specific to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, committed when they claimed Jesus’ was empowered by Satan. This was the view of early church fathers such as Jerome and John Chrysostom. According to them, this sin could only be committed when Christ lived on the earth, and so would not apply to anyone after that time.

Theory #2. It is the stubborn unwillingness (the impoenitentia finalis) to repent, all the way until death. St. Augustine and other historic theologians were proponents of this view. Basically, this is the idea that the unpardonable sin is a refusal to accept Jesus Christ by faith for the entirety of one’s life.

Theory #3. It is a “conscious, malicious, and willful rejection and slandering … of the testimony of the Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity to the prince of darkness.” This is the perspective articulated by influential Reformed scholar, Louis Berkhof. He adds that this sin is, “the audacious declaration that the Holy Spirit is the spirit of the abyss, that the truth is a lie, and that Christ is Satan.”

Theory #4. It is a hardened, irrational, irrevocable decision to reject Jesus. The idea here is that of apostasy, of a deliberate and decisive rejection of Jesus as Lord. This is a popular view among evangelical theologians. Dr. Lawrence O. Richards sums up this thinking when he says, “Speaking against the source of Jesus’ power was, first of all, a recognition of its supernatural origin, and second, a hardened rejection of Jesus Himself.… Their choice, made in the face of all the unique evidence which Jesus Himself had presented to them, was irrevocable; they had chosen to step beyond the possibility of repentance.”

Theory #5. It is deliberately honoring Satan for the work of the Holy Spirit. This is also a common view, as articulated by Anglican Evangelical scholar, F. F. Bruce. He says the Pharisees were charged with blaspheming the Holy Spirit because “They deliberately ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency.”

So what exactly is the unpardonable sin? I don’t think anyone has yet come up with a complete definition—and I think that’s OK. Bruce seems to speak for all opinions when he says, “The nature of this sin is such that one does not repent of it,” and thus “The very fact of [one’s] concern over having committed it proves that they have not committed it.”


ST 252–253; TC 561; HSJ 89–90

“So what exactly is the ‘unpardonable sin?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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What Does Matthew 18:18 Mean, “Whatever You Bind on Earth”?

Scripture: Matthew 18:18

By my count, Jesus made over 350 promises that are recorded in the New Testament. Some of them are comforting, such as “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47, NIV). Some are frightening: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, NIV). And let’s face it: some are simply hard to understand.

Matthew 18:18 (NIV) fits into that last category. It records Jesus as saying, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What exactly does that mean for us today? Let’s explore this by asking three related questions: 1. What was the context? 2. For whom was the promise intended? and 3. What did “bind on earth” mean to the original hearers?

1. What Was the Context for Matthew 18:18?

Matthew indicates that Jesus made his binding-and-loosing statement privately to his disciples, while they were in a home in Capernaum (see Matthew 17:24, 25, and 18:1). Apparently a family was there too because at one point Jesus “called a little child to him, and placed the child among them” (Matthew 18:2, NIV). Bible historians from Reader’s Digest have established that Jesus typically stayed with Simon Peter’s family when in Capernaum, so that’s likely where they were—in Peter’s house.

While there, the disciples posed this question to Jesus: “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1, NIV). All of Matthew 18:3-20 is Jesus’ wide-ranging response to that single query. His answer included: a) a child’s example of greatness (18:3-4); b) danger of causing a child to stumble (18:5-7); c) hyperbolic warning against temptations (18:8-9); d) the parable of the Wandering Sheep (18:10-14), and finally, e) instructions for dealing with persistent sin in the church (18:15-20).

So, in the broad sense, the context of Jesus’ binding-and-loosing promise of Matthew 18:18 was part of a larger explanation of heavenly greatness. In the more specific sense, it was practical, relational advice about how to address persistent sin among believers.

2. For Whom Was the Promise of Matthew 18:18 Intended?

Once, while researching my book, The Promises of Jesus, I spent a significant amount of time combing through all of the New Testament in an attempt to identify every single promise Jesus made. What I discovered was that there were three categories:

1. Promises made to everyone, including us (i.e. “whosoever will…);

2. Promises made to specific people for a specific time (for instance, John 11:23, when Jesus told Martha that her brother Lazarus would rise again); and

3. Promises made directly to his disciples—which may or may not be for everyone.

Knowing the context of Matthew 18:15-20, it’s no surprise to discover that 18:18 is a promise made directly to Jesus’ disciples. That leads to the question of whether or not the disciples’ promise also applies to us as well? It’s exegetically possible to interpret Matthew 18:15-20 as being only for Christ’s original disciples, but clues in Jesus’ language and the witness of Scripture as a whole seem to indicate that this promise is as much for us as it was for them.

First, Jesus spoke of “the church” before it was formally created. While it’s true that this could have referred in general terms to the synagogue or temple assembly, it’s also true that the mention of “brother or sister” (verse 15) likely indicates Jesus was referring specifically to his followers, those Christ-believers who would make up his church in history. However, his official church as we know it wouldn’t have its dynamic beginning until the Day of Pentecost after Christ’s death and resurrection (Acts 2). Second, although Matthew 18:19 speaks specifically to Christ’s disciples who were present at the time, Matthew 18:20 (NIV) delivers a related, generalized spiritual principle that Jesus applied in a timeless way: “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Finally, the Apostle Paul seemed to have enacted Jesus’ instructions from Matthew 18:15-20 in a situation within the church at Corinth—a situation that clearly extended outside of the original disciples (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:1-8).

So, although Jesus’ binding-and-loosing promise was made directly to the first 12 disciples, it seems safe to assume it also has application for us, and for all Christians in history.

3. What Did “Bind on Earth” Mean to the Original Hearers?

Now we can get to the crux of the question: What was Jesus talking about when he said, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”? How would his original hearers have understood that phrasing? To discover this we need to look at both the cultural and linguistic context of the terms.

It’s important to note the intimate fellowship of the circumstance Jesus described. “If your brother or sister sins…” (Matthew 18:15, NIV, italics mine). This brother-or-sister phrase emphasized the important relational aspect of the binding-and-loosing promise which followed. With that in mind, N.T. (Tom) Wright, in Matthew For Everyone Part Two, reveals what should be obvious but is often overlooked: Matthew 18:15-20 is not about punishment, but about reconciliation among family members of faith.

New Testament scholar, Craig Evans, writes in his commentary on Matthew that Jesus’ goal was, “to restore right relationships and fellowship.” He adds, “Proper process is taught, as well as the willingness to forgive—repeatedly if necessary.” In Jesus’ time, this process would’ve played out as a judicial proceeding within the Jewish synagogue assembly; for us it’s less formal, but no less important.

Within this judicial framework the terms “bind” and “loose” (or “forbid” and “permit” in the NLT) would’ve carried specific meaning in the minds of Jesus’ original disciples. Evans explains, “‘Binding and loosing’ normally refer to forbidding and permitting. In the present case … the reference is to convicting and acquitting.” In other words, when he spoke Matthew 18:18 Jesus transferred an aspect of his heavenly authority to a small group of his followers, empowering them with agency to make decisions about whether to convict or acquit another believer who is charged with persistent sin.

So, What Does “Whatever You Bind on Earth” Mean for Us Today?

Matthew 18:18 is not simply a promise, but also a grave responsibility for those who are leaders in a church. It deals directly with the issue of reconciliation that Jesus described in Matthew 18:15-17, and indirectly with the idea of greatness in the kingdom of God that was his larger topic at the time (Matthew 18:1-14).

When Jesus spoke of binding and loosing, then, he appeared to be saying that his heavenly authority to call for righteous living among his followers had been extended to his people, the church. This delegated authority is a trust from God himself. It is not a temporal power to be wielded with heavy hand, personal agenda, or political intent. The ultimate goal in every situation must be for grace and reconciliation among the members of our family in Christ.

So, in our modern-day context, that means…

When wronged we’re first to take our grievances directly to our brother or sister. Failing to reconcile, we’re to bring two or three witnesses and try once more (see also Deuteronomy 19:15). Again failing to reconcile, we’re bring it to our church body for resolution. For us today that would likely mean our local church leadership team or a small group within the larger church body.

If, after that process which Jesus described, our brother or sister rejects the efforts to reconcile, then we are authorized—as a small group, not individually, not retributively—to regretfully “convict” or “bind” that situation and disassociate with the offending person until he or she changes the sinful behavior. Wright says, “We don’t like the sound of this, but we need to ask what the alternatives are. If there is real evil involved, refusal to face it means a necessary break of fellowship. Reconciliation can only come after the problem has been faced.” Wright speaks true; you can imagine how our history and modern reputation might be different if the Catholic Church and/or the Southern Baptist Convention had taken this approach when dealing with sexual abuse among the ranks of its priests and pastors.

Likewise, when our brother or sister turns away from persistent sin, we are joyfully authorized by Jesus himself to “acquit” or “loose” that situation and restore full faith-family relations in reconciliation.

That, it seems, is what Jesus meant when he made the promise of Matthew 18:18 (NIV), “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”


JHT 228; MFE2 33-34, 36; MAT 334;

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What Does It Mean to Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem Today?

Scripture: Psalm 122:6-9 NIV

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

“May those who love you be secure.

May there be peace within your walls

and security within your citadels.”

For the sake of my family and friends,

I will say, “Peace be within you.”

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

I will seek your prosperity.

Psalm 122:6-9 NIV

History is full of irony, and among the greatest of its pitiless jokes is this: Jerusalem is NOT a city of peace.

It should be different, right? I mean, this is a place whose very name is often interpreted as “city of peace.” These hallowed streets once felt the sandals of the eternal Prince of Peace. And for thousands of years—since Psalm 122 was first sung on the steps of the Temple—nearly all of humanity has heard the appeal to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” And yet …

Jerusalem, both today and in ages past, is practically synonymous with violence. Jesus described her this way, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you … Look, your house is left to you desolate …” (Luke 13:33-35 NIV). And Bible journalist, Stephen M. Miller reveals: “Perhaps no city on the entire planet has witnessed as much violence over such a long period of time as Jerusalem, conquered dozens of times, reduced to rubble no less than five times, and in recent years a frequent target for Palestinian terrorists trying to reclaim their land.” (Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible, 194).

What was “Peace” in Ancient Jerusalem?

In spite of this depressing history, Psalm 122 still calls us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” What does that really mean?

The Old Testament Hebrew word translated as “peace” in Psalm 122 is šālôm. (Today it might be spoken as “shalom” or “salaam.”) This unique word obviously speaks to safety and the absence of war, but also carries significant meaning beyond simply that. In his Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Lawrence O. Richards explains šālôm as encompassing “wholeness, unity, and harmony—something that is complete and sound … prosperity, health, and fulfillment.”

This kind of hope-filled šālôm makes up the heart of the worshiper’s “fourfold wish” in Psalm 122:6-9.

  1. Security from outside attackers (safety from war) (verse 6).
  2. Unity and harmony among the residents of Jerusalem (verse 7).
  3. Familial wholeness and health (verse 8).
  4. Economic, religious, and political prosperity (verse 9).

What’s sometimes overlooked though, is the catalyst behind the Psalmist’s impassioned call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” That’s found in verse 1 (NIV):

I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

This, it seems, is why it was (and still is) so important to pray for the peace of Jerusalem: When that city is in peace, the nations of the world can find honest freedom and fulfillment in joyful worship of the one true God. He alone is “Jehovah-Shalom,” a name coined by Gideon on the eve of battle (Judges 6:24), which means “The Lord is Peace.”

How Can We Pray for “Peace” in Jerusalem Today?

In or modern era, Jerusalem is a divided city with an estimated population (as of 2019) of 919,407 souls. Housed within only about 49 square miles, it’s actually smaller than Washington, DC—and crams nearly 19,000 residents into each square mile. A shortage of affordable housing also means that many more live outside the city and must commute to work inside.

The people of Jerusalem are identified primarily by their religion and ethnicity. The majority (about 588,000) identifies as Jewish and associate with Judaism to varied degrees. More than 312,000 identify as Arabic and associate with Islam, again to various extents. Only a tiny remnant, a 2% minority of about 18,000 people dares to be known as Christians.

So, today we have in Jerusalem a city intensely divided by race, religion, politics, and economic status, its people forced to live in close quarters with others they’d regard as “enemies,” and constantly under the threat of military action both inside and outside of city walls.

Peace should be easy, right? Of course not—particularly when our modern media seems titillated to report on, and sometimes fuel, new conflicts in the Middle East. BUT …

Families still laugh and play in Jerusalem … Lovers still picnic by the sea … Children still learn happily at school … Friends still go to the theatre … Artists still create beauty … Worshipers still pray and sing, and … Life happens, day in and day out, in this lost city of peace.

And best of all, it’s still true that prayer changes things (James 5:16) and with God, anything is possible (Matthew 19:26).

That means we—right now, right here—are part of something greater than ourselves and our fallen world. Our meager prayers are a privilege of cooperation with God that only a few dare to dream. So when you next dream of peace for Jerusalem, consider mentioning these topics to Jesus:

  • Hope—for God’s Holy Spirit to remove bitterness and complacency from the hearts of Jerusalem’s people; for them to believe that peace is actually possible in their city.
  • Security—for Christ to spread his powerful protection around this place, preventing even the empty threat of attack from outside enemies.
  • Harmony—for God to turn the hearts of people toward compassion and kindness; for children to lead the way in the rising up of a generation that longs to treat all in Jerusalem as brother and sister.
  • Family—for Jesus to knit families together in wholeness and health, in ways that repulse fear and hate in exchange for love and joy.
  • Economy—for the people of Jerusalem to have ample opportunity and ability to provide for themselves and their families, to give generously to others, and to no longer be divided over who “has” and who “has not.”
  • Worship—for Christ’s Holy Spirit to be not simply present, but undeniably known in obvious ways within the hearts and expressions of His truly beloved people—Jew and Arab alike.



RBD 551; WWA 194; EDB 479; IB4 652-653; NOG 8; JP 1

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What was the deal with the drowning pigs in Matthew 8? Did the demons survive the deaths of the pigs?

Scripture: Matthew 8:28–34

When Jesus healed two demon-possessed men in the region of the Gadarenes, the demons begged to be exorcised into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus granted that request, so the demons inhabited those pigs. The whole herd then stampeded into the Sea of Galilee and drowned.

This is such an odd turn of events; how do we make sense of it?

The first thing to note is the demons’ manic fear of God’s coming judgment. “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?” they ask Christ. This strongly suggests that Jesus himself will be involved in administering punishment at the end of days. The demons obviously recognized him as their future judge, even addressing him with the title, “Son of God.” Theologian Craig Keener observes, “Apparently even the demons did not expect the Messiah to come in two stages, a first and second coming.”

It’s also important to understand that this miracle of exorcism took place in the predominately non-Jewish region of the Gadarenes, which explains the presence of swine herders and a large population of pigs. Jews regarded pigs as filthy, unclean animals worthy of nothing more than contempt. Thus when demons begged to be banished into a herd of pigs, to Jewish ears, that would’ve seemed a fitting punishment—a vile, disgusting habitat appropriate for evil spirits.

We’re not told what the final fate of those demons was, only that the pigs they inhabited stampeded and died. Jewish tradition held that demons could be either bound or killed, and so some speculate that when the pigs they inhabited died, the demons themselves were also destroyed. Jewish folklore also held that demons were somehow tortured by, and thus afraid of, water. In one legend, King Solomon condemns a demon to captivity by surrounding it with barrels of water, therefore preventing it from escaping. Thus, when demon-possessed pigs died by drowning in the Sea of Galilee, Jews in Jesus’ time could have viewed that as a way of imprisoning the demons by immersing them in water.

Still, we’ll never know for sure exactly what was going on here, and perhaps that’s for the best. It’s enough for us to see what Jesus’ disciples, the residents of Gadarenes, and those demons, all unexpectedly understood that day: Jesus Christ is Lord of all.


IBB 69; BKB 183, 185

“What was the deal with the drowning pigs in Matthew 8? Did the demons survive the deaths of the pigs?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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What was it like to live with leprosy in Jesus’ time?

Scripture: Matthew 8:1–4

Matthew 8:1–4 gives no obvious reason for Jesus’ decision to heal, except that the man with leprosy asked. However, Matthew indicates elsewhere that compassion was Christ’s ongoing motivation for healing (see Matthew 9:35–36; 14:14; 15:32–38; 20:29–34). That compassion was justified, especially considering these awful facts about living with leprosy in those days:

  • The term used for leprosy in the New Testament was a general reference to seemingly incurable skin infections. It could have included the formal affliction, which we now call Hansen’s Disease, or any other severe skin disease with inflammation.
  • By Mosaic law, priests—not doctors—were charged with diagnosing leprosy in people (Leviticus 13:2). Sometimes they tried to treat the disease with various baths, ointments, and mixtures of herbs and oils applied to the skin.
  • The process for diagnosing leprosy went something like this: A person with serious skin infections such as tissue-crusts on the skin, severe rashes, or “whitish-red swollen” spots would go to a temple priest to be examined. The priest would look to see if the infection had penetrated the skin, or if hair in the affected area had turned white. If so, he would declare the person “unclean” with leprosy. If not, a seven-day quarantine was instituted, with a new examination for leprosy scheduled afterward (Leviticus 13:2–8).
  • Being diagnosed with leprosy was a death sentence, physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. In fact, rabbinic tradition, as Chuck Swindoll explains, “held that curing leprosy was as difficult as raising the dead, perhaps because they saw the disease as the physical manifestation of sin’s consequences.”
  • A leper was considered physically unclean—and contagious—as well as spiritually unclean. That meant a leper was completely shunned from normal activities of community life and banned from inclusion in worship in the temple or any synagogue. The leper couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t live in a home with non-lepers (including his or her own family), couldn’t shop in a market, couldn’t own property, couldn’t touch or hug or hold hands. Nothing. The leper’s only option was begging for scraps, isolation, and waiting to physically deteriorate and die.

This was the terrible situation of the man who came to Jesus, begging to be healed. Christ’s response was compassion—and healing. My old pastor, Chuck Swindoll, notes one particularly significant aspect of this miracle:

[Jesus] reached out and literally touched the man society had rejected as untouchable. In other instances, Jesus merely spoke a word and the miracle took effect. In at least one case, He healed from a distance of twenty miles (John 4:46–54). But in this situation, he chose to touch the leper’s diseased skin, as if to say, “Your disease doesn’t prevent me from accepting you.”


JHT 161; ILJ 185–188; SLU 127–128

“What was it like to live with leprosy in Jesus’ time?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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