Questions: Gospels

In exploring incarnational, Trinitarian theology, questions arise about specific passages of Scripture. This page addresses questions related to passages in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.


Matthew 5:17–19 
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

People have frequently appealed to these scriptures as proof that "the law" continues to be binding on Christians today. This is usually in response to the claim that Jesus did away with the law by his death on the cross. For them, the meaning is that Jesus came to show what the law really means; or that Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly, thus setting the perfect example for Christians to follow as they, too, fulfill the law.

There are problems with interpreting Matthew 5:17–19 in these ways. Note, first, that in verse 17 Jesus was speaking of the Law and the Prophets, not of the law only. Jesus did not restrict what he had come to fulfill to the Mosaic Law code. He said he also came to fulfill the prophetic writings.

Second, Jesus said that "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (verse 18). If Jesus meant by "the Law" the Mosaic Law code, then even the most minor law of the old covenant has ongoing validity. This would mean that every ceremonial and sacrificial law continues to be binding on Christians. Few, if any, Christians believe that they must obey all the laws of the old covenant that God gave to the nation of Israel 3,500 years ago.

Therefore, what did Jesus mean when he said that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them, and that nothing would disappear from the Law until all is accomplished?

Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets by bringing them to their intended eschatological climax in himself. He fulfilled and continues to fulfill in himself all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament that pointed to him. Jesus made this clear after his resurrection. On the road to Emmaus with two of the disciples, Jesus revealed that everything that had recently happened in Jerusalem was spoken of by the prophets. "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).

Shortly afterwards Jesus appeared to the assembled group of apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (verse 44) Luke here records Jesus as saying he fulfilled all three parts of the Old Testament — the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. (Psalms are representative of the Writings, as they are the first book of the third section of the Old Testament.) Thus, it appears that "the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 5:17), "Moses and all the Prophets" (Luke 24:27), and "the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44) are synonymous terms for "all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27).

In verse 18 of Matthew 5, Jesus makes the point that nothing will disappear from the Law until all is accomplished. What did he mean by "the Law" here? It is unlikely Jesus meant the Mosaic Law code. That is because verse 18 builds on what Jesus said in verse 17. To repeat the full phrase "the Law and the Prophets" was unnecessary. "The Law" here represents all the Old Testament writings. (In John 10:34 John quotes Jesus as using the term Law in this way. Jesus asked the Jews, "Is it not written in your Law?" and then quotes Psalm 82:6. In this instance Jesus clearly referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, not just the Pentateuch. See also John 12:34; 15:25.)

The fulfillment ("until everything is accomplished") takes place in the ministry, passion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, as well as his subsequent reign culminating in the age to come. We can then take Jesus’ words literally, rather than having to make artificial distinctions about what laws Jesus may have had in mind that would not disappear. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus was emphasizing that nothing in the Old Testament that pointed to him could fail to occur.

Then Jesus proceeded to say that: "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (verse 19)

What specific commandments was Jesus referring to here? Did he mean all the commands of the Old Testament, from the least to the greatest? If so, then the early church was wrong in concluding that physical circumcision was unnecessary to become a Christian. The answer is found in the context of the preceding verses, and in those that follow — the Sermon on the Mount. The commandments of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (Romans 10:4), and as such are redefined and magnified according to his teaching.

Some laws of the old covenant, through their fulfillment in Christ, are not binding on Christians today. They include the ceremonial and sacrificial laws that foreshadowed Christ (Hebrews 10:1). However, other laws clearly do have application in the life of the Christian. In Matthew 5:21–48, Jesus illustrated how certain old covenant commandments now applied through their fulfillment in him. He did not make Old Testament laws more binding so that Christians now obey according to both the letter and the Spirit, thereby enabling them to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (verse 20). Rather, he redefined the law of God and showed its full spiritual intent. He established the spirit of the law as the norm for Christian behavior instead of the letter of the law (Romans 7:6).

Sometimes the letter of the law and the spirit of the law complement one another, as in Jesus’ teaching about murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21–30). With other laws, Jesus’ spiritual teaching overrides the letter of the law, as in divorce (verses 31–33). Elsewhere in the Gospels we read of Jesus’ application and defining of the law of God as fulfilled in him.

Thus, we should not see in Matthew 5:17–19 Jesus’ confirmation of the law of the old covenant as the law of God for Christians. Rather, Jesus explained that he fulfills in himself everything to which the Old Testament Scriptures point. He illustrated how the law of God given to Israel is transformed through its fulfillment in him. Scot McKnight captures the essence of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

In using his own teachings as the basis for righteousness, Jesus revealed that the OT Law and Prophets (Mt 5:17) were being fulfilled in his own teachings and that he is the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the Law and so revealed a new standard of conduct (Mt 5:20). From the cross onward, the righteousness of God’s people is determined by conformity to the teachings of Jesus, which in turn fulfill the OT revelation of God’s will. Jesus expects his followers to be righteous in their conduct (Mt 5:6, 10), to do God’s will (Mt 7:12, 13–27) and to pursue justice (Mt 23:23 [krisis]; 25:37; Jn 7:24). 

According to Jesus, only those who are righteous are finally acceptable to God (Mt 10:41; 12:37; 13:43, 49; 25:46; Lk 14:14; Jn 5:30). Again, this righteousness is not an outward conformity to the Law or an appeal to ritual observances, but the necessary fruit of commitment to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Jesus illustrated the link between commitment and obedience at the end of his Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them... (Mt 7:21–27). (See "Justice, Righteousness," Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [InterVarsity Press, 1992], 413.)

Matthew 6:14-15
14 "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Does this statement from Jesus contradict the key teaching of Trinitarian, incarnational theology that God, in Christ, has forgiven all people?

The answer is no. This statement is part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (which spans Matthew chapters 5-7). In this sermon, Jesus is telling his disciples about the nature of life in his kingdom, which means life with him under God's rule. Because Jesus is here, the kingdom is now present. And what Jesus describes in this sermon is what his followers will experience in his presence - how he thinks about all things, and how he relates both to God and to people. This experience of Jesus' life and love occurs now,  in this world, but comes to fullness in the age yet to come.

In the Matthew 6:14-15 part of his sermon, Jesus mentions the subject of forgiveness in the midst of teaching about prayer. A superficial reading of this statement might lead one to conclude that what we do (or do not do) conditions the Father’s desire to forgive us. However, what we learn in the totality of this sermon, and indeed from Jesus' entire ministry, is that the Father's forgiveness toward us is NOT conditioned upon us (our behavior or our attitude).

Note that Jesus' statement is given in the form of a warning. He warns his followers against succumbing to the temptation to resist God's unconditional forgiveness. If they do so, they will fail to experience the benefits of that forgiveness in their hearts and lives. Jesus point is that if we cling to a heart of unforgiveness - harboring ill will toward others, rather than seeking reconciliation through forgiveness - the fact of our unforgiveness will block our own reception (experiencing) of God's forgiveness. In short, hearts closed toward one's neighbor are also closed toward God.

However (and this is a vital point derived from the whole of Scripture), our unwillingness (or inability) to forgive others does not change the Father's mind about us. His mind toward us is set, conditioned only by the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. God, in Christ, has made up his mind once and for all about us. In Christ, he has forgiven us all.

In the light of this larger faith context, Jesus' statement cannot be interpreted to mean that God doles out forgiveness toward us in some sort of 'tit for tat' manner as though he is looking for an excuse to not forgive us. Jesus' warning must be understood to be descriptive rather than proscriptive. The consequence contained in the warning (not being forgiven), is not related to God's action but to our own. Jesus is giving a warning description of what happens within the heart of an unforgiving person - they do not receive (personally experience) the forgiveness that God has extended to all people in Christ. But whether we receive that forgiveness or somehow manage to refuse it, God remains toward us our "heavenly Father" because Jesus remains our heavenly Brother.

Matthew 7:13-14; 21-23
13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" 

Is Jesus saying in this passage that most people are doomed to destruction? How can all be included, yet Jesus say of some that he never knew them?

In vv13-14, Jesus is speaking of this life now—on this side of the general resurrection. In this day, most are living on the “broad road” of destruction. Though they are included in Christ, they live as if they were not. Only the “few” have in this time embraced the truth that is in Jesus—and it is he who is “the narrow gate.”

In vv21-23, Jesus is addressing those who have done miracles, and in doing so have deceived many. They claim to know Jesus, and though Jesus obviously knows them (in his divinity, he is omniscient!), he does not see himself in them with regard to their actual faith or behavior, and so he proclaims, “I never knew you.”

Matthew 12:30-32
30 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What is the unforgivable sin?
(The following answer is provided by Peter Hiett)

This passage is a challenge for anyone, but especially those that hold to an unlimited atonement. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the world? “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Even for those who don’t think Jesus died for the sins of the “whole world,” what is so special about the “blasphemy against the Spirit.”?

It’s interesting that Jesus begins by saying, “Every sin… will be forgiven people…except blasphemy against the Spirit.” Blasphemy against the Spirit isn’t listed as one of the sins in Jesus’ story of the Sheep and Goats in Matt. 25, nor is it in the list in Rev. 22:15 where John describes those outside of the New Jerusalem. That would clearly imply that all those sins are forgiven. That’s amazing… but how is this one different?

It occurred to me that there is one other “unforgiveable sin” or maybe it’s the same sin? “…but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That’s what Jesus says in Mathew 6:15. All of us have refused forgiveness to others at some point. We weren’t forgiven until we also forgave. Perhaps Jesus meant the same thing in Mathew 12: “You’re not forgiven until you stop blaspheming the Spirit.” Just like, “You’re not forgiven until you forgive.”
The word translated “forgive” is the Greek word aphiemi. It means to “let go” or “release.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When you forgive a debt, you release that debt – you tell the debtor that they don’t have to pay. Even if you don’t forgive a debt, it can be canceled through payment. In Christ, we don’t have to pay the debt for our sins . . . but maybe, in some way, we have to pay for this one.

Every commentator that I’ve read on this verse seems to argue that “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” is rejecting the testimony and work of the Spirit. In the context of Matt. 12, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees who argue that Jesus casts out Satan with Satan rather than the Holy Spirit. You’ll remember that the Spirit is sent to testify to the work of Christ (John 16:7-15). If we reject the testimony of the Spirit, we also reject the work of the cross; we reject God’s forgiveness; we reject God’s Grace. This was the sin of the Pharisees and the religious leaders.

I don’t think that means that they could never be redeemed, for indeed Scripture is pretty clear that “all Israel will be saved” (Ezekiel 37:11-14, Romans 11:26, etc.). Actually, Paul was one of these Pharisees, or at least one like them, and it seems to me that he blasphemed the Spirit. The Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). What would those goads be but the promptings of the Holy Spirit? If that’s the case, Saul wasn’t “forgiven” or “released” of his unbelief until he paid with belief.

Commentators will say that it’s “persistent unbelief,” the idea being that at a certain point God’s patience runs out or reaches it’s limit. That doesn’t make sense to me. How could we come to the end of God’s patience, when Scripture is clear that His Mercy NEVER comes to an end?

In Scripture there are prescribed penalties for all sorts of sins and Jesus pays the penalty for them all. But I can think of no prescribed penalty for a “lack of faith in Grace” other than having “faith in Grace.” In other words, “lack of faith in Grace” will not be “forgiven;” you cannot enter the Kingdom, without “Faith in Grace.” Indeed, “Faith in God’s Grace, in Christ,” is the Kingdom. The Spirit is the one who gives us that faith. I think Jesus is saying, “You can only be saved by faith through Grace in Grace.” Jesus is that Grace come to us, and the Spirit testifies to His Truth in our hearts. So when the Pharisees looked at Jesus and attributed His work in the Spirit to Satan, perhaps Jesus was saying: “That will have to change; that cannot be released.”

In the same way, I can’t enter the Kingdom of Forgiveness unless I also forgive – unless I have faith in Grace. Lack of faith in forgiveness is unforgivable. I think that’s what it means. We have all lacked faith in forgiveness.

Lack of faith in Grace is the old man; it is the flesh and the works of the flesh. The old man must die and is not “forgiven.”

The degree to which we lack faith in forgiveness is the degree to which we’re stuck in Hell. This all fits with what Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 20:1-15, when He tells the parable of the vineyard. The ones that end up outside are the ones that “begrudge” the master’s generosity; the one’s that don’t like Grace; the ones that aren’t “forgiven” are the ones that hate the master’s “forgiveness.”

That’s the amazing irony in Christ’s words. It’s the people that hang on to the idea of others in Hell that are most likely to spend some time there. “…many will come from east and west and recline at table…while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 8:12-13). But did you notice, they’re still called “sons of the kingdom?” It seems that God uses the “outer darkness” to help people receive the testimony of the Spirit, call out for Grace, have faith in Grace, and forgive as they are forgiven.

In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul talks about two men that he has “delivered” (paradidomai) to Satan that they may “learn not to blaspheme (same word).” In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul talks about “delivering” a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord.

Maybe this “blasphemy” is the “blasphemy against the spirit.” It is not “released,” that is forgiven, it is destroyed and the person guilty of this blasphemy must “learn not to blaspheme.” That is: You can’t pay for blasphemy with something else, the guilty must “learn not to blaspheme.” As Karl Barth puts it, God “burns them right down to faith.” This happens at the “day of the Lord,” the Judgment, the end of the age.

So you cannot be forgiven “blasphemy against the Spirit.” You must “learn not to blaspheme,” and perhaps this is what “delivering” a person to Satan is all about. I think the verses in 1 Corinthians 5 and in 1 Timothy 1:20 are thoroughly fascinating, for Paul is saying that God uses Satan to destroy the flesh. That’s why Paul gives these guys over. Perhaps that’s the only reason that anyone is given over to Satan.

Some argue that there is a time after “this age and the age to come”… so these folks (“not forgiven in this age or the age to come”) will be forgiven this blasphemy then (at the end of this age and the next). Technically, they have a point about the ages, since Jesus is the “end of the ages,” however this misses the point in my opinion. Well, that’s a long answer. I hope it helps. I’m not arguing it’s all right, but it’s my best shot at understanding a really challenging chunk of Scripture.

(To explore more of Peter's responses to frequently asked questions click here). 

Matthew 12:36-37
36 "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

If all are accepted, why a "day of judgment"? Note that the Greek word for “judgment” used in such New Testament passages is krisis, from which we get our English word “crisis.” Krisis refers to a time or situation when a decision is executed for or against someone. In that sense, it is a crisis point in the life of an individual or of the world. Most specifically, krisis refers to the activity of God or the Messiah as judge of the world on what is called the Last Day or Day of Judgment, or we might say the beginning of “eternal judgment.”

Jesus summarized the Judgment to come in terms of the fate of the righteous and the wicked: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-20).

Jesus also described the essence of the Last Judgment in symbolic form—as sheep being separated from goats: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left (Matthew 25:31-33).

The sheep on his right hand are told of their blessedness and told to “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (verse 34). The goats on the left are informed of their fate as well: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41).

This two-group scenario gives confidence to the righteous and thrusts the wicked into a time of singular crisis: “The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

Paul also speaks of this two-fold day of Judgment, referring to it as “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). He says, “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (verses 6-8).

Such biblical passages define in stark terms the doctrine of eternal or last Judgment. It’s an either-or situation; there are the saved in Christ and the unregenerate wicked who are lost. A number of other passages in the New Testament speak of the “last Judgment” as a time and situation that no person can escape. Perhaps the best way to get the flavor of this future time is to quote some of the passages that mention it.

Hebrews speaks of the Judgment as a crisis situation that every human will face. Those who are in Christ, saved by his redemptive work, will find their reward: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27).

The saved people, made righteous by his redemptive work, do not need to fear the Last Judgment. John assures his readers: “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17). Those who belong to Christ will receive their eternal reward. The ungodly will go to their fearful fate: “The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Peter 3:7).

The GCI Statement of Beliefs says that “in Christ the Lord makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have believed the gospel.” We do not say how God makes such provision, except that whatever it is, such provision is made possible through Christ’s redemptive work, as it is for those now in a saved condition.

Jesus himself indicated in several places during his earthly ministry that provision is made for the unevangelized dead to receive the opportunity to be saved. He did this by explaining that the people of a number of ancient cities would find favor in the Judgment, especially in relationship to cities of Judea, where he preached: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!... it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you" (Luke 10:13-14). "The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… The Queen of the South [who came to listen to Solomon] will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it" (Matthew 12:41-42).

Here are people of ancient cities—Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh—who obviously did not have opportunity to hear the gospel or know of Christ’s redemptive work. But they find the Judgment bearable, and simply by standing in front of their Savior, they send a condemnatory message to those who rejected him in this life.

Jesus also makes the shocking statement that the ancient towns of Sodom and Gomorrah—bywords for every gross immorality—would find the Judgment more bearable than certain towns of Judea in which Jesus taught.

To put into context just how startling Jesus’ statement is, let’s see how Jude pictures the sin of these two towns and the consequences they received in this life for their actions:  "And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 6).

But Jesus says of the towns in the future Judgment: “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [that is, the town that didn’t welcome the disciples]” (Matthew 10:15).

Perhaps, then, this suggests that the events of the last or eternal Judgment are not quite what many Christians have assumed them to be. The late Reformed theologian, Shirley C. Guthrie, suggested we perhaps would do well to reorient our thinking about this crisis event:

The first thought that comes to Christians when they think about the end of history ought not be anxious or vindictive speculation about who will be “in” and go “up,” and who will be “out” and go “down.” It ought to be the thankful and joyful thought that we may confidently look forward to the time when the will of the world’s Creator, Reconciler, Savior, and Renewer will prevail once and for all—when justice will triumph over injustice, love over hatred and greed, peace over hostility, humanity over inhumanity, the kingdom of God over the powers of darkness. The last judgment will come not against but for the good of the world…

That is good news not just for Christians but for everyone! Indeed, that is what the last things—including the last or eternal Judgment—are all about: the triumph of the God of love over all that stands in the way of his eternal grace. So the apostle Paul says: “Then the end will come, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).

The One who is to be the Judge in the last Judgment of those made righteous by Christ and those who are yet sinners is none other than Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for everyone. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22).

The One who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and even the wicked is he who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ has already taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. That is not to say that those who reject Christ avoid suffering the fate that their own decision brings on them. What the picture of the merciful Judge, Jesus Christ, does tell us is that he wishes that all would receive eternal life—and he will provide it for those who put their faith in him.

Those who are the called-in-Christ—made the “elect” through Christ’s election—can look to the Judgment with confidence and joy, knowing that their salvation is sure in him. The unevangelized—those who have not had opportunity to hear the gospel and put their faith in Christ—will also find that the Lord has made provision for them. The Judgment should be a time of joy for everyone as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity.

Matthew 20:12-15
12 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' 13 "But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds us that no matter how hard we work, we do not deserve the gift of salvation.  It is, for everyone, a free gift. That being the case, why struggle to live the Christian life and to participate in Christian mission?

In Scripture we learn that our participation now in Jesus’ love and life bears good fruit and personal joy that stretch into eternity. Conversely, living in ungodly ways results in pain, anguish and misery for oneself and others. That is why God doesn’t want us to live that way (see 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Galatians 6:7-8).

It is Jesus’ union with each of us that provides the basis and foundation for every aspect of our life, including our participation in mission and ministry with Jesus. The love of Christ compels us to take part in what Jesus is doing in the world through the Spirit. We declare the gospel and invite all people to receive and embrace it. In doing so, we hope what is true of them already (in an objective sense), will be experienced by them personally (in a subjective sense). And that changes everything.

Matthew 22:14
"For many are invited, but few are chosen."

Doesn't this statement from Jesus disprove the idea of universal reconciliation? Note that the immediate context of Jesus' statement is the parable of the wedding banquet (Mat 22:1-13). We learn in verses 9-10 that the invitation to the banquet goes out to “anyone,” whether "good" or "bad.”  This stage in the parable speaks to the unmerited inclusion of all humanity in God's love and life through the person and work of Jesus. All are included (invited) based on Jesus' merit, not our own.

But then there is our personal/subjective response. Some who are “in” (the wedding banquet), are found not properly clothed. As a result, they are cast out (v 13).  Note that they are cast out because they are already in (reconciled to God). Why why now cast out? Because they refuse their inclusion, and thus are said not to be "chosen” (v 14). God has received them, but they remain, in their own minds, alienated from God (Col 1:21).

Note that it is not our personal response to God that creates our reconciliation with him (our invitation to and free entrance into the banquet in the parable). However, our response does effect whether or not we receive (enjoy/participate in) what we have been freely given. All are included, however, some refuse that inclusion and thus, in the end, are not "chosen."  In that sense, they "un-choose" themselves, and God will never override our freedom to reject his gift of grace to us.

Matthew 23:23  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

Does Jesus here confirm the Law of Moses for Christians?  This verse is sometimes misconstrued to say so. This misunderstanding arises from putting a focus on the last sentence of the verse, "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." These words of Jesus are them misinterpreted to mean that Christians should practice the more important matters of the law without neglecting other lesser laws, such as the old covenant laws of tithing.

While tithing is a valid biblical model for voluntary giving to the church to support the preaching of the gospel, this verse does not support the view that Jesus here confirmed the ongoing validity of old covenant law. Those who hold this interpretation overlook the context in which Jesus said these words. Jesus was speaking to an audience who were under the old covenant. This covenant applied to them, and God required them to live by its terms. Verse 23 records part of Jesus’ condemnation of Pharisaic legalism (see the entire chapter). Among other things, the Pharisees were meticulous about fulfilling the letter of the law in their tithing, but ignored the weightier matters of the law. Yes, they should have been tithing as commanded in the Mosaic covenant, but they should have also been showing such things as love, justice and mercy.

Another illustration of Jesus commanding a person to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses is found in Mark 1:40–43. In this instance, Jesus healed a leper and said to him: "See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them." Just because Jesus instructed this man to offer sacrifices according to the requirements of the Mosaic Law does not mean that his words have universal applicability for Christians. The context determines the application. Jesus was speaking to a Jew under the old covenant. God does not require a Christian healed of leprosy to offer sacrifices as Jesus instructed this man. The Christian is under the new covenant, and different conditions apply. Matthew 23:23 was spoken to Jews under the old covenant; we cannot assume that its instructions apply to Christians today.


Matthew 25:41, 46
25 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'"  

46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

If all are reconciled, how then can Jesus say that the fate of some is "eternal fire?" 

Many commentators approach this issue by appealing to verse 46, noting that since "eternal life" refers to unending life, then "eternal punishment" must refer to unending punishment. However, this reasoning is fallacious in that it misunderstands the meaning of the Greek word aionios which is here used as an adjective, which varies depending on the nature of the noun it qualifies. For example, consider how the English adjective “everlasting” is modified depending on the noun it qualifies. An everlasting struggle would no doubt be a struggle without end---an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation would hardly be an unending temporal process that never gets completed; instead, it would be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps simply an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible state. So the argument that aionios must have exactly the same force regardless of which noun it qualifies in Matthew 25:46 is fallacious.

Accordingly, even if we should translate aionios with the English word “eternal” (or "everlasting" in some other translations), a lot would still depend upon how we understand the relevant nouns in our text: the nouns “life” (zoe) and “punishment” (kolasis). Now the kind of life in question, being rightly related to God, is clearly an end in itself, even as the kind of punishment in question seems just as clearly to be a means to an end. For as one New Testament scholar, William Barclay, has pointed out, kolasis “was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better.” Barclay also claimed that “in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment”---which is probably a bit of a stretch, since the language of correction and the language of retribution often get mixed together in ordinary language. But in any event, if kolasis does signify punishment of a remedial or a corrective kind, as it seems to do in Matthew 25:46, then we can reasonably think of such punishment as everlasting in the sense that its corrective effects literally endure forever. Or, to put it another way, an everlasting correction, whenever successfully completed, would be a temporal process of limited duration that terminates in the irreversible state of being rightly related to God. Certainly nothing in the context of Matthew 25 excludes such an interpretation.

On a few occasions in the New Testament---as when Paul spoke of a "mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronios aioniois) but is now disclosed" (Romans 16:25-26)---the adjective does imply a lengthy period of time. But on these occasions, it could not possibly mean "eternal" or "everlasting." On other occasions, its use seems roughly Platonic in this sense: Whether God is eternal (that is, timeless, outside of time) in a purely Platonic sense or everlasting in the sense that he endures throughout all of the ages, nothing other than God is eternal in the primary sense (see the reference to "the eternal God" in Romans 16:26). The judgements, gifts, and actions of God are eternal in the secondary sense that their causal source lies in the eternal character and purpose God. One common function of an adjective is to refer back to the causal source of some action or condition. A selfish act, for example, is one that springs from, or has its causal source in, selfish motives. When Jude thus cited the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of eternal fire, he was not making a statement about temporal duration at all; in no way was he implying that the fire continues burning today, or even that it continued burning for an age. He was instead giving a theological interpretation in which the fire represented God’s judgement upon the two cities. So the fire was eternal not in the sense that it would burn forever without consuming the cities, but in the sense that, precisely because it was God’s judgement upon these cities and did consume them, it expressed God’s eternal character and eternal purpose in a special way.

So, even as the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah was eternal in the sense that it expressed God’s eternal character and purpose in a special way, the same is true of the fire to which Matthew 25:41 alludes. That fire is eternal in the sense that, despite the harsh sounding language, it expresses God’s eternal love for us in a special, albeit especially severe, way. For as we read in Hebrews 12:29, the eternal God is also a consuming fire, one that will eventually consume all that is false within us. In no other way could God perfect all of us and express his eternal love for all of us. And similarly for eternal punishment: Like any of God’s eternal actions in time, it should be interpreted theologically as a process or event that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. Or, as William Barclay put it, “Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give” (A Spiritual Biography, p66).

In closing here, we should note that Jesus' statement recorded by Matthew pertains to rebels who have lived selfishly. But so have we all. The issue being addressed is not perfection of  behavior, but the attitude of the heart. Some turn to Jesus in repentance but others remain obstinately rebellious. But note this: All who stand before Jesus in the final judgment belong to him. All of them have been included in his life and love. However, some reject that love and repudiate that life. And in doing so, they separate themselves in their own hearts and minds from their Savior. In this passage, Jesus acknowledges this fact and the consequences that follow, referring to it as "eternal fire." This "fire," like "outer darkness," is a metaphor for the self-imposed misery that will be experienced by those who, in the final judgment, refuse the goodness and love of God that is theirs.


Mark 11:12-26
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it. 15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: "'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. 19 When evening came, they went out of the city. 20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!" 22 "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. 23 "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your sins."

If Jesus forgives all, why does he curse the fig tree and then state that some are not forgiven? Note that w
hen we interpret this passage considering Mark’s overall goal of declaring the identity and authority of Jesus, and also the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture, we come to understand that the purpose of this incident is to clarify Jesus’ identity and authority, as well as the fate that awaits Jerusalem at that moment in history.

The account of the cursing of the fig tree is interrupted by the description of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (vv15-19), making evident the connection between the fig tree and the temple. Furthermore, in the first part of this chapter, we have Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he is declared the one who comes in the name of the Lord (vv1-11). Then in the latter part of the chapter, we have the questioning of Jesus' authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vv27-33). The entire chapter, then, is carefully constructed to lead the reader to a greater understanding of Mark’s central issue: the identity and authority of Jesus. With that structure in mind, we can now analyze the cursing of the fig tree, beginning in verse 12.

As Mark sets up the story, he points out several facts. It was the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12). Jesus and his disciples were walking from Bethany (12), where they had spent the night (11), toward Jerusalem (15). Jesus was hungry (12). He saw a fig tree in leaf in the distance. He went to it to see if it might have any fruit, but found only leaves (13). Then Mark adds the confounding clause, “for it was not the season for figs” (13d). This is the troubling element for many who find this passage difficult. If Jesus’ purpose in approaching the fig tree were simply because he was hungry, as Mark intimates, and it was not even the season for figs, which Jesus must have known before he even approached the tree, then how can he be justified in saying to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (14)? Before we consider the answer to that question, we need to take note of additional facts provided by Mark.

When Jesus made the statement to the tree, Mark notes that “his disciples heard it” (14c). Picking up the story in verse 20, after the cleansing of the temple, we find that the fig tree had not only withered away, but had withered away to its roots (20). We are also told that Peter “remembered,” and that he called Jesus’ attention to the withered tree, saying Jesus had “cursed” it (21), even though the word “curse” was not used in verse 14. Then, without apparent transition, Mark says Jesus “answered” them (though no question is posed) by giving instruction about faith that can remove mountains (22-26)—another enigmatic passage for many Christians, which we shall comment about later.

Let us now consider how the facts provided by Mark serve to clarify the meaning of what would otherwise be a troubling passage. First, we need to note that “his disciples heard it” (14c). The presence of this statement indicates that Jesus’ pronouncement on the tree was a teaching situation. Jesus’ words were intended to instruct his disciples, and the incident, therefore, was intended to provide the opportunity to teach them and the reader. In contrast, we find Jesus again teaching immediately after he cleansed the temple (17), and Mark tells the reader that “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they were looking for a way to kill him” (18). Mark often provides a reaction to Jesus’ actions and instruction —astonishment (10:51), grief (10:22), inability to understand (9:32), etc. In this case, the response from those who “heard it,” unlike his disciples in 14c, is to reject Jesus and look for ways to kill him.

Once we recognize that the fig tree incident is recorded as a teaching situation, the lesson of which is given in the events and sayings of Jesus in the following verses, the reasons for Mark’s letting the reader know that Jesus was hungry (12), that he knew the distant fig tree was in leaf (13), and that it was not the season for figs (14), begin to come into focus. The fact that Jesus was hungry provides not only the immediate reason to approach the tree (a fact essential to the narrative — approaching a fruitless tree only to be disappointed would be meaningless unless someone was hungry), it is also vital to the prophetic declaration Jesus was to make. Many scholars agree that Jesus would have had in mind such passages as Jeremiah 8:13: “When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” The fact that Jesus was hungry and approached the fig tree looking for fruit illustrates his identity and authority as the Judge of Israel who finds that the nation, despite its “leafy” appearance, has not produced the fruit God desired.

The fact that “it was not the season for figs” (13d) becomes essential to the sense of the passage. Jesus was not out to condemn a non-bearing tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the religious barrenness of the nation. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment. If it had been the season for figs, then the tree would have itself borne certain responsibility, and its judgment would have applied as much to itself as to the nation, watering down the force of the symbolism. But Jesus is not interested in judging fig trees. The focus is, rather, on the nation, the temple, the Jewish leadership. Therefore, Mark makes plain that it was not the season for figs.  That fact does not make Jesus unreasonable, but underscores the point of the passage: the nation has not borne fruit — its spiritual leaders are incapable of recognizing the Messiah, the temple is a den of robbers and not a house of prayer for the nations — and the Judge has arrived to pass sentence. The fig tree symbolizes Israel in Jesus’ day, and what happens to the tree the terrible fate that awaits Jerusalem.

The cursing of the fig tree, then, is not a strange and unexplainable aberration in Jesus’ character, nor in Mark’s Gospel, but a powerful and culturally meaningful pronouncement of judgment against the people who should have borne fruit by accepting their Messiah, but instead had rejected him.

[For a longer explanation of this passage see the GCI article, The Fig Tree and the Temple.]

Luke 13:1-9
1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." 6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8 "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"

Does this parable of the barren fig tree conflict with the idea that all people are reconciled to God?

The Jews hated Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) because of his insensitivity to their religious convictions. The atrocity mentioned in v1 probably took place when Pilate “appropriated” money from the temple treasury to help finance an aqueduct. A crowd of angry Jews gathered in protest and Pilate had his soldiers murder a number of them, adding to the Jews’ hatred for their governor.

Since Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, anything he said about Pilate was sure to get there before him. If he ignored the issue, the crowd would accuse him of being pro-Roman. If he defended the Jews and accused Pilate, he would be in trouble with the Romans, and the Jewish leaders would have an excuse to get him arrested.

Jesus’ reply to their question explains that human tragedies are not always divine punishments and that it is wrong to “play God” and pass judgment.

“How would you explain the deaths of the people on whom the tower in Siloam fell?” he asks them. “That was not Pilate’s fault. Was it therefore God’s fault? Shall we blame God? The eighteen who were killed in Siloam were just doing their job, yet they died. They were not protesting or creating trouble.”

Jesus thus exposes the logical conclusion of their argument: if God does punish sinners in this way, then they themselves had better repent because all people are sinners!

The real question is thus not, “Why did these people die?” but, “What right do you have to live?” The answer is that we live only because God is a God of grace. Jesus then illustrates this lavish grace with a parable about a barren fig tree (v6ff). The owner of a vineyard (representing God the Father) planted a fig tree in his vineyard (not an uncommon practice of that day). But after three years of caring for it, he should have found figs, but did not, so he instructs the vineyard’s caretaker (representing Jesus) to cut down the barren tree. But Jesus' response is to call for more grace. And that’s where the story ends.

Clearly this parable has both personal and national application. On the personal side, God, who has created all people by grace, remains gracious and long-suffering toward all people in their sin (2Peter 3:9) - forgiving them and encouraging them to turn to him and thus bear fruit. God has every right to “cut us down,” but in grace, through his Son, spares us. However, we must not presume upon God’s patience - eventually we must embrace or reject God’s grace in Jesus. We must repent of any idea that God is not gracious toward us all.

On the national side (and this addresses the sense of urgency in the parable), God waited several years during the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus for the Jews to repent, but they would not - the Jewish nation produced no fruit. God then waited another forty years more before allowing the Romans to destroy Jerusalem with its temple. During those intervening years, the apostles gave the Jews a powerful witness of the Gospel of God's grace. Finally, the “tree” (the nation) was cut down, but God's plan to be gracious to all humanity through Jesus was not cut down - in fact it continues.

The parable is “open-ended,” requiring the listeners to supply their own conclusions. Did the tree bear fruit? Did the special care accomplish anything? Was the tree spared or was it cut down? We are not told. However, we are invited to examine our own lives. Thus, the question is not “What happened to the tree?” but “What will happen to me?” The answer depends NOT on our own goodness or fruitfulness - but on whether or not we embrace the grace that God has given us in Jesus, thus sharing in Jesus' own fruitfulness.

In the end, it’s all about Jesus and how he has included us all in God's grace, which includes his personal, human fruitfulness as our representative and substitute.

John 1:12
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God...

Does this conflict with the idea that all people are (already) God's children? No. Note that the gospel proclaims that God has included everyone in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. When he died, we all died; when he rose; we all were born again in him. Therefore all humans are, from God’s perspective, already his children. He gives people that “right” long before they accept it.

Those who believe and accept Jesus enter into and begin to experience the new life that has been theirs all along, the new life that has been “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In other words, what has been objectively true for them all along becomes subjectively and personally experienced when they become believers.

John 3:16-19
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."

Does John's statement in v16 "that whoever believes" mean that we save ourselves by our belief? No. Note in John 3:1-15 that Jesus explains to Nicodemus that entering the Kingdom is like being born and seeing the wind blow. We don’t get ourselves born, nor cause the wind to blow, we simply observe its effects. In v17, the John says that  Jesus’ mission is to save the world, not merely create the potential for salvation, which the world actualizes through its own belief. Jesus accomplished the world’s salvation in his own person and work.

Thus John 3:16 is not to be understood as a formula that tells us how to get saved. Rather, it is a statement about how the Triune Life has been given to the cosmos (the world). Salvation is not something we earn by a contract in which we exchange our belief for participation in the Son’s relationship with the Father. The Triune Life is given to us, freely and without any contractual obligation, through the Son—the Father’s
gift to the cosmos.

So what does our belief do? When we believe that the Son is the Father’s gift to the world, and that through him the universe is saved and participating in the Triune Life, we are then able to stop experiencing the perishing death of doubt and fully experience eternal life. And what is eternal life? To know God and his Son (John 17:3). Eternal life is far more than just existence. It is the life of the Trinity. This life has been given to the whole universe through the Son, and all who believe this truth about reality will experience the fullness of
all that the Triune Life really is.

But, we might ask, doesn't John's statement that "whoever does not believe stands condemned" (v18b), conflict with the idea that God has already forgiven and accepted all people? Again, no. The fact of the condemnation of all humanity is the reason Christ came. But he did come, and he forgave all sin and reconciled all things to God. Those who reject that forgiveness and reconciliation remain in their state of condemnation – not because God hasn’t forgiven them and reconciled them to himself, but because they refuse his love and reject him.

John 3:36
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."

Doesn't this verse indicate that non-believers will not see life, and that God's wrath is still on them?

From a perspective of a theology of separation, this verse would be interpreted as saying that God stands separate from and in wrath toward all people until the moment they believe in his Son, at which point in time, God enters their lives (for the first time), stops being wrathful toward them, and grants them eternal life.

But is this interpretation justified?  Trinitarian theology says no. Why? Because it is not consistent with what Scripture says about who God is - as revealed in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ. According to that revelation, rather than being separate from sinners, God is "a friend of sinners" - he is "Immanuel" (God with us and for us, as one of us), who in love died for us and has forgiven us, accepting us and including us in his life in union with Jesus, who himself, is the union of God and humanity.

It is to this God that John bears witness in his Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (3:16-18).

"But," one might reply, "doesn't John 3:36 imply that a person remains condemned by God until they believe?  Here we must be careful that we don't misunderstand the point John is making. Throughout his gospel, John makes it clear that God's action on our behalf precedes our personal belief. We don't cause salvation to occur by believing. Rather, what John is telling us is that we receive (and John uses the word "see" as a metaphor for this receiving) what is already true when we believe. John likens this believing to illumination - having one's eyes opened to the light (John 3:20-21).  A person who does not believe cannot see the light that is already present, and thus they remain in darkness (in their personal experience).

In believing, their eyes are opened - they now see what was already there. To not believe is to deny what is there and thus to cut oneself off from its benefits. Though God has forgiven, accepted and included me in his life in Jesus, because I don't believe it, I don't experience these benefits.

Of course, the "light" that is present with all humans is Jesus himself (John 1:4, 9). Unfortunately, not all "see" and thus embrace and benefit from this light. But to say that some do not benefit, is not the same as saying that God condemns those people and remains separate from them, in a state of continuing wrath toward them.

Quite the contrary, in love, God sent his Son to die for all in order to forgive and accept all. From God's perspective, all people are his dearly loved children. Of course, not all know this, and some who know reject this truth. But all are invited to reciprocate - to live as who they truly are - God's dearly loved children (see John 1:12).

In all this, we are seeking to do what the Apostles were careful to do in their writings (including John in his Gospel) - establish all aspects of salvation in Jesus - not in our action (including our believing). Following their example, we seek to uphold the truth of the gospel that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has, indeed, "taken away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).  And the gospel invitation is to believe ("see" in John's terminology) this good news - not to obtain forgiveness by believing, but to experience our forgiveness through now opened eyes.

Indeed, as Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).  Here "to have" is not to receive what one did not have before, but to possess/experience - grab hold of what was there all along. And in that experiencing, one is "born again."

And thus John summarizes the purpose for his gospel: "That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). To "have life" is not to be given something new, but to possess/see/experience/lay hold of, what was granted to all humanity 2,000 years ago through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

John 5:28-29 
28 "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned."

How can some be "condemned" if all are now reconciled to God? Note that the Greek word here translated "condemned" is krisis, which means "judgment" (as krisis is translated in v. 22). Note the translation of verse 29 in The Word Biblical Commentary: They will "come forth; those who have done what is good will rise for life, those who practiced what is wicked will rise for judgment." Judgment may result in condemnation, but judgment itself is not condemnation but a process of sorting things out.

We must remember that the judge at this "rising again," usually referred to as the general resurrection, is Jesus, the Savior of all humanity. Notice John 5:22: "…the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment [krisis] to the Son."

On Judgment Day, Jesus, the Judge who died for all of us in our ignorance, will reveal fully who he is—and in the light of that truth, all are called to decision—to "judgment" (krisis)—a point of crisis. Those who accept Jesus enter into the fullness of the joy of the life they have with God in Christ. Those who reject him continue in their alienation and the misery that goes with it. The crisis of this judgment has the effect of sorting out who, in the end, will receive the salvation that is offered them, and who will not.

John 6:44
"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day."

What does Jesus mean by saying that no one can come to him unless the Father draws him?

The Jewish religious leaders were seeking to deflect Jesus’ seemingly outrageous claim: “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven” (John 6:41). This statement was tantamount to claiming divine status.

Jesus’ reply to the Jewish leaders’ complaint concerning this claim was that they “stop grumbling” (v. 43) and realize that “no one can come to me [the bread of heaven] unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (v. 44). Jesus’ point is that the people would not be responding, except that God was making it possible for them to do so.

In this passage, Jesus is not limiting the number of people who are drawn to him; he is showing that he is doing the Father’s work. Elsewhere he says: “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). And since Jesus does only what his Father wants, John 12:32 shows that the Father indeed draws all people to Jesus.

John 6:53; 8:24; 8:47
6:53 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
8:24 "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins."
8:47 "He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

Don't these verses disprove the idea that God has accepted and forgiven all people?

All humanity exists only in Jesus (there is no other way to exist), and all have had their sins forgiven and have been, in Christ, reconciled to God. These verses show that only by trusting in Christ can anyone enter into that fellowship with God and participate in their true identity as a child of God.

Those who "belong" to God in the sense of trusting him and being in fellowship with him do hear what God says, and those who don’t trust him and are not in fellowship with him do not belong to him in that sense. Those who reject God stand under condemnation, because salvation is to be in fellowship with God, and the only way to be in fellowship with God is to trust him.

John 8:42
Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me."

If all are children of God, how can Jesus call some children of the Devil?

Those living in the darkness of unbelief, even though they are objectively God’s children in union with Jesus, they are subjectively in their personal experience still in darkness.

Paul writes to believers of this deception and darkness in Ephesians 2:2: "In which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient." These believers were once unbelievers walking in darkness, and they still belonged to God because of Jesus, but only when they became believers did they begin to know God and experience life in him.

John 9:41
Jesus said, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains."

How can anyone's guilt remain if God has forgiven everyone?

Note what Paul says in 2Cor 5:19 - "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them..." The point is that God has freely done in Christ everything necessary for human salvation. But to reject that gift is to remain in one’s sins and live under a shroud of guilt.  That guilt is not necessary, and can be shed if the person receives the forgiveness they already have with the Father because of Jesus.

John 12:32
"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."

Does this prove universal salvation?

No. Love, by its very nature, is voluntary. It must be freely given and freely received, or it is not love at all. Jesus’ statement illustrates the universality of his atoning and reconciling work, but it does not prove that every person will ultimately accept it.

John 17:2, 20
17:2  "For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him."
17:20 "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message..."

If all are reconciled, forgiven and included, why the distinction between believers and non-believers?

There are passages in Scripture that refer specifically to those who are currently believers, and there are passages that refer to all people, and there are passages that refer to all those who will ultimately believe.

In John 17:2, Jesus is referring to all people (Jesus has authority over all, and the Father has given all to him). Then in verse 20, he refers to all who will ultimately believe. But in most of this chapter, Jesus is referring to his disciples. In verse 2, Jesus has authority to give eternal life to all, and he has done so, but we must remember that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ, which involves trust. This means that those who reject Christ do not know God nor him, and do not participate with him in his relationship with the Father. God has, in Christ, done everything necessary for human salvation, but those who reject him, by definition, are not in fellowship with him, and therefore remain in their sins and stand under condemnation.

John 17:9 
"I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours."

If all are reconciled to God, why does Jesus say, "I pray for them [his disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours"?

Just because Jesus said in one instance that he was not praying for the world, but instead for his disciples, does not imply that he never prayed for the world. It is just that right then, his emphasis was on his disciples.
It is also important to understand how John uses the word “world” (kosmos in Greek) in the flow of his Gospel. At times the word can refer to all people (who are all loved by God; see John 3:16) while at other times it can refer to the worldly “system” that is hostile toward God.

It is apparently this system that Jesus has in mind in John 17. Since this system resists God, Jesus’ prayer does not include it. He is not praying for the world in its current form, rather, he is praying for a group of people whom he can use to declare his love for the world.

Later on in his prayer, Jesus does have the whole world in mind. He prays that all of his followers “may be one, Father…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Just as John 3:16 said, God loves the whole world and wants to save everyone.

John 20:21-23
21 Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

If all people are forgiven (already) through Jesus' vicarious death, resurrection and ascension, why does Jesus here tell his disciples that they will forgive sins (or withhold forgiveness)?

The exegetical key here, as is often the case, is distinguishing between what we might call "God's reality" and "our reality."  God's reality is the truth of the human condition given the reality of who Jesus is for us.  In Jesus (God's reality) all people are forgiven, accepted, loved and included in God's life.

But then there is "our reality" - our personal, subjective reality which may or may not align with God's reality. It is to this personal reality that Jesus here refers. And, indeed, the calling of these apostles (and all the church after them) is to proclaim God's reality to people who are living in darkness. To proclaim that reality is to proclaim to people that, in Christ, they are forgiven.  If they, in turn, believe this proclamation, they will live in that reality (and thus personally experience this forgiveness). But to fail to proclaim it, or to fail to believe it, is to leave people in the darkness of their sense of unforgiveness.  Jesus has set the captives free. Our calling is to not open the door of the prison (Jesus has done that), but to call them into the freedom that is already theirs.

It is in the flow of this calling that John wrote his Gospel, and declares that it is "written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).  It is not belief that creates this life (with its forgiveness). Rather, this belief aligns our reality with God's reality - it gives us personal awareness and thus experience of the forgiveness/life that is already ours in Jesus.

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