Category Archives: Bible

The Holy Spirit is God

The third person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is sometimes referred to as “the forgotten” member of the godhead. He is, no doubt, the least spoken of among the three persons of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is; therefore, no surprise to find many Catholics ill-equipped to deal with some of the more notable errors concerning he who is “the Lord and giver of life.” Thus, studying the person and nature of the Holy Spirit, though sometimes neglected, is crucial for us as Catholic apologists and as Catholics in general.

The most common attacks on Catholic belief concerning the Holy Spirit generally come from quasi-Christian sects such as the Iglesia Ni Cristo, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who deny the central mystery of the Christian faith—the Trinity. Both the personhood as well as the divinity of the Holy Spirit are rejected by these groups. The Holy Spirit is spoken of as a “force,” or as “power” emanating from God; rather than as God himself. For the Catholic, then, we must be able to respond to these two key misunderstandings concerning the Holy Spirit. 1. He is a person. 2. He is God.

A Personal Message from the Spirit of God

One of the first reasons given for denying the divine nature of the Holy Spirit is often to point out the fact that the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) is neuter. John 14:26, for example, refers to the Spirit as to pneuma to hagion (the Holy Spirit). This is, in fact, neuter. While the Father and the Son are clearly personal terms, and therefore, most will see them revealed to be persons, “spirit,” being neuter, it is claimed, indicates we are dealing with an impersonal force rather than a person.

While it is a fact that “spirit” in Greek is a neuter term, this does not necessarily mean the Holy Spirit is impersonal. Nouns in Greek are assigned gender as they are in many languages. In Latin and the modern romance languages this is the case as well. For example, the Latin word for lance is lancea which is feminine. This does not mean that lances or daggers are actually female and personal! The same can be said for Greek words such as kardia, which means, “heart.” The fact that this Greek word is feminine does not indicate hearts to be female and personal. Nor does the fact that a word like baros, Greek for arrow, which is neuter, indicate arrows to be impersonal forces. Words are simply assigned gender in these languages.

Further, if being referred to as “spirit” indicates the third person of the Blessed Trinity is impersonal, then both angels and God the Father would have to be “forces” rather than persons as well. In John 4:24, Jesus says “God is spirit (Gr. – pneuma) and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” And in Hebrews 1:14 angels are referred to as “ministering spirits (Gr. – pneumata) sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.” Thus, the key here is to examine the context and usage of a word in Scripture, rather than just its “gender,” in order to determine whether we are dealing with a person, a force, or perhaps just an arrow.

Speaking of the importance of context, the truth is, the very verse of Scripture often used to “prove” the Holy Spirit to be an impersonal force actually demonstrates the Holy Spirit to be both personal and masculine when examined more fully. John 14:26 in its entirety actually says:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

There are three key points to be made here.

1. “The Counselor” is ho paracleto in Greek which is masculine, not neuter.

2. When the text says he will teach you all things the demonstrative pronoun (Gr. ekeinos) is used in the masculine singular. This is very significant because the inspired author could have used the neuter ekeino, but he did not. If the Holy Spirit were an impersonal force, the inspired author would not refer to “it” as a “he.”

3. Notice what the Holy Spirit does. Jesus says he will both teach and remind us “all that [he has] said to [us].” Action follows being. One cannot “teach” and “remind” if one does not have the intellectual powers unique to rational persons that enable one to do so! The Holy Spirit is here clearly revealed to be a person.

Indeed, the Holy Spirit is referred to in personal terms by our Lord throughout the New Testament. If we only consider John chapters 14, 15 and 16, the evidence is overwhelming. This is not to mention the abundance of examples we could cite throughout the Scriptures, both Old (in seed form) and New Testaments. Here are some more examples to add to John 14:26 already mentioned.

In John 14:16-17, Jesus says,

And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you (emphasis added).

In John 15:26, Jesus says,

But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning (emphasis added).

And in John 16:7-13, Jesus makes it very plain,

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (emphasis added).

The Holy Spirit is clearly personal. He “convinces of sin,” “teaches” the truth, “speaks,” “declares things that are to come,” etc. There is no doubt as to the person of the Holy Spirit in these texts.

How to “Pour Out” a Person in One Easy Step

One last obstacle for some who deny the personhood of the Holy Spirit is found in Acts 2:14-18. In this text, St. Peter describes the power of God being manifested on the day of Pentecost quoting Joel 2:28:

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

The question is often asked, “How can you pour out a person? Is this not proof the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a person?” The answer is a resounding “no!” Consider Psalm 22. This is a messianic Psalm referring to our Lord’s passion. But notice how it describes our Lord in verse 15: “I am poured out like water…” Would we say Jesus is just a force and not a person because he is “poured out” in this verse? Of course not! So it goes with the Holy Spirit. We do not deny the plain verses of Scripture indicating his person because he is described as being “poured out” in Acts 2:17.

The Holy Spirit is Omniscient

There is one key phrase from John 16, cited above, that we should examine more fully when considering the truth that the Holy Spirit is revealed to be not only a person, but divine—God himself. Verse 13 tells us that the Holy Spirit “will guide [us] into all truth.” We have a hint here of what we see even more plainly in texts like I Corinthians 2:11: the Scripture indicates the Holy Spirit is omniscient, a quality that God alone possesses or even has the capability to possess.

For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

The reason “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” is because it would require infinite power to be able to comprehend the thoughts of God which are infinite. Romans 11:33-34 tells us:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”

The fact that the Holy Spirit of God fully comprehends the thoughts of God proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he is, in fact, God.

The Lord and Giver of Life

Among the manifold texts of Scripture revealing the Holy Spirit to be God, St. Thomas Aquinas comments on a key verse most pass over: I Cor. 6:19

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?

According to The Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q. 27, Art. 1, St. Thomas says it is the prerogative of God, and God alone, to have a temple; therefore the Holy Spirit is here revealed to be God, and our bodies are revealed to be his temple.

Acts 5:1-4:

But a man named Anani’as with his wife Sapphi’ra sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostle’s feet. But Peter said, “Anani’as, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? … How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”

St. Peter is remarkably clear here that lying to the Holy Spirit is identical to lying to God. The Holy Spirit is once again revealed to be God.

Perhaps the most plain and unmistakable texts demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit are found in Hebrews. First, we’ll examine Hebrews 3:7-10:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, “They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways (emphasis added).”

Notice the Holy Spirit is once again revealed to be synonymous with God himself. In Hebrews 10:15-17, the reference is even clearer:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more” (emphasis added).

The Holy Spirit is revealed here to be both a person and divine. He is depicted as “bear[ing] witness,” “establish[ing] a covenant”, is referred to as “the Lord”, “puts [his] laws on [our] hearts” and even forgives sins.

In Acts 28:25-28, St. Paul says:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.

Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.

Once again, “the Holy Spirit” and “God” are synonyms.

Every Catholic should know that when they recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday at Mass, they are clearly and concisely professing just what we see here in Scripture: The Holy Spirit truly is “the Lord and Giver of Life.”

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The Man-God – Jesus Christ

How many of you have been reading the newspaper on a Saturday morning when the doorbell rings. Answering the door, you discover two very nicely dressed young men with briefcases, Bibles, and copies of the Watchtower Magazine. If you invited them into your home and dialogued with them for any length of time, you probably encountered a heavy dose of what is considered to be the distinguishing tenet of the Jehovah’s Witness religion: Their belief that Jesus Christ is not God. He was God’s first and most perfect creation and God’s agent in creating the universe, but he was not God. And after he became incarnate, he was simply a man.

John 14:28:

You heard me say to you, “I go away, and I will come to you.” If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.

This is one of the most popular verses used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to prove their points. In a dialogue with a Witness, he may well begin his assault on Catholic Christology with this verse. “Catholics claim Jesus is equal with God? Jesus seems to disagree here in John 14:28?”

There are actually two legitimately Catholic and biblical ways of approaching this text. First, we could note that one person being “greater” than another does not necessarily mean he is ontologically or essentially greater than the other like a man is essentially greater than a monkey. Greatness can refer to one person functioning in a greater way quantitatively. Matthew 11:11 tells us there has never “risen among [men] a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Because John is “greater” than other humans, is he something more than human?

Likewise, because the text says those in heaven are greater than even John, are they essentially different from John? No, all involved in the text are essentially human. Men may be said to be greater or lesser pertaining to their degree of blessedness. In a similar way, the Father can be said to be “greater” than the Son pertaining to their eternal relation within the inner life of God, but not as to their essence. “Everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born …” (CCC para. 246).

A second way of looking at this text is to recognize Jesus is speaking as fully human, or from his human experience. And this makes sense because in the very same verse of John 14:28, Jesus had just said, “You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you…” speaking of his death and resurrection. Thus, it would be entirely appropriate for Christ to say as man, “the Father is greater than [he is],” while as God, he is “equal with God” (cf. Phil. 2:5; John 5:18; John 1:1-3, etc.).

John 17:3

And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.

Jesus cannot be God if the Father is “the only true God,” can he?

Well, yes he can.

The fact that Jesus refers to the Father as “the only true God” does not mean Jesus Christ cannot also be “the only true God,” and the Holy Spirit cannot also be “the only true God.” The distinctions between the three persons of the Blessed Trinity are ones of relation, not essence. Each of the three persons is ”the only true God.” They are absolutely one in nature.

Thus, Jesus does not deny he is God in John 17:3. He simply refers to his Father “the one true God.” We Catholics certainly believe the Father is God.

John 20:17

Jesus said to [Mary Magdalene], “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The question is asked: “How can the Father be ‘his God’ if he is God?” The answer is biblically clear. John 1:14 tells us “the Word was made flesh.” God became man! Jesus is both God and man. Here, he speaks as man and as man he is dependent upon the grace of God (see John 1:14-16) in order to fulfill the supernatural end to which his human nature is called (see Luke 2:51-52; Heb. 5:8-9; 2:10-11). He calls the Father his God because he is his God whom Christ worships, prays to, and needs in his fully human nature just as we do.

The Best Defense: A Good Offense

After having answered these which are some of the very best from the Jehovah’s Witness’ arsenal, it is time to go on the offensive. We have demonstrated that we agree that the Father can be said to be “greater” than the Son. We agree that the Father is the one true God, though we say the Son is as well. And we agree that in his humanity, the Son of Man would have the Father as his God. But none of these things deny Christ’s divinity. We then need to show what the Scriptures teach quite plainly. Jesus is God!

John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made.

In this text, Jesus (the Word) is called “God” and the creator of all things that were created. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created …” Jesus is plainly said to be God!

The JW will respond by saying the Greek text actually says “… the Word was a god.” Jesus is a god, not the God because the definite article is not used before god (Gr. “theos”) when referring to Jesus.

There are three main problems with this line of reasoning. 1) In order to distinguish the subject of a given sentence, the predicate nominative in Greek does not take the definite article. The lack of article is grammatically necessary in order to know whether “the Word” or “God” is the subject in this verse. 2) The JW’s are inconsistent. They translate the word theos as Jehovah or “the God” numerous times when it does not have the article when it refers to the Father (See Matthew 5:9, 6:24, Luke 1:35, 2:40, John 1:6, 12,13, 18, Romans 1:7, 17,18 and Titus 1:1, just to name a few). And 3) Jesus is referred to as theos with the definite article many times elsewhere in Scripture. For example:

Hebrews 1:8

But to the Son [the Father] saith, “Thy throne, O God (ho theos, the article + theos) is for ever and ever.”

Jesus is not a god here. He is the God.

Titus 2:13:

Looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ (emphasis added).

Not only do we see the definite article before theos, but we see the article + the adjective great. Jesus is not only the God, he is the Great God and our Savior. The Bible is very clear that only Jehovah is both the Great God and our Savior. (See 41:4, 43:3,11, 44:6,8, 45:21, Hos. 13:4, and Luke 1:47.)

John 20:28:

Thomas answered, and said to [Jesus]: My Lord and My God.

The Greek reads the Lord (with definite art.) of me and the God (with definite art.) of me.

I was recently talking with two JW’s about this text and they disagreed with each other. One said, “Thomas said that, not the inspired writer or Jesus.” The implication being, Thomas got a little excited and exaggerated about Jesus. If this were true, it would be blasphemy. Yet, it cannot be because Jesus then blesses Thomas for his belief!

The other Witness said that Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord and then to the Father as God. The problem here is there is no evidence for this in the text. Thomas is directly addressing Jesus.

Revelation 22:6:

And the Lord God (ho kurios ho theosthe Lord the God) of the spirits of the prophets sent his angel to shew his servants the things which must be done shortly.

Who is the Lord God who sent “his angel” in this verse? The JW will say it is Jehovah. Rev. 22:16, just ten verses later, tells us who it is:

I Jesus have sent my angel, to testify to you these things in the Churches.

Jesus is “the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets!”

If you were actually conversing with a couple JW’s and you had presented these texts to them, they would probably be getting a bit ancy by now. My prediction is they would retreat to the safest ground possible. And this could lead in a number of directions, but most likely they would head to one of the most “air-tight” verses (so they think!) demonstrating Catholicism’s errors.

Revelation 3:14:

These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the beginning of the creation of God.

“Jesus is the first created being before all else was created,” they will claim. “Therefore, he is definitely not God.”

Notice, the text does not say he was created. The word translated “beginning” (arche) is used in the book of Revelation to connote “the eternal source of all that is.” In Revelation 1:8, for example, “Almighty God” (Jehovah, according to JW’s) is referred to as “the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Do we want to say that Jehovah has a “beginning” because arche (“beginning”) is used to describe Him? “Arche” is here used to mean “the source of all being.”

Thus, Jesus is revealed to be the “source” of the creation of God in Rev. 3:14 because he is the creator of all things. This is confirmed again and again in the New Testament. In John 1:1-3, we are told Jesus (the Word) created “all things … and without him was made nothing that was made.” If he was created, he would have had to create himself which is impossible.

I should warn you at this point: Immediately following Revelation 3:14, Colossians 1:15-17 will normally follow:

Jesus is called the “first-born of every creature. For in him were all things created … he is before all and by him all things consist.”

Jehovah’s witnesses will say this shows Jesus is the first created being because he is “first-born of every creature.” But the problem with their reasoning is that first-born here does not refer to time, but to preeminence. The emphasis is on the fact that he is “before all and by him all things consist.” Even in its Old Testament usage, the title “first-born” is not restricted to a reference to time. The emphasis is on a place of preeminence given by a Father to his son. Isaac, Jacob, and Ephraim received the blessing of the “first-born” though they were not “first-born” in time.

Further, the text does not say Jesus was created. If St. Paul were making this point he would have then said Jesus created all “other” things in verse 16, but he did not. St. Paul says Jesus is the creator of all things. He is God. He is given the title “First-born” by his Father. But this is not in time. He is eternally begotten of the Father.

Share What is Most Clear

The New Testament is very clear as to Christ’s divinity. The few verses that seem to be problematic can be easily cleared up making the way smooth for presenting the abundance of evidence for Christ’s divinity. Below is a small sampling of examples. We will not cite each text, but give you the gist of how each reveal the divinity of Christ.

Luke 12:8-9 – Matthew 13:41

In Luke 12:8-9, angels are called “angels of God” while in Matthew 13:41, they’re called ”his [Christ's] angels.” “God” and “Christ” are synonymous.

Mark 2:5-9

Jesus forgives sins by his own authority. Only Almighty God (“Jehovah”) can forgive sins (See Is. 43:25).

Matt. 25:31-46

Jesus here is depicted as judging the world, yet Scripture reveals only God can do this. Both Genesis 18:25 and Joel 3:12 claim Almighty God is the judge of the world.

John 8:58

Here Jesus refers to himself with the divine name, “I am,” as he also does in John 8:24, 28, 18:5-6 and Mark 14:62. This “I am” formula, not copulative, is a reference back to the Divine Name in Ex. 3:14: “I AM” revealed to Moses as God’s own. Jesus refers to himself as “I am” and the multitudes want to kill him because they know what he is saying (see John 8:59!).

Matthew 5:21-28

In this text, Jesus places his word on the same level as the Old Testament. “You have heard it said (he then quotes Old Covenant texts or beliefs) … but I say to you …” This is in sharp contrast to the prophets who always use a formula such as “the word of the Lord came unto me, saying …” (cf.. Jer. 1:11; Ezek. 1:3). Jesus uses his own authority and establishes the New Covenant. Only God has that kind of authority.

John 5:18 – Phil. 2:6-10

In these texts, Jesus is referred to as “equal” with God by both St. John and St. Paul. In John 5:18, St. John gives us his commentary on why the Jews wanted to kill Jesus: “Because he called God his Father making himself equal with God.”

In Phil. 2:6-10, St. Paul refers to Jesus when he was “in the form of God.” The Greek word for “form” there is morphe, which means the set of characteristics that make a thing what it is. That’s about as close as you get to saying Jesus is God. St. Paul then says Christ’s ”equality with God” was not something he clung to; rather, he emptied himself and became man, humbling himself even unto his death on the cross.

In this verse, it appears St. Paul assumes his readers already know Jesus is equal with God, the Father. He says it in passing.

Mark 2:28

In this text, Jesus declares plainly that he is “the Lord of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is referred to as the “Sabbath of Almighty God” in both the Old and New Testaments (see Exodus 20:10; Isaiah 8:13, which is referred to in I Peter 3:15, and Joel 2:31-32, which is quoted in both Acts 2:20-21, and in Romans 10:13).

Acts 20:28

Take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the church of God, which he hath purchased in his own blood.

I had to cite this text so you can see the nuance. Only Jesus can be said to have bled, yet this text says “God” shed his blood. Jesus is God.

The bottom line: The New Testament makes it very clear as to Christ’s full humanity. We can agree with JW’s on this point. However, the Scriptures are equally clear as to Christ’s divinity. The choice is ours. Will we choose to believe that Jesus is Almighty God manifest in the flesh as Scripture reveals, or will we choose the alternative, which according to Jesus is “[to] die in [our] sins.” Jesus said, “Unless you believe I AM, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).

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The Immaculate Conception

Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I John 1:8 adds, “If any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him.” These texts could not be clearer for millions of Protestants: “How could anyone believe Mary was free from all sin in light of these Scriptures? What’s more, Mary herself said, ‘My soul rejoices in God my savior’ in Luke 1:47. She clearly understood herself to be a sinner if she admits to needing a savior.”

The Catholic Answer

Not a few Protestants are surprised to discover the Catholic Church actually agrees that Mary was “saved.” Indeed, Mary needed a savior! However, Mary was “saved” from sin in a most sublime manner. She was given the grace to be “saved” completely from sin so that she never committed even the slightest transgression. The problem here is Protestants tend to emphasize God’s “salvation” almost exclusively to the forgiveness of sins actually committed. However, Sacred Scripture indicates that salvation can also refer to man being protected from sinning before the fact.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and for ever (Jude 24-25).

The great Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, explained ca. 600 years ago that falling into sin could be likened to a man approaching unaware a massive 20-feet deep ditch. If he falls into the ditch, he would need someone to lower a rope and save him. But if someone were to warn him of the danger ahead resulting in the man not falling into the ditch at all, he would have been saved from falling in the first place. Analogously, Mary was saved from sin by receiving the grace to be preserved from it. But she was still saved.

The Exception[s] to the Rule

But what about “all have sinned,” and “if any man says he has no sin he is a liar and the truth is not in him?” Wouldn’t “all” and/or “any man” include Mary? On the surface, this sounds reasonable. But this way of thinking carried to its logical conclusion would list Jesus Christ in the company of sinners as well. No Christian would dare say that! Yet, no Christian can deny the plain texts of Scripture declaring Christ’s full humanity either. Thus, if one is going to take I John 1:8 in a strict, literal sense, then any man would apply to Jesus as well!

The truth is—and all Christians agree—Jesus Christ was an exception to Romans 3:23 and I John 1:8. And the Bible tells us he was in Hebrews 4:15: “Christ was tempted in all points even as we are and yet he was without sin.” The real question now is: are there any other exceptions to this rule? Yes, there are. In fact, there are millions of them.

First of all, we need to recall that both of these texts—Romans 3:23 and I John 1:8—are dealing with personal rather than original sin. Romans 5:12 will deal with original sin. And there are two exceptions to that general biblical norm as well. But for now, we will simply deal with Romans 3:23 and I John 1:8. I John 1:8 obviously refers to personal sin because in the very next verse, St. John tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…” We do not confess original sin; we confess personal sins.

The context of Romans 3:23 makes clear that it too refers to personal sin:

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave. They use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness (Romans 3:10-14).

Original sin is not something we do; it is something we’ve inherited. Romans chapter three deals with personal sin because it speaks of sins committed by the sinner. With this in mind, consider this: Has a baby in the womb or a child of two ever committed a personal sin? No, they haven’t (see Romans 9:11)! Or, how about the mentally challenged who do not have the use of their intellects and wills? These cannot sin because in order to sin a person has to know the act he is about to perform is sinful while freely engaging his will in carrying it out. Without the proper faculties to enable them to sin, children before the age of accountability and anyone who does not have the use of his intellect and will cannot sin. Right there you have millions of exceptions to Romans 3:23 and I John 1:8.

The question remains: how do we know Mary is an exception to the norm of “all have sinned?” And more specifically, is there biblical support for this claim? Yes, there is. Indeed, there is much biblical support, but in this brief post I shall cite just five examples, among the many to which I could refer, that give us biblical support for this ancient doctrine of the Faith.

1. LUKE 1:28:

And [the angel Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Many Protestants will insist this text to be little more than a common greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary. “What would this have to do with Mary being without sin?” Yet, the truth is, according to Mary herself, this was no common greeting. The text reveals Mary to have been “greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29, emphasis added). What was it about this greeting that was so uncommon for Mary to react this way? There are at least two key reasons:

First, according to many biblical scholars as well as Pope John Paul II, the angel did more than simply greet Mary. The angel actually communicated a new name or title to her. In Greek, the greeting was kaire, kekaritomene, or “Hail, full of grace.” Generally speaking, when one greeted another with kaire, a name or title would almost be expected to be found in the immediate context. “Hail, king of the Jews” in John 19:3 and “Claudias Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greeting” (Acts 23:26) are two biblical examples of this. The fact that the angel replaces Mary’s name in the greeting with “full of grace” was anything but common. This would be analogous to me speaking to one of our tech guys at Catholics answers and saying, “Hello, he who fixes computers.” In our culture, I would just be considered weird. But in Hebrew culture, names, and name changes, tell us something that is permanent about the character and calling of the one named. Just recall the name changes of Abram to Abraham (changed from “father” to “father of the multitudes”) in Gen. 17:5, Saray to Sarah (“my princess” to “princess”) in Gen. 17:15, and Jacob to Israel (“supplanter” to “he who prevails with God”) in Gen. 32:28.

In each case, the names reveal something permanent about the one named. Abraham and Sarah transition from being a “father” and “princess” of one family to being “father” and “princess” or “mother” of the entire people of God (see Romans 4:1-18; Is. 51:1-2). They become Patriarch and Matriarch of God’s people forever. Jacob/Israel becomes the Patriarch whose name, “he who prevails with God,” continues forever in the Church, which is called “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). The people of God will forever “prevail with God” in the image of the Patriarch Jacob who was not just named Israel, but he truly became “he who prevails with God.”

An entire tome could be written concerning the significance of God’s revelation of his name in Exodus 3:14-15 as I AM. God revealed to us volumes about his divine nature in and through the revelation of his name—God is pure being with no beginning and no end; he is all perfection, etc.

What’s in a name? A lot according to Scripture!

When you add to this the fact that St. Luke uses the perfect passive participle, kekaritomene, as his “name” for Mary, we get deeper insight into the meaning of Mary’s new name. This word literally means “she who has been graced” in a completed sense. This verbal adjective, “graced,” is not just describing a simple past action. Greek has the aorist tense for that. The perfect tense is used to indicate that an action has been completed in the past resulting in a present state of being. That’s Mary’s name! So what does it tell us about Mary? Well, the average Christian is not completed in grace and in a permanent sense (see Phil. 3:8-12). But according to the angel, Mary is. You and I sin, not because of grace, but because of a lack of grace, or a lack of our cooperation with grace, in our lives. This greeting of the angel is one clue into the unique character and calling of the Mother of God.

Objection!

One objection to the above is rooted in Eph. 2:8-9. Here, St. Paul uses the perfect tense and passive voice when he says, “For by grace you have been saved…” Why wouldn’t we then conclude all Christians are complete in salvation for all time? There seems to be an inconsistency in usage here.

Actually, the Catholic Church understands that Christians are completed in grace when they are baptized. In context, St. Paul is speaking about the initial grace of salvation in Ephesians two. The verses leading up to Eph. 2:8-9, make this clear: “… we all lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath…even when we were dead in trespasses and sins…(by grace you have been saved)” (vss. 3-5). But there is no indication here, as there is with Mary, that the Christian is going to stay that way. In other words, Eph. 2:8-9 does not confer a name.

In fact, because of original sin, we can guarantee that though we are certainly perfected in grace through baptism, ordinarily speaking, we will not stay that way after we are baptized; that is, if we live for very long afterward (see I John 1:8)! There may be times in the lives of Christians when they are completed or perfected in grace temporarily. For example, after going to confession or receiving the Eucharist well-disposed. We let God, of course, be the judge of this, not us, as St. Paul tells us in I Cor. 4:3-4:

I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted (Gr.—justified). It is the Lord who judges me.

But only Mary is given the name “full of grace” and in the perfect tense indicating that this permanent state of Mary was completed.

2. An Ancient Prophecy—Genesis 3:15:

Genesis 3:15 is often referred to by biblical scholars as the Protoevangelium. It is a sort of “gospel” before “the gospel.” This little text contains in very few words God’s plan of salvation which would be both revealed and realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet, when one reads the text, one cannot help but note that this prophetic woman seems to have what could be termed almost a disturbing prominence and importance in God’s providential plan:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

Not only do we have the Virgin Birth here implied because the text says the Messiah would be born of “the seed of the woman” (the “seed” is normally of the man), but notice “the woman” is not included as “the seed” of the devil. It seems that both the woman and her seed are in opposition to and therefore not under the dominion of the devil and “his seed,” i.e., all who have original sin and are “by nature children of wrath” as St. Paul puts it in Eph. 2:3. Here, we have in seed form (pun intended), the fact that the woman—Mary—would be without sin, especially original sin, just as her Son—the Messiah—would be. The emphasis on Mary is truly remarkable in that the future Messiah was only mentioned in relation to her. There can be little doubt that a parallel is being drawn between Jesus and Mary and their absolute opposition to the devil.

3. Mary, Ark of the Covenant:

The Old Testament ark of the Covenant was a true icon of the sacred. It was a picture of the purity and holiness God fittingly demands of those objects and/or persons most closely associated with himself and the plan of salvation. Because it would contain the very presence of God symbolized by three types of the coming Messiah—the manna, the Ten Commandments, and Aaron’s staff—it had to be most pure and untouched by sinful man (see II Sam. 6:1-9; Exodus 25:10ff; Numbers 4:15; Heb. 9:4).

In the New Testament, the new and true Ark would not be an inanimate object, but a person—the Blessed Mother. How much more pure would the new and true Ark be when we consider the old ark was a mere “shadow” in relation to it (see Heb. 10:1)? This image of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant is an indicator that Mary would fittingly be free from all contagion of sin in order for her to be a worthy vessel to bear God in her womb. And most importantly, just as the Old Covenant ark was pristine from the moment it was constructed with explicit divine instructions in Exodus 25, so would Mary be most pure from the moment of her conception. God, in a sense, prepared his own dwelling place in both the Old and New Testaments.

4. Mary, the “New Eve” of the New Covenant:

It is important for us to recall, as I mentioned briefly above, that New Covenant fulfillments are always more glorious and more perfect than their Old Testament types, which are “but a shadow of the good things to come” in the New Covenant (Heb. 10:1). With this New Testament truth in mind, let us consider the New Testament revelation of Mary to be the antitype of Eve, or the “New Eve.” After the fall of Adam and Eve in Gen. 3, God promised the advent of another “woman” in Gen. 3:15, or a “New Eve” who would oppose Lucifer, and whose “seed” would crush his head. This “woman” and “her seed” would reverse the curse, so to speak, that the original “man” and “woman” had brought upon humanity through their disobedience.

It is most significant here to note “Adam” and “Eve” are revealed simply as “the man” and “the woman” before the woman’s name was changed to “Eve” (Heb.—Mother of the living) after the fall (See Gen. 2:21ff). When we then look at the New Covenant, Jesus is explicitly referred to as the “last Adam,” or the “New Adam” in I Cor. 15:45. And Jesus himself indicates Mary to be the prophetic “woman” or “New Eve” of Gen. 3:15 when he refers to his mother as “woman” in John 2:5 and 19:26. Moreover, St. John refers to Mary as “woman” eight times in Rev. 12. As the first Eve brought death to all of her children through disobedience and heeding the words of the ancient Serpent, the devil, the “New Eve” of Revelation 12 brings life and salvation to all of her children through her obedience. The same “serpent” who deceived the original woman of Genesis is revealed, in Revelation 12, to fail in his attempt to overcome this New Woman. The New Eve overcomes the serpent and as a result, “The serpent is angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God, and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).

If Mary is the New Eve, and New Testament fulfillments are always more glorious than their Old Testament antecedents, it would be unthinkable for Mary to be conceived in sin. If she were, she would be inferior to Eve who was created in a perfect state, free from all sin.

5. Mary, the Beginning of the New Creation:

Jeremiah 31:22 presents another fascinating prophecy concerning the coming of the “New Woman” and the New Covenant. In the midst of this well-known chapter famous for its prophecy concerning the coming of the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31, which is quoted in Heb. 8:8), we read: “For the Lord hath created a new thing upon the earth. A WOMAN SHALL COMPASS A MAN” (DRV). St. Jerome, in the fourth century, comments on this text:

“Can a bride forget her jewels, or a virgin her girdle” (Jer. 2:32) Always in this very prophecy it is said that a great miracle occurred involving this woman: The woman will surround the man and the virgin’s womb will contain the parent of all.

In the first covenant, the man “compassed” or “encompassed” the woman. The woman came from the rib of the man. In the New Covenant, “the New Man,” or “New Adam”—Jesus—would come from the womb of “the Woman”—or “New Eve.” It is Mary that would “compass” Jesus.

Many fathers of the Church, in agreement with St. Jerome, will see from this and other biblical texts Mary as the “new earth” or “new land” out of which God would form the “New Adam.” Consider St. Jerome’s Tractus de Psalmo 66 and 96 (these are commentaries on the Psalms). When considering Psalm 66, St. Jerome sees Jesus and Mary in both the “flower and the Lily” of Song of Solomon 2:1 and the “fruits of the earth” from Psalm 66 (67):6:

Do you want to know what this fruit is? It is the virgin from the Virgin, the Lord from the handmaid, God from a human creature, the Son from a mother, the fruit from the earth.

St. Jerome here refers to Mary as “the earth.” He says something similar in his commentary on Psalm 96. He speaks of the promised land to David as being Mary:

The land of David is holy Mary, Mother of the Lord, “who was born of David’s seed according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). What was promised to David was fulfilled in Mary’s virginity and birth, where a virgin is born from a Virgin.

Mary is the new earth out of which would be formed the New Adam. Just as God formed the first Adam from a pristine earth untouched by the curse of original sin, so God would bring the “New Adam” from a “New Land” or “New Earth” that would also most fittingly be pristine and untouched by sin. The first creation began without sin, so the New Creation would begin without sin as well. The first Eve would fall from grace; the New Eve would not.

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Should Bishops Be Married?

As both a guest and, at times, a host on Catholic Answers Live, I have spoken on many different topics over the years. Mostly, I do the “Open Forum Q&A” on Tuesdays, but my favorite hours have been our “Open Forum for Non-Catholics,” when we take calls only from non-Catholics or from people who are in the process of coming into full communion with the Church but who are not yet formally Catholic.

After a recent hour of “Open Forum for Non-Catholics,” I stayed late to take a call we couldn’t get to on the air for lack of time. In short order it became an adventure.

It was not just one caller but several who were sharing the phone, and it quickly became obvious they were calling on a lark. The laughing in the background was a dead giveaway! In a nutshell, they posed as Catholics but obviously weren’t, and they asked the question of how to deal with “crazy Fundamentalists” who “take God’s word literally and actually believe what St. Paul wrote in I Tim. 3:2″:

Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money.

“Notice,” they said, “it says a bishop must be the husband of one wife. And in verse 12, St. Paul will say the same about deacons. How does that square with the Catholic Church that says bishops can’t be married at all? I’m not saying I agree with it, but how do you answer these crazy people who actually believe the Bible?”

This conversation reminded me of my second formal debate I had as a Catholic in 1995 with an Evangelical pastor. He brought up this same text and made a similar argument. When it was my turn to respond, I said, “Man, I’ve got to give this guy credit for one thing. He’s tough! He wouldn’t allow either Jesus or St. Paul to be a bishop in his church! But I want you all to know that the Catholic Church welcomes Jesus not just as a bishop but as the bishop of ours, as I Peter 2:25 says:

For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

The word translated guardian here in the RSVCE is actually episkopon, or ‘bishop.’ And notice, Jesus is not just depicted as a bishop; rather, the bishop (Greek, ton episkopon) of your souls. Jesus is the bishop of the Catholic Church. And he was and is celibate.”

Neither my opponent in that debate almost two decades ago nor our friends who called into the broadcast two weeks ago really ever recovered from the obvious implications of that text. But there are a few more points we should consider when answering this point that I did not get to in either of those interactions.

1. Even the Evangelical scripture scholar Dr. Ralph Earle, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, says that St. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 is not requiring bishops to be married. In stating his reasons, he first offers the most ancient position—which we know as Catholics to be apostolic in origin and found in written form in the late second century—that would say this text is placing a limitation on the number of marriages a bishop could have in his lifetime. He could only have been married once. This is the position of the Catholic Church today. If a man has been married more than once, even if licitly, he cannot be admitted to the episcopacy.

2. Earle also notes, “[M]ost commentators agree that [the text] means monogamy—only one wife at one time.” While this interpretation of the text is unlikely for the five reasons we’ll mention below, it is significant to point out that both Catholic and “most [Protestant] commentators” generally agree St. Paul is not making marriage a requirement for the bishopric.

Five points concerning Dr. Earle’s claim that St. Paul “means monogamy,” or that St. Paul was merely condemning polygamy to bishops by saying a “bishop must be the husband of one wife:”

1. The lists of disqualifications to the ministry in both Timothy and Titus were not consisting of things that would exclude a person from being a Christian at all, like polygamy would. They were things that would ensure the candidate in question was living an exemplary Christian life. Illicit “marital” situations were condemned at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49 and declared to be deal-breakers for one to be a Christian at all (see Acts 15:1-3; 24-28). Though polygamy is not mentioned there verbatim, it would certainly be condemned implicitly in the condemnation of illicit conjugal situations.

2. There was not a single place in the Greco-Roman world where polygamy was being practiced in the first century A.D. It is unlikely St. Paul would speak of something directly like this that was simply not a problem at the time.

3. In the case of St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he would go on to declare that a widow who was “enrolled,” or consecrated as a celibate, and then would marry again, to have sinned gravely:

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband. . . . But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge (I Tim. 5:9-12).

What gives here? There is nothing wrong with a widow remarrying. That is licit and clearly so elsewhere in Scripture, specifically in St. Paul’s own writings (see Romans 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:27-28, 39-40). Yet, St. Paul declares the “enrolled” widow who re-marries to be condemned? That makes no sense, unless we understand this to be so because these “enrolled” widows were consecrated as celibates for service in the Church.

It is also interesting to note here that St. Paul uses the same language of limiting the widow to having been the wife “of one husband” that he used for bishops and elders.  Obviously this was not meant to say “one husband at a time.” Polyandry would not have even been a thought in St. Paul’s mind.

It is more than fitting that those consecrated as bishops, elders, and deacons would make a similar commitment.

4. St. Paul’s repeated recommendations to all to remain celibate (I Cor. 7:1; 7-8), remain single after having lost a spouse (I Cor. 7:25-28; 32-35; 38; 39-40), or even to live a celibate life within marriage (I Cor. 7:29), are consistent with his prohibition to remarriage to those called to Holy Orders in I Tim. 3:1. St. Paul seems to speak a great deal about second marriages but never about polygamy.

5. I find it interesting that the Protestant New International Version of the Bible translates I Tim. 3:2, “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife.” While I do not necessarily agree with translating the text with the “but” in there, because it is not in the original Greek text, there is no doubt where the Protestant translators of the NIV stand on the question. St. Paul is limiting the candidate for the bishopric to “but” one wife.

3. Going back to the Evangelical, “Bible Expositor’s Commentary,” this time commenting on Titus 1:6, which extends the same prohibition against multiple marriages to both elders and bishops, another Evangelical scholar, Dr. D. Edmond Hiebert, adds, “If Paul had meant that the elder must be married, the reading would have been ‘a’ not ‘one’ wife.” In other words, St. Paul would have said, “The bishop must be the husband of a wife.”

I would argue it would most likely simply say, “The bishop must be married.” But I agree with Dr. Hiebert that the term one indicates that he is limiting the number of marriages, not mandating them.

A Final Thought

I have no doubt that those three or so callers who called in to Catholic Answers that day were sincere. Maybe not in their masquerading as Catholics, but I am sure they sincerely believed the Catholic position of having celibate bishops to be just plain wrong. However, hopefully now they will re-think who it is that really takes St. Paul at his word; that is, his word taken in its proper context.

The Papacy in Scripture – More Than Matthew 16

In an earlier blog post, I made the point that the role of St. Peter and his successors is made remarkably clear in Matthew 16:18-19 and its immediate context:

And I tell you, you are Peter (Gr.—petros—‘rock’), and on this rock (Gr.—petra—‘rock’) I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus here promises infallible authority to Peter that would empower him to speak in the place of Christ, or as his vicar on earth. Catholics believe just what the text says. When St. Peter (and his successors) “binds” something on earth, it is “bound” in heaven. That’s definitive authority–infallible authority–with the power of heaven to back it up!

A response I get fairly regularly in response to this is to claim the Church is using “this one text” to try and establish a dogma.

My first thought in response is always to say, ”How many times does God have to tell you something before you will believe and obey it?” After all, Jesus only gave us the proper form for baptism one time in Matthew 28:19, and yet all Christians believe it to be the proper form nonetheless.

Nevertheless, I do think this is a valid question that deserves an answer: Is Matthew 16 the only text that demonstrates the truth of Peter’s primacy and of the papacy in Scripture?

The answer is a resounding no!

The List Goes On and On

Below is a list of biblical texts all related to the primacy of St. Peter and the Papacy. Word count limitations prevent me from quoting all of them; you’ll have to do some homework and look up some of these texts yourself. But when you do, you’ll notice there is not a single “rock” to be found among them.

Mind you, this is not an exhaustive list. There are more biblical texts we could take a look at. Consider this my top 18 list:

1. Matt. 14:23-27: St. Peter is uniquely and miraculously empowered by Jesus to walk on water, and when his faith begins to falter, our Lord does not allow him to go under. This is a prelude to Jesus promising to communicate his authority that can never fail to Peter in Matt. 16. The gift of the papacy is here assured not to depend upon the person of St. Peter or of his successors, but on the promise and power of Christ.

2. Matt. 17:24-27: After receiving the promise of authority in Matt. 16, St. Peter is once again given supernatural power, and this time to provide for both himself and Jesus when the first-century equivalent of the I.R.S. comes calling. Peter acts as Christ’s “vicar,” or, in the place of Jesus, in miraculous fashion, once again, guaranteed by Jesus not to fail. He “pays the tax” for both Jesus and himself. If you don’t think this is miraculous, it’s almost April 15 right now. God ahead down to the closest fishin’ hole, cast a line in, catch a fish, and let’s see if there’s enough money in the fish’s mouth to pay your taxes, let alone yours and someone else’s.

3. Luke 5:1-10: The multitudes that gather to hear Jesus at the shore of Lake Gennesaret press in on him so that he has to step off shore into one of two boats that are there docked. The boat he steps into just happens to be Peter’s boat. Hmmmm. Jesus then proclaims the gospel from the barque of Peter (5:1-3)! Sound familiar? Then, Jesus tells Peter to put out into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. Can you imagine the people present? They must have been thinking that Jesus was nuts! Multitudes have to just stand there and watch St. Peter go fishing? St. Peter then says, “We have toiled all night and caught nothing” (vs. 5), yet he lets down the nets at the command of Jesus. When they catch so many fish they need to bring out the other boat to haul in the load, Peter realizes that Jesus is calling him to more than just catching catfish! These fish are metaphors for Christians. Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man” (vs.8)! But Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”

Thus, St. Peter receives a unique and singular calling from Christ to be the fisher of men. And once again, Peter receives supernatural power that cannot fail to fulfill his unique calling.

4. Luke 22:24-32: In this text, Jesus teaches the apostles the true nature of authority, especially in verses 24-28. True authority in the New Covenant is commanded to be servant of all. He will speak with infallible authority just as Christ did, but he must also wash the feet of his brothers just as Christ did. In this context, Jesus said to the apostles:

[A]s my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you (Gr.—humas, plural—“you all”), that he might sift you (Gr.—plural again) like wheat, but I have prayed for you (Gr.—sou, singular—Peter alone) that your faith (Gr.—singular again) may not fail; and when you (Gr.—singular) have turned again, strengthen your brethren.

In the context of committing his kingdom authority to the apostles to govern the church (the “Israel of God”—see Gal. 6:16), Jesus especially prays for Peter so that he may be the source of strength and unity for the rest of the apostles. If the apostles want to be protected from the devil’s attempts to divide and destroy them and the Church, they must be in communion with Peter. And notice, Jesus says specifically to Peter, that, literally from the Greek text, “the faith of you [Peter] will not fail.” This is precisely what the Catholic Church has been teaching for 2,000 years!

5. John 10:16: Jesus prophesied:

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, and one shepherd (emphasis added).

Who is this prophetic shepherd? The answer seems simple. And on one level it is. Jesus declared himself to be “the good shepherd” (Gr.—poimein—“shepherd” or “pastor”) in John 10:14. Yet, if we dig deeper into the text we discover another meaning as well. In the context of prophesying about this “one flock” and “one shepherd,” Jesus says he must gather “other sheep” referring to the gentiles. Who does our Lord use as the shepherd to bring this prophecy to pass? The answer is found in our next two texts.

6. John 21:1-17: Here, we find another example of Jesus aiding the fishing of the apostles who “caught nothing” all night long (vs. 3). At the command of Jesus they let down their nets and catch an astonishing 153 “large fish” (vs. 11). When Jesus commands the net to be hauled ashore, St. Peter heaves the entire net of fish to shore by himself. No man can lift that size of a catch out of the water and on to the shore by himself. If you take these words literally to mean Peter actually did this, it seems Peter was given supernatural strength to do what no man could naturally accomplish. Fish are symbols representing the faithful (recall Luke 5:8-10). And the symbol of “the net” is used elsewhere in the New Testament for the Church (see Matt. 13:47). Not only is Peter’s ability to carry these “fish” (all the faithful) a miracle, but the fact that the “net” is not broken is also extraordinary. The message seems to be that the Church Jesus establishes containing all of God’s faithful with Peter packing the power will never be destroyed!

It is in this context that Jesus then asks St. Peter three times, “Do you love me… Do you love me… Do you love me?” When Peter responds in the affirmative the second time, Jesus responds by commanding Peter to “tend (Gr.–poimaine—’shepherd’) my sheep” (vs. 16). Jesus the shepherd here commissions Peter to be the prophetic shepherd of John 10:16 to shepherd the entire people of God!

How do we know Peter was called to shepherd the entire flock? I would only ask this: How many of the sheep belong to Jesus? Answer? All of them. So how many of his sheep did Jesus entrust to St. Peter to shepherd? Answer? All of them.

7. Matt. 10:2: In the context of the calling and listing of the twelve apostles, Peter is referred to as “the first” apostle. We know he was not the “first apostle” chronologically. John 1:37-41 tells us Andrew believed Jesus was the Messiah first and told his brother Peter about him. Andrew would be the “first” chronologically. Peter was “first” in primacy.

Though the Greek word, protos (first), can certainly mean “first” chronologically, it can also denote “chief,” “superior” or “the first in rank.” In Acts 28:7, for example, protos is used to describe “the chief man of the Island, Publius.” In Matthew 20:27, we discover, “Whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” Luke 15:22 adds: “Bring forth the best robe…” And I Tim. 1:15 provides: “And I am the foremost of sinners.” All of these texts use protos in the sense of “chief” or “superior.”

Moreover, Christ is referred to as prototokos, or “first-begotten” in Col. 1:15. Here St. Paul uses protos in order to teach us about Christ’s eternal generation, which has been accomplished outside of time. He is; therefore, the creator and the one who has “preeminence” over all things, according to the text. Colossians 1:15-18 reads:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born (Gr.—prototokos) of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth…He is before all things…He is the head of the body, the church…that in everything he might be pre-eminent (Gr.—proteuon, a verb with the same root as protos and prototokos).

Thus, in a notably direct and overt manner, by referring to St. Peter as the “first” apostle, St. Matthew presents Peter (and his successors) just as we see him represented in the rest of the New Testament; he is revealed to be “chief” of the apostles, or to have a primacy of authority over all the apostles and, by extension, over the entire church.

8. Acts 1:15-26: 

During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers (there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place).  He said, “My brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the holy Spirit spoke beforehand through the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus … For it is written in the Book of Psalms:  “Let his encampment become desolate, and may no one dwell in it” (citing Psalm 69:25).  And: “May another take his office” (citing Psalm 109:8). Therefore it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us … become with us a witness to his resurrection.  So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.  Then they prayed, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen …”  Then they gave lots … and the lots fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.

It is St. Peter who is clearly in charge in choosing and ordaining a new apostle to replace Judas. He stands in the midst of the apostles and gives an authoritative interpretation of Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. And mind you, these are not exactly obvious interpretations of these texts. Psalm 69:25 uses the plural, yet Peter applies it singularly to Peter. The context of Psalm 109:8 also uses the plural (see verse 20). This is not exactly self-evident. Yet, St. Peter then declares the apostles must choose a successor of Judas based upon these two texts. And there is nary a question from the rest of the apostles like, “Hey, Peter, that’s a pretty shaky interpretation of those two texts. What hermeneutical principles are you using, anyway?”

In the case of St. Peter, the old saying is true, “It is my (Peter’s) way or the highway.”

9. Acts 2:14-41:

It is St. Peter who is in charge at Pentecost and preaches the first sermon whereby 3,000 are baptized. And you’ll notice a theme we are going to often see in the Book of Acts (and in the Gospels as well). Peter is listed as a category all by himself. Acts 2 says, “But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them.” There’s Peter alone, and then there is “the eleven.”

10. Acts 3:1-10:

Peter and John are “about to go into the temple,” when a man who was “lame from birth” called out to them begging alms. We note that it is Peter who speaks and it is Peter who performs the first miracle in the Acts of the Apostles. Another “first” for St. Peter. We will see more.

11. Acts 4:3-12:

When St. Peter and St. John are arrested and called before the Sanhedrin, it is St. Peter in verse 8, who speaks for both and preaches boldly of Christ and the name of Jesus.

12. Acts 5:1-15: It is St. Peter who clearly depicted as in charge of the Church in collecting funds for world evangelism. And it is St. Peter who pronounces God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira, speaking for God in the process. And it is then, in verse 15, that after seeing “more than ever” numbers of converts flood into the Church, that the sick were brought to him in hope that even his shadow might pass over them so that they may be healed.

13. Acts 5:29: After the apostles were arrested and then miraculously set free by the angel of the Lord, they are before the Sanhedrin for the second time. St. Luke records:

Peter and the apostles said in reply, “We must obey God rather then men.”

Once again, St. Peter is set apart from the rest of the apostles. If he was just one of the apostles with no special position St. Luke would not set him apart like he does. Why does he do this? Because St. Peter has the keys of the kingdom (cf. Matthew 16:15-19). He is the Shepherd over the whole flock of God’s people (cf. John 10:11-16, 21:15-17).

In fact, every time St. Peter is mentioned in sacred Scripture with the other apostles, he is either listed first (see Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13, etc.), or given a special place apart from the other apostles (see I Cor. 9:5, Mark 1:36, Mark 16:7 and Luke 9:32) except for one example in Galatians 2:9. This one example is often used by non-Catholics to demonstrate absolute equality among the apostles or even to prove St. James to have been the true leader of the early Church rather than St. Peter.

And when they perceived the grace that was given to me (St. Paul), James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the gentiles and they to the circumcised.

A closer look at the context clears up this apparent difficulty. In Galatians 2, St. Paul is speaking in the context of the church at Jerusalem. We know from Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History …) that James was the first bishop of Jerusalem after the apostles dispersed throughout the world.  It would not be surprising to list James first in the context of the diocese (or city, as it were then) over which he presides. Even today, if there were a Council held in a diocese other than Rome, the local bishop would normally be given a special place of honor in some distinct manner. This, in fact, has been the case many times in the history of the Church. James should be given a place of honor because he is the head of local Church there in Jerusalem.

This is the context of Galatians 2. However, notice the difference between this second visit St. Paul made to Jerusalem and his first visit fourteen years earlier (cf. Galatians 2:1).

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18-19)… Then, after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas… and when they perceived the grace of God was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 1:18-2:9).

St. Paul originally went to Jerusalem not to see James, though he did see James. He went to confer with St. Peter. After receiving revelation from God, St. Peter is the first man St. Paul wants to see. This was not just a casual meeting. It lasted fifteen days. It was fourteen years later (cf. Gal. 2:1), after St. Peter had gone and established his see in Antioch (cf. Gal. 2:11, Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History), that St. Paul lists James first in the context of the Church of Jerusalem.

An interesting not: There are four lists of apostles given in Scripture. Matthew 10:2-4 (which we saw before), Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13. In every case St. Peter is first and Judas is last (except in Acts, Judas is not listed at all because he had committed suicide). In oriental culture, the listing of names is important. It connotes position and honor. Notice in all the lists the order is generally identical. There is a bit of juxtaposition in St. Mark’s list, but St. Peter’s place is always the same. This is reminiscient of the early Church. There was some juxtaposition in the early Church when it came to the second and third place of honor in the Church, but never a doubt who was at the helm:  The Bishop of Rome.

14. Acts 8:14-23:

In this text we see St. Peter leading when he and St. John confirm the new converts in Samaria because of the evangelistic efforts of St. Phillip. And once again it is St. Peter who takes the helm in pronouncing judgment on Simon the sorcerer who wanted to buy the power to confirm or convey the Holy Spirit (verses 18-23).

15. Acts 9:32:

Here we have an interesting little passage in verse 32 most pass over too quickly.

As Peter was passing through every region, he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda (NAB).

Here we have St. Peter making his pastoral rounds. To what part of the Church?  All of it!  Why?  St. Peter is the shepherd of the whole world.  He then proceeds to do another first.  He raises Tabitha from the dead in Joppa (cf. 9:40-43).

16. Acts 10:1-48:

In this chapter from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus personally sees to the fulfillment of the prophecy of John 10:16, which we saw above. He appears to St. Peter and commands him to bring the gospel to the gentiles by way of Cornelius, the centurion. When Peter then “commanded [Cornelius and his household] to be baptized” in Acts 10:48, the prophecy of John 10:16 was fulfilled. There was now one fold and one shepherd for Jews and Gentiles. That ministry has continued to this day in the successors of St. Peter, the bishops of Rome.

It would be easy to pass over this text and miss its importance. It is most significant that it is St. Peter to whom God gives a vision to allow the gentiles to be baptized and enjoy full membership in the Church. This was a radical move! If you think we have a problem with racism in the 21st century, we have nothing on first century opinion of the gentiles!

If we read further, into Acts 11:18, after the other apostles and other disciples heard Peter declare what God had done, they say, in chapter 11:18:

When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”

They heard St. Peter speak and the question was settled. The question would continue to plague the Church with reference to how the gentiles and Jews were to harmonize in the Church. But the question of Gentiles being in the Church was settled by St. Peter and the question would not be raised again. Peter had spoken, the rest of the Church “held their peace.”  Would to God we today would do the same!

17. Acts 12: 3-11:

In this text, St. Peter is arrested again. Notice that the entire Church then goes to ‘round the clock prayer for him until he is released miraculously. This is not recorded to have been the case when St. James or any others were arrested. When the head of a fledgling Church struggling for its existence is put in jail, you better believe everyone is praying!

18. Acts 15: 1-12:

The ministry of St. Peter as “the shepherd” of the Universal Church continues. When there was a heresy spreading in the church at Antioch (and elsewhere) so widespread and problematic that Paul and Barnabas could not quell the resulting confusion, the church there decided to “go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question” (vss. 1-2). The question concerned salvation and the Old Covenant law in relation to the gospel. Some among “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise…and…to keep the law of Moses’ (vs. 5) or else you ‘cannot be saved’” (vs. 1). In particular, they spoke of the gentiles who were converting to Christ, but the same would apply to all. The real question was: Are Christians saved by the grace of Christ in the New Covenant or must they obey the Old Covenant as well for salvation? The first Church Council (of Jerusalem) was convened and the theological question was put to rest by the pronouncement of St. Peter.

The apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice…that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe…we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly kept silence… (Vs. 6-12, emphasis added)

Like we saw in Acts 11:18, when the Pope finally speaks on a matter, the rest are silent. And so it should be.

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Purgatory is in the Bible

This may well be the most common single question I receive concerning our Catholic Faith whether it be at conferences, via email, snail mail, or any other venue. In fact, I’ve answered it twice today already, so I thought I might just blog about it.

We’ll begin by making clear just what we mean by “Purgatory.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (1030).

This seems so simple. Its common sense. Scripture is very clear when it says, “But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev. 21:27). Hab. 1:13 says, “You [God]… are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong…” How many of us will be perfectly sanctified at the time of our deaths? I dare say most of us will be in need of further purification in order to enter the gates of heaven after we die, if, please God, we die in a state of grace.

In light of this, the truth about Purgatory is almost self-evident to Catholics. However, to many Protestants this is one of the most repugnant of all Catholic teachings. It represents “a medieval invention nowhere to be found in the Bible.” It’s often called “a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.” It is said to represent “a second-chance theology that is abominable.” And most often the inquiries come from Catholics who are asking for help to explain Purgatory to a friend, family member, or co-worker.

A Very Good Place to Start

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a “Purgatory” of sorts in the Old Testament. I say a “Purgatory of sorts” because Purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it “Purgatory,” but they did clearly believe that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living as I will now prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call “Purgatory.”

In II Maccabees 12:39-46, we discover Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men,

“… turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

There are usually two immediate objections to the use of this text when talking with Protestants. First, they will dismiss any evidence presented in II Maccabees because they do not accept its inspiration. And second, they will claim these men in Maccabees committed the sin of idolatry, which would be a mortal sin in Catholic theology. According to the Catholic Church, they would be in Hell where there is no possibility of atonement. Thus, and ironically so, they will say, Purgatory must be eliminated as a possible interpretation of this text if you’re Catholic.

The Catholic Response:

Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from an historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).

This declaration of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life to a people who already believed it. If Jesus wanted to condemn this teaching commonly taught in Israel, he was not doing a very good job of it according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.

The next objection presents a more complex problem. The punishment for mortal sin is, in fact, definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed (the definition of Hell)  according to Catholic teaching (see CCC 1030). But it is a non-sequitur to conclude from this teaching that II Maccabees could not be referring to a type of Purgatory.

First of all, a careful reading of the text reveals the sin of these men to be carrying small amulets “or sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” under their tunics as they were going in to battle. This would be closer to a Christian baseball player believing there is some kind of power in his performing superstitious rituals before going to bat than it would be to the mortal sin of idolatry. This was, most likely, a venial sin for them. But even if what they did would have been objectively grave matter, good Jews in ancient times—just like good Catholics today—believed they should always pray for the souls of those who have died “for thou [O Lord], thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men” (II Chr. 6:30). God alone knows the degree of culpability of these “sinners.” Moreover, some or all of them may have repented before they died. Both the ancient Jews and Catholic Christians always retain hope for the salvation of the deceased this side of heaven; thus, we always pray for those who have died.

A Plainer Text

In Matthew 5:25-26, Jesus is even more explicit about Purgatory.

Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.

For Catholics, Tertullian for example, in De Anima 58, written in ca. AD 208, this teaching is parabolic, using the well-known example of “prison” and the necessary penitence it represents, as a metaphor for Purgatorial suffering that will be required for lesser transgressions, represented by the “kodrantes” or “penny” of verse 26. But for many Protestants, our Lord is here giving simple instructions to his followers concerning this life exclusively. This has nothing to do with Purgatory.

This traditional Protestant interpretation is very weak contextually. These verses are found in the midst of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” where our Lord teaches about heaven (vs. 20), hell (vs. 29-30), and both mortal (vs. 22) and venial sins (vs. 19), in a context that presents “the Kingdom of Heaven” as the ultimate goal (see verses 3-12). Our Lord goes on to say if you do not love your enemies, “what reward have you” (verse 46)? And he makes very clear these “rewards” are not of this world. They are “rewards from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:19).

Further, as St. John points out in John 20:31, all Scripture is written “that believing, you may have [eternal] life in his name.” Scripture must always be viewed in the context of our full realization of the divine life in the world to come. Our present life is presented “as a vapor which appears for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away” (James 1:17). It would seem odd to see the deeper and even “other worldly” emphasis throughout the Sermon of the Mount, excepting these two verses.

When we add to this the fact that the Greek word for prison, phulake, is the same word used by St. Peter, in I Peter 3:19, to describe the “holding place” into which Jesus descended after his death to liberate the detained spirits of Old Testament believers, the Catholic position makes even more sense. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary holding place and not exclusively in this life.

The Plainest Text

I Corinthians 3:11-15 may well be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to Purgatory:

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

No Christian sect I know of even attempts to deny this text speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Gr. hopoiov – of what sort).

What is being referred to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (see again, Rev. 21:27, Hab. 1:13). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? The Protestant calls it “the Judgment” and we Catholics agree. We Catholics simply specify the part of the judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged as “Purgatory.”

Objection!

The Protestant respondent will immediately spotlight the fact that there is no mention, at least explicitly, of “the cleansing of sin” anywhere in the text. There is only the testing of works. The focus is on the rewards believers will receive for their service, not on how their character is cleansed from sin or imperfection. And the believers here watch their works go through the fire, but they escape it!

First, what are sins, but bad or wicked works (see Matthew 7:21-23, John 8:40, Galatians 5:19-21)? If these “works” do not represent sins and imperfections, why would they need to be eliminated? Second, it is impossible for a “work” to be cleansed apart from the human being who performed it. We are, in a certain sense, what we do when it comes to our moral choices. There is no such thing as a “work” floating around somewhere detached from a human being that could be cleansed apart from that human being. The idea of works being separate from persons does not make sense.

Most importantly, however, this idea of “works” being “burned up” apart from the soul that performed the work contradicts the text itself. The text does say the works will be tested by fire, but “if the work survives… he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss.” And, “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (Gr. dia puros). The truth is: both the works of the individual and the individual will go through the cleansing “fire” described by St. Paul in order that “he” might finally be saved and enter into the joy of the Lord. Sounds an awful lot like Purgatory.

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Peter is the Rock

Few texts have been the occasion for the spilling of more ink than Matthew 16:17-19:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

For Catholics, this text is clear. All twelve apostles were present, yet Jesus promised to give to Peter alone the keys of the kingdom, symbolizing the authority of Christ—the authority of heaven—over the kingdom of heaven on Earth, which is the Church. Yet millions of Protestants believe that there is a distinction in meaning in the Greek text between the two “rocks” that would eliminate Peter from consideration for being the rock.

“Thou art petros and upon this petra I will build my church . . .” The first rock, petros, is claimed to refer to a small, insignificant rock: Peter. The second, petra, is claimed to mean a massive boulder: that would be either Jesus or Peter’s confession of faith. The argument concludes Jesus did not build his church upon St. Peter but either upon himself or Peter’s faith.

Below are seven reasons, among many others we could examine, why Peter is undeniably the rock:

1) Matthew, we have pretty solid evidence, was originally written in Aramaic. Both Sts. Papias and Irenaeus tell us as much in the second century. But even more importantly—and more certainly—Jesus would not have spoken his discourse of Matthew 16 in Greek. Greek was the dominant language of the Roman Empire in the first century, but most of the common Jewish folk to whom Jesus spoke would not have been fluent in it. Aramaic was their spoken language.

Moreover, we have biblical evidence—John 1:42—that also points to Jesus using Aramaic specifically in the naming of Peter: “[Andrew] brought [Peter] to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’” (which means Peter).

The name Cephas is an anglicized form of the Aramaic Kepha, which means simply “rock.” There would have been no “small rock” to be found in Jesus’ original statement to Peter.

Even well-respected Protestant scholars will agree on this point. Baptist scholar D. A. Carson, warites, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:

[T]he underlying Aramaic is in this case unquestionable; and most probably kepha was used in both clauses (“you are kepha” and “on this kepha”), since the word was used both for a name and for a “rock.” The Peshitta (written in Syriac, a language cognate with a dialect of Aramaic) makes no distinction between the words in the two clauses.

2) In Koine Greek (the dialect of Greek used by the authors of the New Testament), petros and petra are masculine and feminine forms of words with the same root and the same definition—rock. There is no “small rock” to be found in the Greek text, either.

So why did St. Matthew use these two words in the same verse? Petra was a common word used for “rock” in Greek. It’s used fifteen times to mean “rock,” “rocks,” or “rocky” in the New Testament. Petros is an ancient Greek term that was not commonly used in Koine Greek at all. In fact, it was never used in the New Testament, except for Peter’s name after Jesus changed it from Simon to Peter.

It follows that when St. Matthew was translating, he would have used petra for “rock.” However, in so doing, he would have encountered a problem. Petra is a feminine noun. It would have been improper to call Peter Petra. This would be equivalent to calling a male “Valerie” or “Priscilla” in English. Hence, petros was used instead of petra for Peter’s name.

3) There are several words the inspired author could have used for rock or stone in Greek. Petra and lithos were the most common. They could be used interchangeably. A connotation of “large” or “small” with either of them would depend on context. The words simply meant rock or stone.

Craig S. Keener, another Protestant scholar, on page 90 of The IVP Bible Background Commentary of the New Testament, states: “In Greek (here), they (referring to petros and petra) are cognate terms that were used interchangeably by this period…” D. A. Carson points out the big/small distinction did exist in Greek, but is found only in ancient Greek (used from ca. the eighth to the fourth century B.C.), and even there it is mostly confined to poetry. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek (used from ca. the fourth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.). Carson agrees with Keener and with Catholics that there is no distinction in definition between petros and petra.

One of the most respected and referenced Greek dictionaries among Evangelicals is Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. In a most candid statement about Matthew 16:18, Dr. Oscar Cullman, a contributing editor to this work, writes:

The obvious pun which has made its way into the Greek text . . . suggests a material identity between petra and Petros . . . as it is impossible to differentiate strictly between the two words. . . . Petros himself is this petra, not just his faith or his confession. . . . The idea of the Reformers that he is referring to the faith of Peter is quite inconceivable. . . . For there is no reference here to the faith of Peter. Rather, the parallelism of “thou art Rock” and “on this rock I will build” shows that the second rock can only be the same as the first. It is thus evident that Jesus is referring to Peter, to whom he has given the name Rock. . . . To this extent Roman Catholic exegesis is right and all Protestant attempts to evade this interpretation are to be rejected.

4) If St. Matthew wanted to distinguish “rocks” in the text, he would have most likely used lithos. As stated above, lithos could refer to a large rock, but it was more commonly used to denote a small stone. However, there is a third word St. Matthew could have used that always means small stone: psephos. It is used twice in Rev. 2:17 as “small stone” when Jesus says, “To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.” Here we have one Greek word that unlike lithos and petra always has a connotation of “small stone,” or “pebble.”

5) A simpler line of reasoning gets away from original languages and examines the immediate context of the passage. Notice our Lord says to St. Peter:

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Seven times Jesus uses the second person personal pronoun in just three verses. It just doesn’t make sense for Jesus to address everything to Peter and then in the midst of it all say “But I will build my Church upon me.” The context is one of Jesus communicating a unique authority to Peter.

Further, Jesus is portrayed as the builder of the Church, not the building. He said, “I will build my church.” Jesus is “the wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:24) in Matthew’s Gospel. Once again, it just does not fit the context to have Jesus building the Church upon himself. He’s building it upon Peter.

6) A lot of folks miss the significance of Simon’s name change to Peter. When God revealed to certain of his people a new and radical calling in Scripture, he sometimes changed their names. In particular, we find this in the calling of the Patriarchs. Abram (“exalted father” in Hebrew) was changed to Abraham (“father of the multitudes”). Jacob (“supplanter”) to Israel (“One who prevails with God”). In fact, there is a very interesting parallel here between Abraham and St. Peter in Isaiah 51:1-2:

Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn. . . . Look to Abraham your father.

Jesus here makes St. Peter a true “father” over the household of faith, just as God made Abraham our true “father” in the Faith (cf. Romans 4:1-18; James 2:21). Hence, it is fitting that Peter’s successors are called “pope” or “papa,” as was Abraham (cf. Luke 16:24).

7) When we understand that Christ is the true “son of David” who came to establish the prophetic “Kingdom of David,” we understand that Christ in Matthew 16, like the King of Israel, was establishing a “prime minister” among his ministers—the apostles—in the Kingdom. Isaiah 22:15-22 gives us insight into the ministry of the “prime minister” in ancient Israel:

Thus says the Lord God of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household, and say to him . . . Behold the Lord will hurl you away violently. . . . I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the House of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

In Revelation 1:18, Jesus declares, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” He then quotes this very text from Isaiah in Revelation 3:7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.”

No Christian would deny Jesus is the King who possesses the keys. Who does he give the keys to? Peter!

In my next post, I will give you proof from texts other than Matt. 16:18-19 that St. Peter was “the rock,” the foundation, “first,” or “chief” among the apostles, and shepherd of both the other shepherds and the sheep gathered by Jesus Christ and revealed to be his body, the Church. But if you want to dig deeper into what I’ve presented here, click here.

 

Is Confession Biblical?

The Lord declares in Isaiah 43:25:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Psalm 103:2-3 adds:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…

Many will use these verses against the idea of confession to a priest. God forgiving sins, they will claim, precludes the possibility of there being a priest who forgives sins. Further, Hebrews 3:1 and 7:22-27 tell us Jesus is, “the… high priest of our confession” and that there are not “many priests,” but one in the New Testament—Jesus Christ. Moreover, if Jesus is the “one mediator between God and men” (I Tim. 2:5), how can Catholics reasonably claim priests act in the role of mediator in the Sacrament of Confession?

BEGINNING WITH THE OLD

The Catholic Church acknowledges what Scripture unequivocally declares: it is God who forgives our sins. But that is not the end of the story. Leviticus 19:20-22 is equally unequivocal:

If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.

Apparently, a priest being used as God’s instrument of forgiveness did not somehow take away from the fact that it was God who did the forgiving. God was the first cause of the forgiveness; the priest was the secondary, or instrumental cause. Thus, God being the forgiver of sins in Isaiah 43:25 and Psalm 103:3 in no way eliminates the possibility of there being a ministerial priesthood established by God to communicate his forgiveness.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Many Protestants will concede the point of priests acting as mediators of forgiveness in the Old Testament. “However,” they will claim, “The people of God had priests in the Old Testament. Jesus is our only priest in the New Testament.” The question is: could it be that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13) did something similar to that which he did, as God, in the Old Testament? Could he have established a priesthood to mediate his forgiveness in the New Testament?

IN WITH THE NEW

Just as God empowered his priests to be instruments of forgiveness in the Old Testament, the God/man Jesus Christ delegated authority to his New Testament ministers to act as mediators of reconciliation as well. Jesus made this remarkably clear in John 20:21-23:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Having been raised from the dead, our Lord was here commissioning his apostles to carry on with his work just before he was to ascend to heaven. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did the Father send Jesus to do? All Christians agree he sent Christ to be the one true mediator between God and men. As such, Christ was to infallibly proclaim the Gospel (cf. Luke 4:16-21), reign supreme as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16); and especially, he was to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins (cf. I Peter 2:21-25, Mark 2:5-10).

The New Testament makes very clear that Christ sent the apostles and their successors to carry on this same mission. To proclaim the gospel with the authority of Christ (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), to govern the Church in His stead (cf. Luke 22:29-30), and to sanctify her through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (cf. John 6:54, I Cor. 11:24-29) and for our purpose here, Confession.

John 20:22-23 is nothing more than Jesus emphasizing one essential aspect of the priestly ministry of the apostles: To Forgive men’s sins in the person of Christ— “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” Moreover, auricular confession is strongly implied here. The only way the apostles could either forgive or retain sins is by first hearing those sins confessed, and then making a judgment whether or not the penitent should be absolved.

TO FORGIVE OR TO PROCLAIM?

Many Fundamentalists claim John 20:23 must be viewed as Christ simply repeating “the great commission” of Matthew 28:19 and Luke 24:47 using different words that mean the same thing:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

… and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations…

Commenting on John 20:23 in his book, Romanism—The Relentless Roman Catholic Assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (White Horse Publications, Huntsville Alabama, 1995), p. 100, Protestant Apologist Robert Zins writes:

It is apparent that the commission to evangelize is tightly woven into the commission to proclaim forgiveness of sin through faith in Jesus Christ.

Mr. Zin’s claim is that John 20:23 is not saying the apostles would forgive sins; rather, that they would merely proclaim the forgiveness of sins. The only problem with this theory is it runs head-on into the text of John 20. “If you forgive the sins of any… if you retain the sins of any.” The text cannot say it any clearer: this is more than a mere proclamation of the forgiveness of sins—this “commission” of the Lord communicates the power to actually forgive the sins themselves.

FREQUENT CONFESSION

The next question for many upon seeing the plain words of St. John is, “Why don’t we hear any more about Confession to a priest in the rest of the New Testament?” The fact is: we don’t need to. How many times does God have to tell us something before we’ll believe it? He only gave us the proper form for baptism once (Matt. 28:19), and yet all Christians accept this teaching.

But be that as it may, there are multiple texts that deal with Confession and the forgiveness of sins through the New Covenant minister. I will cite just a few of them:

II Cor. 2:10:

 And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also.  For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ (DRV).

Many may respond to this text by quoting modern Bible translations, e.g., the RSVCE:

What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ (emphasis added).

St. Paul, it is argued, is simply forgiving someone in the way any layperson can forgive someone for wrongs committed against him. The Greek word—prosopon—can be translated either way. And I should note here that good Catholics will argue this point as well. This is an understandable and valid objection. However, I do not concur with it for four reasons:

1. Not only the Douay-Rheims, but the King James Version of the Bible—which no one would accuse of being a Catholic translation—translates prosopon as “person.”

2. The early Christians, who spoke and wrote in Koine Greek, at the Councils of Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451), used prosopon to refer to the “person” of Jesus Christ.

3. Even if one translates the text as St. Paul pardoning “in the presence of Christ,” the context still seems to indicate that he forgave the sins of others. And notice: St. Paul specifically said he was not forgiving anyone for offenses committed against him (see II Cor. 2:5). Any Christian can and must do this. He said he did the forgiving “for [the Corinthian’s] sakes” and “in the person (or presence) of Christ.” The context seems to indicate he is forgiving sins that do not involve him personally.

4. Just three chapters later, St. Paul gives us the reason why he could forgive the sins of others: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor. 5:18). Some will argue that “the ministry of reconciliation” of verse 18 is identical to “the message of reconciliation” in verse 19. In other words, St. Paul is simply referring to a declarative power here. I don’t agree. I argue St. Paul uses distinct terms precisely because he is referring to more than just “the message of reconciliation,” but the same ministry of reconciliation that was Christ’s. Christ did more than just preach a message; he also forgave sins.

James 5:14-17:

Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain… and… it did not rain…

When it comes to one “suffering;” St. James says, “Let him pray.” “Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.” But when it comes to sickness and personal sins, he tells his readers they must go to the “elders”—not just anyone—in order to receive this “anointing” and the forgiveness of sins.

Some will object and point out that verse 16 says to confess our sins “to one another” and pray “for one another.” Is not James just encouraging us to confess our sins to a close friend so we can help one another to overcome our faults?

The context seems to disagree with this interpretation for two main reasons:

1. St. James had just told us to go to the presbyter in verse 14 for healing and the forgiveness of sins. Then, verse 16 begins with the word therefore—a conjunction that would seem to connect verse 16 back to verses 14 and 15. The context seems to point to the “elder” as the one to whom we confess our sins.

2. Ephesians 5:21 employs this same phrase. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” But the context limits the meaning of “to one another” specifically to a man and wife—not just anyone. Similarly, the context of James 5 would seem to limit the confession of faults “to one another” to the specific relationship between “anyone” and the “elder” or “priest” (Gr.—presbuteros).

ONE PRIEST OR MANY?

A major obstacle to Confession for many Protestants (me included when I was Protestant) is that it presupposes a priesthood. As I said above, Jesus is referred to in Scripture as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” The former priests were many in number, as Hebrews 7:23 says, now we have one priest—Jesus Christ. The question is: how does the idea of priests and confession fit in here? Is there one priest or are there many?

I Peter 2:5-9 gives us some insight:

… and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ… But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…

If Jesus is the one and only priest in the New Testament in a strict sense, then we have a contradiction in Sacred Scripture. This, of course, is absurd.  I Peter plainly teaches all believers to be members of a holy priesthood. Priest/believers do not take away from Christ’s unique priesthood, rather, as members of his body they establish it on earth.

FULL AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATIO

If one understands the very Catholic and very biblical notion of participatio, these problematic texts and others become relatively easy to understand. Yes, Jesus Christ is the “one mediator between God and men” just as I Tim. 2:5 says. The Bible is clear. Yet, Christians are also called to be mediators in Christ. When we intercede for one another or share the Gospel with someone, we act as mediators of God’s love and grace in the one true mediator, Christ Jesus, via the gift of participatio in Christ, the sole mediator between God and men (see I Timothy 2:1-7, I Timothy 4:16, Romans 10:9-14). All Christians, in some sense, can say with St.   Paul, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20)

PRIESTS AMONG PRIESTS

If all Christians are priests, then why do Catholics claim a ministerial priesthood essentially distinct from the universal priesthood? The answer is: God willed to call out a special priesthood among the universal priesthood to minister to his people. This concept is literally as old as Moses.

When St. Peter taught us about the universal priesthood of all believers, he specifically referred to Exodus 19:6 where God alluded to ancient Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” St. Peter reminds us that there was a universal priesthood among the Old Testament people of God just as in the New Testament. But this did not preclude the existence of a ministerial priesthood within that universal priesthood (see Exodus 19:22, Exodus 28, and Numbers 3:1-12).

In an analogous way, we have a universal “Royal Priesthood” in the New Testament, but we also have an ordained clergy who have priestly authority given to them by Christ to carry out his ministry of reconciliation as we have seen.

TRULY AWESOME AUTHORITY

A final couple of texts we will consider are Matt. 16:19 and 18:18. Specifically, we’ll examine the words of Christ to Peter and the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” As CCC 553 says, Christ here communicated not only authority “to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church,” but also “the authority to absolve sins” to the apostles.

These words are unsettling, even disturbing, to many. And understandably so. How could God give such authority to men? And yet he does. Jesus Christ, who alone has the power to open and shut heaven to men, clearly communicated this authority to the apostles and their successors. This is what the forgiveness of sins is all about: to reconcile men and women with their heavenly Father. CCC 1445 puts it succinctly:

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

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Did the Catholic Church Remove One of the Ten Commandments?

My mother recently sent me an email from a friend who was being challenged by an Evangelical to re-consider her Catholicism. He claimed the Catholic Church had perniciously omitted what he referred to as the second commandment—“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4)—in order to keep the Catholic faithful in darkness as to the truth that they should not have statues in their churches. Despite appearances, we know Exodus 20 is not a prohibition against making “any likeness of anything” in a strict sense because we clearly see God either commanding or praising the making of images and statues in multiple biblical texts (see Numbers 21:8-9; I Kings 6:23-28; 9:3). Just five chapters after this so-called prohibition against statues, for example, God commands Moses to make statues representing two angels to be placed over the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant:

And you shall make two cherubim of gold… The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another…. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark… There I will meet with you (Ex. 25:18-22).

There are five key points to be made concerning this common misunderstanding among Protestants as well as many quasi-Christian sects.

1. Exodus 20:4 is part of the first commandment that begins in verse 3 and stretches through part of verse five:

You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.

Verses 3 and 5 make clear that this commandment is not simply condemning making statues; It is condemning making gods that you bow down to or serve. In a word, this first commandment forbids idolatry, i.e., the adoration of anything or anyone other than God. The Catholic Church condemns this as well.

2. By lifting out part of the first commandment appearing to prohibit the making of “any likeness of anything,” not only do you have God contradicting himself in later commanding the making of statues, but you also end up making the first two commandments repetitive. They are both essentially condemning idolatry.

3. Though the commandments are said to be “ten” in Exodus 34:28, they are not numbered by the inspired authors of Sacred Scripture. If you count the “you shall nots” along with the “you shalls” of keeping holy the Sabbath and honoring father and mother, you end up with 13 commandments. So the actual numbering of the commandments depends upon which “you shall nots” you lump together as one commandment and which ones you separate. And in the end, which “you shall nots” you lump together depends upon your theology.

4. We believe the Catholic Church alone has the authority to give to God’s people an authoritative list of the Ten Commandments. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church does exactly that. At least, it gives us a list as a sure norm for us.

5. The problem with creating a second “commandment” where there actually is not one really comes to the fore at the bottom of the list. The common Protestant listing of the Ten Commandments combines coveting your neighbor’s wife, the Catholic ninth commandment, with coveting your neighbor’s property, the Catholic tenth commandment. And really it just can’t be any other way because you run out of room. I can’t imagine many women being happy with being equated to property! Some may argue at this point: “Well, that is what the Old Testament teaches. We’re just going with what the inspired author teaches.” Are you really? Let’s take a look. Now, it is true that Exodus 20’s version of the 10 commandments appears to place both women and servants in the place of property.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

I say it “appears” to do so because Genesis 1:26-27 does reveal God himself to have said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” There is an essential equality between male and female revealed even in the Old Testament, though this revelation is not as clear and unambiguous as what we have in the New Testament. Exodus 20 certainly does anything but add to the clarity of the point. When I say the revelation of this essential equality is not as clear in the Old Testament, we need to understand why this is so. The Old Testament consists of 46 books written over a period of ca. 1500 years, representing a progressive revelation. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets.” The Greek word for “many ways” is polumeros, which means “in many portions;” God gave his revelation in piecemeal fashion over the centuries, taking an ancient people right where they were and gradually beginning to reveal more and more truth as they were able to receive it and as he gradually gave them more and more grace to be able to receive it, all the while respecting their freedom. “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4) to communicate the fullness of the revelation God willed for his people. For example, the divorce God permitted in Deut. 24:1-4, he later says “[he] hates” in Malachi 2:16. And when Jesus elevated marriage to the level of sacrament eliminating divorce and remarriage absolutely in Matt. 19:5-6, he explained that this allowance by God through Moses was never intended from the very beginning citing Genesis 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh.” God permitted things early that he would not have ever willed in an antecedent sense as he helped his people to grow much like a parent does not treat a four year-old the same as he would treat a fourteen year-old. In a similar way, though God revealed the essential equality of man and woman very early in salvation history (Gen. 1:26-27), this revelation was given by God to an ancient people who did not have the same understanding of the essential equality of man and woman we so often take for granted given the fullness of revelation we have enjoyed in the New Covenant for 2,000 years. God did not expect his people to change immediately, nor did he give them the fullness of the revelation that we have in Christ all at once; rather, he helped them along as we’ve said. In fact, we can see this development of understanding even in the Old Testament itself. We cited the earlier version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, but notice the change by the time God gave his people Deuteronomy:

Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox. Or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

The inspired author of Deuteronomy now makes the distinction between wife and property sharper by using two different Hebrew words for “covet” and “desire” and by only using the word “covet” with regard to the wife. The two separate commandments now become undeniable. We’ll leave the discussion of the status of the servants for another blog post!

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Catholic, Are You Born Again?

Have you been born again, my friend?” Thousands of Catholics have been asked this question by well-meaning Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. Of course, by “born again” the Protestant usually means: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior through the recitation of ‘the sinner’s prayer?’” How is a Catholic to respond?

The simple Catholic response is: “Yes, I have been born again—when I was baptized.” In fact, Jesus’ famous “born again” discourse of John 3:3-5, which is where we find the words “born again” (or “born anew”) in Scripture, teaches us about the essential nature of baptism:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

At this point, a Fundamentalist or Evangelical will respond almost predictably: “Baptism does not save you, brother; John 3:5 says we must be born of water and the Spirit.” The Catholic will then be told the “water” of John 3:5 has nothing to do with baptism. Depending on the preference of the one to whom the Catholic is speaking, the “water” will either be interpreted as man’s natural birth (the “water” being amniotic fluid), and “the Spirit” would then represent the new birth, or the water would represent the word of God through which one is born again when he accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior.

Amniotic Fluid vs. Baptismal Water

To claim the “water” of John 3:5 is amniotic fluid is to stretch the context just a smidgen! When we consider the actual words and surrounding context of John 3, the waters of baptism seem to be the more reasonable—and biblical—interpretation. Consider these surrounding texts:

John 1:31-34: Jesus was baptized. If you compare the parallel passage in St. Matthew’s gospel (3:16), you find that when Jesus was baptized, “the heavens were opened” and the Spirit descended upon him. Obviously, this was not because Jesus needed to be baptized. In fact, St. John the Baptist noted that he needed to be baptized by Jesus (see Matthew 3:14)! Jesus was baptized in order “fulfill all righteousness” and “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” according to Scripture (cf. Matt. 3:15; Luke 1:77). In other words, Jesus demonstrably showed us the way the heavens would be opened to us so that the Holy Spirit would descend upon us… through baptism.

John 2:1-11: Jesus performed his first miracle. He transformed water into wine. Notice, Jesus used water from “six stone jars … for the Jewish rites of purification.” According to the Septuagint as well as the New Testament these purification waters were called baptismoi (see LXX, Numbers 19:9-19; cf. Mark 7:4). We know that Old Testament rites, sacrifices, etc. were only “a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1). They could never take away sins. This may well be why “six” stone jars are specified by St. John—to denote imperfection, or “a human number” (cf. Rev. 13:18). It is interesting to note that Jesus transformed these Old Testament baptismal waters into wine—a symbol of New Covenant perfection (see Joel 3:18; Matthew 9:17).

John 3:22: Immediately after Jesus’ “born again” discourse to Nicodemus, what does He do? “… Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.” It appears he baptized folks. This is the only time in Scripture we find Jesus apparently actually baptizing.

John 4:1-2: Jesus’ disciples then begin to baptize at Jesus’ command. It appears from the text, Jesus most likely only baptized his disciples and then they baptized everyone else.

In summary, Jesus was baptized, transformed the “baptismal” waters, and then gave his famous “born again” discourse. He then baptized before commissioning the apostles to go out and baptize. To deny Jesus was teaching us about baptism in John 3:3-5 is to ignore the clear biblical context.

Moreover, John 3:5 is not describing two events; it describes one event. The text does not say “unless one is born of water and then born again of the Spirit…” It says “unless one is born of water and Spirit…” If we hearken back to the Lord’s own baptism in John 1 and Matt. 3, we notice when our Lord was baptized the Holy Spirit descended simultaneously upon him. This was one event, involving both water and the Spirit. And so it is with our baptism. If we obey God in being baptized—that’s our part of the deal—we can count on God to concurrently “open the heavens” for us and give us the Holy Spirit.

And finally, it would be anachronistic to read into Jesus’ use of “water” to mean physical birth in John’s gospel. In fact, St. John had just used a word to refer to physical birth in John 1:12-13, but it wasn’t “water:”

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

St. John here tells us we are not made children of God by birth (“of blood”), or by our own attempts whether they be through our lower nature (“of the flesh”) or even through the higher powers of our soul (“the will of man”); rather, we must be born of God, or by God’s power. Notice, St. John refers to natural birth colloquially as “of blood,” not “of water.”

Washing of Water by the Word

It is perhaps an even greater stretch to attempt to claim the “water” of John 3:3-5 represents the word of God. At least with the amniotic fluid argument, you have mention of “birth” in the immediate context. However, the Protestant will sometimes refer to Ephesians 5:25-26 and a few other texts to make this point:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…

“See?” a Protestant may say, “The ‘washing of water’ is here equated to ‘the word’ that cleanses us.” If you couple this text with Jesus’ words in John 15:3, “You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you,” the claim is made, that “the water” of John 3:5 would actually refer to the word of God rather than baptism.

The Catholic Response

Beyond the obvious fact that there is nothing in the context of John’s gospel to even remotely point to “water” as referring to ”the word,” we can point out immediately a point of agreement. Both Catholics and Protestants agree that Jesus’ words—unless one is born anew (or, again)—speak of man’s initial entrance into the body of Christ through God’s grace. Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to ask what the New Testament writers saw as the instrument whereby one first enters into Christ. This would be precisely what we are talking about when we speak of being “born again.”

I Peter 3:20-21: “… in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Romans 6:3-4: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”

Galatians 3:27: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

I Cor. 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit (See also Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16 and Col. 2:11-13).

If baptism is the way the unsaved are brought into Christ, no wonder Christ spoke of being “born of water and spirit.” Baptism is the instrument of new birth according to the New Testament.

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