The Myth of the Whosoever

I’ve been listening to a lot of debates regarding reformed theology of late and have heard many Arminian-synergist preachers rail against it. Some of the most commonly quoted verses usually include an emphatic whosoever in the preaching-style responses.

The claim is that whosoever wishes to believe in Christ may have eternal life and the implication often made is that anyone can. It’s open to all. Whosoever will may come.

The emphasis led Dave Hunt in a debate with James White to say that John 3:16 claims that anyone has the ability to believe. Ergun Caner, the former dean of the seminary at Liberty University, claimed that he was “a whosoever kind of guy” in his straw man attacking sermon entitled “Why I’m predestined not to be a hyper Calvinist”.

Would it surprise you to find out that this often emphasized word is not in the Greek text of John 3:16? Listen we all have our traditions but we need to analyze them against the text of the Bible.

The most popular[ly misapplied] verse

You may know it from the King James Version as I originally memorized it:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. (KJV)

This doesn’t differ that much from most modern translations in the key clause:

…that whoever believes in him… (NIV)
…that whoever believes in him… (ESV)
…so that everyone who believes in Him… (HCSB)
…that whoever believes in him… (NASB)
…so that everyone who believes in him… (NLT)

Believe it or not (cringe) I think the NLT might be closer to the sense of the text. The Greek is relatively simple and straightforward here.

ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν
ἵνα: “so that” or “in order that”
πᾶς: “every” or “all”
ὁ: “the” or “the one who”
πιστεύων: “believing ones”
εἰς: “in” or “into”
αὐτὸν: “him”

ὁ πιστεύων is a present active participle functioning as a substantival adjective. It’s not the ones who believed (in the past) but the ones who believe now in the present or are continuing to believe. There is no ambiguity about it. This is not talking about people who have a capacity to believe or people who might believe if given the right sales pitch. It’s the believing ones, the ones who believe. Believers in the proper sense.

Interestingly it is Wycliffe’s English version of 1382, often criticized as being too literal, that is the best here: “…that each man that believeth in him…”

Quite literally it reads, “…in order that all the believing in him ones…” The problem is that this reading is quite wooden and awkward so we have to smooth it out. “The believing in him ones” becomes “the ones who are believing in him”. This becomes “the ones who believe in him” which becomes “Whoever believes in him”.

So you can see how a proper motivated attempt to smooth out an awkward reading can lead to a bit of ambiguity in the English.

If there were to be a proper sense of the “whosoever” one would expect to see a form of the Greek indefinite pronoun ὅστις or τις. This comes through in the following examples: “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (Matthew 5:39 “Whoever humbles himself like this child…,” (Matthew 18:4) and “the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.” (Galatians 5:10)

These examples show an ambiguity as to the referent of the pronoun, but John 3:16 has no such ambiguity. It’s not about whosoever might believe.

Yes but what about the quotation over the gates of heaven according to C.S. Lewis, “whosoever will may come”? Ah, that’s from Revelation 22:17 and is a most beautiful passage.

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him that heareth say, “Come.” And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. (KJV)

What a fantastic picture of the Holy Spirit and the Church (the Bride) bidding those to come and drink freely of the water of life in the new heavens and new earth. Again however we see the similar construction in Greek.

“And whosoever will…” in the KJV comes from one simple substantival present active participle, ὁ θέλων.

“The wishing one,” “the desiring one” is bid to come. The same construction is evident for “the thirsting one” as well. The problem with reading an ambiguous group here is that we know that not anyone desires to come to Christ. In fact, no one does without the regenerating work of the Spirit. So who is “the willing one?” It is the one who is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, it is the one who is born again. It is the believing in him one.

 

All have sinned, but all of whom?

A cobble on the well-known Romans Road is the famous quote from Romans 3, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We use that to show that all people have sinned and are in their very essence sinners; however, did you know that the context does not give us that simple reading. Or perhaps to be more clear, that theological truth is obvious in the context, but not in that individual verse. Warning: Greek grammar follows.

“All people” have sinned, that is true, but in this verse it is only true by extension. Paul here is saying that “all believers” have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And in this message there is something very beautiful being said.

We know that Paul means “all believers” from his previous statement. “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been shown, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all believers. For there is no distinction:” The all of verse 22 is “all believers”. Not those unbelievers who may believe but simply “all believers”. πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας is definite and any sense of “those who may believe” is a misunderstanding that comes from the English thought to be required to make the reading smooth and less wooden. It is properly understood to mean, “all the believing ones” or “all believers”.

We also know this from the following statement. “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus.” The initial word in the Greek is δικαιούμενοι, a present participle describing the state of the very “all” of the previous verse. The “all” have sinned in the past (ἥμαρτον is in the simple aorist tense) are in a state of lacking the glory of God (ὑστεροῦνται is in the present tense) and are justified (δικαιούμενοι in the present, functioning as a temporal marker). There is no sense in the final term of a “might be” or “could be”. “All” are justified. Therefore it should be quite obvious that “all” cannot be “all people”, unless of course you are a universalist.

Of course I’m not trying to argue that all people do not sin, for that would be taking this verse entirely out of its context. The previous section is rife with generalities. “No one is righteous, no not a single one.” “No one seeks God.” “All have turned away.”

The beauty in Paul’s message is the free gift of justification and it’s application is the often overlooked statement, “For there is no distinction.” It’s in the previous verse and you might have read right past it. There is no distinction in the justification given freely to the believers. The text asks what advantage the Jew has over the Greeks (or pagan). This should not be understood only in the general sense because Paul moves from the general to the specific.

First, he says there is an advantage in being Jew because you are exposed to “the very words of God” or “the oracles of God.” But in the same line of thought he says that Jews are not better off because all are “under sin”.

The specific comes in our text when he talks about the righteousness of God through faith in Christ for all believers. The believers are the specific group. There are believers who were Jews and those who were Greeks. Did the Jews have an advantage? Yes. Were they better off? Certainly not.

In our American culture the best match to this idea might be the idea of being raised in the church by a good Christian family. Take two believers in the present day, one raised by a gospel-centered Christian family who were involved in a gospel-centered, Bible-believing church, and the other raised in a militant atheist family. Regardless of their past, both are presently believers. Is there an advantage to the one in being raised in a Christian home? Yes, because he was exposed to the very words of God. Is he better off? No, because he is just as dead in his sins as the one raised in a non-Christian home.

Fellow believers, there is no distinction among us whether we were raised Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Atheist. There is an advantage in being brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Word of God, but we who were are no better off before God. We were all under sin.

The beauty of the message is found in the tenses. All believers have sinned in the past. We are not to continue in sin as a conscious choice, though we will mess up on occassion. We are presently lacking in relation to the glory of God. We have sinned in the past and continue to fall short of his glory. That is a present reality but we are presently justified.

That justification is given freely, not by works of the law. If it were through works of the law then the one raised in a Christian home would be way better off than the Muslim convert. Think of the religious momentum he would have. The truth however is that the righteousness of God through faith is by grace and not by the law. It is “apart from the law” though witnessed by it.

The point in Romans 3:22-24 is that all believers have sinned, are fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified, therefore there ought to be no distinction among us on the basis of ethnicity, culture, or past religiosity. We are all one by grace through faith in Christ.

Is Hell Separation from God?

Many Christians will define hell as eternal separation from God, and I’ve used that terminology myself many times. The problem I’ve always had in the back of my mind is reconciling that with the omnipresence of God. Since hell is a real place and God is omnipresent, then how is hell separate from God? To be honest, if I hated God the idea of eternal separation from him doesn’t sound like that bad of a deal. I’m confident that if I lived forever apart from God on this earth I would be eternally, infinitely miserable, but is that all that we believe hell to be?

Some will point to the following text of 2Thessalonians 1:9-10.

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

This is translated just about everywhere as “away from the presence of the Lord” but in the ESV there is a footnote that reads, “or destruction that comes from”. That’s a huge difference. In the first option there is eternal destruction but it does not necessarily come from the absence of God. In the second the very presence of the Lord causes the destruction.

The Greek just has the preposition apo usually translated ‘from’. It is true that this preposition can often imply separation or distance from, but it would usually accompany a verb implying movement. Here the verb is “suffer” or “pay as a penalty”, hardly denoting any travelling.

The preposition is used commonly and an example is Romans 1:7.

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I ask you, is Paul offering grace and peace to the Romans “away from” God the Father and Jesus Christ? Or is he offering the grace and peace that can only come from God and Christ?

The implication then from the first text then is that unbelievers will pay the penalty of eternal destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord in the fully revealed glory of his might. That is an unbelievably terrible thing to imagine.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Hebrews 10:31

Calvin puts it this way:

Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us….
As by such details we should be enabled in some degree to conceive the lot of the wicked, so we ought especially to fix our thoughts upon this: how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God. And not that only but so to feel his sovereign power against you that you cannot escape being pressed by it.
Institutes 3.25.12

Being cut off from fellowship with God is not being cut off from his presence. Instead the idea is that the unbeliever will never again receive any common grace from God and will forever feel the sovereign power and presence of God in judgment. This is a much scarier thought in my mind.

Faith and Reality

For a while now I’ve been contemplating the difficulty in the use of such terms as ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ in our modern/postmodern world. It is misleading in today’s world to use a lot of Christian terminology since the meanings of the words have changed. I read in Irenaeus’ work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, written around the year 180, the following quote:

And faith is produced by the truth; for faith rests on things that truly are. For in things that are, as they are, we believe; and believing in things that are, as they ever are, we keep firm our confidence in them. Since then faith is the perpetuation of our salvation, we must needs bestow much pains on the maintenance thereof, in order that we may have a true comprehension of the things that are. Now faith occasions this for us; even as the Elders, the disciples of the Apostles, have handed down to us.

His point that faith is produced by the truth flies in the face of today’s use of the term ‘faith’. My point comes from this, that knowing something by faith does not mean that it is unreal or untrue. Not only is it possible for something to be true though known only by faith, but it is Irenaeus’ point that true Christian faith is true since it is “produced by the truth” and “rests on things that truly are”.

Faith, in Biblical terms, is always in opposition to sight, not to rationality. That is however not the way it is used in today’s world. Now we are likely to hear someone say, “Well, you gotta have faith,” when there is no reason to believe that the object of their faith is real or possible. It is now the last resort, the finger in the dam of truth. In effect, faith is today seen in opposition to truth.

The Bible uses the term rather differently. We are told that believers “walk by faith and not by sight” and that faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” By this definition I could say that I have faith that my car is parked in the parking lot outside of my apartment. I don’t really know for sure because I’m relying on the testimony of my wife that she parked it there. I suppose the car could have been stolen since then, but it’s not likely. It may have been hit by an asteroid or spontaneously combusted, but that is far less likely. I can’t see it right now, but I believe it based on the evidence and probability. That’s an example of faith in opposition to sight, maybe not a perfect illustration, but it’s close.

Take faith in the existence of certain people as another example. I have faith that my great-grandfather existed. I never saw him and have never seen a picture of him. I don’t even know his name or anything about his life. I know virtually nothing about him, but I have faith that he existed based on the evidence that I am here and the probability that my grandfather was virgin-born is fairly low.

In contrast, someone might have faith that Santa Claus exists and gives presents to kids at Christmas. They have never seen him, but they’ve seen pictures, as it were. They know a lot about him, about his story and about where he lives and what he does. The difference is that there’s no real evidence that Santa Claus exists.

A child might have faith in the existence of Santa and in the existence of their great-grandfather. You can’t say that the fact that they know something through faith ultimately determines the truth value of their beliefs. Rather you have to look at faith claims based on the evidence and testimony of others who historically have seen.

“And Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight.”

Behold your mother

Once again I am befuddled by the unreasonable hermeneutical methods in place by those who are devoted to Mary rather than Christ.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
– John 19:26-27

The explanation that I heard from this text is that we are all to behold Mary as the mother of us all. Therefore what Jesus was doing here is putting all believers in the right relationship before his earthly mother, the true Queen of Heaven, the second Eve, the Mother of all Creation. If you have ever heard this verse used in such a way beware because this interpretation can only come from reading a complicated doctrine of Mary into the text. It’s eisegesis not exegesis.

This address was one of Jesus’ final words before his death and was to both Mary and John (the disciple) in the presence of his Aunt Mary and Mary Magdelene. Besides this being a rare collection of similarly named women this was a poignant moment where Jesus is essentially seeking to provide security and safety for his mother after his departure. This is all that is said, with no explanation.

I would say that the simplest explanation of what is going on is that Jesus is giving the command to John to watch out for his mom after his death. Remember that this time period was not easy for widows and orphans and she would have needed provision. Also she was grieving this horrible death of her son and would need to be comforted and loved by fellow believers. This is a fantastic example of where the rubber meets the road concerning the compassion of Jesus for believers in general and his earthly family in particular.

To read anything else into this is to take a fairly large interpretive leap. I suppose you could try to say that, “Behold, your son!” is in reference to himself on the cross, but that doesn’t hold up in the rest of the passage. He addressed his mother then John in parallel language and the verse ends with Mary immediately being part of John’s own home or family.

There is no significance to one quote having a vocative address and the other not. The address to Mary, “Woman, behold, your son!” is no more specific to her than the address to John, “Behold, your mother!” I would say that Jesus saying “woman” is just because she is standing with the other two women, probably in tears and being hugged, and he needed to get her attention. Once he said that then she would be able to see through her tears that Jesus was looking at her. Then we wouldn’t have needed to get John’s attention. He could have just turned to him or simply looked over.

If in fact this is Jesus telling all believers to look to Mary as their immaculate, holy, sinless, eternal Mother, then we must look at the other address the same way. All believers must consider the Apostle John as their son. We should all start thinking about the eternal sonship of John to all believers and meditating on that doctrinal truth in order to find our proper place in the heavenly organizational chart.

Let us not rob this text of what it teaches us about Jesus’ compassion for his mother by reading questionable doctrines into it.

The Gospel as a Dangerous Idea

I recently watched a panel discussion from the “Dangerous Ideas” series in the UK. The points that interested me were the discussions on the so-called “cultural revolution” of recent decades. The opinions expressed were decidedly liberal with the exception of one.

The concluding question from the floor was this:
“Which so-called ‘dangerous idea’ do you think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if it were implemented?”

The first answer came from a man who was a proponent of the new perspectives on marriage and free sexuality. He had earlier said that a mother staying at home to provide primary child care was “re-enslavement” and that any reversal on abortion rights would “force a woman to give birth to an unwanted child” and would be “harmful to women”. Though presumably his child was the result of such a birth since he is in a same-sex marriage.

His answer, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, was that for 30 years there be forced abortions to lower the global population. That’s the kind of “dangerous idea” they were looking for.

The second answer came from an older woman who had spent her life as an advocate of feminism and women’s rights. Along the line of her positions she simply answered that freedom itself was the greatest dangerous idea. Because with true freedom you take on the responsibility of your actions and have great power as well.

The third answer came from the lone conservative Christian voice, that of Peter Hitchens, brother of the late great atheist poster boy Christopher Hitchens.

The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead. And that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.

This drew a snide “I could agree with that” from the first panelist.

When asked to go further he continued:

Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope. Therefore we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us as well. It is incredibly dangerous. That’s why so many people turn against it.

The next panelist could only laugh it off and say that she was tempted to respond because she is Jewish.

Hitchen’s answer was profound in its simplicity and in its truth. The forced abortion answer got a chuckle from the audience. The freedom answer got noises of agreement and a smattering of applause. The gospel of Christ answer got applause from some of the audience but two snide remarks from the panel. That shows how dangerous an idea it truly is. The tension of the truth had to be relieved by marginalizing humor.

If Jesus is who he said he is and was raised from the dead then that is truly the most dangerous idea because it does, as Peter Hitchens said, change everything for everyone.

Prerequisites for Prayer?

Today, on Catholic radio, a man called in with a question. The guest was an author of a book on prayer and that was naturally the topic of conversation. The man’s question went a little something like this:

“If I haven’t gone to confession and am guilty of a mortal sin am I allowed to pray to the saints? Or do I have to be in a state of grace in order for my prayer to be heard?”

The man went on to explain that the confessional in his parish is only open for one hour on one day each week, and he was wondering if he had to wait until after that visit before he could again pray to the saints.

What struck me honestly with this question was not the theological issues of praying to the saints or the institution of the priesthood necessarily. Rather it was the big picture. How many checkpoints do we have to have before we can communicate with God?

If this man’s idea is true, which he must have been told it was at some point, then there are at least four checkpoints to get to God. First, he has to be at his particular church, between 3:00 and 4:00 on Friday. (Hard to do that if you’re working normal hours.) Second, he has to go through a particular man, an ordained Catholic priest. Third, he has to then pray to a particular saint. Fourth that saint would intercede for him with Christ and/or the Father.

To be fair, the host and guest didn’t affirm this idea. Instead the best answer they could come up with was a lukewarm “I don’t think so.”

How sad is it that we Christians have set up these roadblocks to speak to God? Everybody had better have all their papers together for each checkpoint.

Here’s the truth. Through faith in Christ we can speak to the Father directly. We don’t pray through intermediaries and we don’t need to be absolved of all sin to be heard.

God heard the prayers of the Israelites in Egypt long before they had the law to follow or a priest to go through, and God hears your prayers as well.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
– Hebrews 4:14-16

You don’t need to confess your sins to pray. You need to pray to confess your sins. Don’t let the guilt or shame of your sin keep you away from prayer. We have a priest who is able to sympathize. Therefore we can draw near to the throne of God with confidence. Not only between 3pm and 4pm on Friday, but “in time of need”. We don’t need to go through Joseph, Mary, or any other saint. We go straight to our Father, in the name of Christ.

In [Christ] we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father….
– Ephesians 3:12,14

The Foundation of [my] Faith

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the gospel as compared to other religious tenets. What are the major differences? What makes Christianity different from other religions?

There are many ways I think to answer that question, but I would point to a singularity, the resurrection. Just think for a minute if the resurrection was not a claim of the Bible or of the early church. Our faith would be left on two basic pillars: that Jesus was the perfect Son of God and that he died for our sins on the cross.

These are effectively the pillars of faith for many Christians today, but they are not enough for me. (…cringe…) I don’t want to cross a line, but just imagine that’s all we had.

How do you prove that Jesus was the Son of God? I think you can prove that he said he was. (People that deny that just don’t know Scripture and Jesus’ Old Testament references.) I’m sure you can prove that the early church believed he was God, but is that enough. You’d be left solely with faith in that point of doctrine.

How do you prove that Jesus died for our sins on the cross? You can’t. You can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus died on a cross. No respectable scholar would deny that historically. But the “for our sins” part is entirely a matter of faith, isn’t it? You could look at the pattern of Scripture and you can certainly prove that the early church believed it, but it’s still a matter of faith.

The Resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, changes everything. Forget the implications of the resurrection for a moment, like what would it mean for a man cursed before God to be raised from the dead by God. Instead just consider the historicity of the event.

Even the most skeptical of skeptics have to admit at least that the early Christians were certain that Jesus was raised from the dead and that they saw him. They didn’t just see him once in a dream, they saw him many times and talked with him, ate meals with him, and saw him ascend into heaven.

Listen, you might think that’s ridiculous and I would understand your skepticism, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the early Christians believed this. They didn’t believe that other people saw him, they believed that they saw him. They went to their deaths, specifically Peter, James, John, and Paul, proclaiming the truth of the resurrection.

They didn’t embrace Christianity to start a church and get a private jet. They didn’t go on TV and promise prosperity to those that give $54.17 to their ministry. Many do today, but not these guys. They went to prison and ultimately to their deaths perpetuating the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But dead people just don’t come back alive. Exactly, that’s the point. The event of the resurrection is unlike any other event in the history of humanity. Many would die for philosophies and ideologies, continuing to do so today, but it’s rare that people will die for an event, especially if they were lying about it.

If the Resurrection is removed from the gospel then we are all lost, the Bible makes a point of that (1 Corinthians 15), but forgetting the theological implications, if the resurrection were removed then we would be left with a wholly faith-based endeavor. You might still say that it’s faith-based, but it’s not faith in a philosophy or ideology, it’s faith in a historical event and the meaning of it.

John Scrivener, among others

Drawing of Scrivener’s death at Amersham. By Victor Ambrus

Sitting in a cushy chair in my study here in my comfortable American home I can look around to see over ten Bibles, six of them in English. I have it on my phone, my iPad, and at my finger tips on this computer. How we can forget the price that was paid by so many to give us this book in our language. When was the last time you’ve thought of the blood that was shed by thousands over centuries to put that Bible in your hands?

While watching an episode of Time Team, my favorite show of all time, I was reminded of this history with the following brief discussion between host Tony Robinson and a historian named Chris. They were standing in a beautiful field in the area of Amersham, just northwest of London, and looking at a large stone monument.

Tony: Chris, one minute we’re in suburbia, now we’ve got this spectacular view, lovely flowers, the sun shining. It’s hard to believe that anything sinister ever happened here.

Chris: Yeah Tony, it does look like the rural ideal, but 500 years ago it was the scene of incredible pain and suffering. Come up this way, I can show you.

Tony: (Reading the monument) “The noble army of martyrs praise thee. The Amersham martyrs.” What happened here then?

Chris: Well Tony, in 1511 to 1522 a set of Lollard martyrs were burned just about 100 yards over that way.

Tony: What were Lollards?

Chris: Well they believe in roughly following the teachings of a 14th Century cleric called John Wycliffe. There most dangerous belief is that we should be able to read the Bible in English.

Tony: Why is that dangerous?

Chris: Well, it means that the Bible can be interpreted by ordinary layman rather than through a cleric. So it challenges the clerical monopoly on power.

Tony: Why were they burned here on this hill?

Chris: Well, the idea is that the people down in the town would be able to see their suffering. They would have lit up the horizon like candles.

Tony: It does sound pretty disgusting doesn’t it? Have you seen this one? (Reading from monument) “John Scrivener, burned 1521. His children were compelled to light their father’s pyre.”

Chris: Hmm. Awful isn’t it?

Tony: Pretty horrendous.

Let us not forget these men and women who gave their lives to put the Word of God in the hands of the people. Let us not forget the corrupt religious elite that were doing the works of Satan himself, forcing children to light the fire that would consume their father alive. Let us thank God for those who didn’t give up in their reforms even at the cost of their own life.

Every Day a Holiday


We find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week, leading up to the highest of all Christian holidays. And you thought it was Christmas. In this time I’ve been reflecting on the benefit of semi-liturgical remembrances, like Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the like. Growing up in a temperamental, fundamental church we avoided liturgy like the plague and I’m slowly being introduced to aspects of the “church calendar”.

There is a movement, perhaps partly inspired by Jehovah’s Witnesses, to not honor certain days as special or “holy”. “Every Sunday should be like Easter,” one might say. I can see where this idea can come from. Maybe it’s a resentment of the so-called “C&E” Christians or maybe it’s a reaction to the ever-increasing commercialization of Christmas. I can see that, but I’m becoming more convinced that we need these holy days to focus our minds on aspects of the Gospel and to remember.

Remembering Holy Week

What do we mean by “Holy Week”? What make a day or week holy? I think what first comes to mind is an idea of righteousness or sinlessness. So I shouldn’t sin during holy week, right? Well, yes and no. You shouldn’t sin during this week, but you also shouldn’t sin any other time so that doesn’t help. The holiness of holy week is much more like the sense that a holiday is a “holy day”, that is it is set apart as a special time.

Our modern holidays carry the biblical idea of a special time of remembrance. Whether it’s Memorial Day, MLK Day, Mothers’ Day, Black History Month, what have you, we are encouraged to set aside time to remember and reflect upon very specific aspects of our cultural history.

We don’t have a biblical mandate to remember holy week, as it were. However we can look to a similar idea that comes from the most famous of Old Testament passages, the Ten Commandments.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
– Exodus 20:8

The Relationship of Remembrance to Holiness

Think of a “secular” holiday like MLK Day. Would the day change depending on your level of reflection on the man and his work? If you didn’t ever think about him that day you’d still get the day off perhaps, but the tone of the day would be very different than if you did. Maybe instead you listen to one of his speeches or watch a special documentary. Then you can reflect on the historical context of his work and look forward to the future realization of the dream.

If you don’t remember then it’s still a day off, but it’s not different from an average Saturday. If you do remember it’s an opportunity to reflect on our own cultural moment and perhaps seek areas to improve. Quite a different holiday.

In the biblical example, the people of Israel are commanded to “remember the Sabbath day” and the logical connection to the next phrase “to keep it holy” isn’t necessarily obvious. This translation doesn’t over-interpret it for us, so we have to think about the various options for this infinitive phrase, “to keep it holy”.

It could be an example of the explanatory use of the infinitive. You could translate it, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” That is, the way that you remember is by keeping it holy.

It could be either showing purpose or result. The first would say that we remember “in order to keep it holy”. The second would say that we remember “so as to keep it holy”. In one the remembrance has the aim of making it holy. In the other the remembrance directly results in the holiness of the day. The distinction is subtle but there is a difference.

Which comes first, the holiness or the remembrance? In this case the day was made holy initially by God himself and the people are commanded to continue the holiness by remembering. This seems to be much more of the purpose or result sense. We must remember or else the day won’t be different. If we act as if the Sabbath (whether Saturday, Sunday, or a floating weekly observance) is just any other day, that is, if we ignore the command to remember it then the holiness or separate-ness of the day is gone.

Interestingly it is the holiness that also causes our remembrance, or at least it focuses it. If we didn’t have MLK Day then I probably wouldn’t think about the Civil Rights movement that often really. How many of us would honor a yearly time to take stock and thank God and others for everything if we didn’t have Thanksgiving?

In the same way we are invited by church liturgy to enter into a state of intentional specific remembrance during this week. If we don’t remember than the separate-ness of the week is gone. If we scoff at “holy week” we are in danger of our memory fading entirely. If every day is a holiday than no days are holidays.

Remember this week. Remember Christ’s mission, his life and death, his sacrifice and his subsequent glory. Remember your sinfulness and his loving grace. Remember slowly and deliberately through the week. Reflect on individual ideas rather than the big picture. Remember to keep it holy and keep it holy that we might all remember.