Have a scriptural question? Check the Q&A archive or write to our Bible expert: witheringtonb@staff.beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington III answers questions about:

  • Wealth as a sign of God's favor
  • Withholding charity
  • Whether Satan causes sickness
  • Who gets into heaven
  • The Ten Commandments & the New Covenant
  • Premarital sex
  • "Living by the sword"
  • How the dead will be raised
  • The Catholic vs. Protestant Bible
  • Where Jesus was pierced by the spear
  • Destruction in the Middle East
  • The Jehovah's Witness Bible

    Research on Luke 16:19-31 indicates that the Pharisees and others of Jesus' day perceived wealth to be a sign of God's favor. Hence, Jesus' story [about Lazarus and the rich man] was intended to correct this thinking.

    Oddly, research on James 2:5 (particularly from Peter H. Davids's commentary on James) indicates that the popular opinion was that poverty signified God's favor/election. Can you make sense of these apparently contradictory claims? --Greg H.

    While it is true, if one reads the book of Proverbs, that wealth is sometimes seen as a blessing from God, poverty is never viewed as a blessing, not even in James. James suggests that wealth is not necessarily a sign of God's blessing, and that the poor can often be closer to God than the wealthy--indeed, that poverty can be the stimulus that drives one to God.

    Is there biblical support for withholding charity in certain cases? A year ago a man was hired at my husband's workplace, and at the time the boss told my husband he was doing it as a charitable act because the man has had trouble with drugs and is practically penniless. Without subjecting you to a huge litany of gripes, however, suffice it to say that the man is a very poor worker, usually arrives late and leaves early, often doesn't show up at all, and has a terrible temper. He's a big man, and the other employees are rather afraid of him. They're also demoralized because they know they would have been fired a long time ago if they performed as poorly as he does. The boss is aware of the problems but has done nothing, as far as anyone knows.

    I seem to recall that the Bible has something to say about this--something about knowing the person you're giving charity to--but I haven't been able to find the verse. --Anonymous

    This falls under the category of being wise as serpents and innocent as doves. I would suggest that you look over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Compassion and charity are acts that should be done wholeheartedly, of course, but giving someone a job which then hurts other workers is not compassionate towards those other workers. Compassion must be exercised wisely.

    I have a very devoted Christian friend who has taught her kids that when they are sick, it is Satan trying to "get" them. I was shocked at this as her child developed strep throat and was at her bedroom door shivering with sickness and fever, saying, 'Satan, Satan'...Is this true to Christian belief? And if it is, where in the Bible does it say that getting an organic sickness is due to the devil? --Mary Kay B.

    This is certainly not a Christian perspective. Consider, for example, what Jesus says in John 9 about the man born blind. He says that it is neither because he had sinned nor because his parents had sinned that he was in this condition. There is no one-to-one correlation in the Bible between sickness and sin, or between sickness and the Devil, for that matter. Satan is linked to one and only one particular condition in the New Testament--namely demon possession, and strep throat definitely doesn't fall under the heading of demon possession. To demonize all illness is to give the Devil way too much credit.

    Can you give me the verse and scriptures in the Bible that explain who gets into heaven and under what circumstances? --Ayanna

    There is very little discussion about dying and going to heaven in the New Testament, so I am not surprised you have not found the appropriate verses. What is discussed in the New Testament frequently is the means of salvation which is repeatedly said to be Jesus, whether we think of the Johannine "I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6) or "there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved" (Acts 4:12). Jesus is certainly portrayed in the New Testament as the exclusive means of salvation for anyone.

    Which of the Ten Commandments was not followed or enforced in the New Testament? I located 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. But I was having trouble finding 2, 3, and 4. --scotland_dreamer

    The Sabbath commandment was not reinforced in the Christian era--see, for example, what Paul says about keeping Sabbaths in Colossians 2:16. Christians worshipped on the Lord's Day, or Sunday, not on the Jewish Sabbath, and did not feel they had to keep the Jewish Sabbath anymore.

    I was brought up to believe that sex before marriage or any man seeing my body before marriage is a sin. I'd like to know what scriptures there are to back this up. I have made the mistake and lost my virginity. Does this condemn me to hell? Or is there forgiveness for this? I think of it this way: I love the person I am with, I intend to marry him, I am not playing around, nor am I one to sleep around. I need to either calm my mind, or make a decision to change my ways.

    There can be no doubt that the New Testament classifies any kind of sexual relationships outside of marriage as a sin, so yes, there needs to be some repentance on your part. But the Lord will forgive you of this if you truly and earnestly repent. Notice how in Matthew 5, Jesus classifies even lustful thoughts as adultery. The basic rule in the New Testament, as Matthew 19 shows, is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.

    The reasons for saving sex for marriage are numerous. First of all, you cannot be sure you will marry this person. Something could happen between now and then. Second, sex is physically the most intimate act you can share, but it needs to be shared in the context of an already extant permanent commitment to each other. You cannot fully love someone you don't yet fully trust, and the trust relationship needs to be fully in place before intimate sharing happens. Third, when you share the marital act outside of marriage you cheapen the special nature of the intimacy of marriage.

    In Matthew 10:34, it reads, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword." Then Jesus says somewhere else that "those who live by the sword die by the sword." I can't help but feel a sense of betrayal by these two conflicting passages. God sends the sword, yet he warns us not to live by it? --Ben G.

    These two texts are certainly not in contradiction with one another. Matthew 10:34, in its context, has nothing to do with military weapons. It has to do with the division caused in a family when the family is divided over a commitment to Jesus.

    As for Jesus' personal stance on fighting and war, it should be clear from Matthew 5-7 that Jesus is a pacifist. He believes in turning the other cheek, in forgiving and loving one's enemies, in leaving revenge in God's hands, and he even condemns the disciples for striking the high priest's slave with a weapon in the Garden of Gethesemane when they are seeking to rescue Jesus from his captors.

    My daughter passed away almost four years ago from a car accident. Everyone tells me that she is now in heaven, and I believe that. But the Bible states that when the end comes, and Christ returns, he is going to raise the dead believers first to be with him. If she is now in heaven, how would he raise her from the dead? Is she just in eternal sleep now and not really in heaven, or is she in heaven in her new state? --Linda

    This is a fine question, and you should read closely what 1 Thessalonians 4-5 says on this issue.

    Both things are true. As 2 Corinthians 5 says, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (cf. also Revelation 6:9 about the saints under the altar in heaven). It is also true however that the dead in Christ will be raised. One could envision them coming with Jesus when he returns, but in 1 Thessalonians 4-5, the text suggests that they rise from the earth and go and meet him in the air. In any case, life in heaven is but a prelude to resurrection of the dead, when believers are finally conformed to Christ's image.

    I'm a Catholic dating a Protestant woman. I read the Book of Tobit this morning. I wanted so much for Jessica to read it, but it's not in her Bible. Why is that? --Mike

    The Catholic Bible includes certain inter-testamental books like Tobit. The Catholic Church considers these books "deuterocanonical," or having a secondary canonical status.

    In the fourth century A.D., the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Church agreed on 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books. The 39 Old Testament books did not include Tobit. The Protestant Bible follows the decision of Athanasius in the east and Pope Innocent in the west in about 368 A.D. which said these 66 books and no others.

    Does the Bible itself actually identify exactly which side Jesus was pierced with the spear? I always thought it was the left side. --Bob

    No one knows.

    Someone that works with me told me that, in the Old Testament, God told the Jewish people to go through Middle East and destroy everyone and everything in their way. Is this true? I do read my Bible, but I have not seen such a verse. --Nadia B

    Perhaps they are thinking of the haram or "ban" passages from Joshua (more), where the Holy Land is to be cleansed of the enemies of God's people. There is nothing in the Bible about Jews going through the entire Middle East and wiping everyone out.

    You wrote: "If you are wondering if there has been a scholarly conspiracy to amend the Bible to suit particular theological views, the answer is basically no, unless you are dealing with versions like the New World Translation by the Jehovah's Witnesses."

    Could you provide a couple of examples of how the Jehovah's Witnesses have done that with their Bible? --Davida W.

    Perhaps the best example comes in John 1. In the New World Translation, they refuse to translate the text properly; it should be translated "and the Word was God" (John 1:1). They prefer "and the word was a god" (read verse) because they do not accept that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and so God.

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