Friday, December 8, 2023

How Did the Early Church Do Christmas?

 How did early Christians go about celebrating Christmas? Was it anything like the way we do it? In fact, can we learn anything from what they considered important and what they did or what they emphasized to enhance our worship of the Great-God-Among-Us: Jesus Christ?

Saint Nicolas wasn’t going to be born to become Bishop of Myra until the fourth century, when he would give away bags of gold to dowry-less girls and do all those other sweet things that would get him enshrined as the legendary quintessential Gift Giver, so there was no St. Nick, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus yet or Saint Co-Laus (corruption of the Dutch for Nicolas).[1]

So, with no Santa Claus in the picture, the first thing the early Christians did was get Jesus’s identity straight.

As early as around the year AD 90, a man named John, one of Jesus’s own chosen messengers, was pastoring in and around the city of Ephesus, a huge and thriving seaport of some 200,000 people on the Aegean Sea—in what is the coastal region of the country of Turkey today. Christian churches were in homes in those days, sort of like underground Chinese house churches today, since, as in mainland China, Christianity was not strictly legal, and was subjected to sporadic persecution. Tradition tells us John built a small hut on a hill near the Temple of Artemis. It was an austere place with no fresh water. Here he wrote his memoirs of Jesus and lived on, some say, until the age of 120. He was continually in communion with the Holy Spirit, who guided his writing.[2] What he wrote about Jesus inspired the way the churches under his care approached the advent of Jesus.

In the gospel of John 1:1, right there in the beginning of his account of Jesus’s life, he starts with the words: “in the beginning.” Now this is a reference to Genesis 1:1 in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. He’s intentionally echoing the start of Genesis to tell us directly that the story of Jesus begins before the world began. So, when we read this, we should understand it to say, “in the beginning of creation” or “when God began to create”—what? That active Word that went forth from God was already existing. So, the word wasn’t created. The force of the verb John uses means that The Word went back indefinitely forever in time. So, this Word always existed (eimi).

Then John tells us: “and the Word was face to face with God.” This shows a distinctness—this Word was communing face to face with God the Father (pros) in a position of equality with God and in sweet communion. How can this be? John explains it clearly for us, when he finishes the sentence with these words: “and the Word was God.” That is the mystery we call the Trinity. How the one God can have three faces or is comprised of three co-equal, co-eternal Persons: God the Father, God the Word, God the Holy Spirit.[3] But, one not three gods. God is not like us!

For the next several verses, John tells us about the Word’s role in creating human beings, giving us light and life, and then John sums it all up for us in verse 14: “and the Word became flesh.” That’s what Christmas, or what we call Advent, is all about, that, at one point in time, God’s powerful creating Word, active in creation and sustaining creation, became clothed in human flesh by being born among the humanity he created, literally, “pitched his tent among humans.” That’s what John says in the Greek word he chose (skēnoō).

The tent imagery is a reference to the great moveable tent that led the children of Israel in the wilderness after the exodus, what they called “the tabernacle.” That special tent or tabernacle is where God met the people. They would pitch this tent in the midst of their camp. Then suddenly a cloud would overshadow it, fire would come forth, and God would meet with people in this tent of meeting. So, this is the language John uses to describe Jesus. He pitches the tent of his human body in the midst of people, and, in meeting Jesus, they meet God.

As an eyewitness, John himself reports that he and the other fishermen and homemakers and small farmers and tax agents and everybody else scrutinized Jesus empirically with their five senses (hearing his words, seeing his miracles, touching him) and what they saw in Jesus was the same glory that Old Testament Israel saw when God was present at the tabernacle: the shekinah glory of God. That glory, John explains, was unique. It was like the only child of the heavenly Father, filled to the brim with the two characteristics that Moses beheld, when God passed before him on Mount Sinai and wrote once again for Israel the Ten Commandments of God’s law (Exodus 34:6) and those are: grace and truth (John 1:14). And those two categorical characteristics were the same ones the people who examined Jesus saw in Jesus Christ—grace—that is, God’s persevering love for humanity, and truth—the righteousness and justice of a holy and sovereign God.

In this book that we call the gospel—or good news—of John, John shared that experience and discovery some sixty or so years later with the people under his pastoral care: it was an indelible experience for him, still fresh and new and as exciting as back in the days when it occurred. We can see the ineluctable impression that it left on him—he had met the great God walking about among us mere humans.

The second thing the early Christians did was to try to set a date to celebrate the Nativity.

Aida was complaining the other day about the post office’s Christmas stamps: how come the only time we see Jesus on a United States stamp is with Mary when he was a babe in arms? What about a resurrection stamp? Or a crucifixion stamp? Or even the feeding of the 5000 stamp? After all, as a baby, basically Jesus was born, but he couldn’t do a whole lot yet. Well, apparently, the early Christians felt exactly like she does. For them, the interesting part about Jesus’s life began with his baptism that launched his ministry—that’s when things really got going.[4] Therefore, it should come as no surprise to discover that the very earliest Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’s birth—only his ministry, death, and resurrection—because those were the important points for them. In fact, when they did think about Jesus’s birth, they decided to group it onto January 6, the day Jesus was baptized. That day they held a feast—called the Epiphany or appearance, because that’s the day Jesus’s public ministry got underway.[5] So, on the evening of January 5, they would have a feast to celebrate Jesus’s birth and the next day they would celebrate his baptism. It was a good, efficient way to do it.

In AD 200, Clement of Alexandria refers to just such a celebration of the feast of Jesus’s birth in Egypt on January 5, but apparently not everybody picked that date. Some Christian communities had their own dates.[6] After all, nobody could remember for certain exactly when Jesus was born. It was sometime probably between March and mid-November. How do we know? Because, that’s when the shepherds were in the fields. You remember that stirring account in Luke 2:8-14 that appears in so many Christmas specials and pageants and on so many Christmas cards: “And shepherds were in the countryside, the same living out of doors and taking turns keeping night watching of their sheep. And, an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with a great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Do not continue being afraid, for, behold, I bring you good news of great joy, which will be for all the people, since a Savior was born today, who is Christ the Lord in the city of David and this will be a sign to you, you will find a baby wrapped up and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly came with the angel a crowd of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, ‘Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace among humans of good will.’” That event took place sometime in the spring, summer, or fall. How do we know the approximate time of the year this must have taken place? After mid-November the rains began and the cold was piercing in Israel so the sheep were kept indoors. They were not brought out to the fields again until mid-March at the earliest, so the range must be from mid-March to mid-November.[7] But, where, in this eight month range of possible dates, the exact month of Jesus’s birth actually was, we simply do not know for sure, since the disciples and their disciples apparently did not emphasize the date or, perhaps, even bother to pass it on. Some Bible students do estimate it was September because of the New Testament information on Elizabeth and Zechariah.[8]

Meanwhile, on January 6, the pagan world was having its own feast dedicated to Dionysus, the fertility god of wine and debauchery, to acknowledge the fact that the days were getting longer. So, it appears that, just as today where we have our own Christian music and our own Christian activities and celebrations, the early church set up an alternative feast to compete with the pagan one.

After Emperor Constantine came into sole power (AD 312) and became a Christian, he later moved the celebration of Jesus’s birth a week or so earlier to December 25 to combat a pagan feast to the Sun. Sun worship was a particularly popular celebration among the army and its former general and now emperor.[9] Constantine wanted his soldiers to convert to his new faith, so he snapped an order and changed the content of their holiday. They went from worshiping the sun god to worshiping God’s Son.

The soldiers reportedly had been butchering bulls and standing under their dripping blood to honor the Zoroastrian Persian (that is, Iranian) god Mithras, who as the Mighty Sun’s ally was a champion of light against darkness, having himself slain the mythic bull of darkness, evil, and death.[10] Since Jesus’s blood was already shed to bring life and light to people (as John points out in 1:4), Constantine decreed that nothing else needed to be sacrificed, so he had his soldiers ease off on the Tauros population.

Moving the date from January 5 to December 25 also pointed people away from celebrating the pagan winter solstice festival. Now they could replace that nature worship with celebrating nature’s Creator, Jesus, instead. Some Christians, however, grumbled, so John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, two very popular preachers (“Chrysostom” means the golden-mouthed orator) promoted the new date all over the capital city of Constantinople. Still, those in the outlying districts weren’t happy with the change. Egyptian Christians didn’t convert over to the new date for a hundred years until 431 and the church of Armenia still has not accepted it some 1500 or so years later.

Now, how did the celebration of Jesus’s birth get to be called “Christmas” or Christ’s mass or service? That didn’t come until the eleventh century, around the year 1000, when the celebration was called “Cristes maesse” in Olde English. During the Reformation, the new protest-ants went back to the earliest church’s practice and didn’t bother to celebrate Christmas at all. In fact, in England between 1642-52, they prohibited Christmas church services and festivities by law. So, when the Puritans arrived here in America, they didn’t bring Christmas with them! That came in the 1800s with the Irish and German immigrants having such a joyful time that soon everybody joined in and even those who weren’t Christians began celebrating Christmas—the day of Jesus Christ’s birth—right on into today.[11] In fact, our neighbors across the street, who were stringing Christmas lights across their house, fence, bushes on Thanksgiving are directly descended from Irish immigrants. And, by the way, they were Irish cops, too, before their retirement. They’ve brought both joy and safety to our neighborhood—being the best neighbors anyone could hope for! We thank God for the privilege to live across from them.

So, in summary, how did the early church celebrate Christmas? When they got around to it, they held a big meal and thanked the Godhead for sending Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God, to earth. And they thanked Jesus for emptying himself of all his heavenly glory and humbly becoming like each of us—but without sin—so he could do for us what we could not do for ourselves: die on the cross for our sins in order to reunite us to fellowship with God. So, if you want to celebrate Christ’s coming to earth in the grand old manner, do what the early Christians did.

First, relax. Don’t let Christmas become so big and pressured that you find the main thing you’re thankful about is that it’s over.

Instead, dwell on the simple things—after all, it’s all about a baby! Have a celebratory feast. And, include in your gifts, gifts that promote Jesus’s ministries today.

Dwell on who Jesus really is, by rereading the beautiful true reports in the gospels. Make sure you worship God’s Son, not God’s creations.

Then, you’ll be worshiping as the early Christians did, rediscovering the true, affirming joy of Christmas. Each Christmas season should remind us once again that the Greatest Gift God has given us is Godself in Jesus Christ: God-Among-Us. And, for that we should all be eternally thankful.



[1] “Nicholas, St.,” Collier’s Encyclopedia 17 (1986): 527. See also the children’s book, The True Story of Saint Nicholas, by Rebecca Benson Haskell, illustrated by Elizabeth Durham Goodhue (Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood, 1997) and “What Does Santa Claus Think about Jesus?”  by Aída Besançon Spencer (Dec. 11, 2015)

Although iconic today as the symbol of Christmas, even the earliest estimate of the use of Christmas trees is well over 1000 years after the early church (first 300s vs. 1300s and after).

[2] See Fatih Cimok, A Guide to the Seven Churches (Istanbul, Turkey: A Turizm Yayinlari, 1998), 47; Eusebius, Church History 3.31; F. W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1883), 393-404; Kim Ju-Chan, Biblical Routes of Turkey (Seoul, Korea: Chung Dam, 1998).

[3] See also Matt. 28:19. All New Testament translations are by the author. See further my book, Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022).

[4] Notice that Mark, who followed Peter’s preaching in Rome, began his gospel at Jesus’s baptism (where Peter began his ministry too).

[5] Epiphany has also referred to when the incarnate Jesus was revealed to various groups of people at his birth, the coming of the magi, his baptism, and the wedding of Cana (first miracle), as well as when he will be revealed at his second coming. “Epiphany,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 381.

[6] Some dates suggested were January 6, April 18 or 19, May 20, and December 25. “Christmas,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 238-39.

[7] Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1961), 229-31.

[9] See for example, 2 Kings 23:11.

[10] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 2d ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 6-7; “Christmas,” F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 280.

[11] “Christmas,” Collier’s Encyclopedia vol. 6: 403-4.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

How is the Land of Israel Today Different and Similar to the Israel of Bible Times? A Guide for Bible Students

While we lament the devastation of the war in Israel, we also lament not being able to visit the land of the Bible. Regrettably, wars occurred in Israel in Bible times, as they do today. When we eventually travel to Israel, we can see that the Israel of 2000 years ago is different from the Israel of our time, with its cars racing along major highways while airplanes circle above. But, what about the land itself: the terrain (that is, the ground, especially with regard to its natural features), the flora (flowers, plants), and the fauna (animals)? Although hills and valleys remain in Israel as they were thousands of years ago and the species of vegetation are basically the same and many ancient animals remain, the density of the vegetation has diminished, new flora has been added, and many larger fauna have become rare or extinct.

Terrain: The Bible writers frequently describe God as “my rock, my fortress” (e.g., 2 Sam 22:2). Not only is Israel a land of many rocks, but also of high massive rock-filled hills, which were used as well for fortresses. Nevertheless, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus in the first century wrote that Israel was like “a garden of God in which there grows the most precious and most beautiful trees in amazing varieties.” He adds that Judea and Samaria “have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit…[which] derive their chief moisture from rain water…all their waters are exceedingly sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do that of other places.” In Galilee and Perea the soil also was “universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts” (War III.3.2 [42-50]). Because Israel lies at the crossroads of three continents, it has the flora, fauna, and terrain of the Mediterranean, the Irano-Turanian steppeland, the African, and the Euro-Siberian regions. Closer to our times, Ammon Stapleton declares, “No country in the face of the globe, of equal area, has such great inequalities of surface…in one’s day’s travel, may be experienced the heat of the Tropics, and the cold of the Arctic regions!” Mount Hermon is 11,090 feet above, while the Dead Sea is 1337 feet below sea level. “Perpetual summer and perpetual snow” may be found in Israel.”[1] Plant and bird species present in Israel are far out of proportion to the size of the area. 150 plant species are found only in Israel, such as the large Iris. Over 2800 flowering plants have been classified. Over 380 different species of birds can be seen (for example, compared to 577 species throughout Europe up to the Russian border).

However, Israel in Bible times had more woodlands, tall trees, and thick forests than it does now. The different wars occurring in Israel have done much damage to the land because in wars trees are cut and orchards burned. Wood also was cut for fuel.

The Sea of Galilee today is smaller than the ancient Sea (due to erosion); but, the basic temperatures and rain precipitation is the same now as it was in the first century.

Flora: Even though forests have shrunk, the steppelands have spread, and swamps have dried up due to wars and erosion, the modern Jewish state has re-planted thousands of acres with forest trees, mainly pine. Natural reserves, such as the Atlantic terebinths at Ein Avazim, preserve some ancient trees.

The Mount of Olives (Luke 21:37) still exists, even though the groves are only a fraction of what they were in antiquity.[2]

Only a few of the famous cedars of Lebanon remain (they once covered about 2,000 square miles of land).

The ancient forests of Sodom and Gomorrah are now under the Dead Sea.

The plane tree (Platanus orientalis) and the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) are almost gone. The lily may be rare because pilgrims would often pluck this flower.

New fruits have been introduced to Israel, such as the prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) from America via North Africa and the Jaffa orange from Portugal and China.

New plants have been introduced, such as the evening primrose (Oenothera) from America and Eucalyptus from Australia and the cactus family.

Nevertheless, many ancient trees survive such as the sycamore, oak, terebinth, zizyphus (all once considered sacred in idolatrous worship), acacia (used to make the ark of the covenant, Exod 25:10), laurel or bay (for the victor’s wreath).

Most biblical species of flora can still be found, such as:

a.   the seven species, symbol of Israel’s bounty recounted in Deuteronomy 8:8 (“a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees, and honey”);

b.   figs, dates, and olives (Olea europaea), (which may originally have come from Israel: “gardens are folly and olives are kings,” according to an Arabic proverb);

c.    wheat, grapes, and pomegranates (Song 7:12);

d.   the rose of Sharon (Pancratum maritimum, Song 2:1) and lilies of the field (Anemone, Luke 12:27).

Fauna: Many of the larger animals have become extinct or rare, because of hunting or climate changes, such as elephants, hippopotamuses, Carmel roe deer (with three pointed antlers, the emblem of the Tribe of Naphtali, Gen 49:21), Persian fallow deer, Nile crocodiles, Syrian bears, wild goats (Song 6:5; Job 39:1), wild sheep, ostriches (Job 39:13-18), lappet-faced vultures, cheetahs, lions (Job 4:10), and unicorns or oryx, a kind of antelope[3] (Ps 92:10). Horses and oxen, and the barley they eat, are slowly being replaced by machines.

Today, new animals have been brought, such as the coypu (rodent) from South America.

But, other large animals from Bible times remain: camels (from the Midianites), leopards, jungle cats, wild boars, jackals, foxes, hyenas, wild gazelles (Song 2:7; 8:14), and wild ibexes.

The smaller fauna also remain: locusts (Joel 1:6-10), field mice (1 Sam 6:5), ravens (who fed Elijah, 1 Kings 17:4-6), bees (which provided Samson with his riddle, Judg 14:8, 14), serpents, murex snails (used for purple dye), migratory birds (stork, turtledove, swallow, crane [Jer 8:7]), owls, short-toed eagles, herons, pheasants, partridges, sparrows, and bats. The voice of the nightingale is still heard in the land (Song 2:12).

Thus, though there are differences, Azaria Alon concludes that basically the Israel of today is similar to the Israel of the Bible: “Not only have the timeless hills and valleys remained as they were, but the vegetation which clothes them is the same, and the animals that wander at large.”[4]


[1] Picture is from Plants of the Bible: A Complete Handbook to all the Plants with 200 Full-Color Plates Taken in the Natural Habitat by Michael Zohary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). Ammon Stapleton, Natural History of the Bible (Cleveland: Lauer & Yost, 1885), 8.

[2] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 3:597.

[3] The Oryx leucoryx appears to have one horn in profile. However, Erhard Reuwich in his travel guide to Israel in 1486, Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, carved in wood a one-horned unicorn, among other animals, such as giraffes and camels.

[4] THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE LAND OF THE BIBLE (New York: Paul Hamlyn, 1969), 14. See also David A. Anderson, ALL THE TREES AND WOODY PLANTS OF THE BIBLE (Waco: Word, 1979), 40, 43, 49. The Book of Job, chs. 39-41, is a great biblical introduction to the wild life of Israel. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) is recommended for Bible students who visit Israel.


Monday, October 9, 2023

What’s Good Advice? What Can We Learn from Job’s friends?


Appreciation to the Jewish Museum (Google image), by James Jacques Joseph Tissot 1896-1902

Where do you get your advice and how do you know it is good advice?[1]

I first think of Bill, my husband. I ask him many things all day long and he gives me great advice.

But, who might be second?

For regular advice, I thought of Google. Do you ever ask Google for information or advice? Even if you have AleXa or another robot with a human voice,  they sound like experts. And you can get it! Most is good, but some is not appropriate.

I asked Google how it gives advice. This is its answer:

“Google Search works in three stages, and not all pages make it through each stage:

1.           Crawling: Google downloads text, images, and videos from pages it found on the internet with automated programs called crawlers.

2.           Indexing: Google analyzes the text, images, and video files on the page, and stores the information in the Google index, which is a large database.

3.           Serving search results: When a user searches on Google, Google returns information that's relevant to the user's query.”

Now, that’s impressive!

So, to test it, I asked Google for information on myself (which I could easily test for accuracy). Google gave me a picture of Bill, Steve, and myself (which I had placed somewhere in a bio). It also showed me my Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary picture, then, my name: Aida Besancon Spencer. I also saw many of the books that I wrote, including one that wasn’t ours: The Prayer Life of Jesus, the same title as our book, but a different subtitle and different author!

Google can give you some great information and advice, but how do you know when it’s wrong?

How about you? Do you always receive good advice? And do we iurselves always give good advice?

Last month Bill gave us a helpful framework for understanding Job[2]: a court drama, God as the judge, Satan the Accuser or the prosecutor, defendant Job and 4 witnesses with a final verdict.

These witnesses were all Job’s friends. God did not dismiss them as biased and nonobjective witnesses. Their testimony was welcomed. Their advice went on from chapters 4-37:

Eliphaz the Temanite chs. 4, 5, 15, 22—4 chapters;

Bildad the Shuhite chs. 8, 18, 25—3 chapters;

Zophar the Naamathite chs. 11, 20—2 chapters;

Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite of the family of Ram chs. 32-37—6 chapters;

The Lord, chs. 38-41—4 chapters.

I found a couple articles on the net when I asked: What advice did Job’s friends give?, and the authors of the articles were all agreed that his friends started out well. Let’s take a look at Job 2:11-13:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”[3]

I summarized their empathetic help in 10 steps:

1.     They found out about Job and his current situation.[4] That is not always so easy to do.

2.     They went to Job, leaving their homes.

Where were they all from?

Job was from the land of Uz. Whenever I hear of Uz, I think of The Wizard of Oz, a fictional story. But Uz was a historical land and the people from there were Uzzites. Uz was near Idumea and the Arabian desert. Idumea is south and east of Israel. Uz was a son of Aram, descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons (Gen 10:23), another Uz was a son of Milcah, Abraham’s sister-in-law (Gen 22:20; 11:29). Uz was also a descendant of Esau (Gen 36:28).

Eliphaz as a Temanite was probably a descendent of Esau and from Idumaea. Teman was the grandson of Esau.

Zophar was an inhabitant of Naamah, perhaps named for Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah in Genesis 4:22. Naamah’s brother Tubalcain made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.

Bildad was a native of Shuah, Shuah was a son of Abraham and Keturah in Genesis 25:2, whom Abraham married after Sarah died.

Elihu descended from the same family as Abraham—Aramaea. “Elihu”’s name means “My God is He.”[5] Thus, these friends lived all around the Arabian desert and not far from Idumea. They did not live in the same village as did Job and thus had to travel some distance to reach him.

3.     They were communal. The text says that they “met together to go” (2:11). That in itself must have been a lot of work, to contact each other.

4.     Their goal was laudable: “to console and comfort Job” (v. 11). Job looked so awful, they didn’t recognize him. The commentator F. Delitzsch suggests that Job had elephantiasis, where your limbs could become jointless lumps, a type of leprosy or tubercular boils, like cancer spreading over the whole body,[6] these boils went from the sole of Job’s feet to the crown of his head (Deut 28:35).

5.     They sympathized with Job by crying aloud, tearing their robes, throwing dust on their heads (v.12)—all signs of mourning.

6.     They sat with him on the ground for 7 days.

7.     And through the night! (I made this last action a separate point!) Staying with someone throughout the day is one thing, but staying with someone at night is something else!

8.     And they said nothing! How many of us will take over a week to visit friends and remain silent day and night in their presence! If I remain silent a few seconds or minutes, at most 30 minutes, that is a great accomplishment!

9.     They allowed Job to speak first and heard his complaint.

10.  Once they spoke, their comments are thoughtful and eloquent.

One commentator thought that “The speeches of Job’s three friends include many inaccuracies.”[7] Rather, I think they were accurate but not relevant to Job’s situation.

For example, Eliphaz was right on when he told Job: See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.” (4:3-5)

Isn’t Bildad right when he said? “If you are pure and upright, surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place. Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great” (8:6-7). He was prophetic, because Job was restored.

Bildad’s point is similar to Psalm 91:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the hunter and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and defense. You will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you….Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (1-10, 12).

The devil quotes this passage to Jesus in the wilderness, but as with Job’s friends, this truth did not apply to Jesus at that time, just as their advice did not apply to Job.

Isn’t Zophar right? “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?” (11:7-8) God agrees with Zophar at the end of the book.

Sometimes when I scarcely avoid a car accident, I think of Psalm 91 and Bildad’s words.

Isn’t Eliphaz right that Job fell apart when he got the sores?

Isn’t Zophar right that God is deep and beyond our comprehension?

But, if we turn to chapter 42, the Lord is angry at Eliphaz and Job’s two other friends, Bildad and Zophar (42:7). They have not spoken of the Lord “what is right, as my servant Job has” (v. 7). All Job did was complain! How can he be the hero?

Yet, he is also the hero in Ezekiel 14:14-20. Noah, Daniel, and Job are examples of righteous humans, so righteous that they could save a whole land from destruction, but not in the instances when God is adamant about its destruction.

And of course you may remember James 5:11: “Behold, we consider blessed the ones enduring; you heard of the endurance of Job and you saw the outcome of the Lord, that greatly compassionate is the Lord and merciful.”[8]

Of course, Job was not patient! He “endured or persevered.” “Endurance” is the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulties or trials, external unavoidable events that happen—in this case, being tested for the genuineness of one’s faith. Job was tested for his faith, as had been Abraham and Rahab. The testing of our faith produces endurance, which results in maturity, the confidence in God to resolve injustice because God is compassionate and merciful. Job did not give up. Though Job’s suffering is great, and his complaints are many, he never curses God.[9] We are told that Job’s face is “red with weeping, and deep darkness is on his eyelids.” His spirit is broken (16:16; 17:11).

Like Jeremiah, he becomes a laughingstock to all” (Job 12:4; 17:6; 19:13-19; 30:1, 9). However, Job never doubts the nature of God as just, wise, mighty, omniscient, and the creator and sustainer of the world. How beautiful is this speech of Job’s in 28:12-28:

“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.
 The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx or sapphire. Gold and glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal; the price of wisdom is above pearls. The chrysolite of Cush cannot compare with it, nor can it be valued in pure gold.

Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say, ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

God understands the way to it, and he knows its place. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight and apportioned out the waters by measure, when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt,  then he saw it and declared it; he established it and searched it out. And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”

Job persists in defending his innocence and repeatedly desires to present his case to God. But even the righteous Job grows in understanding and maturity when God confronts him: God is even greater than Job imagined and more responsive than Job thought.

Job’s friends do not see any of these qualities in Job. God says to Job and to Eliphaz the Temanite: “my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends because you have not spoken of what is right (or reliable/faithful/certain/steadfast), as my servant Job.” (42:7). What does God mean to be “right”?

The same word literally is used in Judges 16:26 and 29 about a house set firm upon pillars. Remember when the Philistines captured Samson and gouged out his eyes so that he could not see? They made him stand between the pillars of the house and when Samson leaned his weight on the middle pillars, he pulled the pillars down, then the house fell on everyone who had attacked and mocked him. That is what our advice should be like: like pillars that hold up a building— reliable and faithful, pillars that secure the house of advice that we give about God’s work in the world.

The pillars of a house should be upright or firm and faithful. Job’s friends did not support Job steadfastly.

What did they do wrong?

  They assumed that there is only one reason that believers suffer: because they have sinned. For example, Eliphaz: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). Eliphaz adds in 22:4-5 “Is it for your piety that God reproves you and enters into judgment with you? Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities.”

Bildad: “If you are pure and upright, surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place” (8:6).

Zophar: “Do you not know this from of old, ever since mortals were placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short and the joy of the godless is but for a moment? Even though they mount up high as the heavens and their head reaches to the clouds, they will perish forever like their own dung; those who have seen them will say, ‘Where are they?’ They will fly away like a dream and not be found; they will be chased away like a vision of the night” (20:4-8).

Ironically, Job agrees! He cannot understand why “the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power” (21:7).

Job and his friends all had one reason for suffering: punishment for sin—directly from God, which reduced God to one dimension, a punishing God, equated with the Accuser.

1. In other words, people suffer because we live in a punishing world where sin is corrected. That’s true, but Job’s friends overlook the other reasons for suffering:

2. Sometimes believers and nonbelievers suffer from living in a fallen world, whose order is disrupted by evil.

Jesus mentions this to his disciples in Luke 13:1-5: When they “told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 

He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’”  In effect, Jesus is saying that a similar disaster might occur to any of us, so we need to be ready to meet our judge.

3. Sometimes believers suffer when they advance God’s reign, such as happened to Jeremiah; a persecuting world may oppose God’s people.

4. Sometimes an innocent individual righteous person suffers, as in Job’s case, and no one knows why. We live in a mysterious world and from a human perspective we are perplexed because we don’t know the whole picture.[10]

Let us end with an example from my past where someone applied the wrong reason to my suffering and did more harm than good. It would have been better if she had said nothing about the cause of my suffering.

I was studying in seminary and got a cold. I decided to clean my dorm room to remove the germs but the excess dust in the room moved my cold up to pneumonia. That is the first and only time I ever got pneumonia and I had to go into the school’s infirmary. The problem, outside of being sick, was that I was scheduled to preach a Sunday sermon at a nearby home for retired Presbyterian ministers and church leaders. Bill graciously agreed to take my place, for which I was most thankful. As usual he did a wonderful job and the seniors were delighted with him.

But then the pastor’s wife afterwards told us that she thought that God allowed me to get pneumonia so that Bill could preach! That sure made me feel depressed. Am I such a bad preacher that God has to strike me with pneumonia in order to replace me with a better preacher? Bill was appalled when he heard that because he knew that I had prepared an excellent sermon.

I was happy that Bill did an effective presentation, but must I be compared with Bill? Doesn’t God use everyone’s gifts?

I wonder now what could have been her biblical base for this view. And I think that maybe she was alluding to Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” However, Paul is writing in Romans about salvation. God’s goal is for us to be conformed to the Son’s image and eventually be glorified, not that all suffering is God’s direct purpose.

Rather, what Bill and I thought was that I got a cold and pneumonia because I live in a fallen world where tiredness and dust can harm us and be disruptive, yet God can achieve God’s purpose even in the midst of this suffering world. The seniors did not lose their opportunity to hear God’s word because we found someone willing to take my place! In this case, Bill!

We all have our favorite reason for suffering, but we should be careful. We should make sure it is a biblical reason and not force our favorite reason to be applied to every occasion. If we aren’t sure, best not say anything and follow the first ten steps of Job’s friends:

1) We should keep aware of what is happening to our friends; 2) if God stirs in our hearts to be compassionate, we should go to the suffering person; 3) find others to go with us, if they too feel called; 4) aim to console and comfort; 5) sympathize with the suffering person; 6-7) stay with them, 8) keep quiet, 9) let them speak, and 10)  be thoughtful when we finally do speak.

And we should always think carefully about the four basic reasons, so we can suggest the appropriate one. Plus, we may still respond sympathetically no matter the reason.

And we should never offer counsel when we don’t understand what people are going through and why.

And then maybe God will say about us: that we spoke what is right and the suffering person will not have to make intercession for us! Amen!


[1] This blog is an adaption of a sermon given for Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA, August 27, 2023.

[2] “The Case of the Innocent Bystander: Job” in Applying Biblical Truths Today,

[3] All quotations are from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.

[4] This first step may be found in: 7 Positive Lessons from Job’s Friends on Helping Hurting People September 22, 2020 by brian 15 comments, accessed August 2023.

[5] See also F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, vol. 4 Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 206-7.

[6] F. Delitzsch, Commentary, 70.

[8] Author’s translation from Aída Besançon Spencer, A Commentary on James, Kregel Exegetical Library (Grand rapids: Kregel, 2020), 268-69.

[9] Spencer, Commentary, 268-69.

[10] See further, Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer, Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering, House of Prisca and Aquila (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1994).