The Cross through the Eyes of a Secret Believer: A Message on John 19

This post is a message I recently shared at a local church in South Asia. Subscribe to this blog to receive updates in your e-mail about No Cousins Left!

Secret believers are a common phenomenon in Muslim ministry. A few years ago, a friend and I were going village by village in a rural area looking for Muslims whose hearts were open to the gospel. Most people were resting in the heat of the day, but one man saw and invited us into his shop. Naseem was the village doctor and was curious about why we were there. My friend and I shared the gospel with Dr. Naseem, but he was not convinced. I left him with an Injeel (Urdu for the New Testament) and challenged him to read it. I did not expect ever to see Naseem again.

When I woke up the next morning, I saw that I had more than ten missed calls. All of them were from Dr. Naseem. He had been calling me from about 1-5 am, but my phone was on silent mode. When I called him, Dr. Naseem told me that he had not stopped reading the Injeel from the time I had left his shop. He had not eaten nor slept. I could tell that he was troubled on the phone. He told me that he knew that the Injeel was true and asked me, “What do I need to do?”

Unfortunately, Naseem was not willing to count the cost to follow Jesus fully. Naseem regularly goes to the mosque for prayer and has never worshipped with a group of Christians. He keeps his Bible secretly hidden and studies it when he has the chance. He has been unwilling to meet with Christians in his village. He has told me that he has not even told his wife that he believes the Bible is true. When I visit Dr. Naseem, we meet outside of his village, where his friends and relatives cannot see him studying the Bible. 

The Story of Nicodemus

In the Gospel of John, we encounter a secret believer named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was part of the religious leadership of Jerusalem (John 7:50). He was a Pharisee (John 3:1), meaning that he was a religious teacher with significant knowledge about the Law of Moses (John 3:10). Being in the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was in the room when Pharisees and chief priests met during Jesus’ life and ministry. 

In John 3, we read Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus went to Jesus at night, no doubt, out of fear. He knew that the Pharisees were angry with Jesus and could not be seen consorting with the enemy. Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). Jesus famously responded, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus realizing a need to be born again. Although he was a religious leader, he knew that he did not know God after meeting Jesus. A little later, Jesus left Judea to go into Galilee because the Pharisees had heard he was baptizing so many people (John 4:1). No doubt, Nicodemus was in meetings of the religious leaders when they tried to decide what to do with Jesus. 

In John 7, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and began to teach during a major festival. In John 7:32, the chief priests and Pharisees sent men to arrest Jesus because the crowds started to wonder if He was the Messiah. However, these men did not stop Jesus. Instead, they returned to the Pharisees and said, “No man ever spoke like this!” (John 7:46). The Pharisees were angry and began to speak to one another against Jesus. In that meeting, Nicodemus stood up for Jesus, saying, “Our law doesn’t judge a man before it hears from him and know what he’s doing, does it?” (John 7:51) Nicodemus wanted to hear more from Jesus, while the rest of the Pharisees tried to silence Him. Nicodemus was probably thinking about his own spiritual need when he defended Jesus and his own desire for spiritual rebirth.

In John 9, the Pharisees attacked Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. A miracle like this caused a separation in the hearts and minds of the people in Jerusalem. Some used it as an opportunity to attack Jesus for breaking the Law of Moses. Others saw this miracle as a sign that Jesus had come from God. When Nicodemus first met Jesus, he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). While the Pharisees attacked Jesus for this miracle, it moved Nicodemus closer to faith. However, Nicodemus was still not ready to fully follow Christ. 

Now, before we condemn Nicodemus, we must realize that he was a broken man, a sinner, just like each of us. The Scriptures say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Each of us has some hardness in our heart, like Nicodemus, and require repentance. What amazes me about the story of Nicodemus is God’s faithfulness towards this man. Jesus continued to perform signs and miracles for men like Nicodemus. Jesus taught publicly so that men like Nicodemus had many chances to hear the Word of God. He continued to provide opportunities for him to repent and believe. The story of Nicodemus reminds me of my friend, Dr. Naseem. I hope that Dr. Naseem’s story ends as well as Nicodemus’!

In John 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and were saying, ‘What are we going to do since this man is doing many signs?'” (John 11:47). Nicodemus was likely in that council. I am sure that Nicodemus’ heart was screaming, “We should repent and believe in Him” but his mouth remained silent. 

Instead, Nicodemus sat silently in fear as the Jewish council conspired to put Jesus to death (John 12:10). 

In John 18, the Pharisees found their opportunity to arrest Jesus. Judas Iscariot led a group of soldiers and religious leaders to Jesus at night. I wonder if Nicodemus joined that group to see what would happen or stayed home, awake all night knowing what was going on. After his arrest, Jesus was brought before the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been in that meeting. Again, Nicodemus stood silent as Jesus was mocked and beaten. Likely, Nicodemus was there when they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate to stand trial. However, his fear continued to silence him. He was afraid of what his friends and neighbors would say if he stood up for Jesus. He was scared of arrest or death or persecution. Perhaps he would share the same fate as Jesus.

However, by the end of that day, something would change in Nicodemus’ heart. In John 19:38-42, we read,

38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus — but secretly because of his fear of the Jews — asked Pilate that he might remove Jesus’s body. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and took his body away. 39 Nicodemus (who had previously come to him at night) also came, bringing a mixture of about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes. 40 They took Jesus’s body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the fragrant spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 There was a garden in the place where he was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it. 42 They placed Jesus there because of the Jewish day of preparation and since the tomb was nearby. (John 19:38-42)

Taking the body of Jesus and burying Him was not a secret event. Receiving the body of Jesus required standing before Pilate and requesting it. No doubt, all of the religious leaders were appalled that these two were honoring Jesus in this way. Who knows what persecution followed against these men! It was no secret that Nicodemus brought over 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes was a quantity fit for a king and a significant expense. Remember when Mary came and anointed Jesus with just a fraction of this amount that Jesus’ disciples were scandalized at the financial waste. Joseph and Nicodemus took great care of Jesus’ body. In this act of properly caring for Jesus’ body, these two men stood publicly in Christ for the first time. 

What changed? Just hours earlier, Nicodemus cowered in fear because of the Pharisees. Now, he was willing to risk everything for his crucified Lord! There is only one thing that changed. Nicodemus witnessed the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

When Nicodemus saw Jesus on the cross, his life was changed. In Roman culture, many would have stood and watched Jesus slowly die a horrible death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Nicodemus standing at a distance and watching Jesus die as the Spirit of God transformed his life. During that day, Nicodemus was born again. He realized that he was a sinner whose life was broken. He saw that He was far away from God. During that day, Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. 

John 19 through the Eyes of Nicodemus

Having set the scene, let us walk through John 19 and see what Nicodemus experienced. As we can see in Nicodemus’s life, it is a life-changing experience to reflect upon the death of our Lord Jesus. When we look upon the cross, we need to remember that this work of Jesus was necessary because of our sin. When we choose to sin, we dishonor the death of our Lord. Today, as we hear the story of the death of Jesus, I want to challenge you to take this opportunity to repent. If there is any secret sin in your life, make today the day that you turn away from it. If there is anger or bitterness in your life, bring it to the cross today. If your mind is filled with anxiety and worry, cast it upon our crucified Lord. If you are like Nicodemus and have always stood at the edge of the faith without repenting and believing, make today your day to give your life fully to Christ.

In John 19, Nicodemus stood outside of the government headquarters. They had been there since morning while Jesus stood trial before Pilate. Nicodemus could feel the anger in the others. His heart was conflicted about what to do.

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

Pilate was the Roman governor over the Province of Judea. After arresting Jesus in the middle of the night, the Jewish religious leaders questioned Jesus at the high priest’s home. Early in the morning, they brought Jesus to stand trial before Pilate. They had already been there for hours while Pilate investigated what was happening and questioned Jesus. Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish religious leaders had chosen to free a revolutionary named Barabbas instead. 

So, Pilate took another step to appease the Jewish leaders by having Jesus flogged. A flogging means that Roman soldiers savagely beat Jesus with a whip. It is most likely that this flogging was public. I imagine that Nicodemus winced every time he saw the whip strike our Lord. A flogging would not have meant one or two blows from the whip. The Jewish people often gave thirty-nine lashes during a flogging. The Romans often did even more! By the end of this event, Jesus was bloody and bruised. 

2 The soldiers also twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and clothed him in a purple robe. 3 And they kept coming up to him and saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” and were slapping his face.

The mockery of Jesus continued. Imagine how Nicodemus’ heart broke as he watched the crown of thorns pierce our Lord’s head, causing even more blood to run down His face. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was innocent! How could an innocent man be treated this way! They mocked Jesus and called Him “king of the Jews,” which was exactly who He was. Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews eight times in John 19. Jesus’ only “crime” was that He was the Messiah who had come to save His people from their sins.

4 Pilate went outside again and said to them, “Look, I’m bringing him out to you to let you know I find no grounds for charging him.” 5 Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the temple servants saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Pilate had no interest in killing Jesus. He seemed to hope that this savage beating would satisfy the anger of the Jewish religious leaders. I wonder if Nicodemus felt broken at this point. I wonder if he realized that Jesus was suffering as a payment for his sins and the sins of the whole world. This scene reminds me of a famous Urdu song.

Jo krus pe kurbaan hai, vo mera Masiha hai(The one who is upon the cross, this is my Messiah)

Har zakhm jo uska hai, vo mere gunaah ka hai. (every wound that is applied to Him is because of my sin)

6b [To the crowd’s demands to crucify Jesus], Pilate responded, “Take him and crucify him yourselves, since I find no grounds for charging him.” 7 “We have a law,” the Jews replied to him, “and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”

In Matthew 26:63-64, the high priest told Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Nicodemus would have been in that meeting and heard the high priest’s question of Jesus. Jesus answered the high priest, “You have said it. But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” When he heard Jesus’ statement, the high priest tore his robes and declared Jesus a blasphemer. In that room, I wonder if Nicodemus wondered how a blasphemer could teach God’s word so powerfully. How could a blasphemer open the eyes of the blind? How could a blasphemer raise Lazarus from the dead?

8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He went back into the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus did not give him an answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you?” 11 “You would have no authority over me at all,” Jesus answered him, “if it hadn’t been given you from above. This is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”

Did you know that Jesus could have stopped His crucifixion right here? When Jesus was arrested, He said, “do you think that I cannot call on my Father and He will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53) Our Lord Jesus willingly gave His life on the cross. Jesus had the authority and the power to stop this all. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But Jesus knew that He needed to give His life for us. Hebrews 12:2 that for the joy before Him that Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame. This verse tells us that Jesus joyfully gave His life on the cross for us. His life was not taken! He gave Himself for our sins.

12 [After Pilate spoke to Jesus,] Pilate kept trying to release him. But the Jews shouted, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar!” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside. He sat down on the judge’s seat in a place called the Stone Pavement (but in Aramaic, ‘Gabbatha’). 14 It was the preparation day for the Passover, and it was about noon. Then he told the Jews, “Here is your king!”

This trial had begun at the break of dawn and was still going at noon. Jesus had not slept nor eaten. He had been mocked, beaten, and stood before them in His crown of thorns and purple robes. Pilate tried to release Him. But the Jewish leaders were crafty. They knew that anyone claiming to be king was considered a rebellion against the Roman Empire. If word got back to Caesar that Pilate gave leniency to a man leading a rebellion, he would also be executed. 

15 They shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Imagine Nicodemus during this scene. The other Jewish religious leaders were his friends and relatives. He had known them for many years. He respected and loved them. But during this scene, he did not know what to do. He saw Jesus, His King, mocked and beaten, an innocent man whom Nicodemus knew was the Messiah. But the Pharisees, who were Nicodemus’ friends and family, wanted Jesus dead. All around Nicodemus, they cried out, “Take Him away! Crucify Him!” 

15b Pilate said to them, “Should I crucify your king?” “We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests answered. 16 Then he handed him over to be crucified.

Each step along the way, Nicodemus’ heart broke more and more. A large crowd would have stayed and watched the crucifixion of our Lord. I imagine Nicodemus standing silently at a distance. I suspect that his heart was broken over his sin and hypocrisy. Despite being a religious leader, he was not close to God. He stood by silently, while the Messiah, God’s messenger, was being mocked and killed! Imagine Nicodemus watching the crucifixion at a distance while the Holy Spirit worked on transforming his life. 

Today, I hope that the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing in your life. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). The only reason that Jesus suffered in this way is that each of us has sinned. Sin is when we choose to disobey God. When we remember the cross of Christ, we recognize that this is the saving power of Christ for our lives. Remember today that Jesus loves each of us right where we are. “God demonstrates His own love towards us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not wait until we put our lives together. He died for us to make us right with God.

16b Then they took Jesus away. 17 Carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called ‘Golgotha’. 18 There they crucified him and two others with him, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate also had a sign made and put on the cross. It said: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the king of the Jews.'” 22 Pilate replied, “What I have written, I have written.”

I wonder if Pilate wrote this on the sign merely to spite the Jewish religious leaders. However, I imagine Nicodemus starring at this sign all day long, knowing that Jesus was the king of the Jews. While this sign meant to mock our Lord Jesus, Nicodemus knew that it was true. During that day, Nicodemus repented. He turned away from his sins. He chose that day that Jesus was his Lord and King. 

Similarly, each of us needs to repent when we hear this story. We need to turn away from our sins and follow Jesus. Every time we look at the cross of Christ, we gain this opportunity again. Every time we choose to repent and believe, we grow closer to Christ. This is the power of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord Jesus gave us this simple act so that we would remember His death on the cross every time we take it. As we come to the cross, again and again in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives.

We will finish today by reading just one last paragraph of this story. Please go forward with me to verses 28-30.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now finished that the Scripture might be fulfilled, he said, “I’m thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was sitting there; so they fixed a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.

It is finished. The wrath of God the Father was fully satisfied. It is finished. The sins of the world were paid for in full. It is finished. The suffering of Christ was now finished. It is finished. The work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed. It is finished. Jesus “erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing to the cross” (Col 2:14). It is finished. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them at the cross” (Col 2:15). It is finished. By His work on the cross, Jesus “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom [of God]” (Col 1:13). It is finished. “now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him” (Col 1:22). It is finished. “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Jesus’ life was not taken from him. With joy, Jesus freely gave His life for us. 

All of human history changed at this moment when Jesus bowed His head and gave up His Spirit. Nicodemus’ life also changed. He and Joseph of Arimathea boldly requested Jesus’ body. They gave Him the burial of a rich man. Nicodemus’ secret life went public. He chose to stand with His crucified Lord. 

What about you? As you look to the cross today, what is Christ calling you to do? Are you standing on the edges, like Nicodemus? Today, commit yourself to the Lord. Look at what Jesus did for your salvation! Do you have a secret sin in your life? Look at what Jesus did for your sins! Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart! Cry out to God and ask Him to change your life. Go to a brother or sister today and ask for help in following Jesus. Is your heart filled with gratitude today as we remember what Christ has done? Go and proclaim Christ’s work on the cross! Like Dr. Naseem, there are multitudes who need to hear the good news of what Jesus did on the cross. Let us go and tell them. 

Systematic Theology 2: The Word of God

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology with a view towards ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts start with Grudem but are modified. I agree with Grudem’s two presuppositions, “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Each week, one interaction with South Asian Islam will also be noted.

Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson on Youtube. Please subscribe to this blog or to my YouTube channel to receive updates!

John 1 in Urdu (UGV translation)

As discussed in the previous post, the question of the Word of God is a significant place where Muslims and Christians disagree. Muslims hold the presupposition that the Qur’an is their primary standard of truth. As a result, Christians must be familiar with Muslim perspectives on Scripture and the Word of God.

The Word of God

The phrase “Word of God” occurs throughout Scripture. However, this phrase is used in five different ways. This lesson will review the ways that “Word of God” is used in Scripture. Then we will have an overview of the next few weeks of lessons.

  1. God’s Decrees. “And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen 1:3). A decree is when God declares something and causes it to happen. God is almighty and can declare anything to happen and cause it to occur immediately. The decrees of God were most evident during the creation.“The heavens were made by the word of the LORD, and all stars by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).
  2. God’s Words as Direct Speech. “Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:1-2). Sometimes God communicates to people through direct speech, meaning that He speaks to them. Scripture is full of examples of God speaking directly to people (see a few examples below). When God spoke, He used human languages, such as Greek or Hebrew. However, these words were the Word of God, having divine authority. In Scripture, God usually spoke directly to men at critical points in history. God did not commonly use direct speech.
    1. “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die” (Gen 2:16-17).
    1. “The LORD said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:1-2).
    1. “God replied to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).
    1. “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘I am about to do something in Israel that everyone who hears about it will shudder” (1 Samuel 3:11).
    1. “Some time later, David inquired of the LORD: ‘Should I go to one of the towns of Judah?’ The LORD answered him, ‘Go.” Then David asked, ‘Where should I go?” ‘To Hebron,’ the LORD answered” (2 Sam 2:1).
    1. “At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night. God said, ‘Ask. What should I give you?” (1 Kings 3:5).
    1. “And a voice from heaven said: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased’” (Matt 3:17).
    1. “While [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5)
    1. “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go and join that chariot’” (Acts 8:29).
    1. “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
  3. God’s Words as Speech through Human Lips. “Frequently in Scripture God raises up prophets through whom he speaks. Once again, it is evident that although these are human words, spoken in ordinary human language by ordinary human beings, the authority and truthfulness of these words is in no way diminished: they are still completely God’s words as well” (Grudem, 48). Clear examples of this are the prophetic books of Isaiah to Malachi. 
    1. “Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me: ‘I have now filled your mouth with my words” (Jer 1:9).
    1. “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him” (Deut 18:18).
    1. “The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me, his word was on my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2, spoken by David).
    1. “no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
    1. “just as [God] spoke by the mouth of his prophets in ancient times” (Luke 1:70)
  4. The Word of God as a Person: Jesus Christ. In John 1, Jesus is called the Word. As the Word of God, Jesus communicated the character of God to us and expressed God’s will. The Qur’an also calls Jesus the Word of God (Arabic kalimatullah), although the Qur’an does not give meaning for this term (Qur’an 3:45; 4:171). John 1:1, 14 provides the most apparent purpose of this name of Christ.
    1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
    1. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
    1. “He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God.” (Rev 19:13)
    1. As the Word of God, every word spoken by Jesus was direct speech by God. Because of this, Jesus’ coming into the world revealed God and His will far more clearly than had been known before Jesus came.
      1. “No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side – he has revealed him” (John 1:18).
      1. “Long ago, God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2).
  5. God’s Words in Written Form (the Bible). There are many instances in Scripture where the Bible was put into written form. For example, the ten commandments were “written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18) on the two stone tablets. Near the end of Deuteronomy, Moses commanded the priests to keep the whole Law and call an assembly of all the people of God every seven years and read the entire Law (Deut 31:9-13). The Law in this verse is a reference to the first five books of the Bible. 
    1. “When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book, to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, ‘Take this book of the law, and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you” (Deut 31:24-26).
    1. “And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God” (Joshua 24:26).
    1. “And now, go, write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever” (Isaiah 30:8).
    1. “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jer 30:2).
    1. “[Paul] speaks about these things in all his letters. There are some matters that are hard to understand. The untaught and unstable will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
    1. “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (Rev 1:11).
    1. “I testify to everyone hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book” (Rev 22:18).
  6. The Bible as the Word of God is the foundation for theology. There are several benefits from having the word of God available in written form.
    1. Having God’s words in written form preserves them for future generations.
    1. Having God’s words in written form provides an opportunity for repeated inspection. Repeated inspection and study allows for better understanding and obedience.
    1. Having God’s words in written form makes them available to many more people. 
    1. For all of these reasons, the Bible as God’s written word is the focus for theological study. We can study God’s Words in the Bible to understand them. The Bible is available to everyone, meaning that all can participate in biblical study to understand and develop theology.

This post is the first of seven about the Word of God. God’s Word, the Bible, is foundational for the development of theology. Therefore, an understanding of the doctrine of the Word of God is our beginning place for theology. The next six topics are:

  1. The Canon of Scripture: What belongs in the Bible, and what does not belong? “The canon of Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible” (Grudem, 54). To be posted on 21-September-2020.
  2. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (1) Authority. How do we know that the Bible is God’s Word? “The authority of Scripture means that all the words of Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Grudem, 73). To be posted on 28-September-2020.
  3. The Inerrancy of Scripture: Are there any errors in the Bible? “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, 91). To be posted on 5-October-2020.
  4. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (2) Clarity. Can only Bible scholars understand the Bible rightly? “The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Grudem, 108). To be posted on 12-October-2020.
  5. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (3) Necessity. For what purposes is the Bible necessary? How much can people know about God without the Bible? “The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God’s will, but is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God’s character and moral law” (Grudem, 116). To be posted on 19-October-2020.
  6. The Four Characteristics of Scripture: (4) Sufficiency. Is the Bible enough for knowing what God wants us to think or do? “The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly” (Grudem, 127). To be posted on 26-October-2020.

Our Engaging South Asian Muslims E-Course is Live!

I want to share an exciting announcement! No Cousins Left has launched its first E-Course to train others in how to make disciples and plant churches among the almost 600 million Muslims of South Asia.

This E-Course is self-paced, meaning that you can access each lesson at any time. This training consists of twelve lessons. It is recommended that you take no more than two lessons each week to allow time for the content to sink in. Each lesson will take about one hour to complete and includes a combination of videos, readings, and quizzes. There is no cost for taking this course.

Most lessons contain the following five topics:

  1. Philosophy of Ministry. Brief videos about developing a strong biblical-theological foundation for ministry to Muslims. Some videos also compare and contrast with other philosophies of ministry.
  2. Prayer for Pakistan. Learning about Pakistan and praying for Pakistan.
  3. History of South Asian Islam. Readings about a historical figure or movement in South Asian Islam and how these historical figures or movements related to Muslim ministry.
  4. Muslim Ministry Tools. Videos training basic ministry tools for ministry to South Asian Muslims.
  5. Folk Muslim Rituals. Most Muslims in South Asia are strongly influenced by folk Islam. These readings reveal the worldview of folk Muslims by studying their rituals. 

If you want to join this course, e-mail us at We will send you a link to sign in to the course.

Theology 1: Introduction to Systematic Theology

This blog post is part of a series on Systematic Theology. The method of this series is to follow Wayne Grudem’s well-known Systematic Theology. This series also interacts explicitly with Systematic Theology as related to ministry to South Asian Muslims. These blog posts follow Grudem but include significant modifications. The starting point of this study of Systematic Theology follows Grudem’s two presuppositions. “(1) that the Bible is true and that it is, in fact, our only standard of truth; (2) that the God who is spoken of in the Bible exists, and that He is who the Bible says he is: the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them” (Grudem, 26). Click here for the audio teaching of this lesson.

In this introduction to Systematic Theology, there are three primary questions:

  1. What is systematic theology?
  2. Why should Christians study systematic theology?
  3. How should Christians study systematic theology?

What is Systematic Theology?

“Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today’ about any given topic” (Grudem, 21). A doctrine is what the whole Bible teaches about a given topic (Grudem, 25). 

 The best way to understand systematic theology is to compare it with other methods of studying the Bible and theology. Systematic theology is the second of four parts of a process of developing practical theology.[1]

  1. Analytical Biblical Theology is the process of understanding individual books of the Bible or passages. The foundation for good systematic theology is a rigorous study of separate books of the Bible to understand what they teach. Our goal here is to learn what the authors of Scripture meant in their original context.
  2. Synthetic Biblical Theology or Systematic Theology compares and contrasts different passages and books to answer what the whole Bible teaches on a particular subject. Systematic Theology usually only answers the question of what the Bible meant in its original context. The good news is that what was true when the Bible was written is true today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Whatever the Bible teaches about God, Jesus, salvation, and other subjects is as true today as it was in the first century.
  3. Hermeneutics is the bridge that brings together what the Bible meant when it was originally written with what it means for practical ministry today. In point #2, I noted that the truth about God does not change. Since the Scriptures teach that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, we know that God is all-knowing and all-powerful today. Since Scripture teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, we know that this is also true today. However, theology needs to be applied in many practical ways. The contexts of our lives are different than the times when Scripture was originally written. Therefore, we must go through a process of interpreting how to live out Scripture today.
  4. Practical Theology is how to live out Scripture today. Practical Theology has many different aspects, such as missiology, ecclesiology, apologetics, and ethics.  

Three Reasons Christians Should Study Theology

  1. To gain the ability to respond to Muslim questions and objections. Many Christians have difficulty answering Muslim objections to the faith because they lack a foundation in their own faith. For example, if a Christian has a poor understanding of the Trinity, how can they defend this doctrine against Muslim objections? Those in Muslim ministry have a significant advantage in studying theology. Often encounters with different faiths become an excellent opportunity to strengthen our own understanding of what the Bible teaches.
  2. To overcome false doctrines in the South Asian churches. Unfortunately, some churches in every part of the world are drawn away into false teaching and beliefs. This phenomenon is not unique to South Asia, but it is present in South Asia. Some examples of false teaching in South Asia include the prosperity gospel, Oneness Pentecostalism, and liberation theology. These false teachings are often attractive when we lack strong biblical foundations. Various cults, such as Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons, have found their way into South Asia. Studying theology helps us think clearly about how to respond appropriately to these groups.
  3. To help us think clearly about God and doctrine. All of us practice theology, meaning that every person has ideas about God and what is true. The act of studying theology provides a process to ensure that the study of theology is done well. It is inherently a good thing to understand God well. As we understand Him, our hearts turn towards Him in worship! Right thinking about God guides us in walking rightly in the world. Likewise, the study of various doctrines guides us to think clearly about doctrines such as sin, angels, or prayer. While understanding does not necessarily lead to obedience, it helps us walk rightly with God.

Four Ways Christians Should Study Systematic Theology

  1. With Bible Study. Like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), we should go straight to Scripture when hearing teaching to learn from the Word whether or not it is true. Before embarking on a study of systematic theology, it is necessary to have a deep knowledge of God’s Word.
  2. With Prayer. The Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Any pursuit of truth must begin with prayer and be bathed in prayer.
  3. With Humility. “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1). Remember that “God has chosen what is foolish in the world” (1 Cor 1:27). Too often, a study of theology leads to pride, much like the Pharisees of the New Testament. Their pride led to an outward religion that lacked an inward spirituality. We must approach a study of theology with soft hearts, eager to learn from God and others. As God teaches us, we should seek to grow in love and humility, rather than pride.
  4. With Others. Studying theology with others protects us from false belief. If we hold a view that is contrary to other Christians that we respect, then we should humbly dialogue with them and have an openness in our hearts that we are the ones requiring correction. 

Islamic Theology vs. Christian Theology

Islamic theology and Christian theology differ in their presuppositions. This theological study is built on two presuppositions. Here they are compared to Islamic presuppositions.

Christian PresuppositionsIslamic Presuppositions
1. The Bible is true and is the only standard of truth.1. The Qur’an is true and is the primary standard of truth.
2. The God who is spoken of in the Bible exists. He is who the Bible says He is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.2. The God who is spoken of in the Qur’an exists. He is who the Qur’an says he is, the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them.

While these presuppositions are almost identical, the change from the Bible to the Qur’an as the standard of truth leads to very different theological conclusions. In reality, a third presupposition should be added here about the importance of Jesus in Christian theology versus Muhammad in Islamic belief. I

t is not surprising that a large portion of disagreements between Christians and Muslims center on debates of whether the Bible or the Qur’an is the Word of God. I hope to write more blog posts on that subject.

In South Asian Islam, it is also helpful to know how most Muslims relate Qur’anic teaching to practical living. In Islam, there are four major schools of teaching/jurisprudence (Ar. fiqh). Each of these schools of Islamic thought approach Scripture in different ways. In South Asia, the primary approach is called Hanafi, which comes from Abu Hanifa (d. 767 AD) of Persia. About a third of Muslims in the world are Hanafi, making this the most common fiqh. In South Asia, the Deobandis, Barelvis, Tablighi Jamaat, Sufis, and most others are Hanafi. In contrast, Zakir Naik and some other movements are Salafi, which is heavily opposed to Hanafi Islam. 

In simple terms, Hanafi fiqh permits integrating local practices into Islam (e.g., dargahs). Hanafi fiqh is one reason folk practices are so common in South Asian Islam. Here are the sources of authority in Hanafi Islam listed in descending degrees of authority.

  • The Qur’an is the highest authority.
  • The Hadith is the secondary authority. Zakir Naik and other Salafis reject any authorities past this point.
  • Qiyas. A qiyas is a deductive analogy based on the Qur’an and Hadith. The original jurists, such as Abu Hanifa, wrote the apply the Qur’an and Hadith to issues not addressed in the Qur’an and Hadith. To do so, they used deductive reasoning (i.e., qiyas). The writings of these ancient jurists are foundational today for Islamic theology and practice. How Abu Hanafi interpreted and applied the Qur’an is considered by most to be authoritative in South Asia.
  • Ijtihad. An Ijtihad is the independent reasoning of a Mufti in response to a particular question. Usually, an ijtihad is a significant literary work. A good example in South Asia would be Ahmad Raza Khan Bareilvi’s writings on Muhammad existing as pure light from the beginning of creation. Khan’s writings on this subject have become a source of authority within the Barelvi movement.

Today, most Muslims in South Asia resolve their theology questions by asking for fatwas by Muftis. A Mufti is a highly educated Islamic scholar. Muslims will regularly write questions to these Muftis and ask for legal judgments (i.e., fatwas). For example, recently, some Muslims asked whether it is permissible to use alcoholic hand sanitizer during the Covid pandemic. Deobandi muftis wrote a fatwa calling this halal (Arabic for “permitted”) since no alcohol would be imbibed. The type of alcohol in hand sanitizer is different from that in alcoholic drinks. Likewise, they said it is permissible to sanitize mosques with alcoholic sanitizer. These Deobandi muftis based their opinions on all of the relevant information from the sources of authority above. The writing of fatwas like these also becomes another source of authority in South Asian Islamic practice. Often different schools of South Asian Islam write fatwas directly in contradiction of one another, especially the Deobandi and Barelvi schools. 

For Christians ministering among Muslims, it isn’t easy to navigate all of these sources of authority. However, most Muslims in South Asia are likewise ignorant of these books. Most have never read the Qur’an or Hadith, much less these other writings. Also, most South Asian Muslims believe that the Qur’an should only be read in Arabic. Since most South Asian Muslims do not read Arabic, they are, in essence, cut off from their primary source of authority. Instead, their religious leaders are their source of authority.

Compared to the layers of Islamic authority, studying and applying the Bible to our lives is relatively simple. While we value studying Scripture in its original Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament), we believe that God can speak to us through His Word in translated languages. The reasons that we think this will become clear in the next few weeks as we study the doctrine of Scripture.

[1] Please note that this process is different than what Grudem describes.

Systematic Theology Course

A women’s Bible study in South Asia.

“What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

2 Timothy 2:2 (CSB)

I am embarking on a theological education course with my disciples that will take a little over a year. Next week, I plan to begin teaching through Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I will make a weekly audio recording of these teachings, which I plan to upload to YouTube. I intend that each recording will cover one chapter. However, some chapters (such as the Person of Christ) will undoubtedly take more than one week. After I upload this recording, I will meet with a core of disciples to discuss this teaching. Each week, these brothers intend to make a recording in Urdu on the same subject. In this blog post, I am sharing why I am embarking on this process.

When the apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he was preparing to die at the Roman government’s hands. He wrote to Timothy, his “dearly loved son” (1:2), calling him to Rome to give him final instructions before his death.

Throughout 2 Timothy, Paul emphasizes the passing of his teaching and his apostolic mission to Timothy. 2 Timothy was a succession letter. As Paul prepared to die, Timothy and others would take up his mission to the Gentiles. As Paul modeled, they would pioneer new places with the gospel, make disciples, and establish new churches.

One aspect of Timothy’s succession was a continuation of Paul’s teaching through Timothy. In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul admonished Timothy,

“Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

God entrusted this deposit to Paul (1:12). Through years of service together, Paul impressed his “teaching, conduct, purpose, faith” to Timothy (3:11). In 2 Timothy 1:13-14, Paul called on Timothy to continue in this teaching. Then in 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul commanded Timothy to continue to give that trust to others. Just as Paul developed other leaders, including both missionaries and pastors, Timothy was to do the same. In this way, the Pauline mission would continue and grow. Entrusting this teaching to others was one way that Timothy guarded the good deposit he received from Paul.

Paul’s mentorship of Timothy is a picture of our vision. An essential part of the missionary task is to develop more missionaries, just as Paul developed Timothy. To reach the Muslims of South Asia, we need to build local missionaries who can continue the core missionary task among Muslims. In training local workers, I need to explain where I see theological education like this and where it fits in the process. 

Here is our current discipleship plan for when a new Muslim-background believer chooses to follow Jesus. It is in three steps.

First, we teach them the 7 Commands of Christ.

  1. Repent and Believe – Luke 19:1-10
  2. Take Baptism – Acts 8:26-38
  3. Pray – Matthew 6:5-15
  4. Go and Make Disciples – John 4
  5. Love – Luke 10:25-37
  6. Take the Lord’s Supper – Luke 22:14-22
  7. Give – Luke 21:1-4

We teach the 7 Commands by helping new disciples first memorize the Bible story. Some can read the story for themselves, but many new believers are illiterate and require significant repetition to remember. After they learn the story, we ask four basic Bible study questions:

  • What do we learn about God?
  • What do we learn about people?
  • Is there anything we should stop doing?
  • Is there anything we should start doing?

The 7 Commands’ goal is to help new believers become obedient to the basic actions of the Christian life. As we teach these 7 Commands, we follow a pattern to help them grow in obedience. We begin each meeting by asking them how they obeyed the previous teachings. Then we teach the next command. Third, we make a concrete plan about how to obey the new command. In this way, we can help new believers become obedient to follow Jesus over their first month in Christ. At the end of this process, these believers are regularly studying the Word, praying, loving their families and neighbors, sharing the gospel, and meeting with others.

Second, after the Seven Commands, we continue to pour in Bible knowledge. We usually do this by teaching book-by-book through Scripture. The Gospel of Matthew is a typical go-to book after a Muslim first follows Jesus. During this time, the new believer continues to walk out the 7 Commands and make disciples of others, while growing in the Word.

Third, the formation of local churches is always the goal! Local churches are where long-term discipleship and teaching continues. Some new believers will emerge as leaders and desire more long-term training and instruction to grow as missionaries or pastors. This systematic theology course fits within this last category.

Therefore, this Systematic Theology course is designed and aimed at a particular group of believers. It is for those who are already doing the Great Commission among Muslims. This course is not basic discipleship but rather a next step for developing faithful partners in the work.

Bible Question: How Old was Timothy?

Friends and coworkers send me biblical questions on a fairly regular basis. Some of these questions are helpful for others as well. So, as I have a chance, I will put my answers here as well.

This morning, a colleague asked me, “How old do you think Timothy was when he started with Paul and at the writing of 1 Timothy? I’m seeing most people say he got picked up between the age 16-21 and was somewhere between 30-40 when he received 1 Timothy. Are there any textual clues so that we can know?”

There are three things that help us known Timothy’s age: (1) the Pauline chronology as it relates to Acts 16:1-3 and 1 Timothy and (2) 1 Timothy 4:12 where Paul commanded Timothy, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth” (CSB), and (3) indications from Acts 16:1 and Roman culture about the minimum age Timothy could have been when he joined Paul’s team.

The Pauline Chronology

For the sake of simplicity, I am going to refer to Eckhard Schnabel’s Chronology of Early Christian History that appears in the introduction to his commentary on Acts. In that chronology, Schnabel said Paul received Timothy on his team in 49-50 AD. This event occurs in Acts 16:1-3 when Paul picked up Timothy from Lystra. Schnabel said that Paul wrote 1 Timothy in 64-65 AD. For this date, Schnabel assumes that Paul had a first Roman imprisonment during which he wrote Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. After the captivity described in Acts, Schnabel argues that Paul was released and had another period of ministry, during which time he wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Then Paul was arrested again. During this second arrest, Paul wrote 2 Timothy shortly before his death.

Therefore, for determining Timothy’s age, we can assume that he had been a companion of Paul for about fifteen years by the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy to him.

1 Timothy 4:12 and Timothy’s Youthfulness

Paull called Timothy a “youth” in 1 Timothy 4:12. We should ask ourselves what the Greek term for “youth” meant in the context of the ancient Roman world. The Greek term is neotes, which is a cognate of the Greek term neophyte. The only other times that that neotes occurs in the New Testament is in reference to the rich young ruler who claimed to follow God’s commands “from my youth” (Mark 10:20; Luke 18:21) and Paul who referred to “my manner of life from my youth” in his defense before Agrippa (Acts 26:4). 

Here are two clues from ancient texts that show how youth was understood in Roman times.

  1. The Relics of the Elders that states “But that the age of thirty years is the prime of a young man’s ability, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, every one will allow.”[1]
  2. Irenaeus’ (c. 130-202 AD) Against Heresies referred to Jesus as a youth *Gr. neophytes). “On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age” (2.2.5).

In these texts, a thirty-year-old man is at the peak of his youth. A man can also be considered a youth until the age of forty. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Timothy was up to forty years old when receiving 1 Timothy. 

How young could Timothy have been in Acts 16?

Another question that we should ask is how young Timothy could have been when Paul took him along as a companion in Acts 16:1-3. Here are two indications from ancient Roman culture.

  1. Roman men would marry as young as sixteen.[2]
  2. Youth in their teens (or younger) were often given as apprentices to learn trades to begin earning for their families. For example, Lucian (c. 125-180) wrote about the family decision to have him become an apprentice to a sculptor. He wrote, “As soon as I finished elementary school, since I had now reached my teens years, my father discussed with his friends what training he should now give me. To most of them, higher education seemed to require much labor, considerable time, no small expense and an illustrious position, while our family fortunes were small and needed some quick assistance.”[3] Thus, as a teenager, Lucian was sent away from his home to become an apprentice to a sculptor. 

In the same way, Paul was taking Timothy along as an apprentice missionary. From a cultural perspective, it is not unreasonable that his parents would have sent him away with Paul as a teenager.

However, there are a few textual clues that indicate a minimum age for Timothy as well.

  1. Timothy was literate. We know this since he was listed as a co-author of six of Paul’s letters. It is doubtful that Paul provided this education. Therefore, it is likely that Timothy had significant education before he joined Paul’s team. In the first century, literacy was not assumed. To be helpful as a co-author of the epistles means that Timothy had more than a basic education. 
  2. The believers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well about Timothy (Acts 16:1). This means that Timothy received a commendation from these local churches as being a good candidate to join Paul’s team. The fact that the churches in two cities spoke well of Timothy is significant. These two cities were 60 miles apart. The fact that believers of both cities spoke well of him as a potential missionary apprentice implies that he had travelled back and forth and had probably played some local ministry role before joining Paul’s team. 

Summarizing all of these indications from the text and from ancient Roman culture, it is very doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team. Considering the fact that he was known in both Lystra and Derbe and may have been involved in local ministry makes it seem likely that he was older than sixteen. 


We have three pieces of information. 

  1. Timothy had been traveling with Paul for fifteen years by the time he received 1 Timothy.
  2. In 1 Timothy 4:12, Timothy was referred to as a youth. This means that he was probably younger than forty when he received this letter.
  3. It is doubtful that Timothy was younger than sixteen when he joined Paul’s team.

Considering these three pieces of information, the most likely age ranges are that Timothy was 16-24 when he joined Paul’s team and 31-39 when he received 1 Timothy.

Why is this significant? This means that Paul modeled the power of missionaries taking young men onto their teams to train. Over years, Paul poured his life into Timothy. By the time he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul was ready to give his entire ministry to Timothy. Paul was willing to give substantial authority and responsibility to a young man who had good character when he joined Paul’s team. This is a great example for us today for leadership development.

[1] See William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 258. I have been unable to locate the ancient source, The Relics of the Elders that Mounce referenced.

[2] Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 31.

[3] Ibid., 112.


Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 3 of 3)

Picture of Babajan Dargah in Pune, India. Babajan was a female Sufi mystic who came from Afghanistan. 
Photography By AshishCHACKO. Used by permission from

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

This post is part three of three posts on Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians. Click here for Part one. Click here for part two.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is the most comprehensive teaching on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Let us look at six keys to spiritual warfare from this text. Three of these keys were in a previous post. Here are the final three. 

Put on the full armor of God. God has provided what we need for this fight. However, it is our responsibility to use what He has already given us. Here is a list of the armor of God:

  1. Loins girded with the truth (6:14).
  2. The breastplate of righteousness (6:14).
  3. Feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace (6:15).
  4. The shield of faith (6:16).
  5. The helmet of salvation (6:17).
  6. The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (6:17). 

Each of these pieces of armor is symbolic of our spiritual lives. We do not actually have a breastplate of righteousness. However, walking in righteousness protects us in spiritual warfare just as a breastplate protects a soldier. This means that if we have sin in our lives, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the enemy. One of our most potent tools in spiritual warfare is genuine repentance. Consider Hezekiah, who “tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth and entered the house of the Lord” when the Assyrian army reached Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:1). Hezekiah took the enemy’s letter to the temple and spread it before the Lord, acknowledging that God was the true King” (2 Kings 19:14-15). God answered Hezekiah’s repentance by sending the angel of the Lord to strike down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers, decimating their army (2 Kings 19:35).

Likewise, the shield of faith’s purpose is “to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). We trust in God that He can protect us and defend us. If our faith grows weak, our first step is to stop and seek Him. Abiding in Christ by faith and righteousness are some of our greatest spiritual weapons in this battle.

I once heard a sermon on spiritual warfare that there are two types of Christians. One type are Christians who face a spiritual problem and then need to go get on their spiritual armor. They are not regularly in the Word and prayer. Perhaps there is sin in their life. Their feet are not daily shod with the preparation to share the gospel. When these Christians face spiritual problems, they have to first go and draw close to Christ. They need to repent and rebuild disciplines of prayer and Bible study.

In contrast, other Christians daily stand in Christ. They are regular in Bible study and prayer. They are filled with faith and walking in righteousness. When a spiritual attack comes against these Christians, they are immediately ready to respond. Paull was this second type. When they beat him and locked him up in Philippi, his heart was so full of Jesus that he and Silas spent the night praying and worshipping. The Lord answered with an earthquake (Acts 16:25-26). Let us also strive to follow the example of Paul. The first step is to simply walk with Christ every day and be filled up with Him. In other words, put on the full armor of God.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes, when we face persecution or spiritual problems, we can begin to see people as our enemy rather than the spiritual forces of darkness. It would have been easy for Paul to see the guards and the Roman government as his opponents, but he did not. He viewed his imprisonment as an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, both to the guards (Phil 1:15) and government leaders while on trial (2 Tim 4:16-18).  

In today’s rationalistic age, we often see spiritual issues as the last potential answer. For example, if we become sick, we often turn to earnest prayer and fasting only after exhausting medical solutions. My wife and I are a good picture of this dichotomy. Once, we were traveling in the Middle East. One of our travel companions was detained by the police at the airport. My first instinct was how to find a phone and figure out who we needed to call to help our friend. My wife’s first instinct was to pray. Clearly, my wife was the one who acted wisely.

This point is especially true when we consider Muslims and Islam. Many people have come to see Muslims as their enemy. They see Muslims as an evil invading force that must be stopped. Others take a more nuanced view that sees the majority of Muslims as peace-loving people and only a minority of Muslims who practice an aberration of radical Islam as the enemy.[1] According to Paul, no Muslims are our enemy. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. 

Instead, I have grown to see Muslims as people for whom Jesus has died. Muslims are in bondage to Islam. Islam is a system that holds captive almost two billion people around the world. Every Muslim is created in God’s image. God loves them and created them to know Him. Muslims are not our enemy. Instead, they are victims of the spiritual forces of darkness who are deceiving them. Like Paul, we should not fight against Muslims, but instead, pray for them and ask God to allow us to make the gospel known to them.

Pray. After admonishing the Ephesians to put on the full armor of God and to stand, Paul called them to prayer. In a prayerless state, the gospel will not advance against the spiritual powers of darkness. Sometimes a dichotomy is seen between two types of spiritual leaders. One has a brilliant strategy, but little prayer. He spends his days devising better and better plans. But he lacks the spiritual power and vitality to overcome the spiritual forces holding people in bondage. The other has little strategy but is mighty in prayer. The second person is preferable to the first. However, it is best if the strategist and the prayer warrior are brought together.

In the body of Christ, the strategist and the prayer warrior work together to advance the gospel. This is not an excuse for the strategist to be weak in prayer. In fact, his best strategy will come as he abides in Christ and is guided by Him. After all, God’s Word says that He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). God does not need our wisdom and insight. However, as we abide in Him, we pray that God will show us the strategy that He desires. In Paul, we are given a model of a man who was both a prayer warrior and a strategist. Let us follow his example in making disciples of all nations.

[1] It is certainly my experience that the average Muslim in South Asia simply wants to live in peace. They want the opportunity to help their children get good educations to get good jobs and live a stable life, and meaningfully contribute to society. 

Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 2 of 3)

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

This post is part two of three posts on Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians. Click here for Part one.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is the most comprehensive teaching on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Let us look at six keys to spiritual warfare from this text. Three of these keys are in this post and three will be in the next post. 

Keep first things first. Focus on proclaiming the gospel and making disciples just as Paul did when he went to Ephesus. Be ready to deal with spiritual warfare as it comes. In the armor of God of Ephesians, there is only one weapon, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). Paul’s purpose was to make the gospel known everywhere for everyone. The first step in spiritual warfare is to simply “Go and make disciples.” In this way, I have heard of spiritual warfare being likened to mosquitos. We do not go out looking to fight with mosquitos; instead, we deal with them as they come. In the same way, we do not go hunting for spiritual forces. Instead, we focus on our commission from the Lord and deal with spiritual forces if they seek to impede our mission.

Paul models an emphasis on proclamation well in this passage. From jail in Rome, his prayer request was not for release from imprisonment nor provision nor comfort. Instead, he wrote, “pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (6:19-20). Paul kept the first things first, despite his circumstances. He focused on making the gospel known to those who had not heard. Let us also follow his example.

Stand. In this passage, the command “Stand” is given three times (6:11, 13, 14). This passage’s primary picture is of a phalanx of soldiers standing in formation together against their enemy. In battle, the goal is to be the last group standing. Boxing provides a good picture of us. The boxer who falls down for ten seconds loses. However, if they continue to get up and stand, the fight continues. In the same way, goal #1 of spiritual warfare is to continue to stand in Christ.

Again, Paul provides a beautiful model for us. Indeed, the spiritual forces of darkness were seeking to trouble Paul. He had faced beatings, shipwrecks, and every possible danger. When he wrote this letter, he had been in jail for years. Yet he stood in Christ. The enemy could not knock him down. Despite his external circumstances, Paul stood firm in his faith. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul noted that his imprisonment led to the gospel spreading faster (Phil 1:12-14)!

Please permit me to share an analogy from the Rocky movies. In those movies, Rocky continued to get up no matter what happened. By the end of each film, he had been severely beaten. His opponents were likewise beaten down. Rocky was simply the one who outlasted his opponent. When we consider the apostle Paul, he was like Rocky. He was knocked down continuously through various attacks and troubles. However, he continued to stand up. In spiritual warfare, follow Paul’s example. Stand firm!

Stand together. One of the most common misperceptions about Ephesians 6:10-17 is that it is an individual’s activity. However, the text clarifies that standing in spiritual warfare is best done as the body of Christ stands together. One reason for this misperception is that English only has one word for “you,” while Greek has two. In Greek, there is a different form for a singular “you” and a plural “you.” In this passage, Paul often uses something we call a collective singular. Let me give you an example. “Put on the full armor of God” sounds in English like something an individual should do. However, an interpretive translation to bring out the collective singular would be like this, “You all put on the single full armor of God.” In the text, “full armor of God” is singular, meaning there is one armor. “You all” are told to put it on. In fact, every command in this passage is best read as a group undertaking this activity together. You all put on the breastplate of righteousness. You all shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace. You all take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.

We make a mistake when we believe that we need to stand alone in spiritual warfare. God has made us all together as the body of Christ. Again, the picture of this passage is of a group of soldiers standing together against their enemy. A single solder, by themselves, standing against an advancing force is vulnerable. It is difficult for them to stand. Therefore, soldiers are trained to fight together. In the same way, the body of Christ is called to stand and fight together. From jail in Rome, Paul called the Ephesian believers to join in his spiritual fight by prayer (6:18-20). Likewise, Paul labored in prayer for the Ephesians (1:15-23; 3:14-19).

Click here to go to part three and read three keys to spiritual warfare from Ephesians 6:10-20.

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Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians (Part 1 of 3)

Picture of Babajan Dargah in Pune, India. Babajan was a female Sufi mystic who came from Afghanistan.
Photography By AshishCHACKO. Used by permission from

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavens.”

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

I remember my first visit to Kaliyar Sharif dargah in Uttarkhand, India. The Muslim saint, Alauddin Ali Ahmed Sabir Kalyari (d. 1291 AD), buried there is reputed to have power over demons. When Muslims in that area believe that a family member is demon-possessed, they often bring that family member to this saint’s tomb. Often, they even bind them with shackles, just like the man that Jesus freed from the legion of demons (Mark 5:1-20).

The Kaliyar Sharif dargah, like most dargahs, is a cluster of tombs of deceased Sufis. A colony has now emerged in the country around these tombs with hotels, restaurants, and shops. Every day, thousands of people come to these tombs, seeking blessings and miracles from the saints, who are still believed to be active from their graves. Inside the colony is the dargah itself. Everyone removes their shoes before entering. Shops line this inner area, selling topis, shawls, images, and other items that people buy to use in the tomb. A common activity is to buy something at a shop and bring it into the dargah. They believe it will absorb some of the place’s spiritual power (Urdu barkat) so that they can bring some of the tomb’s power home with them.

As you go past those shops, you reach a crowded courtyard. At the center of this courtyard is the actual tomb, usually inside of a small building. Muslim spiritual leaders, called pirs, take donations, pray for visitor’s needs, and make protective amulets, like tawiz, for those who come.

The first time I stepped into the courtyard, I was immediately almost knocked down by a woman rolling on the ground. I jumped out of the way before realizing that two women were writhing on the floor. Their hands were bound with shackles. A pir stood over them, authoritatively yelling in tongues.[1] Shocked, I began to pray, wondering what kind of spiritual darkness I had wandered into. 

Islam can be understood as a spiritual shackle that holds Muslims in bondage. As Paul shared in Ephesians 6:12, our fight is not with Muslims (i.e., “not with flesh and blood) but against the spiritual forces of darkness that hold Muslims in bondage. Much like the women shackled in that tomb, many Muslims are held as spiritual slaves to Islam. It is our calling to emancipate them from this darkness. 

The book of Ephesians is an excellent place to look for biblical counsel on what to do when we encounter spiritual darkness. Ephesus was home to the great temple of Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:23-41). When Paul began his ministry in Ephesus, he started by sharing the gospel and making disciples (Acts 19:1-10). He did not start with a strategy of spiritual warfare. He was spiritually ready to stand in Christ when spiritual attacks came (Acts 19:11-20). The result was that “the word of the Lord was growing mighty and prevailing.” 

A few years after pioneering the gospel in Ephesus and planting churches there, Paul wrote a letter from prison to these believers. Paul showed them that God was building a temple in which he would dwell (Eph 2:19-22). This temple would be grander than the temple of Artemis of the Ephesians since Christ was seated at God’s right hand as the one who fills everything in every way (Eph 1:20-23). Throughout Ephesians, there are references to spiritual forces at work in the world (1:21; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12). Paul told the Ephesians, “you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). He then admonished them not to “participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (5:11). The Ephesians had previously been in bondage to these spiritual forces of darkness (Eph 6:12) but now had been saved by God’s grace (Eph 2:1-9).

This post is the first of three posts on spiritual warfare in Ephesians. Click here for part two. Click here for part three.

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[1] By tongues here, I mean that he was speaking in an unknown language similar to some interpretations of the biblical gift of tongues. It is possible that he was speaking in a language that I do not know. He was not speaking the languages of that area of India. 

“Casteism” in South Asian Islam

Today, I am reading Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s short book, Muslims in India. Nadwi (1914-1999), often known as Ali Miyan, was a renowned Islamic scholar from Lucknow who wrote over fifty books. He was considered a key leader in the Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements. As I read, I am amazed at some of the blinders that he has in this book that prevented him from seeing his own prejudice.

Nadwi wrote that Indian Muslims have a “natural awareness of human dignity and equality” (61). He then elaborated that “Things like social exclusiveness or untouchability are completely foreign to Muslim society.” In brief, Nadwi argued in this book that Muslims stood for complete equality of all and had not fallen into the casteism of Hindus.

However, a few pages later, Nadwi noted two issues in South Asian Islam that are, in essence, caste-related. First, Nadwi noted that marriage among South Asian Muslims occurs only with others of “an equal genealogical status” (68). In anthropology, this is called endogamy, which is a group’s trait to only marry within their own group. The caste system in Hinduism is likewise propagated partly by ensuring that caste members do not marry outside of their caste. One particularly poignant example are the Sayyid, who are something like the Brahman of South Asian Islam.  

In South Asia, the Sayyid function something like the priestly class of Islam. Most believe that Sufi mystics (i.e., pirs) must be Sayyid. Sufi mystics serve as spiritual leaders in South Asian Islam who are mediators between man and God. Therefore, most South Asian Muslims think that only a particular caste of Muslims should be set apart for this vital role. Sayyid are understood to be descendants of the Qureshi Arab tribe, which is the same tribe that Muhammad was from. Therefore, within South Asian Islam, those descended from Muhammad are understood to be a superior caste with special privileges. In fact, Nadwi was Sayyid, meaning that it may have been difficult for him, being from a privileged caste, to see the casteism in his own belief system. Other Sayyids, such as Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d. 1898), were famous for their disdain of local converts to Islam, seeing them as second class Muslims.

The second issue that Nadwi noted is seen in this quote,

“The disgraceful treatment meted out to servants by their masters, which is sometimes so outrageous as to reduce the servants to the level of untouchables, is again, a product of the social impulses received from India together with being a mark of the general degeneration that had set in among the Muslims during the declining years of their power (68).”

This quote indicates that many Muslims in South Asia have adopted the South Asian attitude of casteism. Some individuals are privileged above others. In this mindset, the master is of more value than the servant. This mindset has continued in South Asia through the perpetuation of low castes within Islam. For example, Hindu haircutters in South Asia have traditionally been called Nai. When Nai converted to Islam in large numbers, they took the Arabic name Hazzam, while continuing to marry within their own community. If a young man is born into a Hazzam family,  he will also learn the family trade of haircutting. In South Asia, more and more individuals are breaking through the ceiling of their castes through education. However, the basic caste concept persists, even in Islam. In South Asia, many similar groups marry only within their own castes, which are defined by a particular trade. 

What does this mean for Christians who are ministering among the Muslims of South Asia? 

  1. We must not allow the sin of casteism to come into our hearts! We must treat every person with dignity and respect, despite how the society around them considers them. Every Muslim in South Asia, no matter their lineage or status, is created in God’s image. Since they bear God’s image, we are obligated to treat them as our neighbor and equal. We should show all Muslims the love that Jesus displayed when He died on the cross for our sins.
  2. Perhaps the most concrete action we can take to make sure that we do not fall into casteism is to really see the people around us. We should make a practice of looking past people’s jobs and status. We should see their faces and pray for them. As we see them, we will each struggle with questions of how to respond in the face of such great poverty and need. Often, we cannot provide solutions for every need that we see. However, we need to be willing to see the pain and the brokenness around us and bring it to Christ in prayer.
  3. The sin of casteism is alive and well among South Asian Muslims. As Muslims begin to follow Jesus, we must help them to set aside their casteism. 
  4. In Hinduism, those of low caste and untouchables have readily abandoned Hinduism. Some have followed Jesus, while others have become Muslims, Buddhists, or Sikhs historically. In contrast, few Brahman have chosen to follow Jesus. Similarly, it is likely that Muslims of “lower castes,” especially those who have been mistreated by other Muslims because of their status, will be most receptive to the gospel.