The Most Frightening Words in the Bible
This is the text of an exhortation I gave to the Belfast Christadelphian Ecclesia on Sunday 16 May 2004. I found it in my archive and thought it was worth republishing here.
Consider the following words:
Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners, uncleanness, lasciviousness, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, whoremongers.
How many of you can honestly say that you understand every one of those terms? What is ‘uncleanness’ for a follower of Christ? What does it mean to be ‘effeminate’? What is ‘variance’?
These words are some of the most terrifying in the Bible. Why? The answer lies in two quotes, both from Paul’s letters: First Corinthians 6, verses 9 and 10, and Galatians 5, verses 19 to 21:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Those words are terrifying because those are the things which we can do that will exclude us from the Kingdom of God.
How many of us can genuinely say we understand each of those terms, and what they mean for us today?
Take the word ‘effeminate’ for example. In Greek, this word is ‘malakos’, which literally means soft, but it also carries connotations of moral laxity and effiminity. To translate it as ‘effeminate’ is an accurate translation. When people writing in Greek in the first century wrote ‘malakos’ in this context they generally meant ‘effeminate’.
But what does it mean to be effeminate? Each culture has its own definition of effiminity. In some cultures for a man to shave would be considered effeminate. In others, a man who wore good clothes would be effeminate. When Paul wrote condemning effiminity, was he condemning the specific behaviours that were effeminate to him, or was he condemning behaving in such a way as to make those around us think we were effeminate? Should we avoid 21st Century effeminate behaviour, or 1st Century effeminate behaviour?
Similar uncertainty surrounds virtually every item in the list. Some of the terms are practically indecipherable. As proof of this, look at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21 in a variety of different translations when you get home. Different translators have often translated these terms in radically different ways.
What does this mean to us, today? Quite simply it means any one of us could have been behaving in such a way as to exclude ourselves from the Kingdom of God, and we wouldn’t even know it. Paul doesn’t dwell on theses sins. He doesn’t tell us what each of them involves. Those words are the most frightening in the Bible because we could spend our whole lives learning everything we could about the culture Paul was writing in, and still not know whether or not we had put ourselves into one of the categories he listed.
How should we respond? There are these invisible boundaries that may stop us from inheriting the Kingdom. Should we be afraid?
Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
God wants us to be in the kingdom. There are no secret barriers. The clean shaven men among us will not be rejected on Judgment day because we are, according to some cultures, effeminate. We won’t be told we are to die because we practised variance, without even knowing what the word means.
We should not be asking ourselves “what are these things that I must not do, so that I will inherit the kingdom?” The key to understanding these passages is to ask another question. What are we told we should do in order to inherit the Kingdom? I think we can be absolutely certain if we live our lives according to the rules that will get us into the Kingdom then we will not commit any of the Kingdom disqualifying sins that Paul mentions.
And what are those rules? Suppose Christ was to be standing physically in front of us right now, and we were to ask him, what would he say? If we were to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” what would his answer be.
Luke 10, verses 25 to 28:
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
There are two things we must do: love God and love our neighbour. That is it. I have been studying Paul’s various lists of sins for some time. Among those terms that we can fully understand, there is always an element of either not loving God or exploiting our neighbour. Among those terms that we cannot fully understand, there seems to be an element of not loving God or not loving your neighbour.
I have been exhorting for nearly five years now. There is one passage that keeps cropping up again and again in my exhortations, and we are going to go to that wonderful passage now. Matthew 25, reading from verse 31 to the end.
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Paul and Christ are singing from the same hymn sheet. What does Christ say will exclude us from the Kingdom? Failure to love our neighbour as ourselves. What does Paul say will exclude us from the Kingdom? He lists several specific things, but those specific things must be mere aspects of what Christ says will exclude us.
Lets return to the passage where we started, 1st Corinthians 6, verses 9, 10, and this time 11.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
If the words I listed at the beginning were the most terrifying in the Bible, then these are some of the most comforting. Christ was the only person ever to have lived who never did anything that would exclude from the Kingdom of God. Everybody else has. Those things can be forgiven. Those things are forgiven. Those things are in the past: such were some of us, but we are washed, sanctified, and justified.
There is another place in 1st Corinthians where Paul tells us what cannot inherit the kingdom of Good. 1st Corinthians 15, verses 50 to the end:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Now we look back to the work of the man in whose name we are washed, sanctified, and justified, and we look forward to the day when the dead shall be raised incorruptible. For as often as we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we do show the Lord’s death till he come.
Luke 22, verses 15 to 20:
And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.