Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #748 ------- April 30, 2018
Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

19th Century Black Spiritual

Summoning Sheol's Sleeping Saints
Mystery of a Stunning Resurrection Event
A Reflective Study of Matthew 27:52-53

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), a civil war veteran, journalist and author, defined a "saint," in his classic work The Devil's Dictionary, as "a dead sinner revised and edited." All of us are sinners; there are no exceptions, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). There are none who are righteous by nature, not even one (Romans 3:10-12), and those who pronounce themselves to be without sin are self-deceived (1 John 1:8, 10). "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him" (Ephesians 2:4-6a). Bierce was correct, on a number of levels, when he declared that a "saint" was nothing more than a "dead sinner revised and edited." We are dead in our transgressions, yet by virtue of God's grace and our trust/faith in His gift and promise, we are spiritually raised and revised, counted as righteous, even though the reality is that we all stumble and falter in our walk with Him on a daily basis. Such is the power of His love, mercy and grace toward us. By His doing, not our own, we are seen by our God and Savior as "saints" -- i.e., "holy ones, set apart ones." Whether living or dead physically, we have the blessed assurance that we are chosen, called and sanctified.

The confident expectation of all who are "in Christ," and this is especially true of those who have died and are now "asleep in Christ" (see: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), is that we will one day be resurrected, our bodies transformed and made fit for immortality, and we will then dwell forever with Him in the new heavens and earth. Resurrection reality is central to the message of redemption, and it is no surprise, therefore, to find the early disciples, like Paul, going about "preaching Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:18). If there is to be no physical resurrection of our bodies from the dust of the ground, then our "faith is worthless," we are "still in our sins," and "we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:17-19). Without the resurrection (both His and ours) there is NO "Gospel." Our Lord's coming forth from the tomb, however, assures us of our own coming forth one day. As Jesus declared, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies" (John 11:25). Martha, the sister of Lazarus, even as she mourned her brother's death, understood this truth: "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day" (John 11:24). She and her sister Mary, as well as many of their friends and loved ones, were about to receive a powerful, visible assurance to that belief: Lazarus would come forth from the tomb, thus testifying to the power of the Lord to deliver on His promise of a future resurrection to life. Even the most hardened critic of Jesus could not deny this visible witness to the truth of a physical resurrection: the one raised stood among them.

The account of the raising of Lazarus, however, is just one of several resurrection narratives found in the New Covenant writings. Among these dramatic accounts there is one that is often given little notice. It is found only in the gospel account of Matthew, and it is mentioned briefly, almost in passing, along with a few other visible displays that accompanied the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 27:50-53 we read: "And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many" [NASB]. Here we find the gospel writer "introducing solemnly a series of preternatural accompaniments, all but the first peculiar to Matthew" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 332]. Nowhere else in Scripture is this resurrection of "many bodies of the saints" ever mentioned; only Matthew informs us of this event, and he does so with virtually no elaboration or commentary. "This matter is not related so fully as our curiosity would wish" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. As is often the case when greater detail is lacking, some have sought to embellish the account. "We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend. Certainly the legendary spirit laid hold of this feature with great eagerness, expanding and going into details" never specified in Scripture [ibid]. Who were these risen "saints"? For what purpose were they raised? What did they do when they entered Jerusalem? What became of them later? Did they die again and return to their tombs? Are they still alive today somewhere on earth? Were they taken up into the presence of God (as happened with Enoch and Elijah)? Although legends abound, none of these questions are answered in Scripture. Yet clearly this event was recorded and preserved so that some truth or lesson might be imparted to the reader. What might that be?

I must confess, as I reflect upon this event, that a somewhat comical scenario comes to mind (both with Lazarus and these unknown saints). Imagine with me: these "immortal souls" are all rejoicing in "heaven" in the presence of God, singing and playing on their harps, having a wonderful time. Then an angel comes up and taps them on the shoulder (assuming "souls" have shoulders) and says, "All of you need to come with me." "What's up?" they say. "Well, we need to zap you back into your dead decaying bodies." "What for?" they ask. "Well, we need you to become an object lesson for some people down there. So come with me to the transport area; you're going back." "We don't want to leave here! We like it here!" "Too bad; you're going back." Of course, this is all just superstitious nonsense, as I have shown repeatedly. The dead are in the grave; they don't have some "immortal spirit being" trapped in their bodies that cannot die, and thus must exist somewhere. To raise a dead body and reanimate it is a gift; to zap a "soul" in heaven back into a dead body would be a curse! I love the way the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) stated this in his Table Talk: "Now if one should say that Abraham's soul lives with God but his body is dead, this distinction is rubbish. I will attack it. That would be a silly soul if it were in heaven and desired its body!" William Tyndale (1494-1536), an English Bible translator and martyr, wrote, "And ye, in putting them (the departed souls) in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection." Tyndale argued that if "souls" were off in a blissful state already, "then what cause is there of the resurrection?" He continued: "The true faith putteth forth the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that the soul did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree. And because the fleshly-minded Pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the Scripture to stablish it. If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?" I have provided a great deal of additional in-depth material on all of this in a number of locations, for those who may wish to study it further:

  1. My 308 page book titled "From Ruin To Resurrection," the Foreword of which is written by Edward Fudge. This book may also be ordered in digital format; Click Here for information. It is also available on Kindle.
  2. My five month Sunday morning adult class on "The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny," which was recorded and placed on a 2 CD set in MP3 audio files.
  3. My published debate on this topic: The Maxey-Thrasher Debate.
  4. Thirty Reflections articles on this topic, which may be accessed on my Topical Index page under the heading "Conditionalism."

The first thing that needs to be said about the resurrection of the bodies of these saints who had died and been buried, and to which Matthew makes mention in his gospel account, is that these were not dead bodies reconstituted and reanimated by virtue of some "immortal soul" being zapped back into them. These saints did not return from the presence of God; rather, they returned from a grave or tomb. They were fully and totally DEAD; now they were once again ALIVE, having been resurrected. For those of you who find this view "radical" and "unsettling," I would plead with you to read the above material carefully and prayerfully, and with an open Bible before you. You will be astounded at what the Word of God actually teaches on this topic, as opposed to the traditional nonsense (and, frankly, heresy) to which far too many have been exposed.

The obvious question on almost everyone's mind, when reading this account, is: Who were these people?! They are not named or identified in any way, other than being characterized as "saints." We know, therefore, that they were individuals (most likely both men and women, young and old) who sought to live lives of holiness, thus making every effort to separate themselves from the lusts of this world and the desires of the flesh. We understand this from Matthew's use of the Greek word "hagios" to identify them. When referring to people, this word is most often translated "saints, holy ones, set apart ones." This informs us as to what they were, but not really who they were. A number of the early church Fathers and theologians believed "that these resuscitated saints were those to whom Christ preached (1 Peter 3:19) when He descended into Hell" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 596]. I strongly oppose this view for a number of reasons. First, Jesus did not "go to Hell" during the time between His death and resurrection. This view is derived from an ancient creed, which I examine in Reflections #488 ("The Apostles' Creed: A Reflective Review"). Further, there are no disembodied "immortal souls" of the wicked burning in Hell either then or now. Such a view also proclaims a doctrine of "second chances." Nowhere is this suggested in Scripture. The passage in 1 Peter 3:19 has absolutely nothing to do with "immortal soulism," as some contend; a view I have thoroughly refuted in my study titled "Preaching to the Prisoners: A Critical Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-20" (Reflections #83).

There is also an extremely vital question connected with this that begs to be addressed and answered, which I have sought to do in Reflections #152 ("Paying the Debt for Our Sin: Was the Crucifixion of Christ on the Cross Total or Token Payment for Sin?"). If Jesus went on a "preaching junket" in Hell, or anywhere else for that matter, while His body was in the tomb, then did He fully pay the debt for sin?! This is a huge problem for those who suggest Jesus was anything other than DEAD and anywhere other than in a TOMB. "Especially unacceptable to us is the supposition that this resurrection of the saints is connected with Christ's descent into Hell" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 1129]. Some have sought to wriggle out of this dilemma by stating the creed should read "Hades" rather than "Hell," and that Jesus went to Hades to release the righteous souls from that "holding place" so He could take them to Heaven with Him when He ascended. Thus, He zapped their souls back into their bodies, and these reanimated/resurrected "saints" went into Jerusalem for a few weeks, and "when He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives" (Ephesians 4:8, which is a quote from Psalm 68:18; see: Reflections #657 - "Paul and the 68th Psalm"). "Neither in the Psalm nor in Paul's use of it here is there anything to warrant the idea that the captives are the redeemed, or souls detained in Hades. The most that the words themselves, or passages more or less analogous, warrant us to say is that the captives are the enemies of Christ; just as in the Psalm they are the enemies of Israel and Israel's God" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 324]. This band of captives is being led forth by the One who conquered them as a public display of His victory and their defeat: "They are the foes of Christ the Son of David: the devil, death, the curse, and sin (Colossians 2:15), led as it were in triumphal procession as a sign of the destruction of the foe" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1289]. In no way were these "captives" the "saints" of whom Matthew spoke! They were quite the opposite.

We are still left, therefore, with the puzzle as to the identity of these raised saints. One thing we can safely say is that they were buried near the city of Jerusalem, for we are told that "after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:53). Many scholars feel that since this group was called "the saints," and since they seem to have been buried just outside of Jerusalem, that they may have been righteous individuals well-known to the residents of the area. They made an appearance "to many," suggesting that there were a good number who would have recognized them as having previously been deceased and buried. Some suggest they may have been beloved Jewish martyrs; others feel they may have been followers of Jesus who died before He went to the cross. The ancient Jewish patriarchs and/or the prophets have also been put forward as possibilities. "The language of the text implies, though it does not prove, that they were certain well-known OT and Intertestamental Jewish 'saints,' spiritual heroes and martyrs in Israel's history. If so, then Matthew is telling us, among other things, that the resurrection of people who lived before Jesus Messiah is as dependent on Jesus' triumph as the resurrection of those who come after Him" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 582]. If these raised saints were Jews "such as had died in the hope of the Messiah" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 158], their resurrection and appearance to the residents of Jerusalem would perhaps have served as a testimony to the validity of the claims of Jesus to be their long awaited Messiah. Some also see this event as a fulfillment of prophecy: "Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy" (Isaiah 26:19). Jesus, earth's Messiah, brings victory over death and the grave, a victory just as true for those in the new covenant as those of the old covenant. "These glorified risen saints were perhaps trophies from every age" [Dr. Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1, p. 483].

Some feel one of these raised saints was Job, for there is an addition to the text of Job 42:17 in the Septuagint: "And Job died, an old man and full of days. And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up." That last sentence does not appear in most of our modern translations, or in the Hebrew text, but it does appear in the Greek OT. Although it may indeed be a reference to the resurrection of these saints at the time of our Lord's death and resurrection, it also may just as easily relate to the great resurrection on the last day, which is yet to come. I think we can safely say Job will be part of that resurrection to life, although we have no proof that he was part of the more limited raising of which Matthew speaks. Other names, such as John the Baptist, Joseph (the earthly father of Jesus; husband of Mary, whom many believe was deceased at this time), Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, good old Simeon, have also been suggested, just to name a few. Clearly, we simply don't have sufficient information to suggest with any certainty the names of these raised saints. It is quite probable that we wouldn't even recognize these names if they were given in the text. The important point, though, is that they were obviously known to the residents of Jerusalem, and thus there would have been no doubt in their minds that something phenomenal had occurred in association with the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, for them, this event probably falls into the category of "many convincing proofs" (Acts 1:3) that accompanied our Lord's resurrection. "This was an earnest of the general resurrection at the last day, when all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. ... And the saints, at the general resurrection, shall enter into the new Jerusalem," just as these raised ones entered into the earthly Jerusalem [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].

These raised saints, who entered Jerusalem and appeared to many, "were witnesses to the reality of God's power to raise the dead, and afforded supreme proof of the reality of the resurrection by the very fact that they had been raised -- and all this at the very time that the Jewish leaders were seeking desperately to conceal the fact of Christ's resurrection and offering money to the Roman soldiers to lie about His resurrection. But incontrovertible witness was thus given both to the Jews and to Christ's followers. These provided unassailable attestation" [Froom, p. 483]. "There is nothing said of the reason why they were raised. It is not improbable, however, to suppose that it was, amid the other wonders attending the death of Jesus, to convince the Jews that He was the Messiah. Perhaps some who had been His open friends were raised up now as an attestation that He in whom they had believed was the Christ" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword].

There are also a few questions in the minds of biblical students as to the timeline of certain particulars of this event. The wording of the text has suggested to some that the tombs of these saints were opened by the earthquake that occurred at the time of our Lord's death (Matthew 27:51-52a), and that these deceased saints were resurrected at that moment. However, vs. 53 informs us that they came out of their tombs and entered the holy city after Christ's resurrection. Others feel the text can just as easily suggest the tombs were opened by the earthquake, but the bodies were not reanimated until Jesus arose on the third day. They see the words of Paul to the brethren in Corinth as a validation of this view: "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. ... Each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's" (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). "It is natural, we think, and consonant with other Scriptures, to understand that only the graves were opened, probably by the earthquake, at our Lord's death, and this only in preparation for the subsequent exit of those who slept in them, when the Spirit of life should enter into them from their risen Lord, and along with Him they should come forth, trophies of His victory over the grave" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 948]. "What became of them after they had entered into the city, whether they again died or ascended to heaven, is not revealed, and conjecture is vain" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "Of the future life of these resuscitated saints we know nothing, and will not presumptuously venture to inquire" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 595]. Obviously, there is much we don't know about this event; we have "enquiring minds," but the Lord, for whatever reason, chose not to provide this insight. What we do know, however, is very inspiring, and I pray this study has proved to be such for each of you!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother, You have given me a new lease on learning, and also a new understanding of how ignorant I am as a result of years of indoctrination! I was raised a Baptist by my mom, with lots of "preaching" from my dad, who was a member of the Church of Christ. His dad had actually traveled with David Lipscomb during his early preaching days. My dad preached his ideas on salvation by baptism to everyone he met, but I never knew of him converting a single soul. In time, I eventually began to search the Scriptures for myself. It has been a long, hard road, and I am so thankful to have found your web page and your books some years back. They have answered a lot of my questions. When you wrote about AOL rejecting one of your Reflections articles for being "dirty," I thought about my cousin: something very similar happened to her! How nice it is to laugh now and then, even though the world seems to be on a downhill slide! Never give up your mission, even when it sometimes seems thankless. You are making a big difference!

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, please add me to your mailing list so that I may begin receiving your Reflections via email. As my roots go back four generations in the Churches of Christ, it is refreshing and inspiring to be reaffirmed in my understandings of the challenges with which I have privately wrestled, and for which I have often been rejected by our brethren and branded as a heretic. Those scars have healed over time, and with faith in our Lord I have found contentment. Remembering you in my prayers!

From a Minister in Texas:

Brother Al, thank you so much for your Reflections articles! I often search your website as I'm preparing for my Bible classes and sermons. I also often refer others to your site. Your articles are informative, well-researched, and well-presented. It is a blessing to me every time I see your posts appear in my inbox. I just wanted to take a moment and wish God's richest blessings upon you, the Cuba Avenue congregation, and your ministry. My wife and I will be attending the Pepperdine Lectures this year for the first time, and we will be returning home by driving through your city. We hope to worship with your congregation on May 6th. Could you please pass along the worship times, and also recommend a decent hotel in the area. Thank you again for your time, talents, and teaching!

From a Reader in Maine:

Dear Al, It has been a very long time since I have written to you, and you probably do not even remember me. I used to be a regular reader when I was preaching for the Church of Christ in ------, Massachusetts. I have since, due to health problems and the death of my wife of almost 53 years, given up preaching and moved back to Maine to be closer to family. Al, I am enclosing a check for one of your CD studies: "The New Covenant Church: Identity -- History -- Mission." I am grateful that you are still able to do all that you do for the glory of our risen Lord. May the blessing of the Lord be on you and the whole congregation of God's people where you labor.

From a Reader in California:

I'm just getting around to reading "Repentance Unto Salvation: Rejoicing in the Fruit of Godly Sorrow" (Reflections #747). Brother Al, I find myself, probably way too many times and in way too many conversations, quoting and referencing your Reflections articles! It's kind of like: "Well, Al Maxey wrote an article on this subject; you should read it" and/or "Al Maxey explains it this way..." or "Al Maxey's view on this is ..." I catch myself saying one of these, or a version of these, A LOT. Sometimes I think that if you were to hear me referencing you so much, you would say, "Why doesn't this clown do his own research and study, and stop depending so much on mine?!" (LOL) But, brother, you often deal with subjects that have never even entered my mind; yet they are subjects that most definitely NEED to be brought up, and I am always amazed (indeed, blown away) at your work! I've told you before that I used to think I was fairly decent in my knowledge of the Scriptures ... until seeing your studies, that is!! Your Reflections not only humble me, but they strongly reveal how very little I actually know about the Scriptures. Yet, I trust not in this, but in God's grace, my faith in Him, and the work completely performed by Jesus. Love you, brother!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Al, I'm not sure if you know the answer to this, or if you would even want to research it, but does the concept of Conditional Immortality, as contained in Edward Fudge's "The Fire That Consumes" and/or your own book "From Ruin To Resurrection," answer the question of Satan's eternal status? As a spirit being/fallen angel (not sure of the correct characterization), does Satan continue to suffer torment eternally along with his angels? Or, will they be burned up/annihilated in the same way as those humans who rejected a relationship with the Lord? In other words, will Satan be annihilated or will he suffer endlessly?

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I continue to receive and appreciate your Reflections articles. I've been wondering about something lately, and I haven't found anyone who is really interested in answering my question. Question: What specifically does a woman do, either verbally or physically, to "usurp authority over a man"? Is it the act of standing before a class or assembly and speaking? If so, then do we need to stop women from making the "good confession" before the assembly? If a woman may teach a man without usurping his authority, may that same woman offer an audible prayer in the presence of that same man without usurping his authority? If not, then what specifically allows her to do one, but not do the other? Are there specific passages of Scripture that clearly outline what the abuse is or isn't?! This last sentence is basically put there so the one answering the question will attempt to harmonize what a woman may do in teaching that she cannot do in praying. If you have any previous articles on this specific subject, I'd like to read them. Several conservative brethren I've sent this to will not deal with it. I asked a Non-Institutional preacher the other day, and he said he could not say it was wrong for his wife to pray in his presence, but she would not be comfortable doing so. My response to him was, "I understand her discomfort, but I'm not asking about comfort authority, but biblical authority." Too many don't know the difference.

From a Minister in Montana:

Hello brother. I'm a preacher at a Church of Christ in ------, Montana. I came upon your web site the other day and read a few of your Reflections articles which were related to hermeneutics, MDR, and the doctrine of Hell. It was like a breath of fresh air! You explain so well truths that I've also been coming to see in the Scriptures. I think I would like to read your books, and I prefer reading "on paper," rather than on my computer screen. So I'll be sending you a check for all four of your books. Grace and peace to you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Maxey, would you please send me two signed copies of your newest book: "From Ruin To Resurrection." Thank you!

From a Reader in Hawaii:

While in the Army I was not infantry (front line; in the trenches). My job was to provide front line support to the infantry. I worked in a warehouse that provided necessary supplies to assist the infantry in doing their job. While I never was in any specific war, I did spend time "in the field." This meant that we loaded up our large trucks with as many supplies as they could hold, drove them to the field, and then made camp directly behind the infantry who were on the front line, in the trenches. In the Bible, there are many references to war and soldiering, etc. These passages talk about soldiers on the front lines fighting the battle. I liken these men to those who preach and teach the Word. Many times over the years I have heard that all disciples of Christ must be out there on the front lines preaching and teaching the Word. What I have noticed, though, is that not everyone is in the trenches. There are also those who are "front line support." Do you find this to be so? If so, why does it seem no one is teaching this?

From a Reader in Florida:

Al, your article titled "Repentance Unto Salvation: Rejoicing in the Fruit of Godly Sorrow" (Reflections #747) is truly God's response to a recurring prayer of mine! I have a particular struggle: while I know I have been saved by God's grace, through my faith in His Son Jesus, and that I can do nothing on my own accord to be saved or to win/earn my salvation, I nevertheless struggle with the fact that I have a few recurring sins. I recall Paul's struggle in Romans 7, and I can relate, for I have three in particular that haunt me. Although I pray daily to have a heart like David's, faith in the Father like Jesus did, and the intelligence or discernment of Solomon, yet these three sins are ever present -- maybe not daily, but often enough that I question if I am truly making an effort to repent of them! Yes, I am remorseful; yes, I regret them; but the reality is that they continue. At times I have had weeks of freedom from them, but then they return. I confess them to God, ask for His forgiveness, yet feel badly that I continue to do that which I know is wrong. I can't seem to shake them -- or, maybe I'm just not trying hard enough. I don't know. Can you relate? It comes down to this: I have tried to walk with the Lord since 1985, and I have seen many changes in my life, heart, thinking and attitudes; I continue to work daily on drawing closer to God and becoming more like His Son. But these recurring sins act as a barrier to drawing as close to God as I desire to be (Isaiah 59:2). Do you have any thoughts on this? God bless you, brother, for all you do!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Hi Al, I trust you are well. I recently got "caught out" on a strange difference in the New American Standard Bible which I had never noticed before. It is the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28ff. The order in which these two sons is presented is reversed in this version for some reason. Have you ever come across this variation? If so, do you have any idea as to why the NASB reversed the order? Also, regarding the New World Translation (the version put out by the Jehovah's Witnesses), are you aware of any other discrepancies besides the one in John 1:1? Any help would be appreciated. God bless you, brother.

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