Endangered Purpose

3 John is one of those brief New Testament letters that is often ignored by Bible students. However, it is one that is directly focused on dysfunctional relationships that often occurs among leaders of the body. In fact, the dysfunction about which John wrote was so great in this particular situation that it endangered the organic function of the body to evangelize the world. Souls were or would be lost if the dysfunction in relationships continued. For this reason, the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary to write a specific document (letter) to correct the problem. If necessary, the Spirit sought to send a Christ-sent apostle to the location of the dysfunction in order to sort out the individual who was the source of the trouble.

There were four personalities (disciples) involved in the dysfunctional scenario that is addressed in 3 John. There was the Christ-sent apostle, John, who wrote the letter. There was Gaius, the informant, to whom the letter was written. There was Diotrephes, the instigator of the problem. And then there was on the sidelines a disciple name Demetrius. All four individuals played a significant role in the problem and solution.

The letter does not deal specifically with the church as a whole, but with individuals. In this case, the focus of the letter was directed to a businessman for whom John prayed would become more successful in his prosperity and health, just as he was spiritually prospering (3 Jn 2). Gaius had assumed the responsibility of living the gospel, and in living the gospel, he took personal ownership of making sure the gospel was preached through his support of traveling evangelists. He did not shun his personal responsibility to preach the gospel. He did not off-load his responsibility on a “church budget.” He was directly involved in mission support.

The Holy Spirit, therefore, urged John to write of his personal prayers for this individual: “I pray that in all things you may prosper” (3 Jn 2). Nowhere else in the New Testament is there such a prayer offered for the material prosperity of an individual. We must conclude that if such a prayer were offered for ourselves, then certainly we should be doing with our material prosperity that which Gaius was doing with his. In his case, the more Gaius prospered, the more money he had at his disposal to support those evangelists who were passing through his house on their way to preach the gospel to unevangelized regions.

But there was a serious problem. The problem was so troubling that Gaius was moved to inform John, and then ask for help from the aged apostle. John’s instructions in the letter, therefore, are significant in reference to our personal responsibility to preach the gospel through others. When the preaching of the gospel to the lost is threatened, then it is time to take action. We can be patient with personality disputes among brothers and sisters. However, when the disputes endanger the preaching of the gospel to the lost, then we are in danger of forgetting who we are as disciples of Jesus. If the church does not step up and sort out any problem that causes any member to be discouraged from supporting the preaching of the gospel, then we individually lose our purpose for being disciples of Jesus.

[Next in series: December 29]

Heritage Authority

It is right and according to the word of God to call for a restoration of the authority of the Bible in matters of faith.   However, some who make such a plea often make a fatal mistake. While viewing the Scriptures as a catechism of doctrine by which to call for a restoration of the faith of the “old paths,” they assume that the identity of faith is based on their ability to ascertain and implement “sound doctrine” in all matters of opinion as to how we must implement our faith. In doing this, we often fall victim to the same hermeneutic that identified the Jews’ religion of the Pharisees (Gl 1:13). Not only is the law binding, but also the numerous traditions we might attach to the law in order to implement the law.

During His earthly confrontation with the leaders of the Jews’ religion, Jesus pointed out that His problem was not with the Sinai law, but with the added traditions that the religious leaders used to surround the law itself (See Mt 15:1-9; Mk 7:1-9). There is indeed nothing wrong with having interpretations of the law, but when the interpretations become the heritage of the believers by which the law must be interpreted and implemented, then we have a problem.

In our efforts to contend for the law of our faith, we must be careful. The zealous student often seeks for authorities outside the law in order to confirm his interpretations of the law. In doing this, he often believes that his assertions are authoritative because of the footnotes of his writings. The more bibliography he stacks at the end of his book, the more authority he assumes that his writings must have in the field of theology. His footnotes, therefore, are used to substantiate his interpretations as truth. When footnoted interpretations become the norm of biblical studies, then a problem invariable develops. That problem is that footnoted interpretations become a part of the catechism by which the doctrine of a particular religious group is defined.   This was the road down which the Jews theologically traveled. When they came to Jesus on the day of the Mark 7 confrontation, they met the author of the Sinai law itself. His pronouncement was penetrating: “All too well you [religious leaders] reject the commandment of God [the Sinai law] so that you may keep your own tradition” (Mk 7:9).

The religious leaders of Israel had allowed the centuries of codified interpretations and opinions of their heritage to become “case law.” By the time Jesus arrived, they could not distinguish between the Sinai law and their law. And subsequently, Paul referred to their religion that was founded on the law, plus their case law, as the Jews’ religion (Gl 1:13). They had finalized their apostasy. Their doctrinal purity was obedience to the Sinai law, plus all the other restrictions of law to which the adherents must also be obedient.

Some of those who are sincere in their efforts to restore the authority of the word of God in matters of faith often fail to see the danger that brought the Jews into bondage when Jesus came with a message of freedom. His message was not a freedom message unless they were already in bondage. Paul reminded the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (Gl 5:1).

Now consider for a moment. The preceding statement is a matter of historical significance in reference to the Jews’ problem with theology and obedience. In reference to justification before God, Jesus’ message would have no freedom if the people to whom He came were not in “bondage.” They had “entangled” themselves in a quagmire of theology by which they believed that obedience to such would deliver them justified before God. This was the same quagmire of theology that Jesus confronted in Mark 7:1-9.

The mistake that the religious leaders made by the time of the coming of Jesus was that they were preaching Sinai law plus all their interpretations and applications. Their counterparts today, for example, would be those who obey the law, “This do in remembrance of Me,” plus certain catechisms by which the law of the Lord’s Supper must be carried out. Should the Supper be served before the ceremonial sermon, or after? Should men, but not women serve? Women can serve from left to right, but not front to back. And then we need not go into all the confusion concerning what constitutes “fruit of the vine” and the “bread.”

What complicates the issue is when “Jewish authorities” are footnoted in one’s argument as to how the Supper is to be served.   But more important than the authorities one may footnote in his defense, there is the heritage of the particular religious group that has “performed” the Supper a certain way throughout their history. Their heritage, therefore, has become law that must be obeyed in order to comply with the mandate, “This do in remembrance of Me.” The problem with theological heritage keepers is that they are quick to judge those of a different heritage law, but cannot see that they are guilty of the same.

We are urged to carry the apostasy of heritage keepers into the realm of sectarianism, something about which legal-driven sects are almost always unaware. For example, it is true that names of “churches” promote sectarianism.   While some say they do not, they fail to recognize that even names within a family of religious groups are always used to identify one group of sheep to be separate from another group.   The group that meets on North Main is identified with a name that separates itself from the group that meets on South Main. The identity of each group by a particular name is sectarianism. The sheep inadvertently separate themselves into groups by being categorized under their favorite names.

Some with a sectarian spirit will go so far as to select a particular name from the Scriptures, and subsequently, affirm that their selection is “biblical.” However, another group will do the same, but will select a different “scriptural” name.   They too will affirm that their selection is correct. Both groups will maintain their separation from one another that is simply based on different names. In doing this, they encouraged sectarianism. They encourage the division of Christians by encouraging different groups to assemble under different favorite names. When the favorite names become the heritage of each particular group, then the division is permanent.

Both groups have failed to understand that the Holy Spirit never intended to name the disciples, other than the reference to Christians only (At 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt 4:16). And when the Holy Spirit used the reference “Christian” in the two notations in Acts it was probably used derogatorily. Nevertheless, the Spirit used the derogatory use of the name to identify disciples in the early 60s to whom Peter wrote.

We must keep in mind that the Spirit knew that names which are applied to the groups of different Christians would promote sectarianism. For this reason, we assume that the Spirit refrained from using any particular reference to the disciples as a unique mark of identity. If there are those who feel uncomfortable with this, then they have identified themselves to be sectarian. And when the name has become the identity of the heritage of a particular group of disciples, then the apostasy of heritage authority has captivated a particular group of disciples who seek to remain separate from everyone else.

But it is more than a name when we are referring to apostasy. As time carries on, every religious group begins to cluster under their favorite name and assortment of religious traditions that have now become the identity of their heritage. We would identify sectarian traditions as religious rites or rituals, customs or codes, that lie outside the word of God. When, as the Jews, we be begin to identify and footnote the particular marks of our identity, then the apostasy from simple Christianity that we read about in the New Testament becomes very blurred. We begin interpreting what we read in the New Testament through the glasses our own religious prejudices.

Throughout a few generations, the traditions that identify a particular sect become the heritage of their faith. Religionists are proud of their heritage, and in order to be proud, they must be able to specifically identify their heritage in the midst of other heritage groups in the religious community. Their heritage defines who they are, and thus, of necessity they must assign a unique name to their heritage lest others become confused as to which group they belong. At this state of an apostasy, the authority of the Scriptures fades away. Bible study no longer defines the group that originally set a course for defining who they are by a call for the authority of the Scriptures in all matters of faith. And thus, heritage has become the final authority of the faith of the adherents. The Jews have progressed to the point where they were when Jesus came to them. They rejected the commandment of God in order to maintain their heritage (Mk 7:9).

We recently heard one brother of a particular sect say about another brother of the same sect, “I guess he is no longer with us.” What the judge was saying was that the one on whom he had cast judgment was not longer of their heritage.   Being “with us” meant that one must conform to the legal status of the sect that is now based on heritage more than gospel. “With us” meant with our sect.   And to be of one’s particular sect, he or she must walk according to the traditions that identify the particular sect.

As a side note, the brother who “was no longer with us” was preaching the gospel, but outside the particular heritage of the group he had supposedly left. The judge meant that it was not “according to the law” that one should step outside the fellowship of the “heritage group” in order to preach the gospel to another group.   Paul’s custom of preaching in the synagogues of the Jews would be wrong according to the judge (See At 17:1,2).   Aquilia and Priscilla in the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath would be Christians some would pronounce to be “no longer with us” (At 18:24-28).

We give this example of the Jewish apostasy to illustrate what happened with the religious leaders of Israel, which thing is also happening today. What the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were doing was grievous. It was so grievous that Jesus used the word “woe” in His condemnation of what His contemporary religious leaders were doing. Jesus said of the sectarian Jewish leadership,

 “But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Mt 23:13).

When judgments are made in reference to conforming to heritage, then we know that apostasy has taken away those who, generations before, did not set their course to establish another religious sect.   Therefore, the leading fathers of any restoration must be careful not to establish a legal-oriented foundation upon which apostasy can arise.

Our constitutional mandate is laid out clearing in the books of Romans and Galatians. In extracting legalistic Jews from the Jews’ religion, the Holy Spirit establish the gospel of freedom as the foundation upon which we must base our faith. Our call, therefore, must always be for a gospel restoration movement, as opposed to a legal restoration.   Efforts to legalize grace will always create sects. Legalizing grace establishes those principles (“laws”) upon which a system of theology is produced that leads to sectarianism.

[Next in series: Dec 22]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fallen

We remember receiving a phone call from a young man who was somewhat distraught about a piece of literature of ours he had read. He wanted us to explain what we meant by “apostasy,” for “his church” had never referred to such. It was something quite unknown to him. If one was once saved by the grace of God, then he could not understand how one could be an apostate.

When we use the word “apostasy,” we are referring to both doctrinal matters and spiritual matters. John addressed those who were doctrinal apostates, for they denied that the Son of God had come in the flesh (1 Jn 4:2,3). Paul even prophesied “that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tm 4:1). But in addition to apostasy from sound doctrine, there is the apostasy of lethargy.   Some simply grow indifferent to the gospel they obeyed.

When Christians lose their first love, it is an apostasy without emotional pain, if it involves the majority. Lukewarmness often takes place over decades, not years.   Once it is in its final stages, there is usually no turning back. The church in Ephesus lost their first love, while they retained their doctrinal purity (Rv 2:2). But they had fallen into the apostasy of losing their first love (Rv 2:4). The angel to the church mandated that John write in reference to the Ephesian Christians, “Remember from you have fallen, and repent” (Rv 2:5).

The church in Laodicea simply cooled. “I know your works,” Jesus said of them from heaven, “that you are neither cold nor hot” (Rv 3:15). The problem with being neither exited about living the gospel, or becoming totally indifferent, is that one feels comfortable in his self-deception. But in such a state of mediocrity, Jesus judged the Laodicean disciples: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth (Rv 3:16).

The majority of the disciples in Ephesus Laodicea had gone after the consensus, and eventually the majority created in their minds a concept of religiosity that was “fallen.” The majority vote kept them on the path that would eventually lead to their candlestick of influence being removed.

It is frightening that in matters of faith, the creation of a new religion often begins as a zealous call for a restoration.   Such is a noble plea, one that is surely taken from the prophets of Israel who were called to the old paths.   The Lord pled with apostate Israel, “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it and you will find rest for your souls” (Jr 6:16). But the majority of the people responded, “We will not walk in it” (Jr 6:16).

We have noticed in the history of the prophets of the Old Testament that the prophets always showed up too late. The apostasy of the majority had gone so far that the people as a whole could not turn back. God sent the prophets, therefore, more to judge the people than to turn them from their apostasy. He knew that it was too late. But He also wanted the people to know that where they were headed was their own fault, not His. The pleading prophets, nevertheless, were raised up in times when the majority of Israel was on its way out and into captivity. Their pleas, therefore, were only futile efforts to turn a people from the consequences of their spiritual demise.

We wonder that maybe God sent the prophets to an apostate Israel only for our benefit, “for whatever things were written before were written for our learning” (Rm 15:4). And then we recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Now these things happened to them as an example” (1 Co 10:11).   God wants us to continually rehearse the points of Israel’s apostasy least we finds ourselves going through the same door on our way out from God. If this was the reason for the call of the noble prophets of God in times of old, then we are listening. We are learning. We are into our Old Testament lest we follow Israel’s example into apostasy.

The church throughout history has gone astray on many occasions. We have church history books that are loaded with illustrations of how church went wrong.   We are also listening and learning from our past, lest we are doomed to relive the fallen of history as Ephesus and Laodicea.

In view of Israel’s slow demise into apostasy on many occasions, and scores of church history books that have mapped out so many examples of the same, we would be less than naive not to believe that the church again could move into ways of creating a god after our own desires and a religion that pleases our indifferent behavior in living the incarnational gospel of the Son of God. We have reasons for believing this.

Our postulations are not simply speculations conjectured from hypothetical situations. Fifty years of experience must not be ignored because we have lived through so many situations, as well as witnessed trends that do not appear in a vanishing moment. Trends take decades to develop, and thus, only those who have lived through trends in apostasy have been around long enough to know that we have lost our first love and have need “to remember from where we have fallen” (Rv 2:5). The fact that there are few among us who sense the loss of our first love, or the indifference of lukewarmness, is evidence that many of our leaders today realize that we have “lost our first love.”

Since we now live in an era of little focus on the gospel, we know that we are in trouble. Now do not miss our point. All religions that fall under the umbrella of “Christianity” focus on Jesus, the Son of God. It is a matter of priorities and what we believe is the primary function of our faith by which we feel justified before God. When faith becomes either heritage (traditions) based, or emotionally founded, then the truth of the gospel becomes a secondary foundation. If a particular movement is legal based, it too is on its way from the primary foundation of God’s grace. Both heritage and legal religions are based on the self-sanctifying efforts of the adherents. The legalist finds comfort in law, whereas the traditionalist finds comfort in obedience to the heritage of the fathers. The adherents of both systems of religion find contentment in the flow of the majority, and thus, they justify their existence by the behavior of the majority at any one time in history.

And then we must add what many consider the most important restoration of modern times. This movement falls under what is claimed to be a true return to Pentecost.   The movement is known primarily as Pentecostalism, but in definition it is a movement to experiential emotionalism.   The experiential restorationist finds comfort in his own feelings. It is a self-sanctifying movement that finds its foundation in the emotional experiences of men. But it too would be considered with the legal and traditional religionists. All three “systems” of religion are self-righteous oriented.   They focus on the performance of the individual as a foundation for approval in the eyes of God. And thus, all three are self-sanctifying religions that take our minds off the gospel of God’s grace as the primary means by which we are justified before Him of all sin.

Gospel is grace oriented. Gospel produces a faith in the righteousness of God that was revealed at the cross. Gospel promotes faith in the total sanctification of the cross. Gospel says that we are totally sanctified by Jesus’ blood, and thus justified by His blood as opposed to our performance of either law or traditions, and especially our experiential emotionalism. Gospel says we are justified before God on the basis of Jesus’ performance on the cross, not through our efforts to self-justify ourselves through either perfect law-keeping, faithful keeping of our fathers’ traditions, or the emotional outburst of ourselves. The gospel focuses our attention first on God, not ourselves.

Because the gospel takes our minds off ourselves and places our focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, we are motivated “to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us” (Ep 3:20). The gospel of God’s grace through Jesus stirs us out of indifference. It lifts us out of the pits of lukewarm religiosity and spurs us on to restore our first love that was lost. We must call for a restoration of the gospel as the total focus of our behavior. When we start walking in gratitude of what He did for Us, we will stop walking alone on the performance of our own energies.

[Next in series: Dec. 19]

 

Boxes and Freedom

When Jude wrote his short letter in the middle 60s, he was not defending either a legal or heritage box of faith.

“Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write to you about our common salvation, I felt it necessary to write to you, exhorting that you earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jd 3).

In the philosophical world today the phrase “think outside the box” is often used. It is used to encourage people to think without the constraints of the norm, that is, to think outside the confinement of either heritage or traditions.   When considering our social norms, one certainly has the freedom to think outside the old wineskins of the past.   But when we consider truth that was once and for all time delivered to the saints as the foundation of their faith, “thinking outside the box” can often infer that there are no constraints on either belief or behavior in reference to living the gospel. We must not forget what Jude wrote in the next verse after the preceding comment:

“For certain men have crept in [body of believers] unnoticed, who were long before marked out for the condemnation, ungodly men who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jd 4).

Now connect the word “faith” in Jude 3 with the word “grace” in Jude 4. Jude was writing about the truth of God’s grace. His subject in verse 3 was the faith of the gospel of grace, not an outline of doctrine. Paul used the phrase “truth of the gospel” in order to focus minds of the Galatian and Colossian disciples on the revelation of the Son of God (See Gl 2:5,14; Cl 1:5). The incarnation, atoning death, resurrection, ascension, kingdom reign, and Jesus’ coming again is the “truth of the gospel.” If one would either deny or question any truth of the gospel, then he or she loses the power of the gospel to transform one’s life.

When we speak of Christianity, we must conclude that there is gospel behavior that is motivated by our belief in the truth of the gospel. The “certain men” about whom Jude wrote were those who misunderstood grace. These were those about whom Paul questioned, “Will we continue in sin so that grace may abound?” (Rm 6:1). Grace is not a license to sin. And because it is not, then there is a box of gospel behavior outside which we must not test the grace of God.

We must consider what Jude wrote in the context of what Paul said in Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ as made us free, and do not been entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” The “yoke of bondage” about which Paul exhorted the Galatian disciples not to be brought into bondage, were those religious legal rites from which Christians have been set free in their obedience to the gospel of grace. These were those “doctrines and commandments of men” that “certain men” seek to bring into the gospel of freedom wherein Christians must walk. Therefore, when we speak of thinking “outside the box,” we are exhorting ourselves to determine what should not be a box of legal religiosity in which one seeks to justify himself before God on the basis of his perfect performance of law.

For example, some Jewish Christians sought to bring into the fellowship of the disciples the religious rite of Jewish circumcision. They were adamant about this because they believed that one could not be saved unless he was circumcised.   These were those “certain men” who taught, “Except you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (At 15:1). Circumcision as a part of the Sinai law had become a part of Jewish heritage. But when the Sinai law was nailed to the cross (Cl 2:14), all those who obeyed the gospel were made dead to that law (Rm 7:4).

After the cross, circumcision was relegated to being a religious rite. Under the Sinai law, it was a law of God that all Jewish males be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. But the cross turned this law into simply being a religious rite of the Jews.   Gentiles were not obligated to be circumcised. The law had become, as Luke wrote, only the “custom of the Jews” (At 15:1).

When one comes into Christ through obedience to the gospel, he or she must make some critical decisions concerning his or her past religious beliefs and behavior. What one may have considered “law” before obedience to the gospel, may now be only a “custom.” In the book of Galatians, the Holy Spirit argued persuasively that Christians not be brought into the bondage of old religious “boxes.” Ungodly behavior that may have been allowed before one’s new birth must never be allowed in the “box of the truth of the gospel” in Christ (See Cl 3).

Some disciples in Colosse had some difficulty with this matter. So Paul argued, “If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things that are above” (Cl 3:1). “Set your mind on things above,” Paul continued, “For you are dead [to the ways of the world] (Cl 3:3). “Therefore, put to death your members that are on the earth” (Cl 3:5).   If one were a Jew coming into Christ in the first century, there were a host of doctrines and commandments of the fathers that had to be put away in order to live in the freedom that we have in Christ (See Mk 7:1-9). Those who are set free must never again be brought into bondage.

One certainly has the freedom to carry on with his or her former religious traditions. However, under no circumstances does one have a right to bind on the consciences of others those practices he may deem to be in the realm of Christian behavior. We are sure that the early Jewish brethren carried on with their circumcision. However, they could not bind on Gentiles this former law that had now become only a “custom of Moses.” Some Jewish brethren in the first century tried to do this, but they met head on with the condemnation of the Holy Spirit who judged that their actions were endangering the freedom that all have in Christ. In fact, in no uncertain terms the Holy Spirit said, “If you are circumcised [according to law], Christ will profit you nothing” (Gl 5:2).   Binding religious laws as a matter of salvation is preaching another gospel (Gl 1:6-9).

[Next in series: Dec. 16)

“Tree of Life Church”

For several years we have had this good friend, who in his old age as an ex-missionary, has continually encouraged the church in America to remember her responsibility to evangelize the world.   He was himself a missionary in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America. But since those days, things have changed in the “spiritual” climate of his home church. He happens to live in the city where one of the first preacher/missionary training schools was born in America in the 1960s. It was a school to which young eager men enrolled who wanted to learn their Bibles. But in his last note to us, this school that once had over one hundred students specifically training to learn the Bible in order to preach the gospel to the world, had a new enrollment of only fifteen students. The paradigm had shifted.

We now live in a world of churchianity where Bible study is almost gone from the halls of “Christianity.” Evidence of the fact is not only in the small enrollment in Bible schools in order to study the Bible, but also in churches where gimmicks are used to attract an attendance. Those churches that maintain their attendance are those churches that have turned more to a social-orientated assembly.   “Worshipers” are called to assembly by the sound of an orchestra. The call of the church bell now sounds faint and in competition with powerful amplifiers.   When this happens, “church” changes from believers who assemble around the gospel and the word of God, to adherents who assemble around one another for a social experience. The assembly is no longer gospel centered, but social centered.

As this nature of “church” increases over the years, the defense and propagation of the “social church” turns from the foundation of the Scriptures to a foundation that is based on relationships.   The reverse purpose for assembly that identified the church in the first century is changed.

Common obedience to the gospel brought believers together in the first century. Common relationships bring people together today in many churches. Great effort is thus placed on producing an atmosphere of social development (relationships), and less on zeal for a study of the word of God. In fact, in some cases any Bible teaching that might discourage the relationships or attendance of the adherents to a particular group is suppressed.

This paradigm shift from the Bereans to the church that prizes relationships over Bible is revealed in the fact that many groups have given up the necessity for obedience to the gospel in order to be added to the body of believers. In a truly Calvinistic theology, it has gone from the necessity of being baptized for the remission of sins (At 2:38), to “believe on Jesus only” for the remission of sins. Baptism is simply a choice of the believer, a choice that is often ignored. Salvation by faith only is the prevailing doctrine in reference to salvation in Christendom today.

When the preceding happens among those of faith, an interesting paradigm is established from which there is often no escape. A religious box is constructed.   It is similar to legal religious boxes that seek to retain adherents by conforming to a legal set of interpretations that identify the particular religious sect to which one belongs.   But in the social-relational box, the rule is that there are no rules. If one would impose rules, then he or she simply does not fit the mold of the box. It is for this reason that open Bible study has left the building because the adherents of the socially focused religion might discover in the word of God something that imposes a rule that might exclude someone from the social box.

The next stage of apostasy in this movement is that an identity heritage is established. The unique group finds a unique name, possibly the “Tree of Life Church,” under which banner all adherents can be identified as members.   Thus the members of the Tree of Life Church identify the heritage of their group by their unique name. The Tree of Life Church thus becomes a sect—a uniquely denominated group—that is separated from all other bannered churches in town who carry other unique names of identity.

Over time, heritage becomes the foundation of the Tree of Life Church. If others move out to other cities from the Tree of Life Church, they also start churches under the banner of the same heritage as the mother Tree of Life Church.   In this scenario, apostasy is determined in reference to conforming to the heritage of the Tree of Life Church, not according to teachings of the Bible. And thus, the adherents to the unique Tree of Life Church will defend their church by resorting to their heritage and not the Bible.

It is a normal practice among Tree of Life churches that there is little Bible study. The assemblies of such churches will be characterized by a great deal of “Lord, Lord” emotionalism, but there will be few “amens” uttered when the speakers pronounce truth from the word of God. And since the preacher and movement is based on finances, preachers and teachers alike are cautioned not to speak any truth that might drive away checkbooks.

Legalists find it rewarding to judge Tree of Life churches. But in their spirit of judging, they become the same as that which they condemn. It is always true that those who are most cultic in their beliefs and behavior are the most critical of cults. The same is true of heritage-defined churches.

[Next in series: Dec. 13]

 

 

Tunnel Vision

If we could for a moment extend the term “Christianity” to include all faiths that in some way consider Jesus to be the Son of God, and “church” to include everyone who in some way separates themselves religiously from all “non-Christian” faiths, we would discover that something astonishing is transpiring within the ranks of “Christianity” today. It is something that will eventually lead to the demise of true Christian faith as it is defined in the Bible. Does this sound shocking? It should!

This demise is nothing new. It was happening to Christianity by the end of the first century, and continued into the second. In the second century the apostasy from Christian faith was so drastic that historians believe that about half of those who “believed on Jesus” had gone astray into believing that Jesus was only a good rabbi who led many away from the original Jewish faith. Those who refused to believe that Jesus was the “Christ” relegated Him to only a man who lived, and then wander off somewhere into obscurity and died of old age.   To many, there was no such thing as an incarnation and sacrificial atonement. The same is happening throughout the world today.   Christianity today has a weak biblical foundation. The faith of many is an open black hole that is sucking in any religious fantasy that can be imagined in the minds of religiously misguided people.

To those who have not read Acts 17:11, the term “nobility” was used by the Holy Spirit in reference to those Jews in the city of Berea who eagerly considered what the evangelists Paul, Silas and Timothy related to them concerning the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies that Jesus was the Messiah. He was the “anointed One” sent from God. And if He were the Messiah, then all those prophesied characteristics and functions of the Messiah were relished upon Him as such. The “nobility” of the Bereans was in the fact that they were seriously interested in studying these things.

The Holy Spirit of God forever wrote the epitaph of the Berean Bible students in the following words:

“These [Jews in Berea] were more noble-minded than those [Jews] in Thessalonica, in that they received the word [of the gospel] with all readiness of mind and search the [Old Testament] Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (At 17:11).

These were rare people of faith at the time Paul, Silas and Timothy passed through the idolatrous city of Berea. Such Bible students are more starkly rare in a world of Christendom today. Most “Christian religionists” now feel that they are fine without a desire to search the Scriptures. Faith is now more often based on either tradition, religious heritage, or a concert assembly wherein the entertained are stirred into emotional frenzy. If the assembly is so great, why would one want to complicate the assembly with Bible study?

We now live in a world that is characteristic of the times that prevailed about thirty years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. It was in that time when there were no written Scriptures concerning who Jesus was and what He taught.   Information was transferred only through word of mouth. Stories from the first witnesses of Jesus were handed down to eager recipients who were looking for the Messiah. When “walking Bibles” came through town and preached that Jesus was the Messiah, those who had the Old Testament Scriptures opened their Bibles—unrolled their scrolls—and searched to see if the verbal information that was spoken by the traveling evangelists coincided with the prophecies of the mission and message of the Messiah. If prophecies matched the message of the messengers, then the waters in the area splashed with people who were eager to obey the gospel.

But the message had to come to the ears of those whom the Holy Spirit considered “noble-minded” within the city of Berea.   These were God-fearing people who loved their Bibles and hoped for the coming Messiah. They were not religionists who were content with their religious heritage. Their religious heritage may have brought them to the point of receptivity.   However, they would in no way sacrifice that for which they and their fathers had hoped in order to preserve and maintain the religious traditions of their heritage. The Bereans believed what they studied in their Bibles. They believed in the One that the apostles preached.

The Bereans were certainly the product of the faith of their fathers (See Mk 7:1-9). Nevertheless, when the message of the messengers matched the prophecies, they knew that change had to happen. As the 3,000 on the day of Pentecost, religious heritage had to be sacrificed for the new Head of the new church of God’s people (See Mt 16:18,19; At 7:38).   Their heritage of legal religion had to give way to the gospel of grace. New wineskins had to be found.

The foundation of their paradigm shift depended on their knowledge of the prophecies of the Scriptures that they knew.   The Bereans could make a judgment concerning the fulfillment of the prophecies that was based on what they read in their Bibles. Unfortunately, this culture of Bible-oriented believers to a great extent does not exist in Christendom today. Throughout the world today there is a dearth of Bible knowledge among those who cry out “Lord, Lord” (“Jesus, Jesus”) on Sunday morning (See Mt 7:21-23).   The lack of a Bible-based faith is so serious that it will eventually lead to the total corruption of what is in the New Testament defined as Christianity.

This reality takes us back into the days about thirty years after the ministry of Jesus. It was in those days after the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus that twisted information about Jesus was propagated throughout the world.   Many of those who were far away from Jerusalem and Palestine understood that Christianity was only a sect of Judaism.   From Rome to Babylon to Ethiopia, the twisted rumors of Christ and Christianity went into all the world.   So when one of the messengers of Christianity came bound with chains into the city of Rome, those who were similar in hope as the Jews of Berea, said to the messenger, “But we desire to hear from you what you think, for as concerning this sect [of Christianity] we know that it is spoken against everywhere” (At 28:22).

So the eager recipients set up a Bible class wherein the Old Testament Scriptures would be studied.

“And when they had appointed him [Paul] a day [for the Bible class], many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning until evening” (At 28:23).

This Bible scenario rarely happens today.   Instead of coming together for a Bible class to search the Scriptures, religionists today under the heading of “Christianity” usually come together only for a musical concert wherein a great deal of noise is made to mesmerize the attendees. Walk into any city today with an open Bible, and usually no one of the “Christian” world will show up. There are very few noble-minded Bereans today in any given city of the world.   If one would have a guitar in his hand, the crowds would come. But generally, when it is announced in brochures and over the radio that there will be a “Bible class” in town, there will be no one there.

 

So we are still in the days when Luke wrote to Theophilus. It is interesting that the social religious environment in which Theophilus lived at the time was not much different than the world in which we now live. The religion was different in those days in that most religions were based on idolatry. In the case of the Jews, religion was based on the traditions of the fathers (Mk 7:1-9). And because the Jews’ religion was based on the traditions of the fathers, its true foundation was the heritage of the Jews (Gl 1:13,14).

Theophilus stood alone with the Bereans and those in Rome who desired to learn more. By the time Luke wrote the books of Luke and Acts, false rumors were commonly aired over “World Radio Rome” that Jesus was only a zealous rabbi of Palestine who inspired a small sect of believers who were going about the Roman Empire propagating their heresy. The believers of this “Christian sect” were so zealous that they turned the religious world upside down (At 17:6). Many thought, therefore, that the success of the movement was based on the zeal of deceived religionists who accepted Jesus as their “messiah.” There was no consideration that the gospel revealed through Jesus was God’s message to man for his own salvation.

It was in this chaotic religious world that Theophilus lived. Because Theophilus was one of some influence in either Roman politics or government, the Holy Spirit deemed it necessary to write two inspired documents to him. In the first—and we must quote in full—the Spirit-inspired hand of Luke revealed the problem that prevailed throughout the world in reference to Jesus:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of those things that have been believed among us [Christians], just as they were delivered to us [who did not personally witness Jesus] by those [Christ-sent apostles] who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word [of the gospel], it seemed good to me [Luke] also, having an accurate understanding of all things from the very first [of the beginning of the church] to write to you an orderly [inspired] account, most excellent Theophilus, that you might know the certainty [of truth] of those things you have been taught [through the preaching of others]” (Lk 1:1-4).

Theophilus lived in a religious world of confusion that is not much different from the one in which we live today. There were “Christian” religionists then who proclaimed all sorts of distorted beliefs concerning Jesus. The same people today stand in pulpits throughout Christendom.   These are those who have little knowledge of the word of God, and thus spout off their imaginations of the One in whom people are to believe and obey. Open Bible study has vacated church sanctuaries in order that the ignorant and unlearned teachers are not embarrassed for their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures.

We have had the privilege of visiting many “Christian churches” throughout the world. Few of these churches sit down as the Bereans and open the Scriptures in order to test the teachers as to whether they are from God (See 1 Jn 4:1).   When we speak of diligence in Bible study, we have determined that the number in these days is few (See 2 Tm 2:15).   In such a world, therefore, it is only a matter of time until the vast majority of Christendom has gone astray from the simple gospel that was believed and lived by those of the early church in the first century. In fact, some areas of Christendom are often now so far removed from the gospel that it is now time for a gospel restoration movement among those who thirst for the simple gospel message upon which to base their faith.

Therefore, in the religious world of Christendom today, where are all the Bereans? Where are all those in Rome who would set up Bible classes in order to study their Bibles?   Where are all those as Theophilus who have heard so many twisted stories about Jesus that they want to hear the truth of the gospel? In view of the dearth of a knowledge of the Scriptures, we call for a restoration of the gospel as the center focus of our faith.

We now live in a religious world where the word “Bible” is shunned by many people who believe in Jesus. It is as one Internet producer of Christian videos recently wrote to us, “If I use the word ‘Bible’ in my videos, the viewers of the video are much less than when I do not use the word.”

This is the world in which we now live. It is as one zealous person once said, “I wanted to start a church, so I had to learn how to play a guitar.” We are in a world of Christendom today that if one would “start a church,” but do so on the foundation of Bible study, few will show up at the church house doors. Those in the realm of Christendom today who do show up and huddle around the rich word of God are now anomalies of faith.

[Next in series: Dec. 10]

Untethered Objectivity

There is nothing like writing.   When an author feels unleashed from the constraints of tradition, or heritage, he feels free to reach into the inner sanctuary of his heart in order to bring to light gems that are free from the barnacles of time. And for this reason only those who are truly free from the restrictions of imprisoning religious prejudices are worth reading. Those scribes who are cowed by the forces of opinion around them should be questioned. Intimidated scribes are rarely objective.

Selfish ambition subtly finds its way into the mind of the writer who would allow his conclusions to be warped toward a hearty slap on the back. A “humble pride” may lurk in the heart of one who has inscribed for himself words that bring satisfaction to himself alone. But when pride is coupled with selfish ambition, no writer can dig deep into the recesses of his mind in order to lay on paper with ink true objective thoughts.

Plagiarism only reveals the inadequacy of one who is either intimidate by his peers, or lacks confidence in revealing his own thoughts. Though one may unknowingly duplicate the thoughts of another, he must not be tried in a court of plagiarism.   Accusations of plagiarism more often come from those who are too frightened to pen their own thoughts that can be footnoted with another’s document. Since the wind of spoken words can vanish into entropy, there are those who are quick to be policeman for plagiarists, but cowards to inscribe their own words for others to judge. Unless one is writing in the field of atomic physics, there are few revelations that can be made of anything new under heaven.

It was only when Dietrich Bonhoeffer took a moral stand against the social morals of Nazi Germany that he wrote the modern classic The Cost of Discipleship. After his arrest in April 1943 by the Gestapo, he continued from prison to live unrestrained from the intimidation of those who would bring into bondage his mind. He remained free in thinking unto the death of his imprisoned body by hanging took place in April 1945.

Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment for his moral beliefs was a blessing to the rest of the world who wanted to start inscribing from the platform of free thought. His religious heritage offered no aid in generating in his mind powerful thoughts that changed the thinking of those who thought they were free, but had no bars in their faces. His unflinching determination to write what was right led him to his death. It was his brave stand to release free thought that unleashed on the world a host of fellow prisoners who were themselves imprisoned by established theology.

For those who think they can see, the bars that incarcerate their minds is their religious heritage and the judges and lawgivers of their present religious establishment. We have found it incredibly curious to hear some say, “We think liberal, but speak conservative.” Such forked-tongue faith betrays the heart of a coward, whose spoken words that come forth from his mouth, should be questioned. If such a person should write a thought—which rarely they do—then his words will have been “misspelled” by the cowardice of his own weakness. Such people are often willing to remain mentally imprisoned because of either weakness in character or the strength of a pay check.

There was a reason why the Holy Spirit put the saints on guards about being deceived by the smooth and fair speech of some.   Their fair way of sayings things in a beguiling manner is the first sign post along the road of deception. There are ulterior motives. There is selfish ambition. There is the desire of smooth speechologists to reveal only that which will marshal people to their own camp. No speaker should be trusted who seeks, through smooth and fair speech, to recruit the believers to his system of theology.

There are those writers who write well. If they are truly free from the restrictions of religion, then their writings are not with “smooth and fair” words. Such gifted writers only have the ability to captivate our minds with words and phrases that clearly and distinctly reveal their precise thoughts. We appreciate those writers who are honest, and thus, leave us with exactly what is on their minds. When open-minded and uninhibited scribes write, we seek to interpret them outside our own prejudices. We seek to define the words they use by their dictionary of experiences, and not ours.

There are those who have difficulty revealing their inner thoughts with words. We appreciate their struggle. One thing is always true about writers: There are no perfect writers. But when one is intimidate to write nothing because he or she is afraid that his or her words might be laid before a court of self-appointed judges and lawgivers of the kingdom, then the religious establishment has gone too far. The movement to which they attach themselves is on its way from the word of God. It has digressed into the Dark Ages of religion wherein all were intimidated to believe that the earth was flat and the center of universe.

When brave writers arose among us during the Middle Ages, which were truly Dark, in order to remind us that we are free, they were often torched at the stake for thinking freely. This era of wicked history taught writers for the rest of the history, that we should never allow our religious heritage to cage our pens, or dictated our personal studies of the word of God. If ever we move into a “dark” time again when there is no free thought, then we will step aside and allow that time to pass by. We will have no part with “Middle Age” theological behavior. One the contrary, we will sharpen our pencils and fill our fountains with ink in order that we never again be brought into the bondage of the heritage policemen. We will never forget the following exhortation of the Holy Spirit:

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1).

[Next in series, Dec. 6]

Untethered

To be tethered to something means that one has boundaries beyond which he or she cannot freely go. This can be either good or bad. It is good that a mean dog is tethered by a chain that restricts his movement. If he were not tethered, then he would cause certain harm to others. But a good dog that has gone through obedience school is different. Tethering such a dog means that he cannot do his “dog thing” and be friendly to others.

People naturally want to touch or pet an obedient dog who knows his boundaries and sees himself as man’s best friend. But when a mean dog is untethered, he sees a person as an object upon whom he can release his aggression. People run from mean untethered dogs. They reach out their hands to pet a good dog who wishes to make every person his friend.

Not much changes in this illustration when we apply the analogy to people. Mean people are shunned. Those people who have gone through “obedience school” in their obedience to the gospel have voluntarily tethered themselves to Jesus. They are untethered from the ways of the world.   They are free to let their gospel light shine before everyone because the source of their light is Jesus.   They are thus free to think within the bounds of the gospel of freedom. People gravitate to gospel-obedient Christians who are untethered from the evil ways of the world.

On the other hand, those who are bound to the ways of the world are the roaring lions who are walking about in order to deceive the hearts of the innocent. They are looking for innocent souls who are free in Christ, and because they are free in Christ, they are free from the world. This freedom makes them the ideal target for roaring lions who are untethered from the truth of the gospel.

Untethered Christians must first learn how to walk in the freedom that they have in Christ. But at the same time, they must learn how to guard themselves from devouring lions. Some make the mistake of guarding themselves from being devoured by lions by tethering themselves to a legal religiosity by which they feel assured that they are have justified themselves before God through their law-keeping, and at the same time escaped the lures of a roaring lion. But what they have actually accomplished is untethering themselves from Christ in order to be tethered to religion. They find comfort in the traditions of their fathers and the heritage of their religion.   They give up their freedom in Christ in order to self-sanctify themselves in the bondage of their own religiosity.

There is no freedom in being tethered to the traditions of the fathers. Being tethered to traditions, or one’s religious heritage, may bring a sense of security before God. The problem is that the mental tether is man-made, not gospel founded. And we know this. We know that our faith is based on subscribing to the traditions of the fathers, while we leave the gospel on the side. When the Son of God came into the world to reveal the gospel, it was His task to untether the Jews from the religion of their fathers in order to be tethered to Him. It was a daunting task.

At the time the Word was made flesh, an entire generations of people were tether to God through the religious traditions of their fathers Subsequently, there arose a great conflict between those of the religious heritage of the Jews and the Son of God. The Spirit-inspired records of the confrontation that the Word in the flesh had with those who sought to base their connection with God on the tether of their religious traditions was clearly defined by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It took the Holy Spirit half of the writings of the New Testament in the four preceding books to explain the necessary paradigm shift that was necessary in order for one to shift from man-made religiosity to a gospel connection through Jesus. Such is our challenge today. We are diligent students of how Jesus taught how one could disconnect from the security of human religious traditions in order to connect to God through the Son of God. This is indeed a daunting task by which we walk by faith in the gospel of Jesus and not by our sight in the religious traditions of our father.

[Next in series, Dec. 4.]

The Connection (5)

E.  The connection

In the local context of the Corinthian culture, some during the assembly were still following the drunken behavior of the pagan temple culture of Corinth. They had made the general love feast an opportunity to manifest their pagan temple culture and arrogant attitudes. The love feast, therefore, became a reflection of their unrighteous attitudes and lack of love for one another, rather than a reflection of the united nature of the ekklesia of Christ. Some who were possibly Christian athletes who participated in the Games may have been bringing their competitive spirit into the assembly of the saints.

Paul was harsh in this context with the ungodly behavior of those who competed for recognition during the assembly. The reason for his harshness was in the fact that the Corinthians were attacking the loving nature of the ekklesia of Christ. The members of the body are bound together as one body through love, just as the Father and Son are one (Jn 13:34,35). However, the Corinthian love feast manifested everything but love and unity. Their inconsiderate and competitive behavior was subsequently manifested to the unbelievers who may have showed up at the “love” feast.

Paul’s rebuke was not that they were violating some ceremonial rituals of either the love feast or the Supper. His rebuke was stern because the arrogant and competitive spirit among them were destroying the communal and participatory nature of how Christians are to fellowship with one another as the ekklesia of Christ. Though he initially addressed them as the “church (assemblies) of God in Corinth” (1 Co 1:2), they would cease to be this united body of Christ if they continued in their disruptive assemblies that manifested before the world an unloving spirit.

If indeed the specific assembly about which Paul wrote was a provincial assembly during the Isthmian Games, then we can only imagine what attending athletes would be saying about the Christians of Achaia when they returned home after the Games. This may explain why the Holy Spirit focused specifically on this problem among the Achaian Christians. Their behavior was simply bad advertisement for the early church.

When the love among disciples is lost, as was typical with some in the regional assembly of Achaia in Corinth, then the lampstand of the gospel is taken from the city. The members of a loveless church may continue to meet, but because they manifest an ungodly behavior with which they surround the love feast of celebration and the Lord’s Supper, they no longer reflect the gospel in their assemblies (See Rv 2:4). Paul saw this happening in Corinth, and thus, in his rebuke he identified and corrected such unbecoming behavior among the disciples.

One lesson is strikingly clear from Paul’s revelation surrounding the Corinthian problems: If any assembly of disciples in any area manifests division in the love feast and the Supper, then the members are bad branding examples for the church. The love feast/Supper is the perfect opportunity to determine if each member of the body has the heart of God. If members cannot sit down and eat together in harmony with one another, then they are not together as the one body of Christ. If the members are competitive in their individual ministries, then they destroy the unity by which the organic body must function in harmony.

If the members autonomy from one another throughout a province or state has divided them to the point that they cannot come together in a common meeting in “Corinth,” then they are sectarian. One of the greatest lessons learned from regional love feasts is that such events provide everyone with the opportunity to manifest the nature of the organic body of Christ. Regardless of where each member of the body sits on Sunday morning throughout the province or state, he or she is still a member of the one body of Christ. Assemblies must never be used as an opportunity to divide members from one another. We are all “of Christ.”

[End of series]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meal and the Supper (4)

D.  The meal and the Supper

It seems that only the disciples of Achaia had the problems in their assemblies that are discussed in the context of 1 Corinthians 11-14. It seems that they had the problems because the disciples of Achaia had a unique provincial assembly during the Isthmian Games. Paul’s instructions concerning the women keeping silent in this combined provincial meeting would be appropriate. The instructions concerning the women keeping silent in such a combined assembly would answer some of the problems that came from women speaking out of order, and thus causing more confusion (1 Co 14:34,35).

However, in their ordinary weekly house meetings, the women would simply remain in their subjective relationship with their own husbands in the presence of visiting neighborhood families who assembled in their homes on Sunday. It would be unreasonable to think that the wife should keep silent in the home assembly simply when another family stepped into her living room for a time of praise and worship. If indeed a wife was not submissive to her own husband before the assembly, then she would be out of order in her relationship with her husband, as well as with guests, who would be attending the couple’s house assembly (See 1 Tm 2:12).

We are told that the Corinthians in their regular weekly house fellowships came together on the first day of the week throughout Achaia (1 Co 16:2). However, we are not told that the meal of 1 Corinthians 11 was a combined weekly gathering of all the house groups. Throughout Achaia such would have been impossible on a weekly basis.

The 1 Corinthians 11 meeting may have been a periodic regional meeting in Corinth wherein the division that was going on among the individual house fellowships manifested itself in the general love feast that took place in the city of Corinth. Add to this the problem of some disciples in Corinth not waiting for those who came from great distances from throughout Achaia. Their lack of love for one another was revealed by their gluttony of eating all the food before others arrived.

Whatever the historical setting, we must be careful that we do not read our modern-day system of institutional assembly behavior into the context. We do know, however, that the Corinthian disciples were continuing the Passover meal tradition through the love feast/Lord’s Supper as part of a celebration feast, just as the disciples in Troas. We assume that they were so committed to the love feast/Supper that they were willing to keep such even during an occasional provincial meeting in Corinth.

[Continued]