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Saturday, 27 December 2014

Ah! Childhood Christmas!

When I was a boy, Christmas Day did not last for merely a day. Rather it lasted until I returned to school. I guess it began when dreary November gave way to December and with it, the appearance of the Christmas tree at our home, the real one which emits that familiar fragrance only that species of Fir can emit - the fragrance of Christmas joy with presents wrapped in cheerful paper together with a ring of fallen pine leaves slowly accumulating at the base of the tree, itself decorated with fragile glass baubles, strings of tinsel, and small chocolate Santas. Then those Christmas lights, wonderful when all illuminating together but one hell of a curse if one of the bulbs blows!
But the sheer excitement was at daybreak after a sleepless night, when the call came and I found myself rushing from the bedroom to the lounge where all the presents appeared as if by magic overnight. Dressed in pyjamas, the thought of washing my face and dressing in day clothes were as far from my mind as the South Pole is from the Sahara Desert. This was around 1960, give or take, when on that particular Christmas morning, I rushed into the lounge to find an electric train circuit already laid out on the main dining table. Over it stood my Uncle, Dad's elder brother, expecting me to make the bee-line to the miniature railway, and failing to notice the stack of wrapped presents piled nearby. As if fulfilling his expectations, he began to deliver his lecture:
Now, if you had a box of sweets just here, and you took one sweet after another, what would you be left with?
An empty box? I answered, nervously at this apparently huge man.
That is right. You'll be left with an empty box. Now these batteries are just like the sweet box. Use up the electricity and the batteries will lose their power. Now just one circuit.
I switched on the control and the train started to move, and rolled effortlessly until it was where it started.
Now switch off.
But Uncle....
You don't play any more on this until later!
But...
LATER!
As to calm the situation, Mum intercepted by lifting the pile of other presents and holding it in front, with the words:
Hey, don't forget all these.
One of the brightly wrapped parcels revealed a Lego building set, which took up much of the morning and sufficient enough to take my mind off the forbidden train set.

Although my Uncle's intentions were good, his attitude with the train set and its batteries did not endear my heart to him. Fortunately, the Lego building set saved the day and with it we all had a very good Christmas. But after my Dad's brother and his wife left our house to return home, yes you've guessed it. I was all over the train set, and once alone in the house, while Mum and Dad were both at work and school was still out, I deliberately left the train set racing round the circuit while I went out to the shops, not just to test the endurance of the batteries, but also to spite my absent Uncle. There it is. The law, meant to benefit my well-being and my parent's finances at the same time, instead brought out the reality of sin, kicking up a rebellion against this R.A.F. Warrant Officer.
Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, the giving and receiving of presents, to remind each other of the love between family members. Surely, there can't be anything more exhilarating for a father than to watch his son's eyes sparkle with excitement as he races to rip off the wrapper and shouts with exuberant joy as his gift is revealed. Then watching away the hours as the youngster keeps himself fully engaged with his gift. A sense of accomplishment for the Dad? Isn't that is what Christmas is all about, rather than arguing over the socks his wife had given him, or about a jumper he wouldn't be seen dead in, or for that matter, having a row over what to watch on TV or whose turn it is to do the washing up? I guess that's the reality. As soon as pandering to self starts to creep in, sooner or later the atmosphere will be spoilt when anger follows.
But the point is this. When a parent gives something to his offspring for Christmas (or for any other occasion) it is a demonstration of love. And that is regardless on how the recepient behaves afterwards. As far as I have ever known, I never had any present withdrawn as a result of poor performance. Neither have I known anyone else losing their present, nor have I ever heard of the keeping or withdrawal of a gift on the basis of behaviour or attitude. The gift is an expression of one's love, and surely this cannot be more manifest between husband and wife, especially if the gift is gotten at a great expense. If our own experience has anything to go by, I love my wife dearly and she knows it. Would she then go for another man just because I love her so dearly? The question is, can she do what she wants, knowing that my love for her would not fail? Yes she can. But would she? That is something very different. If I make such a suggestion, she would take offence. Whenever I leave her alone in the house to go to work, I never have to ponder on what she is up to at my absence.
But just suppose she was unfaithful, how would I respond? Would I divorce her, and separate myself from her for the rest of my life? That depends on how much I love her. If divorce is inevitable, then this shows a performance-based love. That is, my love will flow only if she walks the right way. But if I found that I love her anyway, regardless of her behaviour, how would she re-act? Chances would be that my love and acceptance of her would touch her heart for life, and never want to act that way again. That is grace!
I'm not merely pulling stories out of the hat here. Throughout adult life I have personally known two husbands who were unfaithful to their wives by each sleeping with another woman. One wife had kicked her unfaithful husband out of their home and has dissolved their marriage. But the wife of the other guy had forgiven him, and she stayed with him. As far as I'm aware, their marriage remains robust. Real love covers a multitude of sins, with himself loving his wife with a greater fervour than before.
Maybe this could be the reason why such a large percentage of the population don't attend church, nor accept the Bible as authoritative. They perceive God's love to be a performance-based, and not much good at that either. There is even a line of thought among the churches that natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunamis which wiped out countless thousands exactly ten years ago was God's judgement on sin. Such a reasoning does not draw anyone's heart close to God at all, but does instill fear of punishment, and with the distant feeling which matches exactly the relationship between my Uncle and myself in 1960, which was manifest at his funeral in 1998, when I showed respect for his widowed wife's sake, but inwardly felt no sense of loss.


And as I write this blog, there has been some consideration lately whether I want to remain at my local church, the place I call my spiritual home. This has developed due to a strong dislike felt towards me by another person in our church. This guy from London believes in a pretty miserable and truculent God, who I have no desire to follow, let alone worship. This is a direct result of Probational Salvation, or Conditional Security. Perform, perform, perform, or there is a danger of Hellfire. In fact, according to this Londoner, at the Judgement I could well be one of many who will stand outside crying, "Lord, Lord" of Matthew 7:21. I have been told by him that I was wicked, deceitful, blind, wilful, and have driven some out of the fellowship, and many more have complained about me to him (but no one came to me.) So what was this great evil I was so guilty of? Oh yes, showing affection to other men by hugging them.
Yes I agree to a certain extent that there were a few who, over the years, I was insensitive. And to one of them I have apologised. That was several months before he left the church altogether. But according to this brother from London, it was I who drove him out, along with his family. But that did not seem to be the case, as they stayed on long after I made the apology. Rather they left our fellowship because they did not feel right about worshipping God at a racecourse, a national venue for gambling. This kind of attitude is quite common among those with a Pentecostal upbringing, from which this family came.
Why have I "washed the linen in public" so to speak? To show how effective this "Conditional love" can have on our perception of God and with others. This Londoner's God is perceived by him as thin-skinned, critical and judgemental towards all those who don't walk the straight and narrow. No wonder he sees me in exactly the same way. How you see God is how you treat others. However, through prayer and insight, my intention is to be less insensitive, and show a greater respect for the right of others. In the weeks to come, I'll see how that works before I may even consider leaving.
But here is the point. I could never be drawn to a God whose love is conditioned by performance, which includes holding faithful and abstaining from sin. The trouble is, we sin all the time. For example, am I sinning against God by eating pork? I eat pork nearly every day. Or wearing a woolly over a cotton shirt? (Leviticus 19:19) - Or even failing to grow and keep a beard? (Leviticus 19:27) - "Oh," you may say. "The death of Christ on the cross has dealt with all that, we are no longer under the Law." Perhaps not. But what if I were to say that before I married, not a few times I embraced a homosexual and held him tight in my arms. "Ah! Now that's different," I hear you say. Then out comes a quote from 1 Corinthians 6:9, saying that all homosexual offenders shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. Never mind that this verse is taken out of context, and Paul was discussing about saints taking disputes to unbelieving magistrates. Rather in my case I have crossed a line between not growing a beard and giving comfort to a gay man, and receiving comfort from him too. No sex involved, instead just locked in a tight embrace.
And all this would make a very interesting scenario if Jesus Christ would be around today. To those who believe in Conditional Security, Jesus would strike dead the two of us locked in a tight embrace, and send us tumbling into Hell, while giving commendation to the family who thought that worshipping at a racecourse was wrong and unholy. Ditto with the poor guy not wearing a tie in church, but to the one smartly dressed, he will reserve for him a place in Heaven. What a load of tosh all this is!
Rather, I believe in the Jesus who would heartily embrace a homosexual man, who would socialise in a tavern, who would talk to hard-core gamblers at a casino, to the down and out in scruffy clothes, to the smoker and heavy drinker. I'm sure he would find himself at home at an A&E of a city hospital, giving hope to the drunken yobs who were caught in a street brawl. In short, God so loved the world.
These are the very people the Lord laid down his life for, to atone for all their sins. This is the love that wins the heart, making the follower wanting, in his own will, to cease from sin, and not by instilling a fear of punishment. This is the love that shines so bright, that all his own righteousness becomes less than nothing by comparison.  It is a love that draws, which brings a response.
Like the child with a new toy. That's why I believe that giving of gifts should be done at other times of the year as well as at Christmas. Let the parent demonstrate his love for his son or daughter. Giving a gift is the same as God giving us the gift of salvation, fully free and totally without merit, but with much love. Unconditional love, without the threat of taking the gift away if the child misbehaves. Sure enough, I do believe in discipline, but that should always be for the child's own good, and not to satisfy the lust for revenge. The thing is, the lad can tell the difference.



And so a self-righteous pharisee in our fellowship has been a heavy burden to my soul. In no way could he edify me by his methods. Sure, I give my insensitivity a think-over, but he could never muster love in my heart, because he has no love in himself for God, for himself, or those like me who happen to walk a different path. So I was left with no alternative but to throw his heavy yoke off my shoulders, because it was hurting my heart. And that's how tragic on how the world sees the church. They don't stay away because they are so evil and wicked. They stay away because they cannot see love, only judgement, hypocrisy and self righteousness.
Oh, for the love of Christ to shine in us so brightly, all our fears and doubts would melt away, and be as excited over his gift of salvation as the young lad with his Christmas present.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Pharisees and Shepherds.

One of the greatest blessing I ever received from God, other than salvation, and my dearest wife Alex, was the privilege of spending time visiting the Holy Land. And what with Christmas coming round, along with carols such as Come all ye Faithful, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Silent Night Holy Night, together with seasonal songs such as Greg Lake's I believe in Father Christmas, even Chris De Burgh's A Spaceman Came Travelling, and what would have been Mum's favourite - Bing Crosby's White Christmas - having stopped at Bethlehem and crouching over a fourteen-prong star set on the floor of a church crypt, has brought new meaning and fresh life to these and many other Christmas songs - both carols and pop alike.


 
The star traditionally marks the spot where the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus, the long-promised Jewish Messiah, whose mission was to reconcile the world to himself, and redeeming all believers from their sins. Many Christians dispute the authenticity of the site, but I couldn't help feel the presence of God there. I was fortunate to visit the church during the Summer of 1993, and as a lone backpacker rather than one of a group, there was a sense of wonder as I stood for a while alone in the crypt, with both the star and the manger to myself, before a ranger escorted another tour group in, crowding out the small chamber. But furthermore, avoiding Christmas was perhaps the best thing rather than the worst, for it has always been traditional for Christians from all over the world to gather at the large quadrangle outside the church to worship, without having a glimpse of the star inside. The Church of the Nativity has always been, and will be, the most important edifice in Bethlehem, and maybe second in the Holy Land after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. While the church in Bethlehem is all about Christmas and the one in Jerusalem is about Easter, to visit both had a big impact to my soul, allowing me to thank the Lord for such historical evidence of his grace.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

But a far less known edifice sits close to the Nativity Church, and that is the Chapel of the Milk. There is a tradition that Mary was breastfeeding her infant son when the call came to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. A drop of milk fell to the ground, so they say, turning the area around it white. As I stood alone in the chapel, with the gentle instrumental version of the beautiful Roman Catholic song, Ave Maria filling the air with such a peaceful tranquil, I did notice a layer of natural white rock on which the chapel was built. And seeing how the authenticity of the miracle would be discredited by both Science and Protestantism alike, among the paintings and statues of the mother and child, there were also Scriptures on display, exhorting us to feed and grow by the milk of the Word, as found in 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-13, and 1 Peter 2:2, all seemingly giving the chapel its rights for existence.

However, in this world of troubles, including the Israeli/Palestinian unrest outside, as well as much of the unrest within my own heart caused by relationship grit within the fellowship, there is something soothing about a mother with her newborn. What is it about the tenderness that a mother has for her child as she breastfeed him, as so expressed in this quiet and relatively unknown chapel? If I had a grief or sorrow, the Chapel of the Milk would have been a perfect place for solace, and an opportunity to shed tears, and maybe even to cry my heart out.

In some ways, I can't blame the devotion Catholics have for Mary, as her motherly nature seems much more softer, more compassionate and gentler than the masculine nature of a father God who is prone much more to discipline. Even among the Jews, God was always perceived as a Creator, holy, and the source of all wisdom, but never as a fatherly being. Perhaps this may be the reason why in Southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, far more shrines are seen which are devoted to Mary than to Jesus. In Siracusa, at the Italian island of Sicily, there is a massive, wig-wam of a conical church, la Chiesa della Lacrima, which was built around a comparatively tiny ceramic statuette of the Virgin, as a result that while hanging in an ordinary home, the statue began to shed tears, declared as an authentic miracle by the Bishop of Palermo. Photos of the weeping statuette were displayed in the front foyer the last time my wife and I went to visit in 2006.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity, Greek Orthodox chapel

But little, if anything has ever been spoken about the tears Jesus shed in public, first over the fate of Jerusalem, then at the news of the death of Lazarus. This demonstrates that for a grown up man to shed tears in public is fine, sadly contrary to our stoic British culture, which considers such actions as wimpish. But whether Catholic or non-Catholic, maybe we tend to forget that as God formed Eve from a rib bone taken out of Adam, it was also he who created the character typical of females. In other words, God is equally compassionate and has mother-like affection towards the afflicted, and for a helpless state of the human race enslaved to sin. And what a wonderful demonstration of God's love, so shown to a group of shepherds whose fields were just outside Bethlehem.

In those days, shepherds were considered pariahs of society, on the lowest rung of the social ladder. As a result, they were most likely looked down upon and treated with disdain. But they were loyal to their work and fully committed to it, as their sheep were about to give birth to their lambs. As discussed by the elder in our recent church service, with the climate of the Middle East being different from that of the British Isles, the lambing season was more likely in December rather than in March or April as it is here in the UK. Hence being out on the watch at night at that time of the year. When the first lamb was born, it was taken to a nearby manger to be inspected by a priest. If it's found without blemish, then it is allowed to dwell with its mother until Passover, four months later, when the lamb is killed and roasted. Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) who was placed in the manger soon after birth, first to be inspected at the Temple (Luke 2:25-35) and then to be sacrificed some thirty years later, on the very same day all the Passover lambs were slain right across Israel.

But while the child lay in the manger, a group of angels held a party within sight of the shepherds, and announced to them that their Messiah had just been born and was lying in the manger. One of the wonders of this story was that the very first people to see the newborn were not the priests, nor the Pharisees, nor even the equivalent of a middle class citizen, but a group of lowly, despised shepherds. When they heard the message, they must have instantly believed in their hearts, because they did not hesitate to go over to the manger in Bethlehem to see the child for themselves, and to leave with their lives changed forever. Were they saved at that instant? Indeed, and the fruit of their salvation was to make the decision to visit the manger.

Bethlehem today, a far cry from "a little town" of the shepherd's era.

There was no hint that they could lose their salvation later in life, as taught today. Those shepherds believed and were regenerated, and basically resumed their living as shepherds. Their status in society may not have changed but their imputation of God's righteousness remains in them forever. What a wonderful demonstration of God's love, which not even the most compassionate mother could match! It s as simple as that. They received a revelation, they believed that revelation and were saved. Exactly the same as Abraham. God told him that he will have children, he believed, and he was acquitted. At present I was told that Jesus Christ was crucified to atone for our sin, was buried, and on the third day rose physically from the grave (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). As a result of this revelation I was saved, saved eternally - and so was you. You were saved by believing a revelation, in this case, the Gospel. It did not involve works, merit, or the need to "hang on" to remain saved. So enough of this Cambridge Don culture spewing garbage as discussed in my last blog!

I have found it a temptation to believe that the shepherds lived in a different location in a very different era to us at present, and they had no Cambridge Dons to pester them about not holding out faithful. But actually, they were not that far from Jerusalem, the heart of Israeli worship, and home to a crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees who I see as the Cambridge Dons of the day. These men weren't ignorant, but highly educated scholars at that time. But they would not have allowed the shepherds to come near them, let alone touch them, for fear of "becoming unclean". Their hope of eternal life was bound up in the future physical resurrection on the last day of human history. But only by observing both the Law and the multitude of customs and traditions they dreamt up and imposed on others. They believed that they were successful in obeying every law and custom, therefore they saw themselves as righteous before God, while all others were in their sins. And for the shepherds? To them there was no hope. The average Jewish citizen would bow to the teachings of the Pharisees over above the testimony of the shepherds, with most likely the poor and the down-and-outs, the outcasts, and the decrepit believing the revelation and rejoicing at the good news.

As discussed already, I live in a land and environment where the preaching and teaching of Cambridge Don will always hold sway over my testimony, teaching or blogging. But by reading the testimony of the shepherds, of Abraham, and even the testimony of the wise men, who saw a bright star and believed in their hearts that a King of Israel was born, I feel confident that I too can approach the Throne of God boldly, now the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The wise men saw the star and believed, and acted on their believing by undertaking a long journey and bringing gifts. They travelled because they were already saved through faith, and not working hard to hold on to their faith. Furthermore, they were not Jews, but Gentiles - a proof that salvation is open to everyone who believes.

In the little town of Bethlehem Jesus was born to us that Christmas day. Indeed, Christmas is a time for celebration, for thanksgiving, for rejoicing, and for giving each other gifts. A gift is a good symbol of the grace of God. It is given to the one loved without earning it or meriting the gift. The giver of the present gives it to the one loved. But the recipient has to receive it, and not refuse it. Salvation is a free gift given by God to all who will receive it in faith. And the wonder of it is that it is irrespective of who the recipient is. Whether a shepherd, or a wise man, a Pharisee or a Canaanite woman, one who is highly educated such as Paul the Apostle, or a manual worker such as the Apostle John, who was a fisherman, or one born blind who most likely had no higher level of education than a shepherd. The gift of salvation is given to all who will receive it. It is the very best Christmas gift one could ever receive.



I wish all my readers a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year ahead. God bless you.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

One Verse Causes A Riot!

The theatre at the holiday camp was packed. That was the result of having a Bible festival week during school term. With many still at school and at work, there were just not enough punters to fill the Big Top on the edge of the holiday camp. So the theatre became the main venue for the big evening meeting throughout that week in 1994. But instead of entertainers on the stage, there was a group of seated men, one began to stand at the microphone and opened with the text for the evening's preach - Philippians 2:12, or at least one line of that verse, which reads:
 
Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Full stop.
 
Then this fellow, who I will refer to as a Cambridge Don, because of his high academic level, began to tear apart the belief of Eternal Security, using this line as proof that anyone believing on Once Saved Always Saved is deceived. Although I use the title Cambridge Don for one person, on the stage that evening there were two speakers, in full agreement with each other, and both I will refer as Cambridge Dons, after a friend of mine and a follower of this blog page once rebuked me for referring to people by their names.
 
A near riot ensued in the theatre as the result of the sermon. The second speaker made every effort to quell the riot, calming them down to let the chief speaker finish. Afterwards, many in the audience gathered at the stalls outside to receive counselling. Cambridge Don referred to this as a mass repentance, a proof that what he had spoken was from God himself. Rather, it looked to me that they were gathering to have their fears allayed, a guess endorsed by one punter seeking assurance from a staff member that he was once saved always saved.



The result of that evening was a national change of belief and attitude in many churches across Southern England, if not the entire nation itself, discarding any belief in Eternal Security of the Believer to that of Conditional Security, or as I like to call it: Probational Salvation. I myself was rebuked by some in my own church fellowship for "sticking to my guns" and continued to advocate what I believed in. One elderly lady who used to believe in Eternal Security but not any more, stared hard at me and told me not to question such a great man. Not long after that, on one Sunday morning service, our unfortunate pastor delivered a sermon defending Eternal Security before his resignation a few weeks later. After his preach, a friend approached me and related to me of a vision he had during the sermon. He saw daggers come out of the eyes of many in the congregation, all aimed at the speaker. All thanks to a Cambridge Don, because of his vast learning and our national celebrity culture, he had became an icon, on the level of an Old Testament prophet, so I was told at the time.

I'm amazed how such a thing could have such an impact on our churches. All by misinterpreting Scripture. Twisting Scripture? Yes, indeed. By reading Hellfire into the line, Working out your salvation with fear and trembling. But by reading the whole chapter, and especially the verses following, eternal Hell has absolutely nothing to do with it! Hell was nowhere near Paul's mind when he wrote to the Philippian church. Never mind that the line reads, "Working out your salvation" rather than "working for your salvation" - but the matter of semantics can wait for another day. The fact is that a great many passed through a time of unease, followed by a change of mind with the creed. Nobody dares cross the mind of such a great thinker and public speaker. Our national celebrity-honouring culture won't allow for it. But as for me who sees no problem in making such a challenge, I write this blog with emotion, having come across this verse recently misquoted, implying the fires of Hell when no such thing was ever attached to Paul's epistle.

So what was Paul instructing when he wrote the letter? Mainly this: That he was taken in by the grace of God revealed in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how he was overcome with great emotion by such revelation. So powerful was the truth of Christ to him, that his heart was swallowed up in adoration and a love which was powerful enough to overshadow everything else in his life, particularly his social standing as a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee. Read verses 9-11 of the second chapter, and see for yourself the adoration, love and joy the apostle had for his Lord. This is in utter contrast with the fear of punishment, as Cambridge Don and his ilk would have wanted us all to grasp. Also compare the love Paul had with what John wrote in his first general letter, which reads:

There is no fear in love, But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
1 John 4:18.

There are many Cambridge Dons who discards this verse as being irrelevant to us because our love for him is not perfect, so we should fear punishment. That is utter tosh! And coming from academic men as well, who should have known better. It's not our love that is perfect, for while at this side of the grave, our inherited sinful nature will make everything else in us less than perfect. Rather, John was referring to God's perfect love. Untainted by any sin, God's love is absolutely perfect and therefore can be both trusted and responded to at the same time. It was God's perfect love shown in the Resurrected Jesus that changed Paul from a persecuting self-righteous Pharisee to a devout loving believer who can't stop delivering praise upon praise Heavenward to his risen Saviour. No fear of punishment there. No implications of Hell and fiery torment there!

Cambridge University

So why did Paul used the words fear and trembling? What are we to be afraid of? Ending up in Hell, as these guys imply? Or maybe the chance possibility of dishonouring Christ before other men? Immediately after sending up praise to his Saviour, Paul then exhorts the church at Philippi to have the same attitude, the same love, and the same devotion to the Lord as he had. And the reason behind this was not only for their own well being, but also for the well being of others, especially unbelievers. They were to shine like bright stars for the benefit of others, in direct reference to Matthew 5:16:

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

How does sinful men praise their Father in heaven? Or more precisely, as the KJV puts it, to glorify their Father in heaven? It is impossible for the natural man to glorify God, because of the presence of sin. However, there is one way that would bring glory, and that is for the sinner to believe in the risen Jesus as Saviour. From that moment on, he receives full acquittal from all his sins, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed on him, making him as righteous in God's sight as Jesus was. Nothing less can bring such glory to the Father than a conversion from sinner to saint.

To further this purpose, Paul wrote this to Titus:

This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.
Titus 3:8.

So this looks to me that "everyone" means what it says, and not restricted to fellow believers or church members. If by keeping in line with the above Scriptures, what Paul wrote to Timothy may not be referring to being saved from Hell, but saved from having the name of Christ fall into disrepute among men, especially unbelievers:

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrines closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
1 Timothy 4:15-16.

Cambridge Dons love to use such proof that having our salvation hanging in the balance is the best reason for good performance motivated by fear of punishment. But that kind of thinking arose by reading "saved from Hell" into these verses. They are nothing of the kind, as I have emphasised, this word "save" has several meanings - our eternity being one of them. But not in this case. Rather, Paul was encouraging Timothy and his listeners to keep their good reputation intact, to save themselves from disrepute by unbelievers surrounding them. That was the point of the whole of both letters the apostle wrote to Timothy. As Timothy was a leader of a church, or even a group of churches, his performance had to be extra immaculate because the world was watching him. And by remaining blameless in their sight greatly enhances soul winning, with people turning to Christ for salvation and glorifying God.

The letter written by James backs this up. The second chapter brings this across very clearly. After accusing his Jewish readers of arrogance and showing favouritism, he then points out that despite their quest for righteousness, they were guilty of murder. He then goes on to explain that if they keep the Law but stumble at just one point, they are guilty of breaking all the Law (James 2:10.) From verse 14, the apostle discusses general hospitality shown to someone less well off or in dire straits. If the believer simply says, "Keep warm and well fed," but gives nothing to make these possible, then where is the virtue? Will his lack of good works save him?

Here we go again. The Cambridge Don crowd will read Heaven and Hell into the script because of the words "Will his faith save him?" (James 2:14) - even if the verse had nothing to do with eternal salvation. But James was talking about the danger of disrepute from other men especially by the poor man mentioned. What would the poor man think of the believer's faith if the latter had a heart without pity? If salvation was involved after all, then I can assure that the poor man will not turn to Christ if this faith in Christ was a cold, merciless profession. He'll go away believing that this Jesus Christ was a sham after all, an impostor. Very much like the situation in churches at present. But if James was referring to the believer's faith, it was his reputation in dispute, not his salvation.

And so I can go on. A genuine believer will be seen by God as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed upon him from Heaven. But other men cannot see into his heart, therefore the only way he can show his faith is by works. Or else he falls into disrepute and publicly dishonours God. And that is what this "trembling and fear" of Philippians 2:12 is all about. The danger of bringing the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God into disgrace in front of the watching world.

As I write this, I am aware that in a way, I'm throwing down the gauntlet in front of any Cambridge Don, regardless of who he is. Take that 1994 Bible festival. What was the end result of such preaching? Did the entire audience shout their praises to God from the heart? Were they edified in their faith and beliefs? Did they share the same feeling of exultation as the apostle felt? Has a greater love for each other well out like living waters from these people? Rather, a riot nearly took place, and it would have done had not another Cambridge Don elder stood up to calm them down. Fear of punishment took hold. People went for counselling afterwards to have their fears calmed. They became critical towards those who stuck to their guns in believing Eternal Security. Surely, something was seriously wrong.



Yet who am I to say those sort of things? I am not a Cambridge Don, whether I believe in Eternal Security or not. I have never seen the inside of a University, any University let alone Cambridge. So because of this, it will be obvious that most would disregard the contents of this blog in favour of the other. It looks to me to be a tragedy that I happen to live in a land where celebrity culture has such a firm hold. The majority would flock to listen to someone very educated in Theology to bring them down into a state of panic, rather than pay heed to someone who might have a chance of holding and advocating the truth of Scripture and therefore edify. Who am I? A nobody really. At least I never had any opportunity to preach publicly to a large audience. But Paul the apostle might, just might, have a sliver of sympathy or compassion for the likes of me. How come?

By reading what he says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, quite a chunk of Scripture used to forward his point that God chose the foolish to shame the wise, the lowly to nullify those that are high, the weak to shame the strong - all to demonstrate the power of God to confound the wisdom of the wise. And in the forty-plus years of the life as a believer, I don't think I have ever listened to a sermon taken from this passage of the Bible, although the pastor of the previous church I attended in the 1980s mentioned from time to time that secular education was not the be all and end all in a Christian's walk with God. But I wonder whether the congregation at the time, with a large percentage being graduates fresh out of college, had really bought what the pastor said on those occasions.

We live in a country where culture is dominated by celebrity honouring, if not worship. This means that a theologian who had graduated at Oxford or Cambridge will always hold sway over someone who hadn't. Let's thank the Lord for his goodness and mercy, pouring oil over troubled waters and calming them.

Rant over.
 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

A Common Misunderstanding (Bible study)

Last week I detailed Abraham's character, and proving from the Bible that despite the patriarch's fear of the future, his cowardly attitude over his wife, and his inability to trust other people, God chose him to be the father of a special nation from which a Saviour was to arise to reconcile a fallen world to himself. There was a point in time when the Lord made a promise that even in his old age, a son would be born from his loins. Abraham believed this revelation in his heart, and as a result, he was fully acquitted from all his sins, and became known as the father of faith (Genesis 15:6). In both the Old and New Testaments and therefore after the patriarch's death, God has referred to himself in the present tense as the God of Abraham, indicating that he was conscious in eternity, long after his bones were buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Exodus 3:6, Mark 12:26-27).

Site of the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron
 
Whether Abraham believed it or not, by reading the narration, I am convinced of his eternal security in Christ. The fact was still true, even if the great patriarch did not realise it. I thank God that his gift of eternal life is independent of our thoughts, motives, and feelings! But what I have seen arising within the last couple of decades is the idea that a believer can lose his salvation if he either fails to hold faithful, or to allow his sins to stack up without confessing - a central tenet of the Roman Catholic faith. That is why in this follow-up blog from last week's, which can be classed as a Bible study topic, I hope to both bring such glory to God and to edify as well, if the Lord grants such a privilege.

After Abraham was justified by faith, there was no hint that he had lost his salvation, or even suffered a temporary relapse into his former lost state. Yet he was so fearful for his life, after God had given him his promise, that he virtually disowned his wife. And he did that twice, at least. If there was an opportunity for Abraham to fall away, surely those two occasions would have been them. But God, in his faithfulness in his promise, spoke both to the Egyptian Pharaoh and later, the King of Gerah, to return Sarah to her husband. The two rulers both then rebuked Abraham over his mistrust, but no rebuke, as far as I know, from Heaven. Now if it is possible for us to lose our salvation over a similar incident of faithlessness, wouldn't this make the Lord to be grossly unfair? But those who advocate a conditional security can point out at least two contrasting set of verses which gives the Bible a sense of inconsistency:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and the follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and my Father are one.
John 10:27-30.

It is impossible for those who had once been enlightened, who has tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
Hebrews 6:4-6.

Seeing such inconsistency, advocates of Conditional Security has brought out a theory that yes, once saved, nobody can take your salvation away from you, no matter how hard they try. But you are still free to just walk away from the eternal life God has given you, and perish forever. And such advocates has quoted Hebrews 6:4-6 as classic proof text to support their teachings. So why not delve into the Old Testament book of Leviticus to grasp what was really in the author's mind when he wrote that?

Leviticus opens with the tabernacle complete but not yet in use. So God gives to Moses exact and specific directions for its use, and who will be staffing it. Only the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, were allowed to minister to Israel at the Tabernacle. Every Israelite who wants to come into God's presence must never arrive empty-handed. Instead he must bring a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb for a burnt offering, an ox and a ram for a peace offering, along with a grain offering mixed with oil (Leviticus 9:3-4). The priest must then kill each beast according to the type of sacrifice, their fat burned on the altar, and their blood splashed on all four sides of the altar. Consequences for not obeying the regulations, or overstepping the mark, as was the case of Aaron's two sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10) resulted in instant death, as was the case of anyone who entered the inner sanctuary without authority, whether a priest or ordinary citizen.

Reconstructed  Jewish Tabernacle, Israel

According to the narration, Nadab and Abihu's intentions in offering fire in censors to the Lord were good. But neither his father or brothers were allowed to mourn. Despite their good motives, the incident had brought out the seriousness of sin. Simply put, it is impossible to come into God's presence without the shedding of blood, and even then, the blood must be shed in a specific way.

The Jews have kept these regulations right up to the time of Christ, but the system was a failure. Those sacrifices only atoned for unintentional sins; deliberate sins such as blasphemy, murder and adultery, as well as Sabbath-breaking (Numbers 15:32-36), and rebellion (Numbers 16) were punishable by death, normally through stoning. So after the sacrifice was completed, the one who offered was forgiven - until he sins again, and bring forth five more beasts to make a fresh atonement. This was a classic case of only past sins forgiven - a fresh sacrifice had to be made every time a person wanted to consult with his God. If the system of only past sins being forgiven had proved a failure, it looks to me to be tragic that the average Roman Catholic must attend Mass regularly to partake in a bloodless sacrifice offered by the priest, from which advocates of Conditional Security had borrowed the same soteriological idea.

When the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross, the curtain which separated the inner sanctuary of the Temple from the outer one was torn in two from top to bottom, indicating a divine act. From then on, anyone can approach the throne of God without an animal sacrifice and live, and not die as a result. The sacrifice of Christ has paid for all of the sins one has, and would ever commit. So to return to offering sacrifices at the Temple after the Resurrection was a denial of the efficiency of the Atonement made by the Lord. In short, a return to Temple ordinances was denying the Lord.

As before the cross, the Holy Spirit can only reside temporally in a believer, which necessity of full acquittal was required, as was the case of Abraham, Moses, Aaron, King David, etc. But after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit abides in the believer forever, making him holy. And that is the true definition of holiness - the presence of God, as was the case of an area of ground where Moses stood at the burning bush. God ordered Moses to take off his sandals because the ground he was standing on was holy ground (Exodus 3:5). When a group of believers gathers together, the Holy Spirit dwells not only in them but also among them, influencing any unbeliever who walks in. We can read about this in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 -

But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Here without doubt the unbeliever became a partaker of the Holy Spirit, even in his unconverted state. But supposing that this unbeliever was a Jew who had walked in, but instead of believing in his heart that this Jesus is the promised Messiah who died to atone for him, ending all Temple sacrifices and ordinances, and rose physically from the dead, he shook his head, muttered something about "Gentile hysteria", walks out and returns to his Temple ordinances. The chance of coming to repentance becomes impossible due to a hardening of his heart. This is exactly what Hebrews 6:4-6 is all about. It was never about a believer falling away and losing his salvation, as Conditional Security advocates insist, but an unbeliever turning away after being brought to the gates of Heaven by the Holy Spirit. And that in particular among the Jews, to whom this letter was addressed.

A believer is made holy through the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. According to John 14:15-17, the Holy Spirit will abide in the believer forever. This means that if the believer falls away, and goes to Hell, the Holy Spirit will go to Hell in him. The very foolishness of this confirms the truth of Eternal Security.

Holiness is about having the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you, and shining out by showing the love of Christ to another person, especially a fellow believer. That is what walking in faith is all about. Love. As in 1 Corinthians 13. By loving that person or group of people in the same way Christ would have loved them fulfils the entire Law. The one who loves would not want to steal, hurt, kill, or falsely accuse, or even covet his possessions, and would respect the wife as her husband's and not touch her. At the same time he would love God with all his mind, heart, soul, and strength. But these things takes time for the Christian. When he sins, the Blood of Jesus had already atoned for him, but it's good for him to agree with God that he wasn't following the lead of the Spirit. That is what confession to God is all about - simply to agree with him.



I have written all this because of the peeve in watching fellow believers living under the Law, as this is the result of Conditional Security - living under the Law. That is, if I allow my sins to stack up unconfessed, or turn away from the faith, I perish. And that despite that if I keep the Law but stumble at just one point, I become guilty of all (James 2:10). And I have found that those believing in Conditional Security (or as I like to call it: Probational Salvation) tend to be less loving, more judgemental and critical, and generally weary towards those who disagree with them. So according to my 40 + years of being a believer myself, having being snapped at by those who thinks they must "hold on". But despite our human frailty (and those who believe in Eternal Security have their weaknesses too) - my desire is to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, and whenever I have to make a decision, or how I should respond to a given situation, I ask myself: How would Jesus have dealt with this?

It's a good way of living a holy life.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Abraham the Backpacker

Abraham is one character I have always admired in the Old Testament. Maybe because he comes over as a very ordinary person, with fears, doubts and anxieties - and not with a heroism matching a faith superstar, nor as a "super-spiritual" who finds it easy to keep temptation out of his head and to abstain from every form of sinning. Abraham never had the opportunity to be "super-spiritual" - you may know of the kind - the one who shun the beach because of the presence of bikini-clad women, avoid the fairground for its worldly pleasures, and also staying away from the theatre as being the hub of sensuality, the one who keeps a record library of traditional hymns and spiritual songs as well as classical music, but with not a single rock, pop, or soul record to be found among his collection, and definitely no television in his house. The only secular books he would allow his children to read are educational. And glossy magazines? Don't even think about them! Such a person would find making and keeping friends very difficult indeed! Respect? Yes, to a certain extent. Intimacy would be a different matter altogether. Pie in the sky? I have met men who came close to such criteria. And one of them was kicked out of church eldership for committing adultery.


 
Nomadic Abraham had none of these modern conveniences, but he was a real person with real feelings. The Scripture tells us that he did throw a party to celebrate the weaning of his son Isaac (Genesis 21:8) and no doubt, there was music and entertainment. Yet we read that God, by sovereign grace, had chosen him, loved him, and most important of all, acquitted him from all sin and imputed his own righteousness - just for believing that he will be a birth father one day. Yet we read at least on two occasions his fears and apprehensions when it came to foreign travel. He believed that both the Egyptian king, and some time later the king of Gerah, were about to take his wife Sarah to add to their harem, so in fear of being killed, he lied to them, calling her his sister and practically disowning her, and that despite God's already revealed promises. To add to this, the 15th chapter of Genesis opens with God calming his fears. Reading about various points in is life, it doesn't seem too difficult to see that Abraham had a fear of the future, a lack of trust in other people, and the feeling of uncertainty in his heart, and he would have had to learn, bit by bit, how to trust in the Lord who initially called him from his comfy home in Shinar.
 
We read how he was encouraged by his father Terah's presence as he journeyed west to Canaan, and after the death of his father, he found security in the company of his nephew Lot by his side, along with his wife and his two daughters. So secure had he felt towards Lot and his family that God allowed a shortage of resources to occur between uncle and nephew, forcing them to dwell apart, with Lot choosing the lush valley surrounding Sodom. Abraham had to learn to lean on God rather than on family members.
 
In a sense, Abraham was well suited to his nomadic lifestyle. No doubt that way of living was free from the complexities that affect our way of life, such as fuel bills, getting into debt, taxes, mortgage payments, rent, the daily commute, holding down a job, threat of redundancy, the need for higher education, unemployment, and so forth. Abraham had none of all that, but neither did he have what we call the Bible today. Instead, his faith was entirely dependent on repeated revelations from God.

Although Abraham was generally fearful, I had wondered whether the simple nomadic life was more fulfilling than the complex lifestyles that exist at present, with all the mod-cons. Ever since I bought a laptop computer and had it connected to the Internet, it became a gadget I couldn't do without. Yet I was in my late fifties at the time I first bought it. How on earth did I manage all those years without the Internet? Yet I did. Activities such as participation in competitive sports like the Triathlon (Swim, Cycle, and Run) allowed me to get out of doors during the weekend, as well as being a paid-up member of a triathlon club, where we were just as committed to the Friday night social as the training programmes themselves. Other times, when there was nothing worth watching on TV, often I poured into reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this in itself became a prerequisite for future blogging, as well as grasping on general knowledge I missed out on at school.

Travel was something both Abraham and I had in common, along with the need for both of us depending on God's protection. I needed God's protection at the time I walked through East 7th Street of Los Angeles one evening in 1995, on my way to the Greyhound Bus Station from Santa Monica, carrying a rucksack, while gangs of Afro-Caribbeans lolled around the front doors of their homes. And divine protection I received, for although some characters looked shady, no-one batted an eyelid at me. In turn, on two occasions, Abraham feared being killed, and had his wife Sarah taken from him, he was weary of Canaanite inhabitants surrounding his camp, yet he was brave enough to rescue Lot from invading marauding forces and with God's help, defeated them and repopulated the captured city of Sodom.

Where travel is concerned, I can compare flying halfway round the world with long distance hiking.  I have found by experience that long distance hiking, cross-country cycling, and national and international train travel were no less fulfilling than air travel. As a matter of fact, I have found slow surface travel to be more exhilarating than sitting cocooned inside an airtight bottle several miles above ground. Little wonder that planning a holiday or vacation can be stressful, what with the need of having correct documents, tickets, long queues at airports, tight security including body search, flight delays and cancellations, industrial disputes, threat of illness, overbooked hotels, all eating into the joy of travel. All Abraham did was to un-pitch his tent, load it on a donkey, and move to fresh fertile ground. He must have done quite well. There are at least seven hundred miles 1,134 km between his home town of Ur of the Chaldeans and the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. That's the equivalent of hiking from London UK to Genova, well within the boundary of Italy. Not to mention various hikes up and down the land of Canaan, making his travels closer to a thousand miles.



Here is the irony. When Abraham and his fellow campers felt they had to move on for the want of fresh pasture, they simply packed everything away and moved on. None of the bureaucratic hassle which accompanies modern travel. But just a threat of an air strike, or a sneeze, or even the possibility of rain at the holiday destination, and we're prone to panic. A few years ago, thousands of foreign holidays were wiped out as a result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland. This being Britain, I hardly heard a murmur in the streets, but I wouldn't mind betting that behind closed doors there was much distress coming out of would-be travellers. Or going back to 1978, when the French Air Traffic Control strike crippled all flights across Europe. As I was at the departure gate waiting to board the unaffected flight to New York, there was a roaring, blood curdling scream echoing through the wide airport corridor. A young man, about my age, was told through the tannoy to return to the departure lounge, having spent the previous night walking back and forth to the gate from the lounge due to a series of false calls to board the 'plane for Spain. As I boarded my own flight, I watched a very sorry looking crowd of people saunter dismally once more back to the lounge. Just as well I paid more for a flight to New York. At least my airline took off right on time.

As he would have trekked across the wide hot desert on a train of camels, along with his family, servants, and all his livestock, I wonder how Abraham would have made of it all had he witnessed the ins and outs of modern travel? To add to all this, our dependence on TV, radio, the Internet, not to mention hospitals, along with mountains of highly sophisticated knowledge of science, mathematics, and other subjects. Then there is the matter of Holy Scripture. I cannot be dogmatic in saying that Abraham had no access to the Bible, as it was not yet written. He could have possessed the scroll, or a copy of a scroll detailing the lives of his ancestors, from Adam and Eve to Noah, the global deluge, and the ancestry of his family line and those of other nations. In other words, what we read as the early chapters of Genesis, most likely written by Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 10:1) in order to preserve the record of their ancestry for future generations. Therefore, I would say that the only way for Abraham's faith to grow would have been by direct revelation from God himself. A good example of this was the appearance of three men to announce to him that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son in about a year from their visit (Genesis 18.)

I guess we are the far more fortunate ones. We have the entire Bible, within containing the Three Powerful Witnesses (see my last blog) as well as the life and works of Jesus Christ told four times, the history of the beginnings and rise of the early church, and all the letters written by the apostles. Abraham had none of these. In Genesis 15:1, God had to reassure Abraham personally not to fear or be anxious, for God himself is his shield. Without the Bible, the only way God spoke to him was most likely audibly. Abraham never had the chance to read these precious words that were promised to us:

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, gracious give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those who God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31-39.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:18-19.

That is wonderful news. If only Abraham knew how much he was in Christ as we are, for he was equally acquitted. I'm so thankful to God that we have easy access to the entire Bible in one book, and not row upon row of separate scrolls, as was the time of Christ and the apostles. We have the best things God can offer, not only in the spiritual realm but also in the physical realm. I have always been thankful to the Lord for giving me the privilege of world travel, as far wide as California at one end, and Australia at the other. But even more fulfilling were the trips I made to the Holy Land. Imagine how it felt like staying at a backpacker's hostel in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, an area so familiar to Jesus Christ and the apostles. Imagine what it was like standing inside the Dome of the Rock and touching the very stone where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then hearing God call out from Heaven. Imagine how Solomon's Temple might have looked on that very site, and the Second Temple at the time of Jesus.




God was with Abraham throughout his life. Even before he was born, God knew him. God knew him before the world itself was made and Adam was still dust on the ground. Yet despite all of the patriarch weaknesses, God had never forsaken him. Abraham was as much once saved always saved as we are.

If God took so much care of Abraham, even to the site of his burial, would he not be the same with us? That is grace, wonderful grace. Knowing that God loves us in Christ Jesus, he does not impute sin, but imputes the righteousness of Christ in us. That's why we can never ever be lost again. The righteousness of Christ, setting us free from the burden of trying to keep the Law. My own experience that if I perform to "stay saved" or to "remain in Christ by staying faithful" - then I am back under the Law. That is, I must perform to stay saved, there is something I must do, that is, to endure. Under such thinking I'm doomed to failure, simply because that even if I keep the Law, but stumble at just one point, then I have broken the entire Law, and doomed for judgement (James 2:10). Rather, in Christ I'm loved unconditionally, saved forever in my Father's arms.

Even if I don't act like it. Even if I get angry at someone. Even if I curse and swear. Even if I tell a dirty joke. Even if I watch porn on TV, on the Internet, or browse through glossy magazines. Even if I gaze at the bikini-clad female sunbathing on the beach. Even if I spend a day at the fun fair. Even when I prefer hard rock music to hearing spiritual songs. Even when feeling depressed. In Jesus Christ I'll be forever in my Father's arms, safe and secure.

But wait! Doesn't the New Testament exhort us to lead holy lives?

That is for the next blog.  

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Three Powerful Witnesses

In the last blog I related my experience with some Jehovah's Witnesses I became acquainted with back in the 1970s. Since back then I was very new to the faith, it would not have been too surprising that a level of confusion had arisen after their demonstration of their doctrine and belief came across as very logical and solid, and virtually impossible to challenge and overturn their beliefs and their arguments. So a question arose in my thoughts: Am I following the right religion?
 
And this following an upbringing as a Roman Catholic, a faith I had abandoned as a teenager due to resulting in learning of a moody, truculent God who just won't let anyone straight into Heaven after death, because of some unconfessed or unforgiven sin, mortal or venial, and of the soul of the deceased having to spend either eternity in Hell, or a temporal time period (up to thousands of years) in Purgatory, depending on the severity of the sin, or how many remaining unconfessed. Therefore hearing about Salvation through faith in the completed atonement made by Jesus Christ when he died on the cross was not only very new to me, but was in conflict with my then current beliefs. Then after believing in Jesus Christ through faith, along came the Witnesses, pedalling their own version of works-based salvation.
 
And they insist that the vast majority of them will not even enter Heaven, but will remain in their present bodies in Earth which has been restored to Paradise after a dreadful, global Battle of Armageddon. And back then I failed to see the two discrepancies they already have against the Bible, that at first, their version of Armageddon will be global, while the Bible confines the battle to a comparatively small area in the Middle East - the Valley of Megiddo in northern Israel. And secondly, they insist that only 144,000 specially-chosen Witnesses will spend eternity in Heaven, along with Jesus Christ - renamed Michael - the twelve apostles, and every convert recorded in the New Testament book of Acts. Never mind that the Bible makes clear that the 144,000 will all be Jews, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jehovah's Witnesses insist that every church, every religious establishment and denomination, every political, military, trading establishments, and everyone else not affiliated with the Watchtower Society will be wiped out in the most devastating "battle" - if it can be called that - in the whole of human history. They, and they alone, will inhabit the new Earth.


 
And that's the whole point. Every religion, every faith, every belief, insist that they are following the right path to eternity, whether it would be Heaven, Nirvana or some other form of Paradise. Here in the UK, extreme Muslim terrorists poses a threat to national security, deep in their convictions that theirs is the right faith. Other Muslims will fight their Jihad willingly, even to the cost of their lives. Then every Buddhist will be convinced that their founding monk had laid the right spiritual pathway, and have good arguments to support their case. Likewise the Hindus can give us good reasons why their Vedas Scriptures are holy, as with the Islam Koran. As for Roman Catholicism, for centuries they alone insist that they are the true Church of Christ, labelling Protestants as heretics. But within the last few decades, the Vatican has accepted Allah as "the one true merciful God we both worship together" - despite that the moon god Allah and the Trinitarian God of Catholicism could not be any more different.
 
So in the face of such an array of different religious creeds, each one claiming to be the right faith, how can I be sure that Paul's statement in  1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is one I can depend on? This blog, I hope, will provide some vital answers.
 
For what I have received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
 
These verses can be used as a universal plumbline by which all faiths and creeds can be tested. A plumbline is a tool used by builders to ensure that the wall is fully upright and not prone to slanting. Likewise, with this, all faiths can be assessed. And the plumbline is this, that Christ died to atone for sin, that he was buried, and rose again on the third day. It is the third criteria - that he rose again - that sets Jesus Christ apart from every religious or spiritual founder. In the Bible, there are what I perceive three witnesses or testimonies that points to Jesus as the only way. These are: the Ark of the Covenant, Miracles, and Prophecy.
 
Testimony #1: Ark of Covenant.
 
Throughout the Old Testament book of Exodus, there are intricate details on the construction of the Tabernacle, a tent which was to be the meeting place between Almighty God and the nation of Israel, which had so recently been freed from slavery in Egypt by God's outstanding miracles administered by Moses and his older brother Aaron. They camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and from there they received the Ten Commandments and other laws by which they were to conduct their lives. All at first seems ideal - until a major problem emerged - that no one was able to keep God's laws perfectly due to the inherited sinful nature found in every person alive. God, in his holiness and perfect righteousness, could have wiped out the entire nation from the Earth. But instead, in his love, he instructed Moses to have his men construct a tent, which inside were two compartments, separated by a curtain. The innermost compartment was known as the Holy of Holies, and was the dwelling place of God. Inside was the Ark of the Covenant, a piece of furniture which was the object of Harrison Ford's blockbusting movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was a box of Acacia wood overlaid with pure gold, inside and out. Covering the box was a lid of pure solid gold, known as The Mercy Seat.
 
Cast with the lid were two cherubs of solid gold, their wings spread over the surface of the lid, and their faces looking down on it. It is likely that these two angels represent Justice and Holiness. Inside the box were placed three sets of items, which represents the triple facet of man's sinful nature. The first two were the stone tablets on which were written the ten Commandments. The fact that they were inside the Ark signified man's rejection of God's holiness. This meant that the average person prefers to do his own thing and set his own moral standard rather than God's. Another item in the box was a pot of manna, with which God miraculously fed the entire nation in the desert. Rather than being thankful for such a nutritious provision for free, instead they grumbled, wanting a far greater variety to eat. God, in his mercy, provided quails, a species of bird, also for free, and the Israelites gorged themselves without giving thanks and worshipping God. As a result, a pot of manna was placed in the Ark to signify man's rejection of God's provision.
 
Finally, a symbol of man's rejection of God's leadership which took the form of Aaron's rod budding. This took place after Korah led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and their sentence was passed. The almond rods belonging to all of Israel's elders were placed in an array at the Tabernacle. Overnight, Aaron's rod miraculously budded, showing the nation he whom God appointed for leadership. The rod of Aaron was then placed inside the Ark to signify man's rejection of God's leadership.
 
Thus the triple facet of sin were inside the Ark. The two cherubs were looking down on the lid, or Mercy Seat, and they could see the symbols of human sin which separated all mankind from a Holy God. However, once a year, an innocent lamb, about a year old and absolutely perfect, without any blemish, was slain by the priest, and its blood poured over the Mercy Seat. As each of the two cherubs now saw the blood of an innocent lamb instead of human sin, both Holiness and Justice can declare that they are satisfied with the atonement made, allowing God himself to dwell in the midst of his people.


 
Jesus Christ was the final sacrifice to make an eternal atonement between God and mankind, reconciling the world to himself for all time, unlike the priest, who because of his own mortality, had to perform the rite once every year. The relationship between God and man changed so dramatically at the Crucifixion that the sun was darkened, there was an earthquake, the rocks split, the curtain dividing the Holy of Holies inside the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the souls of holy men of the Old Testament came out of their graves (Matthew 27:50-53.) The blood of the lamb sacrificed once a year by the priest was the foreshadow of the Crucifixion, the shedding of his own blood, and the death of Jesus Christ. No other spiritual leader or founder had ever laid down his life for the salvation of others. But there was more to come. On the third day Jesus rose physically from the dead, an accomplishment no other human has ever achieved. This was the final proof that Jesus Christ is truly God, the Second Person of the Godhead. No other human can claim that status. And our salvation depends entirely on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Corinth, if Christ was not raised from the dead, then no-one will be raised from the dead either, and our believing will be in vain, a waste of time, (1 Corinthians 15) and all one has to do to be saved is call upon the name of the Lord, believing in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 10:9-10,13.)
 
This is one area where groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses fail. They deny the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ and in turn, deny his deity. A created being cannot redeem mankind, it something only God himself can accomplish.
 
Testimony #2: Miracles.
 
I have read and heard of various churches, particularly of the Charismatic movement, using the formula of claiming healing and even prosperity for themselves as if these things were theirs by right, with the Atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross by means of the rights to claim. But over the years of Bible study, a different picture had slowly emerged that there is no such thing as a Heavenly Health Service, neither is God a servant of man waiting to answer his every beck and call. Rather, the Bible seem to be very consistant that miracles were performed for God to prove his own glory, his authority, and his desire to save.
 
One of the most striking examples of miraculous power are found in the early chapters of the Old Testament book of Exodus. Here we read about the talk God had with Moses at the burning bush, a miracle in itself. The thorn bush burning without being consumed by the flames had two important meanings. The first was to reveal to Moses that he is the God of his father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he was to send Moses off on a mission fully backed by his authority. The second meaning to the fire was a prophecy concerning the future nation of Israel. This Hebrew nation was set to go through the fires of testing and disciplinary tribulation, but would never be consumed. As the bush burned and burned, but was never consumed to ashes, so Israel likewise would burn and burn, but will never ever go out of existence. The proof holds true to this day. At present, Israel is a sovereign nation, born shortly after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party had made every effort to make the Jews an extinct species during the War. 
 
The power of miracles held to the same reason when God turned Moses' rod into a snake, and made his hand leprous. These were to convince a doubtful leader that God is God, and he was fully commissioned for the task. Then God performed a string of miracles to a very stubborn Pharoah, to demonstrate his power in public, and at the same time persuade the Hebrews to believe in Moses as their deliverer, and to obey him.
 
But many of the miracles recorded in the Bible are found during Jesus' ministry, and they are all consistant for one main purpose - to prove to all around him that he is the Christ. And what better way to demonstrate his deity than to show his love towards the poor, the infirm, the sick, the demon-possesed and the less fortunate. One of his greatest miracles was to raise Lazarus from the dead. And he did this not merely to comfort or bring fresh hope to his sisters Martha and Mary. Rather, the miracle was performed to prove to all around him that this Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In John 11:41 it reads:
 
Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they believe that you sent me."
 
Thus the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead was the same as turning a wooden stick into a living snake: as proof of God's sovereignty and to create faith. After the resurrection (a miracle in itself) and shortly after Pentecost, Peter and John healed a cripple in the Temple precinct (Acts 3, 4:1-31). The whole of the third chapter, and much of the 4th were devoted to Peter's explanation behind the miracle, that this Jesus who they had crucified was indeed the Christ who was raised from the dead, and salvation is given to all who believe in this revelation. Unfortunately for the Sanhedrin, they remain stubborn in their unbelief, threatening the apostles instead.



One of the more famed of present day miracles was related by Dutch evangelist Corrie Ten Boom. One day she was teaching an open-air class of schoolboys near a brook about the miraculous catch of fish at the Lake of Galilee. When one of the boys sneered at the possibility of the miracle ever had taken place, Ten Boom took a bucket, dunked it into the stream, lifted it out and dumped the entire bucketful of fish right in front of the boy. As the story goes, the boy himself grew up to be an evangelist and Bible scholar himself. Such is the power and the purpose of miracles.

Testimony #3: Prophecy.

Prophecy make the Bible the most unique document in the entire literary world. No other book, religious or secular, contains prophecy which was fulfilled hundreds, even thousands of years later, nor prophecy that was written thousands of years ago yet still awaiting fulfilment. And whenever I felt doubtful about the reliability of Holy Scripture, or the genuineness of my own faith, I remind myself about the wonderful testimony of prophecy.

There is much I can write about prophecy, for it contains a tremendous amount of wealth and information. It has been said that if all Biblical prophecy were combined together, it would take up a section of the Bible as large as the entire New Testament! But in an effort to prevent this blog from being too long and drawn out, I will concentrate on just one, but keep in mind that there are many, many more prophecies fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The example referred to is Psalm 22, penned by King David around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ. And it is a psalm foretelling the crucifixion of Jesus when such a form of execution never existed at the time of writing. Here are some selected verses:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.

Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.
I'm poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.

The accuracy of this prophecy comes out when one reads the testimony of the Gospels. Nothing could be more clearer than the description of the scene consisting of many standing around the cross and mocking him as he was hung there, nailed by his hands and feet to the wood. And no better description is given than that of Matthew 27:27-50, where the narration not only gives the mocking by his enemies in full detail, but includes the dividing of his garments by the Roman soldiers while all he could do was look on.

With fulfilled prophecy like this one, Jesus Christ and he alone, qualifies as the true Saviour, and as for his resurrection, there are plenty of prophecies foretelling this too. For example, in Isaiah 53, much of that chapter foretells of the cutting off of the servant during the prime of his life. In verse 10, Isaiah writes that it was the will of the Lord to crush him and allowed him to suffer. Then still in the same verse, after he makes his life a guilt offering, he then sees his offspring and prolong his days. How could such a blatant contradiction make any sense unless he was resurrected from the dead? And history informs us that other than Jesus Christ, nobody ever was physically raised from the dead with an immortal body. No, certainly not the Buddhist monk, or Muhammad, and certainly not Charles Taze Russell or Joseph Smith, founders of the Watchtower and the Mormons respectively. And for that matter, neither the Archangel Michael fits the criteria, as he was created by God as with all of the angelic population. Jesus Christ is truly God, truly man, Saviour, Lord and King.

With this I rest my case.



 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Am I in the "Right Religion?"

I will never forget one Summer afternoon in 1973 when two young Jehovah' Witnesses called at our door. Only just been in the faith for a few months, I was still physically young, a spiritual babe, very naive, and wanted to learn what others said about the Bible. It was a time I was not affiliated with any church. To add to all this, I had already been taught that all churches were wrong, and God had withdrew his presence from them, to put it in a nice way. It was more of God had never been with them in the first place. That was what I was taught by the group I identified myself at the time, the Children of God, spawned by the American cult leader David "Moses" Berg, who founded his movement after a bitter dispute with an American Pentecostal pastor. (For the full story, see my two blogs on this site, 1973 And All That, and Signs Of The Times? both posted May 2013.)
 
I had quickly discovered that the Witnesses agreed with me of their beliefs that all the churches were wrong - forming a common ground with them. One of them took me to his home address, which was just round the corner, and serious discussions began. I quickly learned that they did not believe in the Trinity, and Jesus Christ was not equal to God but inferior to him, using John 14:28: You heard me say, 'I'm going away and I'm coming back to you.' If you love me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.'

With a statement like that coming straight out of the mouth of Jesus himself, it would be very difficult for a Trinitarian to put forth his case, especially when the whole of the New Testament appears to back it up. The method they used, and still do to this day, was that Jesus is the Son of God, not God the Son. With such an argument, it would have been easy to convince an unsuspecting listener, especially by asking how Jesus could be one of the Godhead if for example, that God has given to Jesus the scroll which he was to pass to John (Revelation 1:1.) The two Witnesses then asked me whether these were two different entities rather than one God "talking to himself" and "giving the manuscript to himself" - as they make out as what we Trinitarians believe. Then came the issue which placed the final nail in the coffin of all orthodox churches that they, and they alone were the people of God's Name. That is, the name "Jehovah" which appears in Exodus 6:3, Psalm 83:18, and Isaiah 12:2, 26:4 in the King James Version of the Old Testament, a name by which they identify themselves.

But I was not an "unsuspecting listener". Instead I had a gut feeling that something was seriously wrong with their theology, but at the time I could not counteract, as not only was I without learning and experience, but I received no help or back-up from the Children of God movement, as theology was not their strong point, but rather rebellion against the churches instead. And looking at the psychological consequence of this viewpoint, if the Jesus Christ of the Watchtower Society was an individual created by God the Father, then he could not qualify as Saviour - no matter if he was the first to be created before everything else, before all other angels and before the entire Universe, or how high in status he was after his death - if Jesus was not God himself, how could he save?



And yet despite these doubts in my mind, the Watchtower theology appeared logical and solid, and impossible to contradict, for even verses that hint on the Triune being of God, such as John 8:58, they insist that he said, "Before Abraham was born, I have been" instead of "I am." Or John 5:30, where they say that his declaration that the Father and he were one in agreement, and not one in essence. Then the classic John 1:1 when they insist that the proper translation from the Greek is "...and the Word was a god", instead of "... and the Word was God." To the unsuspecting, these were fed into the mind, converting the "goat" into a "sheep" - that is to say, a Jehovah's Witness who is in line to be saved if he remains faithful to the organisation, never dissent, and certainly never question or have doubts about what is fed from "the Lord's Table" up there in Heaven, through the Society headquarters in New York, and through all their printed literature. The convert is then convinced that he has the truth, while everyone else is living a lie and will die eternally.

It was during those days that I began to ponder: How do I know that my faith is the right one? I began to imagine what the Last Judgement will be like. I have pictured in my mind the Great White Throne with Almighty God sitting on it. In front of him are all the religious believers - Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Roman Catholic, Lutherian, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Children of God, Pagans, Anglicans, Methodists, Jehovah's Witnesses - all arrayed in their groups - some large, others small, all waiting to find out from God which group had done his will and obeyed him. Then the Almighty would single out Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Watchtower Society, and all his followers, and grant them eternal life. They then are allowed into Heaven, much to the shocking horror of all the others with their founders and leaders, who are thrown out of his presence to be cast into Hell, and that despite the Watchtower Society repudiating Hell, and only 144,000 Witnesses will enter Heaven, the rest are to enjoy eternity on the new Earth, restored to the state of the original Garden of Eden, but even then, on the principle that they remain faithful.


Watchtower Society Headquarters, New York City

Throughout my confusion I stood by the truth of the Trinity, even if I couldn't face up to a mature Witness (the young man's father), as I was still blind to the obvious - that any weakening of the Atonement achieved by Christ on the Cross renders their gospel as false. With Jesus Christ relegated to a created being, inferior to the Father, impaled on an upright pole (without the crossbar) and risen only as a spirit, and not physically, their religion is on the par with very other religion on the planet. For example, Muslims deny that it was Christ who died on the cross. Muhammad believed that it might have been Judas Iscariot instead, an idea upheld throught Islam. Both in Hinduism and Buddhism believe that Jesus was one of many good teachers who helped reform mankind, but certainly not atoned for their sin.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth of what one could be called the plumbline to determine whether a gospel proclaimed is true or false. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, we read:

For what I have received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.

Paul also emphasises that belief in the Resurrection is vital for salvation. Romans 10:9 reads:

That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

This is a physical resurrection, that of the body, and not just a spiritual one as the Witnesses insist. The death by crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are a combined fact - they have ocurred before now, and are just as solid historically as the sun poured its light and heat on to our planet the day before yesterday. The facts cannot be changed. They are true regardless whether one believes or not. But by believing in the heart that Jesus rose physically from the dead result in complete acquittal from all sins commited - past, present, and future. No other religious founder or leader had ever enjoyed a physically resurrected body as Jesus. This goes to show that he is Lord indeed. But not Lord in a sense of an employer or an aristocrat, but Lord in the sense that he is truly God and truly man. No other religion can confess this. And even among Christian believers, the question of eternal acquittal can be so hard to swallow! That is why "Once Saved Always Saved" does not go down well with everyone who regularly attend church. Simply put, Eternal Security is just an acknowledgement that salvation as a whole is totally dependent on whether the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is historically true. If true, you as a believer is saved eternally and can never be lost again. If not historically true, then you are as equally lost as that poor soul yonder who is serving life in prison for theft and multiple murder.

Believing that salvation can be lost by a sinning or faithless believer weakens the truth of the Gospel by adding human merit or even works to the Gospel, diluting it. In other words, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ did not fully atone for one's sins, unless the sinner gives "a helping hand." All labels which claim to be Christian but believes that salvation can be lost insist that only one's past sins were forgiven at conversion, leaving "a clean slate" afterwards. The snag with that idea is that the moment a sin is committed, the slate is no longer clean, and the believer is subject to eternal judgement. As James wrote, that whoever keeps the whole Law but stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking the entire Law (James 2:10-11). Without eternal acquittal, it is impossible to keep the slate clean and then go to Heaven after death. Once saved always saved is essential for salvation.

That was the whole object of Paul's letter to the Galatians. In 1:6-10, Paul was so emphatic to drive his point home that not only did he repeat what he had already stated, but involved angels too - that if anyone preached a gospel contrary to the one he preached, let him be accursed! - Angels included. And what was this false gospel which infuriated the Apostle so severely? It was making physical circumcision mandatory for all believers, laying on them a heavy burden, as so well narrated in Galatians 5:1-6. Paul insisted that whoever advocates circumcision, or for that matter, observance of Jewish holidays, is compelled to observe the entire Law. If breached, then the advocate is subject to eternal judgement.

I can understand how those believers in Galatia fell for such ideas. In Genesis chapter 16, God himself  institiuted circumcision to Abraham and all male members of his family, to be passed down to his decendants forever. According to verse 14, if anyone fails to be circumcised, he will be cut off from his people, that is eternally separated from God and his people by death. According to the Judaists who influenced the Galatian churches, this covenant is eternal and therefore cannot be broken. The logic of all this was that the power of the Atonement made by Christ would be nullified. Hence the curse. There seems to be little difference between circumcision needed in order to be saved, and "staying faithful and abstaining from sin" to stay saved, as both puts the believer under the slavery of the Law, according to the Apostle, as both require the need of works and human merit.

But the idea of eternal acquittal from the curse of sin is virtually unknown by all religions. No matter how committed a Muslim, or Buddhist, Hindu, Roman Catholic or Jehovah's Witness may be, none would believe in Once Saved Always Saved. And if Eternal Security is untrue, the power of the cross and resurrection of Christ is weakened, a tantamount of denying the Lord.


The Church of St. Peter, Vatican City.

Yet a huge majority of religious people are devoted to their faith, giving all out commitment to their rituals and duties, with a hope that these will reconcile them to God or enter Nirvana. And each one thinks that he is in the right, and each one has a good case to argue. So how can someone like myself be so sure that I'm saved only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?  How can I be so sure that Muhammad does not have a case in point, or Buddha, for that matter? Or supposing the Roman Catholic Church with its Papal system had been right all along? Does the Pope really stand as mediator between mankind and God? And does the Virgin Mary really have the same role in interceding for the sin of her followers? And there are many who were, and still are, devoted to her.

There is no love lost between the Vatican and the Watchtower Society, but each believe that they are true to the Bible, both believe that they are serving God, and both deny the truthfulness of Eternal Security of the Believer. So I can I be so sure in what I believe is from God himself?

That will be for the blog for next week.