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Resurrection in Jewish and Christian Thought

The notion that humans who have died can be resurrected by God is found in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and al...

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Seeking God

Unfortunately, too many Christians focus on an individual's understanding of who and what God is as the thing which defines whether or not they are truly a follower of Jesus Christ. The reasoning goes something like this: "If a person doesn't understand who and what God is, then they can't really be a Christian." Of course, the flaw in such reasoning becomes immediately apparent when you begin asking Christians what they believe about who and what God is!

For instance, although most Christians would employ some of the same adjectives in describing their beliefs about God's characteristics (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, self-sufficient, good, immutable and immortal), it would be very inaccurate to say that there is any widespread agreement or consensus among Christians regarding who and what god is. Indeed, it is generally recognized that Christian beliefs about God fall into three basic categories: Trinitarianism (the most popular), Binitarianism and Unitarianism. And, those broad categories don't even begin to address what different Christians believe about biblical terms like Spirit, YHWH, Elohim, Creator, Lord and heaven.

To be sure, Christians love to take positions on all of these topics and to claim that they understand God. Likewise, a great many Christians like to use their understanding of God to exclude those whose understanding of Divinity differ from their own. "They don't even understand who they're worshipping!" is a commonly heard statement when pointing the finger at folks in other denominations or churches.

It is clear, however, that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews felt that seeking to understand God was much more important than the actual understanding! In the King James Version, we read: "But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." (Hebrews 11:6) So, for this First Century Christian, it was essential that: 1) a Christian must believe in God's existence and 2) that God rewards those who "ekzeteo" him. According to Strong's Concordance, the original Greek word is a compound of two words that mean "to search out, i.e. (figuratively)investigate, crave, demand, (by Hebraism) worship:—en- (re-)quire, seek after (carefully, diligently)." Likewise, Thayer's Greek Lexicon suggest four different shades of meaning for this word: "a. to seek out, search for; b. to seek out i. e. investigate, scrutinize; c. to seek out for oneself, beg, crave; and d. to demand back, require."

Some of the more modern versions of these verses convey the same sense. It is the people who "sincerely" (NLT) and "earnestly" (NIV) seek God. Other modern versions drop the adjectives, but they continue to convey the sense that it is those who "seek" after God. Hence, for the author of this epistle at least, the pursuit of God is essential - a correct or complete understanding of "him" is NOT! 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Following Orders

Fundamentalists tend to emphasize a Christian's responsibility to obey - to conform to God's Will - to follow orders. For me, that was certainly the case with the Armstrong Churches of God with which I was formerly associated. And, it wasn't just the expectation that God's laws, ordinances and statutes be scrupulously followed - it was also expected that members fully submit to Church authority in all areas of their lives (spiritual and secular). Likewise, Fundamentalists tend to expect that individual families follow the paternalistic model outlined in Scripture (children are expected to obey their parents and wives are expected to submit to their husbands). Finally, most of these groups also teach submission to secular governmental authorities (except when and where they conflict with God's instructions).

Scripture, however, qualifies the obligation of Christians to obey by clearly delineating some important exceptions to that responsibility. For example, when the apostles were confronted for continuing to preach about Christ after the religious leaders had ordered them to cease, they responded: "We must obey God rather than any human authority." (see Acts 5:29) Likewise, the author of Acts wrote that the Bereans were more noble than the folks in Thessalonica because "They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth." (see Acts 17:11)

In his letter to the saints at Rome, Paul wrote about the importance of personal conviction and conscience in obedience. He talked about Abraham's personal conviction in the fourth chapter, and he discussed the role that personal conscience should play in more general terms in the fourteenth chapter. Paul talks about how Christians believe different things about which foods are appropriate to eat and which days should be observed, and then he declared: "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." (see Romans 14:5) He goes on to say that a person's personal convictions on these kinds of issues are crucial, and that all Christians should be motivated by a desire to build each other up and NOT erect stumbling blocks for each other.

The apostle to the Gentiles went on to say that it's dangerous not to follow your personal convictions about the morality of some behavior. Paul concluded: "If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning." (see Romans 14:23) In similar fashion, Paul told the saints of Colossae to not permit others to dictate which observances they adhered to (see Colossians 2:16-17). In other words, I'm not going to be condemned for my behaviors which YOU believe to be sinful. Likewise, it is damning for you to engage in some behavior which you regard to be sinful even if I believe it's OK!

In his letter to the twelve tribes "scattered abroad," James made clear that he believed that this principle of personal conviction about right and wrong didn't just apply to sins of commission, but that it also applied to sins of omission. He wrote: "Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it." (see James 4:17)

Jesus Christ appealed to individual conscience to thwart those who were eager to dole out the harshest judgments and punishments for a sinner in their midst. A woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was about to be stoned, and Christ intervened. He said: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." (see John 8:7) This, we are told, elicited the following reaction: "And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst." (see John 8:9) In similar fashion, Christ warned his followers NOT to follow the example of the religious leaders of his day because "they don’t practice what they teach." (see Matthew 23:1-4) He went on to say that one's motivation for obedience is more important than the actual obedience. (see verses 5-12)

Christ also instructed his followers to look beyond the letter of the law. Instead, he wanted them to think about the intent or spirit of the law. What was the logic in someone starving to death on the Sabbath because they believed it was inappropriate to harvest grain on that day? (Mark 2:23-27) In fact, Christ summarized God's laws into two great principles: Love of God and Love of neighbor (see Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus concluded: "The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." (see verse 40) Paul said that love is the fulfillment of the law (see Romans 13:10). In other words, strictly following orders is no replacement for exercising the love intended by the edict! 

Finally, Christ never compromised with his personal convictions about what God expected of him - even in the face of overt hostility by the religious and political leaders of his day. Nevertheless, when they decided to judge his behavior to be blasphemous and seditious and condemned him to death, he humbly submitted himself to their authority to do so. In other words, our refusal to follow orders may carry very negative consequences for us in this life (and we have to be willing to accept those consequences). Even so, I'm sure that none of us ever wants to be in the position of standing before the judgment seat of God and declaring that we were "only following orders." And, just as following unlawful orders is not accepted as an excuse for bad acts in the military, God will NOT accept it as an excuse for bad behavior by Christians in the future!    

Hence, it is incumbent upon all of us who profess the name of Jesus Christ that we give serious thought/consideration to what and why we are doing the things we do. Are we just going through the motions? Does God want mindless automatons following the programing "He" has plugged into us? OR Does God want us to be thinking about where the Spirit is directing us, and why we should be following "His" lead? 

Friday, February 19, 2021

How the God of the Hebrews became THE GOD of the Western World (Part 3)

 THE NEW TESTAMENT

In the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, we learn that Jesus Christ was born during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus and his Judean client-king, Herod the Great. In other words, the Jewish people were still under the domination of the Romans, and there weren't any obvious signs that the Hebrew Scriptures and God were about to supplant the many other gods of the Empire. Indeed, there was a real sense throughout the Roman World that the primary allegiance of its citizens was expected to be directed towards the emperor himself.

In fact, throughout the gospel accounts, the supremacy of the Romans is made explicit and absolute. Jesus himself is reported to have said "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s." (see Matthew 22:21) Moreover, all four of the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) make plain that Jesus was surrendered by the Jews to the Roman authorities and crucified by them.

Likewise, throughout the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul, the authority and power of Rome appears absolute. Indeed, the book of Acts concluded with Paul as a prisoner of the Romans (see Acts 28). And, although these writings also make plain that the Christian religion is spreading around the Empire, there is still absolutely no hint at the eventual triumph of that religion or the Hebrew Scriptures and God. Indeed, the fact that the New Testament was written in the Greek language, not the language of the Hebrews, suggests a further diminution of the religion and culture of the Jews.

Finally, in his The Wars of the Jews (see especially Books 5, 6 and 7), Josephus recounted how the Romans ruthlessly suppressed a Jewish rebellion in 70 CE and destroyed the temple and much of Jerusalem. Thus, at the close of the First Century, the Jews (and the still new sect of their religion, the Christians) were not in a very favorable position within the Roman Empire. In fact, it is hard to imagine more pessimistic prospects for the Jews or their Christian cousins! Indeed, the facts on the ground at the close of the First Century did not bode well for either group.

In the Second Century of the Common Era, the narrative also did not improve for them. The Jews suffered still further defeats at the hands of the Romans and ceased to exert any meaningful influence or presence even within their historic homeland. Moreover, their Christian brethren were actively persecuted by a number of Roman emperors, who also made several significant and noteworthy attempts to suppress the religion itself. We don't even know how many Christians suffered martyrdom during this period, but we do know that there were many!

Fast forward now to 2021. Even in a world where the Christian religion has been characterized by many as being in decline, we have the circumstance that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are accepted by most of the Western World as the basis for most of their philosophy and religion. Moreover, although there is widespread debate about the extent of its influence on our cultural and political life, there is no disputing the fact that the Old and New Testaments have exerted a powerful influence on both. Indeed, the history of the almost two thousand years since Christ's death, burial and resurrection have demonstrated the complete triumph of the Hebrew God and Scriptures over the gods and writings of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. For me, this triumph is an extraordinary event, and it convinces me that there is something much greater at work here than just the fanciful notions of a few insignificant humans. What about you?


How the God of the Hebrews became THE GOD of the Western World (Part 2)

 BETWEEN THE TESTAMENTS

The Old Testament narrative concluded with the Jews as the vassals of the Persians. A rudimentary temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem, and we know that the priestly class had been working hard to restore and preserve the Hebrew religion. In fact, the Hebrew canon closes with some prophecies about what would follow, but the overall impression is that the story has been cut short or is finished.

The New Testament, however, opens with the Romans in control of the Jews' ancient homeland, and a king named Herod reigning over the region as their vassal. We are informed by the gospel accounts that Jesus confronted religious Jews belonging to a group known as Pharisees and another group known as Sadducees. Likewise, we are confronted with a magnificent temple with well-established traditions and rituals.

What happened between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament? Did something transpire in the intervening four hundred years that would suggest the ultimate triumph of the Jewish Scriptures and their God? Unfortunately, most of the people of the Western World (Jews, Christians, secularists and atheists) are largely unfamiliar with the story of the Jewish people during this period - which suggests that nothing happened during this period to change the overall narrative that the Jews were a relatively insignificant people - one of many different nations and peoples subject to the real movers and shakers of history.

Moreover, although that story is a very interesting one (and should be regarded as an essential element in trying to understand the New Testament), the impression that the Jews did not rise to a position of preeminence in the Western World during this period would not be an inaccurate one. Unfortunately, the Old Testament narrative of oppression and dominance of the Hebrews by stronger/mightier nations continued throughout much of this period between the two testaments of the Judeo-Christian canon.

Much of the story of what happened during this four hundred year period is outlined in the seventh, eighth and eleventh chapters of the book of Daniel. However, for those interested in a fuller account of those events, we are forced to consult the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabees and the First Century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews.

The Persians were eventually conquered and replaced by the Macedonian Greeks. The New Revised Standard Version of the first book of Maccabees conveniently summarizes this history for us. We read there: "After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated King Darius of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him. After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died. Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their descendants after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth." (see I Maccabees 1:1-9)

For our purposes, we are only concerned with two of the divisions of Alexander's empire: Egypt went to the Ptolemies (who appear in the book of Daniel as the Kings of the South) and Syria went to the Seleucids (who likewise appear in that book as the Kings of the North). For many years, the Ptolemies and Seleucids competed with each other for the right to dominate the homeland of the Hebrews. Eventually, however, a king of the Seleucid Dynasty named Antiochus Epiphanes came to dominate the region, and he was intent on destroying the Jewish religion and making them conform to Greek ways.

The narrative in the first book of Maccabees continues: "After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned in the one hundred forty-third year. He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures that he found. Taking them all, he went into his own land." (see I Maccabees 1:20-24)

From there, the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabees recount the story of how Judas Maccabeus and his brothers rebelled against the Syrian Greeks and eventually established a semi-independent Jewish state. They cleaned out the temple, removed "the abomination of desolation" which Antiochus had placed there during his reign of terror and instituted the Feast of the Dedication (also known as Hanukkah) to commemorate the restoration of Jewish worship centered on the temple. One of Judas' brothers (Simon) was the progenitor of a dynasty of priest-kings (the Hasmoneans) who ruled over the Jews for a hundred years.

Unfortunately, the Hasmoneans grew more corrupt over time and proved unequal to the task of maintaining the independence of their homeland. Indeed, as with the other nations which surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, they eventually succumbed to the expansion of the Roman Empire. In Book 14 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts the story of how the Hasmoneans invited Roman interference in the affairs of their nation and how the Roman General Pompey eventually conquered the territory. Exhausted and defeated, a princess of the now defunct Hasmonean dynasty was forced to marry a loyal ally and servant of the Romans named Herod (known to history by the epithet of "the Great") to give the veneer of legitimacy to his reign when they installed him as their vassal king over the region (see Book 14 of Antiquities).

According to Josephus, it was this Herod who built the temple which appears in the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. Josephus wrote: "AND now Herod, in the eighteenth year of his reign, and after the acts already mentioned, undertook a very great work, that is, to build of himself the temple of God, and make it larger in compass, and to raise it to a most magnificent altitude, as esteeming it to be the most glorious of all his actions, as it really was, to bring it to perfection; and that this would be sufficient for an everlasting memorial of him..." (see Chapter 11, Book 15 of Antiquities) This was the temple where Jesus was reported to have overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

Finally, Josephus informs us that during this period, many of the followers of the Jewish religion were divided into three sects (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) as a reaction to the actions of the Greeks and Hasmoneans. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the narrative contained in the gospels of the New Testament recount a number of confrontations between Jesus and two of these sects (the Pharisees and Sadducees).

Nevertheless, in connection with our overarching theme (How the God of the Hebrews became the God of the Western World), it is interesting to note that the Jews were considered to be a fairly insignificant client state of the Roman Empire at the close of this period. As with the narrative about the Hebrews recorded in the Old Testament, there is nothing in this period that suggests the eventual triumph of the Hebrew God over the gods of the Greeks and Romans. Indeed, the impression of an oppressed and dominated people with little impact on the world beyond their borders is reinforced and strengthened by the story of what happened between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament. 


How the God of the Hebrews became THE GOD of the Western World (Part 1)

THE OLD TESTAMENT

The story of the Hebrew people and their religion is recounted in the writings which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. It is the story of a small group of people who were dominated by the much greater nations which surrounded them for most of their history. Indeed, over the course of a thousand years, they enjoyed true political and religious independence for less than a third of that time. For the vast majority of their existence as a people, they were conquered, persecuted and suppressed. Moreover, the Hebrews occupied a largely arid strip of land devoid of great rivers, citadels or ports - a land whose only importance was derived from the fact that it was sandwiched between two great empires. In fact, one could justly characterize the Hebrews and their story as a footnote - a relatively insignificant appendage to the history of the civilization of the ancient Western World.

The story begins with a family of nomads which grows into a loose confederation of twelve tribes who came to be dominated by the Egyptians. For our purposes, the debate over the historicity of their slavery and exodus from Egypt is immaterial to our larger narrative. Suffice it to say that most historians believe that Egypt dominated the region and its peoples for much of the period before Israel became an independent kingdom. Hence, the story of the Hebrew peoples' eventual emergence from the shadow of Pharaoh's might has some basis in reality - whatever particulars fundamentalists, archaeologists and historians may argue over.

From there, the OT relates the story of the founding of a Hebrew kingdom. Again, whatever one thinks of the historicity of the stories about Saul, David and Solomon, the outlines of the story ring true. In other words, even in these stories of the tribes united as a single kingdom, the period is depicted as one that is rife with division, civil war and intrusions by surrounding nations. And, after Solomon, the Hebrew Scriptures recount a tale of two kingdoms with separate monarchies, capitals and religions. Indeed, there are several occasions where we find Israel and Judah at war with each other! In other words, a picture emerges of two weak and relatively unimportant kingdoms struggling to barely survive and unable to exert much (if any) influence on the nations around them.

Next, the story is told about how the Assyrians invaded and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and carried many of its people into captivity. A few generations later, we are told that the southern kingdom of Judah suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. Moreover, the Old Testament makes clear that YHWH's temple at Jerusalem, the center of their religious life, was completely destroyed by the invaders. From that point forward, the story is one of exile in a foreign land and powerlessness. At this point in the narrative, the gods of the Assyrians and the Babylonians appeared to be triumphant.

Nevertheless, the Old Testament concludes on an extremely modest note of hope. After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, a small group of exiles was allowed to return to their former homeland and rebuild their God's temple. To be sure, we are told that this second temple was but a pale reflection of the original building, and the Jews remained under the thumb of the Persians. Even so, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of a zealous and devoted remnant intent on restoring and preserving their religious observances in the face of extreme hardship and the opposition of committed enemies.

In terms of the chronology of when they were written, the Hebrew Scriptures finish with a number of prophecies. The book of Daniel offers a brief synopsis of what was to follow the close of the Hebrews' narrative of their experiences. And, finally, the book of Malachi closes the Old Testament canon on a note of hope for the future. Once again, however, there is nothing in this closing narrative that suggests that it would eventually become part of the foundational documents of Western philosophy and religion. There is nothing here that would lead an objective outsider to believe that one day the Hebrew God would become THE GOD of the Western World.


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

What experience, nature and instinct teach us about God as a parent

In times past, it has been noted on this blog that all living things reproduce. Whether we are talking about Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista or Monera, every living organism has some means of perpetuating itself. Hence, when we look at this truism from a macro perspective, it is reasonable to conclude that God is very much concerned with the perpetuation of life.

Moreover, when we focus our attention on the animal and plant kingdoms, we observe that most parents go to extraordinary lengths to protect and nurture their offspring - to increase their chances for survival. And, we tend to find that the more complex an organism is - the more elaborate and remarkable the care provided to that offspring tends to be. Indeed, whether we are talking about male Emperor Penguins carrying their eggs on top of their feet or the way a sow Black Bear cares for her cubs, it is apparent that a great deal of energy and attention is devoted to parenting among the tetrapods.

Then there is that most famous of all tetrapods - humans. And, while we must admit that many humans do not qualify for what most of us would characterize as "good" parents, there are a number of minimum standards/expectations for parenting which exist across almost all cultures and ethnicities. For instance, most humans believe that parents are responsible for providing their offspring with nourishment, shelter, protection, love/affection and education. And, like many of our distant cousins in the animal world, most human parents would go to great links to protect their offspring from hurt or harm - even to the point of sacrificing their own lives if necessary.

These observations about ourselves (and the other organisms with whom we share this planet) enable us to make some informed guesses about our Creator's role as a parent. Indeed, they give new meaning to statements like: God is "not willing that any should perish", "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" and "How often I wanted to gather your children together, like a hen gathers her own brood under her wings". Thus, when we observe these things and try to imagine God as our parent, it becomes very hard to imagine someone who isn't actively working to ensure the survival of his offspring. In fact, I think that the notion of an angry God dangling humanity at the end of a thin thread over the fires of hell is made absurd by these observations. What do you think?   

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Christian Message

Christians have almost as many different notions about the message which they should be preaching as they do about the doctrines which underpin their faith. Some Christian ministers focus on prophecy and world events. In fact, a friend just forwarded me an article today from The New York Times by Ruth Graham about Christianity's growing preoccupation with prophecy and current events (see Christian Prophets Are on the Rise). Other ministers concentrate on preaching the "gospel" (good news), but they have wildly different opinions about what constitutes good news, their target audience and the motivation(s) behind preaching it.

As longtime readers of this blog know, the group with which I used to be affiliated (Herbert Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God) believed that they had been commissioned to "cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" (which they believed to involve focusing on addressing the English-speaking folks of the world). Moreover, they insisted that Traditional Christianity wasn't preaching the correct gospel - that their message was much too Christ-centric in nature. Armstrong taught that the "true" gospel was a message about the Kingdom of God (similar to what Jehovah's Witnesses believe and teach).

In fact, Banned by HWA recently posted a piece about Armstrongite attitudes in this regard (see The COG is not motivated to preach to the world out of compassion). In the article, one of Armstrong's successors is quoted as saying: "The question now is, What are we to expect in the year to come? Will it be a reprieve or another year with similar drama? Bible prophecy indicates that the world will experience a crisis at the end of the age, and there are multiple signs that we are entering just such a time. Going forward we can expect many things will go wrong. There are going to be some major shocks and surprises in our very near future." The same person goes on to say: "At the same time, prophecy shows that the Gospel of the Kingdom of God will be preached in all the world, not to convert the world, but as a witness. Notice this passage in what is called the Olivet Prophecy as found in Matthew 24." In other words, many of these folks believe that it is their sole mission to explain current events in the light of Biblical prophecy and tell folks about what's going to happen next.

An anonymous commentator on the post mentioned above wrote about the implications of such notions. He/She wrote: "And if the reason for preaching is not to convert, then they must also not be motivated to preach repentance because the only reason to repent is to convert, unless I am mistaken, and it is possible to preach repentance without the purpose of converting. So, another associated core tenant is that most of the people hearing the message are not being called and therefore cannot possibly convert. What then is the point of warning the world if they cannot repent and convert??"

In response, another commentator added: "This is an astute observation, and exposes multiple problems with the approach of the COGs in preaching the gospel. If those hearing the message are not being 'called' and therefore have no chance of repentance or conversion, then how is it just to send punishment on a people who have no ability to understand or heed the 'warning' being sent out? We preach punishment and tribulation for those who do not respond to the gospel, while at the same time saying that most will not understand or heed the message we send, because God isn't choosing to call them now."

Is this, however, the commission which Christ gave to his disciples? Is the good news a message about prophecy, the person of Christ, global political realignment and government, the teachings of Christ, or some combination of all of the above?

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we read: "Jesus came and told his disciples, 'I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'" (see Matthew 28:18-20) Most Christians refer to this as "The Great Commission." Notice that Christ instructed his disciples to 1) make disciples of all nations, 2) to baptize them into the Church and 3) teach them to observe the things which he had taught them to do. How does that square with the message that Armstrongites and other Christian ministers are preaching to the world?

In his epistle to the saints at Rome, the Apostle Paul described his ministry in this way: "This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name." (see Romans 1:1-5) He went on to talk about "spreading the Good News about his Son" (verse 9). Paul then proceeded to tell them that he was eager to bring the Gospel to Rome (verse 15), and asserted: "For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, 'It is through faith that a righteous person has life.'" (verses 16-17)

Likewise, Paul reminded the saints of Galatia about the nature of his message. He wrote: "Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live. All glory to God forever and ever! Amen. I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ." (see Galatians 1:4-7) He went on to say: "But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him  to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles." (verses 15-16)

From a Scriptural perspective, these verses about the "Good News" seem pretty straightforward and definitive. Unfortunately, they do not appear to align with the message(s) which some of these ministers are preaching to their audiences. What about you? Are you / Is your group - preaching the Gospel to the world? 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

It's Going to Happen!

If God created humankind and planned and made provisions for their salvation through Jesus Christ, is it logical to entertain the possibility that humankind or any other creature which God has created (physical or spiritual) would have the capacity to reverse or in any way thwart that creation/plan?

In other words, is it possible for any of humankind's activities, behaviors, sins or atrocities to disrupt or overturn God's will? Can war, genocide, abortion, infanticide, pedophilia, injustice, prejudice or ANY other sins/behaviors/actions thwart the will of God? Does God have the ability to forgive and overcome ANY human behavior that might justly be said to be contrary to the will of God? And, if God does have that ability, doesn't that imply/suggest that there is absolutely NOTHING that we can EVER do to thwart God's creation or plan?

In short, does God's creation or plan depend upon us in ANY material way? And, if the salvation of humankind is God's endgame, what would the failure of the vast majority of those creatures say about the fulfillment of God's will/plan/objective? Does the success or failure of God's plans and purposes rest in our hands or God's?

Do we have ANY part to play in our own salvation? I guess we could answer that question in the affirmative - if by that, we mean that each one of us as an individual human must make the decision to participate in that plan (or accept the gift). Nevertheless, even on an individual basis, doesn't Scripture clearly state that EVERY knee will eventually acknowledge and accede to God's will (authority, plan, power, etc.)?

For me, my observations of the world around me, my own experiences as a person, the weight of the Scriptural evidence on the subject and common sense ALL dictate that we acknowledge God's Sovereignty, and that God's Will/Plan/Purposes are immutable - That God's design will succeed and triumph over ANY perceived obstacles or impediments! 

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Offices of the Christian Church

Christians refer to popes, cardinals, abbots, monks, mother superiors, nuns, pastor generals, presidents, councils, secretaries and a host of other terms used to describe the leadership positions within their churches (none of which are found in the Bible). In the Judeo-Christian Bible, we know that there was a group of priests (a priesthood) which was appointed to serve in various capacities under a High Priest (see Leviticus 8-10). However, in the New Testament, Peter refers to a priesthood of all believers (see I Peter 2:5); and Jesus Christ said that any of his followers who desired a position of leadership within his church would have to become the servant of everyone else (see Mark 9:35 and 10:44). Moreover, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews declared that Jesus Christ himself was the High Priest of the New Testament Church (see Hebrews 1-10).

Nevertheless, over time, the New Testament also makes clear that the First Century Church developed a number of offices within the community of believers. In his epistle to the saints at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote: "Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ." (see Ephesians 4:11-12)

The Greek words that appear in these verses as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are as follows: "apostolos" means "a delegate, messenger, one sent forth" and "an ambassador of the gospel" (see Blue Letter Bible); "prophetes" means "a foreteller" or "an inspired speaker" (see Blue Letter Bible 2); "euangelistes" means "a bringer of good tidings," "an evangelist" or "a preacher of the gospel" (see Blue Letter Bible 3); "poimen" means "a herdsman" or "a shepherd"; and "didaskalos" means "an instructor" or "teacher" (see Blue Letter Bible 4).

It is interesting to note that NONE of the positions that Paul lists implies any authority. After all, when Christ responded to a request by two of his disciples to sit on his right and left hand, Jesus told them: "You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (see Matthew 20:25-28) In short, Christ's notions about Christian leadership were radically different from human notions about leadership.

There are two other offices of the church mentioned in the New Testament: deacons and bishops. Paul mentions them in the third chapter of his first letter to Timothy. Once again, the context implies positions of service within the church. The Greek word is "diakoneo" which literally means "to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon." (see Blue Letter Bible 5) The other Greek word is "episkope/episkopos" which implies "inspection" and "oversight." (see Blue Letter Bible 6) In fact, it is this last term which most of the tyrants within the Church use to justify their claims to authority. They regard themselves as "overseers."

Even in this last instance, however, the authoritarian's interpretation is contradicted by the context. Notice Paul's introduction to the qualifications for a bishop: "This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work." The word translated into English as "work" is the Greek word "ergon."  It implies toil, labor or work. (see Blue Letter Bible 7) Moreover, the qualifications which Paul then enumerates in the following verses clearly imply that the person in this office must serve in the capacity of a good example to the people he oversees/serves, and he is expected to "take care of the church of God." (see verse 5) Again, this is hardly the kind of language which supports an authoritarian interpretation of the job.

Indeed, in all of these enumerations of the "offices" which exist within the Christian Church, the monikers used are indicative of the kind of work expected from each one of the people who was tapped to fill that "office." Scripture is very clear that all of these positions are designed to edify God's people and equip them to do the work which God has given them to do. These are "The Offices of the Christian Church."


Saturday, February 6, 2021

If only the Father knows, then why do we keep guessing?

Over at Banned by HWA, NO2HWA and Dennis have been running a series of posts about David Pack's predictions regarding the imminent return of Jesus Christ. Of course, Pack is not the first to make such predictions. His mentor, Herbert W. Armstrong made a number of predictions along the same lines. Indeed, for Armstrong and his followers, the return of Christ has always been "just right around the corner."

And, as long-time commentator NEO has pointed out, "Critics typically give Christians a drubbing over the fact that the Apostles believed that Christ would return within a generation." Indeed, the writings known to us as the New Testament make clear that Paul and the other Christians of the First Century believed that Christ would return in their lifetimes. He didn't, of course, and the Christians of today are still awaiting that event.

Nevertheless, those same writings record that Christ said: "However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows." (see Matthew 24:36) And, just before his ascension into heaven, we read in the book of Acts that he told them: "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority." (see Acts 1:7)

Christians, however, continue to ignore these remarks by Christ and speculate about the "End Times" and Christ's return. A few years ago, David Niose wrote an article for Psychology Today about the impact that these beliefs exert on America's thinking and policy (see 'End Times' Beliefs Are Extreme, and Extremely Influential). Niose noted that "Apocalyptic views are shaping policy at the highest levels," and he cited Christian reaction to Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital as exhibit one in proving that thesis. In an earlier article for the same magazine, Christopher Lane spoke about the modern technology which Christian Doomsday preachers employ to spread their message, and how that message impacts society (see Preaching Doomsday: Living in the End Times). Lane wrote: "They're louder and their words carry farther and more rapidly. They add to the general stress and stoke the anger and dismay of people both here and continents away. They also frighten children, sap the nation's spirit, and agitate the nation's mood."

In short, Christians seem to be obsessed with apocalyptic thinking. From Armstrongism to QAnon, there is an element within the Christian community that loves conspiracy theories and titillating speculation about the "fulfillment" of prophecy. Never mind, that the New Testament tells us that Christ repeatedly sought to squelch/discourage such speculation. Jesus taught his disciples: "So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today." (see Matthew 6:34)

Christians, however, are determined to "keep watch." They seem intent on turning Christ's instructions about being watchful and prepared into a command or permission to engage in worry, stress, fear and paranoia. Christian leaders use this preoccupation to bring in new followers, more money and spur their existing followers to greater devotion and excitement. Let's face it, there simply isn't much capital in patiently enduring until you draw your last breath!

Although the story is most likely apocryphal, there is a story about something that Martin Luther once said about the "End Times" that conveys an attitude towards the "End Times" which all Christians would do well to adopt. Luther was supposed to have remarked: "If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today." If he didn't say it, he should have! 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

God's Ruach and Pneuma

Over the course of the last several weeks, I've been experiencing some breathing problems (test results point to the development of some kind of asthma). My difficulties have underscored for me once again the critical role that respiration plays in the maintenance of this physical life that we currently enjoy. It has caused me to remember how my grandfather struggled to get his breath (COPD) the last few years of his life, and it has increased my empathy for my father's battle with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. In short, the feeling that you cannot breathe makes one acutely aware of his/her own mortality.

From the perspective of biological science, it is interesting to note that respiration is one of the seven characteristics that is common to all living things. For most of us (healthy humans), we are barely even conscious of the fact that we are breathing. Sure, we hold our breath when we are swimming - we try to avoid breathing in smoke or caustic chemicals. But most of the time, we don't even think about the fact that we are doing it. And most of us are even less aware of the fact that ALL of the other living things on this planet are doing the same thing (yes - bacteria, plants and fungi also engage in some kind of respiration)!

Hence, we shouldn't be surprised that Scripture equates breath with life. In the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, it is interesting to note how frequently this topic is mentioned, and the depth of meaning that is attached to the phenomenon. For instance, the Hebrew word "ruach" is translated into English as spirit, wind and breath - as the invisible agent of life (see Blue Letter Bible or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible). In fact, in the second verse of the book of Genesis, we read that "the RUACH of God moved upon the face of the waters." In the 33rd Psalm, we read: "By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the RUACH of his mouth." And, in the 104th Psalm we read: "Thou sendest forth thy RUACH, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth."

In this connection it also interesting to note the language which is employed in the second chapter of Genesis regarding the creation of humankind. We read there: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

There is also a very interesting prophecy found in the 37th chapter of the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel wrote that the RUACH of the Lord set him down in the midst of a valley of dry bones. He continued: "Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause RUACH to enter into you, and ye shall live." Ezekiel then proceeded to recount the fact that God had caused "the sinews and the flesh <to come> up upon them <the bones>, and the skin covered them above: but there was no RUACH in them." He continued: "Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind <RUACH>, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind <RUACH>, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds <RUACH>, O breath <RUACH>, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath <RUACH> came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army." The entire prophecy is a metaphor for hope - the hope of life.

Likewise, in the New Testament, the Greek word "pneuma" literally refers to "a current of air, breath or a breeze" (see Blue Letter Bible or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance). Interestingly, of the 385 times that the word appears in the NT, over 200 times it is translated into English as referring to God's Holy Spirit! For instance, in the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, we read that Mary "was found with child of the Holy PNEUMA." John the Baptist said that Jesus Christ would baptize with the Holy PNEUMA, and that "he saw the PNEUMA of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him." (see Matthew 3:11 and 16)

Then, in speaking with Nicodemus about what it means to be born again, the gospel according to John informs us that Jesus Christ told him: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the PNEUMA, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the PNEUMA is PNEUMA. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind <PNEUMA> bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the PNEUMA." (John 3:5-8)

Moreover, notice this language at the founding of the Church after Christ's ascension to heaven: "And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy PNEUMA, and began to speak with other tongues, as the PNEUMA gave them utterance." (see Acts 2:1-4) Then, at the conclusion of the service, Peter stood up and said: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy PNEUMA." (Acts 2:38)

Later, Paul wrote to the saints at Corinth: "For by one PNEUMA are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one PNEUMA." (I Corinthians 12:13) Later still, in that same letter, he went on to say: "And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening PNEUMA." (I Corinthians 15:45) Likewise, he wrote this to the saints at Galatia: "But the fruit of the PNEUMA is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

As a student of the Bible, and especially at this point in my life, it is very meaningful to me that the Judeo-Christian Bible uses the Hebrew and Greek words for breath. wind or breeze in this way. Indeed, there is a deliberate effort throughout Scripture to equate life (both physical and eternal) and Spirit/spirit with these words. And, now, every time the wind blows (and occasionally when I take a breath), I think about God.