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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Gospel of the Kingdom of God

Many years ago now, Herbert Armstrong wrote a booklet entitled What is the True Gospel? In this booklet, he called out mainstream Christians for preaching a gospel about Christ and ignoring his actual message about the Kingdom of God. Armstrong wrote: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ is NOT man's gospel ABOUT THE PERSON of Christ. It is CHRIST'S Gospel - the Gospel Jesus PREACHED - the Gospel God SENT by Him, and therefore it is also called, in Scripture, the Gospel of God. The Gospel of God is God's GOSPEL - His Message - His Good News which He sent by Jesus." He went on to say: "We hear a great deal today of the gospel of MEN about the PERSON of Jesus Christ - confining the message solely to the things ABOUT Jesus. As a result, millions believe on Christ, who do not BELIEVE CHRIST! But Jesus' Gospel IS HIS MESSAGE!" (For those interested in reading the entire booklet, you may do so here: Herbert W Armstrong Searchable Library - What is the True Gospel?

Unfortunately, however, Mr. Armstrong's insistence that the message and the messenger were distinctly different subjects does not hold up under closer scrutiny of the scriptures related to this topic. Indeed, when we examine those scriptures, we are left with the distinct impression that it is impossible to separate the two!

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read: "In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 'Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.'" (Matthew 3:1-2) Interestingly, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, we are informed that "From then on Jesus began to preach, 'Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.'" (Matthew 4:17) Likewise, we read in the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark: "Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel." (verses 14-15) Why was the kingdom of Heaven/God near/at hand? Is it possible that this had anything to do with Christ's presence? And why was repentance an essential component of the message if it was all about a kingdom?

What did Isaiah prophesy about the Messiah? In that book, we read: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this." (Isaiah 9:6-7) So, according to Isaiah, the Messiah was to be the KING of the kingdom!

This was further reinforced by what Gabriel told Mary about the son which she was destined to give birth to. In the book of Luke, we read: "Don’t be afraid, Mary...for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:30-33, NLT) This was clearly to be Christ's kingdom.

Perhaps that is why, when he was accused by the Pharisees of casting out demons by the power of Satan, Jesus is reported to have told them: "But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you." (see Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20)) Perhaps that is why, when Christ sent his disciples out to preach his message, he instructed them to "heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you." (Luke 10:9) He also told them to tell any city which rejected their (his) message: "Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you." (Luke 10:11) In other words, the kingdom of God had "come nigh unto" them just because the king of that kingdom had sent his disciples to preach his message to them! Perhaps that is why, in that same gospel, we read: "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV) That same passage in the New Living Translation reads "For the Kingdom of God is already among you." In other words, THE KING IS INTIMATELY ASSOCIATED WITH HIS KINGDOM!

Hence, any distinction between the king and his kingdom is artificial and misleading. In other words, the king is an integral part of the message about the kingdom!

In the same booklet mentioned above, Herbert Armstrong also wrote: "Four things are necessary to constitute a KINGDOM: 1) The TERRITORY, with its specific location and definite boundary lines, with 2) a KING or Supreme Ruler or governing agent, ruling over 3) SUBJECTS or citizens within that territorial jurisdiction, with 4) LAWS and form of GOVERNMENT. If we leave out anyone of these vital requisites, we do not have, and cannot BELIEVE, the true GOSPEL for this time."

Armstrong was certainly not the first person to make this mistake - that is, imagining the kingdom in human terms (as a physical kingdom of this world). Some of Christ's own followers thought that he was going to literally and immediately revive David's kingdom. In fact, in the book of Luke, we read that he had to tell them a parable "because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear." (Luke 19:11) And, just before Christ ascended into heaven, they asked him "wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6)

Indeed, this misconception about Christ's kingdom was not confined to his followers. When Jesus was on trial for his life before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, we are informed that Pilate asked him if he was really claiming to be the king of the Jews (see John 18:33). In response, John informs us that Christ replied: “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36, NLT) Apparently, Pilate still didn't understand, because he repeated his question about Christ being a king (verse 37). We are told that Christ responded: “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.” (verse 37) And, even in the English translations which have Christ responding in the affirmative to Pilate's question, the sense that a significant part of Christ's mission was to bring truth into the world is clear. Hence, these scriptures clearly dispel the notion that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom in the traditional human sense!

Like Christ's  First Century followers and Pilate, Herbert Armstrong couldn't understand the notion of a spiritual kingdom dependent on "TRUTH" with Christ at its helm. He also couldn't comprehend a limitless kingdom - one without borders. He couldn't understand a kingdom where the subjects of the kingdom would be spiritually reborn and eventually become co-priests and co-kings with THE king. And, finally, he couldn't understand the concept of a kingdom which was inextricably tied to salvation through Jesus Christ and was based on grace. In short, Herbert Armstrong's notions about what constitutes a kingdom were very human and limited and could not begin to encompass what the Kingdom of God actually was, is and will be in the future - a kingdom that is NOT defined in human terms!

Hence, the notion that the gospel was merely a message about government and a physical kingdom is just plain wrong. Scripture makes clear that gospel message included the messenger, salvation through him, grace, truth and so much more. In fact, by defining the gospel in such narrow terms, we can clearly see that Mr. Armstrong fundamentally misunderstood that message. Moreover, as a consequence of his lack of understanding, we can see that the booklet referenced in this post misrepresented both the scope and nature of the gospel (good news).

Thursday, April 22, 2021

God and Earth Day 2021

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." -- Jesus Christ

What has any man or woman created that is more beautiful than a lily? In the book of Genesis, mankind was charged with cultivating and preserving God's garden. How faithfully have we fulfilled that responsibility?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Lampstands and Olive Trees

At the end of last October, I wrote a post about the two witnesses of the book of Revelation. Earlier this month, I wrote another regarding two videos about the book produced by BibleProject. If I'm honest with myself, both of these posts were in large part a reaction to some of the wild-eyed speculation which has been generated by folks who believe they have acquired the key(s) to unlocking Biblical prophecy. Hence, in writing about these things, I am averse to offering any definitive interpretations of my own or giving the impression that I believe I've acquired the key(s). However, in the spirit of offering plausible alternatives to some of the scary and depressing prophecy seminars of others, I continue to seek a better understanding for myself and remain committed to offering any assistance I might provide to others in their own search for answers.

As I have related in other posts and comments, my former associates in the Armstrong Churches of God loved to speculate about the identity of the two witnesses (they still do). Of course, this speculation always centered on the identity of two flesh and blood members of the Church. For those folks, the Bible is always to be taken literally - even in those instances where symbolism has been employed to convey a message. In other words, these folks tend to eschew non-linear thinking (they don't do well with abstract thinking).

As a consequence, when Zechariah and John wrote about things like lampstands and olive trees, these folks tended not to focus on the imagery which these symbols evoke. For many of us, however, we think about the purpose of the lampstand - to give light. We think about the lampstand illuminating the inner sanctum, and our minds are drawn to the olive oil which was used to fuel it. This, in turn, leads us to remember that olive trees provided that oil, and that their fruit also provided nourishment for the humans who cultivated them throughout the ancient Mediterranean World. "Hmmmm, illumination and nourishment - those are interesting concepts," we think.

We remember too that olive oil was used in the Old and New Testaments to anoint people, and Zechariah's mention of "the two anointed ones" sparks our interest. In fact, oil is employed throughout the Scriptures in a symbolic fashion. This fact is underscored in a post entitled What Does Oil Represent In The Bible? by Jack Wellman over at Patheos on Christian Crier. In that piece, Wellman reminds us that oil was used in the anointing of priests and kings in Old Testament times. He then proceeds to underscore the fact that oil is often employed symbolically in Scripture to represent the Holy Spirit. Wellman also reminds us that Christ inaugurated his ministry with "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor." And that gets us to thinking about the message of the two witnesses and the message of the Bible and the Church, and then we remember that John used a lampstand to represent each one of the seven churches earlier in his book.

Yes, the thought process may not be linear, but it gives new meaning to the phrase "precept upon precept - here a little, and there a little." Moreover, if we stop and think about it, this non-linear thinking style is much more in harmony  with the style these prophets used in writing their respective books. Yes, I'm a fan of this whole Bible approach which generated those two videos I lauded in an earlier piece, and I am NOT a fan of the cherry-picking/proof-texting approach of others. It seems to me that prophetic interpretations get into serious trouble when they are divorced from the context of the rest of Scripture. What do you think? Does this approach offer any hope for a clearer understanding of this subject? 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

Herbert Armstrong and his successors have decried the "persecution" which they have suffered at the hands of critics. In fact, critics within and without the ACOGs have been characterized as tools of Satan deployed by him to attack/destroy "God's Church." They say that former members have allowed a root of bitterness to well up within them and make them disgruntled and vengeful. Critics outside of the Church have been characterized as deceived and/or wicked proponents of lies and distortions. In short, anyone who makes negative comments relative to the ACOGs or challenges their work, teachings or behavior is said to be attacking and persecuting the Church (and are, consequently, enemies of God).

However, if criticizing the doctrines and teachings of an organization constitutes persecuting God's Church, then Armstrong and his successors were/are master persecutors. They have always been fond of pointing out what they considered to be the erroneous teachings of Mainstream or Traditional Christianity. Armstrong said that the vast majority of Christians worshipped on the wrong day (Sunday), had adopted pagan notions and practices, preached a false gospel and were drunk with the blood of the real saints (the folks who believed as they did). Armstrong and his followers have ridiculed Mainstream/Traditional Christian teachings about the trinity, afterlife, Christmas and Easter observances, grace, religious music and symbols and prophecy (among other things).

Now, as far as the New Testament is concerned, the modus operandi of Jesus, Peter, Paul, John and the other saints was to call out false teachings. Indeed, throughout those writings, Christians are constantly encouraged to ignore or dismiss teachings that contradict or twist what the founders of the religion have taught. Christ warned his followers that false messiahs and prophets would arise and attempt to deceive people. Paul warned the saints of Corinth about false apostles and deceitful workmen. He also chided the saints of Galatia for abandoning the Gospel of Christ and embracing a false gospel. John told his followers not to believe everything they heard and warned them that "many false prophets have gone out into the world." Peter warned the saints that there would be false prophets and teachers among them who would introduce "destructive heresies."

Hence, if we are following the example of Scripture, it would be reasonable for us to conclude that calling out false teachers and false teachings is the appropriate way to deal with this problem. Moreover, if it was appropriate for Herbie and his successors to call out the "false" teachings/doctrines of Mainstream/Traditional Christianity, how can they claim that anyone who does the same thing to them is persecuting them? My grandmother used to say, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander!" And, when an ACOG member alleges that my criticisms of their leadership and teachings amounts to persecution, I'm thinking of another grand old axiom: That sounds an awful lot like the pot calling the kettle black! 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The Gift of Trees

Trees have to rank among God's greatest gifts to humankind and the other flora and fauna that share this planet with us! Take just a moment to consider the many benefits which we derive from them. From the dawn of humanity's existence on this earth, trees have provided us with food, shelter, fuel, medicines, shade, protection, beauty, landmarks and recreation. They also provide food, shelter and protection for many of the other creatures with which we share our habitat (birds, insects, squirrels, monkeys, etc.). Likewise, trees absorb excess carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion, are an important part of the hydrologic cycle, serve as windbreaks and provide habitats for many other plants (sun sensitive shade lovers).

Hence, it is no great wonder that humanity has associated trees with things sacred and spiritual in times past. Not only have some humans actually worshipped trees, nearly all cultures and religions have employed them in the worship of their gods. Moreover, lest my fellow Christians think that we are somehow exempt from this phenomenon, I wish to underscore the important place which trees occupy in the Judeo-Christian canon.

The first chapter of Genesis reminds us that God created trees (verses 11-12). The following chapter of the same book informs us that God made trees an integral part of the Garden of Eden, and even designated a tree to symbolize eternal life and another to represent the ability to make moral decisions (2:9). Abraham erected his tents by the oaks of Mamre. Trees were employed in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple. God told the Israelites to destroy the groves which their pagan predecessors had employed in the worship of their gods. Olive trees became important symbols in prophetic visions. The king of Babylon was compared to a tree, and the messiah was compared to various components of the patriarch Jesse's tree. Jesus once told his disciples that they could judge a tree by the manner of fruit that it produced (Matthew 7). Christ was crucified on a wooden cross, and Judas hung himself from a tree. Finally, the "Tree of Life" reappears in the great Apocalypse which concludes the Christian Bible (Revelation 22).

Consider for just a moment the joy and beauty we derive just from their appearance. Think about all of the folks who flock to New England each fall to view the vibrant colors of those deciduous forests just before they shed their leaves for the winter. Think about the magnificent musical instruments which have been crafted over the centuries of human existence on this planet - the trees which have inspired countless paintings - the beautiful wall paneling, flooring and furniture for the interiors of our homes and buildings! Think about the majestic Redwoods of California, and the massive Sycamores which line the creek bottoms of the Eastern United States.

Still aren't impressed by this spectacular gift from our Creator? What about the photosynthesis going on inside of those leaves? What about the internal specialized structures of those trees? The Arbor Day Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service inform us that trees have an outer bark (which functions in much the same way that our skin does), phloem (part of a tree's circulatory system - distributing food to all parts of the tree), cambium (the source of new bark and wood), sapwood (the part of the tree's circulatory system responsible for the movement of water), heartwood (the tree's skeleton or support system) and leaves (the engines of photosynthesis). And, in addition to the trunk and branches visible to us above ground, we sometimes forget that there is an extensive root system below ground that is not generally visible to us. Trees are also among the longest living organisms on this planet (it's not uncommon for some deciduous trees to live for 400-500 years, and some conifers can live for millennia)!

So, yes, among God's many gifts, trees are one of the very best! From climbing trees and swinging birches (Robert Frost) to the studs and boards in the walls of our homes, trees are one of God's great miracles. From the apples, peaches, walnuts and pecans which we consume to the aspirin derived from the bark of a willow, trees make our existence more delightful and bearable. If you still aren't convinced, just try to imagine life without them.  

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Book of Revelation as an Appropriate Conclusion to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures

As longtime readers of this blog know, I tend to avoid the topic of prophetic interpretation. And, if I'm being honest with myself, it is clear that this avoidance of most things prophetic stems from my former association with the old Worldwide Church of God founded by Herbert Armstrong. In particular, Armstrong's insistence on understanding the Bible from a literalist perspective, his elaborate attempts to identify modern nations in the pages of that book (defying DNA science, history, archaeology, linguistics and employing clear misrepresentations of certain scriptures), his efforts to introduce himself and his church into those prophecies, and his obsessive preoccupation with Christian eschatology.

Indeed, Armstrong's prophetic predilections are perhaps no where more apparent than in his treatment of the book of Revelation. Among other things, Armstrong taught that the messages to the seven churches represented seven successive eras/ages of church history, encouraged speculation about the identity of the two witnesses, taught that the "Beast" represented a resurrected modern European Roman Empire, that the "Great Whore" represented the Roman Catholic Church and her Protestant daughters, and fully embraced the blood and guts version of God's judgement on a wicked humanity. In other words, from Armstrong's perspective, John's vision was utterly depressing and explicitly horrific - except for the final two chapters which depicted the "Wonderful World Tomorrow."

Fortunately, after leaving Armstrong's church, I embarked on an independent study of the Bible, Biblical criticism, alternative interpretations of Scripture, church history, archaeology, DNA science and evolution. Even so, my attitudes toward prophetic scriptures remained ambivalent at best generally and almost hostile with regard to the book of Revelation in particular. Learning about the loud chorus of early Christians who rejected the notion of including the book as part of the Canon, and then later about Martin Luther's problems with the book, didn't help my feelings about the last book of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

I did, however, record one positive experience with the book about seven years ago. An independent congregation of the Church of God Seventh Day which I was attending at the time decided to do an intensive study of Revelation. It was like a breath of fresh air. There were none of Armstrong's teachings, and a recognition at the outset of the highly symbolic nature of the book. This new perspective avoided the very negative connotations that my former association had imposed upon the book and resurrected some hope in me that it might still prove to be a positive and worthwhile book.

Even so, I must admit that any mention of the book or its prophecies since that experience have evoked laughter, anger and those old feelings of distaste which I associated with Armstrong's interpretation. And those feelings may have continued unabated if Banned by HWA hadn't recently posted two brief video presentations which attempted to summarize the book. Needless to say, I was skeptical on the front end, but I found the piece to be an excellent distillation of some of my own thoughts regarding the book and the positive perspective which I had picked up in that GOG7th Day congregation. For those who are interested, you can view the videos here: The Book of Revelation

The presentation reminded me that Revelation is part of the Apocalyptic genre of Jewish and early Christian literature. Bible Gateway's Encyclopedia of the Bible (in its article on apocalyptic literature) describes this literature in the following terms: "There is much diversity among the apocalyptic writings. Nevertheless, there are certain general features which are characteristic of the lit. as a whole and which justify the distinguishing of 'apocalyptic' as a literary type: the presence of a cosmic dualism, visions and revelations; a contrast between the present evil age and the coming eschatological age; pessimism concerning the present age and optimism concerning the age to come; references and allusions to mythology, numerology, and animal symbolism; the idea of the unity of history and a goal toward which history is moving; the development of belief in life after death, and esp. the resurrection of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked (there is no resurrection for the unrighteous dead); and the appearance of a transcendent figure identified as 'the Son of Man.'"

This is entirely consistent with what the video presentation cited above has to say about the book. From this perspective, the book represents the "Heavenly perspective" on history in the light of its ultimate outcome. The presentation also underscores John's repeated use of the number seven (completeness) in the book, and that he used symbols from most of the prophetic writings contained in the Old Testament. In other words, John expected that his readers would look up his references to Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel. From this perspective, Revelation is not a jigsaw puzzle or a book of code. It is a book that employs most of the prophetic symbolism of Scripture to summarize human history and tell the story of the Lamb's ultimate triumph over evil and mankind's real enemy, Satan.

From this perspective, the Lamb and his people conquer the different manifestations of the "Beast" down through the ages by their example of love, mercy and forgiveness - not with a literal army wielding literal weapons. The "Beast" then represents humanity's continuous rebellion against God in instituting different manifestations of the same flawed military and economic system. The infamous "Mark of the Beast" is NOT a mysterious tattoo, computer chip, currency or some religious/political/economic exercise. Instead, in this incarnation (which is certainly more consistent with the perspective of a First Century author), the "Mark" represents a kind of anti-Shema (the Shema is the Old Testament confession of faith that pledged that all of ones thoughts [forehead] and actions [hands] would be devoted to God). And, the number of the "Beast" (666) refers to Caesar Nero and Rome as a type of the world system which the Lamb is returning to overthrow.

In the final analysis, this view of the book actually makes much more sense than some of the wild-eyed interpretations of our modern prophecy junkies. This presentation harkens back to the third chapter of Genesis, and mankind's decision to go his own way. The enemy is NOT really other people - the enemy is the spiritual power which has influenced them to do evil, and the Lamb will crush his head. In this view, all human kingdoms eventually become the "Beast" - exalting their own power and authority and denying the ultimate source of those things, God. In this vision, heaven and earth are united. God banishes the evil, heals the world, dwells with humanity and finally allows them to rule in God's image.

Yeah, I'm really liking this alternative perspective on the book of Revelation. These brief little videos have breathed fresh life into the book and made it to stand on its own two legs again. From this perspective, Revelation is the perfect way to tie everything together and conclude the Judeo-Christian Scriptures!

***The above referenced video presentation is the work of BibleProject, founded by Timothy Mackie and Jonathan Collins of Multnomah University. For those who are interested, their website is available at this link: The BibleProject