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As anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the Judeo-Christian Bible knows, that book is composed of a collection of writings which were...

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Binary Thinking is NOT Divine!

Binary or dichotomous thinking is at the root of so many of humankind's current problems. It is at the heart of prejudice, political and religious bias and extremism, and the polarization of our entire society. As Clay Drinko noted in How to Avoid Binary Thinking and Think More Clearly, "Binary thinking is everywhere today. You are either for or against something, conservative or liberal, or pro-choice or pro-life. The list goes on, from societal issues to team sports, and it’s to the point that things are spiraling out of control. After all, there are still current debates over wearing a mask or taking a vaccine to protect against Covid-19." He goes on to define this as "thinking there are two sides, and you can only pick one." Everything is framed as black or white, good or evil.

Drinko observes that this kind of thinking allows us to simplify and process complex ideas/situations. Of course, we can all see the value of this kind of thinking when faced with immediate danger. Drinko, however, succinctly summarized how this can turn into a distinct disadvantage when coping or dealing with chronic problems. He said: "The gray area in the middle of these complex issues is often ignored or goes unnoticed." In other words, we aren't allowing ourselves to comprehend the whole. We are effectively rejecting some of the information needed to make intelligent choices or to arrive at some kind of consensus or compromise with others. If I'm right, you have to be wrong. If I'm good/righteous, you have to be bad/evil. In logic, this either/or presentation is known as the False Dilemma Fallacy.

Clearer Thinking differentiates between three kinds of binary thinking: 1) The Truth Binary, 2) The Goodness Binary, and 3) The Identification Binary. They describe the truth binary as viewing "a statement as simply true or false, correct or incorrect. But on complex topics, simple viewpoints are often partially true and partially false, or true some percent of the time and false the rest of the time." They also describe the goodness binary as viewing "things as either good or bad, positive or negative, or moral or immoral, when, in fact, there is most often a mix of “good” and “bad” features when we consider complex, hotly-debated topics (even if, all things considered, one side really is better)." Likewise, they describe the identification binary as viewing "things as either a member of a class or not a member of that class, when in fact, almost every categorization admits edge cases that lie between categories, or fails to categorize some cases." Of course, the common thread among all of these different types of binary thinking is that they do not allow subtlety, nuance, or variability.

Nevertheless, as we have already suggested, binary thinking does have a place in human existence - a raison d'etre if you will. Body Helix summarizes the benefits of binary thinking in these terms: "Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. Binary thinking can come in handy when faced with an immediate crisis like slamming on your brakes when driving to avoid an accident. We can thank binary thinking for this kind of definitive decision-making." They go on to explain that "Our ancestors learned to categorize their world as either/or because it could save time and reserve mental resources for basic needs such as hunting and gathering food. They could use binary thinking to guide how they lived, and it would save them from danger in certain situations." Even so, the same article goes on to note that: "As we live in a world filled with a multitude of political, religious, and economic interests, binary thinking can and does create an incredible impasse. We feel the strain of binary thinking all around us every day. These lead to biases and prejudices. Preconceptions and misconceptions. This extreme thinking can cause serious overreactions or emotional responses and may result in significant consequences through impulsive behaviors. Binary thinking may allow us to see major advantages and disadvantages of a situation, but we miss the finer details to make an informed decision."

As I've noted in previous posts, binary thinking is alive and well in Fundamentalist/Literalist Christian communities. For instance, these folks insist that the Bible is an all or nothing proposition. It is either flawless, or it is so flawed that it must be rejected in toto! It is either essential, or it is useless. It is either the Word of God, or it is the superstitious nonsense of the past! That the Bible could be anything else is unthinkable! In similar fashion, these folks are used to thinking in terms of good and evil. You are either on God's side, or you belong to Satan! You either have the truth, or you are full of falsehood! This, however, is inconsistent with what the Bible has to say about God and itself.

In the real world, God decided to work through flawed humans to formulate the Bible. Knowing how the human mind works (because God designed it), and the weaknesses inherent to the human condition, GOD made the decision to involve humans in the writing, editing and formatting of the Bible. Moreover, the Bible informs us that the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit influences and guides, but it does NOT force or impose God's will on anybody. Likewise, Scripture also makes clear that the Holy Spirit does NOT remove our very human capacity to sin or make mistakes! Finally, Scripture makes very clear that God is a very complex entity who thinks on a much higher plane than we do. In other words, God is portrayed in those writings as having access to information that is unavailable to us! The God of the Bible is NOT limited by the things which limit us. Unlike us, the God of the Bible is NOT confined to two or three dimensions and CAN see the end/outcome of all the choices or decisions it makes!

Indeed, Scripture makes very clear in numerous places that our thinking and perspective is very inferior to God's thinking and perspective. In Isaiah, we read: "'My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,' says the Lord. 'And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.'" (55:8-9) In the book of Proverbs, we are told that "There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death." (14:12) Likewise, we read in the first book of Samuel that God told him: "The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (16:7) Unlike us, God is comfortable in the nuance and the details. Unlike us, God is aware of all of the potential consequences of the choices/decisions it makes!

Finally, the folks who might be tempted to attack the thesis of this post on the grounds of moral relativism (the notion that there aren't any universal or absolute moral principles extant in the world) would do well to remember that the very limited human mind CANNOT fully comprehend the Divine mind. In other words, yes, God has set a standard, but we must never be so arrogant as to suppose that we have fully comprehended or implemented that standard! Humans are notorious for wanting to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong (see Genesis 2 and 3), but Scripture makes clear that this determination is God's alone. Hence, whatever God's will in some matter is - that's the way it is - regardless of whether you understand or embrace it! Thus, we are NOT advocating for moral relativism - we are advocating for the humility and willingness to admit that it is possible that we may not have fully comprehended or embraced God's actual standard (as in Christ's rejection of Moses' certificate of divorce). For instance, we can know that God's standard forbids murder, but we cannot discern the motivations of a person's heart or the dictates of their conscience (and we know that both are important to God, who is also fully aware of both).

How can we avoid falling into the trap of binary thinking? In the article mentioned above, Clay Drinko identified seven different strategies to avoid the pitfalls of dichotomous thinking. They are: 1) a willingness to try new things, 2) a willingness to meet new people and listen to their perspectives on things, 3) cultivating an "authentic curiosity" about things, 4) attempting to maintain an attitude of open-mindedness, 5) building empathy for other folks' experiences and perspectives, 6) a willingness to admit how little we really know about something, and 7) embracing the uncertainty inherent in living on this planet. In other words, "Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, full-spectrum thinking is when we investigate the nuance and explore the gray areas." (Same source) Hence, if we are truly interested in pleasing God, we should strive to put on the mind of God - to reject the binary thinking which seems to come to us so naturally as humans!



 

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Trumpets and the Bible

Trumpets are a prominent symbol in the King James Version of the Bible. Unfortunately, this symbolism is too often overlooked or intentionally ignored within the Christian Church. Within Judaism, however, Rosh Hashanah is the "Head of the Year." (See Chabad.org's What Is Rosh Hoshanah?) To the Jews, it is the "Day of Shofar Blowing," "Day of Remembrance," and "Day of Judgement." (Same article) To be sure, a few Christians have observed the "Feast of Trumpets" and have offered various interpretations of the day's significance for Christians. Even so, one is left with the distinct impression that the trumpet does not occupy a very prominent place within the thinking of most of the Judeo-Christian world!

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the place which this imagery occupies in their Scriptures! The word "trumpet" occurs 61 times in the KJV of the Bible, and the plural form occurs 51 times! (See Trumpet(s) in Blue Letter Bible's online version of Strong's Concordance) Now, admittedly, not all of those uses of the English word "trumpet(s)" refers to the same Hebrew word. More often than not, this is a translation of the Hebrew word "shofar" - the curved ram's horn used by the ancients. (Same source) However, it is also used to designate the Hebrew word "hasosra" - a silver wind instrument. (Same source) Even so, trumpets were employed by the ancient Israelites to 1) announce the presence of God, 2) summon the people to gather together, 3) move their camp when they were wandering in the wilderness, 4) signal the people in times of war, 5) announce sacrifices and celebrations, 6) praise God, and 7) announce the appointment of a new king after the kingdom was established. (See Zipporah's Meaning of Trumpets and Bible Den's Trumpets in the Bible)

Of course, understanding the various ways that "trumpets" were used by the ancient Israelites is essential to fulfilling the Torah's instructions regarding the Feast of Trumpets. In the book of Leviticus, we read: "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation." (23:24) Notice that this was to be a "memorial" or "zikaron" (Hebrew, see Blue Letter Bible's Strong's article on zikaron). So, we see that the sense of the original Hebrew was that this was to be a memorial or reminder of this practice (sounding the trumpet). In other words, this Holy Day was intended to force the people to remember the role which God had assigned to the blowing of these trumpets in the practice of both their national and religious lives.

In the writings which we now refer to as the New Testament, we can see how this familiar symbolism was employed in the Christian faith and message. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Christ said that his return to this earth and the gathering of the elect would be accompanied by the blast of a trumpet (24:30-31). Additionally, the apostle Paul wrote to the saints of Corinth that the resurrection of the righteous dead to immortality would follow the sounding of the last trumpet (I Corinthians 15:52). Likewise, he wrote to the saints of Thessalonica that Christ's return and the resurrection of "the dead in Christ" would be preceded by the "trump of God" (I Thessalonians 4:16). Finally, in the book of Revelation, John describes seven trumpets which announce a series of events prior to the end of the age and the establishment of God's Kingdom on this earth (see chapters 8-11).

Interestingly, in his booklet Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days -Which?, Herbert Armstrong noted the trumpet's connection to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead and speculated that Christ may even return on that day! Likewise, in his excellent book The Thread: God's Appointments with History, the late Ron Dart emphasized the Feast of Trumpets connection to the resurrection and speculated about the joyous celebration which that event might engender among God's saints. Unfortunately, both men appeared to believe that the observance of the actual festival was as important to Christians as what the blast of that final trumpet actually symbolized. Even so, both of them also appeared to understand the trumpet's symbolic connection to the way that it had been used by the ancient Israelites (e.g., as a means of summoning/gathering, announcing, celebrating and praising).

Unfortunately, while the Church of God International mentions the resurrection and return of Christ in connection with the Feast of Trumpets, it adds a disturbing element which seeks to justify a very negative and controversial element of the beliefs of some of its members regarding that organization's messaging! In their summary of the Feast of Trumpets, we read that: "This festival represents the preaching of the gospel to the world by God’s faithful watchmen who have the responsibility of arousing the people from their spiritual slumber (Ezekiel 33:1–16). At this point, God has ceased to let mankind go his own way. The time has come to sound the alarm and attempt to save as many as we can—to save man from himself. Otherwise, man will succeed in self-destruction."

Never mind, that God was speaking to Ezekiel about his message to ancient Israel - they believe that the United States and Great Britian represent the modern manifestation of Israel on this earth! In the passage which they quoted above, God compared Ezekiel's commission to the job of the watchman - who was responsible for warning the people of impending danger (like the approach of an army). In other words, Ezekiel would be responsible for presenting God's warning message to the people of Israel, and God would hold him personally responsible if he failed to do so. Of course, the thing which CGI (and many other ACOGs) fails to comprehend is that the Christian message is completely different from the one which Ezekiel was expected to deliver to Israel! At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Christ told his disciples: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you..." (28:19-20) I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound anything like a warning message for Israel to me!

In similar fashion, CGI likes to appropriate God's instructions to Isaiah. In that Old Testament book of prophecy, we read: "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." (Isaiah 58:1) Of course, CGI focuses on the "lift up thy voice like a trumpet" in this connection. Once again, their attachment to Anglo-Israelism has convinced them that their primary responsibility is to take up the mantle of Ezekiel and Isaiah and warn the Israelites away from their sins. Moreover, this compulsion appears to be so strong that it has caused them to abandon any feeling of responsibility to fulfill Christ's commission to his disciples - to preach his gospel (good news) to the world. Instead of sharing Christ's good news, they are dedicated to warning English-speaking people about their sins! I don't know about you, but that seems like quite a contrast to me!

Unlike Herbert Armstrong and the folks at CGI, I prefer to think of trumpets announcing Christ's return and the resurrection of the Christian dead. While I no longer share their view that Christians are obligated to observe the Feast of Trumpets (or the other festivals outlined in the Torah), I continue to see a great deal of value in this symbolism for Christians. I continue to look forward to the blast of that final trump.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Using God's Name for Falsehood

You shall not use the name of Jehovah your God irreverently, nor use it to swear to a falsehood. You will not escape punishment if you do. -- Exodus 20:7, Living Bible

According to the Jewish Virtual Library's Article on The Name of God, the above referenced commandment "refers solely to oath-taking, and <it> is a prohibition against swearing by God's Name falsely or frivolously (the word normally translated as "in vain" literally means 'for falsehood.'" Hence, from the Jewish perspective, proclaiming a message in God's name is serious business.

In this connection, it is interesting to note that Herbert W Armstrong was in the habit of signing his letters "In Christ's Name," and by claiming that he was "Christ's apostle." In light of the fact that we now know that many of the things that he taught were falsehoods, what does that suggest to us about Armstrong's relationship to this commandment? What's more, what does that suggest to us about those who continue to perpetuate those falsehoods in Christ's name? And, finally, what does that suggest to us about those who have worked to underscore and correct those falsehoods? In other words, who is misusing God's name? and who is honoring it?

Sunday, September 18, 2022

What's Wrong with Watson's and Davis' Current Events Messaging?

According to Church of God International Pastors Bill Watson and Adrian Davis, the policy prescriptions of Biden and the Democrats are anti-Christian and pro-totalitarian. For them, Biden and the Democrats are busily putting the finishing touches on the demise of America. Indeed, they see all of this as the beginning of the end (as in the Apocalypse). For Watson and Davis, the current policies of the governments of the United States and Great Britain are facilitating the long-ago prophesied declines of these two nations. For them, the Culture War is a real war between good and evil.

What's wrong with their assessment of the situation? After all, don't a great many conservative and Republican Americans agree with what they have to say about Biden and the "Demoncrats?"

First, the peoples of Great Britain and the United States are NOT the descendants of the ancient Israelites (history, genetics, archaeology, linguistics, and Scripture all prove that they are NOT Israelites)! Hence, NONE of the prophecies concerning the ancient Israelites apply to them or our time. In short, Watson and Davis have misapplied and misinterpreted Biblical prophecy (which has rendered ALL of their prophetic pronouncements suspect)!

Second, like their Republican counterparts, Biden and the Democrats are worldly politicians. They are no better or worse than other worldly politicians! Also, their policies are no better or worse than those of their conservative/Republican colleagues. ALL human governments are flawed. All human politicians are imperfect and cannot discern the full impact of their policy prescriptions. To illustrate this point, one only needs to open his/her eyes and look at the problems that these policies are meant to address.

What are those problems? Are things really as bad as Watson and Davis portray them to be? And, if their guy/party was in power, would that really solve all of our problems and forestall the Tribulation? Moreover, if it did forestall the Apocalypse and Christ's return, is that something that Christians should actually wish to happen? After all, aren't we supposed to be looking forward to the complete overthrow of the governments of this world and the establishment of God's Kingdom on this earth?

The problems are familiar to all of us: climate change, pandemic, pollution, energy production, societal violence, the global economy, societal morality, wars, a lack of respect for the rule of law, the erosion of freedom/rights, deficit spending, wars and various conflicts between various nations of the earth, illegal immigration, and the decline in religious affiliations throughout the Western World. Ironically, both sides of the political spectrum in the United States and Britain have offered their own policy prescriptions to deal with many of these challenges. Even so, both sides tend to disparage the other as evil, totalitarian, ignorant, unpatriotic, or some combination of all of the above!

Of course, most of the policies which both sides present to deal with these problems are simplistic, superficial, and designed to advance the power and influence of the party(s) who are advocating them! For instance, the issue of illegal immigration does not always lend itself to easy solutions or moral clarity. After all, the Torah makes clear in a number of places that strangers/aliens in the land were to be treated fairly and hospitably (see Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19). As for taking care of those less fortunate than us, what could be more Christian than that? Likewise, women have been having abortions throughout human history (sure, it was very often illegal in times past, but there have always been those who have been ready and willing to terminate unwanted pregnancies). And, what do we do with a Christian or Jew who believes that human life begins when we draw our first breath? (See Genesis 2:7) As for pollution, what about God someday destroying those who destroy the earth? (Revelation 11:18) Likewise, as for Globalism, isn't the Kingdom of God going to be a kind of globalist regime? (See Daniel 2:44, Zechariah 14:9)

In conclusion, the problem with the messaging of Davis and Watson should be apparent to all - they have confused their responsibilities as citizens of God's Kingdom with the rights, privileges and responsibilities which they enjoy as citizens of Canada and the United States respectively. In short, they have forgotten that Christians are NOT supposed to be helping/propping up/participating in the realms of this present world! They both insist that everyone should see the world the way that they do and claim that anyone who doesn't is deceived, ignorant, or actively supporting these evils! Oh, if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear! 

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Ten Most Popular Posts in This Blog's History

It has been my experience, that only about one in ten of the people who decide to visit this blog actually bother to comment on a post (and many of those choose to do so privately). Hence, the only real means available to me to measure a post's impact is to look at the number of views it has generated over time. What follows is a list of the posts that have generated the most interest since this blog began back in 2014:

The Regression of CGI (2019)

God's Imperfect Apostles (2014)

Who is Miller Jones and why does he write this stuff? (2014)

God doesn't care which religion you profess! (2014)

Is suicide a one-way ticket to the Lake of Fire? (2014)

Conclusive proof that God didn't have anything to do with writing the Bible? (2015)

Soothsayers and Prophets (2019)

The Two Covenants (2019)

A few questions about God and homosexual behavior (2015)

God and Dinosaurs (2015)

And, since 2014, 2015 and 2019 took the all-time honors, here are the popular posts from those other years:

In 2016, the most viewed post was Pagan Holidays or God's Holy Days - Really?

In 2017, the most popular post was The Bloomington Statement

In 2018, the most popular post was SHOULD CHRISTIANS BE EATING LUCKY CHARMS?

In 2020, the most viewed post was Herbert W Armstrong: A Dangerous Cult Leader 

In 2021, the most viewed post was Two More "Prooftexts" for Unleavened Bread

In 2022 (so far), the most popular post has been Is that Christian?

Once again, the above picks reflect the interests of my readers. They do NOT necessarily reflect my own opinions about the posts which I consider to be the most important. Even so, I think that they reflect a kind of impartial commentary on this blog's content. These are the posts which my audience has deemed the most important!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

NO, Christians Are NOT Obligated To Observe Torah Dietary Laws!

Pastor Mike James of the Church of God International has posted an article on their website entitled Did Jesus Keep the Kosher Laws? Unfortunately, the article perpetuates Mr. Herbert Armstrong's heretical teachings about a Christian's obligation to observe Torah Law. Like Armstrong, James frames the question in terms of "What did Jesus do?" Behind this question, of course, is the unspoken one: "Shouldn't we be following his example?" This line of reasoning, however, is deeply flawed and has caused some folks who are sincerely trying to follow God's will to reach some erroneous conclusions about what God expects from them! I know, because I was one of them.

James begins his post by defining what he means when he refers to "kosher laws." For him, that term encompasses both the Scriptural designations of clean and unclean foods found in the eleventh chapter of Leviticus and the oral traditions which Orthodox Jews claim to have derived from Moses. And, while Mike acknowledges that Jesus may have followed some of these oral traditions, he insists that only those guidelines which appear in the Scriptural Torah are actually binding upon Christians. For Pastor James (and most Armstrongites), it is crucial to differentiate between what is found in Scripture and these oral traditions of the Jews in determining what is or isn't binding upon Christians. Indeed, Mike made this all very clear in his article when he wrote: "This distinction is very important because it gets at the root of arguments on the law of God and whether we still need to observe it. We believe you need to keep God's law until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:17–19). The law does not save us, but it helps us understand God's character and what sin is. By observing it, we are following the example of our Savior, Jesus Christ."

Unfortunately, what Mike and his associates fail to understand is that Jesus Christ HAD to perfectly fulfill ALL of the requirements of the Torah in order to pay the penalty for our sins! Moreover, in that passage that Mike referenced in his remarks (Matthew 5:17-19), we see that Christ said that nothing would "pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law! Heaven and earth didn't pass away before he accomplished that feat! It wasn't that Christ abolished or did away with the Law as the ACOGs claim that Traditional Christians teach, he filled it to the full - magnified it - distilled it - transformed it! And, in an ironic twist, it should be pointed out that even Mike is NOT suggesting that the entire Torah is still in full force and effect - still binding on Christians! Later, in this same post, Mike noted that "We know through the New Testament that the Old Testament sacrificial law is no longer required because Christ's sacrifice took all of that on (Hebrews 10:1–10)." So, we're NOT arguing about whether the whole law is carried forward into the terms of the New Covenant under Christ, we're arguing about which parts of it should be carried forward!

In this respect, Christ made very clear that the entire law was based on two principles: 1) Love for God, and 2) Love for each other. Later, both he and his disciples further clarified the Christian's responsibility in this respect by stating that the best way to demonstrate their love for God was by completely loving each other! For the Christian, both Jesus and his apostles declared that THIS would fulfill the requirements of the Law! In other words, for these new creatures in Christ, fulfillment would no longer be found in all of the dos and don'ts of the Torah, but by living in the Spirit of the Law. Moreover, even this obedience would NOT accomplish their reconciliation to God - earn them salvation - THAT WOULD BE ACHIEVED ONLY THROUGH THEIR ACCEPTANCE OF THE LIFE AND SACRIFICE OF JESUS CHRIST! Their obedience to the Law of Love would demonstrate that they had accepted Christ and were henceforward walking in the newness of the life which HE had given them!

Returning to the narrower question of the Christian diet, Mike said that Jesus remarks in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark have been misunderstood by mainstream Christians. With all due respect, I believe that Pastor James has missed the point of Christ's remarks there! Indeed, Christ himself summarized the meaning of his remarks - once publicly, and once privately for the benefit of his disciples. We read there: "When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man." (Mark 7:14-15) Continuing, "When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, 'Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?' And He said, 'What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.'" (Verses 17-23) In other words, in spiritual terms, washing and eating aren't what makes a person clean or unclean!

Later in his post, Pastor James also mentioned the great council which the Church held at Jerusalem for the purpose of confronting the issue of a Christian's obligation to the Torah once and for all. Unfortunately, Mike attempts to circumscribe (pun intended) the issue which that assembly addressed to whether or not Christians should be circumcised. Never mind, that even this narrow reading of the council's purpose would still be nullifying the requirement for Christian males to be physically circumcised. It should also be noted that this procedure was required by the Torah (Genesis 17:11) and was also performed on the Christ child (Luke 2:21). Hence, if we are being logically consistent, shouldn't Christians also be following Christ's example in this instance? Nevertheless, Scripture makes clear that the Jerusalem Council was about much more than circumcision.

Although the text of the fifteenth chapter of Acts, makes plain that the original confrontation arose over circumcision (Acts 15:1), it also makes clear that the debate quickly expanded to comprehend the entire question of a Christian's responsibility to the Law. We read that "some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses." (Verse 5) During the council, we are informed that Peter stood up and asked "why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they." (Verses 10-11) Peter's speech was followed by a report from Paul and Barnabas about their missionary work among the Gentiles. (Verse 12) Next, James stood up and said: "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath." (Verses 19-21) In other words, let's NOT make them responsible for observing all of the dos and don'ts of the Torah - Moses already has enough advocates for the covenant he outlined among the Jews! Moreover, this is reiterated in the actual text of the letter that was sent by the council to the Gentile Churches (see verses 23-29).

This understanding is also confirmed by what Paul wrote to the saints of Galatia about this early controversy in the Church. When he later confronted Peter about his backsliding in this regard, he wrote that he told him: "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified." (Galatians 2:14-16)

What Herbert Armstrong, David Pack, Gerald Flurry, Roderick Meredith, and Mike James have never seemed to understand is that the Torah points to Jesus Christ, and it was FULFILLED perfectly by him on our behalf! It's NOT that Christ nullified/abrogated/did away with the Law - He observed, fulfilled, magnified, and distilled ALL of its precepts for us! Under the terms of the New Covenant, we have received the salvation of our souls through Jesus Christ; and we obey the Law of Love (for God and each other) to demonstrate that we are a new creature because of what Christ has done for us. In other words, our obedience to that Law is the fruit or evidence that we have truly received God's gift - the Holy Spirit and are walking in the Light! And, for the record, the Law of Love also summarizes and fulfills the requirements of all of those individual dos and don'ts found in the Torah! This isn't about Law vs Lawlessness. It's about Christians observing the Law which applies to them and for the reasons given by Christ and his apostles!

 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Oldest Books in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible

As anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the Judeo-Christian Bible knows, that book is composed of a collection of writings which were composed by a number of different authors and editors over a great span of time. Hence, it is no great wonder that many of us would be interested in the first contributions to both the Hebrew and Christian canons. After all, in identifying and exploring these works, we understand that we are looking through a window into the distant past and seeing a view of God and religion that is unadulterated and diluted by the inevitable evolution in thought and revelation which followed - a glimpse at the origins, the foundations of the whole! Moreover, as with so many other things associated with the study of the Bible, our suppositions about which books came first are skewed by the arrangement of the Bible as it appears in our time - the chronology and narrative of the book that we hold in our hands.

For example, most of us would suppose that the book of Genesis is the oldest document in the Hebrew Bible - the collection of writings which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. After all, that book recounts the story of creation, the prehistoric flood, and the ancestral origins of God's people (the Israelites). However, although these assumptions appear to make perfect sense at first glance, a scholarly deep dive into the various documents which make up the Hebrew canon has demonstrated that the book of Genesis was composed hundreds of years after the book of Job was written! That's right, a book about an extremely righteous and wealthy Gentile - with NO mention of Israel, covenants or laws - is the oldest book in the Hebrew canon!

 In beliefnet's article What is the Oldest Book in the Bible? by Stephanie Hertzenberg, we learn that there are a number of good reasons to believe that Job is the oldest book in the Hebrew canon. In brief, scholars point to the language, content, and things that are noticeably absent from the book. Hertzenberg observed that "Job is written in a form of Hebrew that is even older than the ancient Hebrew that makes up most of the Old Testament. In fact, the language used in Job is not even usually referred to as ancient Hebrew. Instead, it is called “Paleo-Hebrew.” The book also contains Syriac and Arabic expressions which point to a period of time between 1900 and 1700 B.C. when the Shemitic tribes had not yet separated into speaking separate Syriac, Hebrew and Arabic dialects." She went on to note that "Job also mentions several creatures and conditions that are unknown today. The phrases may refer to animals that have gone extinct or, more likely, were called by a different name in later books of the Bible." Finally, Hertzenberg points out that "There are no mentions of the covenant, the Law of Moses or the priesthood. There are not even any mentions of the Israelite people or the Promised Land. Instead, Job offers sacrifices himself for his sons without the use of a priesthood, temple or consecrated altar. His wealth is measured by the size of his herds and the amount of 'qesiytah,' unique silver coins, he possesses. Both herds and silver were used as ancient systems of money between 1900 and 1700 B.C."

Another feature of Job which sets it apart from the other writings of the Hebrew canon relates to its subject matter - the age-old dilemma for people of faith: Why do the righteous suffer? In stark contrast to the folks who occupied the pre-flood world, the people who built the tower of Babel, the Sodomites, and the children of Israel, Job isn't subjected to pain and suffering because of his sins or misconduct - he suffers as a consequence of Satan's interest in him, and the subsequent challenge which he (Satan) offered to God regarding him. In other words, the familiar sin followed by punishment formula (which is so prominent in the rest of the Old Testament) is conspicuously absent from this book! This is obviously an important feature in distinguishing this book from its companions, but it is also significant in terms of its impact on our theology more generally speaking. In short, this other perspective on suffering serves as an important counterbalance to the "sin causes suffering" narrative. More to the point, it is the book of Job which prevents us from attributing all human suffering to sin/wrongdoing and forces us all to be more empathetic toward each other!

Even so, in light of this understanding, it is perhaps more comprehensible to us that this book has been a source of consternation among some Jewish scholars and Christian legalists. In the Torah.org article on the book, we read: "Job is a book that ranks as one of the most difficult books in the Tanach (Bible), for two reasons: 1) Its incredibly complex and obscure Hebrew – allowing for multiple translations and meanings. 2) The complex and delicate nature of the subject matter." Likewise, the My Jewish Learning article on the book notes that "The book of Job challenges the simple equation of suffering with punishment." Also, one has to imagine that the absence of any reference to the patriarchs, Israel, and God's covenants with them has to be a source of some consternation among God's people, and probably accounts for its assignment to the Ketuvim (Writings) - which are largely concerned with wisdom and worship. Interestingly, in both of the articles just referenced, the respective authors divide the book into a number of distinct sections in their attempts to explain the Jewish perspective on it. Roughly speaking, they note that there is a prologue (Satan's conversation with God about Job), "friendly" advice and Job's responses to that advice, and an epilogue (God's answer to Job, Job's reaction, and God's restoration of Job).

In his book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, Bart Ehrman expresses his opinion that the prologue and epilogue belong to one author, and the "friendly advice" and Job's responses to that advice belong to another author. Ehrman believes that the works of these two authors were later spliced together, and that this accounts for some of the book's complexity. In his view, the two authors had very different perspectives on "how to deal with the problem of suffering." (pg. 212) Personally, I think that the book reflects a number of very different ways that the faithful deal with the "problem of suffering," and that the overarching message of the book is that ALL of our human perspectives on this issue are flawed - that we simply cannot see the ends of all things or truly appreciate the extent of God's mind or his plans and purposes for humankind. Similarly, I also see the book of Job as an object lesson in the WRONG way for people of faith to comfort each other in times of loss and distress!

In broader terms, for Christians generally, the book of Job demonstrates that there is a Godly righteousness that exists apart from the Law, or any covenants associated with it. The non-Israelite Job was clearly considered righteous by God. There is no indication that Job was circumcised, kept the Sabbath, had access to ANY Scriptures, or required the services or mediation of ANY priesthood! And, before we move on to the oldest book in the New Testament, it should be noted that Job is very unlike the Torah in terms of its presentation of the Devil. Outside of a highly symbolic representation of a Serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan is simply ignored by the Torah. In another stark contrast which has great significance for Christians, Satan is front and center in the story of Job! This portrayal of Satan as "Adversary," "Accuser," and "Afflicter" is central to the theology of the New Testament.

Just as most casual students of the Bible are drawn to the book of Genesis as the "oldest" book in the Hebrew canon, many Christians would probably point to on one of the Gospels as the earliest New Testament text (the more serious ones would probably mention Mark in this connection). The reasons, of course, are obvious. After all, the gospels tell the story of the founder of the religion, Jesus Christ. Once again, however, the majority of Biblical scholars point us in an entirely different direction.

In the preface to his book The Earliest Christian Text, Gerd Ludemann wrote: "This book deals with I Thessalonians, a document that most scholars consider to be the earliest extant Christian writing, a judgment I believe to be well founded." Likewise, in Bart Ehrman's The Bible, we read: "I Thessalonians is usually dated to around 49 C.E., about sixteen or seventeen years after Paul's conversion and about twenty years after the death of Jesus." (Page 328) And, when we compare these statements with what most scholars believe about the timing of the writing of the gospels (most scholars believe that the Gospels were penned between 60-100 C.E. - with Mark generally being acknowledged as the first of these accounts*), we can be fairly certain that the majority of Paul's letters were composed well before the Gospels were written. What's more, there exists a rare and high degree of agreement among scholars regarding the timeline of Paul's writings, and the book of I Thessalonians is almost universally regarded as his earliest surviving "genuine" epistle.

*See Bart Ehrman's The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2018. Also, please see:  When Were The Four Gospels Written?)

Why is all of this important? Once again, because it gives us a glimpse into the origins of Christianity - what the religion was like before everything got nailed down! It also gives us some insight into what Paul and Gentile Christians knew and/or believed about the historical Jesus and his teachings. Likewise, obviously, it informs our understanding of what Paul was preaching during the middle portion of his own ministry, and what kind of organization/structure existed within the congregations of this period.

Although many modern scholars have focused on how Paul's conception of Jesus and his teachings were significantly different from Jesus and the earliest Jewish Christians*, I have always been more interested in the similarities between them. After all, there is little to no evidence that there ever was an open breach between the Judean and Gentile branches of the Early Church (James, Peter and Paul never publicly excommunicated each other), and this earliest of Christian writings certainly demonstrates a high degree of harmony with regard to the beliefs of the earliest Christians.

* See James Tabor's Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, Simon and Schuster, 2012

Indeed, when we take a closer look at the book, we see that the basic outlines of the Christian story were already well-established within twenty years of Christ's death! For instance, in the very first chapter of this epistle, Paul informed his audience that Christ" had suffered on their behalf, had rescued them from the coming judgment, had been resurrected from death by God, was currently in heaven, and would eventually return to this earth. In the same chapter, Paul also mentioned the Holy Spirit, gospel (or "good news"), evangelism, the fact that God had chosen the Thessalonians to be his, and that they should regard him as their "Father." I don't know about you, but that sounds like a fairly comprehensive list for the first chapter of a short epistle to me!

Likewise, in the second chapter of this epistle, Paul wrote about great opposition to the Christian message and persecution. He also mentioned the apostles of Christ, and that God had called them to share in his Kingdom and glory! Paul went on to note that his audience already regarded his message as the word of God. He then reiterated that both Jewish and Gentile Christians had experienced persecution, and that Satan himself had prevented him from visiting with them.

In the third chapter of his letter, Paul wrote "may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow" (which corresponds nicely to Christ's "new commandment" in the Gospel of John). He also reveals in this chapter that the Lord will one day return "with all his holy people." Continuing into the fourth chapter, Paul went on to state that Christians should be living their lives in a manner that is pleasing to God. He wrote that it was God's will for them to be holy, and that they should consequently stay away from all sexual sins. He went on to reveal that God had given them his Holy Spirit and reiterated the importance of them loving each other, "for God himself has taught you to love one another." Then, once again, Paul reiterated that "we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again."

Next, Paul's theme returned to Christ's second coming to this earth. In what would eventually become one of the most famous passages of the New Testament, Paul wrote: "the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever." This same theme continues into the next chapter where Paul echoes Christ's prediction that "the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night."

And, if all of that wasn't enough to convince you that the basic message of the Christian Church wasn't already set within twenty years of Christ's death and resurrection, Paul's concluding remarks in this epistle serve to nicely summarize the core of the Christian message. He wrote that Christians should avoid the darkness and live in the light. He went on to say "For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever." Then he went on to encourage them to respect their leaders (so, the church did have some kind of structure/organization), to always be joyful, never stop praying, avoid quenching the Holy Spirit, and to remain blameless "until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again." Finally, Paul concluded his letter by expressing his desire that "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" would remain with them.

I don't know about you, but that reads like a super Reader's Digest condensed version of the New Testament to me! Of course, we must remember that the focus of all of the epistles is fairly narrow and parochial - they were, after all, originally meant to address circumstances/problems within specific Christian communities of the First Century. Even so, the narrow window that this epistle provides into an early ekklesia is extremely revealing and reassuring to the thinking faithful of today.

Indeed, the oldest writings of both the Old and New Testaments force us to think of Scripture in new and vibrant ways. These documents force us to "think outside of the box" - to imagine the traditionally arranged narrative of the canon in new and different ways. In fact, when we understand and fully appreciate that they came first, our ability to differentiate between what is important and what is superfluous has to be enhanced. Of course, this post is NOT intended to denigrate or downplay the importance of the book of Genesis, the Torah, or the Gospels. On the contrary, I believe this understanding can enhance our understanding and appreciation of those other writings if we rightly divide the word of truth! What do you think?


Friday, September 9, 2022

Elizabeth II: An Example of Servant Leadership

Since receiving the news of the Queen's death, we have seen a number of documentaries about her life. The images and clips of speeches have been extraordinary, and they have evoked many memories of her and the various events which we have experienced in our own lives during that period. Indeed, many of us have had a ringside seat for so many of the events of her long reign. When we think about these things, we are immediately struck by her devotion to duty, and the unprecedented high regard and affection for her which so many people across the globe are left with after so long a time in the public eye! How many public figures can we say that about?

Why do so many of us feel this way about her? What accounts for the esteem, respect and affection that she has engendered in so many of us?

The adjectives which have been used in describing her begin to give us some insight into answering those questions. She has been described most often as being gracious, dedicated, faithful and kind. Also, her carefulness in remaining above partisan politics, and her vigilance in never publicly offering her own opinions in matters of state has been a recurring theme in the tributes that have been offered since her passing. This, of course, goes a long way toward explaining how someone who stood at the pinnacle of political and religious power (Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth and titular head of the Church of England), arguably the most divisive of all human endeavors, could be held in such high esteem among her own people and those in the wider world.

In considering these things, we think too about what Christ told his disciples about leadership. He said: "Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else." (Mark 9:35) And a little later, when two of his disciples asked to be made leaders immediately under Jesus, he 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 be the slave of everyone else. 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." (Mark 10:42-45) Clearly, Christ envisioned a "servant" leadership model for his Church. In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus also told his disciples: "There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:13)

Elizabeth II personified these concepts. Before she ascended the throne, she said: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong." The Queen kept that promise. Moreover, her devotion to serving her people and the wider world stood in stark contrast to her uncle, King Edward VIII, who was the poster boy for self-interest. Widely regarded as a great romantic, after abdicating his throne and his responsibilities, the former king declared: "You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the Throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the Empire which as Prince of Wales, and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve. But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love." Unlike his niece, he was not interested in self-sacrifice on behalf of his people.

Hence, as is always the case in looking back over a life well-lived and given in service to others, we can only hope to follow the late Queen's good example. We must continually ask ourselves: "How can I best serve others?" "Am I being the best example that I can be to others?" "Will I leave this world having made a positive difference in the lives of my loved ones?" "Will I leave this world with the esteem and affection of my loved ones?"

 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Who Is Worthy of Your Help?

Unfortunately, too many Christians have a very narrow and limited view of their responsibilities toward helping others. Ignoring the clear teachings of Jesus and his disciples, they devote their time, energy, and financial resources to supporting their leader(s) or each other. They view their obligation to offer help and comfort to others with inward looking eyes. In other words, "if you're not part of my group, don't expect any help from me!" "After all," they say, "Jesus did say that his followers would be known by their love for each other."

But is that what Christ had in mind? Did Christ intend for his followers to focus on the needs and interests of their own little community? Did Christ intend for his followers to ignore the needs of the wider community? What did Christ mean when he said that he didn't want his followers to be a part of this world?

In beginning to answer these questions, we are reminded of the people whom Jesus chose to be associated with during his time on this earth. We remember the story of Jesus calling Matthew, a despised tax collector, to be one of his disciples (Matthew 9:9). Later, we read that Matthew invited Christ to dinner with some of his fellow tax collectors and other "disreputable sinners." (Verse 10) When the Pharisees learned that Jesus accepted the invitation, they asked his disciples: "Why does your teacher eat with such scum?" (Verse 11) How did Christ respond to this question? He said: "Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do." Then he added, "Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners." (Verses 12-13) Hence, we see that Christ clearly had an expansive view of the kind of folks who were worthy of his attention!

Although Christ's distillation of the Law into two great principles (love for God and love for neighbor) is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in the Gospel of Luke Jesus went on to more clearly define who is our neighbor. Now Jesus and his disciples were all Jews, and he knew that the Jewish people had traditionally been very prejudiced against Samaritans - thinking of them as being unworthy of their time or attention. Nevertheless, Jesus responded to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" with a parable about a Jew who was attacked by bandits along the road and left for dead. (Luke 10:29-30) Eventually, a Jewish priest came by and spotted the man lying there and intentionally crossed over to the other side of the road to avoid helping the man! (Verse 31) Later, a Levite came by and did the same thing! (Verse 32) Finally, Jesus said that one of those reviled Samaritans came along and immediately took pity on the man and went out of his way to help the injured Jew. (Verses 33-35) Then, when he had finished his parable, Jesus turned the question back to the man who had originally asked it of him. He said: "Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?" (Verse 36) The man responded that the one who had helped the injured man had shown himself to be his neighbor. (Verse 37) "Yes," Christ replied, "now go and do the same." (Same verse)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are informed that Christ also told a story about when he would return to this earth someday, and all of the nations of the earth would be gathered before him, and he would separate "the sheep from the goats.". (25:31-33) Next, we read: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’" (Verses 34-40) And, of course, he then went on to condemn those on his left for NOT helping folks who found themselves in those circumstances. (Verses 41-45) In other words, Christ clearly expects his flock to help those who are in need!

Hence, we see that Christ's view of who is or isn't worthy of our help was very expansive when compared to the cramped and narrow views of some of his followers! In this connection, a passage from the epistle of James to "the twelve tribes scattered abroad." (1:1) takes on new significance. He wrote that "If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." (Verses 26-27) In the light of all of the scriptures which we have examined related to Christ's attitude, how do you read this passage? Do you think that James was referring only to children who had lost their parents? OR Do you think that his remarks were meant to encompass children with abusive and neglectful parents? Do you think that it's possible his remarks were meant to include older adults who have also lost their parents? Likewise, do you believe that his remarks were only intended for older women whose husbands had died? OR Do you think that they were also intended to encompass younger women whose husbands had abandoned or abused them? And what did he mean by "refusing to let the world corrupt you?" Is it possible that he was talking about the cruelty and indifference that exists in the wider world? In other words, do you have a narrow or an expansive view of who is worthy of your help? 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, or American?

The New Testament makes clear in many places that God expects Christians to be good citizens of the nations where they reside. (See Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25, Romans 13:1-6, I Peter 2:17, I Timothy 2:1-2) Although Christ forcefully challenged the Jewish religious leaders of his day, he preached and lived submission to the Roman authorities in Judea. Moreover, as representative democracies did not exist during the time of Christ and his apostles, one could certainly make a reasonable argument for Christians to vote when it is clear that they can make life better in the here and now - that is certainly a matter of personal conscience.

Unfortunately, however, too many Christians have lost their way and are confused about what should be their primary allegiance. I'm speaking, of course, about their devotion to God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, each other, and God's Kingdom! In his letter to the saints of Philippi, the Apostle Paul wrote that the people of this world have their minds "set on earthly things." (Philippians 3:19) He went on to say: "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Verse 20) In writing to Timothy, he compared the Christian walk to serving as a soldier, and he said: "No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer." (II Timothy 2:4) Likewise, in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, we read about several great examples of faith. (Verses 4-12) Continuing, we read: "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Verses 13-16) Peter addressed Christians in his first epistle in the same fashion. (I Peter 2:11) Hence, from a Biblical perspective, it is clear that a Christian's primary citizenship is in heaven.

It is, therefore, highly ironic that a nation (the United States of America) - which was founded on the principle of separation of church and state - should have caused so much confusion among Christians with regard to their responsibilities toward God and the nation which they call home. Indeed, every school age child in the United States' public school system is taught that European colonists came to these shores to escape the state religions of their homelands and have the freedom to pursue the dictates of their own consciences. This, we are told, is the reason that the language, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," was included in the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, even before we came together to form a constitutional republic on this continent, many of our people have also believed that God had inspired his saints to establish a "shining city on a hill" here. In other words, it has always been a popular notion among folks of European ancestry to think of America as the Divinely favored and inspired assembly of God's saints.

In modern times, this very old notion that God had planted an outpost of his kingdom in the New World has manifested itself in a number of beliefs that have reinforced a conviction that the United States of America is God's chosen nation among all of the peoples of the earth. Among the most important of these beliefs are the convictions popular in some circles that the United States was founded by Christians, that its governance was based on Christian principles, and that it should consequently always be regarded as a "Christian nation." Not surprisingly, many of these beliefs have found their greatest acceptance among conservative Evangelical Christians within the United States. This, coupled with the phenomena of patriotism and nationalism, has given rise to a kind of secular religion in the United States.

In this secular religion, the Republic itself becomes the object of devotion and worship - the god. The citizens become the individual members of the congregation. The Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Washington's Farewell Address, Lincoln's Inaugural Addresses, and Gettysburg Address become part of the canon of the religion's scriptures (note the widely held belief among these people that these documents were Divinely inspired). The White House, Capitol Building, and monuments become the temples of the faith. Politicians and bureaucrats become the priesthood of the religion - with the President himself serving in the capacity of High Priest! Like its Christian counterpart, this faith also has numerous symbols (flags, seals, portraits, etc.) and rituals (voting, standing for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc.) to assist the parishioner/citizen in his/her worship of the state. And, like the hymnals available to the parishioners in Christian churches, the citizens of the United States have an extensive catalogue of songs available to assist them in their worship of the state (The Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, God Bless America, My Country Tis of Thee, This Land Is Your Land, etc.). The Great Republic even has its own pantheon of martyrs - those who gave the last full measure of devotion to the object of their devotion! Moreover, like their Christian counterpart, the secular religion is divided up into many different denominations and sects (Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, etc.). And, just like their Christian counterparts, those sects and denominations of the Republic love to demonize and criticize each other!

Do we begin to see the potential peril this secular religion poses for Christians? What did Jesus say about a person's ability to serve two masters? (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13) Does that principle only apply to money? What about those commandments? You remember: "You shall have no other gods before/besides me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:3-5) We must also never forget that Christ distilled the Law into two great principles. When he was asked about the most important commandment, he said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31) What about Christ's prayer for his disciples just before his trial and death? In the Gospel of John, we read: "I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified." (17:13-19) In the first epistle of John, we also read: "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever." (2:15-17)

Finally, the book of Revelation makes very plain that Christians are not supposed to participate in the Babylonian political system(s) of this world! We don't want to be among those who wonder after the beast and ask questions like "Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?" We don't want to be among the vast majority of folks who will worship the beast and give it our allegiance! (See Revelation 13) We're supposed to be praying: "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matthew 6:10) So, how about you? Are you a Democrat, Republican, or a Christian?



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Dangers Inherent to Proof Texting

Herbert Armstrong, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other religious leaders and groups have used proof texts from the Bible to support their beliefs/doctrines/theology. Indeed, if we examine the literature of these groups, we will see numerous scriptural citations/references throughout their articles, pamphlets, booklets, books, and doctrinal statements. Of course, these scriptural citations are seen by them as justifications for their beliefs/teachings - a tangible demonstration that a belief/teaching is derived from God's Word! Likewise, for those seekers of truth who regard Scripture as authoritative, these proof texts can be very persuasive in evaluating the beliefs/teachings of these groups. So, what's wrong with proof texting? Shouldn't all of our beliefs/teachings be based on Scripture?

In the Theopedia article on Proof Texting, we read: "Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing." This problem is summarized in a quotation that is familiar to most first-year seminary students: "a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text." In its own article defining proof texting, the Bible Study website observed that "The problem with this method is that the person who is Proof texting usually gives their selected verses a meaning that may be entirely different from what the writer intended. The Bible is written in such a way that most verses cannot be correctly understood in a stand-alone fashion. The context of a particular verse, who wrote it, the time period in which it was written, where did they write it, etc. is needed to arrive at what God intended it to convey." The same article went on to note that "Proof texting can easily lead to wrong conclusions regarding what is the truth of God. An argument or doctrinal stand that relies heavily on proof passages is ultimately considered weak. In fact, those who preach and teach others based on such special passages in Scripture are generally viewed negatively by true Biblical scholars and those who seriously study the word of God."

While those are excellent ways of defining the problem with proof texting, a concrete example would probably be more instructive in this instance. The statement of belief: God hates soldiers! The supporting proof texts: "The Lord examines both the righteous and the wicked. He hates those who love violence." (Psalm 11:5) and "here are six things the Lord hates — no, seven things he detests: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family. (Proverbs 6:15–19) The reasoning: Since soldiers love violence, kill the innocent, plot evil strategies to kill others, and are full of pride, God hates them! Now, most of my readers are probably saying to themselves, "That's absurd!" My point, exactly!

Unfortunately, most of the folks who focus on proof texting in their messaging are NOT really worried about getting at God's will in a particular matter - they are more concerned with demonstrating that their opinions are founded in Scripture. In other words, proof texting is one of the most egregious manifestations of confirmation bias which exists in our world! In their article on the topic, Wikipedia defines "confirmation bias" as: "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values. People display this bias when they select information that supports their views, ignoring contrary information, or when they interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing attitudes." In other words, these folks ignore or discard any evidence which doesn't support their thesis. In terms of logical fallacies, this is "cherry picking" at its finest!

Hence, for anyone who is truly interested at getting at the truth of the matter - of discerning the will of God, proof texting is NOT the best way to do that! Of course, studying the context of verses and weighing ALL of the scriptural evidence related to a particular topic takes a lot more effort and time. Nevertheless, for those who are truly interested in getting at the truth, we can hopefully see that the extra effort will give us a much better chance of achieving that goal! 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

If You're Interested in Christ or the Gospel, CGI Is NOT for You!

The latest offerings from the Church of God International may be of interest to ultra-conservative Americans, but folks who are interested in hearing about Jesus and his message will be very disappointed! I can hear it now: "There goes Lonnie and his sour grapes again!" "Hasn't he got anything better to do?" "Why must he persist in ATTACKING Bill Watson and Adrian Davis?" "Those guys are living rent-free in his head!" "Why is he ATTACKING his family's religion?" "He is an accuser of the brethren!" "Satan is using him to ATTACK God's Church!" The responses are so predictable, because this is the way that Armstrongites have ALWAYS reacted to criticism. Since the days of Herbie, they can run traditional Christians and their beliefs into the ground; but you let anyone criticize what they're doing, and the howls of "persecution" are deafening!

In the latest edition of The International News, there aren't ANY articles wholly devoted to Jesus, his message, or salvation through him. Instead, we find there the following articles: Were the Ten Commandments in Force Before Moses? by Mike James, What Is Mankind's Option for Survival? by Bill Watson, Kung Fu Fighting by Jeff Flanick, A Brief Review of "Thin Again" by Michelle Algarra, What is an Abortion? by W. Adam Boyd, Enroute to the Kingdom by George Roper (at least George mentions Jesus and his teachings), Questions and Answers by Vance Stinson (What about imprecatory prayers? and Is cremation an acceptable option?), Male and Female He Created Them by Mike James, Feast of Tabernacles 2022 in Poughkeepsie, New York, an obituary for Kenneth Bounds, Why Baptize? by Robert Onsando, and Four Baptized in Sheridan, Wyoming.

In his article, Bill Watson wrote: "Consider for a moment the fact that the United States has just appointed a female Supreme Court Justice that cannot define what a women is!" <I think he meant "woman"> "How is that kind of nonsense acceptable? It is also now confirmed that the disgusting information coming out from Hunter Biden’s laptop and the revelation of his business and salacious shenanigans are legitimate and unlike originally portrayed as 'conspiracy,' is now shocking most of us that this is real! Why hasn’t he been arrested and indicted?" He continued: "Compound that with Ghislaine Maxwell’s disclosure of names and mountains of video evidence revealing 'highly influential' men and women participating in and guilty of statutory rape—and shockingly, not one of these powerful and famous political or business leaders, movie stars, or educators have been arrested, indicted, and convicted! How does this happen? Where is the outrage? Who is protecting these people? And what is really behind the 'curtain' that these leaders and elitists don’t want us, the people, to know about them? What evil has been perpetrated? It’s obvious: if the truth were to come out, as it has about Mr. Hunter Biden, Anthony Weiner, Bernie Madoff, and so many others, this would be extremely embarrassing and ruin their images and positions of influence, as was done to some of the above mentioned men—and now, most recently, Prince Andrew. Frankly, it should lead to the conviction and incarceration of ALL those participants!" Of course, there isn't any mention of Donald Trump or his possible crimes!

Not convinced that Mr. Watson's article is too focused on the current political culture in the United States? Bill continued: "Presently, the United States is agonizing and languishing from misappropriated policies that are igniting inflation, interest rates, energy co-dependence, and the dilution of American culture due to immigration policies that are weak in managing restriction and restraint!" Still not convinced? Watson noted: "Never in our lifetime have we seen such negligence of law enforcement. The conditions surrounding the borders of the United States are now being characterized as an INVASION! The smuggling of fentanyl, meth, and other drugs is out of control. And much of this is due to the Cartel dominating the human trafficking, drug, and weapons smuggling industry! In the meantime, government policies are weaponizing specific segments of the government, to reduce the rule of law—and the increasing crime rate substantiates this fact—“blood touches blood”—random violence is now common in many of the western cities of the USA, Britain, and Europe, due to the lack of law enforcement!" To be fair, he does go on to say that Christ is going to return someday and establish God's Kingdom on this earth.

But Pastor Watson's article for The International News was NOTHING compared to the sermon he delivered this past Sabbath at Medina! He insisted that the United States has an ethnicity problem, not a racism problem. He suggested that someone might have a problem if they married a "black lady, brown lady, or an Asian lady." He went on to complain about our modern usage of the word "gay." Apparently, Bill yearns for the good ole days when that word meant "happy." From there he launched into another diatribe about the "CCP" Virus (for those of you who may not be familiar with this terminology in referring to Covid-19, it stands for the Chinese Communist Party Virus). Bill insisted that the Chinese "seeded" the world with the virus. He noted that all of this used to be regarded as a conspiracy theory, but that now we know it's a "fact." He went on to say that Doctors Birx and Fauci have changed their minds again and are now saying that natural immunity is just as good as being vaccinated. Before finishing, he also mentioned the "87,000" new IRS agents, the Chinese threat to Taiwan, and the outrageously high gas prices (although they've recently dropped, I share his discomfort with those gas prices). He did, however, return to a semi-religious theme to conclude his message - He encouraged everyone to attend the Feast of Tabernacles to experience a foretaste of God's Kingdom!

Even so, Bill's sermon was mild compared to Pastor Adrian Davis' sermon just last month! The HOUR AND A HALF long sermon was a diatribe against the Biden Administration. He called his sermon "Build Bad Better" - you know, a not-so-subtle dig at Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan. Once again, one has to wonder why a Canadian pastor is so obsessed with the political culture in the United States! Then, like Bill, he returned to one of his favorite targets - the government's efforts to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 Virus. He said that government restrictions on large assemblies had directly contradicted the command in Scripture to assemble for worship on a regular basis! He even went on to suggest that a SWAT team would have descended on anyone who had tried to hold church services during that period! If that wasn't bad enough, he went on to talk in very graphic terms about the Monkey Pox virus. One has to hope that there weren't any children in his audience as he launched into a talk about how most of the current outbreak could be attributed to "men sharing their genitals with other men!" When he finally got back around to "Build Back Better," Davis claimed that "you will own nothing, but you will be happy!" And, just in case that wasn't explicit enough, he went on to say that it was really a return to communism and feudalism! Talk about over the top and inflammatory rhetoric! He went on to declare that "the American system of honoring the individual is dead!" Ironically, at times, it seemed like Pastor Davis was quoting Yuval Harari more than he was the Bible! At one point, he even challenged anyone to offer just one decision that the Biden Administration has made that makes America better. According to Pastor Davis, every decision that the current President of the United States has made has been calculated by him to DESTROY the nation he leads!

Whether or not you agree with these POLITICAL opinions is immaterial to the point this post is making - It is CLEARLY NOT the job of ANY minister of Jesus Christ to be offering such opinions from the pulpit! Most of us attend Church for spiritual enrichment, nourishment and fellowship. If we want to listen to MAGA talking points, we can turn on our television sets and go to the FOX News channel or any one of a number of other conservative media outlets! A Christian Church should be preaching about the life, teachings, death, resurrection and messaging of Jesus of Nazareth - period! You can't even call this stuff prophecy - it's just PURE politics!

And, just to cut my critics off at the pass, I have raised these concerns privately with Bill Watson, Vance Stinson, Mike James, Jeff Reed, Wynn Skelton and others within the Church of God International's leadership team. You can clearly see from my latest report just how effective those contacts were! To be fair, CGI's leadership did make a feeble attempt to rein in Bill's and Adrian's messaging about Covid-19, but (once again) you can see just how much good that did! Also, please note, that I have used their own words - written and spoken - to criticize their messaging. I have NOT attacked personalities. My criticisms are focused on the messaging of these men.

In conclusion, for those Armstrongites who may be looking for a more reasonable, less political, and more spiritually focused organization with which to fellowship, the Church of God International is NOT that church! Dave Pack, Gerald Flurry and Bob Thiel got NOTHING on these folks!


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Love in the New Testament

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. - Deuteronomy 6:5

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord. - Leviticus 19:18

When asked which of the commandments of the Torah was the most important (Matthew 22:36), Christ replied: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." (Verses 37-40) Did you catch that? Christ said that the WHOLE Torah, along with ALL of the preaching of the prophets, was derived from these two commandments! In other words, he distilled the entire Law into two great principles. (See also Mark 12:28-34 and Luke 10:25-37)

Later, of course, he would make this the basis for what would be expected from everyone who accepted his sacrifice for his/her sins! On the night before his crucifixion and death, Christ told his disciples: "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples." (John 13:34-35) A little later that same evening, Jesus explained to them why he was making this a part of the terms of the New Covenant in him. He said: "“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:9-17) In other words, just as Christ had demonstrated his love for the Father by obeying his commandments, Christians would demonstrate their love for him and the Father by obeying his commandment!

At the very end of this same gospel account, we find an interesting interaction between the resurrected Christ and the Apostle Peter regarding the depths of Peter's love for the Lord. After denying Jesus three times just prior to his crucifixion and death, we are told that the resurrected Christ confronted Peter after having performed a miracle and eating breakfast with his disciples. (John 21:1-15). "Do you love me more than these others do?" Jesus asked. Now, in this connection, it is interesting to note that something is going on in this passage in the original Greek that is not conveyed by our English versions of it. The Greek word for "love" which Christ employed in his question conveyed an overwhelming care and concern for its object (See Blue Letter Bible's entry for agapao). Peter responded in the affirmative and insisted that Christ already knew that he loved him. (Verse 15) However, the Greek word for love which is attributed to Peter is a more casual and affectionate kind of love (See Blue Letter Bible's entry for phileo). Jesus then suggests that Peter demonstrate his love for him by feeding his sheep - taking care of his followers. And, just as Peter had previously denied him three times, the question and response is repeated two more times. (John 21:16-17) In other words, if you sincerely and deeply love me, you will demonstrate it by loving my followers. Hence, the gospel in which Christ issued his "new commandment" concludes with Jesus insisting that Peter obey it!

Later still, Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome that God had filled their hearts with his love by giving them the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:5) He went on to tell them that "God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God." (Verses 8-11) Further on in the epistle, Paul elaborated on what Christ's sacrifice had accomplished for them. He wrote: "So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit." (Romans 8:1-4) For Paul, all of this had been accomplished because of God's and Christ's love for us.

Toward the end of the same chapter, Paul went on to tell them that NOTHING would be able to separate them from that love. He wrote: "Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, 'For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.' No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39) Now, that's love! - a love that cannot be extinguished, overcome, or defeated by any force in the universe!

Further on in the same epistle, Paul brings his theme to its natural conclusion by echoing the words of Christ about a Christian's responsibility regarding the Law. He wrote: "Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law." (Romans 13:8-10) Like Jesus, Paul identified the hallmark of a true Christian as being the love which he/she exhibits for their brothers and sisters.

Unfortunately, this is a concept that Herbert Armstrong and his followers never seemed to fully grasp or embrace. Instead of focusing on the commandment of Jesus to LOVE, they get bogged down in the written code of the Torah - all of those dos and don'ts! Like the founder of their faith, they're uncomfortable with the mushy, emotional stuff. For them, love is defined by a Christian being scrupulously obedient to all of those dos and don'ts. In other words, love is demonstrated by obedience to all of those laws! For folks in the ACOG's, it's all about the TRUTH. It's NOT love that identifies them as Christians - It's their UNDERSTANDING of certain doctrinal "truths."

This, however, is refuted by what Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth. Paul defined exactly what love is and isn't in his letter to that congregation. He began his essay on love by stating that love was more important than any other gift a Christian could possess, and Paul even provides a number of examples: a proficiency in one of the Biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin), interpreting prophecy, understanding doctrinal truths, a strong faith, and charitable giving. (I Corinthians 13:1-3) Love was superior to all of those. Next, in what would become one of the most often quoted passages in the entire Bible, Paul gave them his definition of love. He wrote: "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." (Verses 4-7). Hence, it should be very clear to anyone who is even remotely interested in a Biblical definition of love that folks who are impatient, cruel, jealous, arrogant, prideful, spoiled, irritable, vengeful, quitters, unfaithful, morose or easily offended are NOT exhibiting the kind of love that Paul described to the Corinthians!

In his letter to the Christians of Galatia, Paul made clear that this kind of love fulfills both the law and God's expectations of them. He wrote: "So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law." (Galatians 5:1) Paul went on to tell them that they would meet God's expectations regarding righteousness if they would simply focus on what Christ had done for them and live their lives in accordance with the commandment which he had given them. (Galatians 5:2-6) He wrote: "For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verses 13-14) For Paul, Christians were to avoid evil by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide their lives. (Verses 16-19). He concluded his thesis by reminding the Galatians about what the Holy Spirit's influence on their lives would actually look like. Paul wrote: "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!" (Verses 22-23) Once again, Paul reiterated the crucial role that love played in fulfilling God's expectations of those who had accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Likewise, in his letter to the saints of Ephesus, Paul wrote about the essential role that love occupies in God's plans for Christians. After explaining to them that Christ had given them access to the Father, he encouraged them to have faith in their future. (Ephesians 3:12-13) Then, he went on to offer them some insight into how he used his own access to God. He wrote: "When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God." (Ephesians 3:14-19)

A little later, in the same epistle, Paul encouraged them to "Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace." (Ephesians 4:2-3) Clearly, for Paul, love was the key to success for individual Christians and the Church as a whole. Indeed, he went on to tell them that their spiritual growth (both individually and collectively) was dependent on that love. (Ephesians 4:15-16) In terms of their personal homelife, he went on to instruct husbands to love their wives (5:25,28,33) For Paul, this was also the key to familial success!

We also hear the echo of Christ's command to love each other in many of Paul's other epistles. He told the Christians at Philippi that he prayed that their love would continue to grow and "overflow." (Philippians 1:9) He also encouraged them to love each other and work together "with one mind and purpose." (Philippians 2:2) Likewise, he told the saints at Colosse that he had heard about their faith in Christ and their "love for all of God's people." (Colossians 1:4) He also wrote to the saints of Thessalonica that he prayed that God would "make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow." (I Thessalonians 3:12) Paul continued: "But we don’t need to write to you about the importance of loving each other, for God himself has taught you to love one another." (I Thessalonians 4:9) Hence, we can see that this love for one another was a recurring theme in Paul's epistles.

This theme, however, was not confined to Christ's teachings and Paul's epistles. We also find this same teaching about love present in the other writings of the New Testament. The anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews encouraged his/her readers to "think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near." (Hebrews 10:24-25) Indeed, in his/her concluding remarks, the author encouraged his/her readers to "Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters." (Hebrews 13:1) Likewise, James told the readers of his epistle that "it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (James 2:8) Peter also wrote to God's people that "You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart." (I Peter 1:22) He went on to instruct them to "Respect everyone and love the family of believers." (I Peter 2:17)

So, we see that Christ's commandment to his followers is echoed throughout the New Testament, but it probably finds its clearest and most eloquent statement in the first epistle of John. After reflecting on how much God loves all of us, John wrote: "So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them. We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions." (I John 3:10-18) He went on to say: "And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us." (Verse 23)

Now, that is powerful testimony about the importance of love to the life of a Christian, but John didn't end there! He continued: "Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them." (I John 4:7-16)  He went on to say that this kind of love does not entertain or live with fear. (Verse 18). Then, John concluded his thought with this: "We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome." (I John 4:19-21 and 5:1-3)

Hence, we see that for Jesus and his apostles, his commandment to love each other was at the heart of the religion he founded. Indeed, we see that Christ and his apostles made this love an essential component of demonstrating our love for God! So, by loving one another, we demonstrate that we love God with all of our heart, soul, and might. Moreover, the nature of that love is made clear in those same writings. The love that Jesus and his disciples described is giving, kind, patient, forgiving, merciful, joyous, and faithful. It is NOT harsh, legalistic, rude, cruel, impatient, or easily set aside! Christ's commandment for Christians was based on the Torah, but it did NOT forward all of those dos and don'ts into the terms of the New Covenant. For TRUE, Christians the hallmark of their faith is this LOVE which we can clearly see was one of the principal themes of the New Testament!