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Why Political Speech Is Inappropriate from the Pulpit!

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

Saturday, December 30, 2023

What do Christians HAVE to BELIEVE?

As longtime readers of this blog know, I came out of a religious organization (Worldwide Church of God) which asserted that beliefs were critical - that one must accept their teachings to be a part of God's true Ecclesia. However, while the Judeo-Christian Scriptures identify a few key beliefs as essential, it is impossible to find the same emphasis on beliefs within those writings. Are our beliefs about the nature of God (trinitarian, unitarian, etc.), rituals (baptism, eucharist, holidays, or Holy Days), the afterlife (heaven, hell, resurrection), prophecy (Israel, tribulation, second coming), and the like critical? In other words, what does Scripture reveal about what a person must believe to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ?

The epistle to the Hebrews informs us that, "without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Hebrews 11:6, ESV) Hence, we see that belief in God and his ability to reward us is essential in the servants of the Christian God. Even so, James makes clear in his epistle that belief must be demonstrated in the behavior of God's true followers. He wrote: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!" (James 2:18-19, ESV) In other words, a person who truly believes in God and his ability to reward us must act like he/she believes (actually attempting to be an obedient and practicing servant).

Now, before we proceed, a word of caution is in order here. My former brothers and sisters within the Armstrong Churches of God would embrace that last paragraph, but their notion of the works that are necessary to demonstrate faith/belief are very different from those of most Christians. They believe that the works which James was speaking about included obeying the individual commands of Torah - the provisions of God's covenant with Israel (like observance of Sabbaths, Holy Days, clean and unclean meats, etc.). They simply do not understand that no one is justified by the deeds of the Law (Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16), and that Christians demonstrate their faith by striving to follow the two great commandments which Christ identified as the principles which underpin God's Law for all people for all times: loving God with one's whole heart and soul and loving each other as oneself (Matthew 22:37-40).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus preached that anyone who would follow him must repent and believe the gospel <good news> (Mark 1:14). Unfortunately, this is another place where the Armstrong Churches of God go off of the rails. While (like all Christians) Armstrongites believe that Jesus came to this earth to save us from our sins and their consequences, they completely misunderstand the nature of his message - the gospel. They preach a message about the establishment of a literal Divine version of human governance over the Israelites and Gentiles of this earth! In other words, they ignore the fact that CHRIST AND HIS WORK represent God's Kingdom, and that CHRIST AND HIS WORK ARE the focus of the message - the good news! Indeed, Jesus Christ is at the center of ALL of the writings which comprise what we refer to as the New Testament canon! Don't believe me? Let's take a closer look.

In all four of the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), it is stated over and over again that belief in Christ is essential to being considered one of his disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Peter confessed that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (16:16). Christ also warned of dire consequences for anyone who would cause anyone who believed in him to stumble (Matthew 18:6 and Mark 9:42). In the Parable of the Sower, Christ also made clear that a superficial belief in his message would not be sufficient to be a lasting disciple of his (Luke 8:4-15).

In the Gospel of John, we read that Jesus came to this earth to live here as a human and was rejected by his own people (John 1:9-11). However, for all of those "who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (verse 12, ESV). A little later in the same account, we read that Jesus was asked, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" (John 6:28, ESV) Jesus replied: "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." (Verse 29, ESV) Indeed, the author of the Gospel states at the end of his account: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:30-31) In fact, if you plug the word "believe" into a concordance, you'll see just how important the authors of these gospel accounts felt that it was to believe in Jesus Christ!

Even so, the Armstrong Churches of God scoff at traditional Christianity's favorite passage of Scripture. You know the one: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16, ESV) Indeed, they are quick to tell anyone who will listen to them that there is a whole lot more to salvation than simply believing in/on Jesus Christ. Instead, they believe that their little package of doctrines is THE TRUTH, and that "TRUE" Christians must believe and practice everything in the Bible, which they refer to as "God's word."

In doing so, they unwittingly make a mockery of Christ's statement that he was "the way, and the truth, and the life," and that "No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6, ESV) It also contradicts John's assertion that Jesus Christ is THE WORD OF GOD (John 1). Indeed, in the epistle to the Hebrews, we read that: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." (Hebrews 1:1-3, ESV) In other words, God is communicating to humans exclusively through Jesus Christ and our belief/faith must be focused on HIM!

Once again, the essential nature of belief in Jesus Christ is the central message of the entire New Testament. In the book of Acts, we read that Paul and Silas instructed their Philippian jailer to "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." (16:31, ESV) In his letter to the believers at Rome, Paul wrote: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (10:9, ESV) Paul also wrote to the saints of Galatia that "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law" (Galatians 2:16, ESV). A little later, in the same epistle, he wrote that God's promise comes to believers by faith in Jesus Christ (3:22).

In his first epistle, John said that Christians receive what they ask for in prayer because they obey his commandments and strive to please him (3:21-22). Continuing, he wrote: " And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us." (Verse 23, ESV) Indeed, toward the close of this same epistle, John stated that "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." (5:13, ESV)

What do Christians HAVE to believe? To be a Christian, YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE THAT JESUS IS THE CHRIST/MESSIAH, the Son of God, and your personal Savior. THAT is the essential element for one to be identified as a believer! What you believe about other things is clearly secondary - In other words, it is NOT essential!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Contrasting the Two Advents of Jesus Christ

Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

---Hebrews 9:24-28, ESV

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Trump's Christmas Greeting

Donald Trump posted the following message on Truth Social:

Merry Christmas to all, including Crooked Joe Biden’s ONLY HOPE, Deranged Jack Smith, the out of control Lunatic who just hired outside attorneys, fresh from the SWAMP (unprecedented!), to help him with his poorly executed WITCH HUNT against “TRUMP” and “MAGA.” Included also are World Leaders, both good and bad, but none of which are as evil and “sick” as the THUGS we have inside our Country who, with their Open Borders, INFLATION, Afghanistan Surrender, Green New Scam, High Taxes, No Energy Independence, Woke Military, Russia/Ukraine, Israel/Iran, All Electric Car Lunacy, and so much more, are looking to destroy our once great USA. MAY THEY ROT IN HELL. AGAIN, MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Contrast this with the following passages of Scripture:

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” ---Luke 2:8-14, NKJV

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. For, There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone. ---I Timothy 2:1-6, NKJV

I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ <Aramaic, empty head> shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. ---Matthew 5:22, NKJV


Monday, December 25, 2023

O little town of Bethlehem!

Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    are only a small village among all the people of Judah.

Yet a ruler of Israel,

    whose origins are in the distant past,

    will come from you on my behalf.

3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies

    until the woman in labor gives birth.

Then at last his fellow countrymen

    will return from exile to their own land.

4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,

    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.

Then his people will live there undisturbed,

    for he will be highly honored around the world.

5     And he will be the source of peace. (New Living Translation)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Is it appropriate to bless those sinners?

You may have heard that Pope Francis is receiving a great deal of criticism and resistance to his recently issued Decree allowing the blessing of some same sex couples by the Catholic Church. The AP recently reported in an article titled Some Catholic Bishops reject Pope's stance on blessings for same-sex couples: "In an extraordinary pushback against Pope Francis, some Catholic bishops in Africa, Poland and elsewhere say they will not implement the new Vatican policy allowing blessings for same-sex couples. Others downplayed the policy approved this week by Francis as merely reaffirming the Vatican's long-standing teaching about marriage being only a union between a man and a woman."

Now, while the decree does reaffirm the traditional Catholic definition of marriage (one man and one woman) and forbids a church marriage for gay couples, it does break new ground for the Catholic Church in reaching out to gay people. In his decree, Francis noted that "The great blessing of God is Jesus Christ. He is the great gift of God, his own Son. He is a blessing for all humanity, a blessing that has saved us all. He is the Eternal Word, with whom the Father blessed us ‘while we were still sinners’ (Rom. 5:8), as St. Paul says. He is the Word made flesh, offered for us on the cross."

In the section on the blessing of couples of the "same sex" and "irregular situations," the decree reads in part: "In such cases, a blessing may be imparted that not only has an ascending value but also involves the invocation of a blessing that descends from God upon those who—recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. These forms of blessing express a supplication that God may grant those aids that come from the impulses of his Spirit—what classical theology calls 'actual grace'—so that human relationships may mature and grow in fidelity to the Gospel, that they may be freed from their imperfections and frailties, and that they may express themselves in the ever-increasing dimension of the divine love."

The Papal decree continues: "Indeed, the grace of God works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else. This grace can orient everything according to the mysterious and unpredictable designs of God. Therefore, with its untiring wisdom and motherly care, the Church welcomes all who approach God with humble hearts, accompanying them with those spiritual aids that enable everyone to understand and realize God’s will fully in their existence." Now, that seems awfully mild and consistent with a scripturally Christian perspective to me, but it is apparently too much for some of the modern-day Pharisees which make up the more traditional wing of the church.

For me, it brings to mind a story recorded in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We read there:

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Yes, I think that Jesus has blessed a whole lot of sinners. What do you think? 

Friday, December 22, 2023

Those folks are responsible for all of this SH-T!

Unfortunately, when a human society is experiencing stress or problems of any kind, it has been a time-honored tradition to blame it all on some group or individual. We call it scapegoating. It turns out that accepting responsibility and blame when things go wrong is extremely unpopular among most societies. It is much more satisfying and comfortable to imagine that what we are suffering is the fault of THOSE people! Down through the centuries, Europeans have singled out Jews and Gypsies as the source of their problems. American Fundamentalists point to homosexuals, pro-choice folks, feminists, and immigrants as the source of all of America's problems. In other words, God is punishing us for their wickedness!

Obviously, when it's fags, Jews, or immigrants who are responsible for this sh-t, it can't be anything that I or my tribe have done. Immigrants are poisoning our blood, and gay folks are destroying our families. When it's them, it can't be us! It's much easier to blame the immigrants for stealing our jobs than it is to deal with corporate greed, new technologies, and global competition as the sources of our changing job market. It's much easier to blame the immigrants for siphoning off societal resources than it is to address the spending and funding difficulties that are the real sources of our difficulties. If gay folks and feminists are destroying our families, we don't have to look at adultery, domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, divorce and remarriage, custody battles, cell phone use, and a whole host of other behaviors which are the real culprits behind the demise of the traditional family.

Scripture also makes clear that the bad things which happen to us aren't always the consequence of someone's or some group's sinning. The book of Job informs us that suffering and pain aren't always the consequence of bad behavior. According to the Gospels, Jesus also told his disciples that suffering and pain weren't always the result of bad behavior (Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-3). Likewise, the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel, and Nineveh make clear that God is very reluctant to employ collective punishments. In other words, according to the Bible, God is very reluctant to punish the innocent with the wicked!

Hence, we can see that both logic and Scripture dictate that we NOT seek out scapegoats to blame for our problems. Indeed, as Christians, we should strive to follow Christ's commandment to his disciples: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (Matthew 7:1-5, ESV) As flawed humans, we know that we often delude ourselves and do not have the ability to accurately discern the motivations and workings of the hearts of our fellow travelers on this planet. Likewise, unlike God, we simply cannot see the end of all things. In other words, some of the things which seem like great trials and tribulations in the present, may result in very positive consequences for us and the folks that we love someday! 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The "Christian" Right

Evangelical Christians of the Fundamentalist/Literalist variety share many similarities with the Pharisees whom Christ had to deal with during his earthly ministry. Like the Pharisees, they diligently search the Scriptures as the means to have eternal life and ignore the One whom those writings all point to as the source of that life (John 5:39). Like the Pharisees of old, they believe that they understand God's standard for righteousness and the definition of sin, but they all too often prefer form over substance and judgment over mercy (Matthew 23:2-28). They espouse "family values" and traffic in the same kind of hypocrisy that infected those Pharisees of Christ's day (like being serial adulterers, having multiple spouses - practicing serial monogamy, cheating in business and on taxes, employing deliberate deceptions and misrepresentations to get their way or achieve their objectives, etc.).

We've all known some of them. The little blue-haired old ladies who are in church every time the doors are open and wouldn't dream of saying "fart" out loud, but they have no patience or compassion for sinners and disadvantaged folks (their hearts are cold as ice). They remind me of that passage from the second epistle to Timothy - they have a form of godliness, but they actually refuse to acknowledge its power to transform lives (II Timothy 3:5). We've all heard the preacher who stands up in the pulpit and condemns homosexuals and doctors who perform abortions to the fires of Hell - that are quick to tell you what the Lord abhors. Indeed, their moral clarity is 20/20 when they are looking at other folks, but they tend to be blind to their own faults (Matthew 7:1-5) These saintly old ladies and preachers in smartly tailored suits stand in stark contrast to the sailor who drinks, gambles, and turns the air blue with what he says; but who is always ready to lend a hand to those in need - the kind who would literally give you the shirt off of his back.

Always seeing the world in black and white - wrong and right - good and evil - may be personally satisfying, but denying the grey and the color in the world is NOT living in reality! Indeed, in most quarters, a person who regularly engages in binary thinking is usually characterized as delusional. I can hear it now - "Lonnie is advocating moral relativism!" My response: Some folks need to justify their delusions! They cannot face the cognitive dissonance or moral relativism of their own reasoning! They've constructed a philosophical straitjacket for themselves, and they've convinced themselves that wearing it makes them feel safe and comfortable.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The ACOGs and FEAR

As longtime readers of this blog know, I have written a number of posts over the years that were very critical of the “headline theology” and “warning messages” of the Armstrong Churches of God. Indeed, since the founding of the movement by Herbert Armstrong, the preaching has focused on relating current events and trends to biblical prophecy. To be more precise, Armstrong and his followers have focused on the most troublesome headlines reported by the various news media and portrayed them as manifestations of God’s wrath - predicted long ago in the pages of the Bible. In other words, they have always trafficked in FEAR! It has been (and is) the principal hook and calling card of their outreach to the public.

Of course, I am certainly not the first person who has noticed this fearmongering as being such a prominent feature of the Armstrong Churches of God. The Painful Truth blog recently reran an article originally published in Penthouse magazine back in 1977! The article, GTA - Prophet of Doom by Roger N. Williams, presented a well-balanced and well-written portrayal of Garner Ted Armstrong’s preaching style and content (At the time, he was still the face of the radio and television programs of the now defunct Worldwide Church of God). In the opening paragraph, Williams described GTA as a “media superstar” who “has discovered the profit of fear.”

He went on to say: “He’s the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Fear, spreading his warning of the Coming End across the airwaves to 50 million people every week and telling of The Wonderful World Tomorrow that will follow the nuclear obliteration mankind is about to bring upon itself.” Later in the article, he quoted one of Garner Ted’s aides as characterizing the Church’s message as: “The good news is that Christ is coming back. The bad news is that he’s pissed off.” In reading through the article, I found myself repeatedly thinking about the oft repeated truism that “some things never change.”

For me, Williams’ evaluation of GTA and his messaging was fair and evenhanded. He did, for example, compliment GTA’s “booming golden voice.” He also described the Ambassador College campus in Pasadena as beautiful, handsomely appointed, and a “small Eden.” Williams even credited GTA and the Church for their early and thoughtful warnings about environmental damage. However, he also pointed out that this coverage wasn’t offered in the hope of correcting bad behaviors (like polluting), “but only to show that until Jesus gets here, we’re going to continue to make a mess out of things.” In other words, even the good stuff was meant to contrast with just how bad things actually were in the larger world!

Williams also pointed out that the Worldwide Church’s commentary was NOT always unbiased and objective. He observed that “The Plain Truth is largely a right-wing propaganda outlet. Articles rail against ‘the twisted ideology’ of the women’s movement, stating that the letters Ms. should stand for ‘Marxist sisters’. It denounces pornography as ‘an ideal weapon employed by our enemies to weaken Western civilization’. Garner Ted has looked like a liberal when he’s taken stands against ‘the death of the oceans’ or ‘aerosol Armageddon’ or the American SST. But in his column and occasional articles that appear in each issue, he is happier campaigning against European unity, which he believes threatens United States interests and is the fulfillment of the prophesied resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire. He bewails America’s ‘isolationist attitudes’ and fears that the CIA exposés will weaken our country and the CIA. He vehemently and consistently supported the Vietnam War, right up to the fall of Saigon, fearing at the end that his big ‘World Tomorrow Campaign’ planned for Bangkok would be eclipsed by invading North Vietnamese troops. And despite his strong, if abstract, denunciations of world militarism, he whole heartedly supports a strong American military machine…” Hmmmm, that sounds an awful lot like some of the current messaging from the Armstrong Churches of God!

Yes, some things never change! The ACOG’s continued attachment to the discredited teaching that the English-speaking peoples of the Earth are the descendants of the ancient Israelites continues to pervert their understanding of biblical prophecy, and the “warning” message which flows from it. Unfortunately, the right-wing commentary of the current ACOGs is just as biased and irrelevant as the commentary offered in times past by Herbert and Garner Ted Armstrong. The fact is that this messaging is inconsistent with the commission Christ gave to his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and it doesn’t provide any reliable insights about what is going to happen next (other than Jesus will return someday, and God’s Kingdom will eventually envelope the entire Earth).

No, the New Testament canon makes very clear that Christians should NOT allow themselves to be motivated by fear. Paul told the Romans that God hadn’t given them a Spirit of slavery to fear, but one that instills confidence in their new role as God’s children because of what Christ had done for them (Romans 8). Likewise, in his first epistle, John wrote that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18) Christ and his apostles brought the “Good News” about what Christ was doing/had done for humankind – a message of hope and love for a weary world. In other words, it did not resemble the gloom and doom of the messaging of the Armstrong Churches of God!


Sunday, December 10, 2023

Humans Were Meant to Explore and Question Everything!

In religious circles, the notion of faith has often been abused and twisted. For many, faith is believing that everything in Scripture should be interpreted as being literal and definitive. In other words, for these folks, everything that one would ever need to know for a successful and productive life is to be found in the Bible.

The problem with this kind of thinking, of course, is that it is inconsistent with Scripture, nature, and the human experience! Indeed, all of those things teach us that humans are hardwired to cogitate, ask questions, and explore their surroundings.

The Adam and Eve narrative in Genesis reveals a fundamental truth about humans that many people miss. The story portrays the progenitors of the human race as rejecting the opportunity to have everything handed to them on a silver platter. Instead of eating the fruit from the Tree of Life, they decided to eat the fruit from the tree which represented the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. In other words, they rejected revelation in favor of figuring it all out for themselves. And, while they were punished for disobeying God's instructions, we are told that God respected their choice! Indeed, in all of his subsequent dealings with humans, the God of the Bible involved humans and worked through them to reveal and accomplish his will.

In the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, humans are portrayed as thinking, seeking, experimenting, exploring, and wrestling with God and life. Sarah devised a plan to produce offspring for her husband. Abraham questioned God about his plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob devised a plan to receive God's blessing, and we are informed that he even wrestled with God one evening - refusing to let go until God blessed him! The Israelites explored the Promised Land, questioned God's plans to give it to them, and devised their own plan for taking it by force. Over and over again, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites were instructed to seek God, meditate on the meaning and application of his laws, and to LEARN to fear/respect/be in awe of him. Job questioned why God had allowed so many bad things to happen to him.

Christ told his followers, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled," and to "seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." In that same Gospel (Matthew), we are also informed that he told them to "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." Moreover, he told his followers to "consider the lilies" - think about them. In the book of Acts, we read that the people of Berea were "more noble" than the folks of Thessalonica because they "searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." The Apostle Paul told the saints at Rome that "the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead." In their epistles, both Paul and Peter alluded to the fact that a Christian's knowledge and understanding was expected to continue to develop throughout his/her lifetime on this planet. In the epistle to the Hebrews, it is noted that Christians should consider themselves to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth, and that they should be seekers of a heavenly country - a new world order.

Now, we've already noted how Scripture itself tells us that nature has much to teach us about God, his will, ourselves, and the world around us. However, the entire history of human experience on this planet demonstrates that it is part of our very nature as a species to question, experiment, explore, and learn. Moreover, all of our experiences in this regard teach us that the more we learn, the more we realize that there is so much more that we still don't understand! In other words, the quest for understanding is very human, and it is endless! Hence, whether we believe that we evolved, were created, or exist as a consequence of some combination of the two, the notion that humans are hardwired to enquire, experiment, and explore is inescapable! This is a fundamental reality and truth of human existence.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Remembering

Scripture instructs us to remember God, his laws, the Sabbath, and what he has done in the past. The Israelites were instructed to remember that God had delivered them from slavery to Egypt and to remember God's covenant with them. Christ's disciples were told that the Holy Spirit would help them to remember the things that Christ had said and done during his time on earth. Christians partake of the Eucharist to remember Jesus Christ, and what he did for them. Likewise, the New Testament encourages Christ's disciples to engage in self-reflection on a regular basis. Indeed, the word "remember" occurs one hundred and forty-eight times in the King James Version of the Bible (and that doesn't include the times when folks are instructed not to forget something)! Hence, we get the clear impression that memory and remembering are important to the Judeo-Christian God.

On this second anniversary of my father's death, I find myself remembering the past and thinking about these things. I remember his smile, his hugs, his tickling of myself and my brother when we were small, and - yes - I remember the mistakes that he made. I remember all of those things about him, and I miss him and remember the love that I felt for him. I remember too his mother and stepfather, my grandparents, the ones who raised my brother and me. In all of those memories, there is a mixture of gratitude, love, and regret over things that happened and didn't happen. Those memories also stir in me a desire to tell my own children and grandchildren about them and to try to be the very best father and grandfather that I can be for them now - to not repeat and perpetuate the mistakes and hurts of the past. In short, memory is a complex thing that evokes a complex mixture of thoughts and emotions.

I am also reminded that the Festival of the Dedication begins tonight at sundown. It is a remembrance and celebration of the rededication of the second Temple after the Maccabees defeated the Syrian Greeks, and the miracle of the oil in the lamp. It is a window on the past and future. It points to the restoration of the worship of the One True God, and the commencement of the reign of priest-kings! I am also reminded that the Gospel of John records Christ's celebration of this festival, and what he had to say on that occasion. He said: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one." (John 10:27-30) Yes, remembering can be a source of great comfort, reassurance, and hope.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The White Horse Does Not Symbolize False Religion!

The Worldwide Church of God published a series of booklets on the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." The first booklet in that series was titled The White Horse - False Religion. Now, while this interpretation fit rather nicely into Herbert Armstrong's interpretations of prophecy and history, it did NOT represent what Scripture actually had to say on the subject or with the broader theme of the book of which it was a part (Revelation/Apocalypse)!

First of all, as with any passage of Scripture, it is essential that we get the immediate context of that passage. In this respect, we should note that the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" is an integral part of the seven seals on the scroll which only Jesus Christ (Lion of Judah, Root of David, Lamb that was slain) was qualified to open (see the fifth chapter of Revelation). Indeed, each of the four horsemen is associated with one of the first four seals. Hence, we can see that these things are meant to be symbolic of what will happen before the second advent of Jesus Christ.

In the sixth chapter of Revelation, we read: "Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, 'Come!' And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, 'A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!' When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, 'Come!' And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (verses 1-8, English Standard Version, here and throughout)."

In trying to understand this passage, we must remember some things about the book as a whole: 1) John incorporated symbols familiar to the Old Testament prophets in his book, and he expected his readers to be familiar with them (e.g. the numbers 4, 7, and 12, lampstands, olive trees, horsemen, multi-headed beasts, a dragon, the colors red, white, black, and grey, Babylon, etc.) Hence, in this instance, John would have expected his readers to be aware of the horsemen described in the first chapter of the book of Zechariah in the Hebrew Bible. 2) John revealed that the theme of the book was Christ's intention "to show to his servants the things that must soon take place." (Revelation 1:1) As part of this theme, John continually contrasted Christ's Kingdom with that of this world's governance under man influenced by Satan. And the book makes very clear that Christ expected his followers to remain faithful to his Kingdom - even if that meant suffering persecution and death at the hands of this world's system. 3) Within the book itself (Revelation), another rider on a white horse is clearly contrasted with the one we find in the sixth chapter. This rider appears after God's triumph over this world's system is announced from heaven in the nineteenth chapter of the book.

We read there: "Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords (verses 11-16)." This rider is clearly symbolic of Jesus Christ, and we notice that he has a sword instead of a bow, many crowns atop his head instead of a single one, and that he himself is clothed in white. Notice too, that as we continue with this account in the nineteenth chapter, we are informed that this rider (accompanied by his heavenly army) defeats all of the armies of this world arrayed against him (verses 17-21).

With this context in hand, the imagery of the four horsemen of Revelation 6 comes into sharper focus. Please note that the first rider is seated on a white horse (white is symbolic of righteousness), and that he had a bow (a weapon of war). We are also informed that he was wearing a crown (symbolic of governance), and that he was actively engaged in the conquest of others (extending his power and authority). Of course, this is typical of ALL of the great human empires mentioned in the Bible (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome). They all sought to expand their power and authority over others - to conquer the world known to them. Moreover, it is interesting to note that this very human motivation to control the nations/peoples surrounding you has so often led to the very conditions which the other three horsemen symbolize (war, famine, and death). In other words, the desire to conquer often leads to fighting, starvation, disease, and numerous casualties.

In Revelation, the imagery of the "Beast" and "Babylon" are used to portray man's system. Throughout the prophetic writings of Scripture (Old and New Testament), this system of men influenced by Satan has been portrayed as having a number of features which distinguish it from God's system. Among the more prominent of these features are: 1) reverence for and allegiance to the State - the State (often personified by its leader) becomes an object of worship, 2) military power and prowess are celebrated and highly valued ("Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?"), 3) people and resources are ruthlessly exploited by the State and its leadership, 4) the glory, aggrandizement, expansion, and enrichment of the State is made the primary objective of everyone. In other words, the State and its leadership take the place of God, and everyone is expected to honor, serve, and support the State and its leadership - it becomes the religion of its citizens!

Hence, although the "White Horse" does NOT symbolize false religion in the sense that the booklet mentioned at the beginning of this post suggested, the need for humans to subdue and control resources and each other can and does often lead to state idolatry. In other words, what the "White Horseman" symbolizes is much more insidious and pervasive than any "apostate" version of Christianity. Indeed, under this human system, religion becomes a tool of the State - it's made to serve and protect the State's interests, NOT God's will.

For those who may be interested in a better understanding of the book of Revelation and its symbolism, I am pleased to recommend two presentations by the Bible Project which cover that book:

Revelation 1-11

Revelation 12-22

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Of Earth and Heaven

In the book of Genesis, we read that "the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." (Genesis 2:7, ESV here and throughout) Also, after Adam sinned, we are informed that God told him that he would "return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19) Likewise, in the book of Ecclesiastes, we read that "the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7) Interestingly, we see that humans are closely associated with the earth - that which provided the building blocks of the physical organism that we currently are.

Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul told the saints at Corinth that we (humans) also have the potential to be remade of better stuff. He wrote about the resurrection of dead humans on this wise: "So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven." (I Corinthians 15:42-49) In other words, that which was formerly of the earth will someday be of heaven!  

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Point of No Return?

A friend recently sent me a link to a sermon by United Church of God Pastor Steve Meyers and asked for my opinion of the presentation. The sermon, Point of No Return, is a well-articulated repackaging of a familiar theme within the Armstrong Churches of God - that the sinfulness of our society has reached the point of no return. The premise is that God is fed up with our sinning and is about to lower the boom on us! In other words, it is a message about collective punishment for sins. Even so, while Meyers makes clear that he believes it's too late for the United States, he does allow that it's not too late for individuals to repent and avoid the fate of the nation as a whole. Of course, from his perspective, such an individual would not engage in, or condone, certain behaviors/sins which he claims are widely accepted by our culture (e.g. abortion, homosexual marriage, taking prayer out of schools, the abandonment of churches, the rise of atheism and secularism, etc.).

From my perspective, there are a number of problems with this ACOG narrative: 1) It is founded on the mistaken notion that the English-speaking peoples of the earth (along with some Western European nations) are the descendants of the "Lost Ten Tribes" of Israel, and that most of Old Testament prophecy applies to them in the End Time. 2) It is also premised on the notion that Christians are obligated to obey/observe many (if not most) of the tenets/commandments of God's covenant with Israel as outlined in Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). In other words, they do NOT understand what really constitutes a sin (For Christians, that would be a failure: a. to love God with our whole heart and being, and b. to love each other as we love ourselves). 3) Scripture supports the principle that each person is responsible for his/her own sins, and that God does NOT punish the innocent with the wicked. And, finally, 4) It incorrectly assumes that God's love, patience, and mercy has limits, and it suggest that "He" is itching to zap everybody who has sorely tried "His" patience. In other words, God is pissed, and he's loaded for bear!

The first notion (British Israelism) has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited here and elsewhere. It is inconsistent with Scripture, history, DNA, linguistics, and archaeology. Moreover, Jesus said that he came to this earth to fulfill the Law AND the Prophets. Hence, those prophecies which did not find fulfillment in ancient times (like the punishments of Israel and Judah) MUST find their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. If not, Christ lied, and we can't rely on anything he said anyway!

The second notion (that Christians are obligated to observe Torah) is NOT consistent with Scripture. Torah makes very clear (in numerous places) that it was intended for the children of Israel. Moreover, as we have already pointed out, Christ said that he came to this earth to fulfill Torah, and that the righteousness of his followers would have to surpass that of the Jews of his day (Matthew 5:17-20). Also, the New Testament account of the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15) makes very plain that Gentile Christians would not be required to observe the tenets of Torah. Likewise, the epistles of Paul make very clear that Christians are NOT justified by observing the provisions of Torah. Christians are reconciled to God and made righteous in "His" sight by their faith in the efficacy of the sacrifice/offering of Jesus Christ.

The book of Ezekiel clearly establishes the principle that each and every one of us is responsible for our own sins. In the eighteenth chapter of that book, we read: "Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die." (Verse 4) "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself." (Verse 20) This sentiment is echoed by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the saints at Rome (Romans 14:12).

In addition to this principle, Abraham's conversation with God prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah establishes the axiom that God does not punish the innocent with the wicked. In that account, we read: "Then the Lord said, 'Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know." (Genesis 18:20-21) Continuing, we read that Abraham asked God: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Verses 23-25) God responded: "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake." (Verse 26) Of course, as most of us are aware, the conversation continued until God committed to spare the entire city if he found just ten righteous people living there (verses 27-32).

Finally, the notion that God's love and mercy has its limits is NOT supported by Scripture! In the book of Lamentations, we read: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end." (3:22) In the book of Psalms, we read: "For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you." (86:5) "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." (103:8) "Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!" (106:1) "Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!" Likewise, in the New Testament, we read: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (II Peter 3:9) Paul wrote to the saints at Rome: "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:31-39) I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty limitless to me!

As far as nations go, I seem to remember something about God commissioning a man named Jonah to warn the city of Nineveh that he was about to destroy them for their wickedness, and that they repented as a consequence of his message. Moreover, that same account (see the book of Jonah) clearly stated that God relented because of their repentance and did NOT destroy them as the prophet had predicted. Hmmmmmm, a "point of no return"? I don't think so!

Friday, November 17, 2023

A Time to Give Thanks to God

In the book of Psalms, we read: "May all who are godly rejoice in the Lord and praise his holy name!" - Psalm 97:12 NLT And: "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to the Most High." - Psalm 92:1 Indeed, the following passage occurs several times in Scripture: "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever." - I Chronicles 16:34, Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 29, 136:1-2, 26

Also, Psalm 100 is referred to as a Psalm of Thanksgiving. We read there:

1 Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth!

2     Worship the Lord with gladness.

    Come before him, singing with joy.

3 Acknowledge that the Lord is God!

    He made us, and we are his.

    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving;

    go into his courts with praise.

    Give thanks to him and praise his name.

5 For the Lord is good.

    His unfailing love continues forever,

    and his faithfulness continues to each generation.

The Apostle Paul said that he was thankful for God's people - Romans 16:4, Ephesians 1:16, Colossians 1:3, I Thessalonians 1:2, II Thessalonians 2:13 He also told the saints at Thessalonica to "Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." - I Thessalonians 5:18

Now, in the United States, there is a tradition of designating the fourth Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. And, as we have seen, such an expression of thanks to Almighty God is clearly consistent with Scripture. Hence, let all of God's people give thanks to God for all of the good things he has given to us and praise his Holy name! Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 12, 2023

UCG: Was the Biblical Sabbath Changed to Sunday?

In the latest issue of the United Church of God's Beyond Today magazine, Scott Ashley wrote an article titled Was the Biblical Sabbath Changed to Sunday? For those hoping for an updated and more historically accurate version of this story, you are going to be disappointed. In the article, Ashley writes:

"When John finished his writings late in the first century, the books and letters that would form what we call the New Testament were complete. With his passing, however, trustworthy eyewitness accounts of events and changes in the Church largely ceased. We are left with little reliable information for the next several centuries."

Unfortunately, this statement is blatantly FALSE! Consider the following list of documents available to us from the First and Second Centuries:

The Didache

Epistle of Barnabas

Epistle of Clement of Rome

The Shepherd of Hermas

Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (To Polycarp, Smyrnaeans, Philadelphians, Romans, Trallians, Magnesians, Ephesians)

Epistle of Polycarp

Writings of Justin Martyr

Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons

If you're interested in examining these primary historical sources from this period of Church history, please visit Early Christian Writings

Also, you may want to take a look at these posts by me:

Early Christianity: From Sabbath to Sunday

Christian Sunday Observance Did NOT Originate in Ancient Pagan Practice

Friday, November 10, 2023

What is SIN?

The Armstrong Churches of God all love to quote a passage from the first epistle of John as their answer to the question: "What is sin?" Now, while I would agree with their characterization of this scripture as providing us with an excellent definition of what constitutes sin, I would also assert that they completely misinterpret what is revealed there!

In the third chapter of I John, we read: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4, ESV), OR "sin is the transgression of the law" (as it is rendered in the King James Version). According to the ACOGs, the law being referenced here is the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Hence, for them, any violation of the commandments of Torah is a sin.

Now, this interpretation ignores both the context of this passage within John's epistle and a whole lot of other passages of Scripture to arrive at that conclusion (that it refers to Torah). In the first chapter of the epistle, we read: "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (I John 1:5-7, ESV here and throughout)

Likewise, in the second chapter, we read: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." (I John 2:1-11)

Did you catch that? John was referring to Christ's summary of the Law referenced in the Gospels. Do you remember the two Great Commandments? Jesus said: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40) More particularly, John was referencing that second commandment. Why? Because he knew that Christ had also said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35) As Paul told the saints at Rome: "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:8-10)

Now, returning to the third chapter of John's epistle, we are ready to take a look at the immediate context of the above referenced passage (I John 3:4). Immediately preceding that passage, we read: "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure." (I John 3:1-3) Do we begin to discern John's theme? For John, righteousness is inextricably connected to LOVE!

Likewise, in the verses which follow the ACOG prooftext, John speaks of Jesus: "You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." (I John 3:5-8) In other words, JESUS is the standard of righteousness for the Christian!

Continuing in the epistle, John returns to his theme. We read: "For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." (I John 3:11-18)

Finally, toward the end of the chapter, John summarized: "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us." (I John 3:23-24)

Then, in the very next chapter, we read: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." (I John 4:7-12)

The chapter concludes with this admonition from John: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother." (I John 4:18-21) So, according to John, even the first Great Commandment finds fulfillment in this love for each other!

The theme finds its fulfillment in the fifth chapter of the epistle. We read there: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome." (I John 5:1-3) Hence, we can clearly see that the commandments which John was talking about was Christ's summary of Torah into two Great Commandments: the Law of Love! Thus, according to John, sin is a failure to love one's brothers and sisters in Christ and the people who desperately need to come to Christ! In other words, for the Christian, sin is NOT defined by breaking the terms of God's covenant with Israel (as defined in Torah).

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Why does God work through fallible humans?

Why would an omnipotent and omniscient God use beings of such limited sensory and cognitive abilities to communicate his will to those beings? Wouldn't it make much more sense for God to do everything himself? In fact, doesn't all of the confusion, contradiction, and failure associated with religion and its scriptures suggest that there really isn't any such God behind it all - that it is entirely the product of human reasoning? Think about the many and varied sects/denominations extant within Christianity. And what about all of those obvious errors and contradictions which are present in the Judeo-Christian Bible? Wouldn't it have made more sense for God to have personally written an error-free instruction book and presented it to humans? And why wouldn't that God have simply and straightforwardly answered all of our questions? Why all of the mystery?

If there really is a Creator of humankind, then that entity is of necessity intimately familiar with the sensory and cognitive abilities of those creatures. In short, a Creator would understand how those creatures communicate with each other and learn. A Creator would comprehend the mechanics and evolution of language - both written and spoken. A Creator would fully grasp the process by which humans formulate and interpret messages. A Creator would get all of the nuances and importance of nonverbal cues - the body language of communication. A Creator would understand that humans have varying cognitive/intellectual abilities, and that they respond to a wide range of educational methodologies. Indeed, my own training as an educator has made me acutely aware of just how complex human communication and learning can be.

Successful educators quickly learn that some teaching methods are better suited to certain students and circumstances than others. Teachers know that reading is sometimes preferable to lecture. Instructors understand that some topics are better handled with things like group discussions, writing assignments, experimentation, field trips, storytelling, games/competitions, research projects, etc. Educators know that using experts and debating can be the most effective means to present some topics. Teachers also employ many different kinds of media in their programs of instruction (e.g., film, slides, computers, books, magazines/journals, overhead projectors, erasable boards, copying machines, television, audio recordings, etc.). Educators also understand that there are very different dynamics present within a group learning environment compared to an individualized program of instruction. Teachers are also very much aware of the impact that a student's homelife can have on his/her performance in the classroom (things like sleep, nutrition, housing, parental and sibling modeling, etc.). In short, humans respond to a wide variety of learning methods and environments.

Take just a moment to also consider the many different types of both oral and written communications available to humans. We employ formal and informal conversations, meetings, presentations/lectures, speeches, and interviews in communicating with each other. Moreover, just as there are a wide variety of ways to orally communicate with each other, there are also a number of literary genres available to us. We know that we can choose to express ourselves through prose or poetry. We understand that folks can read works of fiction or nonfiction. We know that authors can choose to employ devices like satire, metaphor, allegory, narrative, dialogue, etc. We understand that writers can use humor, romance, history, science, horror, etc. to communicate their story to others. In other words, humans have developed a diverse and wide-ranging means of exchanging information/ideas with each other.

Having considered all of this from the perspective of human communication and learning, a number of questions come to mind: Is it unreasonable to assume that a Creator would be aware of all of this? Does it make any sense to suppose that this awareness might have some impact on how a Creator would choose to present itself to its creation? Does it make any sense for a teacher to incorporate the needs of their students into his/her lesson plans? Is it illogical for an educator to involve his/her students in the learning process? Wouldn't a wise instructor use a variety of messages and methodologies in the presentation of his/her lesson(s)? Don't all good teachers and storytellers tailor their messages to the audience before them? Does one size fit all? What do you think?


Wednesday, November 1, 2023

A Sound Mind

Unfortunately, too many Christians harbor ugly and unscriptural biases with regard to mental health issues. For them, the King James translation of Paul's second epistle to Timothy, suggests that those who have God's Holy Spirit dwelling within them will have a "sound mind" (II Timothy 1:7). However, both the English Standard Version and the New Living Translation make clear that a better translation of the original Greek word employed in this passage would be "self-control" or "self-discipline." In other words, just as the presence of God's Holy Spirit does not immunize us against experiencing physical diseases (like cancer, diabetes, asthma, etc.), it also does NOT preclude us from experiencing issues related to our mental health.

The PLAIN TRUTH is that Christians can and do occasionally suffer from things like anxiety, depression, psychoses, and neuroses. Likewise, contrary to popular opinion, pastors/ministers/priests/bishops are not necessarily mental health experts or specialists. In other words, any office within the Church which a person may occupy does NOT automatically qualify that individual to operate as a mental health counselor! Hence, the notion that Christians should avoid psychological counseling or available secular mental health services is both illogical and unscriptural. Yes, faith can sometimes lead to both physical and emotional healing, but it can also be misused and lead to injury and/or death!

Indeed, Scripture is very clear that God has great compassion for anyone and everyone who is suffering from emotional distress - in both the Old and New Testaments. David once wrote that "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed." The prophets pointed to a time when God would banish weeping and cries of distress. Likewise, we are informed in the New Testament that Jesus Christ came to this earth to heal those who are broken (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). He also said that those who mourn would be blessed, and that they would be comforted. In fact, Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as "The Comforter." Paul wrote to the saints at Rome that troubles and distress cannot separate a Christian from his/her God. In short, the presence of God's Spirit and an active and healthy faith in God and Christ demands that Christians NOT neglect and/or ignore their emotional health. After all, we (Christians) are temples of God's Spirit! 

Monday, October 30, 2023

UCG’s Dan Dowd on LGBTQ Folks

Dan Dowd of the United Church of God recently delivered a sermon entitled And Such Were Some of You on how the church should respond to the LGBTQ community. He began by providing some historical background for our current circumstances. Predictably, Dowd sees the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s as the origin of our society’s present attitudes toward LGBTQ related issues. For him, the pill (birth control), declassifying homosexuality as a psychological disorder, and greater acceptance of alternative “lifestyles” within the larger society are all symptomatic of the larger problem.

Dowd made clear that he believes that sexual identity is central to LGBTQ folks. He believes that their identity is their religion – that things like love, morality, interpersonal relationships, finances, and other interests are secondary to them. Indeed, Dowd asserts that these folks have set themselves up as their own gods – that they get to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. In other words, he makes no allowance for the fact that these folks are the same degree of human as everyone else around them. It appears to be inconceivable to him that these folks might be motivated by the same wants and needs which motivate him and other heterosexuals.

Mr. Dowd also talked a great deal about gender fluidity, and how our society has gotten away from the binary gender status which God assigned to the human race at the beginning. Interestingly, he quoted from the story of Adam’s creation in Genesis to make his point, but he completely ignored what is said and suggested there. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Verse 27) Likewise, in the second chapter, we read: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Verse 23) The clear implication of both passages is that the essence of both genders was present within man from the beginning – that “Adam” had both genders within him!

Mr. Dowd’s binary perspective on gender is also not consistent with what science and nature have to teach us on the subject. In the real world, we see that most folks exhibit both masculine and feminine traits – that just like the pH scale, most of us fit somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes (male and female). Some men have higher levels of estrogen coursing through their veins, and some women have higher levels of testosterone. It is, simply, part of the very complex chemical and biological mechanisms which make up the human organism. Mr. Dowd’s perspective also fails to account for the real world phenomenon of the intersex human – the person who is born with some of the physical equipment of BOTH genders.

Mr. Dowd also made clear that he personally believes these aberrant behaviors are motivated by a desire for acceptance and validation. According to him, these unfortunate folks are looking for love (In the words of an old Country classic, “in all the wrong places”). Which, incidentally, would seem to contradict his assertion that sexual identity is the religion of these folks. In other words, he appears to be acknowledging that these folks might be motivated by some of the same things which motivate heterosexuals.

Mr. Dowd went on to assert that all of this aberrant behavior stems from a rejection and/or ignorance of God’s Law. In this connection, he referenced most of the classical “clobber” passages which Christians have employed over the last fifty years in their war against LGBTQ folks and their “sinful” behaviors.

Predictably, he referenced the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis as an example of God’s perspective on the sinfulness of homosexuality. However, Dowd failed to account for the fact that it is both irrational and unsubstantiated to claim that the entire male population of any city could be homosexual. Indeed, in our own time, cities which are intimately identified with the gay community (San Francisco, New Orleans, New York) are universally acknowledged as being majority heterosexual. Moreover, Scripture itself suggests that there were a number of sinful behaviors present in those cities (see Ezekiel 16:49-50). Finally, hopefully, we can all agree that gang rape is fundamentally different from consensual sex. Again, hopefully, we can all agree that raping someone is inconsistent with loving someone as ourselves or treating others the way that we would like to be treated – that it is inconsistent with doing no harm to our neighbor.

Dowd went on to reference both of the passages in Leviticus which have traditionally been identified as prohibiting same gender sexual relationships (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). Of course, he immediately dismissed any suggestion that (whatever these passages command) they are completely irrelevant to Christians operating under the New Covenant. In this respect, at least Mr. Dowd is true to the philosophical basis of Armstrongism – that Torah (the tenets of God’s covenant with Israel), or a substantial portion of it, is binding on Christians. In other words, like Herbert Armstrong, Mr. Dowd believes that Christians are obligated to keep many of the 600-plus commandments of the Law of Moses. Likewise, Mr. Dowd dismissed any suggestion that these passages were referencing behaviors within the context of a primitive agricultural society and are consequently NOT analogous to modern sexual behaviors or relationships (e.g., the fact that they had male temple prostitutes is not relevant).

Likewise, Mr. Dowd referenced the first chapter of Romans (verses 18-31) and the sixth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the saints at Corinth (verses 9-11) as prooftexts that homosexual behavior of any kind is sinful. Once again, any suggestion that the behaviors described in these passages may not be analogous to modern same sex behaviors is dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Mr. Dowd ridicules any suggestion that the sinful behaviors described in these passages might apply to heterosexual folks. Far be it from any “normal” heterosexual person to engage in any kind of sexual relationship with someone of his/her own gender!

According to Mr. Dowd, homosexuality is a choice. In the complete absence of any definitive scientific findings on the subject (which he acknowledges), he asserts that sexual orientation is not determined at birth. Of course, he then failed to give any account of his own decision in this respect. He did not share with his audience the events surrounding his own determination that breasts were more attractive than pecs. Indeed, Mr. Dowd appears to be oblivious to the absurdity of the notion that anyone has a choice in their sexual orientation. He appears to be at odds with the notion that sexual attraction is something that comes naturally to most folks. In other words, most of us never had to decide that Mary was hot, and Billy was not (or vice versa)!

Mr. Dowd then proceeded to remind us that sin has consequences. In making this point, he cited a whole host of statistics about how LGBTQ folks are more susceptible to things like drug/alcohol addiction, depression, suicide, and disease. Once again, he dismissed any suggestion that these afflictions could be related to the way that society (including the Church) has treated these individuals. For example, is it possible that being isolated, bullied, and continuously ridiculed and/or disparaged might lead to someone experiencing depression, or even contemplating ending their own life? I don’t know about you, but if we’re talking about cause and effect, it does seem like the two might be connected to me!

Nevertheless, in what was mostly a recitation of the traditional perspective on LGBTQ folks and their behaviors, there were a few bright spots in Mr. Dowd’s presentation. He did acknowledge that Christ met people where they were at that moment in time. He also reminded his flock that they were obligated to try to live at peace with EVERYONE. And, most importantly of all, Dowd affirmed that it isn’t part of our calling to condemn or judge the world. Well, that’s a start!

 


Sunday, October 29, 2023

When my voice is stilled

WISE MEN SPEAK BECAUSE THEY HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY; FOOLS BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING – PLATO

When you have something to say, silence is a lie. - Jordan B. Peterson

As I grow older and watch my grandchildren grow and explore the world around them, I am reminded of the joy of learning, experience, and discovering that you have something to contribute to the world around you. Of course, I am also inevitably drawn to an ever-expanding awareness that my own contributions will one day come to an end.

In my own journey, I have always felt a keen obligation to share the things that I've learned with others. In doing so, it has always been my hope that I might be of some help or assistance to others with their own journey. I am also aware that some folks will regard the notion that I might have anything worthwhile to contribute to someone else as the epitome of hubris. Nevertheless, I find that I have always been very willing to own and admit the mistakes I've made along the way, and that I have always been motivated by a desire to prevent others from suffering from the same errors in judgment and reasoning which have impeded my journey. If that is arrogance, then I guess that this will serve as an admission of guilt.

At any rate, when my own voice is inevitably silenced, I hope that my heirs (familial, spiritual, and intellectual) will feel this same compulsion to share with and help others of their kind along their way. To be sure, there are occasions when it is best to remain silent, and the opportunities for listening and observing must never be ignored or intentionally missed. Even so, I hope that my own memorial will record that I have had something to say, NOT that I had to say something.

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Human Heart

 The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. - Jeremiah 17:9

Darlene and I had an opportunity to see the new Martin Scorsese movie this week, Killers of the Flower Moon (based on the book of the same title by David Grann). The movie told the story on the silver screen of how a supposedly Christian white man (and his associates) systematically murdered an Osage Indian family in Oklahoma so as to secure the rights to the profits from oil discovered on their lands. As we watched the sad tale unfold, it made me think of that passage from Jeremiah (quoted above) and of the things that European Christians told themselves to justify their murder/theft of/from Native Americans and enslavement and abuse of their African brethren.

They justified their atrocious and inexcusable behavior by dehumanizing the objects of their exploitation - making themselves superior to their prey. They told themselves that those dark-skinned folks were ignorant, pagan, and lazy savages who had failed to properly use or develop the resources which had been committed to their care. Moreover, as educated, Christian, industrious, and civilized men, everyone should realize that they were entitled to take over what those inferior folks had forfeited any right/claim to!

Never mind that God had said: You must NOT murder. You must NOT steal. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. Yes, even folks who have professed themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ have convinced themselves that some of the most abhorrent behaviors in human history were morally good and justified. Which brings another verse to mind: There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death. - Proverbs 14:12

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Why an Apostle Paul? (part 2)

Previously, we focused on Christ's commission to his twelve apostles to carry his teachings to the whole world, and how they clearly failed to do so. Indeed, prior to decisive Divine intervention, the book of Acts makes clear that the Church remained wholly Jewish in both its composition and character. In the previous essay on this topic, we saw how God used Paul to finally get Christ's message to the Gentiles. In this essay, we will examine how Paul's work transformed what had been an insular and provincial movement into something more broadly appealing and universal in nature. In short, we will see that Paul was used by God to effect a fundamental change within the nature of the Church.

In a sense, Paul's life experiences prior to his conversion made him the perfect vehicle for God to use in transforming his Church. In the previous segment, we referenced the fact that Saul/Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1). Indeed, in the persecution of the Church which followed that event, we read that "Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison." (Verse 3)

Later, when Paul was arrested at the Temple, he made clear that he was a Jew and addressed the mob in the Hebrew language (Acts 21:39-40 and 22:1-2). According to the account, he told them: "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished." (Acts 22:3-5)

In the same account, when he was on trial before Agrippa, Paul said that he had been a strict Pharisee prior to his conversion (Acts 26:5). He continued: "“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities." (Verses 9-11)

In fact, Paul's former zealousness within the Jewish faith and persecution of Christ's disciples is well-documented throughout the New Testament. In his letter to the saints at Philippi, Paul wrote: "If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." (Philippians 3:4-6) Likewise, in his epistle to the saints of Galatia, he wrote: "For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13-14)

As biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman observed: "Paul was a highly educated and zealous Jew. He prided himself, he tells us, in following the traditions passed along by Pharisees. This would mean, among other things, that he was an expert in the Torah and fervently believed in keeping the Torah to the best of his abilities." In other words, understanding Paul's pre-conversion background is essential to understanding why God chose him to transform his Church and its message. To be more precise, Paul's thoroughly Jewish background, comprehensive understanding of Torah, and participation in Jewish efforts to eradicate the Jesus movement uniquely qualified him to transform a provincial Jewish sect into the world religion which Christianity became. Moreover, there is a fairly widespread consensus these days among biblical scholars that that is precisely what the Apostle Paul did!

Heretofore, we have focused on the fact that Paul transformed the Church by carrying the message about Christ to the Gentiles and bringing them into the Church in ever greater numbers as a consequence of those efforts. Obviously, in so doing, he changed the composition of the Church. Henceforth, the circle of Christ's disciples was NOT exclusively composed of Jewish believers.

However, it wasn't just the composition of the Church that Paul transformed - he also fundamentally altered the way that Christians regarded Torah and their own relationship to it. Now, while I do not subscribe to the notion that Paul's theology was radically different from that of Christ and his original apostles, I do think that the instincts of scholars like James Tabor that there are some fundamental differences when we compare Paul's perspective on Torah and messaging with those of the original apostles.

Moreover, scholars have long understood that Paul's epistle to the Romans constitutes the most comprehensive statement of his theological perspective. This epistle has had a profound impact on the most important Christian theologians since the days of Augustine. Martin Luther thought that it was the most important writing of the New Testament and the most perfect expression of the Gospel. Calvin thought that Romans was the key to a comprehensive understanding of Scripture. In his The Bible, Bart Ehrman wrote: "The letter to the Romans has been, historically, the most influential of Paul's writings. In no small measure that is because Paul uses this letter to wrestle with many of the key theological issues of his day. The book expresses some of the most fundamental aspects of Paul's understanding of the Gospel. It is because of its occasion and purpose that this letter, better than any other, reveals Paul's understanding of his message and mission."

In this regard, much is revealed in Paul's opening to the letter. He wrote: "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ," (Romans 1:1-6) Interestingly, this was one of the few Gentile congregations which Paul had NOT personally founded or visited, so we immediately understand his impulse to establish his credentials within the faith in introducing himself to this congregation. Hence, he makes it very clear that he is Christ's servant, and that God has called him to proclaim his message to the world. In other words, "I am the apostle to the Gentiles."

Then, after expressing his desire to visit Rome and meet with the saints there, Paul quickly pivots to delineating the theme of this communication. Indeed, he told them that he was "eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome." (1:15) He continued: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" (Verses 16-17) So, Paul makes clear that God's message isn't just for his own people, the Jews - that it is also for Gentiles like them. He also made it very plain that the salvation which was available through Jesus Christ was based on faith, NOT traditional notions about righteousness! He then proceeded to make clear that EVERYONE was responsible to God for their behavior (Romans 1:18-32).

In the following chapter, Paul went on to explain that no human was in a position to judge the behavior of another human - that God will provide the ultimate judgment, and that no one will escape that justice (Romans 2:1-5). He continued: "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality." (Romans 2:6-11) Once again, the message is clear: The salvation offered through Jesus Christ is also available to Gentiles.

Paul then proceeded to explain how both - those who were bound by the terms of God's covenant with Israel (the Jews), and those who were not bound to observe the tenets of Torah (the Gentiles) - will be subject to God's justice (Romans 2:12-24). The thought concluded with Paul's assertion that anyone who tries to live within God's will is a part of God's people - that being a Jew does NOT automatically secure God's favor (verses 25-29).


Next, Paul went on to explain that Gentiles had the same access to God that Jewish people enjoyed. Yes, Scripture had been given into the hands of the Jews (Romans 3:1-2), but that did not entitle them to special treatment before God. He wrote: "What then? Are we Jews any better off <than the Gentiles>? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not oneno one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless no one does goodnot even one.'" (Verses 9-12)


Then, finally, Paul tied everything that he had had to say on the subject to the theme that he had referenced in the opening to the epistle. He wrote: "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Verses 19-28) For Paul, only those who had faith in Jesus would stand justified before God. For Paul, God was just as much the God of the Gentiles as he was the God of the Jews (verses 29-20). Having established the theme of his epistle, Paul then returned to the role that faith had played in the life of the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, and in the promises made to him (Romans 4)

.

After finishing with Abraham's example, Paul returned to the one whom he pointed to as the fulfillment of those promises, Jesus Christ. Paul reminded the Romans that Christ must be the object of our faith - that HE alone is the one who has actually reconciled all of us sinners to God (Romans 5:1-11)! Next, Paul contrasted the death that Adam had introduced into the world with the life that Jesus had made possible for all of us (verses 12-21). Even so, Paul went on to warn believers away from using the freedom they have in Christ to indulge in wicked/sinful behavior. He reminds them that this is the very thing from which Christ has rescued them - that we can be slaves to righteousness or sin (Romans 6). Moreover, Paul went on to make clear that he believed that it was a flaw in humans which rendered the Law an unworkable solution for us, not any defect inherent in the Law itself (Romans 7).


Once again, the apostle returned to his favorite theme - the crux of his gospel - that they would be saved by their faith in what Christ had done for them, not by trying to obey Torah. He wrote: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Romans 8:1-4) Paul then proceeded to eloquently express his faith that NOTHING would be able to separate a person who had accepted Jesus from his love and protection (verses 31-39).


Later, Paul explained why the Gentiles' faith in Christ had achieved success for them while Israel's pursuit of Torah had resulted in failure. He wrote: "What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offenseand whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (Romans 9:30-33)


The chapter divisions having been added much later, Paul's thought continued into the next chapter. He continued: "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, 'Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart' (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, 'Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.' For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'" (Romans 10:1-13)


In the following chapter, Paul explained that the Jews' failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah had made the Gentiles' acceptance of him possible. He went on to assure them that the Israelites would also someday accept him and be saved (Romans 11). In the remainder of the letter, Paul dispenses practical guidance for Christian living and concludes with some personal remarks to people affiliated with him and the congregation (Romans 12-16). He does, however, assert one more time that he believed that God had commissioned him to carry this message to the Gentiles (Romans 15:14-21).

So, we see that the essence of Paul's message was that God was using him to introduce Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, and that they would be justified by their faith in Jesus Christ - NOT by trying to obey Torah. Just as Paul had written to the saints of Galatia: "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." (Galatians 2:15-16) A little later, in the same letter, he wrote: "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.' Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.' But the law is not of faith, rather 'The one who does them shall live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith." (3:10-14)

Moreover, we have already demonstrated that this was a consistent theme throughout Paul's career as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Indeed, what we have just read in the epistles to the Romans and Galatians underscores the importance of what happened at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). This was the moment of decision: Would Christianity remain a provincial Jewish sect? OR Would it become a faith that would embrace a larger audience and appeal to the Gentile world? Some of the Jewish Christians insisted that the new Gentile converts be circumcised and required to obey the tenets of Torah (verse 5). And, according to the author of Acts, this was the moment that Peter finally got it.

We read in that account that, "after there had been much debate," Peter stood up and said: "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Verses 7-11)

Then, after Paul and Barnabas had talked about their work among the Gentiles, we read that James arose and affirmed Peter's judgment in the matter. Keeping in mind the fact that Peter and James were the pillars of the Jewish Church at Jerusalem, the triumph of Paul's vision and mission is made even more remarkable. James said: "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." (Verses 19-21) The verdict? God had accepted the Gentiles into his Church, and who are we to impose the terms of our covenant with him on them?

Hence, we have seen how God used the Apostle Paul to transform the Church from a narrow sect of the Jewish religion into a group which fully embraced Jesus Christ and his commission to his disciples. In short, God used Paul to bring Christ - at long last - to the Gentiles. This is why there was this man named Paul!