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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...

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!