Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Of Cain and Abel

The Biblical story of Cain and Abel is one that we don’t think about very often. It struck me suddenly, during one of our small home gatherings, that the story could be used a metaphor for the difference between legalism and true discipleship.

 Now, I usually stick strictly to very literal and straightforward approaches to Scripture and try not to put meaning that isn't clearly inherent in the text. If there’s something more allegorical or metaphorical in our interpretation, then it should be presented as such – “I think that perhaps this Scripture could be used as an example of…”. It’s not “Thus says the LORD” or “Thou shalt not murder”. 

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
(Genesis 4:1-7)

Two sacrifices were made. One was acceptable to God and one was not. The passage does not exactly tell us why Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted. There were two clues that we could examine – perhaps it is because Abel offered an animal sacrifice, following God’s example when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Or, perhaps, it is because of Cain’s heart and attitude – he was angry, “his countenance fell”, and later he murdered his brother on account of this sacrifice. What was Cain’s attitude as he offered his sacrifice – pride? Arrogance? Insecurity? What was his attitude afterwards – Anger, for sure. Maybe jealousy. 

The LORD said to Cain, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.

  1. Are we presenting the “right sacrifices”?
  2. Do we have the right attitudes?
I’m going to go straight to applying this to our lives as disciples of Christ. I’ve noticed in my Christian walk as well as in the lives of others that there are two kinds of “sacrifices” we c an make. Firstly, the kind that we want to make, that make us look good, but that God never asked us to make. We become “clever” and come up with “sacrificial” or “spiritual” things to do on our own accord. They could be authentic “sacrifices” such as prayer, fasting, and reading God’s word. But we do them with the wrong attitude and for the wrong reasons. 

Let us be clear – Jesus simply calls us to take up the cross and follow Him. Any kind of spiritual “sacrifice” we make will involve dying to ourselves, taking up our cross, suffering the shame and reproach of Christ (not the praises of men), and pouring ourselves out on the “altar” in love for God, our brethren and our neighbours. Basically, it must be in the model and image of Jesus being crucified.

Our Messiah did not exalt Himself. He did not enjoy the praises and adoration of men, but their scorn. He did not do it for any personal glory, but laid down His life for His sheep. He was “wholly other”, for the Father and for us.

Religiousity can be like Cain’s sacrifice. We come up with the “sacrifices” we want to make, and oh are we so clever to avoid the real, genuine sacrifices that are hard and that truly require dying to self. No, they have the appearance of religiousity but they are convenient. They also boost our spiritual egos and allow us to feel a sense of accomplish. Our “holiness” is boosted by personal effort. These are not the sacrifices that God desires, that are acceptable to Him. 

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
(Romans 12:1-3)

Legalism is about building walls around ourselves and barriers between ourselves and others. It is inevitably accompanied by condemnation, condemnation we place on others and ourselves. It involves adding our own commandments and precepts to Scripture that aren’t explicitly written out, commandments that bolster our self-image and public image as zealous, committed “Christian”,

The temptation is always there. That is why Jesus constantly warned His disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees. 

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

 So, our Christian life is not about the making of many rules and observances which are in themselves fleshly and carnal. Instead,

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
(Colossians 3:1)

Legalism is fleshly. It involves fussing over things of no eternal importance, like whether we should brush our teeth or not, or eat pop tarts or not. It is as unspiritual as any other unspiritual attitude. 

It is also about having a very rigid form, a stronghold of the mind, that constricts us and condemns others. These form become like whitewashes that make us appear "all right" on the outside but mask the rot and decay within.

Let us not be Cain. Let us not offer the wrong sacrifices with the wrong attitude. Instead, we should be like Abel and offer the sacrifice that God actually desires.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Stones We Throw

I was just thinking about the incident with Jesus and the mob that wanted to stone a woman that had committed adultery and had been "caught in the act". What struck me is the very obvious fact that Jesus did not throw stones at her either. His response was not to strike or condemn her, not with his actions or his words. How many Christians, in the same situation, would react in the same way?

Jesus had the "right" to judge her, but He did not. He did not throw stones.

It saddens me that there is a trend of stone-throwing within Christianity. In fact, we have become too good at condemning sins as a way of safely avoiding the same judgment.

Simply put, the moral issues that Christians fixate upon, that are the most discussed, most condemned and most preached against, are not the sins that most Christians themselves struggle with (adultery, theft of church funds, heresy), but with moral issues that are precisely other.

Instead of dealing with sin in our midst, instead of being humble and seeking after holiness and righteousness, we have taken to throwing stones at the world and what we perceive are its wrongs. Yes, sin is sin. But we are too obsessed with others' sins and not our own.

We can only offer salvation when we have experienced it ourselves, when our sins have been laid at the cross and we carry our cross and follow Jesus. 

Judgment begins in God's house. 1 Corinthians 5 says that if we want to avoid encountering wickedness, we would have to leave this world altogether.   We are here to be a light, so can we stop repeating the obvious, that this world is full of darkness, and start being the light.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Two Kingdoms - A Scriptural Perspective

"My Kingdom is not of this world", Jesus said (John 18:36). If His kingdom were of this world, then He would have asked His disciples to fight to overthrow the Roman Empire. But He did no such thing.

Jesus was speaking to Pilate, the governor of Judea and the earthly ruler. And He repeated, once again, "my kingdom not from hence."

The Good News Bible puts it in very simple words
Jesus said, "My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!"

 Recently, I came across the two-kingdom principle in an Anabaptist context. It really made sense when compared to many sections in Scripture. For me, simply put, our faith is about expanding and bringing people into the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is eternal, it is a Kingdom where Jesus Christ is our Lord.

When we are born again as believers, we are born into this kingdom. Then, we are no longer citizens merely of the earth but of a heavenly city. We are sojourners and pilgrims on the earth. One writer put it in this way - we are like ambassadors for the Kingdom of Heaven when we live on earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven  - Matthew 5:9

We are taught to have love for one another as brethren. Now, imagine if two nations have a dispute and it gets "ugly". If we start to hate our brethren from another nation, that would be totally against Christ's teachings. Our love for one another and our unity in the body of Christ should transcend borders.

Some forms of Christianity can often be very political, but I feel strongly that we should not mix the preaching of Scripture with politics of any kind. I don't believe that the church of our Lord Jesus Christ should be striving to gain political influence or to change the laws and practices of the world. Instead, we are to preach salvation, practice righteousness and be a light in the darkness. I don't believe that Jesus intended us to change the world through its earthly government (dominion theology). If so, plainly put, Jesus would have raised an army to overthrow the Romans and institute an earthly kingdom!

For Anabaptist believers, this means closely adhering to Scriptural teachings. We ought not to rebel against but to submit to governing authorities  as far as is righteous. But, we ought to obey God rather than men. That is the higher kingdom to which we are accountable.
For example, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to forgive, to lay down our rights, to be "non-resistant", as some would put it. Of course, we cannot expect earthly kingdoms to adhere to this rule. That is why, in Genesis, God told Noah that it is necessary to carry out the death penalty, blood for blood and life for life. The church should not directly carry out the death penalty - that has been absolutely devastating in the past, with "brethren" persecuting brethren, and contradicts with the fact that Christ died for our sins and bore all the penalty on the cross.

This has all been very interesting, and I hope to study more. Believers, in history, have been quiet, peaceful, dutiful and law-abiding. They suffered great persecution at times, yet bore it without complaint. This is a challenge to us - are we willing to suffer for Christ's name?

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

It doesn't say, "Fight back and defend yourself, for what they are doing is unrighteous." Instead, we are told to rejoice and look forward to the Kingdom of Heaven!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Do Christians Keep the Torah? Should We?

This is a issue that's been around for quite awhile and something that I've thought through for a long time, looking at Scripture and searching my own heart. I have studied both sides of the argument (for/against) thoroughly, have come to the following conclusions.

1) Christians can keep the Torah

In the gospels, the book of Acts and in the letters of Paul and the apostles, we see examples of disciples of Jesus/believers/"Christians" who kept the Law of Moses (Torah) and who didn't. Paul circumcised Timothy (who was half-Jewish), but not Titus (who wasn't Jewish at all).  From Scripture, it's possible to be a "Christian" or disciple of Jesus and to keep the law of Moses as someone who is culturally Jewish.

The biggest argument that Torah-observant Christians have in their favour is that Jesus was a fully observant Jew. He had fringes on His garments, He went to the temple and made aliyah, He worshipped in a synogogue (and outside of it), and so forth. Jesus was never recorded as breaking the Law of Moses though He had a different application and interpretation of it as compared to the other religious groups of His day. For example, Jesus did not consider it breaking the Sabbath to eat or to pluck and eat food from the field.

I think that we can respect and fully fellowship with fellow Christians who do "keep the Torah" as long as they are willing to fellowship with believers who "don't". The simple fact is that if someone believes that somehow I am deceived and not a true Christian (or needs to be "taught better") if I eat certain foods or fail to observe certain holy days according to their estimation, then I don't think we are going to be a good fit. If you think these issues are more important than believing that Jesus/Yeshua is our Messiah and Lord and that the world needs to hear His good news and worth breaking fellowship over, then so be it.

I also would disagree fully with the notion that a Christian must not keep the Torah, that we must purposely eat unclean foods and not observe the sabbath in order to be a true, non-legalistic follower of Jesus. I think the two ("Torah observance" and being a disciple of Yeshua) are not in conflict as long as your priorities are straight.

2) Christians can not keep the Torah

I would argue, however, that disciples of Jesus who don't come from an Torah-obervant Jewish background were never compelled to keep the Torah. To me, Acts 15 is as clear a day. Gentile converts don't have to be taught to keep the law of Moses or be circumcised. They can be, for all intents and purposes, Gentiles. Being a Gentile is not incompatible with being a disciple of Jesus. 

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:
(Acts 15:24)

For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
(Acts 15:28-29)

My interpretation hinges on a single nuance. I believe that as a disciple of Jesus, grafted into the "olive tree" and made an heir of Christ, I am a Gentile and I am not Jewish. I am and always will be a Gentile follower of Jesus, whom I believe is the Jewish messiah. I do not then try to convert myself to become a Jew - I think God made me a Gentile for a reason. Yes, I am an heir of God and I am a child of God but I am not a descendent of Abraham or partaker in the specific covenant God (YHWH) made with the children of Israel. When all is said and done, I may be wrong, but this is what I believe from Scripture. And it doesn't really make an ounce of difference in terms of my relationship with God, but more in how I live out my Christian life.

"Praise Him, all you Gentiles" (Psalm 117) and "The Gentiles shall see Your righteousness" (Isaiah 62) are some Scriptural passages that show that we can, as different nations of the earth, believe in the God of Israel. 

3) It's not really possible to keep all of the Torah
I did a study of Leviticus recently. Most of the commandments are unpracticable. They relate to rituals, to the temple, to the priesthood, to a lot of things that aren't really observed by Torah-observant people.

There are three types of laws I'd describe from the law of Moses from the perspective of Torah observance.

1) The unpracticable laws. These things relate to the past and to the future, but not to present. The temple for one thing. How to build an ark of the covenant. How to weave priests' garments. What do you if you have leprousy. Stoning people to death. Kidnapping captured women as wives.
2) Laws that are observable and that pretty much all Christians believe in - Moral laws like the Ten Commandments. We certainly believe that worshiping idols murder, incest, adultery, lying, stealing and coveting are wrong. I also don't believe in having tattoos either. These are a bigger big chunk of laws and they are really unarguable.

2) Laws that are observable but generally aren't. Mainly, the Sabbath, dietary laws, laws about ritual purity and the Feasts. 

We hinge "Torah observance" on these few select portions of the Torah. We make Torah observance to be about these few excerpts on the Torah while ignoring the previous two types of laws a lot of the time. And some of these areas are a bit gray - should I not cook lamb or veal in milk, or should I separate all meat and milk? (I'm not talking about Judaism, I'm talking about Christianity here)

If I don't get rid of all pasta in my house, am I not keeping Passover? Who's keeping a score here? Is there a checklist I should follow? What qualifies as a cleansing bath? Should a menstruating woman sit on separate chairs? Can I use electricity on the Sabbath?

Some aspects of ritual purity and the feasts are tied to the Temple. What is the day of atonement without the High Priest and the tabernacle and the sacrificial goats, anyway? 

4) We aren't really given very precise instructions on how the Torah is to be practiced. 

Having a "legalistic" mindsets brings up more questions than answers. If I were to think, well, there's a very. specific. way. to keep the Torah and that God absolutely requires that I should do so, I would spend all my waking moments thinking about the unanswered questions like, is tearing toilet paper okay or not okay on the Sabbath? Does Sabbath start at sunset or sunrise? What calendar should we use to determine the right days to celebrate the feasts? I would think that those little nuances are extremely important, life and death issues (fear not, I don't).

As Christians, we don't have precise instructions on what to do with the Torah, as I mentioned above. If you believe Sabbath and the Feasts are important, another Christian who does believe in the same thing actually has a totally different way of applying and practicing it.  I  know fellow believers who do believe that keeping the Torah is important, but they aren't very tied up in knots about teensy details. Jesus really wasn't caught up in those details either.

The Bible doesn't give us very specific instructions for a reason, I'm sure. There are Christians who do keep the dietary requirements without very much fuss, who do observe the Sabbath without worrying about whether turning the lights on and off would be a serious infraction.

God isn't in heaven keeping score on how well we figure out how to keep the Torah, that I know. It is possible to keep His commandments out of love for Him and without strife, pride and judgmentalism. Loving Him is most important commandment anyway.

5) Let's focus on what's really important
In arguing over what we eat and whether we should wear mixed-fiber garments or not, we are forgetting the biggest picture and are not "setting our minds on things above".

I can name you three things that are infinitely more important and that everyone on "both sides of the fence" should focus on, rather than a few laws from the books of Moses.

Firstly, unity in the body of Christ. The early church consisted of people from all walks of life, social classes, ethnic backgrounds and differing levels of "Torah observance". They had trouble getting along occasionally and so do we. However, the way that the whole world knows we are Jesus' disciples is if we have love for one another. 

This following passage from Romans is I feel a final conclusion on the matter: we are to love one another and never, ever, judge one another based on food, holidays and any such matters. 

Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
(Romans 14:3-10)
If any Christian at any times evaluates another believer based on this practice or that practice, then he or she is seriously in the wrong, no matter how "right" he or she may seem.

Secondly, love is the most important thing. We don't usually associate this with the Torah but this is not only a commandment in the law of Moses but also a commandment of Jesus Christ. Love God, love our neighbours, love our brethren, law down our lives for one another and so forth.

1 Corinthians 13 says that if we hath not love, we really hath nothing. Everything hinges on love.

Thirdly, the commandments of Jesus. 

Both non-Torah-observant and Torah-observant Christians often forget that Jesus also gave us commandments. They are the commandments of the Father, obviously, but they do differ from Moses's commandments. For example, Moses permitted divorce but Jesus makes it clear that that was not a part of God's original plan. Jesus brought a higher law - you could call it the "law of liberty". The Torah never told us to love our enemies, it told us to slay them with swords. Obviously there is a difference, not because God is inconsistent but because the law had a purpose.

He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
(Matthew 19:8)

I believe that the law given at Mount Sinai is not a perfect, eternal and final representation of God's eternal law. God is the perfect, final and eternal representation of His law, and Jesus was. Jesus was the Word and the Word made flesh.

This is where I also differ from Christians who believe in observing the Torah. I believe that the Torah was temporary and imperfect. Simply put, if it had been perfect then we would have had no need for Jesus. We can simply convert, keep the law, and be saved. It was also given at a particular time to a particular people. Some of it is eternal, and some of it, like the clause allowing divorce, is obviously imperfect. 

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
(Matthew 5:21-22)

The Torah could only judge men's actions and offer temporary forgiveness. It could not judge men's hearts not change men's hearts.

For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.
(Galatians 3:18)

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
(Galatians 3:24-29)

 If the first thing we are teaching new believers are not the commandments of Jesus which He clearly told us to teach, then we are doing them a serious disfavour and warping the gospel. We need to go back to the importance of discipleship, of taking up our cross, of receiving the Holy Spirit... of preaching the gospel, or being "lights" in the world, and so forth. Basically, the teachings of Jesus must be first and foremost.

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
(Matthew 7:24)

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
(Matthew 28:19-20)

All this being said, I do believe that all Scripture is given by God and absolutely important.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
(1 Corinthians 10:11)

The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.
(Luke 16:16-17)

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 5:17-20)

 I could write pages and pages upon the subject, and quote Scriptures more intensively than I have hear. However, it is suffice to say that my heart is at rest and that I am at peace. Rather than ignoring the issue I have faced it head-on and have emerged without being confused, dismayed and disheartened.
 I sincerely believe that observing a few holy days and dietary laws have nothing to do with one's maturity in Christ or walk with God. These things are not wrong in themselves but can very easily become too important and cause us to be blinded by self-importance and legalism (as I know all too well from personal experience).

Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
(Colossians 2:16-17)
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.
(Colossians 3:1-4)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Who and What are Apostles?

I woke up this morning with a simple question. What is an apostle? I sat down and studied the Scriptures for an answer, and here is what I found.

The word "apostle" is from apostolos in Greek (G652). It means someone who is sent on a mission, someone with a mandate, someone who is a delegate or ambassador, someone who is commissioned, someone who is set-apart for a specific purpose.  The other key word is apostello which is the act of sending.

In Mark 6, Jesus sent His twelve disciples and sent them (apostello) forth two by two. By the time we get to the end of the chapter, the disciples are referred to as apostolos, the "ones whom He had sent". 

And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;
(Mark 6:7)

And they went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.
(Mark 6:12-13)
And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught.
(Mark 6:30)

 John 13:16 talks about the disciples not being greater than their master, about those who are sent not being greater than he who sends them. It is clear that by the act of sending His disciples, He had commissioned and made them into "apostles" of the gospel. However, the following verse goes further and shoes that when He chose His twelve, He chose them to be apostles.

And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles;
(Luke 6:13)

Acts 1:2 refers to the apostles as those whom He had chosen as well, and adds that through the Holy Spirit He gave them commandments.

Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
(Acts 1:2)
 Add to that John 15:16, which states that Jesus chose and ordained His disciples to go and bear fruit. 

Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
(John 15:16)

Here are some additional verses that I found that relate to the topic:

As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.
(John 17:18)

Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
(John 20:21-22)
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
(Acts 1:8)

From these verses and other passages of Scripture, I can therefore conclude that apostles are the ones who
  • were disciples of Jesus
  • were chosen by Jesus
  • were taught Jesus's commandments
  • were sent forth to preach the gospel
  • were filled with the Holy Spirit

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
(Matthew 28:18-20)

So let us ask ourselves:
  • Can we be Christians without being disciples of Jesus?
  • Are we as Christians supposed to hear and obey the commandments of Christ? 
  • Can we as Christians be exempted from the command to preach the gospel and fulfil the Great Commission?
  • Are we not sent into the world to be witnesses and lights?
  • Are we not given the Holy Spirit?
  • Is not the purpose of being fillled with the Holy Spirit to be go in the world and preach the gospel? 
Are we then not apostles, regardless of whether we consider ourselves "clergy" or "laity", "full-time workers" or "tentmakers"?

Perhaps we need a change in mindset, and we need to realise that "Apostle" is not a grandiloquent title of privilege but a function related to a task. Yes, there were the twelve original disciples, who become apostles, but they went on to make disciples and to send others forth in Christ's name. If the twelve apostles were the only apostles, then the gospel would have died out with them. However, the gospel is still being preached in every corner of the earth.

Everyone who is called by Christ to be a disciple is also sent by Him to do His work in this world. There are many different functions believers can have, and many different callings. We need to hear from Him what His will is for us and what He will have us do. It's not about our own ideas and initiatives, about what we think we can and should do.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Faith - Pointless Without a Relationship

Faith is believing and trusting, having a conviction and being assured. Many times, Christians say "Have Faith". However, we often miss the point, and think of faith as a quality we must have or something we must try to build. We mistake faith as a kind of "spiritual fitness test", as if by effort and exercise we can "build up" our levels of faith the same way we go from 4-pound to 6-pound dumbbells.

Jesus told the woman with the issue of blood, "Your faith has made you whole".

What is faith? Faith is simply knowing God, knowing He is our Father and trusting Him. The more we know Him, the more we trust Him. Faith is not an inner quality that we build up like "endurance" or "strength". It's not about us pushing ourselves to the limits and setting new challenges.

When we take God out of the equation, faith becomes pointless. It becomes a meaningless idea, even a self-deception.

"You must have faith and do this," someone might say. It's not about whether others think you have faith. Forget about everyone else, forget about all the judgment and snobbery and pride that gets mixed in like poison. Just go back to the bare bones of it, which is you trusting in someone who loves you, who will never hurt you, who knows you better than you know yourself and knows everything. 

Faith is realising that I'm small, that I'm weak, that I can't know everything. But, I know that God knows.

Faith is born of this trusting relationship, this dependent relationship. When God asks you to do something or to trust Him over something, it will be based on this relationship. You will know what God has asked of you if you listen to Him. Faith is holding to Him and trusting Him above what we feel and what the world around us seems to say. Faith is clinging to God.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for - if God has promised us something, even though we don't see the results yet, we can continue to trust God. That's how David trusted God while fleeing for his life. That's how Abraham trusted God and followed Him, believing Him from a son and heir.

Mankind likes to turn everything into a formula and system, because that is what we understand. But God is bigger than our ideas and our man-made wisdom and proves us wrong. We often tell people what to believe and what to trust God for, rather than let them be rooted and built up in Him. We often dictate to people what faith looks like and how it should be worked out, when actually God asks different things of different people, and doesn't fit into our neat little boxes of prescriptions and ideals. We need to also let people dive into God's Word and hear from the Holy Spirit.

Faith is not based on self-delusion. Often, we start believing in the healing and in the miracles and in monetary prosperity, and not actually in God. Let's just cut all that out and focus on having a living, real relationship with God. Faith is simply living out that relationship.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

How Counter-Cultural Are Christians Supposed to Be?

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
(Romans 12:2)

I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
(John 17:14-16)

Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.
(2 Timothy 2:3-4)


 Something that I've been thinking over for a very long time is the idea of being counter-cultural as a Christian. From an early age, I was taught and believed from Scripture that we are called to be different, that we don't have to do things the way that society does things. One preacher used the word, "antithetical". I still believe that. I don't believe that we should conform to society and modelling our faith and worship after what is contemporary and popular.

However, I see things I used to believe as being in addition to the cross of Jesus Christ and the word of God. There were teachers and preachers who have deviated from truth by adding their own ideas of what being "counter-cultural" means. I have personally been tempted by the idea that we have to create our own culture and way of life, outside of Scripture but based on so-called "Biblical principles". A "new way". This involves eschewing healthcare, fashion, employment, dating and a thousand other things. It involves, very simply, the idea of "do's" and "don'ts". A lot of things are taught that are simply not in Scripture. They may sooth itching ears but we must remember that we are not supposed to add a jot or tittle beyond what is in the Bible, no matter how tempting that may be.

Whatever the world does, we  may "try" to "do differently".  For example, the Pharisees created their own value and culture system very different from that of Roman and Greek cultures, but it was a culture nonetheless and no less worldly, but built on pride, human achievement, arrogance and the desire to think of oneself better than others, rather than others better than oneself.

We see this in various church history movements as well. The "plain" Christians of the past created their own "plain dress" and culture. They made rules and regulations of it, so much so that those man-made ordinances overshadowed the preaching of the gospel. It wasn't just about Jesus, it would about Jesus plus... plus a culture, a way of life. For example, dancing, reading novels and playing cards were considered things a faithful believer should never do. They had good reasons to do them, but then when they passed on their faith, it was not the sincere faith in the cross of Jesus Christ and a living relationship with God that got passed down, but these restrictions. These restrictions deviated from the original purpose, that is, to free oneself of addictions and distractions to follow God. But when the following of Christ is taken out of the equation as it usually is, then these rules just become useless, pointless, and harmful.

We should never let ourselves get to the point where we sit down and think, "Well, the world does things this way. How can we do it differently just to be different?" Just because we're radical doesn't mean that we're any godlier or any more righteous. Sometimes, Christians can be so arrogant as to come up with things that are offensive to our consciences and to the human belief of right and wrong, and just because we are opposed, think we are being persecuted for righteousness sake. Our morality becomes all upside-down. We thrive on arrogance and pride, rather than on "serving as Christ served" and "thinking others better than ourselves".

What does the Bible say? Just take a look at Colossians 2.

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Paul immediately goes on to say:

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.
(Colossians 3:1-4)

To be legalistic is then to be worldly, despite our every effort not to be. If we are truly not to be conformed to this world then we must not conform to legalism and the fleshly faith built on rules and regulations, ordinances of men that concern things of no heavenly, eternal value. If we were "risen with Christ" then we seek something far greater, far better, that transcend and supersede religiosity and outward faith.

Legalism is like whitewashing a tomb.You can put on certain Christian clothes, quit your job and get another more "holy" job, change the way your children are educated and so forth, but that can do little to make you an actual follower of Jesus with a real, living relationship with God and the Holy Spirit working in your life. Jesus, however, changes us from the inside out. He doesn't come into our lives to renovate it, to make us look better. In fact, we are too full of mold, rot, sin and decay to be redeemable in our natural state. We have to completely die and be reborn. The old has to pass away and be left aside, and a new creation "started from scratch".

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
(Matthew 28:19-20)

The final nail on the coffin of this spirit of legalism is the fact that we should ask ourselves the following question - if someone were to come to Christ, what would we teach them to do? Do we say to them - you have to stop doing this, stop doing that, eat special food, wear "holier" clothes, observe this rule and that regulation and so forth, or do we teach the commands and doctrines of Christ. When we allow mixture in, our own man-made teachings to defile the truth, then we are doing God a great disservice.

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
(Matthew 18:6)

Jesus spoke this about physical children, but we should also have the same responsibility towards those who are "babes" in Christ. We should say, "Hold it! Am I teaching everything Jesus commanded, or am I forgetting to teach those and teaching my own ideas and so-called convictions instead"?

I have been exposed to preachers who teach that there are only certain types of music and certain types of musical instruments to be used that is "holy", only certain terminology we must use even to refer to God... basically a formula to do the right thing through which we can, if not achieve holiness, than greater godliness and spirituality. We stop being led by the Holy Spirit and stop letting the Holy Spirit work in people's lives when we do all these things. Instead, we do a great injustice to Jesus and to the gospel by causing others to stumble under the weight of our petty demands. Beware the leaven, indeed!

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
(Matthew 23:13)

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
(Matthew 23:15)

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
(Matthew 23:4)

But what Jesus calls us to do is die. Let go. Give up even our over-zealousness and initiative. Let ourselves be humbled. Just as Jesus said,

""For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak." (John 12:49 NASV).   

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
(Matthew 11:28-30)

At the end of the day, legalism is a cop-out. It is a poor attempt at holiness, a cheaper, lousy substitute that has no resemblance to the real thing.  All those man-made rules are easy and achievable compared to the real cost of discipleship. Perhaps in our hearts we yearn for something a bit easier than the real sacrifice God would have us make. And that is what we much teach - discipleship, obedience, genuine sacrifice.

The cross is laid on every Christian. It begins with the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Since this happens at the beginning of the Christian life, the cross can never be merely a tragic ending to an otherwise happy religious life. When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at His call. 

- Dietrich  Bonhoeffer in "The Cost of Discipleship"

We need to be on our knees praying for God to redeem souls and transform lives through us. We need to pursue the real holiness and forsake sin, selfishness, worldliness and the like. Yes, there may be little initial difference between true and false godliness but it is by the fruit that we know what is genuine.

After more than ten years of learning to be a disciple (and failing, as we are all prone to doing), I have learned to be cautious and to separate the "wheat" from the "tares". I was sincere, yet immature. Yes, we could be on a walk with God and yet be imperfect and think imperfectly. As one popular Jewish song goes, "Bound to stumble and fall, but my strength comes not from man at all". We need our minds renewed by the word of God.

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
(Micah 6:7-8)

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.
(Proverbs 3:5-7)

And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
(1 Samuel 15:22)

Finally, another "test" we can apply is simply to do look at whether through this or that action, we are loving, serving and edifying others. Legalism is always connected to self-absorption and selfishess, but the cross of Jesus Christ is about genuine, sacrificial love. Do we put barriers between ourselves and others, cause divisions, or become judgmental? Then it is not of God, because it does not bear the fruit of the Spirit. Obsessing over the works of the flesh blinds us to the needs of others and the ways God would have us serve them. We become very "busy" pursuing "holiness" and perfection, like trophies to be admired, but are not fit vessels, sanctified to be used by the Master. 

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
(John 13:35)

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
(Matthew 25:35-36)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sanctification: A New Look

Throughout my Christian life, I had had an understanding of sanctification as was taught and as best I understood it from the Bible. Recently, however, I have come to see sanctification in a new light that has, for me, been quite helpful and illuminating.

It is quite normal to start out with one understanding and then to become quite accustomed to it. However, I think that God teaches us layer by layer, precept by precept. Here a little, there a little. I don't fancy getting new Revelations apart of Scripture in a gnostic or mystical way, but in my eyes being opened to what's already in Scripture by the Holy Spirit.

It is amusing that I grew up a Methodist and in many ways have adopted a Wesleyan way of thinking - arminianism, for example. John Wesley believed that God's grace can be described as threefold - prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Justifying grace, from what I understand, is the grace God gives us when we come to Him in repentance. We have forgiven and justified because of what Christ did on the cross. Sanctifying grace is God's continuing work of perfecting us, making us more like Him. The work of sanctification is really on-going and is completed when our mortal bodies pass and we are taken into glory, so to speak. "Work out your salvation," says Scripture.

I remember, as a child, attending Bible studies on the books of Nehemiah, Romans and the like. These were not children's Bible studies but the same studies given to adults. We learned passages like Romans 6 and 8 by heart and all in all were given a good scriptural foundation.

However, I had always thought that justification and sanctification were individual processes, meant to make us perfect, meant to save us as individuals. I never thought about it in a wider context, so to speak. What if justified and sanctified was more than just about God purifying me, doing a good work in me... Ephesians 5 talks about Christ purifying the Church by the "washing of water by the word", to present to Himself a glorious bride "without spot or wrinkle".

But there's more. There's always more - when you go back to Scripture you can never say you "already know it all".

Let's go back to the word sanctify - it means to "set-apart", "make holy". God is Holy or "Wholly Other" from us. Set-apart. To be made holy is to be made like God, in His image. For His use.

I think of the vessels and tools used in the temple, as described in the Torah. They were set apart, consecrated, dedicated to be used in worship and offerings and the like. In the same way, I quite suddenly have realised, we are like instruments and tools. God sanctifies us not to be simply "polished trophies" but so that we are fit to be used. Sanctification is not some end-goal to be fulfilled upon our deaths. It is a continuous process of being sanctified and then being "put into action", being privileged to be part of God's plan.

Sanctification, therefore, also has immediate and practical use.  It's not about me eventually being sinless, without flaws and failings.

All of the sudden, Scriptures sprung to mind that corroborated this.

But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work.
(2 Timothy 2:20-21)

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
(Ephesians 2:10)

These are verses that I had known and studied for a long time, and yet now they are linked and I understand them a little more clearly.

I love seeing the word "good works" in Scripture. There's a sense of joy and hope, and I cannot help but ask God what works He would have me do, how he would have to cleanse me by trials and fires in order to make an unworthy, carnal vessel a useful one.

The verse that sparked all of this was one that was one in James. It's been awhile since I have revisited James, one that is like the book of Proverbs to me because of it's meaningful practicality. James launches into talking about "divers temptations", which I feel is best translated to the modern tongue by the word "difficulty". He's not talking about temptation in the sense of later verses, but in trials. Situations that aren't easy for us. Challenges.

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
(James 1:2-4)

Another similar verse is in Romans 5:

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
(Romans 5:3-5)

 If a beloved brother and sister in Christ is going through seemingly pointless hardship and great difficulty, and if we go through such trials ourselves, there is a "silver lining". It's not that we are masochists and enjoy tormenting ourselves - God is not like that either. It is that life's difficulties -and life in this earth because of man's sin is one fraught with difficulty and sorrow - can bear good fruit, and work out for good rather than evil.

Take Joseph's life - his brothers meant evil, but God caused good to come out of it. It is not that the brothers were right and justified in their actions. They were not. They had to repent of their sin and hatred, the heart of murder that is evil in God's sight (Matthew 5). However, pointless and irredeemable circumstances in the world's view are not pointless and irredeemable in God's view. Even being sold into slavery was not just a "crime", "waste" or "injustice" to Joseph. Those years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit were not meaningless.

To the Christian, it is not that suffering is any less of a sufferance. It is because we know that it is not in vain, that God makes all things "work out for good to them that love Him" (Romans 8). We also have hope beyond this life.

Think about people who are suffering in the world because of the cruelty and wickedness of others. Yes, it is wrong to do those things and we must do what we can out of love of our neighbour to prevent and stop any such thing. But to a person going through such a situation, Christ offers hope and redemption beyond what any human being can.

But I digress. To return to the thesis of this post, I would like to highly this passage from Second Timothy, a verse learned by heart as a child that I have thought back to several times for different reasons.

And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
(2 Timothy 3:15-17)

And there it now as clear as day: perfection is not just about perfection in the sense of achievement or having something to admire or enjoy. It is linked to the good works God intends to do.

Holiness is not self-centred. To be over-occupied with cleansing and purifying ourselves, with making rules and achieving personal right-ness is to veer off-course from the center of our Christian faith. I've seen and have been guilty of the tendency of become self-righteous in pursuit of this version of holiness, which is not altogether long but very lacking and a kind of deviance we need to guard against. A righteous person, I have realised, is not a person who "does all the right things" and "avoid doing all the wrong things". Sacrifice is not only about how many things I can give up "for God" but, just as importantly, the things God asks me to give up for others. It's about "laying down" our lives for our friends, it's about loving our neighbour, it's about serving and ministering and doing things for the "least" of Christ's brethren. It's about being used by God as a vessel of love.

The testimony of Scripture as a whole shows us that we are not being to be "so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use". To be heavenly minded, it can be argued, is to be of great earthly use (according to God's will and ways, not our own).