Friday, August 16, 2013

*Truth Revealed to Babes

The Bible has been the world's bestselling book for many years; billions of people have ready access to God's Word—as close as their own bookshelf or computer. Yet, while the words of God's Book can be read, and frequently are, what it truly means remains a mystery to most people. The sheer number of Christian denominations shouts the fact that even those who profess to follow Christ do not agree on the Bible's message to humanity. Jesus Himself quotes Isaiah, saying, "Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive" (Matthew 13:14; see Isaiah 6:9). The "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" have not been opened to them (Matthew 13:11).

Earlier, He had said something similar in a prayer:
At that time Jesus answered and said, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight." (Matthew 11:25-26)
Jesus found something praiseworthy in God the Father denying understanding to those who are thought to be "wise and prudent" but revealing His truth to "babes," average people who are yet unlearned. Those who think that they are smart—who believe they already know how the world works—reject the truths of God as "simple," "pie-in-the-sky," "na├»ve," "unscientific," "regressive," etc. In contrast, the unlearned possess an open, unspoiled mind that is willing to listen to what God has to say.

In I Corinthians 1:26-29, Paul says that God has called the foolish and the weak to confound the wise and the mighty. Most church members look at Paul's words as if they are a prophecy—that someday, the wise and mighty will look at the glorified saints and say, "If God could do that with them. . . ." But the apostle is also giving us something to do right now. If we are living by God's Word, what we do every day of our Christian lives are the things that will confound those who are the smart and powerful in this present world. When they rise in the resurrection, they will be ashamed that their pride caused them to reject God's revelation when it was being lived right in front of them so plainly. By this, God will humble them and lead them to conversion.

Notice the paragraph leading up to Paul's conclusion that the foolish would confound the wise:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent." Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Corinthians 1:18-24)
The truth is so easy to understand, so shockingly simple: Christ crucified. The Creator God died on a tree, giving His blood to cover human sin. It is quite simple—yet confoundingly profound! From that "simple" idea of Christ crucified, countless books have been written. At its root, the idea is simple, something that we can all understand, but the depth of knowledge and understanding that can be derived from it is limitless!

However, to the so-called wise and prudent, who cannot perceive that truth, whose eyes have not been opened, it is just sheer foolishness, even offensive. But we know that the gospel of Christ crucified—which does not leave Him dead on a tree but proclaims Him alive at God's right hand—is the dynamic power and wisdom of God, which leads no less than to salvation and eternal life. The people of Athens were ready to name Paul a fool for the idea of resurrection (Acts 17:32) because, as the wise of this world, that is how they saw the message: "God dies then comes back to life again, and because of that, we can have eternal life too?"

The Greeks, the ones whom intellectuals hold up as emblems of wisdom and philosophy, thought they were wise to scoff at the truth. To their heirs in the world, the message of the Bible and its simple truths do not measure up to their erudition. For example, they find the nature of God as revealed in Scripture to be lacking. God's Word shows that there is God the Father and Jesus Christ, His Son. They have a spirit, the essence of their minds, by which they act. How plain! Nevertheless, the "wise" reject this in favor of a convoluted and ultimately illogical Trinity that cannot be found in the pages of the Book.

Paul also mentions that "Jews request a sign"; they want some supernatural occurrence—fire from heaven or a miracle of healing or the like—to confirm the preaching of God's revelation to men. Yet even Christ—God in the flesh—refused to do that. His only sign of His Messiahship would be one He had no control over, to rise from the dead after three days and nights (Matthew 12:40). The Jews would not accept that, wanting to see a miracle. Thus, when the teaching of the truth, unaccompanied by a sign, does not conform to their traditions, they, too, scoff and return to their comfortable rituals. As Psalm 78:41 asserts, Israel limits God. They do not have the capacity to see Him as He is or in His multifaceted works.

Jesus says to His disciples, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it" (Matthew 13:16-17). Though speaking specifically to the Twelve, it applies also to us; our eyes and ears have been opened to marvelous things from His Word (Psalm 119:18). As the saying goes, with great privilege comes great responsibility. We have an obligation to respond to what God has revealed to us and with its power carry out its implications to their eternal ends.

Peter tells the church, "the pilgrims of the Dispersion [the scattering]" (I Peter 1:1), ". . . as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby" (I Peter 2:2). He ends his second epistle with an exhortation to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (II Peter 3:18). Our present duty is to soak up God's amazing revelation and to convert it into a righteous way of living that pleases Him. We must leave babyhood, foolishness, and weakness behind, and become mature, wise, and strong in Christ.

Friday, August 9, 2013

*How Revelation Enters the Church

Many years ago, during Herbert W. Armstrong's ministry, we read the passage beginning in Galatians 1:6 quite often. He would tell us that the apostle Paul had written this epistle less than thirty years after Christ's death and resurrection, making it one of the earliest-written books in the New Testament. He pointed out as amazing and alarming what was already beginning to happen within the church:
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. . . . For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:6-8, 10-12)
Only a little more than a generation had passed since the founding of the church, yet false gospels, perversions of the truth, were making serious trouble for those early Christians. Paul was warning those in Galatia not to listen to those who are trying to persuade them away from the true doctrines of God, which they had learned when the apostles had preached the true gospel to them.

After warning them, Paul defends himself against the unwritten question, "How do we know that you preached us the truth?" He asks in return, "From what you've seen of me, do I try to seek the favor of men or God? Do I seem to be a men-pleaser?" Clearly, he always put the truth of God before pleasing people, and he had had to pay the price for it in persecution and peril (see II Corinthians 11:23-33). He considered these sacrifices proof that he was a true servant of God.

Then, in Galatians 1:11-12, he lets them know where the message he had taught them came from. He was taught, he said, not by any man (verse 16), but by Jesus Christ Himself. Once God had called him on the road to Damascus, and after he was baptized, he went down to Arabia (verse 17), and stayed there for three years (verse 18). It was there that Christ taught him the truth as an apostle "born out of due time" (I Corinthians 15:8). Christ had a special job for Paul and wanted to give Him the same kind of instruction that He had given the Twelve.

No one knows if Christ came down and appeared to him, teaching him directly, or whether He opened Paul's mind and revealed the truth out of Scripture. However, when he went up to Jerusalem three years later and talked with Peter, James, and John, he found out that they agreed completely on the gospel of God (Galatians 2:9). These apostles understood that Paul was a fellow apostle with them and that he would preach primarily to the Gentiles.

By his personal history, Paul shows that he had received the same revelation from God that the original disciples had been given. Thus, the gospel that Paul preached was the same gospel that Peter, John, and the other apostles were also preaching. They all preached from the same Source: Jesus Christ. Our beliefs should rest on that same foundation, which is now printed in our Bibles. Notice Ephesians 2:19-22:
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
In terms of revelation from God, this passage informs us that a true understanding is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. In the past, God revealed certain things to the prophets in Old Testament times and to the apostles in New Testament times, and they wrote those things down for our learning (see Hebrews 1:1Romans 15:4I Corinthians 10:11). Jesus Christ is called "the chief cornerstone" because He is the true Foundation and Source of all revelation. He is the One who joins all the revelation together and makes it work. We, then, having this sure foundation, not only learn the truth, but also grow by it into the image of Christ.

The apostle continues in Ephesians 3:
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 3:1-5)
Paul uses the subject of God's grace toward the Gentiles as a way to get across, not only that he preached the true gospel, but also how truth comes into the church of God. It is very simple: God revealed something to him, and he, then, wrote it down in a few words, so that we could read and comprehend his understanding of this mystery of God's way. That is how it works. God inspired a prophet or an apostle, and he wrote it down. Over time, it became Scripture, and now we read it, using the Holy Spirit that God has given us, to understand the truth.

At the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22:18-19, John warns the reader not to add to or take away from the words written in the Book. Essentially, he is telling us that revelation from God to man is closed; the canon of Scripture is complete. What we need to know for salvation is in the finished work of the Bible. Anyone who claims to have a new revelation, that he has some "new truth" beyond Scripture, is a false teacher, one of those who "pervert the gospel of Christ."

So the Bible is the collected writings of the apostles and prophets to whom God gave His precious revelation for all of us to learn and use. God's converted children do not need any advanced degrees, courses in higher thinking and logic, or any kind of worldly help to understand God's truth. All they need is the Word of God and a humble mind that can reason normally, and God, by the gifts of His Spirit, provides the understanding.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

RBV: James 2:4

". . . have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" 
—James 2:4

The apostle James begins chapter 2 of his epistle by confronting a problem that frequently rears its head in the church, that of respect of persons, also called partiality and discrimination. His entire thought in introducing the subject runs as follows:
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool," have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
The example he gives is a common one. Human nature tends to be partial to the rich, the well-groomed, the finely appareled—those who make a good outward show of respectability. It is rather selfish of us to pay them so much attention and provide them with favors and upgrades that we would not normally lavish on others. We do these things because we want something from them, whether it be some future benefit we might receive as gratitude for our obsequious solicitation or merely to be seen with them, ratcheting up our status as a result. Respect of persons is, at its base, all about us.

Of course, it also diminishes those we pass over, essentially telling them, "You are not worthy of my time or favor. Take care of yourself . . . over there . . . where you'll be out of the way." Such partiality actually turns the godly order on its head. Those who are wealthy or powerful or good-looking or talented need no help; they are successful and prove by their success that they can take care of themselves. The poor and downtrodden, however, are the ones who need our help to give them a hand as they start up the ladder of recovery and eventual success. Human nature perversely offers help and advantage to those who need it least and denies it to those who desperately seek it.

Even so, James' central thrust in this long paragraph (which stretches all the way to verse 13) is that favoritism is wrongful judgment: "have you not . . . become judges with evil thoughts?" His argument against partiality obviously derives from his half-brother's comments on judging in Matthew 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged," where Jesus goes on to speak about a person's method of judgment of others being used by God to judge him. Jesus calls the one who judges his brother a hypocrite because he condemns his brother for a minor fault (a "speck") while he himself has much a larger sin (a "beam") to overcome. Thus, practicing partiality makes us judge, jury, and executioner of a fellow Christian—not to mention that we poach on one of God's prerogatives, sitting on His throne as judge.

James is speaking about unjustified discrimination. The distinction made between the rich man and the poor man in his example had its basis in purely outward and superficial reasons, and thus the judgment was unsoundor as he puts it, "evil." As the apostle points out in verse 5, God more often calls the weak of the world to righteousness (see I Corinthians 1:26-29), so the poor man is just as likelyor perhaps even more likelyto be the more converted of the two. This is not always the case, but it does make James' point that we need to be more thorough in our discernment of people lest we judge them by sight rather than by faith (II Corinthians 5:7).

Our example of this is God Himself. When the prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint the next king of Israel, he saw the strapping older sons of Jesse, thinking, "Surely it must be one of these!" But God saw things differently: "Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (I Samuel 16:7). The "poorest" of the family was chosen, as David was the youngest and smallest, the one that everyone seems to have forgotten about to the point that no one had thought to tell him that Samuel was in town!

Being quite limited in our spiritual perception, we have a hard time doing that, so our best course is to treat everyone with humility and kindness, preferring them in our interactions with them.

Friday, August 2, 2013

*Hold Tightly to Revelation

The Bible is not against what we might call scholarship or intellectual pursuit. From all that history can tell us, the apostle Paul may have been one of the most intellectual men who have ever lived. II Peter 3:15-16 warns believers that Paul's epistles contain instruction so hard to understand that false teachers can easily twist them to say wrong and harmful things. Members of the church, made up of the weak of the world (I Corinthians 1:26-29), can be especially gullible when it comes to intellectualism, and some stumble.

Even so, Scripture displays no animosity toward the use of the intellect, nor is it against rational arguments and dispassionate reasoning. When used properly, these things are good. God Himself gave us these skills, and we must use these tools to understand God's way of life. In fact, He wants us to use them in our ongoing pursuit of the truth of God. The true teachings of God that we understand and believe have all undergone deep scrutiny by these means and methods—scholarship, rational arguments, and dispassionate reasoning—and they pass muster on all counts. The doctrines that we in the churches of God agree on are sound and biblically based.

While not condemned by any means, human reason, scholarship, logic, and abundant research must take a back seat to two important elements, both of which are given directly by God: divine revelation and the Holy Spirit. These two pieces must be present before the rest of the puzzle will fall into place. Revelation is God's gift to us of His truth through His Word, and the Holy Spirit must be used to understand it properly. Once we have this initial understanding, we can apply scholarship, rational arguments, and dispassionate reasoning to glean further understanding. The important thing is that divine revelation and God's Spirit must come first.

We tend to forget about divine revelation because it is right in our Bibles, right under our noses, and we take it for granted. Of course, we study it frequently, but we rarely think about how the words and the truths they form got there in the first place. They are there because God revealed them, they were recorded by willing minds, and transmitted down through the centuries, guided and protected by God Himself. That is an awesome thing to consider.

We need to be careful to understand that the revelation we interact with in our Bibles is not direct revelation, as experienced by the apostles and prophets in visions, dreams, and the actual appearance by angels or even God Himself from time to time (Hebrews 1:1). Direct revelation is exceedingly rare. What we have in reading God's Word can be called "general revelation." It is what is available to everyone generally.

Scripture contains all that we need to know about our salvation, about God's Plan, and about our parts in it. If it is not in the Book, we can be sure that whatever it may be is not necessary for us to know in terms of salvation. If a fact does not appear in Scripture, it probably does not have much bearing on our calling and our future in the Kingdom of God. Extra-biblical knowledge may be occasionally helpful, and it may even add depth to our understanding. However, when it comes to a conclusion about whether something is spiritually true or not, the words of the Bible itself must be the final arbiter short of a direct appearance from God.

Another way of putting it is that general revelation—what is contained in God's Word—trumps every other source of information available—even church of God publications. Many people have taken Herbert W. Armstrong's booklets and made them into the equivalent of the Epistles of Herbert, metaphorically stapling them at the backs of their Bibles. We should understand that, though inspired by God's Spirit, his writings are not Scripture (see Isaiah 8:16; the canon of Scripture was finished with the death of Christ's disciples, the original twelve apostles). While his works contain quotations from Scripture, they also contain a great deal of material that was simply his explanations of various topics. They should be accorded respect but not veneration.

The only real source of divine revelation that we have access to, then, is the Bible. Certainly, it is more conclusive a source than any Bible resource help, such as concordances, lexicons, commentaries, and Bible dictionaries. Those books can be helpful, adding information and perspective, but they are not the final word on a given topic or doctrine. That is the Bible's job.

In the same way, the Bible is more authoritative than Jewish sources like the Talmud, the Mishna, the Targums, or any Jewish tradition. It is far more trustworthy than any opinion from a sage, rabbi, priest, or historian. The Bible is simply the last word on any matter of true Christian doctrine or practice.

The Bible itself claims this position. Jesus, for instance, in John 17:17, while praying to His Father just before His arrest, says plainly, "Sanctify them [His disciples, including us] by Your truth. Your word is truth." In reality, we need to look no further for the truth—those truths that have to do with our salvation and future in the Kingdom are in God's Word. Our Savior said so.

In II Timothy 3:14-17, Paul instructs the younger Timothy on what is to be the basis for his ministry and preaching:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for 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 complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Timothy had learned the truth from Paul, who had learned them from Christ. There was a direct line of descent of truth from the Source. That same truth has been preserved and made available to us in our Bibles. In a larger respect, Paul tells us that the Bible—the instruction that we have received from the prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ Himself—is all that we need to equip us completely for the Kingdom of God.

So, beyond learning and applying these things, what is our responsibility to the revelation given to us? In II Thessalonians 2:13-15, Paul answers this question:
God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth . . . for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
The apostle warns that difficult times are coming, times of apostasy, so we must hang on to the revealed truths we have been taught, including the godly traditions we have learned. The revelation of God is precious and should not be sold for a bowl of soup. Do not let cunning arguments or even rational discussions, which may be completely bogus, take us off track. Stick to the pure words of the Book.