Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The World's Loved Ones Are Not Lost

The Last Great Day, the last holy day and feast day of the year, shows God's great wisdom and mercy towards all mankind that never had a real opportunity to learn about the true gospel and to obtain forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus Christ.

Most traditional, mainstream Christian churches have a problem. There is a puzzle they cannot answer. They cannot answer this question. The Bible is clear that only through Jesus Christ and through the gospel can anyone be saved (John 3:36, Acts 4:10-12, 1 John 5:11-12). The Bible is also clear that God is a God of love and mercy (Exodus 34:6-7, Luke 6:36, 1 John 4:8-10, 16) and that He is also all wise and all powerful. For God, nothing is impossible (Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27). Yet history and present circumstances show that the vast majority of mankind has never heard the true gospel. Billions of people have lived and died without ever having heard of Jesus Christ or ever having an opportunity to hear the gospel message and respond to it. If we must believe in Jesus Christ before we die to be saved, then billions have lost out on salvation through no fault of their own because of circumstances of birth. And according to traditional Christianity, those who are lost suffer for all eternity in hell fire. How can that be? How can a God of love condemn these people to an eternity of agony when they never had a real chance to be saved in this life? Also, why hasn't God used His infinite power to make sure EVERY person heard the gospel before he or she died so everyone would have a chance to be saved?

That question is something most Protestants can't answer. And that apparent contradiction between the idea that God is all-powerful and all-good and the obvious historical situation showing that few have been saved is one reason why many thinking people have rejected religion altogether.

But God gives the answer to those who are willing to believe and obey Him.

God commanded not only the weekly Sabbath for mankind, but He also commanded seven annual holy days and festivals to be kept, days that have important symbolic meaning. These days are used to teach God's people lessons, and the lessons are made clear in the Bible. But God intended that those lessons be learned, not just by reading about these days, but by keeping these days as He commanded.

God's way of teaching is unique in this age. He has given mankind the Bible, yet He allows Satan to deceive most of mankind so that most people do not understand the Bible. Yet God gives understanding to those whom He calls and draws and who respond to His call in faith and obedience (Psalm 111:10, John 6:44). As we believe and obey, God helps us to understand. But those who do not believe and obey will not understand. So those who try to understand God's plan will not be able to understand it unless they do what God says. No one will understand the secrets that the annual holy days help to reveal unless they are willing to observe those holy days.

The Last Great Day pictures a future resurrection when all mankind that has not been called to salvation in this life will be resurrected back to physical life. This day is pictured in Ezekiel chapter 37 and in the book of Revelation. Notice Revelation 20:5 after the account of the saints being resurrected in the first resurrection and reigning with Christ for 1,000 years: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished..." Then Revelation 20:11-15: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire." At that time Satan will not be around to deceive mankind, and the billions will have the opportunity to learn the truth for the first time. They will be judged for what they have done in this life, but they will have the opportunity to learn the true gospel and to repent and believe in God and Christ and have their sins forgiven. They can be saved at that time.

Millions in this world who profess Christianity mourn loved ones who have died without accepting Christ. They mourn unnecessarily thinking their loved ones are condemned and burning in hell forever with no chance for salvation. But this day pictures a hope for their loved ones, that in the future white throne judgment, they will finally have their understanding opened and will hear the true gospel and have a chance to accept Jesus Christ and have their sins forgiven. It will be their choice at that time, but they will have a chance to be saved and receive eternal life.

This is good news for those who have lost loved ones in that state.

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

Our Attitude and Approach Towards God's Word, Chapter 1

How to Understand the Bible, Chapter 1

Pentecost - the Gift of the Holy Spirit, Chapter 2

The Last Great Day - the White Throne Judgment, Chapter 2

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Work of the Millennium Has Started!

We have been taught that in the millennium we will be kings and priests teaching the world God's way of life and bringing salvation to all humanity. But that work has already started. The work of teaching people in the millennium didn't start in the Old Testament. It didn't start in the first century Church of God. The apostles Peter and Paul did not do it. It wasn't done by Peter Waldo. It wasn't even being done 100 years ago. But it is being done today.

The period of time we are in is unique. It is unlike any period of time from the time of Adam through 1900 A.D.

For the first time in 6,000 years, in these years we are living in now, most of the first generation in the millennium are alive now!

If the Church's understanding of the general timing of end-time events is correct, and I believe it is, we are very close to the return of Christ and the beginning of the millennium. No one can know for certain, but my estimate is that we have between 10 and 25 years before the end of this age and the beginning of the millennium. I could be wrong. But I am sure we do not have 50 or 100 or 200 years.

Most of the people who will survive the tribulation and the Day of the Lord and live into the millennium and be the first generation in that age have already been born and are alive right now. And the percentage of that first generation in the millennium that are alive now keeps increasing as we get closer to the end. That has never been true in past generations.

When we preach the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning to the public, we are teaching the truth to men, women, and teenagers who will live into the millennium and apply what we are teaching them now. Even if they are not being called in this age and do not come into the Church at this time, even if they do not believe us now or act on what we teach, they will remember in the millennium some of what we are telling them now. Today, they may be like those described in Ezekiel 33:30-33: "As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, ‘Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them. And when this comes to pass—surely it will come—then they will know that a prophet has been among them."

Some of those who hear our message may enjoy listening to it, but not act on it. Others who hear our warning may scoff now, but they will remember later in the tribulation that they were warned. They will know that God provided a warning to them while they had time to repent and escape the punishment. This will help them to repent because it will be easier for them to accept responsibility for rejecting the message. They can say, "I should have listened." But if they do not hear our warning until it is too late, then in the tribulation they might say, "God is not fair, I never had a warning, I never had a chance. I thought I was doing the right thing to keep Christmas and Easter. I thought the Sabbath was changed to Sunday. Nobody told me these things were wrong." The lack of a warning can be a stumbling block.

But if they hear our warning before the tribulation, and I believe they will, then that warning becomes a critical first step in the process leading up to their conversion.

That first generation of Israel is to be a model nation for the rest of the nations to see and want to imitate (Deuteronomy 4:5-6, Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2, Zechariah 8:21-23). Their repentance and conversion is critical to God's whole plan. The first step, leading to repentance, is for the people to acknowledge their responsibility, to know that they had a chance to learn the truth and heed the warning but that they refused to take advantage of the opportunity. That is how we are helping them today, by giving a warning message. Every person who hears the true gospel and the warning today can remember in the tribulation that he heard it, but refused to listen. Every person in that category will find it easier to accept responsibility and repent than someone who never heard the warning. Every Israelite who begins to repent in the tribulation is being prepared to be part of the model nation God will use as an example to teach all mankind.

In a sense, those who hear our message on TV or radio or read it in print or on the Internet can be thought of as prospective members who can become actual members of the body of Christ in the millennium. Our message is laying the groundwork for an important lesson they must learn. They are not fully learning it at this time. They will learn it completely later, but the part we are doing now in making sure they know they have been warned is critically important for their future conversion.

That is why I say the work of the millennium has started now. It has started in the sense that what we do affects the attitude and conversion of those who will be the first example-setters in the millennium. It is important that we show to them that God is merciful and fair to give them a warning before it is too late. This is for their good and for God's glory, and is an important part of God's plan for mankind.

The preaching of the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel is not just for bringing those God is calling into the Church. It is not just for making new members, making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). It is also for a WITNESS (Matthew 24:14). Why? So that people going into the tribulation, some of whom will live into the millennium, will know that God sent someone to warn them, and so they can be prepared (Ezekiel 33:33). It is God's nature to show mercy by giving warnings, and those warnings are a preparation for what is to come (2 Chronicles 36:15, Jeremiah 35:15). No one should say in the tribulation, "God never warned me." No one in Israel, the model nation for other nations to follow, should say in the millennium, "I had to go through the tribulation because I never had a warning."

There is a misconception among many Churches of God that the preaching of the gospel is only for making new members. Some fellowships think that the preaching of the gospel is over because God is not bringing new members into the Church of God while we are divided.

But all Israel needs to hear the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning, BEFORE the tribulation begins. They not only need to know that God was fair and merciful to warn them, but they will need the hope of the gospel to endure the suffering of the tribulation. They need to know that their suffering will have an end, that it will not go on forever, that Christ will soon return to rescue them.

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

God's 7,000 Year Plan -- Are We in the Last Days?, Chapter 1

The Feast of Tabernacles - the Millennial Rule of Christ, Chapter 2

The Ezekiel Warning, Introduction, Chapter 3

The Great Tribulation, Chapter 3

The Blessings and Curses, Chapter 3

The Responsibility of a Watchman, Chapter 3

The Ezekiel Warning, Chapter 3

The Effect of the Holocaust, Chapter 4

My Comments and Conclusion, Chapter 4

The Two Witnesses and God's Fairness, Chapter 4

The Church, Chapter 4

Why the Gospel Must Still Be Preached to the World, Chapter 4

Is the Church Commissioned to Preach the Gospel to the World?, Chapter 5

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day of Atonement

The Day of Atonement, a day when members of God's Church observe a sabbath of rest, fast (no food or water for twenty-four hours), and assemble for services, is rich in meaning. Most of what we know about the meaning of this day comes from Leviticus chapter 16.

In the ceremony God gave to Israel for Atonement, there are two goats. One goat is offered as a sacrifice and the other is sent into the wilderness. God chooses which goat is which. "Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness" (Leviticus 16:8-10).

The Church of God understands that the goat that is slain represents Jesus Christ and His sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sins. "Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel" (Leviticus 16:15-17). The goat is slain and its blood sprinkled to make atonement for the sins of the people. This represents Christ. Christ was slain to pay the penalty for our sins in our place (Revelation 13:8, Isaiah 53:1-12). This also connects the symbolism of Atonement with the symbolism of Passover.

But the goat that is turned loose in the wilderness does not represent Christ. That goat is not slain. Yet the sins of the people are placed on the head of that goat also to make atonement for the sins of the people. "But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness" (Leviticus 16:10). "Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness" (Leviticus 16:21-22). The Day of Atonement falls between Trumpets, representing the return of Christ, and the Feast of Tabernacles, representing the millennial rule of Christ and the saints, and Revelation 20:1-3 helps us understand that the live goat represents Satan: "Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while." This binding of Satan occurs after the return of Christ (Revelation 11:15-19, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, Matthew 24:30-31, Revelation 19:11-16) and before the millennium (Revelation 20:4-6), just as the Day of Atonement occurs after the Day of Trumpets and before the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:23-36).

Why are two goats necessary to represent atonement for our sins?

Who is responsible for our sins?

There is a shared responsibility. Satan is responsible for our sins because he tempts us into sinning. He deceives us and leads us into sin. Satan is the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9). He tempts us to sin as he tempted Christ and as he tempted Adam and Eve (Matthew 4:1-3, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-2, Genesis 3:1-7).

But we also have our share of responsibility for our sins because we choose to sin and to yield to the temptation to sin (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, 1 Corinthians 10:13).

Christ by His sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins, for our share of our guilt, for choosing to yield to temptation and to sin. But Christ did not pay the penalty for Satan's share of the responsibility for our sins. Satan must bear his own guilt for what he has done in leading us to sin. Thus our sins are placed on the head of Satan before he is banished into the bottomless pit as a punishment, represented by the goat being sent into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21-22, Revelation 20:1-3). Satan's punishment is not death, for angels, including Satan as an angel who sinned, cannot die (Luke 20:36, 2 Peter 2:4). Satan's punishment is the suffering that results from his removal from his position of authority and being cast into the bottomless pit and the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:1-3, 20:7-10, Matthew 25:41).

Satan is fully responsible for his own sin in a way that mankind is not fully responsible for its sins. Man has sinned partly because Satan has tempted him into sin. But there is no indication that anyone tempted Lucifer into sinning. Every indication from the Bible is that Lucifer committed the first sin. His ways were right until he sinned (Ezekiel 28:14-15). Then, after sinning, his mind became more and more perverted and he acquired a sinful nature (Ezekiel 28:16-17). He became a tempter, and led other angels to sin, and their minds also became evil and twisted, and they became demons (Revelation 12:3-4). Satan has also become the tempter of mankind.

But when Lucifer first sinned, there was no one to tempt him. God did not tempt him, that is, entice him into sin, for God tempts no one (James 1:13). Nor was their any evil demon to tempt Lucifer if Lucifer was the first to sin and then led some of God's angels into sin, who became demons. Nor does it make sense to think that God created an evil nature in Lucifer so he was tempted by his own evil nature to sin. We have human nature with its evil lusts, but that is because Satan puts that nature in us, which is his evil nature, because he sinned first (Revelation 12:9, Ephesians 2:1-3, Jeremiah 17:9).

Every influence upon Lucifer in the beginning must have been a right influence. God must have taught Lucifer and all His angels the right way of life. God would not have created an evil nature in Lucifer, nor was there any other evil being to entice Lucifer into sin if he was the first sinner.

So in the absence of any temptation to do wrong, why would Lucifer sin? Why would he deliberately and coldly, without temptation, choose a way of life that would bring misery upon himself and others? Before he sinned, he had this testimony from God, that he was perfect in his ways (Ezekiel 28:15). He also had wisdom, so he could not have sinned accidentally without knowing what he was doing (Ezekiel 28:12-14). The Bible seems to indicate that violence and vanity were among Lucifer's first sins (Ezekiel 28:16-17). But that still does not indicate WHY Lucifer chose to sin in the first place. God must have taught all the angels the right way of life and must have warned them about the consequences of vanity, teaching them to avoid it. Why would Lucifer, full of wisdom and perfect in his way of life, taught by God, deliberately choose to ignore God's instructions and warnings and choose vanity, to exalt himself?

The Bible does not say specifically, but the only reason I can think of is that Lucifer did not believe God's teachings. He had never known sin, or vanity, or the consequences of sin before he actually sinned, and then it was too late. Part of the penalty of sin is perversion of mind, and once that set in, he could never again think clearly enough to go back. Probably he had never known suffering or unhappiness. Before he sinned, his life must have been joyous. And he must have considered the possibility, despite God's warnings, that if he exalted himself, if he experimented with a little vanity, a little pride, and little self-promotion and getting for the self, it might make him happier. In order to know otherwise, he would have had to have faith and trust in God's word and God's teaching. He did not. He must have doubted God's warnings and teaching. So he tried sin. And once he took that path, there was no turning back. The things God had warned him about took effect. His mind became more and more perverted, twisted, evil, and unhappy.

This may be one reason why God places so much emphasis in the Bible on faith and trust in Him, that we believe what He says. He may have seen how lack of belief destroyed Lucifer. We have to learn to trust and believe God as Lucifer did not.

Lucifer may have been the first one to practice the scientific method of experimentation and observation of results as the ultimate source for truth rather than trusting God and believing what God says. He didn't trust God's revelation. He wanted to experiment with sin to see the results for himself. And it cost him his happiness for all eternity.

Satan has influenced all mankind to practice that same distrust of God and His word, but we, through God's calling, have the opportunity to reject that way of thinking and to learn to have faith in God and what God says. We must have a living faith that inspires us to believe and strive to obey God and all of His instructions and commandments (James 2:17-26).

We must also be careful not to sin willfully after receiving knowledge of the truth, as Satan did. Satan made a decision to disbelieve God and to practice a sinful way of life in rebellion against God. He did not sin accidentally or through personal weakness. We must be careful that we do not sin as he did, deliberately, coldly, with calculated forethought, not through temptation or weakness, choosing once and for all to turn away from God and His way of life after we have received knowledge of God's truth. If we do that, we are in danger of committing the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:28-29, Matthew 12:31-32, Luke 12:10, 1 John 5:16-17, Hebrews 6:4-8, 10:26-31), from which we can never repent.

Some worry that they have committed the unpardonable sin. Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong taught that if we have committed the unpardonable sin, we will not WANT to repent. If we want to repent and turn back to God, we can, because the fact that we want to turn to God and be forgiven and obey Him indicates we have not committed the unpardonable sin, and I tend to agree with that. But nevertheless, we do need to fear committing the unpardonable sin and resolve never to give up on God and turn from Him and His ways permanently, because if we do that, we may never be able to repent from that decision.

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

The Day of Atonement - the Putting Away of Satan, Chapter 2

Passover -- the Sacrifice of Christ, Chapter 2

Faith, Chapter 6

Evolution versus the Creation Account in Genesis, Chapter 1

Our Attitude and Approach Towards God's Word, Chapter 1

How to Understand the Bible, Chapter 1

Monday, September 6, 2010

Day of Trumpets

Members of the Church of God taught by Herbert W. Armstrong have long known that the holy days help to picture and teach us about God's plan for the salvation of mankind. One of the beauties of the way God has designed the holy days is that each one seems to naturally lead to the next. Thus it is with the Day of Trumpets. There is a natural transition from the meaning of Pentecost, which is the last holy day we kept, to the meaning of Trumpets. Pentecost pictures the Church of God as the firstfruits, and Trumpets pictures the completion of the salvation of the firstfruits when those same people who receive the Holy Spirit as pictured by Pentecost are resurrected to eternal life, at the last trumpet, in the resurrection known as the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4-6, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Likewise, the Day of Trumpets leads naturally to the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles which follow, when Satan will be put away and those who are resurrected in the first resurrection, pictured by Trumpets, will rule the earth with Jesus Christ for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:4-6).

The resurrection of the saints pictured by Trumpets is a make or break event for members of the Church of God. Each of us will be resurrected if dead or changed to immortality if alive at the second coming of Christ, or we won't. We either make it or we don't. Not all will make it (Matthew 25:1-13, 1 Corinthians 10:12). We must be zealous to keep the commandments of God in the letter and the spirit (Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27, Luke 18:18-27). We must love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 5:43-48, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 25:31-46). We must be careful to not let our love grow cold to the end as sin around us increases, as I posted in my last post, Don't Let Your Love Grow Cold. We must overcome and endure to the end (Matthew 10:22, 24:12-14, Mark 13:12-13).

The holy days in general help us to understand the truth of God and His plan for mankind, and because we observe them, God opens our minds to understand the Bible and what it teaches about God's plan. We are able to be free of many misconceptions that many churches in traditional Christianity have. Trumpets pictures the resurrection, and we know that the dead are asleep, unconscious, until the resurrection. Man does not have an immortal soul (Ezekiel 18:4, Matthew 10:28, Genesis 2:16-17). That is one of Satan's lies (Genesis 3:4). He slanders God by trying to paint a picture of Him as one who tortures the souls of men forever in hellfire.

The day of Trumpets not only pictures the return of Christ and the resurrection of the saints, but it pictures the entire one year period known as the Day of the Lord, a time when God punishes the whole world for its sins (Isaiah 13:9-11, Joel 1:15, 2:1-11, Amos 5:16-20). That period starts with the first trumpet and ends with the last trumpet (Revelation chapters 8 through 11). The world will go through a great deal of suffering at that time, but the punishment from God is for mankind's ultimate good, to teach mankind lessons.

Trumpets can also remind us that part of our job is to get a warning message out to Israel and to the world (Ezekiel 3:16-27, 33:1-20).

God's plan for mankind is great and demonstrates both His love and His wisdom. The holy days are a blessing and an aid to learn as we keep those days and reflect on their meaning. It is those who keep God's commandments, including God's commandments to observe the annual feast days and holy days, who will have a good understanding (Leviticus chapter 23). "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments" (Psalm 111:10).

Let us reflect on the meaning of the Day of Trumpets and resolve to not let our love grow cold so we can have confidence when Christ returns.

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

The Day of Trumpets - the Second Coming of Christ, Chapter 2

Pentecost - the Gift of the Holy Spirit, Chapter 2

The Annual Holy Days and the Plan of God, Chapter 2

The Responsibility of a Watchman, Chapter 3

The Ezekiel Warning, Chapter 3

Our Attitude and Approach Towards God's Word, Chapter 1

How to Understand the Bible, Chapter 1

Friday, September 3, 2010

Don't Let Your Love Grow Cold

There is a mortal danger members of the Church of God will face before the end. It can kill us spiritually if we are not on our guard against it. The danger is increasing even now, and no doubt it has already killed some in the Church spiritually. And the danger is not about governance.

Speaking of the time shortly before the end, Jesus said, "And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:10-13). The specific context indicates that this applies before the end of the age, just after a great persecution begins against the Church and we are hated by all nations, but before the return of Christ. But just as troubles and sorrows will increase even before the tribulation and leading up to the tribulation, so this also will be increasing in the end time, even in our time now. There is a spiritual principle here, that increasing lawlessness, iniquity, and sin can cause love (Greek "agape") to grow cold, even in God's people.

And it is clear, both from prophecy and from the evidence we see in the world today, that as we get closer to the end, sin is increasing. We are to read the signs of the times and be spiritually alert, both to our own spiritual condition and to the fulfillment of prophetic events around us (Matthew 16:2-3, Matthew 24:42-44, Mark 13:33-37), and the evidence of declining morality and increasing lawlessness is all around us. This also was prophesied. "But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:1-5). "But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Timothy 3:13).

Lawlessness, sin, and betrayal can occur even in God's Church, and betrayal by those in our own house is a common theme in the Bible. Lucifer was put in an office and position of trust, but he turned against the God who gave him his life and his position (Isaiah 14:12-15, Ezekiel 28:11-19). Judas betrayed Jesus after He appointed him and gave him a position of authority as an apostle, even to heal the sick, cast out demons, and preach the gospel (Matthew 10:1-8, Mark 3:14-19, 6:7, Luke 6:12-16, Matthew 26:14-16, 20, 47-50). King David was betrayed by his own son Absalom (2 Samuel 15:10-14, 16:11), and David's trusted counselor, Ahithophel, also joined the conspiracy against David (1 Chronicles 27:33, 2 Samuel 15:12, 31, 16:20-23, 17:1-4). David wrote about betrayal, and he may have been writing about Ahithophel: "For it is not an enemy who reproaches me; Then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me; Then I could hide from him. But it was you, a man my equal, My companion and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, And walked to the house of God in the throng" (Psalm 55:12-14). "He has put forth his hands against those who were at peace with him; He has broken his covenant. The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, But war was in his heart; His words were softer than oil, Yet they were drawn swords" (Psalm 55:20-21). "Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, Who ate my bread, Has lifted up his heel against me" (Psalm 41:9).

Jesus said, "For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'; and 'a man’s enemies will be those of his own household' " (Matthew 10:35-36). "Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death" (Mark 13:12).

Yet, through all this, we are commanded to love even our enemies. "But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:44-48).

Betrayals can occur in God's Church and among brethren and ministers in whom we have trusted. Many have experienced this when Worldwide was going through doctrinal change. Some may have experienced this recently, and it is likely that this sort of thing will increase. It is those who have been close to us and those we have respected the most who can disappoint us and hurt us the most. But the danger is not the harm they do to us directly. The danger is that our love towards them can turn cold. That is what Christ warns us about in Matthew 24:10-13. We must love our enemies, even while they hurt us. We must not allow our love to grow cold. We must pray for their repentance and salvation and that we can live at peace with them, if not now (Hebrews 12:14-15), then in the kingdom of God. We should look for opportunities to do good to our enemies.

"Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-21).

I know that can be difficult, especially when an offense has just occurred and is fresh in our minds and our emotions are high. But we must not allow bitterness to take root in our minds and grow. It is a spiritual poison that can kill us. We must seek God in prayer and receive the help we need from God's Spirit to forgive others. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15).

Those are strong words. Does Christ mean what He says? Is salvation worth it? If our enemy betrays us and we refuse to forgive him even when he repents, or if we refuse to love him and pray for his repentance for his own good so he can be forgiven and be in the kingdom of God with us, he may repent and be in the kingdom of God while we ourselves are cast out because we allowed bitterness to take root in our heart and grow, and because we refused to forgive him from the heart (Matthew 18:35).

I have also found from experience that it is hard to be emotionally neutral towards those who hurt us. You have to love them or you will hate them. So we better try to love them from the heart. That doesn't mean we cannot exercise wisdom to protect ourselves (Matthew 10:16). We should certainly exercise wisdom and take precautions to protect ourselves physically and spiritually against those who may hurt us. But we can earnestly desire their long-term good and pray for them. We can seek ways to do them good without putting ourselves at risk.

Hard decisions will have to be made by many ministers and brethren in United Church of God. Each person must seek God's will according to God's Word and according to the application of God's Word in the circumstances in which he finds himself. We seek to know God's will for making decisions through prayer, through Bible study, through meditation about God's law, and sometimes through fasting. We can ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). We can seek God in prayer to make right decisions, as Christ did when He prayed all night before choosing His apostles (Luke 6:12-16). But whatever decisions we make, we should make them from a motive of love towards God and love towards neighbor. Anger and bitterness do not make for wise decisions (James 1:19-20). Our decisions have to be motivated by a right spirit and attitude.

Readers of this blog know some of how I think on the issue of Church governance. But whether or not I am right about that issue, the matter of having a right attitude towards God and each other is of far greater importance and is more critical to our salvation.

We all need to have a right spirit, a spirit of love and forgiveness, to try to personally live at peace with each other, to avoid a spirit of bitterness and accusation, even while we may have to make hard decisions. You can make a decision motivated by a right spirit or a wrong spirit. We have to make right decisions for right reasons, not for wrong reasons. We have to strive for peace as much as possible without compromising with God's law.

As head of the Church of God, Christ is the personal head of each individual Christian, and we must submit to Christ's leadership through the Bible and through His Spirit to overcome our carnal nature. If there is division in the fellowship we are in, that job becomes more difficult, but as long as a minister or member is part of a fellowship, that person must strive to not allow any division in that organization to infect him or her with a spirit of bitterness.

If organizational changes need to take place, eventually they will, one way or another. Christ will deal with it. Christ can show the ministers and members where they are wrong, even through hard experience, but in the meantime each person has to watch his spiritual condition and not become a spiritual casualty. I have seen it before where there would be a problem or perceived problem in the Church, someone would get embittered about it over time, then the problem or perceived problem would be fixed or disappear, but the bitterness in the individual would remain, and he would eventually leave the Church of God completely, even after the problem that triggered the bitterness was gone. If a member of the Church reacts the right way to these trials, he can come out of these trials spiritually stronger and closer to God (1 Peter 1:6-7), but if he reacts the wrong way, he can come out of these trials spiritually weaker and farther from God. We must react to trials in a godly way.

What a tragedy if one of us becomes embittered by events and the mistakes and sins of others and then, even after Christ corrects the mistakes and fixes the situation, that person loses his salvation because he has become so consumed with a spirit of bitterness that his love has grown cold.

Prophecy must be fulfilled. But let all of us resolve in our hearts to make the utmost effort NOT to be part of the fulfillment of Christ's prophecy, "the love of many will grow cold" (Matthew 24:12).

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

The Weekly Sabbath Day, Chapter 2

The Days of Unleavened Bread - Repentance, Chapter 2

God's Purpose for Mankind, Chapter 2

Comparing Ourselves Among Ourselves, Chapter 5

When and How to Judge, Chapter 5

The Cause of the Church's Scattered Condition, and the Solution, Chapter 5

Focusing on the Bible, Chapter 5

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Does Christ Impose His Will on His Church?

Jesus Christ leads His Church. He is the head of the Church, which is His spiritual body (Ephesians 5:23). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). He is in charge. This is what many ministers and leaders of Church of God fellowships often remind the membership.

But does He force us to obey?

Are we still free moral agents?

Do we all follow Jesus Christ, every member, every minister, every evangelist, every leader of a Church of God fellowship or organization?

Jesus Christ certainly is the head of the Church. That is exactly what the Bible says, and a minister can state that without fear of contradiction. But when it is said in the context of the authority of the leadership in an organization, if there is no further explanation of how that authority works, that statement can blur the distinction between what Christ does to lead the Church and the responsibility of the ministry to make right choices. It can blur the distinction between the direction Christ points the Church and possible wrong choices the human leadership might make.

Just because Christ is head of the Church and its ministry does not mean that the ministry is not free to choose between right and wrong. It does not mean that the ministry does not make mistakes. It does not mean that Christ endorses every decision and teaching of the ministry. It does not mean that Jesus Christ endorsed Joseph Tkach's teaching that observance of the seventh day Sabbath is no longer required under the New Covenant, for example.

It does not mean that Christ is always happy with the direction the ministry and members in His Church may be going.

Paul compares Jesus Christ as head of the Church, His body, with a man being the head of his wife. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything" (Ephesians 5:22-24). Does a wife always obey her husband? Not in this physical life. As the bride of Christ after the Church is resurrected, we will no longer have human nature to struggle against, and we will obey Christ perfectly. But not in this life. And I am talking about converted, spirit-filled members and ministers. Besides those, there can be tares - unconverted people among us - even in the ministry (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). If converted members and ministers can make mistakes and wrong choices (and they can), how much more will unconverted tares make wrong choices?

Look at the messages from Christ to the seven churches in Revelation. He rebuked most of them for various sins and mistakes, and some He rebuked seriously, calling the church at Sardis "dead" and the church of the Laodiceans lukewarm, blind, and naked, and He told them He would vomit them out of his mouth (Revelation 3:1-3, 14-19). The leadership of these churches did not always make right choices, and they needed to repent of some of the choices they had made. And in some cases the membership needed to avoid following the mistakes of their ministers. Yet Jesus Christ is head over all seven of those churches because all seven churches were part of His spiritual body.

Now imagine a leader or evangelist or president of the Sardis church, or the Laodicean church, making serious mistakes, and justifying his wrong choices and decisions by saying to his congregation, "Christ is the head of the Church."

My point is, Christ does not lead the Church by force. He lets us make mistakes, sometimes serious mistakes. And if we make mistakes and bad choices, we need to repent and not justify our mistakes by saying that Christ is in charge.

This life is our training ground for the kingdom of God. Christ is primarily concerned with testing us and teaching us lessons. And sometimes, if we are inclined to go in a wrong direction because we do not really trust Christ and believe the Bible, Christ will let us go in that wrong direction so we can learn lessons from the painful results. He does not always stop us.

Ministers and members will also sometimes say that Christ puts members in the body where He wants them, quoting (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is true, but again, some who say this can use this to justify their choices, choices that in some cases might be a mistake. Christ can put us in one organization or another in response to our own choices, choices that may be wrong. That does not remove the responsibility we have to repent of our mistakes.

When Worldwide was going through doctrinal change, one member told me, "This is where God put me," or in other words, because God placed him in Worldwide, he was determined to stay, even after the doctrines Mr. Armstrong had learned from the Bible were completely abandoned.

Christ can put us into a fellowship by guiding us, through the Bible and through His Spirit, as we obey Him and strive to believe and live by every word of God. He can also lead us to leave a fellowship the same way. But it is our responsibility to be responsive to His leadership by believing and obeying the Bible and being submissive to God, His law, and the principles and ways of God as taught in the Bible. If we are not responsive to Christ, He may let us go in a wrong direction to learn the consequences, for our own good in the long term.

We need to respect the office of those in authority where we attend. But we must also be alert to Christ's guidance if He should lead us, through the Bible and through His Spirit, to see that it is God's will that we leave and attend elsewhere.

More to come...

Here are links to related sections in Preaching the Gospel:

A Brief History of the Scattering of the Church, Chapter 5

The Cause of the Church's Scattered Condition, and the Solution, Chapter 5

When and How to Judge, Chapter 5

Focusing on the Bible, Chapter 5

Will the Whole Church of God Re-unite?, Chapter 5

Can We Make an Idol out of a Man or Church?, Chapter 6

A Summary -- the Nineteenth Truth, Chapter 6

Church Government, Chapter 7

How Is the Church Organized?, Chapter 7