GOD OF ALL AGES
by David Whitehouse (revised edition July 18 2005)
FROM THE BEGINNING
God 每 The Creator. God 每 The Programmer. God 每 A Person. The Earth. Men and Women. Adam and Eve. The Bible. The Structure of the Bible.
THE STORY SO FAR
Israel. Jesus Christ. The Gospel Message. Forgiveness. Baptism.
THE TEACHING OF JESUS
How Jesus Taught. Talking to the Crowds. Parables. Contention with the Pharisees. Miracles.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
The Entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper. Salvation. Arrest and Trial. Death and Burial. Resurrection.
THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH ESTABLISHED
The Disciples Continue the Preaching of the Gospel. Peter and the Roman Centurion. Philip and the Ethiopian Man. The Apostle Paul.
THE EARLY CHURCH
Persecution, Apostasy and Collapse .The Bible to the Rescue. The Reformation.
THE WORLD TODAY
In a Mess
THE CHURCHES IN THE WORLD TODAY
Survival by Merger
OUR PART IN THE WORLD TODAY
Preparation and Propagation
Can things continue as they are? The Crisis. The Crisis Solved. The Kingdom of God
A SUMMARY OF WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES US
NOW IT＊S DOWN TO YOU AND ME
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why are the Jews ※God＊s People§ 每 Why not any other Nation?
Creation and Evolution 每 Which is right, or are they compatible?
Is God a Trinity?
Does 1 John 5:7 support the Trinity?
Why so many Christian Churches?
Is there life elsewhere?
Can we communicate with the dead?
Are there ghosts?
Can our ancestors influence our lives?
Reincarnation 每 Does it happen?
Can we foretell the future?
Does the Bible contain prophecies of the future?
What is ※Inspiration§?
Why Are There So Many Modern Versions of the Bible?
Can we work miracles now?
What is ※The Holy Spirit§?
Bible Origins, texts and translations 每 which is right?
What is ※Transubstantiation?§
We live in a world that is full of wonderful things, most of them beyond our understanding. The modern motor car with all its speed and power and comfort is a technical miracle, and we can drive one without knowing how it works. With a little help from a mechanically minded friend we can get some idea of how the fuel we put in at one end is converted by the engine to energy at the other. The wheels go round, the car moves and we travel. We can understand the general principle and put it to good use without knowing all the details of design, construction and operation.
A rather ugly caterpillar, repulsive to some people, seals itself into a chrysalis, and a few months later turns into a beautiful butterfly. Scientists give a name to the process 每 ※metamorphosis§ 每 but who can explain how it happens? Have you noticed how scientists are good at giving learned names to things, but not so good at explaining how and why they happen? We can only watch and wonder. Do we know how a seed grows into a plant when it rains or when we water it at the right time of the year? Only another plant can produce a seed. We can＊t. Who decides what the weather will be tomorrow? What causes earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes and floods? For that matter, who regulates night and day, summer and winter? Who brought us into the world, and who provides us with the things which sustain our life? Can we tell what we are made from, and what will happen to us when we die? Can we prevent our death, or even delay it more than a short time? All these things are completely beyond our understanding.
We can accept these things as inevitable and not worry about how and why they happen, or we can ask ourselves, ※Is there not some power, greater than man, who is responsible for all these things?§ And if we decide that there must be, do we not owe that power some respect, some acknowledgement, some gratitude, and some duty, seeing that this power made us, and keeps us going from day to day? And if that power has created us, as seems possible from our observation of the world around us, we might also ask, ※Why, and for what purpose? Is our existence here on earth no more than just existing, being what we are and what we can see and experience from day to day? Is life, to put it bluntly, no more than a momentary conjunction of atoms? Does that power perhaps want or expect something in return for creating us and giving us the experience of life? If so, what? Are we just part of the scenery or, what would be more interesting and perhaps more realistic, part of some wonderful plan being worked out by this powerful force in our lives and the lives of those around us, and those who have lived in past ages, and who will live in the future? Are these things concealed from us, or should we know about them?§
The purpose of this book is to try to answer some of these questions in the simplest possible way and, when we have found the answers, to convert that understanding into action, to decide what we must do with our lives, now and in the future. But we need to know the background first. Before we go looking for these answers we must state clearly that we are not going to depend upon our own skill and wisdom for the answers, nor shall we spend too much time considering the answers that men have arrived at in the past. Please note that the numbers in the text refer to footnotes on each page. Generally they are Bible quotations confirming the text, and references to the ※Frequently Asked Questions§ which relate to the text.
Does it seem reasonable that if the power that has created the universe and has made us wants us to fit into His plans, then He would have told us? Yes, it is reasonable, and it is exactly what He has done. All God＊s plans and purposes relating to His creation on this earth are to be found in the Bible, the book which He has caused to be written so that we can know in outline at least what God intends, and what He expects of us if we want to be part of His purpose. It is important to remember at this point that the Bible is not a textbook to teach us all about the human race and the world we live in, rather it is a message from God and it is directed towards telling us how we should live our lives and the provisions He has made for us. When the Bible does touch on scientific things and the knowledge that man has acquired for himself it will not be found to contradict true wisdom and may even help in these matters also.
Our researches therefore will be made with the Bible at our side, and our first concern will always be to check our findings with what God has told us, and to proceed only if we find agreement. So let us begin with what we know about the power which is responsible for us and all around us.
FROM THE BEGINNING
God 每 Creator and Sustainer of the Universe
God is the name we give to the power that has made and controls all things. His works are limitless in time and space, beyond our imagining. Light from the most distant stars in His universe has not yet reached us from the day in which they were created. Such things are beyond the understanding of most of us. We must leave them to the astronomers and other scientists, and limit ourselves to a consideration of the things that are within our experience, the things that our senses can detect, and the things that our brains can understand. It is enough that we see the sun that gives us light and heat and energy, and the moon and the stars in the night sky. We are only just beginning to understand how these heavenly bodies influence our lives and the world we live in, but it is sufficient for us. At the other end of the scale there are the very necessary bacteria that live in our bodies and work away unseen to keep us healthy. These and everything between are His work. Everything in His creation works together to keep this world and all its inhabitants running and in a state of continual activity. That is all we need to know. We can get by without a more detailed explanation.
God has always existed and always will exist. The first proof we have of His existence is in the things which He makes and provides, which are all around us, which we can see and handle and form part of our daily lives. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the air we breathe are all provided by Him. Even the things that man so skilfully makes, like the motor car, are made originally from natural resources and by the skill of man, and so they too come from God. If there were no God to provide and organise these material things for our use and benefit, there would be no world. Things cannot make themselves.
God 每 the Programmer
Life may at first seem to be a series of random happenings; but the more we think and the more we investigate, we realise, if we do not always understand, the complexity and the wisdom which links together man and his activities with the animals and the natural world. The world works to a timetable so intricate that it would defeat the powers of man with all his computers to plan and implement. This is true not only of the developed world but of the simpler societies, those who live by what they grow and make and catch. They perhaps more than us rely on a routine, a life cycle put in place by God. The timetable and the planning of the world come to our attention regrettably when, from a human viewpoint, it fails, as it does from time to time. The greater part of the population of the world lives in constant awareness of the uncertainties of life 每 whether the rains will come at the right time to produce the crops that will keep them alive, whether floods will wash away all their hard work, whether cyclones and typhoons will flatten their homes, whether a tsunami wave will destroy the low lying lands that surround the oceans. We grumble about famines, droughts, and unexpected natural disasters, but we must also realise how, considered globally, all the necessities for life are provided for us. To a large extent it is the inefficiency and callousness of man that create the problems of supply and demand. The world is wonderfully balanced. It would take no more than a slight change in the movements of the earth, the planets or the stars for everything to come to an abrupt end. And these things are not in our hands to control. God alone has the whole world in His hands.
God 每 A Person
We must not see God just as a powerful controlling force, keeping the world on its balanced course. He has also shown us that just as He is careful about the smallest detail in His creation, so also He cares about every one of us. The writer to the Hebrews begins his letter with the words, ※God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son.§ God talks to us. The Gospel writers quote Jesus as saying that if God looks after the sparrows, then surely He will look after us. In all our ways we are entirely in His hands. Perhaps this is not so surprising because He tells us we are made ※in His image§. When we follow and obey Him, we are like Him. Perhaps it is not too bold to say that we are an extension of Him, that He works out His purpose in us.
This is indicated in our ability to think. Who taught us to work things out, to invent, to make use of natural things, to admire beauty and to create beautiful things? What makes us behave logically, and morally, or even deviously? The works of man are in many respects faulty, selfish and destructive but, taken overall, they represent a massive achievement. Who taught us to organise our lives in this way? It can only be the One who has made us.
And then there is the future. Does the God who keeps this universe running with such intricate and precise perfection not have plans for the future? Thinking again of the car, will the engine stop when all the petrol in the tank is used up? Scientists tell us that the sun is losing its heat, and if this continues, everything on earth will die. ※How long have we got?§ we ask anxiously. ※At least a few million years,§ comes the pointless reply. Nevertheless, we are aware that subtle changes in our weather patterns from whatever cause are already playing havoc with life around the world. Does God who maintains the continuity of life have plans for change in the future? Are we involved in those changes? How drastic will they be?
As far as we know, Earth is the only planet or star which is inhabited by living creatures. If other worlds are inhabited, and God wants us to know about them, communicate with them and share experiences with them, then we can be sure that He, as the Creator, Sustainer and Organiser of the Universe, will arrange this. But as far as we can see at the moment, Earth appears to be the only inhabited planet, and the only place where God has created a system of intelligent life with a breathable atmosphere, water, and land with usable minerals, plant and animal life. We may be able to detect physical and chemical activity on the other stars and planets, but as far as we need to be concerned they only form a background and a service to the earth, providing it with light and darkness, warmth, and the tides and seasons.
Some years ago man reached the moon and returned to the earth, reporting it to be a barren uninhabitable waste. As we write, two unmanned space probes have reached the planet Mars and one of them is sending back pictures of an equally desolate landscape, not habitable unless supplies essential for life are taken from earth to Mars. The earth is the scene of God＊s greatest creative activity, men and women, and all the plant and animal life that goes to support them, but is it designed to last for ever in its present form?
Men and Women
Men and women are the most physically and mentally advanced creatures in God＊s creation on the earth. They are superior to the other animals, but not in all things. Some animals are stronger, can run faster, have better hearing, sense of smell and eyesight, but humans excel in their intelligence, with the ability to think, to calculate, to invent. They work by reason as well as by instinct. This gives them an advantage over the animals and they can control most of them although they may not be so big and strong. Humans also have moral character that animals do not have. Humans know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and what it is to be kind, generous, cruel or selfish. In this they are like God their Creator. God has given to man the principles by which He Himself is guided. Men and women also have a conscience that tells them when they are behaving badly and what they ought to do even if they cannot bring themselves to do it. But for each of us individually life is a learning process. And the significant things that we learn are the things we learn about God, in whose image we are made.
The function of the plant and animal world is to glorify God its Creator by its beauty and perfection, and to recreate itself to provide a continuous supply of food and raw materials for man. This is not a conscious activity, but a built-in function which God has implanted. The natural world continues to exist under God＊s control, year in and year out, living, dying, re-creating. The Bible tells us that it was put there for the use of man. It has no purpose or value of its own apart from glorifying God and sustaining man.
When God created man, He did not want to make an automaton 每 a being which would work perfectly without thought or incentive. Man was to be different from the plants and animals, man would not spend his existence endlessly re-creating himself without a purpose. God wanted man to be a responsible being like Himself in character, a creature able to think for himself, to have a moral conscience and the free will to exercise it. We are, with all our faults, God＊s creatures, and He wants us to respond to Him and eventually to be like Him.
Adam and Eve
God made the first pair of humans and named them Adam and Eve, and God put them in charge of His creation in its earliest stages. Don＊t throw this book away at this point. We know that Adamic creation is a minority view, and dismissed by those scientists who prefer evolutionary theories, but there is always more than one way of looking at things, and this is discussed later under the heading ※Frequently Asked Questions.§ God wanted Adam and Eve to be obedient, but He gave them the choice. When they failed Him by disobeying His simple command, God removed them from their privileged position as keepers of His world, and imposed restrictions on their life-style, which required hard physical labour to control their habitat and live from the proceeds. He also limited their life span, at the end of which they would cease to exist, and introduced the reproductive process which would bring other men and women into the world to share it with them and continue the existence of the human race.
It was impossible for God to consider having disobedient humans to share His immortality and perfection. God＊s original purpose of a willingly obedient creation which would honour Him and glorify Him would not now be achieved directly through Adam and Eve. They would live their life span and then die. There would be another way, and it would still include man. When Adam and Eve threw away their prospects of living to please God, He promised that in time to come one of their descendants would give his life to bring men and women back into God＊s purpose. The original purpose of a world that would respond to His love in total obedience was not abandoned because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, only postponed. Now we, the descendants of Adam and Eve, may share that purpose.
Here we come face to face with a problem that has puzzled all men and women through the ages. The problem is this. We call it ※freewill.§ God is all-powerful: He knows what He has planned for His creation and how it will be accomplished. He knows the end from the beginning. God＊s purposes cannot fail. Man is part of that purpose. Yet he gave man the choice and the freedom to obey or disobey Him. This is free will. Adam exercised his free will and disobeyed God. Did man＊s free will, choosing to disobey God, interfere with God＊s purposes? Or did God＊s knowledge of what would happen override man＊s free will, and make man＊s disobedience a matter of no consequence, even a foregone conclusion? Was this something that God had foreseen and had ※built into§ His overall purpose? Thousands of books have been written on this subject, and many solutions have been proposed. I think it is best to say that from our viewpoint as humans, like Adam, we have the choice whether or not to obey God, but God＊s overall power and purposes are big and strong enough to succeed whether or not we individuals obey or disobey. We are not indispensable. This is something beyond our understanding. God has included us in His overall plan and the part we are to play in life is already mapped out for us although we cannot know or understand it. And bringing this down to a personal level: if we are foolish enough to rule ourselves out of God＊s plans for the future then there are always plenty of other people whom God can call.
An incident recorded in the Old Testament teaches us that we may all have a small but very significant part to play in God＊s purpose, and that if we do nothing then others will take our place and be given their chance to serve God, and we shall be abandoned. The Persian Emperor named Ahasuerus had a Jewish wife. All the Jewish people living in the Persian Empire at that time were threatened with a massacre. The Emperor＊s Jewish wife might be able to save them by pleading with her husband. But she approached him at the risk of her own life. Her uncle warned her, ※...if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father＊s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?§ Esther pleaded for the Jews and they were delivered; but, as her uncle said, if she had not chosen to serve God then, He would have found someone else to serve Him, and that will always be the case. The same principle applies to us and to all men and women.
In course of time Adam and Eve had children and grandchildren, and before many centuries had passed the human population of the earth was extensive. There were good and bad people, but they all shared their parents＊ weakness and tendency to disobedience which we sometimes call ※human nature§. From the time of the Creation the world went morally downhill until it became totally corrupt and men and women turned their backs on their Creator. He summarily destroyed them with a flood, leaving only the one family who had remained faithful, to continue His creation on earth, and leave God a way to fulfil His purpose with man.
At this point we must introduce the Bible because it is only by consulting the Bible that we can learn more about ourselves, the human race, and our relationship with God our Creator. There are other ancient books and human records which claim to tell us how the world began and God＊s message to man, but comparison with the Bible will show that they do not speak with the knowledge and authority which alone is found in the Bible. The Bible alone says ※Thus saith the Lord＃§ when it has something important to tell us.
We have already introduced a few footnotes into the text to indicate the source of our information concerning God＊s activities in the early years of this Creation, and we shall continue to do so throughout the book. God is the author of the Bible. God used faithful men throughout past ages to write down those things he wanted men and women to know. God influenced the minds of those faithful men to write things which they would not naturally know. We call this ※inspiration§. The Bible is not a scientific text book, nor is it an encyclopaedia of general information. It is not a mine of information on every subject. Its subject throughout is God and His relations with His Creation, man, and what will happen to the Earth. The Bible is mainly concerned with things men and women ought to know for their present and future well-being.
The Bible gives us a brief outline of how life on earth began. It does not present a technical explanation, but it describes creation in a way that man would understand, and provided this intention is understood, it does not contradict the more detailed discoveries that man has since made for himself about his origins and environment. It tells us that God commanded the creation of light and darkness, the heavens and the earth, the dry land and the sea, plants and animals, and finally the creation of the superior animal, man, from whom we are all descended. Many scientifically educated men and women dismiss the Bible as legend and mythology because it does not describe the world and its origin as they understand it. It is not necessary for us to be scientific experts to be saved. The Bible tells us all we need to know in a way that all men and women can understand. This point is considered under the heading ※Creation and Evolution§ in the section ※Frequently Asked Questions§.
The Bible tells us how God has communicated with man. In earliest times God talked with man directly, but later He employed His messengers who are called ※angels§. When the Bible records that ※God said＃§ we can sometimes see from the context that an angel was employed to deliver the message, and that the angel was speaking as God＊s agent or representative. On rare occasions God＊s voice was heard. Sometimes God would use dreams to convey things to men and women, but throughout most of the Bible we read that God would put ideas directly into the minds of his human messengers, his prophets, for them to convey to His people, and then to write down for future generations to read and understand.
The Structure of the Bible
The Bible is divided into two parts, the Old and New Testaments, which are covenants, or agreements between God and Man. The two are closely linked, the Old recounting events mainly concerned with God＊s people Israel before the birth of the Lord Jesus, how God made an agreement with the nation of Israel that He would be their God and bless them in every way if they, in their turn, would be responsible and obedient to Him alone. Israel failed to keep this agreement, and the Old Testament came to an end. The word ※testament§ is sometimes replaced by the word ※covenant.§ The Old and New Testaments refer to the covenants, or agreements which God had in the first place with Israel, and later offered to all mankind through Jesus Christ. The Old Testament was replaced by the New Testament which tells us of the life of Jesus Christ, God＊s Son and how he became the mediator of a new agreement, not just between God and the Jews, but with all individual men and women who chose to put their trust in Him. When we say that the New Testament ※replaced§ the Old, this is true, but the promises of the New Testament are in every way built upon the foundation of the Old, as we shall see later.
The Old Testament is a collection of thirty-nine books written by individuals, but all guided by the hand of God. The first five were written by Moses. Genesis tells us about the beginnings of the world, the Creation, and God＊s dealings with the first men and women on the earth. This is followed by Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which tell us how God brought Israel out of Egypt, shaped them into a nation, gave them a law and a priesthood, and led them into the land of Canaan. The books that follow tell us of Israel＊s history as a nation, how they became a kingdom, conquered the surrounding nations, and then, because they neglected their God, how God allowed them to be conquered and taken away into captivity. In the book of the Psalms there is beautiful poetry, expressing man＊s feelings for God, and His response to them in a way that no other book has ever done. The closing books of the Old Testament are written by the prophets, chosen men of God who brought warnings to Israel about their fate if they continued to disobey God and, with the warnings, the promise that if in the future they repented and turned to Him again He would restore them to His favour and a remnant of their descendants would again inhabit their land. There is a continual hint that Israel would eventually share their privileged position with faithful men and women from all nations.
The New Testament begins with four separate records of the life of Jesus, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They all look at the life of Jesus from a different aspect, and do not all record the same events and sayings of Jesus, but they do not contradict each other, although many sceptics have tried to prove that they do, with the intention of showing that they are of human origin and fallible. Matthew wrote mainly for Jewish readers, and Mark and Luke for a wider audience which would include people from other nations who were joining the Church from a non-Jewish background. John looked back on the life of Jesus and selected events and sayings of Jesus which he considered to convey important lessons and information for the life of the young Church. Because we have four independent records we have a complete picture of the Lord Jesus and his work. The book of The Acts of the Apostles records the establishment of the early church after the crucifixion of Jesus, and the work of the Apostles, mainly the Apostle Paul.
There follow a number of letters written by the apostles, most of them by Paul, but also by Peter, John, James and Jude, which explain in more detail the teaching of Jesus, and help to bridge the gap between the old way of life in a Jewish environment, regulated by the Law of Moses, and the new life in Christ. These letters are timeless, and are of as much help to us today as they were to the first Christians two thousand years ago. The final book of the New Testament is the Revelation of Jesus Christ 每 a vision given by the risen Jesus to the Apostle John some years later, revealing to him what would happen to the church in the future, leading up to the time of his return, and to the Kingdom of God on earth. The language is highly symbolic, and scholars interpret it in different ways. But they are mostly agreed that it speaks of events that will happen up to and including the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, with the establishment of God＊s kingdom on earth, and the overthrow of human misrule.
The amazing thing about the Bible is its total consistency. Although it was compiled over a period of two thousand years, and contributions were made by forty-four different authors, it has one continuous message throughout 每 God＊s dealings with man. Many highly skilled critics have tried to dispute the integrity of the Bible but all have failed. Its message unfolds progressively, and both Old and New Testaments are centred on God＊s blessings for mankind through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
THE STORY SO FAR
After the failure of Adam and Eve to keep to God＊s word, God then developed His plan of salvation through the nation of Israel. The men God chose to be His spokesmen to the world around them were the Hebrews, also known as Israel, a comparatively small race of people who had their origins in one family living four thousand years ago in the land now known as Iraq. God singled out the father of this family, a man called Abraham, to restart His work for the deliverance of all mankind. He was to continue the process that would eventually enable God to restore men and women to the privileged position of intimacy with God enjoyed by their first parents, but thrown away by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Abraham was chosen to work with God because of the obedience that he demonstrated in his life. God promised him that his descendants would be God＊s chosen people, and both he and they would one day inherit the land God had chosen for them 每 the land of Israel. What is more important for us is that just as God promised Adam and Eve a descendant who would save mankind, so God now promised Abraham that in years to come one of his descendants would be instrumental in reconciling man to God, and, in both cases, that descendant is the Lord Jesus Christ. The promise to Abraham reaffirms the promise God made in the Garden of Eden 每 see Footnote 13.
God told Abraham that his son Isaac would inherit God＊s promise, and God renewed and expanded that promise to his grandson Jacob. It is clear that God＊s promises to these fathers of the nation of Israel did not refer to their living in the land during their lifetimes, but to an inheritance yet to come, an inheritance which Jew and Gentile will share. The promise was kept alive, and renewed to faithful men throughout the history of the nation of Israel. A royal line of kings was established in David who also inherited the promise of redemption for all mankind that would be fulfilled through a future descendant. The prophets of Israel also repeatedly spoke of a Saviour who would deliver God＊s people When Jesus was born, the angels announced him as the king who would inherit David＊s throne and rule over an everlasting kingdom and Mary his mother accepted that she had been chosen to bear the Saviour of Mankind. After the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Peter immediately confirmed that Jesus was the one spoken of to the fathers of Israel, to David and the prophets, in two speeches made to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem. He said: ※Ye are the children of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up His son Jesus sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.§ (Acts 3: 25-26)
It has frequently been asked, ※Why did God choose this particular man Abraham and his family, Israel, the Jews, for special attention and privileges, and for this great responsibility? Why not the Chinese or the American Indians?§ In the first place it was because Abraham was a faithful, obedient man, possibly the only one in the Godless age in which he lived. God needed a representative of the human race, a faithful man, to work with Him to achieve His purpose with the world. Abraham and his family, the people of Israel, lived at the centre of the civilised world of those days, and through them God＊s message would spread rapidly. In fact the opposite happened. The people of Israel, who in a short time developed into a recognisable nation, were not very different from all the other nations around them: they did not all share the faith of their father. When they were a rapidly growing but unorganised people in Egypt, God delivered them from slavery because of the promise He had given to their forefathers, but within a few months God was ready to abandon them as people He could not work with because of their disobedience. Had it not been for the intervention and pleading of Moses their leader, God would have done so. And so it has continued throughout Israel＊s history. As a nation Israel has not appreciated what God has done for them, but God wanted a nation through which He could demonstrate His will for the world. If God has blessed Israel He has also demanded much from them and has not hesitated to punish them when they failed Him. And if God wanted to demonstrate His love for an obedient people, equally He also showed the world how He would punish a people who turned their backs on Him. Israel as a nation has been, and is still being punished for their neglect of God, but they are still related to the precious promises of God regarding their future. Throughout its existence as a nation Israel has been a witness for God, not in the sense of speaking for God, but because all that God has done, is doing and will do for them is there for us to consider and learn from. Their history is a lesson for all of us about God, and how He deals with man.
From a human aspect the history of Israel as a nation is a tragedy. Israel was given privileges that no other nation enjoyed. Israel had direct communication with God through their priests. They had their prophets to guide and encourage them. God used His powers on their behalf to sustain His Chosen People and subdue their enemies. They had a set of God-given Laws which, had they followed them, would have regulated their lives and brought them a degree of happiness and prosperity enjoyed by no other nation. God would have lifted them up above all the nations. But it was all too good for them. They wanted to be the same as the nations around them. They wanted a human king not an invisible God. They resorted to idolatry and all the vices of paganism. Weary of attempting to reform them through the warnings of His prophets, God arranged for them to be conquered and taken into captivity to Babylon.
After seventy years God allowed a remnant of His people to return to their own land of Israel, and re-establish themselves there. At first they were full of repentance and determined to please God. The worship of God, and obedience to His Law, became the guiding principles of their lives. They rebuilt the temple which the Chaldeans had destroyed seventy years earlier, and their capital city Jerusalem became a centre of religious learning and observance for the Jewish people. Whereas, before their captivity in Babylon, Israel had neglected their God, now they could not do too much for Him. They studied His Law and spent their lives interpreting it and following it in great detail. They examined every possible situation in the daily lives of men and women down to the smallest detail which might cause them even accidentally to disobey God＊s law, and then provided a remedy, or a way of avoiding such a situation. While they were so occupied they failed to find time for the more important things that God required 每 love and respect for God and their fellow men, and the exercise of justice and mercy. Once again their service became unsatisfactory and obnoxious to God. They thought they were honouring Him by their detailed observance of His law, and in animal sacrifice, ritual and ceremonial, but, sadly, their neglect of sincere love for God and man in their daily lives only offended Him.
The land of Israel was invaded by the Greeks under Alexander the Great against whom they fought valiantly and successfully for a time, but eventually they were overwhelmed. The land of Israel became a Greek province, if a rather unruly and rebellious one. They adopted Greek learning and philosophy and practices, but they remained formally and outwardly devoted to their God and their Law, which displeased their Greek masters. Gradually Greek philosophy and mythology penetrated Hebrew culture, and the pure worship of God taught by Moses and the prophets was once again corrupted. In B.C.198 Judea was conquered by Antiochus the Great, a Syrian king. The cruelty of Antiochus provoked a rebellion by the Jews under Mattathias, a priest, and for many years there was a bloody struggle between Antiochus and the rebel Jews who were known as the Maccabees. It came to an end when the Romans under Pompey conquered Judea in B.C.63. The Romans were content to allow the Jewish ruling families to have control under a Roman governor. In B.C.47 Herod, an Idumean, was appointed by the Romans to be king of Galilee, a province of Judea. The Romans were hard overlords. They needed to be, because the Jewish people greatly resented their subjugation to Rome. The Jews dreamed of fighting for their freedom as they had once fought against the Greeks and the Syrians, and of re-establishing an independent kingdom of Israel.
In those days of submission to the Romans there was an atmosphere of anticipation among the Jews. They understood from their prophets that God would send them a deliverer, as He had in earlier times, and they expected that this deliverer would lead them in rebellion against the Romans, just as in former years God had raised up ※judges§ like Joshua, Samson, Jepthah, and others who had organised the people in their fight against the Philistines and the other Canaanite people. They looked back to David, who had once been their great warrior king, who had subdued the surrounding nations and who, with God＊s blessing, had established them and made them great as a nation. The promise that God had made to Abraham concerning a successor who would ※sit in the gate of his enemies§ had been partly fulfilled in David, but not completely. God renewed and extended that original promise to David, and told him that he would have an heir to occupy God＊s throne for ever. While suffering under the Romans the Jews were still hoping that a man of David＊s royal line would reinstate the kingdom of Israel. This is how they understood the writings of their prophets. They reminded themselves continually that they were Abraham＊s children, and God had promised Abraham that his family would one day become a great nation with a king to lead them, appointed by God. Their time in captivity had cured them of wanting to be like the nations around them, worshipping idols, but they had replaced this with a very inward-looking self-righteous philosophy which was equally distressing to God.
The Romans allowed the Jews to practise their religion and allowed their puppet king Herod to build them a magnificent temple that was one of the wonders of the Roman world. But the tension in the land was great. There were Jews who would co-operate with the Romans in government, in return for which the Romans allowed them religious freedom, but there were also those who found Roman rule most unpleasant and continually plotted the overthrow of the Romans.
The more the Romans oppressed the Jews, the more inward-looking and self-righteous they became. The Jewish leaders were strongly influenced by the priests who gave scrupulous attention to God＊s Law. They enforced its keeping very strictly among themselves and exaggerated the requirements of the Law to the point of absurdity. But it didn＊t stop there. From absurdity they moved on to self-interest, and they re-shaped God＊s Law to their own personal advantage. They operated a thriving business in the temple, money-changing and providing sacrifices for the tourists and pilgrims, all at inflated prices.
While they were looking after their own interests they neglected the more obvious and necessary duties of honouring God in truth and sincerity, and extending loving care to their brothers and sisters, which the Law also required. Outwardly they were God-fearing men of importance in the community, but inwardly they were cruel, greedy, self-centred and hypocritical. They ignored and despised the ordinary people who were not sufficiently well educated to understand the intricacies of their teaching. They were no better than their forefathers whom God had sent into captivity. And the same thing would happen again. A kingdom cannot be founded on wickedness and hypocrisy. God arranged for their end as a nation. After two unsuccessful rebellions in A.D. 70 and 135, the Romans had finally had enough. First they destroyed the Jewish capital city Jerusalem, and then scattered the nation of Israel throughout the earth, and banned them from returning to their land. Israel, who in God＊s purpose should have been an example to the rest of the world, was now no more a nation. In isolation, in little groups among the nations of the world, persecuted and despised by all who had dealings with them, they still dreamed of the day when God would restore them to their land, and this seemed impossible.
Again it might seem that God＊s purposes were thwarted, but we have to remember that the way we see things is not always how God has planned them. At each apparent failure, Adam＊s disobedience, the corruption of the world before the flood, and the failure of Israel to become a nation under God, the way became clearer for God to put into action His overall purpose. Now out of Israel＊s tragedy came the seeds of victory in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel might have failed God, but God＊s promises to Abraham and to David would stand. Israel＊s failure provided the background against which God could now put into action the final part of His purpose, which would not fail. The prophets God sent to Israel had carried a true message. Israel might be destroyed as a nation, but there would be a restoration and there would be a Deliverer, and the future would be glorious and it would involve not only Israel but all the peoples of the world. But it would not happen immediately. Much had yet to happen before the world would be ready to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as king.
The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means ※God will save§. In giving Jesus that name God is telling men and women that it is through Jesus that they can be saved. In Israel＊s past there had been a man named Joshua who was second-in-command to Moses, and who after Moses＊ death led Israel into the land God had promised them, conquered the heathen occupants, and established Israel as a nation under God in their land. Christ is a title rather than a name. It means ※The Anointed One§. It is the same as the Jewish title ※Messiah§, in other words, a king. By the name ※Jesus Christ§ we understand that God will save us from the consequences of our sins by one who is our king. At the present time he reigns in heaven, and when he returns he will reign as king over all the earth.
At the time of the Roman occupation of Israel, Mary, a Jewish girl of humble birth, was expecting a child. An angel, a messenger from God, told Mary to give her son this name Jesus or Joshua. It marked him out as someone special in God＊s purpose. It is worth quoting the words of the angel in full:
※Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Fear not Mary; for thou hast found favour with God. And behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.§ Then said Mary unto the angel, ＆How shall this be seeing I know not a man?＊ And the angel answered and said unto her, ※The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.§
Mary, despite her humble position in life, was a direct descendant of the great king David, which made Jesus humanly speaking a legitimate heir to the throne of Israel. Jesus had no human father. As the angel told Mary, Jesus was conceived by the direct intervention of God through His Holy Spirit. God Himself was the Father of Jesus Christ. This made Jesus a very special man. The angel also spoke to Joseph, who became Mary＊s husband after the conception of Jesus. The angel told Joseph: ※Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.§
While the promise of the angel to Mary marked out Jesus as a future king over the everlasting kingdom of Israel, his words to Joseph suggested that Jesus was also another kind of Saviour 每 he would ※save his people from their sins§. It was the sinfulness of Adam, the sinfulness of the world before the flood, the sinfulness of Israel, the sinfulness of all men and women that had so far prevented God from implementing His purpose of making a world full of people that would glorify and honour Him by their willing obedience. Now there was the promise of a man who would save ※his people§ from their sins, and so enable God to fulfil His purpose. How would this come about in God＊s purpose?
Jesus grew up as any ordinary young man of his day. When he was thirty years of age he put down his carpenter＊s tools, left his father Joseph＊s workshop and began travelling throughout Israel telling the people in the towns and villages about the need for repentance, and the need to prepare themselves for the promised coming of God＊s Kingdom. He chose twelve disciples, ordinary working men like himself, to go with him. We read that the common people received his message gladly, but his words offended the priests and the religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their comfortable position under the Romans. God worked with Jesus in the preaching of the Gospel message by enabling him to work miracles of healing, and by other demonstrations of the power of God. His preaching caused a sensation among the people. It was so different from the teaching of their leaders whose duty it should have been to bring the word of God to the people. If the Jewish leaders had properly understood and taught the message of the prophets they would have recognised Jesus as the promised Messiah. Jesus refused to get involved with the politics of the day and this deeply disappointed those who thought he would be the promised leader for their revolt against the Romans. They were clearly impressed by the miracles that he did and by the fact that God was working with him, but his message which spoke of the need for repentance, forgiveness and living according to God＊s ways they completely failed to understand. His disciples asked Jesus on one occasion what they had to do to do the works of God. He replied ※This is the work of God, that you believe on him whom God has sent＃.the words that I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life§ The Jewish leaders asked Jesus to tell them plainly whether he was the Christ or not, whether he really was the appointed deliverer they were expecting. They were disappointed. They understood by the title ※Christ§ someone who would fulfil their political dreams and ambitions, a military leader, not someone who wanted to lead them into a responsible way of life and a proper attitude towards their God and their fellow men. Jesus told them that what he said and the works he did in His Father＊s name were sufficient witness to his claim to be ※the Christ§. They however were deaf to his teaching: they were not ※his sheep,§ not of his flock.
The Gospel Message
We have seen that there are two aspects to the work of Jesus as the Saviour sent by God. Firstly, to ※save his people from their sins§ and secondly, to reign over his people as their king in God＊s kingdom on earth. We are all ※his people§ if we choose to be, and Jesus began his work of saving us from our sins by proclaiming the Gospel message. That message has remained with all generations since, and will continue with us until Jesus Christ comes to the earth again. In those days Jesus taught the people who came and listened to him in the land of Israel. Jesus teaches the Gospel message to us in our day by our reading of his word, the Bible. The second aspect of the work of Jesus, that of reigning over the whole world as king, we shall see and experience with him when he returns.
The Gospel message was summed up by Jesus in one short sentence: ※Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.§ With these words he linked together both aspects of his work. God could only accept and deal with repentant people, people who have the right attitude to God, and he wants such people for His kingdom. The immediate problem Jesus had was that the Jews of his day saw their duty to God in one way only, and that was obedience to God＊s Law given through Moses when they first became a nation under God. They thought that if they kept God＊s Law perfectly He would reward them with eternal life. God＊s Law was spelled out in the Books of Moses at the beginning of the Old Testament. Throughout the ages the priests and teachers of the Law had studied the Law, interpreted and expanded it into such great detail that it became an impossible and largely meaningless burden, particularly to the hard working poor who were made to conform for reasons they seldom understood, and to give what they could not afford to the service of the temple and its priests.
One of the teachers of the Law came to Jesus and asked Him which was the first (i.e. the most important) commandment in the Law. Jesus replied ※The first of all the commandments is ＆Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God is One Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.＊ This is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this ＆Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.＊ There is none other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.§
In this brief reply Jesus destroyed with a few words all the extravagant detail of works to do and rules to follow that the Jews had built around God＊s Law and replaced it with two simple commands 每 Love God, and Love Your Neighbour. This was a complete reversal of the Jewish attitude to God. But Jesus was teaching that love for God and your neighbour was enough to bring all the detailed requirements of the Law into place. The exercise of love would absorb all the details of the Law automatically.
The real difference between the tradition of the Jews and the teaching of Jesus was that the Jews were bound to a set of written commandments which they had to understand, remember, and keep until for them it became a tiresome ritual, and this blinded them to the real purpose of life, and made their approach to God offensive. Jesus reversed the process completely. He was looking for men and women who out of love for God would try to see that everything they did, in fact every aspect of their lives, was done in love, and in a way that gave honour to God. This was to be the religion of the future. It would echo the beautiful psalms of David in which he expressed his love for God, and call to mind the faith of Abraham, who unquestioningly obeyed God, trusting Him in all his ways. Such men and women would have no need to consult a detailed law and engage in elaborate ritual: their hearts and minds, filled with the love of God would tell them what they ought to do.
Jesus also spoke of another aspect of our relationship with God, that of forgiveness. Under the Law of Moses sins were forgiven by the ritual offering of animal sacrifices. To the Jew of Christ＊s day man＊s standing before God was estimated by the good things he had done in the keeping of God＊s Law, and a man＊s prosperity was a sign that God was pleased with him. But a man＊s standing in the presence of God could be diminished by his sins. This was corrected by sacrifices offered through the priest. Sins were wiped away once a year by the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement, but they began to accumulate again for the next year on the same day. Jesus explained that this was not the way God looked at human behaviour. The Jews misunderstood the ritual element of the Law and carried it out in the wrong spirit which was displeasing to God. When God is approached in the right spirit of meekness and humility, and we are sincerely sorry for doing wrong, then He will forgive us our sins at any time and without limit, depending only on three things:
1. That we are completely sincere,
2. That we are prepared to forgive others as God forgives us, and
3. That we try to avoid sins in the future.
There is no list of accumulated offences stacked up against us. If God says that He will remember our sins no more then He means it. They are wiped out, they no longer exist. We are forgiven, ready to make a new start.
Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins
Jesus began his life of service to God in preaching the Gospel by being baptized. His cousin John was baptizing men and women in the river Jordan. They came to John, listened to his preaching, and realised that the way they were living was offensive to God. So they humbly admitted their sinful way of life and asked John to baptize them as a token of their sincere repentance and their determination to make a new start. The simple ceremony was to dip their whole body under the water. It symbolised a cleansing of the whole person, not of the outward body, but of the mind and the things the mind tells us to do. It meant a new clean start to life, in fact, a new life in which the baptized persons would make every effort with God＊s help to resist sin and fill their lives with positive worthwhile things which would be pleasing to God, and that new life would continue for ever.
John was puzzled that such a perfect man as Jesus would come to him for baptism. Jesus＊ reply was that it was necessary ※to fulfil all righteousness§. By this Jesus meant that, in respect of being able to sin, he was no different from all the others who came to John, and it was this that made him a suitable representative of the human race. And he wanted this to be clear to all as he began his message of salvation. Jesus remained sinless throughout his life on earth, but he experienced the temptations shared by all men and women.
When we are ready, when we have truly understood that a life lived in ignorance or neglect of God is displeasing to Him, and that by the Gospel He calls us to a new life of service to Him, then we may ask for baptism for the forgiveness of our sins. Baptism does not stop us from sinning but, having been baptised, this willing, public declaration of our intention should help us to avoid sin in our lives in the future. Because we are weak and human it is inevitable that we shall sin after baptism. Does that mean that we must repeatedly be baptized to wash away every new sin? No, once is enough. From that time onwards, our sins, confessed to God in the right spirit, will be forgiven. Baptism by John, after repentance for the forgiveness of sins, was sufficient while the Law was still in place and during the lifetime of Jesus, but after Jesus＊ death, baptism took on a deeper meaning.
THE TEACHING OF JESUS
How Jesus Taught
The teaching and the baptism of John were necessary preparations for the work of Jesus Christ that was to follow. What is salvation, and how is it brought to us? And if it promises us eternal life how can this be, seeing that all men and women die whether they are baptized or not? The answer lies in the teaching of Jesus, his own example, and what he did for us. We will take them in that order.
Jesus taught in four ways.
1. He gave simple straightforward talks to the people around him.
2. He also spoke to them in ※parables§.
3. He argued, sometimes very fiercely, with the religious leaders and others who opposed him.
4. God also supported his teaching with miracles and signs, which demonstrated his authority from God. The miracles of healing, the ability to provide food when required, and the control over the natural elements also showed how human life and circumstances would be changed in the future for those who loved and trusted God. They were a demonstration and a guarantee that God could and would do the things that Jesus promised when he returned to establish God＊s kingdom.
Talking to the Crowds who followed Him
The purpose of Jesus was to teach. He had a message from God to deliver to all who would listen. Wherever a crowd gathered he would talk to them. He spoke in the temple in the centre of Jerusalem. The people followed him out into the desert, and were so interested in what he was saying that they would have gone without food rather than miss a word. They gathered on the sea-shore, so that he had to get in a boat and pull out from land to distance himself from the crowd and avoid being crushed. Those who listened to Jesus in those days had the privilege of hearing his words from his own mouth. Today we still hear his words and, although they come from a book, they are still as fresh and full of meaning for us as on the day they were spoken. The risen Jesus sends a special message to us, ※Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.§ Matthew and Luke have put together in their gospels a collection of the things that Jesus said. It is called ※The Sermon on the Mount§. It is not of course all that Jesus said and did. John ends his gospel ※And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.§ A beautiful poetic exaggeration which gives the right emphasis and importance to the words of Christ.
The Sermon on the Mount contains words of comfort and instruction for those who were meek and humble and wanted to do things God＊s way, for those who suffered at the hands of their fellow men because they tried to do the right thing. There were promised blessings from God now and in the future. Those who listened to Jesus were assured that God valued them above all men, and that they stood in the line of God＊s prophets of old. God wanted ※their light to shine before men§. The words of Jesus call for a higher standard of understanding and behaviour than was to be found by a study of the Law. Jesus taught that it was not only wrongdoing that was sinful, but even the thought of wrongdoing would offend God. They were not to resist evil; they were to be generous and loving even to their enemies. They were not parade their religion as the Jews did, but to seek God at quiet times and in quiet places. They were to trust God, and believe that He would provide for them all the necessary things of life. The Sermon on the Mount may not have been spoken all at one time, but was perhaps a selection of the things that Jesus taught throughout his ministry. It forms the basis of the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus used parables to make his teaching clearly understandable. Parables were, on the surface, simple stories about things which happened in the lives of ordinary people 每 things with which they would be very familiar, like the shepherd looking after his sheep, the farmer sowing seed, or a young man leaving home for a life of adventure. But behind the story was a deeper meaning. The characters and incidents in the story represented God and His dealings with men and women. To those who were unsympathetic to Jesus the stories would have no deeper meaning, but to those who were seeking to know the will of God, the meaning was clear, and they taught moral and spiritual lessons.
Many of the parables were directed against the Jews who thought that they alone were God＊s people. For example, Jesus told the story of a king who made a wedding feast and invited his friends, but they could not be bothered to come and made excuses. So the king sent his servants out into the streets of the city and brought in to the wedding all that would come. Jesus was teaching that God＊s chosen family, Israel, the Jewish people were neglecting Him, so that He was now prepared to abandon them and make up a new family from among the other peoples of the world.
In another parable Jesus compares God to a farmer who sowed seed in a field which fell in different types of ground, in fertile soil, or on the stony verges and the footpath. The seed is God＊s word, His message to us. We are the ground into which it falls. In good ground the seed will grow well and produce much fruit: in other ground it will be strangled by weeds, parched by the sun, or find no place for its roots. These are the people who hear God＊s word, but for various reasons it does not grow in them and they produce no fruit for God and the word dies in their hearts. The good ground receives the seed; this represents the open hearts and minds that will receive the Word of God, and allow it to grow; people with such hearts and minds will produce much fruit in their obedience to God.
There are parables which emphasise the extent of God＊s forgiveness for the repentant, our duty to our neighbours, and how we should always be looking out for the return of the Lord Jesus. Altogether there are eighty parables to be found in the gospels. Some are quite lengthy stories and others no more than a short sentence, but they all add up to lessons in how God wants us to live, and what He has planned for us in the future.
Contention with the Scribes and Pharisees
It was inevitable that the teaching of Jesus and the regard that the common people had for him would arouse the envy and opposition of the Jewish religious leaders, the Scribes and Pharisees. Nor did Jesus hide his contempt for them. He openly condemned them as ※hypocrites§ because they had the authority and duty to teach and help the people, but did nothing about it. They spent their time disputing doubtful points in the Law. They paraded their devotion to God with much outward show, but without any sincere love. They neglected their duty to those who needed help. Jesus compares them to a grave or tomb which is beautifully decorated on the outside but inside only contains a dead man＊s bones.
At the beginning of his ministry Jesus went into the temple and cleared out the money-changers and those who were buying and selling animals appointed for sacrifice. Jesus said to them, ※It is written, My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but ye have made it a den of thieves.§ Jesus was challenging the money-making rackets which made the priests very wealthy at the expense of the poor people. Jesus also paid no attention to the unnecessary restrictions the Jews placed on Sabbath activity which they regarded as the focal point of the Law. When they criticised him for healing a man on the Sabbath day he replied, ※The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.§ The Pharisees, recognising a powerful rival, asked him by what authority he taught the people and, although on this occasion he would not give the Pharisees a direct answer, he made it clear that God was his Father, and he spoke for God, making him at least the equal of the prophets of old whom they pretended to venerate. And, in the sense that he brought God＊s message, he was equal to God.
These things particularly aroused the hatred of the Jewish leaders. Jesus criticised their selfish and hypocritical way of life, he criticised their abuse of God＊s Law to their own ends. He particularly offended the Jewish leaders because he claimed to be the Son of God and to be speaking for God. The Pharisees could see that their privileged position of respect at the head of the Jewish community was being taken away. They could also see that the admiration of the people for Jesus and his teaching was likely to offend the Romans, who would suspect that Jesus was fomenting a rebellion and come down heavily upon the nation as a whole. They reached the decision that Jesus would have to be stopped. They planned his death. But how could they do it without upsetting the people? Judas Iscariot, the traitor among the disciples, brought them the answer. For thirty pieces of silver he would lead them to Jesus at a time when he was away from the crowds, and they could arrest him.
Miracles, Signs and Wonders
It was not only the words of Jesus that impressed the people, He was able to support the truth of his words by healing people who were sick and by demonstrating the power of God His Father in other wonderful ways. The blind, the deaf and dumb, the lame and the lepers were healed, the dead were raised, and the hungry multitudes were fed. With a word Jesus stilled the fury of a storm at sea. Such miracles were necessary to convince the people that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, and that he came with the power and authority of God. In the first place these miracles were evidence of God at work through His Son, but they were also a foretaste of God＊s kingdom on earth. In performing these miracles Jesus was saying in effect, ※When I come again as your king, the dead will be raised; there will be no more sickness and disease, there will be plenty for every one, and I will command the forces of nature for the benefit of man and not for his hurt.§ The miracles were a visual aid to the spoken word of God. They were a demonstration of what would be possible in God＊s kingdom in the future.
THE EXAMPLE OF JESUS
The Entry into Jerusalem
Jesus was aware that his message, his work faithfully carried out, and his condemnation of the Jewish establishment would lead to a confrontation that could only end in his death. When in the past God had sent prophets to rebuke His People for their wickedness and to try to reform them it had frequently cost them their lives. Now there was the added complication that although the Jewish leaders rejected him, the people had marked him out for their king, their Messiah. And it was true, He was their king! God had appointed him to rule over Israel on the throne of his father David for ever! As Jesus approached Jerusalem for the last time he was moved to demonstrate his kingship and his authority.
Accompanied by his disciples and a rapturous crowd of people, he mounted a donkey or mule, and rode into the city. In the culture of the Middle East in those days, this was the action of a king about to claim his inheritance. The people were jubilant. They cast their clothes on the ground before him and stripped the palm trees of their fronds to make a royal carpet. The people shouted and hailed him as their king and sang psalms as he came through the gates of the city. At that point in time the people would have followed him anywhere. Entering the temple, and for the second time in his ministry, Jesus turned out the money changers, and those that were buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He said, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah ※My house shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.§ This demonstration of his kingship was a foretaste of the time yet to come when Jesus will be in the earth again as our king, and the corruption we see all around us will be completely and permanently suppressed. Jesus sometimes refers to us as ※God＊s temple§, meaning that it is among people not in buildings that God lives. At present that living temple is unclean, imperfect, like the temple in Jerusalem, but when Jesus returns he will make us clean and all will be perfect.
This was as far as Jesus could go for the moment. He was a king in prospect, but not yet in reality. Jesus sent the donkey back to its owner and walked away from the scene of his triumph. He needed some peace and quiet before the ordeal ahead. The reception by the people may have given Jesus some comfort and strengthened him for the ordeal that he had now to face, but as far as the people themselves were concerned they were bewildered and disappointed by his sudden change of mood and direction. If this Jesus wasn＊t going to claim his throne then they had no use for him, they would find someone else to lead them, which they did.
The Last Supper
Jesus still had much to tell his disciples so he sat down with them for a final meal together in the course of which he would do his best to prepare them for the ordeal that was to follow, both his and theirs. He needed to prepare them for the life they would lead after he had left them and ascended into heaven 每 something for which at that moment they seemed totally unprepared. During the supper Jesus instructed them to follow a little ceremony by which they would always remember him and his place in their lives. He broke a loaf and shared it among them: ※This is my body,§ He said, ※divide it among you.§ We can see many things in this action, but particularly that his example and his teaching were to be the spiritual food on which they should live. He also meant them to understand that all who followed him throughout the coming years were part of him, the body of which he was the head.
He then shared a cup of wine with them telling them he would not eat and drink again with them until he returned as king to rule over his Father＊s kingdom on earth. Sharing the cup of wine was the traditional way of beginning a new covenant or agreement, which, in this case, would be sealed in his death. The Old Covenant with God through Moses was no longer valid. From now on God＊s grace and mercy towards mankind would be through Jesus. The wine, he said, was his blood which was shed for them, and he was referring to his death on the cross which he knew would shortly take place. The wine also symbolised the spirit of life, his life blood, which would strengthen and encourage them through the difficult years ahead. True disciples of Jesus Christ throughout the ages have broken bread and drunk wine in memory of their absent Lord and will continue to do so until he comes again. The sharing of the bread and the wine represents the death of Jesus, and reminds his disciples of the debt they owe to him, and his promise to return and share his kingdom with them.
Salvation through the Death of Jesus
How would the death of Jesus bring blessings and salvation to mankind? God had originally introduced death as a punishment for sin, or disobedience. But here was a man who had never sinned. Jesus, a man, had lived his life in absolute obedience to the will of God, His Father. His love for His Father, his determination to obey God, to do God＊s will in every aspect of his life was to result in his death at the hands of his fellow men and women. They could not accept his challenge to repentance and obedience. To protect their own wicked interests they put him to death. Fearing that the bold and open teaching of Jesus concerning the coming kingdom of God would cause a clamp-down on their political and commercial activities by the Romans, they arranged for his arrest, and handed him over to the Romans. The Romans crucified Jesus, and he was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But for God to be true to His principles He would not allow a righteous and obedient man to remain dead in the grave. On the third day after his death, God brought Jesus back to life. Death is the punishment for sin, and Jesus was sinless. The obedience of Jesus was tested even to the point of his willingness to die rather than deny his God, and then God raised him from the tomb to live for evermore.
How does this save us? What is our part in this new covenant? We will never succeed in being totally like the Lord Jesus and living perfect lives, however much we try. We are, and will always be, disobedient sinners, and so will die. Jesus, raised from the dead, is with His Father in heaven. Jesus pleads with God for our forgiveness, that because he was faithful unto death we also might have our sins taken away and live. God is pleased to grant him his request. We shall all die because we are sinners, but if we trust God and to the best of our ability we are faithful to Him, we too shall be raised from the grave as Jesus was. As far as our sins are concerned, they are forgiven for Christ＊s sake. Now, through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, God has found a way to remove the curse of death from those who believe Him and trust Him. Our resurrection will take place literally at the return of Jesus Christ when he will establish God＊s Kingdom on earth. Faithful, resurrected and immortalised believers will find employment under the direction of Christ their king in the transformation of this world with all its problems and difficulties into His glorious Kingdom.
Our life in Christ now is one of probation and preparation, a life in which we do our best to discard the ways of the world, and live according to God＊s ways. In so doing we become the subjects of God＊s Kingdom now; we enjoy the privileges, the responsibilities and the discipline of obedience to God. We anticipate the coming Kingdom; we are the Kingdom in miniature, awaiting the return of the King.
Arrest and Trial
Jesus and the disciples left the supper table and went to a nearby garden called Gethsemane to await the end. Jesus prayed to God to be saved if it were possible from the ordeal ahead, and placed himself entirely in His Father＊s hands. The disciples were bewildered and frightened, not knowing what to expect. Judas, the traitor among the disciples came with a band of armed men to arrest Jesus, who offered no resistance.
Jesus was taken into the city and tried by the High Priest on a charge of blasphemy. Jesus had said that he was the Son of God and under Jewish law this was blasphemy, the penalty for which was death. Under Roman law the Jews had no authority to execute prisoners, so the following day they took him before Pilate the Roman governor. The Jews, knowing that Pilate would not be interested in a charge of blasphemy, changed their accusation against Jesus. He was now accused of claiming to be a king, which the Jews thought Pilate could hardly ignore. They were right, but when Pilate questioned Jesus he realised that the kingship that Jesus claimed posed no immediate threat to the Emperor of Rome and would have let him go. But the Jews persisted. In a final act of hypocrisy they said, ※If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar＊s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar＃ We have no king but Caesar.§ Whether Jesus lived or died was a matter of little importance to Pilate, and after some hesitation he told the guard to take Jesus away and crucify him.
Death and Burial
Jesus died a painful death on the cross and then Pilate allowed two of the faithful followers of Jesus to take his body down from the cross and lay it in a nearby rock tomb. The Jews, aware that Jesus had spoken of his resurrection and having seen his power to raise others from the dead, sealed the tomb and placed an armed guard of soldiers to prevent his disciples, they said, coming and stealing the body and claiming that Jesus was alive.
There was no need. The work of God is not prevented by sealed tombs and armed guards. An angel rolled away the stone before the terrified guards, and Jesus, alive again, walked out to meet Mary Magdalene who had come to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. Peter and John followed her to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty. During the next forty days Jesus met and talked to all his disciples, convincing them that he was the risen Christ, and far from his life being over his new life as their resurrected Lord was now just beginning. Jesus gave them instructions for continuing the work he had begun. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until they were given the gift of the Holy Spirit to support them in their work. And then he left them and ascended to the right hand of His Father in heaven with the promise that he would be with them in spirit until the end of the age, and then he would return in person.
THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH ESTABLISHED
The Disciples Continue the Preaching of the Gospel
After Jesus had ascended into heaven, the disciples kept out of the public eye because to begin with they were uncertain and afraid, and they needed to avoid persecution by the Jews. Then came the change that gave them the courage and determination to proceed. We read that the promised Holy Spirit came to the disciples and attached itself to them in the form of a flame of fire. We are not told for how long this flame was visible, but presumably when they went out into the city among the people it was not noticeable. Strengthened in purpose and ability by the Holy Spirit the disciples began to tell all who would listen about Jesus Christ the Son of God, his good news of God＊s coming kingdom, now made utterly convincing by his resurrection from the dead, and supported by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The first evidence of the Holy Spirit at work with the disciples was that they were able to speak other languages in addition to their native tongue. Thousands of Jews from all over the civilised world were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. Peter and the other disciples were able to speak to them in their own languages. Many of them were delighted to hear what they had to say, and accepted the account the disciples gave of recent events that had happened to Jesus. They joined the disciples and worshipped God.
Peter was spokesman for the disciples. What did he say that was so well received by the crowds, but which offended and disturbed the Jewish leaders? He told them that Jesus Christ, who had been among them teaching and whom they had crucified, God had raised from the dead. Jesus, Peter said, was the true heir to King David＊s throne. This Jesus, whom they had put to death, was now with His Father in heaven. When the people listening realised what they had done they were conscience-stricken. Peter urged them to repent and be baptised, so that they too would share in the promised blessings of the Holy Spirit. Many of the people responded immediately and that same day about three thousand men and women were baptised and became founder members of the Christian Church in Jerusalem. Not only that but the assembled pilgrims from all over the world who had come to Jerusalem for the Feast took the gospel message home with them as they went, and so within a few weeks news of the coming kingdom of God and salvation in Jesus Christ reach all parts of the civilised world.
Peter healed a lame man who sat daily in the temple begging and who was well known to all the people 每 another miracle that the Jews could not deny. A crowd gathered around Peter and he continued teaching the people. But the Jews threatened Peter and John that they would be severely punished if they continued to preach the message of Jesus Christ. Peter and John replied that they could not stop their work 每 they must obey God rather than man. More and more people joined the Apostles as they taught and healed the people. As the word spread around, people came into Jerusalem from the nearby cities to hear them preach. The Apostles were again arrested and put in prison, but an angel came at night and let them out. The next day they were in the temple again, preaching.
The Jews were determined to stamp out what they saw as heresy, and matters came to a head when they arrested one of the disciples named Stephen and brought him before the Council and falsely accused him of blasphemy. Stephen defended himself before the Jews and told them that when they resisted the message of the Gospel taught by Jesus Christ and the Apostles they were opposing God. Stephen was stoned to death, and there began a great persecution against the Church. Leading this persecution was a young man of good family, well educated, having the right connections and destined for great things among the Jews. His name was Saul. Under his leadership anyone joining the followers of Jesus Christ became a target for imprisonment and death. This resulted in the believers being scattered abroad from Jerusalem into the surrounding country, leaving only the Apostles, formerly referred to as the disciples, in the city. In this way the good news of the Gospel was spread.
Two incidents are recorded in the early chapters of the book of The Acts of the Apostles which are of great significance to us today. Jews grew up in the belief, and still believe, that God is a God for the Jews only. The Jews were His Chosen People. All other nations were ※heathens§ and had no relationship to God at all. The heathens worshipped idols. The Jewish Law prevented Jews from mixing with foreigners. Foreigners were ※unclean§. So far, the message of the Gospel had been preached to Jews only. Now this was to change. Jesus knew that His Father was the God of all people and all ages, and it was time to make this clear.
Peter and the Roman Centurion
One day the Apostle Peter was instructed by a vision from God to go and preach the gospel to a Roman centurion and his household. Peter protested that this would be contrary to Jewish practice, for a Jew to enter the house of a foreigner who according to Jewish tradition was unclean. God assured him that ※what God has cleansed, that call not thou common.§ Peter went to Caesarea and explained the gospel message to the Roman centurion and his household. To Peter＊s amazement while these gentiles were still listening to him, they too were filled with the Holy Spirit, and begin to speak in foreign languages just as the Apostles could, and they praised God. Peter said, ※Can any man forbid water that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Spirit as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord.§
In these days much emphasis is place upon the possession of the Holy Spirit by believers. It is sometimes said that possession of the Holy Spirit makes baptism in water unnecessary. It is important to note here that Peter insists that baptism in water cannot possibly be refused, even to those who had received the Holy Spirit.
When Peter returned to Jerusalem and told his fellow Jewish Christians what had happened, they were at first reluctant to accept the idea that God was the God of all men and not just the Jews. It was understandable. It overturned all the Jewish traditions of past generations. Peter had to explain to them that God had indeed sent him to preach the gospel to a Roman, and that the Roman centurion had received the gift of the Holy Spirit directly from God, without his intervention. The Jews at Jerusalem marvelled at this, but then concluded, ※God hath also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.§
Philip and the Ethiopian man
Soon after Peter had spoken to the Roman Centurion, Philip, another disciple, was preaching the gospel message to the people of Samaria. Samaria was by Jewish standards a ※heathen§ city, but after Peter＊s experience with Cornelius the Roman centurion, it seems the Apostles were prepared to follow Peter＊s lead and take the gospel message to all who would listen. They might also recall that Jesus, passing through Samaria on one occasion, had preached the gospel to a Samaritan woman and all her friends and family. Now God instructs Philip to go and talk to a man who was sitting in his chariot, reading his Bible. He was a black man from Africa, a high ranking officer in the service of the Queen of the Ethiopians. But he was also a convert to Jewish ways and had been to Jerusalem to worship. On his way home he had stopped for a rest, and was sitting in his chariot reading the book of the prophet Isaiah where the prophet writes of a man who is coming to bring deliverance to God＊s people, but who will be despised and rejected by them. He could not understand who or what the prophet is talking about, and Philip was able to explain that in the Bible the prophets of the Old Testament tell us of Jesus Christ the Son of God who was to come and preach repentance, and bring eternal life to those who had faith in him, and that his rejection by the Jews was all part of God＊s purpose to involve all mankind in His plan of salvation. Philip told the Ethiopian about Jesus, and how his life, death and resurrection had fulfilled the words of the prophet.
Like the Roman centurion to whom Peter was sent, the Ethiopian man was convinced that the message of repentance and salvation was for him also. He was baptised and went on his way rejoicing in his new-found faith. We hear nothing more of this man, but we can be sure that he would have told his people at home in Africa about the true understanding of the Bible and the life and death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of his coming again.
These two incidents are included in the New Testament to show that God＊s message of salvation is not limited to the Jews but is available to people of all races. Through the work of Jesus Christ and because of the lack of faith among the Jewish people God＊s precious promises are for all. The only requirement is that they understand the gospel, have faith in God＊s promises and live a life that is pleasing to God in preparation for the return of the Lord Jesus from heaven to set up God＊s kingdom on earth. These promises are also for us today. The words of the Lord Jesus to the woman he met at Samaria will be fulfilled. ※Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the hour cometh and now is when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him.§
The Apostle Paul
We now come to a turning point in the work of God. God had reached the stage with the Jewish people where for the moment it could go no further. The Jews had failed to recognise Jesus as the Son of God or understand the message that God had sent to them through him. Now God would put into action the next part of His plan. He would open up the way of salvation to all the world, and He would need faithful men and women to work with Him. The Apostles in Jerusalem still found it difficult not to see Christ only within the context of their Jewish upbringing and the traditions of the Mosaic Law. They found it difficult to understand how their God could possibly have anything to say to non-Jews unless it was that the gentiles should conform to Jewish ways. They accepted the experiences of Peter and Philip, but wanted gentile converts to conform to Jewish Law.
If the gentiles (the Jewish term for non-Jews) were to accept God through the message of Jesus Christ, then it required a man of understanding, imagination and energy to lead that work, a man who could travel the world and talk confidently to men of all walks of life, when necessary even to kings and emperors. God＊s first choice is Saul, the man who was then leading the persecution against the Christians as they came to be called. , . This might seem an incredible thing for God to do, but God knew his man. Saul was respected by his own people, well educated in the Bible and the Mosaic tradition, determined and capable. All God had to do was to open his eyes to the reality of what was happening around him. The Jewish world was at an end. God had despaired of His wilful and disobedient people. Within a few years he would scatter them among the nations of the world, where they would always be despised and persecuted; they themselves would be treated as they had treated God＊s Son.
Saul had been sent to the northern city of Damascus with instructions from the Chief Priest to stamp out Christianity in that place. On the way he was stopped by a bright light that temporarily blinded him. He saw a vision of Jesus Christ. Jesus sent him to meet the Christians who were in Damascus who would instruct him in the way of truth. Saul did so, and, his heart and mind opened to the truth of the gospel message, and with his sight restored, began a new life preaching Christ, whom once he persecuted. He changed his name to Paul, to show that he no longer held with Jewish traditions, and to mark the beginning of his new life as a Christian.
At first the Christians were naturally suspicious of Paul＊s conversion, thinking that it might be a trick to infiltrate their meetings and learn their plans so that he might the more easily destroy them. After a while the Christian leaders in Jerusalem were convinced of Paul＊s sincerity, and began to work with him in his missionary activities.
The Jewish Christians still hesitated to accept the reality that all men are equal in God＊s sight, and wanted to retain their Jewishness in addition to their Christianity. This is understandable because God＊s earlier work with the Jews as a nation had been in preparation for the revelation of His Son as the Saviour of the World, but, as they saw it, within a Jewish context. Jewishness and Christianity are linked together; they have the same roots. Christianity is the acceptance of the purpose of God begun through His people Israel, and then given to the world in Jesus Christ. Paul realised that while it was necessary for Gentile Christians to understand the work of God with the Jews in the past, it was not necessary to impose on them all the detailed observances of the Mosaic Law, which the Jews themselves had been unable to keep. As a result, there was a difference of opinion between Paul and his Jewish brethren which, although it was resolved officially with the elders at Jerusalem, as time went on, became the subject of a serious rift in the Church.
This was resolved by a compromise. Peter, as the leader of the Jewish Christians based in Jerusalem, would preach Christ to the Jews, and Paul would take the message of Christianity to the Gentile world. It was not a perfect solution. Peter hesitated to offend the Jews by mixing socially with the Gentile converts, and Paul needed the network of Jewish exiles living in foreign parts throughout the Roman Empire to make his first contacts and find friendly faces in every new city that he visited. There was some overlapping and friction. The Jewish Christians who held to their traditional Jewish ways began actively to undermine the work of Paul among the gentiles by following Paul from city to city and teaching his new converts that it was necessary for all Christians to keep the Mosaic Law. But worse was to come. When Paul was preaching at Lystra, Jews from the neighbouring cities of Antioch and Iconium, where Paul had preached previously, came to Lystra and persuaded the people there that Paul should be put to death. So they stoned him, and left him for dead. But Paul recovered, and with great courage returned to these cities to strengthen and encourage his brothers and sisters there. This opposition from his own people was something that Paul could not ignore, and one of the themes in most of the letters that he writes to the young churches is that the days of Jewish exclusiveness are now past, and that although the Jews still have a special place in God＊s purpose, Christians are not under any obligation to observe the Law of Moses or Jewish traditional ways.
The book of The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul made four missionary journeys throughout the countries we now know as Turkey, Greece and Italy. He travelled hundreds of miles on foot and by sea with one or two faithful companions and fellow workers. When he was not preaching he supported himself by working as a tent maker, which was his trade. All Jewish boys, however wealthy and important their parents, were expected to learn a trade. When Paul arrived in a city he had not previously visited, he first contacted the Jewish elders that lived there and spoke to them about Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel. When they rejected him, as they frequently did, he found that the gentiles were a more receptive audience. This further antagonised the Jews and led to more friction. Gradually, throughout the Roman Empire, a network of Christian Churches came into existence, some of which consisted of exiled Jews, others of Romans, Greeks and other nationalities, and some having a mixed congregation. Paul＊s letters in the New Testament tell us where some of them were 每 Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus and so on.
Paul, on his journeys, was always thinking of the brothers and sisters he left behind in Jerusalem, who were suffering the worst of the persecution against the new Christian Church. Throughout the Empire Christians were being imprisoned and put to death because they would not recognise the Roman Emperor as a god, and those that were not in prison were finding it difficult to make a living. To make matters worse there were bad harvests and famine in Judea. Paul decided that the churches in other parts of the Empire could help those in need in Jerusalem, and he organised collections for them that he would deliver when he returned to Jerusalem. When Paul did return, he was recognised by the Jewish leaders as the man who had been preaching the way of Christ and consorting with gentiles. He was arrested by the Jews and made to stand trial first before the High Priest, and then before the Roman Governor. In hearing the case against Paul the Roman governor sought assistance from King Agrippa, who was married to a Jewess and might understand better than the Romans why Paul＊s activities should have so offended the Jews.
The Roman authorities treated Paul with some respect, because as well as being an influential Jew he was a freeborn Roman citizen. Paul had already been warned by God that He wanted him to testify before Caesar in Rome, so Paul, exercising his right as a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar. Paul was taken under guard to Rome where he eventually appeared before Caesar. Paul explained his faith in God and belief in Christ to the man who at that time was the Emperor of the civilised world. The New Testament does not say how Paul died, but in all probability he was executed by Caesar Nero.
THE EARLY CHURCH
Persecution, Apostasy and Collapse
The increasing numbers and influence of the Christian Church in the early centuries worried the Emperor and the Roman authorities. To refuse to recognise and worship the Emperor as a god was treason, and the punishment was death. This was a compromise the Christians could not make. For them there was only one God, the God worshipped by the Jews, who is also the God of all mankind. Caesar was no alternative god. In all other respects the Christians were obedient Roman citizens, but to worship Caesar as a god was contrary to their faith. Throughout the Empire thousands perished. This did not stop the growth of the Church. In all ages persecution has encouraged growth rather than achieving the object of stamping it out. The Church went ※underground.§ In the city of Rome this happened literally. It is estimated that during times of persecution there were as many as a quarter of a million Christians living in the man-made caves known as the Catacombs that had been used as pagan burying places under the city. The Christians were relatively safe here because the pagan Romans would not enter. They were afraid of the ※spirits of the dead§, or (as we would say) ※ghosts§.
Not all Christians had the courage of their convictions. Under the pressure of continuing persecution, many Christians compromised their faith. Because of their faith Christians were usually honest, upright, worthy citizens, and they were often given a place in the service of the Emperor, and in his army, and so a watered-down version of Christianity was tolerated in the pagan Roman world. The Christian Church as a whole lost sight of its true objective, the return of the Lord and the setting up of God＊s kingdom on earth.
In the year 312 CE, a ※Christian§ army under the Roman Emperor Constantine defeated his pagan rival in a battle for the leadership and control of the Empire. Constantine saw this as a sign from heaven, and this led to the acknowledgement of the Christian Church as the only true religion throughout the Empire. The Church interpreted its growing influence and power as the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Paganism was out of favour, and the Emperor became the ※patron§ of the Christian Church. But to those who understood the teaching of the Bible and the gospel message of Jesus Christ, this date marked not a beginning, not a step forward, but an end. The church established by Christ and the Apostles, had gradually adopted pagan ways and pagan thinking and now the time had come when it could no longer see a reason to remain separate from the world around. Becoming part of the world meant freedom from persecution, and the respect of their countrymen because they had adopted pagan ways.
True believers, who still looked for the return of their Lord, no longer wanted a place in this apostate Church which elevated human wisdom and ambition above the gospel of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation at the return of Christ. The true church continued to exist, but in smaller numbers. Its members were outcasts and had no place in society. They moved from place to place to avoid persecution.
The story of the Christian Church this far is very much a repetition of the history of the nation of Israel. Just as Israel had been brought out of the Egyptian pagan world and formed into a nation serving God, so the Church had been called out from the world by God through the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, His Son. And just as Israel had tired of the worship of an invisible God who made them promises for the future, so also the Church had lost sight of the reason for its existence, the return of its Lord, and they found it convenient to adopt pagan thinking and pagan ways. The Church allowed itself to be merged into pagan society until it no longer existed in its original form, as a separate movement with responsibilities and expectations completely opposed to those of the world. The Church wanted recognition and rewards now.
Church and State acting together formed a powerful combination, and political success followed for Constantine and the Emperors that came after him. But with wealth and power the great Roman Empire with its new partner the Christian Church became over-confident and pleasure-seeking, and it neglected the welfare of the common people and the defence of its frontiers. A succession of pagan hordes from the east made inroads into the Empire and took control. The pagans appreciated the organisation and culture of the Empire and adopted it as their own, and with it the Church. The pagans became ※Christian§ by a form of baptism and a change of name, but the nature and quality of their Christianity would have been unrecognisable to Christ and the Apostles. Again the Church had survived by merging its beliefs and practices with those of the pagan world. The Church and the Christians of these times were, with few individual exceptions, Christian in name only. We do not know to what extent true Christianity as taught by Christ and the Apostles survived in those difficult times because there are no accurate records, but when the ※Church§ speaks of ※rooting out heresy§ and ※burning the heretics§ we can believe that among those ※heretics§ were some who still looked for the return of their Master.
The Bible to the Rescue
And that might have been the end of Christianity as a movement for the restoration of mankind had it not been for one thing 每 the Bible. God had provided that His words to Israel through His prophets should be committed to writing and faithfully preserved. Originally in Hebrew, they were translated into Greek in the second century BCE. This was the Bible that was available to Christ and the Apostles, which they knew well, and from which they quoted as they preached. It was the Bible that foretold the coming of Jesus Christ to be the ultimate leader of God＊s unfolding purpose. The written Bible was the link which connected God＊s work with Israel to His work with the Lord Jesus Christ. We know this book as the ※Old Testament§.
To this basic text were now added the four Gospels, the accounts of the life work and teaching of Christ, and the book of The Acts of the Apostles, which records the establishment and early years of the Church. We then have the Letters of the Apostles to instruct and encourage the young Churches. These books were written by the Apostles, but their words were inspired by God, making them without question the sole source of guidance for the Church. The final book of the New Testament is the ※Revelation.§ Written by the Apostle John it outlines the events that would occur in the church and among the nations of the world leading up to the return of Jesus. Interpretations of the Revelation vary greatly, but in every age the knowledge that God is carrying out His plan has been a source of comfort and encouragement for believers. These books are grouped together under the heading of the ※New Testament§. The Bible was now complete and providentially secure, even though it was in the custody of an apostate church. The word ※testament§ is sometimes translated as ※covenant§, which means that the Old Testament tells us about the covenant God had with Israel, and the New Testament the covenant God has with us in Christ. They cannot be separated, and both are incomplete without the other.
For a thousand years, which are known to historians as ※the dark ages§, this Bible, written in Latin and Greek, and in a limited number of handwritten copies, was available only to the Church, which at that time meant the professional priesthood. It was treasured as a sacred relic, but its message was ignored. Handwritten and delicately coloured copies, usually of the Psalms and the Gospels only, covered with gold and encrusted with precious stones became the treasure of kings, bishops, and the monasteries. Had the message of the Bible been available to, and understood by, the common people, the Church in its decadent state, would have been totally discredited. The common people, the farmers, the artisans and the slaves, who for the most part could not read even if they had access to a copy, had no chance to find out what the Bible said, and it was not in the interests of the Church to tell them. The Church had lost its way. The main function of the Church during this long and difficult period was to work with the state, commanding respect for the state authorities under threat of punishment both in this life and the next. The church became wealthy, worldly, morally lax and very corrupt. The character and activities of the Church in these times differed little from that of the world around. The cardinals, bishops and priests, the spiritual lords of the Church, were indistinguishable from the aristocracy who served the king. Christianity, if by that word we mean the following of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, with few notable exceptions, virtually ceased to exist. But, strange as it may seem, the Bible remained secure in the vaults and chambers of those who gave least attention to its message. It was a time-bomb awaiting detonation.
The Church reached its lowest point in the fifteenth century when its increasing demands for money placed an intolerable burden on the kingdoms of Europe. The kings and princes of Europe had loyally supported the Church at great cost to themselves through the Crusades against the pagan infidels in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. And the Pope was still asking for more. Had the money been required for worthwhile purposes the outcome might have been different, but the money was being poured into the lavish construction of St Peter＊s Church and the papal citadel at Rome. The Church was also raising money by selling pardons, or ※indulgences§ as they were called. By the payment of money, sins could be forgiven, and an entrance to heaven guaranteed. This superstition was just one deceit too far, even for the hard-bitten clergy, and voices began to be raised in doubt and opposition.
Spanish gold brought back from the Americas was also finding its way into the papal coffers. The Church became enormously wealthy at the expense of the people. The inevitable happened. Demands for the reformation of the Church, led by the German monk Martin Luther, could no longer be ignored. Luther and his followers wanted the abolition of the superstitious practices of the Church by which it held the common people in thrall. Luther＊s patrons, the German princes, wanted an end to the perpetual demands for money that was only wasted on lavish expenditure in Rome whilst their economy was reduced to ruins. When reforms were not forthcoming Luther led a breakaway movement from the Catholic Church that found support all over Europe. Years of bitter fighting and bloodshed followed as the Pope and his supporters tried to recover their authority, but the more liberal minded rulers of northern Europe were too strong for him. The Reformation had begun outside the Church, and the Protestant movement was established.
The reformation found substantial support from the new invention of printing, which enabled Bibles translated into native languages to be printed in considerable numbers and circulated throughout Europe. Once the pages of the Bible were opened, the failings of the Church as the inheritor of the Christian message were obvious. The Church resisted reform, because it had so much to lose in terms of power, wealth and influence, so it banned the reading of the Bible and destroyed all the copies it could. Those who translated, printed and distributed it were tracked down and executed. Wars continued all over Europe between those who supported reform and those who were reluctant to give up the worldly privileges enjoyed by the Church and its supporters. These wars lasted for generations. Millions of men and women were killed either defending the existing order or trying to enforce reform, and the religious world became divided into roughly two camps known as ※Catholic§ 每 the old way, and ※Protestant§ 每 those who introduced reform based on the revival of Bible understanding.
The Protestants established churches which were largely free from material abuse and corruption, but they depended on the military strength of their supporters for their freedom to worship. Their criticism of the Catholic Church, backed by the help they received from their protectors, the Protestant rulers, forced the Catholic Church to give up some of the more blatant abuses and corrupt practices. The Council of Trent (1545-63) was called to oppose the claims of the Protestants, correct some of the worst abuses and call faithful Catholics to support their Church. The separation was complete.
The Protestants were a little more successful in reforming the teaching of the Church. But while they abandoned the authority of the Church, the worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints, purgatory, the veneration of images and relics, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the confessional and penances, and other errors, they retained errors of belief and practice inherited from the Catholic Church many of which the Catholics had themselves adopted from the pagans. The Protestants retained a belief in the Trinity, the Immortality of Souls, and departure to heaven and hell at death. Protestants rejected the authority of Church leaders to pronounce on all spiritual matters and relied on the authority of the Bible alone, but they soon constructed an authoritative leadership to deal with practical matters. Spiritually and doctrinally, the Reformation was only a partial success. The very existence of the Reformed Churches depended on the support and protection of the states in whose territory they operated, just as the Catholic Church had always worked hand in hand with the temporal powers of the day. Europe and its colonies were divided between Catholic and Protestant states and they were seldom at peace with each other.
The Protestant Churches emerged a paler, cleaner shadow of the Catholic Church against which they had protested; but they had this advantage, that they had an open Bible for a point of reference, a touchstone, to guide them in all that they did if they chose to consult it and accept its instruction.
With access to the Bible and freedom to consider and interpret its message for themselves, people in Protestant countries frequently differed among themselves in their understanding of God＊s word. They were no longer forced into one rigid, and largely mistaken, interpretation which best suited the Church. In England a number of identifiable groups developed. Congregationalists, or Presbyterians rejected the authority of the king and his bishops, and between the years 1649每1660 CE. they were sufficiently powerful to overthrow both king and church and rule as a republic. But the people, tired of their strict puritanical regime, after ten years, restored the monarchy and with it the State Church. The restored church was organised along the same lines as the Roman Catholic Church, with the exception that the King of England was its head and not the Pope of Rome. The Baptist Church also rejected the spiritual authority of the king and his church, and in its early days insisted on a Bible based faith, which included adult baptism by immersion in water. The Methodists were a later group who broke away from the Church of England in protest against the slackness of the clergy, and over the years many other smaller groups followed. The same pattern of disintegration followed in other parts of Europe. In America, Protestants escaping from Catholic persecution in Europe established churches, and the Roman Catholics did the same. Persecution was not the prerogative of the Catholics. Before long Protestants were persecuting other Protestants if they failed to conform to their particular point of view. Protestants too burned their heretics. Catholic and Protestant Churches competed for the conversion of the new lands that were being discovered and colonised in America, Africa and the Far East, and in the next few centuries wars all over the world generally involved Protestants against Catholics.
THE WORLD TODAY
In a Mess
The world today is in a mess. World leaders hold conferences, discuss matters vital to the stability, good order, and future progress of the world, but they seldom agree and, where they do, they are slow to put their plans into action because the world lacks confidence in what they propose, and the wealthier nations are reluctant to make sacrifices to help less fortunate countries.
The whole world is threatened by global warming to which there are many contributory factors. The problem might be solved if individual communities were not so reluctant to make their contribution towards the reduction of ※greenhouse gases§. The heavily industrialised areas of the world, which are largely responsible, cannot face the commercial limitations and the inevitable reductions in wealth that would be imposed upon them if they reduced their carbon dioxide output, while the third world countries, which see their future in becoming industrialised, are equally unwilling to restrict the flow of unwelcome gases into the atmosphere. The rainforests of the world which convert carbon dioxide back into oxygen are being rapidly rooted up and converted into short term pasturage.
The probable results are unthinkable. As the atmosphere warms up and the polar ice caps melt, the sea level will rise and shipping ports at sea level all round the world will become submerged. Ocean life will suffer as the sea temperature rises. Land temperature and rainfall changes will affect food production. Sources of contamination will survive more easily in the moister warmer conditions.
Doctors across the world are constantly improving their knowledge, skills and techniques for treating the illnesses to which we all are liable, but at the same time the viruses responsible for our illnesses are becoming immune to the anti-biotics and other treatments which were successful in the past. New strains of viruses are developing, for which there is as yet no cure. Hospitals, which should be islands of refuge in the war against disease, are, because of man＊s ineptitude, becoming distribution centres for the latest infections.
After every major global conflict the peoples of the world say ※Never again will we resort to war to settle our differences 每 killing each other is no solution.§ But not a decade passes without an outbreak of destruction in some part of the world in which human life is held very cheaply. Every decade sees the technology of warfare developing horrifically, becoming more destructive and spread amongst military and civilians, innocent and guilty alike.
By far the most serious problem is the lack of any sense of direction or purpose other than the immediate selfish interests of individuals and communities. Plans for the betterment of mankind which involve regional or global co-operation seldom make much progress. Whereas, in the not too far distant past every political and religious system had a clear view of how it would make the world a better place, they are now reduced to planning how to avoid the next terrorist attack.
The world is aware of zero progress on most fronts, and the reaction is the abandonment of moral behaviour and resort to self-interest. ※Why be good for nothing?§ they ask, ※Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.§ The sport and entertainment world is always ready to provide ever more lavish wall-to-wall distraction for those who do not want to think about the future and can see no better alternative than to carry on as we are doing.
THE CHURCHES IN THE WORLD TODAY
Survival by Merger
If we look back two hundred years, there was a time when the churches of the world began to see it as their responsibility not only to preach their particular understanding of the way of salvation, but also to improve the conditions of mankind. In the Western World working conditions became the concern of the Church, and largely because of their intervention slavery was abolished. Missionaries followed the soldiers and the commercial adventurers into the newly conquered territories, determined to convert, and at the same time ※Westernise§ the native populations. For the churches, the Kingdom of God was here on earth now. By their evangelism and missionary efforts they would convert the whole world, make it a fit place for Christ to return to. That their souls might go to heaven at death was another issue, which some churches found difficult to reconcile with a kingdom of God on earth. Both these concepts, a future in heaven for departed souls and a present kingdom of God on earth, are without foundation in Scripture.
Unfortunately rivalry, if not worse, between the various sections of Christianity frustrated much of the good work that was attempted. The churches also saw that they could not work effectively to promote the spiritual and practical welfare of mankind unless they also became involved in international politics at the highest level. This combination of church and state is still at work today. It means that the Church, instead of preaching the future return of Christ to set up God＊s kingdom on earth, is shackled to materialist governments whose first interests seldom coincide with the teaching of Christ.
Famine and other world-wide problems, such as the wasting of the environment, global warming, water shortages, and uncontrollable diseases, occupy the attention of the churches as much as they do the secular governments of the day. While this may seem commendable, it should not be the first priority of the Christian religion. Better living conditions for the world population irrespective of belief and behaviour should not be the first aim of Christianity, nor is it what the Bible means by the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. The message of the gospel concerns the future and the coming of God＊s kingdom, something which will be imposed upon the world by God, and in which the churches of today will have no part. The teaching of Christ commands and involves us in a responsible attitude towards our fellow men and women now, but it never proposes a permanent solution to the world＊s problems short of God＊s intervention. In fact, to the contrary, it foresees a worsening of human misrule and human conditions generally as the time for Christ＊s return draws near.
OUR PART IN THE WORLD TODAY
Preparation and Propagation
So far we have stood back and looked around us at the world we live in. We have not seen much to encourage us. Despite the good intentions of politicians, philanthropists,
church leaders, and all those who profess an interest in the preservation if not the advancement of the world, we see little improvement. Now we must look at ourselves.
The Gospel proclaims a better world in the future, but it also tells us that we need to prepare ourselves to be ready for that future. The Apostle Paul was very distressed because some members of the Corinthian church were behaving in a very worldly way, deceiving and cheating each other, and then taking each other to the courts to recover their losses. He asks them: ※Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more the things that pertain to this life?§
It will be a waste of time and effort for God to introduce a better world, if the people He has chosen to supervise the world of the future are still committed to the old ways of life which are at this moment rapidly contributing to the downfall of this present world. This would only be a repetition of past failures. How will God provide people to rule the world for Him in His Kingdom if they are not living according to His principles now? We have to understand our present position. We are not here on earth just to occupy time and space. We are here to prepare ourselves to take up the authority God will give us when Christ returns 每 the authority to supervise the enlightenment of the world 每 to help all people to understand and live by God＊s principles. And it＊s no good just knowing about these things 每 only by putting them into practice in our own lives now can we make ourselves ready for this responsibility.
And there is another important point that is frequently overlooked. A place in God＊s world of the future is not something to which any of us have an automatic entitlement. Just as in the past God carefully chose those who would serve Him and help Him to fulfil His purpose, so now God is still choosing from amongst the world＊s population those He wants for the next stage of His work of salvation. The Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy stresses the fact that God is the Saviour of all men, and would have all men to be saved. He will not refuse anyone, but the decision lies with us. There will be no place for those who ignore and reject God＊s offer of salvation now, while they have the opportunity. Does the life we are living now show evidence that we have accepted God＊s offer of salvation?
The Bible gives us several examples throughout history of the moral collapse of civilisations where God has found it necessary to intervene, to bring that civilisation to an end and to start again. In the early days of human history God destroyed an irresponsible world with a flood. Later He brought about the end of His Kingdom of Israel and sent His people into captivity because they neglected Him and worshipped other gods. Finally, when Israel rejected His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, God destroyed Israel as a nation and scattered them among the nations of the world.
We need to notice that on each occasion, although the civilisation was destroyed, God arranged for a remnant of the people to escape. Noah was chosen beforehand by God to further His purpose, and he and his family survived the flood to restart life on earth as God wished it to be. When Israel had learned their lesson in captivity in Babylon, God arranged for the restoration of a remnant of the people and the re-establishment of a Jewish community centred on Jerusalem which, for a while at least, respected their God. And when this community became corrupt and God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. there was again a small remnant of Christians in place ready to continue God＊s work among men.
And now we believe history is repeating itself. The Christian movement, that made such a bold start directed by Christ and the Apostles, has lost its momentum, its identity, and its will to live apart from the world. It no longer challenges the world as a witness for God. It no longer looks to the promised future but has merged its activities and its purposes with those who are concerned only with the present, and have no belief or confidence in God. God warned us that there would be a repetition of those previous overwhelming destructions before He establishes His kingdom on earth.
We need to take notice of this repetitive pattern. We need to assess realistically the condition of the world today and its future prospects. We need to avoid complacency, and in our minds and in our way of life, separate ourselves from those activities which take us away from the anticipation of the future. We need to be part of that God-fearing community that will survive the end of the age, and be ready to contribute to the New Age 每 God＊s Kingdom on Earth when Christ returns.
The Apostle Peter, in very explicit language, compares the world he saw in his day, not long after the beginning of Christianity, with the world as it had been in the days of Noah, and Peter concludes that the only reason God has not so far brought this age to an end is His patience with us, God being willing to save as many as possible before the end comes. Around him Peter found those who scoffed at the idea of Jesus returning, men who were completely satisfied with life as it was. Peter asks us the vital question: ※If the end is shortly to overtake us, what sort of people should we be?§ And he answers his own question: we should be looking at our own characters and activities, we should be preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord, always looking for the day of his coming, and anticipating with joy the ※new heavens and the new earth§, the restoration of all things which will accompany the return of Christ.
It is two thousand years later and the end expected by Peter has not come. But Peter confidently allows for this: ※One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.§ Don＊t let the time gap obscure your thinking. The delay, if it is a delay, is intentional. God is holding off the end of the age to give as many as possible the chance to realise the danger they are in and avail themselves of His mercy. God has time and world events under His control, but have you?
Can Things Continue As They Are?
It may be asked, ※How do we know that we are indeed approaching the time of the end?§ The ※end§ has been anticipated in every generation since Christ was alive. What signs should we be looking for now that are linked precisely to the present day?
Jesus speaks of a time immediately before his return when men and women will be at their wits＊ end because of the state of things on earth. Does this describe the present day world? Yes, it does. But people may say, ※We have gone through bad times before 每 this is nothing unusual. For example, go back to the Middle Ages 每 a third of the population of Europe was wiped out by the plague they called the ※Black Death§. Look again. Certainly the population was reduced but, on the plus side, because of the Black Death the grip that the superstitious and corrupt church had on everyday life was loosened, and the feudal system of government based on the possession of land, slavery and constant warfare, changed into a more reasonable way of life for everyone. And men and women became just a little more aware of public hygiene. Now we face ※bad times§ which are, as we see it, without a ※plus side§ and without human remedy. Without God＊s intervention, life for the majority can only be a steady progression downwards. Man takes one step forward and two back. We have no confidence that the world can continue on its present path for much longer.
We have no need to speculate about the end of the world and the future beyond. The Bible tells us what will happen . The future of the world will be secured not by man＊s resourcefulness, but by God＊s intervention. In answer to their questions Jesus tells his disciples what to expect. The end of the world, or the end of the age, as it is more correctly understood, would be marked by his return. As the end approached and cracks appeared in the fabric of civilisation, there would be false Christs claiming to be him, but they could be ignored, because when it happens his return will be obvious to the whole world. Wars and anxiety among world leaders would be another indication. Famines, pestilences and natural disasters would also be prevalent. The true Church would be persecuted. All these things are with us today, and show no sign of diminishing.
But something else would happen before the end came, something that would warn and also encourage all those who were looking out for the end of the age. In fulfilment of His promises to Abraham and to David, God would release His people Israel from their exile and bring them back to their land. And this is happening now. There could be nothing more remarkable and unexpected on the international scene than the regathering of Jews from all nations of the world, and their restoration to the land of Israel which has taken place over the past hundred years. And this is only the beginning. So far the newly formed nation of Israel does not recognise that the millions who have been delivered from the pogroms of Russia and the concentration camps of Germany have been regathered by their God. They see it as the result of their own initiative, enterprise and efforts. The present precarious state of the nation of Israel indicates that there is more to come in the fulfilment of this prophecy. Jesus continued by telling his disciples of the completion of the regathering when he himself would lead the action: ※Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with the sound of a great trumpet and they shall gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.§
But we are jumping ahead a bit. Israel＊s present success on the international scene has aroused the envy of the nations, particularly the surrounding Arab states. Israel is continually threatened by her neighbours. In the last half century three major attempts have been made to destroy the young state of Israel, and all three have miraculously failed. But there will be one last attempt, and this time the attempt will appear to be about to succeed. The land of Israel will be invaded and the Israeli people, suffering greatly, will think all is lost. But in the Bible the prophet Zechariah tells us that at this point their Saviour will come back to the earth and deliver them.
We are not given precise details as to how the return of Jesus Christ to the earth will happen, and we have only an outline programme of how it will affect the world. Angels told his disciples that Jesus would return in the same way that he left them. This agrees with the words of the prophet Zechariah, who tells us that at the crucial moment Jesus will arrive on the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem. The nations who have invaded Israel will be defeated and Christ will be established as king in Jerusalem, with a repentant and humbled Israel at his feet. The challenge will go out to all the world rulers to submit to him. How will this challenge be met? While some people will be willing to submit, and even be grateful to accept the deliverance he will offer them, it is only to be expected that other rulers, especially those who have long benefited from their own misrule, will see their authority and privileges about to come to an end, and be determined to resist this apparent upstart. They will be blind to the immensity of the situation. The nations of the world will mount an invasion to put an end to his claims and maintain their own sovereignty. They may see this as the only possible move to preserve world security. It may even be that opposition to the returned Christ will be led by the United Nations Organisation, or by Britain and America thinking that they are ※putting an end to terrorism§ in one of the world＊s most familiar trouble spots!
The conclusion is never in doubt. The prophet Joel writes ※Let the nations be roused, let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all nations on every side.§ The prophet Ezekiel also anticipates a confederacy of nations that will attempt to overthrow the newly established Kingdom of God, and they will meet their end on the mountains of Israel.
While these things are happening on a world-wide scale, what is happening to the peoples of the world, the individuals who will be at the receiving end of these shattering events? They fall into two classes: firstly those who have been serving Christ in their lifetime and are waiting for his return, and secondly those who have not known about, or have known but been indifferent to, the possibility of Christ＊s return, and are totally unprepared for what is happening.
At his return, Christ will know those who are his, and will gather them together to him. There will be a judgement, and those who are found worthy will be made immortal like their king, and given authority and work to do in God＊s kingdom. We are not told how this will be done, but it will be accomplished smoothly and without causing us any distress. With the tension and alarm that Christ＊s return will bring to the world it is possible that their absence from the daily routine will hardly be noticed. For those who are not ready to meet Christ the story will be different. Jesus tells us a very explicit parable about this coming time, based on the wedding customs of the Middle East in his days on earth. Ten maidens have been appointed to go and meet the bridegroom, but they don＊t know exactly when he will arrive. While they wait they take their rest. Then suddenly in the middle of the night they are awakened and told that the bridegroom is on his way. But it is dark. The wise maidens have oil in their lamps and they set out to meet him and go in to the wedding feast. Those who were not wise had neglected to fill their lamps, and so they are delayed while oil is found for them. By the time they arrive at the wedding reception the doors are closed. They plead to be let in, but it is all in vain. The Lord does not know them and the doors remain shut. This hardly needs interpreting. Whether or not we shall be taken to be with Christ at his return depends upon the way we prepare now for that event, which will confront us suddenly and leave us no time to make up our mind then: it will be too late.
The Crisis Solved
All the Old Testament prophets rejoice in anticipation of this time when Christ will return, although they may not have realised how long it would be before it happened. They speak of ※Israel＊s deliverance§ and ※Israel＊s king§ and we must remember that in the first place Jesus is the promised Messiah to Israel, and his return and the establishment of God＊s kingdom will be in fulfilment of the promises God made to the fathers of Israel. But we have also seen how the work of Jesus and the Apostles extended the blessings promised to Israel to include those from all nations and every part of the world who would serve God through Jesus Christ. But Israel＊s prophets had some idea of the extent of God＊s kingdom. David foresaw that ※He will rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth . . . All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him . . . All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed. Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds, Praise be to His glorious name for ever. May the whole earth be filled with His glory.§
Let us give a closing thought to this section. We have seen how, when Jesus was on earth, the preaching of the Gospel began in Jerusalem among the Jews, and then spread throughout the Roman Empire, the civilised world of those days. Then, for a thousand years it was virtually lost in the nationalistic struggles that obsessed Europe. With the Reformation and the invention of printing, the Bible was re-opened and the Gospel made available to all who could read. Then the European nations began to colonise the rest of the world. The explorers and the developers took the Bible with them wherever they went. The Gospel found a new and wider audience, and we are reminded of the words of Jesus: ※This Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; then shall the end come.§ Now we find the words of Jesus and the promise of his coming again welcomed by sincere people in every country. We see this as another sign of the end of this age, and the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
The Kingdom of God on Earth
Does the Bible give us any indication of what God＊s kingdom on earth will be like? Because God is all-powerful, but at the same time, pure, and just, and loving, we should expect that His kingdom will be established on these qualities. The psalmists and the prophets give us many pictures of God＊s kingdom, and we might take as an example Psalm 72, which begins: ※Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king＊s son. He shall judge thy people with righteousness and thy poor with judgment. . . He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. . .§ And so the psalm continues, painting a picture of peace, harmony and contentment in the presence of God＊s son and in fulfilment of God＊s purpose. With such an assurance the details are not important.
With the exception of those who know and trust the message of the Bible, the return of Jesus Christ will take the world by surprise. There will be those who suspect his authority, and resent his demand that all the world submits to his will. It may take a little time to eliminate the rebellious, and establish world-wide government on God＊s terms. This time is known as the ※Millennium§ 每 a Latin word meaning One Thousand Years. During this time there will be a mortal population, beginning with those who will be alive at the return of Christ, and continuing with their descendants. The day-to-day lives of the mortals will be supervised by those who have served Christ faithfully in their lifetimes now, and who have been given the gift of immortality, and with it the wisdom and strength to deal with every situation. When the world is thoroughly cleansed of all unrighteous influences and activities Jesus will hand back his authority to God, His Father, and the work and purpose of God with this earth will be complete.
There has, of course, been a kingdom of God on earth in the past 每 three thousand years ago. The first three kings of Israel made a good start. God＊s chosen king Saul extended the boundaries of Israel to enclose the total area promised by God to the fathers of the nation. His son David subdued the neighbouring tribes, established Jerusalem as his capital city and enriched the worship of God with psalms and music. David handed over to his son Solomon a kingdom that was powerful, wealthy and at peace, and so it continued for another forty years. Solomon, under God＊s instruction built a magnificent temple for God which became the worldwide focal point for the worship of God. Jerusalem became the acknowledged centre for learning and culture, and all the kings of the then known world honoured the king of Israel and brought him tribute. Had the nation of Israel and their kings responded to the promises God made to their forefathers and remained faithful to Him, they might have enjoyed extended peace and prosperity in their land. Instead they were conquered and taken captive to Babylon, and then, later, scattered throughout the world. God brought His kingdom on earth to an end 每 suspended it 每 until He could entrust it to one who was worthy to rule over it 每 His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of God which existed in the past shows us the pattern of things to come, but on a world-wide scale. When Christ returns, just like the first kings of Israel he will subdue the nations of the world, and will make Jerusalem his capital and seat of government, and the focal point for the worship of God. There will be no more war, evil will be suppressed, and gradually eliminated. All the peoples of the world will live in a state of safety, health and happiness, and willing submission to their God. Knowing that this has happened in the past gives us a good indication that it can happen again, when God is ready.
A SUMMARY OF WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES US.
It is necessary for our salvation that we understand and believe the following, and live a life based on these principles:
There is only One True God. He is in Heaven, immortal, invisible and all-powerful.
Isaiah 45:5每6; 1 Timothy 6:15每16.
God created the entire universe and has a great purpose for the world.
Genesis 1; Numbers 14:21.
The Bible is the inspired Word of God, given to man by God for their benefit.
2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20每21.
The Holy Spirit is the power of God which He uses to carry out His purposes.
Job 33:4; Romans 8:11.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is also the Son of Man because he was born to Mary. Luke 1:35; Romans 1:3每4.
Jesus overcame all temptation and died to save us from the consequences of sin and death. Romans 10:9每13; 1 Timothy 1:15每16.
Jesus was raised from the dead by God. He ascended into heaven but he will return.
Acts 2:22; Acts 1:11.
When Jesus returns to the earth he will raise and judge the responsible dead and give eternal life to all who are faithful. Daniel 12:1每2; John 5:28每29.
Jesus will be king over the restored Kingdom of God, and rule the world.
Isaiah 9:6每7; Zechariah 14:9.
The followers of Christ, made immortal, will help him to bring everlasting righteousness and peace to the world. Micah 4:1每5; Matthew 19:27每29.
The devil, also called satan, is not a supernatural being, but is another name for sin, in all its manifestations, which has been destroyed in Christ, who will save us from its consequences. Matthew 15:19每20; Hebrews 2:14每15.
Salvation is the forgiveness of our sins through Christ, and freedom from sin and death at his return. Hebrews 9:27每28; 1 Peter 2:21每24.
Belief in God＊s promises concerning the restoration of the kingdom of God and the work of Jesus Christ is essential for salvation. Galatians 3:6每9, v14, v16, vv 29每29.
When we die we cease to exist. The only way to eternal life is by resurrection at the return of Christ. Ecclesiastes 9:5每6; Romans 5:21.
Repentance and baptism into Christ by full immersion in water, and following him daily, are necessary for our salvation. Mark 16:15每16; Romans 6:4.
NOW IT＊S DOWN TO YOU AND ME
Time for Action
Now let us see where we fit into the overall picture. We have seen how God has dealt with the world over the centuries, how He has dealt with kings and kingdoms, with good and bad people, and what He has promised for the future. On the other side we have seen how human organisations of all sorts have responded, or more usually failed to respond, to his guidance and direction. God does not call organisations into His service 每 He calls individuals, you and me. What does He expect of us? What does He want of us? The simple answer is obedience 每 obedience based on understanding. He wants us to clear our minds of all man-made schemes and hopes for the future for they will all come to nothing, as they have in the past. He wants us to leave the planning and its outcome to Him. He wants us to believe, to trust, and to obey. He has given us the Bible in which He reveals Himself to us. He is a just and merciful God whose standards are high but, with His help, not impossible to follow. He has confided in us His plans for the future of the world and its people. He wants us to join Him now in preparation for the work of creating a world that will praise and glorify Him. He has given us His Son Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour and an example upon which to base our lives. We have been given a sure foundation on which to base our lives now and in the future. There is no other way out of the present world crisis.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Why are the Jews ※God＊s People§ 每 Why not any other Nation?
The question is frequently asked, ※Why did God choose the Jews to be His special people?§ We cannot do better than repeat the reason that God gave to Israel through Moses:
※Thou art an holy people unto the Lord Thy God; the Lord Thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love upon you nor choose you because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord Thy God, He is God, the faithful God which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations; and repayeth them that hate Him to their face, to destroy them; He will not be slack to Him that hateth him, He will repay him to his face. Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments and the statutes, and the judgements which I command thee this day to do them.§ (Deuteronomy 7:7每11)
God＊s love for Israel originated with a promise He had made to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that He would make their descendants into a great nation. It was to be God＊s reward to these men of faith who trusted Him. But it would always be conditional upon Israel＊s obedience, and from the Bible record we know that Israel was not obedient. As soon as they became a nation they showed that they were unreliable in their service to God. As soon as God left them for a few days without Moses, the leader He had chosen for them, they turned their backs on God and worshipped idols. Throughout their history they continually neglected Him, preferring the gods of the surrounding nations. God tolerated this for a long time, forgave them and restored them many times, but at the end, true to His word, He punished them by allowing powerful foreign enemies to invade their land and take them into captivity, and by a final destruction at the hand of the Romans in 70 CE, leaving only a remnant to be scattered among the nations.
So why the Jews? God needed a nation through whom His will and purpose might be put into operation, and made known to all nations. Had Israel been faithful and obedient God would have made them into a great nation then and there, three thousand years ago and the glory of God would have been displayed to the world through them, as in fact it was briefly, in king Solomon＊s reign. But they were disobedient and God cast them off as He said He would. Even in their disobedience, they are a witness to God＊s power and His faithfulness to man for all to see and learn from. God keeps His word. Israel＊s misfortunes over the past two thousand years are a witness to God＊s integrity. Today the Jews show no particular Godly qualities, nor have they ever done much to endear themselves to the nations around them. The Jews have remained ever since a lesson to us all, and they will continue to be so, because God, true to His promises, will ultimately restore a remnant of Israel to His favour when Christ returns. With that restoration of Israel, God will include blessings for all nations of the world.
Israel was chosen as an object lesson to the rest of the world, to demonstrate how God would favour people who trusted and obeyed Him and also would punish those that turned their backs on Him and trusted in their own ability. As God promised the forefathers of Israel, His purpose will still be carried out, using Israel as one of the instruments of His purpose, but not before there is a complete reconciliation between Israel and their God, and Jesus the Messiah will be the means of that reconciliation at his return.
Creation and Evolution 每 Which is right, or are they compatible?
A form of evolutionary theory existed among the Greeks, and maybe other ancient peoples, but when Christianity took over the civilised world in the 4th century CE. creation as recounted in the Bible was generally accepted as the authoritative account of how the world began. Then, in the 18th century, as scientific knowledge increased, discoveries were made in biology and geology which seemed at first sight to contradict the possibility that God brought all things on the earth into existence within six literal days, six thousand years ago, as the usual understanding of the Genesis account then required. Particularly, there were fossil and actual remains of animals and plants, some of which no longer exist, and which appeared to be much older than a literal understanding of the Biblical Creation would allow. Darwin and others who shared his thinking developed a theory of ※Evolution§ which totally denied creation, and substituted a belief that life on earth evolved gradually over many millions of years by a process of random mutation and natural selection. The theory has not, and probably cannot be, satisfactorily proved in any scientific sense but it is widely accepted by the majority of scientists and is taught in schools as fact.
In the 18th and 19th centuries creation and evolution were seen as mutually exclusive. Evolution was seen by many as eliminating the need for God the Creator. If life on earth began and developed according to evolutionary theories, then there was no place for a supreme authority to plan and supervise life on earth. This view of life that did not need God was welcomed by a world that was becoming increasingly self-confident and atheistic. But over the years, further research has largely failed to produce the anticipated evidence necessary to confirm the theory of evolution in the form then current; rather the opposite has happened. The classification and grouping and dating of fossils has displayed a very uneven development, and not the gradual progression from one improved life form to another which was expected. There are also bursts of activity recorded by the fossils, interspersed with long periods of inactivity, and huge gaps in the supposed order of development. The fossil record does not support the elementary theory of evolution.
Reaction has set in, and alternative ways of looking at the book of Genesis, some reasonable, some less so, have done much to close the gap, leaving God supreme as the originator and curator of life on earth, while at the same time accounting for some of the genuinely unquestionable evidence of early life forms that has been unearthed by the biologists and geologists.
A more realistic understanding of Scripture might allow for an agreement with science. If there is a God, then the Bible and science must be compatible even if we cannot see it. One problem centres on the six ※days§ of Creation described in Genesis. If they are not literal periods of 24 hours, then it is possible they represent much longer periods of time in which life could have been established in a succession of creations, which, in turn, left their fossil remains in successive layers of rock. An alternative view is that each ※day§ as recorded in Genesis was an announcement of that phase of the work of God that was to follow. A sensible view, which is not a compromise but a consolidation of ideas, permits us to see in the Genesis record a prolonged period of Creation, always in God＊s hands, compatible with the fossil record.
To understand evolution is not our problem. God gave us His account of the beginning of things that describes events in a way that is readily understandable. Once we can accept that God＊s account of things in the Bible, and the findings of the scientists may refer to the same events, we have a basis for reconciliation. We need to take hold from the Genesis account that God was and still is at the centre of things and is controlling events.
Is God a Trinity?
Belief that God is a Trinity consisting of a co-equal, co-eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit is regarded as essential for all true Christians by the majority of churches today. Those who do not share this belief are the exceptions, including ourselves, the Christadelphians, the Mormons and the Jehovah＊s Witnesses and doubtless other lesser known groups and individuals. There have always been such groups of believers throughout the history of Christianity. We ought also to remember that many have left the Christian faith altogether because they cannot commit themselves to a dogma which is by the admission of the churches, a mystery.
Why are present-day Christian Churches so insistent on belief in the doctrine of the Trinity? We need to go back to the early years of the Church for an answer. It would seem that some of the fathers of the early Church felt that the way forward was to combine the teaching of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, and thus achieve an understanding of the universe to which everyone could agree.
Aristotle and Plato, Greek philosophers before the time of Christ, speculated about the nature of God and developed a triune formula for the superhuman world consisting of a Supreme Being, a ※Demiurge§ or Creator, and a World Soul. As the fathers of the church came in contact with this philosophy, there was a temptation to find common understanding with the Greeks, so they gradually merged the speculations of the Greeks with the teaching of Jesus. As they saw it, Greek philosophy and Christianity already shared a belief in a Supreme Being, whom they called God; and they compared Jesus, ※by whom all things were created§, with the Greek demiurge.
Making Jesus the creator of the material world derives from a misunderstanding of John 1:3 and similar passages which appear to refer to Jesus as the Creator. Jesus is central to the creation of God＊s ultimate world of the future: without Jesus there could be no future. The creation of the material world is incidental to God＊s ultimate purpose, and He is the Creator of all things. If Jesus were the creator of the material world then he would have had to have existed before the Creation, so the Bible account of his birth in the Gospels would have to be ※spiritualised§ or understood in some way that did not conflict with the idea that Jesus had always existed.
The Holy Spirit was a late arrival in the Trinity, and for many years there was sharp disagreement as to whether the Holy Spirit was God＊s executive power, or whether it was controlled by Jesus. Eventually, with their eye on the Greek ※world soul§ the early Church fathers of the Alexandrian School came to see the Holy Spirit as the life force that kept all things alive. They gave the Holy Spirit a personality and promoted him to a co-equal, co-eternal ※person§ who could join the Father and the Son to make a Trinity. A combination of the ※world soul§ idea and the idea that Jesus must have existed before the Creation, also gave rise to ※immortal souls§ 每 the concept that all living creatures have an inner invisible part called a soul, which will continue to exist after death, and may have always existed. But that is another story.
A Christian theological college was established at Alexandria in Egypt at the end of the 3rd century to discuss and promulgate such ideas. It was presided over by Clement, a very learned Christian philosopher. The Lion Handbook of the Bible records: ※The crucial achievement of Clement and Origen was to put over the Gospel in terms by which it could be understood by people familiar with the highest forms of Greek culture. They established once for all the respectability of the new faith.§ The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: ※He (Clement) was the first to bring all the culture of the Greeks and the speculation of Christian heretics to bear on the exposition of Christian truth.§ The Church was ※thinking aloud§ at this stage, with many circulating opinions and many who disagreed with the concept of a trinity.
In the year 325 CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine called a Council in which the speculations concerning the trinity could be discussed. The majority being in favour of the now more popular trinitarian views, a trinitarian formula was drawn up which also anathematised or, in their terms, condemned to ※everlasting punishment§, all who could not accept it. From that day onwards the Trinity has been the accepted teaching of the mainstream Church, regardless of its pagan origins and complete lack of Biblical support. From that time onwards those who disagreed with the doctrine of the Trinity were regarded as heretics and were liable to be put to death.
There have always been those who preferred to follow Bible truth. John Milton, the English poet (1608每1674) is a good example. He wrote: ※For my part I adhere to the Holy Scriptures alone, I follow no other heresy or sect. If, therefore, the Father be the God of Christ, and the same be our God, and if there be none other God but One, then there can be no God beside the Father.§ The doctrine of the Trinity links the apostate Church with human philosophy and temporal authority rather than the Bible.
Proposed arguments from Scripture are without much strength, such as the reference to Genesis 1: 26, where God says ※Let us make man in our image§. Those who hold the doctrine of The Trinity presume that God is addressing the other two persons of the Trinity, but this is an assumption. If there is no Trinity, then the alternative is that God was speaking to the angels who were assisting Him in the work of Creation. Another argument sometimes offered is to refer to the fact that both Jesus (2 Tim. 1:10) and God (1 Timothy 1:1) are described as ※Saviour§, therefore Jesus must be God. It overlooks the fact that human saviours are also referred to in the Bible. God sent ※saviours§ who were human warrior leaders to deliver Israel against their enemies (Nehemiah 9:27).
Cardinal Newman a leading Roman Catholic theologian of the 19th century admitted that the Trinity is the invention of the Church and cannot be learned from Scripture. He wrote:
※It may startle those who are but acquainted with the popular writing of this day, yet, I believe, the most accurate consideration of the subject will lead us to acquiesce in the statement as a general truth, that the doctrines in question (viz., the Trinity and the Incarnation) have never been learned merely from Scripture. Surely the sacred volume was never intended, and is not adapted to teach us our creed; however certain it is that we can prove our creed from it, when it has once been taught us＃ From the very first, the rule has been, as a matter of fact, for the Church to teach the truth, and then appeal to Scripture in vindication of its own teaching.§
每 Arians of the Fourth Century, pp. 55每56.
This quotation makes it clear that to the Roman Catholics it is not important whether or not any doctrine originates from or is supported by Scripture. For them it is sufficient that it is taught by the Church. For the purposes of our investigation we require precisely the opposite terms of reference 每 If it is not to be found in the Bible it is of human origin and can therefore be discounted.
Does 1 John 5: 7 support the Trinity?
The only Scripture which appears to support the doctrine of the Trinity is 1 John 5:7. This is found in the English King James Version of 1611 CE, but has been omitted from nearly every more recent version on the grounds that it does not appear in any early manuscripts and is therefore an insertion to the text at a later date purely to establish or justify the doctrine of the Trinity. The arguments against the inclusion of this passage are as follows:
The earliest citation appealed to is Cyprian:
※The Lord says, ＆I and the Father are one;＊ and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, ＆And these three are one.＊§ Cyprian, ＆Treatise 1 每 On the Unity of the Church＊, section 6, c. 258 AD.
There is no indication whether or not Cyprian knew the text as we have it in the KJV, the quote here is simply too small to judge. Dealing with this and all other manuscript and patristic quotations, Bruce Metzger, United Bible Societies 1994, writes:
※A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, the most authoritative textual commentary on the most authoritative Greek New Testament text available, says: ＆That these words are spurious and have no right to stand in the New Testament is certain＊ and goes on to point out that the passage is absent from every known Greek manuscript except eight, and there are well over two thousand. Seven of these date from the 16th century, and the eighth is an alternative reading added to a 10th century manuscript.§
The passage is quoted by none of the Greek Fathers, who, had they known it, would most certainly have employed it in the Trinitarian controversies of their day. Its first appearance in Greek is in a Greek version of the (Latin), Acts of the Lateran Council in 1215.
The passage is absent from the manuscripts of all ancient versions Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic, except the Latin; and it is not found (a) in the Old Latin in its earliest form, or in the Vulgate (b) as issued by Jerome or as revised by Alcuin in the 9th century. Martin Luther did not include it in his first edition of the German Bible. The earliest instance of the passage being quoted as a part of the actual text of the Epistle, is in a 4th century Latin treatise entitled Liber Apologeticus (chapter 4), attributed either to the Spanish heretic Priscillian (died about 385), or to his follower Bishop Instantius. It appears to have originated as a marginal note which in later copies found its way into the text. In the 5th century this marginal note was quoted by Latin Fathers in North Africa and Italy as part of the text of the Epistle, and from the 6th century onwards it is found more and more frequently in manuscripts of the Old Latin and of the Vulgate. The wording of the passage differs.
If the passage were original, no good reason could be found to account for its omission, either accidentally or intentionally, by copyists of hundreds of Greek manuscripts, and by translators of ancient versions.
The passage makes an awkward break in the sense. Isaac Newton, a serious 17th Century Bible scholar commented: ※Let them make good sense of it who are able, for my part I can make none.§
It will be asked, ※How does this verse come to be included in the King James Bible of 1611?§ The translators of the New Testament of the KJV used the compilation of Greek manuscripts translated by Erasmus in 1515 CE, and known as the ※Textus Receptus§ which contains the verse. A scholar asked Erasmus why he had originally left out this verse. Erasmus replied that he would have inserted it if he could have found a single Greek manuscript that had it. Roman Catholic scholars in Dublin then produced the ※Codex Montfortianus§ which contained the verse, and on the strength of this document alone Erasmus felt obliged to insert the verse in his third and later editions of the Textus Receptus. The Codex Montfortianus is a 16th century translation into Greek from the Vulgate.
On January 13th 1897 the Inquisition in Rome stated that ※one could not safely deny or call into doubt the authenticity of the verse.§ But Raymond E. Brown, an American scholar writing in 1982 notes that ※all recent Catholic scholarly discussion has recognised that the verse is neither genuine nor authentic.§
Why so many Christian Churches?
The fact that the Christian world is divided into so many churches and differing religious groups, all different from one another, might seem to put the value and integrity of Christianity into doubt. They cannot all be right. In fact, logically, because they differ, only one or perhaps even no church claiming to represent Christ today can be the true church. There are, of course, those who say that minor differences in belief and practice between churches do not matter and there are many roads to the kingdom, and that we shall all get there in the end, but this is not how the Bible teaches us to look at things.
The church lost its way in the 4th Century CE when it merged with the pagan Roman Empire. With the exception of a few groups who held to original Christian beliefs and were persecuted to extinction, the church was ruled by authority and not by conviction. In those times understanding and belief in the Gospel played little part in being a ※Christian.§ It is true that then and for the next thousand years there was only ※one church§ and few people in those days thought that it could be otherwise. It did not seem to worry them that the church consisted of nations constantly at war with each other, and killing one another to gain material power and prosperity, but in theory at least, they all belonged to the same church and worshipped the same God.
This artificial unity and solidarity of the church broke down when access to the Bible enabled people to see that the church was full of error and superstition and corruption, and that the dogmas of the Church were not found in the Bible. Separating between truth and error was not an easy task. For most churches today, belief is a mixture of church tradition and Bible truth. The differences between the major churches today are the result of trying unsuccessfully to combine the errors and superstitions of the old pagan/Christian church with the truth of the Bible.
It has been estimated that across the world there may be as many as fifteen thousand separate Christian ※churches.§ They all have differing beliefs and practices which keep them apart. Many of these churches are the product of a charismatic leader who makes extravagant claims to spiritual authority, and at the same time makes a fortune out of those who are foolish enough to believe him and support him financially. Fortunately we do not have to examine all of them to understand who is right and who is wrong. It is much simpler to go straight to the Bible and establish our faith on what we find written there, and discard the remainder however powerful, wealthy, well supported and influential they may be. These other churches may be sincere in what they believe, but sincerity is not enough. If we find that what they teach is not supported by the Bible then we have a responsibility not to support them or co-operate with them in any way.
Two simple tests would rule out most of the churches today as not being truly ※Christian§. The first is that Christ taught his disciples not to resist evil, not to fight or take up arms in defence of their beliefs, their country, their property, or life itself. Jesus himself laid down his life for all mankind without resisting those who would take it away from him. How many Christian churches today would follow his example in this requirement? With few exceptions, ※Christian§ churches today encourage and support the military activities of the countries which govern them. How can they be ※Christian§? The second test which would eliminate most churches today is to ask whether they are waiting for the return of Jesus Christ to set up God＊s kingdom on this earth, as is clearly taught in the Bible by Jesus himself. How many churches today hold out this hope to their members? These two tests eliminate most churches claiming to be ※Christian.§
We need to approach this question from the other end. There is one God, who calls to us in these days through the message He has given us in the Bible. Anyone who understands that message and follows that teaching is a Christian. We cannot possibly know now all who believe as we do, and who throughout the years have come to similar conclusions to ourselves, and lived for Christ＊s return. But we may group together where we recognise common belief, call ourselves ※churches§ and give ourselves names like ※Christadelphian§; God knows who are His, and one day the faithful of all ages will be brought back to life to become His true Church revealed in the earth. In the meantime we stand by Bible teaching and accept no other authority. Our conviction that we truly understand the Gospel as it is given to us in the Bible imposes upon us a duty that we should be most willing to accept, that we search out and join with others who share these beliefs, and do our utmost to persuade those who do not.
Is there life elsewhere?
There is no evidence that there is life as we understand it anywhere else in the universe. The possibility cannot be ruled out, but if it exists it does not affect our life on earth in any way. If God, our Creator, and the Creator of the whole universe wishes to involve us in any activities outside the limits of the Earth, then surely He would have told us so, and not left us to speculate about possible relationships with life elsewhere.
During the past century and maybe earlier, the idea has developed that life exists on other planets and perhaps elsewhere. Today there is a multi-million dollar industry engaged in space exploration and an even larger secondary industry producing masses of books, films and videos under the general heading of ※Science Fiction§. Science Fiction has promoted what is now seen by many to be ※Science Fact§. The stories told are usually about intelligent and scientifically advanced creatures living on another planet, who have built space ships to visit or invade Earth. The story usually includes a visit to earth by a space ship, and the abduction of humans for experimental purposes. They are sometimes returned, strangely modified by their experiences. Among the best known fictional characters is ※ET§ 每 the ※Extra Terrestrial§ little creature who gets left behind when his space ship leaves earth without him. There are the ※X每Files§ which deal with imaginary contacts between the American Government and visitors from outer space, and also the adventures of ※Space Ship Enterprise§, set in the future, when a picked team of humans visits planets and stars in outer space, and have incredible adventures before returning home to Earth many years later. There are many variations on this theme which have filled the imaginations of writers and readers alike.
Apart from the addicts to profit-making fiction, there is a small core of firm believers who have no doubts that such strange things do happen and that creatures from outer space exist and do visit Earth. They can produce fuzzy photographs of space ships, and there are crop circles 每 the marks left in the ground where space ships are supposed to have landed and taken off. There are people who claim to have been abducted by spacemen and returned to earth. Most of the evidence produced for extra-terrestrial activity can be dismissed as practical joking which the perpetrators have admitted or which can be accounted for by natural objects and occurrences mistaken for the activities of space ships. The remainder, particularly the abductions, are the product of overheated imaginations. We have no need to take them seriously.
There has been an attempt to link religion with spacemen, and the serious claim has been made that Jesus Christ was himself a visiting spaceman. This would require us to abandon the Jesus presented to us in the New Testament 每 the Jesus who was ※God＊s only begotten Son,§ the Jesus who was made in all things like his (earth-bound) brethren, the Jesus who conquered sin, and gave us the hope of eternal life on earth. There is no indication in the Bible that God has a purpose with any other planet involving us, or His Son Jesus Christ.
Can we communicate with the Dead?
Men and women have always been reluctant to believe that we cease to exist after death. We have in the Bible the sure hope of resurrection from the dead at the return of Jesus Christ, faithfully repeated by every clergyman who conducts a funeral, but, apart from this assurance, the dead return to the ground and are totally unconscious and inactive.
In addition to, or in place of, that certain fact of resurrection from the dead, the philosophers of this world have introduced the idea that each of us has a ※soul§ which is the important part of our being, and which continues to exist elsewhere after death outside our bodies. Many people believe that departed souls are in heaven, where they can look down and observe our activities on earth. Some people believe that it is possible to make contact with these departed souls, and a whole network of so-called ※Christian§ churches has grown up which indulges in this fantasy. These fantasies are also held by ※spiritualists§ who have no religious basis for their beliefs at all but believe in an existence elsewhere after death. There are many methods used to attempt contact with the dead but the most usual is to employ someone with supposed special powers, known as a ※medium§, who will act as a kind of ※spirit postman§, taking messages and receiving answers from those who have ※passed on§ to the spirit world.
Communication with the dead has been attempted from earliest times; it happened in Bible times, and it is condemned by God because it is either a fraud or a misuse of natural mental resources possessed by some. The question has to be asked: If we can contact and be guided by those who have passed on, why has their presumed wisdom and experience not been used to benefit the living world? Why are the ※messages§ received by mediums generally so trivial and useless? Why are the ※dead§ unable to tell us about life in the spirit world; why do they confine their conversation largely to things they know about and would have experienced in their lifetime? We can rest assured that the dead are in no state to communicate with us and all such attempts are a waste of time and effort, and, more importantly, made in defiance of God＊s teaching, His clear prohibition, and are an insult to Him.
Are there ghosts?
It depends what you mean by ghosts. Following on from the idea that all men and women have ※immortal souls§ that continue to live after death, we have the variant idea of ※ghosts§. The disciples of Jesus, when they saw him walking on the water thought they had seen a ※spirit§ or ghost. Ghosts are said to be the spirits or souls of the dead who have been unable to leave the earth. Sometimes they are thought to be permanently in this state, and sometimes they are ghosts only until the departed spirit is reconciled to his new life in the after world. According to the tradition, it is sometimes necessary for humans to intervene and right some wrong or fulfil an obligation for the ghost to enable them to go gently on their way. Some churches believe that ※ghosts§ can be ※exorcised§ or laid to rest by clergymen performing certain rituals. We can be certain that if the Bible is reliable, then there are no such thing as ghosts as the manifestations of departed spirits.
Some physic researchers, who do not necessarily accept that this kind of ghost exists, nevertheless believe that some kind of dramatic happening or emotional event, such as a violent death, can leave an impression in the surroundings in which the event happened, thus we get ※haunted houses.§ Some people are thought to be sensitive to these impressions and, given an equally emotional situation, can be instrumental in releasing the impression, causing a re-enactment of the event to be seen, and so the ※ghost§ walks. It sometimes happens that small articles move about a room apparently of their own volition, and this is attributed to ※poltergeists§ or mischievous spirits. It would be foolish to dismiss as impossible what we do not understand, but if these things happen, then they have no relevance to our Christian life or Christian hopes, and can be dismissed as no more than a curiosity.
Can our ancestors influence our lives?
In addition to the belief that we continue to exist after death in a spirit world some people also believe that our ancestors, in this future state, can influence our lives and need to be shown respect by the living. Many communities live in a constant state of anxiety because they fear that their ancestors will be angry if they are not shown proper respect, and that anger will be demonstrated by the ancestor interfering in their lives. It is easy to attribute misfortune to the activity of slighted ancestors, but it is impossible to prove.
In the Western World respect for the dead is shown by having a funeral, followed by burial or cremation, and then sometimes a memorial stone is erected by the grave recording who they were, how they were appreciated in this life, and their hopes for the life to come. Although the graves are frequently cared for by close relatives for some time after the death out of respect for the memory of the one who has died, this is the end of any relationship between the living and the dead until the resurrection.
There is no general belief in the Christian world that our lives are influenced by the dead. In the East respect for the departed is taken further, because it is believed that the dead ancestor is able to influence the lives of his children and perhaps bring misfortune on them if they do not remember him by bringing him offerings and showing him respect. The Bible teaches us that only Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead, can and will influence our lives. All other people who have once lived cease to exist when they die. Their bodies will remain in the grave until they dissolve into the dust. Those who understand and believe the promise of the Bible similarly die and are laid to rest to await their resurrection at the return of Jesus Christ.
Reincarnation 每 Does it happen?
There is a strong belief in many parts of the world that when we die our ※soul§ passes into the body of another living creature, and continues its life on earth in a new form. This belief goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks before the time of Christ. It is called ※reincarnation§. The choice of the new body which the soul is supposed to enter depends on the life it has lived in its old body. For example, a wicked man might be degraded to continue his eternal life in the form of a dog, or a worm, whereas a good man with a modest life-style might find himself promoted into the newly born body of a man or woman who would have a prosperous life, or become a ruler. Others believe that the choice of the body they will enter in the next life depends on what experiences the person needs to improve him. This process of change from one life to another is supposed to be a continuous process affecting all living creatures.
This idea has found its way into the West and is enjoying current interest because some hypnotists claim to be able to release the minds of their patients to reveal things that happened in a former existence while they are under the influence of hypnosis. Again, this is capable of fraud, but some researchers put forward the possibility that we have ※genetic memories§ capable of being passed on from one generation to the next. This is only a theory, but however unlikely, it is unwise to reject what we do not understand unless there is clear evidence to the contrary.
The Bible knows nothing of reincarnation, and offers us an entirely different and better hope of life beyond the grave at the resurrection in God＊s kingdom; therefore we can dismiss it altogether as an invention of the human mind.
Can we foretell the future?
Many people from the beginning of man＊s existence have claimed the ability to reveal the future of individual persons, or tell the fate of nations, or reveal specific future events. Since the Bible tells us of many instances where this has happened, we accept that it is possible. In Bible times there were many ways in which this is done. The most obvious is for the ※seer§ or prophet to receive a message in his mind, or have a dream, a vision, or a trance in which he sees something happening in the future. These messages concerning the future could only be given by God to those who were His trusted servants or people for whom He had a particular message.
The pagan peoples in old times attempted to do the same and they had their magicians and soothsayers, but their wisdom and ability to predict the future was limited to that of the human mind. This is well illustrated by an event recorded in Daniel chapter 3 in which the incompetence of the Chaldean magicians is compared to the way in which God communicates His will to His faithful servants. A popular method among the pagans was to examine the entrails of birds or animals and in some way which we do not now understand, the investigator claimed to be able to tell whether a particular course of action was advisable. There were so called wise men and women who would give answers to specific questions, usually worded in such a way that whatever happened it could be said to have been foretold.
In these days telling the future is seen by most people as a game, but many take it seriously. They will have their palms read, look into the crystal ball, see what the cards turn up, or consult their horoscopes. The absurdity is apparent. Most popular newspapers and magazines print regular horoscopes by which people can learn what the future is supposed to hold for them. They tell their readers to select the sign of the Zodiac relative to their birthday, and see what is written about people born under that sign. Presumably if they consult enough newspapers on any given day they will have enough contradictory or complementary forecasts to encourage them to do, or not do, anything. But it is all good for the newspaper industry.
We believe that God alone controls the future of the nations of the world, and is also responsible for the paths we as individuals take in life, although it must appear to us that we make decisions for ourselves. Nothing is pointless or haphazard. Everything in life is working together to achieve God＊s purpose. God has in the past instructed His servants with regard to His arrangements for the future, and these are revealed to us in the Bible. (See section ※Does the Bible contain Prophecies for the Future?§)
Does the Bible contain prophecies of the future?
The simple answer is ※Yes§ 每 the whole of the Bible is in a sense a prophecy because it is full of information about what God plans to do in the future. Take an example: we read in Genesis chapter 17 that God would establish a covenant with Abraham; that Abraham would be the father of many nations; that it would be an everlasting covenant; and that God would give to Abraham＊s descendants the land of Canaan (present day Israel) for an everlasting possession. That was four thousand years ago. In the years between then and now we have seen Abraham＊s descendants grow into a large nation, the nation of Israel, who have lived in and out of the Promised Land. We see them now struggling for total possession of that land. The covenant 每 the prophecy 每 said it would be ※for an everlasting possession§. So we have a prophecy partly fulfilled, but with the complete prophecy still awaiting fulfilment. The Apostle Paul refers to this covenant in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians as a prophecy still to be fulfilled, and explains how it will include both Jews and Gentiles in its final fulfilment.
Take another example. The religious celebration of Christmas every year directs Christians to the words of the Prophet Isaiah. In chapter 7 the Prophet tells Ahaz the king of Judah that ※a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.§ The prophecy continues in chapter 9:6每7 where the prophet tells the people that the child spoken of ※shall be great, and rule over the House of David for ever§. Chapter 11 describes the peaceful reign of this future king, and this theme is continued throughout the book. There is no doubt that this wonderful promise concerns the Lord Jesus Christ, because the Gospel writers in the New Testament say so (Matthew 1:20每23; Luke 1:27), but it was addressed in the first place to Ahaz, the king of Judah around 742 BCE. There is a primary fulfilment of this prophecy in the birth of Hezekiah, the firstborn son of Ahaz, who encouraged the people to return to the worship of Israel＊s God, and who, with God＊s intervention, defeated the threat of Assyrian invasion and conquest and brought peace and prosperity to the land of Israel for his lifetime. The major fulfilment of the prophecy started with the birth of Jesus Christ. He brought salvation to all mankind, and will complete the fulfilment of the prophecy when he returns to set up God＊s kingdom on earth. This secondary fulfilment will be parallel to the first fulfilment in Hezekiah＊s days but even more glorious. The primary fulfilment, brought about by God in otherwise incredible circumstances gives the guarantee that God will also complete the prophecy through Jesus Christ when He is ready.
From this example we learn an important characteristic of most Bible prophecies. There has been a primary fulfilment at the time the prophecy was given involving the people actually addressed by the prophet, usually the nation of Israel, or one of the surrounding nations, and then a secondary major fulfilment including people out of all nations, and involving some aspect of the life and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, either fulfilled in his lifetime, or yet to be fulfilled when he returns.
We have also to consider the chronological or time prophecies. We approach this subject with a little more hesitation. There are many time prophecies particularly in the books of Daniel and the Revelation which state that certain events will take place at or within a given time. Until recently the accepted basis of understanding time prophecies was that where the prophet speaks of days, these are in reality years or even longer periods of time, but it is difficult to make this apply to all such prophecies. The Apostle Peter (2 Peter 3:8) quotes Psalm 90 to the effect that one day in God＊s sight is to Him a thousand years, and a thousand years a day. This may be telling us something with regard to time prophecies, or it may be no more than a statement by Peter that time in God＊s experience does not relate to time as we know it.
One particular prophecy in the 9th chapter of the book of Daniel would seem to justify reading days as years. It refers to seventy weeks, which using this time-scale would be 70 x 7 days = 490 days/years. The prophecy relates to the time between Israel＊s release from captivity and the coming of the Messiah. If the end-date of the prophecy, the ※cutting off§ or death of the Messiah 每 Jesus Christ, comes as Daniel states in the middle of the seventieth week, or 486 years after the release from captivity, then this suggests we look for that release date about the year 450 BCE. According to the Book of Nehemiah, the Persian king Artaxerxes gave permission in the twentieth year of his reign for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, enabling some of the Jews to return from captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem. Historians place this at between 446 and 454 BCE. If this date is added to the years of the life of Christ we have 454 + 33 = 487 years, which approximates closely, and maybe precisely, to the time stated by Daniel in his prophecy.
Other prophecies in which time periods are expressed in days have been interpreted by Bible scholars on this ※day-for-a-year§ principle, and at the time the interpretations were made, their speculations seemed reasonable. But as the years pass and end-dates come and go they have been reluctantly re-appraised or even rejected. Many scholars now favour the interpretation in which the days mentioned are in some cases literal days, and thus have reference to comparatively short periods of time linked closely to events which will happen at the time of Christ＊s return.
Since we believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, we do not doubt that the time prophecies are being, and will be fulfilled in some way, but we have not yet been blessed with the correct understanding. Perhaps we are not meant to be. Many who respect the Bible are disappointed about the failure to tie up the time prophecies neatly, but there are comforting thoughts. Most of the calculations made so far now make the return of Christ overdue, which can＊t be bad 每 we are living on borrowed time! And the sequence of events described in other prophecies not related to time have nearly all been fulfilled, which independently indicates the approaching end of the age.
Perhaps the prophecy most relevant to our times is given by Jesus and recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is a direct reply to his disciples＊ questions as to what would be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age. Jesus gives us signs to look out for which will indicate the nearness of these events. These signs well describe the times we live in and we may conclude that the return of Christ and the end of the age are at hand. These chapters are worth reading.
What is Inspiration?
The Inspiration of the Bible is the name we give to the belief that all of the Bible is the work of God. Not just that the Bible contains the Word of God, but that it is the Word of God. We base this understanding on the fact that the Lord Jesus and the New Testament writers quoted extensively from the Old Testament to confirm and justify their belief in God, and the Old Testament Scriptures as God＊s Word. The early Church believed that the gospel and letter writers of the New Testament were similarly inspired by God, and the New Testament makes this claim for itself. The Apostle Peter sums up this assurance in his second letter:
※So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body; because I know that I will soon put it aside, as Our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying ※This is My Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.§ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet＊s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.§ (2 Peter 1:12每21)
Peter refers to the incident when God gave His approval to His Son Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration, confirming that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Concerning the God-given authenticity of the New Testament, it should help to convince us when we realise that the faithful followers of Jesus gave their lives to preserve what they knew to be the Word of God and to ensure that it was spread throughout the world.
How did the thoughts and messages from God come to be written down? We believe that God through the Holy Spirit put his thoughts and messages into the minds of faithful men, who then committed them to writing. The writing of each individual author carries his own style and personal imprint. The books of the Old Testament were carefully protected by the Jews, and when copies were made they were checked letter by letter against the original. The early churches were similarly the careful custodians of the New Testament Gospels and letters.
How do we know they are genuine? Because in the early churches there were men filled with the Holy Spirit who would have been sure whether or not the documents they held and circulated were in fact the divinely inspired word of God. There were many letters and other writings circulating among the early churches, but the Christians of those days were clear in their own minds which were the work of God and which of human origin. The Bible as we have it today is as it was put together by the early church.
When considering the Bible as inspired, there are certain difficulties we have to contend with, but they are not insuperable.
1. We do not now have the original documents in our possession. The translators worked from documents which had been copied many times, and contained copying errors. Modern versions frequently have footnotes explaining that certain words or phrases or whole sections are of doubtful authenticity, for example Mark 16:9每20, because they say they are not found in the oldest manuscripts.
2. The translators did not always understand the exact meaning of the Greek, and more particularly of the Hebrew they were translating. An example may be quoted from the book of Proverbs 30:29每31. The writer refers to four things which are ※stately in their stride§ 每 A lion, a greyhound, a he-goat, and a king with his army around him (King James Version). Modern versions have changed ※greyhound§ for ※a strutting cock§ Young＊s Concordance has ※a stag, girt in the loins§, and the Revised English Bible says ※Meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.§ No amount of scholarship now will discover the original meaning, and it is clear that the translators are just guessing. In this case it hardly matters; we get the general idea intended by the writer from the context. Incidentally, the Jews who translated the Old Testament into Greek, the version known as the Septuagint, left out chapter 30 and part of 31 of the Book of Proverbs, presumably on the grounds that they were not the work of King Solomon?
A New Testament example might be taken from a well known passage 每 John 19:5. Most translators have Pilate presenting Jesus to the Jews with the words ※Behold the Man!§ But the Greek manuscripts do not attribute these words to ※Pilate§ They read: ※Then came Jesus out, wearing the thorny crown and the purple robe, and HE says to them ※Behold the man.§ The obvious reading is that Jesus is speaking of and indicating himself, particularly when it is realised that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Zechariah, 6:12, a verse which refers prophetically to him, ※BEHOLD THE MAN whose name is THE BRANCH ＃AND HE SHALL BUILD THE TEMPLE OF THE LORD.§ This verse would be familiar to the Jews, and it is linked to the first accusation they made against Jesus. The witnesses who testified against Christ said ※We heard him say ＆I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days I will build another made without hands＊§ (Mark 14:58.). Jesus quoting Zechariah in this way would have increased the anger of the Jews, and caused them to shout for his crucifixion. The word ※Pilate§ has been added to the text by the translators without any textual authority because in their opinion the text did not make sense without it. But they were wrong, and in so doing they have destroyed a valuable link with the Old Testament, and broken the real sequence of events at the trial of Jesus.
3. The translators approached their task their minds filled with centuries of corrupted Christianity. They wanted the Bible to confirm their beliefs in immortal souls, rewards in heaven, and eternal punishment in hell fire. For example, older Versions record the death of Rachel (Genesis 35:17每19) with the words ※And it came to pass as ※her soul was in departing,§ (for she died) that she called (her son＊s) name Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died and was buried in the way to Ephrath.§ Modern translators have realised that such a translation is invalid, and have changed the wording to ※As she breathed her last 每 for she was dying§ which is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
A New Testament example might be quoted. Matthew 5:22 in most versions refers to sinners being in danger of ※hell fire.§ The original Greek refers to Gehenna, an abbreviation for ※the valley of the sons of Hinnom§ (Ge = the Greek word for ※land§, Henna 每Greek = Hinnom 每Hebrew). This was the local rubbish incinerator just outside Jerusalem. It was kept burning continuously, and the bodies of criminals were thrown into Gehenna. This deliberate mistranslation is still perpetuated to back up the false idea of everlasting punishment of souls in hell fire.
It will be seen that we cannot always take the wording of the Bible as we have it today at its face value, particularly when verses are quoted out of context. It is sometimes necessary to do a little research to get as near as we can to the true meaning of the inspired original, and the first requirement is to compare any passages which puzzle us with the rest of Scripture. Having said this, these minor inaccuracies and corruptions by human hands are insignificant when taken with the Bible as a whole and do not seriously interfere with the message of the Bible, which is inspired by God and ※able to make us wise unto salvation.§
Why are there so many modern versions of the Bible?
The need for new translations arises from several sources. Since the Bible was first translated into European languages, more early manuscripts have been discovered which were not available to the translators of the New Testament in the 16th Century CE. Also scholarly understanding of the kind of Greek in use when the New Testament was written, has improved, enabling them to have a more accurate understanding of the New Testament and the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament. At the other end of the timescale the languages we speak today in the 21st century have changed from those of the 17th century which were spoken when the Bible was most widely translated and distributed. It is possible to speak more clearly to the Bible readers of today by using words and expressions and the style of language they are familiar with. We benefit from the great number of translations and versions because they give us the opportunity to compare alternative ways of thinking about the text.
There is now no authorised inspired text to which we can refer. The message from God which was originally committed to writing many years ago by faithful, inspired men, has passed through the hands of many copyists and translators, and it still lives in the words of all responsible versions today. Compared with the vastness and importance of the message itself, the differences between the various versions are minimal, and unimportant. They do not interfere with the message God has given us. The differences themselves serve to draw our attention to God＊s Word, and give us cause to consider it more carefully and thoroughly.
In the last two hundred years much research has been devoted to translating the Bible into the languages spoken in the more remote parts of the world. It is now possible for most people of all nationalities to read the Bible in their own language. The American Bible Society reports that it now publishes the Bible in over two thousand languages. We understand this spread of the knowledge of the Bible to be a fulfilment of the words of Jesus ※And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.§ (Matthew 24:14). The peoples of America, Africa, India and Asia now have, with the people of Europe, the Bible in their hands, and we accept this as a guarantee that this age is drawing to its close, and that we can expect the return of the Lord Jesus. The only caution we would give is that some modern versions, just as much as the earlier ones, are biased towards the beliefs of those who have translated them, and this should be understood and allowed for.
Can we work miracles now?
The purpose of miracles worked by Jesus and by other faithful men of God is to confirm God＊s message. When God had a message for Pharaoh in Egypt, He confirmed it by enabling Moses to show Pharaoh ※signs and wonders§ which demonstrated the power and ability of God. Many of God＊s faithful servants in Old Testament times had this power given to them for this purpose. Jesus and the Apostles also worked miracles as evidence that what God was telling the people through them was true.
Some Christians say today, ※If we are preaching God＊s message as Christ did, then we too can work miracles, we can speak with tongues, we can heal the people.§ They hold meetings at which they give demonstrations of their supposed powers. If God wants men and women to be able to work miracles, then of course He will make it possible for them to do so, but there is no Scriptural or historical evidence that the ability to work miracles in support of the Gospel message continued after the first generation of Christians passed off the scene.
The power of the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles after Jesus had ascended into heaven. It enabled them to speak in foreign languages and do miracles of healing. The Apostles were given the ability to pass on this power at their discretion by the ※laying on of hands§ , . The Apostle Paul, speaking of ※spiritual gifts§, says the time would come when such powers would cease, and we believe this to be the case. On consideration, it would seem that it was necessary for God to offer some convincing confirmation of His amazing message to mankind, in addition to the words of the Apostles themselves, who were by human standards, with the exception of Paul and Luke, ignorant and uneducated men. The added testimony of miracles ensured that the Gospel message would be rapidly accepted, appreciated, and spread abroad. Once the church was established in the world and the Gospel had been committed to writing and was in safe hands, miraculous powers had served their purpose.
There is another good reason to doubt the genuineness of present day miracle workers: those who claim miraculous powers today are not preaching the Gospel of Christ and the Apostles. God would not lend His support by enabling people who are corrupting His message to work miracles.
The miracles worked by Jesus and the Apostles, raising the dead, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, and having authority over the natural world were also a demonstration of what God＊s Kingdom, which they were preaching, would be like. It was a sample of what the future holds for those who trust God 每 no more death, sickness, or want of the necessary things of life, and the ability to talk to all men and women of the wonderful gifts of God with clarity and conviction. If people in this age could work miracles would it not seriously diminish the purpose and value of God＊s Kingdom in the age to come? We think it has already diverted the attention and the expectation of many away from the glorious future which is in God＊s hands to a present experience which is no more than the manipulation of human sensitivities by deluded or even unscrupulous promoters.
Having the ※Gifts of the Holy Spirit§ as the Apostles did is not to be confused with the Holy Spirit being with us in our lives. Without our awareness, but with infinite love and wisdom, God, by the Holy Spirit guides and protects those who place their trust in Him.
What is The Holy Spirit?
In the Bible, The Holy Spirit is the name given to the power by which God works. The first two verses of the Bible tell us: ※In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.§ The book of Genesis goes on to tell us that God by His Spirit created the universe.
Throughout the Old Testament the Spirit of God is mentioned repeatedly as the influence that guided the faithful men and women of Israel. Pharaoh recognised that Joseph＊s ability to organise the Egyptians in the face of the coming famine was God-given 每 ※Can we find anyone like this man in whom is the spirit of God?§ Similarly the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and his successors recognised that ※the Spirit of the Holy Gods§ was with Daniel, because he was able to interpret the dreams that they had. An interesting case is that of Elijah and Elisha the prophets. When Elisha succeeded Elijah as God＊s representative to Israel, he asked Elijah that ※a double portion of thy spirit (the Holy Spirit given by God to Elijah) be upon me.§ Although Elijah had been a commanding figure in Israel, Elisha was far more involved with miraculous happenings which demonstrated the power of the God of Israel. Was this the double portion of Elijah＊s spirit that became available to Elisha?
The New Testament begins with Jesus being baptised in the river Jordan, and at the same time anointed with the Holy Spirit, an event which all the Gospel writers record. Matthew then tells us that Jesus then began to preach saying ※Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand§, and that as he preached he healed ※all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torment and those which were possessed with devils and those which were lunatick and those that had the palsy§. The association of preaching coupled with the demonstration of God＊s power to heal continues throughout the life of Jesus and the Apostles.
In the FAQ section ※Is God a Trinity?§ we have explained that the church in the early centuries saw the Holy Spirit as having a separate living existence, and made it a person co-equal and co-eternal with Jesus and His Father. The Eastern churches were much slower to accept this definition than the Roman Catholic churches of Western Europe. The churches, in support of their claim that the Holy Spirit is an individual person of the Trinity, make reference to the promise of Jesus to send his disciples a ※Comforter§. This is found in John＊s Gospel. This Comforter was to be a help to them in their work of preaching. He would ※teach them all things and bring all things to their remembrance, whatsoever Jesus had said to them.§ There is no suggestion here that this Comforter was a person. The comforter would be ※the spirit of truth§. It would be God at work through the Holy Spirit at the request of Jesus. The Greek word translated here as ※comforter§ is also translated ※advocate§ in other versions. In his first epistle the same writer John refers to Jesus as our advocate: ※if any man sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous§. This would make Jesus Christ himself the ※Comforter§
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians:
※Blessed be God, even the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them that are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.§
So ultimately it is God who comforts us, through Jesus, through His Holy Spirit. In the lifetime of the Lord Jesus his presence and daily supply of wisdom and encouragement comforted the disciples. After his death the Apostles had the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told them: ※When they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.§ In these days our guidance and comfort comes in the first place from the Word of God that He has given us for that very purpose which we understand and retain with our memory, which is also God given. God is ever present by His spirit to minister to our every need.
Bible Origins, texts and translations
The Bible as it is today is in two parts, the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew with a few passages in Aramaic, on papyrus or parchment. It consists of 39 books. The number of writers and the dates that the various books were written is uncertain. Apart from the named books there may have been several scribes who contributed to Books of the Kings and Chronicles and although David composed most of the Psalms, some are attributed to other writers, and it is not known exactly how or when they were collected together into one book. Job was probably the first book to be written, followed by the books of Moses, but Moses may have had access to earlier written records and verbal tradition. He wrote about 1500 BCE. The last writer to contribute was the prophet Malachi who wrote after the return from captivity in Babylon about 400 BCE. Many copies of the Old Testament would have been made during this period, particularly copies of the five books of Moses, known as the ※Torah§. From these copies scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek sometime between 270 and 130 BCE. Christ and the Apostles quote from this Greek translation known as the Septuagint in their preaching, but they would also have had access to the original Hebrew scrolls in the local synagogues.
Nearly a thousand years later Hebrew scholars produced what is called the Masoretic text which updated the ancient Hebrew written language which by this time was only imperfectly understood by scholars, and which was no longer in common use.
The 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek. With one exception the writers are all as stated. The exception is the Letter to the Hebrews which is not named, but the majority view is that it was written by the Apostle Paul.
About the year 400 CE. A scholar named Jerome translated into Latin a complete Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek documents, and this is called the ※Vulgate§. It was generally available only to the scholars of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 13th and 14th centuries translations were made into French and secretly circulated, and in England John Wycliffe made a translation into English. In 1516 CE. the Dutch scholar Erasmus revised the New Testament from Greek and Latin documents not previously available, which resulted in a more accurate text. (There was an earlier translation into Latin which was copied and used in parts of Europe and North Africa).
In 1526 CE William Tyndale translated into English a complete a New Testament with part of the Old Testament. Ten years later Coverdale completed the Old Testament, and for the first time complete Bibles in English, known as the ※Great Bible§ were ※Appointed to be read in churches§ by King Henry VIII. With the return of Catholicism under Queen Mary Tudor, work on revising and improving the translation became impossible in England and was transferred to Geneva in Switzerland, where refugees from Mary＊s persecution had settled. In 1560 the ※Geneva Bible§ was published. The Geneva Bible was a Calvinist publication and it was heavily annotated with anti-clerical comments, and it became the preferred translation in Protestant England. This translation also coincided with improvements in printing which made its production and distribution easier. In 1611 King James I commissioned the ※Authorised Version§ which was a revision based upon all previously available scholarship and this has remained in common use until the present day. The Geneva Bible continued in use under Cromwell and the Puritans, but when the monarchy was restored the marginal notes made it politically incorrect, and the King James Authorised Version gradually took over as the only Bible in production and in common use in England.
Meanwhile in Europe translations had been made into German, French and other European languages, but the Roman Catholic Church felt that it was not wise to have the Bible in the hands of the common people who would misunderstand it. Its distribution was suppressed, and existing copies seized and burned. Far from the Bible being misunderstood, the real fear of the Church was that reading the Bible would expose the way in which it was being misused and neglected.
In the 19th century the discovery of more ancient Greek texts, particularly the Codex Sinaiticus found in the Convent of St Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai in 1844, brought pressure for another revision and in 1885 the Revised Version was produced. This is still reckoned by many to be the most accurate translation available today, but this will always be a matter of opinion. About the same time Christian missionaries realised the need for the Bible to be available in all languages and in every country where they were preaching the gospel. Gradually and persistently even the most obscure languages came to be understood and translations were made and printed. Now the American Bible Society reports that the Bible is available in over two thousand languages.
Following two world wars and the inevitable changes in the way people talked and used language, there were several attempts to produce Bibles that simplified the language and made the Bible easier to read and understand. This received great impetus in 1947 when a massive horde of very early manuscripts known as ※The Dead Sea Scrolls§ was found in caves in the Jordan Valley. These date back to pre-Christian times, and are therefore of prime importance. Among the documents are parts of every Old Testament book except Esther. After years of scholarship devoted to these scrolls, scholars have concluded that after making careful comparisons, there are very few errors in our current versions of the Old Testament, and that the few they have found are not significant.
The version of the Bible which has found most favour in recent years is the New International Version which has a readable text suitable for the 21st century. First produced in 1979 it is constantly being revised and with each new printing the text changes slightly as current scholarship comes up with preferred readings. It has copious footnotes giving alternative renderings where translations are disputed, or the manuscript text in doubt. In recent years The New King James Version has come on the market, which is the 1611 Bible with minor corrections, and the language brought up-to-date.
Many other versions, particularly of the New Testament, have been published over the last hundred years or so, most of them aimed either at more accuracy in the text, or making the text more understandable to the modern mind. We must always bear in mind that there is one original inspired text which is the work of God, which we do not have, and that our Bible, whichever version we use, has been copied and translated by man. We must therefore make allowances for the differences we find from version to version. It is also reasonable to believe that God who gave us the Bible in the first place that we might understand and obey Him, would have continued to guide and protect His work through the many copyings, translations and revisions which it has undergone through the ages. The Bible we have in our hands today is as much the Word of God now as it was when it was first written so many years ago.
What is ※Transubstantiation?§
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that at the Breaking of Bread, which they call the ※Mass§ or the Communion Service, the bread and the wine actually changes into the body and blood of Christ at the request of the priest. This is known as ※Transubstantiation.§
The Catholics claim that this doctrine is to be found in the writings of some of the early church fathers, but scholars generally agree that it was first expressed with any clarity by a monk named Paschasius Radbertus in the 9th century CE. It was incorporated into the Creed of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE. and defined at the Council of Trent as follows:
※By the consecration of the bread and wine, a conversion (or change) is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ Our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.
※If anyone saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood 每 the species only of the bread and wine remaining 每 which conversion the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.§
Although some of the Protestant Reformers, in the 16th Century CE, including Martin Luther, were reluctant to give up this doctrine, most very soon discarded it as mere trickery introduced in the dark ages of Europe to enhance the authority of the priests. Nothing can be found in Scripture that gives any support to this doctrine.