Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

The kingdom of God

In the Old Testament God selected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to create a model of His kingdom. This kingdom attained the height of its glory, and the fulfilment of all the prophecies pertaining to the earthly kingdom, in the reign of Solomon. Yet as we look at the how that kingdom degenerated, we see that the seeds of destruction were there from the beginning. Most of the people descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were earthly minded.

The New Testament tells of the founding of a new kingdom. The king is Jesus, like Solomon a descendant of David. The citizens are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. This kingdom is not limited to any territory, has no political presence in any country, has no military force to avenge itself on its enemies. This is the true kingdom, of which the kingdom of Solomon was merely a representation. We need look for no other kingdom but the present kingdom of God.

Jesus likened the kingdom of God to leaven that was placed in a lump of dough, permeating and growing in the lump. The kingdom of God grows in a hidden way, in the hearts of those who repent and surrender their lives to the lordship of Jesus. Christian people cannot grow the kingdom. We must sow the seed, add the leaven – or better said, be the leaven, but it is God who gives the increase.

Jesus did not just talk about the kingdom, He demonstrated it. His miracles, the healing of the sick and handicapped, the casting out of demons, raising the dead to life, were evidence that a new power had entered this world and was undoing the work of the powers of darkness. Christians today do not have the power to perform miracles. God does, and He still does work miracles. But there are other ways in which Christians can defeat the powers of darkness.

The miracles of Jesus were real and they had a purpose. But let’s look beyond the miracles to the kind of person Jesus was. He demonstrated the perfect unity of truth and righteousness, love and compassion.

He forgave the woman taken in adultery and reproved her self-righteous accusers. The only time the Bible tells us that Jesus was angry was when the Pharisees were ready to condemn Him for healing on the Sabbath. The hardness of their hearts, their lack of compassion, was the opposite of true righteousness.

Jews despised Samaritans, considered them to be an unclean people, would not touch anything that had been handled by a Samaritan for fear of defilement. Jesus asked a Samaritan woman to give Him a drink of water, then talked to her about true worship, about her life, told her that He was the Messiah. She believed, ran back into the city to call others to meet Him. As they were coming out to the well, Jesus told His disciples to lift up their eyes and see the fields ripe for harvest.

He ate with publicans, took time for little children, depended on women for material support in His ministry, inspired faith in a Roman soldier and a Syro-Phoenician woman. He told the self-righteous Pharisees that other people who knew they were sinners, people like publicans and prostitutes, would find it easier to enter the kingdom than they would.

Blaise Pascal said “We make an idol of the truth itself; for truth without love is not God, but His image. Still less should we love its opposite, the untruth.” We are poor witnesses of the kingdom of God if we hold firmly to the truth, yet cannot find it in ourselves to show love, mercy and compassion to those ensnared by the deceptions and depravities of the kingdom of darkness.

We need to also heed the last part of Pascal’s thought. In our day there are many who want to include Jesus with all the religious teachers and prophets of all faiths and say that the true hope of mankind is in enlightenment that reveals the divinity within oneself. That is the untruth that offers no hope, no salvation, not even compassion.

The body of Christ

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Let me begin with a confession: I am absent-minded. Worse yet, I often read or do a Cryptogram while eating. That has led to many a spilled glass of water. My mouth and throat tell my brain that I am thirsty, my brain tells my arm and hand to reach out, pick up the glass of water and bring it to my mouth. But if my eyes are focussed on something else, my hand reaches to where my brain thinks the glass should be, and – bump! Just like a little child.

I have found one solution to that; I replaced our tall water glasses with wide, stubby ones with thick bottoms. I would have to bump one of those rather aggressively to spill the water. Of course, the real answer is to engage my eyes in the process. I’m still working on that, old habits don’t change quickly.

As a rule, I do a good job of coordinating hand and eye. Last Thursday I bought a foot long sub in a nearby town, then unwrapped and ate it on the way home. The car didn’t wander and I wasn’t wearing any of the sub when I got home.

The New Testament describes the church as a body, with Christ as the head and individual members as parts of the body. All are connected to the head and receive instructions from it. Each one is also connected to the others, so that the body is able to function to edify itself – to eat and drink and do all the other things that are needed for the life and growth of the body.

The most complete description of this is in the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians. The apostle Paul tells us that no member can say he has no need of the others and that when one member is injured the whole body feels the pain.

A body does no consist of scattered body parts, each one alive and connected to the head, but having no connection to each other. We need to be knit together (Colossians 2:19) into one coordinated body.

Many things we do are almost automatic, like walking. I do not make a conscious decision for every step I take. However, if I ignore the help of my eyes and ears I might step into a hole in the sidewalk, walk into a parking metre or into the path of an oncoming vehicle. In order to avoid such mishaps, each part of the body needs the help of the other parts, plus the guidance of the Head.

And, since I am clumsy at times, spilling the water from my glass over things that should not get wet, I should not expect other members of the body to do things just right. If we blame each other every time a little water is spilled, the body soon becomes crippled, unable to function as it should. The thing to do is mop up the water, put things back in order and get on with the meal, or whatever it was that we were doing.

That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. 1 Corinthians 12:25

Two way communication

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God has spoken once, His words are written in the holy book and it is the whole duty of man to obey all that is taught in the holy book. Religious leaders help to understand parts of the holy book that may not be clear, but God does not speak to people today.

The religion which believes that is called Islam. There are more than a billion devout followers of this religion.

Christianity also teaches that God has spoken in the past and His words are collected in a holy book called the Bible. But Christianity teaches something more than that: God speaks to people today by His Holy Spirit and by His church. There is full agreement in what God says by these three means.

If there is discord in what we are hearing, we need to search for the problem. Perhaps we have been taught an interpretation of parts of the Bible and the Holy Spirit is saying something that does not fit with what we have been taught. Is the problem with the interpretation we have been taught, or are we listening to a spirit that is not the Holy Spirit?

Perhaps the church to which we belong is teaching something that doesn’t seem to agree with what we read in the Bible or what the Holy Spirit is telling us. We need to be very careful to not become one who believes that he alone has the correct understanding of truth. But when it is clear that the church to which we belong is faithful to neither the Spirit nor the Bible, it is time to search for a church that is.

If we find the Bible difficult to understand, the best answer may not be to look for a Bible that is easier to understand. The best way to increase our understanding of the Bible is to be obedient to the parts that we do understand.

Prayer should not be a one way conversation. God wants us to talk to Him; He also wants to speak to us. If we are hearing nothing, we should search our hearts to see if we have obeyed the instructions He has given us in the past.

To be in full communion with God, we must be obedient to the things He says to us, whether through the Bible, the church or the Holy Spirit. This connection with God will also connect us with other true believers. This is not a man-made unity, which is fragile, but the unity of the family of God, founded on the bedrock of God’s truth.

Getting from survival to revival

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I trust that most of us have coped well during this time of enforced hibernation. Now spring has come, nature is alive once more and we want to be too.

What now? Do we go back to the way things were before our hibernation? Is that even possible? What is normal going to look like a few months from now? What should it look like?

So many questions, so few answers. For we who are Christians the best place to find answers is by reading the Bible and spending time in prayer. This has been a good time to do more of that, but anytime is a good time to start.

Last week I read through the book of Hebrews in a single sitting. I did that three times, on different days; one of those times I read it aloud. That has given me a whole new perspective on what that letter is about. I spoke about it in our virtual worship service yesterday, I will write about it some day soon.

I am convinced that this is how the Bible is meant to be read. We find the Bible to be a mysterious, almost impenetrable, book if we read it any other way. Always flitting from one short passage to another somewhere else in the Bible is a good way to make the Bible boring. To treat each verse or short passage as an independent saying and then attempt to discern its meaning by our own intellect or imagination can lead to deception. The writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, expected us to read the whole story.

This is the road to revival. We cannot have a revival that springs from our own will, it has to be prompted by the will of God. The more we immerse ourselves in His Word, the more He is able to reveal His will to us.

This hibernation season has been a good time to reach out to others. At least, it should heave been. We can’t meet in person, but we have so many ways to connect – telephone, text, email, even an old-fashioned letter.

I confess that I have done a little more of that, but not nearly as much as I thought I was going to do. It seems that even in a quiet time there is so much happening that I can be busy without ever planning to be busy. If I want to reach out to others, I have to make it happen.

It feels good when I receive an encouraging note, or a bit of news. I can do that too, I want to do it, but it doesn’t just happen. I need to be connected to fellow Christians, to family members, There are acquaintances who are lonely, hurting, afraid. A word of comfort, cheer or hope could make their day just a bit better. When the Spirit prompts me to reach out, I need to obey promptly. That too is the road to revival.

Desperately wicked

Try to put yourself in the position of a slave owner in the antebellum south. a slave owner whose livelihood and position in society hinged on your ability to get the maximum amount of work out of your slaves at a minimum cost. You considered yourself to be a Christian, but, like everyone around you, you believed that these black-skinned creatures who worked in your fields were more like domestic livestock than human beings. Some even said that they had no souls. Therefore you were justified in driving them to work harder, whipping them if they could not or would not work, killing them if they rebelled or tried to escape. Could you be that person?

Or could you be a guard in a Nazi death camp? For years you have been bombarded with information in the media, in movies, in schools, books and pamphlets that revealed how Jews were the cause of all that had ever gone wrong in Germany. The future of Germany depended on ridding itself of such degraded people. Could you order them to do meaningless, repetitive tasks, beat them when they stumbled under the load, herd them into the gas ovens?

Maybe you could have been a member of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The future of Cambodia depended on it becoming an egalitarian agricultural society. Could you have herded people out of the cities, young and old, men and women, healthy or sick, and forced them to march for days into the jungle, caring nothing for those who perished along the way?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Do we know the depravity of our heart? The people I have described were no different than you and me. Under the same circumstances we would have been capable of doing the same things, with never a twinge of conscience.

We would like to think otherwise, to think that we are better than that. We are not. Those were intelligent, civilized people, capable of showing much kindness in other areas of their life. But their hearts deceived them into believing that some people were not worthy of kindness, respect or compassion.

We are all good people until we are put to the test. The only thing that will make the outcome different when we are tested is to listen to the gentle prompts of the Holy Spirit of God.

Pharisee to sinner

Saul of Tarsus was a devout man, zealous in the service of God. He was a pharisee, taught by Rabban Gamaliel, grandson of Hillel the Elder and the most renowned Jewish teacher of his day. Saul scrupulously obeyed the teaching that he received and counted himself to be faultless in keeping the Jewish laws.

His desire to serve God filled him with zeal to eradicate all aberrant forms of the Jewish religion, especially the one that was based on the life and teachings of a certain Jesus of Nazareth. He was still a young man when he witnessed with approval the stoning of Stephen, but soon made a name for himself as the most ferocious enemy and persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His fame extended far beyond Jerusalem, even to Damascus in Syria.

As Saul saw firsthand how threats and persecutions could not make the followers of Jesus deny their loyalty to Him, his conscience must have begun to question whether his zeal was truly from God. When he met Jesus in a supernatural encounter on the road to Damascus, Jesus told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” In that moment Saul knew that his zeal had been misguided, that he had been fighting against God, not for Him. Addressing Jesus as Lord, he asked “What wilt thou have me to do?”

The answer to that question transformed Saul, the self-righteous Pharisee into Paul, the sinner and apostle of Jesus Christ. Later, he would say that all the things that he had counted on as righteousness while a pharisee were nothing but dung.

Now he saw himself in the light of day: “ For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). “ This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Paul the apostle carried this awareness of his sinfulness the rest of his life. He had nothing more to boast of but the grace of God. And that was enough.

Is it enough for Christians today? We have been given much, but let us remember who gave it and why we needed to have it given. We cannot claim any credit for our heritage, the things we have been taught, the way we live. It is all a gift from God. As soon as we think we have some merit of our own, an odour of dung clings to us and people try to keep a certain distance upwind.

Written in the earth

An interesting detail in the account of the woman taken in adultery told in chapter 8 of the gospel of John is that it is twice mentioned that Jesus wrote on the ground. This appears to have some connection with the fact that the woman’s accusers left one by one, from the oldest to the youngest. We are not given any more details than that, but I believe the following takes into account all the details of the story in the gospel..

Some have speculated that Jesus was writing the sins of the accusers. I doubt that was necessary. These men were scribes and pharisees, men with a deep and thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. They will surely have remembered the words of Jeremiah: “O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13).

To have one’s name written in the earth would be the opposite of having one’s name written in heaven. The woman’s accusers may have been surprised that Jesus knew each of them by name, even more surprised that He knew their ages, writing their names from the oldest to the youngest. They began to suspect He also knew the exact nature of their sin and thought it best to escape the presence of such a man.

Consider the accused woman. She was a sinner, she knew it. Now she was left alone with a man who had silently struck fear into the hearts of all her righteous accusers. What would He say to her?

He did not condemn her, He forgave her, set her free. With just one warning “Go and sin no more.”That is still the way of Jesus–judgment for those who think themselves righteous, mercy for those who know they are sinners.

Someone may doubt the connection between the passages in Jeremiah and John because one speaks of earth and the other of ground. This is simply the work of the translators. The Hebrew word in Jeremiah is erets, which is translated in different places in our Bible as land, earth, ground and country. The Greek word in the gospel is ge, which is translated by the same four English words in our Bibles. They are, in other words, exactly the same word.

Self-chosen humility

Peter Toews was the Elder, or bishop, of the portion of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites who emigrated from Ukraine to Manitoba in the 1870’s. (Kleine Gemeinde means little church, a means of distinguishing themselves from the large Mennonite church among whom they lived.) Another portion of the Kleine Gemeinde, led by Elder Abram Friesen, settled around Janzen, Nebraska. Yet a third group, led by Elder Jacob Wiebe, whose wife was Peter Toews’ sister, settled around Hillsboro, Kansas.

Evidently there were some differences in how these groups viewed Christian faith. Peter Toews experienced the new birth while still living in Ukraine and before his ordination. By all accounts he endeavoured to teach and lead his congregation according to his spiritual convictions. But the Kleine Gemeinde had never seen the new birth as being a necessary qualification for baptism and membership in the church. They believed that the important thing was to live a devout and holy life according to the rules that they believed were taught in the Bible.

By 1880 Peter Toews was ready to admit that many, perhaps the majority, of the members of his congregation were not Christians. Some of the other ministers and members felt as he did and they began to search for a solution. That search led Peter Toews to take a trip to Kansas in the summer of 1881 to visit John Holdeman and the congregations of his church in central Kansas. While there, he also visited his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe. It appears the two were united in believing the lack of a requirement of the new birth for church membership was a fatal flaw in the Kleine Gemeinde, but did not agree on a solution.

Upon returning home, Peter Toews resigned as elder of the Kleine Gemeinde and wrote a letter outlining his reasons. He wrote “We are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility, and worshipping of angels (of whom we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).” “I fear to build with members of torn and divided groups which are not baptized into one body, the Church of Christ–to build a kingdom to which only a few of us belong. We all profess that we are baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are merely walking in voluntary humility.”

The upshot was that John Holdeman and Mark Seiler came to Manitoba the following winter, upon the invitation of Peter Toews and some of the other Kleine Gemeinde ministers. Over the course of several months of preaching in various communities of Southeastern Manitoba, about one third of the members of the Kleine Gemeinde were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, becoming the first members of that church in Western Canada. Many had not been born again prior to the evangelistic services of that winter. The remaining members of the Kleine Gemeinde asked elder Abram Friesen to help them ordain a new elder to replace Peter Toews, who was one of those baptized by John Holdeman.

It seems that Peter Toews felt that “self-chosen humility” was a major weakness of the Kleine Gemeinde. What is wrong with trying to be humble? There are numerous warnings against pride and a haughty spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to humble ourselves? James says: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up, (James 4:10). Peter writes: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, (1 Peter 5:6).

Let’s consider those verses. James is not telling us to become humble in our own eyes, but in the eyes of God. That isn’t necessarily the same thing. Peter does not say that we should take ourselves in hand to make ourselves humble, but allow God to take us in hand, which is quite different.

A few verses earlier in the fourth chapter of James, he writes “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” (Verses 6 and 7). I believe this is the key to genuine humility. It is not something that we can do ourselves, but is the fruit of submission to God.

Why can’t we make ourselves humble? Maybe you are not like me, but I’m afraid that if I would believe that the Bible is telling me to make myself humble, I would very soon believe that I was doing a much better job of it that you were. That is the snare of voluntary or self-chosen humility. I believe Peter Toews hit the nail on the head.

There is an oft misunderstood verse in the Old Testament. Isaiah 64:6 says: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” I’m not sure why the translators chose the word rags, it really should be filthy garments. What the prophet is saying is that when we try to establish our own righteousness, even our own humility, we are sewing a garment that in our own eyes is spotlessly, dazzlingly white. But when God looks at it he sees that it is saturated with our sweat, the evidence of our own work. It is filthy and it stinks to high heaven.

Social distancing – an unfortunate choice of words

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Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Epidemiologists say that to slow the spread, it’s important to maintain a physical distance of at least two metres between people. This is physical distancing, not social distancing.

In these times, people need social connection, not distancing. And this connection is not made by the so-called social media, like Facebook and Twitter. The connections that matter are a two-way communication, by phone, email, or in person if possible.

Being socially alienated from family, friends, and pastors is not good for emotional health, mental health, spiritual health, or physical health.

This time of isolation gives us the opportunity, even the responsibility, to contact others, especially those who we think could be weakened by events. Let’s talk to them, pray for them, and pray with them.

A place to stand

Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. 2 Timothy 2:19

The foundation of God: In the beginning of time, the second day of Creation, God separated the dry land from the waters. The people He was about to create needed something solid to stand on, upon which to build their lives. Later He promised Israel that He would give them a land of their own. That was a picture of how God wanted to give His people a solid foundation, a place to stand. Israel squandered that heritage by disobedience, by seeking prosperity in other gods.

All the time, God was pointing people to the real heritage, the solid rock, that He had for them–Jesus Christ. That foundation was fully revealed in the New Testament. Jesus is our rock, the only thing in this world that is unchangeable, that cannot be taken from us.

The Lord knoweth them that are his: How do we know that the Lord knows us? Because He talks to us. He is always there in the life of His children to guide our lives. He speaks softly, gently, we can miss His voice if we’re not paying attention.

When Elijah was in the mountain, he didn’t pay much attention to the earthquake, the fire and the wind. He knew God did not speak like that. But then he heard a still small voice. French Bible translations say a soft gentle sound, or murmur. That makes me think that Elijah could not discern any words, but he knew that voice. Then he began to pay attention.

We don’t need to figure out what God is saying to us in this COVID crisis. This is not the voice of God. Yet perhaps this quiet time is our opportunity to listen for what God does want to say to us. Perhaps He wants to tell me that the thing that I had so much planned and hoped for is not really so important after all. But there are little things that I have neglected, things that have to do with my relationships with others, these things are important to God and He wants them to be important to me.

Depart from iniquity: When we hear what God is saying, and do what He asks us to do, we are departing from iniquity. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17

Even those of us who are Christians may find that we have been building our lives partly on the Lord Jesus Christ and partly on something else. Whatever that something else may have been, it will not stand in the judgment. Why not abandon it right now?

Some people have placed much hope on a future earthly reign of Jesus, but may have neglected to make sure of the foundation for building their life in the here and now. It will be the way we lived our lives in the here and now which counts in the day of judgment. Is our personal life solidly anchored to the rock? Are we building our family on that rock? Our congregations?

Many around us have no hope in Jesus, but have built their lives on foundations that appeared to be rock solid. Those foundations may feel shaky right now. We probably don’t need to point that out to them.

May we be compassionate in our conversations with those who are in distress. Telling them where they have gone wrong doesn’t give them hope. Tell them how trusting in Jesus gives us hope and they might grasp it and find a place to stand.

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