Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: deception

A parable about a parable

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. The words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 13:45-46

Renowned investigative reporter Ernest Digger has just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he was able to track down a descendant of the merchant in Jesus’ account. Here is his report:

—Joseph ben Ezra did not want me to tell where he lives, so I will just say his home is in a small mountain village. His house is small and sparsely furnished. He does not appear to be poor or rich, but able to provide for the needs of his family by weaving carpets of traditional style.

—Mr ben Ezra, I understand that you are a descendant of the pearl merchant of whom Jesus spoke?

—Yes, through the grace of God I am one of the descendants of that illustrious man.

—What can you tell us about your ancestor?

—He was a rich man, but he sold everything he had to obtain that precious pearl. Of course he could not sell that pearl, so he turned to making his living as I am doing today. He left instructions for his descendants that they should always live humbly and simply to hour God for the great gift that he had found.

—What happened to the pearl after your ancestor died?

—No one knows. It disappeared.

—He did not bequeath it to his children?

—There were mysterious words in his testament. He said that the pearl could not be given from one person to another, but each one would have to do as he did, sell everything they had to obtain the pearl.

—Have you done that?

—I am not a rich man. All that I own would be too paltry a sum to buy such a pearl.

—Has anyone in your family obtained such a pearl?

—There are stories. I once met a distant cousin who said he had such a pearl. He told me the same ridiculous story about how I could have one too. I would have to sell everything I have, even the clam shell that once contained the pearl.

— You have the original shell?

—Yes I do.

He showed me a large oyster shell, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

—So, you have the shell, but not the pearl?

—Yes, but don’t you see how beautiful it is? See how the mother-of-pearl inside almost glows. It is a beautiful and precious thing. I cannot afford the pearl, but this treasure reminds us continually of that pearl our ancestor found.

—Still, you have only the shell, not the pearl.

—But surely that is enough. Would God require me to sell the shell and everything else I have and deprive my family of their living? That would be unreasonable.

—Thank you for your time Mr. Ben Ezra.

—You are most welcome. May the peace of God be with you.

Strangely enough, I later met several relatives of Mr. Ben Ezra. Each told much the same story and each had an oyster shell that they claimed to be the original.

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The cackle or the egg?

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The cackle of a hen is a promise that she has laid an egg. But my farm boy experience taught me that sometimes the cackle was a false promise – no egg could be found.

Christians put a lot of emphasis on experiences, and rightly so. Christian life is a new life that must begin with a new birth, an experience. As we grow after the new birth, there should be other experiences: a deeper consecration, a correction in the course our life has been taking, a conviction about whom we should marry, a conviction for service.

I wonder, though, if we should put less emphasis on the experience and more on the result. Some people claim heart-warming experiences with the Lord, but nothing changes in their life. They have mistaken the cackle for the egg.

Blaise Pascal wrote that the heart of man is so wicked that as soon as he begins to think of getting converted he believes he is converted. Someone who has travelled in Christian circles long enough knows what an experience sounds like. He may want so badly to have his own experience that he manages to convince himself that he really has had one.

This is a dangerous situation. Forty years ago my wife and I went to hear David Wilkerson speak in Regina, taking a friend with us. Our friend was deeply moved during the meeting and stood when the call came. All the way home she bubbled over with how her life was going to be different from then on. The bubbles lasted a couple of days and then were gone, leaving no sign of a change in her life. It wasn’t David Wilkerson’s fault, he gave good direction, but our friend didn’t make a connection with God. The cackle filled a momentary emotional need but left no trace of changed life.

As Mennonites, we do not baptize solely on the basis of a person’s experience. The person who claims to have had a new birth experience tells that experience to a congregation made up of people who are born again and know how it transforms a life. The congregation decides on the baptism, not just on the basis of the experience, but on the substance of the changed life they have observed in the convert.

I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful of anyone. But I do want to point out the emptiness of telling a wonderful experience with the Lord when there is no evidence of a changed life. Years ago a friend told me about someone with whom he’d had some costly business dealings. I’ll call the man Andy. My friend said “Every time Andy gets into trouble, he get’s born again. He’s been born again four or five times already and he’s still the same man he always was.” I knew the circumstances and I knew my friend was telling things as they were. Andy’s multiple claims of being born again were no more than empty cackling.

I don’t want to hear that so-and-so has had an experience. I want to see that his life is transformed. Just like I don’t care how often a hen cackles, I want to see the egg.

Travelling home

It was pouring rain, with low-hanging clouds, when our friends drove us to the Vancouver Airport. Our holiday was over, we’d visited family and friends we hadn’t seen for years, and now we were on our way home to Montréal.

Eventually we were seated in our plane at the beginning of the runway. The jet engines roared to life and we began barrelling down the runway, straight for the ocean. From where I was sitting it looked like it was just at the last moment when the nose tilted up and we were airborne. In a few seconds everything below us disappeared and we were lost in the clouds. Soon I felt the plane make a u-turn to head east, then it continued to climb until we were above the clouds.

For the next five hours there was only this fluffy white mass as far as the eye could see. I trusted that we were flying over the Rockies, the Prairies, then the forests and lakes of Ontario. I could see nothing to prove that, but I trusted the pilot would bring us to our intended destination.

Darkness comes early in January and then I could only see the clouds directly below the airplane. Then there was a glow of light below and ahead of us and before long we were flying above this glow that penetrated the clouds. There was still nothing else to see but I knew we were nearing home. The plane made another u-turn and headed west. Many planes a day made this manoeuvre above our home on the east side of Montréal, so I knew where we were.

The jet engines were quieter now, the airspeed began to diminish and we descended into the clouds. We flew on, swathed in clouds, with the glow of the city beneath us. Finally, we broke beneath the clouds and directly in front of us I could see the lights of the runway. The plane descended, touched down smoothly and we were back home in Montréal.

We saw nothing on the ground to tell us where we were during that whole 4,500 km journey and we knew the pilot didn’t either. But he was getting his information from another source and we trusted he knew exactly where we were at all times.

Not all journeys are that relaxing. My wife is on a journey of cancer treatment at this time and I am along for the ride. Today we will be in Saskatoon for another round of chemotherapy. She has Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and is receiving two drugs that target the white cells affected by that disease. We trust the oncologist and the nurses, but the journey is wearisome. The disease makes her tired already and one doctor told us the treatment will make her more tired and that before she is done she will be tired of seeing the Cancer Clinic and tired of seeing the doctors there.

It helps that we know that others have followed this same treatment protocol and have had their health and energy restored. It is not a journey we wanted to make, yet we have chosen to take it because the alternative would be worse. Someone, whom we once considered a trustworthy friend, has suggested a better way of treatment. We know that most of those who have chosen that “better way” are no longer living. So we go on, trusting that we will arrive at our desired destination.

There is another journey that we are all taking, the journey of life. It is not a passive journey where we are just carried along, but those who have chosen Christ as their guide have a promise of one day reaching Paradise, a paradise that will probably be far better even than the one from which our first parents were chased because of sin.

It isn’t always a smooth journey, the road is often rough, there are hills to climb and storms along the way. There are “friendly” voices which tell us there is a better, easier way. We dare not trust them, we have seen the wretched end of many that were lured onto the easier way. But we have not travelled this way before, the landmarks are unfamiliar, sometimes we go off course.

Our Guide is always there to help us correct our course, find the right landmarks and to renew our courage. And every step we take brings us closer to that City of Light where we can rest for evermore.

The loneliness of the pathfinder

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. Isaiah 6:16

We have joined a grand throng of pilgrims and strangers, wending our way through a wilderness where we have never gone before, on our way to a city we have not seen. Multitudes have passed this way before us, generation after generation, for hundreds of years.

At first there is much rejoicing and the signposts that mark the way can be seen clearly. Yet it seems to happen once every generation that we become aware that we have not seen any signposts for some time. The majority are certain that we are on the right way, we have not changed direction. Others begin to murmur and express doubts whether we are still on the old path. Some become convinced that the throng has lost the way  and venture off to search the wilderness for signs of the right path.

Soon they are back, claiming to have found evidence of the true path to the celestial city. But each one has a different story of where that path is. There is much discussion and disagreement but eventually little groups of people venture off this way and that and are never seen again.

But there are a few who have gone back to find the old signposts and then searched for the ones that should have been there to mark the pathway from that point on. They find them, damaged, broken down and easy to ignore. They set to work to repair them and go back to tell the others that the old pathway has been found. Some laugh, most are doubtful, but a few follow and are convinced that the old pathway has once more been found. Little by little, others are convinced and join them and soon there is once again a great multitude walking on the ancient pathway.

Every generation needs its pathfinders to seek for the old ways by which pilgrims have made their way to the celestial city. But let the pathfinder stick to finding the ancient landmarks and making them visible once more so that others can safely find their way. If they begin to criticize those who won’t listen, accuse their leaders of deceiving the multitude, or declare that they want nothing to do with such stubborn people, they will not draw anyone to the true way.

They are pathfinders. It is not their responsibility to force others to follow the path, but simply to make sure that the way is clearly marked so that others can follow it.

Could this be idolatry?

Aaron, an elderly brother from the congregation whee we used to live, had been driving down a lonely highway in Texas. After an hour or two he saw a young man hitchhiking and offered him a ride. The young man got into the back seat and they chatted a little. All was silent for a while, then the hitchhiker said “Jesus is returning soon.” Aaron looked back, but the back seat was empty. He had not stopped the car, but the hitchhiker had vanished.

Or so I was told. When I asked brother Aaron about this he said it had never happened. This story was heard often about 35 years ago, always about a friend of a friend, never a first hand account. Perhaps it is still being told. What makes people want to believe stories like this?

A few years later thee was a story going around in Amish and Mennonite communities about an Old Order Amish family with eleven sets of twin boys. Pretty soon the number was up to an even dozen. Then they were reported to be moving to Tennessee, to join a Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation. Brother Rodney from our congregation was travelling in Pennsylvania with his family at this time and news came back that he had met this family. I asked him about them when he returned home. He had never seen them. It appears that nobody else ever did, either.

A few years after that, there were news articles in the local daily newspaper about a young father with incurable cancer. The family heard about a clinic, in Texas again if I remember rightly, with a promising new therapy. They would take the patients urine, extract antibodies from it and inject them into the cancer patient. There were glowing testimonials of the success of this therapy. But it was prohibitively expensive.

The young couple sold their home, there were community fundraisers to help cover their costs, and they set out with high hopes. There were a few early reports in the paper telling how he was beginning to feel better already.  Then nothing.

Two months later there was a tiny item in the back of the paper reporting the death of this young man. He left a wife and several small children who were now completely destitute. However, the clinic in Texas was probably doing quite well financially. (I believe they were later shut down by the authorities.)

Why are people tempted to believe such stories? Why are so few motivated to seek out the truth? When people choose to believe a lie, either because it is interesting or because it offers hope in a hopeless situation, is this not a form of idolatry?

The achilles heel of reference Bibles

An ancient Waldensian confession of faith states that their preachers were required, before being ordained, to memorize the gospels of Matthew and John, all the Epistles, and a good part of the writings of Solomon, David and the prophets. Of course that was necessary in their day, before the invention of the printing press. After all, a manuscript copy of the Scriptures was far too bulky to be carried about.

Nowadays we have reference Bibles and electronic Bibles that allow us to look up relevant verses on any topic that we are concerned about. With all that information about the Word of God at our fingertips, one would think that knowledge and understanding of the Word would be increasing at an exponential rate. Is it?

Not as far as I can see. The thing that is being missed in this reliance on search tools is that knowledge and understanding of the Bible is contextual and cumulative. If we do not understand the context in which one passage of Scripture was written, and how it is connected to all the rest of Scripture, we are pretty much Scripturally illiterate.

We need to read the whole Bible, and read it again and again. In doing that, we begin to see the whole picture; and we find that the Bible interprets itself. When we only read snatches here and there, we are reading Scriptures out of context all the time and then we need someone to tell us how it all fits together. Lots of people are quite willing to do that, but can we trust their interpretations? How can we even know if they are trustworthy if we don’t really know the Bible ourselves?

The Bible should not be treated as a black box that we can reach into and pull out a short passage of Scripture each morning to inspire us for that day. We are missing so much if we do not read a book of the Bible from beginning to end, reading a part each day. That is the way that our understanding will grow about what God has been doing in the world all these many years, and what He expects of us. The plan of salvation is implicit in the Old Testament, but we don’t really get it until we read the New. But we don’t really get what the New Testament is saying either if we haven’t read the Old.

All the Bible is interrelated and fits together in a way that reveals the hand of God at work over the many centuries it took to complete the book. It is a bottomless well of spiritual water, but we have to pump it up for ourselves. Let’s not drink from the stagnant pools that someone else has pumped and left behind.

Unstable as water

Water is essential to life on this planet. The Bibles applies the life-giving properties of water in a spiritual sense when it speaks of the river of life and of the water and blood that poured from Jesus’ side, .

There is also a dangerous side to water, such as Jacob’s description of Reuben, his oldest son: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” (Genesis 49:4)

The Bible uses this turbulent, ever-changing nature of water as an illustration of the character of the world that does not know God. Such as this passage from Isaiah: “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:20-21). James says: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8) In Ephesians 4:4, the apostle Paul writes: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”

The book of Revelation speaks figuratively of a seductive woman who deceives the inhabitants of the earth, and makes war with the saints. Revelation 17:1 depicts her as being seated upon many waters, then verse 15 says: “The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues. ”

Chapter 13 begins by telling us of a beast that arises from these waters. The beast blasphemes God and yet is worshipped by all the people of the earth, except those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Dry land in Scripture is a symbol of stability, a solid place where a foundation can be laid for the people who believe in God — a place where we can be rooted and grounded in the faith and worship the one who never changes. Yet chapter 13 also tells of a beast arising from the dry land. This depicts a deformed, corrupt Christianity rising among the people of God that imitates many of the teachings and practices of the first beast which came out of the waters of heathendom.

The world’s standards of right and wrong are always changing. Today we are told that certain abominable things are right and good and if we don’t agree, then we are enemies of the truth. Tomorrow the values will change, but the people of God will still be the enemies of the world.

Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. 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? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”  (1 Peter 4:12-18)

Jezebel

These things saith the Son of God, . . . I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first. Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. Revelation 2:18-20

There was a church of wonderfully consecrated and dedicated believers in Thyatira. All was well, except that they were paying too much attention to that woman Jezebel and as a result some were falling into serious sin.

There have been many more Jezebels since the end of the first century AD, of both genders. But I would like to nominate Ellen G White as a prime candidate for this role in our era.

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I believe William Miller gets a bum rap. He really believed he had calculated the exact date of our Lord’s return. Twice. After the Lord did not return on schedule for the second time, William Miller admitted he had been deceived and abandoned the Advent movement altogether. Ellen G White stepped in to take the leadership, and her prophecies always came to pass.

Or so she said. Christ didn’t return on the appointed date? Of course He did! Although He didn’t return to earth as first thought, He entered into the sanctuary in heaven to cleanse it in preparation for His return to earth. And so on. She had an explanation for everything. Her expositions of the Scriptures and the coming return of the Lord, written in numerous books, became known as the Spirit of Prophecy.

I once got into a discussion with an Adventist about the meaning of Matthew 25:46 — And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. We were both aware that everlasting and eternal were translations of the same Greek word. I understand then that everlasting punishment will have the same duration as eternal life. My friend did not agree, for the Spirit of Prophecy said that everlasting means temporary, not eternal. And there our discussion stalled; I would not accept the testimony of Ellen G White and he would not accept the words of Scripture except as explained by Ellen G White.

I bought a set of My Bible Friends some forty years ago. In every story there were elements reported as fact that I could not find in the Bible. That gave me an uneasy feeling and those books didn’t last long in our home. Years later, I told my Adventist friend that I hadn’t been sure whether those insertions were imagined by the writer of the book, or if they came from Ellen G White. “They come from Ellen G White,” was his reply.

Some of those things may have been removed from later editions, but many lasting impressions have been left on those who were raised with Seventh Day Adventist Bible Story books. Like the idea that the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice rose straight up to heaven and the smoke from Cain’s sacrifice clung to the ground. I suspect that comes from Ellen G White, but I’ve never wanted to wade through her writings to find out for sure. (In  other instances, God showed his acceptance of a sacrifice by sending the fire to consume it. I doubt that the sacrifice of Abel was any exception.) I do know that the idea that the star of Bethlehem was the light emanating from the angel host comes directly from Ellen G White.

Did Ellen G White truly mistake her imagination for prophetic messages from the Holy Spirit, or was she knowingly trying to deceive? My best guess is that she really believed herself to be the channel which God used to reveal His truth to the world. In any case, there is a seductive appeal to her explanations that appear to explain many things in the Bible without requiring the seeker to actually search the Scriptures. Her influence has reached far beyond the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and its many splinters.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church publishes a wide array of attractive books for all age groups. Perhaps even more serious than the propagation of Ellen G White’s false prophecies, is the subtle inducement these books give for an imaginative approach the Scriptures that leads readers to be moved by the contents of their imagination rather than the contents of the Bible.

Exegesis vs Eisegesis

I know some people will see this title and will already have a pretty good idea of what I am going to say. Others may wonder why I am using such fancy words. I hope you will all bear with me, read the post and feel free to comment.

In layman’s terms, exegesis is what is happening when we search the Scriptures to find out what God is saying to us. Eisegesis, on the other hand,  is what is happening when we come to the Scriptures knowing already what we want them to say and search for verses to bolster our position. I hope I don’t have to tell you on which side I want to be.

There are several reasons why we might want to read into the Scriptures the beliefs we already hold. One is that we have been taught certain things in our denominational tradition and we very much want them to be true. Thus we select verses that seem to support this position, most likely taking them out of context, and ignore those verses that seem to say something else.

Another, more subtle, reason is that we may be afraid of being deceived if we just open ourselves to what we read in the Word of God. Much better to have a pre-established framework of belief and read only those portions of Scripture that seem to be in accord with that framework. The danger is that, even if that framework is completely true, we will not be fed by reading the Bible in this way.

I don’t believe that we will be deceived if we come to the Bible with an open mind and heart, genuinely desiring that God would reveal to us the truth that we need to know at each stage of our spiritual journey. It is important to read the whole Bible and to read it prayerfully. The things that seem to be contradictory will all make sense if we do not isolate one passage of Scripture from the rest.

Years ago, a man I worked with would often approach me with questions about Bible passages. As we discussed them, it was clear that he  understood clearly what the Bible was saying. He told me that he had been converted in his later youth and had been fearful of being deceived when reading the Bible, as he was hearing so many contradictory views. So each time he picked up the Bible he would pray that God would protect him from deception and reveal His truth to him. It was evident from our discussions that God had answered his prayers.

The sad part of the story is that he had fallen into sin and was no longer following what he knew to be true. One day he did something at work that got him fired. He moved far away and I never saw him again.

Still today I believe his approach to the Bible was right. So much of the religious confusion of our day could be resolved if Christians everywhere would just open their hearts and minds to what God is saying to them in His Word, and then be obedient to what is revealed to them.

Voices of darkness

I had to be at work a little before 11:00 P.M. that Sunday night.  The factory work week began at 11:00 and as Quality Assurance Inspector I had to check the equipment before startup.  Although I interacted with the supervisors and workers on the factory floor, I worked alone, covering all that was happening.  This gave me lots of time to think.

There was a lot to think to think about that night.  During our worship services and fellowship through the day I had picked up hints of things that were not well in our congregation.  As I walked the factory floor that night, I was remembering all the instances I had observed of negligence by our ministers.  The problems were so glaringly evident, yet the ministers were doing nothing to help, rather pretending to be ignorant of the dangers.  The picture became darker and darker as the night wore on.  I became increasingly disheartened.

This was thirty years ago, yet I still remember the time (5:00 A.M.) and where I was standing when a little voice spoke in my mind: “These thoughts are not taking you anywhere you want to go.”  Instantly, I recognized that all the thoughts that had been going through my mind did not originate from within my mind, but from an outside source.  They were the work of the enemy, the accuser of the brethren.

The dark cloud vanished, the evidence that had appeared so solid and unassailable crumbled to dust.  All the grounds for distrusting the working of the ministry disappeared.  The forces of darkness work in darkness.  When a little light comes to expose them, they scuttle away and flee.

They will come back, trying to disguise themselves in a different way each time.  We need not expect that we will ever be free from attack by the principalities and powers, the rulers of darkness, the wiles of the devil.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit also comes to whisper, “Do you really want to go where those voices are leading you?”

Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:11-12).

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