Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: new birth

What does “Mennonite” mean to you?

Some people consider themselves to be birthright Mennonites because their ethnic origin is Plautdietsch or Pennsylfannisch Dietsch and their parents held to certain traditional values that they called Mennonite. Those values may have been cultural; language, clothing, lifestyle; or they may hae been intellectual: a somewhat counter cultural emphasis on peacefulness and helping one’s neighbour. Beyond these two groups there are those who cling to the Mennonite name but have become thoroughly Protestant in religion, abandoned religion altogether, or are experimenting with Buddhist meditation.

But what does it really mean to be Mennonite? Can any of the above persuasions and practices really be called Mennonite? Where does the name Mennonite come from?

The last question is the easiest to answer and may shed some light on the others. Five hundred years ago in Holland a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons became troubled about the life he was leading. He began to read the Bible, repented and experienced a new birth. He remained in the priesthood for a time and gained some renown as an evangelical preacher. Eventually he found his situation untenable, left the Roman Catholic church and joined with those he considered to be true Christians, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution.

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In the course of time he was ordained a minister in this group and set about to gather together and encourage the scattered believers. There were other noted leaders in the church during this era, especially Dietrich Philips and Leenart Bouwens. Menno does not appear to have been above the others, but became well known in the public eye due to his prolific writings. Dietrich Philips was also a prolific writer, but his writings were addressed to members of the church, while Menno often addressed his writings to the general public and to the authorities of the land.

For this reason the name of Menno Simons became very well known. The authorities put a price on his head and did their best to apprehend him, but he always managed to escape their attempts. In time, the authorities and the general public began to label as Menno’s people those who were of the same faith as Menno Simons. This was later shortened to Mennists and then Mennonites. Menno denied being the founder of the church he belonged to, and it would be wrong today to attribute such a thing to him. But it is still true that someone who is of the same faith as Menno could rightly be labelled a Mennonite.

So what did Menno believe? He once summarized the characteristics by which the true church of God would be known like this:

1. The salutary and unadulterated doctrine of His holy and divine Word. Where the church of Christ is, there His Word is preached purely and rightly.
2. The right and Scriptural use of the sacraments of Christ, namely, the baptism of those who, by faith, are born of God, sincerely repent, and have a clear conscience. And the dispensing of the Lord’s Holy Supper to the penitent, who seek grace, reconciliation and the remission of their sins in the merits of the death and blood of the Lord, who walk with their brethren in love, peace and unity, who are led by the Spirit of the Lord, into all truth and righteousness, and who prove, by their fruits, that they are the church and people of Christ.
3. Obedience to the holy Word, or the pious, Christian life which is of God.
4. The sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbour.
5. The name, will, word and ordinance of Christ, are unreservedly confessed, in spite of all the cruelty, tyranny, uproar, fire, sword and violence of the world, and that they are upheld unto the end.
6. The pressing cross of Christ, which is taken up for the sake of his testimony and word. That this very cross is a sure sign of its being the church of Christ, has been testified not only in olden times by the Scriptures, but also by the example of Jesus Christ, of the holy apostles and prophets, by the primitive and unadulterated church; and also, by the present pious, faithful children, especially in these our Netherlands.

This was the faith of Menno Simons. Who then can honestly say today that he has the same faith as Menno? Such an identification cannot come from natural inheritance, culture, tradition or philosophy. It can only belong to those who are truly born again and faithfully following the leading of the Holy Spirit, despite all the roadblocks and menaces which the world may place in their way?

Is that what Mennonite means to you?

The things I believe

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Image by Heidi B from Pixabay

I believe in the God revealed in the Bible. The great and terrible Almighty and Eternal Creator of all things, who hates all unrighteousness. I believe that He is at the same time loving, merciful and compassionate, a father for the fatherless. He knows everything about us and wants us to know Him and be with Him for eternity.

I believe the Bible as it is written. It was written by many different men over several thousand years, yet the more I read it the more I see that there was one mind guiding it every step of the way, the mind of the Holy Spirit. I believe the Bible interprets itself, providing we read it all. Each time we read it a little more of God’s great design opens up before our eyes. We cannot discover that design by reading little bits here and there, or by looking for some external key to unlock its mysteries. That is a way that leads to deception.

I believe in the church revealed in the New Testament. I believe that it was God’s plan from the beginning to draw all those who put their trust in Him into one body, with Jesus Christ as both the foundation and the head. God is calling all mankind, but only those who are born again and led of the Holy Spirit may become members of His church. The church described in the New Testament cannot be an amorphous confusion of disembodied body parts, or living stones scattered here and there. The picture given by the New Testament is of a living, functioning and coordinated body or temple.

I believe that Jesus’ call to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations is still being obeyed. The door is yet open for those who are willing to consecrate their lives to Jesus, not only as Saviour, but as Lord of their lives.

I believe the time is short; judgment is coming.

There is no valid baptism without the new birth

The beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Western Canada owes much to the spiritual vision of one man. Peter Toews was the Elder of the largest part of the Kleine Gemeinde (Little Church) which had separated from the main body of the Mennonite church on the Molotschna Colony in Ukraine in the early 1800’s. Their aim was to return to the original pure faith and practice of the Mennonites. Unfortunately they had no understanding of the new birth so merely concentrated on the outward evidence of their desired purity.

Quarrels and divisions shook the Kleine Gemeinde and by the 1860’s there were four different groups. Elders Peter Toews and his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe laboured to unite these groups, but only partially succeeded. Jacob Wiebe united with the group led by Elder Abram Friesen, but the largest number of members united with the group led by Peter Toews. A few years later Jacob Wiebe and his group, who lived in Crimea, separated from Abram Friesen’s group. They believed they had not been born again when first baptized and were all rebaptized by immersion. In the process they took a different name, calling themselves the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.

All three groups emigrated to North America in the 1870’s; the Peter Toews group went to south-eastern Manitoba, the Abram Friesen group to the area of Janzen, Nebraska and the Jacob Wiebe group to Hillsboro, Kansas. Peter Toews had experienced the new birth many years earlier and became acutely aware that many, probably most, of the members of his group did not have peace with God. In his search for answers he came into contact with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, led by Elder John Holdeman. In the summer of 1881 he was authorized by his church to travel to Kansas to investigate that church. Following are a few excerpts of the letter he wrote to his church at the conclusion of that trip.

The foremost question on my mind was concerning baptism, whether they would baptize a person the second time if it were found that he had been unconverted at the time of the first baptism. They answered to the affirmative; and they had had a case like that: whereupon a minister called a man, A. Wenger by name, to tell of his experience.

(This was Absalom Wenger, son of Peter and Susanna Wenger and the forefather of a large number of Wengers who are members of the church of God in Christ, Mennonite today. He had repented up to a point and seeing the peace and freedom of others who were baptized, he had hoped to gain this peace through baptism. He gave a false testimony of having a good conscience towards God and was baptized. Instead of the peace he had hoped for, Mr. Wenger had felt condemnation. He was afraid to reveal this for some months, but finally did confess to a group of ministers. After this he was able to repent fully and received peace with God. He felt very strongly that his first baptism had been invalid and thus was baptized the second time.)

I then told them that if Holdeman would come to us there possibly would be no end to the rebaptizing of members that had not experienced the new birth and the faith that bringeth about true repentance.

During this discussion my mind was somewhat relieved of my prejudice to rebaptism.

Again I thought if God, in that church, revealed such displeasure when only one person not having experienced conversion was baptized, what would become of our baptism? How many of us have also received baptism on false testimony?

So I must unite with the Church of God and labour toward the union of all God’s children. I can therefore no longer justify our baptism received outside God’s church, nor can I any longer administer oour baptism or the Lord’s Supper. I shall . . . trust in the Lord to lead us to be united with that church. How this will come about is as yet unknown to me, I shall leave it to the leading of God, if it be His will, till Holdeman and one of his helpers come to visit us.

I fear to continue building a structure that is not built according to the rules of the gospel and the God-given pattern, but, as it appears to me, is beside the pattern and teaching of God.

I fear to build 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 are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility and worshipping of angels (of which we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).

We all profess that we are all baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are walking in voluntary humility. Therefore it appears to me that we are beguiled and in danger of losing our reward, missing the mark and not reaching our goal.

I again certify, as you already know, that I can no longer continue in my office as Elder, and this for no other reason than the fear of God: lest I deal differently than His Word teaches us.

In the winter of 1881-1882 John Holdeman and Marc Seiler came to Manitoba and held evangelistic services in the various locations where these Kleine Gemeinde people had settled. These people had been earnestly trying to live a Christian life, but most were unconverted. Under the preaching of Holdeman and Seiler many were born again and 160 persons were baptized. Congregations were established in seven small villages.

The bishop said I needed a new heart

In January 1953, Dad told the preacher I would attend the catechism classes, then came home and told me I was going. So I went. I didn’t dare defy my Dad; besides I was with the four guys closest to my age, Leonard, Larry, Carman and Allan. I suspect their dads had done the same thing.

Once a week after school we walked to the Vicarage to study the Anglican catechism. Reverend Brown explained each article, as much as eleven year old boys could understand. The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in June.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began. The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman. He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted. Then he told us:

When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore. When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before. They came just as easily as they ever had! When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you that will change nothing inside of you. To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you. You will need a change of heart.

I didn’t understand what they meant, but those words stuck in my mind. They would resurface occasionally over the years, but it took another 17 years for me to understand. I had grown up in a home where the Bible was read, we attended church faithfully, but nobody else ever spoke to me about the need of a changed heart.

I quit going to church after I left home and tried to enjoy the pleasures of the world, but didn’t find them very gratifying. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. In my reading I had come across the story of people long ago who had refused to deny their faith, even when threatened with death. Many of them did die. They were called Mennonites and it seemed to me that they had been real Christians.

I wondered if there were any people like that left in the world. Twice I attended a worship service in a church in a nearby city that called itself Mennonite. No one spoke to me or gave any indication that they knew I was there. I gave up on that, but started reading the Bible for the first time in many years.

In the spring of 1970 things came to a head. I was facing many troubles that seemed insurmountable. I opened the Bible at random and a verse stood out before me that told me I was a sinner. I knelt and prayed for forgiveness and promised to do whatever God wanted me to do.

Nothing happened that I was aware of. It took several months before I took stock of how much my life had changed and realized that something had happened. Silently, unseen, my heart had changed. It clicked that this must be what people called the new birth.

In 28 years, no one had told me that I needed to be born again, much less explain what that meant. In 28 years, only one person had ever told me that I needed a changed heart.

I’m sure things haven’t improved in the last fifty years. Whose fault is that? How many people have I told that they need a new heart? A few. Reflecting on all this leaves me uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing. I have been too comfortable for too long, thinking others were doing the telling. I need to get out of that comfort zone.

The Principal Errors of Pietism

Pietism, with a capital P, refers to a movement that began within the Lutheran Church around the year 1600. The Pietists emphasized the new birth, the inward spiritual life of the heart and a pure moral life. There were earlier threads of pietism, but this was the beginning of a distinctive and dynamic movement. The influence of the German Pietists grew and spread and became the principal influence of modern evangelical Christianity.

At first glance Pietism may sound much like the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith. Yet there are three ways where Pietism represents a compromise with the world.

Christianity without the Cross
Pietists avoided persecution by remaining members of the state Lutheran church, having their babies baptized, attending worship services and taking communion. They met privately to share experiences and encourage one another and became known as “the quiet in the land.”

Throughout history Anabaptists and Mennonites have taken the way of the cross, avoiding all compromise with corrupt religions. They have lived a quiet and peaceable life, but their refusal to offer any kind of lip service to oppressing majority religions has often brought persecution upon them.

Pierre de Bruys in the 12th century and Menno Simons in the 16th century were first priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Once spiritually enlightened, they abandoned that church, called it Antichrist, and became earnest evangelists of pure Christianity, untainted by the non Scriptural practices of their former religion. In Menno’s day the persecutors also included the Lutherans and the Reformed Churches.

Anabaptists and Mennonites took very seriously the admonition of Paul in Ephesians 5:11 – And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. They believed that Jesus meant exactly what He said in Luke 9:23 – If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

Fellowship without Brotherhood
The original Pietists were members of the Lutheran Church, meeting privately without any formal organization. They had an individualistic faith, each one believing he could worship God on his own, appreciating the fellowship of like-minded believers, but having no need of the strictures of an organized body.

Anabaptists and Mennonites did not see their church as restrictive, but as a much needed support network to help them grow in the faith and maintain their spiritual purity. They were a brotherhood; their leaders were brethren, not Lords. They saw the church as it is described in the New Testament: a body of which Christ was the head and each member was needed for the body to function effectively.

1 Peter 5:5 – Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.

Conversion without Discipleship
Pietists and Anabaptists have both earnestly striven to proclaim the gospel to those who do not have a personal knowledge of the Saviour. Pietists, however, make the new birth the main point of their evangelism. True, there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. But is this enough? For Pietists it appears to be the end point of evangelism.

For Anabaptists and Mennonites it is the starting point. The Great Commission says: Go ye therefore, and teach (or, make disciples of) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. Matthew 28:19-20. (The Greek word matheteuo can be translated as teach or disciple.)

Sinners not only need to repent and be converted, they need to learn to live as a Christian. Colossians 2:6 – As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him. It is true that it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to walk with Christ, but this is best done in the company of other believers who will help, encourage, teach and correct. In other words, they should not be abandoned to stumble along partly in the light and partly in darkness, but offered the support they need to grow into the person that Christ wants them to be.

This does not mean living by the rule book: that does not lead to spiritual growth. But there are spiritual dangers and spiritual resources that mature believers know of and new believers often don’t. Galatians 5:13 – For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

Introduction to the New Testament – 1

The Gospels
Matthew – The writer calls himself Levi; the other gospels call him Matthew, perhaps a name given to him when he became a disciple of Jesus. He was a publican before his call, a man who collected taxes on all merchandise transported along the road where he was stationed near Capernaum. This was the first gospel, written while Matthew was in Jerusalem, probably between A.D. 60 and 66. He wrote for Jewish readers, mentioning throughout his gospel all the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah and how they were fulfilled in Jesus’ life and ministry.

Matthew gives the most complete version of the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five to seven. These three chapters are the key to understanding the transition from the old covenant of the law to the new covenant of the gospel. Righteousness is not outward conformity to the law, but a heartfelt love of God that leads to a life of purity and allows us to mirror His love for all people.

The gospel of Matthew is the only one to mention the Gentile women in the genealogy of Jesus and the only one to mention the Gentile Magi who came searching the newborn king of the Jews.

The most complete wording of the great commission is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, instructing the followers of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples from every nation.

After writing the gospel Matthew went as missionary to Persia and Ethiopia, where he died as a martyr for the faith.

Mark – The author is John Mark, cousin of Barnabas, close friend of Peter and mission companion of Paul. This gospel was likely written shortly after Matthew’s and before the fall of Jerusalem.

The early church fathers stated that Mark’s gospel was written at Rome for Gentile believers and based on the memories of the apostle Peter. It is the shortest of the gospels and the most vivid, as would befit the recording of Peter’s eyewitness accounts. It is not concerned with the fulfilment of messianic prophecies, but with showing Jesus to be the incarnate Son of God living among men and women and by His death and resurrection making salvation available to all mankind.

It is generally believed that after writing the gospel Mark travelled to Egypt, founded the church at Alexandria and died there as a martyr.

Luke was born at Antioch, not of Jewish parents, and studied medicine. Little is known of his early life and conversion, but he appears in Acts as a companion of Paul.

He was not an eye-witness of the life of Jesus, but consulted those who were. One of those may have been Mary, the mother of our Lord. Luke includes her genealogy, the visit of Gabriel, Mary’s trip to her cousin Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, the visit of the shepherds, the meeting with Simeon and Anna in the temple and many other details of which she would have been the only surviving eyewitness.

Luke was a Gentile, and addressed his account to a Gentile. He compiled a history of the life of Jesus from the very first angelic messages of His birth. He strove for historical accuracy, linking events to the time of specific government officials. Luke differentiates himself from the other Gospels by putting events in chronological order, and from secular Greek histories by recording only reliable historical facts.

John – The gospel of John was the last one written. It is not really a history, dealing mostly with the last six months of Jesus’ life. Nor is it meant as a tool for evangelism, but rather for strengthening the faith of the church which already existed by that time. He supplies details missing in the earlier gospels and much teaching to cultivate the spiritual life of Christians.

John was possibly the youngest of the apostles and the only one who did not die a martyr. This gospel was probably written at Ephesus, where John lived and ministered for many years.

The opening passage of John’s gospel is a masterful statement of the Old Testament concept of the Word as being eternal and the active principle in Creation and can also be understood to take in the Greek concept of the Logos which gives coherence to all the universe. John goes on to state that this Word, or Logos, is God who made all things, who is life and light and who came to earth in the form of man and dwelt among men as one of them. This gospel contains the most explicit teaching on the new birth and on the Holy Spirit and demonstrates how it is only by knowing Jesus, the Creator, Lord and Saviour, that the created world makes any sense.

Blood lines

I received my DNA test results yesterday, then signed up for a 14 day free trial  with ancestry.ca. I spent the rest of the day filling in the gaps in my family tree with the information they already have on file from kinfolk near and far.

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It’s a fascinating exercise. I am a mix of English, French, Dutch and German, which the DNA test corroborates, but doesn’t quite know how to differentiate. They peg my background as 61% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe, 36% Germanic Europe, 2% French and 1% Baltic states. The map shows considerable overlap of the first three groups. In fact, the circle that they identify as the source of French ancestry does not include northern and western France at all, but the next two groups do. My great-great-grandfather came from Lorraine in the north of France.

My Dad thought he was part Scottish, but I have found that the Kelloggs came from the county of Kent, just below the Scottish border. The name was given to a pig butcher: “kill hog” morphed into Kellogg. Really romantic that, eh?

My great-great-grandfather was a swordsman in Napoleon’s army. Does that sound romantic? He didn’t seem to think so. Almost 200 years ago he and his children left France and settled in upstate New York, not far from some people named Goodnough. In the course of time there was a wedding which is how he got into my family tree.

This is all quite interesting, but not very significant. Mostly it’s interesting to me and my daughter.  I don’t plan to put other people to sleep by expounding on my ancestry at the Sunday dinner table.

There are extensive genealogical records in the Bible. Some people find them boring, but they are there for a reason. First of all, they show that the Bible is talking about real people, who lived, married, begat children and eventually died. Secondly, and most importantly, they show God’s faithfulness in fulfilling the promises He made.

The New Testament has only two genealogical records, both leading to the birth of Jesus Christ, the long-promised son of David, the Messiah.

The record in Matthew begins with Abraham, the father of all faithful, to whom the promise was made that in his seed all nations would be blessed. Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish believers to record the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. He includes four women in his genealogy of Jesus, three were Gentiles and are named. The fourth was Bathsheba, an Israelite, who is not named but her first husband, a Gentile, is named. It would seem that Matthew wanted to make it clear that Jesus belonged to all people, not just one small ethnic group.

Matthew’s genealogy traces the lineage of Joseph, who was the earthly father of the heavenly child. It shows his descent from David to whom the promise of the Messiah was first made. It is generally accepted that Luke’s genealogy shows the lineage of Mary, to establish that she was also an heir of David. The two lines diverge after David, to Solomon in Joseph’s line and Nathan in Mary’s line. Both were sons of David and Bathsheba, but Solomon was king.

They come together again with Zerubabbel, who was of the kingly line and governor of Judah after the return from Babylon. Then they diverge again.

These are the last genealogies that are of any real importance. They establish that Jesus was the promised seed of Abraham and the son of David who would rule forever over spiritual Israel.

After the time of Jesus there is still a blood line that identifies those who are heirs of Abraham, having the promise of the eternal mansions. That is the blood of Jesus, not something we can inherit from our earthly fathers and mothers, but only from Jesus Himself, through the new birth.

Two kingdoms, two churches

Reuben was the firstborn of Jacob and should have been in every way the leader of the tribes of Israel. He was a man who meant well, but seemed more apt to follow his carnal lusts than his good intentions. His father described him as “unstable as water.” The double portion of his father’s inheritance which by right was Reuben’s, went instead to Joseph, his second youngest brother. The headship of the tribes went to Judah and the spiritual leadership to Levi. Reuben was a loser on all counts.

Before he died Jacob prophesied that Judah should be the ruler of the tribes of Israel, “until Shiloh comes” which we understand to mean the Messiah. He also foretold that Simeon and Levi would not inherit with their brethren. Many years later, when Joshua divided the land, he allotted to Simeon lands that were within the boundaries of the inheritance of Judah. The Levites by this time had become the priests and they were given cities scattered through all the tribes. They were able to have gardens and goats for milk, but the bilk of their livelihood would come from the tithes given to the tabernacle, and later the temple.

Later yet, David, of the tribe of Judah, became king and God promised an everlasting throne for his sons. The kingdom of God of the Old Testament was both a political kingdom and a spiritual kingdom. This kingdom reached its highest point during the reign of Solomon. He reigned over all the land that had been promised to Israel and his reign was peaceful and glorious. He built the temple, the place which was God’s earthly habitation, to which all the peoples of the earth could come to worship and be blessed.

This glorious kingdom of the son of David was just a foretaste of what God had planned for His people. Such an earthly kingdom could not last among people who were for the most part only natural descendents of Abraham and not spiritual descendents. God foretold that the kingdom would be split in two after the death of Solomon.

The division of the kingdom was God’s plan. His perfect will would have been for all the tribes of Israel to continue to worship at Jerusalem, even though they were divided in their earthly citizenship. But Jeroboam, the first king of the breakaway kingdom feared that such an arrangement would undermine his political authority. He built a new temple at Bethel and another one in the north on his kingdom and appointed a new priesthood. It was for this division of the church of God that Jeroboam is forever after referred to as “Jeroboam the son of Neat who made Israel to sin.”

Thereupon all the Levites living among the northern tribes moved south to the kingdom of Judah. People often speak of the “ten lost tribes.” That does not add up. The southern kingdom now included Judah, Simeon, Benjamin and Levi, leaving nine tribes in the north (counting Joseph as two tribes: Ephraim and Manasseh).

Immediately, God began sending missionaries to the northern kingdom. The entire ministry of both Elijah and Elisha was to the people of the apostate northern kingdom of Israel. The ministry of Hosea and Amos was also exclusively to the people of Israel. We read of the schools of the prophets, some are explicitly linked to Elisha, probably they all were under his leadership. Thus men were continually being trained and sent out to preach the Word of God to the people in this apostate setting.

What were the results of this great mission effort? Even after Jezebel had made the worship in the temple at Bethel openly idolatrous, God told Elijah that there were still 7,000 people, “even in Israel” who had not bowed down to Baal. Seven is a complete number, a symbolic number, it could well mean many thousands.

It is recorded in 2 Chronicles 11 that after Jeroboam set up new temples in Israel people from all the tribes came to Jerusalem to sacrifice unto God and they strengthened the kingdom of Rehoboam. Chapter 15 tells that during the reign of Asa there were some from Ephraim and Manasseh who came to Jerusalem to worship and renew their covenant with God. Much later, both Hezekiah and Josiah sent invitations to the tribes of Israel to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

It would seem that by the time of the Babylonian captivity the kingdom of Judah included a godly remnant from all the tribes. We tend to assume that all those from the northern tribes had vanished by the time of Jesus. We read much about the Levites, Joseph and Mary were of the tribe of Judah, Paul of the tribe of Benjamin, but where were the others? Just when we think we have it all figured out, we discover that the Bible has dropped a little hint that our assumptions may not be true. Luke 2:36 tells us that Anna the prophetess was of the tribe of Asher. If there was one person who could be identified as coming from one of the formerly apostate tribes might there not have been many more?

The New Testament speaks of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Who were they? It is evident that God’s heart yearned after those who were of the natural seed of Abraham, but were separated from the true worship of God. Before the captivity that meant all those from the northern kingdom where the only form of worship available was in the apostate temples. Yet even in such a situation there were many whose heart was still attached to God and not turned away to idolatry. By Jesus’ time it would seem that all those in Judea and Galilee were considered lost sheep, since the worship in the temple at Jerusalem had descended into mere form and pharisaism.

Who are the lost sheep today? Wouldn’t they be those who are the true spiritual children of Abraham, born-again children of God, alone in their faith or worshipping in a setting where some are true Christians, others are not, and most are unable to tell the difference? There are some who do see. Years ago a minster told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. Someone told me recently of a minister who thought that perhaps 20% of his congregation were born-again. There are many kinds of mission fields, is this one that we are missing?

Freedom of the will

Freedom of choice means that I am at liberty to do as I please. Nevertheless, I learn every day in small ways that the choices I make have consequences; and the choices that other people make often have consequences that affect me. Why then should I not expect that consequences might not only be immediate, but long-term, even eternal?

God is not to blame when bad things happen, He has given us the liberty to choose freely. Often those choices have unanticipated consequences. The unpleasant consequences of our bad choices should lead us to pause a moment to consider whether God might not have a better way for us.

God does not protect us from the negative consequences of the choices we and other people make. Neither does he force us to choose His way.

Yet God does speak to us, quietly and often, asking us to reconsider the direction we are travelling in life. Some time in our life He will tell us that the bad things happening to us are the result of our bad choices which make us sinners.

It doesn’t work to decide that we will live the way God wants us to live by our own will and strength. But we do have the ability to accept God’s judgment on our sin and ask Him to help us. That is called repentance and when God sees that our repentance is genuine, He forgives us because of the sacrifice Jesus has made for our sin, He adopts us as His child and gives us His Holy Spirit to enable us to make right choices.

That is called the new birth, conversion, regeneration. Those words all mean a change in the way we think and a u-turn in the direction of our life. When we live to please God and to love and help the people around us, we will be far happier than when we were only trying to please ourselves.

This is the beginning of Christian life. Some people stop as soon as they reach this point, thinking this is all there is to Christian life. God wants us to keep on going, learning a little more each day about our own weakness and about God’s will and the blessings that He has for those who really consecrate their lives to Him.

Simplicity of the church

It was a fine summer day in 1627 and I was strolling through Plimoth Plantation when deacon Samuel Fuller fell in step beside me. “The church officials back in England are saying that we have no business calling ourselves a church here in Massachusetts, because we have no minister,” he said.  “But a church is made up of Christian people. They don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

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Image by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay

Well, OK, the year was actually 1990, the man beside me was an actor playing the role of Samuel Fuller and we were in a recreated Plimoth Plantation, meticulously designed to look and feel like 1627. But I have no doubt that the real Samuel Fuller actually spoke those words.

Later that day, at a family reunion supper, I asked a young lady (a distant cousin) who also worked at Plimoth Plantation, if the modern Samuel Fuller really believed what he was saying. She hesitated a moment, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

There you have the essential requirement of a church: Christian people. Not people motivated by tradition, emotion, social connection or intellect, but genuine, from the heart, born again Christians.

How can we do that? The short answer is we can’t. Jesus said He would build His church, The real question is how can we discern if a church is being built by Jesus or by people?

The New Testament speaks of believers meeting for worship, but there are no instructions as to what the meeting place should look like. Being as I live in Saskatchewan and it is bitterly cold outside right now, I am thankful for a warm building to use when we meet to worship. But I am wary when buildings become large and elaborate and are regarded with more reverence than the meeting going on inside.

The New Testament speaks of preaching, but never hints that the preacher needs special training, or that he should be paid a salary. The word minister means servant, yet a minister also has a responsibility to watch over the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But if he begins to think of himself as a lord over the congregation, he has crossed a line according to 1 Peter 5:3.

The New Testament speaks of singing, but never hints at the use of musical instruments. Entertainment is not an enhancement of worship, but rather a distraction.

The New Testament also shows that a close relationship between churches or congregations in different places and different countries. One of the warning signs that a congregation is not being built by Jesus is when it is totally independent of any other group.

I have known people who do church at home or who belong to small independent congregations. They appear to have good convictions but they are alone in their faith, there is no one else with whom they can have fellowship. And I have seen what happens to children from these tiny, self-isolated groups. They rebel. Some forsake Christian faith altogether, some find a home in a much more liberal church. They all blame their parents for their strict, legalistic attitude.

But they are missing something. A church does not become more spiritual, closer to Jesus, by ignoring most of His teachings, saying they were for a different era. The real problem was that their parents trusted no one but themselves. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all, to believe that I, and only I, am walking with the Lord.

This brings us back to the beginning. The Church built by Jesus Christ is a church made up of genuine, from the heart, born again Christians. A church where “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  Part of being a genuine Christian is the grace to see Christ in others, in spite of our outward differences.

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