Devaluing the Lord’s Table

Every Christian instinctively knows that he or she ought to value the things that God values. After all, believers have a new nature, a nature like Christ, so that the appropriate valuation of the things of Christ is normal Christianity. But most of us are so prone to distraction and having other things compete for our time and energy that normal and godly desires are only maintained and acted on with much diligence and discipline.

One realm in which this principle applies is that of attendance at meetings of Christians. Going “to church” but once a week for an hour on Sunday morning has become the norm for many Christians. Because of the lack of energy in spending time collectively in the presence of the Lord Jesus, many sadly miss out on the full enjoyment of  Christian experience and fellowship that can be found in the various kinds of meetings taught and patterned for us in the Scriptures.

Almost as soon as the assembly of God was founded by the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the testimony of the scriptures is that “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (teaching) and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).  It seems clear that the early Christians understood the value of each of these meetings, whether for teaching, for worship and praise, or for prayer.  I would suggest that they did not soon let the various characters of these meetings get out of balance in their corporate experience as saints. We find prayer meetings spoken of in Acts 4:24-30, 12:12, and 16:16. We know that teaching took place regularly in meetings of saints by reading Acts 4:31, 11:25-26, 20:7-11, and I Corinthians 14.  And of course, meetings for breaking bread by those purged worshipers were held often, perhaps even more often than weekly at the very beginning, as found in Act 2:46, 20:7, I Corinthians 11:17-34.

Let’s consider the meeting for breaking bread, designated in I Corinthians 11 as the Lord’s supper, to be enjoyed at the Lord’s table.¹  Many believers have the desire for and the privilege of breaking bread in remembrance of the Lord at his table on a weekly basis, normally on the Lord’s day. But there are several attitudes and practices, that if allowed and cultivated, will serve to devalue this precious meeting it our souls, to a level far below what I am convinced is the Lord’s valuation of it.

For more than 1000 years, a ritualistic Christianity carried on the early church’s tradition of observing the Lord’s supper at least weekly, or even more frequently, but sadly, the simple significance of the supper was lost and the communion of the blood and body of Christ became a ritual mass.  It seems apparent that the Lord’s supper at His table was greatly devalued during the Middle Ages, and it is likely that the lifeless ritual it became resulted in some segments of the Reformation responding by decreasing significantly the frequency of the “communion service”. Some Christians still make the case that an infrequent communion helps them avoid the danger of having it become routine, which would apparently foster an indifference to it or a devaluation of it in their hearts. But might not the unintended result of an infrequent remembrance of the Lord Jesus be rather just a devaluation of another kind? I leave this for individual consciences to grapple with.

Some of us have observed a regrettable trend among Christians who meet to break bread each Lord’s day, and also meet for prayer and teaching (ministry) on that day or other days of the week.  Among these brethren, the Lord’s supper and its frequent, fervent observance have been emphasized over many generations. There is no question that this is honoring to the Lord Jesus, and precious in His sight, as scriptures like Luke 22:7-20 and I Corinthians 11:17-29 show us plainly. But did either the Lord or His apostles intend that the importance and gravity of this special institution, this meeting of gathered saints for remembrance and worship, eclipse and render unnecessary the other meetings for which we have a clear pattern in the word of God? I trust that in the consciences of most believers there would echo an unequivocal “no” to this rhetorical question.

It takes real diligence and discipline to cultivate and maintain balance in our Christian lives.²  In light of that principle, I suggest that a lack of diligence or interest in attending and enjoying meetings for prayer and ministry, while maintaining the habit of attending the meeting for the remembrance of the Lord, may result in a regrettable devaluation in one’s heart of all of the meetings of the saints. There is a danger of ritualism in each of our hearts, perhaps even in the thought that there is something meritorious in partaking of the Lord’s supper. Far be the thought. May God continue His work in us by the Spirit, so that we might enjoy Christ in all of our meetings, for He so desires to be found often in the midst of His own³ while they look to Him and await His soon return.

 

¹  I Corinthians 10:21 and 11:20. The Lord’s table and the Lord’s supper have distinct meanings, but for purposes of this article, we consider them together.

²   See, for example, II Peter 1:5-12.

³   Matthew 18:19-20; 28:16-17; John 20:19-29

Predestination Misconception

During a recent Bible reading and teaching meeting in which the subject of God’s sovereignty and predestination came up, someone asked a question that might be paraphrased this way:  Are believers predestinated to be a member in a particular fellowship of Christians? It was a sincere and well-intentioned question, and thankfully there were others present who were able to clear up the misconception that gave rise to the question.

Scriptural predestination is neither fatalism nor determinism, both of which are hyperbolic “straw man” concepts set up by some teachers in order to detract from the real truth of the complementary doctrines of election and predestination.  The principle of the flesh in man (including fleshly religion) does not care to receive or attain to anything that it has not worked for and achieved by its own effort, and therefore doubts or downplays God’s sovereign electing and predestinating grace.

The Bible gives us the truth of predestination in two passages.  “[God] has chosen us in [Christ] before the world’s foundation . . . having marked us out beforehand (predestinated) for adoption through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Ephesians 1:4-5 Darby translation).  “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). The blessed truth is that God marks us out beforehand as individuals for the dignified position of sonship that He brings us into. The consummation of our adoption as sons of God will occur when our bodies are redeemed and we are fully conformed to Christ’s image (Romans 8:23, 24, 29), but we have already been given a “spirit of adoption”. We who are Christ’s own can actually know even now in our spirits¹ that we will certainly experience that final aspect of our adoption to sonship, which is the redemption of our bodies. A destination is at the end of either a journey or a process, and we have simply been marked out for that “destination” of sonship beforehand, so that we can already live in the conscious enjoyment of it!

But what about the intermediate steps of the journey, of the pathway of faith? Are those ever spoken of in the word of God as being determined beforehand?

There is one sovereign act that the Spirit of God does in us by the Word² of God, according to His own will, and in which neither our will nor inclinations had a part. It is new birth, or quickening (John 1:13; 3:1-12; James 1:18). Before that point, we operated entirely according to our own will and desires, according to the spirit of the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:1-3). When once we who were spiritually dead sinners are born again by His sovereign choice and will, God continues His work in us, using whatever internal promptings or external circumstances He chooses in order to facilitate our desiring and then doing His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13; Ephesians 3:10). Some might call this joint work “synergism”.

The work of the Spirit of God in quickening a soul by the Word² is a perfect work, in that an incorruptible, sinless life or nature is imparted to one who was once only a willful sinner (I John 3:9; I Peter 1:23, 25). But after that point in a new-born soul’s life here on earth, the level of conformity to Christ and the progress of growth in the soul are dependent upon the believer’s cooperation with the Spirit, upon obedience to Him. God now has the new nature to work with, but the extent to which the believer allows the flesh (the old nature) to act determines the spiritual progress he makes, as well as the amount of fruit he or she bears in this life while waiting for the Lord Jesus to call believers home. Only then will perfect conformity to Him be attained.³

When we who are Christ’s at last realize that glorious destiny, there will be rewards given out for faithfulness, including what the scriptures call “crowns”.* The Bible does not teach the deterministic or fatalistic notion that every deed done over the whole course of our lives was predestinated to occur just the way it did.  However, the very fact that we will even be there with Christ in glory to receive any reward is solely because of God’s unilateral, sovereign work in quickening our souls so that faith and fruit for Him can result. Our Father so much desires that His children bear fruit for Himself as a result of the atoning sufferings of His Son on the cross of Calvary (Isaiah 53:11-12), that His work in our souls by grace, and His control of our circumstances according to His mercy, will continue until the day of Christ. In that day of the glory of the Lord Jesus, and the “revelation of the sons of God,” I believe that you and I will look back with wonder, and praise Him alone for His sovereign grace in shepherding us all our lives long until that day.º

 

¹  His Spirit bears witness with our spirit as to our place in God’s family. (Romans 8:16)

²   Logos in Greek

³   II Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 2:10; 4:13, 30; I John 3:2-3

*   Matt. 25:23; II Cor. 5:10; II Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; I Pet. 5:4; II Pet. 1:10-11; Rev. 3:11; 4:10

º   Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:28; Genesis 48:15 (Darby translation)

Blessed Are They Who Mourn

King Solomon, by his great wisdom in discerning the true condition of man, wrote that “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting” because of the life lessons that may be learned there. He goes on to say that “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth,” and then he ends this short meditation in Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 by classifying as vanity (or emptiness) the “laughter of the fool.”

The Lord Jesus, in what are commonly called the “Beatitudes”, pronounced them blessed “that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).  The Lord in other places spoke of the joy that ought to be the believer’s portion, and so does the apostle Paul,¹ but there is no contradiction here. The mourning of the disciples would be extreme when they saw Jesus crucified and buried, but the weeping and lamenting would turn to irrepressible joy upon His resurrection (John 16:20-22). Normal Christian experience calls for both mourning and joy in their seasons, and I believe we can go so far as to say that these godly sentiments may be experienced almost simultaneously by the believer. An old hymn puts it this way: “With joy and sorrow mingling, we would remember Thee”.

There is a danger in not mourning when that is called for, when that is the only appropriate response to a matter, according to God. The Corinthians were rebuked for not mourning over the sin that was going on among them in plain view of the world, which brought shame to the name of Christ and stood to defile the assembly if not addressed in a timely and godly manner.²

What are some causes for mourning in our world today? Permit me to list a few here. It is fitting for the saint who trembles at the Word of God³ to mourn:

  • For all of our personal failures and sin against a holy God (James 4:1-10);
  • For all the dishonor done to the Lord by ourselves and our countrymen (Zechariah 12:10-14);
  • For our failure in maintaining holiness and love in the church of God (II Corinthians 7:6-11);
  • For the rampant slaughter of innocents throughout the world, born and unborn (Matthew 2:18);
  • For the lack of truth, mercy, and the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1-3);
  • Because ungodly, unrepentant men and women are dying and going to hell for their sins (Ezekiel 31:13-18).

This is merely a partial list with a few references, but I trust it presses upon each Christian the need for mourning while we are in this “present evil world”.  Satan uses the things of this world to entertain and distract believers, seeking to lull us into complacency with respect to the sin and death that the Lord Jesus Himself mourned over while in the days of His flesh (Luke 19:41-46; John 11:35).  But for the saint who seeks to walk as Jesus walked through this world, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Only when all the enemies of Christ are subdued, and that “last enemy”, death, is forever destroyed, will the need for mourning in this world, in accordance with God’s thoughts, be gone (I Corinthians 15:24-28). Do not despise or neglect the privilege of mourning now as a Christian, in fellowship with your Savior.

 

¹  Philippians 3:1 and 4:4     ²  I Corinthians 5      ³  Isaiah 66:2

The Imperative of Sound Doctrine

In his final epistle, the apostle Paul advised Timothy of a day when Christians would not endure sound doctrine, or teaching (II Timothy 4:3-4). Fleshly motives would cause them to “turn away their ears from the truth”, and the result would be that they would wander off into myths or fables. With the diversity of teaching in the various denominations in Christendom today, and with many of these doctrines in contradiction to each other, a fair mind must come to the conclusion that there are plenty of fables mingled with truth. Sadly, it seems that tolerance of false or contradicting doctrines is becoming more common in Christian churches, and emphasis on sound (healthy) teaching is becoming less common.

Sound doctrine, also characterized as “good doctrine” in I Timothy 4:6, is that which honors God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no room for man’s pride or lusts in the “doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10), and any “wind of doctrine” by which Christians are “tossed and carried about” (Ephesians 4:14) will always cater to and glorify man in one way or another.  Sound doctrine glorifies God in Christ, period.

There are churches and Christian leaders who may be well-intentioned in their emphasis on Christian living and practical brotherhood at the expense of an insistence on doctrinal integrity and truth, and they have their reward. The Lord can use any effort of true faith, any desire for His glory, no matter the compromise or mixture He finds in a group of Christians. “The Lord knoweth them that are His”, we are thankfully assured of, but on the other hand, the responsibility of everyone who names His name is to “depart from iniquity” (II Timothy 2:16-21).  It is clear from the context of that warning that false doctrine is a manifestation of iniquity.

Now someone might ask: “Is there a list of Bible teachings that are so important they should be defended even to the extent of separating from others who contradict them?” Another person might wonder: “Is there a danger of sectarianism when we insist on doctrinal purity at the expense of fellowship with other sincere Christians?” Rather than answering those questions directly, I suggest we look at several principles that are key in the preservation of sound doctrine to the glory of God.

  1. Doctrinal integrity is eminently important to Christianity.  It is even more critical than any amount of good teaching on practical Christian living. Sound teaching as to the glorious person and the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ must be maintained in the house of God, the church, the pillar and base of the truth (I Timothy 3:15). Any compromise here brings dishonor to God, and for that reason alone, a heart that seeks His glory should separate from and shun false teachings that detract from the person and work of Christ.
    For example, one should not tolerate teaching that speculates that Jesus could have sinned, extrapolating that error from the fact that He was tempted while on earth. He went through those tests to prove that He was “pure gold” as to His sinless nature, and not because there was any question about it! Those temptations proved He was “without [innate] sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Furthermore, He “knew no sin” (II Cor. 5:21), for “in Him is no sin” (I John 3:5). If the assembly does not jealously guard Christ’s glory here, and in other similar points of doctrinal contention, they give up the true Christ for “another Jesus” (II Cor. 11:4), and further corruption is sure to follow.
  2. The apostles’ censures and arguments tell us much about the teachings they insisted upon.  Many Christian leaders and groups promote unity, relationships, godly living, and other good and noble values over doctrinal soundness, and some even go so far as to admit their belief that “doctrine divides”, because they lament sectarianism in Christendom. But sectarian strife is very often the result of pride and worldliness, not doctrine, and in those cases where Christians have separated from each other because of false doctrine being brought in, the Lord has allowed it in His discipline of His household.¹

    Paul and John were very clear in their censures of teachers of false doctrines.² Were these heretical teachers allowed to continue on in fellowship in the church for the sake of unity, or for fear of division? Should anyone have pleaded for tolerance so that long-established personal relationships could remain intact? It almost goes without saying that the answer to both questions is a resounding “No”!

    Paul’s arguments in defense of doctrinal truth are evidence of a brilliant mind, but we know they are according the mind of God, who inspired Paul’s writing. When Paul sets forth the truth of imputed righteous without works, when he declares the believer to have been predestinated by God and therefore eternally secure, when he defends the central truth of the resurrection, and in several other cases,³ he proceeds logically through an argument and reaches a conclusion that the spiritual man readily receives. Those who argue for a type of works-righteousness, or who promote a conditional security, or who superimpose humanistic reasoning on fundamental Christian doctrine, must do so by taking verses or even phrases out of their contexts, setting them against the truth that Paul so eloquently and methodically presents.

  3. There is scriptural guidance on how the truth is to be taught and passed down to future generations.  The truth was not intended to be learned in a sectarian seminary and taught exclusively by an ordained clergy or ministry. When human arrangements are employed to designate teachers in Christian assemblies, it interferes with the line of accountability from the servant directly to his Lord, and opens the door for unsound teaching.*  It may take years or generations for these human expediencies to have their deleterious effects.The pattern outlined in the scriptures is that men who learn the apostles’ doctrine among many witnesses (in an assembly setting) should pass along that truth to faithful men, who will be able to teach others in turn (II Timothy 2:2). Ministry ought to be “as every man has received the gift”, and that gift cannot be given or constrained by men or their systems. Moreover, “if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability that God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever” (I Peter 4:10-11).  Sound doctrine is best preserved through methods that do not interfere with the work of the Spirit in using whomsoever He will to minister the truth.

Maintaining sound doctrine was never presented to the church of God as an optional exercise, but always as an imperative, if saints are by any means to be “rooted and built up” in Christ, and established in the faith (Colossians 2:7). It is true that sound doctrine may be held with a legal spirit among Christians, and this is much to be guarded against. Only if Christ is the object of the heart will this pitfall be avoided. May He be the source of our enjoyment and our motive for contending for the “faith once delivered to the saints”.

¹  I Cor. 11:19; I Peter 4:17; I John 2:19; I Kings 12:24

²  Galatians 5:12; I Timothy 1:19-20; II Timothy 2:14-26; Titus 3:10; II John 10

³  Romans 4; Romans 8:28-39; I Corinthians 15; for other examples see Romans 9 & 11; I Corinthians 11:1-16; Galatians 3-5

*  See II Timothy 4:3-4, contrasted with Ephesians 4:7-16

A Free Will or a Deceitful Heart?

I recently finished listening to the audio version of “Unbroken”, the compelling book about Olympic runner and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, written by Laura Hillenbrand. The account of Zamperini’s struggles with his demons after the war ended, culminating in his miraculous conversion to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, was to me the most powerful part of the story of this hero’s long life.

Although he married and had a child soon after the war, Louis increasingly relied on alcohol to ease the painful memories of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his Japanese tormentors, and his wife had filed for divorce. She was converted at Graham’s tent campaign in Los Angeles in 1949, and was after much importunity and cajoling able to persuade Louis to go back with her to the tent crusade before it ended.  After enduring the first night of gospel preaching, Louis consented to go again only if he could leave when the invitation to accept Christ was given. On his way out of the tent, God arrested him in spite of his will to flee, and Louis was changed forever.

This wonderful story stirred within me praise to God for the grace that compelled me to come in from the highways and hedges of an ungodly world, after all alike rejected His invitation.¹  It was not my free will that changed or converted me, a teenager who had no interest in the things of God. I will not here give an account of when and how I was “born again”, for it would profit little.  Rather, we can find in the Bible many inspired accounts of this sovereign activity of the Spirit of God in souls. Some of them are even presented to us in such a way as to eliminate persuasion of the will as a factor in the work of quickening and new birth. New birth is initiated and consummated by God, and it is a concept that is always presented in the passive voice in the scriptures. Man’s will is excluded here, because the will of a man always pleases itself by acting in pride or in pursuit of its lusts.²

Let’s consider for a moment the response of King Agrippa to Paul’s testimony and question in Acts 26:27. Paul asks this of the King:  “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” The response was very sad:  “Almost (or, in a little) thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”  The King was not interested in receiving Christ for his personal salvation, nor of being “a Christian” in his manner of life. He made the mistake of thinking that conversion to Christianity (unappealing as it was to him) might be brought about by Paul’s persuasion skills, or by how much longer the persuading continued.  The deceitful and “desperately wicked” heart of man³ is not changed by persuasion.

Now take the two thieves on the crosses on either side of Jesus. “The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same [mockery] in His teeth” (Matthew 27:44).  They were both guilty sinners, and both were very evidently moved with despite toward the Son of God, who hung there between them. So what brought about the change in the one, who in the space of three hours gave evidence of profound repentance before his partner in crime, and in the presence of the Lord?  “Dost thou not fear God?” he could ask with boldness, although his own pride and rebellion was on display  only a few hours earlier (Luke 23:39-43). Was the Lord Jesus successful in persuading one and not the other with His gracious words? But we are not told that Jesus spoke a word to them before this. Did the repentant thief have a slightly better nature, or perhaps a more logical mind that “tipped the scales” of his own will at the last? No, but he was born again without respect to his proud will in that awful hour by the sovereign grace of God.

An even more potent example of the unilateral work of God in giving life to a spiritually dead enemy of His may be found in Saul of Tarsus. When Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus by the Lord Jesus Himself (Acts 9), where had Saul’s will been taking him?  Did he by his free will choose to be quickened as he was blinded and falling, so that “Lord” now flowed freely from his lips for the very first time?  Someone used irony to express what were very obviously not Saul’s thoughts as he recalled this event: “So there I was on my way to kill Christians when I used my free will to become one.” The absurdity of that statement shows the fallacy of a “free will” explanation of the miracle. Paul was “a chosen vessel” for the message of the gospel to the Gentiles, whom God separated from his mother’s womb for that purpose (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:15), and God saw to it that he was quickened, without possibility of failure.

Consider one more Biblical example of the sanctification of the Spirit in imparting new life to a soul in a manner apparently as instantaneous as in the cases of Saul and the thief. I have no doubt that God brings about so abrupt a change many times a day in this world, but very few of these new births will be as accompanied by circumstances as dramatic as the case of the jailer of Philippi (Acts 16:19-34).  But the earthquake did not change his heart, nor did the midnight songs of the prisoners. The change was a divine work in the soul that God coordinated perfectly in order to make the maximum impact on the jailer and his family for the rest of their lives. One moment he is threatening to kill himself out of despair and self-occupation, and the next moment finds him on his knees, eminently conscious of his lost condition, which causes him to ask: “What must I do to be saved?” It was not his own will that by persuasion lengthy or brief wrought his new birth; it was a birth “of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

It is regrettable that the harsh excesses of Calvinism have repulsed many Christians in the Arminian free-will camp. Nevertheless, the doctrines of the believer’s election by sovereign grace and his corresponding security are blessedly true. Consider the witness of these biblical stories, and thank God that the miraculous change in your heart was not left up to that heart, which was by nature deceitful and wicked. It was no light thing for the Lord Jesus to say “no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65), nor for Paul to write “it is not of him that willeth,  nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Romans 9:16). The evidence of how rebellious and selfish we once were “in the flesh” is the fact that God had to act by Himself to perform the miracle of creating new life in our souls, by His Spirit and His word.*

¹  Luke 14:16-24

²  John 1:12-13. It is important to distinguish between being born again and receiving Christ for salvation and eternal life. Find help on this distinction at these links: article 1 and article 2.

³  Jeremiah 17:9

*  John 3:3-8; 5:25; James 1:18; II Thessalonians 2:13

To Hurting Members of the Body

I have heard and read recently of Christians who feel they have been hurt or hindered by a church, or who are troubled that others in their circle have been wronged in that manner.  My heart goes out to them, not even knowing their situations in most cases, but knowing this, that differences in personal conviction and spiritual exercise too often give rise to emotional hurt and spiritual hindrance. God never intended it to be so in the church.

There are many such who try to make the best of the difficult situations and hurts they experience in their native or adopted churches by seeking a closer personal walk with the Lord Jesus, and that is without doubt a path of individual enjoyment and blessing.  But how often do these difficulties bring about an exercise in the believer’s conscience with regard to the religious system he or she is associated with?  Might not the Lord be allowing these “church problems”, the offenses that must come¹, in order to teach Christians that these offenses usually come because worldly and fleshly principles have been adopted in the church of God?

Here are a few examples of principles and practices in churches that are sure to cause offenses to saints, and even more seriously, dishonor to Christ the Head of the body, His church.

  • When ecclesiastical authority is vested in one or a few individuals in a clerical system that distinguishes between ministers or bishops in one class and the laity in another class, a worldly Nicolaitan² principle is at work, and it will soon become a source of stumbling when lay members do not fully accept the rulings of the ministerial class (Luke 22:24-26; Revelation 2:6 and 15).
  • When an extra-biblical document is adopted and enforced upon the members of a local church or a denomination and serves as either a basis for communion (fellowship), or determines one’s inclusion in or exclusion from the religious community, it may offend Christian converts whose consciences are not bound by legal or traditional restrictions.
  • When the church of God is viewed as an organization that one chooses to become a member of, Christians lose sight of the truth that the Scriptures teach no membership but in the body of Christ, which has the character of a living organism. Organizations can offend, hurt, and hinder persons because they are structured and organized on human principles, but the properly functioning body of Christ, with every member contributing according to the gift he has received, hurts or hinders no one, but only builds up (Ephesians 4:1-16; I Corinthians 12).
  • The bane of post-Reformation sectarian Christianity is the idea that if you are frustrated with your local group, into which you were probably born, you can just decide to join another group with better leadership or less rigid rules, or for any other preference you may have. As long as such a mode of operating is seen as legitimate and is perpetuated by sectarian local church models, there will be offenses, including frustration with what purports to be the church, and earnest Christians will become disenchanted within these sectarian groups.

God has graciously provided for His church, His assembly of called-out ones.  Should earnest seekers for truth as to the church come to see by faith the failure of the Christian testimony generally³, and the folly of men’s efforts to go about setting up churches on worldly or Judaistic principles, there is ample direction in the Scriptures for meeting together for worship, prayer, and doctrine.  Binding authority is found only with the Lord Jesus in the midst of His own (Matthew 18:18-20), not in a human appointee or hierarchy. The Bible alone, interpreted by the Holy Spirit (the anointing of the Holy One*), provides guidance as to whom we should have fellowship with, and whom should be avoided. And the regrettably common practice of church-shopping to match your preferences is as far removed from New Testament doctrine and practice as a megachurch is from an upper room.

People sometimes offend or hurt each other by their words and actions. Even godly Christians do that from time to time, sadly, and James writes that we all often offend (James 3). But if you feel hurt, misunderstood, or frustrated by “your church”, go to the word of God in prayer for answers. It may be that the Spirit has much to show you about how He would gather you “in assembly”^ with others of like precious faith.  The Spirit of God, who formed the body of Christ and dwells in the house of God, will never disappoint a seeker for truth.

 

¹  Matthew 18:7 – “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come . . . ”

²  Nicolaitan has the meaning of “ruling the people”, and the term “laity” is from the same Greek root.

³  Revelation 3:14-22.  Laodicea is an apt picture of the state of the Christian testimony (witness) in these last days, so far short of reflecting Christ, “the faithful and true witness.”

*  I John 2:20-27

^  I Corinthians 11:18 and 14:35 (Darby translation)

Those Who Say That They Are Jews

Charges of anti-Semitism are common in our day. Sometimes those charges are slanderous and unfounded, but often they are legitimate, for there are millions in this world with ill will toward the Jewish people. Just days ago, a preschool teacher in Texas was fired for encouraging her friend via social media to “kill some Jews”. Jews have had a tragic history, perhaps especially so in the last 200 years, during which discrimination and hatred of their historic race led to successive pogroms in Eastern Europe, and culminated in the Holocaust in Central Europe during World War II.

From a scriptural perspective, we could say that God never promised an easy road for Jews during the “times of the Gentiles¹”.  In Luke 21, Jesus confirmed God’s allowance of an extended period of shame and persecution upon His chosen earthly people for their historical rebellion that reached its climax when they put their Messiah on trial and said prophetically: “His blood be upon us, and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).  Nevertheless, “God hath not cast away His people, which He foreknew” (Romans 11:2-5). Through much tribulation, Israel as a people will be ushered by their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, into a glorious earthly kingdom, often called the Millennium. And even now, there is a remnant who are saved “according to the election of grace.”

My real purpose is to make a few remarks concerning those who falsely take the place of the Jewish people during the church period, which is prophetically laid out for us in the letters to the seven prototypical churches in Revelation 2 and 3. In His letters to the assemblies in both Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Lord Jesus censures a group of people (or perhaps more correctly, a religious element) whom He calls “the synagogue of Satan”, speaking of them as those who say that they are Jews, but are not.

Now what is the significance of the Lord’s condemnation of this insidious element? Those “who say that they are Jews” in the Christian profession are they who have returned to Jewish religious principles, and so the “synagogue of Satan” is a religion of the flesh, which rests in outward things like works and ordinances, assuming and occupying the place of the Jews, whose worldly religion (although God-given) was altogether found wanting after the light of Christ and Christianity burst on the scene.²

It is noteworthy that the two assemblies to which He writes concerning these pretending Jews, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive only encouragement from Him, and none of the rebuke directed toward the other five churches. It was the plague of idolatry that was the danger in Pergamos and Thyatira, but not so in Smyrna and Philadelphia, for these were spiritual assemblies where idolatry could not find a foothold. But in these godly churches, a spurious Judaism had to be guarded against, because returning to the religion once given by Jehovah in an earlier dispensation can be made to seem like godliness for all its emphasis on religious activity.  And it surely is Satan who has refurbished and repackaged Judaism in order to attract sincere but unsuspecting Christians, so that “the synagogue of Satan” is clearly an appropriate designation.

Many Bible scholars view the seven churches in Revelation as representing seven periods in the church’s history, some of them overlapping, but all of them developing successively. I believe that Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13 represents a relatively brief period in the 19th century. It has struck me that Philadelphia enjoyed the recovered truth of the Lord Jesus’ imminent return (I come quickly), entered into the truth of the His patient waiting for His heavenly bride (the word of My patience), and enjoyed the promise of being kept out of the tribulation period (I also will keep thee out of the hour of trial). I do not believe it to be coincidental that the 19th century also saw the rise and development of many religious groups that went back to Judaism for their principles, and I will list but a few of the most evidently false systems as a warning to Christians:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses, who denominate themselves using the name by which God made Himself known in His covenant with Israel;
  • Mormonism, which  teaches that its adherents are either direct descendants of the house of Israel or adopted into it;
  • British Israelism, which teaches that people of Western European and Northern European descent are the direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of the ancient Israelites; and
  • Several “Seventh Day” sects, who in the designations they choose for themselves indicate that they keep the Sabbath, a sign of Israel’s covenant relationship with Jehovah.

Whether or not there are any true believers in these Judaistic systems (or others not listed here) is not the point.  It is the systems that have the insidious character of the synagogue of Satan, and ought to be shunned accordingly by godly saints.

The Christian’s heart ought to have nothing but love and concern for those who are truly Jewish, and should desire their blessing in a future earthly kingdom and eternally. The Lord Jesus mitigated the severity of the Jews’ treasonous and presumptuous crime in delivering Him up to the Romans by classifying it as a sin of ignorance, when He uttered those beautiful words of forgiveness on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; Leviticus 4:13-21). Now God can reach down in mercy upon both Gentiles and Jews, to save souls from both classes and bring them into the church of God, the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-18). It is not the ethnic or the traditionally religious Jew that should be avoided by the Christian, but rather, it is counterfeit Jewish systems infiltrating Christianity that must not be tolerated.

The most blessed of rewards is connected with faithfulness in the face of this false Judaism. In a coming day of Christ’s glory, and ours with Him, all whom the scriptures characterize as pretending Jews will be brought to their knees in acknowledgement that the Lord Jesus dearly loves those who have clung to Him and His word in the day of His rejection and patience.³

 

¹  Luke 21:24     ²  Galatians 4:1-11; Hebrews 8, 9, & 10     ³  Revelation 3:8-10