Try the Spirits

Evil spirits are constantly trying to deceive us by imitating His Spirit, seducing us through thoughts and impressions which appeal to our carnality. (1Ti 4:1) Those who heed such spirits bring much harm to themselves and others (vs 2), so God tells us to try the spirits, to test spiritual influences to see if He has sent them. (1Jn 4:1)

This testing isn’t about whether God is speaking to us or not, but about whether He’s speaking to others. When we hear the voice of God we know Who’s speaking (Jn 10:27); any test would be disrespectful.

But when someone else claims to have a “word from the Lord,” we must be very careful. Satan comes as an angel of light (2Co 11:14), and many in his service appear righteous, which is no surprise. (vs 15) False prophets seek to be revered by presuming God is speaking to them, but without solid evidence such claims are empty. What should we look for?

Firstly, is the supposed prophet benefiting temporally from his calling? God’s prophets typically proclaim a very unpopular message and are persecuted for it (Ac 7:52); they aren’t exalting themselves, seeking prestige. (1Co 4:9) If any ulterior motive is apparent, this should be carefully searched out.

Secondly, is there sufficient detail in the prophetic word to verify its accuracy? Clearly, when sufficient detail is present and the claim is false, we have our answer. Yet prophetic words which lack sufficient detail to be verifiable should also be dismissed, or at the very least regarded with grave suspicion. God’s test of a prophet’s legitimacy requires verifying the prophecy happens exactly as predicted. (De 18:22) When a prophet fails this test, God’s law prescribes the death penalty. (vs 20) Getting this wrong is serious: no one should ever be encouraged to take up a prophetic mantle lightly or presumptuously, or let off the hook when they do.

Lastly, is there anything unscriptural or unwise inherent in the claim? Does it align with God’s character and glorify Him? Any revelation that doesn’t square with the plumb line of scripture is darkness. (Is 8:20)

We’re in a spiritual battle; we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness. (Ep 6:12) Be sober; be vigilant: our adversary is real and dangerous.  (1Pe 5:8) We must resist him steadfastly in order to overcome. (9)

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Save with Fear

Modern Evangelical Christians have dramatically shifted emphasis in presenting the Gospel, away from hellfire and brimstone as in earlier days, to focus almost entirely on God’s love.

The love of God is amazing, for sure, certainly less offensive than Hell fire; to comprehend it is to be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ep 3:19) But is this a good move? In other words, is this shift in focus a biblical one, or might it tend toward compromise, lukewarmness, and spiritual decay?

Putting it another way, should the unregenerate, those who don’t already deeply love Jesus Christ (1Co 16:22), be encouraged to meditate on God’s love? Or is this a topic which should generally be reserved for committed Christians?

If we consider the biblical emphasis, God’s universal love for Man is only explicitly highlighted twice in all of Scripture (Jn 3:16, Tit 3:4); entire gospel accounts – written to introduce the life and ministry of Christ to the world – don’t mention it, nether does the inspired history of the early Church, in showing us how to spread the Gospel to the nations.

However, the wrath of God is made plain several hundred times throughout the Word, and repeatedly emphasized by Christ Himself in the Gospels. John the Baptist introduces Christ by preaching repentance (Mt 3:2) and warning of eternal fire. (Mt 3:12) Paul is mindful of the terror of God as he’s persuading men (2Co 5:11), acutely aware that those who don’t know God are in real, eternal danger. (Php 3:18) Jude advises us to make an exception for certain kinds of people, compassionately entreating them with gentleness (22), but to generally use fear as a primary motivation in our witness. (23) Why might this be?

Telling those who don’t fear God how much He loves them isn’t actually a very loving thing to do; it tends to downplay the imminent danger they’re in, how urgently they must repent and turn to God. By the fear of the Lord we depart from evil (Pr 16:6); this is the first step in seeking God. (Is 55:7) Unless a lost soul is seriously going after God, seeking Him with all their heart (Je 29:13) and striving to enter the kingdom (Lk 13:24), they’re actually hardening their heart. (He 4:7) Focusing on love is simply inappropriate here.

As we prayerfully encourage souls to pursue the living God (Da 12:3), we must do so in love, being mindful of their peril, yet using discernment in how we engage. (Mt_7:6) Anyone in the West already has sufficient access to salvation truth to find God if they want to; shoving it in their face may actually do more harm than good. (2Pe 2:21) Christ only offers the gospel to those who are humbly seeking it (Lk 10:21), and the Apostle Paul does the same. (Act 17:31)

Let’s soberly contemplate the eternal, fiery torment of lost souls as we engage them in our witness. (He 10:31) May God melt our hearts until sinners feel our trembling (Php 2:12) and our tears (Ac 20:31), as God reaches out to them through us. (2Co 5:19) Our Lord, Man of sorrows (Is 53:3), lives in us, calling us to follow His steps. (1Pe 2:21)

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Far From the Wicked

Some people are far away from the kingdom of God (Ps 73:27), and some are not. (Mk 12:34) What’s the difference?

Salvation is far from the wicked, because they’re not seeking God’s statutes. (Ps 119:155) They’re at enmity with God because they aren’t subject to His Law (Ro 8:7); their very nature opposes it. (Je 13:23)

Thinking we’re saved, or that we even want to be saved while we’re committed to sin is a contradiction; salvation is from sin (Mt 1:21), not in sin. (Ro 6:1-2) If we intend to sin and are unconcerned about it, we don’t want to be saved from sin at all — just from the consequences.

Coming to God implies wanting to obey Him, desiring to be aligned with Him, to live in intimate fellowship with Him (Jn 14:21); there’s no salvation apart from this. (He 12:14) Regenerate souls delight in God’s Law (Ro 7:22); we keep it as well as we can (Ps 119:94), and ask God to quicken us so we can obey the rest. (Ps 119:35-37)

Spiritual life produces obedience (1Pe 1:2) in those who are God’s workmanship (Ep 2:10); those who hope in God’s salvation do His commandments  (Ps 119:166), obeying unto the transformation of their souls. (Ps 19:7) This is how we identify the children of God. (1Jn 3:10)

Let no one deceive us here (1Jn 3:7-8): unless we repent and turn away from our sin to God we perish. (Lk 13:3) Those who are willfully disobeying or neglecting any part of God’s Law as a manner of life, who know better, have no hope of eternal life (1Jn 3:6); they’re self-deceived (Ja 1:22) and will be trodden down by God. (Ps 119:118) Those who are neglecting Torah wouldn’t seek God even if someone came back from the dead to persuade them. (Lk 16:31)

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Everlasting Punishment

Fear of suffering eternally in Hell should move us (Jud 1:22-23) to seek the Lord earnestly, striving to enter the Way (Lk 13:23-24), until we know we have eternal life. (1Jn 5:13) The infinite cost of failure here makes any other outcome entirely unacceptable to the rational soul.

But is Hell, the second death, actually eternal? What if, as some teach, Hell has an explicit finality to it, where souls don’t suffer forever but are rather extinguished, annihilated, such that they cease to exist? Wouldn’t that be more consistent with a loving God?

Annihilationism is the claim that as the wicked are destroyed (Mt 10:28) they cease to exist, that spiritual death is final and complete, an eradication of body, soul and spirit, producing a state of non-existence. The motive is to frame God as more reasonable and compassionate when eternal torment is not perceived to be justifiable. (Ro 11:33) After all, how could a loving God torture souls eternally? 

To begin, observe that we can destroy something without annihilating it, say, by smashing a computer or a car and rendering it inoperative, incapable of fulfilling its intended purpose, forcing its components into an altered, unusable state.

Similarly, in death (separation of spirit and soul from body) spirit, soul and body continue to exist; none are annihilated. (Lk 16:22) So, verses including death and destroy do not, in themselves, imply Annihilationism.

Further, Annihilationism assumes sin has a finite degree (making infinite punishment unjust) and no benefit in eternal torment (making it unnecessary). But if Man’s unchecked sin is indeed infinite, in both intensity and duration, and if eternal suffering would bring glory to God, prompting worship in the righteous by uniquely revealing the nature of both God and Man, then Annihilationism is problematic. To verify this, let’s search the Scripture.

The Word states, as clearly as anything can be stated, that most souls will suffer consciously for eternity. (Re 14:11) This is not surprising, since we all, when left to ourselves, love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil. (Jn 3:19) This is deeply offensive and dishonoring to God. What should He do about it?

Conventional teaching has been that God angrily casts the wicked into a furnace of fire (Mt 13:42), consigning them there forever because they did not believe on Him in earthly life. (Jn 3:36) This punishment seems so harsh that many struggle to understand how this could possibly be consistent with God’s love and mercy, even if we see it in Scripture. Can anyone truly deserve such an end?

How can God impose this kind of fiery punishment for eternity and yet be loving and just? It is impossible to rightly understand these kinds of things without the proper context; as with many other theological problems, the resolution lies in a full comprehension of the nature of Man.

Everlasting, infinite punishment would only be unjust if the wicked were not infinitely so, if their rebellion were finite in either intensity or duration. Yet, Annihiliationism would explicitly hide this reality from us, such that we could never experience the timeless nature of either God or Man. But isn’t this God’s explicit purpose in Creation, to reveal and glorify Himself? (Ro 9:22-23) If so, how then might eternal punishment reveal and glorify God?

When God has suffered the indignity of our sin long enough, suppose all He does is simply unveil Himself (Is 25:7), showing us all Who He is and what He is like, unfiltered, exactly as He is. (Re 20:11) This will distill every place in the universe down to only one: the immediate presence of Almighty God. Infinite depravity will then begin to fully and intimately engage with infinite holiness, justice and love.

This simple unveiling of God changes everything. Whatever is in God and of God is fulfilled and completed (Col 2:10), home at last, while all outside God is incapacitated (Mt 15:13), shaken to the core (He 12:27), unable to function as designed: destroyed.

As this climactic event unfolds, a permanent standoff develops: the wicked remain opposed to God and at enmity with Him (Ro 8:7), while God remains infinitely holy, just and loving. These two natures are entirely irreconcilable; they cannot abide in harmony together, not even a little bit. Each side is absolutely intolerable to the other (Pr 11:20), and they clash with unfathomable violence and intensity. God’s indignant fury fills the wicked with terror (Na 1:6), yet there is no place to hide. The damned begin to suffer the real, ultimate consequence of their rebellion, destroyed by the very glory of the God they despise (2Th 1:9), the inevitable result of their own willful choices and nature.

Since God does not change (Ja 1:17), the only way this stalemate will ever end is if the wicked find it within themselves to repent and turn to God (Je 13:23), otherwise their punishment will indeed be everlasting (Mt 25:46), infinite in both degree and duration, according to their own nature. (Is 33:14)

So, as the wicked stubbornly continue in their unbridled rebellion, drowning in inextinguishable holy fire (Mk 9:43-44), they put their hatred for God on universal display (Ps 21:9), permanently showcasing themselves before God’s throne for the righteous to observe and contemplate. (Is 66:23-24) They are held by the cords of their own sin (Pr 5:22), in perpetual shame and everlasting contempt. (Da 12:2)

In this state, what should God do? Must He annihilate His enemies in order to be loving and just?

What if the holy arms of a loving God remain forever open (Ro 10:21), even to those in Hell (Re 22:17), offering mercy and pardon to any who will repent and turn to Him? (Is 55:7) And what if we begin to observe, in age after incredible age, that the damned will never return to God (Ps 81:15), not a single one (Ps 14:2-3), no matter what immense suffering their own relentless, stubborn blasphemy (Re 16:9) continually draws down upon their own heads? (Pr 27:22) If God ever does do such a thing, and the wicked play their hand as predicted, who could ever rightly complain against Him? (Re_15:4)

And if God did annihilate His enemies, how would we ever know how infinitely evil human nature truly is (Je 17:9), when God gives us up to fully pursue our own way?

Perhaps it is only then, as we actually experience eternity itself, that we will be enabled to fathom more and more the infinitude of our God (Ps 145:3), to glory in His infinite mercy (Ps 103:11), to experience the true nature of unregenerate Man (Ro 8:7), and agree that it’s inexcusable. (Ro 1:20) Perhaps this will enable us to begin to perceive the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through His Son (Ep 2:7), as we explore the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Ep 3:8)

The eternal, infinite, willful, voluntarily self-imposed suffering of the damned will be a continual, tangible reminder of what we all are like without God, and what we all deserve. There will be no self-glory in His presence. (1Co 1:29) We will never forget what our Father has done for us. (1Jn 3:1)

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Remember the Sabbath Day

One of the Ten Commandments is: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Ex 20:8) God’s telling us to remember a specific day of the week and set it apart, keep it special, dedicated for His intended purpose: this day is for rest. (Ex 20:11)

Noting the correct day is where we must begin; God sets apart the seventh day, Saturday, and calls it the sabbath day. (Ex 20:10) So, working on Saturday breaks the command; it’s inappropriate except under extenuating circumstances, where basic necessities, health or safety are at risk. (Mt 12:12) But God is calling us beyond simply resting on Sabbath: He tells us to remember it.

Remembering the sabbath is being systematic, intentional and deliberate about setting it apart; God’s telling us to think about it, anticipate it, prepare for it (Mk 15:42), plan for a complete change of pace. This is where the spirit of the command is critical: God hasn’t formally defined work, and this is no accident; what’s work for one soul isn’t for another.

Work varies by context, so we must careful and prayerful to get this right. For example, a consultant should intentionally forget about work on sabbath; going for a swim or a run, taking a hike or gardening a bit might be quite restful for a working mind on sabbath, but a manual laborer should focus more on physical rest. One who seldom cooks might enjoy making breakfast on sabbath, but a homemaker might prepare sabbath meals ahead to improve her sabbath rest.

While we must not be careless with the sabbath, treating it like any other day and doing whatever we like (Is 58:13), we also need to be careful not to make sabbath a burden, as did the Pharisees of old. (Mt 23:4) Becoming preoccupied, rigid and judgmental about what can and can’t be done on sabbath can destroy its spirit and purpose. Specifics are generally going to be a matter of individual conscience, and this is by design; we should each be careful to please our own master here. When the sabbath is no longer a delight, a true day of rest and peace unto our spirits and souls, we’re missing the whole point.

As a general rule or precept, we should stop laboring, pushing ourselves, doing what we normally do to provide for ourselves and those under our care. The daily grind, the routine, mundane chores and demands of life — these should be off-limits — so long as we aren’t violating the law of love: keeping sabbath shouldn’t cause us to neglect those in need. (Lk 13:15) Whatever facilitates rest and comfort for our selves, families and communities is within the spirit of sabbath.

Creatively obeying from the heart is how we find God’s heart in sabbath; He’s for our total health and well-being, and that’s why He made it. (Mk 2:27)

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Be Strong

Weakness is something we all experience; it’s unavoidable. We’re born in weakness, and we’ll probably die in weakness. We get sick, injured, tired, eventually old. Weakness makes us feel vulnerable, unable to care for ourselves and others. Why would anyone deliberately choose weakness, choosing to be more vulnerable than necessary?

A couple possibilities are obvious. We might not love ourselves properly, abusing or neglecting ours minds, souls and bodies, thereby causing ourselves to deteriorate into weakness. Similarly, we might not love others, being resentful or envious, and might want to burden others with our physical, emotional or spiritual care. In any case, deliberately choosing weakness like this violates the 2nd Great Command, to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mt 22:39) Love does not choose weakness, either for itself or others.

Yet, even if we love as we ought, we might confuse weakness with humility and find a little virtue in it, seeking to be inordinately dependent. Yet how could this be a virtue when God commands us to be strong? (1Co 16:13) Strength must be aligned with humility; we must strive to be strong and humble at the same time.

The Apostle Paul recognized that when he was weak in ways that were beyond his control, he found the strength he needed in God’s grace. (2Co 12:9-10) But though Paul gloried in scenarios that made him weak, he never deliberately weakened himself, or neglected to be as strong as he could possibly be. This is key.

Strength is the ability or power to act according to one’s potential; the closer we are to being able to live in our ultimate design, the stronger we are. This comprises the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our being. To willfully neglect strength in any area of our lives is to despise our intrinsic design, our value, our Creator’s benevolent purposes for us. (Col 1:11)

God has designed us such that if we obey Him in exercising ourselves (1Ti 4:7), prayerfully and wisely pushing our current limits to try to improve  (2Pe 1:5-7), we will grow (1Ti 4:8) and He will gird us with strength. (Ps 18:32) Every part of our design is like this; we just have to be willing to discipline ourselves and honor Him, balancing our lives to care for ourselves so we can live according to His calling and election in us.

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Give Me this Power

Simon was a sorcerer, using witchcraft to promote himself as a godly man (Ac 8:9-11), until he believed on Christ and was saved. (13) But Simon’s thinking about the nature of spiritual power was still off, and it immediately got him into trouble.

When Simon observed the Holy Spirit falling on people, as Peter and John prayerfully laid hands on them, he offered to pay the apostles for this capability. (Act 8:18-19) But Peter rebuked Simon sharply (Ac 8:20-21) — Simon still had the witchcraft perspective: that we obtain spiritual power via ritual, not relationship.

This is the essence of witchcraft: trying to harness spiritual forces by following a formula or technique. “If I say in Jesus’ Name when I pray then God will answer me.” “If I pray the rosary 10 times and say 20 Hail Mary’s then God will forgive me.” “If I spend X hours in prayer then God will fill me with the Holy Spirit.” “If I stop thinking and start babbling then God will give me supernatural tongues.” All examples of the spirit of witchcraft, treating God like a machine rather than a Person.

Yet spiritual power doesn’t work like this. We don’t get our prayers answered by praying a lot, or by following a formula. (Mt 6:7) God answers prayer as we abide in Him, saturated with His word (Jn 15:7), praying according to God’s heart and will (1Jn 5:14-15) by faith. (Mk 11:22-24) God gives spiritual gifts according to His purposes (1Co 12:11), not to those with the right technique.

Seeking spiritual power apart from God Himself is actually very dangerous business; it’s wickedness that springs from bondage to iniquity. (Ac 8:22-23) The enemy lures us through our discontent, through lust for power and significance, in order to counterfeit God’s gifts in us, so he can wreck havoc in our lives, and in the lives of others, while we’re trying to exalt ourselves. It may seem spiritual on the surface, but it won’t be love, and it will be worse than nothing. (1Co 13:1-2)

Seeking spiritual gifts over the Giver Himself is to miss all. When we rightly understand God we’ll be perfectly satisfied in Him. Like Simon, we may not yet be content in God’s love and forgiveness in Christ, and that He’s given us particular gifts and callings according to His purpose. We may not yet know unspeakable joy in God, how to feed in His majesty. In our unrest, we may stoop to trying to impress others with our pseudo-spirituality, or to trying to manipulate circumstances for our convenience rather than waiting on God to glorify Himself.

Fulfillment and peace is only found in humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God, enjoying every moment as His perfect gift, casting all our care upon Him, knowing He cares for us. (1Pe 5:6-7)

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The Keys of the Kingdom

When Simon Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16), Christ acknowledges that God the Father has revealed this precious truth to him. (17) Christ then proclaims that He will build His church upon this bedrock truth, that He Himself is the Messiah sent from God as the essence of God, and does a word-play with Peter’s name, which also means rock. (18)

Christ then promises Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, declaring that whatever Peter binds or looses on Earth will be accordingly bound or loosed in Heaven. (19) Roman Catholics derive their doctrine of Apostolic Secession from this, that Peter was the first Pope, with authority to make up the rules as he goes.

But Peter was clearly not given such authority, for moments later Peter asserts himself so badly that Christ calls him Satan (23), and years later Peter is still blundering so profoundly that Paul has to rebuke him publicly for not living uprightly according to the Gospel. (Ga 2:11,14) Peter didn’t do so well when left to himself; neither would any of the rest of us.

So, it appears that the keys of the kingdom are not given to Peter as an isolated believer, but as part of a spiritual brotherhood, calling upon God in unison for Him to glorify Himself on Earth as He does in Heaven. (Mt 6:10) This is confirmed when Christ repeats this same promise to the Church: whatever they agree together to ask the Father He will do for them. (Mt 18:18-19)

This implies that the kind of alignment which moves God is a supernatural gift of mutual faith as believers seek His glory together in community. God gives no one the freedom to channel His power at their whim; He promises to live through His people as they pursue His heart in supernatural unity. (2Co 6:16) For such community, grounding all truth-claims and motives in the reality of God (1Ti 3:15), nothing is impossible. (Mt 17:20)

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I Will Have Mercy

One Sabbath day the disciples were hungry, so Jesus went through some corn fields so they could eat. (Mt 12:1) This was part of God’s social safety net (De 23:25), but the Pharisees began accusing them of breaking the Sabbath, looking for a way to find fault. (2)

In reply, Christ asks the Pharisees what they thought of David eating the shewbread as he was escaping from Saul (3-4), something they’d never allow. Why hadn’t God called David out on this? And why had God commanded the priests to continue their priestly duties on the Sabbath, something the Pharisees would consider profane in others? (5)

Christ concludes by noting that He’s greater than the temple (6), as reality is greater than its shadow (Col 2:17), and Master of the Sabbath, being its Author and knowing perfectly well how to apply it. (8)

Further, Christ declares the disciples formally innocent; they’d not actually broken Sabbath at all, only burdensome Pharisaical extrapolations of sabbatarian precepts, and identifies the root cause of the Pharisees’ error in their ignorance of a very basic principle of Torah: God prefers a merciful heart to overly strict ceremonial observance. (7)

If the Pharisees had honored the spirit of Torah, loving mercy and humility as well as justice (Mi 6:8), they’d not have been adding burdensome regulations to Torah, and passing off their man-made doctrine as if it were God’s. (Mt 15:9)

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The Office of a Bishop

God describes two offices in His Church to which a man might be chosen: bishop (1Ti 3:1) and deacon. (1Ti 3:13) Each role serves the congregation as a representative, acting on its behalf.

Deacons oversee temporal concerns (Ac 6:2), and bishops provide spiritual care. (1Ti 3:5) Each role requires a solid, godly character, known by the saints and verified by experience over time in close community. (1Ti 3:2, 10)

Conspicuously absent are the roles of pastor and elder; neither term describes a church role or office. A pastor is spiritually gifted in caring for others, shepherding and nurturing saints to spiritual maturity. (Ep 4:11-12) An elder is simply an older man. (1Ti 5:1-2) Neither of these terms identifies a formal leadership role to which one might be chosen; no moral qualifications are ever mentioned for either one.

A unified brotherhood is the only valid leadership model in Christ’s church; any other is a corruption of the biblical pattern. Bishops and deacons are first and foremost brothers (Mt 23:8), acknowledged by the brotherhood as equipped to represent the congregation in specific ways.

Bishops, in particular, are typically chosen from among the elder brothers (Tit 1:5), being recognized by the brothers as God’s representatives of the congregation to those outside it. (1Ti 3:7) No specific duties or responsibilities are ever detailed for bishops; they evidently have no specific function to fulfill within the church itself, apart from their roles as older, more influential and respected brothers. (1Pe 5:1-3)

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