8/29/2010

A LITTLE LESS OF ME

Let me be a little kinder
Let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those around me
Let me praise a little more
Let me be when I am weary
Just a little bit more cherry
Think a little more of others
And a little less of me
(Recorded by Glen Campbell in 1965)

During the first year of our marriage Sue and I had a disagreement and neither of us was willing to yield any ground. Being young and na├»ve and having a traditional view of marriage, I went to prayer asking God to help her understand that she must submit to my God-ordained leadership. As I prayed in this manner, Paul’s exhortation for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church suddenly stood before me with the words and gave Himself for her highlighted in bold letters (Eph. 5:25). I then heard the Holy Spirit say, “The problem is that you are not willing to let go of yourself.”

Finding Life by Losing Our Life

When I heard this message from the Lord I knew that my “I” or ego was standing in the way of resolution and peace. There had to be a little less (probably a whole lot less) of me in that situation and in the relationship in general. As I obeyed the Lord and “let go of myself” in that situation, it proved to be a life-changing experience. I began to learn the truth of what Jesus said in Mk. 8:35, Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mk. 8:35).

I was learning that “a little less of me” was to be, not a one-time thing, but a way of life. This did not mean that I was to be a doormat for other people, but that I could no longer live my life—my Christian life--from self-serving motives. I was learning what true Christianity is all about.

The Character of True Christianity

True Christianity is not about you or me, but about Christ, as Paul so succinctly delineates in Galatians 2:20 where he says, I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (NKJV).

Interestingly, the Greek word for “I” is ego. What Paul is saying here is that his “I” or ego has been crucified with Christ and the “I” or ego is no longer the center of his life. Christ is now at the center of his life. Christ has replaced the “I” or ego as his reason and purpose for living, and it is no longer about Paul; it is now all about Jesus. Even the phrase, I live by faith in the Son of God, expresses this reality for Paul. It is in the genitive case and literally reads, I live by the faith of the Son of God. For Paul, even faith is no longer centered in himself but in Christ, and he lives by the faith of the Son of God.

It seems obvious that the North American church has not learned to live and walk in Galatians 2:20. It is still about us—our faith, our testimony, our ministry, our miracle, our revival, our church, etc., etc. I am convinced that it is this “I” or ego centered approach to Christianity that is holding back genuine Spiritual awakening in our nation. The Spirit of God is grieved when it is about us, and only superficially about Him. This was made very real to me by an experience I had a number of years ago.

We Grieve the Holy Spirit When It’s About Us

I had just preached in the Sunday evening service of a NE Texas church and was on my way home to the DFW area. As I drove along the dark two-lane highway, I noticed that I felt troubled in my spirit. My mind questioned, “Why?” “I should be happy and joyful,” I thought. “It was a good meeting.” Indeed, people seemed to be stirred by the message and a number responded to the invitation and some were weeping. “So why is my spirit so unsettled,” I asked as I drove along in the night.

Suddenly I heard the Holy Spirit speak on the inside of me, “You talked too much about yourself tonight.” I knew immediately what He meant. My message that night had been made up of personal stories of God’s blessing in my life and of miracle answers to prayer I had seen. I had not preached the word. Although it had sounded spiritual and had stirred some people’s emotions, it was too much about me. I had grieved the Holy Spirit by talking too much about myself and not enough about Jesus and His word.

Less of Me • More of Jesus

This experience sensitized me to the importance of keeping the focus on Jesus and His word. It made me realize that we can talk about miracles and answers to prayer and yet grieve the Holy Spirit if the message or testimony is really centered in “me” and not in Him. I realized in a new and fresh way that there must be “less of me” and more of Jesus in every area of my life, as John the Baptist so aptly stated in John 3:30.

Sometime after baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, someone came to John and informed him that the crowds were now giving their attention to Jesus rather than to him. John replied, He must increase, but I must decrease. We too must decrease so that He can increase in all areas of our lives. It is not easy, but it is only as we let go of our “self” for His sake that we will find our true self in Him.

In the 13th century, Francis of Assisi must have been struggling with “a little less of me” when he wrote:
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life
.
(Prayer of Francis of Assisi)


8/16/2010

THE CHURCH'S ONE FOUNDATION

A Fresh Look at Ephesians 2:20
in Light of Biblical Research & Revelation

While I affirm the continuation of apostles and prophets in the Church today, I am convinced that Eph. 2:20 does not teach that apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church or the churches. This conviction is based on an examination of the words “apostles” and “prophets” in this passage, the grammatical structure of the passage, and other New Testament passages which clearly point to Jesus Christ as the one and only foundation of the Church. Instead of referring to individual apostles and prophets, this passage is referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ that is found in the Old and New Testaments.

The passage in question, Eph. 2:20, reads, Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. With the current interest in contemporary apostles and prophets, this passage has become the proof text for the idea that apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church and churches. However, it is never wise to build a doctrine, especially one of this importance, on one Scripture. What about 1 Cor. 3:10 where Paul says, For no foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ. This is a serious issue for if we replace the true foundation with a faulty one, then everything we build upon it will eventually fall. In the following essay I hope to convince you that there is only one solid and sure foundation for the Church, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Foundation of the Prophets

The Prophets was a common way for both Jews and Christians to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures during the 1st century. We must remember that “Old Testament” was an unknown expression for the New Testament writers, all of whom, except for Luke, were Jewish. Sometimes the Old Testament Scriptures are referred to as the Law and the Prophets or Moses and the Prophets or in the more abbreviated form of simply the Prophets. There are many examples of this abbreviated usage in the New Testament.

In Luke 24:25, for example, Jesus chides two of His disciples for being slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken, an obvious reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. In Acts 13:27, Paul says that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem crucified Christ because they did not know the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, another obvious reference to the Old Testament. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul passionately implores, King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets?, another obvious reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. Because of its abbreviated form, the prophets became, perhaps, the most common way of referring to the Old Testament.

When Paul, therefore, uses the word prophets in Eph. 2:20 he is most likely referring to the Old Testament. The purpose of the Old Testament was to reveal the Messiah to God’s covenant people. This is borne out in Rom. 10:4 where Paul says, For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. The word “end” in this verse is a translation of the Greek word teleos and it means goal, purpose or destination. Christ is not the cessation of the law, but the destination or goal of the law.

This is confirmed by Jesus Himself when, in Luke 24:27, 44, He refers to all the things written in the Old Testament Scriptures concerning Himself. In other words, the Old Testament is not about laws, rules and regulations; it is about a person—Jesus the Messiah. When Paul, therefore, speaks of the foundation of the prophets, he is referring to the Old Testament Scriptures and their witness of Jesus Christ.

The Foundation of the Apostles

Acts 2:42 says that the earliest believers continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine, a reference to the oral teaching of the Twelve. This oral teaching included the message they had heard from Jesus and their eyewitness accounts of Jesus. This oral teaching of the Twelve and the later revelation of Paul were eventually written down and canonized in our New Testament.

This whole canonization process became necessary for a variety of reasons, not least that a church leader in the 2nd century named Marcion created his own canon of Scripture. Marion’s canon, however, included only Luke’s gospel and ten of Paul’s thirteen epistles. The ones he excluded were condemned as too Jewish.

Since all four gospels, Acts and all thirteen of Paul’s epistles had been universally recognized by Christians from the beginning, this was obviously something new and novel. Because many were being led astray by Marcion’s new canon, many church leaders felt it necessary to clarify what the churches had always believed by issuing their own list of New Testament books.

The inclusion of some books, however, was questioned, even among the orthodox. These questionable books included James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John and Revelation. The number one criterion for determining if a questionable book (or any book) should be included in the canon was a positive answer to the question, “Is it apostolic?” That is, was it written by one of the original Twelve, by Paul or by one of their immediate associates? Only after an affirmative answer to this question, could a book be considered apostolic and worthy of being included in the canon.

Canon, of course, refers to a measure or rule. As such, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are the rule against which all succeeding teachings and revelations must be measured. Why? Because the New Testament canon contains the original apostolic witness and teaching. Hans Kung, the well-known Roman Catholic theologian and reformer, says,

"The preaching of the apostles, as it has come down to us in the writings of the New Testament, is the original, fundamental testimony of Jesus Christ, valid for all time; being unique, it cannot be replaced or made void by any later testimony. Later generations of the Church are dependent on the words, witness and ministry of the first “apostolic” generation. The apostles are and remain the original witnesses, their testimony is the original testimony and their mission the original mission " (Kung, The Church, 456).

When Acts 2:42 says that the early Church continued steadfastly in the apostles teaching, it is referring to the oral teaching of the Twelve which is now canonized in our New Testament. Apostolic doctrine, therefore, is not the latest revelation touted by someone who calls himself or herself an apostle. Apostolic doctrine is the message and eyewitness accounts of those first followers of Jesus that are preserved for us in the New Testament. When, therefore, Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, that believers are being built on the foundation of the apostles . . ., he is referring to the original apostolic testimony and teaching that is now preserved in our New Testament.

The phrase having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets is now clearly seen to be the Old and New Testament Scriptures and their revelation of Jesus Christ. The authors of The Formula of Concord also recognized this prophetic role of the Old Testament and apostolic role of the New Testament. Produced by Lutherans in 1577, this historic document contains the statement,

"We believe, teach and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged."

Jesus Christ the Only Foundation

That Eph. 2:20 is referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Old and New Testaments is also borne out by the fact that the phrase apostles and prophets is in the genitive case, the case that shows possession. It is like saying “the coat of John Doe.” Although the coat and John Doe are related, it does not follow that the coat is John Doe or that John Doe is the coat. In the same way, it does not follow that the foundation is identical with the apostles and prophets or that the apostles and prophets are identical with the foundation. This passage, as already demonstrated, is referring to the foundation of Jesus Christ that has been laid by the prophetic and apostolic witnesses of the Old and New Testaments.

This fact is further borne out in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church. In 1 Cor. 3:10-11, Paul refers to his founding of the church in Corinth and says, I have laid the foundation and another builds on it. What foundation did Paul the apostle lay for the church in Corinth? It was not himself! He says in vs. 11, For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ. The foundation of Paul the apostle in Corinth was Jesus Christ. If contemporary apostles wish to be legitimate, they must follow the example of Paul and not preach themselves, but Jesus Christ.

This coincides with Jesus’ response to Peter’s revelation of Him as the Christ, the Son of the Living God in Matt. 16:13-18. Jesus commends Peter for his revelation, saying,
Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you that you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

The Greek word for “Peter” in this passage is petros, which means a little rock or pebble. The Greek word for “rock” is petra and refers to a large massive stone. With a play on these words, Matthew has Jesus saying, You are petros (a small rock or pebble), and on this petra (a large massive stone) I will build my Church. The foundation on which Jesus said he would build His Church was not a little rock like Peter, but the massive foundation stone that is the revelation of who He is, i.e., Himself.

What It Means to Be “Apostolic”

Like the early church, the church today must also continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching. How? By hearing and adhering to the original apostolic message that has been preserved for us in the New Testament. This message belongs to the Church of every generation and every Christian has the privilege and responsibility of bearing witness to this original apostolic message of Jesus Christ. When presented in its purity and clarity this message will be as powerful and revolutionary today as it was in the 1st century. This is how we lay the foundation of the Church in the 21st century.

No church, therefore, can rightfully call itself apostolic if is preoccupied with its own power, prestige and importance. No church can call itself apostolic if it is continually distracted with novel and faddish teachings and trends. Only a people committed to proclaiming the original, apostolic message of Jesus preserved in the New Testament can rightfully be called apostolic today.

An old hymn sums it up well:

The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord
She is His new creation by water and the word
From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride
With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died

8/09/2010

THE NEW GNOSTIC JESUS

Take heed that no one deceive you, for many will come in My name saying, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many. - Jesus

Do you know the real Jesus? If you are depending on TV preachers for knowledge of Jesus, you may find yourself falling short. Benny Hinn recently preached a message about Jesus at a conference in Sweden that his friend and host, Ulf Ekman, said on his blog, “went far beyond what I see as classic Christian faith and sound doctrine.” “It was not just some Gnostic elements,” Ekman said, “it was too much pure Gnosticism.” Ekman wisely encouraged his audience to read their Bibles and compare what Benny said about Jesus with what Scripture says about Him. He also talked to Benny personally about the error and expressed hope that he listened and took it to heart.

The Resurgence of the Gnostic Jesus
Gnosticism, which is experiencing a resurgence in our post-modern world, values spirit over matter and personal, subjective experience over objective truth and reality. Because of this, the early Gnostics denied that Jesus had a real physical body, claiming, instead, that He was a spirit and only appeared to have a physical body. This same approach is rampant in our world today where the real Jesus of Scripture who not only comforts, but challenges and confronts, is exchanged for a spiritual, New Age/Gnostic Jesus who is offensive to no one and can be made to fit into any world-view.

Oprah Winfrey, for example, has popularized a Gnostic (New Age) spiritual Jesus that can be discovered within every person’s consciousness. She has helped popularize the New Age author, Echkhart Tolle, and his book, New Earth, in which he presents Jesus as a Spiritual Master, along with Buddha and others, who have tried to help humanity discover the “Christ consciouness” or “God consciousness” that is already residing within every person. For Tolle, Gnosticism was a positive movement, representing a rediscovery of the “original teaching,” which for him seems to be a mysterious, mystical truth that lies deep within the human concsiousness beyond the reach of words and intellect (which makes one wonder why he bothers writing his books).

In this same vein of Gnostic thinking, Deepak Chopra, the well-known Indian medical doctor and purveyor of Eastern mysticism, recently published a book entitled Jesus. Chopra admits that the Jesus of his book cannot be found in the Bible. Where did he get his Jesus? He says that he researched the cultural, political, and religious contexts of Jesus’ time. “Then I went into incubation, meditation, and I allowed this story to unfold.” Another Gnostic Jesus!

In a similar fashion, a Gnostic Jesus can emerge with Christian mystics who prefer the spiritual Jesus they encounter in a mystical state of contemplative prayer to the Jesus that is revealed in Scritpure. Indeed, in this post-modern world where every person’s experience is truth for them, it is easy for visions of Jesus to emerge that are divorced from truth and reality, often the product of someone’s over-active imagination.

The Only Reliable Revelation of Jesus
The only reliable revelation of Jesus is the one found in Scripture, and every other revelation must be subjected to this one. Jesus Himself clearly taught this to His disciples. For example, Luke 24:13-32 records the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to two of His disciples as they walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The two disciples did not recognize Jesus in His resurrected body and they shared with Him their sadness and disillusionment because the One they thought was the Messiah had just been crucified in Jerusalem.
Jesus responded by saying, Oh foolish ones and slow of hear to believe in all that the Prophets have spoken. The Jews of Jesus’ day referred to their Scriptures in various ways: “The Law and the Prophets,” “Moses and the Prophets,” and sometimes by simply, “the Prophets.” The reference here to the Prophets is a reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. In other words, Jesus tells them that the reason they are so disillusioned about what has just happened can be traced to the fact that they do not adequately know the Christ/Messiah of Scripture.

Luke then says, And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:25-27). In other words, during this approximate two hour walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus Jesus spent the entire time taking these two disciples from Genesis to Malachi, showing them the Christ (Himself) in every book of the Old Testament.

Think of what He could have shared with them, but did not. He had just come out of the tomb where He had experienced the greatest demonstration of God’s power ever known. He had seen Satan’s grip on humanity broken. He had seen mighty angels at work rolling away the stone. But during this approximate two-hour walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, He mentioned none of these things. Instead, He gave priority to going through the Scriptures, making sure that they knew the Christ of Scripture. For Jesus, the most important revelation the disciples could have of Him was the revelation from Scripture.
Paul’s Modus Operandi
Although Paul, at the time of his conversion, had a supernatural encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he too knew that the ultimate revelation of Jesus is the one in Scripture. In describing Paul’s ministry in the synagogue in Thessalonica, Luke says,
Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:3-4).
Notice that “reasoning from the Scriptures” about the true identity of Jesus was Paul’s "custom," i.e., the normal way in which he carried out his ministry. In Thessalonica, Paul met with much opposition to his message of the Jesus of Scripture, but the problem was not with the message but with the hearts of the hearers.

From Thessalonica Paul and Silas traveled to Berea where they met a more fair-minded response than they had found in Thessalonica. Luke says, in Acts 17:11, that the Bereans, Received the word with all readiness and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether those things were so. Notice that the determining factor in the Bereans decision was not how well Paul and Silas preached, or whether they felt goose bumps, or whether they saw miracles. The Holy Spirit commended the Bereans because they used Scripture as the final standard in judging the message of Paul and Silas.
Paul later traveled to Ephesus and, using this same approach of presenting Christ from the Scriptures, saw such a move of God that the economy of the city, which was based on idolatry, began to collapse. Luke sums up the success of his ministry in Ephesus by saying, So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed (Acts 19:20). Paul discovered that the real power is in preaching the Christ of Scripture.

Although Paul had many supernatural experiences of God's power and at least two supernatural encounters with Christ, except for the rare occasion, he avoids mentioning these in his letters. We only know of them because Luke included them in his historical account of early Christianity. For Paul, the revelation of Jesus in Scripture was what mattered and he discovered that God works powerfully when the Christ of Scripture is boldly proclaimed. Hopefully, the Church today will rediscover this same truth.
Martin Luther’s Vision of “Another Jesus”
Martin Luther found the revelation of Christ in Scripture to be the only protection against being led astray by a mystical, Gnostic Jesus. For example, while in intense prayer one day, he suddenly saw a shining vision on the wall of Jesus, with the wounds of His passion, looking down upon him. Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk, at first thought it was a heavenly vision, but changed his mind when he noted that the person in the vision was not compatible with the Christ he knew from Scripture. He said,
"Therefore I spoke to the vision thus: 'Begone you, confounded devil. I know no other Christ than He who was crucified, and who in His Word is presented unto me.' Whereupon the image vanished, clearly demonstrating from whom it came.'"
Conclusion
I grew up in a Pentecostal church that valued personal encounters with the Holy Spirit and, through the years, have grown in my appreciation for the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the lives of others. However, when it comes to the all-important task of knowing the real Jesus, we cannot rely on personal experiences or esoteric visions. We must be firmly grounded in the Christ of Scripture. Only by acquainting ourselves with the real Jesus of the Bible will we avoid being led astray by the many Gnostic/false christs that Jesus Himself said would appear in the last days.
For false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. (Matt. 24:4,5,24).