Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

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Jesus may have said his yoke is easy, but it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the conservative Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman.

Mennonites are not the only ones that demand conformity to a list of cultural expectations. Fundamentalist sects all have their fundamentals, their own special set of rules, cultural expectations, or doctrinal essentials that they use as tests for membership.

For example, a very sincere and sweet Christian friend of mine was asked about her view of “Once Saved, Always Saved” theology. Her questioner, someone who believes in eternal security, did not like her answer and now counts her as lost. To them salvation depends on our ability to parrot a theological position, a work of the mind, and no nuances are allowed.

And these false dichotomies, based on personal opinion, exist at all levels. If your hermeneutic allows for some flexibility interpreting the creation narrative of Genesis, then Ken Ham (including his partner in self-promoting pseudo-scientific dogmatism, Bill Nye) will insist that you should be an agnostic.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:13‭,‬15)

Jesus confronts the religious elites, who had positioned themselves as the final arbiter of truth, and he rudely knocks them off their pedestal. He confronts them for shutting people out who might otherwise enter and says they make those few they do convert “twice the child of hell” as that they are. That is a shocking reproach for those who are diligently religious.

Missionary service is typically unquestioned and perhaps that is because many of us feel guilt for not doing enough ourselves? But missionaries get no free pass from Jesus; on the contrary, he rebukes them even more severely and describes them as being counterproductive. I hope, after considering that, it goes without saying that missionary service can be a false indication of sincere faith and love for God.

There are many reasons why a person might want to be a missionary other than pure love for God and other people. Traveling, in our day and age, is fun and many enjoy the adventure. There are also the duty-bound “do-gooder” religious types, motivated more by fear than love. But there is an even more insidious reason why a person may choose to be a missionary service, and that is the power over others it offers:

1) Power of peer respect: There is no question that being a missionary is considered honorable amongst religious people. It draws positive attention. Those who have served in a visible way are often given special praise and in my church it is almost a prerequisite to being ordained. It can become a basis for ranking members of the church into higher and lower tiers. When used that way, it goes directly against the admonition of Jesus to be a brotherhood of equals earlier in his sermon.

2) Power of material resources: I know missionaries who go out like Jesus sent his disciples (Mark 6:7-13) in the power of the Spirit and with little more the shirts on their backs. Unfortunately, we do not embody that kind of faith anymore. Our missionaries rely on the power of their own calculations and often with enough resources to live comfortably beyond the reach of the people they are trying to evangelize. This can create a situation where people serve the missionaries’ whims for no reason other than attaining access to their resources. Being treated as royalty can also be gratifying to those who hold this power.

3) Power to be a religious gatekeeper: Everyone, including the religious elites condemned by Jesus, believes they are right, and that sanctimonious feeling can be the basis to becoming an evangelist. Recently a friend shared the testimony of Megan Phelps-Roper who was raised in Westboro Baptist Church and joined in their protests as a child. It was through conversation with the “other side” that she realized her spirit was wrong and repented.

Unfortunately, there are many who never do get knocked off their pedestal, never do humble themselves in the light of God’s grace, and do damage to the cause of Christ. They position themselves as the final arbiters of truth, as gatekeepers to the kingdom with the licence to shut people out, and the words of Jesus apply to them just as much as they did to the religious elites in the original audience.

Knowledge can become a barrier to truth when it leads to dead religion rather than following in faith.

We shut people off from the truth when we center our faith on our own religious “knowledge” rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. These “all or nothing,” black-and-white propositions are a distraction from the substance of Christian faith. Obsession on theological minutia causes confusion rather than bringing clarity, and our additional requirements take away from the simple truth of the Gospel message:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9‭-‬13)

We should remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they took issue with someone speaking in the power of Jesus name outside their exclusive club:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49‭-‬50)

It should be noted that in the verse just prior to this, the disciples were having an argument over who amongst them would be greatest. Jesus answers them by bringing a child beside him and declaring that whoever would be most welcoming to that child in his name would be greatest. I’m guessing that child wasn’t 100% theologically correct.

We should serve others in truth of self-sacrificial love and in humility rather than in superiority of knowledge.

There are many who go out in the strength of their own knowledge. They never do comprehend the significance of God’s grace, and are blind though they think they see:

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1b‭-‬3)

Some say it is the thought that counts.

It is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But before we say or think too much, we should take heed of what Jesus said and consider it a warning against an idea that our salvation comes from our religious diligence or right ideas. Instead we must be an example of the grace shown to us while we were yet dead in our sins.

We need to hold the door open for those wishing to enter and lower the threshold, rather than trip them up with our own pet doctrines.

We are not called to be gatekeeper; instead, we are called to serve in love and humility.

Let’s let God be the final arbiter of truth.

The Most Dangerous Book in Existence

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Books are powerful and there is little doubt of that. Their words carry ideas far beyond those who wrote them. The power of books is widely recognized and that is why they are written; that is why books are removed as a potential threat. Books have undoubtedly had a huge influence on the course of history.

Books carry both good and bad messages. Books have popularized ideas that have led to hate and harm of people. If one were to list the most dangerous books in history there are many titles that might come to mind. Books such as Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Communist Manifesto can be linked to political purges, religious persecutions and genocide. With each title one could discuss the human causalities related to each and try to rank them.

However, there is one book that perhaps is more dangerous (especially spiritually) than all of those titles combined and that is the book this blog is about. It is a book so powerful that it has been used to create sectarian division within the very group it was written to inform. Knowledge of this book has historically caused some religious experts to reject as a false teacher that others believe it was written about. It is a favorite source of ridicule of those skeptical of the truthfulness of the ideas it contains. This is a book that was used as a means to tempt Jesus. This one book is actually a combination of books that were compiled into the single book which is now called The Holy Bible.

The Bible is arguably one of the most influential books in all of human history. The Bible carries both great potential for good in the right hands and also a terrible power for evil used wrongly. It has inspired some to great acts of self-sacrificial love. It has been used by others as justification for violence. The power and potential of the Bible is in the hands of the interpreter.

Biblical reformation, the division in the church and the interpretation question

Biblical fundamentalism is branch of Christianity that has become popular since the Protestant Reformation. It is a belief system made possible with the invention of the printing press and widespread availability of Biblical texts to the general public. This wresting of control of the church from the institutional church and new emphasis on a written text was a significant development in church history; it seemed necessary at that time as a reaction to the abuses of the institution of church.

Unfortunately, as reactions often do, the resultant bibliocentrism has also created a great deal of other problems. The biggest of those problems is the all too obvious explosion of sectarian divisions within the church. The confusion is evidenced in the reality of the over 30,000 separate church denominations in existence today. The widespread availability of the Bible has clearly not created church unity. It has rather clearly created the opposite and a spirit of division.

Those of the Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) view cannot agree on how Scripture should interpreted and let alone how it should be applied. Those who believe the Bible is sufficient alone put the interpretation of their own group and own personal interpretation above all others, each believing they are more correct than the others. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

Bible based faith produces results that are wildly different from person to person. I know a guy who believes sincerely that the Bible teaches that Christians should basically be like ISIS and should either remove (kill) unbelievers entirely, subjugate them or enslave them and he has many proof texts to support his position. I know of many others who believe that the Bible teaches pacifism, endorses state socialism or forced wealth redistribution and they too can produce many supporting texts. I know some who based in their own understanding of the Bible believe Jesus was not God.

We could go through Scripture with a variety of people and get completely contradictory perspectives on what it actually says in many significant areas. On the basis of a few snippets of text, on a specific definition of a word or two and on the base assumptions they brought into their reading people have built whole doctrines. Different hermeneutic (or interpretive) approaches produce greatly different theologies that are contradictory in their extremes. The Bible is a great source of confusion.

People in the church cannot even agree on an appropriate translation of Scripture. Some will insist an earlier Old English translation of the Bible is more accurate than others and can give complex rationals in support of their position. Some even teach the one version they believe in is the only acceptable ‘inspired’ version. Varying degrees of literalism have led to many disputes within the church. Some believe the Bible teaches that the world is flat based in their dogmatic literalism. Others see more figurative speech, more allegories and metaphors.

Whole doctrines built off of words or phrases that aren’t clearly understood and yet are assumed to be understood in ignorance. The Bible, according to 2 Peter 3:15-16, describes concepts that are difficult to understand and words which can be misused in ignorance:

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”

In the hands of “ignorant and unstable people” the Bible is potentially destructive. I believe we do not need to look far into history to find many examples of where this has been the case. If you do not know examples, then I will present the Münster Rebellion and the Bible-based predictions of Harold Camping as examples of Biblical application gone badly.

So, to my friends of Christian faith: Be humble, be diligent and do not ever believe your own knowledge of Scripture is without potential error. Faith cannot be in reading the Bible alone, there must be source greater than the Scripture that guides us spiritually and that is where the Spirit of God comes in.

Biblical literalism, the rejection of Jesus and the Elijah Question

Error is not a new problem with those attempting to interpret the written text of Scripture for themselves. Jesus himself was rejected on the basis of the Scriptural interpretation of those who knew the bulk of the book (we call Bible) better than most of us probably ever will or can hope to so many years removed from the culture and people it was written to. The Pharisees knew their Bibles well and also knew what it said about the Messiah.

Based in Malachi 4:5-6 there was an expectation that Elijah would return before the Messiah. According to Jesus the prophet John the Baptist was Elijah and he is recorded having said that in Matthew 11:13-14:

“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

However, the experts on Scripture, who rejected Jesus, were evidently looking for some more literal. Perhaps they were envisioning Elijah returning in a spectacular way and hoped for a kingdom of physical world importance, who knows? But the answer Jesus gave did not satisfy them.

It is interesting that even John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah when questioned in John 1:19-21:

“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”

So, should we take John’s own words recorded in Scripture at face value? Should we believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:13-14 that contradict them? This is a serious problem for a literalist. This irreconcilability of message can easily explain the angst of those looking for a literal fulfillment of Malachi. Considering that John the Baptist himself would not claim to be Elijah probably caused some of the critics of Jesus to be even more secure in their own understanding of Scripture.

Luke 1:13-17, however, offers us this view of John the Baptist:

“But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

What Luke suggests is a literal return of Elijah, but not a literal physical return of Elijah and a spiritual fulfillment instead. John the Baptist was a return of Elijah, in that he embodied the “spirit and power” of the prophet, and yet he was not literally Elijah in physical form. To reconcile John 1:19-21 with Matthew 11:13-14, we can probably assume that John the Baptist was being humble in his answers, not even claiming to be a prophet, and that Jesus was exalting him as he should have been.

But, those who rejected John the Baptist as Elijah also rejected Jesus as Messiah and their knowledge of Scripture did not save them as they apparently believed it would. In John 5:30-40 this type of misplaced faith in Scripture is confronted by Jesus:

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

For those who believe that the Scripture is God’s own voice, I think they need to take heed of what is written above and understand what Jesus is trying to explain. The people Jesus spoke to were experts on Scripture, they were extremely knowledgeable of the books of the Bible they had and put faith in their knowledge of the text like many religious people do today.

Unfortunately, what their knowledge of the book could not give them is true faith that can only come from the Spirit of God. The passage above in some translations tells us that they “searched diligently” the Scripture and yet before that tells us they have never heard from God or had “his word” in them. This passage flies directly in the face of those who think the written words of Scripture are themselves the word of God.

Biblical temptation of Jesus and the authority question

I’ve had Christian friends post on social media a message similar to this:

“When you carry the Bible, Satan gets a headache. When you open it, he collapses. When he sees you reading it, he faints. When he sees you living it, he flees. And just when you’re about to re-post this, he’ll try to discourage you. I JUST DEFEATED HIM! Copy and re-post if you can. Any takers?”

I do appreciate the enthusiasm. But it is perplexing to me that a person who has read the Bible themselves can believe that. The account of the temptation of Christ should put that idea to rest. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all give an account of a conversation between Jesus and Satan that proves the exact opposite.

Satan is not afraid of Scripture. Satan cited Scripture and tried to use it to deceive Jesus. This is a version of that temptation in the Matthew 4:5-6:

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

That is a quote of Psalm 91:11-12 used by the devil to tempt Jesus!

We don’t actually defeat our spiritual enemy through our enthusiasm for the Bible. Evil is not afraid of the Bible. Evil men have long used the Bible to accomplish their own selfish ends and have deceived many using the book. It is not a book that will save us from temptation. It is not a book that will give us the right answers or knowledge to defeat those who attempt to deceive us. What we need is the same authority dwelling in us that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted in the first place. What we need is the word of God in us or the Spirit of God and then (and only then) Scripture will become profitable in our hands. We need the authority that gave authority to those who were inspired to write the Scripture.

It is a bit paradoxical that I am trying to explain this using Scripture what I do not believe Scripture alone can explain. But, it is because I believe those who are Biblically religious and yet truly spiritually seeking will understand through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Many simply give credit to the wrong source unknowingly. They allow the true authority to speak to them and still do not understand they are actually receiving their understanding through that authority. So, to them, those who are listening to the voice of Jesus in their heart even unknowingly, Paul gives us a solution to understanding Scripture in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16:

“Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

To understand God in Scripture you must have the ‘mind of God’ in you first. It is not enough just to have knowledge of Scripture. Even the best Biblical doctrines and theology all will fall short if they are practiced by a person not also under subjugation to the Spirit of God. The words of the Bible are not magical in themselves, the words themselves are dead and the interpreter is the one who gives them life. And, to give the words of the Bible the right life requires that one have the “mind of Christ” while reading them and not any other.

The Spirit of God is the ultimate authority, the ultimate teacher and is the one we should trust when we claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Stay tuned, this will likely be a multiple part series…