FROM THE BEGINNING (Part 3)

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. [1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NLT)]

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.  [Philippians 2:6-7 (NLT)]

oxeye daisyStarting with the Judaizers who believed that Gentiles first had to be circumcised and conform to Mosaic Law in order to be saved, the early church faced controversy within its ranks. Without a creed, they were challenged with distinguishing between true and false doctrines. Although not written by the Apostles, an early version of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed was probably in use by the last half of the second century. Created to instruct converts and prepare them for baptism, because it didn’t clearly state the nature of Jesus’ divinity or define the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, doctrinal controversy continued. Along with Gnosticism’s rejection of the incarnation and Marcion’s redefinition of God, there were the Ebionites’ denial of Christ’s divinity, the Arians’ belief that Jesus was neither divine nor eternal, and the Modalists who collapsed the persons of the Trinity into a single person with three types of activity. Rather than destroy the early church, however, these various isms actually did it a favor by forcing it to solidify Christianity’s doctrines.

In an attempt to unify the Christian church with one doctrine, Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325. Over 900 leaders from throughout the Roman Empire gathered to discuss Arianism and its belief that while Jesus was similar to God, rather than being divine, He was a created being. Although the Creed of Nicea resulted, controversy still reigned and it took a second ecumenical council in 381 before the Church clearly defined the Trinity—that God is three distinct persons in one perfectly unified being. The Nicene Creed, the standard of belief for most Christian churches, was the result of the meeting.

That creed, however, did not come out of thin air. The bishops and delegates spent weeks poring over Scripture. Paul’s epistles, written between 50 and 60 AD, contain several hymns and creeds. Although he wrote in Greek, these hymns and creeds use features of Hebrew poetry and thought and their syntax is decidedly Aramaic which leads scholars to believe they date from as early as 33 to 48 AD. Paul specifically wrote that he was passing along what was passed on to him—most likely from the original Apostles and Jesus Himself. A common theme of these early writings is the death, resurrection, and the deity of Jesus. Contrary to the claim often made by skeptics that the story of Jesus was a legend that arose decades after the man’s death, the belief in a miracle-working, fully divine and fully human Jesus, who died and rose from the dead, was present from the time of His disciples—the very ones who touched, walked, talked, and ate with Him, both before His crucifixion and after His resurrection.

Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am?” [Matthew 16:15] With its summary of the Gospel in a few sentences, the Nicene Creed enables us to answer that question both succinctly and accurately.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. [Colossians 1:15-18 (NLT)]

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith: Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)]

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HERESIES – Polycarp (Part 2)

So, then, just as you received King Jesus the Lord, you must continue your journey in him. You must put down healthy roots in him, being built up brick by brick in him, and established strongly in the faith, just as you were taught, with overflowing thankfulness. [Colossians 2:6 (NTE)]

cross in ZermattAlthough many Christian writings refer to Polycarp, only one of his letters remains. Written to the church at Philippi sometime before 150 AD. Polycarp addressed the behavior of a greedy bishop named Valens, explained that true righteousness sprang from true belief, and warned against false teachings. Containing 12 quotes from the Old Testament and 100 quotes or paraphrases from the New, this epistle has been described as a “mosaic of quotations” from the Bible. Using language from what now are known as the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and 1 and 3 John, his letter is testimony both to the existence of these texts by mid-2nd century and that the early church already believed them to be inspired Scripture.

In his letter, Polycarp addressed the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism that had found their way into the early church. Probably a greater threat to the early church than persecution, Gnosticism was a combination of religion and philosophy taken from Babylonian beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and assorted cults, along with the philosophies of Greeks like Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. In a nutshell, early Gnostics believed in dual realities — essence/spirit/light (considered good) and material/body/dark (considered evil) — much like the Chinese yin and yang. They also believed in the secret knowledge or gnosis of salvation. Of course, such a philosophy can’t really be put in a nutshell. Polycarp’s student Irenaeus (who later became bishop of Lyons) said this about Gnostics, “Since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views.” According to Gnosticism, since God is a spirit (which is good) and the world is made of matter (which is evil), the world couldn’t have been created by a good God; rather, it was created by a lesser deity named Demiurge. Believing flesh evil, they rejected the incarnation; rather than Christ coming as flesh, Gnostics believed He took possession of the man Jesus’ body at his baptism and departed his body before the crucifixion. Believing salvation came through secret knowledge to a select few contradicted Christianity’s promise of salvation to all by grace through faith.

Marcion (85-160 AD) was an influential Gnostic who tried to create a “new brand” of Christianity (Marcionism). In a nutshell, Marcionism redefined God. Rejecting Old Testament teachings, Marcion claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the same deity as the God of the New, Jesus was the son only of the New Testament God, and the prophecies of the Old Testament predicted a yet-to-come earthly messiah for the Jews. Marcion discarded the entire Old Testament and, believing the Apostles misunderstood Jesus, cut the New Testament down to heavily edited versions of Luke’s gospel and just ten of Paul’s letters.

In his letter, Polycarp warned the Philippians that “whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.” May we do the same!

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. [Augustine]

Watch out that nobody uses philosophy and hollow trickery to take you captive! These are in line with human tradition, and with the ‘elements of the world’ – not the king. In him, you see, all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence. What’s more, you are fulfilled in him, since he’s the head of all rule and authority. [Colossians 2:8-10 (NTE)]

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IN THE FIRE – Polycarp (Part 1)

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. [Isaiah 43:1-2 (ESV)]

athabasca falls - canadaHaving refused to bow down and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego bravely stood before the king. Even when offered a second opportunity to save themselves from incineration in the blazing furnace, the young men were confident the Lord they loved more than life itself would save them. “But, even if he doesn’t,” they added in what are some of the most heroic words in Scripture, “We will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.” Furious at their refusal, the king had them tied up and tossed like logs into the fiery furnace—a fire so hot that the soldiers who threw the men into the furnace were killed. The men’s faith was well-founded; in spite of their bindings, they could be seen walking about freely in the flames (with an angel of the Lord) and the three emerged unscathed from the inferno.

Because they wouldn’t worship the emperor, Christians were considered disloyal to Rome. Moreover, Romans feared that the Christians’ refusal to make sacrifices to their various gods would cause disaster to fall upon the nation. Hated by the Romans, Christianity was considered an “illegal superstition” until 313 AD. Polycarp (ca. 69-155 AD), who was said to have been taught by the Apostle John, was appointed by some of the original apostles as bishop of Smyrna. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the bishop was arrested and faced a choice between God and incineration.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman Proconsul offered his prisoner a second chance and promised to set Polycarp free if he would curse Christ, declare Caesar as Lord, and offer a bit of incense to Caesar’s statue. Even though Polycarp knew his refusal to deny Jesus meant he’d be burned at the stake, he said, “86 years have I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” When the soldiers prepared to nail him to the stake, the old man stopped them by saying, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Did the bishop think he might escape death as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? If so, he was seriously mistaken. Unlike them, he died a martyr’s death.

In the first story, three men walked out of a furnace untouched by fire and, in the second, an equally righteous man, died at the stake. Nevertheless, both stories illustrate faith—people’s faith in God and God’s faithfulness to His people and both stories are a call for all of God’s people to be faithful witnesses to Him. All four men clearly exhibited their faith in God by refusing to bow down to anything or anyone but God and all four men are examples of being faithful witnesses to God. Obviously, in the case of the fiery furnace, God showed his faith in His people with the men’s supernatural escape from death; even Nebuchadnezzar recognized that God’s angel had rescued the men. But, since no angel saved Polycarp from the flames, how can his story demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his people?

God showed his faith in His people more than a century earlier when He offered His one and only son so that all who believed in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. Polycarp knew God already had demonstrated His love and faith through Jesus; whether he lived or died, Polycarp knew there was nothing to fear. “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly,” warned the bishop before courageously adding, “Bring on whatever you want.” Could we do the same?

You can kill us, but you cannot harm us. [Justin Martyr]

And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28 (NLT)]

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LOOK FOR IT!

Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God. [1 Timothy 1:19-20 (NLT)]

mimosa1 Timothy doesn’t tell us much about Hymenaeus or Alexander—the men whose faith was shipwrecked. From Paul’s other references to the men, we do know that Hymenaeus denied the doctrine of the resurrection and that Alexander did “much harm” to Paul, but we don’t know the details. Whatever these men said or did, by accusing them of blasphemy and handing them “over to Satan,” Paul seemed to be excommunicating them from the church.

In theological terms, Paul was writing about apostasy, coming from the Greek apostanai meaning “to stand away.” When someone commits apostasy or becomes apostate, they renounce or abandon their faith in Christ. Like Hymenaeus and Alexander, believers can lose their way and even fall. After all, Peter denied Jesus three times and Thomas had his moments of doubt. Every fall, however, doesn’t mean apostasy. Unlike Hymenaeus and Alexander, Peter and Thomas never fell beyond the point of no return. When Peter repented and Thomas’ doubts were assuaged, their relationship with Jesus was fully restored. But, what of those who don’t repent or whose doubt turns to unbelief? Is it possible to lose our faith?

Recently, my husband lost his wedding ring. As soon as he noticed his empty finger, we revisited every place he’d been and searched high and low in every store and parking lot. At home, we sifted through our waste baskets, carefully inspected the car, looked in every nook and cranny in house and garage, and even checked the garbage disposal. There’s not a spot we haven’t examined and more than one prayer was said but, alas, the ring has disappeared. My husband feels awful about the loss but I reminded him that it’s just a piece of metal that can be replaced. Although it symbolized our marriage, he didn’t lose that; we still have what’s important—each other. Be that as it may, I admit searching for it again today!

If we’re willing to turn our house upside down, rifle through the trash can, and drive all over town in search of a ring, I don’t understand the person whose excuse for no longer attending church is that he simply lost his faith. “Go look for it!” is my response. “Where were you when you last had it? Go back there and start looking!” I’d suggest starting in church, the Bible, in prayer with God, and in conversation with mature Christians. Unlike a wedding ring, which is a mere symbol of a relationship (and a replaceable one at that), faith in Jesus is an irreplaceable relationship.

At one time or another, we all will have crises of faith. There will be times we are overwhelmed with troubling questions about things like evil, pain, and suffering; the world of the Old Testament; or the truth of Scripture. There certainly are times we’re disappointed in God and want to know “why?” Like Thomas, it’s only normal to have doubts but doubt is not disbelief. The real issue isn’t doubt, it’s what we do with that doubt. Do we call out to God and seek the answers to our questions or do we simply give up and say we’ve lost our faith?

Scripture seems to make the case that once we’re saved (by God’s grace through our faith), we remain saved—we can’t lose our salvation. When people claim to have lost their faith, I wonder if they ever truly had it—whether they were true believers in the first place. After all, calling oneself a Ford and sitting in the garage doesn’t make you a car any more than calling oneself a Christian and sitting in a pew on Sundays makes you a believer! I can’t know if a person who’s “lost” his faith is an apostate like Hymenaeus and Alexander, is having a crisis of faith, or if he ever truly had faith. I can’t see into a person’s soul and only God truly knows the status of anyone’s salvation. What I do know is that God isn’t playing hide-and-seek; unlike my husband’s ring, He’s right in front of us and waiting to be found! Let us never stop seeking Him!

Faith is not the complete absence of doubts. Faith is trusting even in the presence of doubt – even when I don’t understand. [Chris Goswami]

“If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

The Lord says, “I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help. I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.” [Isaiah 65:1a (NLT)]

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RICH BEYOND BELIEF

wild geraniumYou know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)]

Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:9-11 (NLT)]

Psst! I’m rich but, please, don’t report me to the IRS. If you tell them, they’ll want their ever-increasing percentage and it’s simply nor theirs to take. The riches I have won’t pay politicians’ salaries, build highways, or purchase helicopters. My true wealth has nothing to do with bank balances, investment strategies, crypto-currency, or real estate holdings. It can’t be held in a bank or brokerage account nor can it be spent at Saks or on Amazon. Better yet, my riches are never-ending; I simply can’t run out of them!

I have a sense of peace that far surpasses anything one gets from having enormous assets at Fidelity or Charles Schwab. I have a joy far greater than one could ever get from being listed as one of Forbes magazine’s richest people. I have a better future than someone possessing a hefty IRA or annuity fund. I am loved better and forgiven more than the richest person could be by his ever-hopeful heirs. Indeed, I am blessed beyond belief.

You see, I’m enjoying the riches that come from a relationship with God. Moreover, I don’t have to concern myself with the Dow Jones average, fret about P/E ratios, read Barron’s or The Economist, or worry about capital gains or volatile markets. All I have to do is realize my need for God, admit my sinfulness, and receive Jesus Christ as my Savior.

My faith isn’t in the dollar, Bitcoin, or yen; my faith is in the Lord. Rather than regularly calling my broker, I keep in touch with God through daily prayer. Instead of poring over The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, I regularly read God’s word. Rather than listening to and following my financial advisor’s advice, I listen to (and obey) the voice of the Holy Spirit. Instead of having servants, however, I am expected to serve, but it is a small price to pay. If I do all of that, not only will I maintain the riches I already have, but my riches will continue to increase (and all with no tax consequences)!

Want to be rich? Count your blessings! [sign in front of a local church]

It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has. [Henry Ward Beecher]

The blessing of the Lord makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. [Proverbs 10:22 (NLT)]

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

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BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL (THE GOOD SAMARITAN – Part 3)

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. [Proverbs 25:21 (NLT)]

rabbit foot cloverWhen the ten northern tribes refused to submit to Rehoboam, they revolted and, by 930 BC, there were two political states: Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern one. Both kingdoms suffered from inept, disobedient, and often corrupt leadership but Judah’s king Ahaz (743-728 BC) was one of weakest and most corrupt of all the southern kingdom’s leaders. Because of his apostasy (which included sacrificing some of his sons to Baal), the Lord allowed Judah’s defeat at the hands of Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel). By the end of the battle, Ahaz lost a son and two of his close advisors and Judah lost 120,000 seasoned warriors. The Arameans took captives to Damascus and Israel’s warriors returned to Samaria with a huge amount of plunder and 200,000 captured women and children they intended to enslave (in spite of its prohibition in Leviticus 25:39-43).

As Israel’s victorious army returned to Samaria with their captives and plunder, they were met by a prophet named Oded. Protesting Israel’s brutal treatment of Judah, Oded told them that it was God who permitted them to wage war and defeat Judah but that Israel went too far in their merciless massacre and their plan to enslave their Judean brethren. After asking, “What about your own sins against the Lord?” the prophet warned that that God’s anger had been turned toward Israel and urged the soldiers to return their prisoners to Judah.

God had allowed Judah’s defeat but, in their rage and frenzy, Israel’s army went too far. Merciless in their slaughter, they’d stepped out of God’s will and Oded told them their rage had disturbed heaven. Perhaps they’d slain men who had surrendered, raped women, burned the crops, or massacred innocent children. We don’t know for sure but we do know that, by the time they reached Samaria, some of their captives were naked and without footwear. Whatever they’d done was beyond what was necessary for a battle victory. This story is often cited by those advocating the Just War Theory—a philosophy that sets forth the conditions required for justly going to war and for the right conduct in a war, one of which is the prohibition of using unnecessary force to attain the objective.

We know nothing about Oded and this is the only mention of him in Scripture and yet, in a rare Old Testament occurrence, people actually listened and took a prophet’s message to heart. Agreeing with Oded, four of Israel’s leaders confronted the returning warriors. Warning them that they couldn’t afford to add to their guilt, they told the soldiers to release their captives. That they willingly gave up the spoils of war tells us they knew their vicious behavior had been reprehensible. Their plunder and prisoners were handed over to the four leaders who then provided them with clothing, sandals, food and drink and applied balm and oil to their wounds. After putting the weak and injured on donkeys, they returned their Judean captives safely to Jericho.

Through the years, both Israel and Judah were guilty of wronging one another but, in this amazing act of mercy, Israel tried to right one terrible wrong. Perhaps it was Oded’s reminder that the captives were their brethren. All descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at one time, they’d been twelve brothers! How had they fallen so low as to think of enslaving members of their own family?

While this story is not well known to 21st century Christians, it probably was familiar to Jesus’ listeners when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan—the Judean who was mercilessly attacked and the Samaritan who dressed his wounds with oil and wine, provided him with clothing, put him on a donkey, took him to an inn, and provided for his food, drink, and care. Was Jesus’ story a not-so-subtle reminder that, in spite of all that had transpired between the two territories, the Samaritans weren’t just their neighbors—they were their brethren? Was this a reminder that it’s never too late to right a wrong?

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. … God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. [Matthew 5:7,9 (NLT)]

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