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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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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INCLUSIVE IN AN EXCLUSIVE WAY

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

Since no man is excluded from calling upon God the gate of salvation is open to all. There is nothing else to hinder us from entering, but our own unbelief. [John Calvin]

hibiscusGod’s plan for salvation was all inclusive; He made that clear in Genesis when He said that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. In announcing Jesus’ birth, the angels said it was good news for all nations. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, it became clear that He came not just for the Jews but for all people. Jesus invited all who were weary and heavy-laden, not just a select few. He healed the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter and ministered in Samaria and the Gentile city of Gerasenes. In what is called the “great commission,” Jesus instructed his disciples to spread the good news to all the nations. The Gospel’s message of salvation is offered to both Gentile and Jew, women and men, slave and slave holder, the destitute and rich, the merchant and beggar, the tradesperson and day laborer, the able and infirm, the demon-possessed and rational, and both the upright and those with sullied pasts. No one is turned away when they repent and come to Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Indeed, the Christian church is all-inclusive in its love for mankind and its invitation to all the people of the world.

We are, indeed, an eclectic group of people of different backgrounds, races, traditions, languages, and politics but, as inclusive as we are in our love and message, the followers of Christ have a shared creed that unites us into an exclusive group. Christians are diverse and inclusive but Christianity is not.

While we may find wisdom and inspiration in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha’s words in the Dhammapada, the Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te-Ching, and even in the rabbis’ discourse in the Talmud, we know those texts are not sacred and the words in them are man’s, not God’s. Christianity doesn’t allow for a mingling of faith in other philosophies or gods.

We don’t get to pick and choose from a variety of beliefs as if we were at a smorgasbord. We can’t start with Jesus and add a bit of reincarnation, dollop on some karma, sprinkle on one’s own spiritual authority, ladle on a bit of astrology, add a side of Zen, and then top it off with some channeling. If it’s not in the Bible, it doesn’t get put on our plates! Our God is a jealous God and he won’t share His position or Word with anything or anyone. Jesus made it clear that he was not one of the ways but, rather, the only way to salvation.

It’s been said that all roads lead to Rome, meaning that there are many different ways to accomplish the same goal. While that may be true when it comes to such things as cooking, painting, gardening, and possibly even getting to Rome, it’s not true with salvation. Let’s never make the mistake of thinking that all roads lead to heaven!

Jesus is not one of many ways to approach God, nor is he the best of several ways; he is the only way. [A.W. Tozer]

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6 (NLT)]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:16-18 (NLT)]

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CAGE FIGHTING

It is true that I am an ordinary, weak human being, but I don’t use human plans and methods to win my battles. I use God’s mighty weapons, not those made by men, to knock down the devil’s strongholds. These weapons can break down every proud argument against God and every wall that can be built to keep men from finding him. [2 Corinthians 10:3-5a (TLB)]

great blue heronIn his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blessed the meek, so I doubt He would have been a fan of mixed martial arts. Nevertheless, several years ago, our mountain church did a sermon series titled “Cage Fighting” and a large cage of chain-link fencing was placed in the front of the church to represent Satan’s strongholds. Instead of allowing Satan to keep us locked in his cage, the sermon series was about fighting our way out of it. Thinking about the viciousness and brutality of cage fighting, I recalled C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the second book in his space trilogy—a book in which good and evil actually come to blows as brutal as those in a cage fight.

In Lewis’ book, the young planet of Perelandra has been untouched by sin and death, just as our world once was. When Ransom arrives there, he meets the innocent Tinidril, the Eve figure of her world. Having no knowledge of good or evil because everything on Perelandra is good, she enjoys a friendly relationship with Maleldil (God) as did Adam and Eve before the fall. Rather than a serpent, it is the demonic Professor Weston who tries to tempt the ingenuous Tinidril into defying Maleldil’s one prohibition. Weston uses all sorts of brilliant yet convoluted arguments to seduce the innocent woman into disobedience. He even suggests that her rebellion actually would please God by demonstrating her strength and independence. Out-argued and out-maneuvered by the devious Weston, Ransom despairs of preserving the innocence of the planet. He knows that Weston’s success would mean a tragic end to the Eden of Perelandra.

When Maleldil tells Ransom to physically fight Weston, the man spends the night in debate before reluctantly attacking the enemy bare-handed. A fight without referee, rounds, time limit, or rules, this is a no-holds-barred battle to the bitter end. Although Ransom eventually succeeds, Lewis’ next book in the trilogy reminds us that evil never stops trying to overpower good.

When I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians, I remember Lewis’ story along with that cage in the middle of our church. They remind me that Satan doesn’t abide by the Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules. Like Weston, he fights dirty and takes unfair advantage when his opponent is unprotected or exhausted (as he did when Jesus was in the wilderness). A blatant but skillful liar, our devious enemy often adds a bit of truth to his lies and then twists it to his advantage. Moreover, Satan, like any accomplished fighter, tries to trick us into making foolish mistakes or underestimating him. He lulls us into lowering our guard or taking the easy punch so he can knock us down with a left jab we don’t see coming.

The apostle Paul tells us to wear the armor of God when battling Satan. Truth, righteousness, the peace of God, faith, and salvation are the defensive weapons that help block Satan’s jabs of temptation, sin, shame, guilt, doubt, fear, anger, and unforgiveness. But, as Ransom learned in his battle against evil, the best defense is an offense. Fighting the powers of Satan is like hand-to-hand combat but, rather than fists, we use a sword: the word of God! Unlike Ransom, we must never hesitate to do battle with the forces of evil. With the power of His Holy Spirit and wielding the sword of His Word, we can fight our way out of the enemy’s stronghold.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. [Ephesians 6:13-17 (NLT)]

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TRULY FREE – INDEPENDENCE DAY 2021

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered, “We are Abraham’s children, and we have never been anyone’s slaves. So why do you say we will be free?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, everyone who lives in sin is a slave to sin. A slave does not stay with a family forever, but a son belongs to the family forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be truly free” [John 8:32-36 (NCV)]

paradeWhile the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking were thinking of political freedom and enslavement to people, Jesus was speaking of spiritual freedom and the enslavement of people to sin. Yet, even then, the Jews were wrong. They’d forgotten about being Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; being captives of the Moabites, Canaanites, Philistines, Midianites, Mesopotamians, and Ammonites during the time of the Judges; their Babylonian exile; Persian rule; Alexander the Great; the Ptolemies and Seleucids; and Rome’s occupation of their homeland. They hadn’t had freedom from foreign domination for centuries. Jesus’ answer, however, made it clear that He was speaking of spiritual freedom. His listeners’ hope for spiritual freedom wouldn’t be found in their ancestry; it would be found in Him—He was the Son who could set them free.

This weekend we will observe our nation’s Independence Day and celebrate the many freedoms we enjoy in this nation. Families and friends will gather for various parades, picnics, band concerts, carnivals, chicken roasts, and fireworks. Let us not make the same mistake the people of Judah did by thinking of ourselves as free when we’re not! While we may live in a nation of freedom, without Christ, we will never truly be free men or women. We won’t be free because, no matter where we live, we still will be slaves to sin.

As thankful as I am for the patriots who made this great nation a reality, I am even more thankful for Jesus and his small crew of apostles who made it possible for us to live in true freedom! The Liberty Bell rang out for our nation’s freedom but the cross gave us our spiritual freedom—freedom from bondage to sin and the freedom to serve God.

As we enjoy the fireworks and patriotic music tonight, let’s remember to thank God both for the freedom we enjoy in our nation and, more important, for the freedom we enjoy in our hearts and souls.

We lift up our hearts, O God, on this day of celebration in gratitude for the gift of being Americans. We rejoice with all those who share in the great dream of freedom and dignity for all. With flags and feasting, with family and friends we salute those who have sacrificed that we might have the opportunity to bring to fulfillment our many God-given gifts. … Come, O gracious God, who led your children Israel from slavery, keep us free from all that might hold us in bondage. Bless our country and join our simple celebration that we may praise you, our Source of freedom, the One in whom we place our trust. [Father Edward Hays, “A Pilgrim’s Almanac”]

The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Corinthians 3:17 (NCV)]

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his very own. [Psalm 33:12 (NCV)]

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