Last week I published an article on my teaching website entitled, “Is Your Religion Focused on Christ or the Church?” My bottom-line point was that if it is focused primarily on the church, becoming disillusioned, discouraged and critical is difficult to avoid. If it is focused on Christ and imitating him, you will have grace toward the church and its leaders and can serve as a constructive critic rather than a negative one. I didn’t advise saying nothing, to simply grin-and-bear wrong practices, although some took it that way. My main emphasis evidently left that impression with them.
On this past Sunday, I preached a sermon with the same title, although the content was not exactly the same. You can watch and/or listen to it on the DFW Northeast Facebook page or on You Tube if you want. I received some critiques on both the article and the sermon which were very beneficial to me. They were basically of two types: concerns about what was included and concerns about what wasn’t included. Regarding the former, I did revise a paragraph in the article. What I said and the tone it carried were not good and it needed changing. Some of the rest of it was edgy, but I still think it was appropriate for the intended purpose.
Regarding the latter, the critiques were about not saying more about faulty leadership, the church atmosphere created by it and the individuals hurt by it. Those giving the critiques agreed that no matter what happens, we still need to go the way of the cross in how we respond to being mistreated or encountering practices which we believe violate biblical principles. On the other hand, facing such treatment or atmospheres without becoming sinfully critical is understandably very challenging. I understand. I’m in that boat with you. Hence this article (and at least one more) in dealing with some of the specific concerns about faulty church leadership and what it creates. I use the term “faulty” because it can apply to ineffective leadership as well as sinful leadership and everything in-between.
Being able to identify worldly leadership can be a challenging task. We are introduced to leaders from birth – our parents. As we grow up, we see leaders of all types in roles of all types, and we develop views of leadership based on what we have seen and experienced. Thus, our view of leaders can produce very positive feelings or very negative ones. But whatever our views of leadership are when we come into the kingdom of God, those views are so deeply embedded that we can read what Jesus said about spiritual leadership and totally miss his meaning. Our worldly views are a part of our DNA and will remain so unless we get a lot of help to see what the New Testament is teaching about the topic.
When Wyndham Shaw and I wrote “Golden Rule Leadership” back in the early part of this century, we were trying to provide that help. Simply put, if we lead like we want to be led, that alone will enhance our leadership greatly. When we wrote the book, some leaders had children who were reaching high school or college ages and they now had ministry leaders with significant influence in their lives. Hence, I worded the Golden Rule of leadership in a slightly different way, namely, to lead others like you want your own children to be led. Trust me, some leaders who themselves had led campus students very forcefully at one time were now much more sensitized to how their own children were being led.
One thing Wyndham and I learned was that some leaders don’t do well with being critiqued. In our earlier days, many of the leaders with the most influence had pretty obvious pride problems. Tom Jones has said that the book he co-authored about pride and humility, “The Prideful Soul’s Guide to Humility,” was not read by a good number of leaders because buying the book would be an admission that they had the problem! He wished he had chosen a different title. I think he was right – about them and the resultant book readership.
I wrote the Introduction to Golden Rule, and the final part of it carried this heading: Warning! I went on to say this: “The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). Wow! That definitely set off some leaders, at which point I just smiled and said “Bingo!” Keeping pride in check is an ongoing challenge for all those who lead.
The Roots of the Problem
One root is what I have already said about our experiences in the world and the definition of leadership thus produced in our minds. It takes a lot of work (and time) to eradicate the worldly thinking in this and other areas with which we enter the kingdom. Another root of the problem in our movement was the military mindset in our singular leader in our early days as a family of churches and the military style he used and trained other leaders to use. In my later (and longer) book on church leadership, “Dynamic Leadership,” I address this part of our root system in detail. It led to a trail of woe, although in the short term, this leadership style can produce some pretty amazing results. They just cannot be sustained. Plus, people get hurt.
The prevailing leadership style of our early days hurt almost everyone in some way at some time. It was hard to avoid harshness with the military model as a foundation. I am hearing currently that some leaders are returning to these roots and again leading with a controlling style that includes harshness. This unspiritual quality sometimes shows itself in significant displays of anger, in spite of biblical warnings against “fits of rage” in the catalogue of sins in Galatians 5, as well as in other biblical passages. This is not just faulty leadership; it is sinful leadership.
I think all of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, are tempted with anger now more than ever, simply because of the pandemic atmosphere tensions under which we are living. The old illustration about a man having a really bad day at the office coming home to kick his dog and yell at his family finds many applications in our current hurting world. I have had my challenges with that, although it is usually not directed toward fellow disciples. But then I am not in a leadership role now at my age, so the temptation is lessened – not removed. Whatever our circumstances, failure to maintain self-control is not an option.
An Important Disclaimer
If I could put my finger on the biggest mistake we made in our early days regarding leadership style, it would probably be how we defined and employed what we call “discipling.” Let me begin with this disclaimer. I believe in discipling in the ways the New Testament describes it, as the exercise of our “one another,” “each other” responsibilities toward one another. Believing that my former fellowship of churches didn’t come close to obeying the teachings about our relationships with fellow disciples, this concept was the most influential in bringing me into my current family of churches back in 1985. I wrote a long book entitled, “Discipling,” back in the 1990’s, which was condensed into “The Power of Discipling” later. I believe that our movement is suffering greatly because of the virtual disappearance of discipling among most of our membership. The prevailing idea seems to be, “If you need discipling help, just go ask someone for it.”
That is not discipling; it is counseling, which also has its place. But discipling carries the idea of having at least one purposeful spiritual friend with whom you meet regularly with the specific aim of helping one another become more like Jesus – in character and in mission. Having the heart of Jesus will lead to having the actions of Jesus, including his goal of seeking and saving the lost. My early favorite definition of discipling came from an idea stated in one book, that discipling was God’s plan to help us deal with sin at the temptation level before it came in to damage our lives, sometimes terribly. Our early problems with discipling came from adopting a worldly approach to it just like we did with leadership in general. The devil was in the details of application, not in the biblical concept itself.
The Fork in the Road
When I first met this movement, it was in the campus ministry stage. That ministry was the engine, and it was wildly effective in converting campus kids in the first couple of decades, and in some places, much longer. Every new convert received spiritual help and training from having a “Prayer Partner.” That term suggested a mutuality of helping each other and praying together. When I first inquired what a meeting of prayer partners was like, the answer I received was that they talked about how they were doing spiritually, good and bad, and made plans to improve. Then they wrapped it up by praying about those things. That sounded great to me. I was all in. I knew I needed all the help I could get to be spiritual and to grow spiritually to be more like Christ. I’ve not outgrown that need, nor has anyone else.
But then came the fork in the road – of soldiering up! The term “prayer partner” was replaced with “discipling partner” or “discipleship partner.” More significantly, the approach was changed as well. While the terminology change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change in approach was. Enter the requirement of “one over another,” indicating that in every case, one of the partners was now in a position of authority over the other in all things spiritual. This led to more abuses than I can address here, but the biggest was the authority model brought into the arrangement. It was now a full-blown military model, applied to every leader and every member. You had a discipler who discipled you, which meant in far too many cases they were the boss of the relationship. The list of abuses under this heading is a painfully long one.
Human beings are in general obsessed with power, position, authority and control. That is why wars are fought. That is why politics has invaded almost every aspect of American society right now. Who has the power and control? How can we get it and how can we keep it? Need I say that this approach is just about 180 degrees opposite what Jesus said in his most famous comments about true leadership? The context was when his twelve disciples, the apostles, were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It was obvious that their view of leadership was totally worldly. Even pretty much living with Jesus hadn’t eradicated it, for false concepts in this area are so hard to dig out and discard. Here’s what Jesus said to them.
Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV2011)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Okay, So What’s the Intended Application?
Good question, right? As I’ve already said, some leaders appear to be returning to their roots and going heavy on the authority and control issues, complete with harshness and sometimes anger. But I think they are in the minority. My bigger issue with a majority of older leaders within their congregational leadership role is that they are not leading the charge to change the world. They are too comfortable to really lead a radical charge in carrying out the Great Commission and evangelizing the world. But this type can also be harsh if someone tries to pry them out of their comfort zones. Some are describing one form of harshness as “boomerang discipling,” meaning that instead of humbly hearing critiques, even well delivered ones, they turn it back on the person delivering it (or trying to). Leader, just how approachable are you? Don’t trust your own answer – ask around.
The one ministry that still uses more of an old leadership style is campus ministry, in my opinion. The situations I hear about give me that opinion. And by the way, when I am offering critiques, I am not saying that every leader is guilty of the sins I describe. That has never been the case. When Wyndham and I wrote our early book, we didn’t believe that all of our leaders had the problems we described. I don’t believe that everyone has the problems I addressed most recently in writing and in a sermon. But enough problems exist among us to motivate me to address them.
Campus Ministry Challenges on Both Sides
Those leading campus ministry are trained, at least partially, by older leaders who themselves led campus ministries in their younger years. It was often during those years that the military model was most popular and during those years, the model was often amazingly effective. But to repeat an important point, this model has a short shelf life. In time, if not changed it will implode or at the least become much less effective. When the young campus trainees hear about the results their trainer had in his or her youth, they want to see the same results in their ministry (who wouldn’t) and assume that using the same approaches will get the same result. When it doesn’t, they can feel like failures. Michael Burns addressed this well in one of his books.
The shocker is that they don’t seem to realize that it has been decades since those leaders had those results and their present ministry results are not nearly the same. Times have changed; society has changed; results have changed. Approaches need to change too, but often don’t. Traditions are hard to abandon, especially if they worked well at one time. We are slow to adapt and figure out new ways to be effective. We are in a post-Christian culture, especially in the thinking of our younger generations. The churches they have seen are not just out of step with society in ways they shouldn’t be. Their version of Christianity is a polluted one. American Christianity is in general a far cry from what I read about in the Bible, politicized almost beyond recognition. No wonder younger generations are turned off by it. I am too.
Back to the Story
Yes, old style leadership is found in our campus ministries probably more than in any other ministry. Some of the reason is the training received which promotes it. But it is a double-edged challenge that has to be understood by youth and leaders alike. Leaders have to understand that every individual they work with is different and in need of having those differences taken into account in leading them. They also have to understand the differences in those raised in a strong church culture by their parents and those who didn’t experience the same blessings (and sometimes curses). When youth from church families are treated exactly the same as those coming into the church without the same spiritual training and values, it is challenging for the church kids. I have often spoke of age-appropriate leadership. If you treat fifteen year old kids like you treated them when they were five, rebellion is likely coming. But background appropriate leadership is a related need.
The ones with different backgrounds often need more by way of guidelines to protect them against themselves. This is nothing new. I remember one of our well-known leaders describing how the dating guidelines back in his campus ministry days came about in the first place. We are talking about the 1970s here, when the sexual revolution was breaking out everywhere. He said that after conversion, without guidelines for relating to the opposite sex, he ended up having sex with a sister in the church. He took responsibility for the origin of what came to be accepted guidelines, and too often, rules.
It is essential that we have guidelines in relational areas for young people (and sometimes, older ones as well). But when they become rules, we have problems. What’s the difference? Guidelines are explained well and often and applied with individuals in mind. All don’t need exactly the same guidelines. Many times the young people with strong spiritual backgrounds don’t have the same challenges that others do. But, I would say this to you if you think you are in this category. It is really hard to have varying guidelines in campus ministry, because less mature kids have a difficult time understanding why they are treated differently when the guidelines are not applied uniformly.
I have been in a number of situations in the church where I was expected to do the same things as new Christians. Understanding the challenges just described, I just went along gladly with the expectations. I didn’t want to be seen as an exception to what others were being taught to do and not do. I may not have needed the same teaching, but they needed my example of submitting to what was requested of us. As a somewhat older guy when I came into this movement, I understood the importance of my example in this regard.
I would appeal to our younger church background folks to try hard to appreciate this principle and not allow yourself to be too critical of group guidelines, even when many in the group have different backgrounds, needs and challenges than you. I understand your feelings, but I also understand the challenges of leaders trying to work with young folks who are still trying to figure out life. And please don’t think you have figured it all out yet either. Life is a lot more complex than you imagine right now. Being open minded and flexible in the process of continuing to mature will protect you from yourself too. (smile…)
One Request of Older Leaders and One for All Leaders
One of my biggest concerns for the leadership of our movement is that a disproportionate number of leaders with the most influence in developing directions for the future are old (okay, older if that helps you). I’ve nothing against old people, since I am about to turn 79. I understand how our movement leadership developed as it did during this century. We lost a generation when we had a serious challenge in the early 2000s. Financial contributions decreased considerably, and understandably, the younger ones were laid off first. Changing careers was much easier for them and we needed our more experienced leaders to help us maneuver through the crises.
When we did reach more stable ground, we were able to start hiring young people again, but their opportunities in supported ministry were mostly limited to working with youth. I describe this situation in an article entitled, “My Hope is in Our Youth.” You can read it on my website. Bottom line, we didn’t made opportunities for the younger set of leaders to have much of a voice in determining directions for our movement’s future. We still haven’t. The same older set are leading in the same older ways, and innovation isn’t highly visible, to put it more gently than I did in the article just mentioned. Please read it. This issue needs serious attention immediately, if not sooner! Our youth have voices that must be heard.
Speaking of reading, I would strongly suggest that all leaders (and many others) read “Dynamic Leadership,” even if you have read it before. The very first chapter about the difference between offices and titles, and roles and relationships – through the lens of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23 is so fundamental. We need truly spiritual leadership and this calls for spiritual leaders. One of my dearest and most respected elder friends, now deceased, gave my book the highest compliment I ever received on it. He said that he would never recommend a second book on church leadership until my Dynamic Leadership had been read first. I’ve never taken the words of that elder, Ron Brumley, lightly. I hope you won’t in this case.
Thanks for reading this article. Another to follow soon addressing additional leadership concerns. The Lord bless you and keep you!
The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.
I have expressed my alarm many times about the current teaching and emphases of American evangelical churches. Honestly, the emphases are in many ways more disturbing than the specific doctrines with which I disagree. Living in the Bible Belt and interreacting with those having a past or present history in these churches shows me what they really believe in their heart of hearts. They are in the majority quite comfortable with wrong teachings about both doctrine and lifestyle. Regarding lifestyle, Jesus made it abundantly clear that his followers had to be “all in,” “sold out,” “heart and soul” disciples of his. This means far more than just getting a vaccination to protect you from the consequences of sin when you die and then going on about your business as usual, with little changed. Just look at a few of the many passages that could be listed which teach this truth.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Is total commitment to Jesus and his spiritual body, the church, the emphasis of evangelicalism? I don’t think so, based on what I hear from individuals and preachers and what I read in their writings. Their main focus is usually on “getting saved,” a part of the basic stated definition of their purpose as evangelicals. It is quite common for preachers or the more committed members to urge the “unsaved” to invite Jesus into their hearts or to pray the sinner’s prayer, with little or nothing said about what becoming a follower of Jesus includes from that point forward. Not only is what is being offered as the salvation process not in line with New Testament teaching, becoming a sold-out disciple of Jesus for a lifetime is not taught and/or emphasized. The offer of salvation in this case is much more of an offer of “fire insurance” to keep you out of hell when you die than a lifetime commitment to Jesus as the very Lord of our lives.
The Problem Compounded
But this is only the first part of the problem. Most evangelicals still believe and teach that once you are saved, then you are always saved. You cannot lose your salvation. One of my good friends related a conversation he had with the preacher at his girlfriend’s church decades ago, and it illustrates my point well. He told the preacher that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian, and since he really wanted to marry her, he needed to know what becoming a Christian entailed. The preacher said that he simply needed to accept Christ as his personal Savior and that was it – he would then be a Christian and set for eternity. Of course he would, if you accept this answer as the way to enter a saved relationship with Jesus, and if you cannot lose your relationship with him once you have it. My friend said, rather incredulously, “So what’s the downside?” The preacher said, “No downside; at that point you are set for life and eternity.”
Again, I could quote passage after passage showing the total commitment Jesus is asking for – demanding, really. But in our Christian culture, you just need to get your eternity set and then you can go about your business just like everyone else does. Most who claim Christianity appear little different from those who don’t. Of course, you are encouraged to attend church and avoid the really “bad” sins, but rest assured that no matter what, you will be pronounced “at home with God” and “safe in the arms of Jesus” at your funeral. If you have been to many funerals (or pretty much any funeral), you know what I am saying here is correct. Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 talked about a narrow way to eternal life found only by a few, and a broad way that the majority end up on, the way of eternal destruction. He taught that most will be lost in eternity, not saved. But you will not hear anything close to that in the Bible Belt, rest assured.
Enough Preaching, Gordo!
Okay, I’ll quit preaching and get back to teaching – teaching about what is wrong with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Interestingly, this doctrine is a part of historic Calvinism and the only part still accepted by most evangelicals. Yet, it rests upon the foundation of the other four parts of the Calvinistic system. In short, the word TULIP represents the basic tenets of that system. T stands for Total Depravity. John Calvin (and many others) during the period of the Reformation overreacted to the focus on human works in the Catholic Church and went to the other extreme. Now it was all up to God in way that boggles the imagination (and contradicts the Bible). Thus, children were said to be born totally incapable of doing good, lost sinners at birth.
If that is accepted, then the U stands for Unconditional Election. If you are totally depraved and cannot choose good, God must make the choice for you and so only those whom he unconditionally elects will ultimately be saved. By the way, those not elected to salvation are by necessary logic elected BY GOD to be lost. Next comes the L, which stands for Limited Atonement, meaning that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the the rest of the world. Then comes the I, standing for Irresistible Grace. If you are born totally depraved and unconditionally elected, with Christ dying for you as one of the fortunate elect, then you certainly cannot resist God changing your heart and saving you. It’s his choice and not yours.
Finally, we get to the P in our TULIP system, and that stands for the Perseverance of the Saints – another way of saying “once saved, always saved.” In my first book, “Prepared to Answer,” I devoted a full chapter to these five tenets of Calvinism. Regarding the perseverance doctrine, I will use some of the material in my book here. It is still quite relevant in this one area of teaching which is a part of evangelical doctrine, although an increasing number of evangelical teachers are questioning it or outright rejecting it. Get ready to dig in and dig in deeply!
Digging in More Deeply
This doctrine is about the only part of the Calvinistic system that remains in many denominational groups which once accepted the entire system. In the introduction of a book on election by a former Baptist writer, another Baptist scholar had this to say: “Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin’s system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin’s system of theology.” (Elect in the Son, by Robert Shank, p.16).
Back in 1960, Shank wrote a book entitled Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. He started writing that book for the express purpose of supporting the Calvinistic position, since that position was the accepted one within his denomination. However, as he looked carefully at all of the supposed Calvinistic proof-texts, they did not support the position. His book is especially good in looking at the Greek tenses of the verbs. He shows that perseverance of the saints is completely tied in to a perseverance of faith. In other words, a Christian’s security is always intact as long as his faith continues. The idea of the security of the believer is a beautiful biblical concept. But the truth is that a believer can become an unbeliever, and at that point, there is no security at all. What does the Bible have to say on the subject?
In teaching those who are not really entrenched in this doctrine, pointing out a few passages often solves their problem. The entire book of Hebrews is dealing with the possibility of apostasy. See especially 2:1-3; 3:7-13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25. James, in his epistle, told brothers (1:2) that sin can become full-grown and bring about spiritual death once again (1:13-15). Paul clearly stated that if we deny Christ, he will also deny us (2 Timothy 2:12). He wrote in Romans 6:16 that “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-12, the disobedient of the Old Testament are presented as examples, that New Testament people should “be careful that you don’t fall!” An unbiased person should be able to grasp this point readily, for the NT is absolutely full of such passages.
The Real Security of the Believer
However, some are so rooted and grounded in this error that time and patience must be expended with them before they are willing to give it up. With such people, we suggest approaching the subject from a slightly different angle. Admit readily that the NT does teach the “security of the believer.” The key to the whole misunderstanding is found in the term believer. A believer is one who has become a Christian through an obedient faith, and who then continues to exercise the same obedient faith. Once he stops exercising this faith, he ceases to be a believer. A believer can become an unbeliever. It is just that simple.
Notice carefully the wording of Hebrews 3:12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Therefore, a brother can become an unbeliever and, as such, fall away. In John 5:24, we are told “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Then, in John 3:36 we find, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Now, which will not is stronger? Why should either of these statements be irreversible? If an unbeliever can become a believer and escape the wrath of God, a believer can turn back to the state of unbelief and thereby be under condemnation again.
At this point, a trained Calvinist will usually say something like this: “Well, if they fall away, they never really were saved in the first place.” If they resort to this even after we have studied how believers can become unbelievers, their minds may be closed. In this case, about all that we can do is turn to a passage like 2 Peter. 2:20-22 and camp there until they either deny the passage or deny their error. Do not be sidetracked. Stay with this passage until they accept it or deny that Peter was correct when he wrote: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
For further study on the perseverance issue, see John 15:5-6 which shows that a branch in Christ can be cut off and burned. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 10:5-12 uses the OT people in the wilderness wandering period as examples of those who sinned and lost the grace of God. Can a Christian fall from grace? If we wanted to prove it beyond any doubt in words that are precisely to the point, no better statement could be penned that the one in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
Yup – I’m Talking to You Too!
I have two cautions with which to end the article. One, never focus so much on the fact that we can lose our salvation that you forget the beauty of Jesus’ assurance of the security of the believer. Insecurity in a child of God is hurtful to everyone, especially to our heavenly Father who loves us so dearly. I love this passage and I need this passage: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Walking in the light is not sinlessness or there wouldn’t be any sin from which to be purified. The verb, “purifies,” is a continual action verb, meaning that if our lives are characterized by walking with Jesus, sins are continually taken away by his blood on the cross. As Paul put it in quoting from David, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Romans 4:8). Perseverance of the believer is a precious doctrine indeed!
Two, while I wrote this article addressing a teaching found mainly in evangelical circles, I am concerned about any supposed Christian with a watered-down commitment to Christ and his Cause. I continue to see a lessened commitment level among members of my own family of churches, the ICOC, and the pandemic lifestyle has surely increased this malady. When (sometimes I just say “if”) this pandemic ends and we are able to return to mixing and mingling with others at will, I am concerned about what we may likely see – that many have become too comfortable with isolation. Being an active part of a church fellowship may seem too high a price to pay at that point. I pray to be wrong, but the dangers are there. We need to be helping each other right now by being in each other’s lives in every way possible. Brightly burning coals don’t last long when removed from the fire and left alone. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)
God is our Father and those of us in Christ are his specially adopted children – no truth in the Bible is more exciting! The cost of this adoption is the blood of Christ, which should humble us and fill us with a depth of gratitude that becomes our greatest motivation to serve. In fact, the fatherly love of God is what we are to imitate as we serve others in his name. Paul said it this way in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” As we imitate him and live a life of love, we surely must develop his heart for his children.
How does the love of God show up in his treatment of us? Keep in mind that this is the kind of love that we are to imitate as disciples and show to the world.
From his first contact with man until the present, God has shown himself to be a giver, not a taker. His concern is never what we can do for him, but only what he can do for us. He is absolutely selfless in his relationship to mankind. He gives and gives and gives some more. He is a Servant of servants, which explains how he can keep blessing us when we are unlovely, undeserving and unappreciative.
God does not take our sins against him personally, get his feelings hurt and pull his heart back. He keeps on giving in the hope that his kindness will once again lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When Jesus said that the first prerequisite for following him was sacrificial self-denial (Luke 9:23), he was only calling us to do what God has always done. Sacrifice is what God’s heart is all about – it is not something that he does, but something that he is. As you serve others, we must imitate that.
God shows us respect by treating us as individuals and by expecting us to be the individuals we have been designed to be. He does not expect us to be like everyone else, but to be the best that we can be. The command to “train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) implies the need to understand who each person is and then help them to blossom into the plan of God for their life. Similarly, God does not try to force us into any mold that we were not made for, but patiently develops us into the mold for which we were originally designed – to be like Christ.
In essence, God shows us respect in order to help us become respectable. His approach is never to make us earn his favor by our performance, but rather, he treats us with love in order to help us grow and mature. As we work with others, we must give them what they need as an impetus to move them in the direction God has planned for them.
God uses any and every means available to help us grow into becoming like him. He has a multiplicity of circumstances and people he can call into play for our guidance, and he works everything out for our good. And our ultimate good is “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:28–29).
The greatest miracles, in my mind, are not the obvious ones in the Bible, but rather the everyday variety that are produced by God’s orchestration of so many behind-the-scenes details. To make the application to us as people helpers, we need to be getting as much (behind-the-scenes) input and help from others as possible. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” We must continually be learners if we are to be effective teachers. Don’t be lazy and don’t be prideful; get help to be your best, and get the help from all available sources.
God’s love is positive in its expression to us. Positive reinforcement is one obvious demonstration of his kindness and gentleness. He knows exactly how to call us higher by encouraging us. It is easy to think that we help others improve by focusing on their weak points, believing that if they can just eliminate them, then they will really be great. The problem is that the other person’s self-esteem can take a beating in the process. God is full of encouragement as he generously expresses his love and commitment to us. With this approach, we can face critiques with confidence.
God is protective of us, choosing to expose our weaknesses in embarrassing ways only when we are stubborn and prideful. He works gently as he leads us to see ourselves and to resolve to change. Many of us can remember times in our childhood when we were embarrassed by teachers or parents in front of our peers. Such deep hurts are not easily forgotten. Thankfully, God is not that kind of parent. He deals with us gently and sensitively (Isaiah 42:3).
God never gives up trying to mold our characters and hearts into his own image. Gentle he may be, but sentimental he is not! The definition of discipling as “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied” finds its highest application in God’s approach with us. He never gives up and he never gives in. His attention to discipling is constant, for he always wants the best for his children. He perseveres with us far beyond what we can imagine. Just think of the story of the runaway son in Luke 15. No matter how long the rebellious son had been gone, the father in the story (representing God) never ceased to gaze at the horizon for any sign of his son’s return. When he caught a glimpse of him at a great distance, he literally ran to his son, eagerly accepted his repentance, and then quickly arranged a celebration party of grand proportions. God is determined to save us and determined to help us become the best we can be. How quickly and easily we can be tempted to give up on others. How unlike God we are when we do.
As we look at these amazing qualities of God as our Father, let’s determine to imitate them as fully as possible. He wants to express his love to others through us. Pray that others will feel his love through your love for them. Love like God loves, and both you and those around you will be filled with inexpressible joy. The love of God is the love of a perfect Parent. Embrace it for yourself, and then share it with others.
Handling Injustices and Ill Treatment Spiritually
Life is nearly always somewhat messy, right? Sometimes it is so messy that we generalize and just say it’s a mess. I’ve been at that point many times, one recently that I will mention before closing the article. But for whatever reason, I’ve been getting a number of phone calls from people who are either in the middle of a mess or have friends who are. In all cases, other church members are involved in the mess, most often leaders in one role or another.
That’s not surprising, for at least two reasons. One, leaders are humans and thus imperfect and sinners. Two, we interface more with them in situations that are likely to be challenging because their roles put them with us in those situations. Do I have issues with some leaders? Since I authored one of my longer books on the topic of leadership and co-authored another, you can no doubt answer my question pretty easily. Do I have issues with all leaders? No, because I refuse to generalize about leaders, churches and members of those churches. But the point is well taken that we humans who claim Christ will have challenges with other humans who share the claim of being his followers. Most often those challenges will involve leaders. No surprises there, for reasons noted.
With those observations as a backdrop, the biggest issue by far is how we respond to those challenges. The application of common sense is a good place to start. Humans are still humans even in God’s family. Further, Satan is alive and well on planet earth to the point that John the beloved apostle wrote that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Next, only a small minority of humankind is traveling the narrow road that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-15). Finally, in our quest for common sense on the matter, we need to realize that without a plethora of problems in the first century church, we wouldn’t have a New Testament (or if we did, it would be pretty short). With all of that in mind, let’s proceed with expectations that are at least within shouting distance of reality.
One of the mistakes I have made through the years is not always opening the Bible and looking at God’s words in print when giving spiritual counsel. I know the Bible well enough to work its principles into normal conversation and also to quote relevant passages from memory. In much of my spiritual counseling, I have used that knowledge in the way described. Although I believe I have been effective in most cases, I would have been more effective if the Book of books was open and we were reading it together. However, to avoid making this article overly long, I will do some paraphrasing along with some direct quoting. But I urge you to read the article with Bible open and read each verse as we discuss the passage.
God’s Directions Are Clear
When I say that his directions are clear, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to follow. Far from it. But if we truly want solutions, we can’t improve on what the Creator said about how his creatures should function. Many biblical passages could be listed here which would be quite applicable, but I will only mention the main three that I have been using lately. The first two apply to dealing with problems between individuals and the third applies to responding to broader church problems. In all three cases, I am going to offer my insights about the passages. Otherwise, if we but read them quickly, we might only catch the surface meanings and not the deeper, most important principles.
The Way of the Cross – 1 Peter 2:11-3:9
This is a long passage, but it is all about what might well be called the way of the cross. It begins under a heading in my Bible entitled, “Living Godly Lives in a Pagan Society.” Chapter 2:11-12 urges us to avoid sin because we are in a spiritual war and our lives should stand in stark contrast to any charges that others might make against us. Good introduction. Verses 13-17 admonish us to live a life of submission, beginning with submission to governmental rulers, and once again emphasizes the need to live in a way that that quietens the critics. In other words, be the real deal – walk the walk and not just talk the talk. He ends this section by saying that we should live as free people in showing respect to everyone and loving God’s family. But that lifestyle is described as living as God’s slaves.
Verse 18 introduces the final section of the chapter in addressing literal slaves and their behavior in response to their owners, regardless of whether they are kind or harsh masters. The way of the cross is about to go uphill fast with rocks strewn abundantly in the path. The word “slavery” catches in our throats in any combination of a discussion about Christianity. I understand. Slavery has been aptly labeled as the original sin of the United States. Yet in both the Old Testament and New Testament, slavery was regulated but not forbidden. Not only were there slaves in the first church, but slave owners. Because of this, many moderns have rejected the Bible and Christianity. Was slavery in the first century as bad as that in American history? I hope not, but I’m not sure we can be sure. Slavery would have to be viewed negatively in any setting in any century. Yet, Peter talks about it and uses Christ and the way of the cross as the solution in their setting.
1 Peter 2:18-23 (NIV2011)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
From the Sermon on the Mount forward, those who follow Christ are directed to respond to all kinds of ill treatment and injustices differently than those in the world respond. The concept of “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is repeated many times in many ways throughout the NT. Christians must live as examples of this principle if we are to follow Christ. It goes against everything in us to do it, and few have done it well, even among those who call themselves Christians. Seeking revenge is natural; refusing to seek revenge is unnatural.
Back to our passage. Slaves submit to even harsh masters because their first priority is pleasing their heavenly Master, and he is pleased when we imitate Christ. He says, “To this you were called” (verse 21), referring to imitating Christ’s example of enduring unjust, harsh treatment. Not only did he refuse to sin generally, but he refused to respond with retaliation to insults or threats when suffering. How did he manage such unnatural responses? He entrusted himself to God.
After all, did not God promise to work all things (good and bad) together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28)? Did he do it for Jesus? Does he now do it for us? Jesus died a gruesome death as a common criminal as people spat upon him and cursed his very name. Did that work out for good? Jesus thought so. We who follow him think so. If God managed that outcome in the midst of the most extreme circumstances, can he not manage it in your circumstances, as challenging as they may seem? Is God not still God? We all say yes intellectually, but saying it emotionally is quite often a different matter. At least that’s true for me.
Broadening the Principle – to Wives
In 1 Peter 3, God applies the same principle, the way of the cross, to three other situations. First, Peter addresses wives with knotheads for husbands, i.e., those who “do not believe the word,” whether as non-Christians or Christians who aren’t obeying what they profess to believe. Either way, they are knotheads. So what does the Christian wife do in such situations to follow the way of the cross? Note that this is still the principle being discussed, for he begins the passage with “in the same way.”
1 Peter 3:1-4 (NIV2011)
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
Thus, wives are to be submissive to their husbands, with behavior that includes purity, reverence, a gentle and quiet spirit. They don’t react unspiritually to unspiritual treatment, but rather they go the way of the cross in following the example of Jesus. In verse 6, they are told that such responses can only occur when they don’t give in to their fears. What might those fears be? Probably that if they don’t fight back, they will become worse then doormats for their husbands to wipe their feet on. Did Jesus become a doormat for not fighting fire with fire? That certainly wasn’t his expectation. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Does the way of the cross work? Will it work for you and me? Only if we do it consistently, not simply try it occasionally. As I said earlier, the way of the cross is a steep one full of obstacles (mostly ourselves).
Broadening the Principle – to Husbands
Next, Peter addresses husbands, but for only one verse. That is puzzling to me. Most of the problems in my marriage are my fault as the husband. Most of the problems in marriages I have counseled (hundreds) have been similar, with more of the fault on the husband’s side than on the wife’s side. Of course, there have been some notable exceptions, but not a great many. But no matter my puzzlement, Peter begins with “in the same way” again as he continues to elaborate on the way of the cross and what it looks like when applied to marriage for the husband.
1 Peter 3:7 (NIV2011) — Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
Thus, husbands are to be considerate, which carries the idea of considering or studying the wife in order to know her well enough to meet her needs (figure out her love languages and provide for them). Treating them with respect is what all people need, and given the patriarchy views held in the first century toward women and wives, that was unnatural. Unless we understand how wives in that era were viewed and treated by their husbands, we will likely underestimate the counter-cultural nature of what Peter wrote here. The way of the cross is unnatural, although with lots of practice and prayer it becomes more natural (thankfully).
Broadening the Principle – to the Church
I started to entitle this section, “Proceed With Caution – Hazardous Road Ahead!” You will see why in a moment.
1 Peter 3:8-9 (NIV2011)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
We know that Peter is making this application to the church, suggested by “Finally, all of you” and “to this you were called” (pointing back to verse 21 of chapter 2). How does the principle of the way of the cross fit the church and all of our relationships within the church? Just like the example of Christ, it applies in two ways: live righteously and refuse to respond unrighteously to unjust treatment. Peter begins with the ideal, the righteous part, which includes being unified, sympathetic, loving, compassion and humble. Amen – that is what the church ought to be like! Why isn’t my church like that (some are thinking)? Undoubtedly that is the goal and one worth striving for mightily.
But he is still addressing church relationships when he wrote verse 9. If we are not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult, that clearly implies that we are going to encounter such in the church. And right there lies the ultimate challenge. We expect to be treated badly by those in the world. We expect to find a safe haven in the family of God. When that expectation is dashed by a harsh dose of reality, it hurts and hurts badly. I recall the Proverb which explains why this is so true. “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel” (Proverbs 18:19). When deeply wounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, how must we respond? “Repay evil with blessing.” Why? “To this you were called” – to the way of the cross, to imitate the example of Jesus suffering the greatest indignities possible.
Best Communication Principle in Scripture
The Bible is chock-full of teaching about communication with those outside the family of God as well as in it and within our own physical family relationships. All of these passages are jewels and golden nuggets. In my opinion, based on observation and personal experience, one rises to the top of the heap when dealing with challenging people in challenging situations. Here it is.
2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV2011)
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
We teach our kids not to use the word “stupid.” Overall, that’s a good idea, but Paul didn’t get the memo or at least the translators of this version thought that this word was the best translation of the Greek term, apaideutos. It is the only time the word is used in the NT. I like the word as it is translated here. Any married couple can tell you that the bulk of their arguments are actually pretty stupid and petty, focused on irritants and not real issues. If we don’t stop such arguments, they lead to longer lasting problems which are here termed quarrels, becoming something like an ongoing feud. But how do we avoid such disturbances in relationships and keep them from getting out of hand, and hopefully, end up with both parties in harmony?
First, just don’t allow that sinful part of your nature to take control of your emotions. Second, be kind to everyone, which in this context is applied to those who oppose you. Third, continue calmly trying to reason with those who do oppose you. Being “able to teach” means here controlling your emotions while continuing to reason. Refusing to talk is not the option given. Many people just shut down when they are mad or hurt. Most in this category justify their actions by explaining that silence is preferable to saying something that they will regret later. That sounds reasonable, of course, but it is not what the text says to do. Keep teaching, calmly. Difficult to do, yes, but as an emotionally based person, I assure you it can be learned and practiced.
Fourth, don’t take what is said to you personally. Otherwise, you will become resentful, angry and bitter (the normal progression of unchecked emotions in conflict). How can we do these things when what is said is hurting us, perhaps very deeply? How can we continue to gently instruct those who keep dishing out the pain? It’s actually a matter of recognizing the deeper issues of what is taking place. Your opponent in an emotional quarrel has been captured by Satan, who is now using the person to hurt and hopefully destroy you. The issues are really never about you and another human; they are about you, God and Satan; and them, God and Satan. It’s a spiritual battle taking place. God is always begging us to go the way of the cross and Satan is always begging us to do the opposite in taking the human way.
Since the captive is under Satan’s control, they are out of their senses. That’s why we must remain in ours, calmly and gently continuing to reason with them while we are praying that God will bring them to repentance. We cannot force anyone to repent, even ourselves. God is the one who grants repentance to all of us. Yes, we must at some point reach a desire to repent, or be willing to be made willing to repent, but God through his Holy Spirit must bring it about. If you believe this and pray as though you believe it, God will do it if it can be done in a given situation. Even if all of the right principles of dealing with difficult people don’t work on a given occasion, there’s always another day. God doesn’t give up on us; we must not give up on each other.
This passage, in combination with 1 Peter 2 & 3, provides us with powerful principles of allowing God to work his miracles in the middle of our messes. I have seen him do it time and time again in my life and in the lives of countless others. It is not as if these principles have been tried and found ineffective; they are just not often tried and employed consistently. The way of the cross in Peter’s writing is applied as the way of the godly communicator in Paul’s. Both employ the same two foundational elements: be righteous in your own life and refuse to be pulled into Satan’s world by those who are behaving righteously. Peter says to return blessings for evil treatment and Paul shows how to do it in the communication process. A beautiful combination of the same principle illustrated in two ways.
Handling a Bad Church Situation
Peter ends up his emphasis on the way of the cross as it applies to disciples with what we have already covered in 1 Peter 3:8-9. But the question of how to respond to a broader situation involving a church that is, or seems to be, going in a bad direction is another issue. The two are related, but different in some ways. One of the recent calls that I received came from friends who were members of a church that was doing well, but who had friends in another church that was doing badly from their perspective. Some members of that church had already left and others were contemplating leaving. My friends admitted that their discouraged and angry friends in the other church were responding poorly but had a lot of truth in what they were saying. I tried to help them help their friends using two approaches.
One was going through the same two passages we have just gone through. We may be a part of a fellowship, but we as individuals have declared Jesus to be the Lord of our lives. If he is our Lord, we cannot fail to listen to what he says and follow it to the best of our ability. What he says in our two passages is that receiving bad and unrighteous treatment is no justification for unrighteous responses to those inside or outside the church. Period. No excuses and no exceptions. The way of the cross is the narrow way of Matthew 7 and thus the way of salvation. Both righteous living and righteous responses are salvation matters. Satan will try to convince us otherwise, but don’t listen to all of his justifications and rationalizations. They lead to hell.
The passage I find very helpful in these situations provides us with an example of a church gone bad.
Revelation 3:1-5 (NIV2011)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.
The church in Sardis was dead. The members thought otherwise. Other sister churches probably thought otherwise too. God told the truth and told it bluntly. He called the church to repent and if they didn’t wake up, he guaranteed disastrous consequences. His word is full of commands, not suggestions. He is not fooled, and he is not fooling around. I find myself wondering how many of our churches today are evaluated by him in exactly the same way. The Christianity of America is a watered-down, polluted version of what Christ established and still expects. Scary stuff, that.
The helpful verses in the plight we are describing about a church gone bad are verses 4-5. In spite of the deadness of the church as a whole, there were a few who were still walking the walk. What were they told to do? Leave the church? No, they were told to keep walking the walk, for their consequences were promises of walking with Jesus in white, that their names would never be blotted out of the book of the saved, and they would be acknowledged by Christ himself before all heaven.
Would I ever consider leaving one congregation to be a part of a better one? Perhaps, but I would not leave in the midst of a storm on bad terms with those whom I left behind. In that case, I would be taking my sins with me that violated the passages we have studied. Therefore, I would also be taking God’s judgment of those sins along with me. I’ve never seen an angry, bitter person change their hearts by a change of location without repentance. Satan will fill your ears and hearts with justifications and human reasoning to make you think otherwise, but nothing less than true spirituality is going to work in old or new locations. You may move, but your problem is that you are going to take yourself with you, and without repentance you are still going to be you. After the honeymoon of a new location wears off, your sins will catch up with you. They always do. The church at Sardis and all individuals who are caught up in sin are always given one solution and one solution only: repentance. Whether anyone else repents or not, you must.
So Where is God in My Mess?
The title of the article suggests that I am going to talk about my own personal mess at some point. What I am about to write delves into another aspect of handling injustice and ill treatment. The other segments of the article dealt with how to respond to hurtful issues at the hands of other people. What has not been addressed is for me a bigger issue than these others, by a wide margin. What do you do when this perceived bad treatment is coming, in one way or another, at the hands of God himself? My belief is that all that happens to me or you is either caused or allowed by him. He is somehow involved in all that I experience.
I have another article on this website which affirms that I have lost my faith in coincidences. I think God is somewhere in the mix of all that I experience, always has been and always will be. That’s a wonderful thought when my life is going according to my plan but can be extremely painful when it is going according to God’s plan which differs from mine. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t get super-spiritual here and pretend that you don’t. You have been upset at God too. The Psalmists certainly were at times and expressed it in print for future generations to read. I’m grateful for their gut-level honesty.
Up until now in the article, I have talked generally about the messes that we all find ourselves in as disciples and what God tells us to do to get out of them. Actually, he has to get us out of them, but we have to cooperate with him by listening to his directions and doing our best to put them into practice. In all three cases, we don’t have control with what is happening to us but we can have control over our responses. These responses can then have an effect, sometimes a very big effect, on those who are causing us grief. What may seem impossible can become possible by the power of God. We just have to cooperate with him by taking what he said seriously enough to follow through by obeying him. He is in the middle of our messes with us and has solutions. We just have to trust them and put them into action.
But what happens when you have done everything you know to do and prayed about all that you can think of and you are ready to just give up? All of your spiritual approaches to spiritual problems for spiritual solutions no longer work. What then? Where indeed is God in my mess? Ever been there? If you are human, I imagine that you have. I know I have and will again. As my dear departed brother Wyndham Shaw often said, “I’ve been up and I’ve been down and I will be both again.”
A Hell of a Year – and Beyond!
God is right in the middle of it with you, regardless of what the mess is and how bad it is. He is always working to get us out of it spiritually, if not physically. So here’s my most recent story about my current mess, an ongoing story at least in one aspect. 2020 was a very hard year for me, one of the worst in memory. As the old saying goes among older people, “Getting old ain’t for sissies.” I think I did pretty well emotionally, spiritually and physically until about age 70. Moses did not write Psalm 90 without reason. Here’s the verse most applicable to this present discussion. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (verse 10). This was Moses’ only Psalm, and interestingly it was written during a period when life spans were typically longer. It was a type of predictive prophecy evidently.
I won’t list all of my life challenges of 2020, but the pandemic on top of it made for a really hard year. I was excited about the calendar hitting 2021 because life had to get easier, right? I’ve thought that many times at the end of a year and have most often been wrong. I most certainly was wrong this time. For just one example of my challenges, health issues were involved. I had one surgery at age four (tonsillectomy) and one in my early 60s. Since hitting 70, I’ve had five, the last of which was just over a week ago. Ten days earlier, I had a similar surgery and was called back into the doctor’s office for a consultation. I was told that the pathology report about the tissue removed for testing might be cancer and might not be. The test was inclusive in the opinion of three separate pathologists. So, ten days later I had a more invasive surgery to obtain a deeper tissue sample. I’m still awaiting the results to be relayed to me by my surgeon as of this writing.
But this issue was just one on top of a number of others that had raised my anxiety level to bad places. Yes, I did write a book about the topic of spiritual surrender. I have been fighting to surrender and stay surrendered pretty much all of my Christian life. It is not an easy war. I win individual battles from time to time when I am out of whack spiritually, and I have written a lot about my relationship to God and all that I have done to try maintaining a growth track. But keeping it real, this last year and a half has been the hardest period of a similar length in my entire life (and that’s saying a lot, by the way).
God – Brace Yourself!
A few days ago, my frustrations and anxieties caught up with me and I poured them out in print to God as a prayer. As I wrote, I came to realize that underneath it all I was angry with him. My conviction that all that happens in life is either caused or allowed by him left me feeling that he had pushed the edge and I was about to go over it. ALL OF THIS WASN’T RIGHT AND IT WASN’T FAIR! Where was God in my mess anyway? In reading the Psalms, I am sure that God can handle our emotions, even when we are at our worst and dumping all of our pain and sins on him. We have to do that with our own kids, don’t we? Why wouldn’t we think he is willing to do the same with us? He had Paul write that passage in 2 Timothy 2, which must mean that he practices it with us.
I told him in this wacko prayer that I knew my view of him, him and me, and life in general was messed up and it was my fault. In fact, everything was my fault – always! I further explained that I felt as if the old humanistic saying were correct: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Thus, I needed to change my perspective on everything I was thinking and feeling. But I simply could not do it. And he would not, or so it seemed to me. I said all of that ridiculous stuff, and a good deal more. I told him I would just settle for being like a teenager saying, “Whatever!” when I couldn’t get my way. I would just keep going but with clenched teeth and rolling eyes. Thus ended my prayer. I could not change myself and God refused to do it for me. I felt like the writer of Psalm 88 as he ended the Psalm by saying, “Darkness is my closest friend.”
Gordon, you actually said all of that stuff to God? Yes, because if we think it he already knows it and we might as well say it. I had hit rock bottom – hard. Like Job, I was wishing October 27, 1942 had never occurred. That was the day I was born. Nothing happened in the next few hours to change my thinking. I didn’t get a phone call or a card of encouragement. Nothing happened out of the ordinary. Doom and gloom prevailed. My normally encouraging wife understood me well enough to just stay out of my way and let me fight my own battle with God. I described that morning to myself and later to others as having wrestled with God until he pinned me to the ground by my neck and forced me to cry, “Uncle!” through clenched teeth. He won, decisively. I was beaten and as disheartened as I could remember. It was, using the phrase from a very old movie, a “bad day at Black Rock!”
Out of the Clear Blue, a Miracle
Then a few hours later, a miracle occurred. All of a sudden, without warning, I was clothed and back in my right mind. Not one thing changed except my heart, and that without any human explanation – none. Amazing! I was simply staggered for a moment, and then began laughing and joking with God about the battle as I marveled at what he had obviously done. I have reached the point of absolute surrender many times through the years. I know when I am there, because in the words of Philippians 4:7, I find a peace from him that transcends all understanding. In that unexpected moment, I had it once again.
Most of my full surrender times in the past came when I was genuinely trying to surrender, using all of the spiritual approaches that seemed to aid in the process (and I have many). Not this time. I was doing nothing, for I had completely given up. I had hit rock bottom and was looking down, not up. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all changed. God was making his point loud and clear. He wanted me to know beyond doubt that it wasn’t up to me. It was beyond me. But nothing was beyond him, even dealing with a totally defeated and hopeless idiot.
The frustrations on my list, including not hearing back from the doctor about my test results for what seems an inordinate amount of time (well over a week after the surgery I still haven’t heard), no longer mattered. God is in control. He can do what he wants to do when he wants to do it in any way he wants to do it. That’s all in his realm, not mine. I belong to him. He promised to take care of me and that’s all I need to know. I’m sitting on the back of this bus called life and he is the driver. My world is back on its axis and whatever comes down the pike of life will be just fine, up to and including death.
We would do well to read Psalm 139 regularly and meditate on its grandeur. I especially find comfort in this verse: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (verse 16). Let’s just relax and enjoy the ride. It’s pretty much a roller coaster ride, but those are my favorite rides at amusement parks anyway. I’m not at all surprised that God fashioned my life to fit such a ride spiritually and emotionally. It’s been quite a ride, Father, and although we are nearing the end of it, I still love the thrill of it, especially in those days when you do the unexpected and inexplicable – a “God thing.” You are indeed in the big fat middle of my mess, the mess that is me, still loved and cared for by you. End of story (or this current chapter at least). Thank you, Lord, for still being in there with me. When I get it all on straight with you, fully surrendered, other issues in life are just not that significant. Pretty cool, or as my grandsons would say, pretty dope!
In a previous article, “Gentiles and the Law of Moses,” I addressed the increasingly popular Torah pursuant concept that we need Christ plus the Law. Of course, the claim of such adherents is that only Christ saves us, but God never intended his followers to forsake the basics of the Law, especially the Sabbath observance, food laws and the special Feast Days. Not only is such teaching patently false, it is misleading and dangerous. It is the reason that books like Romans and Galatians were written in the New Testament and the reason that the early church nearly split along racial lines. “Christ Plus” teaching, in any form, is heresy biblically. If you haven’t read the aforementioned article, please take the time to read it on my Bible teaching website (gordonferguson.org).
This present article shows the connection between this form of Christ Plus teaching of Law observance and the claim that Israel is still God’s special nation for whom he has special plans in the future. If you grant the latter, the former makes more sense, although not perfect sense by any means. However, the acceptance of their specialness as a nation would certainly usher in the idea that their laws would remain special too. The assumed connection is wrong, because both parts of it are shown to be unbiblical in multiple passages in the New Testament, but the connection does make some sense logically. Thus, it is important to examine and answer the question posed in the title of this article.
The Development of End-Times Theology
According to many Evangelicals, the Jewish nation is still God’s special nation, especially as we near the “end-times.” As an old guy in my late 70s who has been involved in Bible study and teaching for most of those years, seeing such doctrines develop has been interesting, although disturbing. As a young minister, this teaching was fairly rare. The church was viewed as the earthly presence of God’s spiritual kingdom and the Jewish nation was seen as simply a nation among nations. Israel was once a very important part of God’s purpose to bring the Messiah into the world and to establish his kingdom and his new covenant, but after that was accomplished in Acts 2, Christians were seen as Christians and non-Christians as non-Christians, regardless of nationality or race.
The growing emphasis of the importance of modern-day Israel was tied directly to a developing end-time philosophy called “premillennialism,” and one flavor of this philosophy was called “dispensationalism.” This flavor can be traced back to a few key figures who promoted such speculations, men like Charles Nelson Darby. He was a religious leader in the 1800s who is considered to be the father of Dispensational theology. A later very influential figure was C.I. Scofield in the mid-1900s whose popular reference Bible promoted this theology.
If memory serves correct, I received one of his Bibles for my 15th birthday and through a preacher friend of the family, heard this doctrine espoused all throughout my youth. Scary stuff, that. I have some very interesting stories about its effects on me. It took some years to get it expunged from my thinking, but serious contextual Bible study will do that for you. When I was still a young minister, Hal Lindsey began his writing career and popularized these end-time doctrines in books like “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” along with a growing number of writers of this persuasion. The end result is that now, most of the evangelical movement accepts such teaching as absolutely true, unquestioned and unquestionable. Even a popular Christian author like Tim LaHaye has delved into this genre of writing with his “Left Behind” series of novels, several of which have been made into movies (which didn’t turn out to be a very popular film series, by the way).
The Imagination Knows No Bounds
Let me just comment at this point that, although widely accepted, these teachings filled with concepts like the “Rapture,” a personal “Antichrist,” and the “Restoration of Israel” are far from being unquestionable. They constitute a twisting of Scripture that boggles the mind of a serious biblical student who has not been indoctrinated with such teaching. I have examined each of these concepts in more detail in other writings through the passages from which they are supposedly derived, but for now, here are a couple of “teasers” to prick your interest and to perhaps ease your mind if you are thinking I have lost mine!
Consider the antichrist concept. The NT uses this term four times, all in the letters of the apostle John (1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3 and 2 John 1:7). He defines the term quite clearly for us. “I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (2 John 1:7).” One of the false doctrines that sprung up in the early church was a form of Gnosticism which taught that anything physical was bad and only the spirit world was good. Therefore, it was argued that since flesh was inherently bad, Jesus didn’t really come in flesh and blood, but just “seemed” to be material. This particular form of Gnosticism is called “Docetism,” from the Greek term dokein, meaning “to seem.” So where did the concept of a personal Antichrist associated with the end-times come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly. Otherwise, why would so much emphasis be placed on anything other than Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3)?”
Then let’s take a brief look at the idea of the Rapture, when the good Christian folks will purportedly be suddenly snatched from the earth, leaving the bad folks for a period of seven years until Christ and the good folks return to reign physically upon the earth for a literal 1000 years. Now let’s read the passage upon which this popular teaching is supposedly based.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul had a basic purpose in mind when writing these words. He simply wanted to reassure those in the church whose fellow Christians had died that the departed ones had in no way lost their reward. In offering this encouragement, he spoke of two classes of people: living Christians and dead Christians. He says absolutely nothing about living or dead non-Christians. Further, all Christians will meet Christ in the air to be with him forever. Nothing is said about him coming down to earth in the passage. Neither is anything said here about what happens to non-Christians, dead or alive, at his coming. You have to look at other passages to discover what happens to them, and one such passage is John 5:28-29. Read it. It’s not complicated. “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” John affirms one resurrection from the dead of both Christians and non-Christians. Simple enough?
By the way, the word “rapture” is the Latin, rapio, from which the English word is derived. It is a translation of “caught up” (Greek harpazo) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Again we must ask: where did such a well-developed, widely accepted doctrine of the Rapture come from? The fertile imaginations of so-called Bible teachers who are captivated with views that become more interesting to them than Jesus, to put it bluntly (again). The passage used to support the teaching says nothing about non-Christians at the coming of Christ, nothing about a seven-year departure of Christians from the earth, nor a return to earth after that period of time. It is an invention of man, embellished and emphasized long enough to make people think it must be real, but is in fact not found nor even suggested in the Bible. Amazing! Simply amazing!
What About Physical Israel?
I mention the above doctrines for two reasons. One, they are unbiblical, although popular and widely accepted. Two, they are associated with the so-called “Restoration of Israel,” a doctrine that declares the Jewish nation of today to be special to God and to have a special place in his plans for the future. I believe the best way to show the fallacy of this teaching is to defer to what Paul said in Romans 9-11, which we will do shortly.
One of the greatest challenges to the minds and hearts of first century Jewish Christians was in trying to understand and accept the current plight of most of their fellow Jews. Although many of them had accepted Christ as Messiah and Savior, the majority had not. Thus, they were outside of the church, which meant that they were outside Christ and outside a saved relationship with God. They must have asked themselves questions like these: “How were we the chosen nation of God for centuries and now most of us are no longer a part of the chosen?” “Did all of our years of hardship and persecution mean nothing?” “Does God no longer love the Jews as the ‘apple of his eye’ (Deuteronomy 32:10) as he did throughout our history?”
Speaking of history, both the Jews of the first century and many Christian faith adherents today seem pretty confused about what historical Israel was really like. By “cherry-picking” their favorite Scriptures and failing to examine OT books as a whole, especially the Prophets, their views of Israel as God’s beloved nation warm the hearts. However, the Israelite nation was about as rebellious toward God as could be imagined. Even a casual reading of the OT prophets would demonstrate this. They went from serving God faithfully at times to absolute apostasy of the worst kind, repeating this cycle over and over again. The description of their sins included every type of moral violation and every type of idolatry, including sacrificing their own children in the fire. Just do a word search of “idols” in the Bible. The types of idolatry and numbers of times it was practiced by the Jewish nation is absolutely shocking.
All of these sins, repeated in spite of repeated warnings from God, resulted in God sending enemy nations to punish Israel throughout their history and ultimately resulted in him allowing them to be taken into captivity. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Reading the biblical accounts of these events are not simply horrifying; they will make you nauseous. Take a look at God’s prediction of such way back in the early part of Israel’s history during the Wilderness Wandering period.
Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (NIV2011)
Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.
The tendency toward sentimentality in the case of Israel was alive and well in the first century and it is just as apparent today among those who espouse the view that Israel is still God’s special nation. Those of Christ’s days on earth trusted their heritage in spite of what it actually demonstrated. The self-righteousness of the religious Jews knew no bounds. After all, they were God’s special nation and the other nations of the world were less than worthless. The Gentiles were viewed as “dogs” and as perfect fodder with which to stoke the fires of hell. John the Baptist expressed the same absence of sentimentality toward Israel that God did in the OT.
Matthew 3:7-10 (NIV2011)
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
In one way, the rejection of Jesus by the majority of the Jews shouldn’t have been that surprising, since most of them hadn’t responded too positively to the teaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. Oh sure, they had turned out in droves to see his miracles and to perhaps be the recipient of his miraculous healing or even feeding. But when it came down to accepting his most challenging teaching, that was quite another story. This passage from John 6 illustrates the point well.
John 6:60-66 (NIV2011)
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” 61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
A Kingdom Within a Kingdom
The truths contained in this section, if understood and taken seriously, would eradicate the mistaken views of the actual position of the Jewish nation from its very inception to this present day. Is Israel still a special nation in God’s eyes? Were they a special nation in his eyes in the OT period itself? The answer – yes and no in both cases. In the OT, they were a part of his special plan to bring forth the Messiah and through him to bless the world spiritually. However, being a part of that plan did not mean that they were right with God spiritually as individual members of the nation. In the NT, from the first day of the New Covenant until the present, God loves non-Christian Jews simply because they are a part of the human race and also because they descended from the patriarchs (Romans 11:28). That being said, they have not been a part of any special plan of God since the New Covenant was instituted. They are not, nor will they be, a part of God’s spiritual kingdom without accepting Christ on an individual basis according to that covenant.
Everyone from Adam onward who were (or became) people of faith, were a part of a kingdom within a kingdom. They voluntary submitted to their God as their King, which made them a part of two kingdoms at once. The spiritual part of the kingdom has gone through various phases, which can easily be overlooked or misunderstood. Before the Law of Moses was given at the inauguration of the Judaistic kingdom, those who were faithful to God were in his spiritual kingdom – whether it was officially called a kingdom or not. If he was the king, they were his subjects. If his will was being done by them, they were in his kingdom of the redeemed. This kingdom before the cross was nonetheless based on the sacrifice made on the cross, for Jesus was the Lamb slain from the creation of the world in the mind of God – Revelation 13:8. The citizens of that early kingdom understood none of this, but they didn’t have to. God did. They just had to be faithful to the light God had given them.
Then historically, the kingdom of the Jews was established at Sinai. God’s will was for all of those descendants of Abraham to be a spiritual kingdom under his kingship. He made this clear through Moses in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, although this lofty goal for Israel represented God’s ideal will, it didn’t play out in an ideal fashion. In fact, by the end of the Wilderness Wandering period, Deuteronomy was written to correct legalistic views of observing the Law that had developed in just a forty-year period, which explains why so much in this amazing Book addressed the heart. But Deuteronomy did not halt the slide into legalism (and worse). From its inception, the nation of Israel became a nation within a nation, a kingdom within a kingdom. The whole nation was used as God’s instrument to prepare for the coming of the Messiah and to produce him. Sadly, only a remnant (the spiritual kingdom within the physical kingdom) was faithful to him.
Paul certainly made this principle clear with his comments in Romans 9-11, as we will see. This explains why there had to be a kingdom within a kingdom, a spiritual kingdom and a physical kingdom existing concurrently. The nation may have become a nation at Sinai, and although God used them for his ultimate purposes, they were often a nation in rebellion. Praise God for the encouragement we get from knowing that there was a remnant even in the worst of times, Ruth being a shining example of that – though a foreign proselyte. Even in the largely apostate Northern Kingdom during the time of the divided kingdom, Elijah was told by God that the remnant numbered 7,000 (1 Kings 19:18).
The most important phase of the Israelite kingdom began when David was made king, for God promised him that someone from his lineage would remain on the throne forever. Saul’s family lost the throne due to his sin, but David’s family would never abdicate the throne to another family. Of course, the ultimate Davidic king who would reign forever and ever was none other than Jesus the Messiah.
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV2011)
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
The apostles’ question about restoring the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 was not a dumb nor naive question, in spite of frequent assertions of same. The kingdom of the Messiah was a restored kingdom, especially relevant historically because from the time of the Babylonian captivity until Jesus was crowned, there was not a king on David’s throne (meaning from his lineage). The kingdom of Christ was given first to the Jews as a fulfillment of many OT prophecies, and it was a number of years before Gentiles began flooding into his kingdom. Of course, the OT foretold the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the Jews evidently understood this to mean that they would come in through the funnel of Judaism. That misinterpretation led to the Jew/Gentile controversy in the early church that nearly split it.
Paul’s Answer to Our Question
For most modern Jews, since most of them are secular and not religious, all of this is a moot point. They are neither intrigued nor disturbed by such considerations. But an increasingly large number of those claiming to be Christians, most of whom come from Gentile (non-Jewish) heritage, are quite concerned about the Jewish nation. They have become deeply involved in what they believe to be “end-time” prophecy and the place of the present Jewish nation is quite prominent in much of current prophecy. We have already examined some of the popular basics of this teaching, but now let me share with you an abridged, edited version of Romans 9-11 from my practical exposition of Romans, “Romans: The Heart Set Free.” Although I chose to leave out most of the biblical passages themselves, they are all included in the book. If you have any questions after reading a given section, please read the passage in your Bible.
Romans Chapter Nine: God’s Right to Make His Choices
After carefully developing the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in chapters 1-8, Paul now addresses the issue of physical Israel. The question naturally arose: “If the Jews were used by God as a nation in bringing salvation to the world (by producing the Messiah), why were the large majority of them not in his Kingdom?” Paul explains that the problem is not God’s love, nor even his love as a fellow Israelite – the problem was the Jew’s reaction to a crucified Messiah. As always in God’s dealings with man, it boils down to the issue of choice.
God created us as humans, which by definition means that we have the ability and the freedom to choose. That freedom would not be freedom unless we could choose either the good or the bad. When we exercise this freedom in the wrong way, God does all possible to persuade us otherwise, but he will never remove our freedom in the process. Sadly, most Jews choose to reject the Messiah who did not fit their mold of what they thought a Messiah should be. Of course, Jesus fit the mold of OT prophecy perfectly, but Jewish expectations were more based on traditions than Scripture. However, neither God nor Paul had given up trying to reach them. With the skilled pen of a rabbi, Paul masterfully used Jewish history to reach out with the heart of God to hearts that were hardened to the gospel. Maybe there was yet hope! With that thought burning inside, Paul begins.
Paul’s Love For His Jewish Brothers (Romans 9:1-3)
Romans 9:2-3 (NIV2011)
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.
Paul begins by expressing his own intense love for his countrymen (verses 1-3). He assures the readers that he is being truthful about this, for no one was more hardline in his preaching to Jewish audiences than was Paul. Read Acts 28:23-28 to get a feel for the power of his convictions and the directness with which he spoke. He was a great imitator of Jesus, who said: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
Next Paul asserts that he lived with the burden of their spiritual rejection, and in fact would be willing to be lost if that would save them. I can only wish that my love for the lost rivaled that of Paul. Allow yourself to sit quietly and contemplate that possibility in your own life – think about being lost for eternity, and think about who you love enough to go to hell for! Paul’s statement about having constant sorrow and anguish does catch us a little off guard, because we think of him as being such a positive, upbeat thinker. After all, he is the one who said to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). Yes, even though he said that and did that, he still had unceasing anguish in his heart over his lost brothers. Obviously, the anguish and the rejoicing exist together.
God’s Love In Making Choices (Romans 9:4-18)
God had clearly loved and blessed the Jewish nation throughout their history (verses 4-5). Of all the people on the face of the earth, they had been most blessed. Here Paul lists seven things that were unique to their nation. In light of this, how could they question God’s love? What else could he have done to win their hearts and move them to repentance by his kindness (Romans 2:4)?
However, he had always made choices in his dealings with them, most of which they accepted without any problem (verses 6-13). In fact, they gloried in them as they recounted them with great pleasure and approval. Their very lineage showed God’s choices, and none of them would have argued that the choices were poor ones. But their sacred history demonstrated clearly that it had never been simply an issue of physical descent. Abraham had two sons, but only one was chosen. Isaac also had two sons, and only one of them were chosen.
The allegation that God loved Jacob and hated Esau is somewhat shocking at first glance. But this is a quote from Malachi 1:2-3, referring to the nations of Israel and Edom respectively, and thus the term “hate” applies primarily to a nation. God chose Jacob, who had his own character flaws, but who ended up as a man of faith after he responded to the discipline of the Lord. Sometimes writers describe Jacob in as negative of terms as his brother Esau, which suggests that God’s choice had no moral basis at all. However, the passage of time showed that Jacob had the more righteous heart. However, the point of Paul’s argument here is that God had the right to make these choices.
God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt showed other choices, and were choices that the people had always readily accepted. Moses was especially blessed by God to catch a glimpse of God that no one else was privileged to see (Exodus 33:18-23). Pharaoh, on the other hand, was hardened by God. What does that mean? Simply this: God “hardened” Pharaoh through his commands and Pharaoh’s free will to choose. Back in Exodus, the text says a number of times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and a number of times that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God’s word hardens some hearts and softens others, depending on the type of heart is responding to that word. The same sun hardens clay and melts butter. But again, the thrust of this passage in Romans is that God has the right to do what he pleases. Thankfully, he pleases to always do the righteous thing and the thing which allows men to make their own moral choices.
God’s Choices Were Always Right (Romans 9:19-33)
God is always God, and he is always right. He is the potter and man is only clay. Obviously, the potter can do what he wants with his own clay! Romans 9 is a much-used chapter by the Calvinists in their attempt to show unconditional election and predestination, and the potter and clay illustration is a favorite as they try to bolster such a belief. The clay has nothing to do with how the potter chooses to shape it, we are told by them. However, similar potter and clay passages show that while God has the right to do what he wants, the clay has a choice in the outcome of the shaping. Read Jeremiah 18:1-10 and 2 Timothy 2:20-21 to see this point clearly established.
The sovereignty of God and the free choice of man run concurrently all through Scripture (again, see Acts 2:23 for a classic text). As difficult as it may be for our minds to harmonize the two, we cannot throw out either part of the equation. God’s foreknowledge and man’s choices, complete with total responsibility, are not mutually exclusive. And God knowing in advance what someone is going to do in no way rules out their free moral agency nor forces them to do it.
In Romans 9:20-21, we see that getting angry and blaming God is totally out of place. In verses 22-29, Paul makes a point from the OT that only a remnant in the Jewish nation had ever really followed heart and soul. How could they argue with their own history? As mentioned previously, there were really two OT election processes working at the same time, the physical and spiritual, but the Jews mistakenly assumed that the former guaranteed the latter. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and their own prophets had made the point clear, if they had but listened.
The fact that was becoming more obvious in Paul’s line of reasoning is that Israel simply made the wrong choice. Their response to Christ and the cross revealed the nature of their hearts (verses 30-33). They pursued their law that was designed to lead them to righteousness in Christ, but they sought it by performance, not by faith. Hence, they stumbled at the idea that they were so sinful that God had to become a man and die for them. The cross was pure foolishness to them (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). They did not understand God’s way of making men right with himself (grace through faith), seeking to establish their own path to being right with God (legalism). Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah showed the entrenched legalism in their hearts. The true Jews, like the 3,000 on Pentecost, obviously had very different hearts.
Romans Chapter Ten: Israel’s Lack of True Faith
Romans 9 made the point that God had the right to make the choices that he did, including the choice not to bend his rules for the physical Israelites. Romans 10 argues the point that the real problem is Israel, for most Israelites had simply made the wrong choice by deciding to reject Jesus. That rejection was not God’s fault, and certainly not his will. It could and should have been different. Romans 11 will go on to show that even though the choice had been wrong up until then, it could in fact be reversed. God’s outstretched hand has not been pulled back; he was (and is) still willing and anxious to accept the Jews, but only if they exercise true faith. Zeal they had, but faith they did not have. Hence Paul addresses that issue head-on.
Israel Had a Zeal For God (Romans 10:1-4)
Romans 10:1-4 (NIV2011)
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
They were filled with zeal for God, but it was misdirected zeal (Romans 10:1-4). Christ was the culmination (aim, fulfillment) of the Law of Moses – it all pointed to salvation in him. From this passage, it is obvious that we cannot be saved outside a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Belief in Yahweh did not save those who did not accept Christ. Spiritual zeal did not save them either. The Bible is clear about this matter of salvation – no one can come to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6), and no salvation can be found in anyone else (Acts 4:12). If these statements be viewed as narrow-minded, so be it, for Jesus himself said that the way of salvation was narrow (Matthew 7:13-14,21)!
Righteousness Was Readily Available (Romans 10:5-15)
In Romans 10:5-15, Paul proceeds to demonstrate that the spiritual needs of the Jews could have been met, for righteousness was readily available. The hard part has already been done – Christ died and was resurrected. The word of faith is simple to obey, and the progression in verses 14-15 is preaching, hearing, believing, and calling. Calling on the name of the Lord includes baptism, as may be readily seen in Acts 2:21,38, and also in Acts 22:16. In Acts 2:21, Peter quotes from Joel 2:32 which reads: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then, when the people asked, in essence, just how to do that, Peter told them to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:37-38). Acts 22:16 is even clearer, as Paul was told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
In Romans 10:9-10 Paul is talking about the Jews who had failed to accept Christ, and addressing the reasons for that rejection. He was making the point beginning in verse 5 that the righteousness which comes by faith is not a complex issue nor an unreachable goal. God has already done the difficult work by sending his Son to the cross. Now in response to what he has done, we need to accept him as Lord and Messiah. That was the challenge to the Jew. Being baptized was not a hard concept for them. It had been a part of John’s ministry, and large numbers of Jews had received it from his hands. Matthew 3:5-6 says that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Proselytes to Judaism were customarily baptized as an initiation rite into Judaism.
The problem that the Jew did have was to accept Jesus as the Messiah and to then make this crucified Jew from despised Nazareth their Lord and King. Now that was a challenge! This background focus explains why the passage was worded as it was. In a related vein, the problem with Gentile acceptance of the gospel was repentance. Therefore, Luke, a book written by a Gentile for Gentiles, focused on that need all through his Gospel. In fact, his account of the Great Commission only mentions repentance. “He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:46-47). Luke’s failure to specifically name faith in this account does not mean that he was excluding it from the conversion process. He was simply focusing on their greatest challenge. And Luke’s approach follows exactly the same principle used by Paul in Romans 10: address the key need of the intended audience.
Israel’s Rejection and Gentile’s Acceptance Was Foretold (Romans 10:16-21)
As in the ending of Romans 9, Paul makes two basic points in this section: only a remnant of Israel had ever responded in faith to God; and the inclusion of the Gentiles was foretold by Israel’s own prophets. The bulk of the Jews rejected Christ because they did not accept the words of the Scripture that they supposedly cherished like no other. They had the message for centuries, but they had misinterpreted it by reading into it what they wanted to see. If we come to the Bible to prove a point that we already have decided upon, we are wasting time opening it up. We will see from God only what our hearts are prepared to see.
The message, says Paul, comes through hearing the word of Christ. Certainly the OT was all about Christ, for he himself said to the Jews, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). As far back as Moses (Deuteronomy 32:21), their rejection was cause for God to announce that he would use another nation to provoke them to envy. (Paul will make much use in Romans 11 of this envy provoking idea.) Then other prophets such as Isaiah added their voice to the same message. Israel could not claim that Paul’s argument was a new revelation to them; they had only to read their own prophets. The fact of the matter was what Paul concluded the chapter with: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Isaiah 65:2). How sad! But for God’ apostle, hope springs eternal, and in Romans 11, he continues to try and move the Jews toward faith in Jesus.
Romans Chapter Eleven: Israel’s Choice Is Not Irreversible
As Paul brings his line of reasoning on this subject to a conclusion, he will correct attitudes of both those with Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. The Jews thought that God had excluded them with some ulterior negative motive, which was certainly not true. His invitation is always open to anyone who will hear. The NT message closed out with such an invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). That will forevermore be the heart of God for everyone, and certainly for the Jews, with whom he shared so much history and memories.
By this point in Paul’s arguments, the Gentiles ran the risk of becoming self-righteous and puffed up about their inclusion in God’s kingdom. Thus, they had to be warned. Pride is always looking for ways to get into the nooks and crannies of our hearts. We are all too tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3), for many reasons. We can be prideful about our salvation, the fact that we chose Jesus when most do not. But why did we choose him? Surely not because we are good, for none is good. Everything about our salvation is a matter of grace. Acts 11:18 informs us that even our repentance is by God’s grace. Paul, the apostle of grace, will make sure that those on both sides of the issues get what they need in Romans 11, whether encouragement or correction.
Only a Remnant Made the Right Choices (Romans 11:1-10)
Actually, only a remnant of Israel had ever made the right choices (verses1-10). Paul was an example of those in the remnant in the first century, as were thousands more. In Acts 21:20, James mentioned that thousands were believers at that time in Jerusalem. In Elijah’s day, God said that 7000 had not bowed the knee to Baal – and keep in mind that Elijah was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom, the most godless part of Israel. The ones who did not respond to grace were hardened by their own rejection. As was the case with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, verse 8 shows that God gave the people a spirit of stupor. He did this by giving commands of righteousness and giving them the freedom to make choices in their response to these commands, thus revealing the nature of their own hearts.
The same principle is applied by Jesus in his use of parables (Matthew 13:13-16). The lesson that we must gain from this passage is a realization and appreciation of how God wrote his message in a manner that reveals hearts. Another example of the principle is seen in Lydia, who could hear a single message and respond in faith (Acts 16), while the Jews about whom Paul wrote could try to kill him for preaching the same message. The Word can be understood by a person with a heart of faith, but it can be twisted unknowingly by a person without a heart of humble faith. Indeed, through God’s message, “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
God Intended To Use Their Wrong Choices (Romans 11:11-24)
In spite of God’s pain over a majority of Jews rejecting Christ, he still intended to use even their wrong choices to accomplish good (verses 11-24). Israel’s wrong choices and subsequent rejection has ended up being a blessing to the Gentiles. The Jews had Jesus crucified, making salvation available to Jews and Gentiles alike. They drove Christians out of Jerusalem, which resulted in the Gentiles being able to hear the gospel sooner. They rejected the message in each city to which the early missionaries preached, after which they preached to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). If the Jew’s rejection of the gospel ended up blessing the world, then how much more their acceptance would do! Now Paul hopes that the Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom will provoke the Jews to envy, causing them to reconsider the message of Christ.
Read verses 13-14 carefully with this in mind. “I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” This section concludes with a warning to the Gentiles not to be prideful and self-righteous. They had not been a part of the olive root (Judaism) in the first place – they had been merely grafted in by the grace of God. The Jews had been cut off because of their faithless rejection of Christ, but they can be grafted back in again if they turn to Jesus in faith.
They Still Had Choices To Make (Romans 11:25-36)
The motivation and opportunities for future choices are found in verses 25-36. Israel’s hardening is only partial, until the full number of Gentiles has come in. If it is partial, it has the possibility of being reversed. The key to a reversal is the coming in of the full number of Gentiles. Here is the key section in verses 25-27: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Paul likely was referring to the completion of his own ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), resulting in more and more Gentiles in the church all over the world. In Romans 15:24, we find that his missionary plans were not nearly completed, for he planned to go as far as Spain. Once this larger Gentile inclusion had occurred, all Israel could be saved. The phrase “in this way” in verse 26 is translated from the Greek houtos, an adverb of manner. The earlier version of the NIV (New International Version) translates it as, “and so all Israel,” as do a number of other versions. Even the more accurate NASB (New American Standard Bible) translated it as “and thus all Israel.” Although these translations are not technically misleading, they are not clarifyingly accurate either. I think in this way refers back to the envy-provoking process mentioned in verses13-14. Paul refers to the same idea again in verse 31: “so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” Therefore, when the Jews saw the growing number of Gentiles in the church, and the blessings from God that they were enjoying, those with good hearts would be envious enough to humble out and reconsider. In this way, or manner, they would be saved.
The all Israel referred to those whose hearts would allow them to humble out and reconsider. It could not refer to every last Israelite coming to Christ at some future point, for a number of reasons. For starters, the narrow path will never be chosen by a majority from any nation, race, or population group (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul had already in this chapter expressed his hope that some (not all) would turn to Christ by being provoked to envy (verse 14). Even if some future generation of Jews in the majority were to accept Christ (which I don’t believe will happen), what comfort would that be to the scores of generations that had already died lost? The key idea of all Israel being saved is that of hopeful potential – much like Jesus expressed in John 12:32, when he said: “I will draw all men to myself,” and in John 13:35: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples.”
Note that the quote in Romans 11:26-27 refers to salvation in Christ which became available at the cross and will continue to be available to anyone who will accept the gospel in faith. “As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. 27 And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” He is still talking about the one new covenant in Christ, the final covenant God has offered to mankind to save us through Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. The only plan of salvation that God has and will have to the end of time is this plan, which must be accepted individually! God still loves the rejecting Jews and wants to save them, for the promises made to the patriarchs still stand. The section concludes with a beautiful doxology, showing that God’s ways are beyond man’s ways, and thus above our comprehension. But we do know that even bad things (like Israel’s rejection) can be used for good ends, even as Romans 8:28 promises. Praise God that he is in control of the world and not we ourselves! Hope springs eternal!
PS — For a more extensive study of the end-times, see my practical exposition of Revelation entitled, “Revelation Revealed” from Illumination Publishers (ipibooks.com).