Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “faith

Basic Christianity

#follow Jesus 400pxWho do you follow on social media? We can choose between lots of people and causes to follow. And everyone follows something: friends, popular culture, family, selfish desires, or God. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord. But You’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Christians follow Jesus Christ.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It is the predominant religion in Europe, Russia, North America, South America, the Philippines, East Timor, Southern Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, and Oceania. It is declining in developed countries and growing in under-developed countries.

This post is one in a series on major religions. It shows that Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible.

Definitions

The largest branches of Christianity are the Roman Catholic church, the Orthodox church, and the Protestant churches.

Roman Catholic churches believe that scripture must be interpreted within the tradition of the church. Their Bible includes an extra 7 deuterocanonical books. And Mary the mother of Jesus is considered an object of devotion and veneration. And the Pope may pronounce dogma (doctrine required to be obeyed by all members) infallibly. Seven sacraments are believed to convey saving grace. And baptism and communion are believed to be necessary to gain eternal life.

Orthodox churches believe that scripture must be interpreted by sacred tradition. Their Bible includes an extra 10 deuterocanonical books. Icons (images of Christ, Mary, or the saints) are objects of veneration through which God is to be worshipped.

Protestant churches believe in scripture alone (and not tradition), justification by faith alone (and not works) and the universal priesthood of believers (because Christ mediates like a high priest).

The “Old Covenant” is God’s agreement or treaty made with the nation of Israel about 3,500 years ago.

History

Christianity is named after Jesus Christ. It began in Jerusalem (on the Day of Pentecost) after Christ’s death. The first Christians were mainly Jews. It developed under the leadership of the apostles. Christianity is based on the teaching of Christ and the apostles, which is recorded in the Bible. As a result of persecution, Christians moved away from the Middle East across the Roman Empire.

The early followers of Jesus were called “disciples” and followers of “the Way” and “Christians” (Acts 9:2; 11:26; 19:9, 23; 22:4, 14; 1 Pt. 4:16). His followers are now known as Christians.

Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity in AD 301. And in AD 380, Christianity was made the religion of the Roman Empire. Since this time, Christianity has played a prominent role in the shaping of Western civilization.

In the 11th century AD, there was a division between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox church in the east. In the 16th century the Protestant churches separated from the Roman Catholic church.

Here are some of the major Christian beliefs according to the Bible. They are core beliefs of Christianity.

Seven major beliefs

The Bible

We learn about Jesus in the Bible, which is God’s special revelation to humanity. The Old Testament describes history up to the time of Christ and the New Testament describes the time of Christ (in the Gospels) and then the early church. In fact, Jesus is the key person in the Bible.

Creation shows that God is intelligent, powerful and supernatural. But the clearest way that God has revealed Himself to us is in the Bible. It’s God’s record of history because He miraculously guided the authors of Scripture to correctly record His message to humanity (2 Pt. 1:21). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17NIV). Because the Bible is “God-breathed”, it’s completely reliable.

Paul said, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Christian faith is based on the message about Jesus Christ which is recorded in the Bible. It gives us everything we need for a godly life (2 Pt. 1:3).

When many followers were deserting Jesus, He asked His disciples “Are you also going to leave?”. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life” (Jn. 6:67-68NLT). The Bible contains words that give eternal life. That’s what makes it different to other books and other messages.

Hebrews says, “The word of God is active and alive … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible judges us. We need to respond faithfully to its message, because the Bible exposes unbelief.

So, the Bible is our authority for belief (faith) and practice. And it’s the best source of our knowledge about God. That’s why we are looking at Christianity according to the Bible and not according to a particular church. All the beliefs and practices described below come from the Bible.

Overall history 1 400pxOverall history

Overall history is visualized in this schematic diagram. In the beginning God created a perfect world where there was no sin. But this world was changed and spoiled when humanity sinned. From that time there is sin, suffering and death. But God promised deliverance and salvation from this. When this is finalized in the future, God’s perfect world will be restored. We now live under the curse of sin between the Fall and the restoration.

History is linear. It’s sequential from a beginning to an end. The end is the new creation where Jesus rules in the kingdom of God. Here’s the events in the previous diagram rearranged in a line.

Basic Christianity 2 800px

God’s plan of salvation has two parts, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant and introduced the New Covenant. That’s why His name appears between them in the diagram. He marks the center and turning point in history. The purpose of the Old Covenant was to accomplish a rescue plan for the world: God becoming a Jewish man and dying for humanity’s crimes against God. The Old Covenant no longer applies because its purpose was achieved. It has been replaced by the New Covenant. Christians are those who have trusted in God’s rescue plan and they live under the New Covenant. They are part of His coming new creation.

So we live in a world where there is tension between sin and salvation, between the past fall and the future restoration, and between following Satan and following Jesus.

The triune God

The Bible teaches that there is only one God, yet it calls three Persons “God” – the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” explains the eternal relationship between them. This form of monotheism is indicated in the diagram by the green circle.

Beliefs aboutr God 400pxOther beliefs (or worldviews), such as those indicated in the diagram by a blue circle, differ from the Bible. These are:
– There is no God (atheism). There is no spiritual world – it’s only physical. Like humanism and naturalism.
– There is one God (monotheism), but no trinity.
Jesus was a great teacher, but he wasn’t divine. Like lslam.
– There are many gods (polytheism). Like Hinduism, and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
– Everything is god (pantheism). Like New Age spirituality, and animism.

These are different worldviews. Christianity is the Biblical worldview. It teaches that God is a spiritual being without a physical body who is eternal (has no beginning or end). God is great – He created the universe out of nothing. And God is good – although we rebelled against Him, He offered salvation to humanity. He is personal and involved with people.

How do we get to know God? Only through a relationship with Jesus Christ that involves believing and following Him.

The problem

Are people basically good or evil? Adam and Eve were created good in the beginning, and in the image of God, but they disobeyed God. Because of this, humanity and the rest of creation were cursed with sin, suffering and death (Rom. 5:12-15). The Bible says we are all sinners who are spiritually dead and separated from God (Isa. 59:2; Rom. 3:23, 5:12). And Satan is a spiritual being who tempts us to sin. Humanity now has a fatal flaw. We need help. Unless we do something about it we face eternal punishment in hell (Mt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 19:20). It’s more important than global warming or poverty or inequality or terrorism or the Middle East conflict or anything else you can think of. So, we have a big problem. And only God can fix it. We need outside help. That’s where Jesus comes into history.

Jesus

Jesus is fully God and fully human (1 Jn. 4:1-3). As God, He always existed and was never created. And He created the universe (Col. 1:16). His conception was unique. He lived a sinless life. He was executed on a cross, was buried, but He rose back to life and is spiritually and physically immortal. When He ascended to heaven, He promised to return to earth again.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of humanity as described in the New Testament, whose coming as the Messiah (the Christ) was prophesized in the Old Testament.

Jesus was sent to earth to solve the big problem of our hopeless situation of sinfulness and separation from God

The solution

God had a plan to forgive sinful people like us. Because God is loving and just, His plan was loving and just. The idea was that Jesus would be our substitute. He would take our punishment (that’s justice), and we would be offered forgiveness (that’s loving). So, Jesus died as the sacrifice and payment for our sins.

God’s plan of salvation was offered to people as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9) that could be accepted by acknowledging our sin and the fact that it separates us from God, and believing that Jesus died for our sins and physically rose again. We just need to trust in Jesus alone as the way of salvation because He has done all the work for us. There’s two aspects:
– Admit you are a sinner – that’s the problem (Rom. 3:23; 1 Jn. 1:9)
– Believe that Jesus died for you – that’s the solution (Acts 16:31).

Bridge to life 400pxJesus is like the bridge to eternal life in this diagram. Unbelievers are separated from God and on the road to hell. If they trust in what Jesus has done for them, they cross over the bridge to the road to heaven. That’s the only solution. The only rescue plan.

That’s how God made a way for people to have a relationship with Him. Paul said, “Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us, so that in Him (Jesus) we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20). What a great exchange of our sin for Christ’s righteousness!

Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts. 4:12). That’s why Christians follow and worship Jesus and not someone else who is a sinner like us.

The future

Those who follow Jesus are promised a wonderful future. At death their invisible soul is separated from the body. That’s when believers go to be with Jesus. Later at the rapture their bodies are resurrected and reunited with their souls. So believers will live with Jesus for eternity (Jn. 11:25, 26; 2 Cor. 5:6). They will also reign with Jesus in His coming kingdom.

If you want to drive a car in Australia you need to pass a knowledge test to get a learner licence. Then you need to pass a driving test for a provisional licence. You can’t get a learner licence without passing the knowledge test. And you can’t get a provisional licence without passing a driving test. There’s information to know and things you need to be able to do. Likewise to follow Jesus, there are both beliefs to know and practices to do.

Now we have looked at the major beliefs of those who follow Jesus, here are some of their major practices. All these practices can be applied in a Christian’s individual life, in their family life, and in their corporate life (as in the church). And they were practiced by the early church (Acts 2:42; 4:33).

Five major practices

Bible reading

It’s important to connect with the Bible every day as it is God’s main message to us. Christians read it to understand the message and to apply it to their daily lives.

Regularly reading the Bible is one of the most important things they can do. It can influence their lives and help them develop godly attitudes and behavior. And they can learn more about God and draw nearer to God. Victory over sin comes from the Bible (Mt. 4:4). As physical food gives us energy, the words of scripture give us spiritual energy and power. Devotions like “Our Daily Bread” and Bible Apps can help.

Christians should study the Bible because there is so much false teaching around. Test any teaching against what the Bible says (Acts 17:11). Be careful to correctly interpret scripture (2 Tim. 2:15). There are many poor interpretations on the internet. Some things that can help to keep you on the right track are – Study Bibles and the “Believer’s Bible commentary” by William MacDonald.

Prayer

Christians are commanded to pray regularly and when facing trouble (Col. 4:2; 1 Th. 5:17; Heb. 5:13). It’s important to connect with God every day. Jesus prayed regularly and not just on special occasions (Mt. 14:23; Mk. 1:35; Lk. 11:1). He “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Lk. 5:16).

Many of Paul’s prayers are recorded in the New Testament. He prayed for things like godly living, his ministry, strengthening, increased knowledge, more love, grace and peace, Israel’s salvation, Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith, more hope and for the fullness of God.  A Christian’s prayers are offered to the Father through Jesus because Jesus is the only mediator between people and God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5).

James said, “Come near to God and He will come near to you” (Jas. 4:8). If Christians come to God in prayer with humility, He will answer their prayers. God is accessible to those in fellowship with Him. They can stay right with God by confessing our sins (1 Jn. 1:9).

People are encouraged by knowing that others are praying for them. Peace is another benefit of prayer, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

Praise and worship

God alone is worthy of our devotion, praise and worship. He is our Creator and our Savior. Praise is linked with thanksgiving, while worship is linked to surrender.

Christians should praise God for His goodness even when life is difficult. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess His name” (Heb. 13:15). The joy of salvation can be expressed in songs of praise (Acts 16:25; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:13). Their praise is offered to the Father through Jesus.

Jesus said that His followers should “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24). Worship is different under the New Covenant. The location isn’t important anymore. But who and how Christians worship is important. They worship the Father for sending the Son and Jesus for carrying out God’s plan of salvation. Its God centered. One’s attitude needs to be right (in spirit; engaging our hearts). And it needs to be consistent with Scripture and the kind of God we worship (in truth; engaging our minds).

Serving God is a form of individual worship (Rom. 12:1). It’s a response to all that God has done for them. And the Lord’s Supper is an expression of corporate worship.

Sharing the good news about Jesus

Before Jesus ascended back to heaven He told the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). He also told them, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In the book of Acts there are many accounts of people sharing the good news of God’s plan of salvation though Jesus. This began in Jerusalem and extended to elsewhere in the Middle East and across the Roman Empire to Rome. Paul and Silas were so passionate about telling people about Jesus that they continued sharing even when they were imprisoned.

Godly attitudes and behavior

Children grow up to be like their parents in many ways. Christians are called “children of God” (Jn. 1:12)

The Bible says, “His (God’s) divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. Through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Pt. 1:3-4).

The power of God gives Christians new life (Col. 2:12-13; Ti. 3:4-5) and the power of God gives them the ability to live godly lives (Phil. 2:12-13; 4:13). The better they know God’s Word the better they can apply God’s principles in their lives. The Christian lives by the promises of God in Christ.

Christians have two natures. A selfish sinful nature like unbelievers and a new divine nature, which transforms them to become more like Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). This process isn’t complete until they get to heaven when they “see Him (Jesus) as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The divine nature is God’s provision to counteract the sinful nature.

Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:31 – 11:1). He put the welfare of others first. God should be glorified in all that Christians do. He didn’t want to stumble anyone so that unbelievers may be saved.

Following Jesus is a transformation from within. Paul changed from being self-centered to being Christ-centered (Phil. 3:4-16). His mind was set on heavenly things, not earthly things (Phil. 3:17-20).

The godly attitudes and behavior mentioned in the New Testament include:

Active
Bold
Compassionate
Considerate
Consistent
Contented
Dedicated
Encouraging
Enthusiastic
Evangelistic
Faithful
Forgiving
Generous
Gentle
Good
Gracious
Helpful
Holy
Honest
Hospitable
Humble
Impartial
Joyful
Liberty
Longsuffering
Loving
Obedient
Opposed to sin
Patient
Peaceful
Persevering
Praising
Prayerful
Reconciling
Repentant
Respectful
Reverent
Self-controlled
Submissive
Thankful
Unifying
Visionary
Wise
Wonderful

What a wonderful list of attributes! Wouldn’t it be great to be more like this?

Culture

The Bible encourages Christians to meet together regularly for mutual encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25). Collective worship and service is one of the characteristics of Christianity. This is difficult in countries where Christians are persecuted. Groups of people that meet together are referred to as a local church and the building they meet in can also be called a “church”. Since the middle ages some grand churches have been constructed, particularly in Europe. These were significant landmarks because of their great size and splendor. Cathedrals are impressive church buildings that symbolize the glory of God. In an age when the vast majority of the people were illiterate, the images on the stained-glass windows were like an illustrated Bible.

Christianity had a significant impact on education, science and medicine. And it has also had an impact on art, music and literature. The contents of the Bible influenced artists such as Michelanglo and Leonardo da Vinci, composers such as Bach and Handel, and writers such as Shakespeare and CS Lewis.

Christians usually celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas and Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter. These are cultural and traditional events as neither of them is mentioned in the Bible.

Comparison with Judaism

Jesus, the apostles and the majority of the early church were Jewish. As Judaism is based on the Old Covenant (Old Testament), it’s a precursor of Christianity. Because Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Old Testament about 2000 years ago, Christianity is the successor of Judaism.

The Jewish faith is monotheistic, but not trinitarian – they don’t accept that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah awaited by the Jews, while the Jews believe that the Messiah will come in the future. The Jewish Messiah is a person (who isn’t divine) who will restore the physical kingdom of Israel, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and bring earthly peace.

Both Judaism and Christianity teach that God has a special plan for the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. But Christianity does not accept that Mosaic Law has any authority over Christians, while Judaism does not accept that the New Testament has any religious authority over Jews. Besides the Old Testament, Judaism also considers the Oral Torah (written in the Mishnah and the Talmuds) to be a sacred text. Christians generally worship collectively of Sunday while Saturday is the day of worship in Judaism.

Conclusion

Christianity is a way of life that involves beliefs and practices that are taught by Jesus and His apostles as recorded in the Bible. This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Christian faith. These beliefs, practices and culture impact everyday life for about 2 billion people across the world.

Written, January 2017

Also see: Basic Islam
Basic Hinduism
Basic Buddhism
Participating in the divine nature


The faith of a geochemist

November-17_WhyIBelieve_ 400pxAssociate Professor David Cohen of the University of New South Wales, Australia, says:

For geologists and geochemists like myself, the planet is a vast laboratory. Our task is to make sense of the physical and biological evidence for the processes that have shaped our planet. We begin by observing and measuring and then we propose models to explain those observations. Our goal is to provide a scientific narrative – a sort of geological book of Genesis – that explains how the world came to be like it is.

Much of the planet’s history can be linked to ‘plate tectonics’. It’s now the commonly accepted view that the world has seven large plates on its surface that move. This model explains such diverse evidence as continental drift and the distribution of earthquakes. While the plate tectonics model seems so elegant, effective and obvious to today’s generation of geologists, there was significant opposition by some leading geologists when it was first proposed. Yet, the evidence for the model is overwhelming, and underpins much of our geological thinking today.

In the same way that I have faith in the evidence for plate tectonics I also have faith that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has made it possible for me to be friends with God forever. But what does the biblical evidence about Jesus demand in terms of a model? And what and why do I believe?

At the end of the famous Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records the response of those who were listening to Jesus:
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at His teaching, for He taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.” (Mt. 28-29).

I can relate to that crowd. It’s not just the teaching of Jesus that appeals to me, but also extraordinary events and miracles that reveal His nature and support His claims to be the Messiah promised by the prophets of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, prophets such as Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, the writers of the Psalms and many others predicted that one day God would send a Messiah, or anointed King who would save people from their sin. Jesus fulfils these promises in convincing ways, which are extraordinary and specific. For example, Isaiah 53 paints a very detailed picture of the sufferings Jesus endured on the cross. Jesus understood that He was fulfilling these promises. He said to His disciples:
The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that He sent me” (Jn. 5:36 – see also Lk. 24:26).

And Jesus knew that the prophets predicted a terrible execution for the Messiah. But He also knew that afterwards He would rise from the dead. Speaking to His disciples He said:
“We’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man (Jesus) wlll be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence Him to die and hand Him over to the Romans. They will mock Him, spit on Him, flog Him with a whip, and kill Him, but after three days He will rise again” (Mk. 10:33-34).

The reason Jesus gives for His death is that it is a ‘ransom’ or payment for sin (see Mk. 10:45). But Jesus explains that it is essential to trust in Him for forgiveness. He says that He is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ and that we must trust in Him for forgiveness.

Nothing in science beats a predictive model that’s subsequently confirmed by new evidence. My decision to follow Christ was gradual, not revolutionary. It was the result of considering the events and ideas presented in the Bible and observing the faith and actions of other followers of Jesus over some years. I found the evidence in the Bible about Jesus to be compelling proof of His nature as God. This includes His words, His actions, His resurrection from the dead and His appearing before many witnesses.

If the Biblical evidence points to Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, what is the implication for our future? Jesus says this:
I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying” (John 11:25)

This is the core of Christianity. Not church traditions but a simple set of propositions in the Bible. It’s why I believe.

Bible Verse: John 11:25 I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying”.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for all the evidence about Jesus in the Bible. Help us to always put our trust in Jesus.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from Outreach Media, Sydney, Australia.
Images and text © Outreach Media 2017


Who can we trust?

Get_Rich 2Have you ever broken a promise or made an empty promise which you have no control over? What about the promises of advertising and politics? Do we believe, disbelieve or are we uncertain about them? We don’t trust those who break their promises. So who can we trust?

A day after binge drinking, Tanya hit a brick wall. She was shaking and scared. She was lonely even though she had a partner and a 4 year old son. She felt worthless and wanted to die. She didn’t trust anyone and said, “I don’t even trust myself”. It’s a dark world when there is no trust.

In this article we are looking at Genesis chapters 12-50, where God makes many promises. But can they be trusted? We will see that because God kept His physical promises to the Israelites, we can trust His spiritual promises for us.

Context

This passage was compiled and written by Moses 300–600 years after the events occurred. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).

It was written because the Israelites needed to know about their origin as God’s people. It helps us understand Christianity as well.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel. At each crisis people sinned by disobeying God. They acted as if God didn’t exist. They were then punished by God, but God also gave a promise. It shows our sinfulness and God’s grace and mercy and we likened this to snakes and ladders. Only Abel, Enoch and Noah are commended for their faith in God during this period (Heb. 11:4-7).

The following book in the Bible is Exodus, which describes the first stage of the Israelites migration to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses. The rest of the Old Testament describes their history up until the time of Christ.

Family history

Who can we trust - TimelineHow far back can you go in your family history? The Israelites kept good family history records in Old Testament times. The first four generations of their family tree were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis chapters 12-50 is a narrative, a theological and historical drama of the highlights of their lives.

During the 40 years between leaving Haran and coming to Mt. Moriah, Abraham was given four great promises. He was given the promises on seven separate occasions. Sometimes he trusted God’s promises and sometimes he doubted them – he cycled between the two. This is shown on the graph which goes up when he trusted the promises and down when he doubted them. Although he struggled with doubt, his faith grew and matured. At about 115 years of age he passed the test of his faith at Mt Moriah when he was asked to sacrifice his only son. He learnt to trust God without doubting. He is a good example for us in contrast to his self-centred nephew Lot.

Abraham's journey of faithIsaac obeyed his father when taken to be sacrificed (Gen. 22:3-9) and when he married a family member from Haran, not a Canaanite. The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac on two occasions. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob.

Jacob married two family members from Haran, not a Canaanite. His name was changed to Israel and he had 12 sons whose descendants were the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph was one of these sons. The promises were repeated to Israel on three occasions.

After Joseph was sold by his brothers, he became a slave in Egypt. Because he followed God, he eventually became the one who administered Egypt for Pharaoh. During a severe famine, Israel’s extended family moved to Egypt. The promises were repeated to Joseph and his sons on four occasions.

So God responded to sin and rebellion at Babel by scattering people across the earth into different language groups and then giving the promises described in Genesis chapters 12-50. The promises show God’s response of grace and mercy. They show God’s blessings for His special people, the Israelites. They also illustrate spiritual truths given to the church in the New Testament (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).

Note that God’s promises were repeated to each generation. Do we repeat God’s promises to younger generations so they can repeat them as well (Dt. 6:4-9)?

Let’s look at the four main promises

The national promise

Before he had any children, God promised Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). Then he was promised a son and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:4-5). On a dark night the unaided eye can see about 3,000 – 5,000 thousand stars. But this is probably a figure of speech because similes are also used to describe the large number of his offspring as “like the dust of the earth” and “the sand on the seashore” (Gen. 13:15; 22:17). This promise was fulfilled when Solomon ruled “over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth” (2 Chr. 1:9).

The promised son was to be named Isaac and he would have many descendants (Gen. 17:15-19). An angel said he would be born in about 12 months time, even though Sarah was 90 and past the age of child bearing (Gen. 17:17; 18:10-14). It seemed impossible, but it happened as it was promised (Gen. 21:1-7).

They were also promised that nations and kings would be amongst their descendants who would “become a great and powerful nation” (Gen. 17:6; 18:18). Jacob is told they will become a great nation in Egypt and Joseph is promised increased numbers of descendants (Gen. 46:3; 48:4). This was fulfilled because about 2 million people left Egypt in the exodus.

As Abraham’s family grew physically through his descendants even though the situation seemed impossible, Christians can grow spiritually in eternal life. When we accept Christ as Savior, we receive eternal life which is valuable now and when we get to heaven. It’s one of God’s promises in the New Testament. Eternal life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). Do we believe that or think it’s impossible?

The land promise

When Abraham obeyed God and migrated from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan, God promised to give that land to his descendants forever as an everlasting possession (Gen. 13:14-17; 17:8; 48:4). Its boundaries were from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). It seemed impossible because the land was occupied by the Canaanites. How could nomads drive out those in fortified towns? Whether this promise has been fulfilled or not is a debatable matter. It was partially fulfilled in Solomon’s kingdom, but He ruled over it as over vassal states; the Israelites didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).

In the 2011 census there were 105,000 homeless people in Australia. That’s 1 in every 200 people. They will probably never have the means to own their own home and struggle to find assisted accommodation. Their future looks dim. How can they get a home? It seems impossible.

The Israelite’s life was like that in Egypt, but God gave them a separate land to the other nations and separate laws so they could to be distinguished as a holy nation of God’s people (Ex. 19:5-6). Likewise, Christians have been given the Holy Spirit so they can live as the people of God today (1 Pt. 1:9-10). The Holy Spirit is one of God’s promises in the New Testament (Eph. 1:13). Our lives are to be “filled with the Spirit”. The land of Canaan is a picture of the Spirit-filled life that God intended for every Christian to live. Do we aspire to a Spirit-filled life or think it’s impossible?

The church is now God’s holy nation. But God hasn’t finished with Israel as a nation and these promises made to Israel don’t now apply to the church. Israel and the church are separate entities. The church age from Pentecost to the rapture is a parenthesis in God’s dealings with Israel.

The prosperity promise

God also promised, “I will bless you” (Gen. 12:2). In patriarchal times this meant wealth and prosperity (Gen. 30:29-30). This was fulfilled because Abraham’s servant said, “The Lord has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy” (Gen 24:34-35). Isaac was also wealthy (Gen. 26:12-14).

An associated promise was, “I will make your name great”. This was fulfilled as Abraham’s name is mentioned 75 times in the New Testament which was written about 2,000 years after he lived, and we are still talking about him 4,000 years after he lived!

Get_Rich 2Do you believe in get-rich-quick schemes that promise a high rate of return with little risk, and with little skill, effort, or time required by working at home? Are you aware of Nigerian money transfer requests, pyramid schemes and online dating scams? Australian Consumers Association keeps advertisers honest and Scam Watch monitors fraudulent schemes, fake merchandise, and scams; but we have a God who is always honest.

In the Old Testament this promise mainly meant physical blessings, but these are not promised in the New Testament (Eccl. 5:19; Eph. 1:3-14). Christians are promised spiritual blessings instead of the material blessings of health and wealth. So be careful when you read the Old Testament and make an application to us today, because we are under a different covenant to them.

The spiritual promise

God also promised, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). It would happen through his offspring (Gen. 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). God chose to work through one nation in the Old Testament, but His intention is to bless all nations. The nations would come to know God through Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). That’s an unusual promise. Can we believe it?

This promise was fulfilled in two ways. First, we have the Bible which is a blessing to all who read it. The Scriptures were written by Jewish prophets and apostles and their associates. These prophets and apostles were Abraham’s descendants. Second, we have Jesus Christ, who is a spiritual blessing to all who trust in Him. Peter and Paul applied this promise to Christ who was the descendant of Abraham who brought this blessing (Lk. 3:34; Acts 3:25-26; Gal. 3:8, 16). The promise also meant that Gentiles would enter into blessing (Gal. 3:8). The church is comprised of all nationalities.

Paul said this promise was fulfilled when the Gentiles were blessed spiritually with salvation and the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:8, 14). Jesus Christ is now God’s response to our sin and we can have spiritual blessings in Him (Eph. 1:3) and see the incomparable riches of God’s grace if we trust in Him (Eph. 2:7). God is rich in mercy, grace, love and power (Rom. 11:33).

What about God’s promise of eternal life in heaven instead of eternal punishment in hell for those who trust in what Jesus did for us? Do you believe, disbelieve or are you uncertain? Your future is dark when there is no trust.

The covenant

The promises given to Abraham were ratified in a covenant or contract where animals are cut in half and the parties walk between them (Gen. 15:7-21). This reminds us that Jesus was sacrificed so we could experience the spiritual blessings of the new covenant. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).

When the covenant was renewed, God changed the names of Abraham and Sarah and male circumcision was given as a sign and symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11). It was a mark that they were God’s people.

Today believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). The mark of God’s people today is the power of the Holy Spirit within, which Paul calls the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29). The heart means the soul which is comprised of the mind, emotions and will. These are to be devoted to Christ.

Abraham’s faith

When the patriarchs were given these promises they had a choice to believe, disbelieve or be uncertain about them. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are commended for their faith (Heb. 11:8-12, 17-22). They believed the promises. Abraham is our spiritual father because he believed God’s promises (Rom. 4:1-25; Gal. 3:29; Heb. 2:16). The Bible says, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to Him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). He was saved by faith, by trusting God. His willingness to sacrifice Isaac was evidence of his faith (Jas. 2:20-24). That’s why Abraham is given in the New Testament as the greatest example of living by faith. He was the pioneer of faith. Abraham entered into a covenant of blessing with God on the basis of his faith. He is the spiritual father and model of all who come to God on the basis of faith.

These instructions and promises were given to the Israelites many years ago. If we try to apply them directly to Christians today we run into problems because we are under a different covenant and different circumstances in God’s big plan of salvation. They don’t apply physically to us today, but they do apply spiritually.

Conclusion

We have seen how Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph trusted the promises they were given. They lived by faith as though God was going to keep the promises. And we know that He did fulfil the promises. Likewise, God has given us many spiritual promises in the New Testament like forgiveness, eternal life, the Holy Spirit, the second coming, and hope. Let’s trust these and live by faith because He is going to fulfil them.

So, who can we trust? We can trust God; the Father, Son, and Spirit; Creator and Redeemer. Because God kept His physical promises to the Israelites many years ago, today we can trust His spiritual promises for us.

Written, March 2014


Why did Jesus tell the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven”?

forgive 1Politicians often make sweeping statements. But can we trust them? Because of our doubts, the Australian ABC news features a “Fact Check” which determines the accuracy of claims by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions. Their verdict often highlights the selective use of statistics.

People often doubt politician’s promises. When Jesus was on earth, many of the Jews doubted God’s promises in the Old Testament. They didn’t live like they were God’s covenant people. We will see that they were challenged by a message from God to consider their spiritual need for the forgiveness of their sins.

The promise

Because He healed many people, crowds of people followed Jesus at Capernaum in Galilee. When He was preaching in a house that was packed full of people, four men brought a paralyzed man to Jesus by lowering him down through a hole in the roof (Mk. 2:1-5)! The preaching was interrupted and “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’”. On another occasion Jesus also announced publicly that a woman’s sins were forgiven (Lk. 7:36-50). Later the man was healed instantly, took up his mat and walked home. This amazed everyone because they had never seen anything like it before.

The man and his companion’s faith may have come from the Old Testament or they may have heard the message of John the Baptist or Jesus of confessing and repenting of sins for forgiveness (Mt. 3:6; Mk 1:14-15; Lk. 3:3).

This happened before a crowd of people comprised of people with faith (like the paralytic and his friends), people with no faith (like the religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat), and people with uncertain and doubtful faith. What did the claim of “your sins are forgiven” mean to each of these groups?

The faithful

The faithful probably knew what the Old Testament says about sin and forgiveness. That is what Jesus would have preached about. For Jews, sin was disobedience of the laws given to Moses (Exodus – Deuteronomy). Sin was serious because it resulted in God’s punishment instead of His blessing. They were given sacrifices to be offered to atone for unintentional sins such as the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the annual day of atonement (Lev. 4:1 – 5:13; 5:14 – 6:7; 16:1-34).

Sin is serious because “you may be sure that your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). Our sins separate us from God (Isa. 59:2). Wilful sin was to be punished by execution or banishment (Num. 15:30-31). In the case of unintentional sin, a sacrifice restored their covenant relationship with the Lord.

Sin also has other consequences, for example Moses and Aaron didn’t enter Canaan because of their sin (Num. 20:12). The Old Testament records the sins of the Israelites and their consequences. History teaches that despite their deliverance from Egypt and sustenance in the wilderness journey, “they kept on sinning” (Ps. 78:32). Their sins were listed and Daniel confessed them (Ps. 106:6-46; Dan. 9:4-15). Their persistent sin and rebellion against God resulted in their conquest by the Assyrians and Babylonians (Ps. 79:8).

Like David (Ps. 51:1-10), they were to confess their sins and pray for God’s forgiveness (Ps. 19:12-13; 32:5; Prov. 28:13). When they did this, God promised to forgive them (Ps. 32:5; 99:8; 103:3; 130:3-4). Because the faithful had confessed their sins, when these people heard “your sins are forgiven”, they took it as a message of assurance from God that their sins were forgiven. Their faith was affirmed.

The unfaithful

Like many of the religious leaders, the unfaithful Jews may still have followed the Jewish rituals and sacrifices, but they were selfish and didn’t trust in God. As the news of Jesus’ ministry spread the religious leaders became increasingly hostile. On this occasion they “had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem” with the purpose of finding some accusation against Him (Lk. 5:17).

When these people heard “your sins are forgiven”, they knew that only God can forgive sins (Mk. 2:7). But they didn’t believe that Jesus had this power. Then Jesus said “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Lk. 2:10). His power to heal the man was a visible affirmation of His invisible power to forgive sins. But they continued in unbelief.

When these people heard “your sins are forgiven”, they used it to make accusations against Jesus. While the faithful helped the helpless man, the unfaithful hindered Jesus’ ministry. They remained in their unbelief.

The doubtful and uncertain

What about people between the two previous categories with uncertain and doubtful faith? These would have been impacted by the miraculous healing. Because Jesus linked the physical healing and the spiritual forgiveness, they should have been challenged about their spiritual need and been convicted of their sin and reminded of the Old Testament or the message of John the Baptist or Jesus of confessing and repenting of sins for their forgiveness.

These were the people that Jesus was targeting because they needed to hear this message and respond to it. Because, “everyone who believes in Him (Christ) receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43).

Conclusion

Because we have the New Testament, we know much more than these people. They didn’t know that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Mt. 9:8) who would give up His life as a sacrifice so that no more sacrifices would be required for their sins. We have the Scriptural evidence that Jesus was the Son of God and not just another prophet. Because Christ died for our sins (past, present and future), God can forgive us (Mt. 26:28). His judicial forgiveness is eternal.

When we hear or read the words of God from the Bible, is our faith affirmed, our unbelief unchanged, or are we moved do something about it? Are we challenged to consider our spiritual need for the forgiveness of sins? The Bible says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas. 1:22).

Written, March 2014


What about God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them?

Mitre Peak Milford Sound New Zealand

Jesus Christ talked about moving mountains on two occasions.

Mountain moving from here to there

When the disciples asked why they couldn’t drive a demon out of a boy who had seizures, Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt. 17:20NIV). The reason was also given as “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mk. 9:29).

They lacked faith and prayer. Because of unbelief, they didn’t pray about it. The “mountain” is a figure of speech for the obstacles and difficulties being faced (see Appendix below). They should have exercised their faith in God by praying about the problem. The prayer would be answered if it was in accordance with the conditions for prayer and the commands and promises given in the Bible. Miracles can happen when we pray under these circumstances.

Mountain thrown into the sea

On the Monday before His crucifixion, Jesus cursed a fig tree because it was unfruitful. He then taught his disciples how to deal with the problems of fruitlessness and obstacles and difficulties. Once again the mountain illustrates the obstacles and difficulties. This is described in two gospels:

Mark 11:22-24 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Mt 21:21-22  Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

They were to exercise their faith in God by praying about the problem. God promised to answer if they believe and don’t doubt. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for answered prayer. Such confidence needs to rely on a promise from God or an assurance that the request is according to God’s will. The ultimate source of such confidence is the words of Scripture or the witness of the Holy Spirit. So the prayer needs to be in accordance with the conditions given in the Bible.

We can approach God confidently in prayer because He promises to answer prayers that are “according to His will”. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). That’s how Jesus prayed at Gethsemane (Mt. 26:39, 42) and how He told His disciples to pray (Jn. 14:13-14). And of course, God’s will is given most clearly in the Bible.

Other conditions for answered prayer include: forgiving others (Mk. 11:25), confessing and repenting of sin (Ps. 66:18), obeying God’s commands (1 Jn. 3:22), right motives (Jas. 4:3), and persevering in prayer (Lk. 18:1-8). They also apply to other passages which may seem to imply that we can get whatever we ask for (Mt. 7:7-8; Lk. 11:9-10; Jn. 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24; 1 Jn. 3:22).

God’s promises to give believers whatever they ask and move mountains for them are not unconditional. They also rely on the Bible’s conditions for answered prayer being satisfied. So, how are you praying?

Appendix

Some other biblical examples of the figurative use of “mountains” to mean obstacles and difficulties are given below.

“What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’” (Zech. 4:7). The context of this verse is that the Israelites faced opposition to rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem after they returned from exile (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). Zerubbabel was their governor (civil leader) at that time. The verse is part of a prediction that the temple would be rebuilt after the “mighty mountain” (a symbol of the opposition to the rebuilding) became “level ground” (a symbol of the opposition being removed). The “capstone” is the final stone to be put in place.

“If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). This verse is in a chapter which teaches that the use of spiritual gifts must be motivated by love. In this instance, the spiritual gift is being able to trust God to overcome or remove difficulties or obstacles. If such a gift was only used for one’s own benefit and not for helping other believers, it is of no value.

Written, September 2013


Can a person go to heaven if they have not heard about Jesus before they die?

Earth globeAs there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.

Before Christ

The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).

These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.

“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24).  So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).

So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.

God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.

So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.

We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Dt. 4:6-8).

Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land …  for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.

Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).

So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.

All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.

After Christ

In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.

Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behavior and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).

Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).

So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).

Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.

The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.

Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.

Lessons for us

Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behavior can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).

Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.


Goals for the local church

Characteristics of a godly congregation

Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.

The Church

The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).

When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.

The Church Revealed to Paul

God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).

What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).

Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.

Churches in the New Testament

Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.

Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.

Imitating Christ

The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.

One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.

“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).

So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.

Faith, Hope and Love

Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.

Faith

The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).

This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).

This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).

Hope

The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.

In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.

The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)

We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).

Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).

As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.

Love

One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.

In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).

Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).

In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.

With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.

The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).

Unity

Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.

Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).

The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.

Lessons for us

As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?

What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.

Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?

If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.

Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.

Written, November 2007