A NOTE TO PREACHERS
By Nancy Dobson, P.O. Box 71132, Bethesda, Md 20813
Religion should draw out the best in us, not shame us by reminding us of our errors. It is, however, humbling to be aware of what brought us to material life — choosing our will over God’s — so that as a result of that honesty we can attend to the necessary correction. Since we are all here for the exact same reason, having committed the same error, no one can be proud or guilt ridden about it. Therefore, to draw out the best in us, those who pick up the mantle to feed souls should teach how to repent of the choices that separate us from God, and how to choose God’s will first in our lives.
Some teach that we should copy Christ by developing the nine fruits of the spirit listed by Paul. But Jesus said he was facing the cross to show his complete submission to God. (John 14:30-31) In addition, his lifelong example was one of obedience and submission to God. He submitted to God in his baptism, in the wilderness tests, in his choice of the twelve, in his teaching and in his healings. In Matthew 7:21-27 Jesus said many will come to him and say they did great things in his name (i.e., humanitarianism) but he will send them away and call them evil because they did not do the will of God. Since choosing our will over God’s was our first and is our continuing error, we need to re-learn how to perceive God’s daily guidance so we can choose submission to God and reverse that primal mistake. Therefore, the most important ways we should copy Jesus are to copy his obedience to God’s commandments and his daily submission to God’s personal guidance, the example he gave his life to impress on us.
In The Gospel’s Message Within The Message I write about the three keys Jesus gave us for how to sharpen our spiritual perceptions, open up spiritually and put our egos aside so we can dare to ask for God’s daily guidance for all our decisions. One of these keys is obedience to the Law – not the law as the Jews taught it at Jesus’ time and continue to teach it today — but the Law as Moses wrote it and Jesus taught and lived it. Remember that Jesus complained to his countrymen that, “not one of you keeps the Law,” (John 7:14) meaning that they didn’t keep the intentions of the Law, and they added law-denying arguments to avoid even the clear letter of the Law. (Matthew 15:1-9.)
I know, most Christians are taught they don’t have to live by the Torah law. But Jesus did and when he told us in the True Vine example to be branches from his vine (John 15:1-8) he meant that he expects us to copy, or imitate, him, which would naturally include copying the way he showed respect and love for God by living in obedience to God’s revealed rules. Achieving this first level of obedience is necessary to opening spiritual perceptions so we may achieve the second level — submission to God’s daily guidance — which is absolutely necessary to “do the will of my Father in heaven,” as Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-27. We can’t know God’s will unless we can develop the clear spiritual perception to discern daily what that will is. We can’t presume to know God’s will unless we ask Him daily and listen for His response. So obedience and submission are important messages of Jesus.
Indeed, Jesus died on the cross for the very reason, he said, to be an example of complete submission to God’s will — an example he expects all to follow so that we are, finally, able to reverse our error of choosing our will over God’s. When we achieve being of one will with and one in purpose with God, all other errors are forgiven. As Jesus said after his Resurrection, go into all the world and teach repentance and remission of sins. (Luke 24:45-48) Repentance can’t be left out of the equation. Repentance means acknowledging our willful separation from God and changing our lives so that we willfully return to being one in purpose with God — choosing God’s will first in our lives. It’s a process. It will take all our lives to develop this lifestyle. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to do so when churches, Bible schools and colleges, Bible study groups and seminaries teach Jesus’ message and root it into our culture.
We shouldn’t be intimidated by the Law. When you read it in its organized form you see that it is not too difficult to live by. My book The Torah Conscious Christian, Biblical Law by subject, paraphrased, with commentary gives all the laws organized into subject groups, consolidated and fully referenced. It also tells how Jesus used and taught the Law.
Another issue facing the church today is blasphemy. Church leaders everywhere are aware that this is a hot issue because both Muslims and Jews accuse Christians of being polytheistic, and of committing blasphemy by calling a human being by God’s name. Interestingly, Jesus said the only unforgiveable sin is blasphemy against God (the Holy Spirit is the feminine name of God). Actually, in the whole Bible this is the only sin that isn’t forgiven in this life or the world to come. (Matthew 12:31-32)
It is an undisputed fact that historians acknowledge that for the first 250 years Christianity was emphatically monotheistic. The big change was sealed in place during the time of Emperor Constantine, about 321-25. Coptic Christians — taught by St. Mark — were not influenced by Constantine, and still teach the separation of Jesus and God. The Orthodox Catholic Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church over this and other doctrines. Several Protestant churches, and many ministers independently, teach the separation as well. Though Jesus said God worked through him (to draw attention to the eternal truths God guided him to teach) he always spoke of himself as separate from God.
To teach blasphemy is a double sin. To believe it and live it will keep you out of heaven no matter what other good deeds you do – and the wrath of God will follow you into your next life. But as a preacher you have a special responsibility to teach what the Bible actually says – not what church politics might desire. If you teach falsely and mislead those who come to you, God will surely hold you accountable for it. Recall that God, through Ezekiel, criticized priests who did not lead the people in the ways of the Lord. Jesus reminded the Jewish leaders of his day of that when he called himself the Good Shepherd. (Ezekiel 37:24) I wish you well – so I wish you to be clear about Jesus’ message and teach the truths he gave his life to impart.
Here is where confusion – and debate within the church – center on this issue. The way John 1:1 is normally translated in Western Bibles begins with a statement that some interpret as claiming deification for Jesus. Besides the dispute over the interpretation of this verse we must remember that this first chapter is John’s opinion, not Jesus’ proclamation. Nevertheless, we should also remember that throughout the book of John Jesus speaks of himself as separate from God almost 30 times.
John 1:1-3 begins: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.” Word is the translation of Logos, which is also understood to mean, “the power that creates the cosmos,” or Law. In verse 14 it is said that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, which is what theologians refer to when they say Jesus was the Law Incarnate. So John 1:1-3 could be read: In the beginning was the Law and the Law was with God and the Law was God. He was in the beginning with God when all things came into being through God. Along with the Coptic version of John, the earliest Greek versions of John do not blur the distinction between Jesus and God.
In most Western Bibles, John 8:58 is translated as, “before Abraham was, I am,” which some interpret to mean that Jesus was claiming deity. However, within that single chapter Jesus spoke of himself as separate from God eight times. So it is hardly likely that he then turned around and claimed to be God in that final statement. In addition, there is no place in any gospel where Jesus used the term YHWH (Exodus 3:13-15) either when speaking about God or about himself. When he said “I am” he always used ego eimi — the same as anyone else would say “I am doing this,” or “I am going there.” Other interpretations of John 8:58 are: before Abraham was, I existed, and, greater than Abraham was, I am. To claim superiority to Abraham sparked anger in his listeners, who then attempted to stone him. The Jews taught that they would go to heaven just because they were Abraham’s descendants. For Jesus to claim superiority to Abraham was a threat to them.
Also in John, Jesus often refers to himself as the Son of Man, a title Daniel and Ezekiel used to designate the Messiah. So, when Jesus said, “I am he,” he was telling his Jewish listeners plainly that he was the Messiah.
If you are honest and read the gospels critically, you must realize that Jesus never called himself by God’s revealed name. There is no reason why the change that was forced on the church in the 4th century for political reasons has to be continued today. There are a lot of spiritual reasons why that change should be rejected now, not the least of which is honesty in preaching and teaching. As a human being who found the way to return to God’s kingdom, Jesus has a great deal to teach us by word and example. He is the perfect inspiration, revealing that we too can be forgiven and rebuild our relationship with our Creator. Why water that down? Why avoid that truth?
In the book Give and Take, a Revolutionary Approach to Success, by Adam Grant, this example is given: Psychologists Leif Nelson and Michael Norton did the following experiment. They asked some people to list ten qualities of a super hero and others to list ten qualities of Superman. When invited to sign up as community service volunteers, the group that listed superhero qualities were almost twice as likely to volunteer as the other group. Three months later the groups were invited to kick off their volunteering. The superhero group was four times as likely to show up. The reason for the difference, the researchers found, was that when folks think about general attributes of a superhero they give a list of desirable characteristics they can relate to. But when asked for a list for Superman they give a list of qualities impossible for them to copy – so why bother trying. This is important where Jesus is deified. It makes people think they could never copy his principled lifestyle – but that is precisely what he wants us to copy, and precisely why he told us to be branches from his vine and gave us the example of submission to the point of facing the cross.
In the 6th chapter of John you will note that when the majority of his followers left him (because they didn’t understand the symbolism of his flesh (teaching) and blood (example) they were being asked to absorb) he didn’t water down his message to try to keep them. Jesus didn’t come to make people feel good about sinning. He came to teach and example the only way back to God’s kingdom – complete obedience and submission to God.
Praising Jesus, praising God, martyrdom, giving all our money to the poor, living a life full of humanitarian acts, etc. – none of these things will reverse our initial and continuing sin of choosing our will over God’s. The lie we told ourselves at the beginning (in the Garden of Eden) – that we could choose our will over God’s and not die (spiritually) — IS THE SAME LIE SOME TEACH TODAY. “Do what you want and just praise Jesus and all your sins are forgiven.” It’s the same lie! We should keep in mind the warning in Revelation 21:5-8, that those of false speech will not be admitted to heaven. We cannot be dishonest with ourselves or one another and be one in purpose with God. The only way back to God’s kingdom is to admit that the do-what-you-want theology is a lie, and to develop the techniques Jesus taught and exampled by which we can tune in to God’s daily guidance and learn how to choose God’s will first in our lives. (To read a discussion of the Grace Alone doctrine see the book Firming Up Your Flabby Spirit.)
Remember that Jesus said his words will judge us (John 12:47, 48), that those who refuse his teaching will be condemned and that God’s wrath stays with those who are not subject to the son (i.e., who do not live the way he taught) (John 3:36). He never said salvation would be easy or that we could live however we want and just praise him and get to heaven. We have to do something. We are able to do it. Because Jesus was human and showed us how to live so as to return to God’s kingdom, we can look to him and learn what we need to know to traverse the maze of life and succeed in the main purpose for which all humans are on earth – in finding our way back to where we came from, the place that has been prepared for us since the beginning of time. (Matthew 25:34; Luke 12:32)
In a Barna Group study that asked Christians what they wanted in their church experience, the overwhelming majority said they wanted authenticity. They wanted to be spiritually fed the truth. They wanted to know God’s genuine message to them through Jesus Christ. When they perceive that this is not forthcoming, they may leave the church, though they continue to study their Bible and seek spiritually.
In America 80% of people say they are Christians, though only 47% attend some type of religious service weekly and 10% attend irregularly. Of the 23% who are unchurched, 19% say they read their Bible and pray during every week. So almost half as many as regular attenders believe strongly in God and seek spiritual food regularly through the Bible and prayer but don’t find sufficient authenticity in the teachings given at church to draw them to support its program. It is important that the church not lose credibility by teaching doctrines that are in opposition to the clear message of the Bible. Jesus said his yoke (of the Law) is easy and his burden (of submission to God) is light. (Matthew 11:29-30 and see Jeremiah 5:5, 2:20) This is the message he died to give us. Why not teach that message?
References are drawn from The New Jerusalem Bible, 1985 edition, Doubleday & Company