An Open Letter Regarding Mainstream Christian Traditions

Imagine that you want to travel to somewhere you have never been before, and assume the following conditions are true:

 

  1. There is only one way to arrive at your destination safely.
  2. There is only one person who knows the safe way.
  3. You have hired that one person as your guide.

 

If, at a certain point in your journey, your guide instructs you to proceed in a particular direction, is it possible to refuse him and still arrive at your desired location? Logically, it would be impossible unless at least one of the above conditions is false, wouldn’t it?

 

Arriving at the correct answer to the above basic logic problem would be of the utmost importance to you if your life depended on your ability to reach the desired destination, wouldn’t it? Have you ever given thought to the fact, then, that if you profess to be a Christian, as it pertains to the Kingdom of God and salvation — your potential eternal life —  those three statements are all unequivocally true? For Jesus once said:

 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”


Notice that Jesus did not say he is a way to eternal life — he is the way, which is singular. Therefore, by taking upon yourself the title of Christian, you are making the claim that Jesus is the guide you are following, and that you trust that he alone is able to lead you into eternal life in the Kingdom of God. And if we acknowledge that Jesus modeled for us the way of life that leads to salvation, would we be justified for consciously living in a manner that was inconsistent with his example? Shouldn’t the religion we practice be the same as the religion he practiced and preached? With that in mind, can you prove the Sabbath is Sunday using only the Bible? What day did Jesus observe the Sabbath on? What about the apostles? What Holy days did they keep?

 

If you set aside everything you have learned from others and use the Bible alone to establish your standard of practice, you will find that the weekly Sabbath was never observed on Sunday anywhere in the Bible — from Genesis to Revelation the command has always been to observe it on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Additionally, the “mainstream Christian” holiday traditions that are broadly accepted as true practices of Christianity are also different from what the Lord and his apostles did and taught. Christmas and Easter were nowhere celebrated by the early Christian church. So when did the Biblically supported teachings change regarding the Sabbath and Holy days? Why did they change? The answers to those questions are well documented and can be easily researched by anyone, so it is not the purpose of this article to chronicle the history of those changes. Instead, since many are already aware of these things and yet still find reasons to justify continuing their practice, the focus will be on examining the validity of the arguments made for maintaining tradition.

 

To begin, some say it doesn’t matter which day you worship God because God should be worshipped every day. On the surface, that seems to be a compelling argument, because God should indeed be worshipped continuously in a person’s heart. But the problem with that reasoning is that it isn’t consistent with God’s own instructions. In order to highlight that fact, let’s start by turning to the first Scripture where the Sabbath is mentioned and established:

 

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2‭-‬3).”

 

Notice first that God did not bless every day, he only blessed the seventh one. In doing so, he set it apart and made a distinction between it and the preceding six days. In blessing the seventh day alone, God made it known that the day and the purpose he established it for are both special to him. So focus on who it was who blessed the seventh day and made it holy: it was God. If God alone is Holy, then God alone can make something holy — man, therefore, cannot.  And if God states that a day is set apart as sacred and holy to him, and you say it is no different than any other day, how is that worship? Furthermore, given the fact that God himself unambiguously declared the seventh day alone to be holy, and commanded its observance, if you decide to set aside a different day for worshipping him, have you not placed your own authority higher than God’s?

 

Next, here are just a few of the many Scriptures that establish that it was God who ordained the Sabbath, and that clearly state it is to be observed on the seventh day of the week:

 

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8‭-‬1).”

 

 ‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:30).’”

 

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12‭-‬15).”

 

“ ‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 23:3).’”

 

I’ll make a final minor point regarding the passage from Leviticus 23:3, because it relates to the rationale of being able to worship God on any given day: if God declared the sabbath to be a day of sacred assembly, what would happen if everyone just decided for themself which day they would observe the sabbath on? How would everyone be able to come together for a common assembly?

 

Before moving on, here is one last Scripture to illustrate that observance of the Sabbath as the fourth Commandment in the Law is an acknowledgement that the One who made the day holy is the same One who created all things. As it was a sign of the covenant that exists between God and His people, the seventh day Sabbath and the annual Holy days have always been associated with the proper worship of the One, true God:

 

“I said to their children in the wilderness, “Do not follow the statutes of your parents or keep their laws or defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God (Ezekiel 20:18‭-‬20).”

 

You may notice that the above passages are all from the Old Testament, and claim that the fact that the sabbath is mentioned so little in the New Testament is an indication that the sabbath was done away with. In reality, though, all it illustrates is that the Sabbath wasn’t a subject of dispute in the New Testament. There was no disagreement or confusion as to which was the proper day to worship God. Even after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, the Christian church continued to observe the sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This will be shown further on, in the discussion of New Testament scriptures. In preparation for that discussion, I invite the reader to assemble all the Scriptures they can which say that God has at any point changed his mind, and that the Sabbath and Holy days are no longer important.

 

Let’s shift the focus now from the sabbath to the mainstream “holidays” that have been substituted for the true Holy days from God’s Word, with the understanding that the principles which applied to the discussion of the weekly sabbath apply to annual sabbaths also. Many people are willing to acknowledge that the origins of Christmas, Easter and Halloween stem from pagan customs, but practice them anyway because they rationalize that their reasons for observation are different than those of the heathen. But are they really? To examine that idea we can start by defining what “heathen” or “pagan” meant to the biblical writers who used those terms. Here is the word and the definitions for “heathen” in the Old Testament Hebrew:

 

Original: גּי גּוי
Transliteration: gôy gôy
Phonetic: go’-ee

BDB Definition:

nation, people (noun masculine)
nation, people
usually of non-Hebrew people
Goyim? = ” nations” (noun proper masculine)

Strong’s Definition: Apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation ; hence a Gentile ; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts: – Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

 

And now here is the word alternately translated as “heathen” or “Gentile” in the New Testament Greek:

 

Original: ἔθνος
Transliteration: ethnos
Phonetic: eth’-nos

 

Thayer Definition:


the human family
a tribe, nation, people group
in the OT, foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles

Strong’s Definition: Probably from G1486; a race (as of the same habit), that is, a tribe ; specifically a foreign (non-Jewish) one (usually by implication pagan):Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

 

The point I would like to draw out from this is that in both the Old Testament and the New, the term “heathen” or “pagan” broadly referred to any individual or group of individuals who were not worshipping the One, true God. Here is an example of the use of the word in the Old Testament (The word for גּי גּוי follows in bold):

“Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.  For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.  They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”  No one is like you, Lord ; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. Who should not fear you, King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise leaders of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you (Jeremiah 10:1‭-‬7).”

 

And here is an example of the use of ἔθνος, from the New Testament (again in bold):

 

“”But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.  Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils (1 Corinthians 10:20‭-‬21 KJV).”

 

How is all of this relevant to the discussion of holiday traditions? When you think of the word “pagan,” what associations come to mind? To our modern day thinking, when we read of pagan sacrificial practices and worship, perhaps we imagine a person or people who is/are wholeheartedly evil, bloodthirsty, or savage, and certainly far different than ourself or anyone we know or associate with. After all, we are a civil society; one far removed from being so primitive as to worship idols! But ask yourself this: when all the people of various nations were worshipping their false gods, do you think they consciously knew they were worshipping false gods? Which do you think is more likely: that when they offered their sacrifices, they knew they were sacrificing to devils, or that they had simply been deceived into believing they were worshipping the true God? Now if the entire ancient world, excluding Israel, had been deceived as to the identity of the One, true God, and were therefore passing down false traditions that actually worshipped devils, and we can trace the origins of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween back to the same ancient pagan practices, how are we different than them, if we are doing as they did?

 

Next, consider that question in light of how many Scriptures warn that false teachings would come into the church (Matt. 7:15 & 24:11, Mark 13:22, Galatians 2:4, 1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 4:4, 2 Peter 2:1, etc.) Given that the true church was warned by the New Testament writers that false teachings would eventually gain acceptance and alter what true Christianity was (and is still intended to be), is it inconceivable to imagine that the change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and the holiday traditions mainstream “christianity” observes are both a part of the false teachings which were foretold to come?

 

Some may attempt to dismiss those questions by saying that God will accept our worship because the meanings of and purposes for our traditions have been changed, and if we are trying to honor him, then God will honor our intention. That’s a common argument, but it is one that is made based upon a mere opinion: a self-serving notion unsubstantiated by God’s Word. God is a God of truth, not a father of lies. Why would God be pleased with worship that is founded upon a falsehood? If he accepts a false standard, he would no longer be holy! (The beliefs that the weekly Sabbath is Sunday, that Jesus was born on December 25, and that he was raised from the dead on “Easter Sunday” are just three examples of falsehoods which are currently taught as christian truth.) Even if a person believes they are trying to worship God with the best of intentions, if there is a discrepancy between what God has commanded and what a person actually does, would God be pleased with their intention more than he would be with their obedience? That question was answered very early on in human history:

 

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord . And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it (Genesis 4:2‭-‬7).”

 

If Cain’s offering had adhered to what God had instructed regarding how to make it and what it was to consist of, both he and it would have been accepted — as was Abel and his offering. But since it did not follow God’s regulations, notice that not only was his offering rejected, but Cain also found himself to be out of favor with God.

 

Also, God had told King Saul,

 

“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ (1 Samuel 15:3).”

 

“Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.  Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions (1 Samuel 15:7‭-‬11).”

 

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord ’s instructions.”  But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”  Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”  “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” “Tell me,” Saul replied. Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord ? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”  “But I did obey the Lord ,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”  But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king (1 Samuel 15:13‭-‬23).”

 

Saul tried to frame the situation in the most flattering light, by claiming they spared the best of the sheep and cattle so that they could sacrifice them in order to honor God. Was God, or even Samuel, swayed by Saul’s justifications for disobedience? Not at all! The fact that they “pounced on the plunder” indicates they coveted it for their own enjoyment, and God labelled their action as rebellion and arrogance — and isn’t that what it indeed was? If you are given a specific command, and you do not obey it (whatever your reasons may be), have you not rebelled against the command? And if you imagine you can improve upon God’s own instructions, is that not arrogance? The answer to those questions should be obvious to most, if not all. But in order to understand the mind of God more fully, it is important to also understand how rebellion and arrogance can be equated with divination and idolatry.

 

Divination is an attempt to communicate with the spirit realm with the purpose of obtaining knowledge of the future. It is rebellion against God because it is an attempt to make decisions that will procure favorable outcomes for oneself, or avoid unfavorable ones, without being constrained by having to obtain God’s favor or approval for one’s desired action; and it indicates a willingness to attempt to circumvent his will if only one might be able to accomplish one’s own. Also, idolatry occurs whenever God is displaced as the highest object of our worship, adulation and desire, so the belief that one knows better than God, or that one can add to or subtract from God’s commands, is not only arrogant, it is indeed like idolatry because it places one’s own understanding or authority above that of God’s, essentially exalting the Self as god.

 

So, if God made it clear that Saul’s disobedience displeased him, and he called it evil, comparing it to divination and idolatry, one should ask themself, ‘Is my observance of a Sunday sabbath, along with Christmas and Easter, either adding to or subtracting from the Word of God?’ If the answer is yes, how am I any less guilty of what God rebuked Cain and Saul for?

 

Here is one additional Scripture from the Old Testament as evidence of how God feels about false worship:

 

“Therefore, son of man, speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: In this also your ancestors blasphemed me by being unfaithful to me: When I brought them into the land I had sworn to give them and they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices, made offerings that aroused my anger, presented their fragrant incense and poured out their drink offerings. Then I said to them: What is this high place you go to?’” (Ezekiel 20:27‭-‬29)

 

When Israel attempted to worship God on their own terms, offering sacrifices on any high hill, or by any leafy tree, did God simply resign himself to accept it? No, he rebuked them for it and confronted them with their unfaithfulness. When he asked them ‘What is this high place you go to,’ he was effectively asking ‘Are you truly worshipping me, if I have already made known to you that what you are doing there displeases me? If you apply the same question and principle to any of your religious traditions, and then discover that they are based on falsehood, what should you do about it? If you choose to believe that it doesn’t matter what sabbaths or holy days you observe, why do you observe any at all? And is it reasonable to conclude that God is now indifferent toward how he is worshipped, when he previously took it so seriously? Is God so fickle? Has he not said, “I the Lord do not change.”? (Malachi 3:6)

 

So there is certainly sufficient evidence from the Old Testament indicating that religious intention is not an acceptable substitute for obedience. But what about the New Testament? If tradition conflicts with the commands of God, what does it teach? The Pharisees were very confident that their religious customs and practices were correct and pleasing to God, but here is what the Son of God told them:

 

“Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3)

 

“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:  “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:6‭, ‬8‭-‬9)

 

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:31‭-‬36).”

 

Jesus said that his true disciples would hold to his teaching, not someone else’s. So, once again, where did the traditions of Christmas, Easter, and Sunday observance come from? Were they ever a part of the Lord’s teaching? If they were not, you have been deceived into following what someone else has taught; and that observation leads to an examination of the predominant teaching that is used to justify the abandonment of the Biblically supported Sabbath and Holy days in favor of present day mainstream traditions. Before getting to it, however, here is a brief summary of the arguments covered so far:

 

Some say it doesn’t matter which day you worship God because every day is the day to worship. Some say God will accept our worship because the meanings of and purposes for our traditions have been changed, and if we are trying to honor him, then God will honor our intention. The Scriptures we have considered thus far do not support those ideas.

 

And so now let’s move on to the most common argument of all: which is that the Sabbath and the Holy days no longer apply because the law has been done away with. Anyone who claims that the Law has been done away with contradicts the Lord, and makes Jesus out to be a liar, for he said:

 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17‭-‬18).”

 

Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law, then he died and was raised from the dead. If his fulfillment of the Law and subsequent death was intended to mean that everything was then accomplished, did heaven and earth disappear when he ascended to the Father? Are they not both still here? Since heaven and earth have not yet disappeared, can it get any more clear that the Law has not been done away with? Do not allow yourself to continue to be deceived, because here is what Jesus said about those who profess him to be their Lord, but who live as though the Law no longer applies:


“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven [in other words, those who acknowledge him with their lips alone will not enter], but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

[How can one do the will of the Father unless one first knows what His will is? And how is His will made known, except through His Law? And if you answer that all one needs to know is to “Love,”  how can one even learn what God’s definition of love is apart from the Law, since His Law is the Law of love?]

Many will say to me on that day [the Day of Judgment] , ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21‭-‬23)

 

The word translated as “evildoers” is:

 

Original: ἀνομία
Transliteration: anomia
Phonetic: an-om-ee’-ah

Thayer Definition:

the condition of being without law
contempt and violation of law, iniquity, wickedness

Strong’s Definition: From G459; illegality, that is, violation of law or (generally) wickedness: – iniquity, X transgress (-ion of) the law, unrighteousness.

 

From this, it can be seen that Jesus taught that anyone who has disavowed the Law by belief is also in a condition of being without law by practice, and that he would therefore disavow them on the Day of Judgment.

 

So if Jesus didn’t teach that the law has been done away, where did the notion come from? Was it what the apostles taught, perhaps?

 

“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God (1 John 3:4‭-‬9).”

 

John wrote those words near the end of his life, and by that time the Christian church had already been in existence for around half a century. Does that passage sound like he taught the law was done away with? How can someone break a law if it does not exist?

 

“Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles (2 Peter 3:1‭-‬2‭).”

 

Would Peter have encouraged the early church to recall the words of the prophets if he believed the Old Testament no longer had any authority under the New Covenant?

 

“So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:‬14‭-‬18)

 

He not only warned the church to be on guard against the error of lawlessness, but he also alludes to people distorting the writings of Paul. This fact is also highlighted in the Book of Acts:

 

“When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.  When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality (Acts 21:17‭-‬25).”

 

So there was a perception sewn by Paul’s adversaries that he taught against the Law, which continues to this very day, but the church in Jerusalem testified that there was no truth in those reports. As Peter acknowledged, though, Paul’s letters contain some things which have been distorted and are hard to understand, so let’s turn to what his letters actually say about the law and grace.

 

“And where there is no law there is no transgression (Romans 4:15).”


“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law (Romans 5:13).”


No one is punished for breaking a law that doesn’t exist. If God wanted to take away sins, why didn’t he simply do away with all laws? If he had, then Jesus would not have had to die! But God didn’t just do away with His law, because the law, itself, is good; but the outcome — the penalty for breaking it (which is death) — is bad, and is not the outcome God desires.


If the law — the 10 Commandments — is good, and if it is only the death penalty for transgressing them that needed to be removed (and Romans 5 points out that people still died even if they didn’t violate a direct command), why would God ever do away with them? Indeed, since the first and greatest Commandment is to love God with all your heart, if the law has been done away with, it isn’t even necessary to love or obey God! And if the Sabbath is part of that law (since it is the 4th Commandment), why would God do away with it, and yet still leave the rest?

 

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15‭-‬16).” If Paul believed and taught that the law was nullified or removed by Jesus’s death on the cross, then sin would no longer exist, because if there is no law to violate, there can be no transgression. So if Paul believed he was a sinner, by necessity he would also have to believe that the law remained in effect. He also wrote:

 

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—  To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come (Romans 5:12‭-‬14).”

 

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:20‭-‬21).” (The law existed to teach us and make us more aware of what sin is.)

 

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:1‭-‬3)

 

”As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:1‭-‬8).”

 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1‭-‬4).”

 

Clearly, Paul believes it is still possible to sin. How then can anyone claim that he taught that the law has been done away with? Being set free from the law of sin and death doesn’t mean the Law no longer applies. What it means is that under the requirements of the Law, the penalty for sin (transgression of the law) was death. So in order to avoid the penalty of death, the only way to salvation was by merit: the only way to prove that you deserved to live forever was by living without ever sinning. But with the exception of the Son of God, no one has ever been able to do that. God knows that we have all been born into a world where sin exists, and that we are also not born with perfect knowledge and perfect character. That is the weakness of the flesh; and so even though the Law was intended to lead us to eternal life by teaching us what sin is (so that sin and its penalty could be avoided), it was rendered powerless to accomplish its purpose by our inability to fulfill its requirement of perfection. Since it is inevitable that we will all sin in some way during the process of learning what sin is, we all are subject to the penalty of death as soon as we do: and since everyone who has ever lived has sinned, everyone who has ever lived has had to die. However, God did not create man just to live for a brief moment, suffer in a world of sin, and then die — never to exist again — He intended man to become His sons and daughters, comprising His eternal family; and everything He purposes, He is also able to do. Therefore, God gave his one and only Son to pay the penalty for sin on our behalf. When the Messiah lived a perfect, sinless life, he fulfilled every requirement of the law, and therefore proved himself worthy of eternal life. In doing so, he did what no one else ever has been or could be able to do. Therefore, just as he did not deserve to die, we do not deserve to live; but when he willingly died for all of mankind, he was offering himself up as a sacrifice for us. As our Savior, he made a petition to God, asking Him  to substitute his own worthiness to live for our unworthiness; and to apply that same worthiness to all who will acknowledge him as their rightful Lord and Master. And his petition was acceptable in God’s sight, as it was consistent with what God himself desired, since “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:‬17).”

 

Being set free from the Law simply means that perfect fulfillment of the Law is no longer the standard by which we are considered worthy to receive eternal life, because Jesus fulfilled that requirement for us. Now, through the Messiah’s sacrifice, when we sin we are able to be forgiven, and the sentence of death which would otherwise still apply is remitted. That is what grace is. Our sins are pardoned, not by our merit, but by Christ’s. It dishonors both God and the Lord’s sacrifice to believe that grace is a license for sin.

 

I am a sinner just like everyone else, and I will not be anyone’s judge, so there is no one who owes me an answer to any of the questions I have posed; and if anything I say is just my opinion, my opinion should be of no consequence or value unless it is founded and established in truth. (See John 5:37‭-‬47) But a Christian is called to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5): and that is what the Spirit of God inspires me to attempt by writing these things to you. Anyone who professes to love God and to follow the Lord should know with certainty that a Day is coming when everyone will appear before the One True Judge, and no secret will be hidden from him, no lie will deceive him, and no justification for sin will be vindicated by him. So what if that Day were today? How would you answer these questions if it were not just me posing them, but the Lord himself?

 

I am not saying these things to condemn anyone regarding the traditions they have learned and followed, because God knows how much He loves us, and He wants you to live and be with him forever. But His commandments test us to see how much WE love HIM, and He also will not allow sin to continue forever: which is why we must learn obedience, just as our Lord himself did. Because of the love Jesus had for the Father, he was willing to die rather than disobey God. So, in light of what God and our Savior have done for us all, if it becomes clear that a religious observation or tradition is not consistent with God’s will or instruction shouldn’t everyone be willing to change in order to obey God? The question one is left with is “Do I REALLY care about what God thinks, or do I just want to be free to continue doing whatever I want to do?” May the spirit of God inspire your reflection on these things, and lead you into all truth.

Advertisements

Open Study Discussion: Overcoming

Hi, everyone!

In John 16:33, it is recorded that before he died, Jesus said “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Also, in 1 John 5:3-4 we are told, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.”

From that, it is understood that the children of God are expected to overcome the world, following the example laid down by the Only Begotten Son of God. So imagine now that you are given an assignment for school, or a job to complete for work. How well do you think you would perform if you didn’t fully understand what the task required? With that principle in mind, for this study we’ll discuss what it means to “overcome the world.” In what ways did Jesus overcome the world? What are the things which we need to overcome? As our awareness of the responsibilities children of God have increases, what should that growing understanding produce in us? Please reflect upon the following scriptures as you consider your answers: Luke 10:19, Romans 12:21, 1 Timothy 5:11, 1 John 2:13-17 and 4:1-6.

Open Study Discussion: Power and Injustice

For this week’s study, please read the following Scriptures:

John 18:4-8; Matt. 21:12-13; John 10:11-18 and Matt. 23:8-12

A Christian is identifiable as a Christian, in part, by their character; and character is to a great degree shaped by how we answer two questions:

  1. How do you use the power committed unto you?
  2.  How do you respond to injustices, both personal and general?
In our last two studies, we discussed the subject of judgment; and we know that a Day is coming when everyone will be judged for how they lived and the character they developed.  Bearing these things in mind, what do the above Scriptures have to teach us about a Christian’s use of power and how we are to respond to injustice?
Some additional questions:
1. Was the arrest of Jesus an example of justice? What caused all those who were gathered together to arrest Jesus to draw back and fall to the ground? (John 18:6)  What does the answer to that question imply about the reality of the situation?
2. As it applies to power and its use, what is different between the Lord’s example from John 18:4-8, and his behavior in Matt 21:12-13?
3. Putting all these Scriptures together, is a Christian expected to use power differently when responding to personal injustices versus those which broadly impact others?
4. From an eternal perspective, why is this an important topic?
May the Spirit of God guide and direct you in your study.

Open Study Discussion: Judgement

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made the statement, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”  (Matt. 7:1)  If someone today says, “Don’t judge me” when confronted regarding a particular wrong-doing, is that a proper application of the intent of Jesus’s words, or is such a usage simply a way to dismiss accountability for sin? Does “Do not judge” mean we should avoid making any type of judgements?  If not, what are some judgements we are to make?  And, if we do make them, how should those judgements be exercised?  What is the most important judgement that anyone can and should make?  What is/are the judgement(s) that we are to avoid making, that Jesus was referring to in verse 1?  Please utilize any Scriptures you can locate to support your answers.

What type of spiritual attributes would you expect to be developed in an individual who always kept verse 2 in mind when interacting with others?

Define what a hypocrite is.  How do verses 3-5 tie in to the subject of judgement?  What motivation might a person with “a plank” in their eye have for offering to remove a “speck” from their brother’s eye?  What does verse 5 teach us about dealing with sin?

Verse 6 requires discernment if it is to be put into practice, and the judgement it asks you to make is certainly not a flattering one.  Explain what you think Jesus meant.  Can you find any other statements he made that correspond to this command?  (Notice that do not is a command, not merely a suggestion)  Can you find any examples in the new testament of this principle being put into practice?

Finally, do you view verse 7 as a transition to a new and separate topic, or as a continuation of the train of thought from verses 1-6?  What is the rationale in support of your answer?

The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

Ecclesiastes Open Study Discussion

Hi all,
This open study discussion will be from the book of Ecclesiastes.  Your participation is always welcome!
Ecc. 1:2 — Solomon says, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”  The NIV translates this as “Meaningless! Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  What do you think he meant by that?  Do you agree with him?  Why or why not?
1:18 — In what way does growing in wisdom bring sorrow and why would increasing in knowledge add more grief?
2:13 — Is it contradictory for Solomon to claim that wisdom brings sorrow, and then say “wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness”?  Support your reasoning.
2:15-16 — Since the fate of  the wise man and the fool are the same, in that both must eventually die, what does a person gain by being wise?
3:10-14 — How do you interpret these verses?  What is the burden God has laid on men, which Solomon references in verse 10?
5:18-20 and 8:15 have a similar message; one which appears to be opposed to the statement in 7:2-4.  How would you reconcile these passages?  How can a sad face be good for the heart?
7:8 — Why is the end of a matter better than its beginning?  How is patience better than pride?
Like the sun which rises and sets only to hurry back to where it rises, and the streams which return to the sea from whence they came, Solomon concludes the book back where he began it — with the observation that all is vanity. (1:2 and 12:8)  What was the main point of chapters 1-12?  What do you think he wanted his audience to understand?  If someone asked you what the meaning of life is, what would your answer be?
I look forward to hearing from you!  As always, I will make it a point to reply back to all responses!
Regards,
Adam

The Love of God

If you have been introduced to another person, you can rightly say that you know them, in the sense of being aware of their existence.  But if you never go beyond that introduction and don’t know anything else about them aside from the fact that they exist, you can’t truly claim to know them in the sense of understanding who they are.  This is a truism which applies to man’s relationship with God as well: just because a person professes belief in God, that does not mean they know Him.  So how does one come to know God, especially given the fact that, while we are physical, we do not have the benefit of a face to face introduction, and cannot converse with God in the same way we can with our fellow man?

 

Because God is an infinite spiritual being without limitations, He can never be completely and perfectly known and understood by flesh and blood.  But if an attempt to do so were to be made, one might begin by describing His character.  And I believe no single characteristic would be able to provide greater insight and understanding into who God is than the one found in 1 John 4:8, which states, “God is love”.  What an amazing statement that is!  It doesn’t merely say God loves, it says He is love.  Love is not simply an attribute or quality that God possesses; rather, His entire being is founded upon, and declared or made known through, love!  So we begin to come to know God through understanding His love — and I would argue that all sincere efforts to know God more perfectly should inevitably lead to a more accurate and mature understanding of what love is — but since no one has ever seen or heard God at any time, how is His love made known?

 

The Father is made known through His Son and His love was and is ultimately expressed through what the Lord did:

“…the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  (John 1:18)

“And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”. (1 John 3:16)

There is no action possible in this world that reveals more about God, the Father, than this sacrifice by His Son. The entire gospel message is built upon that singular foundation.  But the good news that Jesus died so we could have the opportunity to live with him forever also sets a lofty standard for love, and carries with it a daunting expectation — for all who profess Jesus to be their Lord and Master are required to live as he lived, and do as he did.  (1 John 2:6)

 

Because of that, it’s important for us to understand all that the Son of God did.  He did indeed die so that we might live, but he did much more than just laying down his life.    In truth, our Lord and Savior gave of himself, in service to others, without holding anything back for the full duration of his life.  His death only speaks to the sacrifice of his physical life, but there was also a spiritual sacrifice he had to make — one that is at least as poignant, if not more than, that which occurred at his crucifixion.  Before he suffered death, he first had to experience separation from God.  Those who love deeply in this life know the pain that separation can bring; but even the closest and best relationship you could imagine enjoying in this present world pales into insignificance when compared to the one shared by the Father and the Son.  Prior to his earthly incarnation, The Only Begotten One had spent a previous eternity enjoying perfect unity, harmony and communion with his Father, in His presence.  No two other beings in all of Creation will ever know so perfect a bond or experience that degree of closeness (John 1:18), yet our Saviour was willing to experience a temporarily diminished intimacy with God, as a means of expressing his love for us and the Father, by being obedient to His will.  Why was this necessary?  Partly because it was paramount that “… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)

 

This act of obedience was for our benefit in many ways.  In addition to obviously being the way in which the penalty for sin was paid, which opened the way to eternal life, it also serves as a model and a lesson for us of one of the key ways we demonstrate our love to God.  Here are a few of the Lord’s own statements on the subject:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15)

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21)

“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”

“You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)

“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3-4)

 

From these and other statements, Jesus made it clear that unless we obey God, we cannot claim to love him, or even know him.  So another key way we come to know God better, and understand the nature of His love more perfectly, is to obey Him.  What then are those commands we are to obey, which John says are not burdensome?  We can turn to the Lord’s own words for the answer.  They are:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Regarding these commandments John wrote, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning [since the Law had already been known for centuries by that time].”  But he goes on to say,

“Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him [Jesus] and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2: 7-8)

What was this new command, whose truth is seen in Jesus, applicable for all who accept the title of “Christian”?  It is still: “Love one another.”  But it is now to be understood in a new light, one which began to shine when our Lord and Savior bled and died on our behalf.  The fullness of the law’s requirement to love your neighbor as yourself, is only realized in the command: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  As I have loved you (In the same way as), so you must love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)   The love that Jesus had was a self-less love — one that was always ready and willing to sacrifice on behalf of others — and so the love we are to have is also one that is put into practice without consideration of “self”.  How critical of an issue is this for those who seek to know God and serve the Lord?

 

Consider the challenge Jesus posed to Peter, after Peter’s denial.  He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?  Peter had previously made the statement, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. … Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  (Matt. 26:33 and Luke 22:33)  Peter had believed that his own love for the Lord was superior to the love the other disciples possessed for Jesus.  Yet three denials in rapid succession proved his boast to be false, and showed that the comparative estimation of devotion he had made between himself and his brethren was unwarranted.  In Luke 22:61 we read that as soon as the final denial issued forth from Peter’s lips, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.”  Could any words communicate more powerfully than the understanding that passed between them when they locked eyes in that moment?  Clearly, Peter saw the truth about himself right then and there, because it is written “And he went outside and wept bitterly.”  So now, because of that experience, in response to Jesus’s question, Peter simply acknowledged that Jesus knew him better than had known himself, and said, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there — he asks him again.  The focus of the first query was on the comparative aspect of the question. Essentially he had asked Peter, Do you really love me more than anyone else does?  But now the heart of the question changes to ask, Do you really love me more than you love anything else?  Jesus used the verb agapao, which indicates an ardent, supreme love.  And just as he did in response to the Lord’s first question, Peter replies that he has phileo (affection denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao has a wider connotation, embracing especially the judgement and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety) for Jesus.  By this, Peter showed he understood his denials revealed that he had loved his own life more than he had loved his Master, and therefore, he could not truthfully claim to love him above everything else.

 

Jesus then used the same standard of phileo love Peter had professed in his two previous answers, once again slightly shifting the thrust of the question.  This time, it amounts to him asking, Are you even my friend?; and Peter was hurt that Jesus would ask him that.  Was Jesus being cruel by doing so?   Peter already knew he had failed, so why would Jesus press the issue like this?  Was it simply to rub Peter’s failure in his face, or was there still a deeper lesson he needed to learn?  I believe this last inquiry was intended to provide Peter with insight that would be crucial to his future success as the Lord’s servant.  In order to persevere in all that he would face in the future, he first needed to have a deeply reinforced understanding of why he had failed.  After Peter replies the final time, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”, Jesus gives him the same instruction to “Feed my sheep.”  The message in John 21:15-17 essentially had been, “Even if you only have brotherly love for me, my command to you remains the same:  Feed my sheep.  That is how you will show your love for me.”  But notice what he says next:

“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

 

How was this relevant to the conversation they had been having?  Before answering that, I think it is worth mentioning that throughout this entire discourse Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon, son of John”.  Simon, son of John encompasses his identity more completely than simply calling him Peter.  It carries a more serious tone, and conveys the sense that he is speaking to the very heart and soul of the man, not just the body in front of him.   With that in mind, here is how I interpret what Christ was communicating in verse eighteen:

Simon, son of John, my dearly beloved disciple, brother and friend, since the day you were born you have always been strong-willed (insisting on dressing yourself and going where you wanted).  But in the days to come, what will be required of you will exceed what you are able to accomplish by force of will alone.  Of course I know that you love me, but just as human affection and brotherly love were not strong enough for you to remain faithful to me in Gethsamene, so too are they inadequate for the work I have yet for you to do.  The reason you failed was because you relied on your own strength, rather than seeking and trusting in that love which can only be supplied by God.  The reason I’m challenging you like this now is so you fully understand that the only way to truly follow me and walk the path that I have just trod is to seek the love from God which surpasses all that man can attain.  That is how you will have success in feeding my sheep.

 

We’ve already read the passage in 1 John 5, which states that everyone born of God overcomes the world.  Overcoming the world means triumphing over evil by vanquishing it.  It has both internal and external applications, because before anyone can overcome the world, they must first overcome themself by having their essential nature altered down to its very foundation.  A self-oriented nature never overcomes the world — it only joins with it.  Over-comers are those who set aside concern for self and never let their love for others grow cold, in spite of all the evil and wickedness that occurs around them.  Through their constancy and steadfastness in love, they exert a godly influence on others.  By what means are they able to do this?  Through faith that Jesus is the Son of God.  The only way to persevere and endure hatred without becoming tainted by it, is to look to the example put before us by the Messiah’s sacrifice.

Peter had to learn that human love is insufficient to serve God effectively, because it is a fickle love, one that alters in response to the treatment it receives.  His lesson is also our lesson.  No one can manufacture godly love from within themself: not Peter, not you, not me.  Godly love can only be obtained from God, and we must seek Him continually, in order to receive that which is to be our daily spiritual bread.  Peter had believed he loved Jesus more than anything else and more than anyone else did, but He who knows the hearts of all men confronted him with the truth about what he was lacking.  I cannot imagine that our Lord would hesitate to do the same with us.  It is far too easy to lapse into the thinking that we are doing well as servants of God if, as a general rule, we go to church and are nice to people.  But we can keep the Sabbath our whole life, we could become the world’s preeminent Biblical scholar, understand every prophecy, have faith to move mountains, even give everything that we have and earn the praise of all men — and yet if we don’t have the love of God dwelling in us, we are nothing, and all our service is mere self-deception.

 

Because of that fact, Christ’s propechy regarding the condition mankind will be in prior to his return is a chilling one to me.  In Matt. 24:12 he says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  I’m confident that he wasn’t using hyperbole when he said that, which means true Christian, agape love will be nearly non-existent in the world at that time.  Whether we have reached those days which will herald the end of the age or not, God alone knows, so we need not occupy ourselves with such questions.  But we most certainly should be concerned about keeping the love of God alive within us at any and all times.  So how do we make certain that we will be among those who stand firm to the end?  That is a topic that I will save for my next post.  Until then, may the love of God be in you, and actively at work in your life.