Keys to Reading 1 John

Today, as in times past, biblical Christians face an onslaught of false teachings from those who claim to teach the Word of God.  There are numerous gospels within mainline denominations and cults.  Many whole denominations have followed the way of the world and adopted beliefs, lifestyles, and behaviors contrary to biblical faith.  They have followed the siren sound of worldly philosophies brought forward from centuries and millenniums before.  For this reason, Christians must keep their ears and eyes open for distinguishing between falsehood and truth.  The Apostle John gives bold warning in his letter of 1 John concerning those who seek to bring their false teachings within churches,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, ESV).

An insidious philosophy had taken hold in the time of Jesus and the Apostles brought in from Greek philosophy (Plato) that proposed a dualistic way of viewing existence.  Jews and Christians alike were not immune to its lure.  It espoused philosophical beliefs foreign to Judaism and biblical faith.  This dualism identified a spiritual side and a material side, hence dualism.  The spiritual was perfect and pure while the material was corrupt and evil.  False teaches came into Christian fellowships and disrupted them with this dualism.

Exposing False Teachings

The Apostles John and Paul wrote letters warning their congregations of the deception of this sinister Greek false teaching.  John devoted the entire letter of 1 John tearing down the walls of its deception and exposing its philosophical errors.  He leaves us with some very important keys for alerting us of modern day religious philosophies that operate under the cloak of deceptions.  These keys enable us to gain greater understanding of 1 John.  This letter shows us how John engages in corrective teachings that preserve the gospel’s message.  He brings these corrective teachings to application in our relationship with God and other Christians.  These keys for understanding John’s letter consist of the following:

  1. Knowledge/knowing
  2. Spirit/physical dualism
  3. Light/darkness
  4. Truth/lie
  5. Love/hate
  6. Christ followers/anti-Christ
  7. Jesus the Christ vs. Jesus and the Christ
  8. Righteousness/unrighteousness
  9. Fellowship/separation

This Greek philosophy was the early stages of Gnosticism.  This Gnosticism held to a secret knowledge (Sophia) meant only for the initiates whom its teachers guided into a process of self-knowledge.  This secret knowledge was associated with an inward divine spark that led to one understanding one’s spiritual origins.  Light constituted this divine spark, and darkness was simply intellectual error and not really sin.  John fought back against six major errors Gnosticism brought into the early Church related to this secret knowledge.  All of them related to a subjective way of truth as opposed to objective truth found in Jesus.  They consisted of the following:

  1. False Christ – False teachers denied that Jesus came in the flesh, because to them the material was evil. They denied the Incarnation and Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Jesus was an illusion.  They divided Jesus from Christ.  According to these teachers, this Christ came upon Jesus when John (Jesus’ cousin) baptized Him and left Him when Jesus went to the cross.  The Christ remained a pure Spirit untouched by evil.
  2. False knowledge – Secret knowledge based on self or the subjective rather than true knowledge; that is, knowledge of the one true God (objective) and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. False spirituality – These false teachers believed in an ethereal spiritual existence based on secret knowledge that gave them an awareness of their heavenly origins and blissful destiny through an internal (subjective) divine spark. They simply had to be in touch (i.e., get in touch with your inner child) with it to gain true spirituality through secret knowledge.
  4. False light – There exist a divine spark (light) in each of us we must come to understand (secret knowledge). This opposed the true Light (Jesus, objective).
  5. False righteousness – People came into righteousness through self-knowledge and a movement away from material evil. Since evil dwelled in sinful matter, one becomes righteous by attaining a higher consciousness of the spiritual as an initiate, perfection of self-knowledge, and escape from intellectual error and ignorance.  It is not a matter of sin but knowledge and escape from ignorance.
  6. False morality – Self-knowledge informed initiates of their spiritual pure state. The physical body held them in slavery.  Once they come to self-knowledge of their perfect and pure spirituality untouched by the material world, they can then think on a higher plane and ignore the restraint of the material world.  That is, they can live as libertines (amoral), because their spirits are untouched by the material existence.

John’s Counterarguments to False Teachings

John not only wants believers to recognize the false claims from false teachers but also desires us to counter and refute them through acknowledgement, practice, and defense of the truth in our own community of faith.  That is the reason he begins this letter as he does.  Therefore, from the beginning words of his letter to the conclusion John’s defense of the truth about Jesus is of the highest importance because of its consequence on relationships with God and others.  Who and what these first century believers believed influenced the way they lived their lives.  His counterarguments to the six false doctrines of Gnosticism consisted of the following:

JESUS – John stressed that the real Jesus dwelled among humanity in flesh and blood (Incarnate) (1 John 1:1-2.  Jesus was not an illusion but a real person.  No cosmic spiritual “Christ” existed.  Jesus came as Christ (Messiah).  To believe otherwise denied the Incarnation, resurrection, the eternal life, redemption and mediation, and fellowship with the Father, five foundational truths of faith.

KNOWLEDGE – Knowledge was NOT some internal secret self-knowledge, self-actualization (Sophia), or enlightenment through an initiation (subjectivism).  It is not the means of getting in touch with the divine spark (light) within for discovering our spiritual origins and destiny.  Rather, true knowledge is the knowledge of the personal God (objective) with whom we have fellowship and whom Jesus came to reveal (1 John 1:3; 2:3-4, 13; 4:7; 5:20).

SPIRITUALITY – True spirituality is not something we strive to attain through escape from material evil and secret knowledge (subjective) but a result of the new birth from God (objective) leading to faith, obedience, and righteousness (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 5:4).

LIGHT – Light is not some internal divine spark of higher consciousness meant for select initiates through which we attain when we escape ignorance.  It is not some sense of the mysterious destiny of ultimate purity and perfection when we come into complete self-knowledge of pure mind once one escapes the material world.  John declares God is light; it is His very nature where no darkness at all dwells (1 John 1:5) in which He has called us to walk in obedience (1:7) in love of God and fellow believers (1 John 3:1).  There is nothing mysterious about walking in light, because it is summed up in the New Commandment of love toward God and others (1:7; 2:9-10).

RIGHTEOUSNESS – Righteousness is not reaching some higher consciousness and perfection through self-knowledge.  Rather, it is a practice of life resulting from the new birth (1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10).  This righteousness exhibits itself in love for fellow believers and being faithful to God (3:9-10).

MORALITY – Morality is not casting off the restraints of the material world and rising to a higher consciousness.  It is not being in touch with our spirit selves and denying sin as that which is associated with the material world.  Rather, morality is living righteously (faithfully) toward God.

Contemporary Elements of Gnosticism

As we can determine in our reading through 1 John, John’s response is hard hitting and specific against the treacherous and cryptic teachings of the false teachers.  These false teachers are attractive because they cloak their teachings in enigma.  Their teachings are all about the inward and subjective while they ignore objective truth and clarity.  Secrecy, the intellect, escapism from reality, and the higher consciousness are the essence of their philosophy.  The elements of Gnosticism have made their inroads into philosophy, religions, and psychology.

Cults as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and the New Age movement have adopted many of Gnosticism’s beliefs and teachings.  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus was God, but rather view Him as a lesser god much like the demiurge of Gnosticism.  It also denies Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Rather, He rose spiritually, a Gnostic belief.  Mormons deify humans and make God human according to one of their prophets who claimed, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be.”[1]

The New Age movement harbors all sorts of cult and occult beliefs and doctrines.  One of the underpinnings of the New Age movement is Gnosticism’s strands of beliefs.[2]  Both the New Age and Gnosticism holds to mysteries, hidden knowledge, and “enlightened minds.”[3]  It encompasses the psychological philosophy of psychologist Carl Jung and the metaphysics of Theosophy, Scientology, and Christian Scientists.  It encompasses astrology and numerous pagan practices.  It has captured whole denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church USA and its Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 with its symbol of Sophia.  While the denomination rejected the Conference then, it continued to hold to the Sophia symbol as one of worship in its continuing “Voices of Sophia Breakfast” in the denomination’s General Assembly.[4]

Warnings!

Such inroads into mainstream denominations and Christian fellowships should alert us to the dangers of ancient religious philosophies posing as Christian and secretly coming into Christian congregations, disrupting and dividing believers.  We must read John’s letter carefully to become aware of these dangers and guard ourselves against them.  John informs us,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Not much in philosophy has changed over the millenniums. The same false teachings continue to rear their ugly heads in different ways.  Beware of them!  Hold tightly to John’s warning, listen closely to similar sounding ideas that resemble Christian theology, search the Scriptures, and ask questions.  Many who come in the name of Christ raise false imitations and counterfeits, which sound like Christian teaching.  They offer things like higher consciousness, the higher life, deeper spirituality, inner enlightenment, secret knowledge, divine spark, entry into mysteries, self-actualization, and inward-focus.  They imitate, impersonate, mimic, and copy biblical faith.  In the end, these false prophets give a foreign Jesus and lead astray into false teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).

[1] (Chapter 5: The Grand Destiny of the Faithful: Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, 2011, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, http://bit.ly/1kH4fIU).

[2] Phil Johnson, “What’s New with the New Age?  Why Christians Need to Remain on Guard Against the Threats of New Age Spirituality,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 10:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 76-78.

[3] Ibid, 76.

[4] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/7/voices-sophia-breakfast-thorson-smith-reflects-bac.

Harold Sings a Christmas Solo

Harold waited with intense anticipation just inside the gate. His time finally arrived. The others in the orchestra were flying high with passionate excitement. All of them had finely tuned instruments and practiced intently every moment they could for this very special day. Harold was part of the choir, and he had the enviable position of singing the solo. He practiced and practiced. Every morning his voice rang out in perfect pitch in such a melodious manner that those in the orchestra would gasp with pleasurable surprise and awe. All of them loved Harold because of his voice, and they could not wait to hear him at this special event.Angel

Mike had delivered several messages beforehand about this momentous occasion. He was one of the best sales persons the organization had. The big boss personally trained Mike in delivering the perfect pitch. Mike had a persuasive personality that simply left some wanting more and others finding what he had to say detestable. He was tall with an impeccable posture and confident smile. He stirred up a love hate relationship with many in the community, but because of the confidence the boss had in him, he remained unfazed.

On a couple occasions, he received such opposition that it just drained him. However, he held his ground that no one should miss the biggest symphony ever. On one occasion, he stayed in a town for an exhausting three weeks, going from one house to another informing the citizens that they had to be prepared to come.

His partner, Gabe, had similar responsibilities. The boss sent him to make arrangements with various family members. His job was not without troubles. He almost broke up a wedding placing the bridegroom in doubt about wanting to get married. He gave an extreme case of laryngitis to another family member so that all he could do was write on a tablet for several months. Gabe didn’t seem to be as persuasive as Mike. That’s the reason the boss sent him to family members rather than to strangers.

Both Mike and Gabe accomplished their jobs. Now it was Harold’s turn. All the orchestra finally arrived, and they were all ready to exit the gate together. All of them were so giddy that they wanted to shout. The boss had to calm them down, because he wanted Harold to do all the shouting while they accompanied him with their instruments.

Then the boss gave the nod, and all of them rushed out of the gate. The horns rang out first, giving out a haunting melodious sound that caught the entire audience off guard. Next came the trumpets accompanied by the bass and snare drums as though an army was about ready to attack. The harp and violins then presented a calming affect that led into Harold’s solo. All of a sudden, the entire orchestra ceased playing all instruments and with the choir shouted, “Hark Harold the angel sings!”

Harold thenmanger carries the orchestra in the grand finale, “Glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.”

Ten Obstacles to Saving Faith: Introduction and Obstacle One

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul sets out to defend the gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of that defense of the gospel is faith. Throughout this letter, Paul gives meaning to faith by association with the contents of the gospel. The center of that gospel is Jesus Christ. He associates faith with the following:

  • grace (Romans 1:5; 5:2; 12:3)
  • righteousness (1:17)
  • Christ’s sacrificial death (3:25),
  • justification (3:28, 30; 4:5; 5:1)
  • righteousness (4:11-13; 9:30-32; 10:6-8)
  • God’s promises and inheritance (4:13-20)
  • obedience (1:5; 16:26)

All of these comprise the meaning of God’s saving act toward us. They stand in contrast to our alienation from God and unbelief resulting in rebellion against and rejection of Him. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul sets out ten obstacles to saving faith, which prevent people from coming into relationship with God both in our existing life and in the life to come of eternity. These obstacles resist the above listed benefits from God and reflect unbelief. This article addresses the first obstacle with subsequent articles taking up each of the others. While Paul writes of these obstacles from the perspective of those who reject God and fail to believe Him, Christians can also stand in the way of enjoying relating to God and enjoying His presence in life through not believing God in the benefits He offers.  This is not to say that Christians do not possess these benefits.  Rather, believers can doubt them and fall into a similar life as someone who does not believe the gospel and the benefits it brings them.

In laying out the condition of all humanity in Romans 1-2, Paul sets forth a heavy indictment of those who reject God. Among the first of these indictments include ungodliness and unrighteousness. He writes,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Notice that ungodliness and unrighteousness begin a downward spiral. The first of their acts is the suppression of truth. Once this suppression occurs, indignity toward God results in dishonoring him. That follows with lack of gratitude leading to futile thinking and a dark heart. Once rejection of God and His glory thrusts Him down through dishonor and ingratitude, it leads to lifting up a claim to wisdom and ultimately full-blown idolatry.  A claim to the wisdom of which Paul notes, is really a claim of being wiser than God for recognizing what is best for ourselves.  The wisdom of which Paul speaks leads to idolatry (1:23), that is corrupting the image of God and setting up images gods unworthy of Him.

Rejection of God takes many forms:

  • Embracing God and then turning away (apostasy)
  • Claiming that one cannot know God (agnosticism)
  • Denying that God actually exists (atheism)
  • Worshiping of other gods (polytheism) made in the image of man (idolatry)
  • Defying outright God although one knows Him (rebellion)
  • Practicing the occult and cultism (Satanism)
  • Making excuses for not embracing God by faith (self-will)

Regardless of the form, they all add up to unbelief and rejection of God. Paul makes known that unbelief is the key ingredient leading to ultimate idolatry and all of its trappings: uncleanness, lust, and dishonorable treatment of self. The list Paul makes provides a summary of the type of people who typify unbelief (Romans 1:29-31), among which consist of sexual immorality, envy, murder, strife, violence, lack of trust and love.  Idolatry is the act of the worship of gods made in the image of those things in the created order including humanity.  It is the enshrinement and placement of anything in the created order as first place before God.  All of the above listed rejections of God are idolatrous practices.

Notice that their progression begins with ungodliness and unrighteousness. These two characteristics describe the natural bent of humanity. The first term, ungodliness, refers to a lack of respect or irreverence. It is a failure to render honor. It is the negation of a bent toward the goodness that characterizes God. The second term suggests unfaithfulness or disloyalty and not imperfection. It could also describe faithlessness that exhibits wrongdoing, injustice, and wickedness. Unrighteousness is a force for all other evils, especially those that Paul sums up at the conclusion of the chapter (1:29-31).

In listing the irrational and hostile traits at the conclusion of chapter one, Paul illustrates an undeniable truth. Those who exhibit ungodliness and unrighteousness toward God conduct themselves in like manner toward their fellow humans. If they demonstrate unrighteousness toward God, they will do so toward others. If they display acts counter to the sexual design for which God created them, they will perpetrate sexual immorality as described in the Bible toward others (1:29). If they are haters of God (1:30), they will be malicious, envious, deceptive, evil-minded, violent, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful toward others (1:29-31). Dishonor and irreverence only perpetuates the results of these characteristics toward others. The empirical evidence is obvious worldwide where we witness conflicts and wars over the material goods of the world and the desire to deprive others not only of their property but also of their lives either on an individual level or on the level of a society or nation.

Faith in God cannot stand when such turmoil and maliciousness exist. They exist or have existed within each person on the earth and in every person who has ever lived who never turned to God. For faith to exist and thrive, all individuals must recognize, admit to, and turn away from ungodliness and unrighteousness. The Bible calls this repentance. Repentance and faith must come together, and they do so only through God’s activity within the individual in turning a person from his or her own self-oriented condition toward Jesus Christ to recognize Him as the Redeemer of one’s soul.

Copyright (c) 2014 Action Faith  Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Cannot be used or stored in any form without expressed written permission from Action Faith Books Press.

“My truth may not be the same as your truth” Is this true?

From time to time, I hear someone saying, “My truth may not be the same as your truth.”  Because postmodern thinking has infiltrated this generation and our Western society with its relativism, many make this statement without realizing what they say.  They do not realize the problems arising from this statement.  Some do, but use it as an escape hatch for shutting down an argument in which they do not wish to engage.  Those shutting down an argument cannot defend their own position.  Others also look at this statement as conclusive, the end of all argument, and an inescapable “truth” without a legitimate rebuttal.  Are these conclusions really that air tight or do they simply teeter on the cliff of irrationality, reducing argument and communication to meaningless?  Let us examine the logic and philosophy behind this statement and dig to the root of it.

The book Nothing But the Gospel addresses this argument, stating,

Many today reduce truth to “my truth may not be the same as your truth.”  Such an assessment of truth cancels it out by reducing it to millions of individual opinions.  In doing so, truth itself depends on humanity and not on God, and reduces it to non-existence.  Such so-called truth relies on the limitations of finite beings living in a temporal existence and ignores the unknown” (p. 76).

That is, one making this claim about truth asserts a self-defeating argument and redefines the meaning of truth.  Opinion substitutes for truth and makes truth dependent on the limitations of an individual, group, community, or society.  By redefining the word, the user becomes enclosed in his or her own limited existence beyond which another “truth” claims to exist.  That is, all “truths” are mutually exclusive and only valid within a specific circle.

Moving outside one’s circle of truth into another person’s circle is non-negotiable depending on the flexibility of one’s “truth” principles.  It also expresses a statement of intolerance and standard.  That is, if your truth is different from mine, then anything beyond my cocoon of truth has little relevance.  Not only does it have little relevance, but if I cling heartily to my truth, your truth can be very offensive to me. Such offense lends to alienation and conflict while cutting off discourse and association.  The more firm the stance on one’s truth, the greater the intolerance of another person or group’s truth.  Of course, this assertion remains unstated until “truths” clash.  Then the banners raise and protests begin.

This statement about truth also raises what one attempts to avoid: absoluteness and a sense of right or wrong.  By making the statement about truth as possessive or belonging to one person or group as opposed to another, a sense of absoluteness arises.  One who makes the claim will not state outright that another is wrong, but when one makes such a claim, that person excludes the claims of any other “truth.”  An attitude of intolerance confirms this absoluteness, which eventually surfaces when one holding the claim is pressed in a corner.

Furthermore, truth cannot stand alone.  It must be practiced.  Otherwise, it is ethereal and has no substance or connection to the real world.  Practice makes truth reality.  Practice expresses and distinguishes between right and wrong right and wrong.  That is, a person behaves in a manner one believes to be a right course as opposed to a wrong course.  People make judgments and engage in actions based on personal standards.  We often hear the phrase when asked why a person acted in the way one did, “It was simply the right thing to do.”  Trust depends on telling the truth or exhibiting certain attitudes or behaviors.  People realize that specific attitudes and behaviors are common within groups, communities, and societies.

A person making a claim about “my truth” soon discovers isolation.  Others outside of the realm of another person’s truth then begin to view the person clinging to a “my truth”  as an oddball.  Consequently, the truth of truth is its relevance beyond one person, and if beyond one person, to how many more will truth apply before it reaches its limitation?  If truth has limitation, it then exhibits the same claim as truth limited to one.  The group or community making the claim, much like the individual, soon discovers isolation, and not only isolation but also intolerance of other groups, communities, and societies.  Have we not seen the results of this throughout history?

Therefore, is truth or a claim of truth a problem or the individual making the claim about truth the problem?  Some may say neither is a problem.  Why then does intolerance or conflict arise with the statement of “My truth may not be the same as your truth?”  Does truth contribute to intolerance or conflict?  The Bible claims that the suppression of truth gives rise to everyone claiming their own truth,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

The suppression of truth arises from what the Apostle Paul asserts as “unrighteousness,” that is, the refusal to recognize and follow God as the source of truth.  He goes on to write,

…because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (1:21-25).

In the absence of divine truth and its practice, individuals adopt their own “truth” and fail to recognize that it must be practiced.  Therefore, the problem resides with individuals. They end up practicing a lie while laying claim to “My truth may not be the same as your truth.”  When asked about that person’s truth, the next claim comes forth, “That (practice) may be OK for you but not for me.”  In making this statement, one integrates practice with one’s statement of truth and the admission that it must be practiced.  By doing so, one establishes a standard for one’s view of truth and its practice.  That standard not only applies to that individual but also to the group or community with which the individual is involved until the scope of this standard becomes wider to a society and beyond.

Paul explains the logical conclusion of a person or society establishing its own “truth” – setting up a divinity or idol for the society after first rejecting God.  Under the umbrella of another divinity, individuals begin to practice dishonor, intolerance for others, deceit, and any number of other practices Paul mentions.  Conflicts and destructive behaviors arise as each society clings to its own set of “truths” and looks upon other societies as oddballs.  Power resides in those (the dictator) who hold sway with their “truth.”  Has history not shown these consequences, especially when people depart from the living God and fail to give Him the worship due Him?  Worshiping the God of Jesus Christ brings all claims of truth and their conflicts to an end.  Since He created all that exist, He alone determines truth for that existence.  Jesus said,

I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

He alone establishes the truth for all to follow and reconciles all to it and God through Himself.

Biblical Faith and False Faith

One of the major distinctions between the faith about which the Bible speaks and all other faiths is that biblical faith is rooted in historical reality.  Some may lay claim that history does not matter.  Rather, it is the “idea” on which faith focuses that makes it genuine.  From this perspective arises myth.  Myth, legend, and fable have the aura of the story, moral didactic, and speculation.  These elements are more important than actual history to those who embrace myth, legend, and fable.  They feed the imagination for carrying forth specific culture, ethnic claims, or national identity through time.

The 18th century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher once stated,

Our faith in Christ and our living fellowship with him would be the same even if we had no knowledge of any such transcendent fact [as the Holy Trinity] and even if the fact itself were different.” (Schleiermacher, Friedrich in Toon, Peter, “Ways of Describing the Holy Trinity,” Reformation and Revival, Volume 10:3 (Summer 2001): 108.)

While he addresses the Trinity as possible myth, he points to the core of Christian faith – the triune God.  If we follow his logic to its conclusion, we could say the same thing about God, the coming of Jesus in the form of man, or any number of other biblical truths.  In other words, truth does not have to express truth to be the grounds for faith.  This assessment of the Christian faith goes counter to genuine biblical faith. It establishes faith in a god unknown to the biblical authors and denies the core distinctiveness of the God the Scriptures uphold. Schleiermacher undercuts the historical, source, word, and foundation of faith by dismissing God and history and making faith a leap into a vacuum – no object and no connection with reality (history).

Often, the myth or legend changes or evolves to capture the minds and hearts of the current generation for prolonging the myth within a cultural backdrop.  Most of the world religions have their basis in myth through both oral tradition and sacred writings.

For example, Buddhism had its source in Siddhartha Gautama.  According to myth, Siddhartha meditated under the Bodhi tree and received enlightenment.  Rather than perpetuating leaders in the way of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama designated the Dharma (or teachings and doctrine) as the “leader.”  His own words and sayings were part of the Dharma.  Therefore, his words in fact are the leadership for furthering disciples.  Additionally, they were means of enlightenment and not so much sources of historical reality.  Consequently, Buddhist faith found its roots in the sayings, teachings, and doctrines for communal living and social order.  It had its rules and disciplines for leading to enlightenment from self effort and personal insight.  Ideas and not history dominates Buddhist enlightenment through one’s own efforts and meditation (contemplation).  Concerns about what was (history) is a distraction to wise thinking.  Enlightenment takes the path beyond such concerns to Nirvana through a speculative philosophy, the place of no attachment or desire.  Such enlightenment differs according to the philosophical school.

Other Eastern and Western religions and philosophies take a similar approach – history is irrelevant.  As such, it can undergo revision or be replaced or modified as myth.  It becomes divorced from the here and now in terms of meaning and application.  Rather the myth of an event or person, regardless if it is true, take precedence over historical reality.

In the episode of Star Trek “Rightful Heir,” Worf travels to a Klingon planet to engage in religious ceremony ushering the second coming of Kahless.  He prays for several days until during his prayers, Kahless appears before him.  Doubt rises within him as he questions Kahless about past battles and Kahless fails to deliver the correct answers.  Later, Worf discovers that the religious leaders of the planet had cloned Kahless for Worf’s benefit, which causes a crisis of faith for him.  When he returned to the USS Enterprise, Worf has a conversation with Data who shares about a crises of faith he also had as a machine desiring to be human.  He informed Worf that he chose to believe that he was a person instead of a machine.  He informed Worf that he took a leap of faith.  It did not matter that Data believed a lie about himself.  A leap of faith helped him to dismiss the lie.  Worf concluded from the conversation that the actual existence of Kahless was unimportant for his faith.  Rather it was the idea (or the myth) that counted as the basis for faith.  This enabled Worf to resolve his crises of faith.  To him, the historical reality of Kahless and his leadership in returning the glory of the Klingon Empire was irrelevant to his faith.  For him, faith can have a lie for its foundation.  The idea or myth replaced historical reality according to the philosophy of Star Trek.

The problem with this philosophy is having faith depending on myth or a lie.  Faith in that which is fiction is faith in falsehood.  As Worf discovered, it required a leap of faith.  Such a leap is groundless, for it has no basis in reality.  Biblical faith teaches a very different kind.  It is faith grounded in the reality of history.  Accordingly, God created the heavens and earth, including humanity.  He gave us purpose and direction for living and communicated them to us through His word in the Bible.

Humanity’s rebellion alienated us from Him and that purpose and direction so that all of our searches lead us to meaninglessness, or according to postmodern philosophy nihilism.  As we attempt to ground ourselves in material existence, our grounding slips through our fingers like jello.  Human philosophy provides no meaning in itself for covering all humanity.   Rather, it is grounded in a million opinions about human existence, the past, and the future.  Experience fails, because, again, everyone has a unique experience and an interpretation of it.  Experience reduces truth to “my truth may not be the same as your truth,” cancelling any resemblance to a universal truth from which even people in a similar culture could receive direction.  Human philosophy has too many wrinkles and scars resulting from violence, mistrust, warfare, and interpretations and responses to these events.  Each generation has a different take on the importance of behavior, events, and priorities.  Each builds it own monuments and icons to venerate something meaningful or someone of importance for attempting to give life significance and purpose.  However, through the decades and centuries, those monuments crumble and return to dust as does every man and woman.

However, because God created us in time and history, we engage history as we pass and live through it.  Not only do we engage history, but God has revealed Himself to us in it.  He came to us in history to deliver us from our state of alienation and purposeless existence due to the rebellion we exhibit toward Him, others, and our environment.  The Bible calls this rebellion sin.  God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile us to Himself from the strained separation we have had with Him throughout the days, years, and decades of our lives.  Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin dealt a blow to the decay, disease, violence, and death we face regularly in our cultures, societies, governments, communities, and environments.

Jesus came in real time and history so that our faith rests on actual historical events and not on myth or legend.  He broke through space and time in the form of a baby and grew into adulthood as we do.  His coming, death, and resurrection were facts.  That makes our faith based on reality and not fiction, thereby making that faith genuine and with foundation.  In Jesus’ coming to us in the form of a man, He showed us God the Father and the richness of what it means to relate to Him.  He loves, gives, cares, and desires us.  These are not fictitious characteristics found in a novel but real actions toward us from a real God.  Unseen as He is, He revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus informed one of His disciples, Philip, when Philip asked to show them the Father,

“Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father'” (John 14:9)?

Jesus reveals God to us.

God Himself makes the distinction between true biblical faith and false faiths.  We do not define real and genuine faith.  God does.  He imparts to us what it means to trust  and love Him as well as how to trust and love other people.  He is the only one who can, because we are such a distance from the truth about real faith that we cannot know it or God without His disclosure.  In human terms, faith takes a different turn of meaning – lacking in substance and evidence and dependent on what one sees.

God gives faith substance.  It is not in something ethereal, mystical, or mythical.  Biblical faith is from above, from the one who created us and loves us.  He showed that love through His Son, Jesus Christ.  This act of God in sending His Son into the world in time and history turns faith away from being a leap, because God took the initiative to come to us.  We could not leap over the gap from the created world to the realm of God.  God did this through revelation of Himself and His initiative to cross the barrier between Himself and the material world.

Why, then, does faith seem or feel like a leap for us?  The Bible gives us a very clear answer.  We do not see God.  One of Jesus’ other disciples, John, informs us,

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:14).

We cannot even see our own spirit or soul, and for that reason many claim these do not exist.  However, they do exist, because God breathed spirit into us, and we became living beings (Genesis 2:7).  We are spiritual being clothed in material substance of skin, muscle, and bones.  Since this existence is true of us, it is difficult for us to think in terms of spirit, especially of God who is spirit.  We are more familiar with what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and touch with our hands.  Invisible realities leave us with doubt of their existence.

Therefore, when any thought of God enters our minds, we question whether any such being exists.  Yet, there He is in the thoughts we think as muddled as our thoughts make Him, so much so that we concoct other gods to replace Him in our thoughts.  We would not even conceive of God if He did not exist just like we cannot and do not conceive of the non-existent.  One might ask, “What about science fiction?  People have never seen all of those creatures people imagine.”  Yes they have – in the form of themselves or other creatures mixed together much like the Greek and Roman gods mingled human and animal and formed them out of sticks and stones.  All such elements for God rises from the seen things of creation as distortions of the unseen God.  Although the thought of God enters our minds, our alienation from God completely distorts Him as we attempt to make Him into something from the created order.

For us, coming to grips with the unseen God and unseen realities calls for what we define as a leap of faith.  We call it a leap because we cannot grasp it.  Therefore, like Data in Star Trek, we leap into belief to overcome the crisis of having a God consciousness and not “seeing” or “feeling” this God.

This is where God enters the picture.  He recognizes our limitations, finiteness, and alienated state from Him and how these characteristics place us in a situation of grasping for what seems to slips through our fingers like the wind.  God then must come to us and wake us up from our spiritual deadness.  He imparts faith in us for grasping His revelation of Himself in His word in the Bible and recognizing His Son Jesus Christ.

We do not have to be like Pontius Pilate whom Jesus faced at the end of His life who asked Jesus, “What is truth?”  We do not need to seek love or goodness in all the wrong places, because God showed us real love in real time – in history.  He also distinguished false love and goodness from real love and goodness through His activity in time in the person of Jesus.  He showed them to us in Jesus.  Real and genuine faith finds its grounds in the God of history.  Have you discovered that God?

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.

Faith, Mysticism, and the Sufficiency of Scriptures

Faith and mysticism grew in parallel from the first century.  However, in many ways they have taken different paths while claiming to be joined.  But are they?  If we dive deeper into biblical faith and mysticism, we discover their departure from one another at several junctures.  Hebrews 11:1 states,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Two key elements of faith this statement surfaces consist of “substance” and “evidence.”  Substance relates to hope or the future.  Evidence turns on unseen realities.  As we read the illustrations of Hebrews 11, we discover several examples of both substance and evidence with those who encountered God.  The unseen God created all that exists (11:3).  Abel offered sacrifices to the unseen God (11:4).  Noah acted on God’s promise (hope) that God would spare him and his family in the flood He would send on the earth.  Abraham obeyed God to move from an idolatrous people in light of the promise of offspring and the Messiah.  The passage says, “By faith, he dwelled in the land of promise…for he waited or the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:9).  The many others mentioned cast their faith on substance and evidence and left us a legacy of genuine faith in the God who delivers on His promises.  Accordingly, these historical figures expressed the dual foundations of true biblical faith.

At the root of mysticism are desire and connection.  Most people seek some sort of desire for spirituality, authentication of their significance and purpose, or a yearning for the divine beyond human limitations.  Limitation combined with alienation from God because of Godward rebellion give incentive to desire and connection with a temporal existence.  Even if that divine is internal, it is something that appears elusive at times and beyond our immediate feeling, language, or mental capacities.  When asked about a given mystical or spiritual experience, a person having one simply expresses a visual or claims words are not sufficient.  It is at this point that the imagination and mental images are sought.  Dennis Martin states,

Many attempts have been made to describe the fundamental characteristics of mystical experience.  Traditionally it has been asserted that the experiential union of creature and Creator is inexpressible and ineffable, although those who have experienced it seek imagery and metaphors to describe it, however imperfectly.  As noted above, it is experienced union or vision, not abstract knowledge.  It is beyond the level of concepts, for reasoning, ideas, or sensory images have been transcended (but not rejected) in an intuitive union” (Martin, Denis D., “Mysticism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, pp. 806-808).

Martin highlights several qualities of mysticism: experience, imagery, metaphors, vision, transcendence, and intuition.  Often desire becomes sensuality and lust, and connection is grasping for the visible things of the earth and worshipping them instead of the unseen God of hope.  They ground faith in the visible and temporal rather than the invisible and eternal.  They displace substance and evidence and surface the visible and temporal as authorities for living out our lives.  Because we are so connected to our experiences, we cling to them for direction, meaning, and purpose.  Experience is inescapable in our present physical and temporal state of being because we live within experience.  Experience naturally gives way to the visible even in our dreams.

Therefore, experiences tempt us to lift them up as authority or even divine.  Images, metaphors, and the visual amount to the visible whether in the external world or within our imaginations.  Our imaginations borrow from the visible world and integrate mental images, dreams, and visions into patterns of worship toward God (or gods).  The problem with this scenario is that it begins with oneself and attempts to work its way to God.  The authority becomes the experience or imagination.  Faith directs its attention on God through the content of His word found in the Scriptures.  The Scriptures, as God’s word, serve as the authority for judging experience, feeling, thought, and the things of the world.

The stark differences between faith and mysticism becomes evident in their source and expression.  Faith looks to and trusts God.  Mysticism focuses on oneself and places trust in the visible things of the world in seeking for spiritual authentication of the divine whether it be the Christian God or some other one.  The visible is far more attractive than the invisible and offers a more concrete reality.  Because of their close proximity to our lives, they displace the authority of God’s word in favor of the visible things of the temporal world.  Faith is a difficult matter and requires divine intervention.  In writing to the church in Rome (book of Romans), Paul illustrates this divine intervention in stating,

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

That is, the Scriptures give rise to faith.  By contrast, genuine faith cannot come to expression apart from the Scriptures.  God’s spoken word possesses the power to give birth to faith toward God.  God’s word causes a person to look to God and not to oneself for true spirituality and authority for living in the temporal world.  Faith enables us to transcend the temporal and visible to the eternal and invisible, that is, its substance and evidence: hope and the promises of God.  The word of God guides our experience through faith and acts as a dividing line between right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, and good and evil.  All of these are experienced based, but relying on experience and the visible things of the earth cannot serve to distinguish between them.  Some laud evils as good and good as evil.  Some turn right into wrong and wrong into right.  Conflicting judgments, philosophies, theologies, and societal laws illustrate these inversions.  Therefore, experience cannot act as their arbiter and standard.

They must look to that which is beyond the temporal world of the visible and experience, that is, God and His word in the Scriptures.  He created all things and gave them foundations for their existence, including a moral compass and the capacity to relate to Him.  He alone set the terms for that relationship and revealed them in His word.  He and His revealed word offer the only sufficiency for true spirituality, authentic existence, and life with God.  Mysticism fails because of its grounding in the temporal and visible world.  It has no substance and offers no evidence except for a multitude of conflicting and unique experiences, imagination, and personal yearnings for connection.  These are not sufficient for relating with God, because they act from individually established terms, which amount to as many terms as there are individuals, and shift authority from God to oneself.  Those who seek mystical experiences are not satisfied with the Scriptures alone for living the life of faith.  Continued restlessness draws them to seek out the visible rather than resting in the invisible promises of invisible God and trusting His providence and guidance from His word.

Only the gospel found in the Scriptures is the power of God for true connection and salvation from rebellion against God.  That power rises from the God who raised His Son from the dead to close the gap in our alienation with God.  Faith in Jesus fulfills authentic living, spiritual desire, and yearning to connect with God.  Faith in Jesus Christ offers the only way for eternal life with God.

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.