Measuring Modern Christianity Against the Words of the Bible
In my 30-plus years as a Christian, I've heard the phrase "accept Jesus as your personal Savior" probably thousands of times. The phrase always rankled me, although it took me years to fully understand why.
There are abundant reasons to shiver at the idea of just a "personal salvation." For one thing, it goes hand in hand with the shallow, feel-good, "I found it" bumper-sticker version of Christianity, an appeal to accept the Messiah for reasons of personal fulfillment. Certainly, a life dedicated to the Messiah's will is the ultimate form of fulfillment, but "personal" fulfillment is more of a fringe benefit than a selling point of Christianity as announced in the Bible.
Another problem for me is that "personal salvation" ignores the corporate responsibility of Christians. Time and time again throughout the Bible, YEHOVAH's people are expected to work together for a larger cause. For example, the Old Testament prophets demanded justice for the poor, while early Christians created a refuge for orphans and widows.
One of my favorite Biblical passages is Paul's description of the church as a body. Individual body parts aren't much good without each other. YEHOVAH God expects us to work together for the common good, not be solo practitioners. A Christianity that consists of individual Christians who are "saved" so they won't "go to hell" when they die misses a central point of Christianity. And where did Yeshua ever offer "heaven" to anyone in the Bible?
The Messiah's main emphasis while he was on earth was to preach and teach about the coming Kingdom of YEHOVAH God. While there is an individual element to that -- each person on his or her own must come to a decision to follow the Messiah -- it is by and large not just a personal triumph. The thrust of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God is that it will one day create a world filled with justice and righteousness -- literally a better world.
YEHOVAH God wants His people to help the less fortunate, to have a spirit of humility and love. It would be easy to think that this is YEHOVAH's way of directing people toward a higher personal piety. But it is much more than that. It is a foreshadowing of the goal YEHOVAH God has set for this earth, a globe filled with justice, mercy and compassion under His Kingdom rule and that of His Son, Yeshua. Christians [also sons of YEHOVAH God] will serve YEHOVAH God as administrators in fulfilling this peaceful and nondiscriminatory world. How can we qualify for this job if we spend our lives spreading dissension and war?
Sadly, in America today the evangelical church makes little pretense of acting in accordance with Yeshua's vision of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God. Many evangelicals are fervently militaristic and political, despite Yeshua's command to his followers to be peacemakers and to love their enemies. Many believe in a reward after death that amounts to a self-indulgent vision in which Christians wind up floating around the sky with harps.
This distorted vision of the Christian goal would not be possible if we had not lost sight of the corporate portion of the Christian message. The popular Christian author John Eldredge demonstrates this myopic vision in his bestseller Waking the Dead. He translates a seminal scene from Yeshua's ministry, when he heralds his Messiahship in the temple by quoting Isaiah: "The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me because the Lord anointed me to preach the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the freedom of the captives and release from darkness the prisoner."
This is a vision fraught with social implications. Yeshua is calling the oppressed majority beaten down by an unjust economic system, as well as those punished by unrighteous governments. He is speaking to the captives forced into slavery through the brutal and endless wars of his time, the Jews who were under the thumb of a long line of secular empires. He announced that all that was going to end, because the time was coming for YEHOVAH God to make it right!
Yet here is Eldredge's translation: "God has sent me on a mission. 1 have some great news for you. God has sent me to release and restore something. And that something is you. 1 am here to give you back your heart and set you free." He takes YEHOVAH's spectacularly beautiful and uplifting vision of a future world and creates a pale (not to mention misleading) version. Who cares about the world; it's all about me, he says! Yet, judging by book sales, Christians lap up this gruel, ignoring the wholesome and tasty meal YEHOVAH God has set for us.
I've always wrestled with what the Bible teaches. Every church has its own set of beliefs based on certain verses, but other denominations interpret the same text in wholly different ways. For years I concluded that our beliefs are not as important to YEHOVAH God as our attitudes. I reasoned that maybe it was YEHOVAHs plan that truth be clouded somewhat. If YEHOVAH wanted us to know everything, He would have laid it out in Scripture in simple terms. Since it remains so confused, maybe that was YEHOVAH's plan.
However, as I learned more about the development of Christian theology, I came to realize that the confusion is not caused by Godless intellectuals, but by the mental gymnastics needed to justify commonly held beliefs that are nowhere to be found in Scripture. There is a huge disconnect between the language of today's Christianity and that of the Apostles and biblical writers. 'They didn't need advanced doctoral courses, nor did their listeners. And it is not just that obsolete words or a different world view makes the disconnect a matter of semantics. Today's churches teach basic ideas -- including the Trinity and the immortality of the soul -- that would be viewed as foreign to members of the earliest church.
That fact becomes particularly clear when one reads the arguments of the Apostles. Take, for instance, the first recorded sermon after the death of the Messiah as reported by Luke in the second chapter of the book of Acts. It makes sense that Luke, writing a historical record as a member of the faith, would have thought of this speech as a model for Christian teaching, given its prominent place in the story of the church's development. Let's look at a few excerpts.
After an explanation to the astonished onlookers who heard the Christians speaking foreign languages, Peter described who Yeshua was: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, u man approved of God among you..."
Right off the bat, Yeshua is described as a MAN, albeit one set apart by YEHOVAH God. If Peter thought of Yeshua as God Incarnate, it is inexplicable that he didn't just say it: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus Christ came down from heaven, where he was fully God, coequal with God the Father, to become fully man without ceasing to be fully God..."
Peter continues by explaining how Yeshua was foreseen by his ancestor David. YEHOVAH God swore to David that "of the fruit of his loins" He would raise up a Messiah to "sit on the throne." This is another reference to the basic humanity of Yeshua, as well as a reference to the fact that Peter believed that Yeshua would ultimately rule on earth. If Yeshua had been preexisting as God before being incarnated as "God-Man" -- rather than begotten as a human being (as is taught by the Bible) -- it would be incredible to think that Peter would speak of him as being a direct descendant of David.
Peter speaks of David as "dead and buried" and "not ascended into the heavens." Surely, if man has an immortal soul, David would have "made it" to heaven, and he would have been there when Peter made his speech. But that doesn't appear to be what Peter believed. And the reference to the throne would definitely have been taken by his Jewish listeners as a kingdom on this earth. Peter did not say otherwise, giving weight to the assumption that he concurred. No Jew would have imagined the Messianic Kingdom of YEHOVAH God to be located in heaven.
Peter made the point that Yeshua was the first man who had ever been resurrected, fulfilling the word of the prophets and giving hope to mankind. The dead being raised was no run-of-the-mill event! And it is nonsense to say that Peter was making a distinction between a body and an immortal soul. Luke himself doesn't seem to recognize the difference between a body and a soul, because he reports in the same chapter that three thousand "souls" were added to the church that day, and that fear came upon "every soul" who saw the wonders performed by the Apostles. Would Luke write Peter's words without explanation, if he himself meant something different by the same word?
Another staple of modern theology that fails when matched against the words of the Apostles is the idea that Jews had a false view of the Messiah. We've all heard this -- that Jews were looking for a political leader, but that Yeshua established an ethereal kingdom. But this is not what Paul evidently believed.
In Acts 23, when Paul was speaking to the Sanhedrin, he sided with the Pharisees, saying he had the same Messianic hope in the future as they did, prompting them to spring to his defense. "We find no evil in this man," they said. Would they have so strongly defended a man who differed with them about basic elements of their faith, such as the fate of man after death and the nature of YEHOVAH God? No, Jews of the time demonstrated again and again they preferred death to blasphemy. It was about that time that the Roman emperor Caligula tried to erect a bust of himself in the temple at Jerusalem. Thousands of Jewish leaders knelt before Roman soldiers and offered their necks to the swords, so they would not have to see such blasphemy, and the Romans relented. The Jews who defended Paul brooked no dissent, but they did not find Paul's core beliefs objectionable. How could that be if Paul preached a non-Jewish message?
The point is even clearer in Acts 24, when Paul is making his defense before the governor, Felix. "1 worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down in the law and the prophets, having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and unjust." He reiterates that he believes what the Pharisees taught about the future, which is the same gospel of the Kingdom that was preached by Yeshua. People who argue that the Jews were wrong about the Messiah's role in this world and YEHOVAH's future plan, and that Christians taught a whole new message, are arguing against Paul himself!
Many modern commentators accuse Peter and Luke of having a primitive, underdeveloped Christianity, the idea being that YEHOVAH God revealed Himself more fully as time went on. In order to believe this, one must conclude that we today know more about Yeshua and his mission than his closest associates did. We would also have to believe that YEHOVAH revealed more to men like John Nelson Darby than He did to Moses and Abraham, who met YEHOVAH and angels face to face. Upon reflection we should dismiss such an idea as ludicrous.
I hope that one day the mainstream church will get back to a teaching that reflects the mind of the Messiah, Peter, Paul and the Apostles. Until then, the church offers the world a poor reflection of the message of the Messiah. The current Gospel lacks the full-blooded hope of YEHOVAH God's Kingdom coming at the return of Yeshua. And it promotes a Savior who is really God Himself and barely human.
-- Paul Fiorilla is a journalist living in New Jersey.
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