As a body of believers, we assemble together in groups of various sizes and strengths. I'm sure we all have a tendency to look for others with whom we can agree, at least within certain tolerable limits. And, there are most likely other more subjective qualities we look for, like style of worship (noisy and outgoing versus relatively quiet and reserved) and things like that. Perhaps neither good nor bad, we typically look for leadership in the form of a man, perhaps one with a gift as a pastor or teacher. We love to listen to those special people that can take the scriptures and make them come alive, who know how to make it relevant and interesting. In a sense, like the people of Israel against the express wishes of God, we demand a king.
It doesn't take long, however, for believers of any stripe to find out that, behind the scenes, there are serious controversies. The history of the Body of Christ is rife with schisms and political conflicts. It doesn't take a great historian to see that denominations split and even engage in warfare of the most hideous kinds. The so-called Protestant Reformation plunged Europe into one of its darkest times. Today, the iron cages still hang from the cathedrals of Münster, Germany, cages reserved for the public starvation of perceived heretics, whose deaths no doubt struck terror in the hearts of the citizenry.
Apparently, what an individual or group of individuals believes is very important. There are those who seem to relish debating the finer points of theology and biblical exegesis. At present, not unlike centuries past, accusations of heresy continue to make the rounds. One group accuses another of following some pernicious doctrine and so on. Particular doctrinal stands are dividing husband and wife, home fellowships, churches, and the like. In place of unity, there is disunity. Some even see it as their duty, their mission, even calling (perhaps obsession) to cause division, citing Jesus' familiar words: "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. And a man's foes will be those of his own household" (Matt 10:34-36). However, is this what Jesus truly meant?
Sincere people bring their versions of correct doctrine to those who've fallen prey, as they see it, to false teachers in order to convince them of their error. But, if any person interprets this particular passage as an injunction to divide the body of Christ, he or she is simply mistaken. It is not supported by the context, the words of Jesus immediately before and after. And here is a warning: taking a scripture out of its context is one tact that is typical of those who like division and the notoriety it brings. It is true that scripture encourages us, under very specified circumstances, to confront a brother or sister when he or she is involved in some sort of immoral or other dangerous behavior, but it warns us about our attitudes in doing so: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself let you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself" (Galatians 6:1-3) (the context is very significant here).
In the case of Matthew 10:34-36, the immediate context is especially revealing. Jesus is instructing His disciples to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand; He was telling them that they need not worry about what unbelievers would do to them:
Therefore, whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on earthAnd he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me (Matt 10:32-40).
It can be very misleading and even dishonest to take any particular passage of scripture containing very specific information out of its context and use it to force sweeping generalizations. When Jesus spoke of bringing a sword, He was not talking literally about bringing a physical weapon to kill or maim, or to force people to believe Him by threats or force, by the sword. That would be absurd. But likewise figuratively, He was not talking about causing division within the body of believers. He was specifically speaking about the categorical division that will always exist between those who are believers, who choose to take up their crosses and follow Him, and those who refuse to do so. Jesus is still the Prince of Peace, and we are clearly instructed to strive for unity. In fact, the focus of the fourth chapter of Paul's (nee Saul) letter to the church in Ephesus is just that:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to have a walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Psalm 133, another statement of God's view of unity, puts it this way: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down on the beard, The beard of Aaron, Running down on the edge of his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, Descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the LORD commanded the blessing-Life forevermore."
Paul writes in his first letter to the body in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3 and 4) about the divisions that had popped up there:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. for where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal? (1 Cor 3:1-4)
What Paul writes subsequently is extremely important for anyone who desires to minister. He points away from individual leaders to God, " who gives the increase." He who plants and he who waters are nothing: "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 3:11). Paul also warns against trusting in our own cleverness:
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their own craftiness"; and again, "the LORD knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." Therefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come-all are yours. And you are Christ's, and Christ is God's. (1 Cor 3:18-23)
The very next thing Paul writes concerns judging the quality of his ministry:
Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts; and then each one's praise will come from God. (1 Cor 4:1-5)
Paul continues to warn the Corinthians that they should not be "puffed up" [arrogant] one against the other. He explained how the world viewed him: "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure it; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now" (1 Cor 4:12-13). As the next chapter, Chapter 15, reveals, this group in Corinth had drifted into extreme sexual immorality; but, where did the drift away from a faithful walk begin?
I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church. Now some are puffed up, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. What do you want? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? (1 Cor 4:14-21)
It is difficult to imagine that Paul's writings on divisions could be misinterpreted. And, the "power" he writes of in this latter passage is clearly not referring to working miracles or providing people with signs and wonders. What he is writing about is the power of God to change an individual's life, to make the sinful, carnal wretches that we are into faithful stewards of God's Word, the gospel of Jesus.
It is increasingly important, in my opinion, to be able to discern when someone is deliberately trying to stir up division by disputing particular points of doctrine, especially when it is done for ostensibly selfish reasons. Where do we draw the line between truth and error? Several other questions follow directly on the heels of this: granted, we can know the truth (and the truth shall set us free), but how much can one person know? I've known people who can recite the entire Bible; does that mean that they never make a mistake in interpretation? Who defines Truth? What does it mean to be a believer? Clearly, not everyone will agree on every scripture or what it means to be a real believer. Just one quick glance at the state of things and it is very apparent that there are tremendous divisions over these things, and there seems to be an increasing number of people arguing over who the real followers of Jesus are and how to interpret this or that scripture. Which one is right? Can anyone by absolutely right all of the time?
One of the interesting by-products for me of living in Israel was a view of Christendom from the outside. Any follower of Jesus (or Yeshua) the Messiah (Ha-meshiach) encounters a host of typical questions and objections. For instance, to many Israelis, the Pope is the chief Christian. One seemingly minor issue is the name of Jesus, how to pronounce it: do we use the Hebrew? How was it pronounced? Is it pronounced differently today? A number of Israelis refer to this person, admittedly the most famous Jew who ever lived, as Jesu (yay-zoo), which is simply the German transliteration (used in many Christmas carols round the world). Obviously, any Israeli who uses this name or pronunciation is making a statement and putting as much social distance between him or herself and Christianity as possible. To the Israeli, Christians are responsible for the Nazi Holocaust, the Czarist pogroms, and systematic persecution that goes back millennia. Another controversy is the phrase, the chosen people. One constantly hears, "Christians say that Jews are the chosen people. Chosen for what? To die in the camps (Auschwitz, etc)? To die at the Cossack's sword?" So, the nature of Israel and God's revelation is always important, and we can't have God's Word if there is no god. "So, who is God? If He's the one in the Bible, I don't want to know Him", many Israelis say. And, "Why is the world such a mess if God is a good God?" These are all reasonable questions under the circumstances. It is easy to conclude that there are issues that have been significant roadblocks to belief.
In view of this perception from without, what does it mean to be on the inside? What separates us from those who do not believe? What is the nature of the knowledge we do have that would motivate us to challenge the very world we live in? What do we believe, or more precisely, what do we believe in? Does God dwell in our carefully crafted theological statements, doctrines, and -isms, or does He reveal Himself in ways that go beyond mere words and much more deeply into our characters and attitudes as human beings? Are we so high above the issues and concerns of normal people that we simply can't see why so many find what we say impossible to accept? It seems rather obvious to me that our disunity and lack of relevance and concern invite criticism, particularly in view of our claims of absolute truth.
What did Jesus say about gates?
In one of His most well-known speeches, His Sermon on the Mount (most likely one of His longest), Jesus spelled out His views on a number of these important issues; He included much more than a mere list of dos and don'ts. He clearly defined what the heart of the true believer should be like. Towards its conclusion, He delivers one of His most cited expressions: "Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt 7:14). What makes it so narrow and difficult? (Note: the word because surely points to the preceding context.) If Jesus really came so we could experience God's character, then His message can't be some kind of highly abstract, esoteric, and difficult-to-understand rhetoric that only those of especially keen intellect can grasp, nor can it be some hard-to-do set of laws and regulations that require incredible agility, physical strength, or amazing will power. Of course, this is assuming that He was addressing the common human being, and that we are to have half a chance at succeeding. In other words, it can't be too difficult to understand or to hard to do, all things being equal.
Nevertheless, He always challenged people to think about His words. Because He very often taught principles by using parables, there has always been (and always will be) much discussion about what He actually meant. There are those who want only to look at what He actually said, interpreting every passage very literally, and there are those who go to the other extreme by making everything symbolic. To this latter group, it may not even matter what He actually said, particularly when He referred to Jonah, Noah, and other so-called Old Testament figures. What we as believers hold should be fundamentally in the middle. Every word He spoke must be interpreted both literally and figuratively, and God Himself will have to help us interpret what He meant. We will return to this latter point a bit later.
It is always dangerous (to our ability to understand things and the intentions behind particular verses and chapters) to take one word, phrase, or sentence out of its context and stretch it into something of universal significance. So, what was Jesus talking about, "narrow is the gate"? Was He singling out one tiny group of people who would have some special kind of knowledge, one specific denomination or fellowship that had cornered the real hidden meanings in His parables, teachings, and other sayings? When we take a look at the context before and after this particular expression, the picture should come into a better focus.
The text prior to it covered a number of topics, for example, how to give charitably (Matt 6:1-4), how to pray (Matt 6:5-15), and how to fast (Matt 6:16-18), all three without making a religious show of it. Apparently, He was confronting the religious establishment about doing these types of things to increase a person's standing in the community. He cautioned against being outwardly religious and hypocritical, and desiring to look important and above reproach. He then went on (in Matt 6:19-34) to speak of avoiding the traps of worldly riches and how we should trust in God, our "heavenly Father" who knows what we need before we even ask it. He spoke very clearly of faith: "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."
Immediately after this (and closer to the gate reference) comes His admonition to refrain from judging others: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matt 7:1). He gives us the rather stern warning that if we are strict with our judgment of others, God will be just as strict with us. We are to understand that we are fallible, sinful creatures-and that is without exception.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in our own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck out of your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? (Matt 7:1-3)
Verses 5 and 6 are very interesting in combination. Remember, He was speaking in a continuous flow; chapters and verses were added much later to aid in the study of the written Word: "Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye. Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces" (Matt 7:5, 6).
Seemingly out of nowhere comes another often quoted phrase about casting pearls before swine. Where did that come from? What was He talking about? From the context, it is obvious: He was speaking directly about hypocrisy and being judgmental. We need to watch our criticisms because they can come back to us. We can get torn to pieces as a result. Those who take His words literally and/or figuratively cannot possibly miss this. Are we taking seriously all of what He says about faith, the pursuit of worldly riches, and an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father?
It's true that each one of us must face these questions personally and individually, but Jesus did not stop there. He continues in verses 7-10: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?" He goes from warning us about judgmental attitudes to telling us that if we want something, all we have to do is ask. As the brilliant orator that Jesus was (which is putting it mildly), there must be a reason behind not only the content, but the order in which the concepts are presented.
He explains the kind of behavior we are to exhibit, but not necessarily as a condition for God to do good for us-God's good behavior proceeds from His good character, and we can never put Him in our debt. What Jesus then proceeded to say is known as the Golden Rule, almost universally accepted as a true and noble saying. It is, nevertheless, critical to understand if we are to correctly interpret His statement of the narrow gate: "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! Therefore [emphasis mine], whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." Yes, the Golden Rule has a context, and this context warns us about judging others. It is patently clear that the entire Sermon on the Mount refers to issues of character. And, character does not speak only to behavior; it deals with inward qualities, attitudes, and the inner qualities that motivate us to various behaviors. In fact, throughout the entire Sermon on the Mount discourse, Jesus stresses character (about giving, praying, fasting, trusting, and so on).
The point is directly put that God, our heavenly Father, wants to give us whatever we ask (and from the context, it probably excludes fame and fortune). We want to know the person we love. Knowledge of Him has to rank as high as it gets. If I want to know the truth, God's value system and His principles to live by, then I stand to gain much, life included, by asking a few very simple and basic questions. First, is there a God, and has He revealed Himself to us-to me? Every sincere follower of Jesus wants to know what He meant, what He taught, who He was, and what His life really meant in the history of humankind. And, despite Jesus' open declaration of the character of God, that He is Good while we are evil, we are invited to seek Him and His goodness, and to knock, for it will open to us.
I am humbled by that, and I am humbled by His conclusion. It is so simple, yet it is probably the most elegant and profound thing that the Messiah could have said: "...whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." I want others to treat me graciously, with love and respect. I don't want them poking their blind and evil fingers in my eyes when they haven't examined their own eyes. I am convinced by Jesus' words (and those of Paul) that I am not to judge, and that I am to be as gracious and loving as He was and continues to be towards me. As the greater context of scripture clearly reveals, He is the Judge, and His judgments are righteous altogether. The omniscient God knows all facts; I don't. He can take all possible facts (the evidence) and circumstances into consideration to ensure His fairness. Plus, His nature is good ("His mercy endureth forever") while mine is clearly self-focused, self-centered, and self-serving. Who's to say how deeply my own personal and cultural biases go and how much they influence every aspect of my thoughts and opinions and the judgments I make, either consciously or unconsciously?
Now, we come to the narrow gate. With this deep and penetrating context, Jesus points to the two and only two ways of life: "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt 7:13, 14). What makes it so narrow if not our own unwillingness to knock? The only thing that could keep me from finding the way is my ego and my refusal to seek. All I have to do to find it is seek it! Does this even remotely sound as if it is reserved only for one very select group? If I take the words of the Messiah Jesus as my doctrine, then it certainly seems clear enough.
As mentioned above, the context is always significant, so what comes after is likely to be just as important. Immediately after proclaiming "narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life," Jesus warns of false prophets. That amazes me. It seems clear enough that knowledge and claims of knowledge are somehow interwoven with qualities of character. It seems fitting that if you love Jesus, you will want to learn all you can about Him. But, He warns that false prophets will come in "sheep's clothing", and they are "inwardly ravenous wolves." Because He knows who we are, what we are made of, and how much we need His help, He tells us straight away how to tell the false from the true:
You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, by their fruits you will know them. (Matt 7:15-20)
I'm sure that He understands how important doctrines and true knowledge are. I mean, how could He not know that? But, He doesn't specifically spell out what false prophets will say. Instead, Jesus, again by the context, sets up the critical point:
Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.' (Matt 7:21-23)
Despite the apparently wonderful things done by these false prophets in His name, Jesus will not accept them. How can that be?
Jesus' conclusion immediately follows. He ended His Sermon on the Mount by referring to His own words and the total context of the discourse:
Therefore [again, emphasis mine], whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. Now everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall. (Matt 7:24-27).
When He was finished, the audience walked away in astonishment, "for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt 7:29). That is to say, He spoke as One possessing knowledge of the Truth, not as a scholar, bible teacher, theologian, Pharisee, and so on. He taught as One who defined truth.
The rock metaphor resonates with amazing clarity. We must trust His words, and do what He says. They are simple and clear, but wedged directly in the middle of this wonderful discourse is the warning: "narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life." Why is it difficult? Is it because it takes a special person, one with special abilities or knowledge? That isn't what the text is saying at all. It is difficult because we are evil, because we neither seek nor knock. We miss out because, based on the character of God, our heavenly Father, if were to seek, we would find, and if we were to knock, it would be opened to us.
This, I am convinced, is an invitation to you and me. As Paul writes, "For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8). This is totally within the demonstrated character of Jesus, who irritated the self-righteous religious folks of His immediate environment by spending the vast majority of His time with prostitutes, tax collectors, smelly fishermen, and the like and not preferring the company of the judgmental and hypocritical Pharisees and other religious leaders.
If He died for me while I was yet a vile sinner, then that seems to preclude me raising myself up as a judge of Truth and Righteousness, no matter how mature I might think I am. It clearly does not give me or any other individual the authority to pass judgment on anyone else's behavior, knowledge, or sincerity. If I work on the plank in my eye, then I may be able to help someone else who has a speck in his or her eye, but only under those conditions of humility. If the Spirit is in my life, then I should exhibit the fruits of the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:22-26 to refresh your memory on what precisely constitutes these fruits). We are not to think of ourselves more highly than we should, and we are warned by Paul concerning the nature of knowledge: "We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him" (1 Cor 8:1-3). The last sentence echoes the words of Jesus: God knows us, those of us who have indeed taken up our crosses to follow Him. Solomon wrote concerning wisdom: "For in much wisdom is much grief, And he who increases knowledge increase sorrow" (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
We are not left in the dark, however, about the nature of false prophets; Jesus casts specific light on the subject. We are specifically told to judge fruits. In His introduction to the Sermon, known as the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) Jesus gives me many of the "sayings" by which I can determine the kinds of personal characteristics that I and other true believers should have if we are to be considered blessed or happy. These and the verses that follow define inward characteristics and attitudes of the heart. Taken all together, Jesus carefully and clearly gives me the basis for understanding the kinds of fruits that I am to bear in my life. Nowhere is it listed that I am to have a harsh, judgmental attitude, and arrogance is not a desirable fruit to bear. In fact, it is clearly implicit that arrogance, obviously linked to pride, is the antithesis of humility; it is a bad fruit born by a bad tree.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.
Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In a recent e-mail, Elaine Stedman, the widow of the late Ray Stedman, a distinguished pastor-teacher, offered these comments about the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount:
I use it to make a point which to me is very clarifying that the Beatitudes are the outline, the Sermon is the exposition. In fact to me they are to the New Testament what the Decalogue is to the Old Testament. So that I try to understand everything Jesus says in the Sermon in the context of the Beatitudes. His teaching on praying, fasting, giving all relate in my mind to the first three Beatitudes. Matt 6:19-34 exposits the principle of Beatitude No. 4, etc.
What I am getting at is that it all simmers down to a character issue, that, "Jesus really came so we could experience God's character" Jesus is the gate, the door, the way, the true Vine, the Truth, the Light, etc. Jesus is the express Image of the Father, and we His people are expressing God's character when we are poor in spirit, in godly sorrow, in gentleness (meekness), when righteousness is our soul's deep hunger. It follows then that we will be merciful (not harsh/judgmental/critical/condemning), and that God will fill our vision, so that instead of being divisive rabble rousers we will be peacemakers whom God is pleased to call His sons. Then if we are persecuted it will be for righteousness sake and not because we have been utterly obnoxious in God's name. And we will be persecuted for the cause of the Kingdom, which is the proclamation of Jesus as the Gate, the Truth, the Way--the narrow way.
One last comment before taking up the issue of the Biblical worldview. Paul (nee Saul), a rabbinical scholar of some repute and student of the well-known Gamaliel, became one of the most influential figures of the early church. He was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles (more properly from the Hebrew, nations) after he met Jesus on his way to Damascus. He was the first to go outside Israel, to begin fulfilling the injunction of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, that the Messiah of Israel was to be a light to the Nations. Isaiah 42:5-6 states the following:
Thus says God the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk on it: I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles [nations], to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.
Despite his special calling, Paul never claimed to have special knowledge that was unavailable to others even though he was a giver of divine revelation that became New Testament scripture. In fact, he identified himself and his ministry as a teacher based on something entirely different, qualities alluded to in the Beatitudes.
We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God; in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Cor 6:3-10)
We can judge Paul's fruits and the quality of his character, despite the fact that he was quite open about his humanity and the violent nature of his past as a persecutor of believers. Can we at any time call ourselves true believers in the Messiah Jesus and depart from His sayings? The answer is no: we are to hear them, and do them. Then and only then can we bear the good fruit that only a good tree can bear. We, too, will be known by our stripes and imprisonments.
The Biblical worldview: the Bible
I am absolutely convinced that the Bible is God's Word. Of course, there was a time when I wasn't. But, the Living God intervened at a point in time in my personal history to reveal Himself (which could be the topic of an entirely different paper). In particular, He revealed His character-what He's like and where I could go to find out about Him, His creation, myself, and so on. It will never be the kind of thing that I can claim in arrogance, as the childhood chant suggests, "I know something that you don't know." It is clear to all of us who have encountered His amazing grace that He is not hiding, never has, and never will. As Jesus said, all we have to do is seek Him, and we will find Him. If I observe correctly, those of us who have met the Lord and share this conviction of the centrality of the Bible in our lives are in a rather small minority.
This is in essence the division between believer and unbeliever, and it clarifies what Jesus meant by "narrow is the gate." The gate is widened when a man or woman refuses to take scripture seriously, and when he or she refuses to commit to God's Word and His Messiah, His Son. It is narrowed even further when a particular group or individual claims superiority by having some sort of clearer vision of the Bible, the writings of Paul, or the sayings of Jesus, thereby restricting by personal interpretation who is and who is not a real believer. This deliberate narrowing does not conform to any of the scriptures cited above, and is, therefore, just as suspect as a deliberate widening. And, anyone who says that the Bible can be true for one person but not for another is clearly not committed to its teachings.
The fruits of the Spirit, of a relationship with the Living God, do not involve arrogance, nor does it include the calling to convince every believer of some perceived error who does not agree with a particular point of view (in either direction). If I do not even judge myself, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:3, why would I judge another? I know that I am fallible and prone to error. I want people to love me and treat me with respect, so I am compelled to do the same, not in a reactive manner, but in a proactive manner. So, I will look at a person's fruit: does she or he demonstrate the fruits Jesus and Paul clearly identify? If not, I must be concerned, but I still do not put myself in God's place as Judge. I merely trust in God's judgment because it will be absolutely fair. He does not have the potential for bias that I obviously have. I may fear for a brother or sister, but I can't condemn. I will pray for that individual, that God will reveal her or his character and/or intellectual error.
On the one hand, I believe it is within the rights of every true believer to discuss, even to vigorously debate the issues, but to make grand proclamations condemning individuals to hell for their heresy is not my job. (If it is absolutely clear that a particular doctrine or set of beliefs does not conform to scriptures at all, that is another matter. Nevertheless, God will judge and not me.) On the other hand, when it comes to clear examples of immorality and "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19-21), that is a completely separate issue. The Bible is equally clear concerning the rights and responsibilities of the body and its individual members towards one another.
The best way to express what the Bible means to me as an individual believer and to humankind in general is to organize it into three general points: it is necessary, authoritative, and clear. It is necessary because we simply cannot know anything about God without His personal revelation of Himself. Western (European) philosophers were occupied for centuries with the issue of God's existence and whether it could be proved by logical argument, according to Reason. If we look at nature, we can see certain evidences of creation (which implies a Creator), of physical, biological, and even moral laws (which imply a Lawgiver). The absolutely amazing systematic nature of the cosmos, from the stars down to the construction of our individual brains, is enough to make a person stop and wonder: where did this organized universe come from? But, the presence of evil in the universe immediately brings up the profound question of good and evil: If God is good, why did He create evil?
We simply cannot reason from the ground up what God is like without His direct help. By looking at the universe, we have to say He is both good and evil (if He's even there), and our instincts tell us that can't possibly by correct. For the anthropologist, every human society ever known to man has some sort of moral system (of right and wrong) and belief system (legend or literature) involving the origin of the universe, life, humankind, existence of a spirit world, death, and the possibility of life after death. Many try to reduce these beliefs to superstition, particularly in today's world, but no one can deny the near universality of humankind's hunger for a reason to hope that what we see is not what we ultimately get.
Consequently, the Bible represents God's necessary revelation of Himself. The necessity of scripture is absolute for us to know anything about Him, and to actually know that we know. He carefully and gradually revealed bits and pieces of His character to the people of Israel (e.g., Moses) and has verified every bit of information that He has revealed in our human history. For instance, when He provided His moral law, He backed it up with signs and wonders. They were not miracles or anomalies of nature because He defines what is real and not real. He speaks things into existence, so nothing is impossible for Him. This is apparently for a reason: to motivate us to seek Him.
God's revelation settles matters from His perspective for all those human concerns. He explains what He's like (of course, the male pronoun is limited, as explained in the first chapter of Genesis), that He created everything from nothing, that He is Designer, Architect, and Builder of all that exists, and that He is the Lawgiver and ultimate Judge. He defines fact because He created all facts, and He knows all things as a consequence. From this perspective, it easily follows that His revelation of Himself is authoritative. He is omniscient (knowing all facts and how each and every fact relates to all other facts); He alone can interpret all cause-and-effect relationships, so He not only knows individual facts, but all relationships among facts. He is the final interpreter of facts.
Simply put, the Bible is not exhaustive of all facets of God's character. Every word and concept in the Bible is Truth, but it does not express every single fact about God or His created universe. As explained in scripture, He is self-existent and infinite, without beginning or end, and He is completely and distinctly other from His creation. His thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways, based on the fact that His knowledge is exhaustive. Nevertheless, what He has revealed is true, for He cannot lie. If not exhaustive, it must be comprehensive. As our heavenly Father, He provides what we need and holds nothing back. It is no wonder that people disagree on the meanings of specific scriptures. The knowledge expressed is immense, and no created human being can possess the same perspective as the infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God. The quantity and quality of the knowledge I possess will always be relative to the amount of studying I do, the quality of my intellect, and other individual factors that are, quite frankly, beyond my ability to measure, especially if I attempt to judge my worth relative to that of another human like me. Jesus' words ring out: "Judge not" But, I can certainly say with absolute confidence that I was created, and that I cannot speak things into existence. I need His authoritative revelation to know anything. While it does not present me with an exhaustive answer to every question humankind has ever asked, it does provide the key to understanding, the guiding principle for the interpretation of facts. For instance, the amazing systematic nature of the universe is there by design and not be chance or accident.
Finally, His revelation of Himself is clear. It has to be or Jesus was lying in the Sermon on the Mount. James (nee Yaacov), the half brother of Jesus, wrote: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given him" (Jame 1:5). But, James also adds this particular insight with respect to wisdom:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in you hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing will be there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)
I simply cannot use my knowledge as a hatchet to bludgeon those who disagree with me, no matter how clever I may be. I am smart enough, though, to know that I do not know all facts, let alone enough to judge another. I can, however, judge the fruit. I am convinced that correct doctrine produces correct fruit, and if I surrender myself to the will of the Father, He will provide the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding I need. I know this because He has clearly said that He would.
Theologians often use the word perspicuous when referring to the clarity of God's Word. To me, the perspicuity of scripture argues for our collective ability to understand accurately what God is revealing of Himself. Once again, we can look to the character of Jesus for our guiding principle. When confronted by His followers, who wanted to spare Him from having to deal with a bunch of children, Jesus responded by saying, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid him; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Obviously, we are not to be naive and easily led, but we must be trusting, as children are. And, we simply cannot interpret what Jesus said here exclusively in some kind of figurative sense. We have to conclude that anything God has to say about Himself can be understood by these, the smallest and youngest members of our community. Otherwise, His statement about children cannot be taken seriously at all.
Jesus also gave us an important piece of information about our ability to know Him. Jesus asked Peter (nee Simon) who he thought Jesus was. "He said to him, 'But who do you say that I am?' And Simon Peter answered and said, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Jesus answered and said to him 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven'" (Matt 16:15-17). Most of us who have also met the Son of the living God know that we need that same kind of revelation, and that we must walk in the Spirit to fully grasp what Jesus is saying. As Paul wrote:
However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. Be we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. (1 Cor 2:6-12)
God Himself has gone to great lengths to reveal Himself, to demonstrate His character. He even sent His only begotten Son to die a lonely and painful death on a piece of wood to demonstrate His love for us. It seems inconceivable that He would make this revelation so esoteric or obscure that the common person or child could not understand. That is the elegance of the Gospel: it is so simple that a child can hear and understand it, and it is so deep it is inexhaustible-theologians can debate issues to their hearts' content. The knowledge contained in the Bible will keep us occupied for our entire lifetimes, yet not one of us can contain it all.
Conclusion: what to watch out for
Engaging in polemics is kind of silly to me, and it always seems utterly fruitless. Every true believer must be open to the views of other believers, for exhortation, encouragement, and correction. But I believe we concur, at least in general, that no one man or woman has all the truth, no matter how linear or consistent his or her logic might be. While I may admire the thinking of past leaders such as Calvin or Luther, I cannot accept any view that (a) teaches in strictly dogmatic form how to interpret scriptures and how I must reconcile those troublesome verses that don't seem to fit a particular dogma or theory and that (b) patently tells me that my eyes, intellect, and ability are insufficient to call on the Holy Spirit in order to interpret scriptures for myself. If we've learned anything at all from the so-called Protestant Reformation it is that we do not need a priest or pope to read and understand scriptures on our own. "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" (1 Timothy: 2:5-6). In fact, simply taking the necessity, authority, and clarity of scripture as a starting point, I possess a systematic theology all my own, but it is one that does not impose before the fact (in philosophical terms, a priori) how to reconcile God's exhaustive knowledge of Himself and the universe with my limited knowledge of Him, which is inherently restricted by my grasp of His word, a grasp which is relative and partial at best. My theology is consistent when I practice the things I preach and when I do the things Jesus told me to do.
While I cannot accept anyone's claims of authority and infallibility, I can value the work of true Biblical scholars, who ask and attempt to answer the kinds of questions that we all need answered. I also accept my humanity, God's grace, and His personal revelation of Himself, the Bible, not necessarily in that order. I am convinced that the first step towards real heresy (and not just a difference of opinion) are taken when one particular individual or group of individuals claims to have special insight, knowledge, and/or authority. This type of person consciously positions him/herself as superior, contrary to the example of Jesus as a servant. He or she willfully and purposefully struts to the head of the table and demands the place of highest respect. It is a very dangerous position to be in, and Jesus directly addressed it (Matt 20:20-28; Matt 23:2-12). "For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:12). This assertion of superiority undoubtedly has at its roots ego and pride, and the fruit of arrogance is nearly always immediately present and obvious. And, every recognized cult has started in this very way.
Most real believers know the difference between claiming authority over all believers and attempting to teach the truths of God's Word. God does give us the wisdom to discern, although many refuse to believe their own ears and eyes because of the respect they have for a particular leader or teacher. Having God's calling as a pastor-teacher is an awesome responsibility, and it is a gift. But, it must be accompanied by the proper fruits of the Spirit. Otherwise, it is the knowledge that puffs up and the kind that engenders needless controversies and divisions. It is the kind of knowledge that is intentionally divisive (as are nearly all doctrines of men). Trust God when things do not seem right in your fellowship or church (the Spirit may be alerting you to certain improprieties), check the fruits of individual teachers, and examine the scriptures thoroughly with your own eyes so that you can tell truth from error.
Put isolated passages of scripture into their respective contexts,
and take the whole of scripture as your guiding principle (letting
scripture interpret scripture). None of us really knows God's
Word as we should or as God does-how silly to even think such
a thing. We all have to interpret, and, without the Holy Spirit,
we are all lost, individually and collectively. If we don't come
to the task with our faces to the ground in absolute humility,
then we will be held up to tremendous judgment, and that is exactly
what I fear will happen to those who make dubious assertions of
authority, who sit in judgment upon the many varied groups within
the Body of Christ. God's Word is our teacher and revealer of
spiritual truths, not one particular human being to the exclusion
of every other member of the Body of Christ. Each member has
a function, a voice, and just as much access to truth as the next.
We are all amazed by God's grace that He freely and liberally
extends towards us, one at a time and all together. He
is the author and finisher of our faith.
Fred Field Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
September 9, 2002