By Linda Rex
On Wednesday evenings at our discussion group we have been addressing the topic of hell. One of the concerns which was raised this week was how we determine whether or not we are getting off track in our reading and studying. This is a really good question.
Sometimes we can be so afraid of being deceived or getting off track we become afraid of reading anything other than the Bible. We can take this fear even to the place where we restrict our reading of the Bible to only one translation, or we only use a Bible put out by our particular denomination, rejecting all others as heretical.
At other times we may believe only one particular Bible teacher has the truth about God’s Word. We read everything this person writes, listen only to this person speaking, and we believe they are the only ones who really know the truth about God’s Word. We refuse to listen to what anyone else may have to say about the Bible or what to believe because we do not trust them to be telling the truth.
Unfortunately, our approach to learning about God and about the Bible may end up being governed by fear and mistrust rather than by the faith, hope, and love God gives to us in Christ by the Spirit. Instead of resting in Jesus Christ and trusting he will keep us in the center of his will, we anxiously work to make sure we don’t accidentally wander off the path of holiness.
The Scriptures say God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and sound mind. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth as we trust in Christ and allow him to lead us. Yes, it is important to ground ourselves in the Word of God, but only as we allow the living Word of God to take precedence in all things, and allow the Holy Spirit to convict us of where we may be getting off track.
This whole process of studying the written Word of God and seeking to know the truth which will set us free is a relational effort—a participation with Christ by the Spirit in listening to, hearing, and acting upon what the Father is saying to us in the Scriptures. The question is, do we trust God to keep us on the right track, and if we wander off somewhere, to bring us back to the Truth who is Jesus Christ?
How do we gauge if a teaching or a translation is off track? How do we know if what someone is teaching doesn’t agree with the truth presented to us in Christ? And this is the key: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our living relationship with our Abba, and he gives his Spirit to us to lead us into all truth. He is the center.
When we begin to look at difficult topics such as hell, we begin with the appropriate lens. That lens is the Lord Jesus Christ and who he is as God in human flesh, and what he teaches us about the Father, himself, and the Spirit, and what he teaches us about ourselves. This grounds us and enables us to see more clearly the difference between truth and error. Looking through this lens also involves comprehending, believing, and receiving the reality of God’s love expressed to us in the giving of his Son and his Spirit for salvation and redemption.
We need to stay centered in the incomprehensible reality God willed not to be God without us: he chose before time began to include us in his life and love, and so he ordained before time began to send his Son in human flesh to draw us up into life in himself. Understanding and believing in the truth of this reality enables us to begin to read the Scriptures with greater clarity and less confusion. We are less likely to be swept aside by false concepts of God and eschatology (any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.).
What God did for us in Jesus wasn’t an afterthought or a reaction to what humanity did, but rather what he intended all along. It was not an outflow of his anger against humanity or the rejection of his Son, but rather an embracing of all of us as lost, broken, rebellious children in need of redemption. That God, in his freedom to be the God he is, would do something new—not only creating creatures to share life with, but also joining them to himself forever—is an amazing and wonderful thing.
It is equally amazing that he who lived ever and always in love, joy, and peace, was willing to reconcile suffering, sorrow, and evil with himself in such a way it would be forever nullified and transformed into the very thing which binds us to himself in love.
Jesus is God’s judgment on sin, evil, and death. This judgment (or krisis) each of us encounters is not something or Someone which we should fear, but the Person which we should embrace in faith, trusting Christ is for us all we need in the face of our sin, brokenness, and depravity. Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, is the perfect answer or response to God for each one of us, no matter our situation or history or failure.
For this reason, we have nothing to fear when it comes to seeking to know God more fully and completely. Christ has gone ahead of us and has sent his Spirit so we might know which direction to go.
Yes, we have the responsibility to choose our teachers wisely. They need to coincide in their teaching and life with what we know about who Jesus Christ is as the God/man, and who he reveals God to be in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and in the sending of the Spirit. Our teachers need to be willing to submit to being taught and to sit humbly under the mentorship of those with greater spiritual depth, maturity, and knowledge. The Spirit in them will resonate with the Spirit in us, and we will begin to see with greater clarity the magnitude and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ in their teaching.
One of the healthiest things we can do to keep ourselves on the right track is to find other believers who are well-grounded in Christ and to study the Word of God with them. As we pray together, listen to the written Word of God together, and wrestle with our questions and thoughts about what we are learning, the Holy Spirit brings us into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the truth. As we are open to it, we have brothers and sisters who can point out when we are drifting away from our center in Christ. And at the same time, we by the Spirit are growing into a deeper fellowship with God and one another.
Are there times when we may wander off the path? No doubt. But this is why it is essential to walk by faith, not by sight. We trust in the perfect work of Christ and in the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We hold all we read, hear, and see up against the mirror of the living Word of God as revealed in the written Word of God, and we ask ourselves, does this agree with the truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ? Does this diminish Christ or magnify him? And we go from there—it’s a walk of faith.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son the living Word, and for the gift of your precious Spirit. Keep us on the narrow path of faith, and free us from fear and anxiety about missing the mark. When we wander here and there, please bring us back to our center in Christ. We thank you that you are faithful and dependable, and that you will not leave us as orphans, lost or without direction. Open your written Word to our understanding, and transform our hearts by faith, we pray, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” 1 John 4:1-6 NASB
by Linda Rex
I grew up in the suburbs of metropolitan Los Angeles and know what it’s like to live in a big city. Today I live and work in and near metropolitan Nashville.
I find living in a large city such as Nashville or L.A. has its strong points, and I can see why people would want to live and work in these hubs of humanity. There are many opportunities to be found in close proximity, especially with regards to cultural and recreational attractions, employment opportunities, and educational institutions.
Living in a big city is not what I would prefer, but I can appreciate the benefits of this lifestyle. I personally prefer small town living, but have learned to adapt to the higher stress, less privacy and less relaxed environment of this area. This is because I have learned over the years that whether urban or rural, the people who live in this world are at their heart, the same as you and me—we all are made in God’s image to live together in loving community.
Between these two adventures in big city living, I also lived in rural southeast Iowa, where the closest city of any real size was at least forty-five minutes from home. In that part of the United States of America, it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes and cars unlocked, and for neighbors to enter by the back door.
When I was eight months pregnant and going to town on a hot summer day, my car ran out of gas two miles from the closest town. I was a lot less nervous then about having someone help me than I am today because that’s what people did there when someone was in trouble. Neighbors were neighbors and looked out for one another.
As I’ve gotten to know more of the people who live next door to Good News Fellowship in Nashville, I’ve come to see that same heart of true neighborliness also exists here and there in the community around our church. Many of our neighbors are kind, helpful people who want their neighborhood to be a safe, upbeat, and warm community where old and young people alike can live free from abuse or neglect.
Our neighbors want to be able to walk or run down their streets during the day and the night, and not fear they will get mugged, or simply shot because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would like to be able to trust that someone will not steal their belongings, or damage their cars, or invade their homes. They would like to live without fear, and to be able to trust others with their lives, their homes and their belongings.
Our neighbors simply want to be good neighbors who live in loving community. They want to help people who need to be watched out for, such as elderly or sick neighbors who can’t get out or who are easily taken advantage of. They want to get together to share a meal or to clean the trash off the streets. Whether or not they realize it, in doing these things in community, they are sharing in the unmistakeable heart of love and compassion which exists within the inner relationship of the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
In our common humanity, whether urban or rural dwellers, we were created to live with one another in this kind of loving community. We were not created to prey on one another or to take advantage of one another. We were created to love one another and to look out for one another. When we don’t live together with love and respect and understanding, all kinds of misery is the result. This is because we are not being who we really are—who we were created by God to be.
True neighborliness which is loving and respectful cannot be legislated. It is not really possible to tell people to be good to one another and expect them to do it just because there are laws which say they should and penalties for when they don’t. External efforts to create loving community are no guarantee such community will come into existence and then stay.
The heart of love and compassion which is at the root of true neighborliness has its source in our God of love—the One who pours his love into us by his Holy Spirit. We find God at work in many places and in many people who we, because of our prejudices and presuppositions, believe are not good people. We need to open our hearts and minds to the reality God is at work in each person’s life and heart—we are all made in God’s image and redeemed by his Son and given the gift of the Spirit who is at work in this world.
Our participation in the work the Spirit is doing in this world to bring the love of the Father and the Son to full fruition is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to pray for, love and respect each person God places in front of us. Those who are so broken as to prey upon us, violate us and steal from us need this love just as much as we need it. So we follow Jesus’ instruction to pray for them, to love and bless them, while guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Sometimes in order to do God’s work of loving others, we need to have and use healthy boundaries.
As members of the body of Christ, we as members of Christian churches have a responsibility to lead others in loving the unlovely, and caring for the broken and downtrodden. We are called to demonstrate through loving actions the real caring and compassion which exists within the Trinity and should exist within the body of Christ. We should all work together, no matter our creed, in the unity of the Spirit and the oneness of Christ, to show the neighborly love of God to others in our church neighborhood.
When we do this, we are entering into a battle for our community. The kingdom of darkness does not appreciate any light we may bring into our neighborhood, and so there is a struggle. But we walk in the assurance that Christ has done what was needed to defeat the darkness. We walk by faith, not by sight. In other words, we keep loving, praying for and showing compassion to those Christ places in front of us, and bear up, by God’s grace, under whatever opposition may come our way. We walk the difficult road of building up community when efforts are being made to tear it down.
Holy Father, by your Son and in the Spirit, empower us to love one another as you created us to. Give us hearts of compassion and respect. Make us “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” as we interact with our neighbors, whoever they may be. God, by your great love, create loving community within our neighborhood so we can experience the same love which exists in your very Being as Father, Son and Spirit. In your Name, we pray. Amen.
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 NASB