Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

High Places.

Christianity, Religion

“Abijah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David. And Asa his son reigned in his place. In his days the land had rest for ten years.  And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandments. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him.” II Chronicles 14:1-5.

The books of I and II Chronicles are often, sadly, overlooked by Christians. Following the lengthy narratives contained in the books of Samuel and Kings, the Chronicles appear to merely do just what their name implies—be an entire chronicle of the history of Israel back to the time of Adam. The Chronicles retell much of the same information initially mentioned in other texts, and significant passages Chronicles almost match passages in other books word-for-word. 

Chronicles, like the other Biblical books,  are inspired and in the canon for a purpose; however; that purpose may be a little obscured when looking at Chronicles outside of a Hebrew Bible. For the Chronicles, as in real estate, location is everything. In the order of the Hebrew Canon, the Chronicles are the final book of the scriptures. The repetition of information is for a purpose; it is to drive the information home and ingrain it in the mind of the believer. For example: throughout the Chronicles, the phrases “did what was good in the sight of the Lord,” or “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” are repeated again and again to describe the various kings of Israel and Judah. This repetition was intentional; God was hammering into His peoples’ minds the traits of the godly leaders for which to look, and the traits of the evil leader to avoid. This emphasis on being able to recognize a godly ruler was also for a purpose. The Chronicles conclude with Cyrus of Persia conquering Babylon and allowing the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple to their God. With the Babylonian Exile coming to an end, there was hope for restoration, and there was hope that a new king like David—a Messiah—would be sent to rebuild the temple and restore the kingdom. The final book of the Hebrew Bible concludes with a high degree of messianic expectation, and the Chronicler wanted to help the people of Israel remember the good rulers of the past so they would recognize the perfect ruler to come.

King Asa, who lived centuries before the Exile, was a prime example of the good, David-like king for whom Israel longed. He lived up to the high standard left by his great-great-grandfather, David. Asa was a man who feared God and sought after Him with his whole heart, and because of this, Asa was a good king. He is, tragically, one of only a few good kings described in the Chronicles.

During the reign of Solomon, Asa’s great-grandfather, pagan worship once lured Israel away from God, and this occurred at the encouragement of Solomon. Idols and altars to false gods appeared all over the land, and the people forsook their God. We often wonder how this continually happened in the Old Testament narratives, but when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we must remember it is a minority report of sorts. It is an account of Israel’s spiritual history written by the faithful, and the faithful were never the majority. Two points prove this fact: first, the Babylonian Exile–had the majority of Israel and Judah been loyal to God, such judgment would not have been necessary. Secondly, acceptance of pagan altars was so widespread that it took an act of the king to remove them. The broader society of Israel and Judah at this time was so accepting of the pagan practices that it took action by the highest official in the land, the king, to get the people to realize their faults.

But Asa did remove the pagan high places, and he worked to turn his kingdom of Judah back to God. He led by example. He did not tolerate pagan worship, even though the masses did. He took a stand for God and did what was right. Asa lived as God expected His people to live; he made no excuses, and he did not sweep sin under the rug. As a result, Asa and the Kingdom of Judah experienced a time of peace. Asa’s reign is one of the few high points of the period of the Divided Kingdom. His people would remember him as a king who sought after God, and who led his people to worship God. In this regard, Asa very much resembled his shepherd ancestor, David.

Things have not changed very much since Asa’s day. Society-at-large worships at the pagan altars and high places today still, just as they did so many centuries ago. Idolatry and sin go uncondemned and are encouraged. All of humanity’s darkest, basest, most carnal desires get flaunted for all to see and to accept. There are still today those who–as they did in Asa’s day and later in Christ’s day– put their faith in the cultural association they have with God. They have convinced themselves that since some righteous ancestor, perhaps a grandmother or great-great-grandfather was a firmly-believing and sincere follower of God, that their salvation is secure as well, and they continue to live as they so choose. Cultural Christianity is no more an appropriate approach to following Christ than were the nominal religious practices of those in Asa’s day who gave lip service to God and continued to worship false gods in the high places. Being a sincere follower of God is no more en vogue today than it was in Israelite society at any point during their history.  Thankfully, for the committed believer, God never changes and He remains just as firmly committed to those who seek Him as He has always been.

The high places are not limited to the broad culture; even believers continue to wrestle and struggle daily with sin. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:12-13‬). Yes, we have been bought and redeemed by the blood of Christ. But our flesh is still fallen, and we wrestle with that. As Paul said, we must put to death the deeds and sins of the body, for they will lead us to death. This process of confronting our sin is on-going and will never end in this life. We will wrestle daily with sin. But, we must also confess that sin to God and ask His forgiveness for it. For a believer to live with unconfronted and unconfessed sin in their life is just as much of an affront to God as were the pagan altars in ancient Israel. We can not be like Asa and tear down the high places in the culture if we are unwilling to first tear down the high places in our own hearts. We cannot change society if we are not radically different from that society.

Sin is a serious topic; it should be of our utmost concern. It seeks to burrow itself deep into our innermost being and to define us and control us. It is a ravenous beast, crouching at the door of our hearts, and its sole desire is to destroy us. Christ died to liberate us from sin, and to remove its grip from our lives; He died so that He might kill that beast which was seeking to kill us. He took our sins—all the ones we’ve committed and will ever commit—upon Himself, and He paid the price of those sins for us. He sent His Spirit to live within us so that we might be empowered to avoid sin and temptation, and to strengthen us as we wrestle daily with the sinful desires of our fallen flesh. Christ died to enable us to remove the high places and the sins in our hearts. The question before us is this: will we rise to the occasion, much like Asa of the Old Testament, and daily tear down the high places and altars of sin hidden in our hearts? Or will we choose to be like everyone else, and wallow in and celebrate our sin, and keep the high places in our hearts intact? Will we choose to be radically different, or will be like everyone else? Will we choose to follow God in such a manner that we become that minority at odds with the broader society, or will we seek to glorify ourselves and mock our crucified Savior, just as the rest of the world does? 

What are the high places in your heart? What is keeping your heart from fully submitting to God? Confess to Him your sins and tear down those secret altars of sin in your heart. Then live radically different. 

Artwork: “The Man and the Wooden Idol,” Marc Chagall, circa 1927.

Take Heart.

Christianity, Religion

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

After leaving the upper room with His disciples on the first night of Passover, Christ and the Eleven made their way through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas would later arrive with soldiers to betray Jesus. During the trek to the garden, Jesus gave the disciples His final teachings, and told them what they would endure in the future. The disciples were still not understanding everything that Jesus was telling them, their understanding would come with time and seeing the resurrected Christ, but for now, He was telling them that it was time for Him to return to the Father. Very soon, the series of events that would culminate in His crucifixion would begin to unfold; very soon the very moment that Christ was sent to Earth for would be upon Him.

The future that Jesus spoke of to the Eleven was on which promised hardship. The world had never been a friend of Christ, so the disciples should not expect the world to treat them any differently. There would be sorrow and pain, and there would be tribulation. These things were all experienced by Christ, and since the follower is not greater than the master, those who follow Christ were to expect these same things.

Despite this, Christ promised His disciples and followers joy and peace. The Christ-follower will experience the peace–the assurance of knowing–that God is in control and with them, despite the trials of the world all around them. Jesus is quick to point out to the disciples that following Him is not an immunity against tribulation; in fact, following Christ is the reason why believers are at odds with the world and why believers experience tribulation at the hands of the world. But the believer can find comfort and take courage from one fundamental fact: Christ had conquered the world.

Here, even before going to Calvary, Christ had already overcome this fallen and rebellious world. Jesus gave His word of personal assurance to the Eleven to further reinforces this fact. The battle had yet to be fought, and Christ was already victorious. He had lived a perfect and blameless life for thirty-three years. He had endured every snare and trap set before Him by the Adversary and withstood each and every single one without sin. He did what we could not do so that He could give us that which we could not attain–deliverance from our sins. With His crucifixion and death, this victory would be fixed, and there would be nothing that could change it.

The question for us today is this: do our lives reflect the level of confidence that Christ gives us? Do we take heart in His victory? Do we live with the peace that He promised us, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves? Or do we anxiously fret ourselves away, drawing more and more grief and sorrow from the current events of the world around us, and lament the hardships that we see the culture imposing on us because of our religious beliefs? Christ promised tribulation; if you want to avoid them, follow the world instead of Christ. You can’t believe that Jesus already overcame the world and still continue to worry about everything that the world throws at us. You either believe Jesus at His word, or you don’t. You either take heart in the victory He already claimed and delivered upon, or you put your confidence in something else to deliver you. The heart that claims Christ as its King cannot simultaneously give itself over to fear and worry about the things of this world. 

Living in this world is not easy; bad news and heartache are around every corner. But this broken world and its broken system have been defeated and overcome. Trust in Christ– the One who overcame it–and He will give you joy that no one or nothing can take away from you.

Artwork: “Christ in the Grapevine,” Natalya Rusetska. 

Hold Fast, Stand Firm.

Christianity, Religion

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Revelation 21:1-4

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20

When John the Apostle received the visions that he would record in the Revelation, he was living in exile in a penal colony on the island of Patmos. His crime: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The situation throughout the Roman Empire was no better for other Christians. Sporadic outbursts of violence and persecution against Christians had occurred throughout the first century–most famously under Nero, in which Christians were burned alive and fed to wild animals in the Colosseum– and by the time that John received the Revelation at the end of the first century, these persecutions had become state-sanctioned under the Emperor Domitian. Christians were routinely rounded up and imprisoned, exiled, stoned to death, or executed in a variety of other horrific ways. Being a Christian made one an enemy of the state, and no mercy was bestowed upon those professing allegiance to Christ over Caesar.

Due to this, the Church was forced underground. Christians would meet with one another in the dead of night, in the graveyards and catacombs where the superstitious Romans authorities would not venture. There, surrounded by the remains of their dead loved ones and fellow believers, the faithful would worship the Savior who had risen from the dead and defeated the grave.

Fresco of Jesus with Alpha and Omega found in the catacombs of Rome, c. 4th century

It was in this context that John received the Revelation. Though many focus today on this letter for its apocalyptic content, the theme of the letter is much more than just an account of the end times. It is a direct message from Jesus to His Church to hold on and endure; that though times are bleak and dark, there is hope. Christ is comforting His church and reassuring them that He is coming back for them and that they must keep their faith firmly rooted in Him.

At the end of Revelation, in the final two chapters, we are given the most optimistic of all the letter’s content. The tribulation is over, Satan and his armies defeated, Armageddon and the judgment of the world completed, and John sees the new creation–the new Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem–all of which were described as a recreation of Eden. It is in this new creation that God’s people will be in His direct presence. He and Christ will rule in this new kingdom, and there will be no sorrow, no pain, no death, no sin. There will be no night, for God and Christ’s collective presence will illuminate the cosmos. Christ will comfort His flock–He will wipe every tear from their eyes. In the embrace of Christ’s arms in the New Jerusalem, all the pain and suffering and sorrow and death endured in the sinful former world will be gone forever, never to be thought of again.

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is depicted as an enormous cube, hundreds of miles in length, width, and height. This cubic depiction is for a purpose, and it further highlights the fact that this is the place where God’s people will be in His presence. In Solomon’s Temple, the dimensions of the space in which God’s presence resided–the Holy of Holies–were a perfect cube. Now the New Jerusalem–the ultimate Holy of Holies–would be the place were God and His creation would live directly in one another’s presence, just as they had in Eden.

Following the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ again speaks directly to His followers. He tells them to keep doing what they are doing, to remain committed to following Him. He is encouraging them to stay strong, to hold fast to their faith, despite everything that is going on around them. He again tells them that He is coming back for them soon and that their faith and endurance will be rewarded.

Just think about the Christians of John’s era. Their faith had made them criminals. They were living in fear of imprisonment and death. They were forced to meet secretly in graveyards and underground burial chambers. Then they received a letter from John, the last living Apostle–the last human connection to Jesus. They come together in their secret graveyard churches, where reminders of all their suffering are all around them, to read this letter, and in it, Christ speaks directly to them. He tells them: I see what you’re enduring. Stay strong; hold fast to me. Things will not always be this way; there is a better day coming. I will come back for you–I am coming back for you, and you will be with me forever, and I will make everything better. You will not hurt anymore, you will not cry anymore, you will not die anymore. I will wipe away all of your tears. You will be with my Father and me forever, and nothing will take you away from me. I have shown all of this to John, it is all true. Just stay strong. I am coming.

Icon of “Christ With the Martyrs of Libya,” Nikola Saric, 2015.

This promise–this assurance–is still valid and true today. Around the world, Christians are still being persecuted–are still being killed–for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Christ’s words of comfort are for them, and for all believers. Despite what we see happening in the world around us, despite what we endure, we have hope for a better day. We have the assurance that this is not the end, that everything is not for naught; our faith is not in vain. One day, we will see Christ and the Father face-to-face. One day we will live in the direct presence of our God. One day, He will wipe every tear from our eyes. We know this to be true because He Himself told us these things would be so.

So stay strong. Hold fast.

Main Artwork: “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum,” Konstantin Flavitsky, 1862.

Dead.

Christianity, Religion

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1

Paul wasted no time in getting to his point when writing to the Ephesian church, nor did he pull any punches. After writing several lines of praise to God, Paul immediately launched into a sermon discussing the glorious work accomplished by God through Christ in each believer. However, in order to make sure the Ephesian believers understood how incredible this work was, Paul had to be sure the Ephesians understood how they had been prior to Christ changing them—they had to understand that they had once been dead.

Since Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, humanity has been fallen. Every person is born spiritually dead and enslaved to sin. We are ruled by the lusts and desires of our flesh, and our only motivation is to satisfy ourselves in any way possible. Though we be physically alive, the shackles of sin keep us bound to the grave and to death. Prior to redemption and regeneration, our spirits are like dead carcasses, and it is in this state that Paul reminds the Ephesians that they had once been.

We too must remember that, before Christ, we were also dead. There was nothing good within us. We were ruled by the “prince of the power of the air,” the accuser—the Satan. He lorded over us and encouraged us to indulge each and every one of our desires, all the while leading us closer and closer to destruction. With each sin we committed in the name of our self-indulgence, we forged another link in the chains which bound us to death. We were so busy worshipping ourselves that we failed to see we were standing in our own graves, and we neglected to see that we were created in the image of the God who could free us and restore us to the dominion for which He made us.

We must remember how lost we once were—how truly dead we were—so that we never grow complacent with how alive Christ has now made us. We must remember the chains that He broke and freed us from as He languished and died on the cross. We were dead, and we should still be dead, but Christ changed everything. He freed us from bondage; He made us alive.

Don’t forget that you were dead, for when you do, you will cease to be in awe of the cross.

Artwork: “Head of a Drowned Man,” Theodore Gericault, c. 1819.