|The forgotten meaning of the familiar parable||What really happened?||Who created a lie?|
|Awakening or illusion?||What does tomorrow have in store for us?||A non-typical conversion|
|In what we believe today||Forward to the past||To speak or to listen?|
|The purpose of man||Adam, where are you?||The power of conviction|
|Road towards God||Always be prepared||Until when?|
|With whom was Paul speaking?||O death, where is your sting?||Tell me the story|
Translated from Russian by E. Molodchiy
Edited by Amy Shved
The purpose of man
In order to understand what really happened, let us first turn to the basics of the biblical teaching. The Word of God teaches that our true position in this world is not determined by age, wealth, or health, but only by our relationship with God and, through Him, with other people. True happiness, the meaning of a person's life, and the purpose of man overall lie in being in the right relationship with the Creator.
Even atheists do not deny that man has a certain purpose. "Man is created for happiness in the same way the bird is created for flying," claimed Maxim Gorky, a humanist writer who considered man to be of the highest value. He did not acknowledge the existence of the Creator, but he still could not help but use the term "created," because how else can one explain the very existence of this purpose? A bird is created for flying; it is a perfect apparatus in which every detail of the construction is designed for one particular purpose - to fly. All of the nuances of aerodynamics are taken into consideration. The purpose of man is happiness, and everybody agrees with that, even the unhappiest atheists.
But what is happiness? An unbelieving person has a harder time answering this question. Most people would probably agree that a man's happiness is dependent on the ability to do good. The more educated people will even recall Kant's term summum bonum - "the highest boon," that consists in the unity of happiness and moral imperative. However, this does not provide an answer, it only poses new questions: "What is moral imperative? What is good? From where did we come to know about them?"
At best you will be told that these terms are passed on to us by our parents. All right, but where did the parents find out about them from? From their parents? And from where did their parents find out? They learned it from their parents as well, and so on and on to the very end. To be more exact, to the very beginning. Here we arrive at the heart of the problem: what beginning? Can it be the ape? If our idea of good and evil is the result of playing for many million years the game about a broken telephone line, at the other end of which there stood an ape, then it would be better to forget about it - for sure there is something wrong about it. However, if it comes from the Creator through Adam, Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and ultimately, from Christ and through Christ, then the notions of good and evil are absolute and are an evidence of our purpose, our intended use.
While acknowledging the fact of the existence of good and evil, why then do people reject the only reasonable explanation of it? The Scripture says that something that is inherent in our very nature forces us to suppress the truth by wickedness. The Scripture calls this "something" sin. The word seems to be familiar, but be careful! We usually think of sin as a wrong act (which in the Scripture is termed "transgression"), which often is just the result of sin living in us. Failing to see the difference, we start fighting transgressions instead of fighting the sin, the manifestation of the problem instead of its cause, the symptoms instead of the sickness itself.
What does our diagnosis really mean? The word that has been translated as "sin," literally means "not hitting the mark," "missing the target," "not being in accordance with the intended purpose." A typical example of the application of this term in ancient literature refers to an arrow that did not hit its target. If the arrow does not fly in accordance with its design, it is called "sin." When the arrow hits something that is not the intended target, this is then the result of sin, i.e., transgression.
Inside of man there lives sin - a will that is affected by defection and that raises in rebellion against God; unwillingness to live in accordance with the intended purpose; a tiny spiteful idol god who prays day and night, "May MY will be done!" As a result, this leads to transgressions.
Assume that we go and buy a vacuum cleaner. This household appliance has its certain purpose. We can discover it by reading the instruction manual provided by the manufacturer. In the manual we can find information on optimum conditions of using the product, potential problems and troubleshooting them. In it we also find a manufacturer's warranty. It says there that in case of abnormal use or misuse of the product the manufacturer will not be liable for any consequential damages and will not consider any appeals. If we, for example, use the vacuum to hammer in nails, then no matter what noble motives we may have in doing so, no matter how successful we may turn out to be at it in the end, the vacuum will become worthless very soon, and besides that we will hurt our own fingers. The act of using the vacuum not in accordance with its intended purpose can be called "sin," and the results of this misuse - "transgressions." It would be quite biblically correct to use these terms.
In the same way, this world has its Manufacturer. There is also the Instruction Manual, the Bible, provided by the Manufacturer. If we want to know our purpose in this world, the Manufacturer's warranty obligations (in the Bible they are called "promises"), ways of overcoming crisis situations (temptations), we ought to study the Manufacturer's Instruction Manual and follow its directions. It is for us just like a law. However, it is not the kind of law, that is imposed on us against our will, but a law knowing which can help us avoid mistakes, just like knowing the laws of aerodynamics allows the aircraft designer to foresee the consequences of making changes to the design of an aircraft and by doing so to achieve its highest efficiency.
However, just knowing what the Manufacturer's Instruction Manual says is not enough; one needs to follow it as well. It turns out to be not so easy, because we already live not in accordance with our purpose and are not quite willing to change. Sin lives in us, and no matter how hard we try leaving it behind, we are just half way there on the way towards our goal, and that applies even to those who have already known the Lord. For example, when you are going somewhere by bus, somebody steps on your sore foot. How do people usually react in this case? Somebody will push away the awkward fellow, another will raise his voice at him, somebody will hold his tongue but will cast a wolf-like look, another will bless. But the point is that the very first reaction will be the same for everyone, and it is programmed by sin! Then everything depends on how well we have learnt to control the sin living in us, how far we will go in transgression that are given rise by it, before we understand that it is time to stop. Both believers and unbelievers have the same original emotions, both the person who already knows his purpose and sooner or later gets the better of sin and the person who, in his own opinion, does not need any instructions and always gives sin the full reign.
This sin that originally lives in us does not allow us to accept the Word of God, making us hold the truth in its captivity (Romans 1:18). Nevertheless, our purpose is to be with God, and the whole of earthly life is the road towards Him, although a large number of people walk along this road in the opposite direction being enticed away by sin.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that man's earthly life is a road towards God. Let us depict it in diagram form as a straight line, one end of which goes towards minus eternity, towards complete departure from Him (I hope that there are no people who have gone so far, and the most wretched scoundrels have hope for repentance while bearing inside the spark of the image of God). The other end of the line goes towards plus eternity, complete unity with Him. It is exactly what our goal is, although in this world, as long as the beginnings of the carnality live in us, it cannot be achieved
Probably, it would be more correct to draw a vertical line rather than horizontal, because the road towards God is a constant ascension, while our natural desires, our carnal nature pull us down resembling gravitation. It is easier to be always walking away from God, it is natural (that is, it is accordance with our nature). Just as a stone cannot roll uphill, in the same way the spiritually dead, carnal man is constantly pulled down, away from God by sin.
I do not understand what I do, - writes the Apostle Paul writes to Romans (7:15-20; NIV). - For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
However, in spite of this, there exists an extraordinary cause that impels us contrary to our natural desires to move back towards God. Theologians call this cause "general revelation." It is a way of knowing God, which is open to any person, both believer and unbeliever. In accordance with the Scripture (Romans 1:20, 2:15), God reveals Himself to people through the contemplation of creation, through their conscience, through their thoughts, now accusing, now even defending them. Whether the person follows this call or not is a different question. There are people who are seared in their consciences, who no longer hear Him, who are continuing to habitually roll downhill. But the Word of God is clear: those who suppress the truth by their wickedness are without excuse.
If we are sensitive to this extraordinary call, with the passing of time we reach a certain spot on this line. Let us term it as "zero." Before this moment we turn away from God, we stand with our backs towards Him. Then all of a sudden a person understands that he needs to go the opposite way! He turns around and starts facing God. Before this his attitude towards God was negative, now it becomes positive. Literally, he needs to become a zero, realize his complete insignificance before God, and put his hopes upon Him and not upon himself or somebody or something else.
The Bible uses the term "conversion" to refer to this instance and everything that pertains to it, that is, faith, repentance, and baptism. Literally (in Greek it is metanoya), the term means a complete turnaround, U-turn of the mind, i.e., cardinal changes in the worldview of a man. It is at this point that God grants man forgiveness and eternal life, justifies him, cleanses him and does not count his sin against him any more. Not without a reason all of the traditional methods of evangelism are concentrated around this point. But is it the only spot where people can find themselves on our line? Is it really the only cardinal change in the worldview of man on his way toward God? Man still needs to approach this point. Besides that, a man's walk both to this point and beyond it is very irregular.
Are the people who come to God exactly the same? For example, some people go to church to get something, others - to give something. Although all of the believers are called on to do the latter, it does not happen right away. As a rule, for a certain period of time (for some it is a longer period, for others - shorter) new converts are infants in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1). They are, generally speaking, not capable of giving yet: as infants they need to be fed, they need to be taught to cope with their "natural" desires, and they need someone to change their diapers. They need to be constantly instructed and protected; when they fall, their knees need to be treated with medicine and they need to be taught how not to fall. To demand anything more from them is just like to accuse a five-year old of not being an adult.
As a rule, to reach maturity takes time. When a person accepts Christ, he declares that Jesus is his Lord and Savior. But in the beginning the only thing we are interested in is salvation. It is only some time later that the new believer realizes what the lordship of Christ really means. In our diagram let us show this point of realization which is called "commitment," as number one. At this point a man's worldview, his ideals, goals, values, priorities undergo serious transformation. Here the person again undergoes "metanoya," the cardinal change of conscience, and joins the group of people that the Bible calls "faithful" (see 1 Peter 5:12; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Ephesians 1:1, etc.).
Thus, the Bible divides the believers into two groups: "infants" and "faithful." But are all unbelievers the same? Let us turn to chapter 26 of the book of Acts of the Apostles. The apostle Paul is under arrest in Caesarea Philippi. Governor Festus, "a representative of the government administration," cannot investigate his case. There had been some complaints from Jerusalem, but neither the high priests, nor the noble Jews were able to prove guilty the Roman citizen Saul of Tarsus. However, the arrested did not desire to leave the protection of governmental authorities and go back to the Jews. And now, in the nick of time, Jewish King Agrippa II comes to Caesarea. Knowing the king's weak spot, while conversing with each other, the procurator mentions his prisoner and that the Jews had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive (Acts 25:19; NIV).
Agrippa could not help but fall for the bait, because the name of Jesus of Nazareth had been a curse for the family of Herod for several generations. His great-grandfather, Herod the Great, issued an order to kill all of the infants in Bethlehem in trying to do away with the newborn Jesus. The half-brother of his grand-father Aristobulus, Herod Antipas, who cohabited with his aunt Herodias, executed John, Jesus' cousin, and also took part in condemning to death the Carpenter-Rabbi of Nazareth Himself. A torturous death befell his father, Agrippa I, and it was taken by all to be retribution for persecuting Jesus' disciples and for accepting godlike worship (Acts 12:1-23). And now the king is offered an opportunity to learn for himself about this teaching that had been so fatal to his family.
Paul had a chance to give a speech in his defense in the presence of the king and the procurator (in Greek "apologiya," from "apo" - originating from and "logos" - word), i.e., to give logical proof of his innocence. When allowed to speak for himself, Paul gives a testimony of his walk towards Christ. In particular, he says,
Two people are listening to Paul, both are educated, both are from the highest layers of the Roman society (both the position of procurator and the title of king were given by the emperor himself). And all of a sudden Festus jumps to his feet and exclaims, "That's it, I've had enough of this! I have listened and listened to all of this nonsense, who can understand this? Complete stuff and nonsense! You, Paul, are out of your mind! You've read too many books, your great scholarship has impaired your mental health, it's time to wind up, nothing can be made of it anyway!"
However, Paul responds calmly, "No, my honored Festus, I am not out of my mind, I am speaking the words of truth and common sense, and the king knows exactly what I am talking about. Isn't it so, Your Majesty?" The king, however, does not know where to look, he forces a joke out of himself, "Don't you think you want to make a Christian out of me a little too soon?"
Two unbelievers are listening to one and the same speech, and for one it is folly, complete nonsense, but for the other one it is words of wisdom and common sense. One wishes the earth could swallow him up so that he does not have to answer the question, the other one listens and can understand absolutely nothing. The most interesting thing is that Paul basically tells Festus, "Don't worry, my most honored one, you don't have to understand. Relax, I am talking with the king now, not with you. And he understands exactly what I am talking about. Isn't it so, Your Majesty? So, don't get so agitated. Just sit back, doodle a little in your notebook, and give us time to finish up here. A third grader cannot understand material for college students."
What determines then the difference in perception of the same speech by Festus and Agrippa? Do their nationality, position in society, education matter here? No, in this particular case they are not that important. The point is that Festus and Agrippa have different worldviews. They perceive differently one and the same world and everything that happens in it. Festus is a "gentile," a pagan, and Agrippa is a Jew. Paul writes, "…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23; NIV). And, as we see it here, for Agrippa Paul's sermon is a stumbling block: he does not know where to put himself! However, for Festus this sermon is complete foolishness.
In the large sense of the word "gentile" is an atheist, a person in whose worldview there is no place for the Most High God. This person is either a god to himself or his god is money or his social position. At worst, his god is idols made of wood, bronze, or gold. It is pointless to tell a man like this about reconciliation with God. He has not picked up a fight with anyone; the world in which he lives is exactly the way it is supposed to be. According to his ideas, everything exists by itself: it either circles around or develops from the simple to the complex, from the bad to the good. Preaching of the crucified Christ is foolishness to him. His soil has not yet been prepared to receive the Word. A street evangelist who calls on a man like this to repent does nothing else but tramples down more this hard soil. The "gentile" already knew that believers were a bit off their head, and now after listening for half an hour to their nonsense, he just proved himself right: now I believe it not because somebody told me, but I heard and learned by myself that all believers are off their rocker.
However, a "Jew" is a theist. He acknowledges the existence of the highest and the absolute. He can call it a certain "supreme power," "universal intellect," "noosphere" (a totality of individual intellects of all being), "original cause of being," and after all, God. A "Jew" acknowledges that there is a design and a purpose, he understands what sin is, and he is looking for a way to God. "Can Christ be that way?" - this is the stumbling block for him.
For a person to pass from being a "gentile" to being a "Jew" there also needs to be a conversion, metonoya, a complete overhaul of thinking. Let us depict this point as "minus one." There is no biblical term for the one who finds himself at this point, but in philosophy there is a term for a person like this: agnostic, (in Greek "a" is negation, "gnosis" is knowledge), i.e., a person who does not know for sure if God exists or does not exist
The point "minus one" separates those for whom Christian preaching is a stumbling block and those for whom it is foolishness. The same words are interpreted totally differently by people from these two groups. One can often hear that Paul and Peter used different styles of preaching the Good News. It is almost true. Both used different methods when they addressed different audiences. When Paul talks to the Jews, he uses the same methods that Peter does. In particular, the speech with Agrippa present in its general content repeats Peter's Jerusalem sermons. Why? He is addressing a "Jew" (not by nationality, but by worldview; Herod's line were Edomites by origin), who knows the Law and the Prophets, knows about the One God and about the promised Messiah. He is "pre-prepared" for the Good News. However, when Paul finds himself in Athens, he starts with telling about God who created this world: it is He who created us, and that is why what we make with our own hands cannot be gods. From one blood He produced all the peoples, determined the boundaries and the times of their dwelling. For a while He allowed people to remain in their ignorance, but now this time is over, because He already set the time to judge all the peoples. Had Paul preached differently to the Greeks, his preaching would have been foolishness to them.
Sometimes it is funny to hear that Paul was not as good of a preacher as Peter. The latter one preached a sermon on the day of Pentecost and three thousand people repented right there; and it took Paul half a day to talk on and on at the Areopagus, and what was the result? Four people?! Maybe, a few more: Dionysius, Damaris, and a number of others (we do not know how many of those others, but a minimum of two, because the plural is used). In reality, both Paul's and Peter's sermon is aimed at changing the listener's worldview. While preaching to the so-called "Jews" (no matter what they are by origin), the goal is their conversion to Christianity. This conversion has its external manifestation in the act of baptism. But when Paul preaches to gentiles, the first goal he faces is to convert them into "Jews." Otherwise preaching of the crucified Christ is foolishness to them. We do not know how many people were converted then, because this conversion usually does not happen immediately and it does not have external manifestations. It is not known to us how many people stopped to think about the One God. But we do know that at least four listeners turned out to be quite quick-witted and were able to understand immediately what conclusions follow from the said, and able to go through both of the conversion stages (from being a "gentile" to being a "Jew," and from being a "Jew" to becoming a believer) at one time.
Now we have a clear understanding of the main terms and have symbolically divided people's worldviews in relation to God into four categories: "gentiles" (atheists, skeptics, pagans, etc.); "Jews" (theists, seekers, etc.); "infants"; and "faithful." Now we can look at what really happened in our country, and why traditional methods of preaching the Good News, that worked so well ten years ago, are so ineffective nowadays. In order to do that we will need to recall the basics of the probability theory.
A standard distribution of deviations of any random parameter from the average value is graphically portrayed by a curve in the shape of a bell, which is called the "Gaussian curve." (Karl Gauss was a great German mathematician, Christian, and by the way, the author of the formula for calculating, on the basis of the laws of revolution of luminaries, the arrival of Passover based on the calendar number of the year.) Any random parameter usually has such a distribution. Let us assume that you are studying the dimensions of the wings of butterflies of a certain kind. You go and catch a fairly large number of butterflies, measure their wing span, and as a result you end up with exactly such a diagram: the curve has a strongly pronounced maximum under a certain average value that is inherent in the majority of butterflies. As the value deviates more and more towards either side of the average value, there will be fewer and fewer butterflies.
By the way, such regular distribution of the "random variable" is a serious problem for unbelievers who contend that "blind chance" rules the world. Everything in our world is subordinate to laws established by God. It is just that in some cases these laws are of faithful character, in other cases they are of statistical character. Somehow or other, chance is something very regular.
Thus, if this law is applied to our worldview diagram, it is natural to expect that a standard distribution of people in any society will be described by the same curve. But at different times and in different countries the width of this "bell" and the position of its maximum will vary. Accordingly, the majority of people will respond differently to different methods of evangelism. Let us take, for example, the United States of America. For many years the Good News spread there without hindrance, and the distribution was of standard nature. Two hundred years ago, when the majority of the population was "infants in Christ," Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" became a push for the Great Awakening. People understood that they were sinners, they knew who God was and what was God's wrath, they just needed to be shown what was in store for them in connection with this.
However, one hundred years later the majority of the population was "Jews." At that time the most effective means of evangelism was the slogan "God Loves You." People knew that God existed, and they knew what real love was. They just needed to be reminded that it is God that is Love. As the American society becomes more and more humanistic and secularized these methods become less and less effective. Why? More and more people become "gentiles." They are told, "God loves you," and in their understanding the word "god" means something else, and "loves" means something totally different, and instead of asking, "Who is God?" they often ask perplexed, "What am I?" Somehow or other, the distribution in any case remains standard, just the top of the bell shifts in the time of spiritual awakening to the right, and in the times of departure of the society from God - to the left.
Was the distribution in the Soviet Union standard? For several generations preaching the Good News was forbidden in our country. Eventually, the interval between from "zero" to "one," where all of the "infants in Christ" should usually be, was empty. No one could remain an infant in Christ for a long time: as soon as he started thinking about faith, he found himself under serious pressure at work, in his family, in his relations with the people around. He had to either move along quickly, become a strong believer, and stand up for his beliefs, otherwise he had to retreat not being able to stand this pressure. As a result, the section of the curve that represents infants in Christ, was missing, it was as if it had been cut out. Church resembled a family with no children. Oriental wisdom states that, "a house with children is a bazaar, a house without children is a mazaar (cemetery)."
One day I was talking to the pastor of a church that steadfastly went through the period of persecution, and he was complaining, "I miss so much the times of persecution! That's where the real church was! Then there were only strong believers in church: everybody knew where to go, where to sit, where to stand, when to stand up, when to sit down, when to open the song books, when to close them. Nobody was going back and forth during the service, there was no one with uncut hair, and there was no unshaved person. Every person was ready to stand up for his beliefs to the very end. It was a real, strong church!"
It is possible to understand this man, who all of his life served the church, where for the most part there were only the "faithful," and now he faced new circumstances, when the church began to be filled with the "pronounced," "infants in Christ." Moreover, many of these infants are suffering from the "Nicodemus syndrome," i.e., they have extensive experience in various secular organizations, and they are trying to "squeeze" this treasure of secular experience and knowledge through the needle's eye into the Kingdom of God: they give advice to the ministers about managing the church. No pastor would like it. Infants also like asking questions. Sometimes questions that our pastor has never even thought off, he was doing everything the usual way… In short, it is a complete mess!
But this is exactly what a growing church should be like! In order for the church to develop in a normal way there should be a large number of young people in it (both spiritually and physically), infants in Christ, because they are its future ministers. They still have to grow, master the skills of walking before the Lord, being rooted in the Word of God. Otherwise, when the present day ministers leave (either by naturally leaving this world or by moving someplace), there will be no one to replace them. The church will be strong and ready for persecution, but it will be dying.
However, during the times of persecution everything was different. The distribution was not standard, there were practically no "infants" in church. But these people, who under normal circumstances would be infants, must have been somewhere. They could not have disappeared, could they? They all remained "Jews," those who, as the Bible says, were prepared in advance for the Good News.
Let us try to draw an analogy by comparing the life of a church and the work of an automobile engine, by comparing people and automobile fuel. Then those who are to the right of the point +1, "the faithful," are the fuel that does its job in the engine's cylinders. The section from "zero" to "one," the "infants in Christ," is the carburetor where the fuel is treated with air (i.e., the Holy Spirit. It is wonderful that in Greek it sounds practically the same), it is brought to the required condition, to the state when it can do some work. The section between the points "minus one" and "zero," the so-called "Jews," is the fuel tank. From here the fuel has access to the carburetor. After that, from "minus one" to minus infinity, there are "gentiles," natural resources. This is the crude oil that is still in the ground, which still needs to be holed, extracted, purified, and distilled. This is the area where extra efforts need to be made. This is the type of soil that cannot yield rich harvest without advance preparation. It is those for whom preaching of the crucified Christ is foolishness. No matter how rich is the microelement content in the soil, if there is asphalt of unbelief on top of it, then without first breaking it up it is pointless to sow there. No matter how good the oil is here, it still needs to be mined and processed into fuel.
Thus, during the Soviet times all of the efforts of the authorities were aimed at not allowing the fuel to reach the carburetor. It was impossible to influence the "faithful" - the saints acknowledged the heavenly authority to be the highest one, just as saints should do. But those who under normal circumstances (shown as a dash line) would already be in the carburetor, still remained in the fuel tank. What was happening? Although the cylinders had some fuel, the carburetor was dry. At the same time the fuel tank was overfilled. The pressure in the fuel tank was so high that as soon as not a door but just a crack was open for evangelism, the contents of the fuel tank gushed to the carburetor and flooded it. That was the moment when it seemed that this was mass awakening…
But what happened as a result? Experience shows that in order for a church to develop in a normal way there needs to be five, maximum ten "infants in Christ" for every "faithful" person. If there are more of them, then many are left out and are not given attention, teaching, mentoring, and care. When the carburetor is flooded, the engine is not capable to process all of the fuel. When fuel that is not sufficiently enriched with air (the Spirit!) is fed to the cylinders, the engine starts to emit smoke because not everything is burned (the burning of faith). Large amounts of fuel spill out onto the ground altogether, and it will not be easy to scoop it up and pour it back into the fuel tank, "I've been there, tried it. It helps you - great. Didn't help me any. That's not for me." People would come to church, but they could not find a place for themselves there, they were not part of active fellowship with brothers in faith.
Of course, one can easily say the following about a person like that, "It means he was not seeking God sincerely enough. Had he been seeking Him harder, he would have stayed in church." But he WAS looking for God! It is we, God's children, entrusted with the keys to Heaven, who were not ready for the coming of this new person, we failed to foresee this course of events and were not ready to receive such a large number of people - it turned out that in the church there were neither ministers prepared for this, nor adequate training programs