Richard Ritenbaugh focuses on the perennial desire of all cultures to return to a mythologized "Golden Age," a paradise wherein peace, abundance and harmony abound. When people claim that "old times" were better, they often overlook the thorny problems besetting those living then. God's people also have a proclivity to perceive the early Church nostalgically, focusing on a few Scriptures which point to the unity of that era. Reading the Scriptures more maturely however, we find that early church members experienced problems similar to what we face today. The early churches had to experience the same God-ordained process of sanctification (I Peter 1:3-7) and the same fiery trials (I Corinthians 10:13) we do today. Paul found it necessary to admonish (1) the Roman congregation to be discerning, shunning false teachers, (2) the Corinthian congregation to flee envy and strife, (3) the Galatian congregation to flee from tendencies to return to Judaism, (4) the members of the Ephesian congregation to maintain their "first love," (5) the Philippian congregation to put away division, (6) the Colossian congregation to eschew Jewish-gnostic philosophies, and (7) the Thessalonian congregation to reject interpretations of prophecy informed more by theory and rumor than by Scripture. The Golden Age has not yet arrived but will be coterminous with the Kingdom of God.
David Grabbe, cautioning us to avoid using Strong's Concordance as final arbiter of the meaning of a Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic word, points out that all words have multiple meanings and consequently do not yield to the faulty "one meaning" or "exact meaning" assumption. The meaning of the noun spirit, for example, is highly variable, based on context. The meaning of the Ephesians' "losing their first love" can in one context refer to their loss of original enthusiasm, but the phrase can also refer to their gradual reprioritizing, lowering God to a less dominant position in their lives. It is improper to build a doctrine on one Scripture. We need at least two reliable Scriptures (and hopefully more) to establish any doctrine, a lesson we learn from God's standard of evidence—that any important matter must be decided "at the mouths" of at least two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15). Strong is correct to assert that the Greek words agape or agapeo can mean in one context "social love," but sadly, because a decadent culture has distorted the concepts underlying the meaning of the noun social, Strong's definition is too general to be reliable. It is best to rely on the maxim in Proverbs 11:14: "In a multitude of counselors there is safety."
Clyde Finklea, reflecting on Bob Dylan's lyrics in "The Times They Are A-changin'," reminds us that within a few years of Herbert W. Armstrong death, destructive heresies were imported into our previous fellowship by false teachers and ministers. Paul warned Timothy of perilous times to come about at the end of the age, when the character traits of individuals would become predominantly selfish, unforgiving, and unable to control their own impulses. Sadly, the mindset of society has begun to infiltrate the church, causing some of us to leave our first love by compromising the Sabbath and falling into the Commandment-breaking world, God's called-out ones need to wake up and strengthen those things which remain, yielding to God's sovereignty, rejecting the ruler of this world, Satan.
David Grabbe, reminding us that the Days of Unleavened Bread are about leaving one venue (sin and Satan) and moving toward deliverance, warns us that as we leave sin, we do not want to leave our first love, as did the Ephesus congregation as recorded in Revelation 2:1. The Ephesians had a strong sense of duty to not let down, as well as serving as a vanguard in the battle against the false doctrines of the Gnostics and the Nicolaitans. What was lacking was the devotion to Christ, Who had given His life; the spark of love had gone and was replaced by a mechanical going- through- the- motions. They were not zealously attempting to form a relationship with God and Jesus Christ. In an environment of turmoil, it is easy to draw inward in protection of the self, ignoring our relationship with God. Our goal is to grow to the stature of Jesus Christ, or our works are meaningless and will not produce fruit or light. Our prior fellowship lost its lamp-stand because of losing its first love. We do not dare follow in its footsteps, but must reignite our first love with the help of God's Holy Spirit.
John Ritenbaugh tackles the eternal security doctrine, a teaching that militates against good works, something that God had ordained for all of us. Works demonstrate our faith, our response to God's calling and His freely given grace. Reciprocity is always a part of our relationship with God. Trust is a response to God's tests. Abraham's response to God reciprocated his love back to God. The indictment against the Ephesian church stemmed from their lack of reciprocity (or first love). When our expectations have not been met, it becomes hard for us to maintain our zeal. We need to maintain the intensity to actively hear God's message. If we do not actively exercise our minds, work to maintain our relationship to Christ, and become dead to the world, we will drift away. We cannot allow what Christ is to slip from our minds. Where there is no love for Christ, there is no salvation and no membership in God's family. As in human love or infatuation, if we love another person, we like to think about him/her; likewise, we need to have Christ dwelling in our hearts at all times.
John Ritenbaugh warns that the sheer variety of choices (distractions) available to us today (with their potential accompanying temptations and enervating time-wasting diversions) is extremely stressful because it automatically increases sin and lawlessness, automatically decreasing love, zeal, and affection. Like our society, the recipients of the general epistle of Hebrews were a group of people living in confusing rapidly changing times — experiencing intense economic, cultural, social, and moral upheaval. These "crusty old soldiers" or weary seasoned veterans identified in the book of Hebrews (like the Ephesians and far too many of us) were becoming inured and indifferent to mounting societal sin, allowing their spiritual energy to be sapped by resisting negative societal pressure, draining them or diverting them of their former zeal and devotion to Christ. If we incrementally lose our love, affection, and devotion to Christ, we automatically lose our desire and motivation to overcome, endangering our spiritual welfare as well as our relationship to Christ. God Almighty has mandated that we reignite the spark and rekindle our first love.
John Reid, contrasting the world's self-serving, lust-driven "way of get" (mistakenly called love) with God's example of sacrifice and way of outgoing concern, concludes that what the world needs now is the agape love modeled by the Father and Jesus Christ. We are called to take on the very nature of God, to put on the love of God that casts out all fear. Our goal is to take on the likeness of Jesus Christ, developing His character, thereby reflecting the true love of God. If we have lost our first love, we need to rekindle it by ardently keeping God's Commandments, demonstrating both love for God (the first four) and love for mankind (the last six). Attaining God's nature and love requires that we keep His commandments. Of all the spiritual gifts we could ever hope to attain, the love of God surpasses all of them. Love is the way God lives throughout eternity.
John Ritenbaugh, noting a parallel between the recipients of the book of Hebrews and our current situation, suggests that the pressure these people encountered was not a bloody persecution, but instead constant psychological pressures (economic, health, persecution on the church, social, family, etc.) coming right after the other in a wave that never seemed to end, causing weariness and unfeeling apathy. The book of Hebrews provides resources to recapture flagging zeal and motivation, focusing again upon the reason for our hope and faith, establishing clearly Christ's credentials and the import of His message, re-igniting the original excitement of their (and our) calling and their (and our) awesome future which they (and we) have put in jeopardy through apathy and neglect. We are admonished to resuscitate and readjust our focus and damaged belief system, reestablishing our access to God through Christ our High Priest, claiming the promises of the New Covenant.
Christ's first letter to the churches focuses on the Ephesians, a people who succeeded in trying the spirits, but in the interim left [their] first love.
John Ritenbaugh reiterates that walking worthy demands a balance between doctrine and application or between doctrine and conduct. Unity demands both. It is impossible to make a corporate union of all the splinters of the greater church of God because doctrinal, attitudinal, philosophical, and policy differences have grown increasingly disparate. Unity has to come from the inside out with God raising a leader which people, having their minds opened by God's Spirit, will voluntarily submit to. We can prepare for this unity by submitting to God's doctrines and living in accordance with them. Only when we have willingly gone back to our first love can we again attain family identity and spiritual unity.
John Ritenbaugh, after a thorough analysis of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, concludes that the seven conditions described (all having a common denominator an admonition to hold fast to something once given, but slipping away- namely the faith once delivered - Jude 3) are both sequential and contemporaneous, applying to groups now extant as well as individuals within the groups. All of us have these conditions within us to one degree or another. The scattering of the churches was an act of love by Almighty God to wake us up out of our passive, lethargic, faithless condition. The antidote to this splitting and scattering is to make the feeding of the flock our top priority, in which all the body, not just the ministry, participates to nurture one another, encouraging each other to return to the faith once delivered.
John Ritenbaugh reminds us that God is not in the torturing business but in the creating business, using calamities as part of His creative process. As Jacob's spiritual descendants or the Israel of God, we possess some of the same faithless proclivities as Jacob had before the decisive wrestling match at which time God prevailed. The scattering of the greater church of God has been brought about by casual indifference, deceit, and ultimately spiritual adultery (idolatry), leading to a fatal deterioration of first love. Like Jacob, who initially succumbed to weak faith and fear, we, as Jacob's spiritual seed, have to do what he did and repent of our loss of devotion to God and His purpose.
John Ritenbaugh explores the reciprocity aspect of the relationship between God and His called out ones. God in His sovereignty personally handpicks individuals with whom He desires to form a relationship. This relationship, like the physical creation, must be dressed, kept, tended, and maintained (Genesis 2:15). As in a human love relationship, ardently seeking God and desiring to conform to His image and mature into His character will cause the relationship to grow incrementally and intensify. Drawing near to God (in reciprocity to His love) is the key to the transference of God's mind to ours.
Just as important as follow-through is in an athletic motion, its spiritual counterpart is vital to our life in Christ. We must have the will and commitment to carry our devotion to God through to the very end.
John Ritenbaugh warns that the narrow "pay and pray" mentality experienced by many in our previous fellowship took our attention away from the more important overcoming and growing aspect, preparing for the Kingdom of God. We desperately need to become immersed in a cause, yielding to God's creative power, personally and individually, getting us ready for God's Kingdom. We must guard our time, not allowing busy-ness and involvement with activities of the world to prevent us from forming a deep intimacy with God. Developing this intimacy requires walking by faith, going beyond the superficial academic into an intense, in-depth practical application of actively searching for, yielding to, and obeying God.
John Ritenbaugh reiterates that the easiest part of God's work is the preaching the Gospel to the world- a task mechanically carried out as the church deteriorated from within. Much more demanding is the feeding of the flock, producing the kind of faith and trust to transform formerly carnal individuals into glorified members of His family. The work of the church varies from time to time, with different functions performed as different needs arise. God determines when, where, and the direction He wants His work to go. At this time, God has purposed to "blow the church apart" for our own spiritual safety. Our current focus should be upon the factors that caused the deterioration within the body, determining to respond to God, fixing the problems (the cracked foundations of faith emanating from a counterfeit gospel) that led to our implosion and scattering.
In this keynote message of the 1996 Feast of Tabernacles, John Ritenbaugh focuses upon the causes of the atomizing of the greater church of God into very small particles. Almighty God, as a means of mercifully disciplining and chastening His faithless children, initiated the scattering of the church (the Israel of God) for our ultimate good (Deuteronomy 28:25; Romans 8:28; Hebrews 12:5-6). Christianity is a religion of revelation- not human intellect. When the revelation of God was replaced with the wisdom of this world (the leaven of errant intellectualism), God had no choice but to scatter. As Israel did not repent at the preaching of Amos, or Judah at the preaching of Jeremiah, the members of the greater church of God did not take the warnings of Herbert Armstrong personally and individually. Any regrouping of the scattered pieces will be done only on God's terms.
Conversion is a growing relationship with God, and thus it is a process that, if not worked on, will deteriorate. Like a dating couple, if the partners in this relationship do not spend time with each other and become closer, they will drift apart. Conviction is paramount to this process: We must be absolutely loyal and faithful to God. Our conviction reveals itself in living by faith. The life of Moses is a stunning example of how a "convicted" Christian should live.
John Ritenbaugh, drawing a parallel from human physical love provides an eight-point checklist to determine whether our love for Christ is genuine. If we love another person, we will (1) think about (2) like to hear about (3) like to read about (4) seek to please (5) be with the friends of (6) be jealous of the honor of (7) like to talk to, and (8) always want to be with this person. Like the Ephesian church, in the wake of mounting disappointments, frustrations, deferred hopes and pressures, we cannot become weary of well-doing, allowing our first love and devotion to deteriorate, looking to the world to gratify our desires. We desperately need to redirect our energies (Colossians 3:1; Galatians 6:6-8), to rekindling our first love.
John Ritenbaugh characterizes the spiritual condition of the recipients of the Hebrews epistle as dangerously complacent, drifting into apostasy through neglect rather than from any blatant sin or perversion. Losing their zeal and first love after the manner of the Ephesians, having a complacent disregard for Christ's sacrifice, they were in danger of permanently searing their consciences and losing their vital access to God. The entire eleventh chapter provides examples to bolster their faith and rekindle their first love. The kind of faith described in this chapter is not blind and clueless, but is carefully developed as a result of systematic analysis of available evidence. Abraham, Sarah, and Moses were all motivated to endure by calculating or adding up all the evidence. Likewise God desires and has deliberately planned that we build our faith by the same kind of calculation, analysis, or adding up the evidence.
John Ritenbaugh emphasizes the importance of exercising faith and hope, patiently plodding along day-by-day toward our spiritual goal. Many of the pillars of faith had to wait many years (Abraham, for example, waited over 25 years before he saw the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise) for the fruition of their faith's target. With godly hope, we need to envision the possibility of successful accomplishment of God's purpose for us, realizing that God has bound that promise with an oath and that Jesus Christ (having empathy for us) intercedes for us as High Priest. Melchizedek, a prototype as well as equivalent of Christ, establishes the validity and dignity of Christ as High Priest. The divine appointment of Jesus as our High Priest precedes our divine calling, more important than genealogy or external physical characteristics.
John Ritenbaugh stresses that without continuous maintenance and attention, it is difficult to maintain a spiritual mind in a carnal physical body. We, like Christ, were made a little while lower than angels to be made perfect through suffering. He has blazed a trail, showing us a pattern for qualifying (through intense suffering and resisting temptation) for our ultimate responsibilities as future kings and priests—or bridge-builders, reconnecting man and God. As Christ endured the suffering and temptation successfully, we are exhorted to hold fast, activating the hope to endure to the end.
John Ritenbaugh observes that Hebrews is addressed to a people living at the end of an era, who were drifting away, had lost their first love or devotion, and were no longer motivated by zeal. Through lack of prayer, Bible study, and meditation, they had incrementally lost their portion of God's Holy Spirit, which now resembled a tiny, sporadic drip from a water skin. Through careless neglect, they were allowing something precious to slip out of their fingers, squandering a far greater treasure—their potential to become members of the God Family—than the people under the Old Covenant had neglected. Christ, our Trailblazer or Forerunner, was perfected through suffering, and we are to be perfected in the same way. We also need to be made perfect (adequate for our ultimate purpose) through suffering.
John Ritenbaugh reflects that the book of Hebrews is perhaps the least understood, most complex and most scholarly of all the books in the New Testament. However, in terms of spiritual insight, it is a pivotal book, whose function is to bridge the purposes and themes of the Old and New Testaments. It focuses on the work of a Master—the Son of God—who has done something far superior than anyone else has ever done. The primary purpose for this combination treatise-sermon-epistle was to encourage a group of people, presumably Jews in Rome or Judea, who lived at a close of an era and were bewildered and weary of well-doing, to maintain their resolve to continue their spiritual journey.
John Ritenbaugh explains that Jesus' caution to Mary in John 20:17, "Don't touch me," is more accurately translated "Don't cling to me." Either translation does not contradict the First Fruits symbolism. (After all, the Levitical Priests had to "touch" the grain in order to offer it.) Also the charge Jesus gave to the disciples in John 20:23 was not to "forgive sin" but only to discern the fruits of repentance, consistent with the binding and loosing authority of Levitical Priests, applying God's law. Having the "Mind of Christ" gives the New Testament ministry the ability to discern the fruits of repentance. The problem with Thomas was more his tendency to be a loner, having cutting himself from the fellowship of his brothers, than his doubting. Thomas's insistence upon touching refutes the Gnostic's claim that Jesus did not have corporeal substance. Not only does the book of John (written in 96AD) provides a plethora of signs corroborating Jesus Christ's authenticity, but also shows a pattern to actively live as God would live if He were a man, with the effect of building and sustaining faith. The epilogue (chapter 21) seemed to be added to counteract the assumption that John would live until Christ's second coming, as well as confuting the Gnostics' claim that Jesus did not have physical substance. The conclusion describes the disciples' bewildered reaction to their resurrected teacher. In this incident, Jesus formally, by using expressions identifying different levels of love, affirms the intense responsibility and difficulty of the commission given to Peter.
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