John Ritenbaugh, examining the socio-cultural milieu before the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews, explains the difficulties experienced by the new Jewish converts to the Gospel. The powerful testimony of the recently risen Christ, combined with the apostles, who had spent 3 ½ years under His tutelage, were the main factors behind the fast growth of the church to 6,000. The Jewish leadership deemed these converts to be traitors to the of the religious heritage of Judaism. The estrangement these people felt is similar to that experienced by today's people of the true God. Christ told His Apostles not to become fixated about the fulfillment of prophecy, but instead to engage in the work He had given them. God's people today have the same no-nonsense orders Christ gave to His original Disciples, namely to take the Gospel to all nations. God's worldwide institution, the Israel of God, makes a transition to a New Covenant, not 'doing away with the law' but making it applicable to both Jew and Gentile. Repentance and baptism replace circumcision as the spiritual sign of the New Covenant. The Council of Jerusalem indicated that Jesus Christ's words and behavior proved the final word on New Covenant decisions, bringing about a significant change in practice.
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."
Charles Whitaker, reflecting on God's practice of working in patterns, points out that God has wired our minds to think in patterns, such as circles. Gestalt psychologists have demonstrated that, given a set of dots that suggest a circle, our minds are prone to automatically fill in the pattern. Other ubiquitous patterns that God has created take the form of dichotomies, such as day-night, land-sea, male-female and Jew-Gentile. The members of true dichotomies must be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. Hence, day and night are mutually exclusive, and there is no other alternative outside of the two genders God created, male and female—attempts of mankind aside. God's dichotomies are firmly fixed in this under-the-sun order of things. While God can manipulate these dichotomies, mankind is unable to alter the parameters established by God's dichotomies. Mankind, however, often attempts to change God's dichotomies, as feminists in the matter of gender. Likewise, the world's false religions have built a dichotomy of faith and works, while the Scriptures clearly show that no such dichotomy exists. We need to be thankful for all God's patterns, and be careful that we don't misuse them.
John Ritenbaugh insists that this particular topic is attached to the Old and New Covenants, solemn agreements which are eternal (God's Word is eternal) and will not pass away, nor will they be 'done away.' Some things may be set aside for a while, but they are there for our purposes for learning how to judge. Some of the aspects which the world's religious claim are 'done away' will at a future time be brought back. We need to learn to judge in a godly manner, putting merciful restraints on our tendency to condemn or jump to conclusions. We need to inculcate the two great commandments: loving God and loving our fellow humans. We need to learn that sin has different levels of consequences. When it comes to judgment, one size does not fit all. Not everything is on the same level. God is going to judge each of us individually. Our ultimate destiny is to share rulership with our High Priest, Jesus Christ, judging righteously in God's Kingdom, rightly dividing the Word of God. God's Laws set the standards upon which righteous conduct is to be judged. It takes a lifetime to prepare to judge in the Kingdom of God. Learning to apply the spiritual dimension of the law is much more difficult than applying the physical dimension. But both of these dimensions are easier to keep than the traditions and regulations of men, inherently heavy burdens. When Gentile converts were admitted into the church, they were instructed to follow Old Covenant laws regarding the strangling of animals, eating of blood, or eating meat offered to idols. Clearly, the Old Covenant was not 'done away.' After Christ's return, some of the aspects of the Old Covenant, currently in abeyance (for example, circumcision and sacrifices), will be re-instituted. There is nothing evil about the Old Covenant; it provides insights on righteous judgment.
Why do so many nominal Christians reject works and obedience to God's law? John Ritenbaugh posits that they do this because they fail to gather God's whole counsel on this subject. In doing so, they miss vital principles that help to bring us into the image of God.
Richard Ritenbaugh, reflecting upon the technological and linguistic changes that have occurred in the short span of one century, marvels at the drastic decrease of our attention span and the corresponding degradation of language. The dramatic shift in orientation from words to pictures has weakened thought and the transmission of ideas, "dumbing down" our culture toward drabness, unaesthetic plainness, and imprecision. Because virtually everything we know about God comes through words, this denigration of language (the vehicle transmitting spiritual truths, metaphorical bread or food) could prove highly detrimental to our spiritual welfare. Spiritually, relying exclusively on images leads to shallowness of thought at best and idolatry at its worst. The Word of God, however, provides depth and nourishment leading to salvation and eternal life. Through God's Spirit, we need to learn how to process the Word of God effectively and efficiently.
In this companion piece to his "Willingness to Believe" message, Richard Ritenbaugh provides an effective antidote to gullibility and simple-minded credulity. Both tendencies emerge from time to time in the greater church of God. Like advertising—which relies heavily on deception, hiding the down-side or defects and exaggerating the efficacy or desirability of a product—religious hucksters use deceptive tactics, using the bait or temptation of self-gratification, selling non-essential, twiggy or downright heretical positions. Like highly trained U.S. Treasury agents, the elect keep themselves undeceived by knowing the real article inside-out. If one knows the real article, the counterfeit will become readily apparent. Like a lamp rolling back the darkness (Psalm 119:105), the truth, revealed by God's Word, provides the best defense or antidote against deception and error.
How does God define the church? What comprises it according to the Bible? The ekklesia, the Greek word translated "church" in the Bible, is not a humanly defined corporation, but the mystical body of Christ, having the Spirit of God. The true church of God is an invisible, spiritual organism, of those people that have and are led by the Spirit of God. And such a person will not turn away from the teaching delivered by the apostles.
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