John Ritenbaugh, suggesting that most of us resemble the Samaritan woman in our understanding of the value of our calling, maintains that our relationship with God is our sole protection from carnal human nature and the deadly pulls of the world. Whatever consumes our time has the power to either edify or distract us. Faith and works are interchangeable components in our salvation, demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship. The apostles Paul and James preached the same message, approaching the faith-works coin from different sides. Faith grounded in truth produces works in agreement with truth. Faith without godly works resembles an automobile without an engine. As a minority religion, God's Church appeared on the world scene in the midst of cultural upheaval. Peter's message on Pentecost led not only to exponential growth, but also to vicious persecution. As God stirred the cultural pot then, so He is doing today, on the cusp of Jesus' return. The frightful conditions during the First Century are only typical of the horrific times yet to come. To weather these horrendous conditions, we will need the encouragement of the Epistle of Hebrews.
Richard Ritenbaugh begins by recapping the first three chapters of the Book of Lamentation: "Woe is me" (Chapter 1), "God did it" (Chapter 2), and "If God is behind it, it must have been good" (Chapter 3). He then focuses on the themes of the chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 is a summation of how low God had brought the people of Judah, prompting the theme, "How low can you go?" In Chapter 5, the community bewails what it has suffered, prompting the plaintive theme, "Have You utterly rejected us?" A close reading of the text reveals that, as terrible as this ordeal was, only a few people repented, a reality which justifies Christ powerful rebuke to their descendants, the Pharisees and Scribes, calling them vipers for persecuting and killing the prophets, warning them that their sins would culminate in yet another great destruction. The people suffering under the Babylonians had blindly basked in the privilege of being God's chosen people, while at the same time the blatantly trashed the terms of the Sinaitic Covenant. The inhabitants of Jerusalem could not make a clear cause-and-effect connection between their own sins and what was happening to them. Because the people of Judah demonstrated no fruits of Godly repentance, they failed to achieve anything like a personal relationship with God.
Richard Ritenbaugh, observing that the civil Festival of Purim in the Jewish community, commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from virulent anti-Semitism in ancient Persia, explains that this festival is celebrated with a notable spirit of merriment because it depicts a miraculous rescue from a hopelessly impossible situation brought about by a perennial, anti-Semitism. In terms of plot of the Book of Esther, the writer uses a chiastic X-like pattern, in which a situation grows grave and hopeless in the first half of a narrative, leading up to a peripeteia (that is, the axis point or the center of the X), in which a sudden reversal takes place, turning everything around from hopelessness to joy. This ubiquitous pattern of a sudden reversal recurs throughout scripture, demonstrating how God deals with the children of Israel, humbling them into repentance in order that He may bring them good in the end. This pattern of reversal-of-fortune provides an insight as to how God deals with us individually. God allows each of us to experience trials and tests to humble us, leading us to repent, obey and trust. Going through this process we learn to be steadfast and to endure. The axial moment in the Book of Esther seems to be a series of mundane events beginning with the king's inability to sleep—- mundane, yet leading to Haman's execution, Esther and Mordecai's advancement and the salvation of the Jewish people. These seeming coincidences (a powerful "unseen hand" reveals God's sovereign protection over His godly seed, which ultimately produced Our Savior Jesus Christ, who currently protects the godly spiritual seed (comprising the Church or the Israel of God, the Bride of Christ), descendants of Abraham through God's Holy Spirit.
David Grabbe, engagin in a futile exercise of estimating the total value of the creation, and a Creator, worth infinitely more than all the phenomena we can possibly see or comprehend, ponders how such a Creator would divest Himself of all His power, becoming flesh and blood like us, laying down His life. Nothing in existence has the relative worth of the Being Who has called us. When we consider the value of our calling, we must look at Paul's warning about discerning the Body of Christ more soberly, maintaining our loyalty to the body of believers, future fellow-heirs Christ has called. We are admonished to keep, not create, the unity of the Spirit. Whatever we do to the 'least' in Christ's body, we do to Christ. In our culture of rugged individualism, we need to learn that what we do and say can have a positive or negative effect on others at different levels of spiritual maturity. Some things that we know to be entirely lawful may not be expedient or edifying. We must be ready to set our own interests aside for the good of the whole, practicing the same values as our Heavenly Father and Elder Brother, Jesus Christ.
Martin Collins, reminding us that we, as followers of Christ, may suffer persecution, provides encouragement by reminding us we are promised boldness through the power of the Holy Spirit, making it unnecessary to prepare a response against the persecutors. When the laws of God conflict with the laws of man, civil disobedience is the only correct response, as was patterned by Peter, Paul, and the apostles, who boldly proclaimed Jesus' resurrection from the dead despite intimidations and threats from the religious establishment, terrified at losing their power base. The disciples knew, however, that with the power emanating from the Holy Spirit, the gates of hell could not prevail against their work. Peter was not in the least intimidated, boldly proclaiming to these religious leaders that: (1) they were guilty of crucifying Jesus, (2) Jesus rose from the dead, (3) the purpose of God was completed despite opposition and God's purpose alone will stand, and (4) Jesus is the only means of salvation, a statement which seems 'harsh' and 'intolerant' to most of the world. If we are following God, we will be compelled to disobey civil authority at some point. We cannot reclusively join a monastery nor should we become secular, cowardly assenting to evil laws, but we must fear God rather than man, righteously performing what God requires of us, realizing that our citizenship has been registered in Heaven. We should entrust ourselves to God for safe-keeping, realizing that the just shall live by faith.
John Ritenbaugh asks the question, "How much leavening would God allow to infiltrate into the church, society, or the individual before He steps in to correct it?" Leaven can symbolically represent false teaching, as in the stifling traditions of the Pharisees, the skepticism of the Sadducees, and the secularism of Herod, all producing deadly cynicism and pessimism. With immense forbearance and patience, God carefully timed the cumulative wickedness of a people (when every thought would become saturated with evil) before He intervened. Likewise, we have no insight as to how much sin God will tolerate in the church or our own lives before He will sternly intervene. The tares and wheat (sin and righteousness, heresies and truth, or unconverted and converted) must coexist until the harvest when the fruit will become clearly seen, at which time a separation and judgment will take place, when the good will be contrasted from the evil. In the meantime, the persecution we receive now will show God definitively where our loyalties lie.
Persecution and martyrdom are not popular topics among Christians today, but they are facts of Christian life. Richard Ritenbaugh explains the fifth seal's cry of the martyrs and God's response.
John Ritenbaugh, focusing upon an official poll administered by the Vatican, reveals that throughout the so-called Christian world, militant atheism may be decreasing, but religious indifference (or prudent agnosticism) is also increasing at even a more dramatic rate. People in both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions feel smugly at liberty to reject major biblical doctrines, manufacturing their own private religions in their wake. If we refuse to follow Jesus' example (the Way- the system of doctrines once delivered to the saints), we will automatically lose the precious faith required for salvation. We need to (in Jude's admonition) ardently fight to hang on to the Way entrusted to us by God ' a way hated and vilified by the world. Christians have been increasingly stereotyped, marginalized, vilified, criminalized and persecuted by the political left, academia, and the left-dominated media. God will use persecution and tribulation to both purify and punish.
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.
Freedom of religion in America is being slowly eroded rather than removed en masse. Richard Ritenbaugh presents several examples, then shows how the Bible encourages us in such times.
Persecution is not a subject we normally like to think about, but it is a fact of life for a Christian. John Ritenbaugh explains why Jesus says we are blessed if we are persecuted for righteousness' sake.
Richard Ritenbaugh acknowledges that although many in God's church have gone through sore trials and tests of sorts, virtually no one has gone through the nightmarish persecutions suffered by the early Christians in Imperial Rome. Because most of us have lived our lives in modern Israel rather than a Gentile culture, we have been?to this point?shielded from the kinds of persecution (being put to flight, pursued, or martyred from an external source) experienced by the early apostles. This message explores both a time factor and a righteousness factor, explaining why intense persecution has not yet taken place. Paradoxically (a big horse pill to swallow), persecution may be regarded as a reward for righteousness, a kind of favor and kindness toward us, preparing us for a better resurrection and greater service as priests in God's Kingdom, following in the footsteps of our Elder Brother.
John Ritenbaugh asserts that understanding comes through sacrifice and that our lives alternate between light (understanding) and darkness (confusion). Abraham's experiences teach us not to try to force God's will by contrivances of the flesh. When any sin or self- will is involved, the fruits of such an endeavor will be bitter and disappointing (as was the incident involving Abraham and Hagar). Abraham's righteousness equated with his acquired humble unflinching trust in God rather than his skill at law keeping. The gift of grace comes only to those who yield to God by faith, establishing a warm working relationship with Him, performing righteousness through the power of His Holy Spirit.
John Ritenbaugh focuses upon Abraham's example of going to war. Even though God does not glorify war, there are spiritual parallels we can learn from it, including discipline and self-sacrifice. Abraham was willing to lay down his life to rescue his nephew Lot. His sacrifice shows us what kind of effort and sacrifice is needed to wage spiritual war, getting the Gospel out despite the militant resistance of Satan and his demons. They are masters of keeping us off balance, keeping the pressure on us, dogging our heels, trying to make us miss the mark, and preventing us from rescuing others held captive. Anyone involved in the work of God is in a spiritual war, often experiencing enervation and temptation to compromise. God provides faith and energy in those occasions to overcome and endure.
After explaining the context in which Paul advocated going from house to house, John Ritenbaugh reiterates that Paul, who understands clearly that God alone calls (John 6:44), makes his initial contact with non-believers in public places (synagogue and forum), going later to private dwellings by invitation only. Chapter 15 focuses upon the Council of Jerusalem, discussing the controversial subject of circumcision and its relationship to salvation. Peter, speaking from his experience working among the Gentiles, realized that some aspects of the ceremonial laws (including circumcision) were not obligatory to Gentiles for salvation, but that the entire Law of God (given by Jesus Christ), far from done away, is to be kept in a more responsible spiritual sense (respecting the boundaries or constraints of conscience) by both Jews and Gentiles. It had become apparent to the apostles gathered at Jerusalem that God had made a parallel visitation and calling to the Gentiles as He had originally concluded with Israel. The new spiritual tabernacle (the Israel of God) would be composed of Gentiles as well as people of Israel.
John Ritenbaugh focuses upon the intent or purpose of the scripture in Deuteronomy 23:2 prohibiting offspring from illegitimate unions (often carrying psychological baggage and irreversible physical damage) from holding offices of responsibility in physical Israel for ten generations. Acts 14 begins with the people of the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe mistaking Paul for Hermes and Barnabas for Zeus. When Paul convinces the crowds that he and Barnabas were not gods, they were treated with contempt rather than adoration. The church, it seems, has always been forced to live in hostile environments. At the beginning of chapter 15, the question is posed whether a Gentile must undergo circumcision in order to be saved or keep the law in order to become justified. Lawkeeping in the present does not justify past sins, nor is it intended to be a vehicle for salvation. This understanding does not do away with God's law, which must be kept in the spirit. Following the Council of Jerusalem, God now begins His spiritual work through the church, taking His Word out to the nations.
John Ritenbaugh continues to reflect on Stephen's incendiary message to fellow Hellenistic Jews (ostensibly given in hopes of their repentance), chastising them for their perennial rejection of prophets and deliverers, including the greatest Deliverer ever sent (namely Jesus Christ), clinging instead superstitiously to the land, the law, and the temple. Stephen's 'untimely' martyrdom and his compassion on his persecutors, followed by the protest reaction against his brutal murder (all part of God's divine plan) resulted in a rapid spreading of the Gospel. The study then focuses upon the influence of Simon Magus, a noted practitioner of sorcery or magic who became impressed with the power of God's Holy Spirit, presumptuously offering Peter money to purchase this power for selfish purposes to control others rather than to serve them. Peter recognized the hypocritical, deceitful, impure motives of this request and responded appropriately.
John Ritenbaugh focuses upon the persecution of the apostles in the fourth chapter. Peter, inspired by God's Holy Spirit, demonstrated exemplary boldness and courage before the Sadducees (zealous influential movers and shakers of the Jewish community, descendents of the Maccabees), religious leaders who feared losing their power and influence. Peter, John, and the early church had confidence in God's absolute sovereignty, realizing that no human authority could thwart God's power. This powerful conviction gave them confidence to endure their trials, submitting to whatever God had prepared for them, realizing that God uses trials to further His ultimate purpose for them. The last portion of this chapter illustrates the exemplary, voluntary generosity exhibited in the early church.
John Ritenbaugh highlights how the witness of the apostles, particularly miraculous healings performed in the name of Jesus Christ, brought them into conflict with the established Jewish leaders, the entrenched Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. Peter used the startling impact of these healings to draw attention to the fulfilled prophecies pertaining to Jesus—the source of the healing power—whom the crowds Peter was addressing had crucified in ignorance. As the veil of ignorance is lifted, they (and we) have the responsibility to act on this knowledge of culpability in His crucifixion and fully repent—undergo a total change of life. Focusing on his predominantly Jewish audience, he affirms that belief in the prophecies of the Old Testament will lead to belief in Christ. Being in Him makes us heirs of the promises to Abraham.
John Ritenbaugh explores the possibility that the book of Acts, in addition to its role in continuing and advancing the Gospel or Good News, could well have been assembled as an exculpatory trial document designed to vindicate the Apostle Paul and the early Church, demonstrating that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman Empire as Judaism had asserted. The book of Acts also serves as a conciliatory, unifying tool, endeavoring to heal breaches that had emerged in the church through rumor or gossip. A key theme of Acts (appearing more than 70 times) concerns the particulars of receiving and using God's Holy Spirit. Acts also provides insights on the Commission to the Church, the relationship of Jesus with His physical brothers, significant contributions of women in the Church, and the emerging roles, organizational patterns, and responsibilities of the disciples.
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 suggests that Matthew, a former publican, wrote an orderly account of the Gospel easily outlined and analyzed. This account included Christ's genealogy, the circumstances of His birth, John the Baptist's introduction of Christ, Christ's presentation to the local congregation, the sermon on the mount (a collection of sayings that Matthew had collected over 30 years), the rising of the opposition (Pharisees, Sadducees, and local synagogue leaders), the installation of Jesus' personal staff (the twelve apostles), ordinary men ranging from a hated publican to a revolutionary zealot to a plain blue collar contractor, and working men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, called not so much for their current abilities, but as to what they would become by yielding to God, much the same as it is for all of us. The commission to the disciples evolves from their preliminary marching orders to go to the House of Israel to their ultimate commission of going to the Gentiles. The observation is made that the disciples seem to appear in groups of four, with one disciple assuming the leadership position of each group. Jesus warns His disciples then and now to be aware of persecution from inside the church, the government (incited by slander and libel) and our own families. Jesus cautions us never to fear or show timidity because our lives are entirely in God's hands and He will provide us whatever resources we need to overcome and build character in our brief 70 to 80 years we are allotted to live in mortal flesh. If we remain steadfastly loyal to God, we will experience abundant life in His family and Kingdom. [NB: This series of Bible Studies from 1981-82 is incomplete.]