Thursday, February 25, 2016

“The Great Controversy and the Early Church”

First Quarter 2016 Adult Sabbath School Lessons
"The Great Controversy and the Early Church"
February 27, 2016
Our lesson for the week begins with the pointed statement that the "greatest barrier Jesus faced with His followers was their preconceived opinions".  If we are honest, we will admit we all have some preconceived ideas regarding various important issues.  I recently finished reading a book on the investigative judgment and the author's epilogue was dedicated to pointing out how none of us is able to be completely objective.  This explains why two people reading the same Bible looking at the same text may draw very different conclusions.  Recognizing and confessing our bias is a necessary and difficult personal discipline but essential to our spiritual understanding and personal growth not to mention the quality of our relationships with others.  It is also necessary to understand that most of our preconceived ideas and beliefs are charged and driven by our emotions.  Our reasons for believing much of what we believe is because of the way it makes us feel.  It is healthy to take time to carefully consider the reasons for what we choose to believe.  It is not enough that a close relative, a dear friend or a respected authority advocates a belief or that the belief makes us feel good. The mature, adult, intellectually honest person should continually be asking whether the belief is true. 

I suspect that the emotionally charged nature of our religious beliefs (especially regarding salvation) is part of the reason these beliefs are not easily changed; after all, it is a matter of life and death.  This may explain why discomfort, heated arguments, antipathy, persecution and outright war have often been the result of differences in religion.  The great controversy began in heaven but claimed its first human victim over a difference of religious belief in Genesis 4:3-8.  Abel, following the instruction that had been given offered a lamb as a sacrifice but Cain brought fruit instead.  Cain was angry that his offering was not accepted as his brother and the cycle of the wicked persecuting the righteous began and has repeated itself throughout history.
The lesson author goes on to say that "the disciples took little notice of what Jesus said if it did not fit in with their own ideas of who He should be".  In Matthew 24, Jesus warns of false Christ's and in Galatians 1:6-7 the apostle Paul warns of a false gospel. The two go together.  It is no secret that the Jews hated the Romans because they were subjugated by them and were perpetually reminded of the loss of their national sovereignty.  It was very easy and comforting to the disciples to believe the popular misconceptions about what kind of Messiah the Christ would be.  Jewish rabbis pronounced a curse upon those who would study Isaiah chapter 53 which spoke of a suffering Messiah.  After all the Jews had experienced, no other Messiah could possibly be the real Messiah except one that would overthrow the Romans, take the throne of David and restore Israel to even greater than its former glory.  All of this catered to their selfish, egocentric desires and they no doubt dreamed and fantasized daily of fine clothes, chariots and lavish palaces that they were soon to receive in exchange for the crude garments of humble fisherman. They were to be bitterly disappointed. The disappointment of the disciple's selfish ambitions led to searching and then "new insight" and discovery of the truth even as it did for certain members of the Millerite movement.

 It is equally difficult for some today to conceive of a Jesus who would be "made in the likeness of sinful flesh" and would be "in all points tempted like as we are" Romans 8:3, Hebrews 4:15.  A distorted teaching of predestination and "once saved always saved" is logical and appealing to many and a necessity to their personal spiritual security.  Eliminating human will and the necessity of choice seems the only way to guarantee a ticket to heaven. Such could scarcely ever imagine a Christ who would surrender personal security for the salvation of others let alone conceive of a human being doing so as did Moses and Paul. In Romans 9:3 Paul writes, For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.   Exodus 32:31-32 says, So Moses returned to the Lord and said, "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written."  (ESV)  The true gospel has no place for selfishness or human pride.  Ellen White writes, "What is justification by faith? It is the work of God in laying the glory of man in the dust, and doing for man that which it is not in his power to do for himself. When men see their own nothingness, they are prepared to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  The Faith I Live By pg. 111.

The lesson points out how the great controversy theme is played out in the establishment of the early church.  The activity of the forces of good and evil are evident in their working through men.  The disciples boldly preached the gospel in spite of the determined efforts of the religious establishment to silence them.  Peter boldly declares, "You crucified the Messiah!" provoking a response of either riot or repentance. The pure gospel produces one of two responses. He might have been more diplomatic but he almost appears hell-bent on picking a fight.  Even after having been arrested he goes out of his way to boldly declare the very thing that got him arrested to begin with.

Rehearsing the history of Israel never seemed to provoke a good reaction.  Stephen learned this in Acts chapter 7.  His refusal to engage in a revisionist version of Israel's past swiftly led to his violent death. Again and again scripture repeats the same story but only with different personnel.  False accusations were made against Stephen, the same false accusations came against Paul and false accusations were made against Jesus.  On what other basis could the righteous be condemned.
However the lesson insightfully does not stop there; it also points out how the great controversy is also played out in the human heart.  Ellen White poignantly comments on this in the book Education page 190:  "The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God's original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption. He should understand the nature of the two principles that are contending for supremacy, and should learn to trace their working through the records of history and prophecy, to the great consummation. He should see how this controversy enters into every phase of human experience; how in every act of life he himself reveals the one or the other of the two antagonistic motives; and how, whether he will or not, he is even now deciding upon which side of the controversy he will be found".

When the disciples asked even after the resurrection, "Will you now restore Israel?"  Jesus focused on the real issue rather than wasting time trying to correct their every misunderstanding. The empowerment of the Holy Spirit was far more important than a political discussion.  The work of the Holy Spirit is much misunderstood perhaps largely because it does not coincide with any aspect of our personal, national, ethic, political, religous or organizational egocentricity.  The Holy Spirit is God in every sense of the word and He acts and chooses and operates according to infinite wisdom to accomplish His divine purpose of restoration apart from our permission and often our understanding. Such was the case of Peter in his appointment with a Roman named Cornelius. 

It is interesting to note that when Peter entered his home the Bible says, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him.  But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am a man."   Men are so prone to worship men.  It has ever been the enemy's plan to lead men to worship other men because in so doing he is effectively able to lead myriads astray and simultaneously accomplishes his ultimate purpose of acquiring homage to himself.

The point to be gained from this object lesson is that one of the greatest testimonies to the power of God is unity in the midst of diversity. (See John 17:21)  The "Oneness" of the body of Christ is meant to be a most powerful demonstration to the world of the dynamic transformational effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in the lives of human beings who are so prone to separation and division. Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another". John 13:35. Peter had to learn as the lesson author says, "Christ is the Savior of all the world".  Even Gentiles are precious souls for whom Christ died.  In Christ all barriers have been torn down and the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between all people, no longer exists, "but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:35).

The lesson points out that it is nice to believe that we are all one in Christ.  Certainly, that is what the Bible teaches. Unfortunately, even in the church that is not always how we feel in our hearts or how we behave.  It is only by looking at the life of Christ and focusing on the cross that we can recognize the prejudices that we hold, and be purged of those prejudices?

~Mike Duncan

Friday, February 19, 2016

“Comrades in Arms”

First Quarter 2016 Adult Sabbath School Lessons
"Comrades in Arms"
February 20, 2016
The Great Controversy is founded on the everlasting principle of Agape Love.  This love is both a principle and a practical outworking of the Character of God in His benevolence to man.  Mankind is highly involved, obviously in this controversy, and as we struggle with sin, and as Satan attempts to stop our Christian growth by exploiting our shortcomings, the Good News is 1)  God is greater than Satan; 2) Nothing is too hard for Him; 3) He will never leave us nor forsake us; 4) He is willing to forgive us and to take us through the same tests until we overcome; 5) He is willing, while He does that, to look at us as though we have never sinned; 6) He does so because of the universal redemption that Christ accomplished for all Humanity as the Second Adam, representing all of us as the Head of Humanity. Our peace and assurance of victory are founded on those truths.
 Peter's calling is one excellent example of God's desire to save man, to work in and with cooperative humanity, to be patient and long suffering, and in the process, to reveal His own character of love, grace, and mercy, as well as His faithfulness.  Peter's reaction is remarkable. Maybe it is parallel to Jacob wrestling with the angel—the same realization of Divine Presence, and an overwhelming sense of unworthiness (Gen. 32:24–30). One thing is clear. Peter became aware of his sinfulness because he knew that the Lord was there. His open confession of his sinfulness stands in stark contrast, for instance, to the reaction of some of the religious leaders, who referred to Jesus Himself as a sinner (see John 9:24) instead of acknowledging, even when in His presence, their own sinfulness. We become convicted of our sinfulness by His revelation of His love, for we love, because He first loved us.  We begin to grasp the extensiveness of God's love and the incredible sacrifice He made for us, and continues to make for us. 
 We see these truths further revealed in the calling of all the Twelve.  God picked people whom He knew in their hearts would eventually respond and be faithful.  They had all the faults and weaknesses of humanity, all the confusion about the character of God, all the excuses, fears, reticence, pride, and selfishness, but their hearts were workable. When Jesus called the first disciples on the shores of Galilee, they had already witnessed His power over evil. They had seen Him challenge demons (Luke 4:34–36), heal the sick (Luke 4:38–41), rule over nature (Luke 5:4–6), reveal sin, and then reassure Peter there was no need to fear (Luke 5:10) God always reveals in various ways His character of love, before calling on others to trust in Him and surrender in loving obedience to Him.  One of Satan's greatest ploys in the great controversy has been his ability to co-opt those who claim the name of Christ and to use them to defile that name. 
God is the author and finisher of our faith Heb. 12:2, if we will allow Him full control, not rush ahead of Him, and trust that His love will prevail.  The New Testament is a remarkable testimony to how God worked to grow, heal, use and triumph through the disciples, for they were found faithful to the end, through the most trying of circumstances.  We must learn to be "with Him" and to learn of Him, in His lowliness and meekness, and to totally trust by faith in His righteousness alone.  God draws us to Him, and we finally learn to "abide in Him" by faith, thus to bear fruits of righteousness in a sanctified life.
 The Great Controversy has affected all aspects of life on this planet, including nature itself.  We are told that Satan has some ability to affect nature, and we are also shown that sin has caused the universe to "groan" until the day of its redemption.  Though we don't fully understand the degree to which Satan impacts the natural world, Scripture does reveal that his influence is there, such as seen in the story of Job (see Job 1:18, 19). Ellen G. White also tells us that, "Satan is even now seeking by disasters upon sea and land to seal the fate of as many as possible."—In Heavenly Places, p. 348, another indication of his power in this area. Surely, amid the seeming ceaseless natural disasters that strike the world, we are seeing the reality of the great controversy play out here on earth.  In the story of the storm on Galilee, we learn many lessons about trust and faith. When Jesus calms the storm, the disciples are just overwhelmed with awe. They "feared exceedingly, and said to one another, 'Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!' " (Mark 4:41, NKJV) If Jesus is in control of even nature, we can trust Him with control of our lives.  Though the lessons are many here, with this story we can see the extent of Jesus' power and, thus, our need to trust Him, no matter what.
 The revelation of God in His humility to condescend to die for us, we learn valuable lessons of what His character is, and how proud and selfish our natures are, as a result of having the sinful natures that we have.  The disciples are shown to have serious issues with pride, a trust which is seen every day in our homes, churches, businesses, government, and in every phase of human existence.  This debate among the disciples was no doubt related to their views of the future. They thought that Jesus was going to deliver Israel from the Romans, restore the kingdom of David, and reign as its new king in all the glory that the nation experienced under King Solomon. When that would happen, they no doubt assumed that, as part of Christ's inner circle, they'd have prominent and important roles to play in the newly restored kingdom. But even that wasn't enough: they wanted to know who among them would be the "greatest" in the kingdom. If that doesn't sound like the promptings of Lucifer, what does? (See Isa. 14:14.)  It was Satan who wanted to exalt Himself, and the Laodicean problem is one of "self righteousness", seen within the church as people vying for power and position, or criticizing others and acting superior, instead of praying as Daniel did in Daniel 9, "we have sinned."  The man who cries out, "Have mercy on me a sinner" is the one who goes home justified, not the one trying to prove spiritual superiority.  We have all sinned are continually coming short of the glory of God.  They were on their way to Jerusalem, where Jesus was about to be crucified. He had just explained to them that He was going to be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, scourged, and crucified, and then rise again the third day (Matt. 20:18, 19). As soon as He finished saying all this, the question of who was greatest came up again. They did not even hear what Jesus had said. It was obvious that they were not listening. Interested in their own small-minded ambitions, they missed the large issues at stake, focusing on false concepts of an earthly kingdom that would never come and missing out on what Jesus was telling them about the eternal one that He was offering them through His own upcoming death.  We need to evaluate whether we are really listening, learning of Him, for He is "meek and lowly in heart", and in Him, we will find "rest for our souls." 
 The event on the road to Emmaeus demonstrates the fact that man needs to fully comprehend the Word of God, and Jesus placed His faith implicitly in the Word of God.  The engrafted Word is able to save our souls, and Jesus repeatedly emphasized "It is Written."  Notice that Jesus' whole emphasis was on the Scriptures. Just as He resorted to Scripture in His battle with Satan in the wilderness, He goes to the Scriptures here in order to push back the darkness that these two were in. Only after He grounded them in the biblical teachings about Himself and His mission did Jesus then give them some powerful experiences to help buttress those biblical teachings: first, He revealed Himself to them, showing that He indeed had been raised from the dead; second, "He vanished from their sight" (Luke 24:31, NKJV). Between the no doubt perfectly clear Bible study on the atoning death of Jesus, followed by these powerful experiences, these two had plenty of reasons for faith.
 Faith, surrender, humility, dependence, trust, listening to the Word of God, believing in His love, these are the lessons to be learned, amongst others, in the Great Controversy.  We need to remember what Jesus did on the cross, and therefore, what He is committed to finishing.  May we follow in His footsteps.

~Pastor Tom Cusack

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

“Victory in the Wilderness”

First Quarter 2016 Adult Sabbath School Lessons
"Victory in the Wilderness"
For the week of February 2, 2016
Immanuel-- God with us (The Trajectory of Intimacy)
In Daniel chapter 2, we find King Nebuchadnezzar troubled with a dream. Part of what troubled him was that he could not remember it. He asked his 'wise men' to recall the dream and interpret it. But his wise men answered by saying what the King was asking for, only God could give, and that He (God) does not dwell among men. Therefore, they inferred, King Nebuchadnezzar's request could not be granted even by God Himself. It is here they laid down the gauntlet to God. What a challenge! God heard, and demonstrated that the belief held by these men was both correct and incorrect. Truth and error were mixed together. The 'wise men' rightly understood that only God could reveal the dream and give the interpretation. But they lacked knowledge and awareness – indeed they did not know that God longs to dwell with men.

Through this strange set of events, God used Daniel to show that only He could reveal both the dream, and its interpretation. Surprisingly, God also used this situation to bring to light one of the fallacies of unbelievers: that God does not dwell with mankind. Through Daniel God proved that He indeed dwells among men.
In fact, His name is Immanuel – God with Us. God has always made it His business to dwell among men. Even when the children of Israel were in the wilderness, He wanted to dwell among them. That was one of His reasons for the earthly Sanctuary. The Lord said to Moses, "… let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8). 

To demonstrate His presence in the sanctuary, God gave His Shekinah glory to shine right above the mercy seat, which covered the Ten Commandments in the most Holy Place of the tabernacle or 'Tent of Meeting.' Ellen White says, "In the holy of holies the great I AM took up His abode…. There, above the mercy seat, overshadowed by the wings of the cherubim, dwelt the Shekinah of His glory, the perpetual token of His presence" (That I May Know Him p. 95).
Furthermore, God was with them day and night, leading them, as seen in Exodus 12:21, 22--
"And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people."
Not only was God with the Hebrews as they wandered in the wilderness, but God dwelt among them after they became established as a nation in the Promised Land. Just read 1st and 2nd Kings, as well as 1st and 2nd Chronicles for evidence of that fact. But this 'closeness' through dwelling among the people was still too far away. From the foundation of the world, God purposed to come even closer still, and close the gap of intimacy. In the book of Isaiah we find this prophecy:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isa 7:14. He did not want us to miss it, so He said, "I'll give you a sign." "This is how you'll know it's Me…" So although He was initially Spirit, He became flesh and blood, born of a woman, born under the law, like all of the sons of Adam, to be with us. (Gal. 4:4; Rom. 8:3)
We know that Jesus' birth was the fulfillment of this prophecy, because we read in the Gospel of Matthew:
"But while he (Joseph) thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." (Matt 1:20-23).

Jesus left the royal courts of heaven, and laid aside His (Shekinah) glory, and clothed His divinity with humanity that He might come into close connection with humanity, and by precept and example uplift and ennoble humanity, and restore in the human soul the lost image of God. (Temperance p. 40)
Immanuel is God manifested in the flesh, partaking of our nature for the sole purpose of our redemption and restoration in this divine rescue operation.  Ellen White elaborates,
"Emmanuel, God with us," this means everything to us. What a broad foundation does it lay for our faith? What a hope big with immortality does it place before the believing soul. God with us, in Christ Jesus, accompany us every step of the journey to heaven." (ML 290.2)
But not only did He want to be with us, one of us, but His intention from the beginning was to become one with us. "I in them, and Thou in Me, that we may be one" (John 17:21, 23).

The Holy Spirit was sent to be the means to fulfill this prophecy. Immanuel gave Him to us, as can be seen in John 14:16-- "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever." And in 1 Corinthians 3:16 it says, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?"
Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is … "a guide in our perplexities, to soothe our sorrows, and shield us in temptation." O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" (ML 290.2)
God with us means such closeness, "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the Agape- love of God [and Apostle John has said, "God is Agape-love"-- 1 John 4:8] which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:38-39). So we are in Him, and He is in us.

When we receive and understand this concept, then like David we can say, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me" Psalm 23:4. There is no need to live in fear and be overcome by Sin. God with us means that whatever difficulties we experience, He will love us still and neither leave nor forsake us! Oh may we remember this beautiful truth. Amen.
~Raul Diaz