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