On the Day of Pentecost, Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem. They read, among other Scriptures, Ezek. 1:1-28 and 3:12; and Hab. 2:20 – 3:19. These passages speak of the brightness of God’s glory. Ezekiel heard wind and voices, and saw fire; later, he witnessed the departure of the Shekinah glory. There was expectation on this special day that the Shekinah glory would return and take its rightful place in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. But instead, as Luke records in Acts 2, there was wind, fire, and voices (the 120 speaking in tongues). Rather than returning to reside in the Temple, the Holy Spirit took up residence in the “temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16), the bodies of believers in Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
Everyone can see Jesus in the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot / Pentecost) by observing His promises about the coming Holy Spirit:
- His promise to depart and return to the Father (John 16:7). The coming of the Holy Spirit was contingent upon Jesus completing His work of redemption and returning to His Father. See also John 7:39; Acts 2:32-3.
- His promise to send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is said to be a gift from the Father (John 14:16, 26) sent by the Son (John 14:26; 15:26: 16:7). Roy B. Zuck, in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, comments: “Whatever else is meant by the difficult statement that the Spirit ‘goes out from the Father’ (John 15:26), it implies that the Spirit shares the same essential nature as the Father. In fact, John was indicating here the parallelism between the mission of the Son, sent from God (3:17, 34; 5:36-38; 6:29, 57; 7:29; 8:42; 10:36; 11:42; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21), and the mission of the Son’s replacement, the Holy Spirit, who would be ‘another Paraclete’ to the disciples and who would enable them to carry on Jesus’ mission after He returned to the Father.”
- His promise of the Spirit’s ministry to unbelievers (John 16:8-11). Without the Spirit’s work to convince unbelievers of the sin of unbelief, the righteousness of Christ, and the judgment that will fall upon them if they persist in their rejection of Jesus, no one could be saved.
- His promise of the Spirit’s ministry to believers, specifically:
- To regenerate us, or make us spiritually alive (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5).
- To indwell us, or take up permanent residence in our human spirits (John 14:17).
- To baptize us, initiating our relationship to Him and establishing our connection with Christ and other believers (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12:13).
- To seal us, a guarantee that God will take us fully into His presence on day (Eph. 1:13-14).
- To teach us, or give us divine assistance (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:12; 1 John 2:27).
- To empower (fill) us for witnessing (Acts 1:8).
- To empower (fill) us for service (Act. 6:5; Eph. 5:18). As Paul S. Karleen writes in The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System, “Filling is the result of a consistent walk with God, and depends on a genuine and mature relationship with the Holy Spirit, Simply asking to be filled will not bring it.”
- To equip us with spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11; Eph. 4:11; 1 Peter 4:11).
5. His promise to identify His Body (the church) by the Spirit (John 14:16-18; Rom. 8:9-11).
Objection 8: There are so many Christian denominations today, it’s clear that Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as the mode of baptism, church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded.
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another; clearly, this has not always been the case.
At the same time, Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word. Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers were disciplined or left the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
Charles Draper summarizes: “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture. And finally we have to realize that in this life Christians will not agree on everything” (Ibid.).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips
This week our Sunday school class completed a six-month study of world religions and cults. Members were invited to submit questions for discussion during our final week together. Below, I have posted their questions, along with my responses. To access all the documents we used in our study, click on the World Religions and Cults link to the right of the screen, or click on the link to individual studies such as Islam, Mormonism, etc.
1. What long-term trend does the Bible address regarding the growth or shrinkage of major religions and their current growth rates?
From the beginning, Satan has been a liar (John 8:44), producing false religions and promoting false doctrines through false Messiahs, false prophets, and false teachers. From a New Testament perspective, there will always be false religions, including counterfeit forms of Christianity, vying with true Christianity for the hearts of men and women. In the days before Christ’s return, they will all give way to the one-world religion of the Antichrist. Many Christians believe the church will be raptured, or caught up into heaven, before the Antichrist emerges, thus giving way to this false one-world system. Some speculate this religion will embrace New Age concepts and Eastern philosophies; others believe Islam is poised to become that one-world religion, but the Bible does not specifically say so.
The Bible warns of false prophets and counterfeit Messiahs in the last days – the days between Pentecost and the return of Christ. Some of these “antichrists,” as John calls them, will even perform miracles, leading many astray (see Matt. 7:21-23; 24:4-5, 11-12, 24; 1 John 2:18; 4:1-4). Even Jesus wondered aloud whether He would find faith on the earth when He returns (Luke 18:8). Paul, Peter, John, and Jude exhorted believers to hold fast to the true doctrines of Christianity because they will come under attack. And the book of Revelation describes a one-world religion led by the Antichrist – one opposed to the real Jesus, and one who also happens to stand in His place. At the same time, Jesus assured us that during the dark days prior to His return, the gospel would be preached in all the world (Matt. 24:14).
While there are many false belief systems in the world today, the apostle Paul tells us to watch for three common threads. False teachers will preach another Jesus, a different Spirit, and a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
2. What are the reasons the Seventh-Day Adventists give for holding Saturday as their Sabbath? What about their dietary restrictions?
First, it’s important to note that Seventh-Day Adventism (SDA) is not a cult as we have defined it (a religious organization whose members claim to be Christian, and who use the Bible and Christian terms, yet who deny the central beliefs of biblical Christianity). SDA’s views on the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit, and the inspiration and authority of Scripture are orthodox. Rather, SDA should be seen as a sect – that is, a Christian denomination that embraces distinctive doctrines not in accord with historic Christianity.
The SDA view of the Sabbath is one such teaching. The organization’s official Web site, www.adventist.org, says this about the Sabbath:
The beneficent Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God’s kingdom. The Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God’s creative and redemptive acts. (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; Luke 4:16; Isa. 56:5, 6; 58:13, 14; Matt. 12:1-12; Ex. 31:13-17; Eze. 20:12, 20; Deut. 5:12-15; Heb. 4:1-11; Lev. 23:32; Mark 1:32.)
In response, we should note two things. First, the early church adopted the practice of worshiping on Sunday (the “Lord’s Day”) in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:9; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Second, the apostle Paul made it clear that the day one chooses to set aside for worship is a matter of personal conviction, not divine mandate (Rom. 14:5-8). SDA’s insistence that Sunday worship is the “mark of the beast” is in error. As Tal Davis puts it, “Salvation and commitment to Christ are not demonstrated by adherence to external legalities (see Rom. 13:8-10, 14:4-13; 1 Cor. 16:2; Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:13-17)” (“Seventh-Day Adventism,” found on www.4truth.net).
As for dietary restrictions, the SDA Web site says:
Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are to abstain from them as well. Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into the discipline of Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy, and goodness. (Rom. 12:1, 2; 1 John 2:6; Eph. 5:1-21; Phil. 4:8; 2 Cor. 10:5; 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 3:1-4; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20; 10:31; Lev. 11:1-47; 3 John 2.)
The Web site www.religioustolerance.org adds: “They (SDAs) were once also expected to abstain from caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, cola drinks, etc. The church has since removed this from the baptismal vows, although they still recommend that policy. They have interpreted the Old Testament dietary laws as prohibiting the eating of some foods. The church recommends avoiding red meat. Many SDA members are vegetarians who supplement their diet with eggs and milk.”
A brief response is in order. While a person’s diet may testify to his or her beliefs about the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and while Seventh-Day Adventists may be commended for promoting exercise, rest and healthy eating habits, the Old Testament dietary restrictions for Jews are not to be imposed upon the New Testament church (see Mark 7:15-23; Rom. 14:1-23).
3. What is the most threatening to the basic foundation of Christianity on a short and long-term basis?
The immature Christian. Too many believers remain infants in the faith, feeding on milk rather than on the meat of God’s Word (Heb. 5:11-14). Such people fill the pews of our churches yet are ill equipped to recognize and rebuff false teachings. With “itching ears” they follow eloquent false prophets, and like chaff they are blown about by “every wind of doctrine” (see 2 Tim. 4:3; Eph. 4:14).
Beyond that, the greatest threat to Christianity today is not Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or other world religions that distance themselves from Christianity and attack it from without; it is the counterfeit forms of Christianity that attack it from within. False prophets, whom Jesus called “ravaging wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15), are devouring the flock, and we have no excuse for it. Peter wrote a stark warning to the church when he said: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Christians today should follow the advice of the apostle John, who exhorted us in 1 John 4:1-4 to:
· Not believe every spirit (that is, every person proclaiming a divine gift for service; or “antichrists”);
· Test the spirits to see whether they are of God;
· Know the Spirit of God.
The apostle Paul penned his letter to the Galatians for several key reasons: 1) to defend his authority as a true apostle of Christ; 2) to affirm the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith; and 3) to illustrate that the Christian life is to be lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, not through self-imposed bondage to the law. Throughout this epistle Paul declares that there is true freedom in Christ.