Written By: M. Thaxter Dickey
Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, and we are like Peter, who requested the building of three tabernacles because “he knew not what to say.” There are remarkable things about this incident which ought to cause us to fall silent; however, the incident is recorded for our benefit, so let us respectfully consider its meaning (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36)
To understand the transfiguration we must understand its timing. It is connected to the earlier announcement of His death by all three evangelists. The clearest account is in Matthew 16 where we read of Peter’s confession that the Jesus is the Christ and the revelation following it that even though He is the Messiah He must suffer and die. This is so traumatic that Peter denies it, “God forbid!” and is rebuked by the Lord. This connection to the transfiguration is even clearer when we note that the theme of the discussion between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is His death.
Luke tells us that Jesus’ purpose in going onto the mountain was to pray. He prayed, then He was transfigured. Was the transfiguration an answer to the prayer?” Did the prayer concern His death? The circumstances are very similar to those in the Garden of Gethsemane: He was alone except for three disciples. He was thinking about His death. He prayed. The apostles, who should have prayed too, were heavy with sleep. (How many times did it happen that Jesus prayed and they slept?) There follows a heavenly ministration. Thus the transfiguration serves to strengthen Him for what is to come. But perhaps it is as much for the disciples as for Him. Did He not pray for them as well?
While He prayed He was transfigured. The writers struggle to make sense of it. His countenance was changed, but how? The best they can do is speak of the light. His face shone like the sun. His clothes are white and glistening, whiter than any launderer could get them, whiter than snow. All the cliches are used, but none match the reality. Whatever it was, its impact was tremendous for it is this incident that Peter recalls years later when he argues that we did not follow cleverly devised fables but were eye witnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16–18).
Two men talk with Him. Moses and Elijah are, respectively, the representatives of the law and the prophets from which we learn of the Christ and of which He is the culmination. And what is the theme of the discussion? His death. There were other possible topics of discussion: ancient days, the celestial heavens. But it is the work of redemption that Jesus was about to accomplish that they discussed. And what greater theme than that? Indeed angels desired to look into it (1 Peter 1:16). With what trivialities we fill our days, when we could discuss this theme as well.
The transfiguration provides three aids to the Son of Man as He faces His self-sacrifice:
1) A foretaste of glory divine (Hebrews 12:2).
2) An assurance that heaven is interested in these things.
3) The approval of the Father.
But perhaps more importantly it strengthens the apostles who were having difficulty adjusting to the idea of a suffering Savior. Even if the three apostles were not permitted to tell of the event (and probably they couldn’t have communicated it accurately if they’d tried), the change in their demeanor brought about by this event would encourage the others as well.
Peter answered, but no one had said anything to him. He is the kind of person who always has to say something. “It is good to be here,” he says. What he means is that it is better to be here on the mountain of glory than at the cross of suffering. He almost implies again what he had said on the plains of Caesarea. “God forbid,” he had said then and now he says, “Let us build three tents.” “And stay here longer” is the implication. He expresses what they all feel. We long for the moment to continue. Who would not?
But they are overshadowed by a bright cloud. The cloud is always a symbol of the divine presence, especially this bright cloud, which is reminiscent of the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day that preceded the Israelites in the wilderness. No wonder they feared as they entered the cloud. God speaks, “Hear Him,” and they fall over. How long till they were raised by the reassuring words and touch of the Lord and started down the mountain?
They cannot remain on the mountain of glory. There will be no tents. But the apostles can’t let it go: “Don’t the prophets say that Elijah should come first and restore all things?” They expected him to come and stay and transform society. They looked for an easier way. But the work of salvation is not easy and we cannot grow weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9). Even the Lord was so tempted when He came down and said, “How long shall I bear with you” (Matthew 17:17). But strengthened by the transfiguration, He pressed forward to accomplish His work. So did the apostles. And so must we.
Originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of Christianity Magazine.
Written By: Sewell Hall
Probably no charge creates more prejudice against a group of people than the charge that they think there is only one church that is right. This fact clearly indicates that most Americans consider all churches right. Is it possible that only one church is right?
At least three other questions must be answered before this one can be answered intelligently.
1. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Many who complain so bitterly about such a claim do not believe that anything is absolutely right or wrong. If there is no right and wrong, then obviously any claim to be the only right church would be ridiculous. However, if there is a God and if He created us, then He is the standard of right and wrong (Romans 3:4). His word is truth (John 17:17).
2. Is there a right and wrong in religion? Some who accept the concept of right and wrong in the realm of morals exclude it from religion. They seem to think that God is so loving and good that He will accept anything man may do and dedicate to Him. But Jesus warned of false teachers who would come in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). He stated that worship was made vain by teaching the doctrines of men (Matthew 15:9). Paul informed the Galatians that anyone who preached any other gospel than what he had preached would be accursed (Galatians 1:8), and Peter predicted that there would be false teachers among us (2 Peter 2:1). So religious teaching can be false and religious practices can be wrong. Jesus also said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted” (Matthew 15:13). This is equal to saying that churches not planted by the Lord will be rejected.
3. Has God designated any exclusives in religion? Consider Ephesians 4:4–6. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. “The “one” in these verses obviously means “one and only one.”
These verses do not allow for our modern broad-mindedness. Such broad-mindedness, however, is not really new; it existed in the first century among the Ephesians to whom this was written. Paul became the focus of a riot because he insisted “that there are no gods made with hands” (Acts 19:26). To put it another way, he preached there was “one and only one” God. The Ephesians were tolerant of many gods, but intolerant of anyone who said there was only one.
Most of us would agree that there is one and only one God. But the same verses say “there is one body.” What is this one body? The same writer says in Ephesians 1:22–23 that God has given Christ “to be head of all things to the church which is His body. “So if there is one body and that body is the church, this is saying there is one church. If one God means only one God, then one body means only one body or only one church.
What was the one church? Without doubt, the one body (church) referred to in Ephesians 4:4–6, was the church that Jesus promised to build (Matthew 16:18). It was to be founded on the fact that He was the Christ, the Son of God. That church began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when Jesus was first publicly proclaimed to be the Christ, based upon the fact of His resurrection from the dead. Those who believed asked, “What shall we do? Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.… Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.… And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:37–38, 41, 47).
Please note that all who were saved were added to the church. It included all who were saved, for the Lord added all who were saved to it. But if it included all who were saved it was not a denomination, for a denomination by definition is only one part of a whole. Neither was it a combination of all denominations, nor even an association of local churches known as “churches of Christ.” The one body was made up of individual members, not of local churches. It was the one true church to which all who were saved were added. It was that one body described in Ephesians.
How can this church be identified? Jesus said that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18). It must be in existence today. If it is, it has Jesus Christ as its only Lord and the gospel as its only faith. It is entered by the one baptism, it still includes all who are saved, and it is not one of many. It is the body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), Christ’s church (Matthew 16:18), the church of God (Galatians 1:13), the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15). It is the one and only church that is right.
Originally appeared in the August 1995 issue of Christianity Magazine.
Is Only One Church Right? (continued)
Written By: Sewell Hall
On this page last month, we observed from Ephesians 4:4–5 that “there is one body … one Lord, one faith and one baptism.” That one body is Christ’s church (Ephesians 1:22–23; Colossians 1:18), composed of all persons in all the world who have been saved by Jesus Christ. He adds all who are saved to His church (Acts 2:47).
The one church is not a denomination, nor is it a collection of denominations. It is not even a collection of local churches; it is the body of all saved individuals, and it has no earthly organization. One does not have to investigate all of the churches in the world to find the Lord’s church. Any believer in Jesus Christ who follows the simple instructions of Acts 2:38 will be saved and added to it (Acts 2:41, 47). He has no other decision to make or joining to do.
Membership in a local church is another matter. The Ethiopian who was converted on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8) was surely saved and added to the church. But he was not a member of any local church; he had left Jerusalem and there was no local church in Ethiopia at that time.
The examples in the book of Acts clearly indicate that the Lord intended for saved individuals in a community to have fellowship in a local church. Such a church (assembly) was invariably organized when several individuals in a community were saved. In this sense there were many churches—we read of seven in the province of Asia (Revelation 1–3). Local churches were identified as “churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16) and “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). They were, however, independent of each other, each exercising autonomy over its own affairs.
Are All Local Churches Right? If you should ask the leaders of most local churches, regardless of the name they wear, if theirs is a church of God or a church of Christ, they would say, “Yes.” But sadly enough, more questions must be asked before we affiliate with such a church. We must be careful not to compromise our membership in the “one body” by affiliating with a local group that would make substitutions for the “ones” of Ephesians 4. That passage not only states that there is one body; it also says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (vs. 5). In view of this, it is important to ask the following questions:
Who is the head of this church? If we are informed of a president, general overseer, archbishop, superintendent, pope or any other human being or legislative assembly exercising authority over the faith of that congregation, we must avoid that church. There is “one Lord” (Ephesians 4:5), and that one Lord is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6). “He is the head of the body the church” (Colossians 1:18). To acknowledge any other head or religious lord is to be guilty of disloyalty to Him. Religious titles of any kind violate the unique position of Jesus who said, “Do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (Matthew 23:8–10).
Show me a copy of your creed. If a manual, catechism, discipline, confession of faith, or any other book written by a mere man or group of men is offered, that church must be rejected. There is “one faith” (creed) according to the same verse (Ephesians 4:5). That faith is the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). No clergy class is authorized to hand down official interpretations of God’s word.
What baptism do you recognize? If the answer is: “We will accept just any baptism—immersion, sprinkling or pouring,” you will need to avoid that church. Ephesians 4:5 says that there is “one baptism” and according to Romans 6:4, it is a burial. If the answer is: “Any baptism administered by one who has been ordained or licensed by our church,” then you can know you are in the wrong place because the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 is baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38), not by the authority of a church—any church.
Is this church affiliated with any denomination or association of churches? Again, if the answer is “Yes,” you are in the wrong place. Jesus did not establish a denomination. A denomination, by the very definition of the word, is a division; and Jesus prayed for unity of all believers in Himself and in the Father (John 17:20).
Do you believe there is more than one church? Although it is considered arrogant, narrow-minded and bigoted to say that there is only one right church, anyone who says otherwise contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. Anyone, referring to anything other than local assemblies, who says that there is more than one right church is speaking of something other than the church which Jesus established. Any “church” other than the “one body” of Ephesians 4:4 is a plant that the heavenly Father did not plant, and it will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13).
Originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of Christianity Magazine.
Written By: Collin Stringer
Brooklyn, New York. Salt Lake City, Utah. Rome, Italy. These are answers that some give when asked about the location of the headquarters of the church. How would God answer?
An organizations headquarters are the center of its operations from which orders are issued. So, where is the center of operations for the Lord’s church? From where does the church receive its orders? If we answer these questions correctly, we have found the headquarters of the church.
As we go to the Bible for answers, we must understand how the word church is used. It may refer to the universal church which is the body of saved people in fellowship with Christ (Hebrews 12:23; Ephesians 5:23). It is composed of individuals, not churches, from all over who are known only to the Lord (2 Timothy 2:19). A local church, on the other hand, is a group of believers in a location who are in submission to and in fellowship with one another (Ephesians 1:1; 5:21).
When some refer to the church, they are thinking of neither the universal church nor a local church, but rather a group of local churches which is distinguished from other groups by their common name and shared beliefs. Such a church is a denomination, something foreign to God’s word. We can easily identify the headquarters of denominations. In the cities mentioned above, you can locate the center of operations for certain denominations. In these organizations leaders will legislate and pass on decisions they expect to be accepted and followed in their churches.
When we speak of the headquarters of the church in scriptural terms, though, it is the universal church that is in view. The Bible tells us how this church is organized. Read carefully: “He raised Him (Christ) from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, … And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church …” (Ephesians 1:20–23).
Christ alone is head of His church. He rules His people from His throne. While earthborn men wield their power and authority from denominational centers, Christ reigns far above their ignoble dominion. Isn’t it clear that the center of operations for the Lord’s church is His throne? Since Christ has issued orders from there, the headquarters of the church cannot be on earth—it is in heaven.
Since “all things” are under Christ’s rule, men on their own have no authority. The Lord, though, has authorized elders to rule over local churches (1 Timothy 5:17). Their oversight is limited to the local church which they shepherd (1 Peter 5:2). They do not legislate for the church; they lead them as they themselves are led by Christ’s word. In His word we find no organizational hierarchy between Christ our head and the local congregation. Each local church, apart from any human institutions, is authorized to do things such as appointing their servants, ordering their worship, and controlling their finances (Acts 6:3; 1 Corinthians 14:40; Acts 11:27–30).
Not only do earthly church headquarters violate the law of Christ, but by regulating congregations they also impinge upon the privilege of the individual Christian to walk by his own faith. Paul writes, “We live for the Lord … we are the Lord’s” and, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (Romans 14:8, 22). Each one who is the Lord’s should be living by his own faith, not by the dictates of a denominational head. The church belonging to Christ is indeed a “priesthood of believers” who get direction directly from their head through His word.
The headquarters of one denomination makes this bold claim about itself: “It is God’s sole collective channel for the flow of Biblical truth to men on earth” (The Watchtower, July 15, 1960, p. 439). Can we trust the purity of a such a flow? When we debate over divisive religious issues, we may be torn and troubled as we seek to know the truth. We should find assurance in knowing that we must not wait upon the ruling of a synod or conference of an earthly headquarters to determine truth for us. We can open our own Bibles, draw our own conclusions, and then walk by our own faith—a faith arising from and grounded in the word that flows from our head who reigns in the heavenly headquarters of His church.
Originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Christianity Magazine.
Fundamentals of Faith
Faith and Baptism
When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, many listened and believed. Convicted of their sins, they asked a logical question: “What shall we do to be saved?” This question was an exercise of the faith they had after hearing the word preached (Romans 10:17). They believed and wanted to submit to whatever God command them to do. Peter told them to repent and be baptized for remission of sins. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (see Acts 2:37–41). These people were saved by faith.
Some theologians argue with this analysis. Since they view baptism as a work of law they contend that teaching the necessity of baptism is something akin to teaching salvation by works of law. They see but two alternatives: one is either justified by perfect performance of law or one is saved without reference to anything he does. Since the first is ruled out by passages like Galatians 2:16, they declare the second the only possible alternative: salvation comes by grace through faith only. Though this assertion fails to address the fact that even basic faith is doing something (Jesus calls it the “work of God” in John 6:29), they are resolute in their assertion of the dilemma and proceed to discard baptism as an unnecessary addition to God’s plan.
Is there such a dilemma? “Our problem is that Augustine, Luther and other Western theologians have convinced us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation conditioned on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as the ‘false dilemma,’ by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either (1) a gift from God or (2) it’s something we earn by works.” (David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Scroll Publishing Co., Waco, TX, p. 62).
Bercot’s right. The false dilemma has caused many to struggle with the place of baptism in a system of salvation that is clearly based on faith (Romans 1:17; 3:21–26). Yet there is no contradiction between justification by faith (trusting submission to the will of God) and the requirement to be baptized. Baptism is no more foreign to the concept of faith than Abel’s offering a sacrifice (Hebrews 11:4) or Noah’s building of the ark (Hebrews 11:7) or Abraham’s “going out” (Hebrews 11:8). Who would question the act if the texts said, “by faith, Noah, being divinely warned, was baptized for remission of his sins”? And no reasonable person would argue that Noah still exercised a saving faith if, being divinely warned, he refused to be baptized? Even if called “faith,” it would have been no more effective that the faith that devils practice (James 2:19).
Baptism is so clearly a part of the plan of God to save man that Peter says “baptism now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21), Paul ascribes the clothing of ourselves with Christ to it (Galations 3:26–27) and Paul makes our union with Christ dependent upon it (Romans 6:1–7). How can anyone assert that it is not essential?
Ironically, some opponents of the necessity of baptism have proved it’s significance by the form of arguments they lodge against it. For example, A. T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New Testament, makes this comment on Romans. 6:3: “The translation ‘into’ makes Paul say that the believers union with Christ was effected by baptism.” His bias doesn’t allow him to accept the translation, but the translators of nearly every version have chosen “into” to translate the Greek term.
For another example, the Campus Crusade for Christ seeks to undermine the effect of Acts 2:37–38 with these comments in a paper entitled “Bible Study on Water Baptism”: “It is true that Peter tells them to be baptized. However, his sermon in Acts 2 is probably not a part of the original sermon.” In case that doesn’t work, they try this: “it seems possible that if the people hadn’t asked ‘what shall we do?’ (not ‘what must we do’ as in Acts 16:30) that Peter may never have mentioned baptism at all!” And that’s meant to convince college students! I hope they can see through that.
Clearly, baptism is an essential act of faith. Those who say otherwise have an agenda that is not from the Lord.