Appreciation and understanding of revealed truth should be the primary aim of those who claim to believe God, and such understanding is reached only by the reading and study of His Word, the Holy Scriptures. Reading and study, be it noted, for many read this Word and have read it for years without finding in it more than some stately progression of beautiful phrases, often transmuted by them into a series of sentimental impressions, without very much attention being paid either to meaning or context. In fact, all of us need some similar experience to that of those two disciples on the Emmaus Road when to them the risen Christ "opened up the Scriptures".
Spiritual things are spiritually discerned—this is why the soulish man cannot understand the things of God. Christ is the One in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid, and it is to Him we must look for that spirit of wisdom and spiritual understanding which Paul interceded for on behalf of the saints. Truth resides not in a book but in a Person, One who is the Living Word, and only His spirit can unfold the wisdom of the written Word, the Word described as "God-breathable". Knowledge about the latter without personal knowledge of the Former does not lead us into truth. it merely fills our heads with facts.
Among all Christians there is a considerable body of general truth almost universally held, if with variations of emphasis. and it is this adherence to a number of Basic Beliefs which provides the entitlement to name the Christ as being our Lord. But (as Paul tells Timothy) only the Lord knows those who are truly His. The sorry fact is that apparently the great majority of Christians remain unenlightened, and they are unenlightened because they are either uninstructed or wrongly instructed. The institutionalised church is greatly to blame for this state of affairs, and its leaders deserve the same reproof as that administered to the "shepherds of Israel" through the mouth of Ezekiel:-
"Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel ...prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? ••• Behold, I am against the shepherds and I will require my flock at their hands. For thus saith the Lord God, I, even I, will both search my sheep and seek them out ••• I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God ••• " (Ch. 34).
God has always pictured His people as sheep to be fed, and the "official" shepherds, all down the long years of history, have always failed Him. The bread of life and the water of life have been there always for the dispensing, but only by a few faithful individuals have they been offered to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Our Lord described Himself as the Good Shepherd, Who gave His life for His sheep, and contrasted Himself to their detriment with "hirelings".
As C. S. Lewis has written about the nominal church, "there is really some excuse for the man who said "I wish they would remember that the charge to Peter was 'Feed my sheep'; not try experiments on my rats, or even teach my performing dogs new tricks".
That the present deplorable state of confused thinking among Christians is due to the almost universal departure from Pauline teaching there can be no doubt. The inability to "distinguish things that differ" has produced a hybrid of Judaism cum Christianity which defeats analysis by anyone of normal intelligence, since truths for those under covenant simply will not mix with truths for those who come under no relationship whatever to covenant; what we see around us is the Galatian heresy multiplied and magnified to a degree almost beyond comprehension.
There is a mistaken tendency among some of those who have been delivered from this mental confusion to imagine that they are unique in this respect, but the truth is that God has never left Himself without witnesses and right back to the days of the early fathers have been those, albeit few in number, whose writings testify that they knew and proclaimed many of those truths wherein mature believers of our own day take particular delight and even sometimes imagine they have "discovered". Several of the early translations of Scripture show quite clearly that the translators understood truth concerning the eons, or ages, and it was not until the translations into Latin were made that the entirely false conception of "eternal" came into being with all its attendant error and evil.
These errors, unfortunately, were carried over into the King James Version, with other Latin words which have no equivalent in the Greek originals but they have nevertheless become phrases completely sacred to many of the faithful among professing Christians, who honestly believe them to be part of the inspired Word of God.
It is difficult to persuade believers that inspiration is confined to the originals. The Adversary has been very daring in going so far as to defame God and defeat His saints by actually attempting to corrupt the articles of their faith, but this is a process he started in Eden where it worked with great success, as it has done ever since.
All who seek to discern the great Treasures of Truth owe a great debt to those scholars who, under God, have enabled us to recover many of the facts of the originals. Even so, none of them would claim infallibility for their work, and it is still necessary in difficult passages to compare various renderings in an endeavour to arrive at exact meanings—and these are not always expressible in English. Such a task needs the services of those skilled in ancient Hebrew and Greek, but those of us who are not thus skilled can obtain much help through the use of such works as Rotherham's Emphasized Version and the Concordant Literal New Testament, aided by such other works as Dr. Bullinger's "Companion Bible"—not overlooking such further helps as we may enjoy from the works of the great Commentators of the past, who have left much for our aid.
It always has seemed a pity that there has been a strong tendency among the more enlightened believers to attach themselves to some particular leader and to regard his words as sacrosanct. After all, such an attitude began in Corinth as long ago as Paul's day, and he did not hesitate to condemn that as an insurmountable barrier to maturity. No one has all the truth, and no one can be completely trusted who fears to admit earlier inaccurate teachings in the light of later research.
When the Son of Mankind trod this earth He said, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free". Religion and politics, the tools of the Adversary, nailed Him to a tree, but His truth outlasts every religion and every empire. The cycles of truth are long, but they roll down the centuries with certainty and power.
The Holy Scriptures are complete, and they are the repository of truth but—like the precious jewel—they constantly flash with inspiring brilliance as the One who "breathes" them also at times impels one of His truth seekers to take a different perspective from which he can see a former hidden meaning of some passage under new and better light. That is because the Word of God is not static but "living and active". We should be thankful indeed for all such "helps" as Paul calls those whom God from time to time (and not only within our own time) has built into the church which is the body of Christ.
The seeker after truth is like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls, of whom the Lord spoke, and with us truth should be precious beyond all cost, even the cost of our personal status as dispensers thereof, if later we should find ourselves to be wrong. And it is important that we do not confuse knowledge of truth with an understanding of truth. Knowledge is purely intellectual which determines only how much one knows. Men can know a lot about Scripture, unfortunately, without knowing the truth of God. The understanding of truth is found when the person is actually affected by what he has learned and reveals it in his actions. When we do something as a result of the truth we have learned, only then do we show that we have acquired wisdom, and not merely abstract ideas. Paul is always telling the saints about learning and walking and John says much the same; that is, if we say one thing but walk differently, we are lying and not doing the truth (1 John 1:6) and he adds much more along the same line in later verses. We may read the Scriptures to increase our knowledge and leave matters there, or we may seek the truth of Scripture in order to practise it. Herein is wisdom!
When we seek the truth of Scripture, few things are more important than keeping in mind the context of every matter. To pick out isolated texts and ignore the context is the sure road to error. In common no doubt with others who write on Scriptural subjects, the writer is receiving letters and publications from many sources, the sincerity of the writers being never for one moment in doubt, but the content of their publications becomes so unreasonable as to make a mockery of Scripture teaching. One such identifies Babylon with Denominational Christendom, and thunders against it like a caricature of an Old Testament prophet. Now the denominations may be full of errors but they also hold many truths, and individuals among them have contributed much to our understanding of the Scriptures. As for being "Babylon", such a suggestion makes nonsense of Scripture, for the whole context and conception of the references to Babylon in the Unveiling link that city undisputably, not with the church which is the Body of Christ, but with the nation of Israel and their Deliverer. Another seeks to reactivate the old and exploded theory that the present church is the "New Israel", and thereby attempts to filch from God's chosen people all the promises He has made to them; promises which eventually will be fulfilled literally and to the letter.
Such handling of the Scriptures can have no appeal for the seeker after truth, who must keep continually in mind the context of every subject, which is sometimes far from obvious. When this is so it always means that there is some hidden truth awaiting to be discovered, and if we cannot understand at once what this is, we should await further light. Sometimes we are told unwisely that where there are two differing views of some passage, it does not make one a better Christian whatever view is adopted. If such an attitude to God's Word is right, why should we ever bother to study at all? No one can manage to reconcile two views if they flatly contradict each other, but at times there can be two different though not contradictory ways of understanding some passage. Then it may be possible to find a middle way between the two. That is quite different from a well-meaning but feeble tolerance of things that are manifestly wrong, which can never serve the truth but serve only the opponents of truth.
The opponents of truth (unconscious agents of the Adversary) are adept at introducing false and wrong teachings, but the general attitude is that it is uncharitable or "un-Christian" to oppose their teachings; that this is not in the spirit of love. So they spread and eject the true faith from church after church while the faithful few who try to do something about it are rejected because they are deemed to be trouble-makers.
Those who read this paper are probably associated in some way with other groups of believers, and also know that many movements which were started in all sincerity by faithful men have been diverted from their original aim by these purveyors of pet theories and unscriptural teachings. It should be recognised that it must be so in this "present wicked eon", where the forces of evil are too strong for us, yet for us to endure must be God's will. But this is very different from a spineless acquiescence. It is pointless to start some fresh movement of our own, for this would only degenerate into another sect and become subject to the same abuse in the end. We are bound to tolerate genuine differences of opinion, for it probably indicates that the real truth lies midway between them, but we must not tolerate open maltreatment of God's Word for to us that would be as bad and inexcusable as the offence itself. As R. B. Withers once wrote, "Of all lying acts, that of listing Scripture references that have no bearing on what they are supposed to support is the worst."
We hear quite a lot about "the Gospel and the modern mind", but we must not let ourselves be deluded by this kind of talk, for God's evangel does not change, nor does it need to. It is far in advance of even the most "progressive" human thought. It is still what God calls His "foolishness", which is wiser than men. But the inescapable fact is that, upon believing this evangel, we are in duty bound also to search out and obey the truth regarding our faith.
Our Lord, before Pilate, said "Everyone who is of the truth is hearing my voice". We need the love of truth to enable us to believe, but we must not make the mistake of confusing knowledge with truth; they are intertwined, but truth is embodied in a Person; the One Who said "I am the Truth". In Him is the fulness of truth, and nowhere else—all previously revealed truth pointed to Him, and all subsequently revealed truth points back to Him, and all prophetically revealed truth for the future points forward to Him.
One of the best definitions of Truth that I know is this—Truth is correspondence with things as they actually ARE. Scientific truth is of this nature, and can be proved by experiment, but some forms of truth have to be accepted by testimony, for there is no other means of verification. No one can prove, experimentally, that William the Conqueror invaded England in the year 1066, yet the fact is indisputably true. But some statements are made of such an impossible nature that we need not entertain them for one moment, because they don't correspond to what actually is, and we can prove this is the case.
Reality, or things as they actually are, must correspond with some standard of comparison, a standard which is not subject to change and which is always available for reference. When we ask ourselves whether such a standard of comparison does exist—one so transcendent and all-embracing that everything else has to be compared against it—we who believe God must admit that the answer is an unqualified Yes. We believe unreservedly that such a standard exists in God's Word.
It is obvious that those who profess to "believe" can be readily recognised as two different classes, for this becomes at once apparent when they speak or write on theological matters. There are those who believe God's Word as it is, and those who claim to believe it but cannot refrain from adding to what it really says such other things as they say they "see" in it, under the extraordinary pretense that these are improvements and helpful to Bible Study. It is sad to say so, but such people are a far more serious menace to the truth than out-and-out unbelievers. They are handling the Word of God deceitfully and they grope their way from error to error, always finding plenty of followers.
Mere speculation about Scripture is no way to discover truth. Though the pursuit of some line of thought said to be "suggested" by Scripture may seem harmless enough if it is meanwhile clearly distinguished from frequent attempts to advance some teaching not supported by Scripture, but too often it leads only to confusion and deception. This is partly because of the failure in the case of many to think clearly and especially because of the failure to distinguish between what Scripture actually says and the mass of theological "explanation" which has been imposed on Scripture down through the centuries. To anyone of sober thought, it is an amazing thing that Christians are often so eager to accept something only because it was said or written by someone they revere, and consequently they cling to some belief which to the normal mind is not only void of logic but Scripturally untrue!
All of us who write and speak about the things of God are bound to acknowledge that our knowledge of truth has been progressive, and that there are many things for which we once honestly and vigorously contended which, in the light of later understanding, we have found to be incorrect. If we are honest, we must admit this. The search for truth is a lifetime work and none of us will ever attain to a complete understanding of truth while we still remain in these mortal bodies. There is much that Scripture does not tell us, about many things, but in the wisdom of God IT TELLS US ALL WE NEED TO KNOW. We should be content with this, for none of us will ever learn all we need to know.
We may often regard Nicodemus with a certain degree of patronage, but it may well be that in future glory the Lord must say also to us, "Art thou a teacher and knowest not these things?" What then must be our defence? Might it be, for example, "Please, we thought we knew it all"? or "Please, we taught what we accepted from the honored scholar 'X'"—or might we have to admit that we were quite lazy not to check all teaching against the facts of God's Word?—And for those of us who teach, the most painful admission might well be this; that having committed our labors to print, we were so jealous of our reputation among fellow saints that we could not meekly admit we had been wrong.
However long cherished and firmly held our beliefs might be, the only safe course is to bring them constantly into the light which shines from God's Word. There is always something fresh for us to learn, even about the most basic and universally held teachings of the sacred Word. In what may be called the "recovery of truth' now going on for something like a century, there has been an inevitable tendency for some, after being released from the bondage of "orthodox" theology, to fly to extremes. A typical instance is the ultra-dispensationalism which certain groups have embraced. Unfortunately, even the good word "dispensation" appears to have caused certain evils which did not exist before it came into present popular use. As a result of this, there are those who think they can now obtain complete spiritual maturity from the study of Paul's prison epistles alone, and have built up all sorts of theories on the presumed "frontier" of Acts 28:28, a frontier which never existed! There is every reason to differentiate between truths intended for Israel under covenant relationship to Jehovah and other truths exclusive to covenant as taught by Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who deemed all his former Jewish privileges only as refuse in the light of truth revealed to him, but in all of his teaching we never find he was out of harmony with the Twelve, even though Peter acknowledged there were truths in Paul's teachings hard for some to apprehend. Nothing in the teaching of the Twelve is incompatible with the teaching of the Apostle Paul, though some parts are inapplicable to us who have received Paul's evangel. We should avoid the error of labelling some truth "Jewish" or "kingdom" and labelling other truth "for the church", for all teaching of Scripture outside of Paul's letters, wherever it is not exclusively addressed to the Twelve Tribes, is general teaching, suitable so far as it goes for all of God's people; and though much or most of Paul's teaching is especially for us, his letters also contain truths not exclusively for us, including some truths that will apply exclusively to a future people then under covenant.
In future issues we shall not hesitate to teach what we believe to be truths which in every respect conform to the declarations of Scripture; from whatever source, either ancient or modern, the exegesis regarding such truths may have sprung. We shall not be unwilling to consider matters which appear to bear more than one possible construction, provided such views of others are sincerely held, to which we may also respond with alternate views. But in all this, we must bear in mind a Pauline axiom, that "knowledge puffs up, but love edifies", and much as we may love God's Word as it is written for us, we must never forget that it exists to testify of Him Who is the personal embodiment of God's love, and unless our studies lead us closer to Him in our personal devotion, resulting in not only hearing His truth but also, as we are reminded, "doing the things that I say", we shall not really accomplish our object.
C. J. B. (from Instalment One, June 1971)