testing the spirits in the present day

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God and have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 John 4:1-6; NRSVue

There seems to be a whole lot of sifting going on nowadays. And it’s happening everywhere. No entity seems to be immune. Instead of getting into specific details, which I’m not well capable of anyhow, I would like to touch on some generalities which hopefully will be pertinent to the topic at hand.

John tells us that we’re to not believe every spirit, but test them. And the test pertains to Jesus Christ, whether or not he has come in the flesh. There evidently was some denial at that point, that the Word who was with God and was God, that this Word had become flesh, that is, human (John 1). John addresses that head on, and makes it clear that a denial of such amounts to opposition of Christ.

Surely today some of that continues. But I wonder what else is spoken in the name of Christ or as with authority from God which actually stands in opposition to Christ. In order to get there, we’re going to have to have the gospels in hand: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and we’ll need to study Jesus: his birth, life, teachings, works, death, resurrection, ascension, the pouring out of the Spirit, and only after we study that, then what follows in the rest of the books of the Christian New Testament. And with that in heart and mind, we’ll also need to consider everything else: history, tradition, and noting all of this in the context of the present day. In other words translating the teaching of Christ into the present, a tall order indeed, but one to which we’re surely called.

I think we’ll find a lot that we hear or pick up from supposedly Christian sources which actually does not comport with Christ, with the Spirit of Christ. It is not enough just to line up some beliefs that must be subscribed to, often seeming to have little to no connection to actual living. It’s about life as well. Are we following in the teaching of Christ (2 John 1) or not? It’s not only about Christ, but also Christ’s actual teaching. What about loving our enemies, seating ourselves with outcasts, taking in strangers, helping the poor beyond mere giving of scraps, a concern for justice, inclusion of all ethnicities, really of all as Jesus did, etc.? Of course not leaving behind any of the teaching. The Spirit of Christ will surely be at work in us collectively to that end.

If it isn’t Christ or Jesus through and through, then it’s not of the spirit of Christ. I’m not at all referring to perfection, because no follower of Christ or church will ever be perfect in this life. But it is about perfection in striving in the spirit of Christ for what is actually held dear by Christ. And again, that’s going to have to take some prayer and study, not just by ourselves, but together. And only as we keep on doing that will we be able to begin to see through spirits which are not of God, not of Christ. As we seek together to live in the spirit who really is of God and Jesus.

the distressing times of the last days (now)

You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, unfeeling, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!

2 Timothy 3:1-5; NRSVue

The last days in Scripture seem to be from Jesus’s ascension to his return. So every generation since that time can lay claim to that. But the final end and new beginning from that has not yet come. In the meantime, what is told us here in 2 Timothy is plainly evident. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen it like now, as plain as day. We’re told to avoid them.

It’s important to not only dwell on the good, but to be aware of what is not good and live in wisdom with reference to everything and everyone. There’s much good we can do, but there’s some things we can’t do. But we can and must always pray for everyone, including those whose lives fit the description above. Even while we avoid them.

differences in biblical interpretation and understanding

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15; NRSVue

I take the words above to be pertaining to the explanation of Scripture itself. To do one’s best to be approved by God takes work. And the goal seems to be the right explanation of the word of truth. The person of God to whom this applies needs to take the particular scripture into account in context, along with all of Scripture, and see it in the light of the present time and circumstances. What might be taught and emphasized one year won’t be what is taught and emphasized the next time the given passage is proclaimed, at least not precisely. While the gospel doesn’t change, the word needed in season will.

I personally don’t think one should be that concerned with differences in understanding the meaning of a passage from Scripture. Even in the same church gathering, there will be differences and questions which might remain unresolved when all is said and done. The same scripture passage can bring a number of diverse insights, maybe seeming on the surface to contradict when actually this helps us see the depths that Scripture has, with all the fresh insights the same passage can give us again and again over time.

So on the one hand while we likely shouldn’t get too overworked about the differences in understanding, at the same time we should strive for a correct explanation of a scriptural passage for a certain place and time, being willing to call out what is off track as far as the good news and teaching of Christ is concerned. And being willing to receive correction ourselves. But trusting that God will help us, the person to whom this work is entrusted along with those who listen to have the needed discernment to understand and apply it to life.

little by little

“Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.”

Truly, with stammering lip
and with another tongue
he will speak to this people,
to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
give rest to the weary,
and this is repose,”
yet they would not hear.
Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,
“Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little,”
in order that they may go and fall backward
and be broken and snared and taken.

Isaiah 28:9-13

In Jesus’s time people awaiting the messianic promise of God wanted it all at once. They wanted a sign from heaven, someone who would come and get the job done, kick the Romans out, feed them, relieve them of all the stress they were in.

One of their major errors is that they were in a hurry. The other is that they were amiss, not really having the vision of God and correct assessment of things. Doesn’t that ring a bell not just for others, but for us too?

What do we need? Ears to listen. A heart to understand. A mind to assimilate. Doing so individually and together. And not letting up on that.

If we do, hopefully we’ll all find our way out of the morass we’re in, to whatever extent or wherever place we’re in it. I certainly include myself.

no, keep on learning, overthinking, etc., all in awe, or “the fear of God”

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

I have to wonder about interpretations of Ecclesiastes which essentially say that it demonstrates what thinking and all of life is without God or consideration of God. Maybe something like that, much more nuanced is a strand in considering the teaching of Qoheleth, “the Teacher” (1:2-12:8). I think I’ve heard or seen people suggest that basically what Ecclesiastes is saying is that all the machinations of reflection and thought along with most books is simply a waste of time, even worse than a waste of time. Maybe that is true of some philosophy books, ha, although just to try to understand what is being said or what might underlie that surely has value. And what I consider a questionable and unthoughtful reading of the scripture above might seem in full support of that.

No, Ecclesiastes, even if something of this like in other writings needs some qualification in light of Christ, is still chalk full of wisdom, evidently a needed compliment to Proverbs and perhaps a bit more in line with Job. And in the “Epilogue” (NRSVue heading) quoted above, the one who shares this wisdom thinks something quite different. I don’t think there’s a least bit of doubt in the thought that we read the Bible much better if we read life which includes many books along with it. Yes, I know, and I stand as a good example of this, we are limited for many reasons on just how many books we can read. But if we would learn to at least appreciate the many good books out there, classics and present day works, I think we would be better off as individuals and as a society, even as the church. Of course there’s much value for those who read the Bible and little or nothing else. But you won’t understand the Bible as well, the point that is being made in the story in it unless you work and work together with others at becoming well versed in life. And that will require attentiveness to life itself, and to books.

look for the good, only then will you find it (dreams, etc.)

As one who catches at a shadow and pursues the wind,
so is anyone who pays attention to dreams….

Unless they are sent by intervention from the Most High,
pay no attention to them.
For dreams have deceived many,
and those who put their hope in them have perished.

Sirach 34:2, 6-7

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
and they shall prophesy.

Acts 2:14-18

Dreams in one’s sleep happen to be the occasion for which I bring up finding the good. In the Hebrew Bible Joseph and Daniel stories, dreams have an important part and God gives interpretations. But as we all know, dreams are at best a mixed bag. They usually seem pointless, often strange. Although I’m not sure any dream we have is obvious in meaning anything good, we can easily imagine what is not so good from them.

The above passage from Sirach mostly puts a yellow caution light on them at the very least, and is largely negative, just hinting at the possibility that somehow God might be in a dream for good, that God might give such. But Peter quoting from Joel in his Pentecost sermon, reminds us that God can give dreams. There it is said that old men have dreams. Although neither Daniel nor Joseph were old when they received their dreams and interpreted them, one might conjecture that those who are older, certainly including women will be able to judge and interpret dreams better as a rule, with all of the life experience and knowledge gained over time from the understanding and wisdom God gives.

I think an important part of considering dreams and anything else for that matter, really all of life, is to look beyond what might seem threatening, scary, discouraging, or whatever, and find the good in it or that can come out of it. Sometimes it might be reacting to the dream in such a way that one does something of the opposite or differently, perhaps the dream being a warning or way of instructing. There may be times when the dream is a precursor of good that God is about to do. Whatever may be the case, we need to look prayerfully for what good we can find from anything and everything. And with God’s help be moved in the direction needed.

unlearning and relearning

Do not remember the former things
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

Isaiah 43:18-19a

I don’t think faith is about simply settling into one place and remaining there the rest of your life. Even if let’s say one is more or less completely settled into one way of understanding and thinking, one theological school, learning from and in that, this will be so, although only to the extent that their theological understanding gives them freedom to explore and explore and explore some more in understanding God, one’s self, and life. Scripture certainly stimulates growth in that it is a real and unflinching engagement with life. Especially together in community and in our own practice we’ll learn much from it perhaps in spite of, or with the help of our tradition.

For me I’m at a new stage in life in which old settled ways of living and thinking are coming into question. I don’t actually mean right now matters of dogmatism or belief, but more like application of such to life. I find myself hemmed in and fettered down when I think I have to look at things and act in the way I have for years. Perhaps there are other ways to see it given my circumstances, disposition, and gift or lack thereof. At any rate, this is something I can’t escape right now in the new season of life I’m in.

In Isaiah we read that God says that God’s people are to forget the past, that God is going to do something different, a new thing. We need to be open to that possibility. But for that to be the case, we’ll need to let go of the old so that we can lay hold of the new. This will mean a reorientation in day to day matters. And we can expect that it will take time. The dawning of a new day with new possibilities. That’s part of the word God wants God’s people to hear. When God is acting it will never be the same old same old. Even in repetitive things we do day after day and year after year such as morning and evening reading and prayers, and weekly gathering with God’s people in which there is a liturgy or way it is done, God will always be doing something new. We only need to have a heart open to that, with eyes to see and ears to hear.

let scripture be

These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

1 Corinthians 10:11

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have known sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:14-17

Karl Barth’s 1917 address/sermon, “The Strange New World within the Bible” is definitely worth reading and rereading, at least certainly so for me. I was raised Mennonite, and while the Bible was an important book for us, from what I can recall and surmise from that time, we were not beholden to some kind of thought within which the Bible must fit, be it inerrant or otherwise. And now for me, given other influences that have entered in as well as my return to a Mennonite version of the Anabaptist faith, I am to some extent left wondering what to do or think about the Bible, even while I continue to read and ponder on it daily.

Don’t get me wrong. Even within that thought, I hold the Bible as somehow sacred scripture in some sort of exalted unique sense. While at the same time acknowledging that much of it was never meant to be read in some sort of literal, historical sense, that it’s often full of symbolic meaning, perhaps truth in some sense, but symbolic just the same. And that we simply don’t have to accept it at face value and stop there. Our perception will always be our perception, but what is needed just might be something beyond.

I find Barth’s words more than helpful, pointing us toward the something beyond the text which only God can give, even the very Word or word of God. I would say the Word is Christ no doubt, and the word is the message of God which comes across to us at least primarily through the words of scripture, the Bible. Barth says that the Bible is not the history of humanity, but of God, which may simply mean something like it tells us God’s story as recounted by humanity and for humanity so that we can enter into something of that same story through the pages of scripture but somehow for our own time and place.

And as Walter Brueggemann has said, in my own words: the Gospel, the good news in Christ is distinct from the Bible. We receive it through the pages of that scripture, but its message is a breakthrough that fulfills God’s intent through which the strange new world not encapsulated in words breaks into our old world destined to perish.

Let the Bible be, let scripture be. Let sacred scripture be what it is, and let’s quit making it what it is not. And instead of thinking we have to parse this and explain that, precisely what we mean, just maybe it would be better to acknowledge that we really don’t know. And that before God as faith communities and individuals, we simply commit ourselves to let scripture do whatever God would have it do for us. And that includes Genesis through Revelation including the most difficult, even appalling places along with the Apocrypha, which I consider at least helpful in the mix.

We especially together will find God’s will in love for us and for all in Christ, but not in some static, well defined way we’re then called to live up to, but instead in an ongoing dynamic, woven within the fabric of our lives and times as we continue especially together in that by faith.

putting on the whole armor of God: the shield of faith

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

Ephesians 6:16

There’s no escape from the reality that we’re in a spiritual conflict. Some Mennonites and Anabaptists are reticent to use any terminology that acknowledges warfare given the peace tradition which is both nonresistant to evil in that it rejects any violent act of retaliation, and resistant to evil in the sense of showing love through prayers and good deeds to any enemies. That’s all well and good, but I accept as reality that we are in an actual conflict spiritually with forces and beings which are not human. There may be other viable ways to see that, but that there are spirit “demonic” entities active in the world seems evident enough to me. At any rate we do face an evil that is active and makes it way into the fabric of human culture and activity.

The shield of faith is part of the whole armor of God that we’re to take up to put out all the flaming arrows of the evil one which are directed against us. Believe you me when I say that I’ve experienced a lot of this which has got past my shield because in all likelihood I really did not have it up to stop those arrows. They then get through to the mind and heart and tend to immobilize, so that one is at a loss until the Spirit of God helps one to do what needs to be done, or at least helps in whatever way one can receive. I know about this in experience all too well.

My wife told me that it’s not our job to worry, but to trust in the Lord. I’m sure for others the darts cause other problems, whatever they may be. For me over the years, anxiety has been my number one issue, not to say I haven’t had other problems. But that has been the dominant one.

The shield of faith refers to a faith in God’s word in Christ, in the gospel. It’s a good news which covers us in this life, and takes care of whatever might plague us, so that we can carry on in God’s will in Jesus, as followers of Jesus. So that we can simply follow on.

But this is something we have to do. This requires effort. Putting on the whole armor of God along with taking up the shield of faith. The ideal would be to do that as the arrows come our way, to block them. Having a sense of discernment to know. The reality is that the arrows often seem to get through before we put up that shield. I would like to learn how to catch the arrows ahead of time. God in God’s grace more than understands, but still God wants to teach us to do better. Again this requires action, and one would suspect a vigilance on our part. And a willingness and corresponding commitment to carry on, regardless, battle hardened so to speak, of course in the spiritual battle we’re in.

Something else I’m working on even today. In and through Jesus.

taught by Jesus (or the Bible?)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

The learning from Jesus may refer to being taught to settle into the metaphorical yoke with Jesus. It certainly refers to that and all that is involved with it, but I also think that it surely refers to insights the Lord wants to give us and will, along the way.

We learn much from the Bible itself, but all of that from God. In other words God must teach us. I take it that God’s word comes to us from scripture, but it also can come to us directly from God through Christ and the Spirit. We have to beware when reading scripture, since the teaching we receive from it will require a discernment given that’s beyond the mere letter of what’s read. An obvious example is laws given in Leviticus. Are we to apply them when they were actually given to Israel at a specific time and place? And not just there, but in many other places not only in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament, but in all of scripture. For example are women to always remain silent in the churches as it’s written in 1 Timothy, or was that again for a specific time and place? Etc.

What we need is nothing less and nothing more than to learn from the Lord. Especially together as church, and in our individual lives as well. Jesus’s invitation includes that promise. He will instruct us in different ways, perhaps in words we use to express that, as well as in ways that we just know, even if we don’t have the words for it. That is what we need. Even as we continue to pore over all of scripture. And as we seek to remain and continue in the yoke of Christ.