Category Archives: Articles

Shall We Do Away with the Church? (by Theodore Roosevelt)

In the latest issue of the Quarterly, we discuss some things that were taken from an article by Theodore Roosevelt, published in the Ladies Home Journal of October 1917. Because some will undoubtedly want to see the article itself, we are including it here for reference. We do not agree with everything he wrote here, but nevertheless we believe there are important and noteworthy things stated in this article (which some have said was his most important writing ever).

So, enjoy!

Shall We Do Away with the Church?

Theodore Roosevelt

RELIGIOUS formalism has been the enemy of religion from the days of the Pharisees to the days of those ultra-sabbatarian formalists who would turn the Christian Sunday into what they imagine the day was when the formalist priests of the Temple at Jerusalem revised the Mosaic law, in sharp antagonism to the prophets. Nevertheless, in this actual world a churchless community, a community where men have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious needs, is a community on the rapid down grade.

It is perfectly true that occasionally individuals or families may have nothing to do with church or with religious practices and observances and yet maintain the highest standard of spirituality and of ethical obligation.

But this does not affect the case in the world as it now is, any more than that exceptional men and women under exceptional conditions have disregarded the marriage tie without moral harm to themselves interferes with the larger fact that such disregard if at all common means the complete moral disintegration of the body politic.

In the pioneer days of the West we found it an unfailing rule that after a community had existed for a certain length of time either a church was built or else the community began to go downhill. In these old communities in the Eastern States which have gone backward, it is noticeable that the retrogression has been marked and accentuated by a rapid decline in church membership and work: the two facts being so interrelated that each stands to the other partly as a cause and partly as an effect.

This has occurred not only in the “poor white” sections of the South, but in the small hamlets of the “abandoned farm” regions of New England and New York. As the people grow slack and dispirited they slip from all effective interest in church activities; and the building up of a strong country church or Young Men’s Christian Association in such a community often has an astonishing effect in putting such virile life into them that their moral betterment stimulates a marked physical betterment in their homes and farms.

FOR all those whose lives are led on a plane above the grimmest and barest struggle for existence church attendance and church work of some kind mean both the cultivation of the habit of feeling some responsibility for others and the sense of braced moral strength which prevents a relaxation of one’s own fiber.

The household in which Sunday is treated merely as a day for easy self-indulgence does not on that day offer an attractive spectacle. Nor in such a household is what occurs on that day a healthy stimulus toward right living for the children. In such a household the master of the house generally rises late. That is all right if his staying in bed means rest for him without meaning added work for somebody else. But, having risen, he merely dawdles half-dressed, smokes and reads the Sunday papers, lounges around the place if nothing more attractive offers itself, and finally goes off to the club or other lounging place.

The mistress of the household meanwhile, if like her spouse, stays in bed, too, with the Sunday paper, or with a cheap magazine or a cheap novel; then also lounges around the house before fully dressing, and finally visits or receives visits from some other women who also regard slipshod absence of effort as the proper characteristic of the day.

The case is not bettered if the heads of the family possess more energy but use it merely for their own selfish enjoyment, as, for instance, if they habitually spend the entire day in the motor, or take part in some form of dress parade, or visit brightly lighted restaurants.

I SERIOUSLY doubt whether people such as these even achieve their purpose. I doubt whether the frank pursuit of nothing but amusement has really brought as much happiness as if it had been alloyed with and supplemented by some minimum meeting of obligation toward others. There are enough holidays for most of us which can quite properly be devoted to pure holiday making, and there are plenty of men and women whose week-day work is, on occasion, so exhausting that Sunday should then only be a day of rest and recreation for them; and we need have scant sympathy with the sour-hearted people who deny the former truth or do not understand the latter. But, as with all general laws of conduct, we are not primarily concerned with the exceptions: we are concerned with the ordinary cases.

In ordinary cases, as regards most men and women, the performance of their duties to the church, to themselves and to others, on Sunday, represents merely such “toning up” of their systems as will enable them to profit more by rest and amusement during the remainder of the day. Sundays differ from other holidays—among other ways—in the fact that there are fifty-two of them every year! The proper conduct for other holidays may be treated in itself as an exception. For Sunday it must be treated as a rule—a rule properly subject to exceptions, and perhaps to numerous exceptions— but a rule, nevertheless.

THEREFORE, on Sunday go to church. Yes—I know all the excuses. I know that one can worship the Creator and dedicate oneself to good living in a grove of trees, or by a running brook, or in one’s own house, just as well as in church. But I also know that as a matter of cold fact the average man does not thus worship or thus dedicate himself. If he stays away from church he does not spend his time in good works or in lofty meditation. He looks over the colored supplement of the newspaper; he yawns; and he finally seeks relief from the mental vacuity of isolation by going where the combined mental vacuity of many partially relieves the mental vacuity of each particular individual.

If toil is not exceptionally but habitually exhausting, so that the man when released from it at nightfall of each day or at the end of the week can do nothing but sink exhausted into a kind of lethargy from which he rouses himself only to meet the task of the new day or the new week, then there is something wrong in the social system so far as he is concerned; and the churches should take the lead in the effort to diagnose and remedy the wrong.

But if he has merely worked healthily hard, and is healthily tired, it will be from every standpoint an excellent thing for him to begin his Sunday by going to church. This means that he and all his family will have been up for breakfast—later than usual, very possibly, and quite properly, but in time to avoid that feeling of slackness and of being at loose ends which will demoralize anyone who habitually begins the day by spending a couple of hours more than he needs in bed, and then by lounging around the house half-dressed and doing nothing.

HE MAY not hear a good sermon at church. But unless he is very unfortunate he will hear a sermon by a good man who, with his good wife, is engaged all the week long in a series of wearing and humdrum and important tasks for making hard lives a little easier; and both this man and this wife are in the vast majority of cases showing much self-denial and doing much for humble folks of whom few others think, and keeping up a brave show on narrow means. Surely the average man ought to sympathize with the work done by such a couple, and ought to help them; and he can’t help them unless he is a reasonably regular church attendant. Otherwise he is an outsider, and is felt to be such, and the part he plays in useful church activities, in service by the church to its members and to the community at large, is only the part which an outsider can play.

BESIDES, even if he doesn’t hear a good sermon, the probabilities are that he will listen to and take part in reading some beautiful passages from the Bible. And if he is not familiar with the Bible he has suffered a loss which he had better make all possible haste to correct. Moreover, he will probably take part in singing some good hymns. He will meet and nod to, or speak to, good, quiet neighbors.

If he does not think about himself too much he will benefit himself very much, especially as he begins to think chiefly of others. And he will come away feeling a little more charitably toward all the world—even toward those excessively foolish young men who regard churchgoing as rather a soft performance, and feel superior and cynical when they utter, at the expense of some among the churchgoers, jeers and gibes which may be true, but which with even more truth can be applied to at least as large a percentage of any other groups of poor, erring human beings.

I ADVOCATE a man’s joining in church work for the sake of showing his faith by his works: I leave to professed theologians the settlement of the question whether he is to achieve his salvation by his works or by a faith which is only genuine if it expresses itself in works. Micah’s insistence upon loving mercy and doing justice and walking humbly with the Lord will suffice if lived up to; and Amos and Isaiah and the Psalms, and the Gospels and Paul and James will furnish sufficient instruction for both the men who are simple enough and the men who are wise enough. Let the man not think overmuch of saving his own soul; that will come of itself, if he tries in good earnest to look after his neighbor, both in soul and in body —remembering always that he had better leave his neighbor alone rather than show arrogance or tactlessness in the effort to help him.

The church, on the other hand, must fit itself for the practical betterment of mankind if it is to attract and retain the fealty of the men best worth holding and using. The betterment may come in many ways. The great exhorter or preacher, the Billy Sunday or Phillips Brooks, the priest or clergyman or rabbi, the cardinal or bishop or revivalist or Salvation Army commander, may, by sheer fervor and intensity, and by kindling some flame of the spirit which mystics have long known to be real and which scientists now admit to be real, rouse numbed consciences to life and free seared souls from sin; and then the roused conscience and the freed soul will teach the bodies in which they dwell how to practice the great law of service.

Such stormy awakening of the spirit, though often of high usefulness, loses all savor unless, in the times of calm which follow, the workaday body makes good in its round of life and labor the promise given by the spirit in its hour of stress.

FAR more often the betterment must come through work which does not depend on the gift of tongues, but on persistent labor conducted with wary wisdom no less than with broad humanity. This may take the old form of individual service to the individual; of visiting and comforting the widow and the fatherless and the sore-stricken. It may take the form of organized charity—a form not merely beneficial but absolutely essential where a dense population increases the mass of suffering and also the mass of imposture and of that weakness of will which, if permitted, becomes parasitic helplessness; but a form which needs incessant supervision lest it lose all vitality and become empty and stereotyped so as finally to amount to little except a method of giving salaries to those administering the charity.

Under the tense activity of modern social and industrial conditions the church, if it is to give real leadership, must grapple zealously, fearlessly and cool-headedly with these problems. Unless it is the poor man’s church it is not a Christian church at all in any real sense. The rich man needs it, heaven knows, and is needed by it. But unless in the church he can work with all his toiling brothers for a common end, for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of those without its walls, the church has come short of its mission and its possibilities. Unless the church in a mining town or factory town or railway center is a leading force in the effort to secure cleaner and more wholesome surroundings, moral and physical, for the people, unless it concerns itself with the people’s living and working conditions, with their workshops and houses and playgrounds, it has forfeited its right to the foremost place in the regard of men

By their fruits shall ye know them! We judge a man nowadays by his conduct rather than by his dogma. And, to keep its hold on mankind, the church must, as in its early flays, obey the great law of service; for the church shall not live by ceremonial and by dogmatic theology alone.

There are plenty of clergymen of all denominations who do obey this law; they rentier inestimable service. Yet these men can do but little unless keen, able, zealous laymen give them aid; anti this aid is beyond comparison most effective when rendered by men who are themselves active participants in the work of the church. Therefore every man who is a Christian at all should join some church organization—whether his orthodoxy is of the old-fashioned kind or whether his intellectual needs can best be met by Bade’s “Old Testament in the Light of To-day,” or his desire to work met by connection with such a body as Charles Stelzle’s Labor Temple.

INSISTENCE upon the new work imposed by the new conditions does not in the least mean abandonment of the old work —any more than in a public school the creation of a Boy Scout company means the abandonment of baseball. The Sunday-school class, the Men’s Bible Class and the like should be as prominent as ever.

Only, they must not represent the only activities, and membership in them should be accepter) not as excusing the participants from square treatment of others, but as grounds for believing that they will take the lead in and set the standard for disinterested, upright and earnest labor for their fellows. They create a fine feeling of fellowship.

Surely if our churches are not democratic the root of the matter is not in us; and therefore the church is beyond all other places that in which men of every social grade and degree of wealth should come together on a footing of brotherhood and of equality of rights and obligations.

In that place arrogance and envy are equally out of place; in that place every sincere man should feel stirred to exceptional effort to see questions at issue as his brother sees them, and to act toward that brother as he would wish, under reversed conditions, the brother to act toward him.

Surely half of our labor troubles would disappear if a sufficient number of the leaders on both sides had worked for common ends in the same churches, Young Men’s Christian Associations or other like organizations, and approached one another s positions with an earnest desire to understand them and, understanding, respect them.

One important thing for the layman interested in church work to do is to make the church an instrument for securing the healthy happiness of young people. The influence of the Puritan has been most potent for strength and for virtue in our national life. But its somber austerity left one evil: the tendency to confuse pleasure and vice, a tendency which, in the end, is much more certain to encourage vice than to discourage pleasure.

Let every layman interested in church work battle against this tendency. Let him proceed on the assumption that innocent pleasure which does not interfere with things even more desirable is in itself a good; that this is as true of one day of the week as of another; and that one function of the church should be the encouragement of happiness in small things as well as in large.

NO GENERAL rules can be laid down in such a matter; the customs and feelings and peculiar conditions of each community must be taken into account and so far as possible respected. I have known a village baseball nine which, after church on Sunday afternoons, held games in a field a mile away and was a potent help in keeping young men out of the “blind pig” saloons; and, on the other hand, I have seen Sunday professional baseball in a big city become a source of demoralization. Personally I believe that dancing, like all other healthy and proper pastimes, should be encouraged in the parish house; and this because 1 dread the professional dance hall, where liquor can be obtained and where foolish young girls go with foolish or vicious young men, while there are no older men and women to look after them.

If the natural desire of young people for pleasure is not given a healthy outlet it is only too apt to find an unhealthy outlet.

The man who does not in some way, active or not, connect himself with some active, working church misses many opportunities for helping his neighbors, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.

This Pizza Shortage Can Be a Good Thing!

(NOTE: This article is the featured editorial in the latest issue of The Quarterly, which you can download here for free).

My kids are tired—very tired—of hearing the word “Coronavirus.” I think they’ve got a goal to go an entire day without saying or hearing that word. So, for whatever reason (I’m not quite sure what it is), they’ve made up their own euphemism for it. Instead of “Coronavirus,” they have taken to saying “Pizza Shortage.” I guess (and this is only a guess) that perhaps they view a pizza shortage as being truly the worst thing that could happen to this country, which (if you accept the analogy) makes a good parallel to how COVID-19 is being portrayed. (And those who know me know about my penchant for pizza…) So, for the rest of this editorial, I’m going to follow their lead and whenever you see “Pizza Shortage,” it means “Coronavirus.”

For the next few minutes, I’d like you to consider some ways in which this “Pizza Shortage” could be a good thing.

It has forced congregations to get creative

It has been said sarcastically that the church has two standards of faith and practice: the Bible, and “what we’ve always done.” There are some who, because they think any change in how we do things is a deviation from the faith, oppose anything and everything unless they’re already doing it. Back in the 1800s, there were people who got very upset because of the introduction of songbooks to be used in worship. They’d argue, if you’re reading it, you can’t be singing it from the heart. Alexander Campbell himself published a songbook—but was quite opposed to including the music, because if the notes are there, you will focus on them instead of what you’re singing. I’ve heard of members who opposed overhead projectors as sinful (and later on, PowerPoints as well).

But with the Pizza Shortage going on, there is an almost-universal (at least as far as I’ve seen/heard) willingness to try new things in following the Biblical pattern. For example, I can’t tell you how many congregations have jumped headfirst into live-streaming their worship in order to reach members who are unable to make it to services. I count the church in Charleston, AR (where I preach), to be one of those. We’re live-streaming the worship on Facebook, and also posting them on our YouTube channel (which we also just created since the Pizza Shortage started).

I know of congregations who are having “drive-in” services in the parking lot. Each member/family stays in their car, tunes their radio to a specific frequency, and with a rather inexpensive radio transmitter, the song-leader, prayer-leader, announcement-maker, and the preacher can all be heard by the members in their own “socially distant” vehicles. The Lord’s Supper is distributed by men wearing gloves and masks, and handed to someone in the car, who then passes it to his passengers. Think for a moment about how crazy and liberal you would have sounded if you had suggested that on a specific Sunday, everyone worshiped from their car. People would have thought you were an out-of-your-mind change agent! But today? People look on this creativity with admiration, because it makes it possible for people to meet together while also keeping them safe from catching the Pizza Shortage. And they realize that it isn’t sin—it’s just a different (though definitely not ideal) method of obeying the same command to assemble together to take the Lord’s Supper and encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Corinthians 11:17-30). I don’t think anyone would suggest that this should be the new model of how we worship, but given the situation now, most would agree it is an acceptable plan until the crisis passes.

It can bring the congregation closer

Perhaps this one doesn’t register right at first. After all, how can being forced to be further apart bring us closer together? When people are isolated at home, sadness, depression, or just plain “cabin fever” can take over. We are so used to being able to go where we want, when we want, that when it is taken away from us, it can become disorienting. We crave connection with people, but often we don’t think about it because we see people throughout the day. Right now, phone calls, text messages, and social media conversations are greatly increasing—because people want to be able to interact with others.

Here, we have a great opportunity. The Pizza Shortage has made this need abundantly clear. The challenge is, are we going to take the initiative to meet it?

  • If you’re going to call someone, because you need something to break the boredom or the sadness, make it a call to a brother or sister in your congregation.
  • If you’re going to text someone, why not text one of the older members who can’t get out or have visitors?
  • If you’re going on Facebook (or any of the other social media platforms), why not make it a point to comment on posts by members, or send them a message—or better yet, create a group (or a group message) made up of members of the congregation where you can just chat about whatever you want to chat about (like how much you wish there was no Pizza Shortage).

In doing this, you will do three things:

  1. Relieve your own boredom (so, for selfish reasons, go ahead and interact with members).
  2. Make them feel important, appreciated, and cared for at a time when people are more prone to anxiety and depression (so, because you care about your spiritual siblings, go ahead and interact with them).
  3. Bring a closer bond of connection between members of the church (so, for Christ’s sake, interact with them).

It can help us evangelize

The church here in Charleston (as far as I’m aware) is the only religious group in town that is still having Sunday morning services right now. The numbers have been way down (though most of the members who aren’t there in person have been live-streaming the worship, singing the songs and taking the Lord’s Supper at the same time), but we did have a denominational visitor come because his church wasn’t meeting until further notice. Additionally, we have had non-Christians tune in to our live-stream on Facebook (as well as Christians from across the country, who are in the same predicament).

I recall reading a bulletin article about a Southern town during the Civil War. There had been battle and bloodshed, and most of the churches in town stopped meeting. When the North overtook the town and declared martial law, there was “peace” (absence of fighting), and the churches wanted to re-open. The military leader refused, saying (in essence), “When in the middle of a great trial, you decided to shut your doors instead of gathering to petition the Great God of Heaven. But now, when there is no longer conflict, you want to come back. That is not real Christianity.” He refused to allow them to gather. However, there was one church who had continued to meet throughout the conflict—the church of Christ. The military leader had great respect for their dedication, and though he didn’t obey the gospel, he gave them—and only them—the permission to continue meeting.

I fully understand why some members during this Pizza Shortage may feel the need to stay home. We have members who work in hospitals where there have been confirmed cases, and there is a much higher chance that they could be carriers—and out of concern and love for their brethren, they don’t want to infect them. There are others whose immune system is already compromised, or who are older and prime candidates for suffering the worst if they catch it. Each person needs to make their own decision after prayer and contemplation.

But those who are able to worship with the saints should worship with the saints. You can still meet together, and if precautions are taken by all the members (“social distancing,” perhaps wearing masks and gloves, hand-washing, etc.) you will be just as safe as when you go to the grocery store to pick up essentials.

But for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of someone in your community. This person perhaps realizes he isn’t in control, and that he needs to “get some God” in his life. Now imagine this person decides to visit a church. He wants to find one with dedicated Christians who truly put God first. So he does a bit of looking around, and he finds that during this Pizza Shortage, only one church was dedicated enough to still have services. Which one do you think he’ll choose to visit first?

It gives us an opportunity to show grace to our brethren

Let’s state it as it is: people are freaking out. They are scared. They are anxious. And that’s understandable. But there is a big problem that comes as an outgrowth of this fear and anxiety—two of them, actually.

There are those on one side, who think that the Pizza Shortage is being way overstated, that it is making a much bigger deal about it than is justified, because there are other things that regularly cause more deaths (car wrecks, the seasonal flu), but we don’t shut down the economy and wreck millions of people’s lives for those. These people can (and I’ve seen it happen) look down on others and treat them like ignorant wimps for being worried and scared and anxious. They will accuse them of believing anything they hear, of not being able to think for themselves and objectively look at the evidence, and of having no faith in God.

On the other side, you have the people who think the Pizza Shortage is extremely bad, something which has no definite cure yet, and that it must be taken seriously with extreme measures in order to keep it from growing. These people can (and I’ve seen it happen) look down on others and treat them like clueless morons because they aren’t worried. They will accuse them of thinking that they know more than the experts, of being only interested in money instead of people, and of being guilty of “tempting God” (Matthew 4:7).

Neither one of these attitudes matches what God wants from us. Instead of being judgmental, we ought to empathize with our brethren. We are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). This means we are to try to share in the emotions of our brethren. If our brethren are anxious, we need to identify with them, empathize with them—and then help to calm their fears if possible. If our brethren think that the cure (closing the economy, causing—at the time I write this—16 million people to lose their job) is worse than the disease, we need to identify with them, empathize with them—and then help them see reasons why this might be a necessary (though painful) step.

Brethren who are speaking out about the job losses aren’t out there worshiping some golden calf called “capitalism.” Instead, they are concerned about the real-world impact on millions upon millions of people whose world just came crashing down because their business shut down, their job is gone, and they are struggling to support their family.

Brethren who are focused on “social distancing” and the related precautions because of the spread of the Pizza Shortage aren’t mindless sheep who feed on whatever the media gives them. Instead, they are concerned about the real-world impact on thousands upon thousands people whose world just came crashing down because they’re dying in a hospital, or because their spouse, or father, or mother has just died.

I hope that everyone who reads this can agree that both sides have legitimate concerns, and show grace instead of judging brethren for being more vocal about one section of those suffering instead of the other. This is an opportunity to show love and unity—and to have actual dialogue with brethren who might come at this issue from a different perspective than you.

Final Thoughts

Satan wants to use this time of crisis to separate the body of Christ. He wants people to remain isolated from their spiritual family, feeling alone and scared and depressed and anxious. He is the enemy here.

Is what you are doing in the midst of the Pizza Shortage helping his cause? If you don’t reach out to your brethren to offer connection, encouragement, and comfort, you’re aiding Satan. If you lambast your brethren for which group of suffering people they express more sympathy for, you’re aiding Satan. If you chastise your brethren for taking this seriously and staying home out of love or fear (especially when they are watching the services online), you’re aiding Satan.

But we can fight Satan and bring glory to God by simply doing what we can to help our brethren stay connected to each other and to God. We can show grace and empathy for all those who are affected by the disease and the steps taken to slow its spread.

We have great opportunities afforded to us, and if we take them and use them to God’s glory, this Pizza Shortage can bring about good things.

[NOTE: I assume that the readers understand I am not saying that people dying is a good thing, but that God can use this international crisis to bring about good things, if we look for the opportunities and take them.]

And just like that, WOW… on April 17, an article was published about how there is now a pizza shortage because of the coronavirus. https://popculture.com/trending/2020/04/17/us-running-out-frozen-pizza-amid-ongoing-coronavirus-pandemic/  

Thankfulness isn’t Real Until it Addresses and Expresses

It’s amazing how shallow and cheap thankfulness is today.  As the person on the street, “What are you thankful for?” and they will likely rattle off several things. Maybe it’s family, or job, housing, health, etc. It doesn’t matter if that person is Christian or Atheist, Buddhist or Hindu—they can (and most likely will) give you at least a few ideas of what they are thankful for.

But the big question that never seems to be asked—or even considered—is this: “Okay, you’re thankful for these things, which is great—but what are you thankful to?” Just that one word, that change of a small little preposition, changes the whole discussion. Why? Because it isn’t real thankfulness until it is addressed and expressed.

Hear that again: It isn’t real thankfulness until it is addressed and expressed.

Take a look with me at Luke 17:11-19.

The Setting

Jesus is heading to Jerusalem (possibly for the last time), and He’s got a strange crew of disciples (17:1), apostles (17:5), and Pharisees (17:20) following Him around.

As part of the journey, He walks near the border area of Samaria and Galilee—neither of which had the best reputation among the “real” followers of God. Remember the amazement of the Jews when Galileans began speaking in foreign languages, and preaching in the temple? (Acts 2:7). Remember the time when the Pharisees hurled the insulting epitaph, You are a Samaritan, at Him? (John 8:48). You can be sure that the Pharisees weren’t too happy to be in this area—they usually made it a point to cross over a river (twice) and spend several more hours walking on the journey from Judea to Galilee, just to avoid walking through Samaria.

So, other than for Jesus, this wasn’t a comfortable excursion.

Maybe some of you have a class of people, a type of people you don’t want to reach, don’t want to talk to, don’t want to help. Maybe you’ve written them off as a Samaritan. Maybe it’s because they’ve been on drugs (or still are), or maybe it’s because they struggle financially and have needs they need help with. Maybe their clothes are tatty and worn, or they have tattoos, or they’re black, or Latino, or Republican or Democrat, young or old, atheist or Pentecostal. And maybe you’ve convinced yourself that it’s okay.

Jesse and a friend one time attended worship in Columbia, Missouri. The class discussed reaching people with problems (drugs and prison history), and one woman admitted, “I don’t want to deal with them because I’m afraid they will need more of my time than I’m willing to give.”

But Jesus worked hard, both in His teachings (the good Samaritan) and His actions (see the woman at the well in John 4) to humanize, to elevate the Samaritans as being worth reaching, worth the time it takes to engage them. In other words, Samaritan lives matter. Are there types of people you have written off as unworthy of the gospel? Jesus says their lives—and souls—matter too!

The Request

If being that close to Samaria wasn’t bad enough, things got even more uncomfortable. Lepers! Ten of them! Ten men with a flesh-eating disease, bodies gnarled and misshapen, faces unrecognizable, unable to interact with normal society, stood at a distance and called out in a harsh squeaky voice,[1] “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

These men felt the crushing weight of oppression. This disease mocked them. It said, “You aren’t worthy to come to the city. You can’t live near real people. You can’t worship with the real followers of God.” They felt this loss, this shame—brought on through no fault of their own—day after day after day after day after day… And instead of pity and help, they usually received a cold should of indifference from people they saw at a distance.

But then they saw Jesus. A crowd around Him, yes, but they saw Jesus. They cried out with that barely-human voice, “Master, have mercy on us!”[2]

Why didn’t they address the apostles? After all, these twelve men had been given the power to heal lepers (Matthew 10:8). So why not call for their help? Maybe they had heard that some of the apostles wanted Jesus to obliterate an entire Samaritan village with fire from heaven (Luke 9:51-56). That could really undermine their influence, right?

Maybe you’ve let your tongue get out of control and killed your influence and credibility with some people. Maybe it was a racist joke, a harsh attitude, or just a cold shoulder of indifference. What might it be that causes people to not want to talk to you about their hurts, problems, and needs?

See, Jesus was well known as someone who helped people. These lepers knew that if they were going to get mercy, sympathy, and help from anyone, it would be Jesus—He has proven it over and over again. He cared then and cares now for the marginalized, the oppressed, the forgotten, the ignored. He takes the time to show they are important to Him.

The Answer

Jesus responds to these hurting and ostracized men with compassion and a command. Now don’t let this fact get by you. Jesus told them to “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And when they acted in faith, God acted in love. Hear it again, When they acted in faith, God acted in love.

They weren’t healed immediately—it was only when they started their obedience, started on their way to the priests, that they were cleansed. Had they stayed still, the leprosy would have stayed. Had they hobbled into the city, they would have kept on hobbling.

The principle, When man acts in faith, God acts in love, is seen all throughout the Scriptures. “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8-9). “By faith, Noah…built an ark to the saving of his family” (Hebrews 11:7). “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Acting in faith is obeying what the Lord commands, trusting that He will keep His word (and He always does).

God never tells you to do something impossible. He loves you, and wants you to spend eternity with Him. But in order to do that, you have to act in faith, and trust Him that the rewards of faith are greater than anything you’ve ever experienced!

The Thankfulness

Now we get back around to where we started this lesson. One of those ten men, when he saw that he was cleansed (and remember that Jesus’ healings were complete—so his whole body would have changed: from gnarled to normal, from bent-over to upright, from hobbling to running)—when he saw that he was cleansed, he turned around and almost certainly ran to Jesus.

I love what Luke says next. “He praised God with a loud voice.” Leprosy would have destroyed his voice—it would be like permanent laryngitis.[3] But now he has a “loud voice,” and he uses it! The Greek here is awesome. The word “loud” is mega, and the word “voice” is phone. Mega-phone. This man was loud and proud—he wasn’t scared to let anyone and everyone know that HE HAD BEEN HEALED! And that it was THANKS TO GOD! Then he “threw himself down at Jesus’ feet” (NIV).

Remember what we said at the beginning, It isn’t real thankfulness until it’s addressed and expressed. There is no doubt that he was thanking God (not just “being thankful” in general) for his cleansing. And he clearly expressed it in his words and actions.

Those other nine were “thankful,” I’m sure, in the way our modern society uses the term. They were happy about it (they asked for it after all, so they obviously wanted it), but that’s about as far as it went. No smile and a wave at Jesus in recognition of this kindness. No hollering “Thanks Jesus” over their shoulders as they stand upright for the first time in months or years and walk away. No praising God for His great love and mercy.

If a reporter from the Jerusalem News or the Samaritan Post had asked the nine ungrateful men, “Are you thankful you’re not a leper anymore?” I’m sure they’d say, “Yes.” But they didn’t show it. They got what they wanted from Jesus, and that’s all they needed Him for. That’s not gratitude. One writer said “…ingratitude was a worse leprosy than the physical disease.”[4]

Do we treat God the same way? We go to Him in prayer and ask for stuff, for outcomes, for guidance, and when we get them, we conveniently forget to even give lip-service thanks to Him.

The Ingratitude

If the story ended here, it would still be worthwhile by seeing the example of a truly grateful person. But it doesn’t. Luke adds a brief little sentence: “And he was a Samaritan.” Of all people, a Samaritan is the only one who was truly thankful. The one most looked down upon shines as the brightest example of the ten!

Jesus points this out when He asks the disciples, apostles, and Pharisees, “Weren’t there ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” I know a guy who, when he was a teenager, got a card from a member of the church. His mom asked him if there was any money in it (because this member had a habit of doing that), and he said, “Yeah, but only $20.” If you had given that money, and you heard that response, how would it make you feel? That gives you an small inkling of how Jesus felt at the complete ingratitude of people whose entire lives had just been changed.

Then He says, “Only this stranger [allogenes, literally person from a different family] returned to give glory to God. Most commentators agree that this means the other nine lepers were Jews. Zerr says, “The mere mention of this man’s nationality, in connection with his exceptional conduct of gratitude, was intended as a rebuke for the Jews.”[5]

The man could have said, “I’m thankful to be healed,” but that wouldn’t have been true, real, authentic gratitude—because gratitude, thankfulness, is directed towards someone or something. Why do we tell people “thank you”? Because we all realize, whether we act on it or not, that thanks is something given (“thanksgiving” anyone?), and if it is given, it must be given to someone. It isn’t real thankfulness until it is addressed and expressed.

The Reward

Jesus looks down at the incredibly grateful man and tells him to “Go your way. Your faith has made you whole.” Now I want you to take careful note here. He had already been cleansed of his leprosy, as had the ungrateful nine. So what Jesus gives him here is something different. The Greek word for “made whole” is sozo, which is usually translated “saved.” Young’s Literal Translation says, “Thy faith hath saved thee.”[6]

Faith—true, authentic faith—expresses itself in gratitude. If gratitude is missing, then how can you claim to have faith? (“In everything, give thanks” 1 Thessalonians 5:18.)

The Questions

Are you thankful for your home? Your family? Your friends? Yes? Then to whom are you thankful? To whom is that thanks given?

Are you thankful that God sent His only begotten Son so that we might be saved from sin? Yes? Then how are you expressing that?

Remember, When man acts in faith, God acts in love.

Show your thankfulness, your gratitude, by coming to Christ for healing of the sins that eat away at your soul. Whether that’s through baptism to put on Christ, or prayer as a Christian seeking forgiveness, show your gratitude today.

When you act in faith, obeying His loving Word, then you can take the words of Luke 17:19 to heart: “Arise… your faith has saved you.”

-Bradley S. Cobb

[1] “…the lepers’ bronchial tubes are dry and the voice is high and squeaky.” J.W. McGarvey, Fourfold Gospel, p. 530.

[2] The word translated “Master” means a commander, overseer, or one who has authority. In the New Testament, it only appears in Luke.

[3] “An almost total failure of the voice is one of the symptoms of leprosy.” Burton Coffman, Luke, p. 376.

[4] The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 8, p. 298.

[5] E.M. Zerr, Commentary Vol. 5.

[6] Smith’s Literal Translation does as well, and it appears in footnotes/marginal readings in several translations and study Bibles.

Methods for Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 7): The Preterist Method (part 2)

Last week, the Preterist Method of interpreting Revelation was introduced.  It says that the book was meant for the first-century Christians, and had a direct application to them.  It says that the events in Revelation were things that they would experience (see 1:1, 3).  It takes God at His word when He said that Revelation was “to show His servants things which must shortly come to pass” (1:1, 22:6).  But as with almost everything regarding the Bible, there are those who oppose this method.  Let us consider their main objections:

  1. This method makes the book ONLY have meaning for the original recipients, and has no message for us today.”

This is the most common argument, and those who use it claim it is the most powerful.  In the Old Testament, there were prophetic books written about impending destructions upon a specific people during a specific time.  Oddly enough, no one ever makes the claim that Jonah or Nahum or Obadiah ONLY had meaning for the original recipients and has no meaning for us today.  If the Old Testament historical books can still have a message for us today, then so can the book of Revelation.  If the Old Testament prophetic books can still have a message for us today, then so can the book of Revelation.  If the gospel accounts and Acts can still have a message for us today, then so can Revelation.  After all, each of them was written about things which have already taken place.

There are many lessons that can be learned and applied from Revelation when one interprets with the Preterist Method.  We can learn about the nature of God and of Christ, how God views rebellion, that faithfulness is rewarded and unfaithfulness is punished, etc…  This first objection is overruled.

  1. This method implies that the church – a spiritual kingdom – would be concerned about the overthrow of a physical kingdom.”

The church – God’s kingdom – was undergoing severe persecution from a specific physical nation.  This physical nation was trying to destroy Christianity, trying to get Christians to leave the faith and trying to coerce them to enter (or in some cases, re-enter) into a religious system that God did not approve of.  In other words, this physical kingdom was trying to steal Christians’ very salvation from them.  The book continually encourages Christians to remain faithful in the midst of this persecution.  The very fact that a book was necessary to encourage them shows just how brutal the persecution was.  This book is God’s way of saying, “I’ll take care of things; you just stay faithful.”  It is God who rules in the affairs of men, and who controls the rise and fall of nations.

One last thing to consider regarding this objection is this: Jesus was concerned about the overthrow of a physical nation (see Matthew 23:34-24:34).  If He—who was more spiritual than anyone else on earth—was concerned about it, why is it strange that His people also be?  This objection is also overruled.

Methods for Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 6): The Preterist Method (part 1)

Imagine yourself as a Christian in the first century, under constant persecution, even the threat of death.  Things seem to keep getting worse instead of better.  And in the midst of it, the thought enters your mind, “I thought we were supposed to have an abundant life.”  The truth was, for most Christians of the first century, dark times were ahead; times that would try the souls of even the most dedicated Christian.  There were those that began to have doubts about Christianity and were going back to Judaism (see the book of Hebrews).  There were others who—because they loved the present world—forsook Christ and His servants (II Timothy 4:10).  Some left Christ out of fear. Then, in the midst of this turmoil, you are presented with a letter written down by the apostle John.  The letter begins in a way that lets you know it applies directly to you: this letter is about things which are about to happen – the time is at hand! (Revelation 1:1, 3).

As you read through the letter, you read about congregations that have lost their first love, and you recognize the signs.  You have seen Christians undergoing persecution to the point where they finally decide Jesus isn’t worth it, and though they may not have openly renounced their faith, you can tell a difference – they aren’t trying to tell others about Him at all.  You read of other congregations, small ones, that have almost nothing, but they are holding on to Jesus for all they are worth.  And as you read this letter, you realize that it is Jesus Himself who tells these faithful Christians to keep holding on, and they will receive a victory crown of life.  As you near the end of John’s letter, you understand that Jesus will overthrow those who oppose Him, and that His faithful saints will be rewarded for not giving in to the persecution.  As you finish reading it, the final words are a reminder of what was said at the beginning: this letter is about things which are about to happen – the time is at hand! (22:6, 10).

The main questions to ask regarding the book of Revelation and the approach one should take in interpreting it are these:

  • Was the book really written about “things which must soon take place” (1:1, ESV)?
  • Did the Christians who first received the book understand it? (see 1:3)
  • Did the book deal with things pertaining to the first century Christians? (see 22:10)

The Preterist Method of interpreting the book of Revelation says that the book had a direct application to the persecuted Christians who first received it.  It takes God’s word at face value when it claims to be about “things which must shortly be done” when it was first written (in the first century).  As such, anyone who wants to understand the book of Revelation must first understand what the book meant to the people who first received it.  As a result of this common sense approach, the Preterist believes that the specific events described in the book have been fulfilled.  This is the only method of interpreting the book which is in harmony with John’s inspired introduction (“things which must shortly come to pass…the time is at hand” – 1:1, 3) and his inspired conclusion (“things which must shortly be done…the time is at hand” – 22:6, 10).

-Bradley S. Cobb

Methods of Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 5: The Spiritual Method)

You open up the Bible, go to the most difficult, confusing book, and you can’t really understand what it is saying.  You know that somewhere in there, victory is promised to those who stay faithful, but beyond that nothing makes much sense.  So, instead of trying to figure out what it is saying, you decide to take a novel approach: the book really isn’t about anything specific!  No, the book is all about spiritual principles, the battle between good and evil, and the only thing the book teaches is that eventually, ultimately, good will triumph over evil.  Not surprisingly, this method is called The Spiritual Method.  Those who take this view claim it is the only one that makes Revelation have application to the church in all ages.

It has been accurately said that the Spiritual Method is the lazy way out of interpreting Revelation.  Anything in the book that doesn’t make sense to you, just claim it doesn’t really represent anything!  Some people who take the Spiritual Method have described it this way: “Many of the symbols are nothing more than extra details like props on a stage during a play.  They are completely unimportant, except to add to the scenery.”  One question must be asked in light of this: Are you willing to say that God placed completely unimportant things in His word?

Those who take the Spiritual Method have quite a difficult time explaining how Revelation isn’t referring to any specific events when the very first verse says otherwise.  “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…to show His servants things which must shortly come to pass…”  That verse shows that Revelation discusses events which were about to happen, but had not happened yet.  Did the spiritual battle between good and evil somehow not exist until shortly after Revelation was written?  Of course not.  Anyone who reads the Old Testament can see the battle between good and evil has been raging from the beginning.

Their claim that Revelation represents spiritual principles (good vs. evil) within the church in all ages runs into an interesting paradox at this point.  The church began over 30 years before the book was written.  Since the things described in the book hadn’t happened yet, it couldn’t apply to the church up to that point.

To simply “spiritualize” away the details in Revelation ignores the fact that there were real people discussed (such as Antipas, 2:12-13); real congregations addressed with their own real problems (chapters 2 and 3); real cities mentioned (Jerusalem, 11:8); real rulers mentioned (the kings of chapter 17); and an overthrow of a real “great city” that would cause the real blood of the real apostles and real prophets to be avenged (18:20-19:2).

Are there spiritual principles about the battle between good and evil to be learned from Revelation?  Absolutely!  But is that all that is under consideration?  Absolutely not!

-Bradley S. Cobb

Methods of Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 4: The Historical Method)

Imagine yourself living almost 2,000 years ago, and you’re undergoing heavy persecution, the threat of death, for being a Christian.  You worry about your own life and the lives of your family members who are also members of the church of Jesus.  You are in need of comfort in the face of affliction.  So, God sends you a letter of comfort, telling you that the whole church is going to fall away and turn into one large denomination, but that in 1500 years, Martin Luther is going to start another denomination.  Are you confused yet?  Welcome to the Historical Method of interpreting the book of Revelation.

This method was very popular from the time of the Protestant Reformation (1500s-1600s) until the early 1900s.  Martin Luther, John Wesley (Methodist founder), Charles Spurgeon (famous Baptist preacher), Matthew Henry (famous Presbyterian preacher), William Miller (founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists), John L. Hinds (author of the Gospel Advocate Commentary on Revelation), and many others used the Historical Method of interpreting Revelation.

This view says that the book of Revelation is a continuous, chronological record of “the church” (most of it referring to the Catholic Church) from the time of John until the final judgment.  Most who take this view will say that the book describes the apostasy of the church into Catholicism, the rise of the popes, the attacks which destroyed Rome, the rise of Islam, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, Napoleon and Mussolini, among others.  Some in the Lord’s church who take this view teach that Alexander Campbell and the restoration of the Lord’s Church are referenced as well. It is noteworthy that no two Historical Method commentators can agree on which historical events are described in each section of the book.

Now, before we go any further, we need to ask some questions.

  1. What comfort does it bring to Christians who are suffering for their faith to say, “don’t worry, in a couple hundred years, pretty much the entire church is going to go into apostasy and become one large denomination”?
  2. How can this book be said to be made up of things which “must shortly come to pass” (1:1) if the overwhelming majority of the book is interpreted to be at least a thousand or more years away from when John wrote?
  3. Could the people who originally received this book have understood its meaning if it was about specific people and events—some of which were at least 1700 years away?
  4. If, as most who take this view will agree, we are living in the last section of the book before the judgment scene in chapter 20, what happens if there’s another 2,000 years of the church?

Another problem with this interpretation is that the birth and ascension of Christ are mentioned in the middle of the book (Revelation 12:1-5).  In 12:10, the kingdom is said to come with power.  If Revelation is a chronological record and Christ’s birth doesn’t even show up until chapter 12, exactly what is recorded in chapters 4-11?

While this view still has proponents within the church, it does not match up with the purpose of the book, nor the time which God said it would take place (Revelation 1:1, 3, 22:6, 10).  As such, this method cannot be the one God wants us to use in interpreting the book of Revelation.

-Bradley S. Cobb

Methods of Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 3: The Futurist Method 02)

You are hurting, being persecuted by a group of people that really don’t care that you’re trying to obey God and that you’re trying to live your life the best way possible.  These persecutors have no mercy on you at all.  While you’re trying to avoid being killed, you receive a letter.  It’s a letter of hope, a letter designed to bring you comfort…or so you thought.  You open it up, and you find out that it is a letter that really has nothing to do with anything you’re going through.  This letter instead contains predictions of governmental, political, and religious situations in the 41st century.  How much comfort will you get from that letter?

You may think the above paragraph far-fetched, but that is exactly what the futurist interpreters of Revelation want you to think God was giving to His people in the 1st century.  God’s people, the Christians, are going through horrible persecutions at the hands of uncaring, vicious men when the book of Revelation was written.  The book of Revelation was to give comfort to the Christians undergoing persecution.  Yet, according to the futurist interpretation, the book deals with things that wouldn’t happen for twenty centuries (at the very least) in the future.  Such a book would have no meaning for the people who John wrote it to.  Would God write a book, address it to specific people, and then make the contents of that book meaningless to them?

Another thing to consider when examining the futurist interpretation is that God promises a blessing on those who keep [obey] the things written in the book (Revelation 1:3).  If it is composed of things—none of which have yet happened—that means it was impossible for anyone, for the last 2,000 years, to be blessed by this book.

Taking this view also makes God a god of confusion.  With every generation, the futurists must re-interpret Revelation to fit the current world events.  Some futurists have seen Germany and Adolph Hitler in Revelation.  When that didn’t work out, it was Russia.  Then Iraq and Saddam Hussein.  Then Barack Obama.  And in another ten years, they will point to someone else.

Taking this view also ignores that John wrote down the Revelation for seven actual churches in the first century (Revelation 1:4).  As you read chapters 2 and 3, you will see that Jesus addressed actual problems that actual congregations were actually going through in the first century.

Hopefully it has been made clear that the futurist position (that all—or even most—of the events in Revelation are still in the future) is in opposition to clear statements from God’s word, from the book of Revelation itself, and—as such—the futurist position must be labeled as “false doctrine.”

-Bradley S. Cobb

Methods of Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Part 2: The Futurist Method 01)

The most popular method of interpreting the book of Revelation today is the Futurist method.  Popular books are written about it, movies have been made about it, and it has pervaded the modern mindset more than we even realize.  Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s a sign of the apocalypse”? Or perhaps, talking about something being part of the Battle of Armageddon?  These have been popularized by those who employ the futurist interpret the book of Revelation.  But what is this method?  Is it possible that it is the correct method of interpreting this last book in the New Testament?  Is this the way God would have us understand the book?

The futurist method of interpreting Revelation says that everything in it is still in the future, and that none of it (or very little of it) has been fulfilled.  Does the Bible have anything to say about this?

One of the biggest keys to understanding the book of Revelation can be found in the first verse of the book.  It is such an important key that it actually is made clear twice in the first chapter, and twice in the final chapter.  Revelation 1:1 states very plainly that the book of Revelation was written to “show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass.”  Two verses later, God’s inspired word says that “the time is at hand.”  Now, perhaps that might grab your attention.  If John the apostle came to you today, and before getting to his message said, “I’m going to tell you things which must shortly come to pass,” and then said, “the time is at hand,” would you imagine that he was really saying “I’m going to tell you things that won’t happen for at least 2,000 years”?  At the conclusion of the visions and incredible imagery of the book, we have John reminding us of how the book began.  He says that the things in the book were “to show his servants things which must shortly be done” (Revelation 22:6).  He’s also told, “don’t seal the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand” (Revelation 22:10).  Now, John has told us ahead of time that the things in the book were about to happen, and then at the end of the book reminds us that the things in the book were about to happen.  What do you think he means by this?

The futurist method must ignore or disregard the fact that God said the things “must shortly come to pass.”  Oh, some will say, “but to the Lord, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as a day!” Explain that to Paul, who was told by Jesus “Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem” (Acts 22:18).  The word “quickly” in this verse is the same word that is translated “shortly” in Revelation 1:1.  Was Jesus really telling Paul, “hurry up and get yourself out of Jerusalem sometime in the next 2,000 years”?  Of course not.

My friends, do you think God knows how to tell time?  God told Daniel to “seal up” the prophecy because the time was still “many days” away (Daniel 8:26).  That prophecy was fulfilled less than 400 years later.  But God told John “don’t seal up” the prophecy of Revelation, because “the time is at hand.”  God knows the difference between near and far when it comes to time.

-Bradley S. Cobb

Methods of Interpreting Revelation (Part 1: Intro)

It’s hard enough sometimes to understand what people are trying to say when they’re talking normally.  Now imagine that they are talking to you in symbols, in fantastic imagery, of books, of a Lamb, a dragon, of beasts with seven heads and ten horns that come out of the water, of colored horses, and a myriad of other words that you recognize, but put together in ways that are very strange and foreign to you.  How are you to make sense of what is being said?

If you are given a 5,000-piece puzzle, and are asked to put it together, could you do it?  Now imagine that you’re just given the pieces, but you aren’t allowed to see the box that shows you what the picture is supposed to look like.  How likely are you to stick with trying to piece the mystery puzzle together?  Yet this is exactly what people try to do with the book of Revelation!  They go about it, reading through without any real idea of what they are trying to figure out or what the big picture is.  People do this every day, and it should come as no surprise that they soon quit in frustration, thinking they can never understand it.

It is important that we—if we are going to derive any benefit from the book of Revelation—have an idea of what the book is about, know what message it is teaching, and understand how to interpret it.  God pronounces a blessing upon those who read, hear, and keep the things written in it (1:3).  Can anyone keep the things written in it if they don’t know what it’s saying?  Of course not.  Now a more important question: would God have created a book that CANNOT be understood?  My friends, it IS possible to understand the book of Revelation.  Of course, in order to understand it, we have to know how to interpret the language in it.

But not all methods of interpreting this book are equal.  In fact, some of the approaches are polar opposites of each other, and if one is right, that means the other one must be absolutely wrong.  Though there are variations on each view, and some people take hybrid views (where they take parts of one view and parts of another), we can generally classify the methods of interpreting the book of Revelation into four categories: Futurist (all the events in Revelation are still in the future), Historical-Fulfillment (that the book records the complete history of the church from Pentecost to Judgment), Preterist (all the events in Revelation were fulfilled soon after the book was written), and Spiritual (the book describes no actual events, just symbolic language describing the battle between good and evil).

Next week, we will start taking a closer look at each of these four methods.

-Bradley S. Cobb