God, through the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament, lashed out at his people for decorating their own home while the temple (God’s symbolic home) in Jerusalem was lying in ruins. God’s people had returned from 70 years in exile and their houses were in a mess and no doubt needed some attention. Yet, by the time of Haggai’s prophecy, God’s people had been back 19 years from exile and the temple remained unbuilt.
The excuse was that the timing was not quite right for the rebuilding (Haggai 1:2). Interestingly, the people did have time to decorate and beautify their own homes (1:4). The reason for this, according to God, was that the people did not fear or revere the LORD Almighty (1:12), nor did they live for his pleasure or honour (1:8). In other words, God’s people didn’t think much of God and were living for their own entertainment and comfort. As a result, their experienced lack of pleasing and judgment. Four times in the book of Haggai God says to his people, “What’s up with this, consider what you do!” God called for his people to make temple building their priority.
I bet that if you had to ask one of Haggai’s audience where God was on their priority list, they would have said that of course in first place. But actions speak louder than words.
God says to us too: “What’s up with this?”
So how do you know if you’re in a cult?
2. Lots of legalism
Your church will have rules and regulations for your dress code, your activities, your finances, your time, your possessions and your relationships (including who you are permitted to marry. They will dictate to you who to see, what to do, what the right thing to say is and how to say it. Various degrees of control can be experienced, from subtle manipulation to blatant ordering. Obviously this is dangerous because in the process the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus is distorted: No longer just Jesus, now Jesus plus obedience to our rules. Oh yes, I almost forgot, the rules don’t always apply to the leader!
3. Leaders are full of pride and have an unteachable spirit
Normally in cults the leader becomes untouchable by anyone. He is accountable to God only and everyone must obey what he says like it is God’s words.
4. Extra revelation from God
Cults regularly claim they that god has appeared to their leader and revealed a new message. It might be Joseph Smith of the Mormon “church”; pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy of the kingdom of Jesus Christ; David Koresh of the Branch Davidians; or your local minister who God appeared to last week. Time and again the new revelations refer to the end of the world and how the earthquake in China is a sign.
5. The only true church
If you ever hear something like this, “We are the only ones who are right. If you are not one of us, then you are destined for hell. We alone have the truth, so you must join us to be saved“, then RUN!
Don’t fall for it
The way to make sure you don’t join a cult is to scrutinise the statement(s) of faith any particular church you are thinking of joining. Friendliness and good music are nice, but not the main criteria when looking for a church. Check that the church has a statement of faith where their core beliefs and values are spelt out. Ensure that the preaching is from the bible, in line with their faith-statements, to judge whether they have kept THE faith.
How do we also befriend, hang-out with, and engage sinners who sin, without compromising our own godliness? What do we do when we find out the couple we are trying to build a friendship with are swingers? Or the friend from the pilates class, who I invited for a chicken salad, snorts coke? Or the guys from the office circulate who porn?
Jesus’ example in John 8 helps us.
1. Treat sinners with dignity and respect
The woman is caught in adultery. Adultery is grievous to God, even punishable by stoning according to Old Testament law. She deserved to die. Yet Jesus treat her with honour and respect, even calling her “woman”, the same word he called him mother in John 2. Big lesson: Sinners (even bad sinners) are humans, created in the image of God and should be treated as such.
2. Call sin sin
Jesus however did not compromise on the reality of sin. Jesus did not excuse her sin or avoid talking about it. He said to her, “leave your life of sin”, implying that it was a sinful life! We should not be too embarrassed or intimidated to call sin sin. We can be open and honest when asked our opinion or when called to give advise.
3. Remain godly at all times
Jesus was a heterosexual male in his earl 30’s. This woman, presumably half-dressed, caught having sex is put on display in front of him. Yet, Jesus remains godly, full of integrity and self-control. We are called to the same. We need to be discerning as to what were we can participate and when we have to back off and possibly even leave the situation or decline the invite. Compromise our godliness would be selling out, not reaching out.
4. Point sinners to Jesus
The religious leaders actually did quite a good thing for the sinful woman: they bought her to Jesus, the only one who can deal with her sin. Unfortunately, when the leaders’ sin was exposed, they slunk away from the source of forgiveness. Our over-arching aim in being friends with non-Christians is to point and introduce them to Jesus.
5. Call for repentance
Once this woman was introduced to Jesus and forgiven, Jesus commanded her to leave her life of sin. We should expect the same from our friends who came to know Jesus. No longer excuses or justifications for an ongoing lifestyle of habitual sin, but rather a renewed passion for holiness and obedience to the bible.
The Old Testament law demanded that the woman be punished by death. How could Jesus simply forgive her and thus break a law of God? Actually, the law was upheld! The woman’s sin was punished by death – Jesus’ death. Jesus died for her sins. Jesus died for your adultery and pride and greed too.
This weekend a couple in our church who’ve been married forty-one years renewed their marriage vows. The reason was two-fold: forty-one years ago they were married in court and on top of that they were both not Christians. Today she has been converted for many years and has prayed faithfully for her husband. A few months ago he too entered Jesus’ Kingdom.
So they renewed their vows in front of the church and we were all very encouraged. In fact, I think this was the first wedding ceremony that I’ve officiated that I can say that the couple knew exactly what they were doing! The wedding couple have a disabled son and have been through their fair share of hard times. For them to promise to love and care for each other “in prosperity and distress” and “in sickness and in health” was especially meaningful.
We were reminded that the Bible says that marriage is a present, a promise and a picture.
A present: Marriage is a present from God for our joy and good. Marriage is not a human idea created by a theological symposium or brainstorming workshop. Therefore we cannot change or alter it, but must respect and treasure it.
A promise: In our version of the marriage ceremony the couples say “I will”, not “I do” because they are making promises for the future, not simply stating what may be true at the preset.
A picture: Ultimately marriage is a picture of Jesus relationship with his people. Jesus is the best bridegroom who sacrifices all for his bride, the church. The reunion in the future in the new heavens and new earth between Jesus and his people is often referred to as a wedding banquet in the bible.
Assimilation: We blend into our culture so much that no-one can tell that we are Christians! We do not take sin or the bible seriously. Young people having sex, living together and then getting married is the norm and there is no substantial difference between the ruthless, ambitious, workaholic Christian businessman and his non-Christian counterpart. Assimilation is easy, any wimp can do it.
Rejection: We withdraw from non-Christian society and culture with the excuse that we are seeking to be holy. We spend our time fellowship with Christians and Christian braai’s and neglect our non-Christian friends and colleagues. Church becomes a force field against an evil, “what is the world coming to” society. We constantly pray for Jesus to come and rescue us, while smiting the rest of humanity. Rejection too is easy.
God’s way of relating to society is more difficult. God commands us to engage with society (no rejection!), while being the distinctive people of God he has called us to be (no assimilation!). Or like Jesus prayed, we are to be in the world not of the world. Peter wrote, “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Jeremiah too had this perspective in Jeremiah 29:1-14. He told God’s people in exile in a pagan society to build houses, to get married and take out car insurance. He told them to engage their society, without selling out.
We are all called to this: Engaging our society for Jesus, while being the distinctive people of God. This is why Peter called the Christians he was writing to “exiles/ aliens” (1 Peter 2:11). God has called you to a mission for Jesus. God wants you to connect with your society for Jesus.
What makes a good church? An expensive building, a charismatic pastor, a Hillsong sound-a-like band, entertaining sermons with loads of jokes, comfortable chairs, lots of young people, lots of girls, a weird spiritual ambiance or possibly cake after the sermon?
According to Acts 20 one of the most important ingredients of a good church is faithful shepherds or elders. How will we know if the shepherd is faithful or reckless?
In Acts 20:28 Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
1. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over himself.
We have all heard of prominent Christians and pastors who have disqualified themselves from ministry and have been really bad witnesses to Jesus. Paul commends shepherds to carefully keep examining their own lives. Shepherds should be godly (v18); should be wiling to suffer hardships and not a lover of comfort (v19); should exhibit a zeal for Jesus and not be happy with the present spiritual status quo(v20); should be content and not covetous (v33) and love those under his care, not detached (v36-37). The three big areas of temptation for shepherds has always been Gold, Girls and Glory.
Dr. Billy Graham, a consciously godly pastor, made a decision for himself and his associates that none of them should be alone with another woman, other than their own wife or immediate family.
And the a very faithful pastor in past years, Robert Murray M’Cheyne observed, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
Ask yourself: Is there a concern for godliness in my church? Am I praying for the holiness of my church leaders?
2. The faithful shepherd keeps watch over the flock
The chief duty of the shepherd is to tend, nurture, feed and care for the flock. He does this because of the high value of the sheep (v28) and to please Jesus (v19, 24). How does he tend the flock? Paul uses the words: preach (v20), teach (v20), testify (v24), preaching the kingdom (v25) and proclaim (v27).
In other words, the chief means the shepherd is to care for the flock is by a word based ministry. Teaching and preaching the bible must be the main thing the pastor does. Unfortunately, often the pastor is seen as the organiser, the administrator, the counsellor, the therapist or the handy-man! Sometimes church services contain everything, besides preaching and teaching. There may be music, video clips, drama, dancing and testimonies, but no thorough explanation of a biblical passage.
Ask yourself: Do I make us of all teaching opportunities? Do I talk and pray with friends about the sermon? Do I pray regularly for my church leaders that they commit themselves to study the bible rigorously, carefully and earnestly? Do I pray that God will lead them to understand the bible and apply it to their lives and apply it wisely to church’s life?
3. The faithful shepherd watches for wolves
The biggest threat to sheep in the 1st century was wolves. Wolves could quite easily destroy an entire flock of sheep.
Acts 20:29-31 says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
Wolves refer to those in the church, used by Satan, to “distort the truth and draw away disciples”. Church becomes like Survivor on SABC 3 with coalitions, power plays and bullying. The faithful shepherd not only teaches sound doctrine, but also warns (v31) of proponents of false doctrine and ungodliness, inside and outside the church.
Ask yourself: Are my views, doctrines and opinions in line with what the bible teaches? Am I creating disunity in my sphere of influence in the church? Do I pray for discernment for my church leaders?
What makes a good church? The church leaders are godly; they teach the bible faithfully; and error is identified and dealt with!
There are very few old school atheists around today. Most people believe in god, an unseen spiritual world and the existence of evil. Most people pray especially when facing difficulty or illness. There are numerous books on “higher consciousness”, “channelling”, “conversations with God” and your “personal angel”. Day time talk show hosts advocate prayer, though it’s your preference as to who or what you would like to pray to. Our world is very spiritual, but they have no clue about Jesus.
We could have been in Ephesus in the 1st Century. A very spiritual city – even boasting the temple of Artemis – but ignorant about Jesus. They prayed, recited special chants, wore good luck amulets to ward of evil and also believed in the existence of personal “spiritual assistants” who helped out from time to time. The average Ephesian practised magic as a way to manipulate whatever god was available to help in the desired way, like getting a girl to like you.
Pentecostals often refer to and preach from Acts 19:1-6 to promote second blessing theology (SBT). SBT teaches that the normative Christian practice is first to accept Jesus as Lord and then, secondly, to have another separate, distinct experience of the baptism of the Spirit. During this second experience the Christian is said to be filled with the Spirit, normally this “blessing” is accompanied with speaking in “tongues”.
In Ephesus Paul found twelve “disciples” (v1). Normally in Acts “disciples” refers to Christians, but it turns out from Paul’s questioning that these people are not Christians, but repentant Jews. Paul probably thought they were Christians at first.
To gauge their spiritual state, Pauls asks (v2), “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Paul did not ask did you receive the Spirit when you attended the course or when you prayed a special prayer or when you truly entered a new level of obedience in your Christian life! Paul associates receiving the Holy Spirit with believing (i.e. believing in Jesus).
The bible regularly condemns idolatry, yet many Christians do not think it is an issue in the 21st century. Cape Town contains no shrines to Baal, Molech, Artemis or Caesar. How are we to understand idolatry?
In Acts 17 Paul visits one of the cultural centres of the known world with its unparalleled architecture, art and philosophy. Rather than being over-awed by the Athens’ beauty, Paul is provoked to anger by the fact that the city is submerged in idols.
Anger, by the way, is a very Christian emotion as God and Jesus were provoked to anger by the golden calf and the phony worship in Jerusalem’s temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us to be angry (at the things God is angry with), but not to sin in that anger.
If Paul had walked around our city, he would have the same reaction. Here are some of our idols that are worshipped as gods: