Ephesians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”
The letter to the Ephesians begins with a claim that is utterly staggering, and which is foundational for any understanding of what the Christian faith is. The Son of God, the Lord Jesus, had some apostles who wrote gospels and letters and a couple of other small books, by which the world has been given the entire information it needs or will ever receive about Christ. So let us begin with some facts:
1. THERE WERE APOSTLES
There have been men who walked on this earth, breathed its air, and spoke freely to other men and women. They also wrote certain documents, and these men (there were no women amongst them), were apostles of the only-begotten Son of God. These Twelve were his commissioned ones; Jesus Christ’s ‘sent ones.’ It was God’s will not only for his beloved Son to become incarnate and live and teach and die and rise as the world’s only Saviour, but that his Son should appoint twelve men to speak and to write for him. The office of the apostles is part of our redemption. Our Lord himself never wrote a book. There is one reference to him writing something in the sand when an accused woman was dragged before him, so Jesus was not illiterate, but he left the work of writing about his life, his deeds and teachings to his apostles. They are our exclusive links to him. The apostles are like an indestructible golden chain that unites every single member of the body of Christ to its head. Becoming an apostle was not their personal chosen vocation, and their staggering accomplishment was because of their own wits. This was God’s will for them, and the written New Testament was achieved by God’s enabling.
2. TWELVE APOSTLES WERE CHOSEN
To become an apostle of Jesus Christ a man had to be chosen by him personally. The Gospel narratives all begin with accounts of our Lord summoning men to follow him as his very own disciples – fishermen, a tax-collector and a zealot, and so on. These men are all listed and named and they were twelve, no more than that. Twelve was a symbolic number; it represented the new Israel of God, as the old Israel had become hopelessly corrupt. In fact its chief priests orchestrated the execution by crucifixion of Israel’s long promised Messiah. So the apostles were always referred to as ‘the Twelve’ even when Judas apostatised and betrayed the Messiah. We find Paul writing that the risen Christ “appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (I Cor. 15:5). We know that Judas was dead, but that is still how Paul refers to them. Then the early church sought God’s will, and Matthias became an apostle, and also, as one born out of due time, within the next year, Paul was made another apostle. But they were never called ‘the Thirteen’. You can say ‘the Apostles’ and you can say ‘the Twelve.’ The words are interchangeable. We are speaking about a unique and defined office held by just this group of men who were appointed and sent by Christ – ‘the Twelve.’
There was a group of Strict Baptist ministers in England who came together forty years ago concerned with the future of their denomination. There happened to be twenty-two men who gathered together at the initial meeting to pray and plan, and they found themselves in substantial agreement in their convictions and desires for the way ahead. So that group called themselves the ‘Twenty-two Committee’ and even when some men moved away or died it was still referred to as the ‘Twenty-two Committee’ because what it stood for and the influence it had was more important than the actual number of men who belonged to it. There were seven proto-deacons chosen by the church (Acts 6:1-6), but they were never known as ‘the Seven.’ But these apostles appointed by Christ were ‘the Twelve’ – this number occurs nine times in the book of Revelation. The wall surrounding the heavenly Jerusalem (which is to contain all the vast number of the true Israel of God) has twelve foundations and on them are the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:21).
So here is a defined and limited group of men chosen by Christ while others were passed by. He would remind this elite group that they owed their office to his choice: “have I not chosen you, the Twelve” (Jn. 6:70). You think how the book of the Acts of the Apostles begins with a reference in the very second verse to Jesus Christ giving the Holy Spirit “to the apostles he had chosen” (Acts 1:2). They were witnesses of the very beginning of his public ministry when John baptized him, and Christ was the one who commissioned them. John’s gospel comes to an end with the risen Lord Jesus saying to these men, “As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (Jn. 20:21). So the apostles were chosen by Christ – no one else but them. What a honour that is. Consider the most desirable boy in school, handsome, courteous, sensitive, thoughtful. Every girl dreams of him, but he chooses you and tells you that he loves you and wants you to be his wife. How wonderful for these men that they were told several times by the Son of God that he had chosen them to be his apostles. But there is more:
3. THE APOSTLES WERE GIVEN GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT FOR THEIR WORK
They were commissioned and given authority by Christ in a unique way as the Twelve, and they were also given the Holy Spirit by Christ in a special way: “The Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:25). The apostle John lived to a great age, but his gospel and his letters would not suffer because of failing memory. God the Holy Spirit would remind John of everything that he had heard from the lips of the Lord Jesus that he would need in writing his gospel. Do you see that it was not that Jesus told the apostle to have a go, and do their best – “who can criticise you if you have done your best? Go ahead and put things together in your own words.” No, it was not like that at all. God would come upon them in preparing their personalities, and bringing influences to bear upon them. The Holy Spirit would indwell them and help them to fight against remaining sin. Then in a special gift of inspiration he would assist them in speaking and in writing so that what they expressed would be exactly what he wanted them to say. So it was with Peter preaching in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and Paul speaking in Athens, and for Matthew when he wrote his account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in his gospel. The Spirit of truth would be there in them as they spoke and wrote. Here is the key promise of the Lord Jesus to them in the Upper Room: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . The Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (Jn.16: 13 & 16).
What a sense of wonder appears in their writings at what God in his grace has done in choosing and using them. The apostle Peter says something very significant. He acknowledges that the Scriptures of the Old Testament were composed by holy men being borne along by the Spirit, but he goes on to say that what his friend and fellow apostle Paul had written in his letters was identical ‘Scriptures’ (2 Peter 3:16). Even in the first century the apostolic writings were recognised as Scripture. They did not have to wait for a century or two before the church pronounced, “We have decided that John’s gospel is Scripture. We have decided that the letter of Paul to the Romans is Scripture” and so on. What nonsense! From the beginning the apostles’ writings were accepted as Scripture. They had their own innate authority because the apostles had written them, not because a church council voted and bestowed it upon them years later. Their letters and gospels had no need of the approval of sinners to make them the Word of God. The gift and enabling of the Holy Ghost did that. So we find that how Paul begins this letter to the Ephesians the other writers amongst the Twelve characteristically commence their letters too, declaring their heaven-appointed office. That is why the churches should heed and obey what is written in them – “Peter an apostle”, “Paul an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gals. 1:1).
4. THE APOSTLES WERE SPECIALLY PRAYED FOR BY CHRIST
So the Twelve were chosen by Christ, commissioned and gifted by Christ, and now another fact, and it is this: the apostles were also particularly prayed for by Christ, in John’s gospel, chapter 17, his high priestly prayer. He prays in particular for the apostles and he does so at length from verse 6 to verse 19, and then he goes on to pray more briefly for you and me – for those who will believe in him through the message of the apostles. Our Lord is always making this careful distinction between the apostles with their foundational ministry and all the Christians who will later believe because of the apostolic testimony. What does he say to his Father when he intercedes for the apostles? “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me” (Jn. 17:6-8). Jesus acknowledges that these apostles first belonged to God and were given in a donation of grace to Christ’s stewardship and training. He assures his Father that he has not failed in the task, that the words that the Father gave him he has passed on exactly to the apostles. There is the closest unity between Christ and his apostles. What they teach he teaches. He stands behind every word they say. You cannot put a leaf of Indian paper between him and them. They are one. They have different expressions and personalities, and so we can say, “Matthew puts it like this, or that John puts it in this way, or that Paul expresses it with this characteristic phrase,” but they are all reflecting the one heart and mind of their Lord. What was the distinctive feature of an apostle according to this prayer of our Lord? Total confidence in Jesus Christ, obedience to God’s word, certainty that God had sent Christ, and that Jesus’ words were God’s words. That distinguished every apostle, and that was the result of the Saviour’s intercession, the harmony and unity of those he prayed for.
5. THE APOSTLES WERE FOUNDATIONAL GIFTS IN THE CHURCH
So what was the calling of the apostles? To be the foundation of the entire Christian church. The true church had to be built on the apostles. We find it so clearly in the next chapter of this letter to the Ephesians where we are told that Christians are, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20). Contractors have knocked down the old chapel that used to be in Skinner Street, Aberystwyth, and as I was walking past there last week I saw the foundations that have been laid for the building that is to go up on that site. I knew immediately that whatever it was going to be it is not going to be a rival to the Millennium Stadium. The foundations prescribe the building. A stadium in not going to fit onto that foundation. So it is for Christ’s congregations, every one of them must build on the foundation the apostles have laid for them. Islam won’t fit on this foundation. Humanism will not fit, nor will Hinduism, nor Evolutionism. But I tell you something more important than that. Modernism will not fit onto the apostolic foundation because it is a Trinitarian, and a supernatural and redemptive foundation. “These are the specific dimensions of the faith,” the foundations are saying . “Believe this and build on it!” they say. “Live like this! Let your marriages be like this! Let your church be governed like this! Let your gospel be this, and let it be preached in this manner! Raise your children like this!” And so on. That is the foundation for your life and for my preaching. God permits no one to lay any other foundation. It is a ruined life that is built on the sand. Every congregation, all over the world today, has to ransack the Bible and make sure that its beliefs and behaviour are apostolic. You must test every pulpit and every broadcast and every church by whether it fits onto this foundation or not. You can inquire, “Do you have a biblical foundation for believing and living as you do?” That is the question that determines whether something is Christian or not. We may build only upon that foundation that Christ has laid. The task of building the church will never end until the day of judgment.
Could anyone else become an apostle? Could you aspire to be one? Could you volunteer? Could you put your name forward for the church to vote on you? How did the church go about finding a replacement for Judas? Let’s read the words of Peter; “it is necessary to chose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become with us a witness of his resurrection” (Acts 1:21&22). What were the criteria for the apostleship? To have been with Christ during his ministry, and to have been a witness of his resurrection, so that you could say when you saw him in the Upper Room on the third day after the crucifixion, “That is the very same Jesus who called Levi from the tax-office whom I saw raised from the dead, and meeting with me and the others for those forty days.” So it is impossible for there to be an apostolic succession, because the Lord Jesus is now in heaven. No one has see him bodily for 1900 years.
You ask, “But what of the apostle Paul? He didn’t see the risen Jesus Christ did he?” Yes, he did. That is his great claim: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (I Cor. 9:1). It was not a vision that Paul saw on the road to Damascus, it was the real, living, glorified Jesus who stepped through the veil of death and met with Paul there. So there can be no more apostles. They ceased because their work was a foundation-laying work. The gospel church has always been a cessationist church in its view of the gift of the apostles and prophets. There was this office given at one time in the history of redemption and it was not intended to be a constant coming of similar identical gifts into the life of the church ever after – like pastors, preachers, elders and deacons. The apostleship was a one-off foundational gift. The Bible the apostles completed is the permanent feature.
I was reading this week Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s book called “Authority” (Banner of Truth). How he insists on the finality and perfection of the apostleship. He says, “It is the only authority; it is the final authority. There can be no addition to it. It cannot be added to because there cannot be any successors to the apostles. By definition they cannot have successors. We assert this as against Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism, and all who teach the spurious doctrine of ‘apostolic succession’. If an apostle is a man who must have seen the risen Lord and who is therefore able to witness to the fact of the resurrection, there cannot be successors. Those originally chosen have had no successors. There have been no others who have been especially called and endowed and inspired to speak and to teach authoritatively by the risen Lord himself directly. The thing is impossible. There is to be no fresh revelation. There is no need of any. It was given and given finally to the apostles (see Jude 3).
“The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. We must therefore reject every supposed new revelation, every addition to doctrine. We must assert that all teaching and all truth and all doctrine must be tested in the light of the Scriptures. Here is God’s revelation of himself, given in parts and portions in the Old Testament with an increasing clarity and with a culminating finality, coming eventually ‘in the fulness of times’ to the perfect, absolute, final revelation in God the Son. He in turn enlightens and reveals his will and teaching to those apostles, endows them with a unique authority, fills them with the needed ability and power, and gives them the teaching that is essential to the well-being of the church and God’s people. We can build only upon this one, unique authority” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Authority”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, pp 59&61). That is biblical cessationism, declared by one of its most eloquent spokesmen
6. THERE IS HUMANIST OPPOSITION TO THE AUTHORITY OF THE APOSTLESHIP
One vociferous voice of protest to all this comes from the mass of contemporary men and women living in the past Enlightenment Western world. The post-modernist man says, “My authority for what I believe, my values and how I choose to live comes from myself alone.” He must say that; having rejected God all he has is man. The humanism of the Renaissance that accompanied the Reformation led its followers to try to ground their certainties in man himself not in any alleged apostolic revelation from God. Descartes is the most famous product of that tradition. He sought a sure ground of certainty within experience, and he claimed that he had found it in the fact of doubt itself. Man can doubt everything, but he cannot doubt the fact that he is doubting. “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes thought that the ground of absolute authority could be found within himself. This conviction has been reiterated in many different ways in the centuries since, especially in the prevailing rationalism and existentialism of our own humanistic age. The burden of modern man’s beliefs is always the same, that man is the centre and measure of things, and that ultimate truth is to be found within his own experience. What the writings of the apostles and the Bible does, the humanist says, is to confirm that point of view, that men can discover their own truth within themselves, in their own thinking and decisions. So modern man asserts his autonomy, his independence of any imagined god and his apostles. He affirms that ultimate authority is found in his own heart. Search for the saviour inside yourself. “What we all must do is to share together our experiences. That is the way ahead,” says the natural man today. “There is no place any longer for Messianic figures coming from heaven. All that has gone.”
The latest fashionable guru to promote this is 55-year-old Eckhart Tolle whose first book, “The Power of Now,” has sold more than a million copies in North America and 130,000 copies in the United Kingdom. I say it is fashionable because it is Hollywood that is promoting it. The film star Cher says that it changed her life. Gillian Anderson of “The X Files” claims she has received enlightenment through it. Meg Ryan, another film star, introduced it to Oprah Winfrey who promoted it on her show in the year 2002 telling millions of viewers that she had read it eight times and that she keeps it on her bedside table. Little wonder with that endorsement Mr Tolle has become a rich man. What does he teach? The present moment is the most meaningful moment in life. “By aligning with ‘the now’ you are also aligned with life itself.” he says, “People still think spirituality is having certain belief systems – in God or angels – but ‘spiritual’ means to be able to step beyond the conceptual reality in your head. In other words accessing the dimension of stillness within yourself.” In other words by going in and into your self you find your own redemption. We save ourselves. When he discovered this Mr Tolle went to live in Glastonbury – the nexus of ‘alternative living’ in England – and there he gave formal weekly group sessions in his philosophy. From there the next natural step was to California where he wrote his best-seller. He now lives in a high-rise in Vancouver. O brave new world that hath such spirits in it!
That spirit which drives people away from Jesus Christ and into themselves is demonic, because man is usurping the enlightenment and authority of the word of Jesus Christ. That philosophy sends men to look for the assurance of redemption in an individual’s peak experiences. Such individualism leads to anarchy. It is another corrosive in society and results in its steady disintegration. It sets man against man. What are marriage vows when you have been taught that the present moment is ‘the most meaningful moment of your life’? This is the reason for the moral decline of our society today; the ‘situation ethic’ declares that if you have obtained the dimension of stillness within yourself then all is well; how can something that feels so right be wrong? The ultimate arbiter is how a person feels. The authority appealed to by such a 21st century man is not the apostles of Christ but something within him. He is his own final authority. He accepts as a fact the idea that he has a right to do whatever he wants; whenever, and however he pleases. This is making a net to catch the wind. Both the Christian and the non-Christian live by faith in their presuppositions; however, those presuppositions are exactly opposite to one another.
Most people do not realize that all men without exception are deeply committed belivers, and all men live their lives by absolute faith in their beliefs. Everyone in Aberystwyth is a ‘believer’ and lives ‘by faith’ in his beliefs or presuppositions. The vast majority of them believe lies, and live their entire lives in rebellion against the truths of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Man’s problem is not his lack of faith. He has plenty of faith, but it is misplaced; his faith is in himself instead of the word of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul.
7. THERE IS RELIGIOUS OPPOSITION TO THE EXCLUSIVE AUTHORITY OF THE APOSTLES
Another voice of protest is aimed not so much at the claim that there can be divinely appointed apostles but at their exclusive authority. “No,” people protest, “there are many other prophets who’ve come from God, and there are vicars of Christ, and also messengers who come to us from Jesus.” Even during the life of the apostles a few men stood up in different churches and they claimed that they also had the apostolic gift. Paul writes of them; “For such men are false apostles . . . masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cors. 11:13). The Lord Jesus himself speaks later to this very church at Ephesus who were bothered by false apostles: “you have tested those who claim to be apostles, but are not, and have found them false” (Rev. 2:2).
Some of you might feel that all the professing churches should unite, but until the churches are agreed on what is truth, and what must a man do to be saved, and even what is a Christian, there can be no unity in the churches. For example, where does Rome get her justification for the institution of the papacy? You won’t find that in the Bible, nor will you read in the New Testament of the office of the priesthood, nor the sacrifice of the mass, nor purgatory, nor a confessional, nor a redeeming role for Mary, nor an account of her immaculate conception, nor her bodily assumption at her death, nor prayers for the dead? None of those teachings is found in the apostolic writings of the New Testament are they? Rome will generally agree that they are not there, and that in itself is a very significant concession. Doctrines which are so central to all we understand of Roman Catholicism were not written down by the apostles in the New Testament. Yet today they are believed by over a thousand million Roman Catholics.
Then why does Rome believe them? She will say this, that Christ and his apostles taught many things that were not committed to writing, but there was an apostolic tradition which went underground and thus preserved them, handing them on to succeeding generations, and in the fulness of time these teachings re-emerged in the history of the church. They popped up, say, in certain writings in the early centuries and again in the Middle Ages. They can be found in the decrees of church councils, and they have also reappeared in the rescripts of various popes. For example on 1 November 1950 Pope Pius XII declared that ‘the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.’ One of the pleas made in defence of the apostolicity of that was an appeal to a comment made by a man called John of Damascus who was born in the year 676; ‘It was fitting that God’s Mother should possess what belongs to her Son.’ The claim was thus made that this man of the seventh century was merely stating what the apostles had always taught though not written in the New Testament.
Our objection to our Roman Catholic friends is that such ideas are not endorsed by the Scriptures. They may indeed be found in what some men have written across the centuries amongst millions of religious books, and also they can be found in the conclusions of certain church gatherings in 1900 years of Roman teaching, but our alarm is that they actually contradict what the apostles have written about the perfection and completion of the work the Son of god accomplished all by himself. For example, far from the need of a perpetual re-enactment of the sacrifice of the death of Christ by a man dressed up as a priest on a stone altar with a wafer believed to be turned into the body of Christ when it is raised and a certain formula is repeated, the apostles wrote to the contrary: “Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that that to face the judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebs. 9:26-28). And again, “By one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy” (Hebs 10:14). In his death our sin has been comprehensively dealt with. By entrusting ourselves to him – ‘Just as I am without one plea’ – divine pardon becomes ours.
Rome’s claims to present what is true cannot be apostolic truth at all if the claims oppose what we know without any doubt the Twelve themselves wrote down. You can claim you believe something because 300 years after Christ – or 1900 years later for that matter – someone taught it, but, men and women, please consider this, how unreliable an authority is the teaching of different theologians and church gatherings. The church can go through centuries of declension and ignorance. Bishops can make the most erroneous comments. The history of the Old Testament church shows us that it was exceptional for that church to remain faithful for more than three successive generations. What happens at such times? When such a decline occurs then God raises up leaders who cry to the people, “Let us go back to the Bible. Let us return to what God has written in Scripture.” This is what Huss and Wycliffe and Tyndale and the Lollards and Luther were doing in the 16th century. They preached telling the people, “There is pervasive corruption and ungodliness in the professing church. Let us return to the fountainhead of Jesus Christ and his apostles, and let us see what they said. Perhaps we have gone astray from the Scripture. Let us translate the Bible into the language of the people and encourage them to read it and preach and live it.” They didn’t say, “Let’s find comfort that in other ages of the church they lived as decadently as today, and they believed strange doctrines then too.” They called the church back to the apostolic revelation. In every century this needs to be done, and never more so than today. So I have pointed out to you that there is religious opposition to the exclusive authority of the written words of the apostles in the New Testament.
8. THERE IS THE REJECTION OF THE APOSTLES BY ISLAM
The greatest threats to the church in the past have come from men who have claimed to have been sent into the world by God, that is, ‘apostles’ bearing a new message from him. Six centuries after the life of Christ a man was born named Mohammed. The year of his birth was AD 570 and it occurred in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. His father died before he was born and by the age of six Mohammed was an orphan. He lived with his grandfather for a couple of years and the remainder of his childhood was spent with an uncle who was a tailor. At 25 he married a rich widow who was fifteen years older than himself. This gave him financial security and time to spend in meditation, preaching and dictation – he never learned to read and write. His preaching was at first opposed, and he had to flee to Medina, but then he gathered supporters around him and in the year 630 he returned to Mecca with an army of 10,000 and he took the city in a bloodless victory. He died two years later.
Mohammed claimed that he had ecstatic visions of Allah and he preached extensively about how to serve him especially by five daily recitations of prayers facing Mecca, and fasting during the daylight hours of the month of Ramaden, and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime. For Mohammed the Lord Jesus was just another prophet in a line of twenty-five culminating in Mohammed. Jesus Christ did not die on the cross for our redemption, said this ‘apostle’, that was Barabbas. So neither did Christ rise from the dead. Mohammed claimed that he was the last of the prophets, and with him revelations had ceased. The revelations he had had from God superseded all others. Today there are 1,300 million people who follow his teaching. When his followers are in control in a country then life is very difficult for Christians. If Moslems are converted so that they come to trust in Christ then in many parts of the world their very lives are in danger and they must flee. No free and open evangelism is permitted in most of the Middle East, and there is continual threat of destruction expressed against our own country. One is filled with forebodings about our future since the events of 9/11. What lies before us? It looks rather threatening. Where did all of this start? With a man who said that Jesus Christ was simply one person through whom God had spoken, but that God also spoke through him too. Mohammed claimed to be God’s apostle.
9. THE CULTS REJECT THE FINALITY AND PERFECTION OF THE APOSTLES
All through history a claim has been repeatedly made by both men and women that they are the channels of brand new revelation from heaven, and they have become the messengers of Jesus Christ. This has always been utterly disastrous. Think of a couple of those cults that came out of America in the 19th century. There was a man called Joseph Smith who lived in a small town in New York state, and in the year 1820 he claimed to have had a vision of God in the woods, to be followed three years later, he claimed, by a visitation from an angel called Moroni. Four years later Joseph Smith further claimed that he dug up a book of golden plates and began to translate it into English. During this time the apostles Peter, James and John, so he said, sent John the Baptist to visit and ordain him. To his followers Joseph Smith was heralded as a 19th century apostle. The ‘Book of Mormon’ was published in 1830. It claims equality with the Bible. Today Mormonism with all its fantasies and its slender connection with Christianity is said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the world with 11 million followers. Once you claim to have the authority of a written revelation from God your influence over people is considerably increased.
There was another person named Ellen G. White of the state of Maine, who in the year 1844 started having visions. In the first she claimed she saw Jesus guiding Seventh Day Adventist followers to the City of God, and in another vision she claimed that he told her she must tell other people what God was saying to her. In 23 years she claimed that she had almost 200 visions. She wrote incessantly, and out of these writings of hers the distinctive teachings of Seventh Day Adventism came, that the holy day was Saturday, that there was no hell, that Old Testament food laws should be kept, that there will be three resurrections and so on. Conservative in many ways, that is, Trinitarian and believing in the deity of Christ, yet this teaching is a confusing blend of law and grace. Today there are 25 million Seventh Day Adventists in the world. It is a fearful thing to claim to be the spokesman for fresh revelation from God. You think of how the New Testament ends. In the last verses of the last chapter of the book of Revelation there is a solemn warning; “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18&19). The Bible ends by saying, “This is it. This is God’s final word, because the glorious Lord Jesus is God’s perfect Word become flesh. He didn’t forget to say anything men need to know. So don’t add anything to this, and don’t take anything away from it either.”
10. WHAT A PRIVILEGE TO HAVE THE APOSTOLIC WRITINGS.
So I am holding a piece of apostolic writing. It is the letter of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians. It has had an extraordinary influence on the history of the world. How can it make us strong? How do they help us resist and overcome the hosts of false apostles and the voices that say there are no apostles at all, and they are not needed?
As I study the history of the church in times like our own the more I am convinced that the source of our fathers’ strength was the felt authority of the Word of God, in other words, the Bible is not something academic, remote from life, and purely objective. Consider the voice of your conscience: the reality and authority of conscience is something which is experienced, something which is felt by the individual when he does right or wrong, as Paul wrote of the heathen “their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another” (Romans 2:15). It is not merely a matter of knowing with the mind the difference between right and wrong, but its impact on your affections, bringing the truth of these things into the activity of everyday life. That is the authority your conscience has, to make you smart for your sins. It is a ‘felt authority’. Shakespeare says that ‘conscience doth make cowards of us all.’
The experience of the authority of the apostles was a felt authority. Consider Peter at Pentecost, how people were cut to the heart by the apostolic word. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that the gospel came to them not in word only but in power, and the Holy Spirit and with much assurance. Those congregations had experienced in their hearts and minds the impact of the truths which Paul, Peter and John spoke. This word of the Gospel (and of the Law) had been brought home to their lives in the most powerful way by experiencing so much of what it meant. They had felt the condemnation of the Law of God, and the utter inability of the sinner to save himself. They had felt the truth of the Gospel, that Christ Jesus died for sinners. They knew by faith that they were justified by his perfect righteousness. This was something as real to them as their own personal existence. They could no more doubt its truth than they could doubt that they were alive. And it was that, the felt authority of the apostolic Word, that enabled Luther to oppose the authority, the doctrines, the traditions, the might and the ugly muddle of the papacy. He couldn’t have done it on any other ground at all.
For example, what if Luther had known the Bible only as many people in the church then and today know it, namely, as a holy book; as a history of the people of God; as an account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; but without any experience of the Gospel of justification by faith? On that basis he couldn’t have opposed the authority of Rome. However much he might have said he believed in the authority of the Bible, however many theories he may have been acquainted with relating to its authenticity and inerrancy, without the inward conviction of its truth he wouldn’t have been able to take the stand he did. But the Word of God had been so indelibly written into his experience that he couldn’t deny its divine truth. His own words convey that, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other’. He knew that this Word had saved him just as certainly as he knew that he existed. Therefore he could do no other. You cannot, and do not, talk like that about theories, propositions, arguments. If you are dealing in these you may be wrong, there is always the possibility of doubt and uncertainty, of some new fact emerging, and so on. So you may be wrong. But the felt authority and truth of the apostolic Gospel, like the truth of existence, admits of no doubt. This authority is sealed upon the heart. ‘I can do no other.’
Now this is the truth by which true Christianity lives. It is not merely objective authority, based upon arguments and theories about the authority of the apostles. This is not, of course, to suggest that such arguments do not have an important place in Christian apologetic. They most certainly do. But without the experience of the salvation of which the Bible speaks they are impotent. They do not and cannot give evangelicalism the authority that it needs today, any more than they could have given birth to the Reformation. This authority is not purely subjective, arising from man’s own experience, because that is ultimately delusory. It is the fusion of the two things – the objective truth of the apostolic writings becoming real in the experience of the individual by the Holy Ghost so that his own existence is transformed and determined by it. ‘My conscience is taken captive by the Word of God. I can do no other.’ Or as Paul put it, “The life which I now live I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). My life is now so conditioned and penetrated by the truth of God’s Word in the Gospel of Christ, that I cannot deny it any more than I can deny myself – that I am. When I hear error exalted as the truth then I am conscience bound to sound an alarm and point out its mistakes. That is the unique authority of evangelicalism, because it is the unique authority of authentic Christianity, and anything else, every substitute, is spurious, and a delusion, which is ultimately demonic, because it pretends to an authority which belongs only to God and his Word.
Papal power, like Islamic authority, and the grip which the cults have over their adherents is all ultimately demonic because those different and opposing forces all represent the absolute objectification of power. They call for the complete surrender of the mind and will of the individual to what these different structures claim. They call on the individual to abdicate his responsibilities as an individual and accept the mind and will of another in his place. The individual must assent to everything that the infallible papacy, or the Koran, or the cult leaders teach, even though he may not even know what that teaching is – most Roman Catholics have the faintest knowledge of what their church believes. This is why such authorities are demonic and ultimately destructive. They are akin to the authority of dictatorship in the political sphere, where individuals and a nation submit themselves to the will and judgment of a dictator, a leader who claims to embody the will and mind of the people. That is why Roman Catholic countries have been breeding grounds for political dictatorship. That is why there are no Muslim democracies. The authority of Pope or Islam, if conceded, represents the rape of the individual conscience, and the substitution for it of a power that is external to it. The surrender of the conscience in this way can only be attended by perilous consequences. To say, ‘I am commanded to do it, and have no alternative but to obey’, has, as we have seen in the history of the last war, produced terrible and disastrous results. Yet that is the kind of authority both the papacy (with its anathemas on all who resist its claims), and Islam in its essence represents. It is of that genre or type of external, objective authority which overrides and overrules the individual conscience and is hence demonic.
How different is God’s way. He comes to us in the form of a letter written by a servant of his whom he has made Christ-like for this very purpose. Two thousand years later Christians in distant Wales will need these counsels and comforts. Thus the Lord comes to us where two or three gather together in his name, and he is the one who teaches, exhorts, rebukes and displays the beauty of God. We grow in our love for him and so it becomes our delight to understand and obey his Word. Just one book he has given to us, and the grace in discovering its truths and blessing in doing what it says. That is God’s way of preparing people to share his heaven.
31st August 2003 GEOFF THOMAS