TRA 11th November, 2001
The Believer's Response
The Christian faith is under attack more now than ever. This attack is from without, from atheist governments, militant Islam, and the rise of New Age activities where Christianity is being syncretised with other beliefs. The Body, Mind, Spirit Expo at Darling Harbour this weekend is full of movements and philosophies designed to replace the teachings and role of Jesus Christ. We are also under attack from within; from Christians who are compromising their faith and moving from the verities of belief. Every modern city is awash with false religions and cults and every denomination is being white-anted by clerics and theologians who place their own views above those of the Scriptures.
We are fortunate in not being persecuted for our faith from without. But we have ever to be on guard from those who compromise and adulterate the faith within the church. The true Christian message becomes muffled and misunderstood. Sometimes it becomes hijacked, and other times it becomes watered down by liberal theology. The result is the same: people find it hard to hear the claims Jesus makes upon their lives, and do not follow His teaching. The church must clearly present His claims so they are heard above the competing voices of this generation.
One of our Elders brought to my attention a published statement from the official spokesperson of the Synod of the UCA NSW. The spokesperson of our denomination was quoted as saying he believes "it's time for Christians to stop trying to convert a godless world. It's time for followers of Christ to realise they are a minority." Was there ever a time when true believers were a majority? What did the first century Christians do?
But go deeper, do we have the option "to stop trying to convert a godless world." ? The command of Jesus to convert the godless world is not an option. He said it deliberately, Matt 28:18-20 "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." To deny His expressed command is to oppose the authority of Jesus Christ, to place a man's thoughts above the Saviour's. To reject His command is to disobey the Holy Scriptures, and to discard them, denying both their authority and inspiration. To deny, reject and discard is to abandon his vows taken at ordination as a minister. This is not a light matter of some misguided layperson, but the considered statement of the official spokesperson of the Uniting Church. If he were a soldier in Christ's army, he would be court-marshalled for disobeying the Supreme Commander's order. Where is the correction by the Moderator or the discipline of the Church? The trouble is our denomination has become so infected by the pluralism of liberal theology that the gatekeepers of the faith think that anything is acceptable and that we should be tolerant of whatever anyone says or believes. The church can survive the attacks from without. It is the attacks from within that are the most dangerous.
From Capernaum, and the towns of Galilee where Jesus had been teaching His disciples, He led them to a far northern Gentile city. Here among a host of competing temples and religious traditions, Jesus tested His disciples to see if they understood His teaching, and His claim upon their lives. Caesarea Philippi is associated with only this event in the life of Jesus.
"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Matt 16:13-20 Three aspects are remarkable about what happened here.
1. THE PLACE AND ITS REMARKABLE HISTORY.
In June 1967, the Israeli army swept through the Syrian forces and captured the Golan Heights. Today those Syrian bunkers are entrenched gun emplacements, heavily fortified against a surprise attack. It is the northern most area of modern Israel and a disputed territory today. Israel claims the area of the Golan Heights on the side of Mt Hermon because this was a traditional tribal area allotted to Manasseh's tribe. It is from Caesarea Philippi, that a spring of water, known as the Nahr Banyas, runs to form, with other tributaries, the River Jordan, the life?blood of Israel. Yet Caesarea Philippi has been associated with many cult deities over the centuries. The Canaanites worshipped the god Baal here, and there were 14 temples erected in the area to the god Baal. Joshua, the successor to Moses, conquered as far as here when it was known as Baal?gad. The Greeks revered the place. It was known as Paneas when Alexander the Great conquered the area in 332BC. Here the Greeks dedicated a grotto to "Pan and the Nymphs". Pan was the famous fertility symbol in ancient paganism, the god of nature. His worship was important in this town that bore his name. A Greek inscription on the rock face speaks still of Pan and the nymphs. Today it is called Banyas, due to the Arab's difficulty in pronouncing Panias.
The Romans captured the area from the Greeks under the leadership of Caesar Augustus. It then became part of Herod the Great's kingdom after Augustus divided the area. Herod, in appreciation of this gift of territory, erected the marble temple to Augustus here. His son Philip, enlarged the city and named it after Caesar. To distinguish it from the city of Caesarea Maritima on the Coast and also named to honour the Emperor, this city was called "Philip's Caesarea" or in latin, Caesarea Philippi. This was the place Jesus chose to see if any of His disciples really understood Him. It was against this background that Jesus asked: `Who do you say that I am?' It is as if most of the origins of various ancient religions converged here. Here Jesus was to accept the adoration fit only for the Son of God!
Today, when multitudes of competing claims clamour for the attention of people, Christians still claim the uniqueness of Jesus. We think it hard. But the seductions of syncretism in religion were every bit as attractive in the world where Christianity was born. They were steadily and consistently rejected. Millions died for their quiet conviction that in the world of the relative the Absolute had arrived. Christianity cannot renege on that claim without a total denial of her Lord. Willhelm Visser t'Hooft, the first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, was asked what would be the greatest peril facing the Church in the future. He replied with prophetic insight: `Syncretism. It is a far more dangerous challenge to the Christian Church than atheism is ever likely to be.' That is why the attacks on the Scriptural standards of faith from within the church are more dangerous than the attacks of atheists or militant Islam.
2. THE QUESTION AND ITS REMARKABLE RESPONSE.
Canaanite, Greek, Roman deities and Jewish traditions ? this was a natural centre for Jesus to take His disciples to ask them the most important question of His time with them: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Amid the competing voices of other cults and religions they had to hear His clear teaching and to answer His question. Their response was to change their lives, and provide the basis for the church ever after. With that knowledge they were to evangelise the world, converting people from godlessness. He has never revoked that Great Commission, and no spokesperson has the right to declare it null and void today.
The question came at the end of the Galilean period of His ministry. From that moment when the disciples acknowledged Him as the Messiah and Saviour, Jesus was to set His face steadfastly towards Jerusalem and to speak of His coming death. This recognition of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi is the hinge on which the whole Gospel turns. The disciples replied to the question by indicating what other people were saying: ""Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Any other teacher would have been humbled by being spoken of as the re?incarnation of the greatest teachers Israel had ever seen in her history. But Jesus would not let them merely repeat others' opinion: "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" That pointed question brought the greatest response: Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." If the place was remarkable, so were the titles Peter accorded to Jesus. They are all the more remarkable when seen against the syncretistic tendencies of the place.
Jesus is seen to be the Son of Man, the Messiah and the Son of the living God. `Son of Man', alludes to the Son of Man to whom is given the everlasting Kingdom and power and glory in Daniel's prophecy. Dan. 7:14 `Messiah' or `Christ', was the expected `anointed one' of God. It was soon so firmly associated with Jesus as to become almost a surname. It meant in Judaism the one who would come and fulfil the hopes of the nation. Simon Peter recognises his carpenter-teacher in the highest combination of titles he can imagine - the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. "Jesus tells us that no human insight gave Peter this knowledge. Only God can reveal God; and God had revealed it to Simon Peter. It takes revelation from above to see Jesus as the Son of the living God, a despised working man, one who was dismissed as crazy by his family and condemned as a criminal by his enemies as God's unique Son. The principle of grace remains central. Nobody can pierce through to Jesus' identity by his own cleverness. That insight must be given by God himself." Michael Green.
The disciples, amid competing religions and cults, came to their own conclusion about Jesus: He was Messiah and God's Son. Henceforth their lives would be spent in serving Him in a way that would take them to Jerusalem and Calvary, through the Resurrection and Ascension, the winds and fire of Pentecost, to Judea, Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. They had heard His question: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Their answer changed their lives and their destinies. People have to be challenged personally to respond to who Jesus is. Their answer is the way to acceptance and forgiveness and the door into the family of God. No man can change what the Scriptures affirm.
Some people say Jesus was an inspiring man, a wonderful poet, a teacher of tremendous insight, a religious genius, the founder of the world greatest religion. All very nice! But those are all condescending answers made out of ignorance. No one who has studied the teachings of Jesus would make those statements. So He says again: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" And He is not satisfied until you like Peter say: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
That was the rock on which the church was built. You do not have the option of saying that Jesus was a great man, good teacher, a leading philosopher or an influential founder of a religion. He claimed to be the promised Messiah, the redeemer of Israel, the Son of man, and the Son of God. That is why it is fundamentally impossible for the official spokesperson of the Uniting Church to just dismiss His commands. He asks clearly: "Who do you say that I am?" We are not responsible if people reject Him. But we are responsible to so present the Word of Christ, that people either accept Him as Lord, or reject Him and suffer the consequences. We present Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour: Lord of your life for His way is the way to life eternal; and Saviour because only though His blood shed upon the Cross can you find forgiveness of your sins. Acts 4:12 "There is no other name under heaven given among men by which you may be saved than the name of Jesus". No other name. No other way. No other truth. No other life, than that of Jesus, who said: John 14:6 "I am the way, the truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me". He asks of you the question: "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" He expects of you the answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
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